Monday Morning Art School: taking risks

Painting is inherently exploratory, so there’s no sense revisiting what you already know.
Parrsboro basin, by Carol L. Douglas. This was my two-hour quick-draw.
I just came back from Parrsboro International Plein Air Festival, where I painted with my pal Poppy Balser. Several times, we discussed the question of whether one should take risks in a competitive event, or save those paintings for times when one is under no pressure.
Risk-taking falls into three categories:
  1. Changing materials and tools;
  2. Compositional or technical changes;
  3. New subject matter.

Painting with Poppy at Parrsboro. Say that ten times fast. (Photo courtesy of Anne Wedler.)

The latter is the easiest to address. I heard several people say, “I’m not a boat painter” right before they attempted the devilishly-difficult fleet standing against the seawall at Advocate Harbor. I ama boat painter and the boats of Nova Scotia have defeated me many times. These are the highest tides in the world, and they move with heady speed. As they drop, they leave the short, squat trawlers standing upright on the shingle.
That doesn’t mean I don’t try; I am not in Nova Scotia fishing waters often enough to let the opportunity slide by. My error was in dragging a 16X20 canvas down onto the wet sand and trying to finish it before the tide and weather moved in. Devoting a day to painting something I didn’t know was no mistake.
Peek-a-Boo Island, by Carol L. Douglas
Changing up your method is a different question. There really is only one sure-fire way of applying oil paints in the field, but within that, there are many variations. Equally true, watercolor is almost universally applied light-to-dark, but there are variations within that, too. By the time an artist has gotten accepted into a major show, the process is usually solidly established. However, things happen to upset that. At Rye’s Painters on Location a few years ago, I lost my painting medium. Tarryl Gabel kindly shared some gel medium. It softened everything up, and I found myself painting in far greater detail than is my wont.
This time I used a new titanium white which was much oilier than my usual paint. And I painted on a new substrate, a clear birch board. The board was a fabulous success; the former not so much.
Poppy Balser with her two competition paintings. The one at left won Best in Show.
Poppy took more compositional risks than did I. Her two paintings entered for the competition were of the weir in dim light and another looking straight up a cliffside of sedimentary rock. In the weir painting, the subject is strongly foreshortened and dark on one side. In the hands of a less-adroit painter, it could have resulted in a balance issue, but it was far more interesting than the usual composition. Her risk-taking paid off handsomely. She won Best in Show.
However, behind that painting was three years of painting the weir from every angle and in every different lighting condition. The herring weir is Poppy’s Mont Sainte-Victoire. I’ve personally seen her do at least fifteen paintings of it. That deep familiarity means she can take risks with the shape and composition. She’s stared at it for so many hours that it’s become intimately familiar to her.
In the end, all our solemn pondering of risk-taking was so much hot air. Eventually, the risks always won out. Painting is inherently exploratory. There’s no sense revisiting what you already know; that always leads to boredom.

Group norming

Feeling out of place, like a failure? Perhaps the problem isn’t you, but your tribe.

Five Chairs, by Pamela Hetherly, courtesy of Kelpie Gallery. This painting stopped me yesterday. The color is beautifully integrated, something that’s lost in the photo.

I spent a few hours yesterday at the Kelpie Gallery in S. Thomaston. I’d meant to drop paintings off and leave, but it is a very restful place with a clean, open atmosphere. I always spend more time there than I expect to. Susan Lewis Baines, the owner, is so interesting and interested that before you know it, the day is half over.

It’s an airy, light space with grey walls, a grey tiled floor and lots of white trim. What little furniture there is, is elegant and subservient to the art. I look at Sue’s handmade desk (no, it’s not for sale) and wonder if I need one like it. Then I remember that I live in an old farmhouse and it wouldn’t match at all. As a decorator, Sue is light years ahead of me. That’s a great quality in a gallerist.
Sometimes I See, by Kay Sullivan, courtesy of the artist. Kay’s works are small, active, and yet somehow peaceful.
She represents a small stable of painters. These include vibrant small pastels by Kay Sullivan, the austere abstractions of Ann Sklar, mystical landscapes of Julie Haskell and Beth London, moody interiors by Pamela Hetherly, and the idiosyncratic landscapes of the late Erik Lundin. On first glance, the work is widely disparate. but the visitor notices that they all hang together well. They are united by a common color sensibility and composition. That makes it possible for high realism to hang side-by-side with abstraction and have the combination complement both paintings.
As different as the paintings are, there’s definitely a group norm at work, and it’s bound to provoke a response from the visitor.
A crow painting by Beth London, available through the Kelpie Gallery.
I tell people I left New York because I can’t paint like a Hudson River Schoolpainter. It is a continuous tradition in New York, dating back two hundred years. In any other place, painting with that golden light and attention to detail would be an annoying affectation. But in New York, it has some wonderful modern practitioners, including Tarryl Gabeland Patrick McPhee.
Mary Byrom is at the Smithsonian American Art Museum this week. Yesterday, she commented about Abbott Handerson Thayer’s Roses, “Such a wonderful quiet stillness, from before these modern times. It makes a difference.” Tarryl and Patrick can still tap into that stillness, and they have many fans because of it.
Untitled, by Erik Lundin. Courtesy of the Kelpie Gallery. His disinterest in selling made him the most unaffected of painters.
I don’t feel things in that way. I’m thoroughly the product of my time, which means less value modeling and more color and brushwork. As long as I stayed in New York, I was subtly pushed toward painting a different way. Galleries liked it, jurors liked it. And I found it personally disheartening. I needed to seek out my own tribe. I did that by going on the road, and later by moving to Maine.*
This is where a good knowledge of art history proves useful. It allows you to see over the lip of the basket you live in, to see where you fit in the greater scheme of things. I like the basket I have moved to, but if I felt confined in it, I’d be exploring other places and other representation.
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*An exception to this is Adirondack Plein Air, which is not style-driven. In fact, I find this true of plein air events in general. They usually attract a much wider variety of painters than from the local catchment area.

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.

Let that be a lesson to you

If I’d waited and painted on the second day, I’d have flubbed the whole event.
Playland Boat House, by Carol L. Douglas. A bad photo of a good painting.

I’m bothered by procrastination. I’m not happy unless I’ve finished my work in ample time to meet my deadline. There are good reasons why Rye’s Painters on Location gives us two days to finish one painting. Still, it makes sense to me to get it done early.

I haven’t painted Playlandin several years. This lovely Art-Deco amusement park is entering its 90thyear. It’s carefully maintained, and no major revisions have ever been made to its buildings or grounds. It was also closed, so I was alone as I drew on my canvas. The first glaze of gold was settling on the trees, and a soft onshore breeze cooled my shady corner.
Rye Playland from an angle I could never paint, public domain.
At lunchtime, Tarryl Gabelstopped by. Her timing was fortuitous. I’d just realized I was out of painting medium. Tarryl had some with her that she’d gotten from Jamie Williams Grossman. Jamie is a natural-born fixer, always coming up with solutions for other people’s problems. Here she was fixing something for me from miles away.
Tarryl and I are very dissimilar painters. She’s atmospheric, detailed and ethereal. I’m from the slash-and-burn school. When she handed me that tube of gel medium, she also handed me a lesson in how materials matter. Gel medium is perfect for her style of painting, but it dissolves edges. That was most apparent in the water, where I couldn’t keep the color crisply separated.
Somewhere near the halfway point.
I handed my work in and headed back to Queens. On the way, my car developed a dragging rear brake. In the stop-and-go traffic of rush hour, it rapidly overheated. By the time I arrived at Rego Park, it was screaming. (This car passed its inspection three days earlier.)
I tried unsuccessfully to rustle up a mechanic in Queens. The next morning, I decamped early and headed back to Westchester to try my luck there. On the way, I stopped at Playland. I couldn’t have painted there on Saturday; the park was open and ready for business.
And then my left rear brake pad fell out. I’ve been driving for more than forty years, and I’ve never seen that happen. It’s very bad, since it exposes the caliper—and thus the brake lines—to heat and stress. I wended my way slowly up the Boston Post Road, looking for a mechanic on duty.
The brake pad in question.
The first one I found, on the Boston Post Road in Port Chester, was both knowledgeable and kind. He said he didn’t like to leave travelers stranded, and he did the repair immediately and at a good price. Meanwhile, Tarryl had just arrived in Port Chester. We went to the art store and made our opening with time to spare.
There are several lessons here: don’t procrastinate, check your kit before you leave, use materials you know, be flexible. But more importantly for me, it was a reminder that the vast majority of people in this world are kind, and I don’t need to sweat the small stuff. God’s got my back.

My tribe is a circus

Love more, forgive more, hug more, and say ‘I’m sorry’ more.

Along Kiwassa Lake, by Carol L. Douglas

Saturday threatened rain, so John Slivjak, Tara Will and Stacy Rogers wisely set up in a bandshell for the Adirondack Plein Air Quick-Draw. I was nearby.

It was not until I bent to fix my umbrella that I noticed a musician setting up equipment on the stage. John, Tara and Stacy just played through, like the professionals they are.
Aside from a little air guitar, John Slivjak, Tara Wills and Stacy Rogers didn’t let a performance distract them. (Photo courtesy of Ann Slivjak)
Friday had been a great opening reception and sale. Still, I had been settling into a bad mood all day. Being doused as I left Town Hall didn’t help. I am not prone to the black dog of depression, but I was questioning my life choices, feeling old, washed up and hopeless. I thought I might be getting a cold. “You’re just overtired,” my husband consoled me.
Friends invited me to go out for a celebratory drink. “No thanks, I’d rather drink alone,” I groused.
Two weeks ago, my husband and I flew to Baltimore to pray with a friend. During Saturday’s Quick-Draw, I got a text from his wife telling me that he was failing. At 1:30 PM my husband called to tell me that Emerson had passed away.
We were in the whirl of an art sale. There was nothing I could do but shut down my feelings and get on with the job. In our brief conversation, my husband told me he’d felt it was coming. I realized then that I had been given the gift of grieving in advance.
Tomatoes, my Quick-Draw from the Festival.
Emerson was a wise old bird. He looked to the state of his own soul rather than fussing at others about their choices. That’s the harder road. It means facing up to our faults, repenting, and resolving to stop our sin cycles. It requires terrifying honesty.
It’s also the only way to be a light of the world. With so few of them around, I found it difficult to understand how God could call home such a powerful saint. Still, Christians get no special pass from the troubles of mankind. We’re just given a powerful tool—grace—to deal with them.
“Death eventually will come for us all,” said Emerson’s friend Mary Beth Robinson. “What we do today affects the legacy we leave. This week perhaps we should strive to love more, forgive more, hug more, say ‘I’m sorry’ more, and simply try to make a mark for good in our little part of the world.”
Part of my posse, 2017: Kari Ganoung Ruiz, me, Tarryl Gabel, Crista Pisano and Laura Martinez-Bianco. All the bling was in footwear this year.
Meanwhile, the reception ground on. A woman asked me if it was fun meeting other artists. I laughed and explained that we are a small community who know most of each other from other events. We’re like circus performers, a distinct tribe of people who labor in obscurity until the day we set up our tent show in your town. I treasure these friendships, and every event I do adds a few more.
The same posse in 2014, with the addition of Mira Fink and Marlene Wiedenbaum. We were younger and more stylin’ then.
Reminded of this, I spent the rest of the afternoon talking to my friends, catching up on their news. A few minutes after we finished, I was on the road again. I pulled over twice to wipe my eyes. I think it was the spruce pollen.

But wait, there’s more!

Packing for a road trip is my most hated job. Perhaps a list will help me stay more organized.

To me, a successful job of packing means I come home with one clean pair of panties. I’d rather waste space on painting tools and supplies than on my personal gear. My last trip, however, ran a little longer than I’d expected. Washing clothes on the road was no big deal, but I didn’t have sufficient meds. It was a lesson that one can, in fact, cut it too fine.
I leave for Nova Scotia tomorrow. The forecast is for temperatures ranging from 9° to 24° C, which is 50°-75° in real money. That means double packing, because I must must be prepared for any weather.
Packing is my least-loved part of my job. I’ve decided to make a list, in the hope that it makes me a little more efficient. This is in addition to my list of painting supplies, which you can find here for oils, for watercolor, and for acrylics.
Feel free to comment with additional suggestions.
Rain happens, especially in the Northeast. In a plein air event, that’s no excuse for not getting your painting done.
One week of clothing for the traveling artist

Clothing:
Fleece or cotton hoodie
Fleece or wool sweater
Cardigan or shawl for evening
Hiking boots
Hiking socks
Totally paint-spattered shirts—number of days +1
Totally paint-spattered capris—number of days divided by 2
One pair of long pants
Painting hat
Underpants—number of days +2
Bras—2
My bathing suit—not that I ever use it, but I can dream
A swim towel—ditto
Sandals
Raingear—a jacket AND waterproof pants
Sleepwear
One moderately dressy outfit for casual events
One actual dress or skirt for reception
Jewelry
Nobody does the painting hat quite as elegantly as Marjean Coghill.
Grooming:
Cosmetics—especially for you guys. You look downright unkempt at times
Sunglasses, glasses cleaner and cleaning cloth
Sunscreen
Insect repellent
SPF lip balm
Aloe vera lotion for when you forget the sunscreen
Deodorant
Hairbrush and/or comb
Hair ties and bobby pins
Nail clipper
Razor
Shampoo and conditioner
Body wash
Prescription medications and vitamins. I sort mine prior to leaving into daily med containers
Toothbrush—I can get five weeks out of my electric toothbrush without a charge. I’ve tested this.
Toothpaste
Floss
Monthly feminine supplies
(You’ll need a clear plastic bag if you’re flying for some of these things)
Downloaded media will be your best friend when you’re stuck on the road back of beyond.
First aid:
A small first aid kit in your trunk
Over-the-counter allergy meds
Aspirin and/or your favorite NSAID

Odd equipment for when I am traveling overland and have space to burn:
Bandana—I can soak this in water and stay cool on a hot day.
Porta-potty
Foldable wagon
Headlamp for nighttime painting
Small secateur clipper
Extra plastic poncho to cover easel in case of monsoon
Folding chair
Water bottle and a larger jug to refill
Nutritional bars and trail mix—no chocolate, unless you like cleaning up melted food
Brush soap
Baby wipes

Electronics
Camera and charger
Cell phone and charger
Laptop and charger, if applicable
GPS if applicable
Fitbit charger
Spare charged external battery—this is a lifesaver when traveling
Headphones
For every show, there will be an opening, and you’re supposed to dress for it. Try to look as good as this posse, please: Mira Fink, Crista Pisano, me, Marlene Wiedenbaum, Laura Bianco, Kari Ganoung Ruiz (who just took Best in Show at Finger Lakes) and Tarryl Gabel.
Lastly…

Cash
Credit cards
Remember to turn on foreign cell service, if necessary
Download any media to phone or Kindle before leaving your wifi behind.

It’s almost time for Rye Painters on Location again!

My piece for Rye POL’s Silent Auction: Gold Mountain Air, oil on canvasboard, 11X14.
Some of my Best Painting Buds (BPBs) are people I met at Rye Painters on Location: Bruce Bundock and Marilyn Fairman, for example. Another of my other BPBs—Brad Marshall—is someone I recommended to the organizers (as did Lee Haber). There are also painters I like so much but never see except at POL—Kathy Buist, Patti Mollica, Linda Richichi, Tarryl Gabyl, and others. It’s always been my favorite event, so the last few years when they tinkered with it, I was kind of bummed.
Brad Marshall’s piece for the Silent Auction: Watermelon and Cherries, oil on canvasboard, 11X14.

Linda Richichi’s piece for the Silent Auction:Wetland Pink, pastel, 9X12.
But it’s back in its old format: silent auction of prepared pieces, live auction of wet canvases. And it’s coming up soon: September 28. I will be in Maine that prior week, and plan to race down to Rye to meet Brad Marshall for some fun times “flailing around.” After that, we’ll wash our faces, have a few glasses of wine with our friends, and sit back to watch the auction.
Having done this for a lot of years, I feel like I’ve painted an awful lot of the Long Island Sound scenery. I suggested that Brad should choose our painting location and I’ll just come along to fall into the ocean and generally make a mess. He was amenable, and last week he drove up to drop off his silent auction piece and scout locations. I now know where we’ll be painting; you’ll just have to wait and see, won’t you?
If you haven’t registered for my workshops but want to, know that October 2013—last session with openings in 2013—is selling out fast. Or, let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in 2014. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!