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.

How do we respond to slowing sales?

Overall, the shows I’ve done this summer have been flat, so it’s time to rethink my strategy.

Home Port, by Carol L. Douglas, available through Camden Falls Gallery.
Where is the art market going? This is a question I ask myself every year at this time. It’s more important this year than ever, since my same-event sales have been flat.
I had an interesting conversation with artist Kirk McBride, after an event I’ve been doing for six years seemed to let all the air out of its tires. “I think there are too many plein air festivals,” he said. He may be right. They’re in every town, and the smaller markets can’t support them year after year. That doesn’t mean the model is bad; it means the market needs adjustment.

(An important caveat: an individual show can buck all market trends, and there may be regional differences in how your own shows are going. It requires a lot of input to decipher what’s happening, which is why I’m asking for your comments below.)

But here are some sobering facts from Artsy, collected in 2019:
Adjusted for inflation, the global art market shrank over the last decade. It totaled $67.4 billion in 2018, up from $62 billion in 2008. However, these are nominal figures, not adjusted for inflation. Do that, and we see a market that’s shrunk from $74 billion to $67.4 billion.
To compare, global luxury goods grew healthily. In adjusted dollars, they went from $222 billion to $334 billion in the same time period. In some ways, a Hermès bag is more useful to a person who already has everything. It’s portable, easy to change, and you can store a revolving collection in the space that a painting takes up.
Midsummer, by Carol L. Douglas, currently on hold.
Over that same decade, the global economy roared, with global domestic product increasing from 3.3% to 5.4%, according to the IMF. That means art sales should have risen. Instead, just the costs of doing business—rent, materials, and time—increased.
I live in a boom market for galleries. Mid-coast Maine—led by Rockland—has been an amazing success. Nationwide, we’re seeing galleries surviving better than small businesses in general. However, we aren’t seeing a lot of new galleries opening. Colin Page’s new gallery in Camden is one of the wonderful exceptions.
I looked into buying an existing gallery earlier this year and walked away. I still might do something similar, but it won’t involve expensive real estate or labor costs. I’m not passionate about selling art, just making it, and that’s not enough to carry a business.
Ottawa House, by Carol L. Douglas, currently on hold.
There’s been a significant change in the model of selling art. We’re no more immune to globalization or to the internet than any other industry. It’s time to face facts: while our educational institutions threw away technique starting in the 1960s, it was always being taught in Asia. Those painters have as much access to the on-line market as do we, and their aesthetic may be closer to what’s wanted today.
“Auction houses are going begging for people to buy antiques and art,” Andrew Lattimore told me last week. “Kids don’t want their parent’s stuff. They want ‘experiences.’”
He’s right, and that impacts artists who sell to the merely well-to-do (vs. the biggest money players, who are buying an entirely different kind of art). The average United States millionaire is 62 years old. Just 1% of millionaires are under the age of 35, and 38% of millionaires are 65 and older. That means that the people with the cash to buy important paintings are of an age to be getting rid of stuff, and their kids don’t want it. Ouch.
Beaver Dam on Quebec Brook, by Carol L. Douglas, available through 

Gallery of the White Plains County Center

Then there are the ethnic patterns of wealth in America. Asian-Americans are the wealthiest Americans, led by people from the Indian sub-continent. Many of these very wealthy Americans are first- or second-generation citizens, so their aesthetic is more attuned to Asia than to traditional American painting.
Is this the death knell for painters like me? Hardly. We need to act as would any other industry in a time of flux. We adapt or die. That means rethinking pricing and reevaluating our sales channels. Perhaps it means a major strategic change in selling.
I’m very interested in your thoughts on the subject. What kind of market did you experience in 2019? What are your experiences with marketing on the internet? Where do you think we should go from here?

Fashions in frames

Your frame can’t be all things to everyone, but it’s helpful to know where it stands in the currents of fickle fashion.
Me, with the usual assortment of plein air event frames.

I keep an inventory of frames in my garage in the common sizes in which I paint en plein air, ranging from 6X8 up to 18X24. This takes up considerable space and represents an even more considerable investment. Inevitably, despite careful management, there are some losses—damaged frames, sizes I no longer work in, or—the worst—frames that have gone out of style.

Some go back twenty years. These are black and gold with corner medallions and carving, and I only use them in a pinch. Still, I keep them. The moment I get rid of them, they’ll be back in style.
Picture frames aren’t usually considered a fashion item, but like everything else in the home, they are tied to décor trends. There were elaborate Baroque frames, simple mid-century frames, and modern, minimalist frames—and many subtle shifts within each of these periods.
Apple blossom swing, by Carol L. Douglas. Courtesy Camden Falls Gallery. This is a favorite frame style, but it must be built in two sections.
The current plein airframe is usually a gold, silver or dark wood slab frame with minimal ornamentation. It’s widely available and easy to use. But does it actually reflect modern tastes in decorating? Well, yes and no. Look through Elle Décor’s pages at the frames and artwork. While metal finishes are making something of a comeback, farmhouse chic (which means barnwood) is still pretty popular. There are more ‘frameless’ and all-white frames than there are metallics.
The question isn’t what we like, but what our buyers want. My age cohort still loves gold frames, but we’re a shrinking market. Millennials say they want minimalism, low-maintenance and modern, with wood and stone surfaces. Mid-century modern and rustic may be fading overall, but they remain strong influences in this group.
Breaking dawn, by Carol L. Douglas. This is a frame syle popular in the Canadian Maritimes.
There are regional differences. My Canadian friend Poppy Balser and I navigate the shoals of cross-border framing every year. Nova Scotians prefer a simpler style with a plain white liner and thin fillet. To our American eyes it looks cheap (it’s not). Our heavy gold plein air frames look tacky to them. I’ve come to love the Canadian frame, but it’s hard to get here.
There are limits to how trendy one can be at plein air events. Oil and acrylic painters generally work on boards, so mass-produced floater frames don’t fit. Even if we were to switch back to canvas, they must be carefully positioned and then screwed down. That’s too hard to do on the back deck of a hatchback. Metallic paint is fine because it can be patched, but gilt and fine wood surfaces are too fragile to move around in a car over bad roads. In most shows, frameless isn’t an option.
Drying sails, by Carol L. Douglas. This frame was an old standby for many years. It clashes with nothing, but clients sometimes complain that it’s too dark.
I’ve been coveting Taos by King of Frames for over a year now, ever since I saw it at Jane Chapin’s house. It’s simple, elegant, and too pricey for a plein air event frame. For the second year in a row, I’ve reluctantly passed on it.
Frames are as subjective as the paintings they contain, but they send strong signals to buyers. You can’t be all things to everyone, but it’s helpful to know where you stand in the bigger currents of fashion.

Is that your final answer?

Plans change, but I’m absolutely certain that something wonderful is going to happen if I just show up. It’s never failed yet. 
Hedgerow in Paradise, by Carol L. Douglas. It’s so old it seems like a different artist.
My pal Bobbi Heathstepped wrong and rolled her foot. Being in France at the time, she bandaged it and carried on, assuming it was a sprain. Yesterday, she went to her own doctor in Massachusetts and learned that she has a Lisfranc fracture. That’s a complex, multiple-bone dislocation where the metatarsal bones affix to the arch of the foot. That means the end of the painting season for Bobbi. No driving or standing for the next month.
I feel awful for her, of course. I’m also feeling a bit dislocated myself. She was coming here to paint next week. Then we were planning to travel together to Brandywine Plein Air at the end of the month. I’d happily drive and carry her gear, but Bobbi knows she can’t paint on crutches. Having tried it myself earlier this year, I know she’s right.
Crabbers on the Eastern Shore, by Carol L. Douglas, pastel.
Meanwhile, it’s a nine-hour drive from here to Wilmington, DE, and it suddenly got much more boring. But it’s a matter of professionalism, so I’ll crank up the music and head south on my own.
Emily Post was the doyenne of good manners in my youth. She said that once an invitation is accepted, it was inviolable. You were going unless you were injured, ill, or had a death in the family. The only ‘better offer’ that got you off the hook was an invitation to the White House or to meet the Queen.
She added that last-minute cancellations were a good way to make yourself unpopular with hostesses. It never pays to be unreliable.
Campbell’s Field, by Carol L. Douglas. Equally old, done in Eastern PA, but more like my work today.
Artists are like the AKC-registered purebreds at the dog show. Our work is actually the smaller part of the whole event, but it’s the part people see. Meanwhile, there are organizers who have been hard at it for an entire year. If possible, we should honor that.
I like doing plein airevents with my friends, but this has been a year in which my plans have been repeatedly upended. Each time, something has happened to stop them, so I’ve traveled to Parrsboro, Santa Fe, and the ADK alone. And, every time, there’s been some compelling, wonderful result that’s more than justified the trip. Furthermore, I always seem to know someone who’s there, ours being a small community of painters.
Storm at the mouth of the Chesapeake, by Carol L. Douglas, pastel.
My philosophy of life is based on my faith, of course—I am not the master of my fate, the captain of my soul. I’m more of a jellyfish washed along by time and tide. Fighting the ocean is a useless, painful exercise in futility. I’ve committed to this event, so I’ll go, with or without my buddy. I’m absolutely certain that something wonderful is going to happen if I just show up. It’s never failed yet.

Where do the dogs go?

Failed paintings are less common than you think. You just have to look at them the right way.
This is an example of an unfinished painting that pointed the way forward. It took years for me to understand where I was going with it.
Last week, as I dithered about which paintings to submit to Santa Fe Plein Air Fiesta, a reader wrote, “Can you write a post sometime about what you do with the second-tier paintings you make? Do you just scrape them? Give away to unsuspecting strangers? Donate, unsigned, to charity thrift shops? Let them accumulate and breed in a dark basement?”
First of all, let me be clear that I don’t think any of last week’s five (or the one I didn’t finish on Friday) are ‘second tier’ paintings. I’m happy with them all, and I think they’re sellable. They’re not sellable in either of the galleries that represent me on the Maine coast, however. I have two options: I will market them through my own studio, or sell them online through Chrissy Pahucki’s
Spring, by Carol L. Douglas. I hated this when I painted it. Now I’ve almost caught up with it.
I’ve done plein airevents where I’ve sold exactly nothing, and other events where I’ve sold everything. It’s unpredictable. At the end of the summer, I usually have more work left over than I’ve sold. Usually these works end up selling in future years. Occasionally, they end up donated to fundraisers, but only for organizations I care about, who can get a fair-market price for their work.
But let’s talk about paintings that aren’t good enough to sell. It happens, although the artist in his or her post-creative exhaustion is the usually the last person to be a good judge of whether a painting has merit or not. Some artists are quick to scrape out everything they don’t like. After all, professional-grade painting panels are expensive.
Hollyhocks, by Carol L. Douglas. Sometimes you have to paint something a number of times to realize you aren’t interested in the subject. I thought I should be, since I’d planted this garden.
I don’t think scraping out is a good idea. It means new and difficult ideas are stillborn. How do you find a path forward without contemplating each tangled byway to see if this is the way forward?
These paintings—the edgy, difficult ones that don’t seem to have much value—go on racks to dry, and then into into bins in my studio, where they’re available at a reduced price. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve looked through those bins and suddenly seen something wonderful that I’ve never noticed before. My brain likes the status quo. Often it takes a few years for it to catch up with the intelligence of my hands. Those bins are part of the process of dragging it forward.
59th Street Bridge Approach, by Carol L. Douglas. There are subjects I used to love, but love no more.
I have a few customers who love the bins, and they root through them every time they visit. They can definitely get a good bargain there, because the binned paintings are available for a fraction of the cost of framed paintings.
Sometimes, these binned paintings live on as reference for larger works—I’d much rather scale up a field sketch in the studio than a photograph. Sometimes, I revise and finish in the studio. For example, the seasonal lag between New Mexico and Rockport, ME, means that I can comfortably find an apple tree here to use to finish Friday’s painting.
But, yes, sometimes I paint total dogs that aren’t useful for reference, for overpainting, or for any purpose known to mankind. These I destroy. Although that doesn’t happen very often, I reserve the right to edit my own legacy.

The one that got away

The best paintings are sometimes the ones you never got around to doing.

Hoodoos in training, by Carol L. Douglas

This morning I have five paintings in various stages of completion. I’m showing them to you, but each of them needs work before they’re finished. Like it or not, I will spend today working on them, after which I will choose which ones to enter.  We’re delivering from 10-1 tomorrow, and then the die is cast. That’s both a good thing and a bad thing. It takes the pressure off, but we know that whatever we paint Thursday afternoon is going to be our masterpiece.

There’s an apple tree down the road. It hangs over a modest adobe doorway and is opening up into all its glory. It calls to me each time I drive down the road, but either the light is wrong or I am fighting it out on a different line. I really want to get that tree on canvas before I leave, but I don’t have time to start something else.
Near Currington, ND, by Carol L. Douglas (watercolor)
I have driven through Saskatchewan and Manitoba twice, looking for the iconic lonely farm to paint. When I was driving through South Dakota at 75 mph in a sketchbook on my lap, I was able to catch a few. When I had the luxury of stopping and setting up an easel and painting methodically, I managed to get through two provinces without ever finding the subject I was looking for.
Blame it on the luxury of time to squander, the wind, rain, or the light. It doesn’t matter; it happens to everyone.
Dry wash, not finished, by Carol L. Douglas
There’s always one that gets away. Today there’s a paint-out at Diablo Canyon. It’s a basalt formation, but it’s a 2.2-mile hike to the money shot. I can’t do that hike on these recently-surgerized feet, and it’s killing me.
Plein air events are mercilessly leveling. “He makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust alike.” When the wind knocked my easel down three times, as it did yesterday, I reminded myself that every one of us fights the same obstacles.

“My umbrella has been kind of useless this week,” said Richard Abraham, who had to chase his hat across the desert. “It’s made for some great Buster Keaton moments.”

We have no access to bathrooms, we worry about pulling over, we’re tired from traveling. Watercolorists have the worst of it. It’s impossible to drop color into a wet sheet when the wind is blowing. Susan De’Armond tells me she’s tried wetting the whole sheet but it dried in moments.
Unfinished, by Carol L. Douglas. That foreground is a mess.
Our host, Jane Chapin, understands all this. She’s an accomplished plein air painter herself, so she understands the ways we can get locked into battle on site. She’s given her Crock-Pot a real workout this week, making us meals that will keep until we stumble in. We protest that it’s not necessary (and it’s definitely not what she signed up for) but it’s greatly appreciated.

Strategic thinking

My plein air events for 2017 are all done. It’s time to consider how to improve things in 2018.
Full Stop, by Carol L. Douglas. Part of my self-analysis is to consider what paintings gave me the most joy to paint this summer. This is a small sample.
Mary Byrom asked me why I moved to Maine just to spend so much of my time on the road. It’s a good question, and one I take seriously as I plan for 2018.
Boston is a cork blocking Maine’s access to the rest of the country. I’ve been driving on I-90 for the better part of 40 years. This summer, traffic in eastern Massachusetts seemed particularly bad. Keeping that in mind, we timed our departure from Pittsfield to avoid the worst traffic on I-495. Instead, we sat for nearly an hour on the Masspike outside Worcester. It was a perfect bookend to our trip south eleven days earlier, when we rode the brakes all the way down I-84 to New York City.
Two Islands in the rain, by Carol L. Douglas
It felt wonderful to pull into our driveway. When I got out of my car in the far reaches of the night, there was the Milky Way, hanging directly over my head. It seemed as if I could have reached out a hand and scooped up diamonds.
I’ve spent the last month fighting a wicked bout of asthmatic bronchitis. That’s a dead giveaway that I need to cool my jets.
In the belly of the whale, by Carol L. Douglas. I got to spend a day looking at the guts of a scalloper. What could be better?
Years ago, the organizers of an invitational event told me that they did a three-year running average of sales for each artist. Each year, the bottom 25% of performers were cut from their roster. Friendship and sentiment were never considered. The lowest-performing artists were replaced with new people. By giving painters a pass for the first two years, the event gave new painters a chance to gain a foothold in the community
I’m thinking of doing a similar analysis on my own calendar. I want to spread my work out across a longer season. That means, sadly, cutting some mid-summer events.
Along Kiwassa Lake, by Carol L. Douglas. Is there anything more lake-camp than a clothesline strung along the shore?
However, I must consider distance, convenience, and opportunity costs. An event in New Jersey needs to yield a better return than one in Maine. If it provides housing for its artists, it is better than an event where I need a hotel. And any time I’m painting elsewhere, I’m not on the docks in Camden, which might well have a better return.
I’m not sure I can design a matrix that’s as brutally, beautifully simple as my friends at the art center’s, but I can still think this through objectively.
Penobscot Early Morning, by Carol L. Douglas. Painted from a friend’s deck while drinking coffee.
Another thing I’m considering for 2018 is creating a limited-liability corporation. I’ve never actually lost a painting student yet, and I’m insured, but why expose my family to the financial risk?
I am revisiting the question of online painting sales. I’ve pondered this repeatedly over the last five years. The recurring nature of the question tells me that online marketing isn’t going away. It’s not a question of if, but when. The changeover isn’t going to be easy; it means enabling e-commerce on my website, changing my marketing strategy, and—most importantly—changing the way I think about selling paintings. But it’s our current reality.
That high-level thinking will all wait, though. Today, I’m going to just read the mail and water my tomatoes. I’ll go collect my car from the garage and stop at the post office and the library. Perhaps I’ll walk down to the harbor and see what beautiful boats have floated in. It’s a glorious time of year in the Northeast and I aim to enjoy it.

Historic New England, two towns apart

Looking for me? I’ll be in Ocean Park and Castine next week.

Wadsworth Cove garden, 12X9, oil on canvas board, Carol L. Douglas
For plein airpainters this is haying season, the time we are working flat-out. However, I’ve had company this week. My nephews are in school, so they can’t visit during the off-season. We shoehorned this visit in between my trips. I hit the road again on Sunday.
My first stop is historic Ocean Park, ME. This invitational event is small, featuring Russel Whitten, Ed Buonvecchio, Anthony Watkins, and Christine Mathieu—and me, of course. This year the lineup is augmented by the return of Mary Byrom. She’s a fixture in southern Maine painting.
Last year, Russ, Ed, Anthony and I ended up painting as an ensemble, larking about together as friends rather than competitors. It was an entertaining, productive plein airexperience, and I can’t imagine how it could be better.
Curve on Goosefare Brook, 8X6, oil on canvas board, Carol L. Douglas
Ocean Park is one of about a dozen remaining daughter Chautauquas in the US. It’s the only remaining one in Maine. Another camp meeting site, the Northport Wesleyan Grove Camp Meeting, exists today as the Bayside Historic District in the town of Northport. If there are others in this state, I haven’t run across them yet.
This movement started in 1874 with the New York Chautauqua Assembly, initially to train Sunday school teachers, but eventually dedicated to adult self-improvement. Chautauquas were usually set up in the woods, on lake or ocean shores, within day-travel distance of cities. They provided a potent combination of preaching, teaching, and recreation, and they became a craze. Among my few family photos are pictures of my grandmother and her sisters at Chautauqua, NY, around 1910.
Ocean Park ice cream parlor, 12X16, oil on canvas board, Carol L. Douglas
Ocean Park was founded by the Free Will Baptists in 1881. Except for internet and electricity, its Temple, meeting halls, and library remain unchanged. Historic, pretty cottages line its streets.
The sale of work will be at the Temple on Wednesday at 5 PM, but the exciting part of the week is earlier, when the artists are at work. Our whereabouts are posted on a sign outside Jakeman Hall; come see us!
After we pack our tents on Wednesday evening, Mary, Anthony and I will be trundling north for the fifth annual Castine Plein Air. Castine is historically significant for entirely different reasons, but it’s an equally beautiful town.
Wadsworth Cove spruce, 6X8, oil on canvas board, Carol L. Douglas
Located at the mouth of the Penobscot River estuary, Castine predates Plymouth Colony by seven years. Much of the town is 19th century New England clapboard and whitewash. Established in 1794 and in the same building since 1833, the post office is one of the United States’s oldest. Set far off the beaten track, Castine retains its small-town feeling even during summer tourism season. In fact, my only recommendation is that, if you want to stay over for the show, you reserve lodgingnow.
Castine has two excellent museums and a fine library that usually features an historical display, so it’s worth visiting on its own merits.

Castine Plein Air is juried and highly selective. With 39 artists painting within the confines of the town, you don’t need to check with the organizers to find us. We meet at the village green early on Thursday, and then paint until Saturday. The reception will be held from 4 to 6pm on Saturday, July 22.

How to choose a view

Writers are told to write about what they know. What should artists depict?
The Red Truck, by Carol L. Douglas
Yesterday I stopped to sit for a few minutes on a stone wall in Rockport. In my solitude, I noticed the beautiful asymmetry of the house across the street. Its white clapboard and modest door were framed by dark spruces and a dandelion-studded lawn.
Most people zip down this street with no more than a passing glance at the historic homes and the harbor below. Yet there are many quietly memorable moments: a brook burbling over granite, ancient gnarled beeches, sunlight glancing off cedar shakes. The only way to see them is to get out of the car and walk.

“Yes, well, views are very nice, Hastings. But they should be painted for us so that we can study them in the warmth and comfort of our own homes. That is why we pay the artist for exposing himself to these conditions on our behalf.” (Poirot: The Adventure Of The Clapham Cook)

Drying Sails, by Carol L. Douglas.

 “How and why do you choose the views you paint?” a reader asked. The answer depends, in part, on why I’m painting. If I’m in a plein air event or on the road, the views I choose will tend to be more iconic. Here in mid-coast Maine, I have the luxury of intimacy.

Anything can be the subject of a painting. That doesn’t mean content is unimportant. I paint what matters to me: boats, rocks, water, skies, earth and trees. This was never a conscious choice, but the impulse is so strong that it drove me from Western New York to Maine.
Keuka Lake, by Carol L. Douglas
I don’t think you can force this choice. Most artists experiment with subject matter before finding their métier. Piet Mondrian’s windmills and Vincent Van Gogh’s dark peasant studies are two examples.
Composition must drive any painting. In Rochester last week, a student showed me her first design, of a row of peonies marching at a diagonal across her page. I suggested she move 90° to catch the slight S-curve in the row. The difference was staggering.
Castine Lunch Break, by Carol L. Douglas
Closely tied to this is the question of light. Sunlight is the major organizing principle in landscape painting, but we can’t always order it up. In today’s drear, I’m going to suggest to my plein air class that we concentrate on close-ups rather than vistas. The architecture of objects can partly cover for the absence of light.
“There are no lines in nature, only areas of colour, one against another,” Edouard Manet said. The northeast is overwhelmingly cool in color: blue or grey skies against similar seas and green foliage. I look for color patterns within that, particularly those with a flash of warmth: the orange line in the seaweed, the pink of granite, a yellow glint in the sky. After light, color patterns are paramount.
Dinghy, Camden Harbor, by Carol L. Douglas
I also think about meaning. This is old-fashioned, but I don’t see the point of painting if my work says nothing. I hope that my paintings speak about the relationship of man to his environment, about the enduring qualities of the earth, and about simple joy.
Rocks at the American Yacht Club,by Carol L. Douglas.
Addendum: if you’re a landscape photographer, you might be interested in this contest sponsored by Machias Savings Bank.


If you get into every show you apply to, you’re not reaching. If you don’t get into any, you need to reassess your process.
Jonathan Submarining is one of my favorite plein air paintings, because of the difficulty in capturing the sailing class on a windy day in Penobscot Bay.

We all know the feeling of not getting into a show we really wanted. It’s really disheartening, especially when you compare your work with that of the accepted painters. I recently discovered something almost as bad: when your friend doesn’t get into a show you were accepted into. I suspect it’s even worse from the friend’s side.

We all know we shouldn’t take it personally, but I don’t know anyone who can do that all the time. Of course we’re going to personalize rejection; that’s only human. But it helps to be businesslike about it. When a business’ bid is rejected, they do not sulk. They lay the groundwork to succeed the next time.
We long to understand what goes on behind the curtain, and sometimes our conclusions are flat-out wrong. A fellow artist recently commented about a show I’ve done since its inception, saying that I was ‘guaranteed a place for life.’ I know the organizers are committed to changing up the talent, and that show is anything but a sinecure. I sweat bullets every year.
Red Truck at Lumber Yard is another favorite that I don’t think translated well into a submission.
An invitational show I’ve done for many years has a ruthless process: they tot up sales and cull the bottom quarter of performers. That may seem heartless, but it does raise the bar.
When you apply to a show, you know the overt criteria; they’re spelled out for you. You don’t know the covert criteria, like demographics. Then there’s the question of style. You ought be able to see if you’re a good fit by looking at the judge’s own work, but that is no guarantee. No good juror picks only painters whose work looks like his or hers.
Dyce Head in the early morning light works as a painting, but are lighthouses a no-no with the cognoscenti? 
Then there is the question of collegiality. Yes, people are biased to like their friends. The best shows are juried at arm’s length, by a juror from another region. But that’s expensive. Sometimes it works for a small show to invite artists they know and like and who they know can sell.
We artists are terrible judges of our own work. I tend to like the paintings that were the greatest challenge or struggle to create. These are usually not the most aesthetically pleasing. The more anxious we are to ‘make an impression’ with our entries, the more our judgment is fouled. I’ve illustrated this post with four paintings that have been rejected by jurors.
There are times when we’re making radical changes to our technique. I’ve found that during those periods, I’m less likely to get into shows than when I’m coasting along doing what I know. Since growth is an important part of art, the last thing you should do is try to retard it. Instead, be patient with the temporary check on your career. It will resolve itself. I once took an entire year off from showing just because I didn’t understand the work I was creating. It was a great move.
Fish Beach is another painting I love but jurors haven’t..
It helps to have a friend you trust with whom you can discuss your submissions. If you keep track of what paintings you submit where, you’re sitting on your own data mine. Compare your successful applications to your failures and see if you can find a pattern. I’ll be interested to hear what you find.