Process, not product

Embracing process is deeper training than simply learning a new way to paint. It’s a new way to see, and it’s the basis of all really good art.

Belfast Harbor, oil on canvasboard, 14X18, $1594.

The hardest part of painting class is the first day, or first few days. Sometimes the students who have the most difficulty are those who are already good at painting or drawing.

Often, they are terrified about painting in front of others. They feel as if they’ll be judged and found lacking. They have a deeply buried nut of pride in being “pretty good at art,” and they’re afraid to expose that to reality. I recognize this because I was once that student myself. When someone resists me, I am patient because I remember all the backchat I gave my teachers back in the day.

These students don’t realize they’ve already taken the most difficult step, which is signing up for classes. It’s an admission that they know something is lacking in their technique. They may also be remembering making art with teenage peers, who can be the most judgmental of all critics. Adults are not cruel like that; they’re genuinely excited for each other’s successes.

Fishing shacks at Owl’s Head, 11X14, $1087

We’re never good judges of our own work as we’re doing it. The disconnect between what we’ve envisioned and what actually happened is too pronounced. The painting of Belfast harbor, above, is a great example. I was so focused on what it lacked that I never noticed that the color, structure and paint handling were excellent. It had to sit for months on a rack in my studio before I realized it was finished, and it’s now one of my favorite paintings.

That’s where a teacher can be helpful, and why positive criticism is so useful. But time itself is a great healer. It allows you to stop seeing the painting from inside your own head.

Often adult students have been trained to look for results. That’s an unfortunate byproduct of our commercial culture. It makes it difficult to sit back and enjoy learning the process.

Balletic sway, 9X12, $696 unframed.

I once had a delightful student named Ann, who was a good beginning painter. She would start strong, and when it looked like she had a winner on her hands, she’d announce to the class, “I’m painting this for [  ].” That was an instant jinx. She changed the way she saw her work. It became something tangible, a product to be given as a gift. She started seeing it through the potential recipient’s eyes, and that meant she only saw its shortcomings. That flood of negativity paralyzed her. Ann’s warm generosity was, in fact, getting in the way of her painting.

This, by the way, is the difficulty of commissions. The artist starts from the transaction, rather than the germ of an idea. In a world of extremely slick, photoshopped experiences, the physical reality of paint is always going to look clunky and awkward. That’s part of its charm.

My greatest challenge as a teacher is to get people to let go of what they think they know and to relax into the process of exploration. I give them a protocol, and that’s important, but it’s hardly the only thing. Embracing process means divorcing yourself from the results, no longer worrying about whether today’s painting is ‘good’ or ‘bad’, just that it’s been painted and you’ve gotten one step closer to your inner vision. That’s deeper training than simply learning a new way to paint. It’s a new way to see, and it’s the basis of all really good art.

How do you teach effectively with Zoom?

What techniques have you devised to make online learning more effective?
Sometimes it rains, by Carol L. Douglas

Yesterday, I taught my second class by Zoom. I found a format which I thought would work better than my usual one-on-one teaching model. This was a variation on the paint-and-sip model (minus the wine; it was morning) where the teacher leads the class through a painting and everyone ends up with more or less the same result.

I’m no fan of paint-and-sip, it’s entertainment, not painting class. (Here’s a tale of what happens when you let a real artist loose at one.) I didn’t ask my students to use the same reference photo. Instead, my instructions were relaxed—everyone had to paint evergreens of some sort.
Bunker Hill Overlook, watercolor on Yupo, by Carol L. Douglas
I completed each step of a painting and my students followed. Then I looked, round-robin, at their work, to see if they’d completed that step satisfactorily. In terms of class dynamics, it was fine; technically, it had shortcomings.
The first is that I had to choose one medium or the other. Without a cameraman, I couldn’t easily flip between watercolor and oil setups. That’s not great in an all-media class.
The Dugs in Autumn, by Carol L. Douglas
The biggest issue we faced is the size of the screen. If people have iPads or laptops handy, I think they’ll work better than their phones. I’m using my phone because it can be mounted on a tripod. But that means that most paintings I’m looking at are only a few inches across. We can talk about issues like composition at that scale, but not about brushwork, marrying edges, or paint application. The lighting is bad in most home studios. That means I can’t see color accurately.
I felt like I was touching on only about half the subjects I normally do. Color theory and composition are important parts of painting, but they aren’t the whole picture.
Rising Tide at Wadsworth Cove, by Carol L. Douglas
I’ll tinker this week to figure out if I can monitor the Zoom session from my laptop while broadcasting from my phone. Or if I can feed the video from a separate camera. Luckily, my son has finally made it home from his long exodus back from university. At that age, technology is in their sinews.
I have figured out that bigger props are better. I replaced my sketchbook with charcoal and newsprint for the composition phase. I painted a 12X16 demo; that’s a huge 3-hour painting but it wasn’t large enough. Next week, I’ll drag in a 24X30 canvas. That will help students see better. And I’ve learned that any props I need must be assembled in advance.
And here was my demo painting. I was most surprised when a Maine painter friend immediately identified it as Barnum Brook Trail at Paul Smith’s College Visitor Information Center. She then showed me a painting she’d done of it!
Having students mute their mikes when not speaking turns out to be a two-edged sword. It keeps the screen focused on the speaker. At the same time, it quells the commentary and criticism that’s so important in a small painting class. I think my students usually learn as much from each other as from me, and I’m sorry to see our interchanges become so formal.
One advantage of this online class was that I was able to invite two teacher-painter friends to join us: David Broerman from Fort Wayne, Indiana, and Chrissy Spoor Pahucki, from Goshen, NY. Usually, at this time of year they’re cracking the whip on teenagers with spring fever. It was a special treat to have them with us. That’s something to build on.
I’m interested in how you’re teaching and learning long-distance. That goes not only for workshop teachers and students, but for public school teachers, university professors, students, and those of you taking frequent online meetings. What techniques have you devised or mastered to make this easier or more effective?

Monday Morning Art School: why follow the rules?

There is broad consensus on how paint is applied, even if you take your craft to places I’ve never dreamed of.
The Race, by Tim Moran, watercolor on cold-press paper.
If you’ve studied with me for any length of time, you know I’m big on protocol. “Do it this way now,” I urge my students. “Then when you go back to your everyday painting, you can incorporate the things that work and discard what doesn’t work for you.”
The business of laying down paint is a craft, one that’s been developed over millennia. It’s possible to take this craft to new places, but only on a firm foundation of technique. That doesn’t mean I think that things don’t change; if they didn’t, we’d all be still painting encaustic funerary portraits a la the Romans. But there is still broad consensus on how oil paint and watercolor paint are applied. When you take my class, you’re not getting anything new. Everything I tell you, I learned from someone else.
Tim’s first value sketch.
What’s different is that I’ve written these instructions down as protocols. I’ve already shared them with you: here in oil, and here in watercolor. Students usually balk at the idea of spending so much time in the preparatory stages, particularly if they know an excellent painter who doesn’t bother. There are some. These are usually people who have a tremendously refined sense of design, and can do the first steps in their heads. People who do that well, by the way, are not that common.
I also assign homework to make sure these protocols are locked down in my students’ heads. Last week, watercolor student Tim Moran came in with such a perfectly-executed process that I asked him if I could share it with you.
Tim’s redesign, done after he did his monochromatic painting.
Tim started with a value drawing in his sketchbook of four sailboats racing off Camden. He did that because identifying a strong value structure at the beginning is the most important thing a watercolor artist can do to make a strong painting.
Then he did a monochromatic value study, using a combination of burnt sienna and ultramarine to make a dark neutral. This was where he made choices of his values for lights and darks. It’s a crucial step in being able to apply watercolor confidently. Being unsure of the color makes us naturally diffident.
But Tim was not just blindly following my instructions here. He was also thinking. And what he thought was that the four-boat structure was static. So, he went back—literally—to the drawing board, and reconfigured his drawing to be three boats.
Tim’s monochromatic painting, at top, and his final painting, at bottom. Note that he’s testing his paints before he applies
He didn’t have to redo the monochromatic value study because the value structure was the same whether there were three or four boats. Instead he moved directly to the final painting.
Note that he tested his pigments on the left side of his paper. That test strip is another important part of watercolor that many people skip. The more thinking you’ve done about placement and composition before you start, the less likely you are to obliterate your light passages.
It’s a little harder to see those phases in an oil-painting student’s work because the monochromatic underlay gets obliterated in the final phase. But this is a class that’s taking my instruction very seriously. It’s days like this that remind me of how much I love to teach.

How to make money as an artist… and another thing!

Great ideas don’t pay the rent. You need a practical plan.
Autumn farm, pastel, Carol L. Douglas
First this: my pal Jennifer tells me, quite reasonably, that if I don’t tell anyone I’m teaching a class in October, they’re unlikely to come. Apparently the same principle applies to parties. Who knew?
If you are interested in improving your painting, or taking up painting for the first time, and you’ll be in mid-coast Maine for its most beautiful season—Autumn—then by all means put me on your schedule.
This is a six-week plein air class, starting October 2 and ending November 6. We’ll meet from 10 AM to 1 PM every Tuesday. If the weather permits, we’ll go out to a location. If not, we’ll be in my studio at 394 Commercial Street in Rockport. Oils, watercolor, pastel and acrylic painters are all welcome. And I don’t care if you’re a beginner or have an MFA. I spend my time one-on-one, not pontificating in front of an easel. The fee is $200.
Have I ever mentioned that I love teaching plein air painting?
Now, to the meat of this post. I’m presenting at Maine International Conference on the Arts (MICA) this Friday, September 28. This is a two-day conference for Maine artists, arts educators, and arts organizations. It addresses the questions of art making, arts education, capacity-building strategies and skills, and more.
I don’t know a single artist who doesn’t want to make money doing his or her art. In fact, money is part of the communication between the artist and his clients. Your clients are saying “I like your work enough to want to share my space with it,” each time they make a purchase. A purchase is an important form of validation.
Public market, by Carol L. Douglas. 
Many artists are singularly inept at business. Some cover that up with lofty sentiments about being above mere money. But great ideas don’t pay the rent. If you’re confused about how to monetize your art, this conference is a good place to start.
“I’m just not good at business” is as dumb an excuse as, “I can’t draw a straight line” is for drawing. I’m pretty fuzzy on practical matters myself. But I’ve learned to present myself and my work, make strategic plans, and use the internet to promote my work. If I can do it, you can too.
The Dugs, by Carol L. Douglas
I’m talking about a narrow topic—how to write a successful art blog—but I’m one tiny cog in this vast conference. There are twenty break-out sessions altogether. I’ve put together a short presentation that’s practical and narrow. I assume my fellow presenters have been similarly economical and to the point.
That means you’ll have good information to take home and mull over through the off season. If a better business model is your goal, MICA is a great place to start.

Apple picking time

Old apple trees make for good painting as well as good eating.

Apple tree swing, by Carol L. Douglas. Available through the Kelpie Gallery.

Today, I’m teaching my first class in Rockport since mid-July. I wanted a special subject for my students. I’ve passed wild apple trees along the roadside. I know they’re ripe and starting to drop. But to find one that was suitable for a class has been a different matter.

The ones above Rockport Harbor are too high to paint from the parking lot. The one at the Opera House bore no fruit this season. It must be a biennial bearer, which some apple trees are. I finally found a suitable tree, with parking and permission to paint, but it took more work than it should have.
For someone from the heart of apple country, this is a paucity of resources. I know the heritage orchard peopledon’t think New York’s miles and miles of commercial orchards are ‘real’ apples, but they’re an important food crop there. Fruit trees are very long-lived; many of them can easily make the century mark. Old apple trees make for good painting as well as good eating.
The old orchard, by Carol L. Douglas
I know there are apple trees in Maine. I painted one in Castine this summer, and I have a plan for another one for next year. They’re just not lined up in neat rows as they are in my home state.
Long before the McIntosh apple became the champion apple in the northeast, a variety named the Baldwin was our most popular apple. It tolerated cold-storage and shipping. That meant you could keep it through the winter and send it to market.
Conventional wisdom says it was developed in Wilmington, MA, and, after the dust-up, the good citizens there were quick to put up a monument to it. But in the 19th century, several towns brawled for the title of birthplace of the Baldwin apple. One of them was Baldwin, in Cumberland County, ME. Baldwin was noted for its orchards, and it had a factory for drying apples.
Young apple trees in bloom, by Carol L. Douglas
The connection isn’t completely spurious. Baldwin, ME, was named after Col. Loammi Baldwin, who is largely credited with disseminating scions of the Baldwin apple through New England. (Apples don’t grow true from seed. The best way to get edible ones is to collect twigs from a good tree and graft them onto parent stock.)
Col. Baldwin was a Revolutionary War soldier and is considered the father of American Civil Engineering. He was also Johnny Appleseed’s cousin.
All Flesh is as Grass, by Carol L. Douglas
The harsh winter of 1933-34 wiped out the Baldwin apple orchards in New England. It was largely replaced by its Canadian cousin, the McIntosh, which is disease- and cold-resistant. However, Baldwins make for good cider, especially hard cider. In an historically dry state like Maine, that was curiously important. I’m sure there’s more than one gracing an old dooryard here.
I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a Baldwin apple on a tree, but as of today, I’m looking for one.

How to critique work (and still have friends)

Imagine if we visited the Sistine Chapel looking for things to criticize instead of enjoying it for what it is.

Kaaterskill Falls, by Carol L. Douglas

Anyone who has ever taught teenagers knows they are simultaneously hypercritical and thin-skinned. They must be taught to be constructive and humble. A few years ago, there was a flash-in-the-pan video of an art student destroying her own work during a critique. She was mocked for being oversensitive, but listen to the girl criticizing the work. She is larding her critique with personal comments. That’s what happens in an unstructured critique class.

For that reason, we routinely used the “sandwich rule” in our class. We began by pointing out something the person did well. We then discussed the problems of the painting. We finished by pointing out something else that the person did well, so that each session ended on a positive note.
This method has been mocked as “fluffy bun—meat—fluffy bun,” but that misses the point. Often, people have no idea what they’re doing well. Their own self-doubt gets in the way of seeing what is successful in their painting. That needs articulation as much as the negatives do.
Camden in the fog, by Carol L. Douglas
We are taught from a young age that education is about correction, but it is as much about encouraging what is successful.
One problem with formal critique is that we sit there wondering what brilliant insight we can come up with about the work, rather than spending time absorbing it for what it is. Imagine if we approached the Sistine Chapel like that.
I once ruined a painting because of muddled criticism. It especially rankles that I’d paid a high-profile artist to deliver it. “It looks like a crude Chagall,” she said. Dismayed, I painted over the whole thing. Years later, I realized she was flat-out wrong. Criticism is, after all, just an opinion. Today, I’m confident enough to trust my own judgment, but I wasn’t at the time.
Lunch Break, by Carol L. Douglas
It’s easy to misconstrue a student’s intention. For this reason, it’s best to listen first, before offering commentary.
A critique session isn’t just about learning what’s wrong with your painting. It’s also about learning to read artwork, and learning to write artwork that is readable. To this end, I ask some general questions of the class, such as:
“What do you notice first? Second?”
“Why did you see those things in that order?”
“Does this evoke a feeling or response in you?”
“What is the point of this work?”
I am often asked to critique work over the internet. This is difficult. Our cameras and displays are not very accurate. I may not know the person in real life. Since we’re not having a personal conversation, I am guarded in my comments.
Piseco Outlet, by Carol L. Douglas
There is a very small coterie of artists I trust enough to ask for criticism via text or email. They’ve demonstrated that they’re knowledgeable and sympathetic to my painting goals.
Today, for my last class of this session, we’ll be critiquing work. Frankly, there’s enough negativity in this world. If we err, let us err on the side of kindness.

Mixed-up Media

Watercolor doesn’t get the respect it deserves in the United States.

Lake of Albano and Castel Gandolfo at sunset, c. 1777, watercolor, by John Robert Cozens
This Spring has given rise to a standing joke among my students. It’s been wet all spring, but it seems like Mother Nature cries especially hard every Tuesday. Because of this, I’m loath to go too far afield, even though there are delectable painting sites all around us. When the water starts spattering from the sky, it’s hard on everyone, but most particularly the watercolorists.
I noticed more watercolor painters at the Parrsboro International Plein Air Festival than at similar shows in the US. That might be because the admissions juror, Bill Rogers, is a watercolorist himself, or it might be an extension of the British love of watercolor.
Jennifer had her watercolor sketches out to show me when the wind picked up…
Although watercolor goes back to antiquity, the English developed the western tradition of watercolor plein air painting in the eighteenth century. This was driven by the desire of the upper-class to document the Grand Tour, which was a kind of intellectual finishing school for the uber-wealthy. The sons and daughters of the nobility and wealthiest self-made men were trundled off to Italy and Greece in the company of chaperones. There, they looked at and bought beautiful art, practiced their language skills, and mingled with other people exactly like themselves.
The only major difference between then and now was that they didn’t have cell phones with which to take selfies holding up the Leaning Tower of Pisa. This sad lack created a market for travel books to be sold as souvenirs. Artists were dispatched to created what were then called ‘topographical drawings.’
…and flipped Roger’s palette into her paintings.
Tourists also enjoyed sketching the landscape. A drawing master was a status symbol for families wanting to master the fashionable skill of watercolor painting.
Among those eighteenth century watercolor artists are names unknown to most Americans: Paul Sandby, Alexander Cozens, his son John Robert Cozens, Thomas Girtin, and John Sell Cotman. Anyone who thinks of watercolor as anemic and pale should study their work. Of course, John Constable and J.M.W. Turner also belong in this pantheon.
In America, John James Audubon used watercolor for his meticulous, colorful illustrations. Watercolor as an independent medium peaked here in the nineteenth century, with Winslow HomerThomas MoranThomas EakinsJohn LaFargeJohn Singer SargentChilde Hassam, and others.
Watercolor paintings have an undeserved reputation for being fragile. From a gallerist’s standpoint, however, they don’t show as well under hot lights as oil paintings do, because of the glass. There are ways to work around this problem, but they have limitations.
I use watercolor exclusively as a sketch medium, It’s faster and more convenient than oils in many situations, including hiking or family vacations.
I always have a variety of media in my class, including oils, watercolor, acrylic and occasionally pastel. That isn’t a big deal conceptually, but it does lead to practical issues. The biggest of these is that oil in any form instantly ruins watercolor or pastel paper.
When I have a class made up of oil and watercolor painters, I must be meticulous in cleaning my hands between students. This was a lesson learned the hard way.
Yesterday was less rainy than predicted. By 1 PM, as we started to pack up, Clam Cove was wrapped in subtle shades of blue and green. My little band had done great work. We stood happily mesmerized by the rapid changes in the light, and the froth kicked up by the surf crossing a hidden ledge.
And then a gust of wind rose and blew an oil painter’s palette into a watercolorist’s finished work. It was a day’s work undone in an instant. Luckily, she’s a very easygoing person. 

Road with a view

A million quiet moments of beauty are in every vista. (Photo by Sandy Quang)

A million quiet moments of beauty are in every vista. (Photo by Sandy Quang)
One of the tasks of a plein air painting teacher is to locate painting sites. Not only must they have good subject matter, but they must be safe, have sufficient parking, and give access to a bathroom or a quiet stretch of shrubbery. They should be easily accessible to people coming from a wide range of places. Some of my favorites are on the St. George Peninsula.
After being surprised by the overgrowth at Glen Cove a few weeks ago, I decided I should reconnoiter more. Even that doesn’t always work. When I got to Spruce Head yesterday, a bucket truck was parked where I’d hoped to teach, doing something to the power lines. No matter. A little farther along there was ample parking and a different view.
Yesterday's view from the causeway at Spruce Head. (Photo by Sandy Quang)

Yesterday’s view from the causeway at Spruce Head. (Photo by Sandy Quang)
Back in the day, studios at the Art Students League were jammed full of students, to a degree non-New Yorkers would never accept. Needless to say, not everyone had a “good view.” We were expected to make the most of what we had. It was very good training in finding the sublime anywhere.
In general, if you can’t find something to paint, it’s your mind that need adjusting, not the view. That’s not to say that it’s not easier in Maine, where every twist in the road brings something new. But there are many levels of beauty in every scene.
Yesterday, my students all painted variations of a dinghy at rest on the mud flats. It was an easily accessible composition, and it’s what I would have painted. But sometimes when you’re sitting quietly in nature, other things begin to vie with your attention—a rock formation, the shadows formed by a dock. For me, that usually happens about halfway through a painting, when I realize I’m actually more interested in something completely different from where I started.
A heron flew in to fish in the shallows. He spent the whole morning with us.
I currently have three students painting in water-based media. For the teacher, having both oils and watercolor in your class requires turning your brain inside out repeatedly, for the basic way you see and work—light vs. dark—is reversed between them.
Sheryl Cassibry and I did this little watercolor sketch together, as a way of exploring how the medium works.

Sheryl Cassibry and I did this little watercolor sketch together, as a way of exploring how the medium works.
Sheryl Cassibry and I did a joint watercolor painting in my sketchbook last week. We took turns painting on it. It was a fun way to explore how the medium works.
My Southern readers will laugh, but even out on Spruce Head, it was just too hot to paint. My car thermometer read 79° F. as I drove back to Rockport. I’m not acclimated to any kind of heat, and standing out in the blazing sun with a strong on-shore breeze, I got a terrific headache.
It wasn’t just me, either. Renee Lammers told me later that it was too hot to paint in Stonington, too. “I think I need a cooling vest,” she said. Maybe she’ll invent one.