A new system of training new painters

I’m confident this approach will prepare confident, competent painting students ready to tackle higher-level observational painting, composition, color theory and mark-making.

Breaking storm, 48X30, oil on canvas, Carol L. Douglas, available through Folly Cove Gallery, Rockport, MA

After this session of painting classes, which ends on November 2, I will no longer take beginning painters. I’m simply stretched too thin. Instead, I’m going to send brand-new painters to two excellent teachers. That’s a simple, six-week process in which they will learn the rudiments of paint application, brush-work and color mixing. When they’ve completed this preparatory work, I’ll welcome them back into my classes.

That doesn’t mean every new student must start this way. If you already know the fundamentals of applying paint, I’m happy to work with you, whether you are self-taught or you started in another class. And en plein air, I’m happy to welcome painters of all levels.

Michelle Reading, oil on linen, Carol L. Douglas available through Rye Arts Center.

I’ll be sending oil and acrylic painters to my old friend, Bobbi Heath. I’ve taught students prepared by her and they’ve come to me knowing the order of operations in solid-media painting. Bobbi painted on the side during a long and successful business career. That shows in the workmanlike way she trains new painters. You won’t get a lot of rhetoric from her, just a good step-by-step introduction in how alla prima painting is supposed to be done.

I’ll be sending new watercolor painters to one of my own students, Cassie Sano. Cassie has experience teaching, but she developed a syllabus specifically to train new painters for me. She too is a very logical thinker, and a person of great compassion and kindness. She’s a crackerjack watercolorist, and, more importantly, she can explain how each step works. She’ll demystify watercolor for the beginner.

Main Street, Owls Head, 16X20, Carol L. Douglas, oil on gessoboard, $1,623 unframed.

Where does this leave me? Relieved. My students have been galloping forward for the past few years, working on higher-level observational painting, composition, color theory, and mark-making. It’s unfair to the new painter to be thrown into this melee without the basics under his or her belt.

Alla prima painting comes under many names, including wet-on-wet, direct painting or au premier coup. That French version means ‘at the first strike’, and it’s a perfect description of what has to happen to get the freshness that alla prima painting promises.

Wreck of the SS Ethie, oil on canvas, Carol L. Douglas, 18X24, $2318 framed.

To hit it right on the first strike means a lot of things have to have become second nature—drawing, color mixing, and brushwork. The whole point is to keep do-overs to a minimum. That requires preparation and confidence. I’m confident that this new system of training will enhance both.

Monday Morning Art School: how to succeed in painting

The essential principle for learning is to keep on doing it until the light clicks on.

Samantha East just started painting this year. So far, so awesome.

I try to link my Monday Morning Art School blog posts to what my students will be studying in the coming week. This week, we’re working on color mixing. Everything I want to say about the subject is here. Since I wrote that just six months ago, I want my students to reread it. Meanwhile, I will address a more important question: how to succeed in painting.

There are many reasons people quit art classes, including overload in other areas of their lives. Most commonly, however, they either need time to integrate what they’ve already learned, or they realize that their interest in painting isn’t a passion.

It’s all about process. Samantha’s thumbnail, about which she writes, “loving this tool, it’s already saved me from myself several times.”

My classes have been full all year (and yes, that opening in the night class was snapped up). That has caused a kind of winnowing effect—the people who stay are very focused. That in turn raises the rate at which we’re learning, which in turn increases the pressure. It’s exhilarating.

The amount of time students can invest in painting varies, of course. Some are working and some are retired. But all of them are highly motivated.

And, yeah, I make them work through the subject in monochrome first.

That means they often solicit my opinion after class is done. I’m happy to comment, although sometimes my responses may seem terse. (I’m not that good at typing on my phone.) Often, the student knows the answer before they hit ‘send’ but it helps to have me verify it.

Ask questions. Lots of them.

Nobody writes more frequently or extensively than Samantha. We met aboard the good ship American Eagle during one of my Age of Sail watercolor workshops. She was not in the class, but she buzzed me with questions. I’ve since learned this is her modus operandi, and it’s key to her success in life.

We had very little contact again for more than a year, when she signed up for a Zoom class and then my workshop in Tallahassee. Samantha has since thrown herself into painting. Most weeks, she sends me a precisof her work. That’s in lieu of posting in our class group on Facebook, because she doesn’t do social media. Which leads me to tip #2:

Seek and accept criticism.

My students have a closed FB group. It’s where they share their finished work. That requires that they trust others to be kind but honest. That’s relationship, and it doesn’t come from social media.

Samantha’s watercolor, which she didn’t like but I did.

The students who will stumble are the ones who take correction with, “yes, but…” I wince when I hear it, because I have a very strong streak of that in myself. It impeded me for many years.

Play your scales

Samantha was recently unhappy with her trees and shrubs. She sat down with Google and YouTube to methodically investigate what others say about painting trees. Then she practiced them, over and over.

“Dern useful, I must say,” she concluded.  “I feel like my chances of producing an aesthetically-pleasing and reasonably-accurate tree are now a lot better.”

If your trees are poor, then study trees.

Revel in your own successes

“I’m pretty happy with this painting,” Samantha told me recently. Then she told me that she didn’t like her watercolor version at all. I strongly disagreed, because I felt the second painting had compelling atmosphere and cohesion. Part of learning is being able to see through someone else’s eyes.

It’s fun to do something well. Too much humility can suck the joy out of anything.

Rinse and repeat

“I remain grimly undaunted,” Samantha told me. “I figure if I keep plugging away at it I’ll eventually get it.” I’m amused by the ‘grimly’ in a woman who’s so full of joy, but she just stated the essential principle for learning: keep on doing it until the light clicks on.

Monday Morning Art School: How to make time to make art

Having trouble finding time to get anything done? We all are.

Commit to working with others, either in a class, a group, or a workshop. It will jumpstart your process.

These days, I’m turning over my guest room as fast as the Starlight Motel down the street is turning over theirs. Not well, I might add; my brother tells me I’m in danger of losing my five-star rating. Even though I strongly discourage guests in the high season, there are still people whom I want to see.

Not having enough time to make art isn’t a unique problem. It’s something I hear from other artists in every station of life. Jobs, children, parents, spouses or homes aren’t time-killers; they’re the very fabric of our lives. Still, too often we go to bed realizing we’ve done no actual artwork that day.
Schedule studio time. If you work at the same time every day, you spend less mental energy waiting for inspiration to kick in—you just dive in and do it. That’s more than a mental trick. Your body and mind crave routine. Working on art at the same time every day makes it easier to transition into the flow zone.
Take a class. They’re fun, social, advance your skills, and—just like joining the gym—you have money riding on your involvement.
Keep the set-up to a minimum. I keep my palettes in the freezer so I can paint in small increments. I sometimes work in watercolor when I don’t have time to set up in oils. I draw when I can’t do either.
I’ve been recording the passing scene in sketchbooks forever. I wasn’t always kind.
Put down your cell phone and pick up your sketchbook. Draw in meetings, classes and church—it won’t lower your comprehension much. I’ve written about the importance of sketching many times; it separates good artists from mediocre ones.
Make work a habit. Set aside a half hour a day and use it to make some kind of art. You really can cement a habit by doing it for a month.
A small amount of time with a sketchbook can yield wonderful results.

Cut out the screen time. Even with the decline in TV watching, Americans average about eleven hours a day in front of some kind of screen. You might find that all the time you need to make art can be found just by deleting the Facebook app. (Just be sure to subscribe to this blog before you do it! The sign up box is at the top right.)
Make a studio. If you don’t have a room to dedicate to art, make a studio in a corner of your bedroom or some other underutilized space. Having a dedicated, organized work space cuts down on the set-up time each time you want to work.
Find a corner somewhere where you can leave your project up.
Make art a social activity. Join a figure-drawing or plein air group. There’s accountability in committing to work with someone else.
Run away from home.Apply for a residency somewhere. Even a week of focused work, sans family, can be great for your development. I’ll be doing one at the Joseph Fiore Art Center this September.
The dreaded deadline. I hesitate to recommend this, even though the best way I know to chain myself to my easel is to commit work for a show. Yes, deadlines make you finish things. However, they’re corrosive to body and soul. Better to just develop good work practices.
Be patient with yourself
I had cancer at age 40. Since then health issues have played a much larger role in my life. I’m always infuriated by being sick, because I like to keep busy. But if you’ve just had a baby or are recovering from pneumonia, you’re not going be efficient. Be patient. Just as you have to walk a little farther every day to regain fitness, you need to slowly reform your work schedule.
I’ve got one more workshop available this summer. Join me for Sea and Sky at Schoodic, August 5-10. We’re strictly limited to twelve, but there are still seats open.

Gonna take a sentimental journey

We’ve had a lot of good times in this studio, including swing-dancing model Michelle Long.
I am frequently asked, “How do you feel about this move? Are you excited? Sad to leave?” I have loved the 21 years I’ve been in Rochester, but I’m ready to move on. Most of my thinking has been practical, not reflective.
Now my studio is dismantled, just a heap of boxes.
Except today.
I was packing my studio with my younger daughter when a Taylor Swift song started playing. If you’ve raised teenagers, you know they tend to play songs until they’re burned into your mind, and this one reminded me powerfully of her teen years. “I don’t want to leave,” I sniffed at her.
“Get real, Mom,” she said. “Of course you want to do this.” And she’s right, but I have had a lot of fun here.
The girl, making me cry.
On that note, I received a lovely note today from a student. I almost declined to take her because I didn’t feel I could accomplish much in the few weeks she had to work with me. And yet, she has turned out to be an amazing pupil and painter.

“I made a list of things I learned in your class,” she wrote. “This is not exhaustive, but some highlights.”
  • Charcoal is a wonderful sketching medium, great for roughing in tones, and very easy to rub out if you aren’t pleased with the results.
  • Don’t hold your paintbrush like a pencil, hold it out closer to the end and magic happens. (Okay, maybe not magic, but the results are much better.)
  • How to mix reds.
  • How to mix greens.
  • How to organize a palette.
  • All about easels.
  • How to fold a plastic bag.
  • Buy paints by pigments, not by their “lipstick” names.
  • Warm light, cool shadows or cool light, warm shadows.
  • Paired primaries—learn them and love them!
  • Don’t belly-up to your painting. Stand back. And sometimes, step back.
  • How to build a painting: establish a tone study on the canvas (using a mix of ultramarine blue and burnt sienna), then block in colors, and then develop them dark to light.
  • Be brave about putting marks on the canvas. And keep putting marks on canvas, or paper, or whatever.
No student every did more color exercises in my class than Matt Menzies. Matt, I’m throwing that big palette away today.

She learned all this in about 18 hours of instruction time.
Which brings me to my Maine workshop. If she could learn so much in just a few half-days, imagine what you can do in an intensive week of study. I have just a few openings left, and I strongly encourage you to register now.
Marilyn Feinberg, Kamillah Ramos and Zoe Clark, on a warm summer day painting at Irondequoit Bay. All three of them left Rochester before me.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me on the Schoodic Peninsula in beautiful Acadia National Park in August 2015. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops! Download a brochure here.

The art of practice, the practice of art

Carol Thiel’s field sketch of Durand Lake, done last Wednesday evening. About 9X12, and about three hours from easel up to easel down. If you read yesterday’s blog entry, you know that I was amazed she could get any kind of a painting out of the scene.
This morning a young woman named Cherise Parris led worship at our church. She is the daughter of two accomplished and well-known Rochester musicians (Alvin and Debra Parris) and she’s been singing since she first drew breath. She has a powerhouse voice.
Cherise uses her voice like an extension of her own self, as a tool to express an idea. I’ve had voice lessons and I’ve sung in choirs, but I’ve never gotten past the point where I’m focused on creating a tone. On the rare occasion when I forget, I usually get a jab in the ribs and a sharp hissed “Mom!” Here’s the truth: I just don’t care enough about singing to actually practice.
There’s a meme based on Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers: the Story of Success” that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to make a craftsman. The number seems arbitrary to me, but there’s certainly truth to the idea that, as Thomas Edison is alleged to have said, “Genius is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration.”
I got two pictures by email today from Carol Thiel. Carol took my workshop last October, and has since taken my classes when her work schedule permits. One painting was done before she started studying with me; one was done last Wednesday evening in my class.
A painting done by Carol Thiel last year at the Adirondack Plein Air festival, right before she took my workshop. A nice painting, but she has developed a more sophisticated palette and value structure over the past year.
“They were sitting near each other and I was struck by the difference,” she said. “Both were painted in approximately the same amount of time,” she added. “The Adirondack painting had different conditions—a very dull, cloudy day—but nowadays I would be able to see some other colors in the clouds, darken the darks, etc.”
I appreciate that Carol sees value in my instruction, but there are two parts to this. The first is good teaching, but the second is that she listens to and practices what she learns.
It takes a long time to get to the point where you use a paintbrush as an extension of yourself. I asked Sandy Quang today whether she is there yet. (She’s been studying with me on and off since she was sixteen; she’s 25 today.) “Half and half,” she answered. And I think that’s about right.
All of which reminds me of that old saw: “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” “Practice, practice, practice.”

If you want to take a workshop with me, join me in October, 2013 at Lakewatch Manor—which is selling out fast—or let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in 2014. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops! If you want to study in Rochester, drop me a line here.

Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image

My class at Highland Park.

Saturday was an exquisite day. My plein air class went to Highland Park to paint under the cherry blossoms. As we were packing up, inevitably conversation moved to what is possible in this life of ours, and how our view of God shapes our sense of our opportunities.

“I grew up in a church where every week I said, ‘I am a poor, miserable sinner,’” said one member of our little posse.
“I believe in a benevolent creator God who loves me and wants me to be happy,” I responded.
Painting by Carol Thiel
Of course both are true, and neither is complete. Unless one takes time to get to know God, one is at the mercy of every charlatan or self-deluded fool who claims to represent him.
As an artist, I make things that some other people regard as idols, so I’ve considered the Second Commandment. Perhaps the sin of idolatry isn’t in the craftsmanship that creates a golden calf at all, but in this kind of reductio ad absurdum of the character and nature of God. After all, would the children of Israel have fallen for something as absurd as the Golden Calf if it didn’t have a grain of truth embedded in the lies?
Meanwhile, a tiny bird was twittering on a limb next to us. Barely larger than my thumb, it hopped and sang, sang and hopped. It was nothing short of a miracle in its small, perfect joy. It would be presumptuous of an artist to imagine that he or she could make anything as lovely, but it’s a noble aspiration to try to capture a whisper of it to sustain us through the cold seasons.
How can one improve upon perfection?
if you’re interested in joining us for a fantastic time in mid-Coast Maine this summer, check here for more information. There’s still room in my workshops.

Fall classes starting now!

The model’s eye point of view…

Studio in Art

Saturday, 10-1
Tuesday, 2:30-5:30

(Oil, pastel, acrylic, watercolor)This class focuses on still life as a fundamental tool for developing drawing and painting technique. It is appropriate for both beginning and advanced students. Instruction emphasizes direct painting, where paint is applied solidly rather than through glazing. For watercolor and acrylic, the emphasis is on alla prima techniques.

High school juniors and seniors interested in pursuing a BFA are especially encouraged to sign up for this class. I have an excellent track record in helping students develop outstanding college portfolios.


Open Model Sessions, by invitation only

Our open model sessions are moved to Friday afternoons. Please contact me if you want more information.

Autumn is always a difficult time to schedule, since I have obligations elsewhere and there is a surfeit of holidays. If your class is cancelled, you have the option of taking the other class that week, receiving a refund, or taking a private lesson. Just ask me.

The schedule, as it currently appears

Note: we will still be painting outside, as long as the weather permits.

September, 2012  
Tuesday 9/11/2012 Open studio class 2:30-5:30 PM
Saturday 9/15/2012 Open studio class 10 AM-1 PM
Tuesday 9/18/2012 Open studio class 2:30-5:30 PM
Saturday 9/22/2012 Open studio class 10 AM-1 PM
Tuesday 9/25/2012 Open studio class 2:30-5:30 PM
Saturday 9/29/2012 NO CLASS: workshop 10 AM-1 PM

October, 2012  
Tuesday 10/2/2012 NO CLASS: workshop 2:30-5:30 PM
Saturday 10/6/2012 Open studio class 10 AM-1 PM
Tuesday 10/9/2012 Open studio class 2:30-5:30 PM
Friday 10/12/2012 Model  2 to 5 PM
Saturday 10/13/2012 Open studio class 10 AM-1 PM
Tuesday 10/16/2012 Open studio class 2:30-5:30 PM
Saturday 10/20/2012 Open studio class 10 AM-1 PM
Tuesday 10/23/2012 Open studio class 2:30-5:30 PM
Friday 10/26/2012 Model  2 to 5 PM
Saturday 10/27/2012 No CLASS 10 AM-1 PM
Tuesday 10/30/2012 Open studio class 2:30-5:30 PM

November, 2012  
Saturday 11/3/2012 Open studio class 10 AM-1 PM
Tuesday 11/6/2012 Open studio class 2:30-5:30 PM
Friday 11/9/2012 Model  2 to 5 PM
Saturday 11/10/2012 Open studio class 10 AM-1 PM
Tuesday 11/13/2012 Open studio class 2:30-5:30 PM
Saturday 11/17/2012 Open studio class 10 AM-1 PM
Tuesday 11/20/2012 Open studio class 2:30-5:30 PM
Saturday 11/24/2012 NO CLASS: Thanksgiving 10 AM-1 PM
Tuesday 11/27/2012 Open studio class 2:30-5:30 PM
Friday 11/30/2012 Model  2 to 5 PM

December, 2012  
Saturday 12/1/2012 Open studio class 10 AM-1 PM
Tuesday 12/4/2012 Open studio class 2:30-5:30 PM
Friday 12/7/2012 Model  2 to 5 PM
Saturday 12/8/2012 Open studio class 10 AM-1 PM
Tuesday 12/11/2012 Open studio class 2:30-5:30 PM
Friday 12/14/2012 Model  2 to 5 PM
Saturday 12/15/2012 Open studio class 10 AM-1 PM
Tuesday 12/18/2012 Open studio class 2:30-5:30 PM
Friday 12/21/2012 Model  2 to 5 PM
Saturday 12/22/2012 Open studio class 10 AM-1 PM
Tuesday 12/25/2012 NO CLASS: Christmas 2:30-5:30 PM
Saturday 12/29/2012 NO CLASS: Holiday 10 AM-1 PM
Tuesday 1/1/2013 NO CLASS: Holiday 2:30-5:30 PM

The nature of Nature

“Keuka Lake Vineyard,” oil on canvasboard, 9X12

This year I am teaching plein air painting in two venues. I believe that all aspiring painters should study plein air. Why?
Character: The strength of plein air painting lies in its relationship to reality, but that is also its greatest weakness. Slavish homage to what one sees is a dangerous trap, even more deadly than the same tendency in figure or still-life painting.
Our appreciation of place is not entirely visual: it also encompasses sound and smell and spatial awareness. There are certain experiences in nature—such as standing in the sand on an elliptical shoreline—that are tremendously appealing in real life, but which make for weak paintings. A literal rendering of them is worse than banal: it lies about the character of the place.
The challenge for the plein air painter is to portray the place in a way that gives a sense of the non-visual cues—the warmth of the wind, drumming of the waves, crickets in dry grass. Either the non-representational aspects of painting become more dominant, or you fail. This happens in ways that figure or still-life never force you to consider.
Composition: We know intellectually that paintings built upon a strong, simple schematic project more powerfully than those pieced together from innumerable details. Nature, however, is essentially an infinite layering of innumerable details. With landscape painting, there is no solution but to fall back on the basic tools of composition: thumbnails, value studies, and shape studies. Painting students who rely on their instructors’ model poses or still lives will never learn to compose the way a plein air student—picking and choosing from the environment’s complexities—will learn to compose.
Communication: Painting is pointless if it is devoid of any emotional or intellectual content. Despite that, it is surprisingly easy to “phone it in” at times, especially in the controlled environment of the studio. We’ve all done it. But everyone has an emotional relationship of some kind with nature, and it is impossible to avoid expressing that.
“Piseco Outlet,” oil on canvasboard, 9X12

Upcoming classes

The two venues I’m teaching in are convenient for both the local student who wants to study in Rochester and the out-of-town student who wants to take a single, intensive class:

  1. Weekly classes in the Rochester area, every Wednesday from 5:30-8:30 PM, meeting in some of the loveliest parts of Monroe County, from the pier at Charlotte to High Falls to Genesee Valley and more. The tuition is $100 a month. Email me herefor more information.
  2. “Adirondack Wild,” a plein air painting workshop at the Irondequoit Inn in Piseco from September 30 to October 5, 2012. The Adirondack preserve is the biggest, wildest park in the Lower 48, and at $775 all-inclusive (room and board) for five days and nights, this is the deal of the century. Download a brochure here.

New classes starting this weekend

Studio in Art and portfolio preparation—starting Oct. 2, 2010

Saturday, 11 AM-2 PM

(Oil, pastel, acrylic, watercolor)
This class focuses on still life as a fundamental tool for developing drawing and painting technique. It is appropriate for both beginning and advanced students. Instruction emphasizes direct painting, where paint is applied solidly rather than through glazing. For watercolor and acrylic, the emphasis is on alla prima techniques.


Uninstructed Figure Workshop—starting October 8, 2010

Friday, 1-4 PM

Model fee. Please contact me if you’re interested.