What constitutes a beginner painter?

I don’t want painting students to pass a test before they start with me; I just want them to be able to thread their metaphorical sewing machine on their own.

 Midsummer, 24×36, $3985 framed. In honor of Canadian Thanksgiving, which is Monday, let’s feature paintings I’ve done in Canada.

As soon as I announced that I wasn’t taking beginners anymore, a number of my students expressed trepidation about continuing with me. “But I’m a beginner!” they said. In some cases, they’re right, but they’re already on the path to understanding painting. In other cases, they don’t have a clue how well they’re painting, and how much they’ve learned.

When I said ‘beginning painters,’ I meant people on their first date with a brush. They’re unclear on the materials and what they’re used for. They’ve never mixed paint or handled a brush. They’ve never heard or considered basic terms like hue, saturation or value.

Anyone who’s taken one of my classes is past this newbie-phase, by definition. And anyone who’s studied with another teacher or taught themselves with the aid of books or videos is unlikely to be a beginner, either.

Ottawa House, 16X20, oil on canvas, $2029 framed. All these paintings were done en plein air.

My friend and student Jennifer Johnson—who taught quilting for many years—says that she would have students in her classes with advanced design skills, and others who’d never threaded a sewing machine before. “Neither of these things are more important than the other,” she said. “But I spent 90% of my time rethreading the machine for the beginner.”

I’m trying to describe something analogous in paint. I don’t want painting students to pass a test before they start with me; I just want them to be able to thread their metaphorical sewing machine on their own.

In fact, I think it’s important to have a class of different levels. Hearing the steps justified and explained to a less-experienced painter is often helpful to the more-experienced painter. Sometimes, an essential principle hasn’t really clicked. Or, our willful brains just forget something important.

Clouds over Teslin Lake, Yukon Territory, 8×10, oil on canvasboard, $522 unframed.

As with every discipline, painters improve at different rates. How fast they learn depends on their natural quickness, how much time they can practice outside of class, distractions, anxieties, and other factors. I could start twelve painters at exactly the same level, teach them the same lessons for a year, and there’d still be a wide range of achievement at the end. That’s natural, and if you’re someone who learns more slowly, it’s nothing to worry about.

The greatest painting classes are marked by camaraderie and good will. The best way to learn something is to explain it to someone else. Those painters generous with their own knowledge are helping themselves as much as they’re helping their friend.

Cobequid Bay farm, oil on canvasboard, 6X8, $348 unframed.

Having said all that, Bobbi Heath tells me she has run up against a problem and will not be offering her introductory oil-painting class this fall. That means that for the short term, new oil painters will still be coming to me (subject to space limits in my classes, of course). Cassie Sano will still be offering introductory watercolor classes, concurrent with my own fall classes.

Making a good workshop great

Your teacher is important, but the students turn a good workshop into a great one.

Students painting at Schoodic Point this year. That was the last sun we saw. (All photos courtesy Jennifer Johnson.)

I’m teaching in Acadia this week, and it’s fog-bound and rainy. But this is a great group—intrepid and interested. They’re learning a lot despite the unseasonable dampness, and I’m having a blast teaching them.

How can you get the most from a workshop or class? Here are some simple suggestions:

Study the supply list.

Note that I didn’t say, “run right out and buy everything on it.” Every teacher has a reason for asking for those materials. In my case, it’s that I teach a system of paired primaries. You can’t understand color theory without the right starting pigments. Another teacher might have beautiful mark-making. If you don’t buy the brushes he suggests, how are you going to understand his technique?

A tube of cadmium green that I once bought for a workshop and never opened still rankles. I never want to do that to one of my students. When you study with me, I want you to read my supply lists. If something confuses you, or you think you already have a similar item, email and ask.

Paula Tefft working in watercolor.

Bring the right clothes.

It’s been ranging between the 50s and 80s in Maine this summer. If you come north without a hoodie, you will be chilled in the evenings, but you need shorts and a tee-shirt during the day.

I send my students a packing list for clothes and personal belongings. If you’re going on the Age of Sail, Shary will send you a different list, meant for a boat. Follow these instructions, especially in the matter of insect repellent. I didn’t, because I am seldom bit, but I have whackin’ great blisters on my ankles right now. With all the rain we’ve had, the mosquitoes have been voracious.

Know what you’re getting into.

“How can you stand this? It’s all so green!” an urban painter once said to me after a week in the Adirondacks.

There are no Starbucks in Acadia National Park, in the Pecos National Wilderness, or on the clear, still waters of Penobscot Bay. If you’re dependent on your latte macchiato, you may find it uncomfortable at first. (Somehow, there’s always coffee, even without cell-phone reception.) However, the seals, dolphins and eagles are ample compensation.

Hayley R. painting in Paradise.

Be prepared to get down and dirty.

I’m not talking about the outdoors here, I’m talking about change and growth. I am highly competitive myself, so it’s difficult for me to feel like I’m struggling. However, it’s in challenging ourselves that we make progress. Use your teacher’s method while you’re at the workshop, even if you feel like you’ve stepped back ten years in your development. That’s a temporary problem.

You can disregard what you learn when you go home, or incorporate only small pieces into your technique, but you traveled to be challenged, and you can’t do that if you cling to your own technique.

Connect with your classmates

I know painters from all over the US. I met most of them in plein air events. There’s power in those relationships. Exchange email addresses. Keep in contact. Follow them on Instagram or Twitter.
Take good notes.

Listen for new ideas, write down concepts, and above all, ask questions. If your teacher can’t stop and answer them mid-stream, save them for after the demo.

 

Process, not product

Embracing process is deeper training than simply learning a new way to paint. It’s a new way to see, and it’s the basis of all really good art.

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

The hardest part of painting class is the first day, or first few days. Sometimes the students who have the most difficulty are those who are already good at painting or drawing.

Often, they are terrified about painting in front of others. They feel as if they’ll be judged and found lacking. They have a deeply buried nut of pride in being “pretty good at art,” and they’re afraid to expose that to reality. I recognize this because I was once that student myself. When someone resists me, I am patient because I remember all the backchat I gave my teachers back in the day.

These students don’t realize they’ve already taken the most difficult step, which is signing up for classes. It’s an admission that they know something is lacking in their technique. They may also be remembering making art with teenage peers, who can be the most judgmental of all critics. Adults are not cruel like that; they’re genuinely excited for each other’s successes.

Fishing shacks at Owl’s Head, 11X14, $1087

We’re never good judges of our own work as we’re doing it. The disconnect between what we’ve envisioned and what actually happened is too pronounced. The painting of Belfast harbor, above, is a great example. I was so focused on what it lacked that I never noticed that the color, structure and paint handling were excellent. It had to sit for months on a rack in my studio before I realized it was finished, and it’s now one of my favorite paintings.

That’s where a teacher can be helpful, and why positive criticism is so useful. But time itself is a great healer. It allows you to stop seeing the painting from inside your own head.

Often adult students have been trained to look for results. That’s an unfortunate byproduct of our commercial culture. It makes it difficult to sit back and enjoy learning the process.

Balletic sway, 9X12, $696 unframed.

I once had a delightful student named Ann, who was a good beginning painter. She would start strong, and when it looked like she had a winner on her hands, she’d announce to the class, “I’m painting this for [  ].” That was an instant jinx. She changed the way she saw her work. It became something tangible, a product to be given as a gift. She started seeing it through the potential recipient’s eyes, and that meant she only saw its shortcomings. That flood of negativity paralyzed her. Ann’s warm generosity was, in fact, getting in the way of her painting.

This, by the way, is the difficulty of commissions. The artist starts from the transaction, rather than the germ of an idea. In a world of extremely slick, photoshopped experiences, the physical reality of paint is always going to look clunky and awkward. That’s part of its charm.

My greatest challenge as a teacher is to get people to let go of what they think they know and to relax into the process of exploration. I give them a protocol, and that’s important, but it’s hardly the only thing. Embracing process means divorcing yourself from the results, no longer worrying about whether today’s painting is ‘good’ or ‘bad’, just that it’s been painted and you’ve gotten one step closer to your inner vision. That’s deeper training than simply learning a new way to paint. It’s a new way to see, and it’s the basis of all really good art.

A game of chance

Fog has color, movement, and attitude, and is a great tool to understand atmospheric perspective.

Fog Bank, 14X18, oil on canvasboard, by Carol L. Douglas, $1275 unframed. 

I appreciate the care with which the National Weather Service makes hour-by-hour graphical forecasts. They’re the plein air painter’s best friend, since they predict not only the chance of rain, but the sky cover and the wind. However, they’re often wrong for areas near deep water. Mother Nature is impulsive and unpredictable where warm air first encounters the cold sea. Yesterday I drove to Warren, which is 12 miles to the southwest of me. I traveled through a band of dense fog, a band of brilliant blue, and ended up under a dour, dull sky.

That makes planning my plein air class a game of chance. My primary goal is to teach fundamental skills, but along with that I want my students to master every possible light situation. Yesterday’s nominal subject was value-matching and patterning. However, with a fog as rich and deep as the one we encountered at Owls Head, it seemed a pity to not concentrate on the atmospherics.

Early Spring, Beech Hill, 8X10, oil on canvasboard, $522 unframed.

Few things are more beautiful than fog—or more annoying to the painter who insists on golden sunlight in every painting. Fog has color, movement, and attitude. It’s a great tool to understand atmospheric perspective—and to teach patience with the passing scene. It moves in and out, obliterating a major compositional point here, and adding one there.

The more I teach, the more I realize how much I have to learn about teaching. My student, Jennifer Johnson is in a transitional phase where nothing she paints looks good to her. That’s painful, but it’s a sign she’s about to make a giant leap forward—if she allows it. The fainthearted painter will retreat back into the shell of the familiar. The courageous will allow herself to experience the “I hate everything I’m painting” phase and wrench forward into new discovery. Jennifer is, of course, one of the courageous.

Jennifer Johnson is working her way through her period of dissatisfaction by returning to first principles. That means starting with thumbnails and gridding them onto her canvas.

If you play a musical instrument, you’ve had the experience of mastering a piece part-by-part. You get the left hand down fine. Then you try to add the right hand, and what you’d learned in the left hand falls apart. But if you persist, your brain will integrate the two tasks. Adding new ideas to painting works the same way.

To ride through this, Jennifer has sensibly returned to first principles. One of these is thumbnails and value sketches, which are then transferred to the canvas in the form of a grisaille. Her example, above, from last week’s class, is far better than any I’ve ever made.

What I realized from watching her is how frequently students can do each step well, but not integrate them as a whole. That’s something I need to focus on more. The sense of being needed put a spring in my step. It seemed like only fifteen minutes had passed and the three-hour class was done. Rats.

Frank Costantino with Ann Clowe, Nancy Lloyd and Lisa Siegrist.

Yesterday’s students had the opportunity to watch a real watercolor master at work. My buddy Frank Costantino is in town, and they looked over his shoulder as he painted the lobster boat Daphne Lee. If he can stand more fog, we’ll go out again today.

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.

Night prowlers

The greatest obstacle to painting nocturnes is convincing yourself that you want to go back out after supper.

Linda DeLorey painting a nocturne at Rockefeller Hall. (Photo courtesy of Jennifer Johnson)

I’ve been teaching at Schoodic Institute for a long time. Every year, I check the moonrise schedule and determine whether we’ll get a full moon for a nocturne. It seldom seems to work. The last time our schedule aligned, the moonrise over Arey Cove was brilliant, but the mosquitoes were ferocious. We were driven off long before our canvases were covered.

(Before I taught Sea & Sky at Schoodic, I taught it in Rockland and then Belfast. This is before we all had cell phones with flashlights. One year, Sandy Quang got lost and fell over a bluff. Luckily there was beach below.)

A late-night critique session with Rebecca Bense and Jennifer Johnson.

We’ve always done this workshop in August, when the days are long. This year, it’s in October, because Maine’s COVID-19 regulations made it impossible for out-of-staters to come in without quarantine in August. That means it’s dark by 6:30. Walking back from the Commons in the dark, we realized that Rockefeller Hall would make for smashing nocturnes, with or without moonlight. It’s a very safe location, since the offices are closed at night.

The greatest obstacle to painting nocturnes is convincing yourself that you want to go back out after supper. It sounds like a brilliant plan at breakfast. After you’ve already painted for eight hours, and maybe had a glass of wine, the idea of dragging your stuff back out in the dark sounds awful. Of course, there are more opportunities for mishaps. Brushes drop into the grass and roll silently away. Nocturnes are unfair to watercolorists, who fight the night mist that keeps their paper saturated.

My students are used to starting with value studies, so painting at night isn’t such a shock to them.

For me, it’s easier to get up at 2 AM and paint. Even so, you then have the challenge of leaving your warm bed at an unnatural hour. Either way, if you persist through your own resistance, you’re in for a treat. The air is fresh and cool; the commonplace becomes beautiful and mysterious.

I’ve given up using a headlamp for nocturnes; I find they blind me as they flicker back and forth. Instead, I brought enough rechargeable book lights to share with my students. My students have been endlessly schooled in value studies, so they took to the limited color range of nocturne paintings immediately. In general, there’s no color in the night sky except inky blackness and the color of any lights. Under a door lamp or inside a window, you will sometimes see a short burst of color, but it’s passing and brief.

Most of my intrepid band of painters, less Jennifer Johnson, who took the photo. That’s Beth Car, me, Jean Cole, Ann Clowe, Rebecca Bense, Carrie O’Brien, and Linda DeLorey.

“Prepare for the worst and hope for the best,” my monitor Jennifer Johnson says. This year all my students are from the northeast, so they know what extensive array of clothing is suitable to October. It can be sunny and beautiful one day and sleeting (or worse) the next. I’m, as usual, far less judicious, since I don’t really believe in winter. I capitulated to the point where I brought long pants, but I haven’t needed them. I’m still in capris, sandals and a linen painting smock.

Me, demoing. (Photo courtesy of Ann Clowe)

October is always the most beautiful month in the northeast and the weather has been fine. It’s foggy in the morning, because the sea is warmer than the air. “I’d love a demonstration on painting fog,” Ann Clowe told me. I love painting fog, so I enthusiastically set up to comply. Unfortunately, the fog burned off too soon, and we had another pristine autumn morning, surrounded by the myriad colors of Autumn on every side. It’s cooler here than it is in August, but most importantly, the ever-present madding crowds are mostly absent.

I’m teaching my annual Sea & Sky workshop in Acadia National Park this week. After that, there’s Find Your Authentic Voice in Plein Air in Tallahassee, Florida, in early November, and a few more plein air classes in Rockport, ME. From there on in, it’s all Zoom, Zoom, Zoom until the snow stops flying.

Why travel to paint?

Sometimes it takes different light, and different objects, to shake us into really seeing.

The artistically-mature Vincent van Gogh: View of Arles, Flowering Orchards, 1889. Courtesy Neue Pinakothek

It’s possible to achieve mastery as an artist while never leaving your little village. That’s especially true today, with museum and learning resources so widely available. Yet few great artists ever stayed put. The ones who did—like Frans Hals—lived in places like Haarlem, which were so cosmopolitan that they brought the world to the artist.

Artistic itchy feet are nothing new. In medieval Northern Europe, painters (and other craftsmen) were expected to complete the wanderjahre. For a minimum of three years after their apprenticeship, they traveled around Europe learning their craft from different masters. This is where the English word (and custom) ‘journeyman’ originated.

Van Gogh developing his color sense in Paris: Fritillaries in a Copper Vase, 1887. Courtesy Musée d’Orsay

The most intrepid, of course, traveled the farthest. Albrecht Dürer was on the road for four years after his apprenticeship ended, including two trips to Italy. (An unhappy arranged marriage might have contributed to his wanderlust.) Pieter Bruegel the Elder went to France and Italy. Not only did the wanderjahreallow craftsmen to study with the best practitioners of their age, it had a tremendous effect on culture itself. The ideas and practices of the Renaissance were transmitted across Europe by these working journeymen.

Vincent van Gogh invented himself as a painter with his move to Paris in 1886. There he met the avant-garde and dropped the somber color palette and subjects of his northern painting. It was not until he went to the south of France in 1888, however, that his style became fully realized.

Van Gogh newly arrived in Paris: Le Moulin de Blute-Fin, 1886. Courtesy Bridgestone Museum of Art

Van Gogh found a place that fitted his sensibilities, and his painting expanded to embrace the place. That’s something that happens to many artists, and is perhaps why so many of them are so darn footloose (myself included). But isn’t this just self-indulgence? Can’t you achieve the same thing at home?

A few years ago, I assigned a student to draw a fishing boat in Rockport harbor. Becca & Meagan was iconic; she’s red and was a popular subject for artists and photographers. Sheryl would draw a line; I would correct it. We went back and forth until she finally stopped me and made me really look. The boat she was drawing wasn’t Becca & Meagan at all; the owner had hauled her and replaced her with a different red boat. I was so familiar with the scene that what I ‘knew’ had overwritten what I saw.

Van Gogh in the Netherlands: his first major work, The Potato Eaters, 1885. Courtesy Van Gogh Museum

I had an epiphany while watching a student painting an horno in New Mexico last week. These bake ovens are traditional conical structures, deceptively simple in form. Linda, who’s from New England, couldn’t rely on what she thought she knew. She had to hunker down with the essentials of measurement and line to get it right. Because she did, she drew (and then painted) the hornoaccurately.

When we’re painting what we’re familiar with, we can fall into relying on a few sketchy lines to suggest what we already know. That leads to ambiguous, waffling painting. Sometimes it takes different light, and different objects, to shake us into really seeing.

I’m doing a FREE Zoom workshop on Friday, October 2 at 5 PM. Consider it Happy Hour, and join me with a glass of wine, a spritzer, or whatever else. We’re going to talk about studying painting. What should students expect to get from a workshop or class? What should teachers offer? Have you always wanted to try painting but been afraid of classes? Are you taking classes but want to get more out of them? Join us for a free-ranging discussion.

While this is in advance of my Find your Authentic Voice in Plein Air workshop in November in Tallahassee, everyone is welcome. There’s absolutely no charge or obligation. Signups are already brisk, so register soon!

What comes after art classes?

Painting is a lifelong exercise in self-guided learning.

Clary Hill Blueberry Barrens, watercolor on Yupo, available through Maine Farmland Trust Gallery, by Carol L. Douglas

A student asked me why I teach all levels in my classes. Indeed, adding a brand-new painter to the group can sometimes be difficult, as I need to spend a little more time with that person at the start. I’ve found, however, that almost everyone needs the same lessons repeatedly. Painters make the same errors at almost every level—of value, color-mixing, contrast, line, and focal points. It takes a surprisingly amount of time to convince students of the value of process, including value sketches and drawing.

My own experience in taking master classes hasn’t been good; they’ve been less about mastery and more about marketing. That’s not to indict all painting teachers, but unless the teacher knows you in advance, they know very little about your painting level before you start the class, even with portfolio review.

Clary Hill Blueberry Barrens, oil on canvas, available through Maine Farmland Trust Gallery, by Carol L. Douglas

With twelve or fewer students in a class, I have time to meet each person where they are and encourage them a little farther along the road. This is very intensive, and I blow it more than I like. Yesterday I had a painter whom I should have pushed harder on establishing a focal point, but I didn’t realize that until dinnertime.

I still occasionally take classes myself, although it’s not common. It happens when I run across a painter who’s doing something I want to master. I took Poppy Balser’s watercolor workshop a few years ago, because Poppy can make a line of dark spruces shimmer against the sea. I wanted to know how she made that value jump in watercolor.

There are other painters I would like to learn from. Dick Sneary and Dave Dewey are both consummate watercolorists, and I admire their drafting and composition skills tremendously. Likewise, I admire Lois Dodd’s ability to drive to the emotional nut of a scene by removing all extraneous matter. And I often return to Clyfford Stillto think about composition.

Part of my class on Clary Hill, photo courtesy of Jennifer Johnson.

An old and reliable way to learn is to copy master works. I recently started drawing frames from Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko comic books. This led to copying images from the first great cartoonist, Peter Paul Rubens.

But, in general, I’m done studying with others. “How do you know when that happens?” my student asked me. In my case, I realized that the time I was spending traveling to the Art Students League of New York from Rochester would be better spent in my own studio working.

“What comes after I’m done studying with you?” she asked. Go out and paint (which students should be doing anyway). If you like the social side of classes, find a painting buddy or join a painting group. We make the most progress when we’re picking up our brushes several times a week.

Jean Cole’s painting on Clary Hill. She just came back from my Pecos workshop. The goal ought never to be to make ‘mini-me’ painters, but to develop each person’s own style.

I’m doing a FREE Zoom workshop on Friday, October 2 at 5 PM. Consider it Happy Hour, and join me with a glass of wine, a spritzer, or whatever else. We’re going to talk about studying painting. What should students expect to get from a workshop or class? What should teachers offer? Have you always wanted to try painting but been afraid of classes? Are you taking classes but want to get more out of them? Join us for a free-ranging discussion.

While this is in advance of my Find your Authentic Voice in Plein Air workshop in November in Tallahassee, everyone is welcome. There’s absolutely no charge or obligation. Signups are already brisk, so register soon!

Let down your defenses

I understand and empathize with defensiveness very well, but I also know that it is paralyzing.

Annett Sauve lets me demonstrate on her canvas. (Photo courtesy of Jane Chapin)

Thomas Edison is credited with saying that “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.” He ought to have added persistence in that equation. It’s a kind of intelligence, one that isn’t measured on tests and used as a predictor of success—but it ought to be.

Of the six students in this workshop, two are returning students. They share that trait of persistence. For both of them, the process of painting has really clicked on this trip. I refine my teaching method with every class, which I think makes it clearer, but the difference is mostly in them.

Mary Whitney’s painting in paradise.

Painting is not simple. Learning it takes time, and is a two-way dialogue. The student must be open to what’s being taught in order to make any real progress. Likewise, the teacher must be listening constantly for cues from the student.

For a long time, I was a very defensive painting (and everything else) student. I knew what I thought I knew and wasn’t willing to let others change that, even as I understood I needed help. It was a pity, because it blunted any possibility of becoming a better painter.

What were the symptoms of this self-defeating viewpoint? Whenever a teacher suggested I try something a different way, I responded with a rationalization. “I know, but…” saved me from having to try and fail. I was unnecessarily critical of others’ work, and there was a very limited range of paintings I understood enough to love.

Karla King and me, working at Pecos National Historic Park. (Photo courtesy of Jane Chapin)

What cured that? My broken self-image was repaired. To explain how I was broken would require delving into a maelstrom, so I will skip it. But the cure was a combination of my developing faith (I was made in God’s image, so I can’t be fatally flawed) and the slow development of real competence. This was not just as a painter, but as a parent, a spouse, and a functioning adult.

I understand and empathize with defensiveness very well, but I also know that it is paralyzing. I can’t fix it by simply saying, “let down your defenses.” That insecurity is the very nut the student is trying so hard to protect.

Instead, I sidestep the whole question by insisting that, for one week, workshop students try it my way. It’s not arrogance on my part, but rather the desire that students get value for the money they’re shelling out.

Historic New Mexico.

Of course, the process I use is not the only way to paint alla prima, nor is it in any way my own invention. Painting—like most other human endeavors—has been developed incrementally by thousands of practitioners. Our best practices are a synthesis of their ideas. Before a student rejects the basic rules of painting, he or she should not only understand why they are used, but have thoroughly mastered them.

I’m thinking about this because I’m going to do a free cocktail-hour webinar on October 2, where I’ll talk about objectives in studying painting. Everyone is welcome, and I hope you bring lots of questions.

Monday Morning Art School: what I learned from losing 50 pounds

I rapidly gained a hundred pounds after my first cancer in 1999. It’s taken me this long to get serious about getting rid of it. As I reach my halfway goal, I realize that much of the discipline of losing weight is the same as the discipline of learning to paint and draw.
Peppers, by Carol L. Douglas
Being self-taught has its limits
After each of my pregnancies, I used Weight Watchers and exercise and bounced back. That didn’t work with my post-cancer weight. I tried many diets without success. The only solution the medical establishment offered was bariatric surgery. I’d seen too many mixed results to consider it.
I switched PCPs, and my new nurse-practitioner had a different idea. “Try this,” he said, and handed me a book. I’d have dismissed the plan as unsound had it not come from a medical professional.
When I first took classes at the Art Students League, Cornelia Foss looked at my work and said, “If it were 1950, I’d say ‘brava,’ but it’s not.” I’d still be painting derivatively today if it weren’t for her. Sometimes, a trained guide is necessary.
Dish of butter, by Carol L. Douglas
It takes longer than you ever believed possible
My weight loss seemed fast in the beginning. Now, it’s much slower, but it is still there. The same thing happens when you start to paint. Many people quit dieting when it gets tough, and they quit painting then, too. The secret of success is to maintain your discipline through these parched times, because that’s when you’re making real improvement. If it’s going to be meaningful, change is incremental.
Weight Watchers works for millions of people because it registers these incremental changes and encourages you through them. Painting teachers do the same thing. However, if you quit, you’ll make no progress at all. I started this diet in February; I thought I’d be down a hundred pounds now. I’m not, but I wouldn’t have lost a single pound had I not done it. While I didn’t meet my self-imposed goal, the last nine months have not been wasted in self-recrimination, either. 
Home made wine, by Carol L. Douglas
Chaos is not helpful
I realized that my travel schedule had stalled my weight loss, despite my faithfulness to the plan. Then I started to look at my painting in the same light. All these road miles were not helping my painting, either. There’s tremendous value in travel, both as a painter and a person, but months on the road are corrosive. Most improvement is going to happen in your own studio.
Acrylic paints, by Carol L. Douglas
The method isn’t the issue
The method I’ve used to lose this weight is Haylie Pomroy’s Fast Metabolism Diet. It isn’t for everyone. But I’ve come to believe that the method is far less important than your own self-discipline.
The same is true in painting. There is no inherent superiority to alla prima oil painting, although it’s what I practice. One can paint beautifully indirectly in oils, or in acrylic, gouache, or pastel. Mastery comes from within, not from the pigment.
There’s a spiritual element
I believe that God loves me and wants me to be happy, so I can work through the lean times without losing my courage. I can afford to take risks and be intrepid. That’s true in dieting, in painting, and in my business model. If you lack courage, you need to take a long, hard look at why that is.
Toy monkey, by Carol L. Douglas
Ultimately, it’s all about you
I have a friend who’s unsure how she can embrace a radical diet when so much of her family life revolves around food. Likewise, I have friends whose family commitments mean they have to cut back on their painting time. I have lived both those realities, and I am not downplaying them.
But in the end, it’s all about you. Families are remarkably resilient when they realize how much it means to you to succeed. If you’re conflicted about whether your art or your diet are ‘worth it,’ that conflict will spill over to your home and play itself out in your relationships.
My own children survived my tofu lasagna, and holiday dinners with nudes on the walls. They grew up with a working mother in a working studio, and they’re accomplished, good citizens. There’s no reason to sacrifice yourself on an altar of ‘how things should be’ or listen to your own self-destructive thoughts. Yes, you can do this.