The power of affirmation

Left to their own devices, the voices in our heads take up a litany of “I can’t do this, I don’t know what I’m doing, all my work sucks.”

Glacier Cagliero from Rio Electrico, 12X16, oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas, $1159 unframed

“At the core of true leadership is the idea that high value is placed on empowering people to become all that God has destined them to be,” said Pastor Bryan Carle this weekend. He went on to discuss how affirmation and validation are powerful tools to accomplish this.

To ‘affirm’ means to confirm or state positively. To ‘validate’ means to recognize, establish, or illustrate worthiness or legitimacy. “Affirmation is one of the most powerful aspects of the human experience,” said Bryan.

Fogbank, 14X18, oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas, $1275 unframed

The power of words spoken over us was keenly demonstrated by my friend Helen, who’d been classified as ‘learning disabled’ as a child. Having taught her for many years, I know she was anything but slow. But when things got difficult, she would retreat into a shell of “I can’t do this; I’m stupid.” It was impossible to reach her when she got into that angry knot of self-loathing.

That doesn’t mean that classifications aren’t important in education; they obviously are. But we live up or down to the labels that others apply to us.

Helen tried to start a blog. I encouraged this by sharing it on Facebook. One of my friends sharply criticized Helen’s poor grammar and spelling. She never published her writing again. It was a loss to her, but an even greater loss to the rest of us. She had insights from the population permanently living in poverty. We frequently read writing about them, but seldom from them.

Beach Erosion, 8X10, oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas, available through Ocean Park Association.

I never learned my multiplication tables. That and my gender, coupled with my apparent talents in the arts, morphed into a label of “she can’t do math.” It became part of my self-identity until I returned to college as an adult. There, I found that I loved mathematics, particularly calculus.

A lot of hay is made about the dumbing-down of modern education, but positive affirmation is a tool I would have welcomed in my school days. How much more helpful a kind word would have been than the ruler across my knuckles. (Yes, I’m really that old.) Kindness and support changes mindsets from “I can’t do this,” to openness.

Years of teaching have disabused me of the notion that some personalities make better painters than others. We all have experiences and traits that can contribute to great art. The only telling factors are a willingness to work hard and openness to correction. Ironically, many of the most talented students fail because they protect their little nut of competence too fiercely. They’re afraid their teacher will invalidate them as artists.

Bracken Fern, 9X12, oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas, $869 in a gold plein air frame

There isn’t a painter alive who hasn’t entertained self-destructive thoughts. Left to their own devices, the voices in our heads take up a litany of “I can’t do this, I don’t know what I’m doing, all my work sucks.” It’s particularly easy to fall into this in painting, because we generally work alone. Moments of validation—sales and prizes—are all too infrequent.

If professional artists can feel invalidated and alone, how much harder is it for painting students? That’s why teachers should be more interested in pointing out what’s right than in belaboring what’s wrong.

Wasting time was the best thing I did as a child

Halloween in my youth was mysterious and moody, dangerous and exciting. But adults can take the fun out of anything.

Tête-à-tête, by Carol L. Douglas, 12X16, oil on Russian birch, sold.

I’m from Buffalo. It never gets bitterly cold or oppressively hot there; it just snows a lot. Buffalo-Niagara is a USDA Zone 6 region, more or less the same as the Mason-Dixon Line. It’s kept temperate by the Great Lakes. Today I live very close to the ocean in Maine. We have the same weather pattern—warm in autumn, cold in spring.

Growing up, we made our own Halloween costumes. Our repertory was extremely limited: we were tramps (sorry), ghosts, cowboys, Indians (sorry), or witches. This wasn’t by design but by necessity. Unless one of us had a daft and indulgent mother, we had to scrounge the makings from scraps and hand-me-downs.

The Last of Autumn, by Carol L. Douglas, oil on linen, 11X14.

We started thinking about this in mid-October, when the Northeast is wrapped in the balmy warmth of Indian Summer. “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun,” John Keatscalled it, and nobody ever said it better. Sweater weather is idyllic and it seems like it will last forever.

That was dangerous for Halloween planning. We would get fanciful about what we could pull off. Our grandmother’s old nightgown, a dance leotard; any of them could be called into service. But diaphanous doesn’t work when the temperature drops. When Halloween night actually arrived, we would inevitably be bundled up in winter coats, shivering in a howling wind laden with sharp pellets of snow and dried leaves. With rare exceptions, November 1 is the death knell of warm weather in the Northeast.

Thicket, by Carol L. Douglas, oil on Russian birch, 10X10

This year, I’m not bothering to buy Halloween candy (although my friend Sue suggests stockpiling it ‘just in case’). Although Halloween is a huge deal in the United States, Trick-or-Treating is on its way out. It’s been replaced by Trunk-or-Treat, where kids go around a parking lot getting candy from nice safe adults. COVID-19 will be the nail in the coffin for the older tradition. But it doesn’t matter; adults had already ruined it when they started buying elaborate costumes for their kids. All the fun was in the imagination and the preparation, and now that’s lost.

My siblings and I knew everyone in our neighborhood, but Halloween was still mysterious and moody, dangerous and exciting. Our mischief ran as far as lobbing a roll of toilet paper over Aunt La’s house, only to see it get stuck in the branches in her front yard. We talked about soaping windows, but none of us ever did it.

Goat shed, by Carol L. Douglas, oil on linen, 9X12.

One of my best memories as a kid was building a fort with my friend Beth. We were quite young; we had nothing more than sticks, grass and moss. We were blissfully absorbed for days. No adult shagged us back out of the woods so they could watch us; no adult offered to help with power tools. Today both Beth and I are ‘makers’. I’m sure that being allowed to waste lots of time in unsupervised play contributed to that.

My friend Marjean recently sent me this story about a man who built a pirate’s cove in his backyard. Whoever it was for, it wasn’t for children—or for the likes of me. Where is the opportunity to imagine? It’s all laid out for the visitor, in much too great detail. Adults—with their overscheduling, planning, helping, and monitoring—can take all the fun out of anything.

State of mind

If you don’t engage with your subject, you’ll waste time if you paint it.

This year we have a service dog with us. He could make anyone happy. (Photo by Jennifer Johnson)

I started this year’s workshop with an exercise I haven’t done in years. I took the protocols I published the last two Mondays (hereand here) and had my students execute them in two groups. Each team member took turns doing a step of the process. Together they brought a painting from initial design to finished product.
Process is everything in painting. Being involved, rather than just watching, makes it stick in the mind.
The oil painting group work on their painting. (Photo by Jennifer Johnson)
An hour in, I asked myself, “What have I done?” In the end, my misgivings were ungrounded. Yes, the students learned my process. More importantly, the exercise took away their performance anxiety. They leapfrogged right over the usual bad first painting.
Unfortunately, we can’t always have group exercises to loosen up. We need other strategies to help us focus. One of the most important—to me—is to work at the same time every day. That tells my body and brain when to get serious.
The watercolor group faithfully executed every step I assigned to them.
Another technique I’ve recently adopted is to sit quietly with a view for several minutes and gauge my reaction. I’ve realized there are scenes which irritate or bore me. They may be iconic, beautiful and lovely, but I’ll be fighting my reaction all the way. There are other scenes which touch a deep wellspring of positive feeling. And there are places where my reaction is simply disinterested. The trick is to give myself enough time to understand these reactions, instead of relying on my logical mind to determine what will make a good painting. Or even worse, a ‘sellable’ painting.
Rhea Zweifler relaxing into her drawing. (Photo by Jennifer Johnson)
This is not a geographical issue. Every place I’ve ever been is multifaceted. I’ve painted lovely landscapes in Terre Haute, Indiana, which is flat farmland bisected by the muddy Wabash River. And I’ve painted absolute gibberish in famous beauty spots.
Yesterday, one student ended up wiping out her afternoon painting. “I set up here and thought, ‘I guess I’ll paint that scene over there.’ But I wasn’t really interested. I should have walked around more and found something that I really loved.” She was irritated by her choice and never fully engaged with the painting. Had she recognized that at the start, she would have saved herself a lot of work.
That’s another way preparatory sketches are helpful. We hate abandoning projects we’ve started. However, if your sketch isn’t dynamic and powerful, you need to stop and figure out why. It could be a composition problem, but it’s equally likely that you don’t really like the view as much as you think you ought.
Into each workshop an obligatory lecture/demo must fall.
I have—too many times—slogged through a painting for three or four hours only to turn around and ask myself, “why didn’t I paint that?” A little quiet reflection at the start of my process would have saved me a lot of wasted time.
It’s far easier to paint something your heart responds to, rather than something that bores or annoys you. If it’s the right scene, you’ll get lost in your work, forgetting time. If it’s not, you’ll spend most of the session wishing you were done. The only way to know which you’ve got is to sit quietly and let it speak to you.
Is this rational? No. Is it true? Absolutely.

Do you have the right mindset for learning?

The important thing you bring to class is not your prior painting experience, but your attitude.

To teach painting effectively, one must not only know how to paint, but be able to break that down into discrete steps and effectively communicate those steps to students. That’s straightforward, right?
What isn’t so straightforward is how one prepares to be a good student. Learning is a partnership, and students always bring attitudes, personality and preconceptions to the mix. Unless a class is marketed as a masterclass, you don’t need to worry overmuch about your incoming skill level. However, some rudimentary drawing experience will make you a stronger painter.
Photo courtesy of Jennifer Johnson.
More important is intellectual openness. This means the ability to receive correction and instruction without being defensive. (I’ll freely admit I came late to this myself.) The greatest teacher in the world is useless if you’re not prepared to hear what he or she has to say.
Nobody ever paints well when they’re integrating new ideas; it’s far easier to stick with the same old processes even when they don’t work particularly well. They’re familiar. Students should come to class expecting to fail, and even to fail spectacularly. “When I take a class, I produce some of the worst crap in the world, but I will have experimented,” one artist told me. The people who produce pretty things in class are often playing it safe. They’re scared of pushing themselves past what’s comfortable.
Are you worried that you’ll lose your style if you do it the teacher’s way? Your inner self will always bounce back, but hopefully you’ll have learned something that enhances that.
What we teach is a process. The primary goal is to master that process, not to produce beautiful art in any style. If that happens, it’s a bonus, but the real takeaway ought to be a roadmap you can follow long after your teacher is gone.
Photo courtesy of Jennifer Johnson.

The student has some basic responsibilities to his fellow students. He should be on time and bring the proper equipment and supplies. Furthermore, he should be polite, friendly, and supportive to his fellow students. The importance of this latter cannot be overstressed. An overly-needy or unfriendly student can ruin a workshop for everyone, as there’s no getting away from him.

I’ve written before about the pernicious practice of negative feedback, but it’s pervasive in our teaching culture. It takes a while for students to get the hang of recognizing their successes. Before we talk about what needs fixing, we need to trust each other. One way we learn distrust is the idea that, in a critique, we are required to say something unfavorable. Only talk about what’s broken if, in fact, it’s actually broken.
Photo courtesy of Ellen Trayer.
It helps progress to be optimistic, excited and motivated. I’m blessed with an unusually great class this session, and one of the things that distinguishes them is that everyone really wants to excel in painting. They all have a strong work ethic.
Lastly, I think a good student brings a measure of self-advocacy to class. I’m listening hard, and I’m watching carefully, and I still sometimes miss things. I like it when people bring problems or concerns to my attention. It makes me a better teacher.

Thinking about teaching?

You might be an excellent painter, but make sure you understand your own process thoroughly. 

Me,teaching at Acadia National Park
I started writing Monday Morning Art School back in October. This was in response to my students’ need for continuing education while I was elsewhere. It was also a way to put my scattershot “how to” posts in some kind of framework.
It takes longer than the posts I write the rest of the week, and it’s more complicated. It does funny things to my readership stats as well: Monday Morning Art School gets fewer hits than any other day of the week, but I get more mail about it than about anything else.
The difficult thing about writing a “how to” is slicing and dicing your process. That’s true of teaching in general. It’s one thing to know how to do something, and another to be able to stand outside your work and explain it step-by-step to a beginner. In a classroom, you read your students’ reactions and adjust your method accordingly. Writing (or video) is a one-way street.
Painting by student Catherine Bullinger in a one-day workshop last summer.
A friend took drawing classes at a prestigious art school. I’ve wondered how a person with her mind could manage to not learn to draw in such a setting, but she did. She’s a brilliant woman. Drawing should have been a snap for her.
As I was writing about measuring curves as a series of straight line segments, I asked her if she’d ever been taught this simple skill. “The teacher was a wonderful botanical illustrator herself, but really in retrospect her teaching method was: ‘look at it and sketch it,’” she told me.
I’ve taken a few classes and workshops with great artists who couldn’t teach. At times the instructor thought that watching him paint was enough. No questions were allowed during the demo. That’s a real misunderstanding of the teacher’s role. His focus should be on describing and examining his process, not protecting it.
Students painting at Owls Head.
Anyway, if I wanted to watch someone paint, I’d have just bought the video.
Almost all artists get the idea somewhere along the way that they can teach, especially after their accountants tut-tut over their books. Many artists teach wonderfully, of course, and the world needs more people like them.
Others may be excellent painters, but haven’t analyzed their process thoroughly. Or, worse, they don’t have the communication skills to interact with strangers.
Yes, I demo, but there’s a lot more to teaching than that.
Before you decide to run that class, run a check on yourself as you start and finish a painting. Can you clearly describe all aspects of your process, or is some of it automatic and mysterious even to you? If the latter, do yourself and your students a favor and hold off on teaching until you’ve got it straight in your mind.
This, by the way, is a lesson I learned the hard way.

Marriage, learning, and dissatisfaction

Barb tightened down the last strip before we left for the night.

Barb tightened down the last strip before we left for the night.
I spend so much time doing other things that one could be excused for not believing I’m married. In fact, we have been pursuing this fidelity lark for 36 years. There have been long stretches of conventional living, spent raising kids, paying mortgages, and pursuing careers. However, we’ve never been inseparable, even though we prefer to do things together.
When my husband left for band practice on Thursday night, our houseguest asked me if I was going to go with him. That sort of surprised me, because I couldn’t imagine using my time like that. My husband helps me when I need help and vice-versa, but we each have our own work to pursue.
This week, he’s on the road and I’m home in Maine. When that happens, I exercise a vicious double standard. I can camp on the road somewhere and I’ll check in as soon as I have cell service. He’s just going to a Hyatt hotel in a large city, but he’d better call me when he gets there or I’ll squawk until he checks in.
I chose ladder duty. I must be nuts.

I chose ladder duty. I must be nuts.
One thing about not living in my partner’s pocket: when he asks for help, I jump. When he realized—in Freeport—that he’d forgotten something important, I changed my plans and met him to deliver it. Yes, I was doing something equally important at the time, but our special relationship dictates that he takes priority. That’s not a gender-role issue; he would do the same for me.
This meant I had to tell my friend Barb that there was a glitch in our plans to install The Usual Suspects: An Ongoing Investigation, opening on November 11 at Pop Up 265 in Augusta. She’s not feeling well and the delay made her very nervous. Still, we got the main structure in place by the time we ran out of steam, and I have to say, it looks nice.
I was helped by having no expectations or emotional engagement. I was seeing her idea for the first time and it was exciting. She just saw the ways in which it failed to meet her plan. If you’ve ever helped a friend clean, you know exactly what I mean. For you, it’s a lark; for your friend, it’s all wrapped up in emotion and ownership.
The painter's equivalent to an installation is the Big Framing Project for a solo show.

The painter’s equivalent to an installation is the Big Framing Project for a solo show.
My husband has heard that exact same pessimism from me as he’s helped me frame work for shows. It’s almost impossible for artists to see the work of our hands objectively. My daughter Mary told me that every time I finished a painting on my Canadian trip, I announced to her that it wasn’t that good. I’ve learned to not share that initial discontent with the public, but it’s hard to keep it totally to oneself.
We only made one significant error hanging Barb’s panels (our initial spacing of the magnets). That was nothing short of miraculous, since the figures were intended to be evenly spaced around an old room with uneven walls and more than a few obstacles. If you’ve ever wallpapered in an old house, you’ll understand exactly what I mean.
In so many things, the learning lies in the doing. The best a teacher can do is steer you away from pitfalls. Often, your hard-won knowledge is task-specific, never to be used in that form again. But as it joins your sum total of knowledge, it informs you in new ways. Take those young-wife tasks of my misspent youth—wallpapering and sewing. Both helped me as I helped Barb.

The Sketchbook Wars

Pastor Alvin Parris listening to the sermon.

Pastor Alvin Parris listening to a sermon.
This week my student noticed that she seemed to be seeing things differently since she started to draw. That is because drawing changes how the brain works, as surely as studying music or language does. This is neuroplasticity in action, and it’s a power you can use for good or evil. Only you control whether you make good choices, like art, or bad ones, like using drugs.
Before the invention of the camera, people in many different fields were expected to understand how to draw. The visual image was almost as important for communication as were words. Nobody had the luxury of saying, “I can’t draw a straight line,” or “I’m not talented.” Drawing was too important to leave to a few anointed geniuses.
An ear of someone sitting nearby. Most of my sketches are pretty fast, since people shift around in church.

Most of my sketches are pretty fast, since people shift around in church.
That’s why I love this recent story in Scientific American. Dr. Jennifer Landin of North Carolina State University expects and gets beautiful drawings from her biology students. “Drawing is merely making lines and dots on paper. If you can write your name, you can draw,” she wrote. “But we all take shortcuts when we see; often our brains fool us, and we skip over most visual details.”
As I noted Wednesday, kids draw all the way through childhood until they reach adolescence. Personally, I think art is how they process the amazing changes their young brains are experiencing. Why most kids quit drawing is not well-studied, but cultural factors play a part. Not only do we devalue the arts in our culture, but we believe that only people with talent (whatever that is) can do them. As Dr. Landin so wonderfully demonstrated, talent is mostly about doing the work.
Coat thrown over a chair.

Coat thrown over a chair. You get to draw this a lot in the Northeast.
I always encourage people—and especially children—to carry sketchbooks around with them. Ten minutes in the doctor’s waiting room is far more productive when you surreptitiously draw the person across from you than when you leaf through last year’s People magazine.
I sketch in church because I’m someone who processes words better when my hands are busy. I’m not alone in that; it’s why so many people knit.
But try applying that principle to ADHD kids in school and you get into major trouble. My son needed the distraction of drawing when asked to sit for hours on end. His school absolutely forbade it. Letting him draw would break down discipline in the classroom. Their answer was drugs or a special school for troubled kids. As you can imagine, his school career was one long, unpleasant skirmish.
Don't ask me what those words mean.

Don’t ask me what those words mean.
He graduated by the skin of his teeth. Now that he’s in college, where he is in charge of his own actions, he’s on the Honor Roll.
An art teacher friend of mine told me that the only time her kid ever got in trouble was for drawing in class. It was one of the issues that motivated her to move to another district. If she, a respected professional, couldn’t get the administration to understand the value of drawing, who could?
“Real life isn’t neatly divided by subject,” wrote Dr. Landin. Educators would do well to remember that.

The Chautauqua Movement

We’ll be holding our own ‘improving’ workshop again next August. This is the Dyce Head Lighthouse in Castine, ME, painted by me.
“You wrote, ‘And as with so many things in 19th century America, the vacation was tied up with religious reform,’” an alert reader wrote me yesterday. “What does that mean?”
Ours is a country prone to religious revival. Historians call those periods our ‘Great Awakenings’. America experienced a Third Great Awakening from the middle of the 19th century until the early 20th century. This particular revival had a strong dose of social activism in its nature. The three greatest movements of the 19th century all sprang from this religious impulse: abolition, temperance, and women’s suffrage. So too did the early middle-class getaways, the Chautauqua movement.
1915 postcard
The first Chautauqua was organized as a training camp for Methodist Sunday school teachers. This outdoor summer school format grew so popular that it was copied all over the country in the form of ‘daughter’ Chautauquas.
These were far more than religious tent revivals. They offered lecturers, theatrical readings, music, art, and more. When Theodore Roosevelt called them “the most American thing in America,” he was correct, for they enshrined the American do-it-yourself spirit of bringing learning to places that were too small, too remote, too new for established culture.
The Lyceum Magazine advised members to continue to challenge popular amusements with improving ones, even in time of war.
Having taught painting for a long time, I know that this love of learning is engrained in us. Speaking of which, I have fixed the year on my workshop brochure.
Lunch break, Castine Maine, Carol L. Douglas
The real dates are August 9-14, 2015. Dramatic, inspirational Schoodic Point in Acadia National Park will be our base. This is the quiet side of Acadia, far from the hustle of Bar Harbor, but with the same dramatic rock formations, pounding surf, and stunning mountain views that make Acadia a worldwide tourist destination.
Of course, all skill levels and media are welcome. From beginner to advanced, in watercolor, oils, acrylics, pastels — bring any or all with you. Because bringing family along was so popular in 2014, we’ve arranged to make it possible this year, too.
Water Street View, Castine, ME, by Carol L. Douglas
Just make sure you get back to me by the end of the year to get that early-bird discount!

I will be teaching in Acadia National Park next August. Read all about it here, or download a brochure here