We’re all in this together

Surf at Bass Rocks, 16x20, by Carol L. Douglas

Autumn, I like to tell visitors, is the most beautiful season in New England. This year is determined to make a liar out of me. It was wet and cold during my watercolor sailing workshop. Here at Cape Ann Plein Air (CAPA) neither the wind nor sky have cooperated.

Natalia Andreeva saw me shivering in my fleece, thermal vest and flannel shirt. She added her windbreaker, tying the hood tightly over my head. “Keep it for the week,” she said. I’ve taken her up on the offer so seriously I’m almost sleeping in it. It’s sad when a woman from Tallahassee has to dress a woman from Maine for cold weather.

Surf at Bass Rocks, I'm guessing about 16X20, by Eric Jacobsen.

Although these events are competitions, painters are overwhelmingly kind to one another. Stewart White learned the hard way that his rental car has a bum charging system. Kirk Larsen had jumper cables and fired the thing back up in a field at Allyn Cox Reservation. I saw Stewart yesterday at the Essex Shipbuilding Museum with a small portable charger in his hand. “I’ve learned how to open the hood,” he said cheerfully.

The howling winds have resulted in spectacular rollers and breakers. My Maine town is protected from raging seas by Penobscot Bay, so these waves are a real treat. However, the wind is an ergonomic problem, as it makes the canvas vibrate, when it isn’t just flipping away in the wind. Yesterday, Eric Jacobsen, Mitch Baird and I found a deep cleft in Bass Rocks in which to set up like three little monkeys in a row. That meant we were all painting the same view.

That really didn’t matter, as we’re very different painters. I find this distracting at times, as I really would rather paint like Mitch or Eric or my buddy Ken DeWaard. I’m always tempted to copy off their papers.

Surf at Bass Rocks, about 12x16, by Mitch Baird.

Even when we start with the same fundamental composition, we put the marks down in our own individual ways. That scribing is the actual meat of the painting; the rocks and crashing seas are just the subject. I’ve found that painters are often uncomfortable with their own handwriting. Done right, it says something deeply personal about us.

The great conundrum of painting is that it’s supposed to be revelatory, but we creators frequently don’t like what we see in our own work. A psychoanalyst could have a field day with that.

“The essential thing,” Henri Matisse wrote, “is to put oneself in a frame of mind which is close to that of prayer.” Apparently, Matisse’s friends were quieter than mine. I’m a mutterer; Eric is a fixer; Mitch is more of a self-flagellator.

The good thing about painting in these conditions is that you can’t overthink what you’re doing. You just do it, wipe the salt spray off your face, and do it again. Sooner or later, something is bound to work.

Our set-up. The fuzziness is sea spray.

“A picture must possess a real power to generate light and for a long time now I’ve been conscious of expressing myself through light or rather in light,” Matisse also wrote. In the following century, that became the major mantra of painters: we’re not painting objects, we’re painting light.

That’s great as long as the light cooperates, but this week has been one of morose and glowering skies. We’re all struggling against it. But cranky seas and skies are very much a part of the maritime tradition of Gloucester and Maine, as evidenced by so many of Winslow Homer’s paintings.

It’s raining now, and I’ll take the morning to frame and enter my paintings onto CAPA’s online system. Rae O’Shea just stopped by on her way out to take photos. “They’re talking frigid temperatures on the weekend, and possible flurries,” she said.

Why didn’t I bring my winter jacket?

The game is afoot

Surf at Cape Hedge, 9X12, Carol L. Douglas, available through Cape Ann Plein Air. All of these photos were taken under incandescent light this morning, so the color may not be true.

Back when I was raising children, they used to say (jokingly, I hope) that the oldest one was an experiment. You should throw that one out and try again once you knew something about parenting. That’s not true about my kids, but it is often true about my painting. I should have remembered that in the cold and rain the first morning at Cape Ann Plein Air (CAPA).

I blame it on trawler envy. We have fishing boats in Maine, but nothing like these big factories of the sea that they have in Gloucester. I took a moment to say thanks for all the fish of the ocean that feed so many of us. Then I set to work on the Jodrey State Fish Pier with Elaine Lisle and Richard Sneary.

Surf at Bass Rocks. 8X16, Carol L. Douglas, available through Cape Ann Plein Air.

The mizzle began to solidify into something resembling rain, so Dick (a watercolorist) packed up his easel and left. Elaine stayed and finished a lovely, bright, 10X10 square of the harbor. I struggled on until 1 PM, when—cold, wet and in need of a bathroom—I folded. Looking back at that start, I wish I’d quit hours earlier. The color and brushwork are fine. The composition violates my first rule of painting: don’t be boring.

I’ve been living in Maine long enough for its sedate driving habits to wear off my New York edges. I was dithering in an intersection when my phone rang. It was Eric Jacobsen. “Where are you?” he asked.

“Trying to turn onto Bass Avenue, and about to be killed by these fast Massachusetts drivers,” I muttered. Okay, that’s a paraphrase.

“Well, don’t do that,” he said in a reasonable voice. “Charles Newman, Mitch Baird, and I are at Bass Rocks. Come over here.”

That was all I needed to escape my slough of despond. Rocks, surf, and good company. The game, as Mr. Holmes said, was afoot.

Bass Rocks, 9X12, Carol L. Douglas, available through Cape Ann Plein Air.

CAPA’s quick draw is immensely popular, drawing about a hundred non-juried artists in addition to those of us in the juried show. This year it was at the Allyn Cox Reservation in Essex, which must be a beautiful property when you can stand upright to see it. My goal was simply to survive the gale force winds. I set up next to Jonathan McPhillips as he’s big, and I thought he’d be a good windbreak. I set my easel as low to the ground as I could. As soon as I saw Jonathan’s block-in, I knew he had a winner. It was a wonderful composition.

Stone Wall, 8X16, Carol L. Douglas, available through Cape Ann Plein Air.

Winds like those mean wild surf, so Eric, Mitch and I set off for Cape Hedge. It was difficult to paint, but all that dashing, crashing water made it so worthwhile. We worked small, because anything else would have blown away.

I know that Mondays are usually an art lesson, but I haven’t got it in me this morning. I’ll leave you with this utterly prosaic truth: if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. My first painting was horrible. My second was acceptable. My third was interesting, my fourth (quick draw) made me happy, and I really like my fifth one. Today is a new morning, and I’m off to beat the sunrise.  Later, friends.

After I’m done careening around like a madwoman…

Watercolor of schooner American Eagle

Watercolor of schooner American Eagle
Watercolor of schooner American Eagle, by Carol L. Douglas

My dog always knows when I’m getting ready to leave. He attaches himself to me, following me from place to place as I go through my workday. I don’t think I’m dropping non-verbal clues. I think he’s listening to my conversations and understands far more than we think dogs are capable of.

I’m heading down to Rockport, Massachusetts today for Cape Ann Plein Air. This is a premier plein air event; a number of people I haven’t seen since the start of the pandemic will be there.

When I get home, I have a week to get organized and then it’s off to Sedona Plein Air. There, I know only Ed Buonvecchio and juror John Caggiano. He’ll also be at Cape Ann as a painter this week. That’s not as weird as it sounds. There’s really nobody better to judge plein air painting than a fellow plein air artist.

Red rocks of Sedona, oil on canvas, Carol L. Douglas, available.

Then it’s home in time to set up my schedule for 2023. I have four firm dates on my calendar so far:

  • Toward Amazing Color, Sedona, AZ—March 20-24, 2023. Sedona is a stunningly beautiful place that’s steeped in art history. What better place to learn about color than among the towering red sandstone bluffs, the muted greens of the chaparral, and that big, blue sky? An added plus for northerners—Sedona is warm in March!
  • Watercolor workshop aboard schooner American Eagle—June 20-24, 2023. This is the summer solstice, which gives us the longest possible period in which to paint. All professional-quality materials are included, and we welcome painters at all levels. In addition to wonderful sailing on an historic vessel, there are beautiful village walks and calm rows around quiet harbors.
  • Sea & Sky at Schoodic—August 6-11, 2023. This is in Acadia National Park, one of the nation’s true beauty spots. Since accommodations are available at the Institute, it saves you the trouble of looking for a hotel in an area that’s truly back of beyond.
  • Watercolor workshop aboard schooner American Eagle—September 16-20, 2023. Again, all materials are included, and we welcome painters at all levels. This is my favorite time to sail, as the water’s warm and the skies are magnificent. Changing foliage glows against the dark evergreen trees and the deep blues of the bay.

Magnificent Schoodic Point

These workshops aren’t up on my website yet, although you can register for Sedona directly. I’ve been a one-woman shop and I’m very busy in the summer. This fall, however, I’m doing things a little differently. My daughter Laura Boucher has been helping me with IT, video, and other online material. Of course, she can only publish what I give her, and I’m just learning about this stuff.

If you’ve eyeballed these workshops in prior years, now’s the time to pencil in the dates and email me to make sure you get the updated information as soon as it’s published. My workshops regularly sell out.

My gallery has closed for the season. Paintings don’t benefit from the wide temperature swings we see in October, so they’re bundled up cozily in their storage unit.

Painting aboard American Eagle

Our timing was perfect—on Sunday we took down the tent and on Monday four cords of firewood were dropped in the adjacent lawn. Somehow, I need to make the time to stack it.

This autumn would have been even more chaotic had surgery not forced me to slow down earlier this month. My favorite meme recently is “Adulthood is saying ‘But after this week things will slow down,’ over and over until you die.” At times, it sure feels that way.

On painting water (and other traps)

Water Mill, 1892, Frits Thaulow, courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art

The most common question I hear is, ‘how do you paint water?’ The answer—if you’re smart—is, ‘how it looks at that moment.’ Water, like the sky, is infinitely variable. Yes, there are some fundamental truths, such as that reflections are symmetrical across a horizontal axis, or that water will reflect the sky color. But other than that, all bets are off. I’ve heard artists say, with authority, that the sea is always lightest at the horizon, or that the chroma is lower than the sky.

Those things are usually, but not always, true. The sea is bigger than you or me; it does whatever it wants. If you want a more scientific explanation, moving water is a massive, constantly-changing, fractal-featured mirror. It doesn’t stay the same for a minute, let alone over time.

At Quimperle, 1901, Frits Thaulow, private collection

That complicates painting from photos, because the surface usually changes faster than the human eye can perceive. The long ellipses or droplets in space captured in a still photograph are not what we ‘see’. My friend Brad Marshall experimented recently with painting a waterfall using a continuous loop video instead of a still photo. I haven’t tried it yet, but it’s on my to-do list.

Frits Thaulow was a Norwegian landscape painter, roughly contemporary to that brilliant trio of Anders Zorn, John Singer Sargent and Joaquín Sorolla. In that company, Thaulow might have faded into obscurity except for his ability to paint roiling river surfaces. Typically, he laid down the bones of the reflections in very thin paint, and then scumbled the traceries of water over the top. That was frequently in a neutral tone, because he was painting in far northern Europe where the skies were often grey.

Detail from Area of Venice, 1894, Frits Thaulow, courtesy Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts

Roiling water was Thaulow’s particular talent. Beside it, his buildings seem sketched in as an afterthought. It would be easy to dismiss him as a one-shot wonder, someone who figured out a cool effect and then repeated it until he was a caricature of himself. But it was more likely an obsession.

I say that because Thaulow also got excellent water effects in watercolor, where the brush technique is entirely different. That, by the way, is something he had in common with Zorn, Sargent, and Sorolla, all of whom handled watercolor with equal facility to their more famous oils.

The marble step, 1903, watercolor, Frits Thaulow, source unknown.

I once painted something for a plein air event that I longed to call Everything but the Kitchen Sink, because I literally threw in every cliché about the area that I could think of. Having already started down the road to hell, I brushed in the vertical reflections and then I overbrushed them horizontally with a large, dry brush. This is something you might learn at a sip-and-paint as ‘how to paint water’, but it seemed appropriate for that absolutely still water.

Naturally, it sold.

I was being fanciful and farcical, but learning one ‘way to paint water’ and then grinding it to death is not a technique I recommend. Brilliance lies not in sleight of hand but in observation. Worry less about your brushwork and more about what’s in front of you. If you learn to see, your hand will naturally follow your eye.

Seven things you should know about the Group of Seven

The Tangled Garden, 1916, JEH MacDonald, courtesy National Gallery of Canada

No, not the G7—that’s the forum of world’s biggest economies. They’re politically important, but nowhere near as important as the Canadian painters by that name.

The Jack Pine, 1916–17, Tom Thomson, courtesy National Gallery of Canada

  1. The death of Tom Thomson is one of art’s enduring mysteries. Although the Group of Seven didn’t formalize until after his death, he was one of the painters who gathered at the design firm Grip, Ltd. He was arguably the most famous of them all.A dedicated woodsman and fisherman, he loved heading into the wilds of Algonquin Provincial Park to paint, as he did one July afternoon. He was found drowned eight days later, a four-inch bruise on his temple. Did he capsize, did he commit suicide, or was he murdered by a jealous husband? We’ll never know.

    Red Maple, 1914, by AY Jackson, courtesy National Gallery of Canada
  2. The Group of Seven were realists in the age of abstract art.They passionately clung to plein air in defiance of a world culture that was veering off toward abstraction. They felt the spirit of Canada was best understood by painting in direct contact with nature. Instead of huddling in Toronto studios massaging their angst, they rode the rails to some of Canada’s most desolate and difficult-to-reach spots.

    Winter comes from the Arctic to the Temperate Zone, 1935, Lawren Harris
  3. They invented the idea of the Great White North.Lawren Harris believed the desolate north was the seat of Canada’s economic and spiritual power. His scenes of the cold, majestic, and empty northland defined Canada’s essential self-image. This was a land of black spruces, isolated peaks and dark water, lit by fantastic skies.This started out as nationalism, but transformed into a more universal paean to the power of nature. As much as he abstracted the landscape in later years, he always told this story.

    Gas Chamber at Seaford, 1918, by Frederick Varley, courtesy Canadian War Museum
  4. The Great War temporarily derailed them.The First World War had a profound effect on Canada. Out of an expeditionary force of 620,000, 39% were casualties. AY Jackson, Arthur Lismer and Frederick Varley enlisted as official war artists. Jackson served in France and was seriously injured. Lawren Harris enlisted in 1916 and was discharged in May 1918 after a nervous breakdown. Tom Thomson’s death in 1917 was another blow to the group.

    Lake Wabagishik, 1928, Franklin Carmichael, courtesy McMichael Canadian Art Collection
  5. In the early years, the group was supported in part by tractor money.Lawren Harris was the son of Thomas Harris of A. Harris, Sons & Company Ltd., farm machinery merchents. This merged with the Massey company and later became known as Massey Ferguson. Harris's share of his family fortune enabled him to partner with James MacCallum to build the Studio Building in Toronto, where his fellows could rent studio space cheaply. Together the two men bankrolled the Group of Seven during lean periods. Harris took them on boxcar trips to  Algomaregion north of Lake Superior and elsewhere.

    A Northern Night, 1917, Franz Johnston, courtesy National Gallery of Canada
  6. They developed a distinctive Canadian style.Group of Seven paintings are instantly recognizable by the fusion of graphic design and Impressionism. However, they were always driven by what was actually there. The screen of trees and the view down into the deep woods are recurring motifs. This is not a grand, golden view in the style of the Hudson River School painters, but a deeply honest view of what the northeastern part of North America looks like. It requires embracing chaos in a totally new kind of composition.

    RMS Olympic in dazzle at Pier 2 in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Arthur Lismer, courtesy Canadian War Museum
  7. The Group of Seven is not without controversy.They’ve been criticized for depicting northern Canada as a no-man’s-land, or terra nullius, when it’s been lived in for centuries by indigenous people. However, the goal of plein air has primarily been to capture the landscape, not human activity.Having painted across Canada myself, I can say that much of it seems empty a hundred years later. In any case, they’re among the best painters North America has produced, and that’s the real reason to study their work.

A vacation from the news

A silvery sky off the stern of American Eagle.

“There have been few more momentous weeks in British history, or indeed in world history,” Bruce Anderson wrote in the Spectator. The Queen’s funeral coincided with the rout of Russia. I missed it all. I was coasting around Penobscot Bay on the schooner American Eagle, teaching watercolor, as I do twice a year.

I would normally have watched the Queen’s funeral, either in real time on the internet, or by flipping to the BBC every five minutes as I worked. I don’t watch television, but I do read voraciously. I was raised with The Buffalo News delivered every afternoon. Reading the news is a hard habit to break.

The sea is a strangely bonhomous place.

Back then, the news was structured. The front section gave us international and national news of import. The second section was local news. Then living, and then sports. After that came the auto ads and classifieds. All neatly segmented and focused on a local audience. Those of us who wanted more could take the New York Times on Sunday—back when it really was the nation’s ‘newspaper of record.’

One would occasionally get a ‘Florida man’ story—if it was sufficiently amusing—but paper and ink and the trucks to drive them around were expensive. Editors carefully selected what went in our local paper. Moreover, we read it and then we set it aside. We didn’t come back every hour for more.

We picnicked at Burnt Island.

Today my phone tells me ‘The Real Reason Why Prince Harry and Meghan Markle Allegedly Went Back to Montecito Fuming’. I can read about a woman who faked her own kidnapping, a teenager shot to death by someone who thought the kid was a political extremist, another teen who died in a football game, or a Missouri mother looking for the remains of her murdered child. No wonder so many Americans take antidepressants. The world isn’t inherently any worse than it used to be, but all its ugliness is being served up to us constantly.

Out at sea, there is only spotty signal. (Unfortunately, it’s improving over time, as more islands get coverage.) My husband—an electrical engineer—once told me how he could fix that empty space. I looked at him horrified. “Don’t even think about it!” As long as our captain can communicate his position to other boats and the Coast Guard, that’s enough contact.

Heather fishing for mackerel long before breakfast.

While the world revolved without us this week, we painted. A Hurricane Island crew stopped and talked to us about their scallop research. We watched two bald eagles doing an amazing dance over a bit of ledge. A finback whale breached behind our stern. Porpoises did their lovely cartwheels. Seals were everywhere; so were schooling fish and the gulls that eat them.

Heather broke up her painting by fishing for mackerel. She caught five.

One of Heather's watercolors from off Northhaven Village.

It was unusually cold for September, but that didn’t make it bad weather. It mizzled, it fogged, the wind came up and went down, the sky was grey, then slate blue and violet, and finally brilliant blue. We picnicked on lobster, corn and fresh vegetables.

Finally, on our last morning, it came down in buckets. We watched it from beneath a deck awning while eating hot biscuits and frittata, wearing waterproofs.

An opening in the sky.

I can’t say why, but art is restricted by anxiety. Nervous tension stops us from reaching our real potential. There’s something about the ocean that releases that, and frees us from the need to produce something ‘great’.

By my last day aboard, I find that I never reach for my phone except to take photos. The real challenge is to bring that home, to stop being so plugged in. Yes, we need to be informed citizens, but a little bad news goes a long way.

Five things I won’t waste money on

I'm wearing the tiara in honor of Queen Elizabeth II, whose state funeral is today.

Cheap paint

There are many good paint brands out there. They tend to be more expensive, but price is not the sole indicator of quantity. There are an equal number of horrible paints on the market. You might think you’ve saved a few bucks, but that’s a mistake that will cost you in time and frustration.

There are differences in the binders, in the amount of pigment the manufacturer uses, and how the pigments are stabilized. There may be filler or drying agents added.

Instead of buying cheaper paint, cut down on the number of colors you buy. I suggest a system of paired primaries, as explained here. Oil painters will add titanium white; watercolor painters should avoid white altogether at the outset.

My personal preferences are:

Golden acrylics
QoR watercolors
Unison pastels
RGH or Gamblin for oils.

These aren’t the only good paints out there, of course; they’re just my go-to brands.

Fewer colors, no convenience mixes or hues, and better quality paints--that's the most economical way to paint.

Hues and convenience mixes

Art paints are marketed with names that appeal to our sense of tradition. If you buy Naples Yellow thinking you’re buying an historic pigment, think again: the modern paint is a convenience mix replacing the historic (and toxic) lead antimonate.

Expect to find, at minimum, the following information on the label of your paint tube:

  • Manufacturer’s name or common name for the color;
  • The CII number and, sometimes, the name of the pigment(s);
  • The manufacturer’s lightfastness or permanence rating.

The CII code consists of two letters and some numbers. Most paints start with a “P” which means it’s a pigment, not a dye. The next letter is the color family:  PR is red, PY is yellow, etc. The number is the specific pigment included in the tube.

When you compare paints with the same names, check their CIIs. It seldom makes sense to buy a tube of paint that contains more than one pigment. These blends are meant to look like something else—either an historic pigment or an expensive one. They don’t behave like the pigments they’re named after. For example, ‘cadmium yellow hue’ may look like cadmium yellow coming out of the tube, but it makes insipid greens.

If you are comfortable painting with a hue, learn what’s in it and mix it yourself. You always have the greatest flexibility by working with pure pigments (rather than mixes) out of the tube.

The students in my watercolor workshop aboard schooner American Eagle get QoR paints, Princeton brushes, and Strathmore paper. You can't learn with bad materials.

No-name brushes

You can buy a whole set of bristle brushes on Amazon for $20. The same price will get you a set of genuine sable brushes for watercolor. Good deal, right? Wrong.

Natural bristles have splits at the end, called flags. These help the bristles hold more paint. (With high-stain pigments, the flags can discolor, but that’s not a sign of permanent damage.) With good brushes, bristles are cleaned, sorted, sized and wrapped into bundles where the flags cup, or curl naturally into each other. This bundle is then glued into the ferrule with a solvent-resistant glue. The best ferrules are seamless nickel-plated copper, crimped onto a lacquered hardwood handle.

Badly cupped brushes and poor-quality bristles can be made to look good with lots of sizing that dissolves as soon as the brush is used. Bad brushes often lose hairs, which can ruin a painting. And ferrules that fall off the handles can’t be crimped back on.

You need fewer brushes than you think. In watercolor, a ½” flat, a 1” wash brush, a #6 quill and a #8 round are enough to get you started. Add a set of short synthetic flats (or mottlers, as they’re sometimes called) in ¾”, 1” and 1½”. A little pointed brush to sign your name is helpful.

In oils and acrylics, a life list would include:

  • Brights (short flats) in 6, 8, 10, possibly 12, depending on how big you’re going to paint;
  • Rounds: 2, 4, 6;
  • Long (true) flats: 3, 4, 5;
  • Filbert: 2, 4, 6;
  • A few tiny rounds in sable for detail and to sign your name: 2,4;
  • 1” badger blender brush;
  • 2” spalter or hog bristle background brush—this is for blocking.

I recommend Princeton brushes to students; they come in a range of quality and material and are good value for money. I’m currently painting with Rosemary & Co. in both watercolor and oils, but they’re quite expensive. Other brushes I’ve known and loved include Isabey, and Winsor & Newton. But brushes are a highly-personal thing, and you’re best buying one or two from a maker and running them through their paces before you commit to a relationship.

Dollar-Store painting boards

Why does one manufacturer charge $15 for a painting board when you can buy one at a local discount store for $2? There’s a difference in quality at every step. The cheap board is made of cardboard, which warps. The gesso is thin and porous, so paint bleeds through it, breaching the all-important barrier between surface and substrate. The canvas is glued with a water-based glue, so if the board gets wet, it will start to separate.

Still, the price of a premium painting board is too high for painting exercises. Instead, buy a tablet of linen or canvas and tape sheets down on a board. For linen, I like Centurion; for canvas, Dick Blick’s house brand. If you do end up creating a masterpiece, you can glue it to a stable board with PVA adhesive.

As a bonus, a tablet of painting canvases is a lot lighter than the same number of boards when you’re traveling.

Straight up linseed oil, and for a palette cup, a bottle cap.

Painting mediums

I used to spend a lot of money on painting mediums tailored for specific situations—matte finish, quick-drying, slow-drying. However, because these all have solvents in them, they’re not legal to carry on airplanes. I found myself replacing them on every trip. Eventually I went back to the jar of linseed oil I’ve been carting around since my salad days. It’s cheaper, it lasts forever, and you can carry it in your checked luggage. (An aside—you can also fly with a small jar of Gamsol, but not Turpenoid; they have different flash points.)

Linseed oil is the binder for most oil paints. It’s harmless; it’s made from flax-seed, the same thing I eat for breakfast. The same cannot be said of the driers and solvents in many mediums.

If you’re worried about yellowing (I’m not, because my paints are linseed-oil-based) then use stand oil. That’s linseed oil that’s been polymerized by heating.

No blog Wednesday--I'm sailing this week.

What sells?

Sea Fog, Castine, 9X12, $869 framed.

“Interesting that you say ‘I have come to recognize that there are certain subjects that will languish, and I no longer seek them out.’  You mentioned gray days. What other subjects do you find difficult to move?” a reader wrote in response to Wednesday’s post.

For the record, it was Ken DeWaard who doesn’t like gray days. I love fog, especially Maine fog, which seems to have an intelligence of its own. I don’t have a particular problem selling fog paintings, especially when there are boats involved.

Snow at Higher Elevations, 11X14, available, $1087 framed

On the other hand, I have never had much success selling snow paintings, although they can be very interesting as they invert typical light relationships. I’m from Buffalo and live in New England, so I know snow. I’ve painted enough of it. But I only go out in winter to keep Ken and Eric Jacobsen company. Just as Ken has a closet full of grey days, I have a closet full of snow paintings.

Perhaps my audience is sick of shoveling it. However, the late, great Aldro Hibbard lived and worked in Rockport, Massachusetts. He made a fine business of painting snowy Vermont landscapes.

Buyers tend to associate certain painters with certain subjects. Colin Page paints boats, children, and complex still-lives. Charles Fenner Ball paints pastorals and trains. Mary Byrom paints the marshland along the southern Maine shore. Whether or not it’s fair for the marketplace to pigeonhole artists, it happens.

Île d’Orléans waterfront farm, Saint-François-de-l'Île-d'Orléans, Quebec, 8X10, available unframed, $522

I will occasionally paint an old tractor or historic old farm. These, too, sit on my shelves, but Kari Ganoung Ruiz and Jay Brooks are able to move them along just fine. They both capture the mystery of lost time in these paintings, whereas I am just painting objects.

On the other hand, I sell a lot of boat paintings. A lobster boat is just a tractor of the sea, so why does my audience find them romantic and a Massey-Ferguson prosaic? Perhaps because nobody comes to Maine to look at old tractors, but they do go to central New York for them.

Glaciar Cagliero from Rio Electrico, 12X16, $1159 unframed, available.

I love rocks. They tell the story of a place, they’re fascinating to observe and classify, and I find rock outcroppings easy enough to sell.

However, I also appreciate farm animals, orchards, and hayfields. However, I find it harder to shift these subjects. The farther I get from the farm country of my youth, the less it compels me. Somehow that’s transmitted to my audience, although I can’t tell you how.

What sells depends on the obsessions of the artist. If you love, say, butterflies, your passion will be transmitted to the canvas and buyers will respond. If you are indifferent to rain, it will show, and your rain paintings will languish. If you spend lots of time painting boats and very little time painting classic cars, your boat paintings will be fresher and livelier.

I frequently marvel over this real estate listing, which features large paintings of meat on the wall. Why anyone would paint them, and why anyone would buy them, escapes me. But truly there’s a market for anything, if you’re passionate about it.

Why success matters

Autumn Leaves, 12X16, $1449, available

On Monday, I wrote about how to be a successful artist. Perhaps I should have written about why you should pursue success, because the comments I received through Facebook and emails questioned that assumption.

“I hate the fact that everyone expects us to happily marry art and capitalism. I love art. I hate capitalism. Why can’t I just enjoy the thing I love independent of the other?” wrote Jason Weinberg. “I wish art was simply free to be art, not product.”

In fact, I think that many people are better off as gifted amateurs than trying to make a living at it. Monetizing it can kill the very thing you love, so it's not for everyone.

A Woodlot of Her Own, 9x12, $869, available

For those who spend long hours making art, it helps to have an outlet for it. Let’s start with the fundamental truth that the laborer is worthy of his hire, as Jesus pointed out. All modern societies (capitalist or communist) measure output in terms of money and assign value through currency. To say that art should be free assigns it a value of exactly zero.

I have a friend who’s an excellent printmaker but prefers to keep it purely amateur. She also needs to eat, so she works full-time unloading trucks. That doesn’t leave much time or energy for art, so she doesn’t make a lot of it. She’s happy with that compromise, but I wouldn’t be.

Blueberry barrens, Clary Hill, oil on canvas, 24X36, $3985 framed.

It costs money to make art. My printmaker friend needs to buy ink, paper, and whatever she’s using for plates. A small etching press starts at around a thousand dollars. The archival canvasboards I use are about $15 each; the paints run between $12 and $40 a tube. Then there are frames, which are the bête noire of the working artist; they cost a fortune and get dinged up constantly. All that money either gets recouped through sales or the artist’s day job.

It can cost thousands of dollars to have a foundry cast a sculpture in bronze. Unless you’re wealthy, it makes no sense to cast sculpture without sales in mind, and yet without that last step, the artistic process is incomplete.

I have a gifted student who supports herself working a series of side-hustles while making art seriously and studiously as an avocation. I’m sure she excels at anything she does, but she’s a brilliant painter, she has a unique message in her work, and it deserves to be in the public marketplace. By not putting herself out there in the fray, her work stays relatively unknown. That extends beyond her own circumstances, because she has insight that would benefit us all.

Bunker Hill overlook, watercolor on Yupo, approx. 24X36, $3985 framed.

We don’t just exchange goods in capitalist trade; we exchange ideas. That requires entering the marketplace. Its critiques are harsh, its judgments summary. But it is also the most honest judge of whether we’re getting our point across or not.

“I would love to sell more of my artwork but I still want to be able to do whatever I want, not what someone else expects me to do,” wrote another correspondent. That’s difficult. Although artists are paid to think, they also need to connect with their audience. That requires compromise.

I have come to recognize that there are certain subjects that will languish, and I no longer seek them out. As my friend Ken DeWaard says of grey days, “I have enough of those in my closet at home.”

Monday Morning Art School: how to be a professional artist.

Today’s blog is being released simultaneously with the YouTube version, above. They’re slightly different, of course.

I wince every time I hear someone say “art is a good hobby but you can’t make a living at it.” Of course you can; I know many people who do. Last year, the global art/antiques market had sales of $65 billion. Of this, the US was by far the biggest player. All that art is, or was, made by someone.

However, a career in art is hard work. If you don’t like that, get a day job and keep your art as a hobby. Successful artists are entrepreneurs, and entrepreneurs generally work harder and longer than anyone else. There’s a lot of drudgery in an art career—bookkeeping, inventory control, making frames, online sales. On top of that, you have to create your own inventory and somehow keep the creative fire alive.

Drying Sails, 9X12, oil on canvasboard, $869 framed.

It helps to start when you’re young. As soon as you have a mortgage or car payment, you’re locked into a 9-5 job. Keep your expenses down. If your parents can stand you, live in their basement, but use that time wisely. Too many young people just piss time away.

However, sometimes you come to the realization that you should have been an artist much later in life. I was 38 and had four kids and a mortgage when I had that epiphany. It was doable, but juggling all those responsibilities was a lot harder than it would have been had I started as a youngster.

Either way, you might have to work part-time when you’re getting started. A lot of artists have done it, either in the home or away. Child-care definitely counts as one of those jobs. Don’t magically think that the kids will play quietly at your feet while you’re painting. Käthe Kollwitz made child care a condition of her marriage. We can’t all afford that, but caring for a child is real work and must be factored in as such.

“Beautiful Dream (Rockport Harbor),” oil on canvasboard, 12X16 $1,449.00 framed.

Twenty years ago I would never have said this, but don’t bother with art school. The best art schools are private colleges, and they’re too expensive now. Instead, take classes at an atelier or working studio. Copy works by great artists in your field. Watch and learn from artists around you.

Above all, give yourself time to become good at your craft; working every day is the number one key to greatness.

"Skylarking 2", 18x24, unframed $1855, oil on linen.

The most common problem I encounter in artists is a lack of interest or experience in business. I started there myself, and it was a painful learning curve. If I had it to do again, I’d take business classes at community college or through an adult education program. Instead, I learned slowly, on the job.

You’ll be selling a product no different from any other product, and you can’t afford to turn your nose up at marketing. You’ll spend half your days doing it, so learn to love it. Marketing changes constantly. When I started, we stuck labels and stamps to postcards. Today, we focus on the internet. The one constant is how time-consuming it is.