Monday Morning Art School: paint like a pro

Canyon de Chelly, before 1947, Edgar Payne, courtesy of the Atheneum Art List.
Canyon de Chelly, before 1947, Edgar Payne, courtesy the Atheneum Art List.

“It’s the lack of good composition and values that make a painting look like student work,” Bobbi Heath wrote in response to last week’s post on simplifying shapes. That’s where most early artists fail, and why good teachers stress value studies.

“Brushwork, color choices, and level of detail are all questions of style,” she added. “Each of these has a spectrum. A proficient artist can work anywhere in those spectra but they can’t ignore composition.”

Wolf Kahn and Raphael are poles apart in terms of style. One might be more to your taste, but objectively, neither is better than the other-or more representational, for that matter. As stylized as Kahn’s trees are, Raphael’s Vatican Stanze are just as distanced from ‘reality’.

Deliverance of Saint Peter, 1514, Raphael, courtesy of the Vatican
Deliverance of Saint Peter, 1514, Raphael, courtesy of the Vatican

What unites them, and unites all good works of art, is composition. That’s true in painting, sculpture, writing, architecture and music-in fact, throughout the creative sphere. There must be structure there, or “the centre cannot hold,” to trivialize a great W.B. Yeats poem.

In painting and drawing our ideas about composition have remained remarkably static over time. Analyze the space in one of Wayne Thiebaud’s desserts and a Renaissance portrait like Bronzino’s self-possessed young man, and you’ll find they’re using the picture plane in much the same way. There are only so many ways to divide a rectangle.

Ice-Bound Locks by John Fabian Carlson, oil on canvas board, 12 x 16 inches, courtesy Vose Gallery
Ice-Bound Locks by John Fabian Carlson, oil on canvas board, 12 x 16 inches, courtesy Vose Gallery

What to think about

Composition rests on the following principles:

  • The human eye responds first to shifts in value, but contrast in chroma and hue also attract our gaze;
  • We follow hard edges and lines;
  • We filter out passages of soft edges and low contrast, and indeed we need them as interludes of rest;
  • We like divisions of space that aren’t easily solved or regular.

I ask my critique students to analyze their compositions based on Edgar Payne‘s exhaustive list of possible compositions in Composition of Outdoor Painting. (This used book is now so expensive that I can no longer recommend buying it. Check it out of the library.) The idea isn’t to slavishly follow one of his designs; it’s to understand whether you have an underlying design in the first place, and how you might strengthen it.

I also ask my students to tell me where the focal points are in their composition, and how they want the viewer to walk through them. If focal points aren’t intelligently designed, and you’re not drawn through them with contrast, line and detail, then it’s back to the (literal) drawing board.

John Carlson’s Guide to Landscape Painting is available in reprint. He’s the guy who gave us the idea of numbering our value levels, which I explained in this post from last year.

“Every good picture is fundamentally an arrangement of three or four large masses,” Carlson wrote. That’s as good an organizing principle as any in art. Value is what makes form visible, so we should see, translate, simplify and organize form into value masses.

These masses must be linked, whether obviously, subtly, or by implication. Think of a windbreak of separate trees on a hill. They might be disconnected dark shapes, but they’re held together by their rhythm.

The Big Fish Eat the Little Fish, drawing for a print, 1556, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, courtesy the Albertina
The Big Fish Eat the Little Fish, drawing for a print, 1556, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, courtesy the Albertina

What to avoid

You’ll note that I’ve said nothing about what’s in front of you, either in your photo or in the real world. Your reference might give you an idea for composition, such as a winding river, a break in the forest, or the strong diagonal of a hillside. But that is your starting point, not your destination.

“Above all, don’t be boring,” I tell my students. This is a lesson from Pieter Bruegel the Elder, who often hid the text of his narrative in odd corners, far from the visual focal points. That makes every painting a puzzle to be worked out.

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Monday Morning Art School: Simplify shapes

Foghorn Symphony, Carol L. Douglas, 30x40, private collection. 

A reader sent me photos of Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona.  “How do you make sense of a scene like this to paint?” he asked.

I’d sit down on a rock and draw, until the focal points and the composition became clear organically. This is not a magic trick; it’s harnessing my subconscious mind in the service of what I know rationally about composition. We draw what we’re interested in, and then draw more of what we’re interested in. It may take several pages in our sketchbook but if we’re relaxed and patient, a composition will emerge.

One of the Petrified Forest photos my reader sent. I couldn't paint from this without drawing from life first.


A rock is a rock is a rock, right?

How different are these petrified trees from the tumble and scree of Maine’s coast? In detail, they’re significantly different—more on that later. But in overall plan, they’re the same idea.

Above is a painting I did of Cape Elizabeth called Foghorn Symphony. Trundy Point is a long spit of rock that juts out into the Atlantic Ocean.

My sketch of Trundy Point. It doesn't need to be complicated; it's a map, not a masterpiece.

I photographed my sketch as well. This drawing moved Ken DeWaard to accuse me of doing Paint-by-Numbers. In a way he was right, because I was numbering the values from one (sky) to four (deep shadow). The drawing is vastly simplified, of course. Its purpose was to freeze the early-morning light so I could finish this vast 30X40 canvas in the field over two long days. By afternoon, the light is completely reversed, but I had it locked in my mind.

In addition, my drawing allowed me to check my composition before I committed myself.

You’ll get lost if you don’t have a broad plan

My sketchbook sat at my feet after I transferred it to my canvas in broad brushstrokes. I referred to it often.

I painted in one section of rocks before I started on the next. I don’t always work like this, but it’s a good way to not get muddled in a complicated scene. The sections didn’t have their final modeling, but there was enough detail there so I could come back and fill in the light at the end.

I was sacrificing the first axiom of oil painting (darks to lights) in the service of the second (big shapes to small shapes). This only worked because I had a plan in writing, in my sketchbook, where I could easily refer to it. You can edit a grisaille to your heart’s content, but erasing and revising with colors is a sure-fire recipe for mud.

Halfway to blocking in that painting.

You can’t break the rules until you know them

I almost always work with an overall grisaille, but I broke that rule in this case. Fog and light are transient, and I wanted to capture them as fast as possible.

Yes, you can break rules, but it helps if you have a solid grasp on them first. I could only fiddle with the grisaille because I’ve internalized value structure by having done hundreds of them.

Falling Tide, 11X14, Carol Douglas, $1087 framed.

Take time to just look

A tumble of rocks in Arizona is only the same as one in Maine in broad concept. In detail, they’re very different. There are painters who come to Maine and render the rocks as rounded brown lumps, because that’s how rocks in the Midwest look. I’m sure there are Maine painters who go to Sedona and render the red rocks there like granite.

For heaven’s sake, look before you pick up your brush. The cleavage, the color, and the erosion patterns are unique in each rock formation. An hour spent sketching will save you hours of bad painting.

Monday Morning Art School: the artist’s website

Drying Sails, 9X12, oil on canvasboard, $869 framed.

Do I need a website?

“Do I need a website? I already have a Facebook page and Instagram.” That’s a common inquiry I get from emerging artists.

I’m the last person to dis the Metaverse—I use it daily. But it has its limits, starting with fact that you don’t own it. If you’ve ever run afoul of FB’s esoteric speech algorithms, you’ll understand its power to shut you down. I once earned a 30-day slowdown with a bit of hyperbole. It had a devastating effect on clicks. It took much longer than my period of detention to recover, because it pushed my blog way down in their display algorithm.

Furthermore, the Metaverse is fleeting. The half-life of a social media post is the amount of time it takes for a post to receive half of its total engagement. FB ranks near the bottom, at 60 minutes, only slightly besting Twitter. That’s fine if you’re advertising t-shirts, but fine art requires intellectual engagement.

Instagram is better, with almost a full day of engagement, but it suffers the limitation of no live links. That means people will buy your painting on IG or not at all. Despite my decent track record of online sales, I’ve never sold a painting through IG, so I use it to create background noise, nothing more.

FB and IG don’t come up on Google search nearly as often as items posted on websites. That means people simply can’t find you if that’s all you’re doing.

Ever-changing Camden Harbor, oil on canvas, $3,188.00

A website today functions almost like a Yellow Pages listing did a generation ago—it not only makes you findable, it denotes a level of reliability to users. Its content is also as static or changeable as you want. We all ‘know’ that we’re supposed to constantly change up content to feed the Google maw, but buyers also want to be able to see your catalogue. Importantly, so too do jurors and gallerists.

Sunset Sail, 14X18, oil on linen, $1594 framed.

What’s the best host for my website?

That’s a much more difficult question for me to answer, because it depends on your skill level and your interest in managing your own marketing. FASO Fine Artist Websites and Fine Art America are good ‘plug and play’ marketing tools. My friend Poppy Balser has had a FASO account for years, and she’s a nimble, accomplished on-line marketer.

I was most surprised to realize I have a free Google Site. These are intended for small groups, like soccer clubs and school classrooms, but it may provide all the functionality you need to get started.

My website is built on WordPress. It’s powerful for online commerce, but I sometimes feel like a three-year-old who’s been given a Lamborghini. Ultimately, I had to hire a developer to help me put the bones of on-line commerce in place. And it has relatively high running costs if you’re not making a lot of online sales.

Camden Harbor, Midsummer, oil on canvas, 24X36 $3,985.00 framed

Keep it simple

However you design your website, it will benefit from constant pruning. Viewers want to see your most recent work, examples from your catalogue, your blog (if you have one), your upcoming shows, and your CV. Nobody wants to wade through acres of verbiage and layers of windows.

What website host do you use? If you’re willing to share your experience, please respond in the comments section below.

Monday Morning Art School: pie crusts and pie plates for Thanksgiving

In the past, I threw in the pie crust recipe as a teaser to get people to learn how to draw ellipses. These days, pie crust is a dying art, so that might be the most important part.

Drawing the pie plate

The red lines are the ellipse and its vertical and horizontal axes. The two sides of the axes are mirror images of each other, side to side and top to bottom.

When drawing round objects, we have to look for the ellipses, which are just elongated circles. Ellipses have a horizontal and a vertical axis, and they’re always symmetrical (the same on each side) to these axes.

Same axes, just tipped.

This is always true. Even when a dish is canted on its side, the rule doesn’t change; it’s just that the axes are no longer vertical or horizontal to the viewer.

This was where I learned that I couldn’t balance a pie plate on the dashboard in my husband’s old minivan.

As always, I started by taking basic measurements, this time of the ellipse that forms the inside rim of the pie plate. (My measurements won’t match what you see because of lens distortion.)

An ellipse isn’t pointed like a football and it isn’t a race-track oval, either.

The inside rim of the bowl.

It’s possible to draw an ellipse mathematically, but for sketching purposes, just draw a short flat line at each axis intersection and sketch the curve freehand from there.

The horizontal axis for the bottom of the pie plate.

There are actually four different ellipses in this pie plate. For each one, I estimate where the horizontal axis and end points will be. The vertical axis is the same for all of them.

Three of the four ellipses are in place.

Next, I find the horizontal axis for the rim, and repeat with that. Most vessels are just a stack of ellipses; it’s the same idea over and over. Figure out what the height and width of each ellipse is, and draw a new horizontal axis for that ellipse. Then sketch in that ellipse.

Four ellipses stacked on the same vertical axis.

Because of perspective, the outer edge of the rim is never on the same exact horizontal axis as the inner edge, but every ellipse is on the same vertical axis. We must observe, experiment, erase and redraw at times. Here all four ellipses are in place. Doesn’t look much like a pie plate yet, but it will.

The suggestion of rays to set the fluted edges.

If I’d wanted, I could have divided the edge of the dish by quartering it with lines. I could have then drawn smaller and smaller units and gotten the fluted edges exactly proportional. But that isn’t important right now. Instead, I lightly sketched a few crossed lines to help me get the fluting about right. It’s starting to look a little more like a pie plate.

Voila! A pie plate!

Now that you’ve tried this with a pie plate, you can practice with a bowl, a vase, a wine glass, or any other glass vessel.

Double Pie Crust

2.5 cups all-purpose white flour, plus extra to roll out the crusts

2 tablespoons sugar

1 ¼ teaspoon salt

12 tablespoons lard, slightly above refrigerator temperature, cut into ½” cubes.

8 tablespoons butter, slightly above refrigerator temperature, cut into ½” cubes.

7 teaspoons ice water

Thoroughly blend the dry ingredients. (I use a food processor, but the process is the same if you’re cutting the fat in by hand.) Cut in the shortening (lard and butter) with either a pastry blender or by pulsing your food processor with the metal blade. It’s ready when it is the consistency of coarse corn meal. (If it’s smooth, you’ve overblended.) Sprinkle ice water over the top, then mix by hand until you can form a ball of dough. If the dough seems excessively dry, you can add another teaspoon of ice water, but don’t go nuts.

Divide that ball in two and flatten into disks. Wrap each disk in wax paper, toss the wrapped disks into a sealed container and refrigerate until you’re ready to use them.

Don’t worry if the dough appears to be incompletely mixed or the ball isn’t completely smooth; mine comes out best when it looks like bad skin.

Let the dough warm just slightly before you start to roll it out. And while you don’t want to smother the dough with flour when rolling, you need enough on both the top and the bottom of the crust that it doesn’t stick. If you’re doing this right, you should be able to roll the crust right up onto your rolling pin and unroll it into your pie plate with a neat flourish.

(If you’ve never rolled out a pie crust, watch this.)

I use this crust for single- or double-crusted, fruit and savory pies. (If you make an extra double-batch you can make a turkey pot pie on Friday.)

Persistent clouds along the Upper Wash, 11X14, Carol L. Douglas, $1087

When I did Friday’s workshop post, I didn’t have the details on my new Austin workshop. I’m super-psyched about this new offering, which is the brainchild of my student Mark Gale. Austin offers a wealth of possibilities to the plein air painter, ranging from historic architecture, beautiful parks, and the urban energy of this cosmopolitan, quirky capitol city. But, honestly, I’m just as excited about seeing old friends, eating barbeque, and painting bluebonnets.

You can learn more here.

Monday Morning Art School: make your own canvases

Skylarking 2, 18x24, unframed $1855, oil on linen. I stretch my own linen canvases.

“I have a roll of cotton duck kicking around here,” B— asked. “Can I just duct tape a big piece of that to a piece of plywood and put a few coats of acrylic gesso on it? Should I leave a few inches raw around the edge in case it comes out decent, so I can mount it on a stretcher?”

B— needs to know whether her fabric is unshrunk and unsized, or loomstate. Standard sewing fabric won't work. The gesso is meant to shrink the fabric into tautness. Duct tape isn’t designed for that strong pulling stress and will leave a sticky residue. Instead, use staples. Stretcher frames are designed for this process, so it's easiest to stretch canvas on them, although it can be done over plywood.

Start by squaring off the stretchers. Use a mallet to get them true and check all four corners.

She could also buy already-primed linen or canvas. This is easily stapled or taped to a board because the shrinking is done. This is especially handy for class assignments or practicing chip shots.

It’s generally cheaper to buy small canvases and canvasboards than make them yourself. Only when you get to larger sizes, or you want to paint on linen, does DIY becomes a practical option.

Once I had the fabric true on the warp and weft, I carefully folded it in quarters and set it aside.

Stretcher bars are designed to float with atmospheric changes, hence the little wooden “keys” that come with them. There is no benefit in locking down the corners by screwing them together. When it shrinks, a big sheet of loom-state linen or canvas is going to pull the stretchers into compliance. That’s why the grain matters.

Lining up the creases with the marked midpoints of my stretchers assures me the canvas will be truly square.

The weft in fabric (horizontal threads) isn’t always perfectly perpendicular to the warp (vertical threads). The only true straight-edge in fabric is the selvage edge. You want to cut along the grain, but you can’t just assume the weft threads are perpendicular to the selvage.

If it’s out of true, fabric will bag when folded selvage-to-selvage. You can easily square it off with the help of a friend. Fold the fabric in half along the vertical. Grasping each corner firmly, tug diagonally in alternating directions. Eventually, the fabric will square off and fall true. The ends might be cockeyed; ignore them.

Although dressmakers and quilters might use water or steam in this step, you can’t. It will shrink the fabric.

The first staples should be hand-tight, no more.

Once you’re certain the fabric is squared off, fold it in quarters. The creases will be your stapling guides.

Mark each stretcher bar’s midpoint with pencil. Line the creases up with these pencil marks, and your canvas will pull tightly on the square. Your first set of staples should be across the middle of the canvas on the warp. They should be hand-tight, no tighter. Next, staple the vertical midpoints. These four staples should all be hand-tight, without cupping around the staples, and the corners of your canvas should be square. If these four staples yield a straight cross at the right tension, the rest of the canvas will line up true.

You might have to remove and replace staples to get the cross straight, but it’s worth taking the time.

From here use canvas pliers or your hand to pull the canvas tight but not taut. Work out from the center of each side, adding one staple and then rotating the canvas. The goal isn’t to tighten the fabric as taut as you can; the goal is to tighten it as evenly as you can. Watch the fabric grain as you go; if it’s out of line, you’ve messed something up.

Work around the canvas in a circle, adding a staple to each side until you reach the edges. The linen doesn’t need to be drum-tight.

Applying the gesso is easy; just keep it light and even. I use a small piece of ¼” plywood as a strigil rather than a brush; it’s faster and more effective. Make sure the gesso goes around the sides of your canvas. Don’t dilute; good gesso is already the proper thickness.

Trim the edges when you finish.

Check the square again when you’re finished stapling.

Finally, it's time to pour a little acrylic gesso on your loomstate linen.

Use your strigil to push the gesso into the grain. At this stage, less is more; it’s easier to add more gesso than to remove a gloppy excess from a canvas.

Do the edges and clean up any ridges with an old spalter brush and you’re done. Go have a glass of wine; you’ve earned it!

Monday Morning Art School: what do you use for drawing?

For figure drawing, I prefer softer materials, primarily willow charcoal.

“I wonder if you can give me some tips on getting back into drawing,” a reader asked recently. She’s a retired professional artist, so she didn’t need help with the mechanics, just the materials.  “I only have those hard leads that I put in mechanical pencils.  I like drawing with a mechanical pencil and lead but I need leads that are much softer for the kinds of thing I might be drawing, along with the thinner lines I use now. I don’t like clumsy crayon-type of drawing or anything like that.  I am not at all interested in drawing with ink.”

“I also need a good quality sketching paper.  Later I might move into a higher-grade paper if I keep up with this kind of work.”

I always carry a sketchbook with me when painting, and I always start with a drawing.

Although this reader doesn’t need help with the mechanics of drawing, many of my students and readers do. I recommend Sketching from Square One to Trafalgar Square by Richard E. Scott. Drawing is a technical exercise, not a magic trick. Anyone can learn it.

These days, I do 99% of my drawing in a Strathmore Bristol Visual Journal with a #2 mechanical pencil, using my finger for a stump. I like the hard-press finish and can go off on watercolor or gouache tangents when I feel like it.

My winter mittens. I’ve been saved a world of boredom by always carring a sketchbook and #2 mechanical pencil with me.

But that’s not the kind of finish my reader is seeking. I’m never doing more than a quick sketch for a painting, or drawing in church. Neither need the depth of shading that better materials would supply.

I prefer mechanical pencils because they don’t need a sharpener and eraser. If that appeals, you can buy replacement leads in a variety of densities. These, however, are wider than the pencils one buys at Staples, so they require a matching lead holder, only some of which come with internal erasers.

That exceeds my tolerance for fuss. When I’m doing more finished pencil work, I use woodless pencils. They can be sharpened with a sandpaper pointer. If you like a bigger, bolder look, liquid charcoal and graphite blocks cover a lot of area quickly.

The animals in our annual church Christmas service suddenly came alive.

Another reader suggested I try Uni Mitsubishi Hi-Uni pencils for a traditional lead pencil that has satisfyingly smooth graphite. And there’s Blackwing, which a writer friend swears is the best pencil in the world. But since I don’t use traditional pencils, your suggestions would be helpful.

Good graphite deserves good paper. You could take a deep dive into a wove paper, but for everyday drawing, I rely on that old standby, Canson Mi-Tientes. It has a different surface on either side and comes in a plethora of colors.

Moving away from mechanical pencils means a good eraser. I use a Pentel stick eraser, but the softer the lead, the less precision you’ll need. I used kneaded erasers for years, but I’m finding them too gummy these days. The Koh-I-Noor Hardtmuth Soft Eraser is made of old-fashioned rubber.

Drawing in church leads to some priceless observations, including this teenage boy falling asleep.

And last but certainly not least, there’s the question of pencil sharpeners. I have several, including a wall-mounted one in my studio. None are as durable and reliable as the old metal ones from our school days. In the end, I find the simple, cheap, handheld metal ones where you can replace the blades to be the most reliable.

What products do you love for drawing, and why? Just remember to put your recommendations in the comments below, not on Facebook. That makes them universally accessible to readers from any platform.

This page contains affiliate links for some but not all products. If you choose to make a purchase after clicking a link, I may receive a commission at no additional cost to you. Thank you for your support!

Monday Morning Art School: Four masters show us how to use scale

A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, Édouard Manet, 1882, courtesy the Courtauld

We don’t know why prehistoric man created the 360 ft.-long prehistoric Uffington White Horse in Britain, but every generation is both amazed and moved by it. Conversely, miniatures dazzle us with their meticulous craftsmanship. In very large or very small works, we’re immediately transported out of the ordinary. That is why The Heart of the Andes by Frederic Edwin Church must be seen in person—the scope is lost in photos.

The scale of the figures within a painting can make its message more powerful. Here, four masters show us how it’s done.

Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, Caspar David Friedrich, c. 1817, courtesy Hamburger Kunsthalle

Wanderer above the Sea of Fog is by the great German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich. He doesn’t spell out the identity of the model; in fact, the man is turned away from the viewer. He is an Everyman with whom we are meant to identify. He is centered in the canvas (saved from being static by the S-curve of his body) and is larger than the landscape itself. Friedrich wants us to focus on our human responses and not the landscape itself, as symbolic of uncertainty as it is.

A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, Georges Seurat, 1884-1886, courtesy Art Institute of Chicago

A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte by Georges Seurat is one of the most famous paintings in art history. It’s the seminal work of Neo-Impressionism. It was birthed with some difficulty, as Seurat labored over it for three years. Observe the scale of the figures. They range from the monumental couple on the right with their weird little monkey to the distant figures in the background. Using figures of various sizes, Seurat deftly created depth without atmospherics or modeling. Compare this painting to its companion piece, Bathers at Asnières, which takes a more conventional approach to creating depth.

The Oxbow: View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm, Thomas Cole, 1836, courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art

Many Hudson River School paintings are sermons on canvas, and Thomas Cole’s The Oxbow: View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm is no exception. You are meant to see the American landscape as an Arcadia where man and nature live in harmony. There’s also nascent American myth here, celebrating our story of discovery, exploration and settlement just as they began to fade into history. Cole hammers this home with the Hebrew lettering in the logging clearcut. It spells either “Noah” or “Shaddai” (the Almighty) depending on whether you’re reading it right-side-up or from the God’s-eye-view.

Cole painted himself into The Oxbow. He’s so tiny it will take you a moment to find him. Look in the ravine to the left of his kit and umbrella. By making himself so small he drives home the point that we are mere specks in Creation.

Much has been written about the ‘impossibility’ of the reflections in Édouard Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère (at top). The gentleman at the far right is enigmatic; he’s both transactional and nightmarish. Note the feet of the trapeze artist at the far left and the Bass Pale Ale bottle, which hasn’t changed in 140 years.

The barmaid’s face is life-size, and she is assessing us straight-on. Whether we’re looking at exhaustion, sadness, or resignation is hard to say. By making her life-size, Manet hammers home the power of her straightforward gaze. This painting isn’t just a mirror in a bar; it’s a mirror on our own souls.

Manet was dying of syphilis when he painted this, suffering severe pain and paralysis. Controversy has raged about the identity and character of the model, known only as Suzon. That hardly matters, because what we see in her eyes is a reflection of Manet’s, and by extension, our, thoughts.

If you’ve ever thought about taking one of my workshops aboard schooner American Eagle, here’s a lovely account from writer Georgette Diamandi, who joined us this past September.

Monday Morning Art School: painting and flying

"Dome of Light," 12X9, available through Sedona Arts Center.

I’m in Sedona, AZ for the 18th annual Sedona Plein Air Festival. My friend Jennifer mocks my packing list as unnecessarily exhaustive. However, it’s meant to be a complete list from which you choose what’s appropriate. For example, I bring foul-weather gear on my schooner workshops, but not dress clothes. This week, I brought a dress but no foul-weather gear. True to form, it rained yesterday.

“That’s all just materials and tools,” I hastened to tell a woman at the airport who watched me struggle with two large suitcases and a carry-on, her lips pursed. “Do I look like a person who owns three suitcases full of clothing?”

"Crescent Moon, Dawn," 9X12, available through Sedona Arts Center.

At home I drive a full-size pickup truck and have more than 500 square feet of studio space. Here, my tools are crammed into a rental car. I don’t have the luxury of bringing everything I might want.

Travel is always a compromise between canvas size and practicality. I like to paint big, but the largest thing I can pack in a suitcase is 16/20 (in a very narrow frame). I’m carrying four sizes here in Sedona (16/20, 11/14, 9/12, and 8/16) and that’s too many. The less variation in size, the easier it is to pack.

Every art material comes with a Safety Data Sheet (SDS), an exhaustive document that is, for the most part, irrelevant to you as an artist. What matters is the flash point, which is in section nine, Physical and Chemical Properties. This tells you what you can and cannot fly with. A flash point at or below 140° F (60° C) indicates it is a flammable liquid and may not be carried in airline baggage.

"Buckboard," 11X14, Carol L. Douglas, available through Sedona Arts Center.

You’ll have to hunt, but all vendors are required to provide SDS for every product.

Not all solvents are created equal. Turpenoid has a flash point of 129° F (54° C), so it can’t fly. Gamsol’s flash point is 144°F (62°C) so it’s safe. I buy a fresh pint and wrap it in its SDS with the flash point highlighted.

My favorite painting medium (Grumbacher Quick Dry) has a flash point of 140° F, meaning it can’t fly. After buying countless bottles of it after the road that were ditched after using only a few drops, I switched to using linseed oil as a medium. That sacrifices dry time for convenience, but it hasn’t been a problem. Again, I wrap the bottle in its SDS with the flash point (500° F) highlighted.

A small tube of oil paint is 37 ml. or 1.25 oz, so is safe for your carry-on. A large tube is 150 ml., or 5 oz. It must be checked or it will be confiscated. I pack this handy label with my oil paints. Watercolor tubes are tiny and harmless, but the only trouble I’ve ever had flying with paints was with watercolors. An inspector at Heathrow dumped them back into my checked luggage without putting them in their plastic container. My clothes were stained on my return home.

A glowering sky yesterday morning.

It’s very easy to forget your brushes in the heat of travel, and dried brushes are unredeemable. If you can do nothing else, rinse them thoroughly in solvent and wipe them down until you can treat them properly.

Most accommodations don’t have utility sinks. I sometimes take my brushes into the shower, where the force of the water clears away all lingering pigments. That’s not practical in places where water is a luxury. There, I use a superfatted soap and clean all residue from the sink when I’m done.

There are a number of portable painting racks, including RayMar’s DryAngle, but when painting in a festival, I simply snap the painting into its frame. If it doesn’t sell, it can travel home like that. Unframed work gets separated with waxed paper, taped together, and packed in my checked luggage. As long as the paint isn’t too thick, it won’t be harmed.

Monday Morning Art School: buying frames

This is my painting Stone wall, salt marshes in a Canadian-style frame. They're almost impossible to get in the US.

I woke up one morning in a surfeit of gold, hating gold plein air frames. This is partly my friend Poppy Balser’s fault. “You Americans love those heavy gold frames, but Canadian buyers think they look cheap,” she said. Well, dang.

Frames are my bête noire. I have a garage full of them, and yet, seemingly, never the right one. If you have a painting in black, the buyer wants gold—or vice-versa. And they ding easily. I’ve lost count of the paintings I’ve gotten back from shows with the protective corners missing.

This is my current favorite frame, a simple chop I buy from Omega, on a painting called Drying Sails.

Last week I wrote a guide to buying art supplies online. “What about framing?” a reader asked. I asked several professional artists to chime in. Here are their suggestions.

Don’t dismiss your local option, like Primrose Framing in Rockland. “I have my local frame shop build me simple frames, simply the four pieces of wood mitered together, from their stock,” said Bobbi Heath. “These are comparable in price to the other sources, and convenient.”

I buy frames and chops (lengths of moulding) from Omega Moulding. The quality is excellent and they have an exhaustive catalog, but they require a business account. They’ve recently limited what they’ll send by freight up to my neck of the woods, so sometimes I have to have things drop-shipped to my daughter in New York. That’s not always handy.

I’ve also purchased unfinished framing stock from Vermont Hardwoods and built my own. That’s the most beautiful option, but I don’t have time these days.

A number of my peers recommended JFM. They require a state resale certificate, as do most wholesale vendors. Chrissy Pahucki likes them “especially for panoramic sizes. I like to save their very sturdy boxes for shipping paintings too.”

They’re Lynn Mehta’s go-to as well. “Their price point isn’t too bad. They have a pretty wide selection of ready-made sizes as well as custom.” Natalia Andreeva and Eric Jacobsen also endorse them.

A traditional gold plein air frame from Florida Frames (photo courtesy Bobbi Heath).

“I also really like King of Frame,” Lynn said. “Some of their frames are really beautiful. I’m always looking for low-profile moulding which isn’t too heavy and preferably closed corners. Both companies have a good selection. Also, the customer service at both of these companies is wonderful.” Eric Jacobsen and Ken DeWaard also like King of Frame. “King of Frames has many of the same styles as Omega,” Jane Chapin noted.

Ken suggested San Diego Frame. They also require a resale certificate, but Ken says they’ve provided a good-quality product. “I used to make my own,” he said, “but I’m not ready to go back down that road yet.”

Bobbi Heath and Jane Chapin recommended Florida Frames, although Jane likes them for chops only. Bobbi also likes varnished wood contemporary frames from Frame Destination. And she points out something that’s true of all frame sellers: “Buying multiples in each size lowers the cost and combines the shipping.” That’s one reason professional plein air artists end up working on standard-sized boards. It’s also how I ended up with a garage full of frames.

Don’t dismiss the big-box art supply retailers. “I also use Dick Blick Simplon black frames with a gold liner for more standard sizes because they ship pretty fast,” said Crissy Pahucki.

I just ordered some frames from Jerry’s Artarama Museum Collection on another artist’s recommendation,” said Lynn Mehta. “When you go on the site look for museum quality frames and in particular the artist frames, not the plein air. The big bonus he pointed out is that Jerry’s offers free shipping.

“They look pretty good, in my opinion. Solid frames. Came in their own boxes, like Omega Frames, and wrapped in a bubble-wrap envelop.

“Heavy as can be, though. I'm not a fan of heavy frames. Heavy for me to ship and heavy to haul around. I will buy them again if I need a frame in a hurry. But I don't want to stock up on them.”

Natalia Andreeva buys frames from Jerry’s, too. She also points out that antique and second-hand stores are a great source for frames.

Monday Morning Art School: stop seeing your peers as competitors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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