Stop thinking like a wage slave

You have to be an entrepreneur if you want to succeed in the arts.

Tricky Mary in a Pea-Soup Fog, by Carol L. Douglas, available.

My parents were the children of immigrants and were raised in great poverty. My mom went on to be one of the first class of nurse-practitioners graduated by University of Buffalo. My father was a child psychologist. Mom worked at the local hospital for her whole career; my father moved around a little, but always within the state system. They aspired to stability. In mid-century America, a job meant a trade-off of loyalty for a good salary and pension. It wasn’t a bad system, as long as it worked. It created a stable community, albeit one where economic mobility was not particularly coveted.

I don’t remember any entrepreneurs among my parents’ friends. The adults around me worked in jobs or professions. Even highly skilled machinists—much in demand—didn’t hang out their own shingles. They went to work in factories, where they were paid very well.

Parrsboro at Dawn, by Carol L. Douglas, available.

In fact, my father was a talented photographer and painter. He had his own studio before he married, but he didn’t know how to build a business. He had no role model for self-employment, so he wisely went back to school and got what he and his peers called a ‘real job.’

That economic system is broken now. Even wage slaves must be entrepreneurial. Young people think of the corporate ladder more as a jungle gym, where they swing from place to place rather than climb vertically.

Blueberry Barrens, by Carol L. Douglas, available.

My goddaughter is also the child of immigrants, but her history is different. Her family escaped the Communist revolution when her father was a young child. They moved to Vietnam and took up the family trade of cooking. After the fall of Saigon, they were again refugees, ultimately washing up in America. They’ve run a small restaurant for decades.

My goddaughter Sandy has a master’s degree and is working on a second one. But when COVID-19 knocked her out of her job, she didn’t go on unemployment. Instead, she’s been cleaning houses. She knows how to use a crisis, so she’s charging the earth in exchange for the risk. In fact, she’s never been shy about telling others how much she’s worth.

After one of her graduations, we went to Chinatown. Her mother and aunt stood listening as she haggled over the price of luggage. Finally, they nodded and the deal was done. She’d just been handed a diploma from one of America’s most prestigious art schools, but—more importantly—she’d demonstrated that she could negotiate a business deal.

Downdraft snow, by Carol L. Douglas, available.

That’s a real skill, and it’s something we don’t come by naturally—it’s learned, as much as calculus or drawing are.

I talked with a talented friend last week. She’s stuck in a low-paying job although she has good writing, video and design chops. When I suggested that she market her own videos, she quickly demurred. Without knowing how to be entrepreneurial, she’ll never escape the soul-sucking, 9-to-5 job.

That’s the bottom line for an art career in modern America. Your success or failure depends, not primarily on your painting skills, or your ‘talent’, but on your ability to sell yourself. If you don’t have that, don’t just give up—learn. Be more like Sandy.

Breaking rules

True to a degree, these rules should be taken with a grain of salt.

Cotopaxi, 1862, Frederic Edwin Church, courtesy Detroit Institute of Arts

Objects in the distance are cooler, blurrier, and lighter than objects in the foreground

That is atmospheric perspective in a nutshell, and in most cases, it’s true. But when an artist suspends that rule, we know we’re in for a major freak show. Frederic Edwin Church’s Cotopaxi (1862), is a great example of atmospherics being tossed to the wind. How else would we have known that we were in the presence of a world-changing event?

Bill’s Yellow (with Admiration), 2005, Cornelia Foss, Houston Museum of Fine Art

Never center your composition.

Artwork Essential’s viewfinder is based on the Rule of Thirds. I was taught to divide canvases using the Golden Mean. Later, I learned about Dynamic Symmetry. All of these are good working systems, and all of them are based on mathematics.

The human mind, in receiving mode, likes to tarry on puzzles. That’s why we use these complex mathematical systems to compose our paintings. In sending and processing mode, however, the mind ruthlessly regularizes thoughts. If you’ve ever tried to paint a screen of branches or flowers, you know how true this is. You must fight to keep them honest. Left to its own devices, your subconscious mind will line repeating objects up like little soldiers.

We “know” compositional rules, and then we see a painting like Cornelia Foss’ Bill’s Yellow (with Admiration) and we realize that all such rules can be set on their heads. This wouldn’t have been nearly the painting it is, had she offset the brush and tree in a conventional manner. Centering them makes them monumental.

Lemon Series #4, Dennis Wojtkiewicz, courtesy of the artist. 


Hyperrealism has its roots in what Jean Baudrillard called, “the simulation of something which never really existed.” It could not have happened in its current form without the advent of computers and digital photography. They have created a false reality, an illusion of something more perfect than what is actually here. Digital images are, generally, created very quickly. To mimic them in paint requires time and advanced painting skills, including flat, accurate paint handling, modeling, and draftsmanship.

You don’t get to that level of skill overnight. Dennis Wojtkiewicz is one of these masters of the meticulous, best known for large-scale paintings of fruit and flowers. He earned his MFA in 1981, and has taught at Bowling Green State University since 1988.

Michael Simpson, 2007, by Paul Emsley, courtesy Redfern Gallery

Don’t use black.

This myth of modern painting is based on the Impressionists’ avoidance of blacks for shadows. But modern painting can and does use black, which is the basis of shades and tones.

Paul Emsley’s portrait of fellow painter Michael Simpson, above, was painted with just two colors—Mars Violet and blue-black—plus white. “The variety comes from how much the colour is diluted, the extent of the overlaid colour, and the proportions of colours used in the mixes. In my experience, the fewer colours you use, the more shocking are the reactions when you do make subtle changes. Until you begin to experiment, you don’t fully realise how much variety can be achieved with just two colours!”

Wilma, 1932, Albert Carel Willink 

Paint loose.

Magical realism is an art genre that comments on the real world through the addition of magical elements. In highbrow literature think of Haruki Murakami or Salman Rushdie. Much current pop literature, including JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series, could also be described as magical realism.

In some ways, William Blake was the progenitor of Magical Realism painting, because he commented on morality and theology through a fictional universe. I admire him tremendously, but my own efforts in that direction have been failures. My painting style is too loose for subtle expression. To tell a convincing lie, you must have detail.

Monday Morning Art School: using design elements in painting

The artist’s job is to invite the viewer into his world. That doesn’t happen by accident.

I and the Village, 1911, Marc Chagall, courtesy MOMA. In this painting, line is a dominant design element, articulating the relationship between man, beast and place. However, proportion (relative size of the objects) is playing a part as well.


In math, a line is straight, has no thickness and extends in both directions through space. Sometimes that’s what we mean by a line in art—for example, a horizon line.

More typically in art, a line is just a path through space. Wherever you have an edge, you also have a line. However, lines also refer to mark-making, so in that sense they can be fat, thin, punctuated, tapering, diffident, bold or whispering.

Diagonals and curves seem to keep us more engaged than unbroken verticals, as they’re more difficult for the eye to ‘solve.’

Interior of the Laurenskerk in Rotterdam, 1664-66, Cornelis de Man, courtesy Mauritshuis. The illusion of three-dimensional form is created with perspective and value.

Shape and form

Shape and form define objects in space. Shapes have two dimensions–height and width–and are bounded by lines. Forms are three-dimensional. The artist’s dilemma is to give the illusion of three-dimensional form in a two-dimensional painting.

Ploughing in the Nivernais, 1849, Rosa Bonheur, courtesy Musée d’Orsay. The vast sky and field create as much narrative as do the team of oxen.


Space in the real world is three-dimensional. In art, the term refers to a sense of depth, or the artist’s use of the area within the picture plane. The illusion of three-dimensional space is created with perspective drawing, atmospherics, relative proportion (size), positioning, and defining volume through modeling.

Sometimes we refer to negative and positive space, which means the division between the primary object(s) and what we perceive as the background. Positive and negative space were a very big deal in much twentieth-century design, which often used the vast emptiness of the page as a counterweight to the primary object.

The Crucifixion of Saint Peter, 1601, Caravaggio, courtesy Cerasi Chapel. Chiaroscuro relies primarily on value to drive the eye.


Color has three essential characteristics:

Hue—where it falls on the color wheel (red, blue, etc.),

Chroma—how brilliant or dull it is,

Value—how light or dark it is.

Color is also described as ‘warm’ or ‘cool,’ but these are useful artistic conventions and not measurable as fact.

Historically, value did much of the heavy lifting in painting. The Impressionists began using hue and chroma to define volume, and that is essentially how most alla prima painters work today.

Portrait of the Baronness James de Rothschild, 1848, by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, private collection. We see satin, lace, tulle, feathers and jewels primarily due to Ingres’ exquisite control of reflected light.


Texture refers to the surface quality of an object. Paintings have implied texture, conveyed by color, line and brushwork. They also have real texture in the form of smooth or impasto surfaces.

Ejiri in Suruga Province, 1830, Katsushika Hokusai, courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art. Great winds have blown away the clouds on Mount Fuji, and they’re also blowing the travelers and their packs around. This movement is echoed and amplified by the brushstrokes.


Movement can be either suggested or depicted—as in the wind in the painting above—or implied by brushwork. Most paintings have a major thrust of energy, which I call its motive line.

Your assignment is to take one of your own paintings and subject it to formal analysis. Consider each of these elements of design in turn. How are you using them? How could you use them better?

The first hundred years

I plan to bump up against the century mark with my brushes firmly in my fist.

Boston Creams, 1962, oil on canvas, Wayne Thiebaud, courtesy Crocker MuseumHe painted these cakes and pies from imagination, rather than live models. Maybe that’s how he’s lived so long.
Preparing a lesson on abstraction and simplification, I looked up Wayne Thiebaud’s Boston Creams, above. It’s a painting one can learn a great deal from. The color is in the blue shadows and red cherry filling, set against luscious creams and tans. There’s nothing static about it; the rotation of the slices makes a light pattern that swirls with energy. It’s reminiscent of nothing so much as an American flag.

I was amazed to realize that Thiebaud is still with us—he turns 100 this November. Even more amazing, he’s been painting all along. At age 98, he curated a show for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, viewing thousands of images to select work to hang alongside his own.

Three Donuts, 1994, oil on canvas, Wayne Thiebaud, courtesy Sothebys.

Thiebaud is a son of the Great Depression. He was raised in Southern California, where his father was a mechanic and local Mormon bishop. Thiebaud worked his way through high school at a restaurant in Long Beach. The pies and doughnuts in their glass cases must have etched themselves on his teenaged brain, because they became the cornerstone of his ouevre.

He apprenticed at Walt Disney Studios while still in high school. After graduation, he enrolled at the Frank Wiggins Trade School in Los Angeles, intending to be a sign painter. He worked as an artist for the United States Army Air Forces during WWII.

After the war, Thiebaud returned to commercial art. His friend and co-worker at Rexall Drugs, Robert Mallary, encouraged him to take advantage of the GI Bill. Thiebaud started college at almost thirty years of age. He earned his MA in 1952.

River Bend Farms, 1996, oil on canvas, Wayne Thiebaud, courtesy Christies. Thiebaud’s impeccable draftsmanship translates to great landscape paintings.

That took him to a faculty position at Sacramento City College and University of California, Davis, where he taught until 1991. For most of his career as a painter and teacher, he was out of sync with his time. He was more interested in traditional painting and realism than conceptual art.

Commercial art may be thought lowbrow, but it develops impressive technical chops. Thiebaud drew on them when he started to paint his pies, cakes, candy and ice cream cones. He arranged them just as they would be displayed on restaurant counters or in bakeries. He used the multicolored outlines and extreme shadows of contemporary commercial art. Take away the luscious impasto in Boston Creams, and you could have an advertisement from Better Homes and Gardens.

Two Meringues, 2002, Lithograph on Arches paper, Wayne Thiebaud, private collection. Thiebaud is an accomplished printmaker.

California had no real art scene at the time, so Thiebaud’s paintings were displayed rather haphazardly, in restaurants, studios, or wherever he could find viewers. It was not until he went to New York and met the dealer Allan Stone that he found his national audience. His first show in New York, in 1962, sold out.

Why did his work resonate so well? Although very much a traditional painter, he was mining the same mass culture as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein.  However, Thiebaud never embraced the cynicism of Pop Art. He thought of himself as a traditional painter, and he viewed the American scene with affection and respect.

Artists frequently refuse to retire in old age. Sometimes, they meet their greatest success just when they’re expected to find a bed in a senior living facility. Let Wayne Thiebaud be your role model. I’m already planning my show for 2059, Carol Douglas: the first hundred years.

Our time is not unlimited here

We must set priorities if we are going to actually do the things we want.

Catskill Farm, pastel, by Carol L. Douglas, long gone to a happy home somewhere.

I mentioned to my Tuesday morning Zoom class that I needed to run over to the hospital for a medical test after we finished, but that I wasn’t unduly worried.

“Worrying is like praying for something you don’t want,” said one.

“Worrying is the misuse of imagination,” said another.

“Worrying is paying interest on a debt you don’t owe,” said a third.

Demoing painting.

These were brilliant bits of folk wisdom and I wrote them down, to add to the one I always quote, Matthew 6:34. Later, when the radiologist told me I need more testing than they can do locally, I took a deep breath and recollected them.

I’ve already gone two rounds with cancer, so I’m pretty good at gauging what I’m seeing and hearing. There’s cause for some concern, but not for panic. I went for a very brisk walk to work through my reaction. Then I headed to bed remembering one of my favorite aphorisms: “Tomorrow is another day.”

An occasional brush with our own mortality is useful. It reminds us that our time here is not infinite. I suffer from a bad case of believing I can fit in everything. When I wrote about the volunteerism trap, it was partly in response to frustration at having so little time to paint.

That’s my friend Boo.

I’m not a worrier, but I am a planner. I’m planning a show on August 15 featuring work by students from the past five years. To invite them, I had to make a list. I was astonished at the number of people who’ve come through my studio. Many of them started as students and became friends. There is something about learning together that forges relationships.

I’ve known that to be true in real life, but am surprised to realize it’s also true in Zoom classes. That puts me in a happy dilemma. I’d like to collapse my classes down to two a week, but there are people in each class for whom the schedule works best the way it is. I like spending time with them.

Tom Sawyer’s Fence, oil on canvas, by Carol L. Douglas. Available.

So, for now, I’m going to continue to teach three classes—two on Zoom, and one live—and hope I can get some painting done in my spare time (proving that the “you can’t have it all” lesson is a hard one indeed).

I’ve appended the schedules to the end of this post. The dates take us all the way to the “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,” as John Keats described Autumn. That is, by far, plein air painting’s best season.

I wish I could spend all of September in New Mexico. I’d try to kill myself with hot food at the Hatch Chili Festival. And Fiesta de Santa Fe is America’s oldest continuous festival, running since 1712.

I’ll be there to paint and teach in the Pecos Wilderness September 13-18. The aspen and cottonwoods will be turning gold, set off against the cool greens of spruce, firs and pines. And the heat of summer will have dissipated, making it perfect painting weather.

I have taught Sea & Sky in Acadia National Park in the first week of August for years. But COVID-19 forced me to move it to October 4-9. I like to think of myself as an agile thinker, but I wasn’t happy.

The Dugs, by Carol L. Douglas

I finally remembered how many times I’ve snuck off to Acadia myself in October, because that’s really the most beautiful time of year in Maine. To call the color “eye-popping” does not do justice to the grandeur of a New England autumn. The ocean is warm and the air is clear. If you’ve never seen the northeast in its Autumn finery, this is a great chance to discover it.

Another thing I’ve revisited has been my hesitance to teach in the South, which was just plain stupid. So, when Natalia Andreeva invited me to teach in historic Tallahassee, I jumped at the chance. Around the time the first snows hit the coast of Maine in early November, I’ll be sneaking off to Florida to teach Find Your Authentic Voice in Plein Air, enjoying the spreading live oaks and Spanish moss.

All of these workshops are on my website, of course. And you can read more about upcoming weekly classes here.

Tuesday morning ZOOM classes, 10-1, open to interested painters from anywhere

August 11

August 18

August 25

September 1

September 8

September 22 

Thursday morning plein air classes, 10-1, open to painters in the midcoast Maine region

August 13

August 20

August 27

September 3

September 10

September 24

Monday evening Zoom classes, 6-9 PM

August 17

August 24

August 31

September 14

September 21

October 12

How did you get that color?

While materials are important, how you lay paint down has a big effect on the purity of your color.

Summer Sky Summer Field, on a ponds walk behind my home on July 1, 2020, painted July 6, 2020 10″ x 8″ (w x h), Daniel Smith, Schmincke Horadam, and Winsor & Newton watercolors, and Uniball waterproof fade proof ink on 140 lb. Fabriano Artistico cold press rough 100% cotton extra white watercolor paper framed, available.

I’ve read somewhere that there are 18 million different palette permutations available to modern painters. I have a rationale for those I recommend. They are paired primaries based on color temperature. That doesn’t make them the only right option, just one that works for me (and my students).

Today I’d like you to look at a radically-different way of organizing color, that of children’s book writer and avid watercolorist Bruce McMillan. In watercolor, there’s a rationale for having more pigments at hand than one needs in oil painting. Different pigments have different particle sizes. That makes them behave differently in suspension in water, and they are absorbed differently into the paper. They also precipitate differently as they dry, leading to fantastic textural combinations.

Nubble’s Light Keeper’s House, at sunset as Georgia O’Keeffe would have seen it during her 1920s visits, as seen from Sohier Park on the Cape Neddick peninsula between Long Sands and Short Sands beaches in York, Maine. Commonly called Nubble Light or The Nubble, it’s officially named Cape Neddick Light, on Nubble Island, on October 25, 2014, painted April 19, 2020 7″ x 5″ (w x h), Daniel Smith, Schmincke Horadam, and Winsor & Newton watercolors, and Uniball waterproof fade proof ink on 140 lb. Fabriano Artistico cold press rough 100% cotton extra white watercolor paper framed, available.

Bruce has a fantastic ability to create deep, jewel tones in watercolor, and he always seems to hit a vibrant color in the first pass. That’s based partly on the pigments he chooses and partly on how he applies them.

You can watch Bruce painting and talking about color in this demo he recorded on Cape Porpoise.

Buoys from the Sea, at the Cape Porpoise Pier in Kennebunkport, Maine on March 1, 2019, painted March 18, 2019 12″ x 9″ (w x h), Daniel Smith, Schmincke Horadam, and Winsor & Newton watercolors, wax resist, and Uniball waterproof fade proof ink on 140 lb. Fabriano Artistico cold press rough 100% cotton extra white watercolor paper framed, available.

Using quality materials is important, and it’s doubly crucial for students. It’s tempting to buy dimestore paints until you know if you’re going to be serious about painting, but you start at a severe disadvantage. If your paints aren’t decent quality, there’s no way you can get good color in your paintings.

In watercolor, there’s another issue—pigments fade faster in watercolor than they do in oils. That’s why watercolorists are so fiendish about lightfastness tests.

Snow Stuck Opal Apple Study 1, on a sunny day behind my home in Shapleigh, Maine on December 4, 2019, painted December 12, 2019 7″ x 5″ (w x h), Daniel Smith, Schmincke Horadam, and Winsor & Newton watercolors, and Uniball waterproof fade proof ink on 140 lb. Fabriano Artistico cold press rough 100% cotton extra white watercolor paper framed, available.

Appended to the end of this post are Bruce’s pigments. Those he uses regularly are highlighted in red. Those he carries around but seldom uses are in grey.

“These were only selected after looking at all of the archival/permanence data available. I use colors from three brands, Daniel Smith, Schmincke Horadam, and Winsor & Newton,” he said. “I used to use Holbein, fun colors, but they don’t pass the archival test.”

Bruce noted the manufacturer of each paint on his list. “Colors are not the same going from brand to brand, and not only in color but also in permanence,” he said.

“I always have a half-sheet of Viva Signature Cloth paper towel in hand to adjust the water on my brush. And that brand is also perfect for lifting. And while I do mixing on my tray, I do a lot on paper, either wet-in-wet or wet-on-dry layering, many times painting after dipping my brush right from the color well.”

Bruce’s palette is large enough to allow him to mix enough paint for each full pass. He has bigger brushes at hand and bigger puddles of color available. Anemic color comes from not having enough of the color in question at hand, and then from applying it too sparingly. Bruce can hit strong colors because he makes enough of them to start with.

Paint glazed in numerous thin layers is not darker or more saturated than a single layer of the same paint applied right the first time. That’s a myth. In fact, multiple applications just muck up the surface of the paper, reducing its reflectance. Part of the reason Bruce’s colors sing is that he hasn’t ruined the paper with excessive layering.

Your assignment is to copy one of Bruce’s paintings—you can choose which one—trying to get the same intensity of color on the first pass, using the paints you have on your own palette. (If you use my palette, you should have no problem hitting all the points in his paintings.)

I’m hearing the oil-painters chuckling, thinking ‘this is so easy.’ Try it first.

Cadmium Red   W&N
Permanent Alizarin Crimson   W&N
Quinacridone Coral   DS
Pyrrol Orange   DS
Permanent Orange   DS
Burnt Sienna   W&N
Raw Umber   W&N
Yellow Ochre   W&N
Naples Yellow   DS
Hansa Yellow Medium   DS
Lemon Yellow   DS
Olive Green Yellowish   SH
Permanent Sap Green   W&N
Hooker Green   W&N
Cobalt Green   W&N
Cobalt Turquoise   SH
Cerulean Blue   W&N
Phthalo Blue Green Shade   DS
Phthalo Blue Red Shade   DS
French Ultramarine   W&N
Prussian Blue   W&N
Payne’s Gray Bluish   SH
Quinacridone Purple   DS
Cobalt Violet Deep   DS
Davys Grey   W&N
Ivory Black   Winsor & Newton

Atmosphere and style

If you take anything from travel, it should be new and different color harmonies based on different light.

Beach Erosion, by Carol L. Douglas. Oil on canvasboard. Available through Ocean Park Association.

The best plein air locations do not necessarily have one grand vista demanding attention. Instead, they are made of many tiny, riveting details. Raven’s Nest in Schoodic is beautiful, but it can only make one painting.

Thomaston is an unsung gem on the Maine coast. Northbound visitors know they can shave time by cutting along the Camden Road, avoiding Thomaston altogether. Those who drive through seldom turn off Route 1. That’s a pity. Streets of stately old homes march down to the St. George estuary, each one a small masterpiece of local carpentry.

Fish Beach, by Carol L. Douglas, oil on canvasboard.

I scouted locations as an evening mist coalesced into drizzle. It was pleasant but made for lousy painting. We’ve had a string of overcast days recently, and they’re cutting into my plein air time.

Artists have historically prized indirect light, but mostly for their studios. North-facing windows give you reflected light, which has a very even, cool temperament. Vermeer’s interiors epitomize this. The light rakes in low from the left, soft but intense, picking out the richness of details. This is also the perfect lighting for hyperrealismbecause every detail can have the same intensity.

It’s not great lighting for contemporary plein air, however. Flat lighting is currently out of style. That hasn’t always been the case. The Dutch Golden Age painters excelled at it. Their landscapes are small cities, harbors or boats under great billowing clouds. That put man in his proper place in their worldview.

Beach saplings, by Carol L. Douglas. Available.

Lighting is the difference between Northern European and Italian painting. The Low Countries and England sit under delicate filtered light. Northerners could never have invented chiaroscuro, with all its explosive drama. They never saw that hard, flat light.

Although the Great Lakes are a vast inland sea, they do not have the same temperament as the ocean. This is not about the kind of mischief they can get up to, because they’re in fact quite tricky. Rather, it’s about their skies. The eastern lakes tend to collect clouds, giving them a filtered, delicate light. Their skies never have the pitiless clarity of ocean light.

I grew up along the Great Lakes, and that’s where I first learned to paint. It’s taken me years to realize how this influenced my own development. In fact, flat light is an impediment to most contemporary painters.

We moderns are all, more or less, beholden to the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists. The main strut that holds Impressionism together—color temperature—is more or less non-existent in flat light, where everything is cool. That’s why so many Impressionist painters flocked to the south of France. 

White Sands of Iona, by Carol L. Douglas. Four beaches, four different lighting situations.

I was reminded of that as I invented a color harmony in an early morning overcast. It takes time to learn how color temperature works in the real world, and the color relationships of the Great Lakes or Adirondacks do not translate automatically to Maine. If you gain anything by traveling to paint, it should be new and different color harmonies based on the light.

On that note, Sea & Sky has moved to October. I’ve always taught it in August so that art teachers could join us, but October is the height of New England autumn color. The ocean is still warm, meaning the weather is usually stellar.

As with all my workshops, we’ve got a COVID-19 refund policy in place—if we have to cancel, we’re sending your money back to you. Information on my Acadia, Tallahassee, Pecos and 2021 sailing workshops can all be found on my website.

Innovation and selling paintings

If you’re not selling paintings, perhaps you need to convince yourself of their value before you can convince others.

Home port, by Carol L. Douglas, available through my open-air gallery.

One thing I’m learning this summer is that I’m a pretty rigid thinker when it comes to business. Not that painters are inherently innovative anyway. We stubbornly insist on representing reality with pigment suspended in plant oil, when technology has given us many more sophisticated mediums.

But COVID-19 has given us a strong hint that the old marketing systems are passing away. Most of us are groping toward new ways to sell. Many of these ideas haven’t worked. I’d say the ‘virtual opening’ is a bust, for example. The excitement of the room is an integral part of painting sales and we haven’t yet found an online substitute.

Victoria Street, by Carol L. Douglas, available.

Change doesn’t happen overnight. Not only does it take time to integrate a new idea, all the pieces must be in place for it to happen. Leonardo da Vincimay have sketched something that looked a lot like an airplane, but it was a pipe dream until the development of the engine. All major changes are built incrementally by a lot of people over time.

Not only must we make changes in how we work, consumers need to be won over to new ideas. That includes how they’re going to buy art. Consider the parallel careers of Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla. Most engineers agree that Tesla was the true genius, but it was Edison who was the master showman. It was Edison who put electricity in the forefront of American consciousness, who told the American people how it would benefit them.

White Sands of Iona, by Carol L. Douglas, available.

To be a success as an artist, you have to learn to sell. Period. That ruffles my amour-propre, just as it does yours, but I see no way around it. The stupidest thing ever written was, “Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door.” (Don’t blame it on Ralph Waldo Emerson; it’s a misquote.) 

I came across the following in a personal advice column recently: “Never be without a $100 bill in your pocket: Money in our pocket gives us confidence. This is especially important for people in sales, as salespeople tend to sell to their own pocket. If they don’t have money, then they think their customer doesn’t either. Those people lose a lot of sales.”

Tricky Mary in a Pea-Soup Fog, by Carol L. Douglas, available.

One of my biggest hurdles in selling paintings has been my own upbringing. It took more than a literal $100 bill to convince me that there are people who believe art has monetary value as well as intrinsic worth. I needed to move among those people, absorb their conversation and observe their behavior.

My paintings are in approximately the same price range as handbags from Nieman-Marcus, and that’s where they belong. They’re a luxury, albeit for people of a more intellectual bent. But luxury does not mean “waste of money,” as it meant to my parents. It is part of the softness that makes the world more bearable. Once one’s own needs are met (including the need to be charitable), why not make life sweeter? Why not surround oneself with beauty? If you’re not selling paintings, perhaps you need to convince yourself of their value before you can convince others.

Monday Morning Art School: Perspective

Every landscape painter should understand two-point perspective, but don’t draw those rays in the field.

Midsummer, by Carol L. Douglas. It’s important to understand perspective, but don’t use those vanishing points when drawing in the field.

A door is commonplace, but it’s also a series of repeating shapes that can teach you a lot about perspective. If you have a choice, use a door with panels like this one. A flat slab door will be so much less fun to draw.

I left mine slightly ajar, but it doesn’t have to be. Seat yourself as far away as you can get from it. The closer you are, the more difficult it is to keep your measurements straight. Position yourself at an angle to it so you can think about perspective.

This is intended to be a fast drawing, taking you no more than 15 or 20 minutes. The same rules apply to a careful drawing, of course; you’d just be more meticulous in your measuring and marking. But you’ll learn just as much going fast.

My first task is to figure out the angles of the top and bottom of the door. (My camera distorts perspective so what’s in the photo won’t match what’s on my drawing.) I do that by holding my pencil along the bottom of the door and figuring out the angle.

I find that setting my pencil down on my paper at the appropriate angle helps me see it better.

Then I do the exact same thing on the top.

Note that the shelf at my eye level is completely horizontal. Any level surface at eye level has to be horizontal; that’s a hard-and-fast rule. 

Two-point perspective, courtesy Luciano Testoni. All those lines traveling off to the vanishing points on the left and right? Let’s call them rays.

The picture above is classical two-point perspective with a lot of extra bells and whistles. I don’t want you to get bogged down in it; I included it so you can compare the rays in that drawing to what you see in your room. Notice that when you look at lines high in your room, the ‘rays’ travel downward to the sides, where the so-called ‘vanishing points’ are. When you look at objects near the floor, the rays travel upward to the vanishing points. That’s because the vanishing points are always at the viewer’s eye level. 

Every landscape painter should understand two-point perspective, but should never draw those rays in the field. Like every other kind of 3D projection, it’s useful in drafting, but it is a falsehood when it comes to what you’re actually seeing. That’s because the vanishing points would be so far away in the real world as to be rendered useless.

But you can take away some useful information from two-point perspective. The farther away an object is, the less perspective distortion there is. And perspective works the same way above the horizon line as below it, so clouds are arrayed the same way trash cans are.

Next, I do that nifty measuring thing that involves holding my pencil in front of my eye and using it as a ruler. Since the height is already determined by my angled lines, I just need to figure out how wide the door is relative to the height. I figured the door is a little less than half as wide as it was tall. Later, I’ll find out just how off I was.

This shape is called a trapezoid, and there’s an easy way to find its center. Just draw an X from corner to corner as shown. That’s very useful information in perspective drawing, because it helps you place windows, doors, roof peaks, etc. correctly. Make a habit of finding it.

And here’s a quick-and-dirty way to get the perspective right. Divide the two side lines into equal units—thirds, quarters, eighths, or whatever other units you can mark off by eye. Then just draw lines connecting the corresponding sides. The 1/3 point on the left gets attached to the 1/3 point on the right, etc. You’ll have the perspective rays right in one try.

I never get my measurements right on the first try, so I’ve learned to not fuss too much on my initial measurements. The great thing about repeating shapes is that your mistakes are easy to see. I realized the door was slightly too short and wide, so I adjusted them slightly.

I can’t draw a straight line without a ruler, and my initial drawing had a free-hand curl on the right-bottom corner. I took a moment to correct that. Note how useful the center point is in placing the central spine of the door. I know that the moulding around the glass is the same width all around, so this is one of those repeating shapes I can use to check my work. (Of course, it’s going to be ever so slightly wider on the side closer to me, because of perspective.)

My final drawing. You can finish yours to your heart’s content, but the important part is learning how to use your pencil as a marker to see angles and distances.

This post originally appeared on November 17, 2017.

A friend challenges me to go deeper.

Paintings aren’t made in grand gestures; they’re made with brushes, one stroke at a time.

Morning Fog over Whiteface Mountain, by Carol L. Douglas. Available.

When I was younger, I did a lot of work that told a story and had deeper meaning. Today, much of it seems sophomoric. I prefer to concentrate on simple landscape.

In one sense, I’ve been resting. My childhood wasn’t easy, and I carried psychic wounds for a long time. I’ve no interest in poking at the scabs. Moreover, I don’t know where to start. While the Bible is my own personal source text, all the reasons to paint Bible stories are obsolete now. Film and the written word are far better at communicating sermons.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t great modern painters who’ve told Bible stories. Sir Stanley Spencer’s The Resurrection, Cookham, manages to wonderfully humanize a difficult idea, with its blinking villagers awakening from their long sleep.

Snowfall, by Carol L. Douglas, available.

Story-telling is intimately tied with figure painting, for the obvious reason that our stories are based on people. This week I came across a cache of figure sketches. “These are not bad,” I told Adam Levi, who is the Executive Director of Rye Arts Center. They’ll be mounting a show of my figure work in 2021, and I thought the sketches would make a good counterpoint to the framed work.

But landscape painting also has meaning. A Turner maelstrom, a Constable sky, or a Rockwell Kent sea convey as much about our anxieties, fears and hopes as any figure painting. Which conveys isolation better: Edward Hopper’s Nighthawksor Winslow Homer’s Weatherbeaten?Tough call.

The ideas conveyed by landscape painting are largely non-verbal. When I’m asked for an artist’s statement, I try to put them into words, and I can’t. “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands,” wrote King David. It’s hard to improve on that.

Beaver Dam on Quebec Brook, by Carol L. Douglas, available.

This week, John Nicholson sent me a quote that stopped me cold. John’s a Southern Baptist pastor from Marion, Alabama. He’ll undermine every stereotype you ever had about southern preachers.

“The allotted function of art is not, as is often assumed, to put across ideas, to propagate thoughts, to serve as example. The aim of art is to prepare a person for death, to plough and harrow his soul, rendering it capable of turning to good.” 

The writer of this terrible challenge was the famous Russian filmmaker, Andrei Tarkovsky. Tarkovsky was, like me, a rotten student, a troublemaker in school, and had trouble settling down to a career. After booting around as a prospector in the taiga, he decided to study film. It was the one thing that held his interest.

The Late Bus, by Carol L. Douglas, available.

Tarkovsky remained a devout Orthodox Christian during a time when religion in Russia was actively suppressed. In the end, like so many other Russian intellectuals, he was forced to defect. “The Soviet authorities left me no other choice,” he said. They’d allowed him to make only six films in a quarter of a century. They considered him a “dead soul, a zero.”

In 1966, Tarkovsky made a three-hour epic film about an icon painter, which was immediately suppressed. Ivan Rublevis at once a loose biography of a 15th-century monk, a portrait of medieval Russia, and a self-portrait of the struggles of a modern Russian artist. It won an award at Cannes and today it’s considered a masterpiece.

In the face of such depth, I feel like I have very little to say with my happy little landscapes. I don’t even know if I’m capable of rising to the challenge. But paintings aren’t made in grand gestures; they’re made with brushes, one stroke at a time. I’m thinking about it, John.