Monday Morning Art School: brushwork

Mark-making can be loose and gestural or very controlled. It’s personal, but it’s also something you can learn.

Dining Room in the Country, 1913, Pierre Bonnard, courtesy Minneapolis Institute of Art. Bonnard used small brush strokes, intense colors, and close values.

Brushwork is, on one hand, the most personal of painting subjects. It’s also (especially in watercolor) highly technical. Much of what is called ‘style’ comes down to what brushes we choose and what marks we make with them. I wrote about that here.

Modern viewers are immediately captivated by bravura brushwork; it’s a sign of self-confidence and competence. It comes from lots of practice. It also must rest on a firm foundation of proper color mixing and drafting. Flailing around to fix something negates the freshness and decisiveness of good brushwork.

Wheatfield with Crows, 1890, Vincent van Gogh, courtesy Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam. The motion in the painting is created by his brush strokes.

The best, most immediate, brushwork lies on a foundation of careful planning. Continuous modification, glazing, changing color, etc., make for diffident marks.

Let’s talk about how not to do it:

  • Unless you’re doing close detail, don’t hold your brush like a pencil. It’s a baton, and holding it to the back of the center-point (away from the ferrule) gives you more lyrical motion. Your grip can still be controlled by your thumb, you can hold it loosely, or even clutch it in your fist. The important thing is to let your arm and shoulder drive the movement of the brush, rather than just your wrist and hand. The farther back you hold the brush, the more scope of movement. To loosen up, blast some music and pretend you’re the conductor and that brush is your baton.
  • Don’t dab. By this I mean a pouncing/stabbing motion with the tip of your brush. It’s amateurish in oils, anemic in acrylics, and hell on your brushes.
  • Don’t use brush strokes that go in all one direction. Learn to apply paint in the round. This is a rule that can be broken, but make sure you’re doing so intentionally, not just because you don’t know how to paint in every direction.
  • Don’t bury your line. Much of the power of Edgar Degas’ mature work comes from his powerful drawing; he was the most accurate draftsman of his age, and he let that stand prominently in his work.

Self Portrait with Beret and Turned Up Collar, 1659, Rembrandt van Rijn, courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Pay close attention to the economy of the brushwork in the hair, and the expressive, unfinished brushwork in the face. In this way, Rembrandt was able to create a powerful focus.

There are many painters whose brushwork I admire, but there’s little point in trying to copy them in my own work. Brushwork is as personal as handwriting. It’s where the artist expresses—or suppresses—his feelings. There’s value in attempting to copy passages by great painters, and I suggest you do so with the samples I’ve attached to this blog. But don’t try to paint like Sargent or Van Gogh or Rembrandt; use what you learn to create your own mature style.

Waterlilies, c. 1915, Claude Monet, courtesy Neue Pinakothek, Munich. Monet makes no attempt to hide his drawing in this painting. The brushstrokes are wet-over-dry.

Style is the difference between our internal vision and what we’re capable of. We often don’t like our own brushwork when we lay it down; I think that’s because it’s too personal. Don’t continuously massage your brushstrokes hoping to make them more stylish. If the passage is accurate in color, line and precision, move on. You may come back to realize it’s wonderful.

Lady Agnew of Lochnaw, 1892, John Singer Sargent, courtesy Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh. Note that the transparent sleeves are not produced by glazing, but with direct, long brushstrokes.

Use your brushwork to highlight the focal points in your painting. Sharp, clean, contrasting marks draw the eye, where soft, flowing, lyrical passages encourage us to move through. Let there be dry-brush texture and unfinished passages in your painting.

What you can and can’t change

Thought and practice moves our painting style, but it’s incremental, just like the Mary Day docking.

Winch (American Eagle), oil on canvasboard, by Carol L. Douglas, 12X16, $1449 framed.

Windjammers are slippery little devils. I should know that by now. You think you understand the rhythm of their comings and goings and you find one or two likely candidates and commit to painting them. Then you look away for a moment and you find a subject slipping away from her berth, heading out to sea.

That happened to me on Monday, when I’d stopped to paint before my dentist appointment. (‘Quickie’ has an entirely different meaning to artists than to the rest of the world.) I’d limned in the ketch Angelique, and the light and shadows were notated, but as I sadly watched her slide out of her berth, I knew she wouldn’t be back for days.

“You didn’t take a photo, did you?” asked Ken DeWaard. He knows most of my bad habits, thanks to my friend Terry spilling the beans. I could almost paint Angeliquefrom memory, but that never ends well. I shook my head ruefully, and begged him for a picture. “I’m just enabling you,” he muttered, but he sent it to me anyway.

Lobster fleet at Eastport, oil on canvas, 24×30, $3478 framed.

There was still the fine flat transom of the Lewis R. French to paint. She celebrated her 150th birthday this year, and that’s something to celebrate. We both set to again, but not five minutes later, Mary Day hove into view. She was heading for the berth directly in front of us. Normally, that would be a good thing, but it would obliterate the rest of our view.

Mary Day doesn’t have an engine; she’s pushed into place by a tender. It’s fascinating to watch 90’ of wood and sails delicately slide into her berth, guided by a tiny gnat of a boat. Since our subjects had vanished into the rhythm of a working harbor, we had no choice but to sit back and enjoy the spectacle. We talked about color and mark-making.

Striping (Heritage), oil on canvasboard, 6X8, $435 framed.

I hold that mark-making is as personal as handwriting. Once you’ve taught someone how to form their letters, you have very little control over the finished product. I’m shocked, sometimes, to see how much my handwriting resembles my mother’s. That’s a real mystery, since I’m a lefty and she was right-handed.

As a teacher, I do influence my students’ marks. “Don’t dab!” I’m wont to say, although I’m well aware that Pierre Bonnard dabbed to great effect. He’s the exception that proves the rule. Dabbing, in the hands of beginners, looks amateurish.

Mostly, I ask them to experiment with all the different things a brush can do and then find their own ways of using them. Once they’ve found that place, it’s pointless to try to shake it up too much. (This is why I don’t encourage palette-knife painting in my classes; it short-circuits this process.)

Pleasure boats, oil on canvasboard, 12X16, $1159 unframed. Even though this is not ‘my style’, it’s still one of my favorite paintings.

“There are things that are immutable, and it’s pointless to try to change them,” I said to Ken as we watched Mary Day’s crew work. “For example, I can’t be 6’5” and you can’t have my curly hair.”

“But there are things you can change,” said Ken. He’s right, of course. Our choices of brushes, canvas and pigments all influence our paint application, just as choosing a gel pen makes us write differently than with a pencil. Thought and practice moves our painting style, but it’s incremental, just like the Mary Day docking. Rush that by copying someone else, and you risk being a parody.

I don’t know a single serious artist who thinks he or she is painting well—even the ones who are highly successful. We’re all on a quest; our vision is constantly changing. But through all that, we have something that’s immutable. For lack of a better term, I’ll call it our styles.

Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds

Yes, inconsistency is immature, but that doesn’t make it a bad thing.

Rocks and Sea, 1916-19, Edward Hopper, courtesy Whitney Museum of American Art

The other day, Bruce McMillan sent out a blog post asking readers to identify an artist. (He kindly mailed me the images, which illustrate this post.) I’m pretty good at art history, especially 20th century American landscape painting, but I could not peg the painter. The drafting style was Wyeth-strong, the composition late Winslow Homer, the paint handling, California Impressionist, the lighting, Rockwell Kent. The overall impact wavered enough that I figured he’d slipped in a few ringers from other artists just to see if we were paying attention.

Sea and Rocky Shore, 1916-19, Edward Hopper, courtesy Whitney Museum of American Art

Instead, he had quoted that preeminent painter of gritty American realism, one every self-respecting painter should be able to identify at fifty paces—Edward Hopper. Man, did I feel foolish.

Harbor Shore, Rockland, 1926, Edward Hopper, courtesy Blanton Museum of Art

Of course, most of these paintings were done before he ‘became’ the Hopper who painted Nighthawks, but surely a painter of his caliber should have some consistency? Actually, not. Many great painters have produced work with wildly different brushwork, drafting and intention over their careers. That’s obvious with modernists like Pablo Picasso, but it’s equally true of masters from antiquity such as Caravaggio.

Sketch of Portland, ME, by Edward Hopper

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson. It’s a quote that should be printed and tacked into every art box, because striving for consistency is a trap.

Cove at Ogunquit, 1914, Edward Hopper, courtesy Whitney Museum of American Art

Critics sometimes say that inconsistency is a mark of immaturity—and it should be, because new painters are playful and experimental. That’s a good thing, and something that the rest of us should emulate. We tend to lose our inventiveness as we grow more accomplished. But the greatest painters are not afraid to move beyond what others perceive as good art.

Rocks and Cove, 1929, watercolor, Edward Hopper, courtesy Whitney Museum of American Art

A lot of treacle has been churned out on the subject of style, including by me. Of course, style is very important in art. The problem is, it’s impossible to teach or control. Style is influenced by your place in history, your aesthetics, what you study and think about, your working process, and—ultimately—your soul.

Rocks and Waves, 1916-19, Edward Hopper, courtesy Whitney Museum of American Art

Style should not be confused with mannerisms. Mannerisms are on the surface; style is internal. An example of a mannerism is palette-knife painting—you can put it on and take it off at will. But if you look at a brilliant palette-knife painter like Cynthia Rosen, you realize there’s far more to her style than the implement she’s using to apply paint. If she started painting with brushes tomorrow, that wouldn’t affect her way of seeing, her use of light, or her color sense.

Sketch of Pulpit Rock, Monhegan, by Edward Hopper

Conscious attempts to develop a style inevitably result in limitation. The artist puts himself into a box from which he cannot escape. The tragic career of the late Thomas Kinkade is an extreme example. The man was not without talent; who knows what he might have painted had he not locked himself into the ghastly pastorals that made his fortune? He died rich but miserable, at age 54 of acute alcohol poisoning, exacerbated by Valium.

Hard-earned ease

It’s a paradox: we achieve looseness by mastering the small, precise details of our craft.

Tom Sawyer’s Fence, oil on canvas, Carol L. Douglas

Painting students often express the desire to paint more loosely. That’s not easy to attain. Painter Tom Root described it best when he called it “hard-earned ease,” likening it to a ballet dancer with bloody feet.

It’s paradoxical, but dancers achieve grace and fluidity by practicing a bone-aching number of precise movements. It’s the same in painting: we achieve lyricism by mastering the small details of our craft.

That starts with drawing. It’s shocking how many people try to be painters without mastering this basic skill, and how many teachers let them get away with it. Drawing is the basic reverse-engineering process of art. It’s how we analyze an object before we rebuild it on canvas.

Clouds over Whiteface, oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas

You can’t develop fluid style if you can’t draw. You will flail around, guessing where things are, and then overstating everything with excessive, tight brushwork. You won’t be able to express depth or distance if you haven’t explored where depth and distance start and stop.

Conversely, if you take the time to learn to draw, your painting has room to be looser. In my class on Tuesday, a student drew a complex Anasazi pot with astounding fidelity. She was able to put the pot down in a few brushstrokes because she’d already done the hard business of figuring it out with her pencil.

Best Buds, oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas

Drawing is actually easy. It doesn’t require ‘talent’; it’s for the most part a mechanical measuring process. There are many good books on the subject, and I’ve also gone into it extensively; just go to the search box to the right on this blog and type in “how to draw.” The investment is minimal; a mixed-media Strathmore Visual Journal is around $5 at our local job lots store. Use any #2 pencil with an eraser. Anything else is just refinement.

The second requirement for fluidity is process. For some reason, the arts have a reputation for attracting non-conformists, but I don’t know a single successful painter who doesn’t repeat a process with every painting. These have variations, but the components—at least in painting—are nothing new. The basic order of operations has been set in stone for centuries; only the materials get updated.

Bracken Fern, oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas

If you want to find your true authentic voice, start by mastering the process. For most of us, the easiest way to do this is with a teacher, but there are fine videos and books out there as well. Practice your process so many times that it becomes second nature. Then—and only then—you will find your own, loose brushwork emerging.

Notice that I said nothing about style. It’s important, but elusive. It emerges when one has done the grunt work of developing good technique. Don’t try to pin it down too early, or you’ll box yourself into something you can’t grow past.

I’m off to Tallahassee on Sunday to teach my last workshop of the season. Next year’s dates (so far) are now on my website. Here’s hoping that 2021 is a better year for all of us!

Monday Morning Art School: Where is the “me” in that painting?

Every line we paint, if we paint it honestly, tells the story of us and our feelings about the subject.

Sometimes it rains, by Carol L. Douglas, available through Ocean Park Association.

My husband is a stylish bass player. He says that he seldom thinks about style; instead, it’s that space between what he is technically capable of playing and what he’s visualized. I recognize that the same thing is true in my own painting.

I never get into questions of style with my students. It’s ineffable. I once had a teacher who lauded the heavy lines in my painting. “It’s your style,” he said. Actually, I didn’t like it but I hadn’t learned to marry edges yet.

Jennifer Johnson rode up to Schoodic Institute with me yesterday; this is her fourth year at my Sea & Sky workshop. She’s learned to produce a competent painting in a reasonable amount of time. “But how do I put my own emotion, my own self, into my painting?” she asked me. I had to laugh. Her paintings are as lively and quirky as she is.

Tom Sawyer’s Fence, by Carol L. Douglas, available.

No two artists paint the same scene the same way. Coincidentally, most of my plein air class on Tuesday chose the exact same long view to paint: a majestic vista down Clary Hill’s blueberry barrens. Each painting was markedly different.

Every line we paint, if we paint it honestly, tells the story of us and our feelings about the subject. Style is not something you add into a painting; it’s a reflection of your personality.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t paint deeper subjects. I don’t paint boats just because they’re beautiful, but because they’re meaningful symbols of the human journey. But the essential self-expression happens not in the content, but in the paintwork itself.

Blueberry barrens, Clary Hill, by Carol L. Douglas. Available through Maine Farmland Trust Gallery.

I’ve noticed that artists—myself included—often want to obliterate the very things in our painting that are most honest and autobiographical. Our brushwork can feel crabbed to us even if other viewers see it as intense or lyrical. We want to make things that are smooth, refined, and loose even when we’re uproarious or unsettled.

Yet the painters we most admire are often the ones who were most self-revelatory. For every Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, Seurat, Pissarro, Monet, or Manet, there were hundreds of other painters hanging around Paris whom we don’t remember. They trotted out carefully produced, well-designed, even stylish canvases that have no ability to move us today.

Any decent critic can tell you what makes a good painting. It’s harder to identify what makes a great painting, but I think it must include big concepts: tragedy, sublimity, beauty, ugliness, joy, terror. A masterwork is of course a product of its time, but to transcend that, it must tell essential truths that transcend time and place.

Mountain fog, by Carol L. Douglas. Available.

For those to be in your painting, they must be in you in the first place, and you have to be willing to be honest. I’ve learned to set aside paintings that irritate me and revisit them in the future; like Wildfire(which I wrote about here) they sometimes have the capacity to surprise me. This is why I discourage people from tossing ‘failed’ paintings too soon. Sometimes our conscious minds need time to catch up with our sympathetic intelligence.

None of this negates the importance of instruction, by the way. We all learned to write in cursive in the same way, but every person’s handwriting ends up so individualized that experts can determine when it’s forged.

I’m teaching my annual Sea & Sky workshop in Acadia National Park this week—two months later than its usual August date. After that, there’s Find Your Authentic Voice in Plein Air in Tallahassee, Florida, in early November, and a few more plein air classes in Rockport, ME. From there on in, it’s all Zoom, Zoom, Zoom until the snow stops flying.

That pesky style thing

Painting, at its best, is about honesty and truth-telling.

Winter Harbor lighthouse with Cadillac Mountain, by Becky Bense.

Yesterday, one of my students heaved a great sigh and told us about a girl she knew when she was in school. “She could draw these fine, detailed, curlicued things. And here I was, drawing these big, massive shapes. Of course, she was the art teacher’s pet.”
I immediately imagined this kid in my mind’s eye, her blonde hair lightened with Sun-In, parted in the middle and sweeping back like Farrah Fawcett’s. (She probably didn’t look like that, but that was the style of the girl who held the whip-hand back in the 1970s.) I laughed, because my student—who is, like most of my students, also a friend—is none of the above. She’s whip-smart, rock-solid, organized, and fiery. Her drawing reflected that even as a kid.
Mt. Desert Narrows, by Jennifer Johnson
That should be the primary stylistic goal of painters—not to paint like someone else, and certainly not to leave a workshop painting like me. Style, in my opinion, is the gap between the internal vision you have and what actually comes out of your brush. It’s a shifting thing, because your skills are (hopefully) constantly improving.
We’re all group normed in a million decisions, whether it’s how we dress, where we live, or what we choose to do for a living. That’s true of painting as well, something I wrote about here. It happens whenever you bring your work to a gallery, participate in a plein air event, or even compare work with another artist. We’re herd animals and we feel most comfortable when we fit in.
Winter Harbor lighthouse, by Claudia Schellenberg
On the other hand, we’re also products of our time. In the 20th century, that meant painting anxiety, angst, fear of the Bomb, world war. Those things radiate through the great artists of the past century. The spirit of the times in the 21st century is still open for discussion, of course; we’re barely there.
Before I do a workshop, I look up my artists online to get an idea of their skill level and where they might want to go. (I also ask about what they want to learn.) In general, plein air attracts an intrepid type of person; they can’t be too fearful and want to deal with the inconveniences of working in the woods. But beyond that, people are a constant surprise.
Rocks by Linda Delorey
It would be easy to tell them, “do it this way,” and create a miniature Carol Douglas. I don’t want to do that, however; I want to explain the process of applying paint and then give them their heads. But I can’t help them advance if I don’t know what they’re looking for. That comes back to the question of honesty in painting.
Coastline by Diane Leifheit
Another student, following up on this subject of truth-telling, asked me what I think of Pablo Picasso. I can find something to like in almost all art. However, Picasso is a closed door to me. I think it’s a question of his honesty, which reveals his character, and that I don’t seem to like very much. This is not because of his biography; I’ve never read very much about him. It’s what comes through in his paintings. That’s a sign of his power as a painter.

Follow the money

What can we learn from contemporary animation?
Waves of Mercy and Grace, Carol L. Douglas. Would I want to wander around a world that looked like my paintings?

The global animation industry brought in about $254 billion in 2017, versus about $45 billion for the fine art industry. Unlike many other growth industries, big parts of the animation industry are located in the old developed economies, including the United States and Canada. It’s a fast-growing sector, averaging about 5% per year.

If you’re a young person interested in a career in the arts, you will do well with a degree in computer graphics. Computer graphics designers working in the motion picture and video industries earn an average of $64,350, and there’s a lot of demand for them in other industries as well. (In fact, the Federal government is the top-paying employer of computer graphics professionals.)
Keuka Lake Farm, by Carol L. Douglas
This means that animation plays a big part in developing our national aesthetic. I don’t play video games, but I’m curious about their imagery, and I like speculating on how it will influence painting. I see this in the work of two young brothers from Syracuse, Tad and Zac Retz. Zac is a visual developer for Sony Pictures Animation. Tad is a painter. Their toolkits are very different, but the end result is often eerily similar.
Horia Dociu is a video game studio art director at ArenaNet. He identified three pillars on which all visual design rests:
  • Idea –the intellectual content of your work.
  • Design – the stylistic and compositional choices you make.
  • Technique – your method of rendering.

He then went on to mention ‘tone,’ which I’m going to call ‘vibe’ because tone means something else in painting. Painters achieve their vibe through color choices and lighting, but most importantly with the subconscious things we bring to the easel. In fine art, we often think of our vibe as a natural state, but it’s also the easiest thing to manipulate into dreck. That’s a good reason to avoid being overly self-conscious about it.
Still, there are some fine painters out there whose work relies heavily on controlling ambiance. An example is Tarryl Gabel. She has an enthusiastic following for her misty, gentle, elegiac landscapes.
Piseco Outlet, by Carol L. Douglas
My kids sometimes play a game set in a landscape that looks like New Zealand on steroids. I enjoy watching because it’s a beautiful landscape, even though the actions are dorky. This raises a question that we painters never ask ourselves: given a choice, would we enjoy wandering around in a world that looked like our paintings? If not, we might have a problem with our vibe.
Dociu went on to suggest that video artists ask themselves the following questions:
  • Why am I doing this?
  • What do I want to say?
  • Who am I speaking to?
  • How can I be most expressive to reach the audience?

Rising Tide at Wadsworth Cove, by Carol L. Douglas
In the end, his talk came down to craftsmanship. It plays a big part of animation development but is given little credence in modern painting. Perhaps that’s why the money flows so heavily in the direction of animation. They’re giving the people what they actually want.

What is style?

Want to become a caricature of yourself? Just focus on your style rather than the content of your work.

Commissioned portrait, by Carol L. Douglas. In this instance, high-key lighting was necessary to convey the spirit of the model, and so I used it.
Art & Fear, by David Bayles and Ted Orland, is a book that every artist should read. Not only does it destroy the myth of genius, it also points out that there is no end point in art making. The working artist can never rest on his laurels. Art-making is a constantly-renewing process of discovery. This is something that can be seen in the careers of every great master from Rembrandt to Monet.
A good artist investigates knotty questions. When they are answered, he moves on, just like Omar Khayyam’s moving finger. So often, by the time we get through the cycle of making and mounting a body of work, we’re no longer that interested in it. We’ve moved on to another struggle.

Castine Lunch Break, by Carol L. Douglas. For many years, I was interested in patterning. Of course, I can only say that after the fact; I didn’t realize it at the time.

Most of us (especially those who have worked as commercial artists) can mimic other painters. There’s also significant variation in how we approach painting problems. For example, I’ll occasionally paint in great detail, with lots of modeling. I was initially trained to paint that way, and I know enough about how paints handle to be able to blend and layer them.

However, what truly interests me right now is not mastering representation, but something far more visceral. This is more fundamental than style. Can I put a name to the question that’s currently bedeviling me? No; I’ve learned that is a shortcut to putting myself in a box. However, not being verbalized doesn’t make it any less real.

After the Storm, pastel, by Carol L. Douglas, is a very old work. Is it stylistically that different from my current work? I don’t think so.

I discourage painting students from ‘embracing their style,’ because to me that’s a trap that they may not be able to escape. Sometimes, what people call style is just technical deficiency. For example, some painters separate their color fields with narrow lines—white paper in watercolor, dark outlines in oils. I’d like to know that they embraced this voluntarily, not because they never learned how to marry edges.

Mature artists don’t generally think about style. At that point, style is the gap between what they perceive and what comes off their brush. That’s deeply revelatory, and it can be disturbing when we see it in our own work.

Wreck of the SS Ethie, by Carol L. Douglas. This was painted in 2016, but would not have worked in a looser style, since the shipwreck and rocks provided the abstraction.

Some of us try to cover that up with stylings, not realizing that those moments of revelation are what viewers hunger for. They—not the nominal subject of the piece—are the real connection between the artist and his audience.

There’s a difference between style and being stylish. I enjoy Olena Babak’s ability to describe reflections in a single, fluid brush line. I feel the same way about Kari Ganoung Ruiz’ emotive, energetic highlights. Neither of these are styles. They are, instead, self-confident skill, which results in stylish brush work.

Flood Tide, 2017, by Carol L. Douglas. Where am I going now? I’ll let you know.

I do not admire painters who use the same scribing or pattern-making on the surface of every painting. It’s style for its own sake, and it often is just a ruse to cover up badly-conceived paintings.

How to make art that stands the test of time

Occasionally, someone wonders whether an emerging painter will end up being a superstar. Can we ever tell?
Iowa Cornfield, 1941, Grant Wood, courtesy Wikipedia.
This week I contemplated a piece of contemporary art with a gallerist. “I don’t see thinking,” she said. “I only see beautiful contours. It’s content-free. There is no struggle.”
I can’t imagine anything more stultifying than striving to be in the Pantheon of Great Artists. However, the question of what makes great art is an important one. Great art must satisfy long after the flash of novelty dissipates. How does it do that?

The Ghent Altarpiece, early 15th century, Hubert and Jan van Eyck, courtesy Wikipedia.
It ought to go without saying that mastery of one’s craft is the primary job of the artist. Sadly, that’s not always true in contemporary western art, where ephemeral ideas sometimes mean more than specialized competence. However, if one looks back at art which has staying power, it’s always technically superb. How do you get to Carnegie Hall, sister? Practice, practice, practice.
Art is a process of exploration, a constant revolution. An artist must travel beyond his abilities every time he picks up a brush, or he begins to parody himself. The end of our training is, conversely, the beginning of our real education.
People sometimes tell me that they want to be ‘more consistent’ in their painting. I think that’s a trap, antithetical to the idea of development. A consistent body of work just comes with time.

Saturn Devouring His Son, 1820–23, Francisco Goya, courtesy Wikipedia.

Emotional content
One reason I hate writing artist’s statements is that I believe my real content is inexplicable. You, the outsider, might understand it, but the word-spewing part of my brain never will. Still, I hope my simple trees, boats and rocks convey something greater than their nominal subject.
There’s lots of art that’s didactic, and I’ve produced much of it myself. But didacticism is not necessary. Nor is it the hallmark of real artistic maturity, which somehow moves beyond issues.
The Railway, 1873, Édouard Manet, courtesy Wikipedia.
Within the vision of our times
Johann Sebastian Bach is recognized as one of the greatest composers of history. His period and his style were the Baroque. He was one of its last practitioners. He grew up within its aesthetic and it reached a climax in his writing. He was both within the vision of his time and the full flowering of that vision.
Knowing whether we’re painting within our period is difficult. In my first class with Cornelia Foss, she had me paint an orange on a tray. “If it was 1950, I’d say ‘Brava’,” she said. “But it’s not.” It was the best criticism I’ve ever received—she was telling me my technique was fine, but my style was dated.
We’re not Hudson River painters, we’re not Dutch Golden Age painters. This is the 21st century, and we need to paint what speaks to our peers. That’s often uncomfortable, and frequently a mystery.
You can’t count on your audience for advice with this. They’re as mystified as we are.
Bach was forgotten soon after his death. His works were rediscovered by Felix Mendelssohn. In 1823 Mendelssohn’s grandmother gave him a copy of the score for Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. Five years later, Mendelssohn mounted a performance of this long-forgotten masterpiece. His selfless promotion of a dead artist gave Bach his rightful place in music history.

Finding your style

Maple Tree, week 1, by Victoria Brzustowicz.
We all know very competent painters whose best students end up painting exactly like their teachers. This is not what any of us set out to do. It happens because the teacher focuses on technique, not process.
I occasionally talk to my students about mark-making, but only in a cautionary way. “Don’t dab dots of paint,” or “You can draw that line with more authority.” A person’s mark-making is their handwriting. It’s highly individual, and should be left alone as much as possible.
Maple Tree, week 12, by Victoria Brzustowicz.
Most students see their early mark-making as very raw, which it is. They immediately try to cover their insecurities by copying someone else—often their teacher.  This is a mistake. Style is a very slow thing in coming, and it requires its own space to evolve. Decide too soon that your style is blocky brushwork or heavy outlines or impressionism and you’ve consigned yourself to a box you can’t get out of.
Even experienced painters can fall into this trap. When artists start copying themselves, they stop growing.
Maple Tree, week 24, by Victoria Brzustowicz.
Most successful painters don’t really think about style much. The real question is what we’re trying to master at the moment: line, form, color, composition, atmospherics or any of the other millions of things that bedevil our work. True style is just the artifact of personality that gets in the way of perfectly executing our interior vision.
Victoria Brzustowicz is a well-known printmaker and designer with a degree in studio art from Wells. I was flattered when she signed up for my class two years ago.
Victoria needed absolutely no aesthetic guidance. Her goal was to learn to apply paint to a canvas as efficiently as possible, so the process didn’t get in the way of her own ideas. She heard my caution against jumping to conclusions about her style and took it to heart.
Maple Tree, week 33, by Victoria Brzustowicz.
In January, Victoria decided to paint a tree in her own garden once a week for a year. As she has proceeded, her brush has gotten out of her way, and her own internal mark-making is coming to the fore. It’s worth looking at the whole seriesto see the evolution.
“Knowing that I will be painting the tree over and over has made me freer to start with an open mind,” she told me. “I know there is always another painting in which I can explore some other aspect of the composition, the drawing, my palette, or my brush selection. I’ve been able to try what I’ve seen other artists do (or to do what they’ve recommended), and see what works or doesn’t work for me.”
By not locking herself into an artificial style from the beginning, she has managed to get to her authentic voice much faster. She has sidestepped a trap that even experienced painters fall into.