Monday Morning Art School: brushwork

Mark-making can be loose and gestural or very controlled. It’s personal, but it’s also something you can learn.

Dining Room in the Country, 1913, Pierre Bonnard, courtesy Minneapolis Institute of Art. Bonnard used small brush strokes, intense colors, and close values.

Brushwork is, on one hand, the most personal of painting subjects. It’s also (especially in watercolor) highly technical. Much of what is called ‘style’ comes down to what brushes we choose and what marks we make with them. I wrote about that here.

Modern viewers are immediately captivated by bravura brushwork; it’s a sign of self-confidence and competence. It comes from lots of practice. It also must rest on a firm foundation of proper color mixing and drafting. Flailing around to fix something negates the freshness and decisiveness of good brushwork.

Wheatfield with Crows, 1890, Vincent van Gogh, courtesy Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam. The motion in the painting is created by his brush strokes.

The best, most immediate, brushwork lies on a foundation of careful planning. Continuous modification, glazing, changing color, etc., make for diffident marks.

Let’s talk about how not to do it:

  • Unless you’re doing close detail, don’t hold your brush like a pencil. It’s a baton, and holding it to the back of the center-point (away from the ferrule) gives you more lyrical motion. Your grip can still be controlled by your thumb, you can hold it loosely, or even clutch it in your fist. The important thing is to let your arm and shoulder drive the movement of the brush, rather than just your wrist and hand. The farther back you hold the brush, the more scope of movement. To loosen up, blast some music and pretend you’re the conductor and that brush is your baton.
  • Don’t dab. By this I mean a pouncing/stabbing motion with the tip of your brush. It’s amateurish in oils, anemic in acrylics, and hell on your brushes.
  • Don’t use brush strokes that go in all one direction. Learn to apply paint in the round. This is a rule that can be broken, but make sure you’re doing so intentionally, not just because you don’t know how to paint in every direction.
  • Don’t bury your line. Much of the power of Edgar Degas’ mature work comes from his powerful drawing; he was the most accurate draftsman of his age, and he let that stand prominently in his work.

Self Portrait with Beret and Turned Up Collar, 1659, Rembrandt van Rijn, courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Pay close attention to the economy of the brushwork in the hair, and the expressive, unfinished brushwork in the face. In this way, Rembrandt was able to create a powerful focus.

There are many painters whose brushwork I admire, but there’s little point in trying to copy them in my own work. Brushwork is as personal as handwriting. It’s where the artist expresses—or suppresses—his feelings. There’s value in attempting to copy passages by great painters, and I suggest you do so with the samples I’ve attached to this blog. But don’t try to paint like Sargent or Van Gogh or Rembrandt; use what you learn to create your own mature style.

Waterlilies, c. 1915, Claude Monet, courtesy Neue Pinakothek, Munich. Monet makes no attempt to hide his drawing in this painting. The brushstrokes are wet-over-dry.

Style is the difference between our internal vision and what we’re capable of. We often don’t like our own brushwork when we lay it down; I think that’s because it’s too personal. Don’t continuously massage your brushstrokes hoping to make them more stylish. If the passage is accurate in color, line and precision, move on. You may come back to realize it’s wonderful.

Lady Agnew of Lochnaw, 1892, John Singer Sargent, courtesy Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh. Note that the transparent sleeves are not produced by glazing, but with direct, long brushstrokes.

Use your brushwork to highlight the focal points in your painting. Sharp, clean, contrasting marks draw the eye, where soft, flowing, lyrical passages encourage us to move through. Let there be dry-brush texture and unfinished passages in your painting.

Monday Morning Art School: Where is the “me” in that painting?

Every line we paint, if we paint it honestly, tells the story of us and our feelings about the subject.

Sometimes it rains, by Carol L. Douglas, available through Ocean Park Association.

My husband is a stylish bass player. He says that he seldom thinks about style; instead, it’s that space between what he is technically capable of playing and what he’s visualized. I recognize that the same thing is true in my own painting.

I never get into questions of style with my students. It’s ineffable. I once had a teacher who lauded the heavy lines in my painting. “It’s your style,” he said. Actually, I didn’t like it but I hadn’t learned to marry edges yet.

Jennifer Johnson rode up to Schoodic Institute with me yesterday; this is her fourth year at my Sea & Sky workshop. She’s learned to produce a competent painting in a reasonable amount of time. “But how do I put my own emotion, my own self, into my painting?” she asked me. I had to laugh. Her paintings are as lively and quirky as she is.

Tom Sawyer’s Fence, by Carol L. Douglas, available.

No two artists paint the same scene the same way. Coincidentally, most of my plein air class on Tuesday chose the exact same long view to paint: a majestic vista down Clary Hill’s blueberry barrens. Each painting was markedly different.

Every line we paint, if we paint it honestly, tells the story of us and our feelings about the subject. Style is not something you add into a painting; it’s a reflection of your personality.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t paint deeper subjects. I don’t paint boats just because they’re beautiful, but because they’re meaningful symbols of the human journey. But the essential self-expression happens not in the content, but in the paintwork itself.

Blueberry barrens, Clary Hill, by Carol L. Douglas. Available through Maine Farmland Trust Gallery.

I’ve noticed that artists—myself included—often want to obliterate the very things in our painting that are most honest and autobiographical. Our brushwork can feel crabbed to us even if other viewers see it as intense or lyrical. We want to make things that are smooth, refined, and loose even when we’re uproarious or unsettled.

Yet the painters we most admire are often the ones who were most self-revelatory. For every Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, Seurat, Pissarro, Monet, or Manet, there were hundreds of other painters hanging around Paris whom we don’t remember. They trotted out carefully produced, well-designed, even stylish canvases that have no ability to move us today.

Any decent critic can tell you what makes a good painting. It’s harder to identify what makes a great painting, but I think it must include big concepts: tragedy, sublimity, beauty, ugliness, joy, terror. A masterwork is of course a product of its time, but to transcend that, it must tell essential truths that transcend time and place.

Mountain fog, by Carol L. Douglas. Available.

For those to be in your painting, they must be in you in the first place, and you have to be willing to be honest. I’ve learned to set aside paintings that irritate me and revisit them in the future; like Wildfire(which I wrote about here) they sometimes have the capacity to surprise me. This is why I discourage people from tossing ‘failed’ paintings too soon. Sometimes our conscious minds need time to catch up with our sympathetic intelligence.

None of this negates the importance of instruction, by the way. We all learned to write in cursive in the same way, but every person’s handwriting ends up so individualized that experts can determine when it’s forged.

I’m teaching my annual Sea & Sky workshop in Acadia National Park this week—two months later than its usual August date. After that, there’s Find Your Authentic Voice in Plein Air in Tallahassee, Florida, in early November, and a few more plein air classes in Rockport, ME. From there on in, it’s all Zoom, Zoom, Zoom until the snow stops flying.

Don’t be so quick to judge

If it’s not love at first sight, maybe it’s because you’re doing something right.

Captain Linda Striping, oil on canvasboard, by Carol L. Douglas
One of my old painting pals frequently scrubs out paintings that she feels are going wrong. “Look, I’ve saved a good board,” she’ll say. My surplus plein air paintings, if stacked in one pile, would be about the same height as me. They’re almost all on expensive boards, so I see her point. Nevertheless, I think scrubbing out is generally a terrible idea.
Art growth is all about taking risks. The bravest paintings are sometimes the ones you hate as you’re doing them. That’s particularly true if your experiments are about mark-making. Most of us would rather have someone else’s brushwork; ours is somehow too self-revelatory. That’s not to say that mark-making can’t be taught or learned. Just like handwriting, it starts with general rules and ends up being very individual.
Sea Fog, oil on canvasboard, by Carol L. Douglas
I have a student who paints lyrically until he reaches the top layer in his paintings. Then he feels the need to apply a higher level of finish. It squeezes the energy right out, and obscures his basic ebullience.
(This is not, by the way, the same thing as ‘overworking.’ That’s a bogeyman used to scare beginning painters into not figuring out how to finish a painting. Paint is far more forgiving than most people think, and nothing on your canvas is so precious as to be irreplaceable.)
Scrub a painting out or obsessively overpaint, and you may murder a new idea before it’s even hatched. I’ve lost count of how many times I have set a painting aside in disgust, and then looked at it a few years later and realized it was very good. That’s one reason I keep all those surplus plein air paintings.
Captain Doug on the ratlines, oil on canvasboard, by Carol L. Douglas
We’re not good judges of our own work as we’re doing it. The disconnect between what we’ve envisioned and what actually happened is too pronounced. You may set out to paint the iridescence of lustreware, and fail miserably. You are so focused on that failure that you never notice that the color, structure and paint handling in your work is simply stunning. That’s where a teacher can be helpful, and why positive criticism is so useful. But time itself is a great healer. It allows you to stop seeing the painting from inside your own head.
All this assumes that you have a painting protocol that you follow, one which includes significant design steps. A poorly-designed painting is really the only thing you can do that’s unsalvageable. Your process ought to include thumbnails, notan studies, paint studies, or value drawings. Many people waste lots of time producing mediocre paintings because they’re too impatient to design carefully. But if the design is good, you have to work hard to wreck a painting.
Tricky Mary in a Pea Soup Fog, oil on canvasboard, by Carol L. Douglas
Still, you often can’t tell until the end whether you’re going to pull it off or not. RebeccaGorrell once told me, “I was really unhappy with it till the last half hour—a good recurring lesson.” She’s so right. Paintings sometimes gel after a long hard fight. The only way you’ll know is by continuing to slug it out.

It’s not the brushes, kiddo

Brushes are ordinary; it’s what you can do with them that is extraordinary.

Home Port, by Carol L. Douglas, 18X24, oil on linen.
At Castine Plein Air, Ken DeWaard did a small boat painting that I thought was darn near perfect. (I don’t have an image of it, but you can see it at Camden Falls Gallery.) One of the things that struck me was the fluid brushwork. My brushes are getting frayed, so none of my flats are still flat, and many of my rounds are splayed. And, frankly, I abuse them, tossing them in my hot car and forgetting to clean them. I’ve had trouble with my last batch of Robert Simmons signets—the ferrules are loose—so I’m interested in experimenting with something else.
I asked Ken what brushes he’s using. “Some Rosemarys, and some cheap synthetics,” he answered. That made sense. In oils, the trade off with synthetic or soft animal hair is that you get better control, but they carry less paint. You can’t be rudely aggressive with them. But if you want lyrical linework or detail, or want to glaze, they’re unbeatable. I’ve been messing with a Princeton Snap! brush this month. Synthetics have come a long way.
What I was working on while painting with Ken DeWaard on Monday. Another day and I think I’ll be well on the way to finishing.
Monday, Ken and I painted together in Rockport. I took the opportunity to look at his brushes. They’re a saturated, half-hardened mess—even worse than mine. If he can paint that beautifully with those cudgels, I need to stop grumbling about my brushes.
Albrecht Dürer was arguably the most facile brush-wrangler who ever lived. Whether it was in watercolor, as in the Young Hare, or in oils, as in his many self-portraits, he could seemingly lay down every single hair on man or beast’s head. He was famous for this skill all over Europe.
He was in communication with the major Italian artists of his time, including RaphaelLeonardo da Vinci, and Giovanni Bellini. His relationship with Bellini was more than merely professional. Dürer visited Venice twice and developed a friendship with the older man. Bellini was the most famous member of a prestigious family of artists and very influential. He was no slouch with the fine brush himself.
Self-Portrait at Twenty-Eight, 1500, Albrecht Dürer, courtesy Alte Pinakothek, Munich
By Dürer’s second visit, Bellini was at the end of his long life. He extended many professional courtesies to Dürer, not the least of which was introducing the younger man to his own noble Venetian clients.
One day, after carefully examining the head of one of Dürer’s saints, Bellini asked to use the brush that had creating such lifelike hair. Dürer handed the old man the brush in question. Bellini tried it and failed to produce anything fine. Dürer took the brush back, still loaded with Bellini’s paint, and painted a lock of hair so marvelous that the older man said he wouldn’t have believed it had he not seen it with his own eyes.
Doge Leonardo Loredan, after 1501, Giovanni Bellini, National Gallery, London
This story is apocryphal, but makes a true point. Dürer’s brush was ordinary; his abilities were extraordinary. Brushes influence our mark-making, but they don’t control it. Strength, age, experience, personality and patience all play roles in how we lay down paint.
Dürer, by the way, was inordinately proud of his own hair, painting his ringlets in several wonderful self-portraits. I have the same ringlets as that cocky young man had five hundred years ago, and I’m almost as vain about them as he was. But I’ve never painted a self-portrait. Perhaps this winter I should rectify that.

Painterliness

Your brushwork is your handwriting, and that develops with practice.
Tom Sawyer’s Fence, by Carol L. Douglas.
The idea of painterliness was developed by Swiss art historian Heinrich Wölfflin in his Principles of Art History (1915). In it, he contrasts painterliness with linearity. Wölfflin was primarily concerned with defining classic and baroque art, but the terms can be applied to any period and any media.
To Wölfflin, linearity was a focus on draftsmanship, contour, and fixed boundaries. Painterliness included tactile brushwork, non-local color in shadow, and patterns of shadow and light. The painterly artist used these things, instead of edges, to define shapes.
Best Buds, by Carol L. Douglas. Courtesy Trove on Main.
Today we have reduced his thesis to one point: a painting is painterly when there are visible, uncontrolled brushstrokes. By our lights, Lois Dodd is painterly; Rackstraw Downes is linear. That’s a gross oversimplification.
What are brushstrokes? They are so well-understood by non-artists that they’re used as metaphor (“broad brushstrokes”). Yet brushwork is highly individual and difficult to teach. Still, there are rules that painting teachers lay down about them, such as “when you’re Pierre Bonnard, you can dab; until then, it looks amateurish.”
Bracken Fern, by Carol L. Douglas
I have never liked my own brushwork. I recently decided that I’ve intentionally smoothed it over because it’s embarrassingly self-revelatory. This summer I stopped overpainting, and suddenly people have been telling me I’ve made a breakthrough.
A bad solution to brushwork insecurity is to become extremely stylized, especially in the manner of someone you admire. This is instantly appealing to uneducated audiences, so it’s a popular idea. It’s also a stifling trap. Far better to take the time to let your own brushwork emerge naturally.
Dry Wash, by Carol L. Douglas
Deborah Lazarposed an interesting idea to me a while ago. She compared brushwork to the envelopein musical sound. This has three parts. Attack is the changes occurring before the sound reaches its steady state. Sustain is the sound at its maximum intensity, and decay is how it fades to silence. Together, they create the distinctive tone color of a sound.
As painters get more experienced, they’re able to control the attack and decay better and hold the sustain longer. That, by the way, is one powerful reason to use a bigger brush. It holds more paint.
Spring thaw on the Pecos River, by Carol L. Douglas
Unlike the violinist, the painter has many brushes. Each has a different envelope. That’s why painting teachers generally don’t dictate what brushes students should use, any more than we teach the Palmer Method of Penmanshipin school today. We teach you how to make the shapes, and it’s up to you to develop fluency.
It takes most kids the better part of a decade to learn to write beautifully. The more you practice, the more fluid your brushwork will be, but if you don’t cut corners, it will be unmistakably your own.

Monday Morning Art School: how to be painterly

Bravura brushwork rests on a foundation of practice and skill.
Wheatfield with Crows, 1890, Vincent Van Gogh, courtesy Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
“Painterly” describes a painting that is comfortable in its own skin. It uses the paint itself to create movement and expression. It’s a quality found in every medium; even sculpture is sometimes described as painterly. Painterly works are loose and emotive, and they lead with their brushwork.
This is a sensual, rather than intellectual, quality. It comes from experiencing the paint itself. You’re there when you no longer fight the paint, but work with it. It’s the opposite of photorealism, where the artist works hard to conceal all evidence of his process. A painterly painting doesn’t fuss over the details.
Does that mean it must be impasto? No. Peter Paul Rubens, JMW Turner and Joaquín Sorolla were all painterly painters, and none of them wallowed in paint. There are many fine contemporary painters who work thin and expressively.
Cloud study, watercolor over graphite, 1830–35, John Constable, courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We don’t usually think of Constable as painterly, but he was in his plein air work.
The term “painterly” was coined in the 20th century by art historian Heinrich Wölfflin. He was trying to create an objective system for classifying styles of art in an age of raging Expressionism. The opposite of painterly, he felt, was “linear,” by which he meant paintings that relied on the illusion of three-dimensional space. To him this meant using skillful drawing, shading, and carefully-thought-out color. Linear was academic, and painterly meant impulsive.
That didn’t make the Old Masters inevitably linear, however. Rembrandt and Lucian Freud are both painterly painters. Richard Estesand Sandro Botticelliare both linear.
Today, we don’t see accurate drawing as an impediment to expression. In plein air work, acute drawing is often overlaid with expressive brushwork. The idea of painterliness—of being loose and self-assured—is treasured even as we strive for accuracy.
House in Rueil, 1882, Édouard Manet, courtesy National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
How do we develop painterliness?
First, master the fundamentals. “You can practice shooting eight hours a day, but if your technique is wrong, then all you become is very good at shooting the wrong way,” said basketball great Michael Jordan. “Get the fundamentals down and the level of everything you do will rise,” he said. That’s very true of painting, where there is a specific protocol for putting paint down.
Then practice, practice, practice. “I’m not out there sweating for three hours every day just to find out what it feels like to sweat,” said Jordan.
Expect failure. It comes with pushing your technique. “I have missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I have lost almost 300 games,” said Jordan. “On 26 occasions I have been entrusted to take the game winning shot… and missed. And I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
Beach at Valencia, 1908, Joaquín Sorolla, courtesy Christie’s
You can’t teach yourself to be relaxed; you can only get there through experience. The only way to be painterly is to paint. I can show you expressive brushwork techniques, but there are still no shortcuts. It happens automatically and naturally with experience. You stop focusing on the mechanics, and start focusing on what you see. Your eye is on the ball.
Many times, artists only realize their painterly styles in old age. That is when Titianstarted painting in blotches, in a style that came to be known as spezzatura, or fragmenting. “They cannot be looked at up close but from a distance they appear perfect,” wrotethe Renaissance art critic Giorgio Vasari. Rembrandt is another painter who started out painting precisely but ended up loose. Édouard Manet is still another. In fact, the list is inexhaustible.
Vincent Van Gogh is the personification of painterliness. He died at 37, but still managed to produce around a thousand paintings (that we know of).
Bravura brushwork simply rests on the foundation of all those paintings that went before.
I’m at Saranac Lake, prepping for Adirondack Plein Air, which starts this morning. I wrote Extreme Art: Painting inside the Blue Line just for this event. It’s not on my blog, so if you’ve ever been interested in what goes on at a plein air event, enjoy.

Missing the mark

Other people say it’s good, but you think it’s awful. What do you do with it?
Spruces and pines on the Brook Trail, by Carol L. Douglas. This is more or less where my mark-making is today.
Last week I listened to a fellow artist grumble about her painting. I really couldn’t see anything wrong with it; it was quite good, and I told her so. “But it’s not what I set out to do!” she answered. The wind, the rain, and the changing light had robbed her scene of the vivacity she’d first envisioned.
That causes a funny sort of brain cramp in artists. Our vision is so deeply overlaid with the pattern of what we want to say that the gap bothers us. We can’t see the strengths in our work because we’re focused on what is missing. In this case, my friend couldn’t see her strong composition and the brooding quality of the painting because she was mourning the light that had escaped behind clouds. “I can’t even remember what attracted me to this scene in the first place,” she said sadly.
Hedgerow in Paradise is from a time when I was hiding behind fraudulent brushwork. The only thing wrong with it was that it was fundamentally dishonest.
I was curious about this phenomenon so when I got home I asked a musician if this ever happens to him. “Oh, all the time,” he laughed. He told me that he’d just finished composing and recording an album and to him it was totally rotten, because he hadn’t achieved his goals for the project. Still, he published it, and then he started something new.
A long time ago, Marilyn Fairman told me that the longer she painted, the less satisfied she was with her work. I’ve noticed the same thing. If you’ve never been blindsided by the gap between your inner vision and the results, I suspect you’re not challenging yourself enough.
Spring Allee is another painting from the same period. The marks are better, perhaps because it’s a deeply autobiographical painting.
I struggled for many years with hating my own brushwork. I visualized long, sinuous lines of paint. Instead, my finish was always short, abrupt, and energetic. Because of that, I frequently overworked the finish in an attempt to obliterate my own handwriting. That invariably muddied what had started as a strong painting.
Finally, I realized this was a kind of self-loathing. It was akin to always hating yourself in photos (which, I confess, I do). I stopped fussing and forced myself to leave my brushwork alone.
Then I spent a long time in the wilderness. I eventually threw out this painting of Letchworth Gorge because it was so muddy.
If it were someone else’s, I concluded, I would be fine with it. I might even love its jumping energy. But it told me something true about myself that I didn’t understand and found uncomfortable. I felt as if I had to hide this unexamined truth. That’s ironic, because painting is supposed to be forthright, and that was the most authentically honest thing about my work.
Middle Falls at Letchworth, by Carol L. Douglas. I spent that entire season at Letchworth Gorge and eventually came up with two paintings I thought were credible. It wasn’t until much later that I realized I’d finally cracked the problem of paint application.
What do you do with that dissatisfaction? This is where wiping out bad paintings is a bad practice. It steals the opportunity to study what has just happened. I’ve learned to leave those canvases alone, carry them home, rack them to dry, and then revisit the work at a later date. By then, my memory of my ambition has faded. I can see the new painting in its own merits. Often, I’m shocked to realize that I love the ones I once hated, and the ones that seemed to be easy successes now bore me.
Join me for Sea and Sky at Schoodic, August 5-10. We’re strictly limited to twelve, but there are still seats open.