Quality vs. marketing

Autumn leaves, 9x12, oil on linen, please contact me if you're interested.

The steak

Yesterday I stopped at RGH Paint in Colonie, NY. I’ve been using their paint for years. It’s made locally. More importantly, it’s a fine product with a high pigment load.

It’s a relaxed process to work with them. There’s just Rolf Haarem, the founder, and his assistant, Roger. They have a tiny manufacturing shop tucked away on Railroad Avenue. There’s a roller mill, jars of supplies and finished paint, a workbench and little else. There’s no marketing department; the paint is sold on-line, and his customers learn of him by word-of-mouth.

We chatted briefly, I took my paints, and then I was off to my next stop.

Stuffed animal in a bowl, with Saran Wrap. 6X8, oil on archival canvasboard, $435.

The sizzle

I passed a ‘paint and sip’ franchise. There are roughly 1000 of these outlets in the US and Canada, catering overwhelmingly to hen parties. They represent more than $115 million in annual sales.

Years ago, I wrote about my pal Chrissy Pahucki going rogue at one of these events. She’s a professional artist, but when one is invited to one’s friend’s party, it’s rude to sniff and say, “I’m sorry, that’s beneath me.”

Her experience reminded me of getting a Paint-by-Number kit for my ninth birthday. I already had a clear picture of myself as an artist and was deeply offended.

My seven-year-old granddaughter has a toy sewing machine. It hasn’t worked properly since she got it. This week I rethreaded it, cleaned the bobbin case, and we made a Barbie dress together. I’m an experienced seamstress but I couldn’t get a straight stitch out of the thing. The bobbin jammed under the slightest provocation. Without a knowledgeable adult to help, most kids will quit before they ever really get started.

I paid my annual pilgrimage to Marshalls’ after-Christmas clearance sale. There were several all-inclusive paint kits on the clearance shelves, so cheap that even a wise old bird like me was tempted. But they’re trash paints and garbage brushes.

The paint-and-sip shops, the paint-by-numbers kits, the toy sewing machine and the cheap paint sets are all driven by vast marketing budgets, but in terms of learning, they’re worthless. To learn to do something properly, even from the beginning, you need the right tools and materials and the right instruction.

Value studies in one of my plein air classes. That's the real deal.

Last chance to get an early-bird discount

On that note, early-bird discounts for my 2023 weekend end on Saturday night.

I’ve realized that in any year I can teach a maximum of 300 students, and that’s working full-bore teaching both Zoom classes and workshops. It never actually adds up to 300, because my students tend to stick with me. That’s why most of you never heard of my January atmospherics class; it was filled instantly by repeat students.

I limit the size of my workshops because there’s no point in attending a big class; you might as well just watch a video. That means there are only 84 seats available in 2023—and many of them are already taken. These are the only in-person classes I plan to teach in 2023, and the discount ends Saturday night.

Age of Sail: Workshop on the water

USE COUPON CODE ISAW3SHIPS

Learn to watercolor on the magical, mystical waters of Maine’s Penobscot Bay, aboard the historic schooner American Eagle. All materials, berth, meals and instruction included. Sessions run June 20-24, 2023 and September 16-20, 2023.

Note: typically, I ask you to secure your berth first by calling Shary at 207-594-8007. However, if you can’t reach her, just do this part of the registration and we’ll straighten it out next week.

Towards amazing color: Sedona, AZ

(This workshop doesn’t offer an early-bird discount, sorry.)

Learn to manage all aspects of color on location in the amazing and wonderful landscape of Sedona, AZ. Sponsored by Sedona Arts Center. March 20-24, 2023.

Find your authentic voice in plein air: Austin, TX

USE COUPON CODE YULE

Austin offers a wealth of possibilities to the plein air painter, ranging from historic architecture, beautiful parks, and the urban energy of this cosmopolitan, quirky capitol city. March 27-31, 2023.

Sea & Sky at Schoodic

USE COUPON CODE YULE

Far from the hustle and bustle of Bar Harbor, Schoodic Peninsula has dramatic rock formations, windblown pines, pounding surf and stunning mountain views that draw visitors from around the world. August 6-11, 2023. Register for all-inclusive accommodation or instruction only.

Find your authentic Voice in plein air: Berkshires

USE COUPON CODE YULE

Centered in the beautiful Berkshires in western Massachusetts. You will find your own voice and style without becoming anyone’s clone. August 14-18, 2023

For more information on all workshops, see here.

Connection and chaos

Christmas Eve, oil on canvasboard, 6X8 private collection.

Last weekend, more than 260 million Americans were under winter weather advisories of some sort. That’s a stunningly high percentage of our population. I understand the powerful impulse that impelled some of them into the teeth of the blizzard despite those warnings. I’ve driven into horrible storms myself just because it was Christmas.

We’re high on a bluff so the storm surge couldn’t touch us. We heat with wood. During our few hours without power, we wrapped gifts by candlelight and ate Scotch eggs.

That doesn’t mean the state of Maine went unscathed. My contractor was called away from my kitchen project to tend a house flooded by the storm surge; thousands of gallons of salt water rolled across the lawn into their basement. He cut the power and they’ll be replacing their systems this week.

Christmas Eve 2, oil on canvasboard, private collection.

Almost a quarter of a million customers were without power in Maine on Friday. Some still haven’t seen it restored. That made for a wicked cold and dark Christmas for many people.

I had no great expectations for Christmas, so when my plans went flapdoodle, it was no big deal. I was headed for Troy, NY, to have pizza with my youngest child. We would then wait patiently for his sisters to be done with their roistering so we could celebrate Christmas later this week.

My daughters didn’t fare as well. M was snowed in at Buffalo. L has influenza, but she wouldn’t have been able to travel to her in-laws’ home anyway; the driving was too awful. One of J’s in-laws had emergency surgery on Christmas Eve and others were down with influenza.

For me this meant no inconvenience, just constant recalibration. That hardly compares with being stuck in an airport for thirty hours, but it’s had its moments.

Lonely cabin, 8X10, oil on canvasboard, $652 framed.

Buffalo has a long history of blizzards. Many Buffalo natives (of which I am one) have, at one time or another, been trapped by sudden, catastrophic snowfalls. There were generally no happy Hallmark endings to our experiences. There was no instant personal connection, no way nor reason to stay in contact with the strangers with whom we were thrown together.

At 18, when the Blizzard of ’77 hit, I was sublimely self-centered. At 63, I’m more inclined to look at the people around me. A thought niggles—what if we looked at this week as an opportunity for new connections, to welcome others into our Christmas spirit?

At Passover, my Jewish friends set an extra cup of wine on the dinner table and open the door for the prophet Elijah. This tradition is intertwined with the idea of welcoming the stranger, since nobody knows in what guise Elijah might appear.

I believe that a winter that starts out with a roar generally continues in the same vein. That means more storms, more dislocation. My resolution for the remainder of this Christmastide and beyond is to focus more on the ones I’m with than the ones I’m missing.

The Late Bus, 8X6, oil on canvasboard, $435 framed.

I’m also going to run to Walmart and replace my husband’s car emergency kit. His has wandered off. For those of you new to sub-zero temperatures, that means:

  • A filled water bottle;
  • Candles and matches in a tightly-sealed glass jar;
  • Chocolate bars or other high-calorie non-perishable snack foods (you can eat them in the spring if you don’t need them now);
  • A car blanket;
  • A collapsible shovel in the trunk;
  • A charged power bank for your phone.

Happiness is beauty in, beauty out

Persistent clouds along the Upper Wash, 11X14, oil on archival canvasboard, $869 unframed.

Every morning I do a fast hike from Erickson Field to the summit of Beech Hill and back, about 4.5 miles. It’s not steep but I try to bring it in at an hour and a half. A twenty-minute mile is a fast pace for hill-walking. As I approach the summit, it can be unpleasant, particularly if the trail is icy or the wind is howling.

Then I round the bend and Penobscot Bay is laid out at my feet. On particularly ratty mornings, there is the faint glimmer of Owls Head Light, faithfully bringing mariners in to safety as it has for almost two hundred years. On a clear day, you can see north to Acadia and as far out to sea as Matinicus. The sea may shimmer, glimmer, scowl, or be obscured by fog, but it’s always beautiful.

“I dream a lot. I do more painting when I'm not painting. It's in the subconscious,” said Andrew Wyeth. My daily jaunts up the hill serve the same purpose. They’re a positive input in a world full of negativity.

Dish of Butter, 6X8, oil on archival canvasboard, $435.

You are what you eat

This weekend, my hometown of Buffalo braces itself for yet another blizzard. It’s being called a “once in a generation event.” Perhaps they’re right. But there’s inflationary hype around storms. It’s been blizzarding in Buffalo since long before someone invented the term ‘bomb cyclone’.

That inflationary hype is true across the news, not just the weather. Most of us now get our news on the internet. That’s a crash site. Even assuming what you read is true (and, sadly, that may not be the case) it’s heavily slanted towards tragedy.

Back in the era of daily papers, we read about our own communities. That included positive news. Now we’re fed a steady diet of kidnappings in Kentucky, mayhem in Mississippi, or crime in California. This gives us the false sense that the world is spinning out of control. It’s just spinning, the same as it always has, but in the past we weren’t trying to absorb all the world’s tragedies before breakfast.

If you regularly ingest a diet of bad news, artificial drama, and hostility, you’re going to feel depressed, anxious and angry.

Breaking storm, 48X30, oil on canvas, $5,579 framed

“You can’t ignore reality,” a friend retorted. But this bad news is no more real than the good news and peace that surrounds us all. We’re being sold it to keep our eyes glued to our screens. We can turn it off.

We can choose what we look at. It’s why I climb a hill every day, and why I go to church. How can I paint what’s beautiful if I haven’t focused my mind on what’s beautiful?

Dawn Wind, Twin Lights, 9X12, oil on archival canvasboard, $869.

The news is driving us crazy

It’s no wonder that so many of us take antidepressants, which, incidentally, don’t seem to improve quality of life. My father and paternal grandmother both died in the grip of long-term depression. To be fair, they both had good reason for it. As did I. But I’m not a depressive, despite years of thinking otherwise. What changed? My focus.

There is much to be said for lifting our eyes to the hills, both literally and metaphorically. Hiking has physical benefits that include improving mood, of course. So does spending time actively seeking beauty. But an outward focus also includes the people around us. Self-focused naval-gazing is demoralizing.

Tomorrow, we enter the Christmas season. The greatest gift you can give yourself is to actively seek out beauty—in creation, in others, and in yourself.

And don’t forget, here’s a quiz for you to discover the kind of workshop that suits you best. There’s no obligation, of course; it’s all in fun.

Why not a two-day workshop?

I like nothing more than sitting at Schoodic Point discussing watercolor with my old pal Becky, who has come back year after year for more of my malarkey.

A fellow teacher told me recently that she’s been asked to compress a four-week beginner course into two days. “I think it's a disservice,” she said. “That's a lot of information to compress into a much shorter time. So, either it's a very shallow dive or there's so much information compressed so tightly that half of it gets lost.”

I am asked about two-day workshops as well. They fit neatly into a weekend and the cost is lower, so they’re easier for arts organizations to sell. If they’re subject-based, like ‘painting sunsets,’ they can work because these workshops are inherently shallow. They’re also intended for artists who already know the mechanics of painting.

But two days are insufficient when it’s a question of really developing style, color fluency, composition and form. And if you understand these concepts, you don’t need a special workshop on sunsets or water; you have the tools to paint anything you want.

Students cavorting during a workshop in the Adirondacks.

What can go wrong? A lot.

Basic protocols for watercolor and oils run to about seven discrete steps, depending on how you break them down. Here are the steps for oil painting:

  1. Set up your palette with all colors out, organized in a useful manner.
  2. Do a value drawing.
  3. Crop your drawing and identify and strengthen big shapes and movements.
  4. Transfer the drawing to canvas with paint as a monochromatic grisaille.
  5. Underpaint big shapes making sure value, chroma and hue are correct.
  6. Divide big shapes and develop details.
  7. Add highlights, detail and impasto as desired.

Students in my watercolor workshop aboard schooner American Eagle.

Let’s just consider #2. It’s almost useless for me to just tell you to do a sketch—in fact, if I did that, you’d have to wonder why you didn’t just draw on the canvas instead. You need insight into what you’re looking for, what makes a good composition, and different ways to do that preparatory composition.

I can (and sometimes do) rattle off a lecture on these points, but that is the just the start of the process of discovery. Unfortunately, in a two-day workshop, that’s about all the time we’d have for the step many artists consider most crucial to the development of a good painting. You, the student, then go home and consult your notes. They become a slavish list of dos-and-don’ts, rather than a framework for a deeper understanding.

It's far better that I start with an exercise that allows you to build understanding of composition on your own. That, in a nutshell, is the difference between a book or video and interactive teaching. It’s why people take workshops in the first place.

That kind of teaching takes time.

Arthur Wesley Dow, the popularizer of Notan, had his students work for weeks on line before they eventually graduated to masses and then finally to greyscale and color. His students included Georgia O'KeeffeCharles SheelerCharles Burchfield, and other 20th century art luminaries, so he was definitely onto something.

Linda DeLorey, another old friend, painting in beautiful Pecos.

And now for something fun

Here’s a quiz for you to discover the kind of workshop that suits you best. There’s no obligation, of course; it’s all in fun.

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Monday Morning Art School: paint like a pro

Canyon de Chelly, before 1947, Edgar Payne, courtesy of the Atheneum Art List.
Canyon de Chelly, before 1947, Edgar Payne, courtesy the Atheneum Art List.

“It’s the lack of good composition and values that make a painting look like student work,” Bobbi Heath wrote in response to last week’s post on simplifying shapes. That’s where most early artists fail, and why good teachers stress value studies.

“Brushwork, color choices, and level of detail are all questions of style,” she added. “Each of these has a spectrum. A proficient artist can work anywhere in those spectra but they can’t ignore composition.”

Wolf Kahn and Raphael are poles apart in terms of style. One might be more to your taste, but objectively, neither is better than the other-or more representational, for that matter. As stylized as Kahn’s trees are, Raphael’s Vatican Stanze are just as distanced from ‘reality’.

Deliverance of Saint Peter, 1514, Raphael, courtesy of the Vatican
Deliverance of Saint Peter, 1514, Raphael, courtesy of the Vatican

What unites them, and unites all good works of art, is composition. That’s true in painting, sculpture, writing, architecture and music-in fact, throughout the creative sphere. There must be structure there, or “the centre cannot hold,” to trivialize a great W.B. Yeats poem.

In painting and drawing our ideas about composition have remained remarkably static over time. Analyze the space in one of Wayne Thiebaud’s desserts and a Renaissance portrait like Bronzino’s self-possessed young man, and you’ll find they’re using the picture plane in much the same way. There are only so many ways to divide a rectangle.

Ice-Bound Locks by John Fabian Carlson, oil on canvas board, 12 x 16 inches, courtesy Vose Gallery
Ice-Bound Locks by John Fabian Carlson, oil on canvas board, 12 x 16 inches, courtesy Vose Gallery

What to think about

Composition rests on the following principles:

  • The human eye responds first to shifts in value, but contrast in chroma and hue also attract our gaze;
  • We follow hard edges and lines;
  • We filter out passages of soft edges and low contrast, and indeed we need them as interludes of rest;
  • We like divisions of space that aren’t easily solved or regular.

I ask my critique students to analyze their compositions based on Edgar Payne‘s exhaustive list of possible compositions in Composition of Outdoor Painting. (This used book is now so expensive that I can no longer recommend buying it. Check it out of the library.) The idea isn’t to slavishly follow one of his designs; it’s to understand whether you have an underlying design in the first place, and how you might strengthen it.

I also ask my students to tell me where the focal points are in their composition, and how they want the viewer to walk through them. If focal points aren’t intelligently designed, and you’re not drawn through them with contrast, line and detail, then it’s back to the (literal) drawing board.

John Carlson’s Guide to Landscape Painting is available in reprint. He’s the guy who gave us the idea of numbering our value levels, which I explained in this post from last year.

“Every good picture is fundamentally an arrangement of three or four large masses,” Carlson wrote. That’s as good an organizing principle as any in art. Value is what makes form visible, so we should see, translate, simplify and organize form into value masses.

These masses must be linked, whether obviously, subtly, or by implication. Think of a windbreak of separate trees on a hill. They might be disconnected dark shapes, but they’re held together by their rhythm.

The Big Fish Eat the Little Fish, drawing for a print, 1556, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, courtesy the Albertina
The Big Fish Eat the Little Fish, drawing for a print, 1556, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, courtesy the Albertina

What to avoid

You’ll note that I’ve said nothing about what’s in front of you, either in your photo or in the real world. Your reference might give you an idea for composition, such as a winding river, a break in the forest, or the strong diagonal of a hillside. But that is your starting point, not your destination.

“Above all, don’t be boring,” I tell my students. This is a lesson from Pieter Bruegel the Elder, who often hid the text of his narrative in odd corners, far from the visual focal points. That makes every painting a puzzle to be worked out.

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How to practice drawing (when you don’t feel talented)

Early Spring on Beech Hill, oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas, 12X16, $1449 framed

You’d have to be living under a rock to miss #joshallenjumpingoverthings, which is, oddly enough, about quarterback Josh Allen jumping over things. The term arm talent is often used about him. It means he has the strength and accuracy to drill the football exactly where he wants it to go.

Allen went to college in Wyoming and now plays for Buffalo. Both are known for miserable winters, so I’m sure there’ve been days when he’s been tempted to skip practice. I think of him and his fellow Buffalo Bills as I grouse about the cold this week. It magnifies aches and pains and makes it difficult to get moving.

Nobody would call me a talented athlete, but even on days when I’m feeling especially arthritic, I still get up and climb Beech Hill. I’m feeling another long ramble coming on and I know that goals are met in small, regular increments.

Walnut Tree, Stone Wall, oil on archival canvasboard, 8x16, $903.

It takes time

What the world calls talent in athletes is really a combination of good genes, perseverance and hard work. It’s no different in art.

Yes, there are people for whom drawing comes more easily, just as there are people who learn to read without a lot of fuss, or people who can do sums in their heads. None of that makes a brilliant career in art, language, or mathematics; they’re just a nice leg up. More important is the hard slog of learning and practicing.

I have no idea how many paintings and drawings I’ve done, but they number in the thousands. I can’t imagine how many times Josh Allen has thrown a football.

Mastery can’t be rushed. That’s true overall and it’s true piece-by-piece. Perhaps one of the least-helpful ideas the plein air movement has spawned is the notion that you can create a great painting in three hours. Occasionally that happens, but most painting is a tough slog over multiple iterations.

Stone Wall, Salt Marshes, 14x18, $1594 framed.

Practical ways to practice drawing

Drawing is not a magic trick—it’s a series of steps like long division or attaching a sleeve to a dress. It’s a great disservice for society to pretend it requires some mystical, unfathomable talent. I’ve written innumerable blog posts about basic drawing. (Someday I’ll index them all for you.) And I’ve frequently recommended this book for people wanting the basics.

But reading about drawing isn’t enough. You must practice. The good thing is, drawing is easy and cheap. I like Strathmore’s Visual Journal and a #2 mechanical pencil. If you want more refinement, my readers and I recommended fancier products here.

Beauchamp Point, Autumn Leaves, 12X16, oil on archival canvasboard, $1449.

Stick two pencils in the ring binder of your sketchbook and toss it in your backpack or purse. Pull it out whenever you have fifteen minutes to sit down. That can be on the train, in a meeting, at church, while cooling your heels waiting for your doctor—anywhere.

What should you draw? Whatever strikes your fancy. A plastic Ficus. A Christmas ornament. A toy. Mittens. Or, pull out your phone and search for something offbeat. Scissors. Donkeys. Sports cars. Grain silos.

Drawing from life is better than drawing from photos (because it’s more difficult) but any drawing is good practice. Just a few minutes a day is all you need.

Self-doubt is a vicious cycle

Tin Foil Hat, 6X8, oil on archival canvasboard, $435.

I have three students whom I’ll call A, B and C.

A and B are both very accomplished. C is earlier in the cycle but has good instincts and is working very hard to close the gap. It’s paying off.

I got a sad text from C that read in part, “I am really not at the level of the others in our class.”

C is a perfectionist, and that occludes her vision. (That’s, sadly, a common problem among painters who were very successful in their first careers.) C can’t see how energetic her brushwork is, how controlled her color is, or how beautifully she composes. All she sees are deficiencies.

“Are you kidding?” I responded. “A and B are both painting at a professional level, but the rest of the class is on the same level as you.” I didn’t say that to make her feel better, but because it’s true.

Possum, 6X8, oil on archival canvasboard, $435.

Shortly thereafter, I got an email from B. “A is killing me,” she lamented. “I so want to paint like her. Wow, is she good.”

I haven’t heard from A yet, but I wouldn’t be surprised if she emailed me to tell me how much she wished she could paint like someone else.

I love painting with Eric Jacobsen and Ken DeWaard, but there are days when I want to throw my brushes in the harbor when we’re done. Eric’s brushwork is lyrical; Ken’s drafting is exquisite. I peek at their work and see only my own deficiencies in comparison.

I was once at an event where I felt totally outclassed. I know it makes no rational sense, but I’d convinced myself I’d somehow gotten in by mistake. “I feel like I’m surrounded by the big boys,” I whined at Eric.

“You are one of ‘the big boys,’” he told me. “You’re here because they chose you, and they chose you because they want you.” From that moment I was able to relax and do my job properly. Insecurity, anxiety, and envy were robbing me of my confidence. Without that, what could I possibly achieve that was fluid, relaxed and compelling?

Pull up your Big Girl Panties, 6X8, oil on archival canvasboard, $435.

Envy is hard work’s evil twin

I’m not telling you this because I want to add ‘envy’ to your reasons to beat yourself up. We all feel envious at times. I bet some sense of inferiority stretches back from painter to painter all the way to the anonymous artist who first chalked on a cave wall.

“Ambitious men are more envious than those who are not,” Aristotle wrote in his Rhetoric, about 2400 years ago. “Indeed, generally, those who aim at a reputation for anything are envious on that particular point.” To excel, you must really want success, and envy is hard work’s evil twin.

Envy is an emotion, so by definition it’s irrational. That doesn’t mean we must be slaves to it. Eric dispelled my terrible state of mind with a few well-chosen words. I’ve been able to repeat them to myself as needed, and so can you.

Hiking, 6X8, oil on archival canvasboard, $435.

Why do we deflect praise and take criticism to heart?

One day a fellow dog-walker said to me, “You look fabulous. You’ve really lost a lot of weight.”

“Oh, it’s just my leggings,” I said.

“Wrong answer,” she laughed. “Just say ‘thank you.’”

We deflect praise even when it’s true, but we take criticism to heart despite it being absurd. That’s especially true when it’s our jaundiced, ornery liar of a self who’s doing the speaking. Painting is uniquely and painfully personal. To excel, we must ignore those whispers of comparison and self-doubt. It’s really as simple as catching yourself in the self-doubt cycle and saying, “STFU, Self!”

Monday Morning Art School: Simplify shapes

Foghorn Symphony, Carol L. Douglas, 30x40, private collection. 

A reader sent me photos of Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona.  “How do you make sense of a scene like this to paint?” he asked.

I’d sit down on a rock and draw, until the focal points and the composition became clear organically. This is not a magic trick; it’s harnessing my subconscious mind in the service of what I know rationally about composition. We draw what we’re interested in, and then draw more of what we’re interested in. It may take several pages in our sketchbook but if we’re relaxed and patient, a composition will emerge.

One of the Petrified Forest photos my reader sent. I couldn't paint from this without drawing from life first.

 

A rock is a rock is a rock, right?

How different are these petrified trees from the tumble and scree of Maine’s coast? In detail, they’re significantly different—more on that later. But in overall plan, they’re the same idea.

Above is a painting I did of Cape Elizabeth called Foghorn Symphony. Trundy Point is a long spit of rock that juts out into the Atlantic Ocean.

My sketch of Trundy Point. It doesn't need to be complicated; it's a map, not a masterpiece.

I photographed my sketch as well. This drawing moved Ken DeWaard to accuse me of doing Paint-by-Numbers. In a way he was right, because I was numbering the values from one (sky) to four (deep shadow). The drawing is vastly simplified, of course. Its purpose was to freeze the early-morning light so I could finish this vast 30X40 canvas in the field over two long days. By afternoon, the light is completely reversed, but I had it locked in my mind.

In addition, my drawing allowed me to check my composition before I committed myself.

You’ll get lost if you don’t have a broad plan

My sketchbook sat at my feet after I transferred it to my canvas in broad brushstrokes. I referred to it often.

I painted in one section of rocks before I started on the next. I don’t always work like this, but it’s a good way to not get muddled in a complicated scene. The sections didn’t have their final modeling, but there was enough detail there so I could come back and fill in the light at the end.

I was sacrificing the first axiom of oil painting (darks to lights) in the service of the second (big shapes to small shapes). This only worked because I had a plan in writing, in my sketchbook, where I could easily refer to it. You can edit a grisaille to your heart’s content, but erasing and revising with colors is a sure-fire recipe for mud.

Halfway to blocking in that painting.

You can’t break the rules until you know them

I almost always work with an overall grisaille, but I broke that rule in this case. Fog and light are transient, and I wanted to capture them as fast as possible.

Yes, you can break rules, but it helps if you have a solid grasp on them first. I could only fiddle with the grisaille because I’ve internalized value structure by having done hundreds of them.

Falling Tide, 11X14, Carol Douglas, $1087 framed.

Take time to just look

A tumble of rocks in Arizona is only the same as one in Maine in broad concept. In detail, they’re very different. There are painters who come to Maine and render the rocks as rounded brown lumps, because that’s how rocks in the Midwest look. I’m sure there are Maine painters who go to Sedona and render the red rocks there like granite.

For heaven’s sake, look before you pick up your brush. The cleavage, the color, and the erosion patterns are unique in each rock formation. An hour spent sketching will save you hours of bad painting.

The little things in life

Stuffed animal in a bowl, with Saran Wrap. 6X8, oil on archival canvasboard, $435.

Most artists will tell you they love working big. We love making statement pieces that grab all eyes when people enter the room. These feel ‘important.’ The bigger you go, the easier it is to keep the brushwork free. Yet, practically speaking, we paint many smaller pieces.

I’ve been updating my website by adding still lives from a 6x8 show I did many years ago. My kids were of an age to chase the moment’s crazes, like Baby Monkey Riding on a Pig. Whatever idiotic thing they chattered about, I painted.

Some are dated, like the woman who fell into the fountain texting. The shoes could pass, but the cell phone is so 2011. In some cases, I can’t even remember the meme. What prompted me to paint a stuffed animal in a bowl, wrapped in plastic?

Falling into a Fountain While Texting, 6X8, oil on archival canvasboard, $435.

The power of small paintings

Today I almost never paint this small. I’m not alone in that; it’s tough to love a tiny canvas. But by always going bigger, we ignore the power of small paintings. How many times are we in a museum and gallery and grabbed by a little gem in a corner? A small painting, artfully placed, can have the same impact as a monumental painting above the mantel.

Crista Pisano has made a career of painting jewel-like plein air miniatures, which is practical as well as aesthetically-pleasing. She doesn’t have to carry big, bulky frames to events.

From the consumer’s side, small paintings are a practical way to ease into art-buying. They seldom run more than a few hundred dollars.

Back It Up, 6X8, oil on archival canvasboard, $435.

Why don’t painters tell more jokes in their work?

Painting can take itself way too seriously. I was reminded of this recently as I flipped through one of my sketchbooks with another small being—my grandson Jake. At eight, he’s unimpressed that I can model rocks and sea accurately. What he’s interested in is Action! Humor! Dragons!

“What have you painted recently that tells a story?” I asked myself. Well, Ravening Wolves, and In Control (Grace and her Unicorn). But for the last decade or so, it’s been mostly straight-up landscape with the occasional figure or portrait commission thrown in. Recently, as I’ve written, I’ve realized this isn’t enough.

Baby Monkey Riding on a Pig, oil on archival canvasboard, $435.

I’ll never be another Francisco Goya (whose Disasters of War should be required viewing for every voter) or Käthe Kollwitz. I’ve been spared firsthand experience with war, thank God. As a result, I’m simply not that deep, or that dark.

I’m sort of the Bertie Wooster of oil painting—trivial, amiable, wooly-headed, and somehow always bobbing along into events that are bigger than me. That realization is what got me thinking about these old still lives. There’s something about the triviality of modern internet culture being taken as seriously as a portrait of the president that still makes me laugh.

Small paintings are a place to explore our odd ideas. I need more of that.

What everyone knows

Toy Reindeer with double rainbow, oil on archival canvasboard, 6X8, $435 framed.

At the end of her senior year in high school, my young painting student told me that she wanted to go to college. “But you apply to colleges at the end of your junior year,” I exclaimed. She didn’t know. Somehow, she missed “what everyone knows.”

I watched this play out again this week as my goddaughter’s family sold the restaurant they’ve owned and run for decades. They don’t speak much English, and they have no experience selling real estate. It’s been painful.

Santa Claus, 6X8, oil on archival canvasboard, $435 framed.

Order of operations

In painting, these “everyone knows” assumptions most often appear in the way paint is applied. There are specific protocols for applying watercolor and oil that have remained unchanged for centuries. Yes, there are exceptions, and people who dabble with other techniques.

Most recently that’s been with alkyd media challenging the ‘fat over lean’ rule in oils. In general, those experiments haven’t gone well. Let the horrible condition of Albert Pinkham Ryder and Ralph Blakelock paintings be a cautionary lesson.

Learning these basic protocols makes painting faster, easier and less fraught, but too many students pick them up by osmosis. That’s why a short course in basic painting technique, such as that taught by my pal Bobbi Heath, is so helpful. The true beginner can’t muck around thinking about more complex questions of composition or color temperature when he can’t even get the paint down on the canvas without making mush.

Toy Monkey and Candy, oil on archival canvasboard, $435 framed.

Our own bad assumptions

It’s hunting season here. I wouldn’t stake my life on a hunter’s judgment, so I advertise my presence by wearing blaze orange when I’m in the woods. (If I’m shot, that hunter is also going to have to explain why he thought a deer was singing “I want a hippopotamus for Christmas.”)

“No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public,” H.L. Mencken may or may not have said. That’s rude, but substitute ‘attention’ for ‘intelligence’ and you get to the nub of the matter. We assume others know all about our art. That’s because we’re all far more important to ourselves than we are to the general public. Most of the time, other people are not thinking about us.

If you want people to see and interact with your ideas, you must model Thomas Edison and constantly, repeatedly, get your stuff out there for them to see. You must wear blaze orange in the public arena.

Most artists shy away from that, but what’s the point of communicating through painting if nobody is looking at what you’ve made?

Happy New Year, 6X8, oil on archival canvasboard, $435 framed.

A reminder

I hope you are cheerfully plugging away with your holiday shopping. Here’s a reminder about my holiday gift guides:

Holiday Gifts for the Budding Artist (including kids)

Holiday Gifts for Serious Artists (including you)

Have yourself a merry little workshop—because selected workshops are on sale this month, and won’t be after January 1.

And, of course, paintings are a wonderful surprise for the special person on your list. Quality original art is one of the few gifts that doesn’t depreciate no matter how much you enjoy it.