Monday Morning Art School: overcoming barriers to learning

“I wish I could paint, but…” What’s standing in your way?

Breaking Storm, by Carol L. Douglas, available through Folly Cove Fine Art.

Yesterday, our pastor listed these five common barriers to adult learning:

  • Lack of time
  • Lack of balance (juggling commitments)
  • Lack of motivation
  • Lack of flexibility
  • Lack of a supportive community

Lack of time is especially true of young parents and people starting in their careers. Having once been there myself, I empathize. But before you give up, consider how much time you spend on sports, social media, television, or shopping.

The Dooryard, by Carol L. Douglas. Available.

We all start with exactly the same number of hours, but we choose to use them in different ways. If you are passionate about art, you can draw even when it’s impossible to get out the easel and paint. If you can’t commit to a class, buy a book. If you want to sing, spend ten minutes a day practicing scales, or sing while you drive. At the end of a year, you’ll still be one year older, but you’ll have something to show for it.

That segues neatly into the question of balance. In my thirties and forties, I was an overly-avid volunteer. Looking back on it, I would have been more helpful to society if I’d just concentrated on painting. There are other people who are just as out of whack about their careers or their kids’ sports.

The ability to waste time is a healthy trait of the young, and it is closely tied to mental flexibility. We have to practice it, or we lose it. If you can’t stand change, ask yourself why—and then do something about it. Your ability as a lifelong learner depends on it.

Sunset sail, by Carol L. Douglas, available through Folly Cove Fine Art.

You might think motivation is never an issue for artists, but inspiration ebbs and flows there as in everything else. Counterintuitively, creativity and flexibility work best if they’re on a stable framework. I keep a routine and schedule so that my body and mind are ready to start work at the same time every day. The details of my studio time are less important than that I was there. Decide on how much time you can commit to learning your new skill, and then stick to that, even if it’s only ten minutes a day.

Community is underrated in our atomized modern society. It provides mutual support, new ideas and happiness. Kids naturally have this (when they’re in school). But adult learners need community as well. One of the things I love about plein air painting is the community of fellow artists.

Bend in the Road, by Carol L. Douglas, available. And, yes, the theme of all these paintings is aloneness.

I am a synthetic learner—I never have new ideas; I just recast what I hear and see in different ways. Other people are my primary resource. Having taught for many years, I think this is quite common. It’s very rare for humans to achieve greatness in isolation.

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!

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.

Digging out of a slough

Tricks to get myself moving when the body says ‘I want a nap.’

Striping, by Carol L. Douglas

I felt fine when I got home from Scotland. Two days later, I wasn’t so sure, and I spent most of our lovely holiday weekend in a lawn chair with a book (except when canoeing, of course). This week, I ran an errand to Bangor with a painting student. By the time we came home, he was concerned enough to suggest that maybe he should drive.

I can’t decide if I’m suffering from a cold, allergies, fatigue or the ennui that sometimes settles in when I’m shifting gears and restless. The barrier between our mind and our bodies is whisper-thin. Like many Americans, I’m so trained to keep moving that it’s hard to recognize when I’m sick.
Parrsboro sunrise, by Carol L. Douglas
The only way I can tell is by testing my body. Over the years I’ve developed strategies for catapulting myself out of a fog. Most important is routine. Every morning I write this blog, make my bed (so I can’t crawl back into it) and fold clothes. These tasks wake me up. Then I go down to my studio. My brain and body are conditioned to start concentrating at the same time every day.
I cannot overstress the importance of this; it’s why your lawyer, doctor, and insurance adjustor don’t have anxiety attacks every time they approach their desks. The human body loves settled routine, and thrives on regular sleep, exercise and work habits.
Tricky Mary in a Pea-Soup Fog, by Carol L. Douglas
My mother believed you would start moving if you heard a machine working, so she would start a load of laundry while she drank her morning coffee. I’m afraid it doesn’t work for me, but it might for you.
Often what stops me is not knowing where to start. To overcome that, I play a game of “put ten things away.” This is win-win, because you’re either going to force yourself back into motion or you’re going to have a very neat workspace. Ten is about my limit for being thoughtful about sorting, and it’s better than making a commitment to clean.
Water is our bodies’ principal component. It comprises about 60 percent of our body weight. We can live a surprisingly long time without food, but not without water. Fatigue can be caused by dehydration. None of us drink enough fluids when traveling, so when I come back from being on the road, I try to bring up my water intake as quickly as possible.
Marsh, by Carol L. Douglas
Current wisdom says that the basic equation for determining how much water you need is to divide your body weight in half. So, if you weigh 200 pounds, you would need 100 ounces of water per day. (I don’t know if this is scientifically justified.) When I drink that much, I never have the luxury of zoning out; I’m always planning my next toilet stop.
My last mental jog is a brisk walk. Exercise is a proven anti-depressant and makes us more alert. Walking also gives me the mental space to plan out my next steps.
What if I do all these things and I still don’t feel up to working? That’s a vivid warning sign that what I’m feeling isn’t temporary malaise but a true physical problem. I do what any sensible person would: I take some time off to recover.

What works to get you out of the doldrums?

Dreams deferred and taken up again

There’s no reason to beat yourself up for not finishing. You will either find joy in it again, or move on to something else.

Hedgerow in Paradise, by Carol L. Douglas
“Did you ever have a dream or goal, and then let go of it, and try to pick it up again later?” a reader asked. She hasn’t been feeling well, so I take the question as a sign that her health is better.
My first cancer, in 2000, required daily radiation, ten months of chemotherapy, three surgeries and a blood transfusion. Every day was devoted to hospitals, treatment and recovery. I didn’t think; I just did what my doctors told me to do. When I was finally done, I asked my oncologist what came next. “Go live your life,” he said.
The trouble was, it didn’t feel like I had a life anymore. I hadn’t worked in almost a year. My kids and husband were managing. Running, which had been so important to me, was impossible. I was, for the only time in my life, profoundly depressed and anxious.
Prayer Warrior, by Carol L. Douglas
My answer was to seek out a therapist. “All the best people do it,” my friend consoled me. Therapy is likened to peeling an onion, because it is the process of getting past the original complaint and figuring out the deeper issues. I hated it, but it was worth all the time I spent.
A period in the desert can be useful in figuring out what’s important. I saw a former student recently. “I’m just not feeling it,” he’d told me. He’d had the impulse to take up painting and been very good at it. Work got in the way. He didn’t feel like taking it back up.
Cold light, by Carol L. Douglas
And that’s okay. Our callings in life are difficult to discern. In art there is no ‘right’ career path. Experimenting, learning, and moving on is part of the process of discovery.  It should never be characterized as failure, no matter what the voices from your childhood tell you.
Years ago, I had a prayer canvas. Each day when I started working, I would pray for people and write their names on the canvas in paint as I prayed. Unfortunately, it started to look like art. It got turned into the painting above.
It ought to have been simple enough to replace, but I never did. This week I finally fished through my collection of failed paintings for another canvas for that purpose. In doing so, I came across an unfinished nocturne I started with my students in last year’s Sea & Sky workshop.
The very unfinished nocturne that grounded the study above.
I have what realtors optimistically call a “seasonal water view.” That means we can see the ocean during the winter. I’ve watched the moon rise over the water for the last three nights. The light it cast was cool, almost green.
I’ve got a nocturne on my easel that’s exciting, but the color structure is wrong. That little nocturne I found in my discards ended up being an experiment in color for this big painting. I think I’ve got it. And I’ve got another idea for a painting as well. Both came from starting again on something deferred. They were totally different, but somehow related.

Why do you do what you do?

It is possible to be a successful woman artist and mother, if one has an exceptional husband, good time-management skills, and an iron will.
Daddy’s little helper, 2015, Carol L. Douglas
Yesterday I was reveling in the simplicity of my job. I had planned no deep thinking; it would be a day alone with my brushes.
That never works. “Why do you do what you do?” asked a regular reader.
The easy answer is that it’s the only thing I know how to do. A little honesty compels me to admit that this isn’t entirely true. I can write. I could retire if I want. Clearly, something besides necessity drives me.
In fact, my reader sensed that. “Why do you teach, travel all over the place, produce as much work as you do?” she continued. “Is working at that pace a habit, or something deeper?”
Maternité, 1890, Mary Cassatt. Cassatt, the greatest painter of the mother-child bond, had no children of her own.
Yes, I was raised to work hard, and it’s an ingrained habit. Still, I do take time off. A chance conversation with a Mennonite contractor years ago turned me into a Sabbatarian. He explained what a tremendous gift a regularly-scheduled Sabbath day was. There are a few weekends a year I can’t take off, but in general, you’ll find me working six days and resting on the seventh.
I like painting and I like being on the road. I like the challenge of sizing up new places and trying to reformat them to a 12X16 canvas.
But mostly, I work like this because I can. It’s a pleasure and a shock to be free of day-to-day responsibility for others. Yesterday, I mentioned a Tracey Eminquote about parenting. Here it is in full:
I would have been either 100% mother or 100% artist. I’m not flaky and I don’t compromise. Having children and being a mother… It would be a compromise to be an artist at the same time. I know some women can. But that’s not the kind of artist I aspire to be. There are good artists that have children. Of course there are. They are called men. It’s hard for women. It’s really difficult, they are emotionally torn. It’s hard enough for me with my cat.
When I first started painting full time, another woman artist told me much the same thing. The evidence supported her statement. Most artists (of either gender) in our circle were childless. Those with children also had wives who supported both their family and their art careers.
Mutter mit Jungen, 1933, Käthe Kollwitz. Kollwitz is an exception to rule that says mothers can’t make good artists.
That realization came close to derailing me. I was struggling to make enough time for my kids and art, but the historical reality seemed to be that women with children would always be second-rate painters.
I’m glad I didn’t learn that before the kids were irrevocable. They’re certainly the best work I’ve ever done.
Now that I’m beyond child-care, I think it’s a case where history is not necessarily destiny. Gender roles have changed tremendously in the last century. It is possible for a woman to combine competent child-rearing and any career, provided she has an exceptional husband, good time-management skills, and an iron will.
But the question my reader asked is an important one. There are many easier ways to live. Why do we do what we do?

The knotty question of brilliance

If you wait around for inspiration, you’ll wait forever. On the other hand, you can’t grind yourself into dust and expect to get good work done, either.

American Eagle at Owl’s Head (unfinished), by Carol L. Douglas

Friday I woke up profoundly uninspired. My back has been out, and I’ve been taking a mild narcotic. That makes it possible for me to stand upright, but it also reduces my interest in staying upright. Anyways, being in pain is exhausting.

My studio has been a mess, because I’ve been finishing a set of bookcases in it. Normally, this would have been a job for the garage, but it’s still too cold for paint to properly cure. The sky was dismal, and it was following a series of dismal days.

A cluttered workspace throws me, and these bookshelves were in the way.

At 11 AM, I curled up on the couch and took a nap. But I’m really too Puritan for that. I believe that days off should be doled out judiciously. The difference between success and failure in a competitive field is hard work. It is too easy for artists to fool themselves into thinking they’re working when they’re off task.

So at noon I was back at my easel doing what my friend Sari Gaby calls ‘border work.’ That’s all the background and edges that must be painted thoughtfully but are not central. In the process of limning out the clouds, I realized I wanted Owl’s Head shrouded in one of those localized rains so common on the coast. While it’s only 250 miles as the crow flies from Kittery to Eastport, there are 5,500 miles of Maine coast. That convoluted border between earth and sea has an intoxicating effect on Mother Nature, so it can be pouring in Camden when neighboring Lincolnville is fine.

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, copy after Pieter Bruegel the Elder, c. 1558.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder had a genius for putting the action of the painting somewhere in the background. It’s a great trick to keep the viewer engaged. One has to hunt to find Icarus in the painting above. (That’s a fact remarked on by William Carlos Williams and W. H. Auden, among others. I’ve appended their poems on the subject here.) While I won’t go as far as dropping Icarus from the sky, I happily embraced the sea change in the weather. That idea wouldn’t have occurred to me had I taken the rest of the day off.

This problem of inspiration is not unique to artists. My husband told me he’s been pondering a software problem for four weeks. “Last night the code came to me, I tried it, and it worked perfectly,” he said on Saturday.
Of course, he didn’t spend those four weeks waiting on his muse. He still puts in more than forty hours a week.
There has to be a balance. If you wait around for inspiration, you’ll wait forever. On the other hand, you can’t work seven days and grind yourself into fine dust and expect to get good work done, either.