Monday Morning Art School: white on white

The color of white is the color of light. Mastering that will make all your paintings more exciting.

Girl Arranging Her Hair, 1886, Mary Cassatt, courtesy National Gallery of Art

Do you remember learning that “white is not a color; it’s the combination of all the colors”? That’s malarkey, although it’s based on a truth. Yes, Isaac Newton demonstrated that white light is a reflection of all the visible light spectrum. That doesn’t change the fact that white is a perceived color (as is black). Our perception is based not just on the physical light bouncing from the surface of an object, but on a whole host of contextual cues, which is why our brain is so easily fooled by optical illusions.

White is, in theory, a reflection of all the visible light spectrum. But that is never true in real life. Inevitably, all light shifts to either the cool (blue-violet) or warm (golden) side, depending on the time of day, season, and atmospheric conditions. Artificial light is even more limited in spectrum than sunlight, which is why it kills the colors in paintings, textiles, and human skin.

Sita and Sarita, 1896, Cecilia Beaux, courtesy National Gallery of Art

At the end of the 19th century, the Impressionist revolution in color had spread to painters like Anders ZornJoaquín Sorolla and John Singer Sargent. Nowhere does this show more than in their handling of white.

The colors in her gown.

Sorolla was painting in the brilliant light of his native Valencia. Zorn lived in Sweden, and many of his scenes have flat light. Sargent lived most of his life in western Europe. None were working in the same lighting conditions, but all of them adopted the same approach to color and light. It was a marriage of Impressionist color theory to more traditional brushwork. The combination still works today.

Helen Sears, 1895, John Singer Sargent, courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

By adding color to white, these painters were able to give their subject the sparkle and truth of natural light. To have painted their whites with just white or grey would have resulted in flat, dull canvases. This is because convincing whites, in the real world, are actually quite colorful.

The colors in her dress.

Sargent’s portrait of Helen Sears was painted under gaslight (and what a patient little child she must have been to tolerate all that primping and then all that standing). The little girl is thrown into stark relief by the dark interior, and the whole painting is drenched in warmth. What we perceive as blue is mostly a cool neutral. (Here is a photo of the girl taken by her mother, so that you can see Sargent’s liberal editing.) Even the blue-and-white hydrangeas are actually comprised of mostly warm tones. In this painting, the whites are influenced primarily by the light source.

Mending the Sail, 1896, Joaquín Sorolla courtesy Museo d’Arte Moderna di Ca’ Pesaro. This is a warm-light, cool-shadow combination.

Zorn’s portrait, on the other hand, is mostly influenced by reflected color. It is set against a rich orange floor that influences everything in the foreground. The older girl’s dress is washed in its pinkish tones. The younger daughter recedes in space because of the less-saturated color in her clothes and the grey drapes. Despite all the warmth in the painting, we understand it’s under natural light by the cool highlights. It’s a masterful composition, a brilliant use of color, and above all, an insightful glimpse into the childish mind.

The colors in Sorolla’s sail.

I’ve picked six random ‘whites’ from each painting to show you just how varied whites could be in the hands of accomplished painters. Had I used Impressionist paintings, the tints would have been clearer and brighter.

A Portrait of the Daughters of Ramón Subercaseaux, 1892, Anders Zorn, private collection

I strongly encourage my students to premix tints (the tube pigment plus white) of every color except black on their palette, and then to ignore pure white. Their assignment this week—and now it’s your assignment too—is to paint a white object without using any straight white paint at all. It should go without saying that your neutrals (greys) should not be mixed with black, either. Everything in this exercise should have color.

The colors in the older girl’s dress. It’s picking up the warmth from the carpet, which is in turn unifying the painting.

The addition of white makes any other pigment opaque and somewhat cooler, since titanium white is cool in its pure state. Add too much white, and you’ve got a bleached, dull image. When you start this exercise, it’s best to err on the side of too much color, rather than too little.

The tints in the second line drive this exercise. Graphic courtesy of Victoria Brzustowicz.

What are some good white objects to paint? Eggs, roses, china dishes, clothing or sheets on the line are all options.

This post was revised from one originally appearing in 2019.

Painting after retirement

What’s the good of self-discipline if you can’t even figure out a plan? And the plan itself requires time, attention and work.

Morning at Spruce Head, 8×10 oil on canvas, $522 unframed. This was a class demo on color management, and I wish you could see all the color swirling through it, but my camera insists on flattening it out.

“I just cannot seem to create structure in my life now that it really is up to me and not something imposed by work or child-rearing,” wrote a student. “A—is doing great on her own. She’s launched into adulthood and all that entails. Bittersweet. And now for me to create my next chapter. Yikes.”

I’ve floundered several times in my life. When I transitioned to painting full time, I had no idea how to create artwork that wasn’t paired with words. I illustrated two books before realizing that children’s literature wasn’t my métier.

Many people grapple with issues of organization after retirement. Some fail. My father had passionate avocations, including painting. All his life, he managed to squeeze them into his free time. But upon retirement, he simple wasn’t able to organize himself. He found himself rooted to the spot, getting progressively more depressed and less productive.

Rosy sky at Owls Head, 8×16, oil on linenboard, $722 unframed.

I plan—like Wayne Thiebaud and Lois Dodd—to work into my dotage. That makes me singularly unqualified to give advice about retirement to anyone.

But making a good retirement seems—to me—to be much like self-employment. Obviously, you don’t need to work 80 hours a week, but you do need to create order, process and clarity in your day-to-day existence.

I’ve been self-employed since I was thirty. I vividly remember that feeling of shock when I sat down to my spiffy, brand-new computer (that I’d borrowed to buy) and realized that I had to go get customers, estimate the jobs and do the work, all on my own. I was terrified at the prospect of making sales calls. Knowing how to do the work is the first prerequisite to self-employment, but hardly the most important thing. The entrepreneurial spirit is more important and more elusive.

Skylarking II, oil on linen,18 x 24 inches, $1,855 unframed. 

I’m the grandchild of the Great Depression. I came of age during double-digit unemployment in my hometown of Buffalo, NY. I have all the traits of a successful wage slave—keep your head down, show up on time, do your work responsibly, don’t call in sick, don’t quit one job until you have another. None of them prepared me for self-employment.

A strong work ethic is a start, but deep passion is more important. Art is as much a calling as it is a job. That’s the only thing that takes you through the lean years.

As a one-man shop, I constantly struggle with questions of organization. I find a to-do list helps, but at this point in the summer, I’m hopelessly muddled and behind. I cannot work without structure, so I make structure a priority. But what’s the good of self-discipline if you can’t even figure out a plan? My mistake when I started out was not realizing that the plan itself required time, attention and work. I got it in the end, but more thought at the beginning would have saved me a lot of flailing around.

A certain amount of cheerful competitiveness helps. It keeps your eyes focused on what the people around you are doing, which helps you see the path to excellence for yourself. That requires the courage to assess yourself squarely against others. You can either be envious and bitter that they’re ‘better’ than you, or you can learn from them. The choice is yours, but to me it’s a no-brainer.

The art of trees

Please stop cluttering up the forest with silly signs.

Bracken Fern, 9×12, oil on canvasboard, $869 in gold plein air frame.

I like the written word almost as much as I like paint. I spend a lot of my time reading it, and sometimes I write it.

I also like the lonely paths through verdant forest, the high ridges from which I can see the sea and sky. During the week, my hikes are limited to places that I can reach in a few minutes from my home. That means Land Trust properties. I’m grateful that these lands are being maintained as open space by citizen-consortiums, especially with the proliferation of summer homes along the coast.

Spring on Beech Hill, 8×10, oil on canvasboard, $522 unframed.

The occasional blue diamond to keep us on the straight-and-narrow is a good thing. However, most of the signage along the trails near my house has nothing to do with safety. Most of these intrusive signs are ‘informative’, telling us the life-cycle of the blueberry or expounding on the need to regenerate meadows. There are the inevitable and necessary posts about rules, of course.

But strung along a path close to my house are a series of signs with revolving displays of—of all things—poetry. I close my eyes tightly as I walk past, but I inevitably catch some of the words, which in turn intrude into my private thoughts. I avoid this path when I can, but there are times when it’s inevitable.

Still, they’re only a few signs—perhaps a half dozen or dozen in all—so why do they get my back up? And they do regardless of the content, which can range from the pixieish to the political.

Glaciar Cagliaro from Rio Electrico, 12X16, oil on birch, $1159 unframed.

We are drowning in a surfeit of words. They chase us from the time we open our eyes until we rest at night—or in my case, since I read at night, even into my dreams. Our homes are full of written words, with the signage wall-decor trend showing no sign of abating. (One tiny landscape photograph will have far greater impact than that big ‘live, love, laugh’ sign at TJ Maxx, but the shelves are still full of them.)

Nature should be a place where those things are left behind. As the poet Wendell Berry wrote:

To come in among these trees you must leave behind
the six days’ world, all of it, all of its plans and hopes.
You must come without weapon or tool, alone,
expecting nothing, remembering nothing,
into the ease of sight, the brotherhood [and sisterhood!] of eye and leaf.
(Wendell Berry)

We go to the woods to sort out the jumble of our thoughts, to refresh ourselves for living, to chat quietly with a friend, to watch birds and other wildlife, to watch our dogs look at the world. None of that is enhanced by having someone else’s thoughts written over ours.

Beaver Dam on Quebec Brook, 12X16, oil on canvasboard, $1449 in plein air frame.

Henry David Thoreau was a poet, essayist, philosopher, and leading Transcendentalist(a philosophy that could use revisiting these days). He could be considered the father of modern conservation. Thoreau’s life revolved around words, but he turned to nature to concentrate his mind. It was his exemplar and reference point. As he famously wrote:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

Every time I see those blasted signs along my walk, I sigh and wonder, “what would Thoreau think?”

Monday Morning Art School: accidental color

Color harmonies are easy enough for a kindergartener to understand, but devilishly difficult to apply in paint.

Landscape at Saint-Rémy (Enclosed Field with Peasant), 1889, Vincent van Gogh, courtesy Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields

In music, an accidental is a note that is not part of the scale indicated by the key signature. (The sharp, flat, and natural symbols mark them, so those symbols are also called accidentals.) Accidental notes make music more beautiful, complex and intriguing.

In art, we sometimes work within structured color in the form of color harmonies. But too strict a reliance on color harmonies may result in static painting. We need to deviate from these strict concepts with the addition of other color notes. I call these ‘accidental colors.’

Half-Length Portrait of a Lady, Francis Campbell Boileau Cadell

Color harmony isn’t a simple question of matching up complements or a triad. We respond to color emotionally and cognitively, just as we respond to music. We’re influenced by our age, gender, mood, culture, and our learned responses. Then there’s the question of context. Fashion has always played a big part in color awareness, as has the availability of pigments. In that the healthy human eye can perceive millions of variations of color, it’s impossible to quantify every possible combination.

The Yellow Curtain, 1915, Henri Matisse, courtesy Museum of Modern Art

When I was young, I learned that red was the color of rage, blue of calm. That was based on Wassily Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art. Kandinsky was under the influence of a 19th century cult leader, Madame Helena Blavatsky, and everything he wrote about color was total hokum, but it continues to be parroted to this day.

I mention this because there’s no real ‘science’ behind color harmonies as we currently perceive them, any more than there is behind the scales we use in Western music.

Moonrise by the Sea, 1822, Caspar David Friedrich

Still, there are color harmonies that appear to work, so we continue to use them. They’re easy enough for a kindergartener to understand, but devilishly difficult to apply in paint. Two errors I commonly see are:

  • Thinking that the color harmony you chose includes the only colors permissible in your painting, so you don’t put other colors on your palette;
  • Thinking that the colors you chose are the basis of mixing. That’s just an extreme extension of limited palette.

Winter comes from the Arctic to the Temperate Zone, 1935, Lawren Harris. I’m having a terrible time finding attributions this morning; I’m sorry.

Most masterworks include color notes that are outside the strict color harmony chosen by the artist. When they don’t, it’s to set a mood, for example with nocturnes and sunset paintings.

I’ve included five masterworks from different periods in this post. Your assignment is to identify the color harmony the artist was working within, and then find the accidental notes within the painting.

The four steps of landscape drawing

Being technically accurate frees up your subconscious mind to analyze and interpret what you see.

Main Street, Owls Head, 16X20, oil on gessoboard, $1623 unframed.

I once took an artist on a long loop to see all my favorite painting sites here in midcoast Maine. “But there’s nothing to paint,” she wailed. She was suffering an extreme case of sensory overload. We all experience this to some degree when we’re forced to buckle down to work. We’re asking ourselves to choose one subject among an infinite number of possibilities. And the obvious and iconic may not make the best (or most interesting) painting.

We all want to jump quickly into painting, but the better path is to spend some time relaxing and looking. I prefer to do this with a sketchbook and a lawn chair. If you’ve spent 10 minutes just drinking in the beauty, and then do four thumbnails of different scenes, you haven’t ‘wasted time.’ You’ve saved yourself immeasurable amounts of work on mediocre paintings, by answering the following questions:

  • Where does the visual strength in this composition lie?
  • How can the picture plane be broken into light and dark passages?
  • How can I crop my drawing to strengthen the composition?
Belfast Harbor, 14X18, $1594 framed.


At some point, you need to get precise. Fast, loose painting rests on a base of good drawing. If you haven’t been taught to measure with a pencil, start here, hereand here.

People tell me all the time, “I can’t draw a stick figure.” It depresses me, because drawing is a technical exercise, and anyone can learn it, just as they learn to write or do arithmetic.

I recommend the book Sketching from Square One to Trafalgar Square, by Richard E. Scott. It’s a comprehensive introduction to drawing from observation. Books and classes that focus on the interpretive side of drawing are not useful for the artist who needs to get things right, so before you sign up, make sure that teacher, video, or book is actually teaching drawing, not some form of self-analysis with a pencil.

Beach erosion, 8X10, oil on canvasboard, $522 unframed.


Being technically accurate, oddly enough, frees up your subconscious mind to analyze and interpret what you see. We all paint through the filter of our own experience, values and aspirations. That’s why one artist will edit out the power lines and trash cans on a street scene, and another will focus on them.

But there’s a deeper level at which this happens, and that’s in the colors, forms and shapes themselves. They’re tied to your subconscious. Within the rubric of ‘good composition’ or ‘good taste’ are infinite variations. What you perceive is highly individual, so your interpretation will also be individual.

Marshall Point, 12X9, oil on canvasboard, $696 unframed.


The first three phases are all essentially input—identifying, measuring, and analyzing the subject you’re painting. The final business of producing a work of art is collecting all that input and restating it on your canvas or paper. If you’ve done the first three steps conscientiously, this last step should be relatively relaxed and free. It should also go quickly. Your own ‘handwriting’, in the form of brush or pencil work, will be unfettered and loose.

Before we were plein air painters

Ernie Pyle interviewed a local artist in Brown County, Indiana in the late 1930s. You might recognize a bit of yourself in him.

Sunshine and Hollyhocks, 1925, Will Vawter, courtesy Indiana Historical Society

Ernie Pylewas America’s most-famous WW2 correspondent, but before that, he already had a popular column for Scripps-Howard newspapers. Between 1935 and 1940, sick of his desk job as an editor, Pyle went out on the road to write human interest stories under the title Hoosier Vagabond. Eventually, he drove through all 48 states, the territories of Alaska and Hawaii, and several other countries.

After his death in the Pacific theater, Pyle’s American columns were assembled in a book called Home Country. It’s full of sharply-drawn small portraits, including the following, of artist Will Vawter of Brown County, Indiana.

A Sunny Day in Springville, Will Vawter, courtesy Indiana Historical Society

Vawter doesn’t call himself a ‘plein air painter,’ but it’s what we’d call him today. His lifestyle and attitude are familiar to me, and I thought you’d enjoy meeting him through the immortal prose of Ernie Pyle:

“You didn’t see artists trailing around Nashville in arty clothes. They didn’t have a favorite bar where they congregated to discuss their genius in mystic tongues. They simply worked hard and lived like normal people, and hoped to Heaven somebody would buy their stuff. And practically all of them were self-supporting through their art—which speaks for itself…

Brown County Landscape, 1920, Will Vawter, courtesy Indiana Historical Society

“Will Vawter [was] of all the artists probably the most loved by the townspeople. He was a big man, heavy, with a large head made even larger by an immense thatch of white hair. He and Schulz both looked like artists, and yet Will Vawter also looked just like somebody’s nice grandpa. Vawter illustrated one edition of Riley’s poems. He had a nice sense of sarcastic humor about himself. Somehow we got to talking about smoking. He didn’t smoke, but he chewed gum avidly and constantly, even when he was at a funeral looking at the corpse. He used to smoke cigars. He said he never could smoke halfway; he had to smoke perpetually or not at all, and it used to interfere with his art. He would load up his car of a morning with all of an artist’s necessary junk, drive out in the country and find himself a likely spot to paint, then unload everything and set it up. ‘It was like setting up a circus,’ he said. ‘I’d get out my easel and fix it just right. And then the canvas. And then get my paints and brushes all out and ready. And then my stool. And finally set up a big umbrella over the whole thing, practically like a tent. Then I’d sit down to paint, and reach in my shirt pocket for a cigar. And of course I’d have left them at home. And do you know, I couldn’t paint a stroke. So I’d jump in the car and rush back to town, taking corners too fast, killing chickens on the way, and being a general public menace. I’d lose an hour getting back to get those cigars so I could paint. So I just quit, and took up chewing gum.’

Along the Coast, Will Vawter, courtesy Indiana Historical Society

“Will Vawter talked about art the way I like to hear people talk. He said you go out and paint something the way you see it; somebody comes along to look at it, and if that scene happens to strike some memory, or cherished little scene, or a spot of appreciative beauty in whoever is looking at it, then he likes the picture, and if he’s able he buys it. That’s all there is to art. Nothing mysterious about it. When a man can talk like that, and still have no sense of time or direction whatever, and doesn’t recognize his own house half the time when he sees it, then I say he has combined the functions of artistic detachment and common horse sense to a degree that nearly reaches perfection.”

Monday Morning Art School: Precision

A good painting requires a good plan. What does that mean? 

This last weekend I was painting in the 14thannual Paint for Preservation for the Cape Elizabeth Land Trust. This always involves a big canvas, and this year was no exception: I painted 30×40.

I always start with a drawing in my sketchbook; when I’m working this large, the drawing becomes paramount. To look at my canvas from a distance meant climbing down into a small ravine and back up the next finger of rock, so I didn’t do it often. Accuracy in that situation requires planning. I transfer the drawing faithfully to my canvas, gridding if necessary. Then the sketchbook lies at my feet so I can consult it for values if necessary.

Foghorn Symphony, 36×40, by Carol L. Douglas, will be available through the Cape Elizabeth Land Trust in late August.

“You write numbers on it?” said Ken DeWaard, who’d stopped by with his morning coffee.

“Numbers and colors,” I said. That’s not my idea; it’s one I stole from an old guy named Vincent van Gogh, who often wrote the colors alongside his sketches. The sun at dawn on Saturday was a lemony yellow, and it would have been easy to remember it as richer and deeper. That would have overridden the sense of a transient sea-fog in the distance, which was causing the five lighthouses of greater Portland to play a fog-horn symphony.

Plein air events like Paint for Preservation have no do-overs. We’re required to put out a good painting. There are two options. You can paint more than one, and choose the best. That seldom works for me, since I’m no judge of my own work in the thrust-and-flow of an event. It’s also a lot of work.

Zeb Cove, 40×40, was my 2020 painting for CELT’s Paint for Preservation.

I go with the second, which is to paint one good one from the start, using all the tools at my disposal. Since a painting always goes wrong in the planning stages, I make sure my plan is solid, and then I stick with it.

What makes a good plan?

Precision of drawing

This means proper perspective and measurement. You might think this is irrelevant when the subject is rocks and the sea, but it’s as important there as with architecture. Drawing is the only clue about the distances involved. There’s a contemporary Maine style, which involves fast, loose brushwork, but it rests on a foundation of perfect drafting. In fact, bad initial drawing is a great way to end up with a tight painting, since you’ll constantly have to redraw with your brush.

Four Ducks, 30×40, was my 2019 painting for CELT’s Paint for Preservation.

Precision of composition

This means understanding the motive line, energy, and value structure of your painting from the beginning. A 30×40 painting will take from 8-12 hours to finish. The tide will have gone through one full cycle, and the sun will beat its way across the sky as you’re painting. In order to retain the light structure you started with, you must lay it out in advance—and then you must stick with it.

Precision of color

Nothing makes for a muddier painting than constantly restating colors because you didn’t get them right on the first try. Make a grisaille, and check your mixed colors against it.

Rocky, 36×36, was my 2018 painting for CELT’s Paint for Preservation. I’m detecting a theme here.

To mix color properly, you must be absolutely conversant with the pigments on your own palette. This requires practice. The goal is au premier coup, or to nail it on the first strike. That goes not just the for darks, but every color in the picture. Even a painting with wonderful shadows and lights will have many middle tones, often closely related in value. These are actually the most difficult colors to mix accurately. If you have a painting that isn’t working, ask yourself if it has a full tonal range, or is it simply hitting the highs and lows. 

Learning to critique paintings

When someone disregards all the voices telling them they can’t do something, and they challenge themselves with hard work and dedication, they ought to be encouraged.

Beth Carr
Linda DeLorey

I’m up at Schoodic Institute teaching my Sea & Sky workshop. We’ve had four days of fog, but my students have responded beautifully, working hard and turning out some wonderful paintings. It helped to remember that the fog is the product of the heat wave blanketing the rest of the northeast right now. We’re standing in Mother Nature’s air conditioner, where all that hot air meets the cold North Atlantic.

Hayley R.

Last evening, we had a critique session. This isn’t just about learning what’s wrong with our paintings. It’s also about learning what’s right. I want students to learn to read and write artwork that is clear, strong and intelligible.

Becky Bense

To this end, we considered formal structure, including:

  • Focal point
  • Line
  • Value
  • Color
  • Balance
  • Shape and form
  • Rhythm and movement

Carrie O’Brien

We could have equally asked:

  • “What do you notice first? Second?”
  • “Why did you see those things in that order?”
  • “Does this evoke a feeling or response in you?”
  • “What is the point of this work?”
Leanne Nickon

The first set of questions are objective. The second, while subjective, are not judgmental. Rather, they ask us to observe our responses to the paintings. That’s intentional. “Do you like this?” is not going to garner useful responses.

Terrie Perrine

As a teacher, I generally use the “sandwich rule” to critique paintings. I start by pointing out something the person did well. We then discuss what might have been handled differently. I finish by pointing out something else that the person did well, so that each session ends on a positive note.

Robert Tyzik

This method has been mocked as “fluffy bun—meat—fluffy bun,” but that misses the point. Most people are all too aware of their failures and not aware of their strengths. Their own self-doubt gets in the way of seeing what is successful in their painting. That needs articulation as much as the negatives do.

Lauren Hammond

Last night, one student said she has a hard time taking criticism. “You can say a hundred good things about me and one negative thing, and all I remember is the negative,” she said. She’s not alone in that; it’s how we’re all wired, and it takes a lot to work past our natural defenses.

Nancy Lloyd

It’s a sign of how well these students trust each other that they put in not their best paintings, but the ones where they felt they needed another person’s insight. And I apologize for the photo quality; Jennifer took the photos under incandescent light, which wrecks the color.

Jennifer Johnson

People are capable of wonderful things, but our society routinely discourages us from daring to be great. When someone disregards all the voices telling them they can’t do something, and they challenge themselves with hard work and dedication, they ought to be encouraged.

Making a good workshop great

Your teacher is important, but the students turn a good workshop into a great one.

Students painting at Schoodic Point this year. That was the last sun we saw. (All photos courtesy Jennifer Johnson.)

I’m teaching in Acadia this week, and it’s fog-bound and rainy. But this is a great group—intrepid and interested. They’re learning a lot despite the unseasonable dampness, and I’m having a blast teaching them.

How can you get the most from a workshop or class? Here are some simple suggestions:

Study the supply list.

Note that I didn’t say, “run right out and buy everything on it.” Every teacher has a reason for asking for those materials. In my case, it’s that I teach a system of paired primaries. You can’t understand color theory without the right starting pigments. Another teacher might have beautiful mark-making. If you don’t buy the brushes he suggests, how are you going to understand his technique?

A tube of cadmium green that I once bought for a workshop and never opened still rankles. I never want to do that to one of my students. When you study with me, I want you to read my supply lists. If something confuses you, or you think you already have a similar item, email and ask.

Paula Tefft working in watercolor.

Bring the right clothes.

It’s been ranging between the 50s and 80s in Maine this summer. If you come north without a hoodie, you will be chilled in the evenings, but you need shorts and a tee-shirt during the day.

I send my students a packing list for clothes and personal belongings. If you’re going on the Age of Sail, Shary will send you a different list, meant for a boat. Follow these instructions, especially in the matter of insect repellent. I didn’t, because I am seldom bit, but I have whackin’ great blisters on my ankles right now. With all the rain we’ve had, the mosquitoes have been voracious.

Know what you’re getting into.

“How can you stand this? It’s all so green!” an urban painter once said to me after a week in the Adirondacks.

There are no Starbucks in Acadia National Park, in the Pecos National Wilderness, or on the clear, still waters of Penobscot Bay. If you’re dependent on your latte macchiato, you may find it uncomfortable at first. (Somehow, there’s always coffee, even without cell-phone reception.) However, the seals, dolphins and eagles are ample compensation.

Hayley R. painting in Paradise.

Be prepared to get down and dirty.

I’m not talking about the outdoors here, I’m talking about change and growth. I am highly competitive myself, so it’s difficult for me to feel like I’m struggling. However, it’s in challenging ourselves that we make progress. Use your teacher’s method while you’re at the workshop, even if you feel like you’ve stepped back ten years in your development. That’s a temporary problem.

You can disregard what you learn when you go home, or incorporate only small pieces into your technique, but you traveled to be challenged, and you can’t do that if you cling to your own technique.

Connect with your classmates

I know painters from all over the US. I met most of them in plein air events. There’s power in those relationships. Exchange email addresses. Keep in contact. Follow them on Instagram or Twitter.
Take good notes.

Listen for new ideas, write down concepts, and above all, ask questions. If your teacher can’t stop and answer them mid-stream, save them for after the demo.


Monday Morning Art School: how to get the most out of a workshop

The important thing you bring to class is not your prior painting experience, but your attitude.

I’m at Schoodic Institute in Acadia National Park this week, teaching my annual Sea & Sky workshop. The following is what I tell my students on the first day:
To teach painting effectively, one must not only know how to paint, but be able to break that down into discrete steps and effectively communicate those steps to students. That’s straightforward, right?
What isn’t so straightforward is how one prepares to be a good student. Learning is a partnership, and students always bring attitudes, personality and preconceptions to the mix. Unless a class is marketed as a masterclass, you don’t need to worry overmuch about your incoming skill level. However, some rudimentary drawing experience will make you a stronger painter.
Photo courtesy of Jennifer Johnson.
More important is intellectual openness. This means the ability to receive correction and instruction without being defensive. (I’ll freely admit I came late to this myself.) The greatest teacher in the world is useless if you’re not prepared to hear what he or she has to say.
Nobody ever paints well when they’re integrating new ideas; it’s far easier to stick with the same old processes even when they don’t work particularly well. They’re familiar. Students should come to class expecting to fail, and even to fail spectacularly. “When I take a class, I produce some of the worst crap in the world, but I will have experimented,” one artist told me. The people who produce pretty things in class are often playing it safe. They’re scared of pushing themselves past what’s comfortable.
Are you worried that you’ll lose your style if you do it the teacher’s way? Your inner self will always bounce back, but hopefully you’ll have learned something that enhances that.
What we teach is a process. The primary goal is to master that process, not to produce beautiful art in any style. If that happens, it’s a bonus, but the real takeaway ought to be a roadmap you can follow long after your teacher is gone.
Photo courtesy of Jennifer Johnson.

The student has some basic responsibilities to his fellow students. He should be on time and bring the proper equipment and supplies. Furthermore, he should be polite, friendly, and supportive to his fellow students. The importance of this latter cannot be overstressed. An overly-needy or unfriendly student can ruin a workshop for everyone, as there’s no getting away from him.

I’ve written before about the pernicious practice of negative feedback, but it’s pervasive in our teaching culture. It takes a while for students to get the hang of recognizing their successes. Before we talk about what needs fixing, we need to trust each other. One way we learn distrust is the idea that, in a critique, we are required to say something unfavorable. Only talk about what’s broken if, in fact, it’s actually broken.
Photo courtesy of Ellen Trayer.
It helps progress to be optimistic, excited and motivated. I’m blessed with an unusually great class this session, and one of the things that distinguishes them is that everyone really wants to excel in painting. They all have a strong work ethic.
Lastly, I think a good student brings a measure of self-advocacy to class. I’m listening hard, and I’m watching carefully, and I still sometimes miss things. I like it when people bring problems or concerns to my attention. It makes me a better teacher.