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Monday Morning Art School: what’s the perfect travel watercolor kit?

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

It’s possible that I have too many travel watercolor kits. They include two Winsor & Newton field boxes (cute and cuter) as well as a beautiful antique box that was a gift from my friend Toby. The trouble with prefabricated kits is that they have unnecessary pigments and usually leave out the good stuff. Nobody needs convenience mixes like Sap Green or Payne’s Grey—having them on your palette just results in duller colors.

My watercolor kits for the schooner workshop are a little more complex–more paints and a water pan that doesn’t slide.

That’s why I make a custom one for students of my watercolor workshop aboard the schooner American Eagle. Of course I have one of those boxes, too.

Then there’s my kit for bigger watercolor paintings, which is what I recommend to my plein air students. I have used this 18-well palette successfully for field paintings of up to 36” wide, although I do have to clean it off frequently. Again, it holds more paint than is strictly necessary, since nobody needs 18 different pigments. What’s most useful is a bigger mixing well, and sometimes a disposable plate is just the answer.

My trimmed down box for this trip. Primary colors and white gouache just to use up the space.

Choosing the right travel watercolor kit is always a complicated dance between what is optimal and what I can pack or carry.

I’m hiking in Yorkshire this week, after which I will go up to Scotland. For painting, I’ve limited myself to what I can carry in what the British call a bumbag (because ‘fanny pack’ would be an obscenity over here). I wanted a kit for myself and for my pal Martha, who’s hiking with me.

I started with an Altoids box, because where I live it’s cheaper to buy Altoids than an empty tin. I stuck down four half pans with double-sided tape. Why four, when limited palette in watercolor only needs three paints? I didn’t want to leave a gap next to my mixing well.

I used three primary colors made by QoR. I’m a big fan of these paints, which are made by Golden Artist Colors in upstate New York. They’re bright, clear, and reasonably priced, and they’re tuned to the American palette. To get the broadest range of color, I used:

I filled the last pot with white gouache just for fun.

QoR makes nice field kits, including this one, which has the virtue of not including extraneous pigments. But in addition to wanting to carry as little as possible, I want Martha to have as little choice as possible. Too much choice can drive a new painter nuts.

Since the Strathmore Visual Journal is not negotiable, it determines the size of the final kit.

There are some lovely folding brushes out there, including this nifty travel kit. That was a bit pricey for a gift, so I got each of us a set of Pentel water brushes. I added a Strathmore multimedia visual journal and a bound Strathmore watercolor pad, two mechanical pencils, a pill bottle (for water) and a small flannel rag. Now we each have a kit we can carry and use as the spirit moves us.

Have you ever made a travel watercolor kit for backpacking? If so, how did you do it?

I’m in Britain on another lovely, long, blister-inducing hike. I’ve turned my phone off and while I’m gone, Laura will be running the office. Just email me as usual if you have questions or problems registering for a class or workshop. (Who am I kidding? She fixes all that stuff anyway.)

My 2024 workshops:

Monday Morning Art School: What are you good at?

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

Painting teachers can sometimes focus on the negative, because it’s part of our job to point out deficiencies. However, there is a lot we can learn by asking our students, “What are you good at?”

I’ll go first: I’m logical, good with numbers, and I’m disciplined. In art terms, I’m a good composer and draftsman and I’m intrepid. See, that wasn’t too hard.

Lobster pound, 14X18, oil on canvas, $1594 framed includes shipping and handling within the continental US.

Your turn: what are you good at?

Name three qualities that are general and three related to your art. I can easily see a relationship between my strengths on and off the canvas. What about you? Are your strengths as an artist related to your strengths as a person?

No, it’s not bragging

I’m not asking you to talk about your awesomeness to everyone you know. We humans all perseverate on our weaknesses, and as an artist you’ve chosen a career with lots of knocks to the ego. A realistic idea about your strengths is a good counterweight to the negativity of the art world.

Camden Harbor, Midsummer, oil on canvas, 24X36 $3188 includes shipping in continental US.

Why is this important?

Looking at our strengths is an effective learning tool. Reflecting on our strengths helps us understand ourselves better. It allows us to recognize where we excel and what comes naturally to us.

Knowing our strengths boosts our confidence. When we are aware of what we’re good at, we feel more capable and empowered to tackle daunting challenges. Confidence can be a driving force in achieving our goals.

Understanding our strengths also helps us set realistic and achievable goals. By leveraging our strengths, we embark on projects that align with our abilities. That increases our chances of success.

Focusing on our strengths enables us to further develop and refine them. Continuous improvement in areas where we excel can lead to greater mastery in those areas. That in turn enhances our overall competence.

It also allows us to collaborate more effectively with others. I have a show hanging at Lone Pine Real Estate this season. It’s a good symbiotic mesh between experienced brokers and an experienced painter. I recognize their strength at attracting a clientele, but I also understand that my strengths in painting houses and boats gives them subject matter that meshes with their mission.

Above all, recognizing our competence develops resilience. All of us sometimes get to a point where we think, “I can’t do anything right.” Knowing our competence helps us navigate periods of self-doubt or rejection.

Main Street, Owl’s Head, oil on archival canvasboard, $1623 includes shipping and handling in continental US.

Above all, it feels good

Not beating ourselves up all the time is such a relief. Art (and life) is just more fun when we feel good about what we’re doing. What we focus on, we (to some degree) become. As King Solomon wrote some 3000 years ago, “for as he thinks within himself, so he is.”

If you’ve got the courage, answer the question “what are you good at in art and in life?” below. (I promise to not tell anyone.) Can you see a relationship between the two? Can you see a way those strengths can be a building block to future success?

My 2024 workshops:

Footnote: the Red Barn Gallery in Port Clyde, ME, is looking for an artist to join for the 2024 season. It’s a cooperative gallery so you must be able and willing to work shifts there. Having done it myself, I can tell you there are few places more pleasant in which to spend a summer afternoon. The application is here.

Monday Morning Art School: what are your artistic goals for the next twelve months?

Forsythia at Three Chimneys, oil on archival canvasboard, $869 framed includes shipping and handling in continental United States.

As I ask you this series of Big Questions About Art (starting here), I’m trying to answer them myself. This one is hard, because for too long, my main goal has been to finish today’s work and get a start on tomorrow’s. I’m a kinesthetic thinker, meaning I figure things out by doing them. The more physical that is, the happier I am. That’s not bad for a painter, since our work is essentially tactile. However, it doesn’t always lend itself to advance planning.

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

My artistic goals (as of right now)

  1. To develop a broader range of surface-scribing skills. By that I mean more varied brushwork, with the ability to float between ambiguity and detail without overworking the surface. That includes scumbling, impasto and fine line work.
  2. Add more figure and contemporary structures into my landscape paintings. One of the things I most admire about Childe Hassam, George Bellows and other 19th century painters is that they didn’t shy away from their own times. I’m drawn to old things but not everything old is beautiful, and not everything beautiful is old.
  3. I want more time to paint. I love teaching, and I learn a great deal from it, but I need more time with my own brushes.
  4. I must finish building out my new gallery space. I’d hoped to get this done by Memorial Day, but it won’t happen until I get back from Britain in June. What does carpentry have to do with painting? Just about everything.
  5. It’s summer; can I have some time to recharge? I can’t blame this on anyone else; I’m my own worst taskmaster.
Spring Greens, 8X10, oil on archival canvasboard, $652 framed includes shipping and handling in continental US.

How would you like to develop your artistic goals?

Here are some ideas:

  1. Continuously improve your technical abilities. That could be paint handling, drawing, or composition, to name just a few possibilities.
  2. Push the boundaries of your creativity by experimenting with new ideas, techniques, or mediums. (See last Wednesday’s post.)
  3. Focus on expressing your own values, ideals and emotions instead of producing merely-pleasant art.
  4. Spend some time in museums looking at art that moves you.
  5. Read about art and artists.
  6. Build a coherent portfolio: The best way to mount a cohesive body of work is to do a lot of it, and then look at it as a unit. Objective critique from trusted peers or a teacher sometimes points out themes you’ve never noticed in your own work.
  7. Show your work: Displaying your work in public not only gives you the potential for exposure, it pushes you to work very hard. This doesn’t have to be in a gallery; it could be a coffee shop, library, or a show in your own home.
  8. Take classes—iron sharpens iron.
  9. Enter competitive shows. I hate doing this too, especially when the entry fees are high. But set the goal of applying for a few each year. You might be pleasantly surprised!
  10. Fail gloriously. You aren’t really pushing your boundaries unless you occasionally muck up. Embrace that. Failure is a sign of growth; you were willing to take risks and try new things.
Spring Allee, oil on archival canvasboard, 14X18, $1594.00 framed includes shipping and handling in continental US.

These goals are just suggestions; none of us can do them all, at least not right away. What can you take from my brainstorming, and how can you make these ideas your own artistic goals for the coming year?

My 2024 workshops:

Monday Morning Art School: What’s your why?

Fog over Whiteface Mountain, 11X14, $1087 framed includes shipping and handling in continental US.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be asking you some big questions. They’re not rhetorical, I am genuinely interested in your answers. My first goal is to grow a community, instead of just an audience. My second is to know how I can better serve you as a teacher.

I recently listened to Start with why by the English motivational speaker Simon Sinek. I’m glad I did, despite my general skepticism about motivational speakers.

Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle, as rendered by me.

The simple image above is Sinek’s Golden Circle. The outer circle represents what a company does (its products or services). The middle circle represents how it does it (its unique selling proposition or process). The inner circle represents why it does it (its purpose, belief, or cause). Sinek argues that truly successful and influential organizations operate from the inside out, starting with why.

This is not a “because there’s a need” question. Rather, it starts with the passion of the founders, which filters down through its employers and ultimately its customers. He cites Apple as an example of a company built on why.

This is equally applicable to people. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. didn’t succeed because he was a southern black American preacher at the start of the civil rights movement; there were lots of fine southern black orators. But King held a deep personal belief about moral law, expressed in his 1963 I Have a Dream speech. It has since resonated with millions of people, black and white alike.

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

Purpose and Inspiration

Our why is our motivation, inspiration, and purpose for creating art. We all have them, deeply felt, but it’s hard to express them, especially when they’re amorphous ideas like beauty and emotion. (That’s why social justice artist statements are so much more accessible. They’re not from those non-verbal nuts in our souls.)

For teachers and arts organizations, there’s an impulse to jump to committee-driven mission statements, complete with buzz terms like diversity and inclusion, emerging artists, or cultural heritage. But the why must punch from the gut.

How does this apply to me?

I generally tell prospective students, “I am going to teach you X,” when I should start by telling them that the serious discipline of art is important to their minds and souls. Our motivation to paint comes not from knowing technique, but from the underlying, deep conviction that drives us.

Articulating my core values poses a unique difficulty, since they are faith-based. Like many modern Christians, I’m sadly leery of sharing them in the public marketplace. But I do believe, like Dr. King, in a moral and natural order created by God. The Bible documents and encourages the expression of this through art. Bezalel the artist was mentioned in Exodus (meaning very early in recorded history). In addition to being the chief artisan of the tabernacle, he was also the first person to be “filled with the Spirit of God.”

I paint because I am in awe of the glory of creation. My paintings are a pale imitation of nature, and they’re also imbued with my feelings. That makes them less a reflection of nature than a reflection on nature.

I teach because I believe creativity is our birthright. We need to get rid of the idea that making art is self-indulgent or the special province of a few lucky people. Adult learners need to shed the idea that it’s too late for them to make great, meaningful art.

I write as a loudspeaker for the above two points.

The Logging Truck, oil on archival canvasboard, 16X20, $2029.00 framed includes shipping and handling in continental US.

What’s your why?

Why do you make art? Think about art? Read about art? These aren’t simple questions; it took me a long time to define my reasons, above. Please comment below or on the social media channel of your choice, or both. And thank you.

My 2024 workshops:

Monday Morning Art School: How do I get more out of social media?

Maynard Dixon Clouds, 11X14, oil on archival canvas board, $869 includes shipping in continental US.

“I’m a 73-year-old artist and I’m having trouble expanding my social media reach. Can you give me any ideas, not just to drive more traffic to my art website, but to make the process less miserable?”

I don’t think consistent social media posting is fun for anyone, but if we predate the internet, we don’t always appreciate the whole parasocial thing. I’m the person who told my kids not to talk to strangers on the internet, and now I do it all the time-and some of those people have become my besties.

Spring Allee, oil on archival canvasboard, 14X18, $1594.00 framed includes shipping and handling in continental US.

First, the basics:

Post consistently. Regularly share your artwork on platforms like Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Threads, and Pinterest. Consistency is the number one rule of social media. I blog three times a week for a reason.

Engage Interact with your followers by responding to comments, asking questions, and participating in others’ discussions. Build genuine connections.

Hashtags Relevant, trending hashtags make your posts more discoverable. How do you find them? Ask Google “best hashtags for __”

Share your process People like watching the creative process, so share photos or videos of your studio, work in progress, or what inspires you.

Collaborate Collaboration cross-pollinates lists. A great way to do that is to tag fellow artists at events. Or do something interesting together.

Early Light is 11X14, oil on archival canvasboard, $869 includes shipping and handling in the continental US.

Giveaways Your freebee doesn’t need to be expensive; it could be as simple as a ‘top ten color pathways for 2024’ handout. (Do I do this? Um, no.) The ‘price’? Their email address.

Guest blogs or interviews There is no such thing as bad publicity, so when someone asks you a question for their own blog or article, be sure to answer in an articulate manner. Or write for others. Just make sure the publisher links back to you; that strong network of links makes you attractive to Google.

SEO Ensure that your website is optimized for search engines by using relevant keywords in your content, image descriptions, and meta tags. If this means nothing to you, start here.

Give readers something meaningful. That’s why I write this blog; it’s my version of ‘exclusive content’ and it brings people to my website.

Cross-promote. Promote your social media profiles on your website and vice versa.

Don’t let AI generate your content If you really don’t have anything to say, say nothing at all. Google has tools to weed out the nonsensical fluff, so it’s a waste of time.

That sounds time-consuming, doesn’t it?

Path to the Lake, ~24X36, watercolor on Yupo, framed in museum-grade plexiglass, $2985 includes shipping and handling in continental US.

Let’s make it more fun:

Spill Don’t limit your social media presence solely to promoting your artwork. Share your hobbies, interests, and experiences. If you’re a regular reader of this blog and don’t know everything about me, I’m doing something wrong. (Or you’re not paying attention.)

Be funny Share anecdotes or witty commentary related to art or your daily life. Humor humanizes your brand and makes you more relatable.

Host live streams This is a lot of work, which is why I don’t do it often, but I’m happy to do online demos for art groups. It’s a great way to build a sense of community and connection.

Interactive content I don’t do this enough either, but interactive content like polls, quizzes, or challenges makes social media feed more dynamic and encourages engagement.

Showcase your students or the buyers of your work You can also feature artwork or photos shared by your social media followers. This acknowledges and appreciates their support and fosters a sense of community and collaboration.

Tell stories (I can’t seem to help doing this.) Storytelling engages your audience. Share the inspiration behind your artwork, memorable experiences from your artistic journey, or anecdotes from your daily life.

Celebrate yourself Yeah, that sounds a lot like bragging, but if you don’t tell them about your achievements, who will?

Be you Above all, be authentic and genuine in your interactions on social media. (If you’re never funny, I’m so sorry.) Openly share your thoughts, feelings, and experiences, no matter how introverted you are. Social media is all about bridging the barrier of the screen.

Of course I don’t do all those things; no one person can. Focus on a few that work for you.

That’s all I can think of. Fellow artists, can you add any tips? What works for you?

My 2024 workshops:

Monday Morning Art School: framing your work

This is a simple moulding I buy from Omega Moulding, on a painting called Drying Sails.

In response to last week’s post, people asked me to write about framing your work. Even if you never plan to do it, you’ll understand why good framing is expensive.

Unless you are a skilled woodworker, don’t build your own frames. You need a miter saw, corner clamps, and a joiner of some kind. You’re unlikely to recoup the cost of your investment if you don’t already have those things, and you’ll waste time and materials learning. You can, however, buy precut kits from some moulding suppliers. That’s a good option if you don’t like the selection available in premade frames. (I do make my own frames at times, but I’d rather be painting.)

Cutting and assembling your own frames requires expertise and tools that most painters don’t have. I only do it when I can’t find the style I want in a premade frame.

Measuring

Premade canvases and archival painting boards come in standard sizes. These conveniently match up with premade frames. Years ago, I knew an artist who worked only in one size. Not only did it make framing a snap, she could tear down and pack a show in minutes. I can’t bring myself to do that, but I seldom deviate from what I can frame off-the-shelf.

In addition to the nominal height and width of a frame, there’s the rabbit depth. That’s the depth of the recess at the back of the frame into which the board or canvas slides. Most plein air frames have a shallow rabbit, which means if you’ve painted on canvas, you might need offset clips to install the painting. A canvas framed like this will stick out from the wall.

Offset clips come in various depths, and allow deep canvases to go into shallower frames.

Choosing a frame

Frame styles come in and out of fashion, and there are regional differences in what buyers want. I can’t tell you what will work for your painting, but it makes sense to go to local galleries to expand your thinking on the subject.

What do you need?

Watercolor painted, matted and framed by Pam Otis.

Acrylic or glass glazing is needed for watercolors, pencil, and pastel work. Watercolor and pastels are often framed with acid-free paper mats (although I prefer mine free-hanging). All works on paper need an acid-free backing board, to which the work is lightly adhered with acid-free tape.

Pastels need acid-free spacers, which are thin strips of mat board to keep the pastel from touching the glazing. (I make my own from scraps of matboard.) If you’re planning on shipping framed work, the glazing must be acrylic. In its museum-quality form, it’s more expensive than ordinary glass. There’s also non-reflective glass if you aren’t planning on shipping the work. For pastels, there’s one more expense: a static brush and/or anti-static acrylic cleaner.

I use this old hand drill for pilot holes because a power drill is likely to zip right through the front of the frame.

In addition, you’ll need the following tools:

  • A hand drill to start pilot holes. Using a power drill almost guarantees you’ll put your pilot hole right through the front of your frame, as you don’t have the fine control;
  • 3/32” drill bit for hardwood frames;
  • Wire nips;
  • A point driver (never carry this in your carry-on luggage);
Point driver in action.

And the following consumables:

D-ring with wire twisted and nipped.

Framing your work

After cleaning the frame and glazing (with ammonia-free glass cleaner), place the frame upside down on a soft towel to avoid scratches. If you are using glazing, place it in the frame next, carefully avoiding new fingerprints. If using a mat, that goes in next, to be followed by spacers if necessary. Next comes artwork. If there’s any flexibility in this ‘sandwich’, you may need to double the backing board.

Next, drive points in. It’s not necessary to go overboard. I put one in about a 1-2″ from each corner and space them about 6″ apart. I tuck a business card in the bottom right corner. Before there were point drivers, people put paintings in frames using tiny brads. It’s a pain in the neck, so if you plan to frame work often, a driver is an excellent investment.

Mending plate in lieu of offset clip.

Offset clips are installed with the same #6 x 1/2″ wood screws that you will use for D-rings. These can be driven directly into the back of the canvas stretcher if needed. I sometimes use mending plates if the rabbit is the same depth as the canvas.

The D-rings should be mounted one-third from the top of the frame. (In other words, if the frame is 15″ tall, the D-rings should be 5″ from the top.) If the frame is hardwood, you’ll need to drill pilot holes for the screws. It’s easy to slip and drill right through the front of the frame, which is why I use a hand drill. If you’ll only ever use the drill bit for this purpose, you can put a masking tape cuff on the bit as a guide.

There are different D-rings for different picture weights. Do not use sawtooth hangers for professional artwork; many galleries will not accept them.

If the wire is too loose, the painting will sag away from the wall.

Your wire should be a loose S-curve the width of the painting. Make sure the wire is not too loose or the painting will dangle away from the wall. Wind the wire ends tightly and trim with your wire nips.

Bumpers help frames hang straight.

Attach bumpers to the two bottom corners. This will prevent the sliding that causes paintings to go cattywampus every time you brush by.

My 2024 workshops:

Monday Morning Art School: how to hang an art show

Sue Leo teaches Sandy Quang to hang artwork. Note that Sue has the wall bisected with one chalk line and another runs horizontally. Chalk lines can be brushed off when you’re done with them.

“Do you have any blog posts on how to hang an art show?” my correspondent asked. “One of my students has her first solo show coming up. I’m looking for articles with guidelines or general best practices.” Here goes.

Plan the layout: Before hanging anything, research the exhibition space and plan the layout. That can be as simple as visiting and taking measurements or as complex as drawing a plan. Consider factors like the size and shape of the room, traffic flow, lighting, and any architectural features you must work around. Don’t forget frame sizes when you’re calculating what will fit where!

Consider what you’ll include: Is this a portfolio show? New work? Landscapes? The work doesn’t have to be all alike, but grouping things thematically or visually makes it easier for viewers to engage.

Think in terms of focal point: A particularly striking piece should go in pole position, and other work should be arranged around it to promote a sense of unity. In a larger show, there may be more than one focal point, but just as with your paintings, one should lead.

Pay attention to scale and proportion: Consider the size of the artwork in relation to the exhibition space. Avoid overcrowded walls, and if you’re hanging salon style (where multiple pieces are hung from floor to ceiling), make sure you don’t place important artwork too high or too low.  Aim for a balanced distribution of sizes and shapes throughout the space.

A chalk line is a two-person job.

Arrange artwork on the floor first: Laying work out on the floor right in front of the wall where it will be hanging is the easiest way to set the horizontal space divisions, especially if the paintings are not all the same size. I always make some adjustments to my plan at this point.

Use the proper tools: You need a tape measure, a level, a chalk line, and a hammer.

I made these measuring sticks so I can quickly figure out the distance the wire takes up. I just hold the painting up on them, squiggle a mark with erasable marker, and measure that distance and subtract it from my centerpoint number. There are two for paintings that require double hangers, but you need a friend for that.

Set the vertical centerline, and adjust accordingly: The middle of your paintings should be eye-height for an average person. (I go with 5’4″.) Mark that height off on both ends of the wall and then snap a chalk line. If the work is 20″ tall in its frame, the center should be at 10″. But you need to measure the distance from the hanging wire (fully extended) to the top edge, and subtract that amount from the 10″.

Don’t worry; I do this wrong a lot, myself. And don’t forget to adjust for hangers if you’re using them instead of nails.

Professionally-hung artwork is neatly spaced and perfectly aligned. Yes, those are my paintings. No, I didn’t hang them.

Use proper hanging hardware: Nails work, but picture hangers are more stable and less destructive.

Check the level of hanging pieces: I don’t generally bother until I have everything up, since pounding nails makes paintings dance.

Adjust lighting: Adjust spotlights or track lighting to highlight specific pieces and create visual interest. Avoid lights that are too close and cause glare. You may have to bounce lights across corners or from the other side of the room to avoid this.

Lighting will need adjustment when the work is in place.

Make professional labels: They should include the title, name of the artist, date, and price, and should be typewritten. I print mine using a document merge with Microsoft Excel and Word. Be nice to your host and hang these on the wall with museum adhesive, not tape. Make two copies and tuck the second copy in the back of the frame if it’s a busy venue. Mistakes happen.

Leave a price list and business cards: Most places will ask you for this anyway, but it makes life easier for everyone. And you can use your own copy of the price list as your inventory control sheet.

Promote the heck out of your show: I don’t care if you’re a genius; nobody will notice if you don’t plug your own openings through social media, blogs, local event listings, and emails. And, obviously, show up at your opening and be willing to talk to strangers. If you’re old enough to drink, don’t (at least until your guests go home).

My 2024 workshops:

Monday Morning Art School: Painter’s Block

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

“What do you suggest for the dreaded easel terrors, as in frozen or painter’s block on how to continue?” a reader asked me. As often happens, the painting she’s stuck on is going very well. I can’t tell if she is afraid to ‘ruin’ it, or if she’s blind to its qualities.

Take a Break: Stepping away from your work gives you a fresh perspective. Go for a brisk walk, since exercise boosts creativity. Or do something completely unrelated to give your subconscious mind time to figure out the answer.

Experiment: Start another painting that is completely outside your wheelhouse. Try a different medium, or a different style. Pushing yourself out of your comfort zone can help push through your painter’s block.

Main Street, Owl’s Head, oil on archival canvasboard, $1623 includes shipping and handling in continental US.

Draw: Your brain knows that deep down you think drawing is harmless and insignificant. It won’t invest the energy trying to trip you up on a little thing. That helps you regain your looseness for your real project.

Preset your palette: If the problem is one of color, find a painting you love and mix six or eight colors from it. Then observe in what proportion the artist uses these colors, and consider how you could use these colors in your own painting.

Apple Tree with Swing, 16X20, oil on archival canvasboard, $2029 framed includes shipping and handling in continental US.

Seek background inspiration: Visit art galleries or museums, read art books, browse art websites, watch a movie or play a computer game-all seeing some kind of ideas on which you can build.

Change Your Environment: It’s almost spring. Go outside and paint. A change is as good as a rest.

Don’t worry that you’ll ‘ruin’ it. If you could paint it once, you can paint it a thousand times. Having said that, if you’re considering a big revision, try it in photo-editing software or on a scrap of canvas first.

Work at the same time every day, when possible. Inspiration follows effort, more than the other way around. Sometimes the only way to overcome painter’s block is to keep painting, even if you’re not in the mood.

Lobster pound, 14X18, oil on canvas, $1594 framed includes shipping and handling within the continental US.

Analyze what’s wrong: Are there underlying fears or doubts holding you back? Sometimes naming those fears is enough to banish them; if not, talk them over with a trusted friend.

Join a community: A problem shared is a problem halved. Artists are generally very supportive and they either will or have gone through the same temporary drought as you.

My 2024 workshops:

Monday Morning Art School: watercolor paper

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

“I was wondering if you can address the different types, weights and rag content of watercolor paper and what they’re best for,” a student asked. Sure, although I obviously can’t talk about every paper on the market.

There are three general types of watercolor paper. (There’s also a plastic product called Yupo, which is non-absorbent so acts entirely differently than paper. It’s a gas to use.)

Cold press has become a favorite because it gives you decent washes, scumbling, and moderately good detail.

Cold Press has a moderately-textured surface. This is the most popular paper used today because it’s highly absorbent, allows for some detail, but also allows for broken washes and scumbling.

Rough is a deeply-textured surface. It is the most absorbent paper. It’s great for broken washes and scumbling, but you can’t get much detail on it.

Hot Press or Bristol has a smooth surface. It comes in several surfaces, ranging from plate (highly polished) to vellum. It’s exceptional for detail work, making it a favorite of illustrators. The least absorbent of the papers, it’s also the easiest to lift color from. (I carry this Strathmore Bristol notebook with me at all times because it’s good for pencil, ink and watercolor.)

Rough will give you great broken washes but don’t plan on painting detail.

What is sizing?

All watercolor papers have sizing added to keep the paint on the surface. Sizing may be gelatin (traditional) or a synthetic product. Sizing stops paint from sinking and spreading into the paper. Without it, paper is just a big, uncontrollable sponge.

How important is 100% rag or cotton?

Rag means papers made with cotton textile remnants, which have a longer fiber than cotton linters. However, with so many synthetic fibers in modern textiles, the cotton rag supply is dwindling. Cotton linters (byproducts of cotton processing) are now either the chief or only fiber in 100% cotton paper.

Cotton paper is superior in strength and durability to wood pulp-based paper. It won’t yellow as quickly (although the sizing can also cause yellowing), as it doesn’t contain the high concentrations of acids that are in wood pulp. However, many non-rag watercolor papers are now acid-free as well.

Cotton fiber is more absorbent than wood pulp. Because the fibers are longer, it tolerates more lifting and scrubbing than wood pulp.

There are places where fiber content doesn’t matter. For quick color studies, grisailles, and other transient works I use Strathmore 400, which is a moderate paper. To get 100% cotton, I’d need to step up to Strathmore 500.

One of my many sketches in a Bristol Visual Journal.

How can I tell if a paper is 100% cotton?

If it’s not labeled 100% cotton, you can assume it isn’t. Some common cotton papers are Fabriano Artistico, Arches, Stonehenge, Winsor & Newton, and Hahnemühle, although of course there are many others, including the aforementioned Strathmore 500.

Weight

Watercolor papers come in three weight classes:

· Light – 90 lb.
· Medium – 140 lb.
· Heavy – 300 lb.

For comparison, copy paper is 24 lb.

90 lb. watercolor paper requires stretching and/or careful taping or clipping. In general, most painters use 140 lb., which doesn’t buckle except if totally saturated. 300 lb. paper is for working very wet/very large.

A thumbnail sketch on Bristol. My current preference is for smoother, harder surfaces. (Please excuse the paucity of examples in this post; I’m away from my studio and looking for dribs and drabs on my computer.)

Format

Watercolor paper comes in several formats:

Blocks are glued on all four sides. The finished painting is removed by slitting the glue with a knife when dry. Because they’re stabilized, they can take quite a bit of water without buckling. They also obviate the need for a separate support board.

Pads: Although not as stable as blocks, most pads work well enough with a single binder clip and a support board. They’re generally less expensive.

Loose sheets: These need to be taped or clipped down with binder clips, but give size flexibility and cost less than blocks.

Rolls: The most cost-effective way to buy watercolor paper, this is also the only way to make very large watercolor paintings.

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Monday Morning Art School: nobody can copy you

Tilt-A-Whirl, oil on archival canvasboard, $869 framed includes shipping and handling in continental US.

Bobbi Heath sent me a post yesterday called How to Deal With Copycats, which I promised I’d read before I blogged this morning. “I’m never that worried about what other people are doing,” I added. She told me not to bother reading it but to just write about the subject, so that’s what I’m doing.

A few decades ago, a woman came up to my booth at a show and took a photo of one of my paintings. “I want to copy it,” she told me, apparently unaware of the etiquette of stealing others’ ideas. (First rule: don’t broadcast your intentions.)

“Good luck with that,” I told her.

There are some brilliant copyists out there. They’re called forgers, and I admire their ability to channel their creativity into chemistry rather than the business of brushstrokes. I’m too idiosyncratic myself, and I suspect most of us are. We have an inner vision that’s too strong to be overridden.

I am insufficiently dead to attract the attention of forgers. Those other copyists are called ‘amateurs’ and if their copying doesn’t affect the value of my work or my reputation, I don’t care what they do.

In Control (Grace and her Unicorn), 24X30, $3,478 framed, oil on canvas, includes shipping in continental United States.

Sometimes copying is about learning

I look at the work of Tom Root for his brushwork, Tara Will for her audacity, Cynthia Rosen for her palette knife virtuosity, Eric Jacobsen for his scumbling, and Colin Page for his color. I have no hesitation about copying passages to be sure I understand how they achieved the effect that interested me.

Is that being a copycat? No; it’s being a lifelong learner.

Best Buds, 11X14, oil on canvasboard, $1087 framed includes shipping and handling in continental US.

Paintings are mostly about what isn’t stated

It’s your inner vision that makes you unique, both as a painter and a person. I’ve taught painting for many years and one of my go-to lessons is to ask students to copy a masterwork. Can they make a perfect JMW Turner or Rockwell Kent or Emily Carr? Absolutely not; their own personality always seeps out through every brushstroke. That’s even true when I ask them to concentrate on brushwork.

A person who wants to copy your work or style is devoid of that strong inner vision. That means he or she won’t understand your viewpoint in the first place, which would make real mimicry impossible.

Beauchamp Point, Autumn Leaves, 12X16, oil on archival canvasboard, $1449 framed includes shipping and handling in continental US.

What is style, anyway?

Years ago, a painting teacher told me that heavy outlines were my style. He was wrong; they were just an inability to marry edges (which I hadn’t been taught yet). That’s an argument for not even thinking about style until you’ve developed serious painting chops. Style is different from being stylish, to which we should all aspire.

Style is the gap between your inner vision and your ability to render it. That disconnect may be caused by bad painting chops. It can equally be caused by something subconscious that elevates, rather than diminishes, your vision.

Vincent van Gogh is an eloquent example of this. His obsessive need to put his inner vision on canvas tells us he never quite succeeded in matching up his brush with his mind. We’ve all benefited immeasurably from that disconnect, since his style has profoundly influenced modern art.

But what about AI?

I feel about AI the same way I do amateur copyists. At this point in its development, it’s easy to pick out AI-generated art online. Maybe someday AI will be good enough to look like it has a heart, but we’re not there yet.

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