Censored. Me. Really.

I’ll be presenting the nudes that got me closed down this Saturday, from 4 to 6 PM. You’re invited.

In 2014, I was part of a duo show at a university gallery in Rochester, NY with my pal Stu Chait. Stu was doing large abstract watercolors; I was showing equally large nudes. The gallery is enormous, and our show was equally vast: a body of sixty pieces sprawled across three rooms.
I didn’t think much of about edginess in my own work; after all, my own kids had seen these canvases leaning against the walls of my studio for the year in which the work was produced. But I am not much for coy. My work dealt largely with the marginalization of women, exploring issues like religious submission, bondage, slavery, prostitution, obesity, and exploitation. It was serious, and it got a serious reception, featured in the university news and a city newspaper.
Then, college administrators saw the show and closed it down. The paintings have not been shown as a body of work since.
The cynic in me thinks that if I painted Odalisques there would have been no objection. Young people are exposed to sexually-charged but stupid images every day; in fact, this is part of the problem facing women today.
We’re accustomed to market-driven nudity and violence. Consider Kylie Jenner’s Glossesads. I’ve seen two versions, both of which feature Kylie and two other barely-clothed light-skinned women killing dark-skinned black men. They’re offensive to many values we like to talk about, but in 2018, Jenner was estimated to be worth $900 million.
We not only tolerate but glorify the cardinal sins: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride. On the other hand, we are leery of serious conversations, we don’t like serious effort, and we vilify those with whom we disagree.
After years of stepping over these paintings in my store room, I’ve decided to look at them carefully once more. Censored. Me. Reallyopens this Saturday from 4-6 at Carol L. Douglas Studio, 394 Commercial Street, Rockport. I will give a short presentation on the subject, the process, and the impact of censorship on my work. I hope to see you there.

Monday Morning Art School: start with drawing

Before you can paint successfully, you have to learn to draw.
I love drawing in church, especially when there are sleepy teenagers. This drawing started with simple analysis of shape.

One of the problems with writing about ‘how to do art’ is that you’re speaking to all levels of experience. Today we’re going right to the beginning of measurement. Almost everyone can get the details of a drawing right. Where they go wrong is with overall proportion. Drawing is, first and foremost, a technical exercise in seeing size relationships. Get that right, and the details hardly matter.

All objects can be broken down into simple shapes and angles.

You’ve all seen artists holding a pencil up to an object. What they’re doing is rough measuring. It’s simple to do, but tough to photograph. Hold your pencil up like a ruler in front of the object you’re drawing. Move it around to see the relative height and width of the thing. For example, the toy truck below is about 1.5 times as wide as it is tall. Figure that out by holding your pencil first along the vertical access, then along the horizontal access, and comparing where the lengths stop along the pencil.

It’s not just an affectation; it’s really how artists measure.

A common beginner error is thinking that you have to transcribe the lengths exactly to the paper. The drawing can be any size you want. Start by figuring out how big you want the object to be on your paper, and make two hash marks to represent that. Then, if your object is half as wide as it is tall, figure out that relationship and mark it too.

Start by measuring out the simple shapes and angles.

You can also use your pencil to figure out the other important thing in drawing: the angles of lines. Formal perspective is important, but not as important as learning to see angles. If you develop the ability to see angles, you’ll have better natural perspective than if you try to fit up what you see to a theory.

Next, rough in the values. That means the lights and darks.

Do your measuring with one eye closed, especially if you’re working in a tight space. Art books will tell you to measure with your arm straight out. That’s not always practical. Instead, try to have the pencil the same distance away from your eye each time you take a measurement. I do that by noting how my arm is cocked.

Today’s exercise is based on a tissue box I drew in church. It had lovely angles. However, what you see in the photo isn’t what I saw while working. A drawing from life will never match what the camera records. Cameras lie just as much as artists do.

Begin to refine and strengthen the light and dark shapes.

All drawing starts with simple shapes. After laying them down, I check and correct them. I do this by analyzing each large shape. Where does the back of the box intersect the tissue column? Is the curve of the cutout fat enough? I discovered that my cube wasn’t really tall enough, so I added some to the bottom. 

The next step is to establish some overall values.  “Value” just means how light or dark something is. This box was sitting on a south-facing windowsill behind a person who was casting another shadow. Thus, the window-frame behind the box was in deep shadow, but not nearly as dark as the photograph. I roughed in those darks first. They helped me know how to shade the box properly.

If you’re using graphite or charcoal, you can blend with your finger. Otherwise, use a stump, a tortillon, or a bit of rag.

Next, I set shadows on the tissue box itself. I am more concerned with the column of tissue, so with each pass, I spend more time on that.

Finally, I did some blending, using the handiest tool I carry: my finger. You should use a stump or tortillon on work you care about, but in a pinch, your finger works great. But don’t blend pigments other than graphite or charcoal with your finger; they may contain toxic metals.

Voila! I have a tissue box drawn and my pastor is just winding down his peroration.
Note that I never bother much about my mark-making. It can take care of itself. I’m mostly interested in applying accurate values. I did this drawing with a mechanical pencil, which will never be as luscious as a good graphite stick, but it survives banging around in my purse week after week.
Some general rules:
  • Draw everyday objects. The better you get with these, the better you’ll be with complex subjects. There’s amazing beauty in everyday things.
  • Draw any time you get the chance. I did this drawing in church, and I didn’t miss a word. Drawing and language don’t use the same channels of your brain.
  • Measuring is the most important part of drawing. Keep checking and correcting sizes.
  • Start with big shapes and break them down into little shapes. If the big shapes are right, the smaller parts will slip into their spots just fine.
  • Value is relative. How dark something is, is only important in terms of how dark its neighbor is.
  • Constantly recheck shapes and values as you go.

Why show your art?

Even if you have no interest in selling, you should still be showing.
More work than they bargained for, by Carol L. Douglas
For those painters who want to make sales, exhibitions are a no-brainer. Gone are the days (if they ever existed) when the world would beat a path to your door for a better mousetrap. If you want your work to be seen, it has to be where it can be found.
There are other artists who paint for love, not money. It’s still important for them to show their work.  Art is essentially a form of communication. That can be as personal as a private gift between two people, or as general as a landscape. A painting should say something. For that to be complete, it needs an audience.
Monhegan schoolhouse, by Carol L. Douglas
I first started showing when I’d built up an inventory of work and didn’t know what to do with it. They were modestly priced works. When they sold, they enabled me to buy more paint and create more paintings. I imagine the need for shelf space and materials has motivated many painters to go from amateur status to professional.
Every group show is in some way a competition. Your work stands next to others, so it can be judged as part of a group, on formal or intuitive standards. This makes you think about ways you can improve.
Fish Beach, by Carol L. Douglas
There is one pitfall in local shows, and that’s local groupthink. If you’re a Luministpainting in a community of Impressionists, you’re going to feel pressure to conform to the prevailing ethos. If you find yourself in this position, start showing outside your geographical pool; that’s a great way to find your own tribe.
Still, that’s the exception. Viewers often have incisive observations on our work. We ponder them and take them back to our studio. Over time and many shows, our body of work starts to take on aspects of dialogue, rather than being a strict monologue. (That’s also the great advantage of classes and workshops.)
Jonathan submarining, by Carol L. Douglas
Showing is a great way to build confidence. In my experience, the viewing public is overwhelmingly kind. Regularly participating in art shows helps you develop a sense of perspective about your own work. Yes, it’s important and wonderful, but it’s also part of a panoply of work being done by other artists. It’s great when you realize you have a place in this wonderful parade of images. That shatters ‘imposter syndrome’.
Many of my close friendships were developed at art shows. That’s important in a career where you spend lots of time working alone.
Everything I’ve said about real world exhibitions pertains equally to social media. Getting your work out there, and reacting and responding to other’s work is the goal. Art always looks best in person, but social media has a longer reach. If you don’t use Instagram and Facebook, you should start.

Drawing as prayer, play and thought

“Drawing is prayer,” Delacroix famously said. He could have added that it’s play as well. And thinking.
The Giaour on Horseback, by Eugène Delacroix, c. 1824–26, by Eugène Delacroix, pen and iron gall ink with wash over graphite, courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art
Shelving books this week, I came across a small volume of drawings by Eugène Delacroix. I flipped it open and the better part of an hour was lost.
Delacroix was a Romantic painter. He is considered the last of the Old Masters and the link between Romanticism and the Impressionists. He rejected the more-structured romanticism of Géricaultand the classical coolness of Ingresin favor of frenzied brushwork and explosions of color. But there is nothing modern in his painting; it is far too topical for us to dive right in. Delacroix was a man of his times—perhaps the illegitimate son of the great diplomat Tallyrand—and it’s hard for us to skim past the allusions to Shakespeare and Greek myth and find the passion within. But it’s there, a kind of fervor we usually associate with Spanish visionaries.
Louis of Orléans Unveiling his Mistress, by Eugène Delacroix, c. 1825–26, courtesy Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection
Still, he’s a cool observer of the human condition. Consider his portrait of the 14th century Duke of Orléans, above. The historic figure was a young, debauched, power-hungry prince. Delacroix portrays him considering a young woman as if she were a side of beef. It’s both a well-realized portrait of female powerlessness and a devastating attack on the French nobility. Delacroix was both politically incisive and technically proficient, a combination that is largely lost today.
Evolution of an idea: the following illustrations take us through Delacroix’ thinking process. Study for The Sultan of Morocco and His Entourage, by Eugène Delacroix, c. 1832–33, brush and brown ink, courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art
But it was his drawings I was interested in. Immediately before his death in 1863, he wrote a will ordering the contents of his studio to be sold. At the sale the following year, an amazing 9140 works were attributed to him: 853 paintings, 1525 pastels and watercolors, 6629 drawings, 109 lithographs, and over 60 sketch books. “Color always occupies me, but drawing preoccupies me,” he frequently said.
Study for The Sultan of Morocco and His Entourage, by Eugène Delacroix, 1845, graphite, squared in white chalk, courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art
Delacroix’s drawings and sketchbooks outline a classical artistic training and developing career. They include academic nude figure drawings, écorchés and compositional studies for his paintings and murals. They included drawings from life and nature, and the many, many drawings he created from his imagination.
The Sultan of Morocco and his Entourage, by Eugène Delacroix, 1845, courtesy
Musée des Augustins de Toulouse. By this time, the French and Moroccans had been at war.
They weren’t, by any means, all graphite pencil drawings. Many are in ink or wash and demonstrate a calligraphic assurance. Others are in watercolor. “Drawing is prayer,” Delacroix famously said. He could have added that it’s play as well. And thinking.
He couldn’t leave the idea alone. Study for The Sultan of Morocco and His Entourage, by Eugène Delacroix, c. 1855–56, graphite, courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art.
If you’re serious about painting, you ought to take him as an example and draw every day. Yes, it’s important to learn to lay down paint, but drawing is the foundation from which painting rises.

Monday Morning Art School: why not be an artist-in-residence?

Artists’ residencies allow us the chance to live and work outside our usual environments.
Victoria Street, oil on canvas, was finished during my 2019 residency at Parrsboro, NS.
When I was younger, I avoided artists’ residencies. We had four small kids, and as with most households with children, money was tight. I was already away from home too much. In fact, I was always juggling lack of time and lack of money. What I thought I needed was more uninterrupted time in my own studio, not to go gallivanting off to another part of the country.
Looking back, I wish I’d chosen differently. Money woes have receded into memory, and the kids are (for the most part) successfully hatched. But I still don’t have time to paint as much as I want to. Other commitments have neatly encroached. When I moved to Maine, one of the things I decided to do was allow myself the option to paint elsewhere for at least a few weeks every year. That meant, in part, artist-in-residency programs.
The Black House, oil on canvas, was finished during my 2019 residency at Parrsboro, NS.
Art residencies allow us the chance to live and work outside our usual environments, with all their stimuli and demands. They give us the time to think quietly. I’ve used them to produce different work or explore specific themes in my work. They’re often aimed at young or emerging artists, because they can have a profound long-term impact on future work. That doesn’t mean that older artists should avoid applying. A glance at the list of past recipients will answer any questions about the organization’s ageism.
Each residency’s funding, conditions, and jurying is unique. Likewise, different hosts ask for different things in return for the residency—a teaching program, a painting, an exhibition, or a public presentation being most common. Some ask for money, but in my opinion, that’s not a true artists-in-residency; it’s a workshop or paid vacation.
Rachel’s Garden, watercolor on Yupo, was finished during my 2018 residency at Rolling Acres Farm’s Joseph Fiore Art Center.
In general, you’re provided a place to live and work for free. In many cases, you’ll receive a small stipend. You pay your own travel expenses. You’re not limited to the US in choosing an artist residency. You can go as far as you can afford to travel.
Typically, you must submit a project proposal, resume, and some kind of statement of intent that’s tailored to the residency you’re interested in. Don’t be discouraged if you’re rejected. My acceptance rate is about one in three.
Ottawa House, oil on canvas, was finished during my 2019 residency at Parrsboro, NS.
In some instances, the artist can use the residency for his or her own purposes, without any obligation to produce actual work. But why would you want that, when your goal is to become a better artist?
Residencies can provide artists with networks and audiences that they otherwise wouldn’t develop. I love the Canadian Maritime provinces. Painting in Nova Scotia made me many good contacts in that art community.
Where should you apply? This searchable database of international residencies is a good place to start. Many American and Canadian national parks offer residencies, as do some state and provincial ones. If you’re a resident of the state of Maine, you might be interested in an artist residency at Rolling Acres Farm in Jefferson. They have artist residencies for Maine residents, as well as a resident gardener’s position to fill. Past residents are listed here.

My first painting of January

My recent works have been in shades of white, and that’s sadly not about winter.
A problem hidden behind a wall can upset the most carefully-crafted schedule.

One of the problems with following other artists on social media is that you can really feel out of step. Earlier this week, many artists were posting their “last painting of the decade.” Immediately on the heels of that, many started the Strada January 31-day challenge.

Daily painting exercises are great, especially for plein air painters. When the world is a swirl of grey, it’s sometimes hard to remember why we paint. Here on the 44th parallel, we’re up to about eight hours of daylight right now. The temptation to wrap oneself up in front of the fire and read can be overwhelming.
My last work of 2019. I call this Fifty Shades of White, because it’s difficult to match whites. On the other hand, the new woodstove is a great improvement.
Think of daily painting exercises as playing scales. No matter how excellent your teachers are, you won’t get better if you don’t practice. You stop being anxious about the results and concentrate more on the process.
Routine is not our enemy; in fact, whatever makes you work regularly and most productively should be embraced. That’s the message of the book Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking, by David Bayles and Ted Orland.
As much as I admire the January Strada challenge, I never play. I invariably find myself mired in a big home-repair project at the New Year. I’m done with Christmas, and I’ve had a few weeks without students. I can tear things apart and make a colossal mess, something I can’t do in the summer when the push to produce and sell work is on.
My first painting of January started by pushing things around in my studio. I’m doing it in thirds, and it took all day for me to empty the first third.
In December, we had a new woodstove installed. As often happens, there was a problem hidden in the wall.  That meant plasterwork and an unscheduled repainting of the room.
I’d also planned to paint the floor of my studio. The prior owner and her grandkids had painted flowers on it years ago. It was sweet, but the radiant-heat floor had developed a crack. Its surface was battered with years of hard use—fine for a studio, but not for selling paintings.
Primed and painted and then I toddled off to bed. More of an oyster than a true white, I think.
Most fine-art painters I know are also good wall painters. We know how to use brushes, and are used to prepping substrates. It makes sense to DIY, and we’re lucky to have this useful skill set. But, like everyone else, we have other things we’d rather be doing. For me, that’s more painting, but with a smaller brush.
There’s no dawdling for me this weekend. I’m teaching in here on Tuesday morning. (If you’re interested in joining this local class, there’s information here.) There’s nothing like a deadline to speed things up!