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Stuck? 12 ways to reignite your painting progress

Possum, 6X8, oil on archival canvasboard, $435 includes shipping in continental US.

“I’m not making any progress,” a reader lamented to me about her painting class. “It’s like I’m watching people zoom past me in their muscle cars while I’m potting along in my Kia Rio.”

Feeling stuck happens to all of us at some point. Here are 12 practical suggestions to reignite your learning.

Tin Foil Hat, 6X8, oil on archival canvasboard, $435 includes shipping in continental US.

Stop comparing yourself to others. Different people bring different intelligences to painting. That’s what makes artwork so fascinating. Moreover, we all have periods when we excel, and periods when we flounder. Think of the Homecoming Queens who fade into obscurity or the billionaires who started as high-school dropouts.

Expand your learning opportunities. That doesn’t necessarily mean taking more classes. Reading, videos, and painting groups are great ways to absorb more ideas painlessly. A student told me recently that Alla Prima by Richard Schmid is now available for free online. Since it’s roughly $300 at Amazon, that’s an opportunity to read a classic no starving artist can afford to buy.

Practice regularly. Consistency is key when it comes to improving any skill, including painting. Set aside dedicated time to work, and make painting a habit. You’ll fall into the groove more easily if it’s more familiar.

Start with the basics. Sometimes, going back to fundamentals will help you overcome a plateau. Focus on drawing, value, color, and composition.

Study other artists. I love ambling around galleries and museums, but looking at work online is the next best thing. Modern imaging is so sophisticated that you may learn more about the artists’ brushwork and technique online than from the ‘safe’ distance in the physical place. Applying critical analysis to masterworks will help you better understand the painting.

Hiking, 6X8, oil on archival canvasboard, $435 includes shipping in continental US.

Break out of your rut. I know I’ve said that working will net you more than shopping, but some experimentation with new techniques and materials can reignite your creativity. You also might find new approaches that resonate with you.

Take a workshop. The great advantage of a workshop is that it’s immersive. You stop worrying about everyday life. You make new friends who are as passionate about painting as you are. There’s time for a deep dive into new ideas, techniques, and you may come away with a whole new perspective on painting.

Apply critical analysis to your own work. I teach this skill a few times a year, because self-critique is the greatest skill an artist can possess. It separates you from your emotional response to you can see, objectively, what needs to be strengthened.

Dish of Butter, 6X8, oil on archival canvasboard, $435 includes shipping in continental US.

Break down complex subjects. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. If you’re tackling complex ideas or compositions, break them down into smaller, manageable parts. That stops you from being overwhelmed. I’ll be teaching this process in my next online class, High, Wide and Handsome, which starts on June 12.

Seek constructive feedback. Share your work with trusted peers or insightful non-painters. Different perspectives can provide fresh insights and help you identify areas for growth.

Embrace your errors. The most successful artists I know aren’t fazed by failures. They analyze them, set them aside, and move on. Painting is just one long series of goofs and meandering byways. By focusing on the process, rather than the results, you make room for brilliant discovery.

Be patient. If it’s worth doing, it will take time and effort. Stay motivated, set realistic goals, and celebrate small victories along the way.

My 2023 workshop schedule can be found here.¬†That includes September aboard¬†schooner American Eagle,¬†mountain vistas in¬†the Berkshires, and our ever-popular¬†Sea & Sky at Schoodic in Acadia National Park. New, in October, an immersive, in-person workshop in Rockport, ME. In 2024, we’ll be in Sedona and Austin in March. Why not register today?

Monday Morning Art School: the number one problem with your painting

Seafoam, 9X12, oil on archival canvasboard, $869 framed includes shipping in continental US

On Monday, I posted Let’s Paint Some Duds! After about the hundredth person told me they have no trouble whatsoever painting duds, I realized my hook was lousy. It tapped into fear of failure instead of challenging people to be more questing and adventuresome.

I’ve had many emerging artists tell me that half or more of their paintings are duds. That’s shocking; it’s way too high a failure rate, especially when it comes in the learning phase. For that matter, there are other painters who fail just as often but don’t even realize it. (And far be it from me to wreck their happy illusions.)

Duds are a particular problem in plein air painting, so much so that my pal Brad Marshall coined a term for the process of making them: flailing around.

Cypresses and Sunlight, 11X14, Carol L. Douglas, $1087 includes shipping in continental US

Why so many?

I also get frequent emails and texts that read, “I’m stuck! What’s going wrong here?” That’s why I periodically teach an online critique class; you’ll advance more quickly when you can answer that question for yourself.

But the answer almost always comes down to bad composition. Either the darks are not organized, or the focal points are not clear, or there’s not a clear and compelling armature. Figuring that out in advance, with a value drawing or notan, saves tons of time and effort.

Composition organizes the design elements of a painting. It provides structure and balance, guides the viewer’s eye, and determines where a painting falls on the all-important scale of harmony-to-tension. Composition controls the visual appeal of a painting, but it also controls its emotional power.

Stone Wall, Salt Marshes, 14×18, $1594 framed includes shipping in continental US

A weak composition is still a composition.

The same student who kvetches about flailing and failing often resists the idea of studying formal composition. “I want to be spontaneous and natural,” he will say. Well, composition, like puberty, is going to happen whether you take a hand in guiding it or not.

Weak compositions impede the very message that the supposedly-spontaneous artist wants to convey. Conversely, strong compositions guide viewers through the content. By strategically placing focal points, controlling movement, and using visual cues, you influence not just what your viewers see, but what they think and feel. And isn’t that the point of communication?

Then there’s the question of balance and emphasis. Just as the cannonades in Tchaikovsky‘s 1812 Overture are carefully placed to emphasize the point of Russia’s victory over the French, your focal points must fall in sweet spots. They must be reinforced with contrast and line. When it works flawlessly, we see a painting that is beautiful individual, and stylish-without overburdening our minds too much about how it happened.

Ketch and Schooner, 8X10 in a solid silver leaf frame, includes shipping in the continental US

How do I learn to be a better composer?

I’ve written extensively on this blog on the subject of composition, which of course you can access for free. Above all, there’s my cardinal rule of painting: don’t be boring. I can’t restate that often enough.

If you really want to give up flailing and failing, I invite you to also take my online course, The Correct Composition, which I just released on Friday. Give yourself a lot of time to do the exercises and take the quizzes; you’ll get far more out of it than you will by just skimming the videos.

My 2023 workshop schedule can be found here.¬†That includes September aboard¬†schooner American Eagle,¬†mountain vistas in¬†the Berkshires, and our ever-popular¬†Sea & Sky at Schoodic in Acadia National Park. New, in October, an immersive, in-person workshop in Rockport, ME. In 2024, we’ll be in Sedona and Austin in March. Why not register today?

More art supplies won’t make you a better painter

Breaking storm, 48X30, oil on canvas, $5,579 framed includes shipping in the continental US.

I had an entertaining text exchange with an emerging painter yesterday. “We spend too much money on better paper, fancy brushes, and teaching videos,” he mused. “We think we can buy our way into good results. But it all comes down to spending time painting. One must actually apply paint to paper to understand the lessons, to get them into one’s head.”

A few moments passed and he added, “Of course, that’s very dangerous if you’re painting with other people with all the same bad habits as you.”

Therein lies the conundrum. Yes, you need to paint — lots, fast and furious — to improve. But you also need to understand the fundamentals, and it helps to have good materials. It’s like playing the piano. Both practice and instruction are critical, but you’ll enjoy it a lot more if your piano holds a tune.

Bunker Hill overlook, watercolor on Yupo, approx. 24X36, $3985 framed includes shipping in continental US.

I have two sets of watercolor brushes. The first are high-end, large brushes that I use for ‘important’ work. The others are mid-range Princeton Neptunes. These days, most of my watercolor painting is pootling around in my sketchbook, so of course I grab the Neptunes. It figures that I’ve gotten better with them than with my fancier brushes.

I once told my Zoom class that one could paint in oils with a stick, and that my ratty, half-hardened brushes proved it. Instead of taking that lesson to heart, they bought me new brushes (which moves me every time I think of it). While it’s quite possible to paint in oils with a stick, or even a palette knife, it is lovelier to paint with my treasured new brushes.

Palomino Blackwing pencils are going around my students like COVID right now. “Are you made of money?” I ask them, tongue in cheek. I’d order them too if my business partner didn’t have a death grip on our checkbook. Sometimes it’s just fun to have lovely things.

Wreck of the SS Ethie, oil on canvas, 18X24, $2318 framed includes shipping in continental US.

More fun, I’m afraid, than buckling down and doing the hard slog. But, of course, the hard slog pays off in ways that shopping never can.

Last month I introduced The Value Drawing, an interactive class that discusses how to make an effective value drawing. Today I’m introducing The Correct Composition, an even weightier tome. The Perfect Palette came out earlier this year.

Laura and I have been releasing them as we finish them, with the idea that we’d market them as a set when the whole Seven Protocols for Successful Oil Painters is finished. Today I realized that was unfair to my followers. If you buy the whole series at one time, you’re going to rush through it, whereas if you have it episode by episode, you’ll take the time to do the exercises and quizzes, and above all, “actually apply paint to paper to understand the lessons, to get them into one’s head,” as my correspondent wrote.

Sunset Sail, oil on linen, 14X18, $1594 includes shipping in continental US.

The Value Drawing is closely related to The Correct Composition, so if you haven’t done that one, you might want to do them both now. Meanwhile, I’ll continue to work on the next step, which is The Essential Grisaille.

To put it in perspective, one of these classes is the discount price of a 9/12 Arches Watercolor block. The three I have done so far total the same amount as an 18/24 Arches Watercolor block. I’d never dis the value of a fancy new watercolor block; I adore them. However, I know that knowledge will improve your painting far faster than better paper, or brushes, or even those luscious pencils.

My 2023 workshop schedule can be found here.¬†That includes September aboard¬†schooner American Eagle,¬†mountain vistas in¬†the Berkshires, and our ever-popular¬†Sea & Sky at Schoodic in Acadia National Park. New, in October, an immersive, in-person workshop in Rockport, ME. In 2024, we’ll be in Sedona and Austin in March. Why not register today?

Reverse aging by learning to draw

Stuffed animal in a bowl, with Saran Wrap. 6X8, oil on archival canvasboard, $435 includes shipping in continental US.

For decades, I’ve been telling my husband: “When they come to take me away, tell them I never could remember anything.” It’s true; I have a terrible memory for names and dates. I’ve watched a loved one take a digit-span test and shuddered; I couldn’t recite a string of numbers backwards at age 25, let alone now.

Recently I’ve noticed my short-term memory is improving. I’ve attributed that to the infernal modern need for passwords, which we need to unlock everything from our bank accounts to our house.

We take for granted that older people lose cognitive ability – especially memory – over time. But what if that is preventable, or even reversible? That would be tremendous not only for the people involved, but for our aging society.

Pull up your Big Girl Panties, 6X8, oil on archival canvasboard, $435 includes shipping in continental US.

I’ve got good news for you

Recent research suggests that not only can cognitive loss be delayed, but in some cases even reversed. Researchers had elderly (55+) participants engage in intensive learning for three months in a program designed to mimic the schooling we put our kids through. Not only was there cognitive improvement, it lasted through the one-year follow-up test.

This wasn’t a casual learning program. Study participants took twelve weeks of classes in three subjects about which they had no prior knowledge, choosing from Spanish, photography, iPad operation, drawing, and music composition. They had homework (hah!). That and their attendance were tracked.

Both the six-month and one-year scores were significantly higher than the subjects’ pretest scores. The researchers were careful to note that they’d tried to replicate the environment in which young people learn, so the social bonds created in classes could have been as important as the learning itself.

This wasn’t a lone study, either; they were duplicating the results of earlier research.

Back It Up, 6X8, oil on archival canvasboard, $435 includes shipping in continental US.

A half-hearted approach won’t work

What’s equally important is what doesn’t promote cognitive improvement. Just listening to classical music doesn’t cut it-you must pick up that cello and try to master it. There’s no duffing it to mental acuity. You must focus, intently, on a new skill for it to make a difference.

Most painting students are older adults. The ones who stick with it are the ones who are slightly obsessed. They don’t just paint during class; they work tirelessly during the week. Most of my students stick with me over long periods of time, and build an esprit de corps among themselves. Perhaps their peer-to-peer learning and encouragement are as essential to their success as artists as anything I tell them.

Hiking, 6X8, oil on archival canvasboard, $435 includes shipping in continental US.

It seems that any skill that requires long-term effort and concentration will help the older mind, and drawing and painting certainly qualify. The beautiful-and maddening-thing about painting is that it’s not ever really mastered. I’ve been at it for decades and there’s still always something to learn.

My 2023 workshop schedule can be found here.¬†That includes September aboard¬†schooner American Eagle,¬†mountain vistas in¬†the Berkshires, and our ever-popular¬†Sea & Sky at Schoodic in Acadia National Park. New, in October, an immersive, in-person workshop in Rockport, ME. In 2024, we’ll be in Sedona and Austin in March. Why not register today?

Escape from Pleasantville

Mary Day on Camden Harbor, Cassie Sano, courtesy of the artist.

“I’ve escaped from Pleasantville,” Cassie Sano excitedly told our zoom class. “I’ve always been afraid to step out of Pleasantville, but now I’m exploring outside of it.

Later, I asked her about this transformation. “It’s not that my paintings were awful. I was just painting too tightly and too carefully with no detail left undefined,” she said. “They were pleasant, but somewhat boring. Afraid to step ‘out of bounds,’ my paintings reminded me of the movie Pleasantville, and I began to jokingly refer to them with that name.”

That’s a 1998 comedy about two siblings trapped in a 1950s sitcom, set in a small town populated by ‘perfect’ people.

Shadows and Tracks, Mount Vernon, Cassie Sano, courtesy of the artist.

“I left nothing to the imagination of the viewer. I wanted to get the heck out of Pleasantville, but I didn’t know how.”

Cassie is somewhat handicapped in that goal by being one of the most pleasant people I know. Behind her gentle demeanor, however, is a fiercely-fit single-mother and grandmother; she once bounded up Bald Mountain to keep me company while I was painting. And then bounded around the summit to keep herself amused.

She studied graphic design at Salem State University, Elementary Education at Boston College, and cartography and journalism in the military. “In 2018, I retired as a mail carrier for the US Postal Service, and then began focusing on my art. I spent a few years doing pottery, but then shifted to watercolor and oil painting, writing and illustrating picture books, and teaching watercolor painting to beginners.”

“When I first started painting with oils, I was focused on the technical aspects of painting– how to set up my palette, when to use Turpenoid or medium, how to apply the paint on the canvas, and effective use of values and composition. As I became more comfortable with these technical matters, I began to think beyond them.”

Corea Harbor, Cassie Sano, courtesy of the artist.

Transformation from journeyman to master

That makes sense; we must figure out technique before we can dig into meaning and expression. But at some point, technique becomes automatic and we start thinking about deeper issues.

Cassie’s most recent class with me was on bravura brushwork, and that seemed to be what she needed to get past literalism-especially the class where I asked her to paint like Vincent van Gogh. “I could feel myself loosening up and finally seeing how to sneak past Border Patrol‚Ķ I felt a lot of joy after that class and shouted (to myself), ‘I finally get it!'”

“My goal is to continue practicing these techniques with an emphasis on making my paintings more exciting and joyful for the viewers, and leaving a lot to their imagination,” she told me.

Vienna Mountain Road, Cassie Sano, courtesy of the artist.

Cassie is represented by Eye Feast Art. She is a member of the Kennebec Valley Art Association, River Arts Gallery, and Maine Arts Gallery, and the organizer for the Kennebec Valley Plein Air Painters. In June, she will have a solo show at McLaughlin Garden and Homestead, 97 Main Street, South Paris, ME. The opening will be June 3 from 2-4 PM.

My 2023 workshop schedule can be found here.¬†That includes September aboard¬†schooner American Eagle,¬†mountain vistas in¬†the Berkshires, and our ever-popular¬†Sea & Sky at Schoodic in Acadia National Park. New, in October, an immersive, in-person workshop in Rockport, ME. In 2024, we’ll be in Sedona and Austin in March. Why not register today?

The value of value

Cypresses and Sunlight, 11X14, Carol L. Douglas, $1087 includes shipping in continental US.

Early this year, I set out to create a seven-step online training class to teaching the fundamentals of oil painting. This morning I’m releasing Step 2: the Value Drawing. Making these interactive classes is a tremendous learning experience for me, and I hope the net result is helpful for you, too.

Value (lightness to darkness) is just one component of color, but it’s the most important. Establishing a hierarchy of values before you ever pick up a brush will save you hours of flailing around in the field. I know this from personal experience. Before I became disciplined about value, I wasted tons of time (and much paint) dithering, repainting, and generally making a mess of more paintings than I saved.

The value sketch is the oil painter’s secret weapon. It’s an opportunity to plan your painting before you ever pick up a brush. And it’s critical; if the value structure is compelling, your painting will be compelling. If not, your painting is doomed from the start. Nothing in painting is more important than value.

Birches, 6X8, oil on archival canvasboard, $435 includes shipping in continental US.

Value is the basis of good composition

“But why waste time on a sketch when I can just paint?” you ask. For the same reason that contractors need blueprints before they start building: great ideas require planning.

Investigating value in advance is the key to compositional fluency. In value sketches, we quickly experiment with different arrangements of lights and darks. This helps us make intelligent choices about focal points, line, and the weight of individual elements in the painting.

By breaking complex scenes down into restricted value planes, we create blueprints for our paintings. This not only helps us simplify ideas, it guides us through later decisions about color, texture, and detail.

Value sketching starts with just a few simple, inexpensive tools: a sketchbook and a mechanical pencil. Working in a sketchbook is a lot faster and easier than working out questions of light and dark in paint. In return for a small investment of time at the beginning of your painting, you’ll reap tremendous dividends as you go forward.

Dropping Tide, 11X14, oil on archival canvasboard, $1087 framed includes shipping in continental US.

Amplifying contrast

Value drawing helps us simplify and amplify (when necessary) the contrast between darks and lights in our composition. Contrast is the visual tool that creates interest and drama in a painting. Too many paintings fail because they’re stuck in the boring midtones.

Seafoam, 9X12, oil on archival canvasboard, $869 framed includes shipping in continental US.

Understanding Form

Value drawing helps us understand how light interacts with different forms and objects in a composition. It’s what gives objects volume. You may never paint the nuances of three-dimensional modeling, but you should understand them.

Value is particularly important in realism. It’s how we create convincing illusions of light and shadow, depth and dimensionality.

Who is this course designed for?

It’s comprehensive, so it’s tailored to both a beginner’s understanding and an experienced artist’s continued development. You can go back to it repeatedly and take it at your own speed, so you’ll benefit from it no matter what your starting point.

Step 1: the Perfect Palette

Step 2: the Value Drawing

My 2023 workshop schedule can be found here.¬†That includes September aboard¬†schooner American Eagle,¬†mountain vistas in¬†the Berkshires, and our ever-popular¬†Sea & Sky at Schoodic in Acadia National Park. New, in October, an immersive, in-person workshop in Rockport, ME. In 2024, we’ll be in Sedona and Austin in March. Why not register today?

Announcing a new critique class online

Autumn Farm, evening blues, oil on canvasboard, $1449 framed, includes shipping in continental US.

On April 24, I begin a new online critique class. When I first introduced this class back in 2021, I was very curious about how it would evolve. The idea wasn’t just to make specific paintings better. It was to help students develop a sort of executive function that would oversee their painting processes outside of class. This, as you can imagine, was much harder than “hold your brush like this” painting classes.

It was a success, and the proof is in the pudding. That coterie of initial students, for the most part, no longer need me to tell them how to analyze their work. That means that for the first time in a long time I have openings in a Zoom class. I call that success!

Clary Hill Blueberry Barrens, watercolor on Yupo, 24X36, $3985 framed includes shipping in continental US.

A good pairing with plein air

This class lines up with the beginning of plein air season in the north, which is convenient. It’s both a spur to students to go out and paint, as well as an opportunity for students to analyze and strengthen work they’ve done on their own.

Critique is a long-standing tool in every intellectual discipline, artistic and technical. However, it’s more straightforward to tell your co-worker, “I can’t duplicate your results,” than it is to put into words why a painting isn’t working.

What critique is not is an emotional response. It must be disciplined and systematic, but art is at the same time intuitive and subjective. We bridge that gap by analyzing works based on a series of objective design elements:

  • Focal point
  • Line
  • Value
  • Color
  • Balance
  • Shape and form
  • Rhythm and movement
  • Texture (brushwork)

These transcend style or period. Every painting includes them to some degree. The critic must consider how they work together. Do they coalesce into something arresting or not? If not, what forces are blocking the full expression of the artist’s idea?

Blueberry barrens, Clary Hill, oil on canvas, 24X36, $3985 framed, includes shipping in continental US.

The secret is in being nice

I’ve now taught several of these critique classes and the surprising thing is how warm and supportive they’ve been. We’re all intelligent adults; we understand that when our ideas aren’t working, it’s because we’ve run into a problem that another set of eyes can help us unravel.

The very first question we ask is, what was the goal of this painting? That’s not always simple, so it deserves time. Every subsequent point of discussion should be weighted in regards to that answer. For example, if what interested the painter was the loneliness of a home on a rocky crag, the composition, color, and brushwork must all support that aloofness.

Criticism is never mere fault-finding. There is a seed of brilliance in almost every painting, and it needs to be enlarged upon. That means discussing the merits of a painting as much as discussing its faults.

For critique to work well, the critic and artist must both approach the process with humility and mutual respect. I once took a painting I couldn’t finish to a noted teacher for criticism. She told me that it looked like a ‘bad Chagall.’ In trying to execute her ideas on the canvas, I destroyed my own vision. My self-doubt met her self-confidence in a terrible concatenation.

Fog over Whiteface Mountain, 11×14, $1087, includes shipping in continental US.

This class meets from 6-9 on:

  • April 24
  • May 1
  • May 8,
  • May 15,
  • May 22
  • June 5

For more information, see here.

My 2023 workshop schedule can be found here.¬†That includes September aboard¬†schooner American Eagle,¬†mountain vistas in¬†the Berkshires, and our ever-popular¬†Sea & Sky at Schoodic in Acadia National Park. New, in October, an immersive, in-person workshop in Rockport, ME. In 2024, we’ll be in Sedona and Austin in March. Why not register today?

It helps to pay attention to the rules

Wreck of the SS Ethie, oil on canvas, 18X24, $2318 framed includes shipping in continental US.

This is a cautionary tale for autodidacts (people who teach themselves). As a group we are highly self-disciplined, curious, stubborn and creative, but we can also waste a lot of time and effort on rabbit trails.

The advent of social media was a great time for people like us to start marketing online, because nobody really ‘knew’ how to do it. But there were traditional ideas of marketing that would have been helpful. One of these was the so-called funnel. This is the path that a customer takes from first hearing your name to making a purchase. It includes the following steps:

  • Awareness
  • Interest
  • Consideration
  • Intent
  • Purchase
The Wave, 9X12, oil on archival canvasboard, $869 includes shipping in continental US.

Now you know more about the funnel than I ever did. I knew that marketers made big efforts to get people to sign up for their blogs and websites. Why bother, I asked myself. This blog has a high readership through its exposure on social media. (There’s that autodidact thing manifesting itself; we’re good at coming up with new ways of doing old things.)

It’s becoming increasingly apparent that social media sites like Twitter and Facebook are not disinterested forums that can be used by little parasites like me. Emailing my blog directly, instead of relying on social media, would have been a Very Good Idea after all. *

Breaking Storm, oil on linen
Breaking Storm, 48X30, oil on linen, framed, $5579 includes shipping in continental US.

What does this have to do with painting?

I learned to paint from my father. He was born in 1924, and learned to paint before World War 2. His teaching model was less lecture and more letting me tag along with him while he drew and painted.

Later, I took classes at the Art Students League. I was shocked at what Cornelia Foss told me after she saw my first effort in her class.

“If this was 1950, I’d say ‘brava’, but it’s not.” She then proceeded to tear apart my technique and replace it with something more up-to-date.

It wasn’t just obsolete; it was in many ways bad. From Kristin Zimmermann, I learned about pigments. Somewhere along the line, I dropped the soup of turpentine that I’d been stewing my paintings in, turning them all a milky grey. And I learned how to draw the human figure with academic accuracy.

That’s not to say that everything I ever taught myself was bad; in fact, because I’m a voracious reader much of it was good. But I wasted many years on bad technique because I was too proud to ask for help.

Moonlight, c. 1885-95, Ralph Albert Blakelock, courtesy Phillips Collection. Yes, it’s mysterious and enigmatic, but it’s also falling apart.

Ralph Albert Blakelock was a celebrated painter of his day, achieving the highest price for a living American painter in 1916 with a version of Moonlight, above. His is a tragic story of celebrity, mental illness, abuse and swindle. Blakelock was largely self-taught. Being that kind of creative thinker, he would tinker with the processes of painting. He often mixed bitumen and varnish for rich depth of color in his thick, uneven paint. That has proved to be a conservation disaster, so when we look at his paintings today, we aren’t seeing what he laid down. In fact, in most of them tonalism has been replaced by something grubby and dark.

Autodidacts, it doesn’t hurt to ask for help occasionally.

*You can sign up for my newsletter, by the way, in the little box on the right. And it might be wise to ‘whitelist’ me; I lost Bruce McMillan’s wonderful newsletter for a while because gmail sent it to my spam folder.

My 2023 workshop schedule can be found here.¬†That includes September aboard¬†schooner American Eagle,¬†mountain vistas in¬†the Berkshires, and our ever-popular¬†Sea & Sky at Schoodic in Acadia National Park. New, in October, an immersive, in-person workshop in Rockport, ME. In 2024, we’ll be in Sedona and Austin in March. Why not register today?

Monday Morning Art School: get the most from a painting workshop

Rim Light, 16X20, 16X20, oil on archival canvasboard, $1623 includes shipping in continental United States.

The hardest thing for a teacher is the student who says, “yes, but‚Ķ” to everything one tells them. I should know; I tend to be one of those myself. I know what it means to stubbornly protect what I already know, to rely on my own skills instead of opening my mind to new concepts. (Note to Cornelia Foss: I really was listening; I wish I’d listened better.)

I’m teaching in Sedona this week and Austin next week, so preparation is on my mind.

The Rocks Remain, 16X20, oil on archival canvasboard, $1623 includes shipping in continental United States.

Come prepared

Study the supply list, but don’t just run right out and buy everything on it. Every teacher has a reason for asking for specific materials. In my case, it’s that I teach a system of paired primaries. You can’t understand color theory without the right paints. Another teacher might have beautiful mark-making. If you don’t buy the brushes he suggests, how are you going to understand his technique?

A tube of cadmium green that I once bought for a workshop and never opened still rankles. I never want to do that to my students. When you study with me, I want you to read my supply lists. If something confuses you, or you think you already have a similar item, email and ask.

(If you find yourself buying something for one of my classes or workshops and not using it, would you let me know? It means I’m missing something.)

Bring the right clothes. It’s hovering in the 50s in Sedona this week, but Austin will be in the 70s. I send my students a packing list for clothes and personal belongings. But modify it for the weather you’re expecting. Don’t ignore the insect repellant and sunscreen.

The Surf is Cranking Up, 8×16, $903 includes shipping in continental United States.

Know what you’re getting into.

“How can you stand this? It’s all so green!” an urban painter once said to me after a week in the Adirondacks.

There are no Starbucks in Acadia National Park or on the clear, still waters of Penobscot Bay. If you’re dependent on your latte macchiato, you may be uncomfortable at first. But the beauty of America’s wild places more than makes up for it. (And somehow, there’s always coffee, even where there’s no cell phone reception.)

Take notes

There’s a sketchbook on my supply list; plan on writing as much as you draw. If you write down key points, you’ll remember them far better than if you just read my handouts.

Listen for new ideas and ask questions. If I can’t stop and answer them mid-stream, save them for after the demo. Participate in discussions and know that your voice is valued; I’ve learned more from my students than from anyone else.

Seafoam, 9X12, oil on archival canvasboard, $869 framed, shipping included in continental United States.

Be prepared to get down and dirty.

I’m not talking about the outdoors here, I’m talking about change and growth. I am highly competitive myself, so it’s difficult for me to feel like I’m struggling. However, it’s in challenge that we make progress. Use your teacher’s method while you’re at the workshop, even if you feel like you’ve stepped back ten years in your development. That’s a temporary problem.

You can disregard what you learn when you go home, or incorporate only small pieces into your technique, but you signed up for the workshop to grow and change. You can’t do that if you cling to your own technique.

Connect with your classmates

There’s power in those relationships. Exchange email addresses. Keep in contact. Follow them on Instagram or Twitter. You’ll learn as much from each other as you will from me.

My 2023 workshop schedule can be found here.¬†That includes September aboard¬†schooner American Eagle,¬†mountain vistas in¬†the Berkshires, and our ever-popular¬†Sea & Sky at Schoodic in Acadia National Park. New, in October, an immersive, in-person workshop in Rockport, ME. In 2024, we’ll be in Sedona and Austin in March. Why not register today?

Welcome to the Perfect Palette

Stone Wall, Salt Marshes, 14×18, $1594 framed.

The Perfect Palette online course is $35.00 and you can access it here.

Today marks the launch of my first online painting class: The Perfect Palette. It’s the first in a series of seven, and I think it marks a new way of learning about painting.

I teach painting through a set of discrete steps that anyone can master. That gets the ‘how’ out of the way and makes room for the ‘why.’ In theory, once a student has my painting protocol sheet in his or her hand, I’m not necessary.

I wish it were that simple. Each step is the distillation of a great deal of theory and practice. It takes time to absorb new concepts. My idea with these online training classes is to expand that protocol sheet, to create a system in which people can return to complex ideas over and over until they really have them down. I’m going to make seven of them over the coming year, taking you through each step of oil painting.

Seafoam, 9X12, oil on archival canvasboard, $869 framed.

More better learning

A few years ago, I made some simple calculations. If I taught at my current rate (which is a heavy load for a working artist), I would have a maximum of three hundred open student-seats a year. That sounds great, until you consider that it takes a few years to make a painter. That means most of those slots are taken by repeat students-so much so that I’m not advertising my weekly classes right now. I’m only able to influence a few dozen painters each year, and there’s material I never get to.

Consider drawing. It’s fundamental, but I can’t add a drawing class to my schedule. I can just recommend a good book and hope people open it.

I have a much wider influence through this blog, which has thousands of regular readers. Mine it carefully (there’s a search box to the right), and you’ll learn everything you need to know. However, because of the way blogs are organized, that’s difficult. The content may be evergreen, but the indexing stinks.

I set out to write a ‘how to paint’ book in 2021. It didn’t go well. I’m too restless to sit still that long. Besides, a little voice kept asking, is that how people learn today?

Persistent clouds along the Upper Wash, 11X14, oil on archival canvasboard, $869 unframed.

Why did I start with the palette?

If you’re new to oil painting, the prospect of buying all the necessary paints can be overwhelming. If you’ve been painting for a while, you might find yourself with a expensive drawer full of paints that you never use-or worse, that make dull mixtures. That’s where this class comes in – you’ll learn how to set up the perfect palette with just the paints you need to create the widest range of beautiful colors.

In this class, we explore basic color theory and introduce you to the world of mixing oil paints. You’ll learn how to choose the right pigments for your palette and how to mix them effectively. We’ll also delve into the history of pigment and show you how to make informed decisions when buying paints, decisions that will save you time and money.

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

I couldn’t do it myself

Some of you know my daughter Laura Boucher. She’s ‘wicked smahht,’ as they say here in Maine. As sometimes happens in the software start-up world, she was footloose and fancy-free at the same time as I was realizing my limits.

I have never taken an online workplace training class, but they’re common enough in business. She took that model and applied it to painting. This class is the result, and today we launch the first of our new series.

I hope you enjoy it. Meanwhile, we’re well into the weeds with the second video. I’m learning some new skills, like how to run a video camera and how to light a shot.

These videos will follow a logical progression from getting started to finishing up a painting. Once you own the course, you can go back to sections one at a time to refresh your knowledge.

My 2023 workshop schedule can be found here.¬†That includes September aboard¬†schooner American Eagle,¬†mountain vistas in¬†the Berkshires, and our ever-popular¬†Sea & Sky at Schoodic in Acadia National Park. New, in October, an immersive, in-person workshop in Rockport, ME. In 2024, we’ll be in Sedona and Austin in March. Why not register today?