What do when you hit the doldrums?

Failure is the one sure sign that you’re experimenting and growing as an artist.

Beth Carr’s painting of her mother camping, from a recent class on integrating figure into landscape.

I’ve got a student who’s been down in the dumps for a few weeks now. “Everything I paint is terrible,” she said. “I throw it in the fire.” What do when you hit the doldrums, she asked the class.

First, be merciful to yourself. This student had major surgery a few months ago. She recently took a workshop that was a sucker-punch to her self-confidence. We all want to believe we’re like Bozo-the-Clown bop bags, able to spring back upright right after we take a hit. That’s not how we’re made. The body and mind both need time to recover from injury.

Lauren Hammond’s contre-jour fruit.

“Painting is hard,” her classmates reminded her. Yes, it’s also fun and immensely rewarding, but each time we pick up a brush it’s a personal battle between our inner vision and our own limitations. That gets exhausting at times.

Experience is a great teacher. For children, every setback seems catastrophic. Toddlers cry uncontrollably when toys are snatched from them. The circumstances change, but the reaction remains. “I will never pass my driver’s test!” “He asked her to the dance, and not me!”

Lorraine Nichols turned her drapery study into seasonal fun.

As adults, we watch these tempests with a certain amount of detached amusement. We empathize, having once been young ourselves. We also know how things level out over time. In fact, it’s through surviving these periodic disappointments that children learn resilience and tenacity.

The painting student is emotionally and intellectually adult, of course. However, he or she hasn’t been painting long enough to have racked up a history of bad paintings. That makes him feel those failures very deeply.

Cassie Sano painted my favorite blueberry barrens during plein air class.

When you’ve been painting a long time, you have an entire studio full of bad art. In fact, failure is the one sure sign that you’re experimenting and growing as an artist.

Sometimes this can stretch into weeks or even months. I’ve learned that it’s paradoxically a good sign—it means I’m integrating a new idea into my painting. Periodic lousy painting is, more often than not, a sign of intellectual ferment.

Sue Colgan-Borror’s contre-jour fruit.

I take refuge in routine. I always go in the studio at the same time, and I find that carries me through these uninspired times.

The support of other artists is invaluable. I have just three friends I can be brutally honest with about my paintings. They won’t lie to me and say they’re good when they’re not. They understand my values and goals. How do you find friends like these? Join a painting group, take a class, and cultivate friendships within the painting community.

Mark Gale is tuning in to Zoom class from wherever he lands in his Airstream camper. This is a ski tech in Telluride.

But if a person makes you feel bad when you’re working with them, steer clear of them no matter how witty or pleasant they may seem. There are too many people in the art world who prop up their own egos by scoring off others. Some are very subtle.

I have three openings in my Monday evening class (6-9 PM, EST) and either two or four in the Tuesday morning class (10 AM-1 PM). The new session starts next week and runs until the week of December 14. You can learn more here.

Painting better, at last

What causes the droughts in our creative life, when we’ve apparently forgotten everything we ever knew about painting?
Ottawa House, oil on canvas, Carol L. Douglas, available.

I’m back in Nova Scotia for a two-week residency at Parrsboro Creative. A few years ago, they decided their little community at the top of the Bay of Fundy ought to be a major art center. A series of artist residencies is part of their master plan.

One of my goals is to paint some of the scenes I haven’t gotten to during three years at Parrsboro International Plein Air Festival (PIPAF). The first of these is historic Ottawa House. Built around 1770, it became the summer home of Sir Charles Tupper in 1871. Tupper was a well-known politician who once served as Prime Minister of Canada for 69 days.
The only way to paint the scene is to set up along a hairpin turn. The right side of the road is a blind spot for drivers whipping around the bend, so I faced oncoming traffic.
My home-away-from-home for the next two weeks.
A local stopped. “Two weeks ago, two girls lost control on this corner and plowed into the guardrail there.” He pointed to a spot about thirty feet away. “If it weren’t for these cables, they’d have gone over the embankment. Took two posts clean out.”
I began to think about Grant Wood’s Death on the Ridge Road. “Those cables have been there since the Second World War,” said the man, patting a post fondly. They certainly have the whiff of age about them, and are battered and twisted from impacts across the years.
I’m starting to know people in Parrsboro, and one of them stopped to chat as I worked. “You’ve chosen a dangerous spot,” he started.
That was my clue to move along. The affair was starting to remind me of that joke that ends with God saying, “First I sent you a canoe, then a boat, and then a helicopter. What more did you want?”
Four Ducks, oil on canvas, Carol L. Douglas, sold.
Sandwiched between my visits to Nova Scotia was Cape Elizabeth Land Trust’s 12thAnnual Paint for Preservation. I wrote last week about the disparity in pricing and awards for women artists, and how Parrsboro Creative was turning the tide. That trend continued at Cape Elizabeth, where the top price was earned by Jill Hoy
Still, all except two of the top 20% were men. I was the other woman. While I’m pleased, I also want to see my paint-spattered sisters consistently getting their due.
I’ve spent the better part of a week pondering why I painted so well at Cape Elizabeth and so badly at PIPAF the prior week. Robert More reminded me that the creative space is elusive, showing up where and when it wants. I was certainly tired and rushed when I arrived in Parrsboro.
Despite my workmanlike approach to painting, there are times when it all goes bad. The advantage to being older is that you’ve gone through this many times before, and you know it’s a transient problem. “You can’t create when the well runs dry,” my friend Jane Bartlett says. Prayerful reflection, sleep, reading and recreation all refill the well. I’ve done those things, and I’m back on track. Let’s hope it continues.

Do you have the right mindset for learning?

The important thing you bring to class is not your prior painting experience, but your attitude.

To teach painting effectively, one must not only know how to paint, but be able to break that down into discrete steps and effectively communicate those steps to students. That’s straightforward, right?
What isn’t so straightforward is how one prepares to be a good student. Learning is a partnership, and students always bring attitudes, personality and preconceptions to the mix. Unless a class is marketed as a masterclass, you don’t need to worry overmuch about your incoming skill level. However, some rudimentary drawing experience will make you a stronger painter.
Photo courtesy of Jennifer Johnson.
More important is intellectual openness. This means the ability to receive correction and instruction without being defensive. (I’ll freely admit I came late to this myself.) The greatest teacher in the world is useless if you’re not prepared to hear what he or she has to say.
Nobody ever paints well when they’re integrating new ideas; it’s far easier to stick with the same old processes even when they don’t work particularly well. They’re familiar. Students should come to class expecting to fail, and even to fail spectacularly. “When I take a class, I produce some of the worst crap in the world, but I will have experimented,” one artist told me. The people who produce pretty things in class are often playing it safe. They’re scared of pushing themselves past what’s comfortable.
Are you worried that you’ll lose your style if you do it the teacher’s way? Your inner self will always bounce back, but hopefully you’ll have learned something that enhances that.
What we teach is a process. The primary goal is to master that process, not to produce beautiful art in any style. If that happens, it’s a bonus, but the real takeaway ought to be a roadmap you can follow long after your teacher is gone.
Photo courtesy of Jennifer Johnson.

The student has some basic responsibilities to his fellow students. He should be on time and bring the proper equipment and supplies. Furthermore, he should be polite, friendly, and supportive to his fellow students. The importance of this latter cannot be overstressed. An overly-needy or unfriendly student can ruin a workshop for everyone, as there’s no getting away from him.

I’ve written before about the pernicious practice of negative feedback, but it’s pervasive in our teaching culture. It takes a while for students to get the hang of recognizing their successes. Before we talk about what needs fixing, we need to trust each other. One way we learn distrust is the idea that, in a critique, we are required to say something unfavorable. Only talk about what’s broken if, in fact, it’s actually broken.
Photo courtesy of Ellen Trayer.
It helps progress to be optimistic, excited and motivated. I’m blessed with an unusually great class this session, and one of the things that distinguishes them is that everyone really wants to excel in painting. They all have a strong work ethic.
Lastly, I think a good student brings a measure of self-advocacy to class. I’m listening hard, and I’m watching carefully, and I still sometimes miss things. I like it when people bring problems or concerns to my attention. It makes me a better teacher.

What does it mean to be a successful artist?

To make progress, we must experience the doldrums as well as the exhilaration of creativity.
This sketch of the Ellwanger Estate in Rochester went from being something I hated to being a favorite painting.
One of my artist friends is struggling right now. Her current work feels stale to her, but when she pushes the boundaries, she is uncomfortable. She worries that the results feel like “too, too much.” Like most of us, she is looking for that sweet spot that combines marketability with room to grow and challenge herself.
Another artist friend wonders how to tell if you’re a successful artist. She proposed that you are a success if you bring joy to someone. I pointed out that a lot of people have some really awful art hanging on their walls. It apparently makes them happy. Bringing joy, then, may be setting the bar too low.
I spent one memorable spring consistently overshooting the colors. I wasn’t happy then. I am now.
In other career paths, success is measured by dollars. In art, financial success is dependent on things other than artistic mastery, like connections, marketing skills, organization, and financial resources. Many great painters have labored in poverty and obscurity through most or all of their careers. Artistic success, then, must first be defined in artistic, not financial, terms. The problem is that the goal is constantly shifting.
As artists, we struggle to achieve some effect or transmit an idea. This struggle can be quite lengthy, lasting weeks or months. When we succeed, we can churn out art, seemingly effortlessly. During that short golden period, work is fun and exciting. We feel like we’ve finally ‘got it’.
I worked on site on Lower Falls at Letchworth for the better part of a season. That meant hiking to the bottom of the gorge with my painting kit. It was no fun.
Sadly, this is a fleeting thing.
Soon another question or problem surfaces. We realize a deficiency, or we need to explore a different subject. The searching and questing starts again. Work feels halting, incompetent, and difficult.
There are times when it seems like I’ve never held a brush before. I’m awkward, unpolished, and incapable. No, I’m not suffering from amnesia. If I’m doing my job right, I haven’tdone this before, because part of what we artists do—or ought to do—is explore uncharted areas. Luckily, I’m a process-driven, rather than results-driven person. Otherwise, I’d lose my mind.
The struggle at the Lower Falls meant that painting its mate, Upper Falls at Letchworth, was easy.
Some of the pieces that felt most awkward at the time actually turned out to be road-markers for the forward journey. That’s why I’m never keen on scrubbing out ‘failures’ after a painting session. I just can’t tell what a painting means when I’m working on it.
Embracing a cycle of success and struggle is the heart of the artistic process. To make progress, we must allow ourselves to experience the doldrums as well as the exhilaration of the creative process.
The Long Road Home is another work that had to be dragged out of my fingertips.
When someone is at the bottom of one of these cycles, I recommend they read (or reread) the classic Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland. They address the pertinent issues of habit, persistence and routine. If nothing else, the book reminds us that we’re not alone in this struggle.

The genius of routine

The Red Truck, oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas
 I believe that creativity rests less on freedom than on structure. I’m not the only person who’s discovered that genius requires discipline: from this Navy SEAL asserting that everything starts with making your bed to Mason Currey’s Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, the idea permeates current thought on the creative process.

Portrait of the Artist’s Studio. If you’re looking for the exotic air of the sereglio in my studio, you have come to the wrong place.
Writers and artists are frequently asked how we make meaningful work while earning a living. Currey set out to amass as much information as he could find about the routines underlying successful careers in the arts. Several of his common themes resonate with me.
A workspace with minimal distractions. People often want to stop and see my studio, and they’re always disappointed. It is not an ‘arty’ place. It’s a practical workspace, not much different in form from my wood shop. My most successful artist friends concentrate on having their stuff where they need it, even when the space is tiny and appears to be overflowing.
For me, the most difficult part of working out of my house is that I’m easily found.
I walk every day, unless the temperature drops below zero and the wind is blowing, or the snow is too deep.
A daily walk. I actually take two walks every day—the first one first thing in the morning, the second in late morning or at lunch time. This is a lifelong habit. Walking is my time to think, reflect, and pray. I rapidly sink into ennui when deprived of it.

As time-consuming as it is to walk several miles a day, my productivity actually drops if circumstances keep me from exercising.

Accountability. Unlike a writer, the visual artist can’t count brushstrokes or square inches of work. But we can assure that we work regular hours. I have noticed that this helps me get in the groove of painting faster. I’m convinced that the brain recognizes routine and appreciates it.
This is jeweler Jennifer Jones doing some of the busywork in her job—sorting findings by color.
A clear dividing line separating our important work and busywork. Most artists spend half their work day doing things like marketing, accounting, taxes, inventory control, etc.  Unfortunately, we use our computers for that, which sucks us inevitably into the world of email and Facebook. Our ancestors may have spent a ton of time doing busywork, but at least it didn’t ding at them morning, noon and night.

I’ve noticed that I’m doing less sketching since I’ve gotten a smart phone. It’s too easy to pull it out to check messages and then get drawn into it.

A supportive partner. My husband and I have been happily married for almost 35 years. About two years ago, we had a heart-to-heart talk about my career and where it was going. It was obvious that getting out of Rochester was the next logical career step for me. He never hesitated. “Go,” he said, and I am. That’s amazing loyalty and support.
It used to be that painting en plein air saved you from distraction. Sadly, we now carry our distraction around with us.
Limited social lives.You know that arty guy you see at every opening? I wonder when he has time to get any work done.

Most successful artists I know are to some degree antisocial, and yet our work is essentially communication. People don’t just feel that they know us, they do know us, and we have to honor that. But like anyone else working for a living, we need time to actually get stuff done. I love teaching art and talking about art, but during the day I want to be busy making art.

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 Sleep-Deprived Artist

Gail Kellogg Hope is an artist, clothing designer, and the mother of a new young son. I asked her to write about the trials of temporarily misplacing her career in favor of motherhood.

1170 Huntarian Psalter. Want to know how she’s getting stuff done? She tied the little bugger in his crib, that’s how. He’s not crying, so she must have drugged him. I’m a spinner who rarely gets to spin these days.  It’s so rare I write about it on Facebook when it happens.
The sleep-deprived mommy haze isn’t enough fun and I can totally type with one hand. Two hours later the child is asleep in his crib, I have tea in my cup and may (possibly) be able to string a paragraph or five together.
Creative people have a hard time not being creative. I’m not sure why, but we just have to be making something all the time. When I had to go on light duty and bed rest with this pregnancy, I thought I’d go insane not doing anything. 
For fun, I build solar dehydrators and travel to Maine to dye yarn with friends on my vacations, “What beach? You mean you want me to put down the power tools, sit down and relax?  Why?”
Behold, the cuteness!  The source of all lost attention spans!
So I found a project that did not tax my very limited physical capabilities. This turned out to be making knock-offs of medieval illuminated manuscripts. These are loose illustrations in watercolor/gouache, ink and gold paint. While they can get elaborate, they are not difficult. They are nice doodles that fulfill the creative need.
As a bonus, I get to look at the crazy drawings done by bored monks and nuns known as marginalia. These are the fart jokes, battle-of-the-sexes and political commentary of the times. They’re a look into the daily lives of real people. Lemme tell ya, the classic penis joke is classic, and I’d like to see the serious historian remain serious after that. “It isthe rabbit!” is much older than you thought. Take that, Monty Python!
Rainbow-color cloth book with fun textures, which didn’t cut it as a creative outlet, but you can read about it here.
Anyway, fast forward to today, and I’m a happy breastfeeding mommy-bed play mat.  If I’m not nursing the kid I’m holding the sleeping baby. Do not move or he will wake up. Or, I’m attending to my son’s very important developmental needs: “Stack the block, knock it down!  Tigger Rattle!  ABCDEFG. Look, John Robert, Yellow! Yay!” Or trying to figure out how to make the crying stop.
While this is all very fun, that creative need is just not being met by making the kid a rainbow color cloth book with fun textures, which I did after managing to mommy-ninja him into The Dreaded Swing for a nap, pee, eat and somehow get up to the sewing room.

I call this The Puking Dragon.
So, back to the doodles: things that can easily be put away and picked up much later, fiddled with one-handed, and that don’t mean all that much in case of puke. 
I’m so not a Pinterest Mommy. I’m lucky if I get a shower, three square meals and brush my teeth in the same day. I haven’t plucked my eyebrows in a month but I managed to nix the whiskers a few days ago. But the kid is clean, dry & fed by golly, and if we all have to wear mismatching socks, so be it.
Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

Paralysis

Me, working again. What a relief.

Any artist who tells you they have never suffered from creative paralysis is a liar. In my case, this is often the first step of a major series of work. It takes the form of extreme anxiety, where I can’t even walk through my studio doors. My solution is usually to approach the project sideways. I do little studies until I regain my nerve.

That would have been my normal approach last month, as I cleared the decks to work on a major show next spring. But what would have been a temporary state has been outrun by the events in my personal life.
This morning, I enter the maw of modern medicine again in the form of a pre-surgical meeting for a recently-diagnosed cancer. I’m not overly worried about the long-term outcome, but recovering from my last surgery has been awful for my work habits.
Why do people seek out psychics? Actually watching fate bearing down on us is an awe-inspiring and terrible thing. This month, two people dear to me moved through the final stages of death. I was useless for anything other than the most habitual tasks. I felt as if the circuits of the heavens were opened up, and I could do nothing except stare.
One built, eight more to go. But that’s progress.
I suppose I could have handled my physical recovery, my loved ones’ deaths, or the anxiety of a new project separately, but the combination of the three was too much.
Ultimately, I used others—most notably, my husband and my assistant Sandy—as emotional battering rams. With their support, I was able to get back to work. It’s a funny thing about painting: it’s essentially a solitary act that is also a form of communication to the world. And death is a solitary act that is also universal; nobody escapes it.
Each time we artists stumble and fall, we think, “It’s all over now. I’m ruined; I can’t meet my commitments.” I was well into that mantra of self-condemnation until I recollected that I’ve banked a lot of hard work over the prior year. If I don’t sell another thing in 2013 (and since I’m about to have another surgery, I doubt I will) it’s still the best year I’ve had since 2008.
Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

MacGyvered

One of Alexey Kljatov’s exquisite snowflake photos.
Albrecht Durer was renowned for his skill in painting detail. There’s a legend that he was once asked by the artist Giovanni Bellini for the brushes with which he painted hair. Durer handed Bellini an unremarkable brush. ‘I do not mean this, I mean the brushes you use to paint several hairs with one touch,’ Bellini answered. Durer proceeded to demonstrate that it was all in the technique, not the tool.
A still life by Alexey Kljatov. He moves a flashlight around and then meshes images in Photoshop to make this effect.
Macro photos of snowflakes popped up all over my newsfeed last month. These were shot by one Alexey Kljatov. Evidently, in Moscow when you decide to take up macro photography you don’t run down to 42ndStreet Photo and drop a grand or more on a new camera with interchangeable lenses. You buy a used Russian-made lens from an old film camera (currently available on ebay for about $25) and tape it to your decidedly down-range Canon Powershot, using a chunk of wood as a stabilizer and a black garbage bag to keep out light.
That’s an old Russian-made SLR lens taped to an ‘extension bellows’ taped to a Canon Powershot, all stabilized with a piece of wood.
Kljatov’s snowflakes are detailed, luminous, and, most of all, fascinating. A similar hack he did to take telescopic shots of the moon rendered weirdly wavery but inviting images of our planet’s closet friend. When he’s not outside freezing, Kljatov does a series of layered still lifes using a handheld flashlight and lots of hours on his computer.
The moon, shot by Alexey Kljatov. In this instance, he used rubber bands to affix a telephoto lens to his Canon Powershot.
Kljatov’s camera is a 2007-vintage, mid-range Canon Powershot. In fat, sassy America, those cameras (if they’re still around) are used for nothing more than shooting snapshots of the passing scene.
Every once in a while I stop at my local art store to ponder the locked case of $250 watercolor brushes by the counter. Is it really necessary to spend so much money in pursuit of creativity? Or is creativity to be found in the exact opposite of such luxury?

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

Giving it away for free—the journalism question

Low Bridge (Erie Canal), oil on canvas, by Carol L. Douglas. Go ahead, copy it, print it, and hang it on your wall. Satisfying? I doubt it. But you can contact me and buy the original, and I guarantee you it will bring you joy.
No discipline has suffered more from the internet than journalism. Its unemployment rate is higher than that of art historians, even though it was once the “something practical” that artists were told they should major in.
I worked as a stringer for a local paper in the late ‘80s. I made fifteen bucks a story back then, for which I sat through interminable board meetings. Said paper doesn’t even hire stringers any more. Evidently the water-and-sewer-line stories now gather themselves, and democracy in its most immediate form operates sub rosa.
“How do you publish photos on the internet so you don’t lose your copyright?” I was asked recently. (The writer was concerned about Facebook.) The short answer is that we give Facebook a non-exclusive, transferable, royalty-free, worldwide license to use any content we post. However, we don’t negate our ownership; that’s protected by law.
The same scene in a photo, more or less. Do whatever you want with it; I don’t care. Photos are a dime a dozen on the internet.
Having said that, our copyright is probably worthless, because photography itself is devalued. Today’s point-and-shoot cameras take better pictures than most trained photographers could back in the age of film. Unless you’re shooting events for a fee, are particularly gifted, or got extremely lucky and caught the Duchess of Cambridge nursing Prince George in the buff, you may as well set your privacy controls to zip and let ‘er rip. It’s difficult to protect photos on the internet, and many news sources have given up trying.
Which brings me to a curious anomaly about the internet: it’s better for painters than for photographers. No screenshot of one of my paintings will ever compare to the original. However, the character of a good painting is implied well enough in a photo that potential buyers can see what they’re getting. That means that the same qualities that make the internet so good for ripping off people’s photos make it a great platform for promoting paintings.
Oddly, one sees a similar thing in the writing disciplines as well. I can hack almost any news source, but if I want to read a novel, I go through the normal licensing channels to download it to my Kindle or—gasp—read a book printed on paper. Novelists can and do use the internet to promote their works, and we consumers willingly pay them for their intellectual property. Imagine that.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

That mysterious synergy between artists

Pokeweed and ferns set off those florist flowers.
When the creative process is working well between two people, there’s what a friend calls “flow.” Solutions seem to flow naturally into the openings created by problems.
Jennifer Jones makes smashing statement jewelry out of repurposed buttons, gems, earrings, brooches (and the occasional tiny hot sauce bottle). She spends most of her days arranging enamel flowers; who better than to help me arrange fresh ones for my kid’s wedding on Saturday?
Jennifer Jones, hard at work arranging baskets.
We chose the flower colors weeks ago (with the bride’s connivance, of course) and were quite smug about them. And they worked fine in the bouquets. But when we got to the flowers for the church, they were, frankly, boring.
Jennifer stood back, eyeballing her creation, and asked, “You got any pokeweed in your back garden?” The chances of someone deliberately leaving pokeweed in one of our highly-manicured, postage-stamp gardens are nil. But I’ve kept one for two years, ever since costume clothier Gail Kellogg Hope and I had a chat about its dyeing properties.
The florist flowers. Yes, that’s goldenrod in the back, and yes, I paid actual money for it (since it’s already passed here in WNY).
Pokeweed has flashy bright-pink stems, large lance-shaped leaves and grape-like clusters of dark purple berries. (Evidently it is used in folk medicine and food in some cultures, but since it also contains plant toxins, I steer clear of it as a food source.)
I went out with a flashlight and clipped several stems of pokeweed and a few ferns, which are now turning gold. The result was far better than anything I could have expected from the florist blooms alone.
My cousins run a fantastic flower shop called Flowerflower. They specialize in using native plants, but since they’re in Australia, that tends to run to crazy-looking banksias and other things suited to their topsy-turvy continent. Yet somehow the pokeweed seems just as exotic, even though it’s as common as dirt in American farmyards.
The final count—27 vases, two baskets, seven bouquets, four corsages, 11 boutonnieres. Oh, and there will be no painting class on Saturday! 

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!