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!

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Monday Morning Art School: how to tell people what to do

Windsurfers at La Pocatière, 6X8, oil on archival canvasboard, $348 includes shipping and handling in continental US.

Witness this exchange:

“You should do more plein air events,” said A. “You’re a good painter.”

“I don’t enjoy them,” said B, who’s older and wiser. “I find them almost painful.”

“But they’re good for you,” insisted A.

I don’t think A’s comment was malicious. She works the plein air circuit. She can’t conceive of an art career that doesn’t involve competition. On the other hand, B has an extensive resume that includes signature membership in several prestigious national organizations. For her, plein air events are too much effort for too little return.

Early Morning at Moon Lake, 6X8, oil on archival canvasboard, $348 includes shipping and handling in continental US.

I love plein air events myself, but they have their downsides. There are often more artists than the market can bear, resulting in bargain-basement pricing. They can encourage artists to churn out quantity instead of quality. Without a good gallerist to guide buyers, sometimes sentimental dreck goes for good prices and fine paintings are ignored.

They can be nerve-wracking. I once did an event with a very fine painter who downed four glasses of wine in rapid succession before he could go to the awards ceremony. He took first place, but that is not a healthy way to run your art career.

Marshes along the Ottawa River, Plaisance, 8X10, oil on archival canvasboard, $522 includes shipping and handling in continental US.

Underlying A’s comment was the assumption that growth comes only through pain. Sometimes that’s true, as anyone who’s been through the creative desert can tell you. (The desert is a necessary step in growth, but you don’t realize that the first half a dozen times it happens to you.)

It’s equally true that growth comes through joy, quiet reflection, prayer, thought, or going for a walk. Each time I held one of my children for the first time was a transformative moment. It was joyful, but it came with the realization that my life was changed forever. A wedding is like that; so is getting your first dog. All have the potential to make you a better person, and the mechanism for that is joy and a determination to live up to the promise of the moment.

Pensive 8X10, oil on archival canvasboard, $522 includes shipping and handling in continental US.

I had two influential painting teachers. First was my father, who was often irascible but who taught me to draw and paint with great patience. Then there was Cornelia Foss, who is as tough a nut as ever came out of the Upper East Side. I’m not easily cowed, and I learned a great deal from her. However, my friend and sometimes-roommate Peter was a much gentler soul. I don’t think he ever finished a painting in her class. He would pluck his eyebrows out in frustration and anxiety. He’d make a good start and then wipe it out, he was so nervous. Cornelia’s indisputable genius landed on stony ground because he was so daunted by her. That’s pain to absolutely no purpose.

The second problem with A’s comment is that there is more than one way to skin a cat. (Sorry, Wylie.) My own path has been very different than A’s or B’s, but it has worked for me. Chutzpah seems to be a specialty of our age, and we’re all quick to give unsolicited advice, myself included. But if someone doesn’t seek our opinion, we don’t need to give it. If someone doesn’t depend on us for support, we can let them make their own choices. There are many routes to the same goal and what works for one person may not work for the next. That’s a big part of what makes life so beautiful and fascinating.

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Monday Morning Art School: are your paints toxic?

Sunset sail, 14X18, oil on linen, $1594 framed includes shipping and handling in the continental US.

Unless you’re eating it, modern paint poses no known health risks. (Pastelists and encaustic painters are more exposed and should follow special rules for handling their materials and breathing fumes.)

That, unfortunately, is not the whole story.

Many people think watercolors are somehow safer than oils. That is not true. The binders for oil paints are siccative oils. The major ones are linseed (flax seed), walnut and safflower oil, all of which are edible. Some people have a sensitivity to odorless mineral spirits, but if you’re not drinking them or bathing in them, the current consensus is that they’re harmless.

What can be toxic are the pigments, and they’re pretty much universal across all mediums. That includes tattoo inks, which are a toxicological risk to human health.

Buffalo Color (foreground) and Bethlehem Steel (background), and the filth they were spewing into the Buffalo River in 1967. Photo courtesy EPA remediation project.

Making pigments is a messy business. Buffalo Color (formerly part of National Aniline and Chemical) manufactured pigments along the Buffalo River in my hometown, and pigment deposits remained along the shore as late as the 1980s. The photo above shows the condition of the river from Buffalo Color and Bethlehem Steel, now both gone.

Environmental legislation stopped wholesale polluters across a variety of industries in the US. That didn’t mean we weren’t still creating pollution; we just outsourced it to the developing world.

Cobalt, cadmium, and lead aren’t going to injure you as a painter, but they can injure the people who mine and refine them. Today’s emphasis is on mica, which gives us the glitter in makeup, car finishes and, yes, iridescent paints. Mica is mined in the US, but the top two producers in the world are China and Russia. India, the world’s eighth-largest producer of mica, is known to use child labor in mica mining.

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

Since the mid-1990s, pigment production grew quickly in mainland China and India. They are now the first and second producers of pigments in the world. The number one producer of cadmium? China. Of cobalt? Congo and China. Lead? China. Child labor is a real phenomenon in China; about 7.75% of children ages 10-15 work. So too is forced labor, using both minorities and prisoners. Congo’s child labor situation is more dire, with roughly 40,000 children in the cobalt mines, some as young as six. (The majority owners of these mines are Chinese.)

Cobalt, cadmium, and lead are all, to varying degrees, mutagenic (causes mutations), teratogenic (interferes with fetal development) and carcinogenic (causes cancer). In the modern world, we can’t avoid them entirely; for example, we need cobalt for lithium-ion batteries. But we can reduce our use of them where it’s less critical, and pigment is one of these areas.

For years, I’ve given my students a palette based largely on 20th century pigments, using the iron-oxide pigments as chasers. The one exception has been cadmium orange, because there’s still no reasonable substitute in oils; in watercolor, the quinacridone oranges are great. I’m not worried about my students; I’m worried about the children, involuntary workers, and those driven by poverty to work in unsafe conditions.

Brilliant Summer Day, 6X8, oil on archival canvasboard, $435 includes shipping and handling in continental US.

The 20th century pigments were developed first for the automobile industry, with other manufacturing applications branching out from there. Because they were intended to be used in American factories, they are safe, cheap, brilliant, and lightfast. In fact, they are far superior to their historical antecedents in almost every way.

Regardless of what pigments you’re using, waste should never be disposed of in our sewers or on the ground. For water-based paints, let the old paint water dry and put the residue in the solid-waste stream. For oil-based paints, let the solvent settle, pour off the clear liquid and reuse it, and let the remainder evaporate for disposal.

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Monday Morning Art School: Merry Christmas!

Beth Carr drew a concolor fir, which has a softer branching pattern than many other evergreens.

My friends (and students; the line is blurry) Diane Fulkerson and Beth Carr drove up this week to spend Christmas with me. While they were en route, I texted them to ask if they would do this morning’s exercises as examples. “I knew there would be work involved,” Diane said. The last time she visited, I had her do an exercise for Monday Morning Art School on using Pilot FriXion pens with watercolor.

I drew a Fraser Fir. If I’d been thinking, I’d have drawn a balsam, which was my favorite tree in the days when we had real trees. (I’m allergic.)

If you look at Christmas tree drawings online, the majority have boughs facing down. That is not how most young evergreens grow. Their boughs point up until they reach maturity. Even then, the upper branches tend to arc upwards. Pine boughs droop when they’re snow-laden, so maybe that’s why people persist in drawing them that way.

Moreover, every species has a unique branching pattern, needle length and color.

Diane Fulkerson did a blue spruce. She’d started out wanting to paint a black spruce, but her photo from Schoodic was too backlighted to be useful.

This is an exercise in seeing. If you celebrate Christmas, look at your tree and draw or paint it. If you don’t have a tree, look online for some of the common species used for Christmas trees, including but not limited to balsam firs, Scotch pines, blue spruce and Douglas firs. (My own Christmas tree is so fabulously fake that I used an online picture.)

Diane, Beth and I decided to use colored pencil so that we could work in the dining room next to the wood stove. None of us are expert in this medium, but we still had a great time. Pam wisely used watercolor.

Pam Otis painted a Christmas tree that was brought to the beach by a family. “They had a nice picnic and a campfire and left the tree behind for others to enjoy.”

I don’t really expect you to do much work today, but this will give you something to do if your uncles get into an argument about politics, your cousin gets stuck too deeply in the eggnog or your partner falls asleep after eating too much pie.

Above all, have a wonderful and blessed Christmas Day and Christmastide, and may God bless all of you.

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Monday Morning Art School: please learn to draw

The illustrations in this post were from Monday Morning Art School: Drawing a Globe, and done by Sandy Quang and me on a stormy night before Christmas. The original post is here.

Ten years ago I wrote about teaching Amy Vail to draw. She’d made the cardinal error of telling me she “lacked the gene to draw.” Since I know there’s no such gene, I challenged her to let me teach her, and she made great strides in just one week. Drawing is not a magic trick; it’s not a talent. It’s a technical skill no different from reading, writing or arithmetic.

Drawing is first and foremost a technical skill.

I know people who paint by tracing photos or photo-montages, but that prevents the non-linear part of the mind from getting involved. Art has always been about deeper things: reflection, aesthetics, ideas, feelings, spirituality and other forms of higher-order thinking. It makes no sense to shut out the part of your mind that processes these.

I’m writing syllabuses for my January-February classes (and I’m sorry, but they’re both sold out). This is the first time I’ve taught drawing outside the context of painting. What is important and how do I teach it?

Most complex shapes are riffs on simpler shapes.

Observation Skills

The ability to closely observe and analyze a subject develops hand-in-hand with the physical act of drawing. One can photograph a scene without paying too much attention. Drawing and painting from life is how skilled realist painters sort out what matters. The best way to really see something is to draw or paint it.

Details are almost the least-important part, although it’s amazing how much one glosses over them until one actually sits down to draw. What really matters is proportion and the relationship between elements. That comes down to distance and angles. That is why painters can get away with leaving out detail if they get the proportions and relationships right. Anyone interested in abstracting the landscape had better have top-notch drawing skills.

Even a line drawing conveys volume, but shading is that much more expressive.

Basic Shapes and Forms

Almost every complex shape is a combination of basic shapes like cones, boxes, spheres and columns. For example, the spinet piano next to me is fundamentally a tall box with another boxlike structure (the keyboard) attached to the front and supported by two columnar legs. Get the size relationships of those big shapes right, and the fluting and scrolls are almost extraneous.

In their 2D form that means circles, squares, triangles, and ellipses. That doesn’t mean, however, that you get to ignore dimensionality, which leads us to…

Perspective

Everyone should learn how 1-, 2-, and 3-point perspectives work, and then never use them again. They’re a theoretical construct that shows you how to avoid errors, but they’re not ‘true’. The vanishing points in the real world are infinitely distant, and that’s hard to achieve on paper. However, understanding perspective will save you from lots of mistakes.

The more you draw, the more fluid your painting will be.

Volume and shading

Yes, one can imply volume with line drawing alone, but shifts in value tell a broader story. They will also form the basis of painting composition.

Expressive mark-making

This is where drawing suddenly gets fun. Expressive mark-making takes time to develop, but experimenting with different line weights and styles is the first step in that exploration.

Work up from simple objects and nothing will be too difficult for you. (Drawing by me.)

So how do you start?

Drawing is the cheapest and most liberating of all media. All you need is a sketchbook (this is the one I use, and I go through them like candy), a mechanical pencil, and some kind of straight-edge.

Then start drawing every day. It’s that simple. This is the text I recommend to those who like learning from books, but you can also find a lot of free instruction on this blog.

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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.

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Monday Morning Art School: how important are collectors, anyways?

Marshall Point, oil on archival canvasboard, 9X12, $696, includes shipping and handling in continental US.

The first time you sell a painting to a friend, you feel a little guilty, as if it’s a pity sale. (That’s different from pity marketing, which is when artists relate their struggles to generate sales. Manipulating others’ sympathy is exploitative, it makes all artists look bad, and I wish people wouldn’t do it.)

The second or third time that person buys a painting, you start to suspect that, against all odds, they actually like your work. You have a collector. As you get more well-known, you’ll collect more collectors, but those first ones are everything to the fledgling artist.

Quebec Brook, oil on archival canvasboard, $1449 framed includes shipping and handling in continental US.

My first serious collectors were Dean and Karolina. We went to church together and were friends. I knew they collected art, so when they bought their first painting from me, I was flattered. Then Dean asked me to paint a portrait of his children as a gift for his wife. He gave me an absolute deadline. That was a great lesson, as I realized that I could finish a painting with the same professionalism that I’d once finished design projects for customers.

Karolina was a great support when I was a mother of young kids without family nearby. Once she helped me pull all the wall-to-wall carpet from a house we’d just bought. As you can imagine, I’d love her if she never bought any art from me, but in fact she bought a painting just last year.

Eric’s Barber Shop (midnight walk), oil on archival canvasboard, 9X12, $869 framed, includes shipping and handling in continental US.

I met Martha when she came to my house at 0:dark:30 to watch William and Kate’s wedding. Our mutual friend Mary brought her, but we’d been corresponding for months. Martha bought her first painting from me at a Black Friday sale shortly thereafter. By the time she got married, we were close enough friends that I was invited to her wedding in Scotland; I brought them a painting as a wedding gift.

Her husband asked me to paint her portrait. It turned out to be as much a portrait of their drawing room as of Martha and her dog. Later, the room was destroyed by a catastrophic flood, which makes the painting that much more meaningful. I’m currently in the early phases of another painting for him.

Dean and Karolina were my friends before they ever bought a painting. Martha and I became close friends over subsequent years. I’ve had the good fortune to sell paintings to my friends, and to become friends with people I’ve sold paintings to.

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

Your friends are perfectly free to ignore your art career. Most of them will, in fact. You may never meet your collectors if they’re buying through a gallery or online. But anyone who likes your work enough to own it is likely to share common emotional and intellectual ground with you, or the work would never have spoken to him or her in the first place. It’s no surprise that the lines of friendship and art often blur.

No artist can survive without collectors. Beyond that, my life has been immeasurably enriched by so many people who’ve pondered my paintings and drawings, corresponded with me about them, and, yes, occasionally purchased them. Thank you all.

For any of you who want to start collecting, here’s 10% off any painting on my website. Just enter the codeTHANKYOUPAINTING10.

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Monday Morning Art School: searching for meaning in Sedona

Winter Lambing, 36×48, oil on linen, $6231 framed includes shipping in continental US.

I’m in Sedona, AZ, painting in the 19th annual Sedona Plein Air Festival. I’ve written many times about how the question of meaning bedevils me. This place, with its crystals, vortexes, ley lines, and spiritualism ought to be chock full of meaning, but it’s not. That stuff is too glib and superficial for me.

For artists tucked into a corner of the Sedona landscape, it can be relentless. Casey Cheuvront was painting on a rocky promontory when a woman stopped in front of her to give her clients a spiel about the magnetic energy of the rocks. Another guide talked about how we were in a direct line between Cathedral Rock and Airport Mesa, which apparently confers special powers. Meanwhile, I was discussing reincarnation and non-attachment with a lovely gentleman from Princeton, NJ.

Midnight at the Wood Lot, oil on canvasboard, 12X16 $1,449.00 framed includes shipping in continental US.

Starting with an overarching concept like Sedona’s famous spirituality can easily veer into the sophomoric. That doesn’t mean that art can’t use symbols, metaphor, and allegory to convey deep layers of meaning. It’s just best to avoid the trite.

To me, one of the most important reasons to paint en plein air is to celebrate God’s creation. That has an emotional resonance with me; I am constantly struck anew by the variety and beauty of this world. Can I translate that in my paintings in a way that evokes an emotional response? Only if I paint something that also resonates with my viewers’ experiences and perspectives. Just as I am left cold by new age spirituality, others may be unable to engage with my deep feelings about the created world.

Lonely cabin, 8X10, oil on canvasboard, $652 framed includes shipping in continental US.

Ultimately, all we have is our own personal perspective. Our experiences, beliefs, and values add depth and authenticity to our creative expressions. That doesn’t mean I need to be overt about my ideas. They color my perception, and those who think the way I do will, hopefully, find my work relatable.

Of course, none of this works without paying attention to the formal elements of design. All meaning rests on technical skill. You may feel something deeply but be unable to communicate that to your viewer because you don’t have a cohesive visual language.

The Late Bus, 8X6, oil on canvasboard, $435 framed includes shipping in continental US.

Yesterday, Hadley Rampton and I demoed together at the Sedona Arts Center. It was an interesting way to do it, because our styles are very different, and the audience asked pertinent questions. When I finished, I asked the people watching what I should name my painting.

“How does it make you feel?” a man asked me.

“Oh, larky, I think, because I had a lot of fun painting it.”

“That’s not what it conveys to me at all,” he said. “To me, it’s pensive.”

Sometimes, what you think you’re painting is not at all what comes through. Other times, there is ambiguity or multiple tracks of meaning within the same painting. Viewers derive their own associations, and they may in fact be what you were thinking subconsciously all along. Although I’m having fun at this event, I have some serious matters clouding my immediate horizon.

The opposite of subtlety is intentional storytelling, where you’re crafting a narrative that’s explicit and easily comprehensible. Since a painting is essentially a snapshot that captures a moment in time, you must work to tell the before and after. Narrative painting can convey complex ideas, sometimes better than words can.

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Monday Morning Art School: it’s all in the preparation

The Pine Tree State, 6X8, oil on canvasboard, $435 framed includes shipping in continental US.

When I’m teaching workshops and classes, I frequently ask students, “What’s your takeaway lesson here?” Last week my workshop students got a deep dive into two artists’ working method: Andrew Wyeth‘s, through a guided tour of the Farnsworth Art Museum, and Colin Page‘s, from the maestro himself.

“Painting is easy,” Colin said. “It’s the preparation that’s hard.” I smiled, because that’s something I frequently say as well. Wyeth didn’t whisper it from beyond the grave, but his methodology is spelled out in the museum. For his studio paintings, he was a consummate draftsman who made many sketches and paid meticulous attention to detail.

Bracken Fern, 12X9, oil on canvasboard, $869 framed includes shipping in continental US.

Students frequently ask me how to achieve loose brushwork. My first question is why they want that, as it’s not a universal value. Rather it’s a question of style. Linear painting is based on line and boundary; the artist sees in clear shapes and outline. Painterly painting focuses on the interactions of masses, shadows, and merged shapes. An example of a contemporary linear landscape painter is Linden Frederick. An example of a contemporary painterly landscape painter is Kevin Macpherson. Neither style is ‘better,’ they’re just different. And there are many painters (including me) who work in the middle somewhere.

When Arthur Rubinstein was asked if he believed people when they told him he was the greatest pianist of the 20th century, he replied, “Not only I don’t believe them, I get very angry when I hear that, because it is absolute, sheer, horrible nonsense. There isn’t such a thing as the greatest pianist of any time. Nothing in art can be the best. It is only… different.”

What is a universal value in art is assurance, and that rests on the back of solid preparation. Rubinstein joked that he was lazy and didn’t like to practice, but he still spent 6-9 hours a day at the piano. “And a strange thing happened. I began to discover new meanings, new qualities, new possibilities in music that I have been regularly playing for more than 30 years.”

Larky Morning at Rockport Harbor, 11X14, on archival canvasboard, $869 unframed includes shipping in continental US.

The same thing is true of painting, as is its obverse-the less preparation you do, the more you’ll fumble in performance. And the more you must redraw, reposition, reset values, or restate, the less immediate and assured your brushwork will be. That’s as true in oils, acrylics and pastels as it is in watercolor.

What does that mean for the emerging artist? At a minimum, you should do a carefully-realized sketch, considered in terms of compositional patterns of darks and lights. This sketch should be moved to the canvas or paper accurately; if that requires gridding, then you should grid. Colors should be tested first for value, and then to how they relate to the overall key of the painting.

Sea Fog, Castine, 9X12, oil on archival canvasboard, $869 framed includes shipping in continental US

Yes, I know artists who don’t do these things. They can be sorted into two groups. The first are those who are very experienced. They’ve learned what corners they can cut (which are not the same for everyone). The second are impatient beginning and intermediate painters. They almost always fail in the preparation, and then they wonder why they’re flailing around in the painting stage.

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Monday morning art school: how do I know I’m finished?

Dawn Wind, Twin Lights, 9X12, oil on archival canvasboard, $869 includes shipping and handling in the continental US.

“I know it’s not done, but it’s where I stop because I’m afraid I’ll mess up what I have,” a student messaged me. She was painting in a plein air event where ‘unfinished’ and ‘overdone’ were both errors.

“I think you won’t mess it up, and you can always scrape back to this level if you do,” I replied. She was painting in oils, which have the advantage of a partial undo. In fact, that can be the resolution of many problems, because the average of your errors, revealed by scraping back, is often the right answer.

Apple Blossom Time, 9×12, oil on canvasboard, $869 includes shipping and handling in the continental US.

For most of us, figuring out when a piece is finished is an almost-intuitive process that varies from one piece to another. My answer is, “I’m done when I’m sick of working on it,” but that isn’t particularly helpful advice. There are, of course, some objective factors guiding me:

Intention: I often start with a specific idea for a piece. I’ll never realize that 100%, because the human mind has its own ideas. However, I want to know that I’ve at least made my point.

Composition: I’m a bear about understanding the composition from the very beginning. If I haven’t done that, no technique at the end can save the painting. That said, there may be adjustments needed to strengthen my original idea-darks restated, or brushwork softened or made more precise.

Bracken Fern, 9X12, oil on canvasboard, $869 framed includes shipping in continental US.

Technique: Have I built up my paint level to a satisfying conclusion? Is my brushwork fluid? Are there places of rest? Are there passages that just need more energy?

Emotional impact: This is a question that’s best asked in the design phase, but if I finish and it’s just meh, I might need to ask why. If it’s that I have no emotional connection with the work, I will scrape it out. However, sometimes the emotional impact of a piece is dampened by overworking passages, and that is something I can put right. In oils or pastels, I can scrape or brush out the offending passage. In watercolor the solution is usually to start again. The second version of a watercolor is often much looser than the first. (That’s one of many reasons to paint the subject in grisaille before you jump to color.)

My energy levels: I’m not superhuman. That feeling of exhaustion can be the signal that it’s time to quit before I do something stupid. Or, it just might mean I have to come back another day.

Feedback: I rarely ask for feedback, and then only from a very small cadre of fellow painters. However, you may feel you need critique. In the context of a class, that’s important: you should be open to new ideas. At a painting event, you run the risk of chasing back and forth trying to incorporate everyone’s comments into your work. That’s a sure-fire way to wreck a painting.

Church & Maine, 22X30, Cooper Dragonette, Oil on Panel, 2023. This is a great example of a highly-detailed, highly-finished painting that is nevertheless not overdone. (Courtesy of the artist.)

Personal Style: I’m usually a moderately-loose painter. That influences when I consider a work finished. You may be much more detailed and polished. While the technique remains the same, the endpoint differs. A person who is making a highly-detailed painting like Cooper Dragonette‘s fabulous painting of downtown Belfast, above, will take much more time getting the details right.

Deadlines: In some cases, I’m working against external factors like customer-dictated deadlines. I have always found that such deadlines sharpen my focus, but others may find them horrifying.

Endless revisions: Almost every artist has, at one time or another, had a painting in the studio that won’t leave. I’ve had a few of these, upon which I dabbled until flummoxed, only to pull them out again in six months to dabble again. For me, this never ends well; I might as well have tossed them at the beginning.

Ultimately, the decision about when we’re finished is highly individual. It involves technical assessment, emotional connection, and our own unique creative process. As we gain experience and refine skills (which we should do throughout our lives) that endpoint changes.

My 2024 workshops: