Paint Schoodic

We had another successful painting workshop at the Schoodic Institute in beautiful Acadia National Park. Join us in 2018!

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Online vs. gallery sales

The mechanics of selling are changing, but common courtesy (I hope) will never go out of style.

Headlights, by Carol L. Douglas
Yesterday I wrote about the inevitability of online sales. Until now, I’ve avoided it, preferring to sell the old-fashioned way. But more and more professional artists are embracing the idea, and I doubt it will go away anytime soon.

A professional artist sent me the following comment:

I still want to be in galleries, but only a very few that I have a great relationship with. The appeals of online selling to me are these:
  • No framing, you ship only when you sell, and you can charge for shipping or not (free shipping on small paintings is a nice thing to be able to offer your subscribers);
  • You can offer a painting on multiple online venues at the same time, as long as you remember to remove or mark them sold everywhere;
  • It's a nice way to be able to offer a sale without offending your galleries.
Commercial scallopers, by Carol L. Douglas
Most galleries have contracts with their artists that limit their sales in the local geographical area. Artists should respect these agreements, not just in their letter but in their spirit. If you think being an artist is a dicey financial venture, consider the costs to run a bricks-and-mortar store selling artwork. If a gallery has taken you on, you owe it the courtesy of supporting its marketing efforts.

Online marketing is, in fact, a good way to do that, but as with everything, you should talk with your galleries first. Some have specific rules about cross-listing with selling websites. Avoid putting yourself in the position of retrieving a painting from a gallery because you sold it somewhere else. Your gallery deserves a commission for work it’s showing.

A lobster pound at Tenant's Harbor, by Carol L. Douglas (courtesy of the Kelpie Gallery)
Artists occasionally do dumb things that undercut their relationships with galleries. Showing at other venues in violation of their contracts is one thing. Undercutting prices in side deals is another. Even worse is saying disparaging things after a few glasses of wine at openings. Alcohol and business don’t generally play well together.

You, the artist, ought to be more of a salesman for yourself and your work than anyone else. “Be relentlessly positive,” is the best motto I can think of in sales. If you’re doing business with a person you don’t respect, what does that say about you?

The new sandbar, by Carol L. Douglas
This same logic extends to social media. There is no distinction between your identity as a person and your professional identity as an artist; you are one and the same. “I was just being funny,” is never an excuse. People read your Facebook posts.

Yes, galleries and artists need each other, but there is a power dynamic at play, too. It shifts depending on who is more successful, the gallerist or the artist. In general, we need galleries at least as much as they need us.

I doubt that will change as we buy and sell more across the internet. There will always be makers of merchandise and sellers of merchandise. The names of the relationships may change, but common courtesy (I hope) will never go out of style.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Strategic thinking

My plein air events for 2017 are all done. It’s time to consider how to improve things in 2018.
Full Stop, by Carol L. Douglas. Part of my self-analysis is to consider what paintings gave me the most joy to paint this summer. This is a small sample.
Mary Byrom asked me why I moved to Maine just to spend so much of my time on the road. It’s a good question, and one I take seriously as I plan for 2018.

Boston is a cork blocking Maine’s access to the rest of the country. I’ve been driving on I-90 for the better part of 40 years. This summer, traffic in eastern Massachusetts seemed particularly bad. Keeping that in mind, we timed our departure from Pittsfield to avoid the worst traffic on I-495. Instead, we sat for nearly an hour on the Masspike outside Worcester. It was a perfect bookend to our trip south eleven days earlier, when we rode the brakes all the way down I-84 to New York City.

Two Islands in the rain, by Carol L. Douglas
It felt wonderful to pull into our driveway. When I got out of my car in the far reaches of the night, there was the Milky Way, hanging directly over my head. It seemed as if I could have reached out a hand and scooped up diamonds.

I’ve spent the last month fighting a wicked bout of asthmatic bronchitis. That’s a dead giveaway that I need to cool my jets.

In the belly of the whale, by Carol L. Douglas. I got to spend a day looking at the guts of a scalloper. What could be better?
Years ago, the organizers of an invitational event told me that they did a three-year running average of sales for each artist. Each year, the bottom 25% of performers were cut from their roster. Friendship and sentiment were never considered. The lowest-performing artists were replaced with new people. By giving painters a pass for the first two years, the event gave new painters a chance to gain a foothold in the community

I’m thinking of doing a similar analysis on my own calendar. I want to spread my work out across a longer season. That means, sadly, cutting some mid-summer events.

Along Kiwassa Lake, by Carol L. Douglas. Is there anything more lake-camp than a clothesline strung along the shore?
However, I must consider distance, convenience, and opportunity costs. An event in New Jersey needs to yield a better return than one in Maine. If it provides housing for its artists, it is better than an event where I need a hotel. And any time I’m painting elsewhere, I’m not on the docks in Camden, which might well have a better return.

I’m not sure I can design a matrix that’s as brutally, beautifully simple as my friends at the art center's, but I can still think this through objectively.

Penobscot Early Morning, by Carol L. Douglas. Painted from a friend's deck while drinking coffee.
Another thing I’m considering for 2018 is creating a limited-liability corporation. I’ve never actually lost a painting student yet, and I’m insured, but why expose my family to the financial risk?

I am revisiting the question of online painting sales. I’ve pondered this repeatedly over the last five years. The recurring nature of the question tells me that online marketing isn’t going away. It’s not a question of if, but when. The changeover isn’t going to be easy; it means enabling e-commerce on my website, changing my marketing strategy, and—most importantly—changing the way I think about selling paintings. But it’s our current reality.

That high-level thinking will all wait, though. Today, I’m going to just read the mail and water my tomatoes. I’ll go collect my car from the garage and stop at the post office and the library. Perhaps I’ll walk down to the harbor and see what beautiful boats have floated in. It’s a glorious time of year in the Northeast and I aim to enjoy it.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Why art?

Art brings you joy. It takes you to new and different worlds.

Almost finished.
Today's client is two, and she knows what she wants. “An orange cow! A barn!” Because I’m her grandmother, she’ll get them, even though I’ve never painted a mural before.

This is a limited-palette painting. I have red, yellow, blue and white latex eggshell-finish wall paints. All of them run on the warm side, and they can’t make a convincing green. It’s good that I’m painting over a green base.

This morning, I’ll extend the trees behind the barn. I’ll pop and model the foliage a little with some acrylic paint I bought at Michael's. Then it’s back to plain wall painting for me. There’s still a lot to do, and I'm keenly conscious of the ticking clock.

My son-in-law believes primer is a sufficient covering for the walls. I try to explain that wall paint is a lot like a pedicure: the color is just a bonus. What you’re really gaining is a harder, durable, more easily-cleaned surface. “What a waste of time and money!” he exclaims.

I used sidewalk chalk to make my sketch, such as it was.
Still, when I got to a hard part, he took the roller from me, and even did a credible job. Then he went back to the mysteries of connecting their electrical service to National Grid.

My daughter is a mechanical engineer. She went to a plumbing store in Albany to buy a fitting for their well pump. She had designed and installed the system herself. “If you don’t know which one you need, you should hire a contractor,” the clerk sneered. Mostly, sexism of the kind our grandmothers endured is gone in America, but once in a while, it shows back up.

My granddaughter is still very short, so all the action is at the bottom of the picture.
Thirty years ago, my husband and I also did the site work and systems for our first home, also a modular. Our children are far less excitable than we were. There's no blue cloud of swearing hanging in the air these days, even as they press against their final deadline.

I never painted a mural for my own kids. Like everyone else, I was scrambling to hold together a house, family, and job. This is one of the luxuries of grandparenting, and I’m enjoying it very much.

Last night, my granddaughter and I did a project review. She thinks her mural might need a black bear up on the hill. Her look of total absorption was the same as that of an adult contemplating a painting. It didn’t matter that my painting was done mostly with a two-inch wall brush and I don’t know what I’m doing. Her hillside farm transported her. That’s the whole point: painting should take us to new and different worlds.

Can I fob off a mere oil painting on her brother? I doubt it.
Meanwhile her three-year-old brother announced, “I want a farm, too!” I have a painting of a crane I did last spring at the boatyard; I hope I can fob him off with it.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

What is style?

Want to become a caricature of yourself? Just focus on your style rather than the content of your work.
Commissioned portrait, by Carol L. Douglas. In this instance, high-key lighting was necessary to convey the spirit of the model, and so I used it.
Art & Fear, by David Bayles and Ted Orland, is a book that every artist should read. Not only does it destroy the myth of genius, it also points out that there is no end point in art making. The working artist can never rest on his laurels. Art-making is a constantly-renewing process of discovery. This is something that can be seen in the careers of every great master from Rembrandt to Monet.

A good artist investigates knotty questions. When they are answered, he moves on, just like Omar Khayyam’s moving finger. So often, by the time we get through the cycle of making and mounting a body of work, we’re no longer that interested in it. We’ve moved on to another struggle.

Castine Lunch Break, by Carol L. Douglas. For many years, I was interested in patterning. Of course, I can only say that after the fact; I didn't realize it at the time.
Most of us (especially those who have worked as commercial artists) can mimic other painters. There’s also significant variation in how we approach painting problems. For example, I'll occasionally paint in great detail, with lots of modeling. I was initially trained to paint that way, and I know enough about how paints handle to be able to blend and layer them.

However, what truly interests me right now is not mastering representation, but something far more visceral. This is more fundamental than style. Can I put a name to the question that’s currently bedeviling me? No; I’ve learned that is a shortcut to putting myself in a box. However, not being verbalized doesn’t make it any less real.

After the Storm, pastel, by Carol L. Douglas, is a very old work. Is it stylistically that different from my current work? I don't think so.
I discourage painting students from ‘embracing their style,’ because to me that’s a trap that they may not be able to escape. Sometimes, what people call style is just technical deficiency. For example, some painters separate their color fields with narrow lines—white paper in watercolor, dark outlines in oils. I’d like to know that they embraced this voluntarily, not because they never learned how to marry edges.

Mature artists don’t generally think about style. At that point, style is the gap between what they perceive and what comes off their brush. That’s deeply revelatory, and it can be disturbing when we see it in our own work.

Wreck of the SS Ethie, by Carol L. Douglas. This was painted in 2016, but would not have worked in a looser style, since the shipwreck and rocks provided the abstraction.
Some of us try to cover that up with stylings, not realizing that those moments of revelation are what viewers hunger for. They—not the nominal subject of the piece—are the real connection between the artist and his audience.

There’s a difference between style and being stylish. I enjoy Olena Babak’s ability to describe reflections in a single, fluid brush line. I feel the same way about Kari Ganoung Ruiz’ emotive, energetic highlights. Neither of these are styles. They are, instead, self-confident skill, which results in stylish brush work.

Flood Tide, 2017, by Carol L. Douglas. Where am I going now? I'll let you know.
I do not admire painters who use the same scribing or pattern-making on the surface of every painting. It’s style for its own sake, and it often is just a ruse to cover up badly-conceived paintings.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Busman’s holiday

When buying paint, it’s all about that base.
My second-favorite kind of painting.
I’m in the western Berkshires painting the interior walls in my oldest kid’s new house. She’s 28 and it’s her first house, and she’s very excited. So am I; like many artists, my idea of a good vacation is to paint walls. (Ceilings, not so much, but you must take the good with the bad.)

In artists’ oils, I like RGH paints. This is a small company based in Albany, NY. The owner, Rolf Haerem, has been making paints since 1989, and is a painter himself. In acrylics, I prefer Golden. Today, Golden is a large national brand. However, it also started as a small New York business, the brainchild of retired paint-maker Sam Golden, in New Berlin, Chenango County. In oil painting mediums, I like Grumbacher, which was founded in New York City in 1902. It’s now owned by Chartpak, based in Northhampton, MA. In brushes, I like Robert Simmons Signet.

None of these brands are sacred in themselves. They’re just my preferences, developed over decades of painting.  They work with my technique. On Monday, I wrote that I’d used a gel medium in an emergency, and it messed with my style. Still, other painters love it. It depends on what you’re striving for.

Nevertheless, there’s a theme running through my choices. They’re professional grade materials. I, too, was once an impecunious student buying student-grade materials, so I understand economy. But at some point, artists need to buy the right stuff, or they’ll never get the right results.
The new homeowner, surrounded by her paint chips.
In wall paints, I also have strong preferences. I’ve been painting with Benjamin Moore for decades. I know I can drop a bead of color alongside wooden moldings without taping or endless massaging, and I can generally get full coverage in a single coat. As with oil paints, wall paints are made with various combinations of pigments, binder and filler. It’s important to find one you like.

Here in the wilds of the New York-Massachusetts border, it’s been a problem to find it. And my budget-masters kvetch at the sticker price. Yesterday I capitulated for expediency’s sake, and used a brand sold by a large big-box retailer. I immediately regretted it. It clumped in the roller, and it didn’t slide easily off my brush.

When I first arrived on Sunday, I drove up to see my son-in-law digging a trench, sweaty and hot in the September warmth. He and my daughter are the same age as my husband and I were when we built our own first house. It was also a modular, also on a wooded rural hillside, and we also did all the sitework and finishing ourselves.

I was happy to watch the lad dig. One of the consolations of getting old is that you never need to pound another copper ground rod into rocky soil if you don’t want to. Some jobs are best enjoyed through the rose-colored glasses of nostalgia.