Buying art supplies in a shopping desert

Blown off my feet, 16×20, $2029, available through Cape Ann Plein Air

When I was in Cape Ann last week, I broke my brush washing tank. (It retaliated by dousing me with filthy mineral spirits.) Eric Jacobsen took me to a neat little art store in Beverly called Art Supplies Wholesale. Alas, they don’t sell metal tanks. “No matter,” I said, and asked Rae O’Shea for a jam jar. I can replace the tank this week at home.

I live in an area with a great assortment of art stores nearby. There’s Rockport Blueprint in Camden, Fiddlehead in Belfast, Salt Bay in Damariscotta, and Artist & Craftsman in Portland. If you live where there are art stores, for heaven’s sake patronize them. There may come a time when you need something fast, and you’ll be grateful for that shop around the corner. And the price spread between online shopping and your local store is not as large as you think.

The Surf is Cranking Up, 8×16, $903, available through Cape Ann Plein Air

Some of us don’t have that luxury. I got this letter from a painter in Kansas:

“My oils are in dire shape and I would like to order new paint. I would like your advice on where I should order art supplies. My town is a shopping desert, there is only a Walmart here. Basically, we are at the mercy of ordering everything online.

“I drove to a Michaels in another town this past weekend and looked at what they had, but it was very limited. What are some good online resources to restock my oils?”

Those big-box craft stores sometimes surprise me; for example, I needed acrylic paint and brushes in another small town and the big-box craft store carried Golden. That’s my preferred brand. But in general, what craft stores carry in stock (vs. what’s on their website) is insufficient for serious painting. Worse, you have to navigate aisles of silk flowers, stamps and beads to get to it.

Peaceful tidal pool, 9X12, $869
Peaceful tidal pool, 9X12, $869,

Art supplies are a fairly large industry in the US, with $819.0m in sales expected this year. As a category, it’s in decline, whereas its cousin, arts and craft supplies, is growing. That tells you where most people shop.

There are three major art suppliers online: Dick Blick, Jerry’s Artarama, and Cheap Joe’s. All three concentrate on offering an enormous array of options at the lowest possible prices. That makes them great for the person who knows what they’re looking for, but can be a trap for the uninitiated. That’s one reason that teachers should write and maintain a good supply list.

Walnut tree, stone wall, 8X16, $903, available through Cape Ann Plein Air

Dakota Art Pastels specializes in only one line of products-pastels, pastel papers and pastel pencils. Their approach is very different; they share information about pastel hardness and allow you to buy samplers of different brands before you commit to a pricey set. Theirs is one of the few websites I boot around on just for fun.

Then there are specialist stores like Rochester Art Supply, which would be my go-to for encaustics. These stores combine a strong local presence and a good internet sales base.

Stone Wall, Salt Marshes, 14×18, $1594, available through Cape Ann Plein Air

Paradoxically, if you just need one item and have Amazon Prime, it can be your cheapest solution. Again, you need to know exactly what you’re looking for, as they often sell deceptive knock-offs. See my post about how Google drives viewers toward flawed Meeden pochade boxes.

There are some products you must buy directly from the vendors. I use RGH paints, made by Rolf Haerem and his assistant in a little shop in Colonie, NY. Panel Pak wet painting carriers and most pochade boxes are items that come directly from vendors. Some online vendors carry limited supplies of fine products-Raymar art boards and Rosemary and Co. brushes are two examples. However, the full lines can only be accessed directly from the manufacturers themselves.

Monday Morning Art School: stop seeing your peers as competitors

Dawn Wind, Twin Lights, 9X12, Carol L. Douglas, available through Cape Ann Plein Air.

Driving home from Cape Ann Plein Air (CAPA), I listened to an episode of The Side Hustle Show featuring a sobriety podcaster called Gill Tietz. She said, “stop seeing your peers as competitors; see them as marketing partners instead.”

That’s exactly why plein air festivals like CAPA work. Obviously, we’re competitors for prizes and sales. More importantly, we’re working together to create a market for art. Nobody is going to visit the Rockport Golf Club to see five paintings by Carol Douglas. But they will drive there to see 175 paintings by 35 artists from across the US. There’s strength in numbers.

Seafoam, 9x12, Carol L. Douglas, available through Cape Ann Plein Air.

That principle works across business models. Public markets are a great example of small farmers who band together to punch above their individual weight. Yes, the guy selling organic lamb is competing against the guy selling chicken, but together they manage to lighten my wallet by a considerable sum.

Unbalanced competition can undo this model; there is nothing as depressing as a shopping mall with half its stores shuttered. We can’t say exactly why, but none of us like to go there.

The stretch of coastal Maine in which I live is known for its concentration of galleries. Nobody would drive here for just one gallery, but they come in their tens of thousands for the whole scene.

That has an impact beyond just attracting buyers. It attracts other artists to the community. There were four painters at Cape Ann from my own little stretch of seaside—Tom Bucci of Camden, Ken DeWaard of Hope, Eric Jacobsen of Thomaston, and me. None of us are native Mainers; all of us relocated here to live and work.

Falling Tide, 11X14, Carol Douglas, available through Cape Ann Plein Air.

In general, artists do the collegial thing very well. Of course, we all know artists who love to crow about their own work, who make cutting comments, or who slyly bend the rules. Unless they’re undercutting the event, ignore them; they’re working from a position of insecurity.

I like to paint with Eric, Ken and Björn Runquist. It’s always entertaining. Sometimes it’s the push I need to get out the door at all. Painting together can also be a form of peer-mentoring.

We think of mentorship as giving help and advice to a less experienced, younger person, but it also happens between peers. It can be as simple as Kirk Larson showing me a video light he carries to offset bad lighting, or as deep as talking a buddy through a bad patch. My students have a peer-mentoring group on Facebook that gives fantastic support and guidance.

Fishing Shacks, Carol L. Douglas, 11X14, private collection

For this model to work, the green-eyed beast of envy must be stomped down and never allowed to return. “That’s easier said than done,” you might say, but it’s really just a question of controlling your own thinking. When you find yourself feeling jealous of another artist, firmly set those thoughts aside and move on. If they return, do it again. Envy is really just a bad habit that can be broken. It impedes your creative process.

There will always be someone who does a better painting, wins more prizes, or sells more work. If he or she isn’t at this show, they’ll be at the next one. Judging and sales are often style-driven and subjective, so you’ll go nuts trying to assess your own worth based on what someone else is doing.


It’s a wrap, more or less

I have to choose five paintings for jurying out of this mishmosh...

In the deep woods, the gender differences in the pipi sauvage, the business of peeing in open spaces, is reduced. Men’s clothing is designed for it; modern women’s clothes are not. (Yes, I have a SheWee; it’s more trouble than it’s worth.)

Laugh if you will, but this is a serious issue for women plein air painters. In the deep woods we can find privacy. In cities, there are coffee shops. On a 40-yard slope of open granite shelves, with the ocean on one side and luxurious homes on the other, the pipi sauvage is a man’s game.

Eventually, I found a small thicket of rose bushes. Unfortunately, I also dropped my keys without noticing.

Painting in Wednesday's rain. (Photo courtesy Mitch Baird)

“I’m so sick of painting lavender skies,” Janet Sutherland said. I laughed, because it’s also my go-to solution for making grey days interesting. Eric Jacobsen’s was to set up a dead-seagull still life. It’s a beautiful painting in the manner of Jamie Wyeth, but ‘it needs a special buyer’ as we say delicately about paintings that are unlikely to ever sell.

That’s why all of us at Cape Ann Plein Air (CAPA) were all thrilled to awaken Thursday to crystalline skies and clement air. I went to Cathedral Rocks, where I found Jonathan McPhillips, Mark Fernandez, Eric Jacobsen, and Mitch Baird. By eleven, I was regretting my long pants (which Rae O’Shea had kindly laundered for me). Now, this was October weather!

Eric Jacobsen arranging a still life at Pigeon Cove. Poor juvenile gull.

By the time I was done with two paintings, my fellows had all wandered off to find subjects elsewhere. That’s when I realized I’d lost my keys. I backtracked and searched under rocks and shrubs, praying hard. They were right where I’d dropped them.

That was the start of a day of small snafus. None of them had major consequences, but all required backtracking, searching, and recalibrating. That’s just a sign of being tired, which is to be expected after a week of very long hours. The 35 artists in this show are blessed to do this for a living, and even more blessed to be in this prestigious event, but painting is also hard work.

On Thursday evening, we painted nocturnes in downtown Gloucester. I have a hard time with night painting, as my bedtime is 7:30 PM. And I was suffering from a preconceived idea (which is seldom good in plein air). It was born of the unseasonably-cold weather and Halloween decorations around town. I wanted to paint a ghost.

Rae O’Shea kept me company. It’s not one of my most brilliant paintings (if I can be said to have ever painted a brilliant painting), but we had a great time figuring out how one paints a ghost. And if anyone says, “that’s not plein air!” I challenge them to prove that wasn’t what we saw.

Jonathan McPhillips at Cathedral Rocks.

I wish I had more days to paint, because the schooner wharf at Harbor Loop is stunning—all cross angles and swooping curves. Unfortunately, we hand in our paintings today. I think I’ll take a small (9x12) canvas and frame into town with me. If I can sneak in one more painting before the flag goes down, I’ll do it.

My ghoulie set-up.

Not that this is a practical idea. I’ve already done a dozen paintings, with one wipe-out. The last thing I need is another. However, everywhere I turn, I see something else I need to paint. The combination of limpid autumn light, crashing surf, fishing fleets, and beautiful old buildings has me in visual overload.

The paintings from CAPA will be online later today. I will post an addendum as soon as I have a link.

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.