Same s–t, different day

Toy Reindeer with double rainbow, oil on archival canvasboard, 6X8, $435 framed, includes shipping in continental US. It started as a still life.

“My painting group is stuck in SSDD,” a student told me. I didn’t know what that meant, so I asked my daughter.

“Same s-t, different day,” she laughed, “and boy do I know it. You see it at work, at church, in school. It’s when people do the same thing over and over and expect a different outcome.”

There are times we’re all stuck in repetitive tasks. There’s nothing to do in that situation but suck it up. The dishes and laundry don’t do themselves. And as Prince Harry’s poignant testimony this week reveals, having staff to do those things for us is no secret to happiness.

Deadwood, 30X40, oil on linen, $6231 framed, includes shipping in continental US. Sometimes you just have to go big.

But painting shouldn’t be like that. Yes, you need to practice, but if you’re feeling like you’re going around in circles, perhaps you’re stuck in SSDD too.

Take the typical paint out. They’re fun, and they can result in great work, but they’re primarily social. If you never push yourself past the three-hour field sketch, you’re not going to advance as fast as you will if you lean into the problems that bedevil you.

Of course, one person’s SSDD is another’s secure, comfortable routine. If you are happy with the results of your current painting practice, far be it from me to try to change it. However, I haven’t known too many people who think they paint perfectly. That ranges from new painters to nationally-known names. It’s a mark of a good artist to always want to be a better artist.

One of the toughest things you can do is compare work you did last month, a year ago, five years ago, twenty years ago. If there isn’t change, ask yourself why. That doesn’t mean that your new work is inherently better than your old work; it means that you’ve maintained an interest in transformation and growth.

The Late Bus, 6X8, oil on canvasboard, $435 framed, includes shipping in continental US. This painting is a complete fantasy.

How do I break out of the same old same-old?

Breaking out of the cycle of SSDD can be challenging, especially when you’ve built comfortable routines around your painting practice. But here are some specific strategies you can try:

Set new goals: Identify specific objectives that you would like to achieve. That might be a new body of work for a solo show, learning better draftsmanship, or a daily drawing practice. It could be reading a classic painting text like Alla Prima by Richard Schmid (now available for free online).

Tackle a new genre: I get it-you love landscape painting. So do I. But when I’m feeling stale, I like to drag out something different, like still lives or fantasias.

Stop making every painting session the same three hours long. Bring a big canvas and paint the same scene for a full day. Or bring five 6X8 canvases and paint five half-hour studies of the same scene. A longer painting gives you time to draw, research and compose. Quick sketches give you a change to experiment. If every painting takes you the same exact amount of time, don’t be surprised if they all look the same.

Seafoam, 9X12, oil on archival canvasboard, $869 framed includes shipping in continental US.

Try a new medium. I’m not talking about taking up gouache if you’re a watercolorist, but rather jumping off an artistic cliff. Try printmaking. ÉcorchĂ©. Sculpture. Textile art. Henri Matisse was one of the seminal figures in modern painting, but he was also a draftsman, printmaker and sculptor. When old age stopped him from painting, he created an important body of work in cut paper collage. You can never predict how one medium will influence another in your artistic development.

Rest: Sometimes, you might develop a sense of ennui not from boredom but from burnout. I’m not that great at resting myself, but there are certain tell-tale signs that I need to clock out for a while: I’m forgetful and clumsy. I may not be able to stop immediately, but I know to schedule a break as soon as I can.

My 2023 workshop schedule can be found here. That includes September aboard schooner American Eagle, mountain vistas in the Berkshires, and our ever-popular Sea & Sky at Schoodic in Acadia National Park. New, in October, an immersive, in-person workshop in Rockport, ME. In 2024, we’ll be in Sedona and Austin in March. Why not register today?


Eastern Manitoba Forest, Sandilands National Forest, Manitoba, 8X10, Carol L. Douglas, available.

Alex Schaefer paints banks in flames. I was thinking of him this week as I read about hundreds of wildfires burning across Canada. I’ve painted across both Alaska and Canada. There’s lots of evidence that the Great White North is no stranger to wildfire. You see the signs and remnants everywhere. We Americans only notice when the wind shifts and smoke is on our tongues, as it has been this week.

Last week, we got a light backwash from Nova Scotian fires here in Maine. Now it’s New York’s turn. The smell and smoke are overwhelming, according to my friends and family. My son sent me a photo of the weird brown light around his apartment. Down in Greene County where his sister works, Public Safety sent out a robocall warning people to not go outside.

Confluence, Athabasca River, Alberta, 9X12, Carol L. Douglas, available.

It’s supposed to be worse today, leading some in Greater Rochester Plein Air Painters to cancel their midweek paint-outs. I’m watching carefully, because I plan to paint with them at 1 PM on Sunday, at Bushnell’s Basin in Perinton. This will be nostalgic, for I lived most of my life within rock-skipping distance of the Erie Canal. I’m looking forward to watching its stately green flow, drawing an old metal bridge, and perhaps striking lucky with a gaily-caparisoned canal boat at rest. Mostly, though, I’m looking forward to seeing my friends.

But it won’t happen if they’re still sitting under a cloud of ash. It’s just not safe.

If you’ve ever been downwind of a wildfire, you know it isn’t pleasant. It smells more like burning trash than a bonfire; it’s acrid and sticks in your nose. It’s worth remembering that this was typical air quality for 19th century cities, It probably still is in some fast-growing Asian cities.

Wildfire damage along the Transcanada Highway, painted en plein air in 2016.

Scientists speculate that this bad air led to some of the spectacular atmospherics in the paintings of Turner, Whistler, Monet and others. That was good for art, but it was bad for the vulnerable-the elderly, infants, or people with compromised hearts or lungs. London’s pea soupers were so common that they were called London particulars. These fogs were comprised of soot and sulfur dioxide and came from the widespread burning of soft coal for both homes and industries.

From as early as the 13th century, the English understood that coal had a harmful effect on health, and observed smog over their towns and cities. The mists and fogs of the Thames valley contributed to its concentration over London. London particulars must have been particularly unpleasant before the city built a modern sewer system in the mid-19th century. By then, the relationship between coal smoke and respiratory disease was clear. One prolonged London particular, in January-February 1880, was estimated to have choked 2000 Londoners to death.

Clouds over Teslin Lake, Teslin, Yukon Territory, 9X12, Carol L. Douglas, available.

But still England lumbered along with soft coal fuel, until conditions in December, 1952 created the perfect storm. Extreme cold combined with an anticyclone and windless conditions formed a thick layer of smog over the city. At the time, the Great Smog of London was credited with 4,000 deaths; today we think it killed 10,000-12,000 people. The Clean Air Acts that it provoked created the modern British cities we love today, where a coating of coal tar is just an historical memory.

We assume that wildfire is less toxic, and it probably is-providing it’s burning the woods and not homes or factories. It’s still a danger to people at risk: those with cardiovascular or pulmonary disease, or infants and the elderly. So, if you’re in the way of the great plumes of smoke coming down from Canada this week, stay in your studio. There will be plenty of fine weather in the months ahead.

My 2023 workshop schedule can be found here. That includes September aboard schooner American Eagle, mountain vistas in the Berkshires, and our ever-popular Sea & Sky at Schoodic in Acadia National Park. New, in October, an immersive, in-person workshop in Rockport, ME. In 2024, we’ll be in Sedona and Austin in March. Why not register today?

Monday Morning Art School: narrative, subject and meaning

The Blind Leading the Blind, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1568, 33.8 x 60.6 in., courtesy Museo di Capodimonte

Narrative painting is more difficult than painting a simple still-life-one needs to be able to tell a story with one’s brush.

What is a narrative painting?

Stories have a beginning, middle, or end, but a painting is by design a portrait of a moment in time. That requires sleight of hand. We either must tell a story with which everyone is familiar, as in Leonardo  da Vinci’s The Last Supper, or one in which the story can be reasoned out, like Ford Madox Brown‘s The Last of England.

The genre paintings of Pieter Brueghel the Elder illustrate moral truths. These aren’t portraits, although they might have used known models. The figures are meant to be generic. This kind of painting reached its peak with social realism in the 19th century, with paintings like Ilya Repin‘s Barge Haulers on the Volga.

Barge Haulers on the Volga, Ilya Repin, 1870, 51.7 x 110.6 inches, courtesy the Russian Museum

Narrative is an elastic category. I think everything Caspar David Friedrich ever painted could be classified as narrative. Others might see just Romantic landscapes.

When Gustave Courbet painted everyday scenes on large canvases, the scale itself was part of the story. He was saying that the common man was of equal importance to the elite, setting the traditional hierarchy of genres on its head.

However, some implied action is necessary. I wouldn’t classify my own Wreck of the SS Ethie as a narrative painting, even though it depicts the result of an historic storm. On the other hand, I’d say my Breaking Storm is. It’s taking you out of danger and into the light.

Human figures are not necessary in narrative painting. A cell phone abandoned next to a half-eaten meal might tell a story. Likewise, landscape tells stories. Melting snow, for example, has the before-and-after elements of story.

The Last of England, Ford Madox Brown, 1852/1855, 750×825 mm, courtesy Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

How does narrative differ from subject?

A figurative painting must have a subject but can have no narrative at all. In fact, most paintings fall into this category, even when the subject has deep meaning, as in Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres‘s incredible Napoleon I on His Imperial Throne. The subject can be a person, place, or object, with or without symbolic significance, historical context, or cultural references.

There’s nothing wrong with paintings without these deep layers. Although Édouard Manet is famous for meaning- and narrative-drenched large canvases of social and political importance, some of his finest works are the tiny still lives he did from his sick bed at the end of his life.

Napoleon I on His Imperial Throne, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, 1806, 101.9 x 63.7 inches, courtesy MusĂ©e de l’ArmĂ©e

How does symbolism fit in?

Symbols and visual metaphors convey meaning. Some of them are almost universal, such as blue restroom signs. But much symbolism is culturally-specific, like those ‘language of flowers’ messages of the 19th century. Still, a thoughtful artist can think up symbols that transcend time and place. These may not be blindingly obvious, but if they arise in the context of mapping out your painting, they’re bound to have more staying power. Ultimately, symbols should express emotion, thought and intention.

The meaning of meaning

The meaning in a painting is a close dance between the artist’s intention and the viewer’s perception. Essentially, it’s what boils down in the stew of narrative, subject and symbolism. Meaning is contextual; how we read Napoleon I on his Imperial Throne today is far different from when Ingres painted him at the height of his power.

Above all, each viewer brings their own experiences, perspectives, and emotions to a painting. In addition to Ingres’ technical mastery, I see the deep frivolity of wrapping a deeply-flawed man in the symbols of Christ’s earthly reign. Others, from a different background, will see different things.

Meaning is not always straightforward or easily decipherable, nor should it be. Great art leaves room for interpretation and invite viewers to engage with their work in a personal and subjective manner. The beauty of art lies in its ability to provoke thought and emotion and spark meaningful conversations, allowing each of us to find our own messages within.

My 2023 workshop schedule can be found here. That includes September aboard schooner American Eagle, mountain vistas in the Berkshires, and our ever-popular Sea & Sky at Schoodic in Acadia National Park. New, in October, an immersive, in-person workshop in Rockport, ME. In 2024, we’ll be in Sedona and Austin in March. Why not register today?

That sweet spot between art and nature

We’ve been hiking Beech Hill for so many years that you’d think our feet could navigate on their own. Apparently, that’s not true. On a glorious day in mid-April, my husband stepped wrong and wrenched his back. That has meant pain for him and small inconveniences for me. For one thing, he keeps our pace. Without him, I’m just ambling along listening to birdsong.

Doug also carries paintings down from their second-story storage unit. I’m no good at lifting. But eventually I got it done, and I’m happy with the results.

As I unwrapped the work, I found myself saying over and over, “this is my favorite painting.” That’s a great thing, because it means that, right now, I like my own work. Serious painters know that this isn’t always the case. We can get very angsty about our painting at times.

Wreck of the SS Ethie, oil on canvas, 18X24, $2318 framed. This is one of the few non-plein air pieces in this show.

Plein air is where my heart is

Most of the work in this show is plein air. That’s no surprise, since plein air immerses both the artist and viewer into the spirit of the place it was painted.

“My clients don’t care whether I painted it en plein air or not,” a friend once observed. I’m not sure that’s true. Plein air feels different than studio painting, since it involves fast analysis of light, shadows, texture and color. I’m not dissing the studio painting; I’ve done plenty of them. But for the client who loves the outdoors, who wants to sit in that sweet spot between art and nature, plein air is going to resonate more strongly.

The best of plein air should carry a whiff of the painting experience. There is a vast difference between painting ferns at Paul Smith’s College, NY, and painting shadows in Sedona, AZ.

The Logging Truck, 16X20, oil on canvas, was painted en plein air on the side of a precipitous incline, with, yes, logging trucks barreling past at regular intervals. This is one of my favorite favorites.

This year’s show is almost completely Maine. The exceptions are a seascape from Parrsboro, NS and a harbor scene from Iona in Scotland. There are no paintings from Patagonia, Alaska, Texas, New Mexico, or Arizona, as much fun as I’ve loved painting in those places. I’ll get back to them later.

Place and painting have a complicated relationship. You don’t need to go far to find a beautiful subject. For most of us, there’s a painting waiting right outside the back door. (If you live where there’s not, I’d suggest you move for your mental health.) On the other hand, painting in other places changes your perception. If you’re any good, the light, shapes, rocks, trees, and houses will all be different.

For years I’ve pondered the relationship between God and man as expressed in the environment. (I once did a whole body of work on the subject, in fact.) There’s an old foundation in Erickson Field Preserve. It was a very small farmhouse; its barn foundation is on the other side. At this point the trail is the old farm track, and there are three small meadows strung along it like tiny pearls. In them are a few old domesticated apple trees and their wild descendants in the woods. There are lilacs, lily-of-the-valley, goutweed, narcissus, daylilies and more still thriving long after their humans have departed. I need to paint this story eventually.

Drying Sails, 9X12, oil on canvasboard, $869 framed.

But for now, I’m a gallerist. This weekend is also the first annual Rockport Donut Festival. Stop by on your way past.

Next weekend, unfortunately, I’ll be closed on Saturday and Tuesday. I’m traveling to Rochester for a memorial service and stopping on my way back to nail down the sites for my Berkshires workshop in August.

Carol L. Douglas Studio and Gallery
394 Commercial Street
Rockport, ME 04856
585-201-1558 Sunday: closed
Monday: closed
Tuesday: Noon-5
Wednesday: Noon-5
Thursday: Noon-5
Friday: Noon-5
Saturday: Noon-5
Or by appointment.

My 2023 workshop schedule can be found here. That includes September aboard schooner American Eagle, mountain vistas in the Berkshires, and our ever-popular Sea & Sky at Schoodic in Acadia National Park. New, in October, an immersive, in-person workshop in Rockport, ME. In 2024, we’ll be in Sedona and Austin in March. Why not register today?

Hungering for meaning in art

arte conceptual :-), Angula Berria, size unknown and date unknown, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

I’m still pondering Charge of Flowerdew’s Squadron, 1918, by Sir Alfred Munnings, about which I wrote on Monday. I’m usually focused on the terrified horses, but I realized that the figure in the foreground is Lt. Gordon Flowerdew himself. He was just 33 when he was mortally wounded at the Battle of Moreuil Wood, urging his ‘boys’ on until he expired. The Canadian Cavalry Brigade suffered disproportionately in a war that had nothing to do with them, but for which so many of their young men and women volunteered. Whatever his intentions, Munnings painted a powerful polemic against the sheer wastefulness of war. I fight back tears every time I study it.

Fast forward to the our own times, when young climate activists vandalize museum masterpieces and throw charcoal into the Trevi Fountain. Some people think these kids are earnest and well-meaning; the majority think they’re spoiled brats.

The Grave Digger’s Death, watercolor and gouache, 29 ½ x 21 Âľ, 1895-1900, Carlos Schwabe, courtesy the Louvre.

I’d say they’re acting out the single-minded narcissism of youth on a convenient public stage. On a much smaller scale, I did that myself 45 years ago.

In my late teens, I protested the building of a coal-fired electrical plant, including cooking up an almost-completely spurious historic-preservation argument. Of course, I had no impact whatsoever.

I’ve watched the plant go through its entire life-cycle (it closed in 2020 as part of our push away from coal). It created jobs and generated millions in tax dollars, so that the small local school could be updated into the 20th century. It was built with state-of-the-art-scrubbers. I had no hesitation living for 21 years downwind of its plume.

Today I happily admit that my youthful self was dead wrong. Young people have heart and a profound need to make their mark in the world. However, they’re not noted for their ability to see nuance, which is why we don’t generally put them in charge of policy decisions.

Vandals at the gate

Just Stop Oil are performance artists themselves. However, their performances are rich in meaning, which is a step up from much art made in the last century.

What is meaning? Traditionally there were different layers of information in artwork, including intellectual and emotional content, style and technique. Together, these formed meaning.

A photograph of Marcel Duchamp’s urinal by Alfred Stieglitz, entitled Fountain and dated 1917. The original work and Stieglitz’ negative are now both lost. Courtesy NPR

Intentionally meaningless art (Dada) can be traced back to the early 20th century, as a response to the senseless violence and destruction of WW1. The philosophical ideas of existentialism influenced art at the same time. Symbolism may, at first glance, seem drenched in meaning, but it’s really all about archetypes.

Marcel Duchamp turned everyday objects into art (‘readymades‘) simply by putting them in galleries. Changing their location changed their status. There’s a direct line between his urinal (1917) and Maurizio Cattelan‘s banana taped to a wall (2019). What’s sad is that there wasn’t a single advancement of that once-startling idea in the intervening century.

With the exception of outliers like Just Stop Oil, conceptual and performance artists further promote the idea that art is meaningless. Give Yoko Ono credit here-not only did she contribute to the breakup of the most famous musical ensemble of the 1960s, she was also a major conceptual artist. Rarely has one individual had such a destructive impact.

Grand opening of the first Dada exhibition: International Dada Fair, Berlin, 5 June 1920. Since the effigy hanging from the ceiling is a German officer with a pig’s head, this can hardly be called meaningless, but it was a precursor of what was to come. Courtesy University of Iowa Libraries

Let’s reclaim meaning

Of course, most of us could never really leave meaning behind; it’s hardwired into the human brain. However, if we were at all au fete during the past century, we were a little ashamed of that. The Wyeth clan stand out as artists who bucked that trend.

But if a painting doesn’t say something, what good is it? This weekend I realized there’s a hunger for meaning and depth in painting when my class on narrative painting sold out almost immediately. I’ll let you know how it goes.

My 2023 workshop schedule can be found here. That includes September aboard schooner American Eagle, mountain vistas in the Berkshires, and our ever-popular Sea & Sky at Schoodic in Acadia National Park. New, in October, an immersive, in-person workshop in Rockport, ME. In 2024, we’ll be in Sedona and Austin in March. Why not register today?

Our war dead

Charge of Flowerdew’s Squadron, 1918, Sir Alfred Munnings, courtesy Canadian War Museum

It’s estimated that some eight million horses, mules and donkeys died in WW1. As horrific as that is, it’s dwarfed by the human death toll: 9 to 11 million military personnel and 6 to 13 million civilians.

Sir Alfred Munnings served in a horse depot on the Western Front. There he painted a portrait of General Jack Seely astride his horse Warrior. It was done live in the field, and both artist and models came under fire. Thank God that most plein air painters experience nothing of this sort of violence.

Major-General the Right Hon. JEB Seely on Warrior, 1918, Sir Alfred Munnings, courtesy Canadian War Museum

Seely and Warrior participated in one of the last great cavalry charges in modern warfare, during the Battle of Moreuil Wood. Both survived, as commanding officers so often do. Charge of Flowerdew’s Squadron is a scene from that engagement. Canadian Lieutenant Gordon Flowerdew is shown leading a charge against two machine gun lines. Flowerdew was fatally wounded. Though the German advance was checked, a quarter of the men and half of the horses were lost.

In 1918, cameras weren’t fast enough to capture this action; today a photographer wouldn’t be allowed this close. Likewise, plein air painting is incapable of documenting a scene like this. The action is too fast. More importantly, this painting required a thoughtful distillation of experience and emotion. That comes with time.

The Third of May 1808, 1814, Francisco Goya, courtesy Museo del Prado

It took a painter like Munnings, with his up-close experience of cavalry and horses, war and death, to process and paint the unimaginable. That’s why Francisco Goya’s The Third of May 1808 is so gut-wrenching; he experienced the horrors of war and then went back to his studio to distill it into a canvas of incredible bleakness.

Prudence Heward (a Canadian who should be better known) was one of many artists who dropped their brushes and went to the aid of Britain. A.Y. JacksonLawren Harris and Fred Varley came from Canada; Arthur Streeton from Australia. Of course, many British artists served as well, including Stanley SpencerDavid Bomberg and, of course, Alfred Munnings. And American poet Joyce Kilmer was killed at the Second Battle of the Marne.

Some of these artists were attached as war illustrators (as Winslow Homer had done in our own Civil War). Some just picked up a gun and joined up. Their calling in art was subservient to their calling as human beings.

The Resurrection of the Soldiers, 1929, Sir Stanley Spencer, courtesy Sandham Memorial Chapel

WW1 was the last of a particularly heinous kind of war, the kind where rulers used their citizenry in an elaborate game of chess, with dismal outcomes for both the dead and the survivors.

“When I left the Slade and went back to Cookham, I entered a kind of earthly paradise. Everything seemed fresh and to belong to the morning. My ideas were beginning to unfold in fine order when along comes the war and smashes everything,” Sir Stanley Spencer wrote. “The war changed me. I no longer have that assurance and feeling of security I had before.” He went on to make a fine hash of his life, something that today we might understand as the result of PTSD.

Travoys Arriving with Wounded at a Dressing-Station at Smol, Macedonia, September 1916, Sir Stanley Spencer, courtesy Imperial War Museum

Spencer was asked to paint the interior walls of Sandham Memorial Chapel, a memorial to Lieutenant Henry Willoughby Sandham and the “forgotten dead” of the First World War. In all his war art, Spencer concentrated on the soldier’s everyday experiences, pointedly eschewing any sense of grandeur.  R. H. Wilenski is widely quoted as saying that “every one of the thousand memories recorded had been driven into the artist’s consciousness like a sharp-pointed nail.” But these are the nails of the Cross, the nails of a transformative suffering, not the nails of normal human experience.

My 2023 workshop schedule can be found here. That includes September aboard schooner American Eagle, mountain vistas in the Berkshires, and our ever-popular Sea & Sky at Schoodic in Acadia National Park. New, in October, an immersive, in-person workshop in Rockport, ME. In 2024, we’ll be in Sedona and Austin in March. Why not register today?

Don’t take it to heart, or so they say

In Control (Grace and her Unicorn), 24X30, $3,478 framed, oil on canvas, includes shipping in continental United States.

One of my friends, a professional artist, was working out a problem in a plein air painting when a car slowed down. He’s used to the attention of bystanders, which can sometimes take weird forms. But even he was surprised when, after a long pause, the driver said, “I’m not trying to be mean, but I could paint that in ten minutes.”

People can say the stupidest, cruelest things without even realizing it. Twenty years ago, I had an art opening where nothing sold. Someone who really should have known better said, “You gave it the old college try but maybe it’s time to get a real job.”

The Wave, 9X12, oil on archival canvasboard, $869, includes shipping in continental US.

That’s not to say that people can’t have opinions. For the uninformed, art generally comes down to, “I don’t know anything about art, but I know what I like.” There’s nothing wrong with that; it’s as valid a judgment as that of the most self-important art historian.

But sometimes people forget that they’re talking to fellow human beings. Or about human beings, in the case of the sotto voce ‘witticisms’ when they think you can’t hear. It would be nice if they were, well, nicer.

It’s easy to step back from unfounded criticism when it happens in forums like classes, art groups and workshops-you can just take a temporary or permanent break. It’s more difficult to deal with unsolicited criticism. It has a way of blind-siding you.

There’s something to be said for keeping an open mind. Even hostile feedback can provide valuable insights. It’s just that the hurt takes so long to recede that it can take years for us to appreciate the nugget of truth underlying the snarkiness.

Ravening Wolves, oil on canvas, 24X30, $3,478.00 framed, includes shipping in continental US.

Every person we come across in life approaches us with their own preferences, hurts, defenses and biases. Often the harshest critics of art are the ones who know the least. When I was young, my list of ‘painters I don’t like’ was far longer than it is now. The more I know, the more I appreciate other approaches.

The first time I had a work reviewed in a newspaper, it received an awful panning. “Immature color palette” and “I don’t know why it is in this show” were the two general ideas. I called my friend Toby and wept on her shoulder. Now I realize the reviewer had an ax to grind (long story). That’s every bit as baseless as the uninformed insult, and far more damaging.

Experts say that we should see criticism as an opportunity for growth, a spur to improve. I’m 64 years old and I’m not quite mature enough yet.

The Logging Truck, 16X20, oil on canvas, $2029 framed, includes shipping in the continental US.

Instead, I’ve learned to lean on my friends when I’ve had a knock-out blow. There are a few of them who are perfectly willing to lie to me. They’ll tell me that the juror who didn’t pick me was an idiot, even when he obviously wasn’t. It may not be true, but it helps me survive to fight another day.

If your posse isn’t made up of loyal, supportive people like that, get yourself a new posse. Most of us can find ways to beat ourselves up without any help from others. Knowing you’re loved and valued is the greatest defense against those slings and arrows.

In the end, it’s your vision, your path, and your pace. What someone else thinks really doesn’t matter. I just keep telling myself that; sooner or later I’ll believe it’s true.

My 2023 workshop schedule can be found here. That includes September aboard schooner American Eagle, mountain vistas in the Berkshires, and our ever-popular Sea & Sky at Schoodic in Acadia National Park. New, in October, an immersive, in-person workshop in Rockport, ME. In 2024, we’ll be in Sedona and Austin in March. Why not register today?

Stuck? 12 ways to reignite your painting progress

Possum, 6X8, oil on archival canvasboard, $435 includes shipping in continental US.

“I’m not making any progress,” a reader lamented to me about her painting class. “It’s like I’m watching people zoom past me in their muscle cars while I’m potting along in my Kia Rio.”

Feeling stuck happens to all of us at some point. Here are 12 practical suggestions to reignite your learning.

Tin Foil Hat, 6X8, oil on archival canvasboard, $435 includes shipping in continental US.

Stop comparing yourself to others. Different people bring different intelligences to painting. That’s what makes artwork so fascinating. Moreover, we all have periods when we excel, and periods when we flounder. Think of the Homecoming Queens who fade into obscurity or the billionaires who started as high-school dropouts.

Expand your learning opportunities. That doesn’t necessarily mean taking more classes. Reading, videos, and painting groups are great ways to absorb more ideas painlessly. A student told me recently that Alla Prima by Richard Schmid is now available for free online. Since it’s roughly $300 at Amazon, that’s an opportunity to read a classic no starving artist can afford to buy.

Practice regularly. Consistency is key when it comes to improving any skill, including painting. Set aside dedicated time to work, and make painting a habit. You’ll fall into the groove more easily if it’s more familiar.

Start with the basics. Sometimes, going back to fundamentals will help you overcome a plateau. Focus on drawing, value, color, and composition.

Study other artists. I love ambling around galleries and museums, but looking at work online is the next best thing. Modern imaging is so sophisticated that you may learn more about the artists’ brushwork and technique online than from the ‘safe’ distance in the physical place. Applying critical analysis to masterworks will help you better understand the painting.

Hiking, 6X8, oil on archival canvasboard, $435 includes shipping in continental US.

Break out of your rut. I know I’ve said that working will net you more than shopping, but some experimentation with new techniques and materials can reignite your creativity. You also might find new approaches that resonate with you.

Take a workshop. The great advantage of a workshop is that it’s immersive. You stop worrying about everyday life. You make new friends who are as passionate about painting as you are. There’s time for a deep dive into new ideas, techniques, and you may come away with a whole new perspective on painting.

Apply critical analysis to your own work. I teach this skill a few times a year, because self-critique is the greatest skill an artist can possess. It separates you from your emotional response to you can see, objectively, what needs to be strengthened.

Dish of Butter, 6X8, oil on archival canvasboard, $435 includes shipping in continental US.

Break down complex subjects. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. If you’re tackling complex ideas or compositions, break them down into smaller, manageable parts. That stops you from being overwhelmed. I’ll be teaching this process in my next online class, High, Wide and Handsome, which starts on June 12.

Seek constructive feedback. Share your work with trusted peers or insightful non-painters. Different perspectives can provide fresh insights and help you identify areas for growth.

Embrace your errors. The most successful artists I know aren’t fazed by failures. They analyze them, set them aside, and move on. Painting is just one long series of goofs and meandering byways. By focusing on the process, rather than the results, you make room for brilliant discovery.

Be patient. If it’s worth doing, it will take time and effort. Stay motivated, set realistic goals, and celebrate small victories along the way.

My 2023 workshop schedule can be found here. That includes September aboard schooner American Eagle, mountain vistas in the Berkshires, and our ever-popular Sea & Sky at Schoodic in Acadia National Park. New, in October, an immersive, in-person workshop in Rockport, ME. In 2024, we’ll be in Sedona and Austin in March. Why not register today?

Monday Morning Art School: the number one problem with your painting

Seafoam, 9X12, oil on archival canvasboard, $869 framed includes shipping in continental US

On Monday, I posted Let’s Paint Some Duds! After about the hundredth person told me they have no trouble whatsoever painting duds, I realized my hook was lousy. It tapped into fear of failure instead of challenging people to be more questing and adventuresome.

I’ve had many emerging artists tell me that half or more of their paintings are duds. That’s shocking; it’s way too high a failure rate, especially when it comes in the learning phase. For that matter, there are other painters who fail just as often but don’t even realize it. (And far be it from me to wreck their happy illusions.)

Duds are a particular problem in plein air painting, so much so that my pal Brad Marshall coined a term for the process of making them: flailing around.

Cypresses and Sunlight, 11X14, Carol L. Douglas, $1087 includes shipping in continental US

Why so many?

I also get frequent emails and texts that read, “I’m stuck! What’s going wrong here?” That’s why I periodically teach an online critique class; you’ll advance more quickly when you can answer that question for yourself.

But the answer almost always comes down to bad composition. Either the darks are not organized, or the focal points are not clear, or there’s not a clear and compelling armature. Figuring that out in advance, with a value drawing or notan, saves tons of time and effort.

Composition organizes the design elements of a painting. It provides structure and balance, guides the viewer’s eye, and determines where a painting falls on the all-important scale of harmony-to-tension. Composition controls the visual appeal of a painting, but it also controls its emotional power.

Stone Wall, Salt Marshes, 14×18, $1594 framed includes shipping in continental US

A weak composition is still a composition.

The same student who kvetches about flailing and failing often resists the idea of studying formal composition. “I want to be spontaneous and natural,” he will say. Well, composition, like puberty, is going to happen whether you take a hand in guiding it or not.

Weak compositions impede the very message that the supposedly-spontaneous artist wants to convey. Conversely, strong compositions guide viewers through the content. By strategically placing focal points, controlling movement, and using visual cues, you influence not just what your viewers see, but what they think and feel. And isn’t that the point of communication?

Then there’s the question of balance and emphasis. Just as the cannonades in Tchaikovsky‘s 1812 Overture are carefully placed to emphasize the point of Russia’s victory over the French, your focal points must fall in sweet spots. They must be reinforced with contrast and line. When it works flawlessly, we see a painting that is beautiful individual, and stylish-without overburdening our minds too much about how it happened.

Ketch and Schooner, 8X10 in a solid silver leaf frame, includes shipping in the continental US

How do I learn to be a better composer?

I’ve written extensively on this blog on the subject of composition, which of course you can access for free. Above all, there’s my cardinal rule of painting: don’t be boring. I can’t restate that often enough.

If you really want to give up flailing and failing, I invite you to also take my online course, The Correct Composition, which I just released on Friday. Give yourself a lot of time to do the exercises and take the quizzes; you’ll get far more out of it than you will by just skimming the videos.

My 2023 workshop schedule can be found here. That includes September aboard schooner American Eagle, mountain vistas in the Berkshires, and our ever-popular Sea & Sky at Schoodic in Acadia National Park. New, in October, an immersive, in-person workshop in Rockport, ME. In 2024, we’ll be in Sedona and Austin in March. Why not register today?

More art supplies won’t make you a better painter

Breaking storm, 48X30, oil on canvas, $5,579 framed includes shipping in the continental US.

I had an entertaining text exchange with an emerging painter yesterday. “We spend too much money on better paper, fancy brushes, and teaching videos,” he mused. “We think we can buy our way into good results. But it all comes down to spending time painting. One must actually apply paint to paper to understand the lessons, to get them into one’s head.”

A few moments passed and he added, “Of course, that’s very dangerous if you’re painting with other people with all the same bad habits as you.”

Therein lies the conundrum. Yes, you need to paint — lots, fast and furious — to improve. But you also need to understand the fundamentals, and it helps to have good materials. It’s like playing the piano. Both practice and instruction are critical, but you’ll enjoy it a lot more if your piano holds a tune.

Bunker Hill overlook, watercolor on Yupo, approx. 24X36, $3985 framed includes shipping in continental US.

I have two sets of watercolor brushes. The first are high-end, large brushes that I use for ‘important’ work. The others are mid-range Princeton Neptunes. These days, most of my watercolor painting is pootling around in my sketchbook, so of course I grab the Neptunes. It figures that I’ve gotten better with them than with my fancier brushes.

I once told my Zoom class that one could paint in oils with a stick, and that my ratty, half-hardened brushes proved it. Instead of taking that lesson to heart, they bought me new brushes (which moves me every time I think of it). While it’s quite possible to paint in oils with a stick, or even a palette knife, it is lovelier to paint with my treasured new brushes.

Palomino Blackwing pencils are going around my students like COVID right now. “Are you made of money?” I ask them, tongue in cheek. I’d order them too if my business partner didn’t have a death grip on our checkbook. Sometimes it’s just fun to have lovely things.

Wreck of the SS Ethie, oil on canvas, 18X24, $2318 framed includes shipping in continental US.

More fun, I’m afraid, than buckling down and doing the hard slog. But, of course, the hard slog pays off in ways that shopping never can.

Last month I introduced The Value Drawing, an interactive class that discusses how to make an effective value drawing. Today I’m introducing The Correct Composition, an even weightier tome. The Perfect Palette came out earlier this year.

Laura and I have been releasing them as we finish them, with the idea that we’d market them as a set when the whole Seven Protocols for Successful Oil Painters is finished. Today I realized that was unfair to my followers. If you buy the whole series at one time, you’re going to rush through it, whereas if you have it episode by episode, you’ll take the time to do the exercises and quizzes, and above all, “actually apply paint to paper to understand the lessons, to get them into one’s head,” as my correspondent wrote.

Sunset Sail, oil on linen, 14X18, $1594 includes shipping in continental US.

The Value Drawing is closely related to The Correct Composition, so if you haven’t done that one, you might want to do them both now. Meanwhile, I’ll continue to work on the next step, which is The Essential Grisaille.

To put it in perspective, one of these classes is the discount price of a 9/12 Arches Watercolor block. The three I have done so far total the same amount as an 18/24 Arches Watercolor block. I’d never dis the value of a fancy new watercolor block; I adore them. However, I know that knowledge will improve your painting far faster than better paper, or brushes, or even those luscious pencils.

My 2023 workshop schedule can be found here. That includes September aboard schooner American Eagle, mountain vistas in the Berkshires, and our ever-popular Sea & Sky at Schoodic in Acadia National Park. New, in October, an immersive, in-person workshop in Rockport, ME. In 2024, we’ll be in Sedona and Austin in March. Why not register today?