“The first time I felt normal in a long time.”

If you’re depressed or anxious right now, for heaven’s sake, turn off your laptop and TV.

Jane Chapin with my new dog, Guillo (short for Guillermo and pronounced Gee-zho).

There’s a small hamlet here that’s a New Mexican Brigadoon, a tiny community that time forgot. It’s otherworldly, like a set from a movie. Modest adobe houses are set on a bluff overlooking a verdant valley. The dogs and the people are generous and friendly.

This is one of my favorite places, where I could paint the rest of my life in contentment. That’s a fairly high bar, since I’ve painted in many of the world’s beauty spots.

Yesterday I shared this place with the six students in my Pecos workshop. It’s a well-earned reward, because I’m working them harder than I’ve ever worked students before. On Monday, we did a day-long joint project where I demoed step-by-step in watercolor and oils. They followed along, duplicating my processes exactly. On Tuesday, we threw color theory into that mix. All six of them draw well, so they’re able to keep up.

Mary Silver working on values. It’s all about that base.

Yesterday, they were spread out along a dusty track running from the road back to the morada, which is the meeting house of New Mexican penitentes. As is my usual technique, I spent much of the day going from person to person, working one-on-one. This creates the opportunity for intimate conversation (and is why so many of my students have become lifelong friends).

“This is the first time I’ve felt normal in a long time,” two of them told me independently of each other. Those within earshot heartily agreed with them. We’re in a place that’s anything but normal. Our group is disparate, with students from students from Texas, Missouri, New Mexico, New Hampshire and Maine. I had to ask them what made them feel normal.

Jean Cole with our ride. And here I thought I had overdone it by getting a full-size truck.

It’s being in a group and not wearing masks, they thought. I suspect they’re right. Human beings are primarily social animals. We read each other through body language and facial expressions as much—or more—than with our words. Here we can talk and laugh, and we needn’t worry overmuch about whether we’re maintaining a proper two-meter separation (as if there was any science behind that rather arbitrary number).

But there’s more to it than that. We’re also in a media blackout. One thing I like about painting here (and in Acadia, and Alaska and Patagonia and other remote places) is that I don’t have cell-phone reception. I’m not seeing the news or looking at Facebook. Here I can’t even take a phone call. If you want me, text me and I may see your message by the end of the day.

Linda DeLorey and Jean Cole painting in Paradise.

That means we haven’t talked or thought about COVID-19 all week. And there’s a lesson in that—if you’re depressed or anxious right now, for heaven’s sake, turn off your laptop and TV. Go for a walk in this crystalline September air. Play with a puppy. Do anything that involves your real community and doesn’t involve the whole generalized human condition. It’s what’s around you that’s real, not what the talking heads keep telling you.

A student asked me whether we are going to have safe-distancing accommodations at Sea & Sky this year. The answer is yes. For this year only, everyone gets their own apartment. However, if you’re coming from Massachusetts or any other supposedly high-risk state, you will need a negative COVID test to stay at Schoodic Institute. (Of course, that too may change by October.)

Last but certainly not least, I’m going to do a free cocktail-hour webinar on October 2, where I’ll talk about objectives in studying painting. Everyone is welcome, and I hope you bring lots of questions.

Painting through the dark places

Art has allowed me to look at pain, grief and dislocation obliquely, instead of confronting them head-on.
Carrying the cross, by Carol L. Douglas, courtesy St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, Rochester, NY.
You may have noticed that I haven’t done much this week. I finally collapsed from the ailment we dragged back from South America. Despite a slew of tests, no pathogen has yet been identified. However, our nurse-practitioner treated the symptoms. I’m almost back in fighting form, albeit very tired. Hopefully, my fellow travelers will recover as quickly.
Yesterday I attended a virtual meeting. One of my fellows, normally a very cheerful woman, was awash with anxiety. “I can’t paint!” she confessed. “I go in my studio and start, and then I go back and turn on CNN.” Later, I asked her if there was anything I could do to help. She elaborated. Her daughter has had COVID-19; she knows a young person currently on a vent and has lost another friend from it. She—like me—is from New York, the epicenter of this disease. That’s where our kids, friends and family are, and there’s nothing we can do to help them.
My heart goes out to her. It’s an awful thing to feel helpless in the face of disaster.
The Curtain of the Temple was Rent, by Carol L. Douglas, courtesy St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, Rochester, NY.
When we were waiting out our confinement in Buenos Aires, I was thoroughly disinterested in the non-existent landscape. It was not until the end that I decided to start painting what I felt instead of what I saw. That’s not necessarily easy for a realist to do directly (although we’re all doing it indirectly). That’s why I started with the idea of home, and then moved to Blake’s Jerusalemfor inspiration. I could look at my feelings of griefand dislocation obliquely, instead of confronting them head-on.
Twenty years ago, I was asked to do a set of Stations of the Cross for St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church in Rochester, NY. The request was made in the summer; by September I’d been diagnosed with a colon cancer that had perfed the bowel wall and spread to nearby lymph nodes. I had four kids, ages 11 to 3. My primary goal was to stay alive long enough to see them raised.
Finishing an art project seemed almost frivolous in the circumstances. I was especially disinterested in one that dealt with the horrific events leading up to the Crucifixion. That year was a late Easter, too, so by the time Holy Week arrived, I had a rough version finished, which I delivered in book form. (In some ways, I prefer it to the final Stations, for its very rawness.)
Veronica, by Carol L. Douglas, courtesy St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, Rochester, NY. And before you correct me, I’m perfectly aware that Veronica is medieval fan-fic, but I think it points to a very human need to ameliorate suffering.
I drew in my hospital bed, from my couch, during the hours of chemotherapy. I wouldn’t have told you I was engaged or enthused in the least. When I was well enough, I arranged a massive photoshoot and took reference photos. The final drawings were finished the following year. They weren’t my best work, I thought, but at least they were done.
And yet, and yet… they’ve been in use for two decades since. And every Holy Week, I get a note from a parishioner telling me how much they appreciate them. I’ve certainly gotten more meaningful mail about them than about any other work of art I’ve ever done.
This year, St. Thomas’—like the rest of Christendom—is shuttered, its people observing the rites from afar. I’m not sure how I’m going to approach Good Friday in a season already penitential in the extreme, but there’s something to be said for routine, ritual, habit and movement. That goes for painting as much as for faith. 
May God bless you this weekend with a radical new way of seeing things, in Jesus’ name, amen.

Monday Morning Art School: painting on demand

Sometimes it’s not fun. Sometimes it’s almost painfully stressful. What do you do then?
Sunrise, oil on canvasboard, is available through my studio at 394 Commercial Street, Rockport.
At my first plein air competition, I was a nervous wreck. “Come on, Carol,” my exasperated friend said. “Get a grip! You know how to do this.” At that moment, it wasn’t exactly true; I’d forgotten everything I ever knew about paint.
For some of us, commissions result in painter’s block. For others, plein air competitions are painfully stressful. Occasionally, I’ll have a student who freezes in my workshops. I used to suffer terrible performance anxiety, which is why I’m a painter and not a musician. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found ways to cope. These strategies have in turn lessened my overall anxiety.
Glade, watercolor on Yupo, will be at the Jackson Memorial Library, Tenants Harbor, ME, in September.
The first of these is to have a plan. It may seem counterintuitive to go into a painting with a process mapped out, but in fact that’s what you have to do to complete any project within an allotted time. When I painted a portrait in Edinburgh in April, I had a tight deadline. I planned how long I had for the charcoal drawings, how long for the underpainting, and how long to finish the top coat. When I do a quick-draw, I know I must finish the drawing and underpainting in the first hour in order to finish the top layers in the allotted time.
You might think that a flow plan is inhibiting, but it’s exactly the opposite. I learned this many years ago while painting a portrait commission for my late friend Dean Fero. It was a surprise birthday gift for his wife. That meant a precise deadline, which he didn’t let me forget. As I worked, I found the tight schedule liberating. I couldn’t perseverate and noodle endlessly on passages. That, in turn, meant freer, better brushwork.
Bracken Fern, oil on canvasboard, is available through Trove on Main, Thomaston, ME.
Playwright Robert More was finishing a comedy when I last saw him. “I can rewrite this ending eight times, and the last one won’t necessarily be better,” he told me. “I’ll just end up with eight different versions.”
Having a set protocol is invaluable for quelling nerves. In addition to providing consistent results, it focuses your mental energy on the doing, rather than on worry. (I’ve given you protocols for oilsand watercolor; you can follow them or write your own.)
Once you’ve established a painting process, practice it repeatedly—not concentrating on the results, but on mastering the process. Being absolutely prepared is the best cure for performance anxiety. This is the great benefit of painting-a-day schemes; they’re not about producing great artwork, but about getting a hammerlock on your process.
Castine Sea Fog, oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas, available.
As you go on, stop thinking about all the ways you can screw up the painting. Instead, think only about the phase you’re in. If something goes wrong, don’t berate yourself, and above all, ignore the voices in your head that tell you you’re no good. They’re wrong. Instead, ask yourself where in your process you made a wrong turn.
In other words, develop enough self-awareness that you can monitor your own progress. When I’m agitated, I develop a nervous tic of constantly rinsing my brush. That’s a mud-making mistake in any medium. Because I know I do it, I can stop doing it before it’s out of hand—and ask myself what’s gotten me upset.
The Golden Hour, oil on canvas, Carol L. Douglas (private collection)
Even in pressurized painting situations, take time to eat decently and get some exercise. While in Edinburgh, I enjoyed taking my model’s dog, Poppy, out in the magnificent local parks. Exercise lifts the mood and reduces anxiety.
Above all, don’t waste time worrying about whether the client will like the work, or whether you’ll make a sale or win a prize. Focusing on the results, rather than the process, can effectively kill a painting.

Digging out of a slough

Tricks to get myself moving when the body says ‘I want a nap.’

Striping, by Carol L. Douglas

I felt fine when I got home from Scotland. Two days later, I wasn’t so sure, and I spent most of our lovely holiday weekend in a lawn chair with a book (except when canoeing, of course). This week, I ran an errand to Bangor with a painting student. By the time we came home, he was concerned enough to suggest that maybe he should drive.

I can’t decide if I’m suffering from a cold, allergies, fatigue or the ennui that sometimes settles in when I’m shifting gears and restless. The barrier between our mind and our bodies is whisper-thin. Like many Americans, I’m so trained to keep moving that it’s hard to recognize when I’m sick.
Parrsboro sunrise, by Carol L. Douglas
The only way I can tell is by testing my body. Over the years I’ve developed strategies for catapulting myself out of a fog. Most important is routine. Every morning I write this blog, make my bed (so I can’t crawl back into it) and fold clothes. These tasks wake me up. Then I go down to my studio. My brain and body are conditioned to start concentrating at the same time every day.
I cannot overstress the importance of this; it’s why your lawyer, doctor, and insurance adjustor don’t have anxiety attacks every time they approach their desks. The human body loves settled routine, and thrives on regular sleep, exercise and work habits.
Tricky Mary in a Pea-Soup Fog, by Carol L. Douglas
My mother believed you would start moving if you heard a machine working, so she would start a load of laundry while she drank her morning coffee. I’m afraid it doesn’t work for me, but it might for you.
Often what stops me is not knowing where to start. To overcome that, I play a game of “put ten things away.” This is win-win, because you’re either going to force yourself back into motion or you’re going to have a very neat workspace. Ten is about my limit for being thoughtful about sorting, and it’s better than making a commitment to clean.
Water is our bodies’ principal component. It comprises about 60 percent of our body weight. We can live a surprisingly long time without food, but not without water. Fatigue can be caused by dehydration. None of us drink enough fluids when traveling, so when I come back from being on the road, I try to bring up my water intake as quickly as possible.
Marsh, by Carol L. Douglas
Current wisdom says that the basic equation for determining how much water you need is to divide your body weight in half. So, if you weigh 200 pounds, you would need 100 ounces of water per day. (I don’t know if this is scientifically justified.) When I drink that much, I never have the luxury of zoning out; I’m always planning my next toilet stop.
My last mental jog is a brisk walk. Exercise is a proven anti-depressant and makes us more alert. Walking also gives me the mental space to plan out my next steps.
What if I do all these things and I still don’t feel up to working? That’s a vivid warning sign that what I’m feeling isn’t temporary malaise but a true physical problem. I do what any sensible person would: I take some time off to recover.

What works to get you out of the doldrums?

Too much time on Social Media is depressing

How can you turn off the comparisons with others?

Untitled, oil on paper, by Carol L. Douglas

My husband was in Rochester for work this week. Bad weather meant it took a very long time for him to get back to Maine. The easiest way to track his progress was to check his location on Google Maps. I found myself looking at my phone every few minutes. After each glance at his progress, I’d turn to Facebook and Instagram to see what my friends were doing.

By the time he got home, I was thoroughly depressed. Kathleen, Julie, and John all painted gorgeous work yesterday. Meanwhile, I spent the whole day on marketing stuff. “You didn’t do the Strada 31-day challenge and now they’re all driving past you in their Lamborghinis,” I scolded myself.
By the time Doug finally made it home, I would have gone into the backyard to eat worms, except that it’s 0° F. and the worms are all encased in ice. Did I mention that Mark is teaching in Georgia and Charles is in California?
Untitled, by Carol L. Douglas

Comparing oneself to others has long been known to cause depression. It’s only been since the advent of social media that we have found a way to beat ourselves up with it nonstop. Dr. Mai-Ly Steers, who has studied the link between social media and depression, called this phenomenon, “seeing everyone else’s highlight reels.”


“One danger is that Facebook often gives us information about our friends that we are not normally privy to, which gives us even more opportunities to socially compare,” Steers said. “You can’t really control the impulse to compare because you never know what your friends are going to post.
“In addition, most of our Facebook friends tend to post about the good things that occur in their lives, while leaving out the bad… this may lead us to think their lives are better than they actually are and conversely, make us feel worse about our own lives.
Scrotum man (detail), by Carol L. Douglas
For the artist, it means we can constantly compare our own struggles at the easel with our friends’ carefully-lighted, perfectly-photographed finished work. We can come away wondering why we ever thought we could paint in the first place.
Social media is a two-edged sword for artists. It is the conduit through which we (increasingly) pour our work out into the world, but it’s also a way to burn a lot of time and psychic energy. There’s no turning back, so we have to develop strategies to protect ourselves from the anxiety it produces.
The Joker, by Carol L. Douglas
No thought—including envy—can have power over you without your permission, although you do need to be aware that you’re doing it. One of the best ways to get out of the envy loop is to distract yourself. Thinking about something else is a proven coping mechanism for stressful situations. And, luckily, the work we should be doing—making art—is the best possible distraction from the competitive envy we find so difficult to process.

New drug boosts creativity, cures hypertension, depression, and diabetes… and it’s free!

A young walker in the Duchy.
A Stanford studyearlier this year found that walking boosts creativity. This is a real-time effect, and it lasts during the time you’re walking and for a short while thereafter. It gives legs to the idea that we get our best ideas while walking.
This will come as no surprise to people who walk regularly. I have no idea how it motivates the circuitry of one’s brain (any more than I understand how it massages the gut or how it strengthens back muscles) but as a lifelong walker, I’m convinced it works. It certainly reduces anxiety. I’m finding myself walking upwards of six miles a day this month, and it’s done much to assuage my grief and worry over the upheavals in my personal life.
Walking every day has the perverse effect of making me like winter more, although I’m not always keen on the way sidewalks are maintained here in Rochester.
Although I’ve been a dedicated walker/runner/hiker my whole adult life, about five years ago my doctor started making noises at me about cholesterol and high blood pressure. I realized that I needed to ramp up the pace. Now it’s the first thing I do every day, and I’m willing to spend at least two hours a day exercising.
The biggest objection people make to walking is, “I don’t have the time.” On the other hand, the average American watches five hours of television a day.
I’m self-employed, so I can set my own schedule. I walk my husband to work every morning. Most married couples have very little time to talk to each other; we are guaranteed the better part of an hour together. (Since the average car in the US costs more than $9000 a year to own and operate, we save a lot of money, too.)
Later in the morning, I walk with a small posse. Who shows up varies by the day, but we’re all self-employed or telecommuters.
Walking is gentle on the environment. This is the annual salt collection at the side of our street after the snow melts. It’s a miracle anything grows here.
It’s paid off: I’m apparently the only middle-aged American who isn’t takingsome kind of prescription drug. Nearly 70 percent of Americans of all ages are on at least one medication, and more than half take two or more. Among women in my age cohort, a stunning one in four are taking antidepressants.
Walking is cheap. It makes you creative, it makes you happy, it gives you great gams, and it mitigates many diseases of aging like diabetes, hypertension, and high cholesterol. Why doesn’t everyone do it?

Message me if you want information about next year’s classes and workshops.