All the plein air events, at your fingertips

Thinking about competitive plein air painting? Here’s a useful tool.

Beach Erosion, 8X10, oil on canvasboard, $652 framed, available through Ocean Park Association.

I met Chrissy Pahucki at a plein air event. She was standing in line with one of her children waiting to have her canvases stamped. Chrissy’s branding came naturally—she always had a kid trailing along. I once asked a show organizer how many years we’d been doing his event. “You can tell how long it’s been by how much Ben has shot up in height,” he answered.

All three Pahucki kids are grown now and Chrissy’s still doing the plein air circuit. In her spare time, she’s a full-time, award-winning middle school art teacher in Goshen, NY. About a decade ago, she created a website to direct-sell paintings called the Plein Air Store, and she still maintains it.

Quebec Brook, 12X16, oil on canvasboard, $1449 framed.

She also made this spreadsheet for applying to events. It’s a useful tool because it lays out application, notification and event dates in tabular form. That means a busy person doesn’t have to hunt through reams of material looking for a show. Unlike a magazine, it’s searchable. And it’s free. Thank you, Chrissy.

The plein air circuit is where I first met Mary Byrom, Bobbi Heath, Poppy Balser, and many other talented, hard-working and like-minded women. Like Chrissy, they’ve become valued friends. These events are much like the rodeo circuit; the same artists show up at them over and over. Artists compete with each other for prizes and sales, but at the same time, they’re supportive and friendly. That’s a good life lesson right there.

Plein air events teach you to search out beauty. There is something otherworldly about grey, soaking weather that you don’t realize if you only go out when it’s fine. The painting Sometimes It Rains, below, was painted during a complete washout at Ocean Park, ME. I tucked myself into the vestibule at the Temple and painted down Royal Street. Ed Buonvecchio set up right behind me and painted me with my little red wagon. Sometimes It Rains turned out to be one of my favorite paintings. Ed’s painting sold, although why anyone would want me on their wall remains a mystery to me.

Fog Bank off Partridge Island, 14X18, oil on canvasboard, $1594 framed.

Sometimes there’s very little to work with. I once did an event in a coastal resort comprised of boxy modern houses shoved cheek-by-jowl along a strand. We were forced to find something beautiful, and the only way forward was to search shapes for a transformative angle or trick of the light. “You can make a good painting out of anything” is a good painting lesson and an even better life lesson.

Plein air events teach us to finish work. That last bit used to be my undoing. I once perseverated for years over a commission, to the point where it became a standing joke among my students. “Is that thing still there?” they’d ask as they trooped into my studio week after week.

Sometimes It Rains, 9X12, oil on archival canvasboard, $869 framed.

But plein air events allow for no such noodling. There’s an immutable deadline. You hand in work whether you think its done or not. A buyer or judge loves it for its unrefined energy. The adage that we spend 90% of our time doing 10% of the work is true in painting. It’s also true that we sometimes spend 90% of our time overworking that 10%.

Plein air painting is, simply, the most important art movement of our time. If you’re interested in it, I encourage you to dip your toe into the competitive process. Start with a regional show near you and see how it goes. Chrissy’s table is a good way to start.

Why is plein air painting significant?

It’s immediate and visceral, in a way that incorporates the lessons of abstract-expressionism, but it’s also grounded in reality. In short, it’s painting for our times.

Spring Greens, oil on canvasboard, 8X10, $652 in a plein air frame.

Last week Mary Byrom asked me, “Why is plein air painting significant?” I was at a loss for an answer. Then she sent me this essay, What’s the Point of Painting from Life? It sets out a compelling argument for why we should paint from real objects, rather than from photos. I hope my students all read it. But it glances off Mary’s question, rather than answering it.

There’s a lot of dreck in the plein air movement. It’s hindered by its sheer volume. But that was also true in the Dutch Golden Ageand other periods in art history. Dreck is the inevitable consequence of lots of work, but that’s also what gives us brilliance. Time winnows out the worst paintings.

Belfast harbor, 14X18, oil on canvasboard, $1594 in a narrow black presentation frame.

Plein air painting is largely ignored by the contemporary Academy, by which I mean our university and museum culture. It’s a movement of the people, and it takes the artist down a few pegs, from intellectual to craftsman. Its training is done mostly in the old atelier system, by which I mean the workshops and classrooms of working artists. That’s in contrast to the university system, which teaches kids to be post-modern artists.

Our university system has no interest in teaching people to paint. Until the explosion of interest in plein air, traditional painting was perilously close to being a lost art. Yes, there are colleges in America teaching it, but they are rare and absurdly expensive.

Early Spring on Beech Hill, 12X16, oil on canvasboard, $1449 in a plein air frame.

In the twentieth century, meaning in painting took a radical turn. It stopped being about symbols and became about the artist’s own psyche. Odilon Redon, for example, wrote that he wanted to place “the logic of the visible at the service of the invisible.” Pablo Picasso famously said, “I paint objects as I think them, not as I see them.” Everything Picasso painted was autobiographical.

From there it was a short jump to the position of the later 20th century, when meaning was banished from art entirely. It became about form and color, rather than anything the artist wanted to say.

The Woodshed, 11×14, oil on birch, $869 unframed.

Stubbornly, the human mind has an insatiable desire for narrative and meaning—both in the telling and in the listening. It’s a great relief for all of us to leave the nihilism of the 20th century behind.

Plein air painting surged just as we Americans were learning that we can’t take our natural world for granted. In my lifetime the population of the United States has doubled. Fields and farms that I roamed as a child are now housing developments. Streams have been fouled, natural reserves of fish and wildlife depleted. Plein air painting is a both a record of these changes and a plea for the natural world.

The rise of plein air painting is inextricably tied to the development of internet culture, where museums and universities are no longer arbiters. There’s been an explosion of painting workshops, classes, books and videos to teach painting to the masses. And what do people want? Not abstraction, but representational painting grounded in real life.

I studied figure because I was taught that it was the most difficult genre, and the basis of the most important kinds of painting. After a lifetime of drawing and painting, I know that’s not true. Landscape is the most challenging, and therefore the most instructive, form of painting. It’s immediate and visceral, in a way that incorporates the lessons of abstract-expressionism, but it’s also grounded in reality. In short, it’s painting for our times.

A marsh painting and why they can be truly terrible

I don’t begrudge people painting for fun, but I assume you read this blog because you’re interested in being the best painter you can be.

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

I had finished writing a lecture I’d mentally subtitled “why am I torturing you like this?” That’s hard work, so I whirled away a few minutes on the internet. I came across a painting that took my breath away, for all the wrong reasons. It had no focal points, no energy, no depth of field. At the same time, the brushwork was easy and assured. It was obviously not this painter’s first rodeo.

I’m not interested in embarrassing another artist, so I made a fair copy of it while teaching my class. (That way you can laugh at my bad painting, not someone else’s.) I did mine on cheap demo paper, which means there isn’t much staccato in the scumbling, but that’s really the only difference. That I could copy it while talking about something else is a good indicator of its lack of complexity.

My fair copy of a boring marsh painting.

This is an example of what I call “marsh painting.” I really need a better term, for there are brilliant painters of marshes. My pal Mary Byrom is a great example. She reduces the salt marshes of southern Maine into simple shapes that are dynamic, colorful and evocative. The secret, of course, is that Mary draws brilliantly and works tirelessly at her craft.

The bad marsh painter is visually lazy. He or she does not look at the marsh as a surface that recedes in space, but as a series of flat bands that overlap the horizon. Norman Rockwell and Winslow Homer demonstrated that it’s possible to do this very well, but neither of them did it in lieu of drawing.

Inlet, 9X12, available through Camden Public Library.

A marsh painter may have heard that he “needs a path into the painting,” and will put a stream running back in S-curves to the distance. This recommendation was meant as a visual, not a literal, recommendation. It really means that you need some kind of compositional structure to anchor your painting. If that’s an S-curve, it ought not be as blatant as a lazy river.

The marsh painter shies away from anything difficult. Houses, people, automobiles, and boats are all tough to draw. It’s far better to stick to trees and grasses. And there—they believe—they’ve found their métier, in the tireless (and tiresome) representation of blades of grass and branches. But detail is never a substitute for good painting.

I don’t begrudge people painting for fun, but I assume you read this blog because you’re interested in being the best painter you can be. Learning to draw is the first requirement. Anyone can learn to draw. Period. And drawing will give you the courage to tackle more difficult subjects in paint. Since I can’t teach everyone, I recommend this book.*

*Since this was first published, I’ve released an online course, which means I actually can teach everyone! Most relevant here is Step 2: The Value Drawing and Step 3: The Correct Composition. You can certainly benefit from the entire series.

Prom Shoes, 6X8, Carol L. Douglas. $435 framed. It’s all about that negative space, baby!

But, moving beyond drawing, there are basic principles to good painting:

I’ve just given you a reading list that will keep you out of the bars until Thanksgiving. Enjoy!

Monday Morning Art School: how to succeed in painting

Truthfully, how much does your painting ever advance from curling up on the couch and watching painting videos?

Early spring in the boatyard, oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas

Every successful artist I know has a process. That means we work up a painting in pretty much the same way every time. These processes are different in the details, but the same in the fundamentals. Over the past two weeks I’ve been tinkering with my process. I’m checking to see if there’s a more efficient way.

I borrowed a stick of charcoal from Ken Dewaard on Thursday to set up hash marks like he does. “I use a little charcoal,” he laughed, when my canvas looked as if I’d grilled a turkey on it.

The point isn’t whether Ken’s process is better than mine, or whether I can learn it—of course I can. It’s not whether I can hit hash marks on a canvas. It’s whether I would see spatial relationships differently with a different system of marking. The jury’s out on that one; I haven’t been doing it enough to tell.

Early spring in the boatyard (2), oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas, available.

Note that I’m tinkering, not doing major surgery. That’s because painters all end up doing their work in a specific way:

  1. They figure out a composition based on line, form, and value masses;
  2. They transfer that to their paper or canvas;
  3. They paint colors in a predetermined order, established with the invention of their medium.

In oils that protocol is:

  1. Fat over lean;
  2. Dark to light;
  3. Big shapes to smaller shapes.

In watercolor, the order of operations is:

  1. Washes to detail;
  2. Dark over light (not written in stone).

Acrylics, being a new medium, are still in flux, but if you’re using them as a solid medium, stick with the oil-painting protocol.

Mountain spring, Carol L. Douglas, oil on canvasboard.

When I was taking harpsichord lessons many years ago, I noticed that introducing a new technique would make me forget, momentarily, how to play. Asking my left hand to do something new would make my right hand suddenly go stupid. I don’t know why the human mind is programmed like this, but it happens in painting, too. Toss in one unfamiliar concept and things that are routinely easy suddenly feel terribly complicated.

That’s why practice is so important. Repeat that new technique until it’s integrated into your thinking. That usually happens just in time for your teacher to throw something new at you.

It’s also why good instruction is so infernally difficult. The student is constantly left feeling off-kilter. But somehow it works, and better musicians and painters are created in the chaos.

Spring cleaning, oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas

Mary Byrom and I recently discussed why we hate canned videos and long demos. Neither of us use them much, because they demand no effort from our students. Truthfully, how much does your painting ever advance from curling up on the couch and watching painting videos?

Having said that, I’m about to do a long demo in both my classes this week. But it will be interactive. My students will be making the decisions; I’ll just be the trained monkey putting them on canvas and paper.

On that note, there’s still an opening in my Monday night class starting tonight. Email meif you’re interested.

Signs of recovery?

The post-COVID world is uncharted territory. Navigating it successfully will require local knowledge and lots of common sense.

Blueberry Barrens, 24X36, oil on canvas, Carol L. Douglas

Easter Sunday was the anniversary of my arrival back from our ill-starred trip to Argentina. I left one America and returned to another. It was a nation largely without toilet paper. A year later, the phrase ‘flatten the curve’ is mostly forgotten. We still don’t know how we’re going to reintegrate our society, but the possibility seems to be there.

My mother was a fan of investment guru Peter Lynch He was famous for the phrase, “invest in what you know.” Lynch believed in the street-smarts of Average Joe. He thought individual investors were potentially more capable stock-pickers than fund managers, because they could see the impact of new products on their day-to-day lives. (On the other hand, he famously bought Dunkin’ Donuts stock because he liked their coffee, so he wasn’t always right.)

Bridle path, 11X14, oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas

Any small gallery or artist in business after a year of COVID is navigating uncharted waters. Our local knowledge and our street smarts are going to stand us in good stead, if we listen to that inner voice called ‘common sense.’

I started teaching virtually on April 28 with the coaching and encouragement of my friend Mary Byrom. The following month, I bought an annual subscription to Zoom. It’s had a tremendous return on investment. For most of the past year, my two classes have been waitlist-only.

Best buds, 11X14, oil on canvasboard, available.

Lynch’s worldview was, in fact, borne out in a small way in this tiny niche business. Long before the big art publishers realized the market for virtual learning, teachers like Mary and me were teaching on Zoom.

As I approach the one-year anniversary of my virtual classes, I’m seeing a slight softening of demand. My street smarts are tingling again.

  • Is this the beginning of a return to normal, where we take classes in real life?
  • Have bigger vendors vacuumed up the demand for virtual instruction?
  • Does the approach of good weather mean people would rather paint outside?
In a slippery landscape, we must tread carefully. We should understand why there’s a shift before we start reacting (if indeed any response is necessary). But I’m cautiously hopeful that this is a tiny step toward normalcy, where we can go to school, church, and each other’s’ homes with the free-and-easy nonchalance of the past.

By the way, there are two openings in Monday night’s session starting next week. If you’re interested there’s more information here.

Joy and tragedy are two sides of the same coin

In some ways, 2020 has been a very good year for me. But that is set against loss, both my own and others’.

Happy New Year! by Carol L. Douglas

If I had a bucket list, Tierra del Fuego would certainly be on it. So, when, in March, I had the opportunity to paint there and in Patagonia with my pal Jane Chapin, I jumped. COVID-19 was still just a rumble from China, albeit moving closer. Within 48 hours of our arrival, the Argentines quarantined us in the mountainous region near the Chilean border. As the first snows of the year hit the higher elevations, we painted glaciers and meted out our remaining canvases.

My uncle Bob, from whom I inherited the travel bug, had been in Patagonia a few years back. He was following our exploits by text. He never learned that we made it home, because on March 29, he became an early casualty of the pandemic. It is the worst grief I’ve sustained since the loss of my parents.

Glaciar Cagliero from Rio Electrico, oil on canvasboard, by Carol L. Douglas

I came home feeling very deflated. Painting events were cancelled; my own gallery in Rockport couldn’t open. I asked our local police chief if the new regulations would allow plein air classes; he thought no. The windjammer American Eagle, on which I was scheduled to teach two workshops, cancelled its season. My workshop at Schoodic was rescheduled for October, but it hardly mattered. Nobody was signing up for anything, anyways. By June, my revenues to date were down $10,000 from 2019, and that didn’t include the cost of getting back from Argentina. If I’ve ever been inclined to quit, it was then.

There are two important lessons you can take from your Christian neighbors. The first is to live in faith rather than in fear. That doesn’t mean being foolish. I follow the quarantine and testing regulations of the states to which I travel; I use hand sanitizer and a mask; I avoid unnecessary public exposure. I do not, however, let COVID paralyze me. I recognize that the ultimate disposition of my life isn’t in my hands.

The Dooryard, oil on canvasboard, by Carol L. Douglas, was painted for an event that had to go online; the results were decidedly mixed.

That’s true regardless of your beliefs, by the way. You can do nothing to insulate yourself from the ultimate reality of death. So many Americans (including my uncle) followed the rules punctiliously, but the virus still found them.

The second is that humans need to be flexible to survive tough times. Mature Christians listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit, even when it asks them to do odd things. Non-believers may call this ‘listening to their gut,’ but the basic requirement is the same—one has to be open to new ideas. That’s not so easy at my age, when system and structure have had decades to accrete.

On the other hand, Cape Elizabeth’s Paint for Preservation was a hit, even online.

I was extremely resistant to teaching online. I didn’t think it would be a good experience for my students. However, my friend Mary Byrom encouraged and coached me, and today I think it’s at least as good as live classes. It has forced me to be more proactive in designing lessons. That, in turn, has given me the nucleus of the book I’ve always intended to write.

In the end, much happened that was lovely. I suspended minimum enrollment requirements and ended up teaching three successful workshops—at Schoodic, in New Mexico, and in Florida—despite concerns about travel. I learned a new technology, and even made some pretty terrible painting videos. Learning is growth; in that regard, 2020 has been a very good year for me. But that is set against loss, both my own and others’. So much of life is like that, a mix of sorrow and joy.

The more you give, the more you get

Try giving it away for free. You might be pleasantly surprised.

Jonathan Submarining, by Carol L. Douglas. I painted this plein air with my pal Poppy Balser.

On Wednesday, I published a quick-and-dirty guide to teaching painting online. It was in response to a question by my friend Mira Fink; I expected she would read it and nobody else would be interested. Instead, it’s gotten responses from teachers from all over the country*. “I have been making my outline for my first online class this fall. This makes it seem so possible,” wrote Cat Pope from Mobile, Alabama.

Last month I askedwhether I was intrepid enough to move to online teaching. I think many painting teachers have been asking themselves the same thing. The current crisis may weed out many veteran teachers. At first, that seem like good news to younger artists.

Fish Beach, by Carol L. Douglas. I painted this with my pals Mary Sheehan Winn and Bobbi Heath.

But the discipline of painting is just beginning to recover from the bad teaching of the later 20th century, when technique became subservient to theory. There’s a vast repository of technical knowledge in those grey heads, and they’re part of a renaissance in American painting. This is no time to winnow the ranks.

At any rate, Mary Byromtalked me through my crisis. She did it without wanting compensation, as she so often does. So, when I wrote that blog post, I was, to use a tired old trope, just “paying it forward.”

Mary and I talked briefly about the current crisis. We got on the subject of generosity, where we’re in absolute agreement: it’s more important now than ever. “Cast your bread upon the waters, for you will find it after many days,” wrote King Solomon. “Give a portion to seven, or even to eight, for you know not what disaster may happen on earth.” You don’t have to be religious to see the wisdom there.

More work than they bargained for, by Carol L. Douglas. I painted this alone; I don’t always travel in a pack.

On Tuesday, I told my students that they could actually learn everything they need to know about painting from reading this blog. There’s no need to take my workshop or my classes, although I’m really grateful when people do.

I earn about $200 a year in advertising sales from this blog. That’s pathetic for a blog with this one’s readership. Google is always telling me how I can improve monetization, but I can’t be bothered. I barely have time to paint as it is.

Why give it away for free? I can think of lots of reasons. First, while teachers deserve their wages, knowledge is an entity in its own right and nobody owns it—despite Pearson Education Publishing. Free content is a form of indirect marketing, of course. But most importantly, what you give away freely, you get back multiplied. That’s true everywhere in life. Try it; you might be pleasantly surprised.

*I did get one negative response: “How is this not an advertisement?” wrote one arts administrator before yanking the post. I should have clarified that I was just enumerating the features that matter to painting teachers. I have no stake in Zoom, of course, and I don’t do paid product placements.

How to teach on Zoom (quick and dirty)

Hopefully we won’t need this long, but if we do, we can all learn together.

Me on Zoom, captured by Chrissy Pahucki.

Mary Byrom started teaching by Zoom a few weeks before me and she kindly helped me set up a protocol that works. Yesterday, Mira Fink asked for tips. I was answering on my cell phone so couldn’t be as specific as I’d like. Mira, this post is for you and anyone else trying to navigate the shoals of teaching in the age of coronavirus. It’s a quick-and-dirty way to get started teaching online; hopefully we won’t need this long, but if we do, we can all learn together.

I’m using the pro version of Zoom, which sells for $14.99 a month. I chose it for the following features:

  • No time limit, which allows for a three-hour class without interruption;
  • Full interactivity; we won’t have to have discussions via “chat” only;
  • “Share screen” function, which allows me to lecture with slides. If you want to do a prerecorded demo, it’s possible;
  • “Pin screen” function, which lets students keep me on the main screen while others are talking;
  • “Mute/unmute” which cuts down on the ambient noise.
My physical set up, after the laptop and phone have been removed. I can swivel the pochade box so my phone camera can shift between the easel and still life.
Physical setup

My laptop is on a small table below a large monitor. This is my painting monitor, doing double duty. Perched on the monitor is a small USB webcam. My phone is in a flexible gooseneck phone holder attached to my pochade box. This is easily adjusted, yet strong and stable. I have a power bank taped to the top of the box. This powers my phone through the entire three-hour class.

Yesterday I learned that double sign-in also prevents the meeting from disconnecting if one of your host devices freezes.

The webcam is aimed at my face. The phone is shooting over my shoulder at my easel. Be sure to mute and turn the sound off on one device or you’ll get a nasty ringing feedback.

Because I’m teaching in both watercolors and oils, I have each setup on a separate small folding table beside me. I have a small rolling task chair. Unfortunately, the Zoom platform really discourages teaching from a standing position, since the camera area is so small.

I have two diffuse photo lights I set up as fill lights. One is aimed at my face, and one at my still life.

Prep for a class about combining reference photos. Normally, my photos would be on my monitor, but for demonstration purposes, they’re on a board.

Class prep

Mary Byrom encouraged me to create a written class outline and a syllabus, because online teaching is less interactive and responsive than live teaching. This was great advice. I have a six-week syllabus and an outline of what I want to cover in advance. Of course, I am constantly tweaking this based on the needs of my students.

We are almost never going to paint from photos in my class, even if we’re trapped inside. That means my students also have set-up to do. Each weekend, I send them:

  • A link to the upcoming class;
  • A description of what I want them to set up for their still life.
An composition exercise from a Zoom class.
Meanwhile, I prepare lecture notes and create a slide show. This is generally about twenty slides long, and covers a specific topic. It can include exhibits specifically made for this class or masterworks by others. Despite my writing experience, I’m finding this tricky. It’s way too easy to overload students with information.

I demo specific points about painting, but I generally don’t demo every week. If that’s all we offer, students are better off buying an instructional video than taking a class.

I don’t like to do long demoes, but I do demonstrate specific points and skills as we go along.

Class structure

In a live class, people usually show me their homework when they arrive. It’s been an uphill battle to remember to ask for it. After we’ve reviewed last week’s assignments, I go through my planned lecture.

I teach a specific painting protocol, so most of the class is watching people execute that protocol while incorporating that week’s lesson. I go round-robin through the class, just as I’d walk around my studio. I look at each person’s work, make suggestions, and then move on to the next person. The downside to Zoom is not having the time to stand there thinking. The upside is that others in the class can look and comment on what’s being shown. Often, my students are more insightful critics than me.

Class size

I generally limit my classes to twelve people in real life, so I’ve done that with these Zoom classes as well. It seems a natural limit that works well for me.

The corrosive power of chance remarks

Words have the power to inflict or bind wounds. May we choose ours carefully.
Posted, by Carol L. Douglas. Watercolor on Yupo paper. I never did figure out a color for those water-lilies.

I was checking into an event when the canvas-stamping person said, “Oh, you paint on a red ground? I’ll have to check your work out. A lot of people do that near where I live, and I hate it.”

I have no idea what—or even if—she was thinking when she said that. But it has subtly affected me ever since. I’m finding myself less likely to leave the ground showing, more likely to lard the paint on. Neither is good technique.
I’m a confident painter. Imagine if I was less experienced, or less secure. It might have completely shaken a painter at the start of a competitive event. It’s a perfect example of how not to offer criticism.
Private Island, oil on canvas. This was interrupted by headache last week.
Compare that to my dear friend Mary Byrom, who doesn’t like that red ground either. Mary is a crackerjack painter herself. I know she has good technical reasons for her opinion. She is also a loyal, kind, supportive friend. I know her intentions are good. I can listen to her opinion and weigh it fairly, without being defensive. She’s earned the right to critique my painting.  
I’ve spent the month looking at and absorbing Joseph Fiore’s paintings, and I plan to start tinkering with some of his technical approaches, particularly his surfaces and scribing. He clearly—and successfully—paints on white canvases. He leaves areas white, scrubs the paint back, and lets the ground show through.
After checking every day this week, I decided I had to paint the reflections from my sketch, because there’s a constant breeze on Damariscotta Lake right now.
Toning, for those of you who aren’t painters, means painting the white gesso a color before you start the painting proper. I was taught to always tone my canvases, and it’s something I also teach my students. Of course, the way I learned was to lightly tone with an earth tone in sepia, yellow ochre or grey. The brilliant red was a later addition.
Toning is as old as painting itself, but its rationale is explained through the 19th century concept of simultaneous contrast. This is a fancy way of saying that a color looks lighter against black, darker against white. To see it accurately, you need to see it against something that’s a neutral value.
  • Establishes the mid-tone values from the start;
  • Unifies the color of the composition;
  • Sets an emotional tone for the painting;
  • Stops any specks that peek through from competing with your highlights;
  • Gives you a more accurate sense of the value and size of your darks when you first set them down.
In the field, it also stops you from being blinded by brilliant white.
Working Dock is the painting I showed you yesterday, properly photographed this time. (I finished it at dusk.)
From observation, I’d say the majority of my plein air peers start on toned boards. It is something I’ll continue to recommend to my students. But should I keep doing it? That I can’t answer until I experiment on a white canvas. And that will wait until this workshop is over, because I only brought toned canvases with me.
While I’d like to say I’m thinking through this as a response to the Fiore paintings, there’s a small niggling part of me that’s still reacting to that woman’s comment. It’s a reminder that words have the power to inflict or bind wounds. Good advice is invaluable, in painting and in life. But may we all be as kind as Mary Byrom when we offer our opinions.

Monday Morning Art School: Gel Pen and a Water Brush

Everything you need for pen-and-wash will balance comfortably on your lap, thanks to modern technology.
A fifteen-minute pen-and-wash sketch.

I slipped my sketchbook in my purse before church, only to find when I got there that my pencil had apparently been eaten by a bear. It was useless. That left me scraping around the bottom of my backpack, where I found a Uni-Ball gel pen and a tiny sample card from Turner Watercolours.

Recently, pen manufacturers have started offering fraud protection technology. This is because of a new form of crime called ‘check washing.’ That’s a kind of identity theft where ink is removed from a check and the check is reused. In response, pen makers have created waterproof and acetone-proof pens. Good luck getting the ink out of your clothes, but it’s a boon for artists looking for inexpensive, waterproof pens for pen-and-wash drawings.
Initial drawing.
There’s a tiny, unremarkable, ranch-style house across the road from our church. It’s best to practice drawing everyday objects. If you can get the composition and pattern of lights and darks right on a prosaic little house, you stand a much better chance of getting them right at Niagara Falls or some other equally-grand place. In painting, the composition should always come first.
Without a pencil, I couldn’t even put hashmarks on my paper. Sometimes flying without a net is a good thing, though. You’re stuck with your decisions. I laid out a simple line drawing, and then massed my dark shapes in with the pen.
More darks.
Pen drawing is supposed to be fast, and eyeing up proportions is a learned skill, just like reading. If you’re an absolute beginner, you might want to do a measured drawing of the building on another page first, in pencil. Then close that page and work fast on another page. Your mind’s eye will remember the proportions. If you have no idea where to start with that, do this exercise first.
My pal Mary Byromteaches a wildly successful weekly class in southern Maine called The Traveling Sketchbook.  We occasionally compare materials for our classes. It was Mary who reminded me of the versatility of the lowly waterbrush pen. The genius of these brushes is that they eliminate the need to carry water separately. 
I watched Richard Sneary, who is one of America’s top watercolorists, using the same waterbrush pen with watercolor pencils to do a value sketch at Parrsboro. That’s a technique I use and teach. If that kind of value study is important for him, it’s doubly important for the rest of us.
As far as I want to go with the pen. Now to find some color.
There are many makers of waterbrush pens. They’re cheap and I have a few tucked here and there, including at the bottom of my backpack.
My ‘watercolor kit’ for this project. You can do better.
I didn’t have a watercolor kit handy, but I could still mix paint on the sample card and fill in the big shapes with color. I really recommend that you carry a small watercolor kit instead, but it doesn’t have to be complicated. Everything you need for this exercise will balance comfortably on your lap. That’s a big improvement over pen-and-wash of the past. We used to need a pen holder, nibs, a bottle of ink, watercolors, a brush, a water bottle and a cup.
Voila! You’ve just done your first pen-and-wash drawing. This is another simple way to make a sketch without dragging around a ton of supplies, and it’s a good way to work in advance of a bigger painting.

Of course, the other—probably more common—way to do pen-and-wash is to start with the watercolor painting and enhance it at the end with the pen. That’s a technique for creating more finished work, often used in illustration. It’s usually done on a hard paper like Bristol board or hot-press watercolor paper.
I’ve got one more workshop available this summer. Join me for Sea and Sky at Schoodic, August 5-10. We’re strictly limited to twelve, but there are still seats open.