Don’t be a fair-weather painter

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

View from the Beech Hill summit trail.

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

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

It was hard going at first.

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

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

Cloud shrouding Lake Chickawaukee.

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

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

Beech Nut in its cloud.

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

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

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

Digging out of a slough

Tricks to get myself moving when the body says ‘I want a nap.’

Striping, by Carol L. Douglas

I felt fine when I got home from Scotland. Two days later, I wasn’t so sure, and I spent most of our lovely holiday weekend in a lawn chair with a book (except when canoeing, of course). This week, I ran an errand to Bangor with a painting student. By the time we came home, he was concerned enough to suggest that maybe he should drive.

I can’t decide if I’m suffering from a cold, allergies, fatigue or the ennui that sometimes settles in when I’m shifting gears and restless. The barrier between our mind and our bodies is whisper-thin. Like many Americans, I’m so trained to keep moving that it’s hard to recognize when I’m sick.
Parrsboro sunrise, by Carol L. Douglas
The only way I can tell is by testing my body. Over the years I’ve developed strategies for catapulting myself out of a fog. Most important is routine. Every morning I write this blog, make my bed (so I can’t crawl back into it) and fold clothes. These tasks wake me up. Then I go down to my studio. My brain and body are conditioned to start concentrating at the same time every day.
I cannot overstress the importance of this; it’s why your lawyer, doctor, and insurance adjustor don’t have anxiety attacks every time they approach their desks. The human body loves settled routine, and thrives on regular sleep, exercise and work habits.
Tricky Mary in a Pea-Soup Fog, by Carol L. Douglas
My mother believed you would start moving if you heard a machine working, so she would start a load of laundry while she drank her morning coffee. I’m afraid it doesn’t work for me, but it might for you.
Often what stops me is not knowing where to start. To overcome that, I play a game of “put ten things away.” This is win-win, because you’re either going to force yourself back into motion or you’re going to have a very neat workspace. Ten is about my limit for being thoughtful about sorting, and it’s better than making a commitment to clean.
Water is our bodies’ principal component. It comprises about 60 percent of our body weight. We can live a surprisingly long time without food, but not without water. Fatigue can be caused by dehydration. None of us drink enough fluids when traveling, so when I come back from being on the road, I try to bring up my water intake as quickly as possible.
Marsh, by Carol L. Douglas
Current wisdom says that the basic equation for determining how much water you need is to divide your body weight in half. So, if you weigh 200 pounds, you would need 100 ounces of water per day. (I don’t know if this is scientifically justified.) When I drink that much, I never have the luxury of zoning out; I’m always planning my next toilet stop.
My last mental jog is a brisk walk. Exercise is a proven anti-depressant and makes us more alert. Walking also gives me the mental space to plan out my next steps.
What if I do all these things and I still don’t feel up to working? That’s a vivid warning sign that what I’m feeling isn’t temporary malaise but a true physical problem. I do what any sensible person would: I take some time off to recover.

What works to get you out of the doldrums?

The genius of routine

The Red Truck, oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas
 I believe that creativity rests less on freedom than on structure. I’m not the only person who’s discovered that genius requires discipline: from this Navy SEAL asserting that everything starts with making your bed to Mason Currey’s Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, the idea permeates current thought on the creative process.

Portrait of the Artist’s Studio. If you’re looking for the exotic air of the sereglio in my studio, you have come to the wrong place.
Writers and artists are frequently asked how we make meaningful work while earning a living. Currey set out to amass as much information as he could find about the routines underlying successful careers in the arts. Several of his common themes resonate with me.
A workspace with minimal distractions. People often want to stop and see my studio, and they’re always disappointed. It is not an ‘arty’ place. It’s a practical workspace, not much different in form from my wood shop. My most successful artist friends concentrate on having their stuff where they need it, even when the space is tiny and appears to be overflowing.
For me, the most difficult part of working out of my house is that I’m easily found.
I walk every day, unless the temperature drops below zero and the wind is blowing, or the snow is too deep.
A daily walk. I actually take two walks every day—the first one first thing in the morning, the second in late morning or at lunch time. This is a lifelong habit. Walking is my time to think, reflect, and pray. I rapidly sink into ennui when deprived of it.

As time-consuming as it is to walk several miles a day, my productivity actually drops if circumstances keep me from exercising.

Accountability. Unlike a writer, the visual artist can’t count brushstrokes or square inches of work. But we can assure that we work regular hours. I have noticed that this helps me get in the groove of painting faster. I’m convinced that the brain recognizes routine and appreciates it.
This is jeweler Jennifer Jones doing some of the busywork in her job—sorting findings by color.
A clear dividing line separating our important work and busywork. Most artists spend half their work day doing things like marketing, accounting, taxes, inventory control, etc.  Unfortunately, we use our computers for that, which sucks us inevitably into the world of email and Facebook. Our ancestors may have spent a ton of time doing busywork, but at least it didn’t ding at them morning, noon and night.

I’ve noticed that I’m doing less sketching since I’ve gotten a smart phone. It’s too easy to pull it out to check messages and then get drawn into it.

A supportive partner. My husband and I have been happily married for almost 35 years. About two years ago, we had a heart-to-heart talk about my career and where it was going. It was obvious that getting out of Rochester was the next logical career step for me. He never hesitated. “Go,” he said, and I am. That’s amazing loyalty and support.
It used to be that painting en plein air saved you from distraction. Sadly, we now carry our distraction around with us.
Limited social lives.You know that arty guy you see at every opening? I wonder when he has time to get any work done.

Most successful artists I know are to some degree antisocial, and yet our work is essentially communication. People don’t just feel that they know us, they do know us, and we have to honor that. But like anyone else working for a living, we need time to actually get stuff done. I love teaching art and talking about art, but during the day I want to be busy making art.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me on the Schoodic Peninsula in beautiful Acadia National Park in August 2015. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops! Download a brochure here.