Artisan in an age of mass-production

In Control (Grace and her Unicorn), 24X30, $3,478, oil on canvas.

A student told me that he knocked a painting off a high shelf onto another one that he’d just sold, putting a wicked gash in the blue sky.

“Can you pass it off as a contrail?” I asked.

No such luck. He’ll have to repair it, which means matching the blue, which raises the possibility of not quite hitting the color and having to repaint the whole sky. This is opening Pandora’s box, because once the brush is in your hand, it’s too easy to end up repainting the whole darn picture.

“Oh, well,” he told me, and quoted me back to myself: “If you can paint it once, you can paint it 1000 times.”

That isn’t exactly what I meant, of course.

Sometimes students see something breathtakingly wonderful in their work. “I did that?” they marvel, and protect that passage at all costs. That’s great, unless it’s in the wrong place, or it’s the wrong color. It’s good to remember that this passage wasn’t a happy accident. It came from their competence and experience. If it’s not strengthening the painting, they need the courage to wipe it out.

The Logging Truck, oil on linen, 16X20, $2029

What is the dumbest thing you’ve ever done?

One time I sold a painting online that I couldn’t find. In retrospect, I should have confessed all to my collector and refunded her money, but I didn’t want to disappoint.

That meant I had to forge a copy of my own work. Sounds easy, right? It was anything but—I worked harder on that small painting than I’ve done on any other. I blew the image up on my studio monitor, and laboriously, painstakingly matched it, brush stroke to brush stroke, color to color.

All I can say is, forgers earn their money.

All flesh is as grass, 30X40, oil on linen, $6231 framed.

The customer is always right doesn’t mean you can always make everyone happy

Until recently, American consumers could get anything we wanted at any time. Then in 2020 we started to see longer and longer wait times for retail goods.

Those wait times are not obvious when you’re ordering from a big-box store. You flash your credit card and your garage doors appear magically 11 months later, just when you’ve forgotten you ever ordered them. Mass marketing creates an illusion of efficiency. These stores have powerful websites, but they’re subject to the same shortages.

If you’re trying to source locally, the labor shortage is obvious from the very beginning. Contractors don’t even have the time to come by and quote jobs, let alone do them.

They, like us, are human beings, not cogs in a huge wheel. My kitchen is being renovated by David Ernst. Yesterday he took a few hours out of his already-overloaded schedule to chase down my countertop suppliers. Knowing why they’re slow doesn’t solve my problem, but it helps me to be patient.

Vineyard, 30X40, oil on canvas, $5072 framed.

Perfect is the enemy of good

Our retail expectations were formed in pre-2020 culture—we believe that purchases should be delivered promptly and cheaply, and they should be perfect. These are great goals but they have never been possible in a one-man, artisan operation. Stuff gets dinged and nicked, paintings get lost, and we sometimes don’t get them shipped on time or packaged properly.

Paintings are not garage doors, built in a factory on a jig and knocked out one after another. Paintings are the individual work of a person’s hands. They won’t always be perfect, and that’s part of their charm. Focusing on mistakes prevents us from seeing that, overall, we’re doing a great job.

Monday Morning Art School: the right tools

Waiting to Play (Boat House), Carol L. Douglas, 14X18, $1275 $1020.

Beth is one of my most advanced students. When she first started my Zoom classes, she worked in a corner of her kitchen. The lighting was abysmal. She had to carry her painting across the room to her computer every time she wanted to share it with the class.

She has a good field easel and sometimes set that up indoors. Just last week she sent me a photo of a painting she’s been working on, and I realized she’s also been using a tabletop easel.

Eagle gets her wings, Carol L. Douglas, 12X16, oil on canvasboard,  $1,159.20

Any tool can be the right tool?

There’s no law that says you can’t create brilliant work on a tabletop easel; Beth has demonstrated otherwise. But it’s tough on the back, and that alone will break your concentration.

We all make these sacrifices when we start painting. The start-up cost for a fully-outfitted studio is daunting for those of us of modest means. I painted for several years on the foldable floor easel I’d had as a kid before I could afford a proper studio easel.

But there are limits to this approach. “Paint like you’re rich!” my student Becky Bense says. There’s lots of wisdom in that advice.

Cheap watercolor paper will convince you that you’re a bad artist, that you have no talent, and that there’s no point in pursuing painting. Compound that with department-store paint sets and you will quit in frustration before you ever really get started.

In oil painting, the unpleasantness of bad materials doesn’t show up as quickly, but it’s there. The cheapest painting boards warp, and pigment bleeds through the thin gesso. Bad hog bristle brushes will paint properly at the beginning but quickly lose their hair. And department-store paints are often hues, or cheaper analogues of expensive pigments.

Marshall Point Rock Study
Marshall Point, Carol L. Douglas 12X9, oil on canvasboard,  $556.80 unframed.

Step away from the pretty paint rack

There are ways to cut corners without cutting quality. Start by being disciplined about buying paint. New paints are seductive and beautiful, but they’re also expensive. Avoid paints with romantic names like Wisteria, Moonstone, or Silver White or historic names like Naples Yellow or Egyptian brown. It’s all romantic twaddle.

In fact, before you buy another tube of anything, I suggest you do this exercise to see what’s on your palette now, and what holes might need to be filled.

Ironically, people end up spending more on bad brushes than they would have had they bought just a few decent ones at the beginning. I often see watercolor students starting my classes with a pail full of cheap brushes that, in total, cost more than just a few good brushes would have. If you keep buying brushes that don’t seem to work, put away your credit card and ask an expert what you really need. Your painting teacher should have a supply list that includes brushes.

Canvas pads are another way to cut costs at the student level; they’re properly primed. If you should turn out a masterpiece, you can always mount it on a board. You can also sand out and reuse old boards, providing they don’t have too much impasto on them.

The happy ending

Beth's new easel.

Recently, Beth moved to a different space in her house. She tackled her lighting issue with a clip-on lamp. She also bought herself the Testrite #700 Professional Studio Easel that I recommended in Holiday Gifts for the Serious Artist.

My other holiday gift guides are here and here, and this is a reminder that my Twenty Paintings, 20% off sale ends tonight.

This page contains affiliate links for some but not all products. If you choose to make a purchase after clicking a link, I may receive a commission at no additional cost to you. Thank you for your support!

Find the right mentor and strive to be their number one student

Sometimes It Rains, oil on canvasboard, 11X14, $869 $695.20

I’ve been listening to The Side Hustle Show, a podcast by Nick Loper. Many of his ideas are universal truths applicable outside business. This one, from episode 541, stopped me cold: Find a coach or mentor and strive to become their number one student. The ‘mentor’ part we’ve all heard; it’s the striving to be number one part that struck me.

It’s been an amazing year for my students. They’re zooming past me on both sides, knocking out successes with solo and group shows and sales. Those in an earlier stage of development are also showing significant growth. Whether they articulate the idea or not, many of them seem to strive to be my number one student. They practice what I preach, and they work hard between sessions.

Main Street, Owls Head, 16X20, oil on gessoboard,  $1,298.40 unframed.

Loper was talking about business, but there’s a better analogy in sports. Yes, superstars are surrounded by coaches, but so too is every player at every level, right down to the four-year-old taking his first swing in t-ball. We’ve all read about how coaching benefits the person at the top of his game. But it’s also critical for the person just starting out.

(In painting, by the way, that model of coaching for top players doesn’t really exist. I leaf through my mental contacts list to try to identify an artist who would be a good mentor and come up blank.)

Coast Guard Inspection, plein air, oil on canvasboard. 6x8,  $348.00 framed.

Thirty years ago, I suffered extreme stage fright. I was a passable musician, but couldn’t play in front of others. I could never have taught a large class or done a large demo, and video cameras made my stomach clench. I tried a lot of remedies, including psychotherapy (where I learned why I was anxious but not how to fix it) and a beta blocker before events. Nothing really helped.

Then I confronted the problem head-on by taking a public speaking class at community college. As you can imagine, writing stemwinders was no problem, but delivering them was excruciating. However, the kind, helpful critiques by the instructor and other students gradually desensitized me. Today I can bore people to tears without turning a hair.

That was when college classes were in-person, live and personal. The remedy to my problem required one-on-one, direct, personal interaction. No amount of video instruction could have dealt with it.

In painting, technical skill is only part of the equation. We all face personal issues that get in the way of our artistic expression. That can take the form of avoiding our easels as we try to work out a difficult knot that we can’t untie. We’ve all been there.

Sometimes it takes a disinterested outside voice to tease those knots out. In my experience, that’s often not the instructor, but the artist’s fellow students. In class, it often pays for me to shut up and let them talk. This is why painting groups like Greater Rochester Plein Air Painters are so important. Friends will keep you working when you have absolutely no heart for it.

Owl's Head Early Morning, 8X16 oil on linenboard,  $722.40 unframed.

I’ve learned a tremendous amount from podcasts, Tik-Tok and YouTube, and I’m currently teaching myself to cook with an app called Sidekick. But I’ve also wasted a lot of time watching bad content, and some of what I’ve seen has been flat-out misleading.

Pre-set content is one-size-fits-all, and that can easily be wrong for the artist’s skill level or irrelevant to his or her goals. What would be optimal is a combination of wide distribution and personal interaction. That’s difficult. The person who came closest was Mary Gilkerson, and she’s sadly passed away.

Do you have a mentor? If not, why? If so, how is he or she helping you?

*Critique runs through December, and there are still a few openings).

I know your in-box is inundated this morning, but 20 Paintings, 20% off runs until Monday. After you’re done looking at 800 tiresome Christmas decorations in the Target email, scootch over to my website and pick out a non-disposable, American-made work of real art.

Annual Painting Sale and a Peek Behind the Curtain

American Eagle in Dry Dock, 12X16, oil on canvasboard, $1159 $927.20 unframed. My favorite schooner in my favorite boatyard.

Happy Thanksgiving!

I've already driven through eight different states. Today I'll bake seven pies. Tomorrow we'll have more than twenty people at dinner.

However, don’t expect to see me out shopping on Friday. I tried it once, and… blech. However, I’m observing Black Friday with my own painting sale—20% off twenty selected paintings for five days.

It’s almost like those bad old days when department stores would advertise large-screen TVs and have only one in the store. Here I’m telling you upfront that there’s only one of each item. When the painting you love is gone, it’s really gone.

This sale lasts only until Cyber Monday (November 28th, 2022).

I asked my daughter to select the paintings, and she picked some of my absolute favorites. Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at three of them.

Quebec Brook

Quebec Brook, oil on canvasboard, 12X16, $1449 $1159.20 framed.

When Sandra Hildreth chooses a painting location, it’s always a place few others know about. This was a trailhead through the Quebec Brook primitive area, near Paul Smiths NY. It’s part of the Madawaska Flow, a large marshy primitive area includes running water, boreal bog and forest.

The beavers were just getting started on this muggy August morning. I’ve wondered ever since whether they were allowed to finish, or whether the DEC decided they were threatening the logging road and removed their dam.

To me, the beauty was in the shape and colors of the shoots they’d laid up, as well as the dull reflections below the alders. That pregnant sky is typical of the Adirondacks and the subtle warm colors will go beautifully with the warmer palette predicted by decorators for 2023—in other words, you’ll never get sick of it.

Read more about it here.

Best Buds

Best Buds, oil on canvasboard, 11X14, $1087 $869.60 framed

The Adirondack Carousel is a small gem located in Saranac Lake, NY. Coincidentally, its decorative boards were painted by Sandra Hildreth, and are little masterpieces in themselves. The carousel is beloved of local children because its seats are hand-carved and -painted animals native to the Adirondacks. (That includes a black fly, which I elected to leave out.)

I modeled the child after a little girl named Meredith Lewis back home in Maine. I see from her mom’s Facebook that she’s now more teenager than child, a transition that always leaves me wistful.

The title came from something one of the kids told me that day. The deer was her best friend, so she always chose the otter so that she and the deer could ride together.

How do you paint moving objects like a carousel or a tilt-a-whirl? You find the rhythm of the ride and look up in intervals.

This painting is in brilliant jewel tones. If you love carousels, it will give you as much joy as riding the real thing.

Read more about it here.

The Late Bus

The Late Bus, 8X6, oil on canvasboard, $435 $348 framed.

This is a painting that will probably only appeal to a person who grew up in the north and remembers the biting cold of ‘staying after’ school. I swam on my school’s swim team in Niagara County, NY. My bus dropped me at the end of the road and I walked the last quarter-mile home, my hair freezing in the bitter winter air. That walk was my transition from school to home, and it was my favorite part of the day.

There’s a clarity to the twilight of those evenings that stays with you forever. Fast forward a generation, and I was a parent of four ‘walkers,’ or kids who lived close enough to walk home. When they had to stay after, I’d collect them, as there was a busy intersection between their school and home. But how they got home is immaterial. That memory of evening changing to night, when all one’s chicks return to the nest, is one every parent cherishes.

Read more about it here.

Monday Morning Art School: pie crusts and pie plates for Thanksgiving

In the past, I threw in the pie crust recipe as a teaser to get people to learn how to draw ellipses. These days, pie crust is a dying art, so that might be the most important part.

Drawing the pie plate

The red lines are the ellipse and its vertical and horizontal axes. The two sides of the axes are mirror images of each other, side to side and top to bottom.

When drawing round objects, we have to look for the ellipses, which are just elongated circles. Ellipses have a horizontal and a vertical axis, and they’re always symmetrical (the same on each side) to these axes.

Same axes, just tipped.

This is always true. Even when a dish is canted on its side, the rule doesn’t change; it’s just that the axes are no longer vertical or horizontal to the viewer.

This was where I learned that I couldn’t balance a pie plate on the dashboard in my husband’s old minivan.

As always, I started by taking basic measurements, this time of the ellipse that forms the inside rim of the pie plate. (My measurements won’t match what you see because of lens distortion.)

An ellipse isn’t pointed like a football and it isn’t a race-track oval, either.

The inside rim of the bowl.

It’s possible to draw an ellipse mathematically, but for sketching purposes, just draw a short flat line at each axis intersection and sketch the curve freehand from there.

The horizontal axis for the bottom of the pie plate.

There are actually four different ellipses in this pie plate. For each one, I estimate where the horizontal axis and end points will be. The vertical axis is the same for all of them.

Three of the four ellipses are in place.

Next, I find the horizontal axis for the rim, and repeat with that. Most vessels are just a stack of ellipses; it’s the same idea over and over. Figure out what the height and width of each ellipse is, and draw a new horizontal axis for that ellipse. Then sketch in that ellipse.

Four ellipses stacked on the same vertical axis.

Because of perspective, the outer edge of the rim is never on the same exact horizontal axis as the inner edge, but every ellipse is on the same vertical axis. We must observe, experiment, erase and redraw at times. Here all four ellipses are in place. Doesn’t look much like a pie plate yet, but it will.

The suggestion of rays to set the fluted edges.

If I’d wanted, I could have divided the edge of the dish by quartering it with lines. I could have then drawn smaller and smaller units and gotten the fluted edges exactly proportional. But that isn’t important right now. Instead, I lightly sketched a few crossed lines to help me get the fluting about right. It’s starting to look a little more like a pie plate.

Voila! A pie plate!

Now that you’ve tried this with a pie plate, you can practice with a bowl, a vase, a wine glass, or any other glass vessel.

Double Pie Crust

2.5 cups all-purpose white flour, plus extra to roll out the crusts

2 tablespoons sugar

1 ¼ teaspoon salt

12 tablespoons lard, slightly above refrigerator temperature, cut into ½” cubes.

8 tablespoons butter, slightly above refrigerator temperature, cut into ½” cubes.

7 teaspoons ice water

Thoroughly blend the dry ingredients. (I use a food processor, but the process is the same if you’re cutting the fat in by hand.) Cut in the shortening (lard and butter) with either a pastry blender or by pulsing your food processor with the metal blade. It’s ready when it is the consistency of coarse corn meal. (If it’s smooth, you’ve overblended.) Sprinkle ice water over the top, then mix by hand until you can form a ball of dough. If the dough seems excessively dry, you can add another teaspoon of ice water, but don’t go nuts.

Divide that ball in two and flatten into disks. Wrap each disk in wax paper, toss the wrapped disks into a sealed container and refrigerate until you’re ready to use them.

Don’t worry if the dough appears to be incompletely mixed or the ball isn’t completely smooth; mine comes out best when it looks like bad skin.

Let the dough warm just slightly before you start to roll it out. And while you don’t want to smother the dough with flour when rolling, you need enough on both the top and the bottom of the crust that it doesn’t stick. If you’re doing this right, you should be able to roll the crust right up onto your rolling pin and unroll it into your pie plate with a neat flourish.

(If you’ve never rolled out a pie crust, watch this.)

I use this crust for single- or double-crusted, fruit and savory pies. (If you make an extra double-batch you can make a turkey pot pie on Friday.)

Persistent clouds along the Upper Wash, 11X14, Carol L. Douglas, $1087

When I did Friday’s workshop post, I didn’t have the details on my new Austin workshop. I’m super-psyched about this new offering, which is the brainchild of my student Mark Gale. 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. But, honestly, I’m just as excited about seeing old friends, eating barbeque, and painting bluebonnets.

You can learn more here.

Have yourself a merry little workshop

One thing I hear over and over is, “I plan to take one of your workshops someday.” K—, who started painting with me when she was sixteen and is now a fully licensed architect, used to say it every year. Finally, I pointed out to her that I’m not going to be around forever. She was shocked. I’m not planning on retiring any time soon, mind you, but I am practically middle-aged. Although my goal is to retire at age 107, I recognize that nature sets limits on us all.

K—took my Sedona workshop this year. Now, she’s engaged to be married. It’s a good thing she went while she was still footloose and fancy-free. Life inevitably gets in the way of our good intentions. So, if you’re thinking about taking one of my workshops, I must ask: if not now, when?

This might be the most-important present you’ve ever gotten, or given yourself. My teaching gets consistently high reviews. I’ve been doing it for decades, including ten years here in Maine. A workshop organizer once called me “the hardest-working painting teacher in America.” (If you can’t get by on your looks, you’d better work hard instead.)

This year I’m focusing on teaching in the northeast, although I will be back in Sedona again and possibly Austin, TX (see my addendum below) in the early spring. New England is paradise in the summer; it’s easy to get here, and once you’ve been charmed by it, you will never want to leave.

Watercolor of schooner American Eagle

Age of Sail: Workshop on the water

This has two sessions: June 20-24, 2023 and September 16-20, 2023. 2022 was the first year I sailed with American Eagle’s new captain, Tyler King. Tyler’s as thoughtful a host as he is a skilled sailor. In October, I went to Gloucester and saw the boatyard his parents run. It’s no surprise that he has saltwater in his veins.

For this workshop, I provide the supplies, including a professional-quality kit of QOR watercolors. By the time we’re done, you’ll understand how to paint water, and how to paint with watercolors. Students of all levels are welcome.

(Georgette Diamandis wrote about our fall trip here.)

The Rocks Remain, 16X20, Carol L. Douglas

Towards amazing color: Sedona, AZ—March 20-24, 2023

March is just when it seems like winter will never end here in the northeast. Meanwhile, it’s balmy in Arizona’s high desert. Sedona has beautiful red-rock massifs, great hiking trails, wildlife, and clear, constantly-changing light. It also has fabulous shops, wineries, galleries, and restaurants. It’s a fun escape at the end of winter. This workshop is sponsored by the Sedona Arts Center, which is in itself a destination.

The magnificent Schoodic Point.

Sea & Sky at Schoodic—August 6-11, 2023

I love all of Acadia National Park, but my favorite part is the Schoodic Peninsula. It has the same dramatic rock formations, windblown pines, pounding surf and stunning mountain views as Mt. Desert Island, but only a fraction of the people. I can walk home to my room at Schoodic Institute in the twilight and never see another person—this year, Cassie Sano saw a bear instead. And there are dolphins and seabirds.

This is structured so that you can either camp in the area (choose instruction only) or register for  all-inclusive accommodation, depending on your taste and budget.

Spring, Carol L. Douglas

Find your Authentic Voice in Plein Air: Berkshires—August 14-18, 2023

I fell in love with the Berkshires when my oldest daughter lived in Pittsfield, MA. They’re rolling old mountains, dotted with historic New England villages and farms. But there are also amenities and cultural institutions. We’re centered in Pittsfield, so there are ample hotels and restaurants. Yet we’re close to some of the most beautiful towns in old New England.

Pittsfield is just three hours from Boston and New York and it’s accessible by train from either city.

ADDENDUM: Here's the information on Austin:

Find your Authentic Voice in Plein Air: Austin--March 27-31, 2023

This is part three of a four-part series on Holiday Gifts for Artists. The prior two parts are Holiday gifts for the serious artist and Holiday gifts for the budding artist (including kids).

Holiday gift guide for the serious artist

Santa Claus, 6X8, Carol L. Douglas

Leave this list open on your iPad, phone or computer. If that doesn’t work, I suppose you’ll just have to forward it ‘accidentally.’

Let’s talk about brushes:

Brushes are where quality matters, and it’s where most artists flinch. Why not buy a Rosemary & Co. gift card? That means they’ll have to actually pull the trigger on a brush, as Rosemary doesn’t carry much else. Gift cards come in odd increments because it’s a British firm, but plan to spend at least $130 for it to be useful.

One of the nicest gifts I’ve ever received was this set of Rosemary & Co. oil brushes.

Isabey is a French company that makes very nice bristle brushes that stand up to hard use. If your artists have no big brushes, buy a bright, flat or round anywhere between a size 10 and 14. Those big boys are the ones artists never get around to buying.

Eric Jacobsen, that incomparable mark-maker, got me a Princeton Catalyst W-06 wedge for oil painting. You can’t be precise, so it’s a great tool for loosening up your brushwork.

Inexpensive, and it packs a world of fun.

Speaking of Princeton, an excellent mid-price brush for oils and acrylics is Princeton SNAP. I’ve been using Princeton brushes for decades and they’re tough, consistent and reliable. Likewise, I find that my Princeton Neptunes are what I reach for first for watercolor.

If I could carry only one watercolor travel brush, it would be the Escoda Reserva Kolinsky-Tajmyr Pocket Brush. It’s compact, comes in a protective tube, and makes an outstanding range of marks. A close second, at a lower price point, are the Da Vinci Cosmotop Spin Travel Brushes. A hat tip to Heather Evans Davis for introducing me to them.

Heather also loves her field easel art bag by Darsie Beck. It allows her to sketch and paint while standing.

Gouache and other colorful things

Gouache is as easy to carry as watercolor and more intense in its results. That’s one I did while stuck in Argentina.

Many painters are interested in experimenting with gouache, and for good reason-its results are completely on-trend. Schmincke Horadam is a fabulous, high-pigment brand, but a starter set runs $150. Instead, you could make up a primary-color kit of Titanium White, Lemon Yellow, Scarlet (Pyrrole Red), Helio Blue (Phthalo), and Ivory Black. That’s everything necessary for limited-palette painting. M. Graham has a primary-color starter set that’s significantly less expensive and nearly as luscious.

A great combo for mixed medium experimentation is oil paint and oil pastels. Sennelier is the clear quality winner in oil pastels. A landscape or iridescent starter kit will give your artist enough information to know if he likes the combination.

Similarly, you can add chalk pastels to watercolor or acrylic paintings. My preferred soft pastel is Unison; a starter color kit is enough to experiment with. I love NuPastel for hard pastels; a set of 24 will provide a full range of color options. Of course, watercolor pencils are fun for everyone. I like Staedtler Karat Aquarell and Faber-Castell Albrecht Dürer Magnus, which are fatter than usual.

Easels: the good, the bad, and the ugly

Cheap pochade boxes are a false economy. This field kit was pricey, but it’s put up with an incredible amount of abuse, including saltwater, sand, deserts, heat and freezing temperatures.

If your painter struggles with a knock-off Gloucester-style easel, you can make him or her ecstatic by buying the Take-It Easel, which costs twice as much and is worth every penny. After breaking one of the cheap ones and then buying a second one that arrived warped, I shelled out for a used version of the real thing. I’m glad I did.

As a teacher, I see a lot of pochade boxes and easels, and can steer you away from the bad ones as well as recommend good ones. I’ve had a version of the Mabef Field Painting Easel for decades and recommend it highly as a good starter tool for plein air. It has a swing head so can be used for oils and watercolor. The Leder Easel is simple, effective and inexpensive. The New Wave u.go pochade is also a simple, effective design, although it’s only suitable for smaller work.

I use an EasyL Pro on a carbon-fiber Manfrotto tripod with a ball head. It is very lightweight and has survived incredible abuse (including saltwater), but it’s not a cheap combination.

My Testrite studio easel is easily adjusted, takes huge canvases, and didn’t break the bank.

For studio work, I swear by the Testrite #700 Professional Studio Easel. It’s aluminum so it doesn’t warp or crack. I’ve had one for decades. I use its little brother, the Testrite #500, for students. The only maintenance I’ve ever done was replace parts that wandered off.

Miscellany

My traffic cones ride in the back of my truck, but if you drive a smaller vehicle, you’ll want the collapsible kind.

The danger of “park and paint” plein air is other drivers. One of the nicest gifts I ever received was a pair of safety cones. This set of collapsible ones are reflective, come with LED lights, and will fit easily in a car trunk.

I have an Artwork Essentials umbrella, but I’m equally impressed with the Shade Buddy. However, for many situations, I find a beach umbrella works just as well.

I have more than one taboret cabinet but my current favorite is this simple six drawer rolling cart. Mine sits under my Zoom teaching desk and holds all the art supplies I might need while teaching. Watch for discounts; I got mine on a Woot daily deal.

If your artist is starting to frame and sell work, the Fletcher FrameMaster point driver will save him or her a world of aggravation. Mine is decades old and still works fine.

I’d be remiss in not mentioning my own first foray into merchandising: Rowan Branch Brush Soap. My soapmaker daughter makes it for me, and I’ve shared it with enough other artists to know that it really works.

Mary’s soap. Just wait until you see the movie.

This is the second in a four-part holiday gift guide. Holiday Gift Guide for Budding Artists is here.

This page contains affiliate links for some but not all products. If you choose to make a purchase after clicking a link, I may receive a commission at no additional cost to you. Thank you for your support!

Monday Morning Art School: make your own canvases

Skylarking 2, 18x24, unframed $1855, oil on linen. I stretch my own linen canvases.

“I have a roll of cotton duck kicking around here,” B— asked. “Can I just duct tape a big piece of that to a piece of plywood and put a few coats of acrylic gesso on it? Should I leave a few inches raw around the edge in case it comes out decent, so I can mount it on a stretcher?”

B— needs to know whether her fabric is unshrunk and unsized, or loomstate. Standard sewing fabric won't work. The gesso is meant to shrink the fabric into tautness. Duct tape isn’t designed for that strong pulling stress and will leave a sticky residue. Instead, use staples. Stretcher frames are designed for this process, so it's easiest to stretch canvas on them, although it can be done over plywood.

Start by squaring off the stretchers. Use a mallet to get them true and check all four corners.

She could also buy already-primed linen or canvas. This is easily stapled or taped to a board because the shrinking is done. This is especially handy for class assignments or practicing chip shots.

It’s generally cheaper to buy small canvases and canvasboards than make them yourself. Only when you get to larger sizes, or you want to paint on linen, does DIY becomes a practical option.

Once I had the fabric true on the warp and weft, I carefully folded it in quarters and set it aside.

Stretcher bars are designed to float with atmospheric changes, hence the little wooden “keys” that come with them. There is no benefit in locking down the corners by screwing them together. When it shrinks, a big sheet of loom-state linen or canvas is going to pull the stretchers into compliance. That’s why the grain matters.

Lining up the creases with the marked midpoints of my stretchers assures me the canvas will be truly square.

The weft in fabric (horizontal threads) isn’t always perfectly perpendicular to the warp (vertical threads). The only true straight-edge in fabric is the selvage edge. You want to cut along the grain, but you can’t just assume the weft threads are perpendicular to the selvage.

If it’s out of true, fabric will bag when folded selvage-to-selvage. You can easily square it off with the help of a friend. Fold the fabric in half along the vertical. Grasping each corner firmly, tug diagonally in alternating directions. Eventually, the fabric will square off and fall true. The ends might be cockeyed; ignore them.

Although dressmakers and quilters might use water or steam in this step, you can’t. It will shrink the fabric.

The first staples should be hand-tight, no more.

Once you’re certain the fabric is squared off, fold it in quarters. The creases will be your stapling guides.

Mark each stretcher bar’s midpoint with pencil. Line the creases up with these pencil marks, and your canvas will pull tightly on the square. Your first set of staples should be across the middle of the canvas on the warp. They should be hand-tight, no tighter. Next, staple the vertical midpoints. These four staples should all be hand-tight, without cupping around the staples, and the corners of your canvas should be square. If these four staples yield a straight cross at the right tension, the rest of the canvas will line up true.

You might have to remove and replace staples to get the cross straight, but it’s worth taking the time.

From here use canvas pliers or your hand to pull the canvas tight but not taut. Work out from the center of each side, adding one staple and then rotating the canvas. The goal isn’t to tighten the fabric as taut as you can; the goal is to tighten it as evenly as you can. Watch the fabric grain as you go; if it’s out of line, you’ve messed something up.

Work around the canvas in a circle, adding a staple to each side until you reach the edges. The linen doesn’t need to be drum-tight.

Applying the gesso is easy; just keep it light and even. I use a small piece of ¼” plywood as a strigil rather than a brush; it’s faster and more effective. Make sure the gesso goes around the sides of your canvas. Don’t dilute; good gesso is already the proper thickness.

Trim the edges when you finish.

Check the square again when you’re finished stapling.

Finally, it's time to pour a little acrylic gesso on your loomstate linen.

Use your strigil to push the gesso into the grain. At this stage, less is more; it’s easier to add more gesso than to remove a gloppy excess from a canvas.

Do the edges and clean up any ridges with an old spalter brush and you’re done. Go have a glass of wine; you’ve earned it!

Holiday gift guide for budding artists

There is no age that’s too old to paint.

Drawing for adults and teens

Art starts with drawing. I use a Strathmore Bristol Visual Journal in a smooth finish and a #2 mechanical pencil. Bigger isn’t always better; the smaller notebook fits in a purse or backpack easily. If you’re looking for a higher-end pencil try the Uni Hi-uni Graphite Pencil Set or woodless pencils with a sandpaper pointer. A Pentel stick eraser and simple pencil sharpener will round out the gift.

(For my last word on drawing materials, see Monday’s post.)

If your artist is interested in figure drawing, consider a sketch board with a tablet of newsprint and some willow charcoal. A few kneaded erasers will round out this kit.

Who doesn’t like a Micron pen? There’s another pen that I love these days: the FriXion gel pen. It erases with heat, so you can use it to draw under watercolor and make it disappear with a hairdryer, eliminating the permanent guidelines in your work.

Fewer colors, better paints, make for a less-frustrating start in art.

Adding color

Give budding artists a few good tools, rather than overload them with the junk you see on department store end-caps. That doesn’t necessarily mean spending more money.  Faber-Castell Polychromos pencils come in small starter sets. That’s true of Prismacolor watercolor pencils as well. Both will work in the Visual Journals I mentioned earlier. If you want to up the paper game, consider Strathmore 400 Series mixed media pads.

NuPastel color sticks are the gateway drug to a life of pastel painting, and they come in starter sets. I’d add a tablet of Canson Mi-Teintes paper, so your artist can experiment with vellum and smooth surfaces.

Many new painters I teach start with watercolor. QOR’s halfpan kit would be a luxurious gift coupled with a set of Princeton Neptune Brushes and an Arches watercolor block. Or, replace the halfpan set with QOR’s introductory tube set of six paints and the paper with a Strathmore 400 watercolor block. But don’t switch the brushes to cheap knock-offs; they’re the most important part of the watercolor puzzle. It’s better to buy one decent brush than ten cheap ones.

Golden Acrylics come in several introductory sets. I recommend the ‘modern theory’ set, but any of them will be well-received. Add a set of Princeton Taklon brushes and cotton canvas panels and your budding painter is ready to rumble. No mediums or finishes are necessary.

One good brush is worth ten lousy ones.

If he or she is interested in oil painting, an economical, high-quality option is Gamblin’s 1980 series, which also comes in an introductory set. Alla prima oil painting requires a stiffer brush than watercolor or acrylic.  I recommend Princeton SNAP! Some cotton canvas panels and your lucky recipient will have a full painting kit.

A word about easels

Every year, retailers trundle out cheap, heavy French easels during the holiday season. They then appear in my painting classes to frustrate and annoy my students. Even worse are the Meeden pochade boxes that are all over the internet right now.

For beginners, a simple floor easel and folding table is sufficient. I still have the folding easel from my teen years; it’s small and portable.

That easel has earned its way many times over.

For kids

I bought my grandkids this double-sided easel several years ago, and it was a great investment; they use it for hours every time they visit. Pair it with Crayola Tempera Paint. They’ll also need brushes, inexpensive palettes, and aprons.

Kids never have enough washable markers. Lots of paper is critical; burning through it is how they learn art. Likewise, every child should experience Sculpey; it’s a million times more fun than Play-Doh.

Books and more

For conventional drawing, I recommend Sketching – from Square One to Trafalgar Square by Richard E. Scott. Younger people might prefer How to Draw Manga: Basics and Beyond.

Art & Fear: Observations On the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking should be on every artist’s bookshelf.

Kids will enjoy The Drawing Book for Kids: 365 Daily Things to Draw.

Casey Cheuvront introduced me to these plastic mesh zipper pouches. They cost a fraction of the ones in an art store and instantly turn any mess of art supplies into a kit.

This is part of a series on holiday gifts for the painters you love. Next up: Holiday Gifts for the serious artist.

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Bare naked in the middle of the street

The Dugs, 8X10, Carol L. Douglas, $652 framed.

This fall two of my students threw together their first commercial art shows. Karen in San Francisco sold out. That’s an unusual achievement; I’ve never done it and know few artists who have. Karen kept her prices low and invited everyone she knows, she told me.

Mark is doing a studio show as part of a holiday walk of artists in Austin, TX. On Saturday I asked him how it was going. “I’ve sold a few things,” he said.

Sea Fog over Castine, Carol L. Douglas, 9X12, $869 framed

Neither of these painters are lifelong artists who secretly nurtured genius until their Big Reveal. Mark has been painting for about two years. He started with me when I started teaching on Zoom during the pandemic. Karen came to me from Bobbi Heath’s beginner class some time last year. Both are at the phase where style and technique are starting to gel. Importantly, both are realists who understand exactly where they fit in to the continuum. How, then, did they muster up the courage to put their work out there?

Karen was motivated by space. “I had all these paintings hanging around,” she told me. That’s why I did my first show decades ago, and the result has been a career in art.

Mark told me he’s not doing it to make money, but to improve as an artist. “You need to push,” he said. “Put yourself out there, bare naked in the middle of the street. Paint in public, sign up to sell, create an Instagram account. The pressure of being seen makes you strive to do better and exposes you to artists who are better than you. You will also be surprised and comforted at seeing those who are not.”

River Light, 11X14, Carol L. Douglas, $869 unframed.

(Note that I said nothing about ‘talent’ here. It’s a spurious concept that has little to do with excellence. Genius, as Edison said, is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration.)

Vulnerability is never a comfortable feeling. I’ve sometimes felt totally outclassed at shows, like a duffer who was accidentally admitted into the presence of the Big Boys. That leaves me feeling tiny and elderly and unimportant. But when I get past that, there’s almost always something I can learn from the other painters there. The trick is to drop my own defensiveness and look at their work with an open mind.

The irony is that there are very few painters who don’t also experience that insecurity somewhere, because there will always be painters who are ‘better’ than we are. I know an artist with a reputation for cockiness. I saw him over the summer at an event that’s outside his usual sphere. He was palpably nervous and uncomfortable.

Inlet, 8X10, Carol L. Douglas, $652 framed.

We all harbor the secret belief that we’re geniuses, and the cold hard light of the public square exposes all our weaknesses.

It’s true that the marketplace often rewards mediocrity and conventional thinking. That’s the story behind the 1863 Salon des Refusés, which inadvertently legitimized Impressionism. Think of all the horrid art you’ve seen in hotels and doctors’ offices. There’s the Thomas Kinkade phenomenon.

However, the marketplace is also an intelligent voice of criticism. People buy art that speaks to them. If the public square doesn’t reward you at all, you need to improve your communication skills, either with a brush or in words.

“Anything that won’t sell, I don’t want to invent. Its sale is proof of utility, and utility is success,” Edison also said. There are limits to that kind of thinking in fine art, but he wasn’t entirely wrong.

How have you conquered your fears and put your work out there to be judged?