May you live in interesting times

History runs in fits and starts. So does your artistic development.

Breaking Storm, Carol L. Douglas

“Scotch and soda, jigger of gin…” crooned my husband early one morning as we trekked over Beech Hill. That’s a Kingston Trio song from 1958. It set Doug to musing that music changed a lot more in the three decades from 1960 to 1990 than it did from 1990 to the present.

That’s how history works. It’s linear, but it runs in fits and starts. There are long periods of stasis and then periods of rapid change.

The decade I was born in gave us portable coolers, the polio vaccine and birth control pills. It also gave us the integrated circuit. That, of course, changed the world.

In recent decades we’ve been coasting, building incrementally on the gains of the Computer Age. Then, bam! COVID. Change often comes as a complete surprise. It’s also often messy, difficult and painful.

Coast Guard Inspection, Carol L. Douglas

The years 1346–51 brought the Black Death to Europe. That in turn brought the end of centuries under the feudal system. Similarly, the Chinese Cultural Revolution was a decade of brutal paroxysm that finally obliterated the rigid feudal system of old China. As bitter and awful as the two 20thcentury world wars were, they ushered in modern society. Few of the unwitting participants in these cataclysms enjoyed them, but all of us who follow have benefitted.

That’s true of artistic change as well. It can be, frankly, disheartening. We’re potting along painting in the usual way, feeling like we’re turning out good work, and suddenly something shifts. Everything we paint seems horrible to us.

Wreck of the SS Ethie, Carol L. Douglas

This is an inevitable rest-stop along any creative journey. It’s important, because it signifies growth. You have three possible paths out:

  • Scuttle back to what you were doing before;
  • Quit and do something else for a while;
  • Find ways to quiet that awful voice in your head.

Obviously, I recommend the third path, but the other two are very common (and self-limiting) reactions. How can you avoid them?

Remind yourself of a basic fact: you haven’t suddenly forgotten how to paint. Dissonance is part of growth. Even experiments that fail are valuable; they’re an essential part of the painting process.

Stop wiping out the canvases you don’t like. Sometimes a painting is uncomfortable to look at because it’s pointing the way forward. It can seem like an awkward outlier when you do it. Five years later, you realize it was a bellwether and the best thing you painted that year. You’ll blunt your development if you wipe out everything that makes you uncomfortable.

Don’t seek validation through your friends’ opinions. They’re unlikely to see the potential in an ungainly effort. In fact, group-norming of any kind can be deadly to change. This is no time to be assessing whether something is ‘good’ or ‘bad’—it’s time to simply produce a lot of work.

Beautiful Dream, Carol L. Douglas

Discomfort with change can sometimes result in paralysis. If that’s you, try falling back on strict exercises that force you to stop thinking about results and start thinking about process. That’s where “painting a day” exercises are invaluable. If you don’t feel like joining a formal one, make one up for yourself.

Monday Morning Art School: how to get the most out of a workshop

The important thing you bring to class is not your prior painting experience, but your attitude.

I’m at Schoodic Institute in Acadia National Park this week, teaching my annual Sea & Sky workshop. The following is what I tell my students on the first day:
To teach painting effectively, one must not only know how to paint, but be able to break that down into discrete steps and effectively communicate those steps to students. That’s straightforward, right?
What isn’t so straightforward is how one prepares to be a good student. Learning is a partnership, and students always bring attitudes, personality and preconceptions to the mix. Unless a class is marketed as a masterclass, you don’t need to worry overmuch about your incoming skill level. However, some rudimentary drawing experience will make you a stronger painter.
Photo courtesy of Jennifer Johnson.
More important is intellectual openness. This means the ability to receive correction and instruction without being defensive. (I’ll freely admit I came late to this myself.) The greatest teacher in the world is useless if you’re not prepared to hear what he or she has to say.
Nobody ever paints well when they’re integrating new ideas; it’s far easier to stick with the same old processes even when they don’t work particularly well. They’re familiar. Students should come to class expecting to fail, and even to fail spectacularly. “When I take a class, I produce some of the worst crap in the world, but I will have experimented,” one artist told me. The people who produce pretty things in class are often playing it safe. They’re scared of pushing themselves past what’s comfortable.
Are you worried that you’ll lose your style if you do it the teacher’s way? Your inner self will always bounce back, but hopefully you’ll have learned something that enhances that.
What we teach is a process. The primary goal is to master that process, not to produce beautiful art in any style. If that happens, it’s a bonus, but the real takeaway ought to be a roadmap you can follow long after your teacher is gone.
Photo courtesy of Jennifer Johnson.

The student has some basic responsibilities to his fellow students. He should be on time and bring the proper equipment and supplies. Furthermore, he should be polite, friendly, and supportive to his fellow students. The importance of this latter cannot be overstressed. An overly-needy or unfriendly student can ruin a workshop for everyone, as there’s no getting away from him.

I’ve written before about the pernicious practice of negative feedback, but it’s pervasive in our teaching culture. It takes a while for students to get the hang of recognizing their successes. Before we talk about what needs fixing, we need to trust each other. One way we learn distrust is the idea that, in a critique, we are required to say something unfavorable. Only talk about what’s broken if, in fact, it’s actually broken.
Photo courtesy of Ellen Trayer.
It helps progress to be optimistic, excited and motivated. I’m blessed with an unusually great class this session, and one of the things that distinguishes them is that everyone really wants to excel in painting. They all have a strong work ethic.
Lastly, I think a good student brings a measure of self-advocacy to class. I’m listening hard, and I’m watching carefully, and I still sometimes miss things. I like it when people bring problems or concerns to my attention. It makes me a better teacher.

What is freedom?

Yes, painting (like music) is about personal expression—but it’s also a finely-honed craft.

Owl’s Head fishing shacks, oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas, 11X14, $1087 framed or $869 unframed.

My little granddaughter, age five, recently got her first guitar. Being a smart little nipper, she’s going to shortly become bored with strumming the open, untuned strings. She’ll want to learn how to play the darn thing. Thank goodness it’s not the bagpipes.

Her parents could let her experiment until she miraculously discovers how to finger chords, but a smarter idea would be to ask her aunt Mary to teach her. As a culture we have thousands of years of experience with stringed instruments.

That’s true of every discipline I can think of—mathematics, auto repair, music, carpentry. Only in the visual arts do we persist with the notion that ‘freedom’ means dispensing with technique.

Skylarking, oil on canvas, Carol L. Douglas, 24X30, $3478 framed,

I was reminded of that while sailing aboard American Eaglelast week. One of my students is a high-school art teacher. “I realize art is about personal expression,” she said. “But how do you get them to understand there is a better way?”

It’s been a long time since I taught children, and I’ve never taught them in a school, where they’re under compulsion. But I have four kids of my own. I remember how mentally-inflexible they are at that age; they’re always certain they’re right. They don’t like adults touching their head space, but that’s what teachers are supposed to do. Meanwhile, they’ve been told that the art room is the one place in life where their thoughts and emotions have complete freedom. It’s no surprise that they guard that freedom zealously.

Back to basics: Karen experimented with various compositions before she started painting in Thursday’s class.

In fact, it’s not until they head off to RISD, where tuition, room and board will set them back an eye-watering $73,000 a year, that they may start listening to their art teachers. (In comparison, Pratt at $69,000, seems like a bargain, not.)

Meanwhile, the clarinetists and violinists among their peers will have had the benefits of private lessons and strict discipline. They’re used to following orders and practicing, and they don’t chafe at it.

But that’s not so in visual arts, and it’s not the fault of their teachers, but of the society that dismisses visual arts as the comic meanderings of dilettantes. This month’s offensive kick in the teeth is an Italian artist who sold a “column of light and air,” i.e., literally nothing, for $18,300. Parents aren’t wrong in wondering if art is just a con game, and teachers aren’t wrong in questioning the point of such a career.

Terrie’s sweet sketch for Thursday’s class.

Artistic kids are routinely told to pursue some other avenue of creative expression. After a career in teaching, industrial design, or marketing, they’ll finally wander back to me to try to recapture their first love, painting.

At which time I give them the carefully-scripted protocol that they should have had at age 14. As adults, their thinking has matured. They accept that is how art should be taught. They’ve had enough disappointment with their unguided attempts that disciplined learning is a relief.

Yes, painting (like music) is about personal expression—but it’s also a finely-honed craft. Expressive freedom rests on a solid base of experience and technique.

Monday Morning Art School: how to succeed in painting

Truthfully, how much does your painting ever advance from curling up on the couch and watching painting videos?

Early spring in the boatyard, oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas

Every successful artist I know has a process. That means we work up a painting in pretty much the same way every time. These processes are different in the details, but the same in the fundamentals. Over the past two weeks I’ve been tinkering with my process. I’m checking to see if there’s a more efficient way.

I borrowed a stick of charcoal from Ken Dewaard on Thursday to set up hash marks like he does. “I use a little charcoal,” he laughed, when my canvas looked as if I’d grilled a turkey on it.

The point isn’t whether Ken’s process is better than mine, or whether I can learn it—of course I can. It’s not whether I can hit hash marks on a canvas. It’s whether I would see spatial relationships differently with a different system of marking. The jury’s out on that one; I haven’t been doing it enough to tell.

Early spring in the boatyard (2), oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas, available.

Note that I’m tinkering, not doing major surgery. That’s because painters all end up doing their work in a specific way:

  1. They figure out a composition based on line, form, and value masses;
  2. They transfer that to their paper or canvas;
  3. They paint colors in a predetermined order, established with the invention of their medium.

In oils that protocol is:

  1. Fat over lean;
  2. Dark to light;
  3. Big shapes to smaller shapes.

In watercolor, the order of operations is:

  1. Washes to detail;
  2. Dark over light (not written in stone).

Acrylics, being a new medium, are still in flux, but if you’re using them as a solid medium, stick with the oil-painting protocol.

Mountain spring, Carol L. Douglas, oil on canvasboard.

When I was taking harpsichord lessons many years ago, I noticed that introducing a new technique would make me forget, momentarily, how to play. Asking my left hand to do something new would make my right hand suddenly go stupid. I don’t know why the human mind is programmed like this, but it happens in painting, too. Toss in one unfamiliar concept and things that are routinely easy suddenly feel terribly complicated.

That’s why practice is so important. Repeat that new technique until it’s integrated into your thinking. That usually happens just in time for your teacher to throw something new at you.

It’s also why good instruction is so infernally difficult. The student is constantly left feeling off-kilter. But somehow it works, and better musicians and painters are created in the chaos.

Spring cleaning, oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas

Mary Byrom and I recently discussed why we hate canned videos and long demos. Neither of us use them much, because they demand no effort from our students. Truthfully, how much does your painting ever advance from curling up on the couch and watching painting videos?

Having said that, I’m about to do a long demo in both my classes this week. But it will be interactive. My students will be making the decisions; I’ll just be the trained monkey putting them on canvas and paper.

On that note, there’s still an opening in my Monday night class starting tonight. Email meif you’re interested.

Monday Morning Art School: how to succeed in painting

The essential principle for learning is to keep on doing it until the light clicks on.

Samantha East just started painting this year. So far, so awesome.

I try to link my Monday Morning Art School blog posts to what my students will be studying in the coming week. This week, we’re working on color mixing. Everything I want to say about the subject is here. Since I wrote that just six months ago, I want my students to reread it. Meanwhile, I will address a more important question: how to succeed in painting.

There are many reasons people quit art classes, including overload in other areas of their lives. Most commonly, however, they either need time to integrate what they’ve already learned, or they realize that their interest in painting isn’t a passion.

It’s all about process. Samantha’s thumbnail, about which she writes, “loving this tool, it’s already saved me from myself several times.”

My classes have been full all year (and yes, that opening in the night class was snapped up). That has caused a kind of winnowing effect—the people who stay are very focused. That in turn raises the rate at which we’re learning, which in turn increases the pressure. It’s exhilarating.

The amount of time students can invest in painting varies, of course. Some are working and some are retired. But all of them are highly motivated.

And, yeah, I make them work through the subject in monochrome first.

That means they often solicit my opinion after class is done. I’m happy to comment, although sometimes my responses may seem terse. (I’m not that good at typing on my phone.) Often, the student knows the answer before they hit ‘send’ but it helps to have me verify it.

Ask questions. Lots of them.

Nobody writes more frequently or extensively than Samantha. We met aboard the good ship American Eagle during one of my Age of Sail watercolor workshops. She was not in the class, but she buzzed me with questions. I’ve since learned this is her modus operandi, and it’s key to her success in life.

We had very little contact again for more than a year, when she signed up for a Zoom class and then my workshop in Tallahassee. Samantha has since thrown herself into painting. Most weeks, she sends me a precisof her work. That’s in lieu of posting in our class group on Facebook, because she doesn’t do social media. Which leads me to tip #2:

Seek and accept criticism.

My students have a closed FB group. It’s where they share their finished work. That requires that they trust others to be kind but honest. That’s relationship, and it doesn’t come from social media.

Samantha’s watercolor, which she didn’t like but I did.

The students who will stumble are the ones who take correction with, “yes, but…” I wince when I hear it, because I have a very strong streak of that in myself. It impeded me for many years.

Play your scales

Samantha was recently unhappy with her trees and shrubs. She sat down with Google and YouTube to methodically investigate what others say about painting trees. Then she practiced them, over and over.

“Dern useful, I must say,” she concluded.  “I feel like my chances of producing an aesthetically-pleasing and reasonably-accurate tree are now a lot better.”

If your trees are poor, then study trees.

Revel in your own successes

“I’m pretty happy with this painting,” Samantha told me recently. Then she told me that she didn’t like her watercolor version at all. I strongly disagreed, because I felt the second painting had compelling atmosphere and cohesion. Part of learning is being able to see through someone else’s eyes.

It’s fun to do something well. Too much humility can suck the joy out of anything.

Rinse and repeat

“I remain grimly undaunted,” Samantha told me. “I figure if I keep plugging away at it I’ll eventually get it.” I’m amused by the ‘grimly’ in a woman who’s so full of joy, but she just stated the essential principle for learning: keep on doing it until the light clicks on.

Monday Morning Art School: the importance of process

An intelligent plan—not some mysterious quality called ‘talent’—is the basis of all successful painting.

Samantha’s finished monochrome painting.

If my students don’t finish their paintings in class, I invite them to email me pictures later. Last week, they painted pumpkins, a project which turned into a delightfully idiosyncratic exercise.

Samantha East takes my Zoom class along with her husband, Lloyd. They started as beginners and were feeling pretty intimidated by some of the other students. This week, she sent me her painting along with a very lucid description of how she fixed it. I am sharing it with you:

“I was really pretty stuck at the end of class. When I sat down today, I had a plan but again felt pretty stymied right from the start.  After a few failed efforts I realized the real problem is that I was trying to figure out color mixing, values, depth and shading, and how to deal with translucent paints all at the same time. Forget even thinking about focal points and diagonal lines & triangles. That’s just way too much for me to sort through all at once.

Samantha’s first drawing

“Currently I’m really wanting to get a grip on depth and shading, so I decided to eliminate all the other puzzle pieces by reducing my palette to black and white. I redid the pencil drawing.

“Admittedly it’s not much different or better than the first but I spent a lot of time trying to really see what I was looking at and to understand it.  Taking the time to do that was definitely worthwhile. I used a B&W version of the color photo above to help me see shadows and depth and value. 

“It’s a tricky thing getting one’s brain to see things in a new way, in a new light… literally, in this case.  It’s like learning to see again, all the while ignoring the short-cut version your brain created decades ago as in, ‘Yeah, yeah, it’s a squash and a pumpkin… move on, nothing to see here.’

Samantha’s first painting. She realized she was juggling too many elements, so she backed off the color.

“In my search for what works I ended up with two different approaches between the squash and the pumpkin which was an interesting learning event for me. I also think it made for a more interesting painting. 

“It’s a tricky thing to get on canvas what’s in my head. My brain understands but somehow that’s not what comes out of the brush. I feel like I’m actually in the business of building brand-new neural pathways, and once those are in place, I’ll be able to do new and increasingly interesting things.  How totally cool is that?”

Samantha:

  1. Identified the problem as one of value (it almost always is);
  2. Deconstructed the process and added a step—looking at a b/w photo—to help her see what she was missing;
  3. Slowed down and really looked, rather than relying on what she thought she knew;
  4. Redid her value drawing;
  5. Mixed up her brushwork to add interest and texture.

Samantha is what we used to call One Smart Cookie. She’s got engineering and space degrees and flew for the Air Force for 24 years. I like teaching engineers, because they’re used to thinking about process. They don’t suffer from the bias of thinking that painting is an intuitive gift.

Samantha’s second drawing. Notice that she didn’t spend time on the extraneous matter; she’d already done that. She went to the heart of the shading question on the gourds themselves.

Many great artists can’t tell you their process, but I assure you they all have one. I teach a very ordinary method; it’s an amalgam of tips and tricks used by artists over the centuries. It’s by no means the only process, but it’s time-tested and it works. Whatever method you choose, intelligent process—not some mysterious quality called ‘talent’—is really the basis of all successful painting.

Monday Morning Art School: painting on demand

Sometimes it’s not fun. Sometimes it’s almost painfully stressful. What do you do then?
Sunrise, oil on canvasboard, is available through my studio at 394 Commercial Street, Rockport.
At my first plein air competition, I was a nervous wreck. “Come on, Carol,” my exasperated friend said. “Get a grip! You know how to do this.” At that moment, it wasn’t exactly true; I’d forgotten everything I ever knew about paint.
For some of us, commissions result in painter’s block. For others, plein air competitions are painfully stressful. Occasionally, I’ll have a student who freezes in my workshops. I used to suffer terrible performance anxiety, which is why I’m a painter and not a musician. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found ways to cope. These strategies have in turn lessened my overall anxiety.
Glade, watercolor on Yupo, will be at the Jackson Memorial Library, Tenants Harbor, ME, in September.
The first of these is to have a plan. It may seem counterintuitive to go into a painting with a process mapped out, but in fact that’s what you have to do to complete any project within an allotted time. When I painted a portrait in Edinburgh in April, I had a tight deadline. I planned how long I had for the charcoal drawings, how long for the underpainting, and how long to finish the top coat. When I do a quick-draw, I know I must finish the drawing and underpainting in the first hour in order to finish the top layers in the allotted time.
You might think that a flow plan is inhibiting, but it’s exactly the opposite. I learned this many years ago while painting a portrait commission for my late friend Dean Fero. It was a surprise birthday gift for his wife. That meant a precise deadline, which he didn’t let me forget. As I worked, I found the tight schedule liberating. I couldn’t perseverate and noodle endlessly on passages. That, in turn, meant freer, better brushwork.
Bracken Fern, oil on canvasboard, is available through Trove on Main, Thomaston, ME.
Playwright Robert More was finishing a comedy when I last saw him. “I can rewrite this ending eight times, and the last one won’t necessarily be better,” he told me. “I’ll just end up with eight different versions.”
Having a set protocol is invaluable for quelling nerves. In addition to providing consistent results, it focuses your mental energy on the doing, rather than on worry. (I’ve given you protocols for oilsand watercolor; you can follow them or write your own.)
Once you’ve established a painting process, practice it repeatedly—not concentrating on the results, but on mastering the process. Being absolutely prepared is the best cure for performance anxiety. This is the great benefit of painting-a-day schemes; they’re not about producing great artwork, but about getting a hammerlock on your process.
Castine Sea Fog, oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas, available.
As you go on, stop thinking about all the ways you can screw up the painting. Instead, think only about the phase you’re in. If something goes wrong, don’t berate yourself, and above all, ignore the voices in your head that tell you you’re no good. They’re wrong. Instead, ask yourself where in your process you made a wrong turn.
In other words, develop enough self-awareness that you can monitor your own progress. When I’m agitated, I develop a nervous tic of constantly rinsing my brush. That’s a mud-making mistake in any medium. Because I know I do it, I can stop doing it before it’s out of hand—and ask myself what’s gotten me upset.
The Golden Hour, oil on canvas, Carol L. Douglas (private collection)
Even in pressurized painting situations, take time to eat decently and get some exercise. While in Edinburgh, I enjoyed taking my model’s dog, Poppy, out in the magnificent local parks. Exercise lifts the mood and reduces anxiety.
Above all, don’t waste time worrying about whether the client will like the work, or whether you’ll make a sale or win a prize. Focusing on the results, rather than the process, can effectively kill a painting.

State of mind

If you don’t engage with your subject, you’ll waste time if you paint it.

This year we have a service dog with us. He could make anyone happy. (Photo by Jennifer Johnson)

I started this year’s workshop with an exercise I haven’t done in years. I took the protocols I published the last two Mondays (hereand here) and had my students execute them in two groups. Each team member took turns doing a step of the process. Together they brought a painting from initial design to finished product.
Process is everything in painting. Being involved, rather than just watching, makes it stick in the mind.
The oil painting group work on their painting. (Photo by Jennifer Johnson)
An hour in, I asked myself, “What have I done?” In the end, my misgivings were ungrounded. Yes, the students learned my process. More importantly, the exercise took away their performance anxiety. They leapfrogged right over the usual bad first painting.
Unfortunately, we can’t always have group exercises to loosen up. We need other strategies to help us focus. One of the most important—to me—is to work at the same time every day. That tells my body and brain when to get serious.
The watercolor group faithfully executed every step I assigned to them.
Another technique I’ve recently adopted is to sit quietly with a view for several minutes and gauge my reaction. I’ve realized there are scenes which irritate or bore me. They may be iconic, beautiful and lovely, but I’ll be fighting my reaction all the way. There are other scenes which touch a deep wellspring of positive feeling. And there are places where my reaction is simply disinterested. The trick is to give myself enough time to understand these reactions, instead of relying on my logical mind to determine what will make a good painting. Or even worse, a ‘sellable’ painting.
Rhea Zweifler relaxing into her drawing. (Photo by Jennifer Johnson)
This is not a geographical issue. Every place I’ve ever been is multifaceted. I’ve painted lovely landscapes in Terre Haute, Indiana, which is flat farmland bisected by the muddy Wabash River. And I’ve painted absolute gibberish in famous beauty spots.
Yesterday, one student ended up wiping out her afternoon painting. “I set up here and thought, ‘I guess I’ll paint that scene over there.’ But I wasn’t really interested. I should have walked around more and found something that I really loved.” She was irritated by her choice and never fully engaged with the painting. Had she recognized that at the start, she would have saved herself a lot of work.
That’s another way preparatory sketches are helpful. We hate abandoning projects we’ve started. However, if your sketch isn’t dynamic and powerful, you need to stop and figure out why. It could be a composition problem, but it’s equally likely that you don’t really like the view as much as you think you ought.
Into each workshop an obligatory lecture/demo must fall.
I have—too many times—slogged through a painting for three or four hours only to turn around and ask myself, “why didn’t I paint that?” A little quiet reflection at the start of my process would have saved me a lot of wasted time.
It’s far easier to paint something your heart responds to, rather than something that bores or annoys you. If it’s the right scene, you’ll get lost in your work, forgetting time. If it’s not, you’ll spend most of the session wishing you were done. The only way to know which you’ve got is to sit quietly and let it speak to you.
Is this rational? No. Is it true? Absolutely.

Do you have the right mindset for learning?

The important thing you bring to class is not your prior painting experience, but your attitude.

To teach painting effectively, one must not only know how to paint, but be able to break that down into discrete steps and effectively communicate those steps to students. That’s straightforward, right?
What isn’t so straightforward is how one prepares to be a good student. Learning is a partnership, and students always bring attitudes, personality and preconceptions to the mix. Unless a class is marketed as a masterclass, you don’t need to worry overmuch about your incoming skill level. However, some rudimentary drawing experience will make you a stronger painter.
Photo courtesy of Jennifer Johnson.
More important is intellectual openness. This means the ability to receive correction and instruction without being defensive. (I’ll freely admit I came late to this myself.) The greatest teacher in the world is useless if you’re not prepared to hear what he or she has to say.
Nobody ever paints well when they’re integrating new ideas; it’s far easier to stick with the same old processes even when they don’t work particularly well. They’re familiar. Students should come to class expecting to fail, and even to fail spectacularly. “When I take a class, I produce some of the worst crap in the world, but I will have experimented,” one artist told me. The people who produce pretty things in class are often playing it safe. They’re scared of pushing themselves past what’s comfortable.
Are you worried that you’ll lose your style if you do it the teacher’s way? Your inner self will always bounce back, but hopefully you’ll have learned something that enhances that.
What we teach is a process. The primary goal is to master that process, not to produce beautiful art in any style. If that happens, it’s a bonus, but the real takeaway ought to be a roadmap you can follow long after your teacher is gone.
Photo courtesy of Jennifer Johnson.

The student has some basic responsibilities to his fellow students. He should be on time and bring the proper equipment and supplies. Furthermore, he should be polite, friendly, and supportive to his fellow students. The importance of this latter cannot be overstressed. An overly-needy or unfriendly student can ruin a workshop for everyone, as there’s no getting away from him.

I’ve written before about the pernicious practice of negative feedback, but it’s pervasive in our teaching culture. It takes a while for students to get the hang of recognizing their successes. Before we talk about what needs fixing, we need to trust each other. One way we learn distrust is the idea that, in a critique, we are required to say something unfavorable. Only talk about what’s broken if, in fact, it’s actually broken.
Photo courtesy of Ellen Trayer.
It helps progress to be optimistic, excited and motivated. I’m blessed with an unusually great class this session, and one of the things that distinguishes them is that everyone really wants to excel in painting. They all have a strong work ethic.
Lastly, I think a good student brings a measure of self-advocacy to class. I’m listening hard, and I’m watching carefully, and I still sometimes miss things. I like it when people bring problems or concerns to my attention. It makes me a better teacher.

Why paint that?

My goal is to give you a process—a series of steps and techniques—that you can use to go make masterpieces on your own.
Ken, by Carol L. Douglas. Modern clothing can be so difficult to paint attractively.
Yesterday I was leaving a meeting and a friend asked, conversationally, what I’d taught in class that morning. “Drapery,” I answered.
She paused. “Drapery? Why?”
She’s a musician herself. Had I had been thinking, I could have told her, “It’s like doing voice exercises. It may seem pointless to the outsider, but it’s a technical exercise on which other skills are based.”
I prefer to teach outdoors, but there are days that’s impractical. It’s 7° F right now and by tonight it will be raining. There will be a stiff wind out of the southwest, with gusts up to 30 mph. It’s one thing to put on my insulated boiler-suit and snow boots and go paint in bad weather, but quite a different thing to ask a student to do it, or for us to have an intelligent conversation in the midst of a storm. For those working in water-media, winter conditions are particularly difficult to manage.
Reading, by Carol L. Douglas. Michelle may be beautiful, but how about that sheepskin?
If there was nothing to learn indoors, I’d tell my students to just stay home on weeks like this, but a good painter should be able to paint whatever is thrown in front of him or her. That’s the virtue and fascination of January’s annual Strada Easel Challenge, where artists are encouraged to paint daily for 31 days. If you’re on Instagram, follow #stradaeasel.
Sometimes these daily exercises have great emotional depth. Yesterday, Julie Riker painted an old-fashioned electric percolator. It evoked an instant emotional memoryof the sort made famous by Marcel Proust and his tea-soaked madeleines in À la recherche du temps perdu. I was instantly transported to my grandmother’s house. 
Those percolators made darker, more-complex coffee than modern drip machines, and it smelled heavenly in the early morning before I headed off to school. We would have to wait patiently as it gurgled through its final rigamarole. There were no timers on coffeemakers back then.
Waiting, by Carol L. Douglas. The coat over a chair is a motif of our age.
Julie may have been just painting an old percolator, but it touched a chord in me. In this case the subject was the key, but it wouldn’t have evoked without great skill in rendering the chrome surface and the awkward power cord. You can’t really call yourself an artist unless you can take any object in front of you and arrange it into a pleasing pattern.
How does knowing how to paint draped fabric make you a better landscape painter? Of course, fabric might make it into your landscape art. More importantly, there’s a specific kind of skill required in rendering fabric. It’s very low in contrast, and often dull in color, and its variations are subtle.
And then, one day, you get the opportunity to paint a silk and gold mantilla in a commission, and, bam!
Drapery plays peek-a-boo with forms, whether it’s reefed to a spar or thrown over a chair or over the shoulder of a portly man striding through the airport. Studying it is an exercise in the lost-and-found line that is at the heart of the mystery of painting, that elevates it above photography.
My job as a teacher is not to drive and correct my students into creating a perfect result in my classes. If you sign up for that, you’re going to be very disappointed. My goal is to give you a process—a series of steps and techniques—that you can use to go on and make masterpieces on your own. If I succeed in that, my mission is complete.