Busman’s holiday

Good technique means laying off the weird experiments, and pouring your creativity into the narrow area that matters—the content itself.

My current canvas.

“Has anyone ever bought a house and not thought the previous owner was nuts?” my daughter Laura asked me. Our current home is the exception to that rule, but we bought it from friends who are meticulous. In general, she’s right.

We’re in Troy, New York, helping our third daughter work on her first house—a classic fixer-upper starter home. It was an accretion of bad style choices over solid bones and a dry basement; in other words, it was a good buy.

A 220 line and water line snaking up through an old cast-iron grate. Up to code? Possibly not.

They’ve already removed the shag carpeting, hideous wallpaper, paneling, and five layers of flooring in the kitchen, including ceramic tile that someone nailed hardwood over. (I wouldn’t have believed it was possible.) But they stopped cold when they discovered that the stove’s 220 power line and the refrigerator’s water line both snaked through an old cast-iron heating grate in the kitchen, which was then covered with all those layers of flooring. My husband spent yesterday sorting that mess out.

Artists have an affinity for these quixotic projects. Yes, it’s cheaper to do it ourselves, but the same impulse that makes us create works on canvas also propels us into building projects. I love nothing more than a project that involves a brad nailer, miter saw, clamps, and a lot of swearing.

My son-in-law spent hours yesterday trimming these drawers to accept new faces.

My part in this kitchen project is cosmetic. I’ve spent two days sanding and prepping the cabinet frames. Today, if all goes well, I’ll spray everything with primer. Mind you, I’ve never used an airless sprayer in my life.

“I admire that our kids are not afraid to try new things,” my husband said. I reminded him that we were building our first house at their age. “And we did lots of things flat-out wrong,” he countered. For example, we backfilled the foundation with crusher-run gravel and then had to dig it back out, laboriously, by hand. DIY is always a learn-as-you-go proposition.

My parents helped up with those building projects thirty-five years ago, and we’re helping our kids. I guess you could say we’re paying it forward.

“I think of my dad every time I do this stuff,” my wise student Mark Gale said. “Your kids will think of you when they pass down the same knowledge thirty or forty years from now.”

The old doors appeared to have been assaulted by a wildcat which needed its claws trimmed, so new doors it is.

My bête noire in renovation is the use of whackin’ big nails to hang trim. They make no difference in the trim while it’s in place but they create an awful mess for the renovator. I inevitably spend a lot of time filling divots in plaster and raining invective down on the heads of my predecessors. Somewhere, someone is probably saying the same things about jobs I did.

That has its parallels, of course, in painting. Practically speaking, there’s no real reason you can’t paint on cardboard—it has good tooth and it’s cheap and plentiful. But if you happen to create a masterpiece, your ideas will really annoy the archivist who must stabilize it sometime down the road.

Good technique means laying off the 2” nails and the experiments with substrates, and pouring your creativity into the narrow area that matters—the content itself.

Have a wonderful time painting, and I’ll let you know how the airless sprayer works.

What do when you hit the doldrums?

Failure is the one sure sign that you’re experimenting and growing as an artist.

Beth Carr’s painting of her mother camping, from a recent class on integrating figure into landscape.

I’ve got a student who’s been down in the dumps for a few weeks now. “Everything I paint is terrible,” she said. “I throw it in the fire.” What do when you hit the doldrums, she asked the class.

First, be merciful to yourself. This student had major surgery a few months ago. She recently took a workshop that was a sucker-punch to her self-confidence. We all want to believe we’re like Bozo-the-Clown bop bags, able to spring back upright right after we take a hit. That’s not how we’re made. The body and mind both need time to recover from injury.

Lauren Hammond’s contre-jour fruit.

“Painting is hard,” her classmates reminded her. Yes, it’s also fun and immensely rewarding, but each time we pick up a brush it’s a personal battle between our inner vision and our own limitations. That gets exhausting at times.

Experience is a great teacher. For children, every setback seems catastrophic. Toddlers cry uncontrollably when toys are snatched from them. The circumstances change, but the reaction remains. “I will never pass my driver’s test!” “He asked her to the dance, and not me!”

Lorraine Nichols turned her drapery study into seasonal fun.

As adults, we watch these tempests with a certain amount of detached amusement. We empathize, having once been young ourselves. We also know how things level out over time. In fact, it’s through surviving these periodic disappointments that children learn resilience and tenacity.

The painting student is emotionally and intellectually adult, of course. However, he or she hasn’t been painting long enough to have racked up a history of bad paintings. That makes him feel those failures very deeply.

Cassie Sano painted my favorite blueberry barrens during plein air class.

When you’ve been painting a long time, you have an entire studio full of bad art. In fact, failure is the one sure sign that you’re experimenting and growing as an artist.

Sometimes this can stretch into weeks or even months. I’ve learned that it’s paradoxically a good sign—it means I’m integrating a new idea into my painting. Periodic lousy painting is, more often than not, a sign of intellectual ferment.

Sue Colgan-Borror’s contre-jour fruit.

I take refuge in routine. I always go in the studio at the same time, and I find that carries me through these uninspired times.

The support of other artists is invaluable. I have just three friends I can be brutally honest with about my paintings. They won’t lie to me and say they’re good when they’re not. They understand my values and goals. How do you find friends like these? Join a painting group, take a class, and cultivate friendships within the painting community.

Mark Gale is tuning in to Zoom class from wherever he lands in his Airstream camper. This is a ski tech in Telluride.

But if a person makes you feel bad when you’re working with them, steer clear of them no matter how witty or pleasant they may seem. There are too many people in the art world who prop up their own egos by scoring off others. Some are very subtle.

I have three openings in my Monday evening class (6-9 PM, EST) and either two or four in the Tuesday morning class (10 AM-1 PM). The new session starts next week and runs until the week of December 14. You can learn more here.