The glamorous life of an artist

It’s easy to forget I’m a painter when I’m up to my elbows in minutiae, but it has to be done. Still, so does painting or I’ve lost my raison d’etre.

Clary Hill Blueberry Barrens, Carol L. Douglas. This is one of the pieces I’ve decided (provisionally) should go to New York. Until I change my mind again, that is.

I’ve taken to carrying my to-do list around on my phone. This is probably good organizationally, but it burns a hole in my pocket. As is the way with to-do lists, it never gets any shorter. The advantage of lists on paper is that they’re easier to lose.

I had a visitor in my studio at the first of the year. “I’m drowning in admin,” I told her, as an explanation for the disorder. She’s a successful businesswoman and was, frankly, incredulous. “Admin what?” she asked. After all, I’m an artist. Everyone knows art isn’t about business.

At least they’re neat. That’s not always true.

In fact, it’s totally about business. That’s something you need to know if you’re contemplating crossing from amateur and professional status. It’s about taxes and inventory and planning shows a year or more in advance. It’s very easy to fall into a trap where your painting occupies less and less of your time, while you become more of an entrepreneur. If you want to make a living as an artist, the business of art has to be front-and-center in your consciousness.

I talked to Ken DeWaardon Wednesday. He was booting around Port Clyde looking at stuff (an important part of the plein air painter’s job, and best done with a cup of gas-station coffee in hand). I was torn. It was heavily overcast and pissing snow. On the other hand, talking to him was the closest I’d gotten to a brush all week.

There’s a queen-sized bed under all that stuff. By the time I was done, I had paintings stacked in all three bedrooms and the bathroom.

I was pulling every single painting out of my storage closets, choosing inventory for an upcoming show at the Rye Art Center in New York. It doesn’t open until March, but a good solo or duo show requires a lot of advance preparation. The paintings—which are huge—have come down to my studio, where their frames will get a beady-eyed examination before they’re wrapped for shipping.

Tom and Peggy Root have a show at Ringling College, called Parallel Visions: The Paintings of Tom + Peggy Root. “I told the art handlers that if somewhere in Georgia they are overtaken by a car with flashing lights, it just means I’ve changed my mind again about another painting,” said Tom. That indecision is a powerful impulse.

Once art gets to a certain point, ‘good’ or ‘bad’ or ‘brilliant’ is irrelevant. The real question is whether they support the narrative. Then there is the question of how the work will hang together. Paintings have to get along with their neighbors.

Meanwhile, the fiscal year has ended. People ask me why I do my own taxes. I counter that the tax preparation is the easy part (and I have Laura Turner to answer all my esoteric questions). It’s the record keeping that kills me. Today my 2019 records go up in the attic, to be replaced by pristine 2022 folders. It’s easy, but it takes time.

Sometimes all you have time for is a quick watercolor doodle, but that’s better than nothing.

It’s easy to forget I’m a painter when I’m up to my elbows in minutiae, but it has to be done. Still, so does painting or I’ve lost my raison d’etre.

After I talked to Ken, I gave myself a good shake and went into my studio, where I spent 15 minutes with my watercolors, doing a quick-and dirty-sketch for 45 Day Triple Watercolor Challenge. That’s a Facebook group my students started last year to get us out of the doldrums. If I don’t need it right now, who does?

In praise of large paintings

It’s a mistake to think of our large canvases as drugs on the market. They’re often the most important work we do.

Winter Lambing, 36X48, oil on canvas, $6231 framed.

Björn Runquist told me about the perambulations of a large work, 72” high, as we hung paintings at Bangor Savings Bank yesterday. It takes time to sell a major painting, so it’s no surprise that his canvas is more well-traveled than some of my friends. Like actors, these big works ‘rest’between gigs. They can take up almost as much house-room as a twenty-something between jobs.

My out-of-work canvases live in the closets of our guest room. That’s an improvement, because until this house, we didn’t have a guest room; we just had lots of bedrooms for our numerous children. Then, my inventory was stored behind a false wall in my room. It was the antithesis of House Beautiful, and it irritated me every time I saw it. My husband studied aesthetics as undergraduate, but it never bothered him. Go figure.

Vineyard, 30X40, oil on canvas, $5072 framed.

There are many large canvases in my storage, because I love to paint big: God + Man, which I did originally for a solo show at Roberts Wesleyan College, and a whole slew of nudes that were censored at Rochester Institute of Technology. The latter will be going to the Rye Arts Center in New York in March, for a duo show with sculptor Anne De Villemejane.

We artists love to paint big, but it’s easier to sell smaller paintings. They fit better on people’s walls, and they cost less money. Still, it’s a mistake to think of these large canvases as a drug on the market. Because they require such careful thought, they’re often the most important work we do. It makes sense to think of them as an asset that should be carefully rationed into the marketplace, rather than as large, bulky objects we trip over, that we’re only too happy to sell to the first comer.

Breaking Storm, 30X48, is available through the Camden Public Library this month.

Surplus art is our lot in life. For example, Ken DeWaard counted up the unfinished work in his studio at the end of the summer and announced he had something like 145 unfinished canvases in his studio. I haven’t counted mine, but it’s something similar; we’re like musicians in that we must constantly practice. We might finish or paint over them; we ruthlessly cull them before we show them, or we’d never have room for them all.

Between changing out the show at Camden Library and hanging paintings at the bank, I have moved a lot of paintings from place to place. It’s an excellent opportunity to bring the nudes out for an airing, as they need to be cleaned and rewrapped before they travel down to New York. “I hope you sell a lot of them!” my friend Marjean exclaimed. She’s speaking from the housewife’s standpoint here; she’d really like to see that closet better-organized.

All Flesh is as Grass, 30X48, oil on canvas, $6231 framed.

I’m just thrilled to have an opportunity to show those paintings again. The lot of women worldwide wasn’t great when I painted them, and it hasn’t gotten any better. 

Meanwhile, I’ll be at Camden Public Library tomorrow from 1 to 3, for a reception for Fantastic Places and Magical Realms. The work ranges in size from 6X8 to 30X48, so there’s something suitable for every space and budget. Stop by and I’ll give you your Christmas treat.

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.

Welcome back to real life

We’re just beginning to fathom the changes between the pre-COVID and post-COVID worlds.

The last time I was in the Picker Room of the Camden Public Library was for an opening for my pal Peter Yesis. That was the last opening the library had before COVID shut it down, programs coordinator Julia Pierce told me recently.

I’d recently seen my old friend Christine Long at an art opening in Rochester, NY. She’s an epidemiologist, and she muttered that she hoped she’d be able to retire “before COVID hits.” That gave me pause, because Christine is a very smart woman. Until then, I assumed COVID was going to be a flash-in-the-pan, like avian flu had been.

Termination dust, oil on canvasboard, 6×8, $435

It was, however, still a blip on the horizon on the evening of Peter’s opening. That night, Ken DeWaard introduced me to the ‘elbow bump.’ I thought it was funny, but I’ll probably never shake a stranger’s hand again. That’s only one small change between the eras we might call pre-COVID and post-COVID.

That week was the last week I spent in what I might call ‘old time.’ The next Thursday I flew to Argentina, and all hell broke loose. People have asked me why we still went when COVID was marching across the globe. The answer is, simply, that our own government said it was safe to travel. 24 hours later, they changed their minds.

Owl’s Head, 18×24, oil on linenboard, $2318

The calendar notation anno Domini (AD) tells us that something profound happened at that moment that changed the course of human history. No, COVID isn’t on the same scale as the birth of Christ, but it seems to have made lasting changes in our culture. We’re still just beginning to fathom what they are.

It’s both fitting and passing strange that I’m the first artist scheduled in what I hope will be a long, uninterrupted line of post-COVID openings at the library. My show is called Welcome back to real life and it will be up in the Picker Room for the month of November.

Belfast Harbor, oil on canvasboard, 14×18, $1594

The opening will be Friday, November 5, from 3:30 to 5:30 PM. The library asks that masks be worn, which is just one small way in which post-COVID life differs from what we knew before.

2020 was an unprecedented challenge for artists, with galleries closing and classes and workshops cancelled. It also created new opportunities. For example, I would never have taught online before. Now I actually prefer it to live classes. It’s an opportunity to work with students from all over the country, and it allows students to hear everything I say one-on-one to their classmates. That’s impossible in a large room or outdoors.

On that subject, my students reminded me yesterday that the new session starts the week of November 8. There are a few openings. My website is undergoing a redesign, which I don’t think will be finished by then, but you can get the general information here, and contact me here to register.

Welcome Back to Real Life; paintings by Carol L. Douglas
Camden Public Library Picker Room
55 Main Street, Camden Maine
Friday, November 5, 3:30-5:30 PM

The show is hanging through the month of November.

Carry on!

You can’t always force yourself out of a difficult mood. However, that’s no excuse to not paint.

Fernald’s Neck, 9×12, oil on loose linen, available. When Ken Dewaard and I painted here last year, it was in a biting wind and with snowflakes. This week has been warm and sunny.

My painting pals Eric Jacobsen and Ken DeWaard have been at Cape Ann Plein Air, where they bagged a bouquet of prizes. Eric took Second Prize and Ken won Best Nocturne and the Artist’s Choice/Greg LaRock Legacy Award. Greg passed away unexpectedly last year. “As much as it was a huge honor to win this, it was the most difficult award I’ve ever had to accept,” said Ken.

Those prizes are a tremendous honor for my friends, but also for wee little Knox County, Maine, population fewer than 40,000. Of course, about half of these are artists. You can’t throw a cat here without hitting a painter. It’s an exhilarating milieu to live and work in. We learn from and influence each other. Thus are ‘schools’ of painting created.

Eric Jacobsen with his prizewinning painting.

As lovely as it was to have Ken and Eric gone, they were bound to come back sooner or later. With our various schedules, I haven’t painted with either of them in quite a while. This was a good week to rectify that, as the fall color is blazing and the light is clear and sweet. Of course, I can’t suddenly transform into a happy person on demand; I’ve been brooding after the death of my friend Helen.

On Wednesday, Ken and a few other friends and I painted together. I painted a contre-jurelandscape I’d had my eye on. I have no idea if it’s good or bad, because I haven’t even taken it out of its carrier.

I am a creature of process and routine. It both saves and exasperates me. “I should ask my boss for bereavement leave,” I told myself, and cackled. I’m self-employed and have built a life of tightly pressing commitments. It’s easier to carry through than to try to reschedule them.

You can’t always force yourself out of a difficult mood. However, that’s no excuse to not paint.

Ken DeWaard’s body of work for Cape Ann Plein Air.

Furthermore, there’s never a guarantee that what you paint will be good. That’s also no excuse. Anyone who paints in a disciplined manner will know there are periods when the well runs dry. There’s nothing to do but work through them. That’s one reason our studios are littered with unfinished paintings, false starts and bad ideas. It’s also why paintings are so darned expensive. You’re not just paying for that gem you love, but for all the experiments and tries that are lying on my studio floor.

The Nazis have many great things to answer for. One small thing was their corruption of the phrase Arbeit macht frei, which they emblazoned, with hideous cynicism, on the gates of Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps. It means “work sets you free,” and it was a horrible thing to say to slave laborers you intended to kill.

However, the underlying idea is in fact true. The repetition and structure of work can be redemptive. It pulls your conscious mind away from your troubles. That lets your unconscious mind do its job, which is to process emotions.

Three artists, one view

It’s not what you paint, it’s how you paint it.

Asters by Björn Runquist, 12X24. Courtesy of the artist.

Last week, I got a text from Björn Runquist that read “Asters!” and included a photo of the roadside along Maine 131 in Thomaston. I was out on American Eagle teaching, so I couldn’t rush over there. On Monday, Ken DeWaard and I went chasing after Björn’s view. Route 131 is narrow, heavily traveled, and has a wicked ditch, making parking and set-up difficult. That meant all three of us painted from the same place, at the same angle. Björn’s painting is beautifully finished; Ken’s and mine are still incomplete.

It’s common enough for us to paint in the same place, but rare that we would choose the same frame. Within that, different things attracted us. Björn concentrated on the broad sweep and the punctuation of greens. Ken was interested in the big sky. For me, the asters were right at eye-level, so I painted a forest of purple.

Ken DeWaards asters, 18×24, courtesy of the artist.

Bearing in mind that they’re at different stages of completion, are any of these paintings ‘better’ than the others? Subjected to formal analysis, they all finish strong. They’re properly drafted, have good composition, clear focal points, and use color competently. None are boring.

Therein lies the juror’s conundrum. Their ‘quality’ rests on how you, the viewer, respond emotionally to them. In that, they’re radically different. Ken, Björn and I are roughly the same age, have the same social background, and use the same alla prima technique. I’m not going to psychoanalyze my peers, let alone myself, but we each bring different sensibilities to our paintings.

My asters, 12×16.

That’s why painting matters, of course. It’s also one of the many paradoxes of art. Most consumers respond to paintings based on subject matter—for instance, they look at boat paintings because boats mean something to them. The objectivity of time renders the subject less important, and the artist’s inner life becomes paramount. Vincent van Gogh is not an Immortal because the art-loving public has an abiding love for Arles. Heck, most of us have never been there.

Last week, I told you about an exercise where my students have to paint a scene chosen by committee. (Joe Anna Arnett called me an ‘evil genius’ for this lesson, and it’s the greatest compliment I’ve ever received.) The subject matters, yes, but what you bring to it ultimately overrides content. Never worry about a peer painting the same thing as you—he simply can’t.

A footnote: please check out Peter Yesis’ wonderful flower paintings. He’s willing to take on those flowers petal-by-petal, something the rest of us never dare do.

Monday Morning Art School: Precision

A good painting requires a good plan. What does that mean? 

This last weekend I was painting in the 14thannual Paint for Preservation for the Cape Elizabeth Land Trust. This always involves a big canvas, and this year was no exception: I painted 30×40.

I always start with a drawing in my sketchbook; when I’m working this large, the drawing becomes paramount. To look at my canvas from a distance meant climbing down into a small ravine and back up the next finger of rock, so I didn’t do it often. Accuracy in that situation requires planning. I transfer the drawing faithfully to my canvas, gridding if necessary. Then the sketchbook lies at my feet so I can consult it for values if necessary.

Foghorn Symphony, 36×40, by Carol L. Douglas, will be available through the Cape Elizabeth Land Trust in late August.

“You write numbers on it?” said Ken DeWaard, who’d stopped by with his morning coffee.

“Numbers and colors,” I said. That’s not my idea; it’s one I stole from an old guy named Vincent van Gogh, who often wrote the colors alongside his sketches. The sun at dawn on Saturday was a lemony yellow, and it would have been easy to remember it as richer and deeper. That would have overridden the sense of a transient sea-fog in the distance, which was causing the five lighthouses of greater Portland to play a fog-horn symphony.

Plein air events like Paint for Preservation have no do-overs. We’re required to put out a good painting. There are two options. You can paint more than one, and choose the best. That seldom works for me, since I’m no judge of my own work in the thrust-and-flow of an event. It’s also a lot of work.

Zeb Cove, 40×40, was my 2020 painting for CELT’s Paint for Preservation.

.
I go with the second, which is to paint one good one from the start, using all the tools at my disposal. Since a painting always goes wrong in the planning stages, I make sure my plan is solid, and then I stick with it.

What makes a good plan?

Precision of drawing

This means proper perspective and measurement. You might think this is irrelevant when the subject is rocks and the sea, but it’s as important there as with architecture. Drawing is the only clue about the distances involved. There’s a contemporary Maine style, which involves fast, loose brushwork, but it rests on a foundation of perfect drafting. In fact, bad initial drawing is a great way to end up with a tight painting, since you’ll constantly have to redraw with your brush.

Four Ducks, 30×40, was my 2019 painting for CELT’s Paint for Preservation.

Precision of composition

This means understanding the motive line, energy, and value structure of your painting from the beginning. A 30×40 painting will take from 8-12 hours to finish. The tide will have gone through one full cycle, and the sun will beat its way across the sky as you’re painting. In order to retain the light structure you started with, you must lay it out in advance—and then you must stick with it.

Precision of color

Nothing makes for a muddier painting than constantly restating colors because you didn’t get them right on the first try. Make a grisaille, and check your mixed colors against it.

Rocky, 36×36, was my 2018 painting for CELT’s Paint for Preservation. I’m detecting a theme here.

To mix color properly, you must be absolutely conversant with the pigments on your own palette. This requires practice. The goal is au premier coup, or to nail it on the first strike. That goes not just the for darks, but every color in the picture. Even a painting with wonderful shadows and lights will have many middle tones, often closely related in value. These are actually the most difficult colors to mix accurately. If you have a painting that isn’t working, ask yourself if it has a full tonal range, or is it simply hitting the highs and lows. 

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.

What you can and can’t change

Thought and practice moves our painting style, but it’s incremental, just like the Mary Day docking.

Winch (American Eagle), oil on canvasboard, by Carol L. Douglas, 12X16, $1449 framed.

Windjammers are slippery little devils. I should know that by now. You think you understand the rhythm of their comings and goings and you find one or two likely candidates and commit to painting them. Then you look away for a moment and you find a subject slipping away from her berth, heading out to sea.

That happened to me on Monday, when I’d stopped to paint before my dentist appointment. (‘Quickie’ has an entirely different meaning to artists than to the rest of the world.) I’d limned in the ketch Angelique, and the light and shadows were notated, but as I sadly watched her slide out of her berth, I knew she wouldn’t be back for days.

“You didn’t take a photo, did you?” asked Ken DeWaard. He knows most of my bad habits, thanks to my friend Terry spilling the beans. I could almost paint Angeliquefrom memory, but that never ends well. I shook my head ruefully, and begged him for a picture. “I’m just enabling you,” he muttered, but he sent it to me anyway.

Lobster fleet at Eastport, oil on canvas, 24×30, $3478 framed.

There was still the fine flat transom of the Lewis R. French to paint. She celebrated her 150th birthday this year, and that’s something to celebrate. We both set to again, but not five minutes later, Mary Day hove into view. She was heading for the berth directly in front of us. Normally, that would be a good thing, but it would obliterate the rest of our view.

Mary Day doesn’t have an engine; she’s pushed into place by a tender. It’s fascinating to watch 90’ of wood and sails delicately slide into her berth, guided by a tiny gnat of a boat. Since our subjects had vanished into the rhythm of a working harbor, we had no choice but to sit back and enjoy the spectacle. We talked about color and mark-making.

Striping (Heritage), oil on canvasboard, 6X8, $435 framed.

I hold that mark-making is as personal as handwriting. Once you’ve taught someone how to form their letters, you have very little control over the finished product. I’m shocked, sometimes, to see how much my handwriting resembles my mother’s. That’s a real mystery, since I’m a lefty and she was right-handed.

As a teacher, I do influence my students’ marks. “Don’t dab!” I’m wont to say, although I’m well aware that Pierre Bonnard dabbed to great effect. He’s the exception that proves the rule. Dabbing, in the hands of beginners, looks amateurish.

Mostly, I ask them to experiment with all the different things a brush can do and then find their own ways of using them. Once they’ve found that place, it’s pointless to try to shake it up too much. (This is why I don’t encourage palette-knife painting in my classes; it short-circuits this process.)

Pleasure boats, oil on canvasboard, 12X16, $1159 unframed. Even though this is not ‘my style’, it’s still one of my favorite paintings.

“There are things that are immutable, and it’s pointless to try to change them,” I said to Ken as we watched Mary Day’s crew work. “For example, I can’t be 6’5” and you can’t have my curly hair.”

“But there are things you can change,” said Ken. He’s right, of course. Our choices of brushes, canvas and pigments all influence our paint application, just as choosing a gel pen makes us write differently than with a pencil. Thought and practice moves our painting style, but it’s incremental, just like the Mary Day docking. Rush that by copying someone else, and you risk being a parody.

I don’t know a single serious artist who thinks he or she is painting well—even the ones who are highly successful. We’re all on a quest; our vision is constantly changing. But through all that, we have something that’s immutable. For lack of a better term, I’ll call it our styles.

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.