What I don’t know

Painting is a solitary journey, but there are times when you need the help of others.

Main Street, Owl’s Head, 16X20, oil on archival canvasboard.

I’ve fussed and worried about migrating this blog to my website for close to a year now. Blogger has discontinued its subscription widget, which makes maintaining readership almost impossible. I started on WordPress, moved over here in 2007, went to the Bangor Daily News for a few years and then came back. With those moves, I just wrote off my prior content and moved on. But this blog has become too deep to do that. It’s essentially, the repository of every Great Thought I’ve ever had about painting.

Belfast Harbor, 14X18, oil on archival canvasboard, framed, $1594.

Every few weeks I’ve spent a morning trying to work out the problem. I’ve watched YouTube tutorials, read expert advice, and gotten nowhere.

I’m not computer-illiterate. Twenty-five years ago, I was a semester short of a degree in programming when my husband suggested that I take up painting full time. “The world is full of programmers,” he said, “but it needs more artists.” I’m not sure he was right, but I can, mostly, fix my own computer problems.

Last week, I folded. I called my software developer daughter and laid out the problem. By the time we ask for help, we’re usually pretty angry with ourselves. All our self-doubts come to the fore.

“First of all,” my daughter said, “you’re not stupid. This stuff is hard.” I was terribly proud of her at that moment. Whatever intellectual gifts she has, they’re dwarfed by the fact that she’s kind.

Marshall Point, 9X12, oil on archival canvasboard.

She then told me what I should have realized all along: I need to hire a professional. I contacted the woman who monetized my website for me, and she’s working on it now.

(Note that all the programming in this story is being done by women. Female programmers account for just 5% of the field worldwide, so that tickles me pink.)

I have felt that same frustration in painting. After my epiphany 25 years ago, I started taking painting classes, in Rochester and at the Art Students League in New York. Some of those classes were enormously useful—with Cornelia Foss, for example—and some were less so. I’m acutely aware of the feeling of frustration when faced with a painting problem I can’t figure out.

Much of that frustration could be avoided if someone would lay out the process clearly and concisely. That’s what Foss did for me, bringing me into the 21st century in her own crusty way. It’s what I try to do for my students. Painting is a technical exercise, so it should be addressed primarily in technical terms.

Beach Erosion, 8X10, oil on archival canvasboard.

Last week, I was being bedeviled by a watercolor question. Mick McAndrews answered it for me. He sounded eerily like my daughter—what I was trying to do was hard. Sometimes, just knowing that is important, because it takes out the background chorus of negative thoughts.

Every few months I’ll ask my pal Eric Jacobsen how he makes mauve, a color he uses to fantastic effect in landscapes. Apparently, I don’t like the answer, because I immediately forget what he tells me. That’s a different problem: simple willful ignorance.

Painting is a solitary journey, but there are times when you need the help of others. How much advice varies based on your personality and level of experience, but it’s foolish to go it alone. Sometimes, taking a class or workshop is the best investment you’ll ever make.

There’s a change in the weather

The stark geometry of dying autumn is compelling, but I think the weather is trying to kill me.

Beauchamp Point, 12X16, oil on canvasboard, $1449 framed, is available at my show at Camden Public Library.

This is the most dangerous time of year, and the most dangerous hour is the gloaming before dawn.

Nothing bad is going to happen. The real risk is that nothing will happen at all. I’ll look out the window at the ice crystals glittering on my car and tell myself it’s too cold to go out.

To date, I’ve been able to force myself into clothes and up Beech Hill. Minutes later, my heart is pumping. My extremities warm up. I become alive to the hush in the air and the strange and wonderful colors of decaying autumn. The sun breaks the lip of the ocean, flooding the sea with light. “It’s a beautiful day,” I say. It almost always is.

Watercolor in the snow presents its own problems, because it freezes. Painting by Carol L. Douglas.

In the north, it’s easy to be cowed by winter. It’s a terrifying force. It takes time to dress for it and the cold air can be painful. If I don’t go outside every morning, I’ll stay in the house complaining bitterly until Spring.

“There’s no bad weather, only improper clothing,” we like to say. While that’s true, it takes time to adjust your habits. We painted our last plein air class of the season yesterday. It was about 40° F. I placed us on the boat ramp at Owls Head, where the sun acted like a solar collector and nearby buildings were a wind-break. We’re all northerners, born and bred, and we were togged out in the usual layers. But after three hours, we were chilled through.

Buoy, unfinished demo on my easel. It’s the stillness of plein air painting that makes it so cold.

There’s something exhausting about cold weather. In summer I can paint outdoors all morning and come home to open my gallery without a pause. Yesterday, I was done in by 3 PM.

Still, I’ll continue to go out. The stark geometry of bare trees is compelling.

My unfinished start from Beech Hill on Wednesday. It’s harder to get anything done when you’re cold.

I heartily recommend experimenting with cold weather painting. My tips are few and obvious: dedicate an old jacket to being trashed with paint, wear layers, tuck chemical hand warmers into the backs of your gloves. Some artists carry an old bit of carpet to stand on, because your feet will fail you first. Eric Jacobsen carries a small brazier as a portable campfire.

On Wednesday, I painted with Eric. We were tucked in at the foot of Beech Hill, where the prevailing westerlies couldn’t touch us. But then the sun went in behind the clouds, and it was suddenly cold. Down the hill sauntered David Dewey, looking as untouched by the frosty conditions as an Alabama camellia. He’s been painting regularly at the top of Beech Hill right after dawn, he told us. He sometimes rides his bike up the steep incline of Beech Hill Road with all his gear. That would be impressive in a kid, and David is 75 years old.

And a start from last winter, of Harness Brook, painted with Ken DeWaard. If I can find it, I’ll finish it.

I have a million things to do today before my opening at Camden Public Library this afternoon. And I have at least an equal number of unfinished, unframed plein air paintings in the racks in my studio. But that one more painting is calling me.

Monday Morning Art School: simplifying values

Thinking about the landscape as a series of planes will help you create depth in your painting. 
Ice Bound Locks, John F. Carlson, courtesy Vose Galleries

When Eric Jacobsen told us that he was teaching the theory of angles and consequent values in his recent workshop, I was baffled by the big words. “What’s that when it’s at home?” I asked him. Ken DeWaard was equally confused, responding in a torrent of emojis.

“C’mon, guys, it’s John F. Carlson 101!” Eric exclaimed. Björn Runquist immediately checked, and announced that there was nothing about any angles on page 101. (Actually, it’s in chapter 3; I checked.)

It’s no wonder that Eric’s no longer returning our calls.

Sylvan Labyrinth, John F. Carlson, courtesy of Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

All kidding aside, Carlson’s Guide to Landscape Painting is a classic. His theory, although it has a high-flown title, is actually quite intelligible to even the meanest intellects (and you know who you are, guys).

“Every good picture is fundamentally an arrangement of three or four large masses,” Carlson began. That’s as good an organizing principle as any in art. Value is what makes form visible, so we should see, translate, simplify and organize form into value masses.

Carlson wrote that any landscape would contain four groups of values bouncing off three major planes:

  • The horizontal ground plane;
  • The angle plane represented by mountain slopes or rooftops;
  • The upright plane, which is perpendicular to the ground plane, such as trees.

In the middle of the day—our most common circumstance for painting—the value structure would be as follows:

  • The sky is our light source. It should be the highest value in our painting.
  • The ground plane gets the most light bouncing off it, so it should be the next-lightest plane.
  • The angle planes such as rooftops or mountain slopes, are the next lightest planes.
  • The upright objects in our painting, such as trees, walls or people, should be the darkest value element.

Snow Lyric, John F. Carlson, courtesy of The Athenaeum

That doesn’t mean that the shapes are crudely simplified, as a glance at Carlson’s own paintings confirms. The shapes can be beautiful, elegant, complex, and lyrical without too much value overlap.

Thinking about the landscape as a series of planes will help you create depth in your painting. However, it can be tricky to see the landscape as a series of planes rather than objects. It can be helpful to keep each value group completely separate, with no overlap of values, but, in reality, there will always be overlap.

Your assignment is to find a photo among your own snapshots and reduce it to a series of four values. Then paint it.

As you try to integrate this idea into your painting, exaggerate the separation of planes.

Of course, there are many circumstances where this doesn’t hold true—where the sky is leaden and darker than a snow plane, or when the fading evening light is hitting the vertical plane rather than the ground. But understanding it will help you paint the exceptions in a more arresting way.

Making hay while the sun shines

It’s funny how often we psych ourselves into or out of failure.

Spring Break, 10X10, oil on canvasboard, $645 unframed, 25% off this week.

Memorial Day marks the start of the summer season here in Maine, when we throttle up into high gear for a short but productive summer season. For me that means getting up even earlier—at five—to hike over Beech Hill and attend to my ablutions. Getting moving that early in the morning gives me a few hours to paint en plein air before I’m back at 394 Commercial Street to tend my own gallery space (from noon to six).

Most mornings I paint with some combination of Ken DeWaardEric Jacobsen, and Björn Runquist. In March I told you how whiny we can be about choosing a subject. That indecision melted along with the snow. Now the question seems to be how fast can we paint. Yesterday we chased lilacs—Ken in Camden, Bjrn in Clark Island, and Eric and me in Rockport. I would never have painted lilacs without their prodding, and I’m glad I did.

Abandoned farmyard, 11X14, oil on birch, $869 unframed, 25% off this week.

“I haven’t a clue how to paint flowers,” I said, because complaining is an important part of starting a painting. Then I remembered that lilacs are really just small trees with purple appendages. I understand trees, so all the mystery vanished.

It’s funny how often we psych ourselves into or out of failure. When someone asks me, “how do you paint such-and-such?” I’m at a loss to explain. Objects are objects and we paint them all the same way—we look, see, and interpret. That includes people, by the way. But there are some subjects I’d rather not touch myself. I would have gone to the harbor without Ken, Bjrn and Eric prodding me to do something seasonal.

Three Chimneys, 11X14, oil on birch, $869 unframed, 25% off this week.

I’m actually an experienced plantswoman, but gardens are one of the few landscape subjects that don’t stir me. Domesticated plants are too civilized for my tastes. Syringa vulgaris—the common lilac—is different. For eleven months of the year, it’s an ungainly, overgrown shrub, with a not-too-pretty growth habit. Lilacs easily escape cultivation and can be found on hedgerows and in wasteland. There’s nothing ungainly about them when they’re in flower—they put their hearts into that heady display. I had five different varieties in my tiny yard in Rochester, and I’ve got cuttings rooting on my windowsill right now.

Neither of these lilac paintings are ‘true’ in the sense that they’re a photographic representation of place. There’s no farmyard beyond the break in Spring Break, and that shrub doesn’t grow in the field below Abandoned Farmyard. In both cases, I took significant editorial liberties in pursuit of a less-boring composition. But both are true in the sense that they represent what Maine really looks like.

Lupines, 9X12, oil on canvasboard.

As is typical for Memorial Day weekend, it was rainy and cold here in the northeast. My husband went camping near Ticonderoga, NY. I stayed home to man my outdoor gallery, which mostly meant raising and lowering the coverings depending on which way the wind was pushing the rain. It was a lousy weekend for selling paintings, so I amused myself by doing some long-overdue planting in my own yard. The temperature dropped into the 40s, and I burned the last of our firewood. But I had it easy; it snowed in the Green Mountains of Vermont, just a few miles from where my husband shivered in his tent. And, of course, as soon as the world returned to its desks, it warmed right back up.

Open-air gallery opens

Growth in painting sales is almost all online, which means that we either learn a new way of doing things, or we retire.

Belfast Harbor, 18×14, oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas

This weekend my open-air gallery at 394 Commercial Street opens for the season. It’s a soft opening, meaning that the brilliant Aubrie Powell isn’t making any noshes (sorry about that). I’ve been so busy painting that I forgot to do any advance marketing. Them’s the travails of a one-man show.

To make up for that, I’m having a 25% off sale. Yes, that’s any painting in the gallery, including my newest work. That’s an unheard-of discount, only made possible because I’m my own boss. Traditional galleries don’t have sales. That’s because they operate on a consignment basis. They must clear discounts with every artist they represent. In addition to that being a daunting task, artists operate on notoriously narrow margins.

Why am I still doing open-air when COVID restrictions are ending? I found I like the warm light, soft breezes off Rockport harbor, and the less-restrictive space of my side yard. My former gallery space is now rigged up as a Zoom teaching studio. COVID changed my workflow permanently. It drastically winnowed my galleries. I especially rue the closure of Kelpie Gallery in Thomaston and Maine Farmland Trust Gallery in Belfast. Both were wonderful galleries with curatorial vision and purpose.

COVID showed us the weakness of the traditional gallery model. Growth in painting sales is almost all online, which means that we either learn a new way of doing things, or we retire gently into the night. I’m not ready to go there yet.

Beautiful Dream (Rockport), 16×12, oil on birch, Carol L. Douglas

One thing I do not miss is getting damaged frames back from events and galleries. I spent a long time on Thursday taking adhesive labels off the backs of frames and this afternoon I’ll be touching up dings. Anyone dealing with art should know to not use tape or other permanent adhesives anywhere on a painting or its frame. Thank goodness for Goo-Gone.

My summer hours will be:

  • Monday—open this Memorial Day, otherwise closed
  • Tuesday—noon-6
  • Wednesday—noon-6
  • Thursday—1:30-6
  • Friday—noon-6
  • Saturday—noon-6

You can text or call me at 585-201-1558, or message me here.

Fish Shacks, Owl’s Head, 14×11, oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas

Thursday’s opening is later because I teach plein air in the mornings.

As you all know, I teach a variety of workshops, in Acadia National Park, Arizona, New Mexico, Wyoming, Florida, and right here in Maine aboard the schooner American Eagle. That’s enough to satisfy anyone’s wanderlust, but for those who are looking for something here in the Rockland area, I want to recommend two of my plein air buddies.

Eric Jacobsenis new in town, but a familiar face on the national art scene. He will be teaching Painting Expressive Landscapes through Coastal Maine Workshops from July 13-16. Ken DeWaard will be teaching Design! Essence! Design! there from August 9 to 13.

I paint with these guys frequently and I know their character well. They’re patient and kind and they know their craft, so I’m sure they’re good teachers.

The Zeitgeist

We’re all saying something with our paintings. Do we have the courage to buck the times and paint reverence, happiness, and kindness?

American Eagle in Drydock, 12X16, oil on canvasboard, sold. I’ll be down at the boatyard this morning to paint Heritage on the ways.

This month’s discussion of the picture plane in painting inevitably ended up including Philip Pearlstein, who wrote:

“Photographs do not break the picture plane, and so they parallel one of the great dictums of 20th century modernist art, which is that form follows function. The paper is flat, that is, the picture plane is flat, therefore the artist must keep his picture flat. Therefore the photograph is accepted as modernist art. Therefore one of my aims in painting is to break the picture plane.”

Striping, 6X8, oil on canvasboard, $435 framed.

By which—practically speaking—he let heads, arms, etc. escape out of the picture, in much the same way as a child takes a snapshot.

“I was strictly interested in the way ordinary people looked.  And that became part of the kind of philosophy in a sense, to paint the ordinary, the everyday, not to go out of my way to make them tell some kind of story,” he saidin 2006.

Pearlstein is a lauded American painter, on the forefront of modern realism, and he deserves credit for that. But I cannot look at his huge canvases of naked people and not wince. They’re technically admirable, and yet they’re so unlikeable. Human beings, he seems to say, are just so much meat spread around the room. That’s especially true in canvases with more than one figure, pointedly not engaging with each other even when they’re buck naked in a small space. When their heads are cut off, their character, emotion and dignity are rendered inconsequential. We humans interact mostly through our faces, after all.

Captain Doug Lee (chasing the rats), 6X8, oil on canvasboard, $435 framed.

That is, of course, the Zeitgeist, the spirit of our age, so Pearlstein gets full marks for relevance. The German Romantics who coined that phrase had some strange ideas, and they were talking of a literal, invisible force that shaped the time and place. Today we think of it as our common ethos, but either way, we’ve been living in a demeaning culture for decades now.

I don’t watch TV, but my goddaughter tells me that the heroes of modern television are sarcastic and cynical. “Nasty” is the word she used. Certainly, you see that in our so-called leaders, and it’s in full bloom in popular music.

I occasionally reference the painter Tom Root, who my pal Eric Jacobsen calls “a national treasure.” His Holiday (Rest on the Flight to Egypt) is one of the few paintings that carries the western tradition of religious painting successfully into the modern era. Technically, he’s superlative—far more assured, in fact, than Pearlstein. And yet he labors in far greater obscurity than does Pearlstein, with all his honors.

Rising Tide at Wadsworth Cove, 12X16, oil on canvasboard, $1159 unframed.

Root paints the dignity of the human being, and that’s just contrary to the spirit of our age. Not that he can help it; he can no more embrace nihilism than I can. But it raises the question of how much we conform to our times, and why. People do that, of course, for reasons other than fame or fortune.

I don’t suggest that people should steer away from difficult subjects in paint. I spent several years painting on the subject of misogyny. They’ll be at the Rye Arts Center in 2022, by the way.

We’re not mere products of our times, we also shape them. The painter may hide behind the non-verbal nature of our art to deny responsibility for the culture, but we’re all saying something with our paintings. Do we have the courage to buck the times and paint reverence, happiness, and kindness?

Best new toy ever!

Even though this truck and I have only been shacking up for a few months, it feels like we’ve known each other forever. We’re soul mates.

Painting from the bed of my truck yesterday. Note the dog in the back window. (Photo courtesy Eric Jacobsen)

I’m a little under 5’6”, which is two inches taller than the average American woman (whoever she is). That makes me, objectively, not short. But I married a tall man. Predictably, all my kids are tall. I’m always craning my neck to natter at them, and bustling along when we walk. It’s given me a complex.

It doesn’t help to paint with Ken DeWaard and Eric Jacobsen. Ken’s nearly a foot taller than me, and Eric’s just a smidge less lofty. For me to paint the view they see, I need to stand on a box. That’s inconvenient. Last week, Ken and I painted a pile of glorious orange lobster buoys. His angle was perfect, but mine was obscured by a kid’s slide.

Three Chimneys, oil on canvasboard, 11X14, $869 unframed, was painted from the bed of my pickup truck this week.

My trip to Wyoming in January was two-fold. I explored a ranch in Cody that I’ll be using as a base for a workshop this September. And I collected a 2010 Toyota Tundra that previously belonged to my pal Jane Chapin.

This truck and I had a history. Jane and I once nearly drove it off a cliff-edge. We then backed out through a thicket of piñons. It’s only fitting that they’re my scratches now.

I also painted Hermit Peak from its bed. Jane was too cool to paint from a lawn-chair in a pickup truck so she stood in a snowdrift and froze. That day was when I realized that I desperately wanted a pickup truck. It was pure chance that it ended up being the same truck.

Maple, oil on canvasboard, 12X16, $1159 unframed, was painted from next to my truck. I did get stuck in the mud and had to use 4WD to get out.

Maine has eco-warriors in their hybrids and sensible Subarus, but get out of the bigger towns and pickup trucks abound. I drove a Prius for 278,000 miles and my son now has it. But the pickup truck provides protective coloration when I’m loitering around docks and country roads. Think of me as a toad blending in with the forest floor.

Plus, it makes me feel really, really tall.

All I need is a cooler and an awning. (Photo courtesy of Eric Jacobsen)

Eric—coincidentally—has the same make and model truck. His has a cap, which is convenient because he never has to put anything away; he just tosses wet paintings inside and they’re there weeks or months later when he feels like finishing them. But the cap means Eric can’t stand in the bed of his truck and paint. That’s a major disadvantage.

Still, they’re awfully cute parked next to each other. We painted at Owls Head this week—me in the bed of my truck, he with his easel set up nearby (making us almost exactly the same height, dammit). It occurred to me that our trucks looked just like cruisers in their little slips in Wilson Harbor. In the evening, yachters would set up their deck chairs, pop beers, and chit-chat across the docks. As a teenager, I sneered. Today, I love the idea.

Fishing shacks at Owls Head, not yet finished.

“All I need is a cooler and an awning,” I told Eric. A bimini top? It would be cute but expensive. A party tent? A ladder rack with a fabric awning attached with Velcro? Extra points if I can find Sunbrella™ in camo.

But wait, there’s more! The jump seat in the back folds up, and the space it leaves is just the right size for a primitive porta-potty. It might not be quite the thing for downtown Portland, but it works just fine in rural Maine.

A bucket with a toilet seat… and tinted windows.

Sigh. Even though this truck and I have only been shacking up for a few months, it feels like we’ve known each other forever. We’re soul mates.

The not-so-perfect day

A nor’easter was moving in, the light was hazy, but—oh, the colors!

Approaching Nor’easter, 12X16, oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas, $1159 unframed.

I met Eric Jacobsen and Bjorn Rundquist on Monday and Tuesday of this week, but on Wednesday, nobody was willing to paint with me. Not that I blamed them; the forecast was awful. Anyway, I wanted to try out my new backpack by hoisting my gear up Beech Hill. It’s the most expensive backpack I’ve ever bought—a Kelty Redwing—but I’ve been using a crossover bag that’s neither big enough nor good for the back.

I have an ultralight pochade box that I made myself. However, it’s fallen out of favor with me in the steady high winds along the Maine coast. It vibrates. So, instead, I took my smallest wooden box and hoped for the best.

Pretty fancy… and heavy.

It would have to be a fast painting. They were already setting snow records in Buffalo and Rochester, and the same weather disturbance was pushing its way to us.

The light was hazy and the clouds were barreling across the sky. It was ‘not a great day for painting,’ but—oh, the colors! There’s something about subdued light that makes the color of early spring just glow. There’s also something about painting something you know. The glimpse of the sod house on Beech Hill makes me happy every time I round that corner in the trail.

I’m so happy to finally be outdoors without pounds of foul-weather gear. Which means it’s time for me to talk seriously about registering for this year’s plein air workshops. Last year was a mixed bag, as my boat trips were canceled. However, I did teach in New Mexico, Florida and Maine. “It was the first time I felt normal since the start of COVID,” one painter told me.

Beach at Friendship, ME, 9X12, oil on canvasboard, $696 unframed.

This year, registrations for Sea & SkyPecos Wilderness and the September Age of Sail boat trip are all running ahead of normal. There’s still room in the June boat trip—I assume because it’s so close to Maine’s go/no go date. But Captain John says, “we’re a go for sure for 2021,” and he’s the captain, so his word is law.

I’ve added additional workshops this year, so that, no matter what landscape you love, there’s a place for you in my schedule. All of them can be accessed through this link.

And this handsome old tree… maybe I can get back there this afternoon to finish.

AGE OF SAIL, June 13-17 or September 19-23, 2021

Learn to watercolor on the magical, mystical waters of Maine’s Penobscot Bay, aboard the historic schooner American Eagle. All materials, berth, meals and instruction included. Captain John has reduced the number of guests, which puts the schooner well within the state’s COVID guidelines. Beginning May 1st, people traveling to Maine from all states will no longer be required to provide a negative test or quarantine. 

SEA & SKY AT ACADIA NATIONAL PARK, August 8-13
Five days of intensive plein air in the quiet corner of America’s oldest national park. Lodging and meals included at Schoodic Institute. All levels and media welcome. Schoodic Institute did an exceptional job of facilitating social distancing during last year’s workshop, and I am confident this one will be just as good.

AUTHENTIC WEST: CODY, WYOMING, September 5-10, 2021
Study in an authentic western ranch setting in Yellowstone Country. Five days of intensive plein air, all levels, all media welcome. I’ve reserved a block of rooms at the Hampton Inn, Cody, for guests. That’s just a short distance from the ranch, and the restaurants, museums, and resorts of Cody.

GATEWAY TO PECOS WILDERNESS, September 12-16, 2021
High plains and mountain wilderness, in historic, enchanting New Mexico. Five days of intensive plein air instruction, all media and all levels welcome. This year, I’ve reserved a block of rooms at Our Lady of Guadalupe Abbey in Pecos. Meals are included, and it’s a quick jaunt to ‘downtown’ Pecos.

RED ROCKS OF SEDONA, ARIZONA, September 26-October 1, 2021
A geological wonderland, with world-class restaurants, galleries, and accommodations. Five days of intensive plein air instruction, all media and all levels welcome. This workshop is offered through the Sedona Arts Center.

And last but certainly not least…

MOSS-DRAPED OAKS IN TALLAHASSEE, FL, January 17-21, 2022.
I’ll be returning to gracious Tallahassee for another great session of painting through Natalia Andreeva Studio. We had a great time last year!

Art and fear

Great art doesn’t spring fully-formed from the minds of geniuses. It is made incrementally.

Prom shoes, by Carol L. Douglas. 6X8, oil on canvas, $348 unframed. Every time a student tells me “I don’t like still life,” I point out that it is the best training ground for painting available to us.

Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland is a book I frequently recommend to students. The title is misleading because it’s less about the insecurities that stalk the artist and more about the reiterative, plodding process that produces great art. If the book does anything, it shreds the Cult of Genius that has dogged the art world since the Enlightenment.

Among the silliest distinctions in the world of art is that between so-called ‘fine art’ and ‘fine craft.’ Prior to the Age of Enlightenment, artists were craftsmen. It was only with the Romanticism that artists developed the slight stink of intellectualism.

Dish of Butter, by Carol L. Douglas. 6X8, oil on canvas, $348 unframed. 

Art & Fear comes down firmly on the side of craft. Art gets made by ordinary people like you and me, who work at our craft regularly. We chip away at a problem, and we master it, and we are content… until our minds throw up a new problem. We then repeat the process, and somehow, in all that indefinable chaos, there’s progress.

Nevertheless, there is fear in the art process. I was first introduced to this concept at the Art Students League, where my instructor gleefully announced to her new students, “You’re all terrified!” I’m naturally pugnacious, so my reaction was to deny that, loudly. It’s taken a long time for me to realize that some of my stalling mechanisms are, indeed, fear at work.

Back it up, by Carol L. Douglas. 6X8, oil on canvas, $348 unframed. Still life does not have to be about elegant old dishware. 

Fear is one reason artists have studios full of unfinished work. We can either leave it in this state, where it has potential, or finish it so that all its shortcomings are revealed.

A healthy respect for the process can be a good thing, when it stops us from charging in and making stupid mistakes. When I was much younger, I did a surrealistic dreamscape of young mother on a broken-down farm. I was stumped trying to marry my currently-realistic style with the theme. I made the mistake of consulting a professional for a critique. “It looks like an imitation Chagall,” she said. I went home and covered it in a froth of bad paint. When I came to my senses, the original painting was irretrievable.

But fear can quickly become corrosive. I see it when new students are unable to engage in the exercises that I set in front of them, or constantly answer every suggestion with, “yes, but…”

Tin Foil Hat, by Carol L. Douglas. 6X8, oil on canvas, $348 unframed. There was no point to this when I painted it, but it’s since become my self-portrait.

It is not the beginners who have this difficulty, but people who have achieved some mastery of painting. They have a hard nut of competence that they hold tight against their hearts. To polish and shape it, they have to be able to hold it at arm’s length, but they can’t—they’re afraid that examining it will destroy something vital to their self-image.

I’m speaking as their soul-sister in this, by the way. It’s something that’s taken me a long time to get over.

Not that we ever really do get over our insecurity. Last week, Eric Jacobsen showed me a Charles Movallipainting he particularly admired. “That’s it! I quit,” I said. Of course, I’d said the same thing the week before that, and the week before that, too. In the face of great accomplishment, we are often momentarily cowed.

The difference—as Bayles and Ormond point out in their book—is that we sit back down at the easel and start again. And again. And again. That’s how great art happens.

Soul ties

What makes one painter stand out in our mind when another doesn’t even create a ripple?

River at Belvidere, date unknown, Chauncey F. Ryder, courtesy Blue Heron Fine Art

I was contemplating the dormant branches of a birch tree when Eric Jacobsen suggested I look at the work of Chauncey Ryder. “Who?” I asked. Eric goggled.

“He’s the reason I became an artist,” he enthused. Once he showed me some images on his phone, I understood, but until that moment, Ryder had never pierced my consciousness.

Mín Herðubreið / My Herðubreið, 1938, Gísli Baldvin Björnsson, courtesy Icelandic Times

My pal Bruce McMillan writes frequently about Icelandic painters on his blog. Without him, I never would have been introduced to the austere abstraction of painters like Louisa Matthíasdóttir or Gísli Baldvin Björnsson. At first, I found them uncomfortably brutal. Recently I’m finding that their exceptionally cool mien speaks to me.

I myself have a long-standing passion for mid-century Canadian and British painters, many of whom are, frankly, quirky. I was thrilled to find the work of Alfred Wallis, a Cornish fisherman who didn’t pick up a brush until he was widowed, past the age of seventy (which ought to be an inspiration to us all). To call his work naïve is to underrate its sheer oddity.

The Hold House Port Mear Square Island Port Mear Beach, c. 1932 by Alfred Wallis

Wallis was ‘discovered’ by mid-century British modernists Ben Nicholson and Christopher Wood in 1928. They brought his work to London; Nicholson even bought one of his paintings and presented it to MoMA. But Wallis never saw himself as anything but a retired St. Ives laborer who painted what he knew—“What I do mosley is what use To Bee out of my memory what we might never see again,” he wrote. It was unnecessary for him to laboriously unlearn the artistic conventions of his time; he’d never learned them in the first place.

I have a deep affection for Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven, but I never saw their work until I was an adult. And yet I grew up a few blocks from the Canadian border, right across the Niagara River from Group of Seven country. Buffalo’s Albright-Knox Art Museum has a very fine Abstract-Expressionist collection because its leading light, Seymour Knox II, was crazy for modernism. His tastes were firmly fixed by New York, so the museum owns nothing of Thomson and his peers. They were too figurative for Mr. Knox’ taste.

Evening, (field sketch) 1913. Tom Thomson, courtesy Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto

What makes one painter stand out in our mind when another doesn’t even create a ripple? In the past, it might have been a question of what we could see. Outside the major cities we had limited access to the panoply of art being made out there. But that’s not true today. We can all see new art, almost in real time, via social media and online museum shows.

Part of this, I’m sure, comes down to maturity. I probably wasn’t ready to see the quiet beauty of Chauncey Ryder when I was 14 and being dazzled by Clyfford Still. Part of it comes from looking at lots of art. The more I learn, the more I realize how little I know, and the less I’m inclined to quick judgments. But there’s something else there, too, and that’s the response of the soul, which is—simply—ineffable.