Monday Morning Art School: why is a workshop important?

Sand and Shadows, 8X16, oil on archival linenboard, private collection

I had a long chat with Olena Babak last week, where we mostly discussed how much we value our artist friends. The plein air world, in which we’re both deeply planted, fosters a sense of community. Many of my friends are artists whom I met teaching or at events. There is something unique in the experience of pitting ourselves against our own unreachable goals that binds artists together.

At the same time, I texted with someone considering my Towards Amazing Color workshop at the Sedona Arts Center.  “What is the most important thing I will take away from this workshop?” she asked. I’ve been mulling that over ever since.

All painting starts with observation and perception, and Sedona is in a natural setting so preposterous that painters can’t fall back on what they think they know. The landscape is vast and the air is so clear that none of the usual tricks of aerial perspective apply. This creates distinctive lighting conditions, especially at sunrise and sunset, which in turn bounces what we think we know about color on its head.

Peace, 8X16, $903 framed includes shipping and handling in continental US.

That’s a great thing, since none of us should be painting stereotypes anyway.

In most of our world, the dominant color scheme is green, brown and blue, with flashes of warm colors. There is nothing wrong with that, of course; I paint it and love it deeply. But Sedona flips all that on its head. Its giant rock massifs are red and cream, set off by a ferocious azure sky and accented with dull greens.

Meanwhile, the intense warm light forms equally intense cool shadows. A week of painting that light will bleed back into our paintings of the more-delicate lighting elsewhere, helping us capture the nuances of light and shadow. Painting what we don’t know is invaluable for developing a keen sense of observation for when we get back to what we do know.

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

That raises the question of how accurately we mix our colors. Just as I discourage eastern painters from using premixed greens, I discourage Sedona painters from using premixed reds. Yes, the rocks may be close to burnt sienna, but slathering that on will just make for a flat painting. We need to learn to mix colors to match the subtle variations in the landscape. That’s a skill you can take anywhere.

My personal painting challenge right now is in representing what I’ll call, for lack of a better term, deep space. It’s easy enough to paint an eastern mountain that’s a few miles away, especially when I have aerial perspective to fall back on. The giant rearing rock formations of Sedona, set like massive eroding jewels, are eroded like hoodoos but bigger than skyscrapers. They create their own special drafting problems. They teach me how to convey distance, perspective, and dimensionality. Once you’ve seen that kind of depth in a painting, you can’t go back to using mere layering to create the illusion of distance.

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

I am both a committed plein air painter and outdoorswoman (although I can’t tell you which came first). Painting outdoors fosters my connection with the natural world. It’s not just the landscape and atmosphere; it’s also the weather, the creatures and the plants. (That relationship transcends words, which is why I loathe writing artist’s statements.) Sedona has all those things in spades. If you haven’t ever been there, it’s worth the journey.

I hope this answers my correspondent’s question, and by extension, yours too.

My 2024 workshops:

What I’ve accomplished so far this week

I wish I could remember the title of this piece.

We’re down to the final stretch at the 19th annual Sedona Plein Air Festival. At this point, I haven’t the energy to wax philosophical, so I’ll just tell you a little story about each of these paintings, in the order in which I completed them.

I can’t remember the title of the painting above. It was the first one I painted, and the first one I’ve sold. This is the painting where Casey Cheuvront and I were entertained by a series of spirit guides, which I wrote about here. I remain stubbornly unenlightened.

Early Light, 11X14, oil on archival canvasboard.

Early Light is of the building next to the Sedona Arts Center. To my eyes, it’s the most authentic building in downtown Sedona. The Jordan Family built it of red rock in 1938 to house their retail operations; their former fruit-processing barn is now part of the Sedona Arts Center. I doubt they could envision that it would one day offer Intuitive Psychic Readings or Reiki, Energy and Chakra Balancing, among other things. It’s 11X14, oil on archival canvasboard, available through Sedona Arts Center.

Dusk at the Merry-Go-Round, 11X14, oil on archival canvasboard.

Since my rental car was upgraded to a Jeep, Ed Buonvecchio, Casey and I decided to drive up Schnebly Hill Road. This track used to be the road to Flagstaff; today it’s barely fit for a high-clearance Jeep. It took us an hour to get to our destination, and we barely had teeth left. Heading down in the failing light, I realized I only had my sunglasses with me. Casey watched for obstacles while I steered. “Did you see that person on the side of the road?” she asked me. Ahem.

“It’s actually a little smoother if you take the washboards a little faster,” Casey told me. So, I did. “I didn’t mean the rocks!” she cried. Dusk at the Merry-Go-Round is 11X14, oil on archival canvasboard, available through Sedona Arts Center.

Pensive, 8X10, oil on archival canvasboard.

Pensive is an 8X10 which I did as a demo on Sunday, in concert with Hadley Rampton. “How did you feel when you were painting it?” a member of the audience asked.

“Larky,” I answered.

“That’s not larky; it’s pensive,” he replied. I didn’t realize I was pensive; I thought I was having a great time, but sometimes your subconscious has a mind of its own. Available through Sedona Arts Center.

Peace, 8X16, oil on archival canvasboard.

I’ve been praying for peace for Israel and Ukraine. My friend told me that there were prayer flags along the trail near the Amitabha Stupa and Peace Park. Frankly, I was attracted to the bright colors fluttering among the piñons and junipers, but why not pray for peace while you’re painting in a peace park? Peace is 8X16, and available through Sedona Arts Center.

The Beauty of the Rocks, 11X14, oil on archival canvasboard.

The Beauty of the Rocks is 11X14, and was painted along Oak Creek behind L’Auberge de Sedona, which is a very swank resort. There’s one classic view, looking upstream, but I painted that last year. Why not drop down into a fissure and paint the diagonal gap in the rocks instead? Of course, I couldn’t back up to look at my work without killing myself, so I periodically called to Laura Martinez-Bianco to ask her if passages needed changing. This committee approach to painting apparently works; I’m pleased with both the color and composition.

I have to select three pieces for judging. Although I’ve still got two more days to paint, I’m interested in your opinion. What do you like best, and why?

My 2024 workshops:

If not today, when?

Matt in his down coat, drawing at Sedona. He was not overdressed for the weather. (Photo courtesy Ed Buonvecchio)

Yesterday, I ambled around the grounds of the French Legation State Historic Site in Austin musing about my plans for Sunday. The air here is clear and warm, the bluebonnets are blooming, and the trees are leafing out-perfect conditions for a day with horses.

Then I remembered that my pal Sarah and the stable are back home in Maine. They’re about to receive another blast of arctic air, dropping temperatures back into the 20s and bringing more of the foul ‘mixed precipitation’ that so bedeviled last week’s workshop in Sedona. That’s my current disconnect.

Nita wore a sock over her casted hand to keep it warm. (Photo courtesy Ed Buonvecchio)

Last week’s weather was awful for plein air painting. However, I had a dedicated band that stuck it out. Nita had a pickleball fracture in her right arm. She’s a southpaw but she could only use watercolor, as managing pastels was impossible without two hands. In the cold, her injury started to throb. She painted, quietly excused herself to warm up her errant limb or go to physical therapy, and then returned. Every day.

Joan had never painted before. On my recommendation she bought a gouache kit and drove down from Seattle. No matter how grim the weather, she gamely stayed with me, exercise after exercise. At the time, I thought, “this is an awful introduction to painting; she’s never going to want to do this again.” Still, she learned the fundamentals. She says she’s going to keep with it.

Joan listening to me carrying on. (Photo courtesy Ed Buonvecchio)

What’s got you rattled?

I can think of a million reasons to not paint today. In fact, I can find a million reasons to not paint every day. I’ve written before about how Ken DeWaardEric JacobsenBjörn Runquist and I can dither. There are legitimate reasons why your creative impulses are blunted, including bad weather, work, children, or storms of grief or anxiety.

We all suffer from competing demands that distract us from what we need to do. For me, for years, it was my house. I couldn’t paint if it was a mess, because disorder always feels like a tide about to engulf me

Most of us have creative impulses-to write, to paint, to build furniture, to design beautiful interior spaces or gardens. The vast majority of us never do anything with those impulses, claiming a lack of time or energy. That’s despite being able to binge-watch television shows, slavishly follow the Buffalo Bills, or (in my case) read bad novels.

Joy and Matt persevering despite the cold. (Photo courtesy Ed Buonvecchio)

Are you hiding from the challenge?

Not creating is a safe position from which to operate. Your talent is inviolable, protected, a seed not open to criticism. You remain assured that you’re really a genius, which could suddenly be apparent as soon as you have the time or focus to start creating.

That gives you the latitude to criticize other creators, as you are protected from criticism yourself.

Many of us-most of us, in fact-will go to our graves never having moved past the ‘potential’ position. Those who do experience a transition to deep humility as we start to work through all the ways our craft can go wrong. We’re no longer so quick to have opinions about other work, because we recognize the struggle in which it was created.

But first you must start.

Whatever creative task you are called to do, there is always a day you must start doing it, instead of merely thinking about it. This might be that day, my friend.

My 2024 workshops:

After I’m done careening around like a madwoman…

Watercolor of schooner American Eagle

Watercolor of schooner American Eagle
Watercolor of schooner American Eagle, by Carol L. Douglas

My dog always knows when I’m getting ready to leave. He attaches himself to me, following me from place to place as I go through my workday. I don’t think I’m dropping non-verbal clues. I think he’s listening to my conversations and understands far more than we think dogs are capable of.

I’m heading down to Rockport, Massachusetts today for Cape Ann Plein Air. This is a premier plein air event; a number of people I haven’t seen since the start of the pandemic will be there.

When I get home, I have a week to get organized and then it’s off to Sedona Plein Air. There, I know only Ed Buonvecchio and juror John Caggiano. He’ll also be at Cape Ann as a painter this week. That’s not as weird as it sounds. There’s really nobody better to judge plein air painting than a fellow plein air artist.

Red rocks of Sedona, oil on canvas, Carol L. Douglas, available.

Then it’s home in time to set up my schedule for 2023. I have four firm dates on my calendar so far:

  • Toward Amazing Color, Sedona, AZ—March 20-24, 2023. Sedona is a stunningly beautiful place that’s steeped in art history. What better place to learn about color than among the towering red sandstone bluffs, the muted greens of the chaparral, and that big, blue sky? An added plus for northerners—Sedona is warm in March!
  • Watercolor workshop aboard schooner American Eagle—June 20-24, 2023. This is the summer solstice, which gives us the longest possible period in which to paint. All professional-quality materials are included, and we welcome painters at all levels. In addition to wonderful sailing on an historic vessel, there are beautiful village walks and calm rows around quiet harbors.
  • Sea & Sky at Schoodic—August 6-11, 2023. This is in Acadia National Park, one of the nation’s true beauty spots. Since accommodations are available at the Institute, it saves you the trouble of looking for a hotel in an area that’s truly back of beyond.
  • Watercolor workshop aboard schooner American Eagle—September 16-20, 2023. Again, all materials are included, and we welcome painters at all levels. This is my favorite time to sail, as the water’s warm and the skies are magnificent. Changing foliage glows against the dark evergreen trees and the deep blues of the bay.

Magnificent Schoodic Point

These workshops aren’t up on my website yet, although you can register for Sedona directly. I’ve been a one-woman shop and I’m very busy in the summer. This fall, however, I’m doing things a little differently. My daughter Laura Boucher has been helping me with IT, video, and other online material. Of course, she can only publish what I give her, and I’m just learning about this stuff.

If you’ve eyeballed these workshops in prior years, now’s the time to pencil in the dates and email me to make sure you get the updated information as soon as it’s published. My workshops regularly sell out.

My gallery has closed for the season. Paintings don’t benefit from the wide temperature swings we see in October, so they’re bundled up cozily in their storage unit.

Painting aboard American Eagle

Our timing was perfect—on Sunday we took down the tent and on Monday four cords of firewood were dropped in the adjacent lawn. Somehow, I need to make the time to stack it.

This autumn would have been even more chaotic had surgery not forced me to slow down earlier this month. My favorite meme recently is “Adulthood is saying ‘But after this week things will slow down,’ over and over until you die.” At times, it sure feels that way.