My first painting of January

My recent works have been in shades of white, and that’s sadly not about winter.
A problem hidden behind a wall can upset the most carefully-crafted schedule.

One of the problems with following other artists on social media is that you can really feel out of step. Earlier this week, many artists were posting their “last painting of the decade.” Immediately on the heels of that, many started the Strada January 31-day challenge.

Daily painting exercises are great, especially for plein air painters. When the world is a swirl of grey, it’s sometimes hard to remember why we paint. Here on the 44th parallel, we’re up to about eight hours of daylight right now. The temptation to wrap oneself up in front of the fire and read can be overwhelming.
My last work of 2019. I call this Fifty Shades of White, because it’s difficult to match whites. On the other hand, the new woodstove is a great improvement.
Think of daily painting exercises as playing scales. No matter how excellent your teachers are, you won’t get better if you don’t practice. You stop being anxious about the results and concentrate more on the process.
Routine is not our enemy; in fact, whatever makes you work regularly and most productively should be embraced. That’s the message of the book Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking, by David Bayles and Ted Orland.
As much as I admire the January Strada challenge, I never play. I invariably find myself mired in a big home-repair project at the New Year. I’m done with Christmas, and I’ve had a few weeks without students. I can tear things apart and make a colossal mess, something I can’t do in the summer when the push to produce and sell work is on.
My first painting of January started by pushing things around in my studio. I’m doing it in thirds, and it took all day for me to empty the first third.
In December, we had a new woodstove installed. As often happens, there was a problem hidden in the wall.  That meant plasterwork and an unscheduled repainting of the room.
I’d also planned to paint the floor of my studio. The prior owner and her grandkids had painted flowers on it years ago. It was sweet, but the radiant-heat floor had developed a crack. Its surface was battered with years of hard use—fine for a studio, but not for selling paintings.
Primed and painted and then I toddled off to bed. More of an oyster than a true white, I think.
Most fine-art painters I know are also good wall painters. We know how to use brushes, and are used to prepping substrates. It makes sense to DIY, and we’re lucky to have this useful skill set. But, like everyone else, we have other things we’d rather be doing. For me, that’s more painting, but with a smaller brush.
There’s no dawdling for me this weekend. I’m teaching in here on Tuesday morning. (If you’re interested in joining this local class, there’s information here.) There’s nothing like a deadline to speed things up!

Why paint that?

My goal is to give you a process—a series of steps and techniques—that you can use to go make masterpieces on your own.
Ken, by Carol L. Douglas. Modern clothing can be so difficult to paint attractively.
Yesterday I was leaving a meeting and a friend asked, conversationally, what I’d taught in class that morning. “Drapery,” I answered.
She paused. “Drapery? Why?”
She’s a musician herself. Had I had been thinking, I could have told her, “It’s like doing voice exercises. It may seem pointless to the outsider, but it’s a technical exercise on which other skills are based.”
I prefer to teach outdoors, but there are days that’s impractical. It’s 7° F right now and by tonight it will be raining. There will be a stiff wind out of the southwest, with gusts up to 30 mph. It’s one thing to put on my insulated boiler-suit and snow boots and go paint in bad weather, but quite a different thing to ask a student to do it, or for us to have an intelligent conversation in the midst of a storm. For those working in water-media, winter conditions are particularly difficult to manage.
Reading, by Carol L. Douglas. Michelle may be beautiful, but how about that sheepskin?
If there was nothing to learn indoors, I’d tell my students to just stay home on weeks like this, but a good painter should be able to paint whatever is thrown in front of him or her. That’s the virtue and fascination of January’s annual Strada Easel Challenge, where artists are encouraged to paint daily for 31 days. If you’re on Instagram, follow #stradaeasel.
Sometimes these daily exercises have great emotional depth. Yesterday, Julie Riker painted an old-fashioned electric percolator. It evoked an instant emotional memoryof the sort made famous by Marcel Proust and his tea-soaked madeleines in À la recherche du temps perdu. I was instantly transported to my grandmother’s house. 
Those percolators made darker, more-complex coffee than modern drip machines, and it smelled heavenly in the early morning before I headed off to school. We would have to wait patiently as it gurgled through its final rigamarole. There were no timers on coffeemakers back then.
Waiting, by Carol L. Douglas. The coat over a chair is a motif of our age.
Julie may have been just painting an old percolator, but it touched a chord in me. In this case the subject was the key, but it wouldn’t have evoked without great skill in rendering the chrome surface and the awkward power cord. You can’t really call yourself an artist unless you can take any object in front of you and arrange it into a pleasing pattern.
How does knowing how to paint draped fabric make you a better landscape painter? Of course, fabric might make it into your landscape art. More importantly, there’s a specific kind of skill required in rendering fabric. It’s very low in contrast, and often dull in color, and its variations are subtle.
And then, one day, you get the opportunity to paint a silk and gold mantilla in a commission, and, bam!
Drapery plays peek-a-boo with forms, whether it’s reefed to a spar or thrown over a chair or over the shoulder of a portly man striding through the airport. Studying it is an exercise in the lost-and-found line that is at the heart of the mystery of painting, that elevates it above photography.
My job as a teacher is not to drive and correct my students into creating a perfect result in my classes. If you sign up for that, you’re going to be very disappointed. My goal is to give you a process—a series of steps and techniques—that you can use to go on and make masterpieces on your own. If I succeed in that, my mission is complete.

Why I don’t do daily painting challenges

Just as plein air teaches you to paint fast and loose, studio painting teaches you to paint deeper.
Not every day of that year was cold. Pastel, by Carol L. Douglas.

When I finally decided to master plein air painting, I made the commitment to paint outdoors every day for one year, regardless of weather. That didn’t include Sundays, so it added up to 313 canvases painted in every kind of weather. For some reason, the worst days are the most memorable: the wind howling off the water at Ontario Beach Park, my oil paint freezing into stodge in a vineyard, or my car battery dying on a lonely country road. That was before cell phones, so I took a long, cold trudge to a nearby farmhouse to ask for a jump.

I’m sure there were many more pleasant days during that year, but they’re not stuck in my memory. Outdoor painters, like other adventurers, love to collect war stories.
The most memorable thing about this painting is that my car battery died from the cold. Oil, by Carol L. Douglas.
That year was an essay in mastery. I learned to paint in a more direct way. I mastered the three- to six-hour painting. And I developed the discipline of working through the “I don’t feel like it” moments.
Since then, I’ve done some similar, shorter challenges. I devised them for myself to answer specific problems. For example, when I realized that I misunderstood tree structure, I painted a tree every day. And when I was hampered by circumstances from doing large paintings, I did one-hour still lives each day.
This is the season of new beginnings. For some of us, that will include painting-a-day challenges. If you’ve never done one, I encourage you to try it.
This fast sketch is a personal favorite. It hangs in my home. Oil, by Carol L. Douglas.
I won’t be joining you. Been there, done that.
Daily paintings come at the cost of finishing larger canvases, which also have their place in one’s artistic development. We tend to shy away from approaching the last-minute business of finishing. That means asking, intentionally, how refined we want the ending to be. Until you bring a painting or two to that stage of high polish, you’re suffering a case of arrested development.
There’s a trope that drives me nuts: “Not one more brushstroke! You’re done!” We’ve gotten so used to the fast painting that we sometimes forget how to develop slow ones. Not stepping beyond that arbitrary finish-line retards our development. At some point, we need to be able to tell deeper stories than are possible in a field sketch.
And then there were days that were just golden. Pastel, by Carol L. Douglas.
Just as plein airteaches you how to work fast and loose, studio painting teaches you how to go deeper. I like nothing better than haring off to a new place with my paints. But there are times when I need to work slowly.
One of the joys of living in the far north is that the calendar tells you when that’s appropriate. When the wind is howling and the snow blowing, I know it’s time to focus on studio painting. Mother Nature says so.
A note to New York muralists: Believe in Syracuse is offering a $20,000 stipend to paint a mural on a West End building. For more information, see here.