Monday Morning Art School: painting on demand

Sometimes it’s not fun. Sometimes it’s almost painfully stressful. What do you do then?
Sunrise, oil on canvasboard, is available through my studio at 394 Commercial Street, Rockport.
At my first plein air competition, I was a nervous wreck. “Come on, Carol,” my exasperated friend said. “Get a grip! You know how to do this.” At that moment, it wasn’t exactly true; I’d forgotten everything I ever knew about paint.
For some of us, commissions result in painter’s block. For others, plein air competitions are painfully stressful. Occasionally, I’ll have a student who freezes in my workshops. I used to suffer terrible performance anxiety, which is why I’m a painter and not a musician. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found ways to cope. These strategies have in turn lessened my overall anxiety.
Glade, watercolor on Yupo, will be at the Jackson Memorial Library, Tenants Harbor, ME, in September.
The first of these is to have a plan. It may seem counterintuitive to go into a painting with a process mapped out, but in fact that’s what you have to do to complete any project within an allotted time. When I painted a portrait in Edinburgh in April, I had a tight deadline. I planned how long I had for the charcoal drawings, how long for the underpainting, and how long to finish the top coat. When I do a quick-draw, I know I must finish the drawing and underpainting in the first hour in order to finish the top layers in the allotted time.
You might think that a flow plan is inhibiting, but it’s exactly the opposite. I learned this many years ago while painting a portrait commission for my late friend Dean Fero. It was a surprise birthday gift for his wife. That meant a precise deadline, which he didn’t let me forget. As I worked, I found the tight schedule liberating. I couldn’t perseverate and noodle endlessly on passages. That, in turn, meant freer, better brushwork.
Bracken Fern, oil on canvasboard, is available through Trove on Main, Thomaston, ME.
Playwright Robert More was finishing a comedy when I last saw him. “I can rewrite this ending eight times, and the last one won’t necessarily be better,” he told me. “I’ll just end up with eight different versions.”
Having a set protocol is invaluable for quelling nerves. In addition to providing consistent results, it focuses your mental energy on the doing, rather than on worry. (I’ve given you protocols for oilsand watercolor; you can follow them or write your own.)
Once you’ve established a painting process, practice it repeatedly—not concentrating on the results, but on mastering the process. Being absolutely prepared is the best cure for performance anxiety. This is the great benefit of painting-a-day schemes; they’re not about producing great artwork, but about getting a hammerlock on your process.
Castine Sea Fog, oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas, available.
As you go on, stop thinking about all the ways you can screw up the painting. Instead, think only about the phase you’re in. If something goes wrong, don’t berate yourself, and above all, ignore the voices in your head that tell you you’re no good. They’re wrong. Instead, ask yourself where in your process you made a wrong turn.
In other words, develop enough self-awareness that you can monitor your own progress. When I’m agitated, I develop a nervous tic of constantly rinsing my brush. That’s a mud-making mistake in any medium. Because I know I do it, I can stop doing it before it’s out of hand—and ask myself what’s gotten me upset.
The Golden Hour, oil on canvas, Carol L. Douglas (private collection)
Even in pressurized painting situations, take time to eat decently and get some exercise. While in Edinburgh, I enjoyed taking my model’s dog, Poppy, out in the magnificent local parks. Exercise lifts the mood and reduces anxiety.
Above all, don’t waste time worrying about whether the client will like the work, or whether you’ll make a sale or win a prize. Focusing on the results, rather than the process, can effectively kill a painting.