Arbitrary distinctions

What is art? What is illustration? Does it matter?
Trick-or-Treat! From my brief period illustrating; prints available (DM me).
“I am trying to understand the difference between a painter and an illustrator,” writes a reader.
Paint is a just a medium. You can use it to illustrate, or you can hurl it in meaningless patterns. Conversely, you can illustrate with any two-dimensional medium, including pencils, ink, photography or cut paper. The difference is in intent.
An illustration is usually a visual accompaniment to a text. However, that’s not always true. There are illustrated books (Albrecht Dürer’s Passions, for example) that do not need words at all. There are many children’s books with no words. In fact, one could argue that all of western religious art is illustration. The text (the Bible) was just not written down. Either the intended audience was illiterate or they all knew the story anyway.
Gas Station, by Carol L. Douglas. From my brief period illustrating; prints available, DM me.
Illustrators are usually hired by writers or publishers. The work is limited in scope and concrete in character. Fine artists have no middleman between them and the market. They can be as obscure as they wish. But fine artists certainly work on commission, and illustrators often work on spec, so even that distinction is hazy.
There was a time when this question mattered to me. I was trying to make the jump between graphic design and painting full time. I did it by writing and illustrating two books. We are all born with an innate ability to imagine pictures, but I’d disciplined my artistic sensibilities to be subservient to the client. It took these stories for me to loosen up and find my focus. It’s never been a problem since.
Girl in Closet, by Carol L. Douglas. From my brief period illustrating; prints available, DM me.
But there’s an insidious way in which this question is sometimes asked. What’s implied is that fine art is somehow better than other forms of artistic expression.
Yes, illustration is a fine craft rather than a fine art. Like tapestry, jewelry, carving, etc., illustration has a practical purpose aside from beauty. Paintings have none, unless you’re using them to plug holes in the wall. If you want to know if you’re an artist or craftsman, ask yourself if your finished product has any tangible purpose. If it’s useless, you’ll know you’re an artist.
The problem lies in assuming that either one is more important than the other. Our modern viewpoint comes from the 19th century Cult of Genius, which mistakenly put fine artists in the category of intellectuals instead of tradesmen.
Kitchen Table, by Carol L. Douglas. From my brief period illustrating; prints available, DM me.
This is why plein air painting gets so little respect, by the way. It rejects the idea that fine art is primarily an intellectual activity. Instead of making great statements, plein air painting has a lowly and practical view of the world. It seeks to make pictures that make people happy.
There’s never been any distinction between fine art and illustration in terms of quality. If there ever was a gap, it was bridged long ago, starting with the unknown monks who illuminated books before the printing press was invented.
With the advent of industrialization, individuality and beauty was stripped from the objects we use every day. Brilliant craftsmen-artists like William MorrisCharles Rennie MackintoshMargaret Macdonald, and the Roycroft Movementclosed the gap between art and function once again. And who in this world would argue that N.C. Wyeth  and his peers of the Golden Age of Illustration are not among the world’s greatest artists?

How Winslow Homer transformed himself

Before he became Maine’s greatest painter, he needed to shed his sentimentality. He did that in part by taking up watercolor.

Five boys at the Shore, Gloucester, 1880, Winslow Homer

After working as an illustrator during the Civil War, Winslow Homer concentrated on two distinct oeuvres: postwar healing and homely, nostalgic paintings of American innocence. These were well-received by the public but not universally respected.

“We frankly confess that we detest his subjects… he has chosen the least pictorial range of scenery and civilization; he has resolutely treated them as if they were pictorial… and, to reward his audacity, he has incontestably succeeded,” said writer Henry James. Winslow Homer’s work in the late 1860s and ‘70s was done in paint, but it was still illustration. When he depicted children as symbols of the nation’s lost innocence, he was playing on a common, well-worn theme of the time.
To be fair, Homer was a young man, and he hadn’t had the advantage of an extensive art education. He was just 29 when the Civil War ended. Snap-the-Whip was finished when he was 36 years old. It was about this time that he was able to give up illustration to focus on painting. It was also around this time that he took up watercolor seriously.
Three Fisher Girls, Tynemouth, 1881, Winslow Homer, courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
By the middle of the 19th century, the influence of critic John Ruskin led to an interest in watercolor as a serious medium. The American Society of Painters in Watercolor, later to be the American Watercolor Society, was founded in 1866. In 1873, this group mounted an exhibition of nearly 600 paintings at the National Academy of Design.
Homer was living in New York at the time and almost certainly saw this show. It’s also probable that he was already familiar with watercolor painting. It was a genteel medium, widely used by ladies and children, but not respectable enough for galleries.
In 1873, Homer left for Gloucester, where he made his first professional watercolors. That summer he sketched and painted children playing on the waterfront. They clam, row, pick berries, play on cliffs and stare longingly out to sea. These paintings were a continuation of his interest in the lost innocence of America.
The Boatman, 1891, Winslow Homer, courtesy Brooklyn Museum
What was different was how he applied the paint. He drew in graphite, and then painted over his drawing. He didn’t wet his paper, which was common practice at the time. This made for a less-detailed, more sparkling finish. Critics were mixed about the results. Some admired the rawness; others hated it. “A child with an ink bottle could not have done worse,” wrote one.
By the end of that decade, Homer had come to two points in his personal life which would mark his mature work—a tendency to reclusiveness and a fascination with the sea. But before he could become Maine’s quintessential painter, he needed to shed his obsession with the American myth.
Casting, Number Two, 1894, Winslow Homer, courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
He spent 1881 and 1882 in the English coastal village of Cullercoats, where he focused on the men and women who made their living from the sea. His palette muted; his painting became more universal. And he made much of this transition in watercolor.
He had, by changing up both his medium and his locale, made himself a painter of an elemental truth—the relationship of man and the sea.
Between 1873 and 1905 Homer made nearly seven hundred watercolors, transforming the medium and his artistic achievement as a whole. “You will see,” he said, “in the future I will live by my watercolors.”

Art vs. Craft

“The Progress of a Soul: The Entrance,” Silk and gold thread embroidered on linen, Phoebe Anna Traquair, 1895 (Courtesy National Galleries of Scotland)

“The Progress of a Soul: The Entrance,” Silk and gold thread embroidered on linen, Phoebe Anna Traquair, 1895 (Courtesy National Galleries of Scotland)
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 Romantic notion of the Cult of Genius that artists developed the slight stink of intellectualism. Somehow, that separated us from our craftwork brethren.
The Arts and Crafts Movement of the late 19th century ought to have ended that. Based on the writing of art critic John Ruskin, this movement held that mass production created “servile labour.” Our subsequent history of importing cheap goods from the Third World seems to have proved his point.
“The Progress of a Soul: The Stress,” Silk and gold thread embroidered on linen, Phoebe Anna Traquair, 1897 (Courtesy National Galleries of Scotland)

“The Progress of a Soul: The Stress,” Silk and gold thread embroidered on linen, Phoebe Anna Traquair, 1897 (Courtesy National Galleries of Scotland)
The gap between fine art and fine craft was bridged by brilliant artists likeWilliam MorrisCharles Rennie Mackintosh and Margaret Macdonald, and theRoycroft Movement. Sadly, their influence has largely been aesthetic, not practical. The dichotomy between fine art’s intellectual fussiness and craft’s plain usefulness has grown wider.
This is why plein air painting gets so little respect, by the way. It rejects the idea that fine art is primarily an intellectual activity. Instead of making great statements, it seeks to transmit a lowly and practical view of the world. It makes people happy.
I pondered these matters as I wandered the British Museum’s monumental show, The Celts, currently in Edinburgh. What material culture is left of ancient Europe is largely what we categorize as ‘fine craft’—beaten gold torques, shield bosses, or pottery. (While we moderns reject purpose in contemporary art, we are always quick to ascribe it to the things we can’t understand among ancient artifacts. Apparently, no ancient person ever carved anything for the joy of carving: all incomprehensible art is now classified as some kind of religious totem.)
“The Progress of a Soul: Despair,” Silk and gold thread embroidered on linen, Phoebe Anna Traquair, 1899 (Courtesy National Galleries of Scotland)

“The Progress of a Soul: Despair,” Silk and gold thread embroidered on linen, Phoebe Anna Traquair, 1899 (Courtesy National Galleries of Scotland)
There was also a textile history that went along with the metal and stone history, but almost all of it is lost to the ages. Textiles are so ephemeral that they occupy a smaller niche in art history.
Phoebe Anna Traquair is one of the few women artists who achieved international recognition as a craftswoman, largely because she worked within the international Arts and Crafts movement. Traquair was what we might ironically call a Renaissance man, a virtuoso in many media: murals, painting, jewelry, illustration, illumination and embroidery. She was the first woman elected to the Scottish Royal Academy.
“The Progress of a Soul: Victory,” Silk and gold thread embroidered on linen, Phoebe Anna Traquair, 1902 (Courtesy National Galleries of Scotland)

“The Progress of a Soul: Victory,” Silk and gold thread embroidered on linen, Phoebe Anna Traquair, 1902 (Courtesy National Galleries of Scotland)
Traquair’s first commission was to do a series of murals for the Mortuary Chapel of the Royal Hospital for Sick Children in Edinburgh. This was hardly prestigious; the room itself was a former coalhouse where bodies were kept prior to burial. She went on to do murals in several more prominent locations around Edinburgh: at St. Mary’s Cathedral, the Thistle Chapel at St. Giles Cathedral, and the Catholic Apostolic Church.
Four of Traquair’s tapestries are on display at the National Galleries. The Progress of the Soul is exuberant, luxurious, and exquisitely composed, borrowing heavily from the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Traquair uses an idealized, beautiful young man dressed in an animal skin to represent the human soul. As young Denys moves from joy to despair, the natural world also changes from joyous to ‘red in tooth and claw.’ In the last panel a seraph breathes life back into him. Death is vanquished.
And all of this was done with a needle, by a mere woman who was also a wife and mother. Imagine.

Altering Magic Cards

Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing by Aaron Boucher. It really does look less threatening.
My son-in-law Aaron Boucher is a pretty talented kid, although he doesn’t have much formal art training. I’m never going to turn him into a full-time painter (at least if my daughter has anything to say in the matter), but when he expressed an interest in altering Magic: The Gathering cards, I gave him some Golden Fluid Acrylics and fine brushes to work with. Golden Fluid Acrylics are sheer enough to work well on the flimsy cardboard cards, and he spent a happy afternoon painting.
Rampage at the State Fair by Sandy Quang.
Altering Magic cards perfectly fits my personal definition of fine art: the expression of creative imagination in a format that is completely without usefulness. That’s different from my definition of fine craft, which I think means the expression of creative imagination in a format that’s primarily useful. (Other than that, I make absolutely no distinction between art and craft.)
Portrait of Madame X, by Aaron Boucher is an extension alter.
The project worked out great for my Labor Day weekend. Nobody suggested a ten-mile hike over broken terrain. I got to read a novel, my daughter got to cook, and my husband took a long nap.
Mesmeric Eyes, by Aaron Boucher.
Happy Labor Day! Message me if you want information about next year’s workshops. Information about this year’s programs is available here.

You’re invited…

Join us for the Gallery Opening of

GOD+MAN

Paintings by Carol Douglas


At the Davison Gallery, located in the Cultural Life Center at Roberts Wesleyan College.

6-10 PM, Friday, March 28

2301 Westside Drive, Rochester, New York 14546


I spend much of my time painting en plein air. The physical environment shows the marks of our existence, our relationship with each other, and ultimately our relationship with God. This visible record is subtle, but once you start to notice it, you realize it’s everywhere.
In mid-October, I returned home after a summer teaching painting in Maine. I had two things to do: put the final touches on my daughter’s wedding and paint the work for this show. What wasn’t on my schedule was another cancer diagnosis.
I’m a systematic person, so I scheduled making canvases during the four-week recovery period between my lumpectomy and hysterectomy. Immediately before my surgery, I drenched the canvases with Naphthol Red, which is a rich crimson color that is an excellent undertone for landscape. I do this regularly for plein air, but the effect of all these looming large canvases dripping blood was disconcerting.
After my surgery, I continued to leak blood. In early February I hemorrhaged, which put my recovery back to square one. I realized there was a connection between my current experience and my current paintings, which were proceeding by starts and fits.
I have tried to let the canvas show through in each of these paintings, because they were literally born in blood. If I’d proceeded along my original course, they would have been polished and buffed to the point where no undertone was visible. But I couldn’t do that, and I don’t regret it.

Why I paint

Love and Deceit, Zhostovo papier-mache tole tray painted by Sergei Fillipov
Fine art is what you have left when you’ve removed all practical application from an art form. The quality of the work has nothing to do with it. Thus an exquisitely painted tole tray like the above is considered a fine craft item, whereas a mediocre landscape is a fine art item.
I can inhabit the practical sphere, but I tend to focus on the intangible. That is why I’m a fine artist. I’m a painter because that’s the talent God has given me.
Several of my friends sent me this piece on why Christians should create.
The Servant, by Carol L. Douglas. Not all nudes are meant to be provocative, of course.
There are, believe it or not, many Christians who are opposed to Christian art. I’ve heard it all, and at times their criticism has stopped me from working: nudes are bad (obscene). Representations of God are bad (graven images). Painting is a waste of time. You could be doing more important work. (By this last they mean, of course, fine crafts.)
In many ways, fine artists are more like preachers than they are like craftspeople. They structure their life and work around an internal reality that is invisible to outsiders. Nobody asks preachers why they spend time describing the Kingdom of God through words, but a lot of people question why artists think they should do it through images.
Storm clouds, by Carol L. Douglas. Landscape not only celebrates creation, it can be a profound metaphor for our spiritual life.
The bottom line is that this is the talent God has given me. Painting and teaching painting (and, yes, writing about painting) are almost the only things I do well.
Martin Luther said, “Love God and do as you please.” When he told me that, Rev. John Nicholson added that Colossians 3:23 says: “whatsoever ye do, work heartily, as unto the Lord, and not unto men.”
To me, that’s pretty much the last word on the subject.


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!