Art and fear

Great art doesn’t spring fully-formed from the minds of geniuses. It is made incrementally.

Prom shoes, by Carol L. Douglas. 6X8, oil on canvas, $348 unframed. Every time a student tells me “I don’t like still life,” I point out that it is the best training ground for painting available to us.

Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland is a book I frequently recommend to students. The title is misleading because it’s less about the insecurities that stalk the artist and more about the reiterative, plodding process that produces great art. If the book does anything, it shreds the Cult of Genius that has dogged the art world since the Enlightenment.

Among the silliest distinctions in the world of art is that between so-called ‘fine art’ and ‘fine craft.’ Prior to the Age of Enlightenment, artists were craftsmen. It was only with the Romanticism that artists developed the slight stink of intellectualism.

Dish of Butter, by Carol L. Douglas. 6X8, oil on canvas, $348 unframed. 

Art & Fear comes down firmly on the side of craft. Art gets made by ordinary people like you and me, who work at our craft regularly. We chip away at a problem, and we master it, and we are content… until our minds throw up a new problem. We then repeat the process, and somehow, in all that indefinable chaos, there’s progress.

Nevertheless, there is fear in the art process. I was first introduced to this concept at the Art Students League, where my instructor gleefully announced to her new students, “You’re all terrified!” I’m naturally pugnacious, so my reaction was to deny that, loudly. It’s taken a long time for me to realize that some of my stalling mechanisms are, indeed, fear at work.

Back it up, by Carol L. Douglas. 6X8, oil on canvas, $348 unframed. Still life does not have to be about elegant old dishware. 

Fear is one reason artists have studios full of unfinished work. We can either leave it in this state, where it has potential, or finish it so that all its shortcomings are revealed.

A healthy respect for the process can be a good thing, when it stops us from charging in and making stupid mistakes. When I was much younger, I did a surrealistic dreamscape of young mother on a broken-down farm. I was stumped trying to marry my currently-realistic style with the theme. I made the mistake of consulting a professional for a critique. “It looks like an imitation Chagall,” she said. I went home and covered it in a froth of bad paint. When I came to my senses, the original painting was irretrievable.

But fear can quickly become corrosive. I see it when new students are unable to engage in the exercises that I set in front of them, or constantly answer every suggestion with, “yes, but…”

Tin Foil Hat, by Carol L. Douglas. 6X8, oil on canvas, $348 unframed. There was no point to this when I painted it, but it’s since become my self-portrait.

It is not the beginners who have this difficulty, but people who have achieved some mastery of painting. They have a hard nut of competence that they hold tight against their hearts. To polish and shape it, they have to be able to hold it at arm’s length, but they can’t—they’re afraid that examining it will destroy something vital to their self-image.

I’m speaking as their soul-sister in this, by the way. It’s something that’s taken me a long time to get over.

Not that we ever really do get over our insecurity. Last week, Eric Jacobsen showed me a Charles Movalli painting he particularly admired. “That’s it! I quit,” I said. Of course, I’d said the same thing the week before that, and the week before that, too. In the face of great accomplishment, we are often momentarily cowed.

The difference—as Bayles and Ormond point out in their book—is that we sit back down at the easel and start again. And again. And again. That’s how great art happens.

Monday Morning Art School: working in triplicate

A 45-day challenge to make you a better painter.

A quick watercolor sketch by me. You become a better painter through
 consistent everyday practice, not in great fits of genius.

My workshop monitor, Jennifer Johnson, has spent several winters in Australia. There she bought watercolor paper in an A4 size, which is long and narrow. She’s been bringing it to class. One day she decided to do all three phases as thumbnails on the same page. I immediately saw the value in her idea. I’ve been introducing it to my watercolor students at workshops and classes.My students follow a strict protocol. It starts with a pencil sketch. Oil painters then move that to their canvases as a grisaille; watercolor painters have an intermediate step of a greyscale (monochrome) painting. This helps them make stronger compositions, and allows them to experiment early in the process, when bad choices are easy to reverse.

Jennifer’s field notebook that started this all.

One of these is Becky Bense, who’s a crackerjack watercolorist. She’s also a friend, so we made a pact at the end of my annual Sea & Sky workshop. We will each do thirty of these three-part compositions over the next 45 days. It wasn’t 30-in-30 because Becky’s more realistic than me. That’s a good thing, because my surgery last week has set me back rather sharply. I’m going to be lucky to finish the thirty by Thanksgiving.

I frequently recommend the book, Art & Fear: Observations On the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking, by David Bayles and Ted Orland. Their takeaway message is that art gets made through consistent everyday practice, not in great fits of genius. Do a little every day, and you’ll get better and better. As a teacher, I see tortoises and hares among my students. The ones who succeed are the persistent ones. Even if you only draw for five minutes a day, you’re advancing your skills.

An example by me. Note that I’m testing the colors on the margins before I lay them down. And I also knocked the garlic bowl over before the last step. Don’t do that.

Less-experienced painters tend to perseverate, “licking the paint,” as my pal Poppy Balser calls it. That’s because they think their errors can somehow be undone at last minute. They bury their own beautiful brushwork in these last-minute corrections. Working fast, with no great investment in time, prevents that.

Facing a blank slate every day can be daunting. Why not dial it back a little by experimenting with this process? So, without consulting Becky, I’m inviting you to join us. Oil painters can play this game too: all they need is an inexpensive gouache kit. Everything else works the same as for watercolor.

You will grasp the process by looking at the pictures, but I’ll spell it out: do a sketch at the top, a greyscale in the middle, and a small, color painting at the bottom. Ignore the idea of cropping; these are by definition thumbnail sketches. Don’t belabor any of it; half an hour is a good amount of time to do the whole thing.

Sadly, we can’t buy watercolor paper in A4 in the US (at least not easily). You can either buy 12X16 sheets and cut them in half, or buy 9X12. Either is close enough.

It’s all about value. Here are some of my students looking at value at Sea & Sky earlier this month.

From beginning to end, you’ll be concentrating on value. The sketch is simple, just a drawing with a #2 pencil, but it still should be a value sketch, not just a line drawing. For the monochrome (greyscale) middle picture, mix two complements. I suggest burnt sienna and ultramarine, but you can experiment. Your goal with the final, color, painting is to lay down the paints as immediately, and freshly, as you can. That means hitting the values right on the first try. To do that, mix and check them against your greyscale painting.

I have one more workshop left this season: Find Your Authentic Voice in Plein Air in Tallahassee, Florida, November 9-13. There are enough students to go, but there are still openings, so I’d be excited if you signed up.

From there on in, it’s all Zoom, Zoom, Zoom until the snow stops flying. My Tuesday morning class is sold out; there are still openings for Monday night Zoom classes.

Fears and doubts

To go where no man has gone before, you have to give up the safety net.
Keuka Lake Farm, by Carol L. Douglas. In honor of my friends painting at Finger Lakes Plein Air this week, I give you some work from that region.

 A reader yesterday sent me a long, thoughtful response to my post on leisure. “I, too, beat myself up for contemplation time,” she concluded, “but then I have learned that I do better work if I give myself over to it. What I do battle with most is the belief that I am a complete hack, so contemplation can’t go on for very long. My enemy, anymore, is being riddled with doubt.”

The painting world is as fashion-driven as any other human endeavor. There are always themes which get a response and are relentlessly copied. (Today’s landscape motif, for what it’s worth, seems to be birches. Last year it was nocturnes.)
Autumn in the Finger Lakes, by Carol L. Douglas
This is not to be confused with the major developments of an art period. These are driven by technology and the zeitgeist, and the painter is wise to understand his own place within them. Our own time, for example, values intensity, immediacy, and direct painting. That’s in part because we have the tools to make those things possible, and in part because we live in a culture with immediate, nerve-racking stimulus. We can appreciate the painting of our Renaissance forebearers, but any attempt to paint like them is doomed to be a curiosity.
But that’s not a fashion question. Catching the wave of fashion is a good way to gain public approval and sell work. It’s not a great way to think radically outside the box. Push it far enough and you’ve turned yourself into a mass-market commodity as did Thomas Kinkade. He created an empire, but it made him so miserable that he died at 54 of acute intoxication.
Finger Lakes Farm, by Carol L. Douglas
We say we want artists to be visionaries, but the ease with which we sell birches and the difficulty in finding a market for paintings of abuse tells us just how commodified art is. In the end, people want something to hang on their wall that makes them happy. There’s nothing wrong with that, as long as you understand where you’re standing.
More commonly, we’re straddling the line. On the one hand, I’m painting landscapes. On the other, I’m not painting them in a way that makes them terrifically accessible. We should always be going places that make us nervous.
Bloomfield Farm, by Carol L. Douglas
Writing this blog often requires me to look at my work going back several decades. I always notice:

  • It’s better than I remember;
  • The work which I like the best now is often the work I hated when I did it.
  • The work I loved then sometimes seems very conventional in retrospect.

Even if you don’t write a blog, you can take time to review your past successes. It’s the best way I know to calm my own internal doubts. On a road with no signposts, the only way you know where you’re going is to remember where you’ve been.
Keuka Lake, by Carol L. Douglas
If you are sometimes paralyzed with the doubt, frustration, and creative blocks of making art, read Art & Fear: Observations On the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking, by David Bayles and Ted Orland. If nothing else, you’ll realize you’re not alone.
I leave Sunday night to teach my watercolor workshop aboard American Eagle. There’s no internet (and darn little cell phone service) out in Penobscot Bay. I’ll pre-publish Monday Morning Art School, but after that my blog will probably go dark for the week. Don’t be alarmed!

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.