The lies we tell ourselves about painting

Some have a germ of truth; some are out and out wrong.

Île d’Orléans waterfront farm, by Carol L. Douglas. ‘Immediate’ shouldn’t mean half-baked.
Don’t overwork it:This is the most common bromide I hear. I hate it. It encourages painters to stop prematurely, and to not work out the latent potential or problems in the work.
It’s far better to go too far and need to fix your mistakes than never understand your limits or see where you might end up. “Don’t overwork it” is a great way to permanently stunt your growth as a painter.
Replace it with this: “If you can paint it once, you can paint it 1000 times.” It liberates you to scrape out, redraw, paint over, scribe across your surface and otherwise really explore your medium. And it’s actually true.
Cirrus clouds at Olana, by Carol L. Douglas. I couldn’t have painted this had I not learned how to marry edges.
That’s your style: When I was a painting student, I had a teacher tell me that heavy lines were my ‘style’. They weren’t; I just hadn’t learned how to marry, blur or emphasize edges. These are technical skills, and to master them I had to move on to the Art Students League and teachers who understood the difference between technique and style.
Ultimately, we all end up with identifiable styles, but they should be un-self-conscious, the result of putting paint down many, many times. Anything that we do to avoid learning proper technique is not a style, it’s a failure.
Blues player Shakin Smith once told me that his style was the gap between his inner vision and his capacity to render it. That made me stop worrying about style at all.
Vineyard, by Carol L. Douglas, courtesy of Kelpie Gallery. The dominant greens in this painting are based on ivory black.
Don’t use black: “Monet didn’t use black, and you shouldn’t, either!” That’s true, but only after 1886, when Monet (apparently) adopted a limited palette. On the other hand, his palette included emerald green, which was copper-acetoarsenite, the killer pigment of the 19th century. There are limits to aping the masters of the past.
Monet made chromatic blacks, which are mixtures of hues that approximate black. Every artist should learn how to make neutrals, and not rely on buying Gamblin’s premix. But there are places where black is useful. One is in mixing greens. Another is in mixing skin tones. Contemporary painting is all about the tints (mixing with white) but ignores shades (mixing with black) and tones (mixing with black and white).
Back in the day, art students learned not just tints, but shades and tones.
Pros use more paint:Beginning artists generally don’t use enough paint, so it’s useful to tell them to increase the amount of paint. However, there are some great painters out there who work very thin—Colin Pageis an excellent example. The problem is in getting to that point. It’s a mastery born of years of experience. To get there you need—annoyingly—to start with more paint.
Fish Beach, by Carol L. Douglas.
If it’s not beautiful, you’re doing something wrong: Seeking beauty instead of truth is a great way to make static paintings. Paintings go through many ugly phases before they’re finished, and sublimating their ragged edges is a great way to drain all the juice out of your painting.

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.

The trouble with Hortense

See what I mean about her paint handling?
Hortense* has been my painting student since the very beginning. I haven’t taught in my own studio since last spring, so when she came to class on Saturday, I had a fresh perspective about her painting.
She handles paint as well as I do, and she draws beautifully. Given a plein air or still life assignment, she can draw several iterations, come up with an arresting composition, lay down a brilliant underpainting, and finish it with lovely highlights, all in the time it takes most students to crank out a decent sketch.
She hates when I tell her this, since she thinks it’s empty flattery, but it’s absolutely true.
A three-hour still life by the same student.
However, at hour 2.5, Hortense frequently self-destructs. She decides she hates some aspect of the painting, start mushing the paint back and forth to correct a problem that isn’t there, and in the space of the last half hour of the class will push her work backwards to the level she imagined was there in the first place. I find it as frustrating as she does, because I think she could be a great painter if she could just get past this.
I reject the notion that you can “overwork” a painting. That’s a modern conceit that leads to many half-baked paintings. You simply must battle through whatever phase is hanging you up. However, I’m starting to think that Hortense’s problem isn’t a painting problem at all, but a conceptual one, that maybe she needs to be imbuing her paintings with some of the Big Ideas that drive her.
Any suggestions, my fellow painters?

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click 
here for more information on my Maine workshops!
*If you’re gonna give someone an alias, it may as well be an entertaining one.