I’d rather be painting

We don’t control our legacy; we just do our best work and hope for the best. But, please, if you love me, don’t tell me you like my writing better than my painting.

Pull up your Big Girl Panties, 6X8, is one of the paintings at Rye Arts Center this month.

Next Thursday, I give a short talk at the opening of Censored and Poetic at the Rye Arts Center in New York. It will be livestreamed; you can register here. I’m no stranger to speaking; I generally lecture for 25 minutes each week to my painting classes. That takes me about three hours to research and write.

Cutting that in half increases the prep time exponentially. The more economical the text, the longer it takes to prepare. Certainly, the more emotionally engaged you are with the subject, the more difficult it is to put it in lucid order, and I’m passionate about my subject.

Spring, 24X30, is one of the paintings at Rye Arts Center this month.

The net result is that I’ve used my entire week writing and practicing my talk. I’ll get out tomorrow for a few hours of plein airpainting in the snow, but that’s only because I’m doing a photo shoot with Derek Hayes.

I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time recently writing. And yet, I don’t think of myself as a writer, but a painter. This winter, it seems, I’m a writer whose subject is painting. Or, perhaps I’m a painter who writes.

It’s all very annoying. I’ve spent many years learning the craft of painting and almost none learning to write. That comes as naturally to me as talking.

Michelle Reading, 24X30, is one of the paintings at Rye Arts Center this month.

All of us carry these labels. I told someone recently that my husband was a programmer. He corrected me, because he is—of course—a software engineer. Not being in the profession, I don’t understand the difference, but it clearly matters.

Labels can be limiting. Mid-century America used to talk about the ‘Renaissance man.’ This was a polymath, a person who was a virtuoso at many things. That’s very different from the pejorative ‘Jack of all trades and master of none’ that we sometimes use to describe a person who can’t light on any one thing and do it well.

Polymathy was, in fact, a characteristic of the Renaissance and Enlightenment. Gentlemen (and some ladies) were expected to speak multiple languages, pursue science as a passionate avocation, play musical instruments, and draw competently, all while fulfilling their roles as aristocrats and courtiers. Of course, that was only possible because a whole host of peons (that would be you and me) attended to their every need from birth.

This Little Boat of Mine, 16X20, is one of the paintings at Rye Arts Center this month.

Having to work and do your own laundry tends to cut into one’s leisure time. In fact, in America, we have an inversion of the historic distribution of leisure. Our elite are workaholics. Wealthy American men, in particular, work longer hours than poor men in our society and rich men in other countries.

This leaves no time to do other things. It also affects our overall culture, since culture is the byproduct of leisure. We used to love highbrow things like classical music and art because the well-educated had time to turn their hobbies into art. Today our culture is much earthier, for good or ill.

Loretta Lynn made a commercial in the 1970s which opened with, “Some people like my pies better than my singin’.” I remember that and her 1970 hit single, Coal Miner’s Daughter, and, sadly, nothing else of her three-time-Grammy-Award oeuvre.

We don’t control our legacy; we just do our best work and hope for the best. But, please, if you love me, don’t tell me you like my writing better than my painting.

Stop playing it safe

I’m willing to look like a fool for art. Are you?

Channel marker, 9×12, oil on canvasboard, $696 unframed.

I did a set of long demos in my classes this week. I worked from two different snapshots, one for each class. I’d never looked at them before. In fact, I chose them because they didn’t have any obvious structure.

It was up to my class to create that structure, so I didn’t crop or make any choices in advance. (To make the demo meaningful to all my students, I did each painting in oils and watercolor simultaneously. That’s hard.) The goal was to give my students a broad view of the overall processes of painting, from start to finish.

They said they learned the most from the many places where I dithered. At one point, I said something like, “stupid, stupid, stupid!” One student particularly liked hearing that; she thought she was alone in making choices she later regretted.

Fog Bank, 14×18, oil on canvasboard, $1275 unframed.

Another said that the most instructive part of the demo was the moment I took a rag to an entire passage of the oil painting. (My correction turned out to be a mistake. Stupid, stupid, stupid.)

The actual painting results were mediocre. But great paintings were never my goal. Instead, we worked our way through the process of a painting as a team, discussing our questions and dilemmas.

Home farm 2, oil on canvas, 20X24, $2898 framed.

I received this email from a student who wishes to remain anonymous:

“A couple of weeks ago, on a whim, I signed up for another zoom painting class with an artist I follow on social media… The most important thing I have come to realize is how much I value your approach to teaching and how much better your class is. I enjoy your [art] history lesson and how it wraps around the weekly lesson. We all work from our own still life set-ups or reference photos making our paintings more personal.

“In this other class, I was sent a reference photo (which didn’t particularly interest me) and we all painted the same thing. During class, there is a lot of talk about which particular colors were used in which particular spots. Questions like these make me nuts.

“We have to send a photo of our painting and there is a critique of everyone’s work so we are looking at basically eight versions of the same painting for two hours. Tedious, at best. In the end, I feel like I have spent time and materials on a painting that is not really mine since I don’t own the reference photo and I know there are eight other versions of the same painting out there.”

Home Port, oil on canvas, 18X24, $2318 framed.

This student is a graphic designer by trade, so when I saw her painting, I was amazed at how boring it was. Her work usually sparks with arresting design and quirky ideas.  But here she was working from someone else’s idea, and all the thinking was already done. There’s little to be learned in that.

On Monday, I wrote that I don’t think canned painting demos are very helpful. A shrewd painter rehearses these performances. He has already made the critical decisions before he ever lifts a brush in public. This creates an impression of mastery and confidence, but it’s a falsehood. The real process of painting is all in the choices.

Art’s greatest enemy is safety. That may seem strange coming from a painter who works in landscape—surely the least risky of genres. But the risks I’m talking about are in composition, structure, color choices, and brushwork, not in content. The best painters take chances all the time. They mess things up and toss them in the trash. The public will only see 10-20% of our starts. The rest are, to us, failures.

Don’t be a fair-weather painter

You need to get through the heavy weather in order to experience the rare and wonderful.

View from the Beech Hill summit trail.

Since the first of the year, I’ve hiked every morning up to the top of Beech Hill. This has replaced my usual lunchtime walk to the post office, which is difficult right now with the sidewalks fouled with snow and ice. Beech Hill is slightly more strenuous than the aisles at my grocery store, so it’s perfect for first thing in the morning.

I’ve been walking for exercise since cancer forced me to stop running twenty years ago. With very few exceptions, I lace up my shoes and go out six days a week. I have a perverse liking for the days when normal people stay home. The world is empty and quiet, and strange things happen.

It was hard going at first.

One of the few things that interferes with my walks is travel. It’s fine when I’m teaching, because teaching plein air involves a lot of walking anyway. But when I’m just driving and looking, I’m also sitting. It doesn’t take long for my muscles to forget how to stride. I usually spend the first three days after any trip complaining bitterly about joint pain. Yes, it gets worse as I get older.

What doesn’t usually interfere is weather. My rule is to not go out if it’s below 10° F, but this year, I’ve pushed that down to almost zero. The new dog is part of the reason, but he’s just reinforcing my tendency toward routine.

Cloud shrouding Lake Chickawaukee.

There are mornings when I question my judgment, of course. Yesterday was one of them. We had a severe-weather warning, but it didn’t appear to be coming down much. It was sleeting instead. There was a quarter-inch of ice on the windshield and more in the air.

The first part of Beech Hill’s summit trail winds through the woods, and it was, frankly, unpleasant. But the great thing about routine is that it carries you through even the parts you don’t enjoy. Half way up the hill, I turned to look back across the valley towards West Rockport. It was a stunning, low-light vista, the young birches glowing maroon against an angry sky. As I climbed, a cloud settled, shrouding Lake Chickawaukee. I realized we’d soon be up in the same cloud.

Beech Nut in its cloud.

It’s very rare to climb up into a cloud when you live at sea level. I wouldn’t recommend it as a sensual pleasure. Thousands of tiny shards of ice whipped through in the air, stinging the skin on my face, icing up my glasses. But it was also energetic, subtle, and fascinating, and I’m glad I experienced it.

I wouldn’t have done that had I not been schooled to walk daily, regardless of circumstance. That’s also true in painting. You need to get through the heavy weather in order to experience the rare and wonderful—in fact, it’s the heavy weather that produces the rare and wonderful.

It’s a simple matter of showing up regularly, so what stops people from really pushing the limits of their ability? They worry about the outcome, instead of just experiencing the process. Most of us make a lot of dreck on the way to something good. Acknowledge that, and just get back to work.

Monday Morning Art School: scaling up a painting

It may seem time-consuming, but with big paintings it saves a lot of work in the long run.

My watercolor sketch. It’s gridded on a piece of plexiglass laid over the drawing.

On Friday I wrote about losing my painting reference and going to great lengths to find substitutes. The human mind being so fickle, writing that post made me suddenly realize what and where my original reference was. I came downstairs to my studio convinced that I would wipe out the interloping boats and go back to my original drawing.
I drew the mast positions in with charcoal and a straight-edge before starting to paint. That way their angle will match my sketch.

However, when I looked at the canvas again, I realized it wasn’t that bad. Different from my original intent, certainly, but not bad. I walked the dog and pondered. By the time I was home again, I’d determined that I should just paint both iterations. It was possible to differentiate them enough to make two different works out of them, both speaking to the flying sensation of sailing.

That meant gridding up a second version. This time I decided to go with the original aspect ratio of the sketch, rather than cropping it. I liked the yawl I’d truncated the first time around.

Straight lines, curves–it doesn’t matter. Just find the point at which they intersect the grid, mark those points, and work from there. I usually do this in monochrome but since I was working from a watercolor sketch, I just massed color.

I have a projector, but I find that gridding is more accurate and takes less time. Knowing how to do it is imperative for large projects, but it can be surprisingly useful in small paintings, too. Whenever you have trouble going from your thumbnail to the canvas, gridding is your go-to answer.

Boats v.2, laid out 24X36 in just a few hours. Later today I can actually paint them.

I realize many artists are math-phobic, but there are times when a bit of arithmetic can save you a world of pain.

First, work out whether the aspect ratio of your sketch is the same as the canvas. This is the proportional relationship between height and width. Sometimes this is very obvious, such as a 9X12 sketch being the same aspect ratio as an 18X24 canvas. But sometimes, you’re starting with a peculiar little sketch drawn on the back of an envelope. You can use a trick you learned back in elementary school.

Remember learning that 1/2 was the same as 2/4? We want to force our sketch into a similar equivalent ratio with our canvas.

Let’s assume that you’ve cropped your sketch to be 8” across. You want to know how tall your crop should be to match your canvas.

Write out the ratios of height to width as above.

To make them equivalent, you cross-multiply the two fixed numbers, and divide by the other fixed number, as below:

Use your common sense here. If it doesn’t look like they should be equal, you probably made a mistake. And you can work from a known height as easily as from a known width; it doesn’t matter if the variable is on the top or the bottom, the principle is the same.

The next step is to grid both the canvas and sketch equally. In my painting above, my grid was an inch square on the sketch and 4″ square on the canvas, but as long as you end up with the same number of squares on both, the actual measurements don’t matter. You can just keep dividing the squares until you get a grid that’s small enough to be useful. For a small painting, that could be as simple as quartering the sketch and the canvas. I use a T-square and charcoal, and I’m not crazy about the lines being perfect; I adjust constantly as I go.

The last step is to transfer the little drawing, square by square to the larger canvas. I generally do this in a dark neutral of burnt sienna and ultramarine. On Friday, however, since I’d already done a grisaille and a watercolor sketch of the subject, I just transferred large blocks of color. It may seem time-consuming, but with big paintings it saves a lot of work in the long run.

Look in your own backyard

I don’t need to go anywhere to see the beauty of autumn. It’s right here.

Thicket, by Carol L. Douglas

Maine’s official state motto is Dirigo, which means, “I lead… slowly.” Or, as our unofficial state motto reads, “35 mph was good enough for my grandfather, and it’s good enough for me.” Route 1, the state’s major north-south (or east-west, depending on how you look at it) road, is mostly a twisty two-lane highway. For the most part, you can’t pass. It’s pointless to try, because there’s another slowpoke a mile ahead. Except when you get to Portland, where 55 means 77. Sometimes I go there just to remember how to drive fast.

As a recovering New Yorker, I’ve learned to slow down. In the summer, there will be out-of-staters bearing down on my bumper, and a few local idiots as well. They are often boiling more merrily than a lobster boil, waiting impatiently for their chance to pass.

Autumn Farm, by Carol L. Douglas. Available through Maine Farmland Trust Gallery.

In the early stages of pandemic, my car went weeks without a fill-up, but recently I’ve been driving more—up to Schoodicto teach, and down to Portland for doctors’ visits. This week I painted with Plein Air Painters of Maineat a roadside rest stop in Newcastle. It’s about 45 minutes from my house. Alas, it was a misty, overcast day, and the marsh grasses’ color was muted. I painted a wild apple tree instead.

Engine lights came on as I headed home. I stopped and read the codes. There were twelve of them. My poor old Prius has 276,000 miles on it, and it’s getting fragile. No more long trips until I figure this out.

The Dugs, by Carol L. Douglas. Available.

We’re at a glorious moment in the seasonal pageant. The maples have stopped flaming red and yellow. Now the oaks are doing their star turn, arrayed in burnished gold. The other reticent tree that shines this time of year is the wild apple tree. They don’t have much color in their leaves, but they’re covered with bright red fruit. Johnny Appleseed may never have visited Maine, but his influence was certainly felt.

I usually don’t have red on my palette for landscape painting, since most reds in nature can be approximated with cadmium orange and quinacridone violet. However, there was a small ironwood tree in Wednesday’s painting. Its foliage was so intense that I couldn’t hit that note without a spot of naphthol red.

Annie Kirill doing a value study in plein air class at Thomaston. It’s been a spectacular year, weather-wise.


This week, my plein air class went to an unofficial pocket park in Thomaston. It’s not on any maps, but it’s behind the Maine State Prison Showroom It has a lovely view of the St. George River, but you would never know about it if you didn’t have inside information.

The gold of the oaks is gorgeous, but it’s the last player on the autumn stage. In a few weeks, empty branches will be rattling in a fierce November wind, and these beautiful days will be a memory.

Autumn is my favorite time of year, but I never seem to get much painting done. I’m committing myself to being out there on every good day from now until the snow flies, capturing the last glimmers of summer beauty before it goes. And not wasting my time driving, either, but setting up in my own backyard.

A side note: with all the conversation about COVID, we forget the very real threat of Lyme Disease. This morning my husband found a tick embedded in his leg. Even after the first frost, they’re still hanging around. Have a care.

Beautiful glimpses of the past

Today dories are an historical relic. When the Wyeths painted them, they were part of the saga of man and the sea.
Deep Cove Lobster Man, c 1938, N.C. Wyeth, oil, courtesy of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts
Sometimes great emails get directed to my spam folder, particularly when they contain a dollar sign in the text. Thus it was when I saw Bruce McMillan’s note about seeing N. C. Wyeth: New Perspectives, which started at Brandywine River Museum and then moved to the Portland Museum of Art. It’s on its way to the Taft Museum of Art, opening on February 8.
What Bruce said that tripped my server was that the catalogue, $45 from the museum gift store, was available for $24.50 from Amazon, including shipping. Even with his member discount, he saved $17, or 42%. I immediately ordered the same book and paid $28.49, because books aren’t always the same price on Amazon.
Untitled, 1938, watercolor, Andrew Wyeth, sold at auction in 2017
That price difference is particularly noticeable in museum catalogues and fancy art books. I recently ordered an art text for my brother-in-law that was listed at over $200; he paid $24 for it. Because of this, I’ve learned to check my phone as I exit a show. Feel free to support an institution by paying a higher price in the gift shop, just be aware that you’re doing so.
The Lobsterman (The Doryman), 1944, N.C. Wyeth, egg tempera, courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art

Bruce noted that the painting above, The Lobsterman (The Doryman), is “where people stopped and gazed longer than almost any other painting. There’s so much to see in its simplicity; it keeps people looking.”

This is one of five Maine dories I’m looking at today. All are by the first two Wyeths, père et fils, and all of the boats are occupied by people. The last image, Adrift, is almost funerary, and that points to the particular storytelling genius of the Wyeth clan. Was Andrew painting about the model or the working boat?
Adrift, 1982, Andrew Wyeth, egg tempera, private collection
“This is Walter Anderson, Andrew’s devilish friend since childhood, who his parents didn’t like Andrew associating with, who Ed Deci, former curator of the Monhegan Museum, considered a despicable crook, and who I knew when living on McGee Island, off Port Clyde for two years,” Bruce wrote.
Andrew Wyeth was a young boy when he and his family first began summering in Maine. Andrew became friends with Walter and Douglas Anderson, son of a local hotel cook. Walt and Andrew became inseparable, and spent their days in a dory, exploring the coast and islands where locals fished. The two men remained friends for life. While Walt was clamming or otherwise ramshackling around, Andrew was painting.
Dark Harbor Fishermen, 1943, N.C. Wyeth, egg tempera, courtesy Portland Museum of Art
That’s the biggest difference between contemporary dory paintings and the Wyeths’ of nearly a century ago. They knew the boats and the men and boys who used them, intimately.
Before there were decent roads, working dories were the best way to move around coastal Maine. They were easily hauled up onto the beach. They could carry a few hundred pounds of fish or freight. From early settlement until mid-century, they were used as working boats, casually rowed (often standing) by working fishermen.
The Drowning, 1936, N.C. Wyeth, oil, courtesy Brandywine River Museum. This painting is in response to the drowning death of sixteen-year-old Douglas Anderson, who disappeared while lobstering. His body was found by his father and his younger brother, Walt.
Today they’re an historical relic, whereas to the Wyeths, they were part of the story of man and the sea. Dories today are divorced from their close association with working people. We paint them at their moorings, shimmering in the light, with no sense of the thin skin they once provided between the working fisherman and the cold, cold North Atlantic.

Art history can make you a better painter

We are affected by what has happened before us, and we have the power to influence those who follow. 
Blueberry Barrens, Clary Hill, will be at Camden Falls Gallery’s Autumn Hues show, opening this Thursday.

I know a painter whose flawless technique is hitched to 19thcentury luminism. Another excellent painter watched him one day and sighed, “if he knew any art history, he’d be brilliant.” It was a sage comment. With a little understanding of modern art movements, my friend’s ability could be updated into something powerful, something that resonated with today’s viewers.

I’m not talking about putting on a new style like a shirt you bought at FatFace. That never works. Style is something that integrates one’s training, technique, emotional state, and personality. It’s what’s left when you’ve eliminated everything but inner truth. Done right, the artist has no more control over his or her style than he does over his autonomic nervous system. Try to put on an acquired style, and you’ll immediately be recognized as a poseur.
Downdraft snow in the Pecos, by Carol L. Douglas, oil on canvas
But note that I included training in that equation. To paint like a 19th century luminist today means ignoring the impact of a century and a half of war, the horrors of government-sponsored genocide, and the relentless push-pull of modern urban living. It means ignoring abstract-expressionism, magical realism, the invention of movies, color photography, and the entire digital age. There’s a reason modern painting has an edge that 19thcentury painting didn’t.
Beach Erosion, by Carol L. Douglas, oil on canvasboard.
With rare exceptions, my art-history posts are the least-read of anything on this blog. (I moved to this platform in 2007 and have my stats since then, with the exception of the period I was writing for the Bangor Daily News.) It’s always disappointing to write about a great artist of the past and realize nobody cares to read about him or her. But, like cod liver oil, I know art history is good for you, so I’m going to continue to offer it regularly.
None of us stand alone in the great continuum of history. We are affected by what has happened before us, and we have the power to influence those who follow. But to do that, to take our rightful places as painters or teachers, we need to be part of our epoch. To do that, we must understand where we are and where we came from.
Tricky Mary in a Pea-Soup Fog, by Carol L. Douglas, oil on canvasboard
That’s not limiting; it’s liberating. For example, observing how Bronzino painted energy into apparently-static portraits can make us better landscape or still-life painters. Our predecessors have experimented in color and composition in ways that can give us a firm foundation for our own exploration.
Understanding the goals of Rogier van der Weyden or Kazimir Malevich doesn’t make us paint like them. But understanding their place in the great sweep of time helps us to position ourselves in our place. Ultimately, that is the most important thing we learn through art history. It is the difference between a pretty painting and one that will have meaning to future generations.

Super Easel

My Mabef tripod easel is older than my Prius, which is why I recommend it so often.

Two demos require two easels. Still in the value-study phase here. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Johnson.
I sometimes demo in watercolor and oils simultaneously, since I always have students in both media. I started as a way to kill time between watercolor layers. We all know how exciting it is to watch paint dry.
But it has another value, too, and that is to play up the intricate ways in which watercolor and oils are similar. We tend to focus on the differences, but we’re still working toward the same end in both media. That’s a composition that impels and compels the viewer.
There are challenges. Foremost is keeping the materials separated. I put the watercolor tools in one place (my chair) and the oil painting tools in another (my wagon) in the hope that I will not swish a watercolor brush through my Turpenoid or vice-versa. So far, it’s worked.
Whoops! That’s the first time I’ve ever done that!
My students tend to watch these demos from chairs, not standing. That requires that I keep my watercolor paper on the vertical. It’s hard to get dark washes to stay where you put them, and sometimes I have to double-coat my darks. That creates an opportunity to talk up test marks.
Mentally, it’s a question of switching off one protocol and switching on the other. It looks reasonably seamless to the student, but I find that, halfway through my three-hour class, I’m pretty tired.
Dave Blanchard calls this a “hat trick,” and pointed out that in fact I’d done a triple demo yesterday, since I’d drawn the original scene in charcoal on newsprint. That was so my ‘thumbnail’ was big enough to be seen by the group. I don’t do that when working on my own.
This hat trick is just a way to expedite demos so as not to waste my students’ time. Out of context, it would just be a stupid party trick. But it had an unexpected consequence yesterday. That was my Mabef easel falling into the water.
David Blanchard rescued my easel while I Instagrammed the experience. I’m useful like that.
I’ve never lost an easel in the ocean before, although I’ve tested the limits—on the deck of a moving boat, for example, or standing in the water in a rising tide.
I stood there looking at it while it floated below me, thankful that it wasn’t my oil-painting easel, which would have sunk like a rock. Fran Scannell ran to check if any dinghy owners had left their oars shipped, while Jennifer Johnson went for my hiking poles. Dennis Pollock found one of those mysterious plastic pipes that are always on fishing piers, and he handed it to Dave, who’d gone down the closest ladder. A moment later, my easel was back on land drying off. As you can see, I’m good in a crisis… for absolutely nothing.
And the easel went right back to work as if nothing had happened, while its dumb chum, my oil setup, stood around. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Johnson.
This easel is about twenty years old. It’s seen a lot of hard use and travel. It’s cracked in several places and held together with duct tape. The carriage bolt no longer catches, making it hard to set up. But after its salt-water bath, it swelled up and was Supereasel again. It carried us right through the demo, and when I finished, it exhaled and fell over, limp.
“It’s dried out again,” someone noted.
I always recommend Mabef tripod easels as great value for money. They’re lightweight and versatile, able to lie flat for watercolor or stand up for oils. They now come with optional arms, which are a great feature. And now I know that they float patiently by the dock when you inadvertently drop them into the sea.

Ai-Da the robot painter

Is she threatening to artists, or threatening to women?
Ai-Da at a tea party photoshoot for the Telegraph, photo by Nicky Johnston. A real woman would have cleaned the silver before entertaining.
My programmer husband forwarded a story from the Telegraph that was headlined, “Meet Ai-Da: the robot artist giving real painters a run for their money.”
“I don’t think you have anything to worry about just yet,” he told me.
I don’t—but some abstract painters might. “From a basic set of parameters, such as a photograph of some oak trees, or a bee, the robot has rendered abstract ‘shattered light’ paintings warning of the fragility of the environment that would look at home in a top modern gallery,” read Ai-Da’s press release.
One of Ai-Da’s paintings. I predict she sells out.
Ai-Da is programmed to sample the colors in the photograph and then reiterate them on a canvas. Such algorithms are basic in computer science. They can sometimes mimic thought, but they lack the intuitive connections that real thinking requires. It’s wonderful that they’ve given Ai-Da a hand to make images the slow, tedious way, but the final results are no more creative or meaningful than a screen-saver.
She is programmed to do a more than this, but she was just delivered from the factory in April, so we must be patient with Baby Girl. She can sketch with a pencil and uses facial recognition technology to draw human faces. Apparently, her coordinate system is programmed in three dimensions, because she can sculpt, after a fashion. Her art videos are included in the show. She can read aloud. Then, too, so can my phone.
And her sculpted bee, which is substantially less-effectively rendered than a 3D laptop project would be.
She’s much faster than a human painter. There’s no dithering about light levels, values, composition or meaning, so she can knock off a large canvas in about two hours.
Of course, the real artists are the team that programmed her. That, as you may imagine, is extensive: scientists from Oxford, a robotics firm from Cornwall, and engineers from Leeds.
“Thematically the exhibition questions our relationship with technology and the natural world by presenting how [Artificial Intelligence] and new technologies can be simultaneously a progressive, disruptive and destructive force within our society,” droned the blog Director of Finance. That’s a beautiful parody of the artist’s statement, made funnier because the artist herself has no brain.
Ai-Da in her studio. Note the artfully-daubed flowing painter’s smock, along with her immobilized feet, photo by Nicky Johnston.
Ai-Da is having her first solo show at St John’s College, Oxford. If I were in England, I’d probably go, just to see how seamlessly engineers have put the software on my laptop into a large, unwieldy machine.
There’s really no reason for Ai-Da to have a body except to personalize her; she might as well be a hand moving through space, as at the Ford factory. Curator Aidan Meller, who spearheaded the project, conjured up a female minion. Her press photos are set in a studio of campy femininity. But other than her Stepford Wife expression, wig, and long flowing dress, she’s really just a large machine with excessively large hands and feet.
Since the advent of the Industrial Revolution, artists have understood the distinction between machinery and mind. Nobody has yet been able to program an Ai-Da with a Big Idea, the one that gets artists jumping out of bed in the morning and working for a year with no guaranteed return. Nor is there enough money in making paintings to justify building lots of robotic painters. She’s a freak of engineering, and nothing more.
I’m feeling more threatened by the fact that this drone is called a “she”. There’s been a creeping expansion of my personal personal pronoun recently. It’s accompanied by the trappings of what men perceive to be feminine, without any real deep understanding of womanhood. Referring to boats as “she” is as far as I want to see it go in the material world.

Monday Morning Art School: how to set up a studio on the cheap

Our ancestors produced masterpieces in badly-lighted, small, cold cramped spaces. You don’t need to spend a fortune to furnish a studio.
The Testrite #500 easel has served me well for many, many years.

I recently got an email about how to set up a studio. After counting about $20,000 in construction and equipment, I laughed and pitched it in the trash. For most new painters, such an expenditure is not justified. Buy expensive easels, taborets, and lighting systems if you can afford them and like pretty things. But never confuse equipment with competence. Nobody ever painted better because he or she had pricey equipment.

When I first started painting professionally, my ‘studio’ was a corner of my kitchen. I had toddlers then, and I worked when I could steal time. The basement was damp and moldy, with occasional freshets of water across the floor. There was simply no room for a dedicated painting space.
Autumn in the Genesee Valley, by Carol L. Douglas. Pastel dust is a bigger environmental concern than oil paint in a small space.
So I threw down a mat to protect the kitchen floor and set up an easel by my son’s high chair. For a taboret, I used an old rolling kitchen cart. I retired it, eventually. Now I’m using a hand-me-down taboret from a retired artist friend. You can buy used rolling kitchen cabinets for $25-50. They’re durable and have storage and a wooden top. The only functional difference between them and the pricey oak cabinets at the art store is that they don’t come with pretty stainless-steel turps cans. Use a coffee can with a coiled wire or pebbles on the bottom. It works just as well.
My teaching studio is furnished with Testrite #500 aluminum easels. They’re less than $100. Mine have survived a few decades of student abuse. When a part gets lost—as they inevitably do—I just buy a replacement online.
Mohawk Valley midnight, by Carol L. Douglas. Oil pastels are less likely to go airborne, and sometimes they’re fun to goof around with.
My own work easel is the Testrite #700, which handles 60” square canvases with no trouble. Anything bigger, I just lean on a wall. I think aluminum easels are great value for money, especially if you’re in a climate with big humidity changes.
The best light source you can have is a north- or east-facing window. If you lack that, you used to have to buy expensive daylight florescent tubes or an Ott Light. Now you can put LED daylight-balanced bulbs in a regular fixture. (These are not appropriate for video, however.)
Just as better lightbulb colors have dropped in price, so have air cleaning systems. I have a $5000 heat-exchanger/filter sitting in a case in my garage. It’s no longer necessary. The introduction of cheap HEPA filter air cleaners made it obsolete. (In general, it’s not the medium but the pigments that are dangerous in art. Worry more about pastel dust than your Gamsol or the vegetable oils in your paints.)
Niagara Falls, by Carol L. Douglas (pastel)
It’s a bad idea to clean your brushes in the kitchen sink. If you don’t have a utility sink, you can make a dry sink. Buy a used sink; our local ReStore always has them. A 5-gallon bucket underneath can catch your drain-water and a 2-liter soda bottle is sufficient to clean most brushes. If that’s too big for your space, be sure to scour your sink carefully after each art cleanup. You don’t want to add pigment to your food.
I use a tie rack, set on its side, as a drying rack for boards and a plate rack for canvases. If a canvas is large enough to need extra support, I simply put a piece of cardboard behind it while it dries.
I bought my flat files used from a printing shop that was going out of business. They’re the one thing that doesn’t have a real-world analog that’s cheaper, but they’re also heavy and take up a lot of real estate. If your collection of papers, etc. is small, you can put it in flat cardboard frame boxes and store it under your bed(s).
Now, to catch my plane!