The corrosive power of chance remarks

Words have the power to inflict or bind wounds. May we choose ours carefully.
Posted, by Carol L. Douglas. Watercolor on Yupo paper. I never did figure out a color for those water-lilies.

I was checking into an event when the canvas-stamping person said, “Oh, you paint on a red ground? I’ll have to check your work out. A lot of people do that near where I live, and I hate it.”

I have no idea what—or even if—she was thinking when she said that. But it has subtly affected me ever since. I’m finding myself less likely to leave the ground showing, more likely to lard the paint on. Neither is good technique.
I’m a confident painter. Imagine if I was less experienced, or less secure. It might have completely shaken a painter at the start of a competitive event. It’s a perfect example of how not to offer criticism.
Private Island, oil on canvas. This was interrupted by headache last week.
Compare that to my dear friend Mary Byrom, who doesn’t like that red ground either. Mary is a crackerjack painter herself. I know she has good technical reasons for her opinion. She is also a loyal, kind, supportive friend. I know her intentions are good. I can listen to her opinion and weigh it fairly, without being defensive. She’s earned the right to critique my painting.  
I’ve spent the month looking at and absorbing Joseph Fiore’s paintings, and I plan to start tinkering with some of his technical approaches, particularly his surfaces and scribing. He clearly—and successfully—paints on white canvases. He leaves areas white, scrubs the paint back, and lets the ground show through.
After checking every day this week, I decided I had to paint the reflections from my sketch, because there’s a constant breeze on Damariscotta Lake right now.
Toning, for those of you who aren’t painters, means painting the white gesso a color before you start the painting proper. I was taught to always tone my canvases, and it’s something I also teach my students. Of course, the way I learned was to lightly tone with an earth tone in sepia, yellow ochre or grey. The brilliant red was a later addition.
Toning is as old as painting itself, but its rationale is explained through the 19th century concept of simultaneous contrast. This is a fancy way of saying that a color looks lighter against black, darker against white. To see it accurately, you need to see it against something that’s a neutral value.
  • Establishes the mid-tone values from the start;
  • Unifies the color of the composition;
  • Sets an emotional tone for the painting;
  • Stops any specks that peek through from competing with your highlights;
  • Gives you a more accurate sense of the value and size of your darks when you first set them down.
In the field, it also stops you from being blinded by brilliant white.
Working Dock is the painting I showed you yesterday, properly photographed this time. (I finished it at dusk.)
From observation, I’d say the majority of my plein air peers start on toned boards. It is something I’ll continue to recommend to my students. But should I keep doing it? That I can’t answer until I experiment on a white canvas. And that will wait until this workshop is over, because I only brought toned canvases with me.
While I’d like to say I’m thinking through this as a response to the Fiore paintings, there’s a small niggling part of me that’s still reacting to that woman’s comment. It’s a reminder that words have the power to inflict or bind wounds. Good advice is invaluable, in painting and in life. But may we all be as kind as Mary Byrom when we offer our opinions.

They like what they see

If you paint in your studio, you miss some marvelous conversations—with animals as well as people.
Working Dock, oil on canvas, by Carol L. Douglas.

I’m using this residency to explore ideas I might otherwise skip over, because they’re not particularly marketable. Yesterday, for example, I managed to channel David Hockney’speculiar perspective and flat planes onto a grey working lobster dock in Maine. I was surprised when a lobsterman asked me how much I wanted for the painting.

I don’t want to sell any of this work before I’ve shown it as a series. But I looked up my price and told him how much it will eventually be.
He repeated it back to me awestruck, and asked, “Are you famous?
A lobster pound at Tenants Harbor, by Carol L. Douglas, courtesy the Kelpie Gallery. Working docks are fascinating to paint. 
Well, not unfamous. But that’s not really the point. It’s like lobstering, I said. Both lobstermen and plein air artists have high operating costs and significant business risk. (We also work outside in all kinds of weather, but their job is far more dangerous than mine.)
“It’s a lot more than lobster,” he laughed. Well, if you price it by the pound, yeah.
My intention for this residency has been to do each locale first in oils and then in watercolor, but that’s been shaken up some by the recent rain. Today’s painting is the mate to Monday’s watercolor. I hope I get it straight before I head home at the end of next week.
Little Giant, by Carol L. Douglas, courtesy of Camden Falls Gallery.
The other day, Bobbi Heath and I were hit onvery politely, mind you. Bobbi and I are both, erm, grandmotherly, and neither of us were remotely chic. Heck, I never even combed my hair that morning. Then again, I never do.
“Are either of you ladies single?” he asked. Bobbi thought that line needed work, but we were polite in kind.
Later, he came back and asked me, “But are you happily married?”
Pilings, by Carol L. Douglas.
A couple from Pennsylvania stopped to chat. A ruckus erupted in front of us.
“A kingfisher!” the husband exclaimed. After a moment his face fell. “A chipmunk.” Chipmunks are my most steadfast painting companions. They’re always chattering at me.
I’ve seen so many turkeys this year that I’m almost inspired to them (in my studio, in the winter). I’ve also seen a lot of deer mice in unnatural poses. They like to visit the pantry at the end of summer, and they pay for it with their lives.
I’ve met a lot of surprising creatures over the years. I’m basically silent, except for the swish-swish of my brush, and animals get curious. Here in Jefferson, it’s been the usual woodland creatures. A few days ago, I had to stamp my feet at a squirrel who was coming too close. “I’ll make a brush out of your tail!” I told him.
Working Dock in its Hockney phase. There are elements of this abstraction that I’d like to recapture.
Working Dock, above, spent a long time looking as if the far wharf had erupted in flames. I wanted to maintain a separation between the trees. Passers-by avoided it when it was in that stage, particularly the guys who work on the dock. Perhaps they know something they’re not telling.
A studio painter told me that when he paints outside, he’s thrown by the public commentary. I understand how that can happen, particularly if you’re not confident in your skills. But most people are kind, even to the rawest, newest student. They genuinely like what they see: the miracle of that scene over there being translated into this picture, right here.
If you work in a studio, or you work outside with headphones on, you miss some wonderful interactions. Yes, the public can be a distraction, but they’re also a joy.

Equipment troubles

It’s time to make some hard choices about my two wooden easels.
The last cutting, v. 2, by Carol L. Douglas. Watercolor, same subject as yesterday, but turned the other way. This is one of those times where a square canvas would be appropriate.

 On Wednesday, I realized I’d lost my watercolor palette on Clary Hill. The palette—$14.79 at Jerry’s—is no big deal. It was, however, fully loaded with paint. That’s an expensive nick in the wallet.

I use an old Mabef tripod swing easel for watercolor. I’ve had it forever. It has been replaced by a larger version in most catalogues, but this old friend has been a reliable, versatile workmate for several decades. A few years ago, the head cracked on one side. I compressed and glued it so it worked again. The thumbscrew no longer tightens enough to hold the arm perfectly stable, so I prop it up with my knee when painting. For big boards, I’ve been taping the support to the easel’s head rather than trying to hold it mechanically. I seem to end up using this easel in preference to newer, snazzier ones.
On Tuesday in the dripping rain, that original crack opened back up again. I duct-taped it tightly and hoped for the best. Yesterday, the other side of the head cracked. Again, I taped it together. However, with no tension in the head, the arm is free to bounce around willy-nilly on its pivot. I’m afraid my old friend may be headed for the woodstove.
With both sides of the head cracked, there is nothing to keep tension on the pivot head, and the arm can swing willy-nilly.
There are many reasons to love wooden easels—they’re relatively cheap, they’re stable in high winds, and, properly cared for, they can last for years. However, they have two shortcomings. The first is that wood is heavy. Few modern-day plein air painters have donkeys or servants to carry our equipment up steep hillsides. When I was forty, this wasn’t a big issue. As I approach sixty, it has become a limiting factor. An aluminum pochade box and a lightweight tripod weigh a fraction of what a decent wood easel does.
Wood is hygroscopic. That means the moisture content changes depending on the relative humidity. That’s the killer for all unfinished wood used outdoors, and easels are no exception. My Gloucester easel—also old, purchased used many years ago—requires a rock to hammer the pins into place, because they’ve swollen over time.
Painting earlier this year with a Gloucester easel. It’s the only easel tough enough for on-shore winds. Photo courtesy of Karen Lybrand.
That’s an easel with an interesting history. It is a traditional European design that was brought to Gloucester, MA, at the turn of the last century by painter Oscar Anderson. He made and sold them to fellow artists; old ones bear his name-plate.  The Anderson easel became known generically as a “Gloucester easel.” Today there are two versions available—a beautifully milled, expensive one called the Take-It Easel, and a mass-produced one called the Beauport Easel. They work exactly the same, although I imagine the better-made one will last longer.
It’s a very stable design, and it has the great advantage of allowing work to tilt forward toward a sitting painter. Still, I don’t like to carry it any farther than I can trundle it in a wagon. Not only is it big and cumbersome, it is held in the folded position by only a canvas strap. (Mine rotted away years ago.) And it’s useless for watercolor, because the head doesn’t pivot.
Meanwhile, the unsettled Atlantic is giving us some very interesting sunrises. This was yesterday’s; this morning we were socked in with fog.
I have a spare pivot-head easel in my studio in Rockport, and I’ll collect it on Saturday. It’s a Guerilla painter head that I adapted to hold a larger board. With its tripod, it weighs a ton, but that won’t matter for this residency. After that, I’ll take apart both my wooden easels and make some hard choices. Can they be rehabbed, or must they be replaced?

Dancing in the rain

If I knew what would happen, I wouldn’t bother trying.
The float, by Carol L. Douglas. Same subject as yesterday.
Today is my 38th wedding anniversary; Wednesday was my granddaughter’s third birthday. I knew I’d miss these milestone events when I signed up for this residency, but had convinced myself that in the world of Skype and Snapchat, physical presence didn’t matter. It does.
I’m reminded that my grandmother came to this country expecting to never see her homeland or family again. Despite our national myths of intrepid independence, we are a nation built on homesickness.
Even the umbrella can’t save this painting from the rain.
My intention in this residency is two-fold: to explore the intersection of water, land and mankind, and to do some really big plein air landscapes in oils and watercolor. In the world of art, oil and water definitely do not mix; together they can create an archival disaster. So, being a concrete thinker, I plan to alternate them. Wednesday was an oil-painting day, Thursday was a watercolor day.
Rachel Alexandrou, the gardener-in-residence here, told me it would rain at 12:30. She was accurate to the minute. I hunkered down in my car, my salad on my lap, and watched the storm cross Damariscotta Lake. Excess humidity of any kind is tough on conventional watercolor paper. It turns out that it’s not good for Yupo, either.
A droopy, dreary day from within my car.
Yupo is a synthetic plastic substrate: cool, slick and contemporary. It’s the antithesis of organic. I like the way it takes watercolor, and its luminosity. However, it can be a jerk on a wet day. Water pools on the surface, and the paint is much more inclined to granulate than it does on paper.
Combined with intermittent rain, this made for nasty clumps of dark particles floating on the surface. The culprit appears to be what I thought was quinacridone violet. That’s not possible; that color isn’t granular at all. I have an imposter on my palette. I wonder what it is.
I switched to a quinacridone gold by QoR; it is clearer and brighter than whatever was on my palette.
I expected technical problems this first day, and I got them. My full-sheet drawing board, improvised from a folding presentation board, is too large for my swivel head easel. I don’t have my large brushes; they’re still in England.
There is a subtle change that happens when you finally relax and paint. You stop fussing at your materials and start translating what you see. I did eventually get there, or almost there. I hashed out a painting that’s mediocre in its drawing, rather muddy in its color, but interesting in its scribing. The beauty of Yupo is that it makes watercolor behave like no other paint.
What’s the end goal of this see-saw rotation of materials? If I knew what would happen, I wouldn’t bother trying. In this sense, experimentation with artist’s materials is vastly unscientific. We simply mix things up and watch. One in a hundred times it works, and when that happens, it’s magical.

Do you dread writing an artist’s statement?

The artist’s statement is, unfortunately, not optional.
The float, by Carol L. Douglas. This is my first work out the gate at Joseph A. Fiore Art Center. I struggled with the aspect ratio. Is it done? Beats me.

Last week I wrote about getting into galleries. The artist who prompted that post responded, “I would much rather discuss how I feel my work communicates the essence of wilderness and why it’s important to preserve wild places, than trying to convince them that I’m an accomplished painter and would be an asset to their gallery. I’d be much more comfortable discussing the importance of making sure people develop an appreciation for the wild places left on our planet, than the merits of my paintings.”

She’s hit on a topic that most artists (including me) approach with dread: the artist’s statement. I’ve been mulling that over this week, because a residency can be about figuring out where you’re going as much as it is about producing new work.
My Mabef easel may nominally hold a 24×36 canvas, but in practice it’s too heavy. So it’s back to the Gloucester easel for oils.
An artist’s statement can be dull as dishwater or it can hit you between the eyes. My correspondent above is clearly passionate about wilderness; I’d be interested in her work just from the few sentences above.
We want our work to transmit our ideas non-verbally. Still, we are expected to write these statements. Our gallerists and collectors need a starting point for discussion.
Today I move over to Yupo and watercolor paper.
An artist statement generally contains:
  • An overview of one’s ideas;
  • An explanation of materials and process;
  • A personal statement of beliefs/philosophy;
  • A closing statement.

As a plein airpainter, there’s not much I can say about my materials; however, I can talk about my strong preference for painting from life instead of photos.
The first and last sections are great opportunities for pomposity, clichés, sophomoric writing and irrelevant anecdotes. As experienced as I am at writing, I’ve fallen into those traps. I look back on some of my artist’s statements and cringe.
What questions could you address?
  • What compels you in your current work?
  • Why did you make this specific body of work?
  • What are the spiritual, moral, or experiential underpinnings of your work?
  • What do you want your audience to take away from it?
  • How does this work relate to work you’ve done before?
  • Who or what are your inspirations?
  • Is there something unique about your technique?
  • What is your place in art history? How are you building on what’s been done before?
  • Is your painting tied to a specific place, a specific history, or a group of people?
I was so taken by Yupo last month that I ordered twenty full sheets of it. Here’s hoping it works as well in that size.
What points should you avoid?

  • Talking about how much you love art. Everyone does.
  • Quoting famous artists and/or poetry.
  • A minute description of your process, especially when it’s the same as everyone else’s process.
  • Your personal experience, unless it ties in with a greater theme.
  • “My work is interesting because…”
  • Comparing yourself to a famous artist.

Be spare in your prose, direct, and honest. Refer to yourself in the first person, not as ‘the artist.’ And expect to work on it for a while. If you really and truly can’t write, hire someone to help you; the artist’s statement is, unfortunately, not optional.
In practice, I’ve found that I need several different versions of artist statement (which are of course strewn all over my hard drive). There’s the short one for show applications, the longer one for gallerists, and the painfully long one that gets incorporated into press releases.

So you want to be an internet star

A good online presence is focused, consistent and interesting—just like you.

Rising tide at Wadsworth Cove, by Carol L. Douglas. I selected my top Google search images for today’s blog. Seemed appropriate.

This week I’m packing for a residency at the Joseph A. Fiore Art Center. I’ll be a hermit until October 1. There will be two exceptions. The first, of course, is this blog. It runs daily except weekends and holidays, except when I’m out on the ocean. There’s no phone signal out there.

I’ll also be a panel participant in the Maine Arts Commission’s Maine International Conference on the Arts. I’ll be discussing Using Technology to Document & Promote Your Work on Friday, September 28 at 2 PM.
My success on the internet has been seat-of-the-pants. I’ve never taken a class, and whenever I start looking at online marketing courses, I get lost in the jargon. Still, this blog is a success, so I’m using this panel discussion as an opportunity to think through why it works.
A FitzHugh Lane Day at Camden, by Carol L. Douglas
Be consistent
People often ask me how to get started with a blog. My answer is that, whatever they choose to do, they should commit to doing every day. For me, that’s a strict discipline. I get up at 6 AM, write for 90 minutes, publish, and then go on to live my day.
I blogged for years, randomly, as most artists do, posting whenever I had a new piece of work or a brilliant idea. I had absolutely no traction. Then I noticed something about the internet: stirring the pot attracts people, and it has an exponential effect. The more that’s going on, the more people tend to read it.
Offer real content
If you’re looking only for a way to promote your paintings, Instagram is probably a better platform. A blog requires 400-600 words of carefully crafted content every day. It needs meat on its bones.
That isn’t as tough as it sounds. Everybody has interesting experiences, and we tell each other these stories all the time. All that really happened in this postwas that my pal got a flat tire, but the circumstances made me smile. Judging by the hits, it made a lot of you smile, too.
Parker Dinghy, by Carol L. Douglas
Find your own niche
I didn’t set out to write an award-winning blog; I set out to get rid of all the thoughts rolling around my head.
Nobody has the time to do everything, and a pallid, overstretched presence will do you more harm than good. Concentrate on what you like to do, and you’re probably doing what you do best.
Let your technology do the metrics for you
I don’t chart my progress, but I regularly check where my readers come from, both geographically and by platformsand traffic sources. I use this information to get the biggest bang out of my effort. I used to post on Tumblr; it was pointless and too much work. I’ve recently added Google Business to my daily posting, even though its numbers are small. It’s easy to do, and it promotes my physical studio.
Bathtime, by Carol L. Douglas. I don’t set out to sell paintings on my blog, but this one was purchased from a post. The buyer has become a friend.
Be patient
When I started Monday Morning Art School, I thought it was a bang-up idea. It went nowhere. I was just trying to figure out how to pull the plug when I noticed readership rising. Today, Monday is my top readership day.
The dreaded “you should”
If someone else isn’t telling me I should do something more, I’m telling myself that. They’re usually great ideas, but I also want time to paint. I keep a document on my laptop of all these “you should” ideas. I refer to this more than any other document except my packing list.