Pride goeth before a fall

Early Spring on Beech Hill, oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas, 12X16, $1449 framed includes shipping in continental US.

On our way to Erickson Fields, my husband exclaimed, “We forgot our cleats! Should I go back?” I’d walked our usual 4.5-mile hill trek on Sunday and it wasn’t terrible. Besides, I was in a hurry.

The trails that converge on the top of Beech Hill are very popular. In the summer, that means you go as early as possible. In winter, foot traffic polishes the trails to a glossy finish. It was especially bad Monday morning; I’d made the wrong choice.

Athabasca Glacier, 14X18, oil on linen, $1275 includes shipping and handling in the continental US.

“It’s like walking on the Columbia Icefield, but worse,” I grumbled. But I’m an experienced old bird, and I carefully picked my way to the top.

“I managed to not fall,” I said gleefully as we crossed back into Erickson Fields. “In fact, I haven’t fallen one time this whole year.” Which was stupid, since it’s always the downhill slope that gets you. Sure enough, a second later I was flat on my back on the ice. To add insult to injury, I did it a second time. That kind of pain takes a day to kick in but 48 hours later, everything hurts, including my fingernails.

I had a very tight schedule. I would work with Laura (my IT and PR person) until 2, take a break to paint woodwork until 4, and then set up a demo for my Zoom class on color bridges. We have new furniture coming for our guest room, and this house has never had the upstairs floors properly painted in its 125 years of existence. Thrifty New Englanders, they left the parts covered by area rugs as raw wood, with painted borders like monks’ tonsures.  I reckoned that if I did the woodwork on Monday, above the chair rail Tuesday night, below on Wednesday, and the floor on Thursday, I’d finish it just under my self-imposed deadline.

Mountain Path, oil on archival canvasboard, 11X14, $1087.00 framed includes shipping and handling in continental US.

“I can’t handle this pace,” I told myself, and then stopped and berated myself for being so negative. “Of course I can. I’m not tired and everything’s ticking along like clockwork.”

That’s when I got a message from a student in my new drawing class, which meets Mondays, 1-4. “I’ll be ready as soon as I get this cat off my lap,” she wrote.

“What?” I spluttered. “We don’t start until next week-do we?”

Turns out that the class, for which I’d done no marketing and no prep, did indeed start on Monday. Pride goeth before a fall, indeed.

Drawing is the bedrock on which painting rests, and if you can’t draw, you’ll have a hard time painting. I’m teaching this class because I need my painting students to be good draftsmen. I’ve got the four students I’d earmarked as needing it, but there’s still a lot of open space. If you think you’d benefit, I’m prorating the fee and making the video from Week 1 available, so you won’t miss anything. Our subjects are:

  • Basic measurement
  • Perspective
  • Volume and form
  • Drapery and clothing
  • Drawing the human face
  • Trees and rocks

You can register here.

Winter lambing, oil on linen, 30X40, $5072 framed, includes shipping and handling in continental US.


Before I forget, I’m also offering a four-week critique class starting on February 19. Your job is to paint during the week, and our mutual job is to analyzing our work based on the standard canon of design elements. This is not a touchy-feely class in any way; it’s meant to give you the tools to analyze your own paintings without falling victim to your emotions. I’ve taught this many times and my students have always been polite, enthusiastic and supportive, so there’s no reason to be nervous.

You can register here.

My 2024 workshops:

Monday Morning Art School: representing volume

Home Farm, 20X24, oil on canvas, $2898 framed includes shipping and handling in continental US.

Volume is the three-dimensional space occupied by an object. For example, in Home Farm, above, each of the buildings has a height, width, and depth, and the product of those three things is its volume. Form is the artist’s representation of volume, and shape is the space enclosed by a line or lines.

The Dance, Henri Matisse, 1932-33, courtesy the Barnes Collection.

Usually, we start with a line drawing (shape) and then use modeling to create form. However, there are many instances in which form is implied with no modeling at all; see Henri Matisse’s The Dance, above, for just one (superb) example.

Before you can progress to modeling, you need to create accurate shapes. This starts with measurement, which is most often done with the pencil-and-thumb method and with angles. A theoretical understanding of perspective helps as well. (I am convinced that anyone of normal intelligence can learn to draw, given patience and perseverance.)

The Laborer Resting, oil on linen, 36X48, $4,515.00 framed, includes shipping and handling in continental US. Satin, linen and lace each reflect light differently.

When we think about modeling, we think of shading, which is the technique we use to represent light and shadow on an object’s surface. Start by observing how light interacts with the objects’ surfaces. If they’re shiny, the value range (light to dark) will be much greater than if the surfaces are matte. Likewise, if the light is close by, shadows and highlights will be harsher than if the light source is far away or filtered.

Our first task is to identify where the light is coming from. The direction and intensity of the light will affect how shadows are cast, and where highlights appear on the object. But to confuse the issue, light can bounce around and shadows can overlay other shadows. A good understanding of light is important, but it can never replace observation. By that I mean observation from life, for just as cameras compress color, they also compress greyscale.

Two Peppers, oil on archival canvasboard, 6X8, $435.00, framed, includes shipping and handling in continental US.

We use gradation to model changes in light levels. That can take the form of carefully blended charcoal, graphite or, indeed, paint. Sandy Quang and I demonstrated drawing globes in pencil here, so you can follow our steps to practice drawing shiny round objects.

Gradation can also be implied with the use of hatching, cross-hatching, stippling, or rough paint or lines. In the two peppers above there is no blending at all; the mind fills in the gaps.

Your specific technique for gradation isn’t as important as your observation of how the light levels and patterns tie together. This can be complicated.

Every painting has highlights and core shadows. The highlights are the brightest areas in the picture, usually facing the light. Core shadows are the darkest part of the picture, usually opposite the light source. Highlights may be absolute white and core shadows absolute black. Although we could draw them like that, modern painting tends to shy from either true white or black. (Even watercolor paper is not harshly white.) That, however, like so many other things, is a trope of our times. The Baroque masters of chiaroscuro relied on absolute black to set the dramatic mood.

Highlights and core shadows are easy enough to spot. What is more difficult is fitting the mid-tones in, in a consistent series of steps from dark to light, hitting all or most of the levels. If you don’t start with the highs and lows, it’s very easy to err on the side of being too dark or too light. This is where a greyscale is very handy, for light levels are infinitely complicated. I’ve tacked one at the end of this post; go ahead and print and use it.

Prom Shoes 2, oil on archival canvasboard, 6X8, $435 framed includes shipping and handling in continental US. The direction of brush strokes implies form.

Remember that brushwork and drawn lines themselves can imply volume by curving with the object’s surface. This is an effective technique in both drawing and painting.

Print me and use me, please!

My 2024 workshops:

Sketching vs. drawing

Little Village, 6X8, oil on archival canvasboard, 435.00 framed includes shipping and handling within continental US. This is a field sketch.

“What’s the difference between sketching and drawing?” a student asked me. Since we were drinking cappuccino and watching a spectacular sunrise together, I asked my friend and fellow artist  Jane Chapin.

“Sketching is a thumbnail, while drawing is more careful and measured,” she said. “In sketching you’re trying to work things out in your mind; in drawing, you already have your idea.”

The simplest of thumbnails is still a sketch.

Both sketching and drawing use the same essential tools: pencil, charcoal, ink, and pastel. However, these materials can be deployed in an almost infinite variety of ways.

The terms sketching and drawing are often used interchangeably, but they have slightly different meanings. These depend on the work’s purpose, level of finishing, and technique. There’s no hard line separating one from the other; that is subjective. Neither one is inherently better or more valuable than the other.

This is a drawing even though it’s in my sketchbook.

For me, sketches are quick, rough, informal representations of something I want to capture on the fly. Or, they’re experiments in design and composition before I commit myself to painting. Sometimes I use sketches to explain ideas. I’ve even sketched out ideas of things I want to build. (That’s almost always a mistake; I’d make far fewer errors if I drew plans with a ruler.)

Then there are the stupid cartoons I sometimes make for my grandkids. But whatever their purpose, sketches are immediate and without extraneous detail. They’re loose and imprecise.

This is an idea for a painting reduced to its simplest elements and value steps; it’s a value drawing, but I’d call it more of a plan.

In painting practice, sketches capture basic shapes and values without focusing on fine details. The term value drawing is really a misnomer; most of the time what we really mean is a value sketch. That’s especially true when we’re making thumbnails.

Then there is the field sketch, which is the painting equivalent of a pencil sketch. It is invariably on the small side. It can be used to record color notes or light effects, but it’s as different from a highly-finished painting as a pencil sketch is from a highly-detailed drawing.

This is a character sketch for a larger studio painting. Those old Italian aunts!

Drawings involve more careful measurement with thought-out perspective and proportion. They are usually more detailed, with a greater emphasis on accurate representation. Drawings can include subtle modeling, refined linework and intricacy. They can be highly complex. However, sometimes they’re starkly simplified; detail is deleted in favor of abstraction. The drawings of Vasily Kandinsky are just one example.

Sketches are generally done with quick strokes, using pencils, charcoal, or ink. No great emphasis is placed on sophistication or finish; instead, a sketch is all about spontaneity and intuition. Drawings, in contrast, are more cerebral, as is the case with mechanical and architectural renderings. Drawings are more likely to be made as final works of art, and are often done with better materials.

This is another drawing that started out as a few diagonal lines in my sketchbook. I define it as a drawing because it’s fully realized.

Of course, sometimes sketches evolve into drawings, as happens to me when I draw in church. I start with a germ of an idea, often nothing more than the intersection of two or three lines. As my subconscious mind drives my pencil, my conscious mind begins to see threads and connections. I erase, redraw, erase some more, and in less than an hour I have a finished drawing. It helps that my sketchbook is highly-erasable Bristol; I have endless opportunities for revision.

My 2024 workshops:

Monday Morning Art School: why you should draw

I draw every week in church, riffing off the sermon. Today’s was about persistence and hard work.

Nobody can master painting until they master drawing. That’s true for both abstractionists and realists, because drawing is how you express depth and dynamism. Painting is really nothing more than drawing with a brush. To build facility in paint, you first must draw.

Tens of thousands of years before there was written language, there was art on cave walls and cliffs. When words started being written down (around 3000 BC) they were first written in the form of pictographs. That tells us something about the importance of drawing to humankind.

I can draw things out of my head because I know how to draw from life.

Drawing is liberating

Drawing allows us to express ideas, emotions, and narratives non-verbally. For painters seeking to escape being literal, that’s critical. I can’t think of a single great painter who couldn’t draw. Vincent van Gogh famously taught himself, and his early drawings are bad enough that they should give us all hope that we too can do better. “Drawing is the root of everything, and the time spent on that is actually all profit,” he wrote.

It’s not just about putting pretty things down on paper. Drawing tightens up our observational skill. We develop a keen eye for details, shapes, proportions, and visual relationships. That helps us analyze and map both the world around us and our inner world.

All I need is a sketchbook and a #2 mechanical pencil. Anything else is just a refinement.

Much of drawing is about translating a three-dimensional reality onto a two-dimensional surface. That teaches us about structure and spatial relationships. If you don’t see the value in representing depth and space in a painting, take a deep dive into the work of Edgar Degas.

A lot of us stopped working on hand-eye coordination when we mastered cursive writing. Then we let it go when we started relying on computers, which is why so many of us have terrible handwriting. We need that hand-eye coordination for painting, and we develop it through drawing.

This is partly from my imagination, but the window is high up in our church building.

A study showed that drawing helps memory in young and old alike. Researchers speculated that it was because drawing draws on varied brain paths simultaneously. I think it’s because in drawing we must attend much more intensely. That reaps benefits not just in art but in life overall.

There is a gap between what we draw or paint and what is ‘really’ there. We like to think of that gap as a shortcoming, and to some degree it is. But it’s in that gap that we develop style, and where we do a lot of non-verbal creative thinking. Tracing from photographs will never allow for the soul to creep in like drawing does.

This was drawn when I had to sit in the foyer because there were no seats. I amused myself by imagining what was going on inside.

So why don’t we do it? The sad answer for many of us is that we’ve never been taught, so we’re frustrated and afraid to try again. We don’t grant ourselves the grace and patience to persist.

I’ve butted my head against this since I started teaching. Drawing and painting are closely related but I can only teach one at a time. That’s why I’m breaking a promise to myself to not work six days a week and offering a Saturday class on Fundamentals of Drawing, starting January 6. By Ash Wednesday, you’ll be well on your way to good draftsmanship. That in turn will lead to better painting.

My 2024 workshops:

Think with your hands

Think with your hands. 5X8, graphite on pencil in my sketchbook.

“I think with my hands, and it really cements my thoughts,” Theresa Vincent emailed me recently. She has a way with words; she’s the same person who told me a painting needs brides and bridesmaids.

I may be the only person in my church who draws, but I’m not alone in fussing while listening. There are occasionally people who knit, and lots of people who take notes. Whether they look back at them or not, writing notes results in better retention. More words are better than fewer, and writing by hand is better than tapping out notes in a phone or laptop.

Most importantly for us, drawing instead of writing results in even better memory retention. It doesn’t matter if what we’re drawing is ‘relevant’ or whether the pictures are objectively good.

Drawing in church. 5X8, graphite on pencil in my sketchbook.

Take that, every teacher who disciplined a student for drawing in class! I sure had those teachers; they made school a misery for me. Fifty years later, I realize I was a deeply-traumatized kid who needed help, but that wasn’t happening back in the 1970s. All I had was my pencil, and school had no room for free thinkers.

Fast forward to the aughts, when my own kids were in school. You’d think it would have been better after thirty years of child psychology, but school then was even more rigid and more disciplined. I knew several kids who were disciplined for drawing in class, including my own.

Drawing in church. 5X8, graphite on pencil in my sketchbook.

How does drawing help us remember?

Nobody knows precisely how this works, but it probably means that our moving hands help create new neural pathways to encode long-term memory. The brain-even the elderly one-continues to grow and mend itself. Even after great damage, like stroke or head injury, our brains make new neural pathways and alter existing ones. That’s how we adapt to new experiences and learn new information.

C. is a student in my Zoom brushwork class. She is 83 years old. The foolish might read that and think she’s an old lady taking art classes down at the senior center. They’d be all wrong. C. is a very serious painter, an excellent draftsman, and completely open to new ideas. Last week, I had my class do a small-brush exercise in the style of Les Nabis. It is difficult to give up the brushes you know and love, but C. embraced the challenge. And she crushed it.

Drawing in church. 5X8, graphite on pencil in my sketchbook.

Obviously, it’s not drawing alone that keeps C. youthful. She sails, she travels, and she has good genes. But art has a big place in her life.

Our brains are not the only way we think. We have a complicated autonomic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system activates our fight-or-flight response; the parasympathetic nervous system restores us to calm. Our enteric nervous system, which controls our gut (and thus our ‘gut responses’) can operate independently of our brains. And the cool thing is, we’re just beginning to understand how these systems all work together.

I’d almost bet I drew this at Christmas. 5X8, graphite on pencil in my sketchbook.

But they do, so it’s not unreasonable for Theresa to say she thinks with her hands. It might be quite literally true.

My 2024 workshops:

Monday Morning Art School: ruthless pruning

Prom Shoes 2, oil on archival canvasboard, 6X8, $435.

Sorry about my absence last week, but it was a lovely vacation.

A major part of learning to paint is learning to see, and in the process, learning to draw. This means not getting caught up in the details, but seeing the big shapes and how they fit together. This is fundamental to painting.

This means we stop thinking of the object we’re looking at as something we can identify, and start to see it as a series of shapes, or more accurately, a light pattern. That’s difficult, and even experienced painters can be tripped up.

Two Peppers, oil on archival canvasboard, 6X8, $435.00

Oops! My bad.

A few years ago, my student Sheryl drew the lobster-boat Becca & Meagan, which is moored year-round at Rockport Harbor. It’s painted a signature red, and I have painted and drawn it many times. Sheryl measured and drew, and I patiently corrected her. This went on for most of the class, until Sheryl finally insisted that I sit down and take measurements with her.

Whoops! It wasn’t Becca & Meagan at all. Its owner had launched a new boat, Hemingway. She was painted the same red and moored at the same buoy, but with her own unique configuration. I was so used to seeing Becca & Meagan there that I had stopped really seeing at all. I was drawing what I ‘knew’, not what was there.

Back It Up, 6X8, oil on archival canvasboard, $435.

It’s not what you know, it’s what you can see.

If I set a teacup in front of you, you’ll be guided in part by what you know about teacups: they’re rounded, squat and hollow. That gives you some checks on your drawing, but it also allows you to make assumptions about measurements and values. That can lead you astray.

To draw it successfully, you must stop reading it as ‘teacup’ and start seeing an array of shapes, planes and values. For most of us, that takes time. My process is two-fold. First, I sketch to figure out what I’m looking at. That’s investigative. Then, I ruthlessly prune, forcing my drawing into a series of shapes and values.

All objects can be reduced to a certain, limited number of shapes. These build on each other to make a whole. When you see things as abstract shapes, you expand your possible subject matter. A plastic pencil case is not inherently much different in shape from a shed. A shed, in turn has the same forms as a house. If you start with a pencil case, you can ramp yourself up to Windsor Castle in no time.

Primary Shapes, 6X8, oil on archival canvasboard, $435.

Notan and all other value studies are, above all, about cutting the picture frame into shapes, what Arthur Wesley Dow called “space cutting.”

Dow wrote the definitive 20th century book on composition, which sets down fundamental principles still used today. He taught his students to restrict the infinite range of tonal values in the visible spectrum to specific values-perhaps black, white and one grey. He wanted students see all compositions as structures of light and dark shapes. The success or failure of a painting rests on whether those shapes are beautiful.

Students sometimes chafe at being asked to do still life, but it’s the best training to learn space cutting. Just as important, it’s easy to set up and execute quickly, so you can practice on paper in just a few spare moments.

My 2024 workshops:

How to practice drawing (when you don’t feel talented)

Early Spring on Beech Hill, oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas, 12X16, $1449 framed

You’d have to be living under a rock to miss #joshallenjumpingoverthings, which is, oddly enough, about quarterback Josh Allen jumping over things. The term arm talent is often used about him. It means he has the strength and accuracy to drill the football exactly where he wants it to go.

Allen went to college in Wyoming and now plays for Buffalo. Both are known for miserable winters, so I’m sure there’ve been days when he’s been tempted to skip practice. I think of him and his fellow Buffalo Bills as I grouse about the cold this week. It magnifies aches and pains and makes it difficult to get moving.

Nobody would call me a talented athlete, but even on days when I’m feeling especially arthritic, I still get up and climb Beech Hill. I’m feeling another long ramble coming on and I know that goals are met in small, regular increments.

Walnut Tree, Stone Wall, oil on archival canvasboard, 8x16, $903.

It takes time

What the world calls talent in athletes is really a combination of good genes, perseverance and hard work. It’s no different in art.

Yes, there are people for whom drawing comes more easily, just as there are people who learn to read without a lot of fuss, or people who can do sums in their heads. None of that makes a brilliant career in art, language, or mathematics; they’re just a nice leg up. More important is the hard slog of learning and practicing.

I have no idea how many paintings and drawings I’ve done, but they number in the thousands. I can’t imagine how many times Josh Allen has thrown a football.

Mastery can’t be rushed. That’s true overall and it’s true piece-by-piece. Perhaps one of the least-helpful ideas the plein air movement has spawned is the notion that you can create a great painting in three hours. Occasionally that happens, but most painting is a tough slog over multiple iterations.

Stone Wall, Salt Marshes, 14x18, $1594 framed.

Practical ways to practice drawing

Drawing is not a magic trick—it’s a series of steps like long division or attaching a sleeve to a dress. It’s a great disservice for society to pretend it requires some mystical, unfathomable talent. I’ve written innumerable blog posts about basic drawing. (Someday I’ll index them all for you.) And I’ve frequently recommended this book for people wanting the basics.

But reading about drawing isn’t enough. You must practice. The good thing is, drawing is easy and cheap. I like Strathmore’s Visual Journal and a #2 mechanical pencil. If you want more refinement, my readers and I recommended fancier products here.

Beauchamp Point, Autumn Leaves, 12X16, oil on archival canvasboard, $1449.

Stick two pencils in the ring binder of your sketchbook and toss it in your backpack or purse. Pull it out whenever you have fifteen minutes to sit down. That can be on the train, in a meeting, at church, while cooling your heels waiting for your doctor—anywhere.

What should you draw? Whatever strikes your fancy. A plastic Ficus. A Christmas ornament. A toy. Mittens. Or, pull out your phone and search for something offbeat. Scissors. Donkeys. Sports cars. Grain silos.

Drawing from life is better than drawing from photos (because it’s more difficult) but any drawing is good practice. Just a few minutes a day is all you need.