Talent, and other lies we tell our children

What’s the difference between a duffer and a star in any business? Hard work, intelligence and luck, not some ineffable quality of ‘talent’.
Painting of an Airstream trailer by Kathleen Gray Farthing for Plein Air Brandywine Valley.
When Kathleen Gray Farthing was a lass, her parents didn’t want her to major in art in college. You know the arguments; they start with “you can’t make a living as an artist.” Then her engineer father needed a graphic designer on a project. He was astonished at how much this man charged to do art, which he’d always thought of as a hobby.
Kathleen’s father took her drawings to this visiting graphic designer and asked him for a pronouncement. “She’ll never be a Brooks Robinson,” the man opined, “but she can play ball.”
The Cottage, by Kathleen Gray Farthing for Plein Air Brandywine Valley
It was both a cold assessment, and a curse intended to consign her to mediocrity. The equivalent to Brooks Robinson in the art world at the time was perhaps Jamie Wyeth. He was being lauded as the ‘heir of the Brandywine tradition’. There has only ever been one person born with his advantages. To his credit, he’s used them well. But there are many other great painters out there as well. They may not be on the cover of glossy magazines, but they build happy lives painting work that brings joy to many thousands of people.
I was terrible in math in high school. I’d been told all my life that my gifts lay in art and language and not in math or science, so I lived down to that prediction. Then I discovered that math is just a language that describes spatial relationships. I took math to multivariable calculus in college, earning all As. I accidentally escaped the curse of being bad at math by being good at art.
Walking into October, by Kathleen Gray Farthing for Plein Air Brandywine Valley
I’ve taught enough people to know that they blossom and grow in amazing ways. Take Sandy Quang, who is the daughter of non-English-speaking immigrants. She went to community college because that was her only option. Today, she has a BFA from Pratt Institute and an MA from Hunter College.
I had a teenage superstar in my studio back in Rochester. He had all the drive, ambition, and skill to be a very successful painter, and he want to RISD. Today he’s a set painter, working in the theater district, a paid-up member of Local One IATSE. But he’s not painting on canvases anymore, to my great regret.
Two of his classmates also studied with me. One was interested in science and art. Today, she’s a graduate architect, working toward her full licensing, and painting landscape in her spare time. The other went off to Hollywood to try his hand at acting. Today, he’s studying at Gobelins, L’École de L’Image in Paris.
Raining on John Deere, by Kathleen Gray Farthing for Brandywine Plein Air
Perhaps that long-ago critic thought Kathleen was too traditional to be a success in the art world of the late 20th century. Realism, after all, had been buried with full honors, and Kathleen isn’t the type to use her naked body as a printing plate. But it was an error to think the art world would stay in that state forever. Since then, realism has made an amazing comeback.
Like all of us, Kathleen’s had home runs and strikeouts in the decades since. Just last week, she painted a stunner, a miniature with loose brushwork, assured composition, and great mystery in the background. (It’s not online, so I can’t show you.) She’s overcome that curse through sheer hard work, and that’s an excellent lesson for all of us.

The best-laid plans

Maine Ice Storm, Jamie Wyeth.
My pal Toby warned me that I was driving into an ice storm. It stretched from coastal New Jersey to western Massachusetts. But I’ve been driving for almost 40 years (legally) and I drive a lot. In fact, I’d estimate that I’m one of those “million mile” drivers without infractions or accidents. There is always a bolt hole somewhere along the way to stop, and I have emergency provisions in my car.
Ice on the Hudson, Childe Hassam, 1908
The first indication you’re in trouble is usually when your car picks itself up and floats across the road. Mercifully, there was no oncoming traffic on Route 20. When I arrived at my destination, my Prius floated down the hill with no intention of stopping. I opened my door and realized that I was on perfectly smooth skating ice, unfortunately without skates.
Morning mist in the mountains, Casper David Friedrich, 1808
This morning I’m crossing the Berkshires, and I’d rather let someone else test the ditches. So I’m dallying in Pittsford over a second cup of coffee.
Study for Ice Flow, Allagash, Neil Welliver, 1996
Hopefully, my vagabond summers are coming to an end. I’m meeting with a Realtor tomorrow morning in mid-coast Maine. From there, I’ll head up to Schoodic to do a little painting (weather permitting, of course). But first another cup of coffee and a hot shower before I hit the road.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2015 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops! Download a brochure here.

Where the Sea Meets the Sky: Painting Maine in the footsteps of Winslow Homer, George Bellows, Rockwell Kent, and the Wyeths

See here for more information.

See a brochure here.

“Sunset at Marshall’s Point” oil on canvas, 8X6

“This was the best painting instruction I have ever had. Carol’s advice in color mixing was particularly eye-opening. Her explanations are clear and easy to understand. She is very approachable and supportive. I would take this course again in a heartbeat.” (Carol T., prior workshop participant)

Mañana Island view from Monhegan (courtesy of Carolyn Mrazek)

 Last fall I was invited to go to Maine to scout out painting locations for a series of workshops this summer. (The managers had observed me teaching at another workshop and liked what they saw.)

I’ve painted on two different trips in the Rockland-Rockport area, once by myself and once with my pal Kristin. However, painting for—and by—oneself is different from planning a painting program for others.
One of the many lovely places we’ll be painting.
Painting is a process of exploration; guiding other painters is largely a process of elucidation. When planning a workshop, I endlessly crisscross the region, painting and reconnoitering. (My old atlases have now been replaced by GPS, but the principle of look, paint, and take notes remains the same.) There are practical considerations as well; to me, the most important is to locate comfort stations and coffee.
A good plein air teacher is more than just a decent painter. She has to be a bushwacker, with a decent sense of direction and common sense. She has to meet each of her students at the level at which they’re working.  And above all, she must resist the temptation to create a bunch of mini-mes, but rather watch for and nurture each individual “voice” in her class.
Countless fantastic views.
A good venue makes teaching that much easier. There should be room for rainy-day painting and a place to clean brushes. There should be comfortable public space to chat and drink wine after a day of hard work. There should be other activities available—hiking, shopping, dining, etc. Lakewatch Manor meets all those criteria.
Plus they are offering a fantastic added attraction: a day painting on Monhegan Island. Twelve miles offshore, Monhegan is a Maine treasure, dotted with hiking trails and artists’ studios. We’ll have painting time and lunch at a private property which adjoins Rockwell Kent’s home—now owned by Jamie Wyeth. From it, we can paint Mañana Island, or we can move off elsewhere on the island for its other iconic views.
One other detail: if you haven’t visited the Farnsworth in Rockland, or the very high-end galleries that have sprung up around it, you’re in for a treat. It’s an extraordinary art scene, and I’m a fairly jaded customer in that respect, having regular access to Manhattan.
Sun, Mañana, Monhegan by Rockwell Kent, 1907. Lousy image of a great painting,
and we will get to paint this exact view.

Seven Deadly Sins

Justicia, left, and Veritas, right, by Walter Seymour Allward, c. 1920. Cast for the never-finished memorial to King Edward VII, which was interrupted by the onset of WWII, they were found buried in 1969 and installed in front of the Supreme Court of Canada in Ottawa in 1970. (Photos by Carol L. Douglas)

In reading Trollope over Christmas I was startled to realize that the Victorians thought of Purity as a virtue rather than a state. It was a trait to be nurtured, rather than preserved. In discussing this, my friend John Nicholson, pastor of Siloam Baptist Churchin Marion, Alabama, suggested that he and I each ask young people we know to name and discuss the Four Cardinal Virtues of antiquity.
The Four Cardinal Virtues originated with Plato’s Republic. Although they were amplified in turn by the Church Fathers, they are not exclusively religious, and should be attainable by all men. These virtues are Prudence, Justice, Temperance and Courage.
Tomb of Sir John Hotham, 1st Baronet, of Scorborough (died 3 January 1645), featuring the Four Cardinal Virtues and his wonderfully desiccated skeleton.
These are in contrast to the three theological virtues of 1 Corinthians 13—Faith, Hope and Charity—which are unique to the Christian moral worldview. The pairing of these sets of virtues comes down to us as the Seven Virtues, often set against the Seven Deadly Sins.
John’s informal poll was a complete bust on my end. Only one of the college-educated, church-going youngsters I asked had any clue what the Cardinal Virtues are. The exception knew the answer not because of any superior moral education, but because she is an art historian. She recognized the Four Cardinal Virtues from Giotto’s Allegories of the Vices and the Virtues in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua.
Pride, as exemplified by the building of the Tower of Babel, 1563, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder
Until the early 20th century the Four Cardinal Virtues  were commonly represented as female allegorical figures on public buildings and tombs; prior generations would have had no trouble answering John’s question.
We’re accustomed to artists of the past taking on the great questions of morality, but virtue and vice have been absent from the painter’s vernacular since the 19th century, unless they were to be dealt with ironically, surrealistically, or not at all. So imagine how intrigued I was by Jamie Wyeth’s Seven Deadly Sins at the Farnsworth Museum in Rockland, ME. I thought it brilliant at the time and have not changed my opinion.
Anger, 2008, Jamie Wyeth
We have gulls here in Rochester, and they’re noisy, nasty creatures, perfectly suited for the depiction of sin. But perhaps more important, the Seven Deadly Sins themselves—wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony—are all reflections of our animal state.
The question that’s turned in my mind since has been what Wyeth meant by these paintings. There’s no irony in them, but the context of his life and overall work would not lead an outside observer to believe he understands those sins in the same way I do. On the other hand, I don’t see myself having the moral intelligence to paint this subject. An interesting conundrum, indeed.