High Plains Pisseur

Coronavirus has closed McDonalds all over America. That’s tough on the long-distance driver.

Wind River Canyon, by Dwight Perot.

I thought I knew all there was to learn about the pipi sauvage, the business of peeing in open spaces. I’ve managed it on four continents. It’s less of an issue for men, whose clothing is designed for it. Women have to get creative about finding a place to crouch, but it can be done, even on the high plains without so much as a scrub pine in sight.

It’s not that Wyoming doesn’t have beautiful rest stops; they do. But once you leave the interstate, you leave the conveniences behind.  For both genders it’s gotten worse with the advent of COVID. McDonalds, that defender of long-distance drivers’ bladder health, has closed its lobbies in many states. It’s the tumbleweed or adult diapers in the age of Coronavirus.

The upthrust east of the Rockies, called High Plains, is beautiful, desolate and windy. Photo by Dwight Perot.

 The pipi problem was just the last in a line of small inconveniences. I never seem to be able to get on a plane and land three hours later, unruffled, at my destination. Perhaps that’s in part because I live 90 

minutes from the closest real airport, or that I prefer out-of-the-way end points.

Since I left Colorado in the early 80s, Stapleton Airport has been replaced by Denver International Airport. Like everything else on the Front Range, it’s bloated beyond function. It took way too long to cut loose with our bags and rental car. I was exhausted, but I soldiered on through dinner with family, and gratefully went to bed almost 24 hours after I’d risen.

Anticlines make for beautiful painting. Photo by Dwight Perot.

At 2 AM, I was awakened by a ringing doorbell. I peered out through the window slats and decided it was prudent to ignore. The doorbell rang again, this time accompanied by a maglight. It was a cop. He’d noticed a car door open; had we been burgled? The hoarfrost inside my rental car told the story; I’d just been too tired to close it. They say that exhausted drivers are as impaired as drunk ones, and that’s a warning I should heed.

The development that blights Colorado’s Front Range mercifully ends north of Fort Collins. I found a porta-potty in a city park in Cheyenne and struck northwest towards Cody. That route takes you east of the mountains, but the payoff is a fabulous climb through the Wind River Canyon, surely one of the great beauty spots in America. High plains drifting is not as dramatic as the mountain peaks of Colorado, but just as beautiful. My geologist son and I traced geological strata as we drove. Artists love anticlines because they produce wonderful angles; geologists love them for their oil deposits.

The beautiful Wind River. Photo by Dwight Perot.

We easterners must hydrate when we get to the Rockies. That unfortunately makes the pipi rustique problem an urgent one. North of Casper, I met my bête noire in the form of gale-force winds. Privacy wasn’t the issue; but peeing in a crouching position was darn near impossible. Men can just aim downwind; as for me, I’ll be doing laundry later today.

Approaching Cody. Photo by Dwight Perot.

I dumped the rental car in Cody and met up with Jane Chapin, who’d driven down from the ranch to collect us. There’s an amazing 360° mountain view from the ranch-house, and I can’t wait to paint. But first I must slap my plates on the truck I’ve driven out to collect, still scratched from the time we decided it was more prudent to back up through piñon than drive over a cliff. “That’ll buff out,” Jane had said. I’m still laughing about it two years later, and now it’s my truck, not hers. Yes!

It’s all about the food

Painting is great, but sometimes I’m really focused on where my next meal is coming from.

It has to be fresh and healthy and delicious, or I won’t waste my calories on it.

My husband revealed a secret stash of Italian pastries the other day. I’m a healthy eater, but I’m not one to look a gift Torta Novecento in the mouth.

My mother worked hard to avoid raising picky eaters, but I’m afraid she failed with me. There’s no point in using up calories if they’re not buying food made with the freshest, purest ingredients. I’d rather not eat than eat badly, which is why I pack my own lunches when flying (as I’m doing today).

Fresh bread aboard schooner American Eagle, all done by hand. 

But what constitutes good food? Our taste is both a product of our biology and learned behavior. That’s why my Chinese goddaughter loves pickled ginger and I prefer gingersnaps. What we like to eat is the result of all our senses interacting together, not just the sense of taste. That’s then overlaid with memory and emotion. That’s why our food taste is so unique and unpredictable, and why we have such strong feelings on the subject.

How food tastes is based on much more than our tastebuds.

Last week I picnicked on a bridge abutment while painting with Ken DeWaard and Björn Runquist. We had the simplest hastily-assembled sandwiches. We all remarked that they were unusually delicious. The combination of crisp air, warm sunlight, ice and snow, and cheerful banter made our sandwiches so much better than they would have been if eaten in our cars or our kitchens.

That’s also what happens in my painting workshops aboard the schooner American Eagle. Usually, we dine al fresco on deck. The salt air, dazzling light, and company combine to sharpen the palette.

The gam at sunset.

Captain John Foss told me in passing that Matthew Weeks signed on for another season as cook on American Eagle. I personally think Matthew is a genius; he cooks everything exactly the way I like it. Would messmate Sarah Collins also be back, I asked. Not for the whole season, John thought, but possibly for the gam. That’s a raft-up of all the windjammers in the fleet, and it happens in June. It’s an amazing sight.

The gam is also a party.

It’s also our first watercolor workshop trip of the year, so I think I’d better lay off the tortas and save room for Sarah’s baking. It’s incredible.

Schooner cooks add an extra level of difficulty to cooking for crowds: they’re working on a woodstove in a hot galley, below decks in the heart of a pitching, rolling ship. When the mate loudly calls out a change in tack, she’s not doing it for our amusement; it’s so Matthew and Sarah can stop dessert from flying.

And they do without electricity. That means meringues are beaten by hand, and bread is kneaded by hand.

We have access to fresh seafood around Maine.

Their stove is an early 20th century Atlantic Fisherman Although it’s the proper vintage, it’s not original to the boat. “The stove that was in the galley completely disintegrated when we tried to move it, so the Atlantic Fisherman stove came from Lunenburg, Nova Scotia. Along with the steering wheel, bell, steering gear, all the rigging blocks, and a bunch of other gear,” Captain John told me. I believe that makes Eagle a dual citizen.

It would grace any historic kitchen with elegance, but it’s a hard worker. In addition to providing coffee and meals, it heats all the hot water for our ablutions. If you’re an extremely early riser, you can hear Matthew softly padding down to the galley in the wee hours. He’s firing up the woodstove. That requires a lot of firewood. It’s stacked and stored between trips and then fed into that stove, piece by piece, throughout the sail. I’m a hard worker, and I couldn’t do what those sailors do every summer.

Sadly, we had to cancel both watercolor workshops in 2020. Most of my students rebooked for 2021, but there are a few openings for both the June and September trips. However, they’re always subject to the boat’s other bookings, so if you’re interested you should contact Shary to reserve a berth. I hope you’ll join us. The painting is great; have I mentioned the food?

Monday Morning Art School: the lost-and-found edge

Sometimes it’s what you don’t say that matters most.

Girl with the Red Hat, c. 1665-66, Johannes Vermeer, courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

I once had a painting teacher who told me that heavy edges were “my style.” Like many younger artists, I just hadn’t learned how to marry edges in my painting. Beginning painters tend to give all edges equal weight—they are borders to be colored in. Part of the learning process is learning when to keep the edge and when to lose it.

Vermeer’s Girl with the Red Hat, above, perfectly illustrates the lost-and-found edge. The smooth transitions between the hair and the hat on the left, within her gown, and the lack of contrast in the shadow side of the model’s face drive our eye to the highlighted passages. Squint and concentrate on just the shape of the highlighted passage for a moment. It’s just one long, beautiful abstract shape in a sea of darkness.

Losing the edges helps link visual masses into a coherent whole. It deemphasizes things that aren’t important. It’s a way to create rhythm in a painting.

In Church at Old Lyme, 1905, Childe Hassam softened the edges between leaves and sky by making them the same value. Courtesy Albright-Knox Art Gallery.

The human mind is adept at filling in blank spots in visual scenes (and seeing things that aren’t there). If you doubt this, squint while looking around your room. In any collection of similar-value objects, you don’t see edges, but you understand what you’re looking at. Your mind sorts it out just fine.

A careful drawing is different from a value study. Both are important, and the wise artist does them both. But a drawing explores the shapes and contours of an object. It’s a fact-finding mission. A value study concentrates on the links between objects and the final composition.

The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, 1882, John Singer Sargent, courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. 

In the oil painting The Daughters of Edward Darley BoitJohn Singer Sargent uses the great dark entryway as a framing device, a compositional accent, and a poignant social statement. Only a hint of light in the shape of a window implies what is behind. The girls recede into space in order of age, with the eldest (Florence, age 14) almost enveloped in the darkness of the drawing room. Florence and Jane have no accents in their hair; their dresses and stockings disappear into the murk.

The Bridge of Sighs, c. 1903-04, John Singer Sargent.

Sargent painted at least two versions of this study of the Bridge of Sighs; a mirror-image is in the Brooklyn Museum. In this version, Sargent placed a hard edge at the top of the arch where sky meets stone. The shadows on the left bleed without any attempt at architectural precision. This creates the same kind of murky dark passage as in The Daughters of Boit. (A note for watercolor purists—the whites of the gondoliers’ clothes were done with white paint.)

In Two Women on a Hillside, 1906, Franz Marc tied the women to the background by repeating greens in their skin and garb. Courtesy Franz Marc Museum.

To lose an edge in painting, start by making both sides of the line the same value, even when they’re different hues. Conversely, the highest contrast will give you the sharpest edge. You can add to either effect by softening or sharpening the paintwork with your brush. Introducing the color of the adjacent object will also soften the contrast between an object and its background, as in the Franz Marc painting above.

Detail from John Singer Sargent’s Lady Eden, 1906, courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Remember that the sharpest, most contrasting edges draw our eye. The trick is to find a balance that supports the composition. Sometimes only a small flick of paint is necessary, as with Sargent’s sequins in the detail from Lady Eden, above. These support the dynamics and direction of the composition. If they didn’t, they’d undermine all his careful compositional work.

If you think I’m starting to repeat myself, you’re a sharp observer. This essay was originally posted in July, 2018. I’m focusing on it in my painting classes this week.

My students make me proud

Lemme show you some pictures…

Linda DeLorey, from a class assignment on painting snow.

I’m turning into one of those old ladies who carries photos around in her phone and shows them to total strangers. However, they’re not pictures of my kids or grandkids (or even the dog). Instead, they’re my students’ paintings. I’m very proud of them.

Amy Thomsen, from a class assignment on painting trees.

People are embracing distance learning, even in the evening after a long day of work. I don’t know if that’s because of the continuing reach of COVID, because it’s winter, or because the limits of geography are lifted.

David Broerman, from a class assignment on painting snow.

It’s turning out to be as much a group of friends as my summer plein air classes. On Monday night, talk turned to baking, a long digression that ended with Mark going to his refrigerator for his sourdough starter. My Tuesday class includes sisters who live across the country from each other. It’s all far warmer and personal than I ever imagined.

Mark Gale, from a class assignment on color substitution.
Lorraine Nichols, from a class assignment on color substitution.

I’ve written extensively about learning how to teach with Zoom. If there’s been a gift from 2020, it’s getting me over the hurdle of video. I used to loathe being on camera; now I don’t even notice it. There’s been lots of trial and error and I’ve upgraded my cameras and monitor. That was worthwhile. With the proper equipment the video barrier seems to evaporate.

Lori Capron Galan, from a class assignment on reflections.

I have Mary Byrom to thank; she’s the one who coached and cajoled me past my resistance. That’s why I pay the favor forward to other teachers when I can.

Carol Durkee, from a class assignment on color substitution.

Beth Carr, from a class assignment on color substitution.

Zoom has made me a better teacher. Instead of teaching reactively, I’ve been forced to be far more proactive in designing lessons. Teaching without geographical boundaries means I’m getting serious students. They’re working extremely hard, and every one of them is improving.

Sharyn Brusie, from a class assignment on reflections.

That’s resulted in a long syllabus that will be the basis of a book, should I ever sit long enough to get some writing done (my New Year resolution.) 

Janice Vierke, from a class assignment on reflections.

We have a Facebook group where my students share recent paintings. I’ve nabbed some for you; I think they speak for themselves. There isn’t enough room in this blog to feature all of them, so I’ll catch up with the rest of them later. In return, I promise to not corner you at the grocery store and show you pictures of my grandkids, cute as they are.

Carrie O’Brien, from a class assignment on reflections.

Patty Mabie, from a class assignment.
Kathy Mannix has sold two paintings since starting my classes earlier this year. Amazing.

Mary Silver lives in the Texas hill country, where snow is generally just a happy dream.

Your brush is not a pencil

Mark-making can be loose and gestural or very controlled. It’s personal, but it’s also something you can learn.

Dining Room in the Country, 1913, Pierre Bonnard, courtesy Minneapolis Institute of Art. Bonnard used small brush strokes, intense colors, and close values.

In this week’s painting classes we worked on mark-making and brushwork. This is, on one hand, the most personal of painting issues. It’s also (especially in watercolor) highly technical. Much of what is called ‘style’ comes down to what brushes we choose and what marks we make with them.

Modern viewers are immediately captivated by bravura brushwork; it’s a sign of self-confidence and competence. It comes from lots of practice.

Wheatfield with Crows, 1890, Vincent van Gogh, courtesy Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam. The motion in the painting is created by his brush strokes.

First, let’s talk about how not to do it:

  • Unless you’re doing close detail, don’t hold your brush like a pencil. It’s a baton, and holding it to the back of the center-point (away from the ferrule) gives you more lyrical motion. Your grip can still be controlled by your thumb, you can hold it loosely, or even clutch it in your fist. The important thing is to let your arm and shoulder drive the movement of the brush, rather than just your wrist and hand. The farther back you hold the brush, the more scope of movement. To loosen up, blast some music and pretend you’re the conductor and that brush is your baton.
  • Don’t dab. By this I mean a pouncing/stabbing motion with the tip of your brush. It’s amateurish in oils, anemic in acrylics, and hell on your brushes.
  • Don’t use brush strokes that go in all one direction. Learn to apply paint in the round. This is a rule that can be broken, but make sure you’re doing so intentionally, not just because you don’t know how to paint in every direction.

Self Portrait with Beret and Turned Up Collar, 1659, Rembrandt van Rijn, courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Pay close attention to the economy of the brushwork in the hair, and the expressive, unfinished brushwork in the face. In this way, Rembrandt was able to create a powerful focus.

There are many painters whose brushwork I admire, but there’s little point in trying to copy them in my own work. Brushwork is as personal as handwriting. It’s where the artist expresses—or suppresses—his feelings. There’s value in attempting to copy passages by great painters, and I suggest you do so with the samples I’ve attached to this blog. But don’t try to paint like Sargent or Van Gogh or Rembrandt; use what you learn to create your own mature style.

Waterlilies, c. 1915, Claude Monet, courtesy Neue Pinakothek, Munich. Monet makes no attempt to hide his drawing in this painting. The brushstrokes are wet-over-dry.

The best, most immediate, brushwork lies on a foundation of careful planning. Continuous modification, glazing, changing color, etc., makes for diffident marks. For the same reason, if you’re happy with the color and form of what you’ve laid down, refrain from ‘touching it up.”

Use your brushwork to highlight the focal points in your painting. Sharp, clean, contrasting marks draw the eye, where soft, flowing, lyrical passages encourage us to move through. Let there be dry-brush texture and unfinished passages in your painting.

Lady Agnew of Lochnaw, 1892, John Singer Sargent, courtesy Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh. Note that the transparent sleeves are not produced by glazing, but with direct, long brushstrokes.

Above all, don’t bury your line. Much of the power of Edgar Degas’ mature work comes from his powerful drawing; he was the most accurate draftsman of his age, and he let that stand prominently in his work.

Monday Morning Art School: different strokes

The best way to learn about your brushes is to experiment.Your brushwork contributes immeasurably to the quality of your painting. Don’t dab or be diffident; plan your strategy and then execute it with boldness.

A spalter or mottler is a most useful watercolor brush.

On Friday, I gave you a guide to buying brushes. What are you going to do with these brushes now?

OIL and ACRYLIC

In the following illustrations, I’ve tried to keep the amount of solvent the same (except with the fan brush).

Above is a sable flat brush by Rosemary & Company. It can put down a very smooth surface and offers a lot of control, but it doesn’t carry the quantity of paint that an equivalent bristle brush will. I save sable for glazing or blending.

This is a hog bristle flat brush. The paint it lays down is both rougher and more impasto than the sable.

Flat brushes make an immediate, energetic mark. They’re excellent for fast, powerful surface work, long sweeping strokes, and blocking in shapes.

Used on their sides, they also make great lines, far more evenly than a small round can do.

Two rounds of very different sizes. A round is a more lyrical brush than a flat, and is a classic tool for painterly surface marks. It can be used to make lines that vary from thin to thick. A pointed round is used for fine detail. Bristle rounds tend to lose their points very quickly, however.

The great advantage of a filbert is the variety of brushstrokes you can get from one brush. This is great for single strokes that taper, such as in water reflections. Its rounded edges are good for blending. Set on its side, it makes nearly as good a line as a flat.

A bright is a less-flexible version of a flat. It’s great for short, powerful strokes or situations where you want a lot of control.

A fan brush probably has no place in a plein air kit, but I carry one anyway. I use it for blending, as on the left, although some people like using it to make whacked out marks as on the right. The problem is, it can carry very little paint, so its marks tend to be either gooey, as above, or very abrupt.

In my studio, I just use a clapped out soft-haired brush to blend.

Many plein air painters also carry liners and riggers, which are useful in paintings that are built up smoothly. I don’t paint that way, so I seldom use them. Another brush that is good for detailed work is an angled brush. I don’t have one of them, either. You can do almost any work you can envision with just the brushes I’ve shown you above.

WATERCOLOR

Watercolor brushes are softer than oil-painting brushes. The most expensive are natural bristles, and the difference is usually worth paying for. Natural bristles combine strength with suppleness and hold more paint than synthetics. Unlike oil-painting brushes, your watercolor brushes should last a lifetime, so buy the best you can afford.

In general, watercolor brushes drop more pigment the more vertically they’re held. You can use this to move from a filled area to a broken one in one brush stroke. In all the following examples except for the mop, I’ve held the brush both ways. A good general rule is to carry the vertical brush slowly and in a controlled manner; pull a horizontal brush more rapidly to get the least amount of paint contact with the paper.

Made with the spalter brush at the very top of the page.

The brush I used for the photo montage at the top of the page is a 2″ flat synthetic mottler or spalter brush. I like this shape for both oils and watercolor. It’s a relatively inexpensive brush that gives a beautiful wash. It’s useful for covering large areas quickly, but with precise edges.

A flat gives you good even washes. Used on its side, it can give you a controlled line.
A bright is a shorter version of a flat. More punch with less pigment.

Flats and brights give you nice flat washes, but can be used to make expressive lines as well. Brights have more control and carry less paint, just as they do in oil painting. Turn them on their sides to make a controlled line. Twisting the brush while painting gives an infinite variety of shapes. So too does varying the ratio of paint and water.

You can’t do either of these things in any other medium.

Because of the way watercolor bleeds, its brushes can be used in ways not possible in any other medium–a long blend of different pigments, or by painting a shape in clear water and then dropping pigment into it.

Round brushes give more lyrical lines than flats do.

I don’t normally carry riggers with me in either watercolor or oils. (They’re meant to paint perfect lines, and my world-view apparently doesn’t have many perfect lines in it.) Most of my line work is done with rounds. They do not give as much control on long lines, but they are very expressive.

A mop brush gives a perfect wash, but it does so much more as well.

Squirrel mops are the most uniform wash brush you can use. It’s virtually impossible to make them skip, so use them where a lovely flat wash is a goal. But a good mop can also point, hold vast amounts of paint and sweep across the paper in style.

I think Guillo the dog ate my sea sponge.

Natural sea sponges are multi-purpose painting brushes. Use them to apply or remove paint. They can be as subtle or bold as you wish.

The brushes you really need

You don’t need to spend a fortune to paint.

Channel Marker, 9X12, oil on canvas, available.

OILS and ACRYLICS

Expensive brushes are not the place to throw money for the beginning oil or acrylic painter—good quality paints are far more important. Still, brushes do change how the paint sits, and you need proper tools.

For alla prima painting in oils, you want long-handled hog-bristle brushes. They are less expensive than softer hairs like sable. I like Princeton 9700 series and Robert Simmons Signet hog bristle brushes.

Princeton also makes synthetic brushes that are good value for money—the 6300 series. Anything softer really isn’t appropriate for alla primapainting in oils. Acrylic paints will tolerate a little more flexibility, but avoid anything labeled for both watercolor and acrylic—they’re too soft. Princeton has a good chart of fiber stiffness, here.

Home Port, oil on canvas, available.

An assortment of rounds and filberts, a few large flats and an optional fan brush should suffice. More than a handful is overkill. Most workhorse alla prima painting happens between sizes #6 and #12, with a few smaller brushes for detail work, and larger brushes for bigger canvases.

If you like painting itsy-bitsy lines, invest in a rigger and a #1 round. I get more mileage out of spalter brushes, which are large, inexpensive flats for covering lots of area fast. I also keep a few soft sable brushes for glazing and blending.

Parrsboro Sunrise, 11X14, oil on canvasboard, available.

Bristle brushes tend to form a flag (a v-shaped split) at the end over time. If the brush is made properly, with good interlocking bristles, it will have a natural resistance to fraying. However, oil and acrylic brushes can’t tolerate letting paint dry into them, or being left standing on their bristles in solvent. You can wash brushes with Murphy’s Oil Soap, saddle soap (nice), specialty brush soaps, Fels Naptha, or even shampoo or detergent in a crunch. The important thing is that you do it promptly, before your paint has a chance to set up.

First, remove the solids by swishing them around in solvent. Then, put soap on a rag and work it into the bristles from the ferrule down to the bristles’ end. Be sure you’re washing the inside bristles, not just the surface. Repeat until the suds run clean. Shake excess water out, shape the brush slightly with your hand, and let it air dry.

Sometimes it rains, oil on canvasboard, available.

WATERCOLOR

Brushes are far more important in watercolor. I like Rosemary & Co. but they are very expensive. I recommend Princeton Neptune brushes for new painters. A ½” flat, a 1” wash brush, a #6 quill and a #8 round will get you started. If you’re going to invest in a mop, squirrel is better than synthetic. A set of short synthetic flats (or mottlers, as they’re sometimes called) in ¾”, 1” and 1½” will round out your collection.

Riggers and liners are tiny brushes for making very fine lines. They’re more useful in watercolor than they are in oils, in my experience. I buy the cheapest ones I can find because I’m always wrecking their points.

Lastly, you should have a scrubberto take out mistakes. You can buy them purpose-built, or you can just use an old hog-bristle brush.

Never leave your brushes standing in water, even as you work. Cleaning watercolor brushes is far easier than cleaning oil brushes. Hold them under the tap and let the pigment wash off with the flow of the water. I have never washed my brushes with soap, but if you find your synthetic brushes have stained, you can use a small amount of bar soap on them. Squeeze the water out and reshape the heads. That’s all there is to it.

Why don’t I teach private lessons?

You only hear what you are ready to hear. That takes time.

Bracken Fern, oil on canvas, available through Maine Farmland Trust Gallery.

I get frequent requests for private instruction. After all, if group lessons are helpful, wouldn’t private lessons be even better? Absolutely not.

I’ve taken harpsichord, voice and piano lessons. There are many similarities between studying music and painting. In either discipline, instruction time actually plays a small part in the student’s development. Most learning happens during practice, as the student masters what he or she has been shown.

On the other hand, there are significant differences. Painting class is not nearly as noisy, for one thing, so we teachers don’t have to try to sort out each player from the cacophony. We don’t demonstrate the minutiae of fingering or sound production, or concentrate on every note, phrase and fingering. There are aspects of music-making that are intensely detailed and physical. Painting in general avoids that.

Blueberry barrens, Clary Hill, oil on canvas, available through Maine Farmland Trust Gallery.

Instead, a good painting class is an ensemble of well-matched peers. They build on each other’s questions, suggestions, successes and failures. They ask questions that are pertinent to everyone. They borrow ideas from each other. My students often have insights that elude me, and I trust them enough to occasionally say, “I don’t know the answer.” I’ve frequently said I learn as much from my students as they do from me.

I have students who drift in and out of my classes and workshops over years. That’s a good thing; it means they’ve taken ownership of their own learning process. Last summer, one of them asked, “Where do I go when I’m done studying with you?”

The truth, to be brutally honest, is: nowhere. And everywhere.

Blueberry barrens, Clary Hill, watercolor, available through Maine Farmland Trust Gallery.

There are people who flit from teacher to teacher, workshop to workshop. They’re looking for a silver bullet that will circumvent the learning process for them. What they don’t realize is that most painting teachers are saying—more or less—exactly the same thing. The ones who aren’t, are selling a gimmick.

Nothing about painting is particularly revolutionary. The basic process is thousands of years old. Yes, it’s been refined, and a good teacher ought to be able to elucidate how it’s changed and why. But paint still gets attached to paper and canvas in a specific way.

Sea Fog, oil on canvas, available through Folly Cove Fine Art.

There are degrees of competence in painting teachers. If your teacher can’t articulate his process or doesn’t know color theory or art history, consider finding someone else. But beyond that, what we’re teaching is pretty similar. It ought to be.

That doesn’t mean it’s easy, or that you can take lessons for a year and nail it. For most of us, learning to paint at a high level of competence takes years. The lessons are deceptively simple. The teacher lays out the same information over and over, but the student is only capable of hearing what he’s ready to hear.

Good teachers repeat things—often—and watch and listen to see who’s getting it and who isn’t. Suddenly, there’s an insight somewhere in the room. When that moment happens, it’s an epiphany for everyone in the class. Everyone leaps forward; everyone benefits. No individual lesson can give you that.

Monday Morning Art School: scaling up a painting

It may seem time-consuming, but with big paintings it saves a lot of work in the long run.

My watercolor sketch. It’s gridded on a piece of plexiglass laid over the drawing.

On Friday I wrote about losing my painting reference and going to great lengths to find substitutes. The human mind being so fickle, writing that post made me suddenly realize what and where my original reference was. I came downstairs to my studio convinced that I would wipe out the interloping boats and go back to my original drawing.
I drew the mast positions in with charcoal and a straight-edge before starting to paint. That way their angle will match my sketch.

However, when I looked at the canvas again, I realized it wasn’t that bad. Different from my original intent, certainly, but not bad. I walked the dog and pondered. By the time I was home again, I’d determined that I should just paint both iterations. It was possible to differentiate them enough to make two different works out of them, both speaking to the flying sensation of sailing.

That meant gridding up a second version. This time I decided to go with the original aspect ratio of the sketch, rather than cropping it. I liked the yawl I’d truncated the first time around.

Straight lines, curves–it doesn’t matter. Just find the point at which they intersect the grid, mark those points, and work from there. I usually do this in monochrome but since I was working from a watercolor sketch, I just massed color.

I have a projector, but I find that gridding is more accurate and takes less time. Knowing how to do it is imperative for large projects, but it can be surprisingly useful in small paintings, too. Whenever you have trouble going from your thumbnail to the canvas, gridding is your go-to answer.

Boats v.2, laid out 24X36 in just a few hours. Later today I can actually paint them.

I realize many artists are math-phobic, but there are times when a bit of arithmetic can save you a world of pain.

First, work out whether the aspect ratio of your sketch is the same as the canvas. This is the proportional relationship between height and width. Sometimes this is very obvious, such as a 9X12 sketch being the same aspect ratio as an 18X24 canvas. But sometimes, you’re starting with a peculiar little sketch drawn on the back of an envelope. You can use a trick you learned back in elementary school.

Remember learning that 1/2 was the same as 2/4? We want to force our sketch into a similar equivalent ratio with our canvas.

Let’s assume that you’ve cropped your sketch to be 8” across. You want to know how tall your crop should be to match your canvas.

Write out the ratios of height to width as above.

To make them equivalent, you cross-multiply the two fixed numbers, and divide by the other fixed number, as below:

Use your common sense here. If it doesn’t look like they should be equal, you probably made a mistake. And you can work from a known height as easily as from a known width; it doesn’t matter if the variable is on the top or the bottom, the principle is the same.

The next step is to grid both the canvas and sketch equally. In my painting above, my grid was an inch square on the sketch and 4″ square on the canvas, but as long as you end up with the same number of squares on both, the actual measurements don’t matter. You can just keep dividing the squares until you get a grid that’s small enough to be useful. For a small painting, that could be as simple as quartering the sketch and the canvas. I use a T-square and charcoal, and I’m not crazy about the lines being perfect; I adjust constantly as I go.

The last step is to transfer the little drawing, square by square to the larger canvas. I generally do this in a dark neutral of burnt sienna and ultramarine. On Friday, however, since I’d already done a grisaille and a watercolor sketch of the subject, I just transferred large blocks of color. It may seem time-consuming, but with big paintings it saves a lot of work in the long run.

Some days I hate learning experiences

Painting boats is a great metaphor for life. The wind in your sails is the easy part. It’s the rigging that’s ticklish.

Breaking storm, 48X30, oil on canvas, available through Folly Cove Fine Art.

There are 47,000 photos on this laptop, another 41,000 on our server, and thousands more on my phone. (There is, of course, significant overlap). They’re in folders titled by seasons or events—except for images of paintings, which I store by the year they were completed. The problem is that I’m more likely to remember the curve of a taffrail than where or when I saw it.

Last autumn I did a watercolor sketch for a boat painting. I got as far as laying it out on canvas and then got derailed. I just got back to it this week and I had no recollection of what reference photo (if any) I’d used. There’s a low-res collage called Boats on my thumb drive. That’s a terrible name, since I have almost 400 other pictures with similar names. I looked at them all. No luck.

Sunset Sail, oil on canvas, available through Folly Cove Fine Art.

The shore in my sketch looks like the Camden Hills. Did I use a photo from the Camden Classics Cup regatta? Howard Gallagherand the late Lee Boynton and I once watched the start from Howard’s boat, but if I have any photos I no longer know where they are.

Let this be a lesson to me and everyone else—when you decide to paint from a photo, put it somewhere you can find it later.

I searched online and found a delightful Cornish sloop and a couple of beautiful Camden Class daysailors. I roughed them in and sat back to look. I’d just realized the scale was all wrong when Ann Trainor Domingue stopped by.

“Does it matter?” she asked. If you know Annie’s work (which is terrific) you’ll understand why she questioned that. But to me it mattered.

I can paint the sails of most fore-and-aft rigged vessels in my sleep. They feel as natural as the wind to me. But when it comes to attaching them to a hull, I must be careful. Placing the cabins, the masts, and the sheets properly is ticklish.

It’s a great metaphor for life. The wind is the easy part.

The trouble with combining reference photos of boats is that the wind, the light, the angle and the scale all must be roughly the same. For my painting to work, the different boats’ sails can’t exactly mimic each other. However, boats running in the same wind tend to be trimmed the same way. I debated how much license I wanted to take.

I ran this past my pal Bobbi Heath, who not only paints boats, but also sails. She, in turn, ran it past her husband. He thought my gaff-rigged cutter might plausibly be jibing at the same time as the sloop was running downwind.

“We may be overthinking this,” Bobbi added. I wasn’t worried; Bobbi and I do some of our best work while overthinking things. Still, I was unhappy. My painting had developed a patina of historical drama, and that wasn’t what I wanted at all. I was trying to paint sheer larkiness.

Rising Tide at Wadsworth Cove, 12×16, oil on canvasboard by Carol L. Douglas. Stimulus sale price, $675 (regularly $895 unframed)

Last February, Ann Domingue and I planned a workshop called Uncovering Your Mark, which was a guided exercise to help artists get to the heart of their own work. She planned to teach it in my studio here in Maine in June. With the pandemic, she offered it online as a Zoom class.

I had expected to learn something about how I might change my work. Instead, I realized I was painting exactly what I’m supposed to be painting right now. She couldn’t have given me a greater gift.

Stormy Weather, 16X20, oil on canvas by Carol L. Douglas. Stimulus sale price $1000 (regularly $1400 unframed)

The brilliant thing about art is that neither Ann’s approach nor mine is ‘right’. We’re each saying different things in our paintings, speaking to different audiences. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Thinking about that, something clicked and I remembered where the photo that inspired my sketch was filed—under Eggemoggin Reach Regatta. The human mind is inscrutable, isn’t it?

If I don’t have the exact boats, I certainly have the right wind. Today I can scrape out my flailings and paint it properly. At times, art can be a cruel taskmaster, but if you’re patient you will get there.