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Friday, December 29, 2017

Realism: the forgotten stepchild of the early 20th century

When abstract art became a worldwide phenomenon, great realist painters were marginalized and forgotten.

Hiking, 1936, James Walker Tucker, Laing Art Gallery
In the great pile of mail I collected yesterday were two packages. One contained a copy of Pictures, Painters and You by Ray Bethers. This belonged to the father of a friend.

The other was a catalog for True to Life: British Realist Paintings in the 1920s and 1930s. I’ve written about two of its artists before: Sir Stanley Spencer and Meredith Frampton.

Realism was a world-wide trend in the beginning of the 20th century. There were realists among the American Modernist movement—the Ashcan School, Georgia O’Keeffe and Rockwell Kent all come to mind. In Canada, the Group of Seven were turning out powerful, popular landscapes. And in Britain, a generation of fine painters were producing a lively, detailed record of the interwar period.

Dorette, 1932, Gerald Leslie Brockhurst, courtesy National Gallery, London
The term “realism” is a wide net. It can include symbolismmagical realism, social realism, objects pared down to their absolute minimum, or the finicky detail of trompe-l'œil. All found their expression during the interwar years, but each nation had its own preoccupations.

Gerald Leslie Brockhurst’s Dorette was a young model at the Royal Academy who went on to be his lover and ultimately his wife. With her portrait, Brockhurst was developing a style he would use with great success later in his career: adapting Renaissance technique to depict the hard-edged beauty of contemporary womanhood. Note the wispy background.

In fact, the British interwar artists were refuting trends in modern art. Their work runs a gamut of styles, but is united by careful drawing, meticulous craftsmanship, and controlled brushwork. They explicitly rejected expressionism and impressionism.

Elsie, 1929, Hilda Carline, courtesy Tate Museum
The show includes work by Hilda Carline, Stanley Spencer’s long-suffering wife. Her marriage was characterized by Alfred Hickling as "the most bizarre domestic soap opera in the history of British art.” That just understates her suffering. Elsie was the Spencers’ maid. Carline’s portrait of her shows just how much of her own talent was subsumed into her husband’s naïve drama.

The Conscientious Objector, 1917, is almost certainly a self-portrait by David Jagger. A hundred years on, we have little concept of the opprobrium heaped on “conchies” in Britain during the Great War; Jagger’s own brother referred to him as “that great hulking lout in his mother's shop.”

The Conscientious Objector, 1917, David Jagger, courtesy Birmingham Mail
The paintings do not ignore the tensions of interwar Britain. James McIntosh Patrick’s A City Garden, Dundee is a portrait of his own home, purchased for a song because of its proximity to the Tay Bridge, which might be a bombing target. His wife and daughter are in the garden, hanging out washing. Meanwhile, in the corner there’s an air-raid shelter being built. This was a British reality, and it is one we Americans can only ponder from the outside.

A City Garden, 1940, James McIntosh Patrick, courtesy Dundee City Council
Still, it is the pictures of everyday life that I like best. Hiking, by James Walker Tucker, shows three independent, fresh-faced Girl Guides calmly considering their immediate plans. It’s part of the British mania for rambling and a lovely, un-self-conscious feminist statement at the same time.

With the second World War, abstract art escaped from New York and became a worldwide phenomenon. On both continents, great realist painters were marginalized and forgotten. It’s a pity, because so many of them were stunning virtuosos.

There will be no Monday Morning Art School on New Year’s Day. Have a blessed, restful, refreshing holiday, and I’ll see you again in the New Year!

Thursday, December 28, 2017

The art of Guantánamo Bay

Stripped down to its fundamentals, art is about longing. People don’t long for abstraction or polemics. They long for the sea, the sky, and freedom.

A model ship by Moath Al-Alwi, made out of cardboard and other materials he gathered in his cell, courtesy of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
Ode to the Sea features artwork made by military detainees at Guantánamo Bay. It is on display at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan. The fact that the Pentagon attempted to close down and destroy this work is reason enough to go see the show. Thank the Lord for lawyers.

We can also contemplate what speaks to the human soul when all other things are obliterated. That, it seems, is nature. In particular, it is the sea.

“Everyone who could draw, drew the sea,” Mansoor Adayfi, a former detainee, wrote in the New York Times. He was describing his fellow-prisoners’ feelings when tarps blocking the view of the ocean came down briefly during hurricane preparations in 2014.

Untitled (shipwrecked boat), 2016, Djamel Amaziene, watercolor, courtesy of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
In western art, the sea is a repository of human dreams of freedom. Ships are a powerful anthropomorphic symbol, representing both our frail human bodies and our journey through life. Apparently, these symbols transcend culture.

“I could see the detainees put their dreams, feelings, hopes and lives in them,” said Adayfi. “I could see some of these drawings were mixtures of hope and pain. That the sea means freedom no one can control or own, freedom for everyone.”

The exhibit includes work by eight artists, seven of whom were enrolled in art classes at the prison. Four have been released from Guantánamo and four remain in custody. The artists turned their work over for safekeeping to their attorneys. After fussing after the show’s opening, the Pentagon now says it will do nothing to reclaim the work on display but owns the right to destroy all future work by detainees.

“I kept asking them through their lawyers, ‘What do you want from displaying your art?’” said curator Erin Thompson. “And they all kept telling me, ‘We want people to look at our art and recognize that we’re human beings.’”

Untitled (Fins in the Ocean), Khalid Qasim, courtesy of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
Surely that’s at the heart of all artistic expression. Beyond everything else, our work announces our presence. To destroy an artist’s work seems petty and pointless. Nothing in the work seems remotely political or capable of carrying secret messages. It was all vetted before it was handed over to the prisoners’ lawyers.

Art can be a powerful tool of emotional growth. Surely the ultimate goal for every human soul is redemption, even if that person is too dangerous to ever be released again.

Stripped down to its fundamentals, art is about longing. People don’t long for abstraction or polemics. They long for the sea, the sky, and freedom. It’s an argument for realism and for a simple vision.

The exhibit is free and open to all until January 26, 2018. The President’s Gallery is on the sixth floor of Haaren Hall,  899 10th Avenue, at 59th Street. It is open Monday-Friday 9-5 pm, except 1/1, and 1/15.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

The new tax bill and self-employed artists

Are you losing all your deductions? Heck, no. The sky didn’t fall after all.

More Work than They Bargained For (Isaac H. Evans), Carol L. Douglas, courtesy Camden Falls Gallery
The last major tax reform occurred 27 years ago. Our combined household income was in the $10,000 range since my husband was in grad school. I can’t tell you what impact it had on my taxes, because I wasn’t filing by computer back then.

This time around, I read daily reports of how this bill would eliminate the home-office deduction or other important considerations for the self-employed. Many of my artist friends were very troubled. It has done none of those things.

I’m not a tax preparer. For heaven’s sake, don’t rely on this for tax planning. However, I’m keenly interested, because I prepare my own taxes. Anything that would simplify that would make me very happy.

Spring at Rockport, Carol L. Douglas
For many of my friends and family, the biggest change—and one that could cost them dearly—is the cap on state and local tax deductions at $10,000. People in other states used to boggle when I told them I paid $12,000 a year in property taxes in my middle-class neighborhood in New York. It’s one of the reasons I moved. (We still pay income tax to New York, for reasons that are too complicated to go into here.) For artists in New York, New Jersey and California who own their own homes, this cap could hurt.

This will be offset to some degree by changes in the standard deduction and the income tax rate. I sat with a New York artist friend last week totting up her plusses and minuses on my fingers. I think she will be better off even with the property tax cap.

Coast Guard Inspection (American Eagle), Carol L. Douglas, courtesy Camden Falls Gallery
In most cases those households with five-figure property taxes will also see reductions in their tax rate. May they use their savings to buy more paintings.

There are some other changes that might affect artists. One is the threshold for medical expenses, which temporarily drops back to 7.5%. There have been years where that would have mattered to me, and it’s a pity that it couldn’t have been cut permanently. It’s important to low-income people with catastrophic illnesses, especially in this era of high deductibles. My friend Barb will be happy that it’s retroactive to 2017, as she had to have emergency surgery this year.

Winch (American Eagle), Carol L. Douglas, courtesy Camden Falls Gallery
Casualty loss deductions are now limited to federal disaster areas. If a Nor’easter drops a spruce on your roof and your insurance doesn’t cover it, you’re out of luck. There are some other miscellaneous expenses you won’t be able to deduct, like unreimbursed job expenses or moving expenses.

But as for Schedule C filers—which most of us artists are—the new tax bill appears to have helped, not hurt us. It provides an across-the-board 20% reduction of our business income before it gets transferred to our Schedule A. (The rest of its provisions appear aimed at higher fliers than me.)

As far as I can see, the sky didn’t fall after all. But if you’re reading this differently from me, let me know in the comments.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Home studio or artists’ cooperative?

Would moving enhance your career? Probably not.

My former studio.
My first professional studio space was a corner of our kitchen. The light was good and it had a laminate floor. A few years later, we enclosed our garage, adding full-spectrum fluorescent light bulbs and cat5 wiring.

Then we moved. I rented a space on the top floor of the Hungerford Building in Rochester. It was a large room facing east with beautiful light. Eventually I relocated my studio to the third floor of our house. This was a quirky, beautiful space with great light and lousy headroom. After a few years of bumping my head, I reshuffled my workspace in the former master bedroom at the head of the stairs. That studio was 325 square feet, large enough to teach six students. Here in Maine, I have a large, light room that’s about a third of the total square footage of my house.

My current studio.
A dedicated home studio seems less expensive, but that is an illusion. The median list price per square foot in the United States is $140, according to Zillow. Special-purpose industrial space averages $11.25 a square foot/year. My last studio’s only upgrade was a better lighting system, but that still cost me thousands of dollars.

It is only cheaper to work from home if you already have space to burn. For my friends in New York City, where space is at a premium, a rented studio is often a better option.

Will your projected art income can really cover an additional rent payment? A home studio is already wrapped into your current rent or mortgage. Renting a studio is cheaper than adding on, but the cheapest solution is to repurpose an underutilized space you’re already paying for.

A professional studio needs good light (natural and enhanced), adequate storage, room to work, a space for office work, wi-fi, and separation from other people and activity. If you’re teaching, you also need to consider access to a restroom, handicapped accessibility, and safety.

Storage is something we often fail to consider when calculating our space needs.
Art materials should be kept away from food prep areas. That’s especially true of pastels, which allow pigment to be airborne. Having said that, risks associated with oil paints are overstated. Still, the pigments in art supplies—and some solvents—aren’t good to ingest. I ran a whole-house air cleaner in my first house.

I need an orderly environment. It’s difficult for me to pick up my brushes when there are dishes in the sink. I don’t like visitors to my studio. It was that need for order that drove me to a rented studio when my kids were little. However, I found myself leaving work every afternoon at 3:30 when my youngest child got home from school. I had more flexibility than my husband, who worked from an office. 

Is the neighborhood in which your cooperative studio is located really safe? In Rochester, my studio was on the fringes of a tough neighborhood. I could work late at night in my locked studio; the parking lot and corridors were the problem.

325 square feet was sufficient to teach six students.
How introverted are you? Some artists are challenged and motivated by other artists nearby. Others find community to be a distraction. However, the network you build in an artist’s cooperative can be invaluable; so too can their cooperative art shows.

Will an outside studio enhance your career? Unless you’re in a prestigious cooperative, no. Neither gallerists nor potential clients judge you by your address; they care about your work.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Be specific

Yes, you can paint and sell generic landscapes, but what’s the point?

Keuka Lake vineyard, by Carol L. Douglas
If you were to blindfold me and drop me somewhere in New York, Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont or, I suppose, parts of Connecticut or New Jersey, I could, after an hour or two of hiking, tell you approximately where I was. (Please let’s not try this game in winter.) I could approximate the latitude and longitude by experience.

Chugash Range, Alaska, by Carol L. Douglas
I’ve spent a lifetime observing the rocks, the trees, the understory plants, the architecture, the old businesses, and even the smells of these places. This is why I am so emphatic that Linden Frederick’s Night Stories are a portrait of Amsterdam, NY and not the Maine coast. It’s why I yammer away to my students about the cleavage in granite. There’s nothing less convincing than a shale outcropping on a supposedly-Maine coast.

Now, if you were to play the same game and drop me in the Kit Carson National Forest or somewhere in the Florida Keys, I’d be wandering around confused a week later. I don’t know the places well enough.

Parke County, Indiana, by Carol L. Douglas
Places are defined by their political boundaries. These don’t represent their geographical realities. Consider Indiana, for example. If you haven’t been there, you probably think it’s flat, ‘fly-over country,’ and post-industrial rustbelt. Those are all true, but limited, descriptions. Much of the state is rolling farmland, dotted with hardwood forests, marshes, and flood-prone, mud-banked rivers. Southern Indiana is downright hilly in places. In the north, the soil is made of glacial till left over from the last Ice Age. In the south, there’s limestone.

New England towns are topsy-turvier than New York towns because there’s nowhere flat to draw a street plan on. New England is forested until it breaks out into beaches, as at Cape Cod. I visited tiny Williamson, NY, yesterday. Its main street marches in a straight line for blocks. Large square houses line the streets, now somewhat recovered from the bad years. There are long, rolling, mowed lawns and cobblestone houses. Its orchards are filled with old, severely-pruned trees, which are characteristic of the apple-growing regions of the state.

Rachel Carson refuge, Ocean Park, ME, by Carol L. Douglas
Then there’s weather. As you head west into the Great Lakes region, you frequently hit a wall of clouds. They are often angry, sometimes morose, but never static. If you’re painting in that place at that time of year, you need to tone down the contrast, because part of the sense of place comes from the consistent low light. Conversely, if you’re from the Great Lakes region, the clear blue skies of coastal America may come as a surprise.

If you’re a landscape painter, you’d be smart to observe these differences. Mary Byrom is one of the finest painters I know. Her work is simplified to the point of abstraction, but its still immediately identifiable as the southern coast of Maine, with its rocks, surf, and marshes.

Yes, you can paint and sell generic landscapes, but what’s the point?

Have a blessed holiday! There will be no Monday Morning Art School on Christmas. Your assignment? To eat, drink and be merry.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

The high price of selling art

A gallery is worth every penny of the sales fee you pay it.
Dyce Head early morning, sold at a plein air event.
“Can you address the issue of [sales] commissions?” a reader asked. “Perhaps what we as artists should expect in return for whatever percentage commission is being asked? My interest in this stems from the fact that our local art guild is charging 40% commission on pieces in member shows. I think that’s too high for a group of artists who are, for the most part, hobbyists and amateurs, and for what we artists receive in exchange for that commission. I should note that we also pay membership dues every year.”

I got a call from a gallerist who represents me last week. He wanted to follow up with a buyer who’d expressed an interest in one of my paintings, and wondered if I’d agree to a small markdown to close the deal. He’s doing exactly what a sales agent should do: working hard to bring both parties together in a deal.

Wadsworth Cove Spruce sold at a plein air event.
He pays rent in an expensive building, pays and trains assistants to work for him, and advertises. He keeps a database of customers and constantly works it. When paintings sell, he packs and ships them. He’s earning his 50% of the selling price, which is, by the way, a pretty standard retail markup. The alternative is to sell the painting myself, and that’s a lot of work.

Member shows like the one my reader asked about are a time-honored way for painters to get their work out into the marketplace. I’ve done many of them, both as a student and as a member of plein air groups. In my experience, the organization just passes through the sales commission of the hosting venue.

I’ve shown in university shows, which charged no commission at all (and paid a stipend). I expect to pay a commission of around 25% if I sell through a restaurant. Plein air events take between 25-40%. In return for that you get the imprimatur of the place, follow-through, sales closure, exposure, and hospitality, in greater or lesser measure.

Curve on Goosefare Brook sold through the Ocean Park Association.
Non-profit, artist-run galleries (cooperative galleries) require a monthly rental fee and volunteer work hours. In some cases, there’s a nominal sales commission as well. In exchange, they provide wall space, openings, and a place to hold events. Many of them are respected galleries.

Then there’s the so-called vanity gallery. These arose because there are more artists wanting to show in perceived ‘hot’ markets like New York than there is gallery space. Wherever there’s a shortage, there’s an entrepreneur happy to spin your pain into money.

Vanity galleries offer artists a temporary balm for the slings and arrows of outrageous rejection. They’re expensive, and they won’t get you discovered. No reputable gallerists are searching them for new talent. A traditional gallery takes its cut after the sale; the vanity gallery takes it up front. That means the traditional gallery works to sell to customers, whereas the vanity gallery works to sell to artists.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Just one bullet per customer, please

Mixing bullet points is a simple marketing error. How many more mistakes am I making in my one-man band?

Apple tree with swing, Carol L. Douglas, available through the Kelpie Gallery.
I spent the last two days doing 2018 planning with Bobbi Heath. While I normally hate business meetings, this one was done in stocking feet, with a woodstove and good food.

A good confab with a peer can net you as much or more than a conference does. Ask yourself these questions first:
  • Are our goals and experiences similar enough to be useful to each other?
  • Are our values the same?
  • Can this person be trusted?
  • Will he or she stay on task?
  • Is he or she able to contribute knowledge, experience or process?
  • Is he or she a creative thinker?

Flood tide, by Carol L. Douglas, sold at Castine Plein Air 2017
I’ve had enough experience with art support groups to know that they often devolve into long-winded stories, pissing matches, emotional support groups, or ego-stroking. They have their place in life, but they won’t advance your career.

The person best qualified as your informal business coach might have no experience in the art world at all. If you have enough knowledge yourself, that can work well, but it won’t help if you’re a newbie in the art world. Someone has to understand the nuts and bolts of how paintings are sold. Having said that, my move to Maine was coached by a business consultant with no art-sector experience.

Bath time, by Carol L. Douglas. I don't focus on online sales, but this sold on Facebook, and netted me a friend in the bargain.
In her former life, Bobbi was a tech start-up project manager. She knows how to move a small business from concept to reality. I have a different but equally valuable background, which comes from years of slogging in the art market. Most importantly, we trust each other.

The question you and your partner are going to ask is, “Where are we now, and where do we want to be in five years?” The answer should not be, “rich and famous,” but it might include something like “looking more like an artist,” which is, in fact, brand management. You want to be concrete, but not limited.

Setting blocks, by Carol L. Douglas, available through Camden Falls Gallery.
Bobbi’s and my business models are a mix (in different ratios) of the same activities. I need to reset the mix. My mix of galleries/teaching/workshops and plein air events ought to be more grounded in my own geographical location, at least from June through September.

Tracking your own hours can reveal a gap between where you're spending your time and how you're making your money.
There is no real planning without data. I have some, but it’s all estimated. Better data might tell me that I’m investing time and energy into the wrong things. The above pie charts are fictitious, but they’re an example of how our work might not be going into the most financially productive things. In some cases, that is by choice. For example, right now I choose not to monetize this blog by selling advertising.

My New Year’s Resolution is to start logging my time just as my programmer husband does. I want to know how I’m piddling my time away.

Most of working your way into a better business model is simple trial and error. I’m especially good at the error part. That's good for success, in fact, but you can't be stretched so thin financially or timewise that experimentation sinks you.

Bobbi told me about a recent mailing she did, where she learned never to have more than one offer (bullet point) in an ad. She had two, and they got conflated in her readers’ minds. I realize I’m doing the same thing with my workshop ads. I need to fix this.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

The Halifax explosion

For many, it was the worst battlefield carnage they would see in the whole war, and it was here on the home front.
A view of Halifax two days after the explosion. Imo is visible aground on the far side of the harbor.
Shipbuilding in Nova Scotia dates to 1606. By the eighteenth century, the Canadian Maritimes were a global boatbuilding center. Their importance increased when Britain banned the United States from the West Indies trade after the American Revolution.

By December, 1917, Halifax was a bustling Canadian port of 60,000 people, with a recently renovated harbor. On December 6, it was destroyed in a spectacular military disaster. About 2,000 people were killed and 9,000 others were injured, including a Mi'kmaq village that was destroyed by the resulting tsunami. Until Hiroshima, this was the largest explosion humankind ever created.

St. Joseph's Convent, located on the southeast corner of Göttingen and Kaye streets. The last body from the Halifax explosion wasn't recovered until 1919.
Halifax and Dartmouth lie on opposite sides of a deep natural harbor. To get into its protected basin, boats traverse a narrow glacial channel that separates the two cities. Halifax Harbour is on the fastest sea route between Europe and North America. The success of German U-boat attacks had led the Allies to institute the convoy system. Halifax was a major western staging point. As the war raged, the port bustled with troop ships, relief supplies, and munitions ships forming up to cross the Atlantic.

The harbor was protected by two sets of submarine nets. These were raised and lowered each night.

On the night of December 5, the French freighter Mont Blanc arrived too late to clear the submarine nets. She would enter the harbor the following morning under the command of an experienced harbor pilot, Francis Mackey. The freighter was carrying a highly-volatile cargo of 2,300 tons of picric acid, 200 tons of TNT, 35 tons of benzole, and 10 tons of gun cotton. Mackey asked for special protections during her transit of the narrows. He didn’t get them.

Halifax boatyard after the explosion.
As soon as the nets were lowered, Mont Blanc started up channel. Meanwhile, the Norwegian vessel Imo left its mooring, bound for New York. She was hustling, trying to make up for lost time, and was on the wrong side of the channel. The two ships had what we might describe as a fender-bender. Unfortunately, the barrels of benzole toppled and flooded Mont Blanc’s hold. Sparks from Imo’s engines lit the mess into an uncontrolled conflagration.

SS Imo aground after the explosion.
Mont Blanc’s crew quickly abandoned ship. People gathered on the waterfront to watch the burning boat drifting onto the docks. As the fire department arrived, Mont Blanc exploded in a blinding flash of raw energy.

In addition to the terrible loss of life, Halifax’s waterfront was leveled. Over 12,000 homes were damaged or destroyed. Hundreds of people were blinded by flying glass. Overturned stoves and lamps sparked fires across the city. People were killed by the explosion, the resulting fires, or by flying debris.

Kathleen Malloy, victim of the Halifax Explosion, sits up in a hospital bed, likely at Pine Hill Convales­cent Hospital where injured babies were treated. (City of Toronto Archives)
Help came from many sources. Thousands of Canadian, British and American sailors and soldiers immediately sprang into action to create an emergency relief team. For many of them, this would be the worst battlefield carnage they would see. Doctors and nurses arrived by train. Among these was a large contingent from Boston, MA.

In 1918, Halifax sent a Christmas tree to the City of Boston in thanks. That tradition was revived in 1971. The tree is lit on Boston Commons each year and is the official Christmas tree of the city.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Monday Morning Art School: How to price your work

For some artists, the hardest thing in painting isn’t drawing or color-mixing but how to price their work. Charge by the square inch, of course.

Keuka Lake Vineyard, 30X40 by Carol L. Douglas, is available through Kelpie Gallery
A proper price is the meeting point between how much you can produce of the product and how much demand there is for it. If you can’t keep your paintings stocked, you’re charging too little. If your studio is full of unsold work, you’re either charging too much or not putting enough effort into marketing. Your job is to find that sweet spot.

Art sales are regional. If you live in a community with an aging population and a prestigious art school, you’re going to have low demand and high supply. If you live in a booming new city, you will have more demand and prices will be higher.

Art is not strictly a commodity, however. A painting’s value depends on the artist’s prominence. Most artists are terrible judges of their own work, seesawing between believing they’re geniuses and thinking they’re hopeless. Such subjective judgments hinder their ability to price their work.

Art festivals are a good way to establish a price history. I don't miss them, however.
Don’t assume that because you labored for a long time over a piece, it is more valuable. Your challenges are not the buyers’ problem.

You can simplify the problem by setting aside your emotions and basing your selling price on the size of the piece and your selling history. How do you do that if you’ve never sold anything before? Survey other artists with the same level of experience and set your first prices in line with theirs. Visit galleries, plein air events and art fairs. If you see a person whose work seems similar to yours, find his resume online and check his experience. Know enough to be able to rank events. Painting in Plein Air Easton is not the same as painting your local Paint the Town.

Charitable auctions are a good way to leverage your talent to help others. They provide a sales history to new artists. (But they aren’t tax deductible contributions.)

Striping (Heritage) 6X8, by Carol L. Douglas, is available through Camden Falls Gallery.
Let’s say you gave an 8X10 watercolor of the Old Red Mill to your local historical society, which turned around and sold it for $100. Great! You have a sales history (albeit a limited and imperfect one) from which to calculate prices. Just figure out the value per square inch and calculate from there.

Square inch is the height times the width. That means your 8X10 painting is 80 square inches. Dividing the $100 selling price by 80 gives you a value of $1.25/square inch.

To use this to calculate other sizes, you would end up with:
6X8 is 48 square inches. 48 X $1.25 = $60
9X12: $135
11X14: $240
12X16: $315

In practice, my price/sq. inch gets lower the larger I go. This reflects my working and marketing costs, some of which are fixed. If you started with my example, above, a 3X4” painting would more reasonably sell for $3 a square inch or $36, and a 48X48” painting for $.75 a square inch, or $1700. But that sweet spot between 6X8 and 16X20 are a fixed cost/inch, rounded off for convenience.

My price list is on Google Drive and I can access it wherever there's phone service.
Charity sales are known for seriously underpricing work, but it’s better to start low and work your way higher. Periodically review your prices, and make sure you have a copy with you at all times, because people will ask you about paintings at the strangest times. I keep mine on a Google sheet I can refer to from computer or phone.

Once you have a price guide, it should be absolute. I adjust it slightly for family members (or more likely just give them the painting), but I use the same price structure in events and galleries.

You should continuously update your prices based on your average sale prices for the prior year or two. The goal of every artist ought to be to sell at constantly rising prices. When you find yourself “painting on a treadmill” to have enough work for your next show, it’s definitely time to charge more. Each time you show, your work will be better known, and over time your prices will rise.

The marketplace favors fair, consistent pricing. I charge the same amount everywhere I sell. I don’t want to undercut my galleries.

And I don't explain my prices, for the most part. Does anyone ever tell Christian Louboutin that $995 is a bit much for a pair of platform suede pumps? No; they either understand Louboutin’s market or they don’t buy designer shoes.

Friday, December 15, 2017

A few questions (and answers) about plein air painting in Maine

Yes, there are bathrooms. We like to call them ‘heads’ on a boat
Jonathan Submarining, by Carol L. Douglas
If you’ve been thinking about taking my Sea & Sky or Age of Sail workshops, this is a reminder that you have only two weeks left to get an early-bird discount. That’s $50 off the price of the boat trip or $100 off the Acadia workshop.

The Age of Sail is June 10-14, 2018 on the historic schooner American Eagle out of Rockland, ME. Sea & Sky is August 5-10 at Schoodic Institute in Acadia National Park. Here are some questions I’ve been asked recently:

Drying sails, by Carol L. Douglas
What do you do if it rains?

While the rain in Maine falls mainly on the plain, it does sometimes rain over Penobscot Bay and the ocean. American Eagle has a canopy over the main deck for when the boat is at anchor, and we’ll use that. At Schoodic, we have access to a pavilion. In either case, if the worst happens and we’re totally unable to work outside, there are interior places where we can gather.

Are there bathrooms?

Yes and no. On a boat, a toilet is more properly called ‘the head.’ Although American Eagle is a restored heritage boat, she does have these modern conveniences. Schoodic Institute does, too.

On the boat, you’ll sleep in a berth. At Schoodic, you’ll have a room in an apartment with a kitchen, two bedrooms, two bathrooms, and access to laundry facilities. Out in the woods, we either drive to the nearest park facility, or we take an amble into the woods like the locals (bear, moose, and foxes) do.

Outrunning the Storm, Carol L. Douglas
Are these workshops handicapped-access?

Schoodic Institute is, but let me know if you have physical limitations when you register. Our painting locations are all accessible by car and involve little hiking, so you won’t miss out. American Eagle is not accessible. It was built as a working fishing boat.

What about food?

In both cases, all meals are provided, so you don’t have to worry about where and when you eat. Schoodic’s chefs prepare lunches and snacks for us to take into the field, and we have breakfast and dinner cafeteria-style. American Eagle’s cook and mess-mate feed us three squares a day on deck.

Both trips include a lobster boil. Schoodic’s is prepared by a fisherman from nearby Corea, ME, who hauls that day’s catch over to us. On American Eagle, you’re likely to see Captain John Foss row his dinghy into a nearby harborage to buy seafood off the dock. You're encouraged to make dinghy jokes.

An island lobster bake, in progress.
Can I get a glass of wine?

You can bring some along. In Maine wine and liquor are sold in grocery stores, and you can easily pick some up along the way.

What about black flies or mosquitoes?

I’ve painted in the far north from northern Alaska to Labrador, and the worst black flies I ever did see were at Piseco Lake in New York. They’re an early-summer phenomenon, which is why we’ll be out on the water in June and on land in August.

Watercolor field sketches, by Carol L. Douglas
What equipment should we bring?

For Sea & Sky, all mediums are welcome. Here are my packing lists for oils, acrylics and watercolor. The Age of Sail is a little different. I’m supplying everything, and we’re going to work in field-sketch style in watercolor and gouache, the better to capture fast impressions.

A reader once posted this comment on my blog: “Noted watercolor painter John Marin of the Maine coast not only painted many boats but also painted from a boat. He rowed out from Mt. Desert Island where he sketched and painted quick minutes-long watercolors while bobbing in his rowboat. One was on display at the Ogunquit Museum of American Art this past summer… Mount Desert Minute Drawing, most likely a view of Cadillac Mountain, and can be seen on this web page

Thursday, December 14, 2017

When you’re a terrific failure

I’ve got an image in my mind and I can’t get it out on paper. Have I lost it?

Winter Lambing, by Carol L. Douglas
If you visit my studio this morning, you’ll find a massive pile of failed sketches on my work table. So many, in fact, that I’m now out of watercolor paper and have to buy more.

A few weeks ago, Facebook friends posted the photo, below, of their house in Sanborn, NY. There was a narrative quality to the simple frame house and the windswept snow, and I asked them if I could use it for reference. It was evocative of all the many winter evenings I’d driven along Route 31 in New York. Those drives were empty, flat and dark, broken by occasional holiday lights. At the town of Barre, you could count on a cross-wind to pick up the snow and throw it into the road, making the driving especially treacherous. My painting Winter Lambing, above, was based on a photograph I took on that stretch of road.

If my mind had left it there, I’d have been fine. The photo is beautifully composed as it stands. I am not averse to open space on the canvas, because it’s often a different sort of information. But then another thought crept in and started thrumming in the background. It’s terribly familiar and it starts like this:

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;  
He will not see me stopping here  
To watch his woods fill up with snow...

Robert Frost’s little horse was nosing his way into my painting—not literally, of course, but the sense of waiting in the deep woods. Now I wanted both the little house with its lights and the road and woods. That would be a truly autobiographical painting. The problem is compositional. I haven’t worked out how to do it yet.

One of a gazillion fails.
The two images are fighting a titanic battle. I’ve lined spruces up in the foreground, with the little house twinkling in the back. I’ve put one goofy tree in front, which was a dismal solution (and the one that happened to be on my phone this morning). I’ve tried everything I can think of, in my sketchbook and with paint, and gotten absolutely nowhere. The trouble is, there’s no depth to this painting as I’m currently envisioning it, merely a series of planes stacked up one in front of the other. And as soon as the woods enter, the stillness exits.

So, I did what every (honest) artist does in this situation. I beat myself up about all kinds of other, unrelated disappointments. I had a wee dram—nay, two—and emailed my friend Martha about a cookbook she’d recommended. I watched some footage of old Rockport with my husband. And, of course, I asked myself whether I was over the hill, washed up, done. Had I suddenly forgotten how to draw and paint?

Years ago, I broke my thumb with a table saw. That was, in fact, a miracle accident, because the kickback caught me in my hand and not in my gut. I’d just had a groin-to-breastbone surgery, and the incision was still stapled. I scared myself witless, and didn’t go back to using the saw right away. To this day, I can’t touch one.

Just as with riding, the problem isn’t the fall, although that often hurts like hell. The problem is picking yourself up and getting back to work. Happily, I’ve found that these horrible dry periods are often a gloss over some serious work going on in the background, which in turn lead to important discoveries. I’ll be back at it again tomorrow.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Jesus travels to the heart of Islam (by way of Christie's)

Can a painting preach peace? I certainly hope so.

Salvator Mundi, Leonardo da Vinci, c. 1500, Louvre Abu Dhabi
“Who do people say that I am?” Jesus asked his disciples. Ask a Muslim that, and you’ll get a markedly different answer than from a Christian. Muslims believe that Jesus was a prophet who was given injil (the gospel) to convey to all people. This gospel confirms what was taught in the Torah and foretells the coming of Prophet Muhammad. Jesus will come back on the Day of Judgment, when he will destroy the ad-dajjal (Antichrist). However important Christ is as a prophet, teacher, servant and follower of the Word, Muslims do not believe that he was either divine or the son of God.

While we ‘know’ that Islam prohibits painting human figures, that is not strictly true. The painting of miniatures was raised to a high art during the SafavidMughal and Ottoman empires. The miniature was private, kept in a book or album and never displayed. That made it acceptable.

Paintings of Muhammed are contentious, rare and generally old. By the 16th century, the prophet was being represented as an abstraction or a calligraphic image to avoid idolatry. In Islam, the most absolute proscription is of graven images of God, followed by Muhammed, the Islamic prophets (of which Jesus is one) and the relatives of Muhammed. However, all painting of animals and humans is discouraged.

Muhammad leads Abraham, Moses, Jesus and others in prayer, Persian miniature, artist unknown, from The Middle Ages. An Illustrated History by Barbara Hanawalt (Oxford University Press, 1998). The aureoles of flame are loan-symbols from Buddhism and equivalent to western halos.
As with so many other issues, the modern Muslim world is split on the subject. Most Sunni Muslims believe that all visual depictions of all the prophets of Islam should be prohibited. Shia Islam, however, has loosened up their stance on graven images.

The House of Saud (the Royal Family) of Saudi Arabia are not just Sunni, but have long been associated with the Salafi movement, or Wahhabism, which we in the west would describe as ‘ultraconservative’ or ‘puritanical.’

In November, Salvator Mundi by Leonardo da Vinci sold at auction at Christie's New York for $450 million. The purchaser was identified as Saudi Arabian prince Bader bin Abdullah. In December 2017, the Wall Street Journal reported that Prince Bader was in fact an intermediary for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the true buyer. Christie's subsequently stated that Prince Bader acted on behalf of Abu Dhabi’s Department of Culture and Tourism, which will display the work at the Louvre Abu Dhabi. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is also a Sunni Muslim country, and a key Saudi ally.

Salvator Mundi, Titian, 1570, Hermitage Museum. This shows the orb as a globus cruciger, surmounted by a cross and thus more explicitly stating Christ's dominion over the orb of the world.
The Saudi purchase came on the heels of an extensive purge of influential national figures at the bequest of the crown prince. Bader bin Abdullah is reportedly his close friend and confidant.

The Saudi crown prince is—at least at this phase—a reformer. He has been given credit for the end of the ban on women drivers. In October, he said a return of "moderate Islam" was key to his plans to modernize the kingdom. Those plans include diversifying the Saudi economy so it’s not completely oil-driven.

The neighboring UAE have been Muslim for a long, long time. Their conversion is traced to a letter sent by Muhammad to the rulers of Oman in 630 AD, nine years after the Hegira. This led to a group of coastal princes travelling to Medina, converting to Islam and subsequently throwing off Sassanid rule.

Roman coin, c. 270-275 A.D. showing the Emperor Aurelian receiving the globe from Jupiter.

So where does a 500-year-old oil painting fit into this? Its provenance is far from settled, and it was a mess, with lots of overpainting, before its final restoration. Still, as with all artwork, it has the power to speak.

Salvator Mundi means “Savior of the World.” Jesus’ right hand is raised in blessing and his left hand holds a crystal globe, meant to represent the earth. That’s a symbol that’s been used since antiquity, for both spiritual and temporal rulers. The Roman Empire knew it as the plain round globe held by Jupiter, representing the dominion held by the emperor. It was borrowed in later art as a symbol of Jesus’ dominion over the earth.

Not only is Salvator Mundi an icon, it’s an icon that flatly contradicts Muslim theology.

What was the prince's motivation in buying the painting? What does it mean that such an image has been acquired on behalf of the people of the United Arab Emirates? I can’t say, but I can read something hopeful and instructive in the journey. A child could.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Young dealers, more women

Is the gender gap in the art world closing? Not so you’d notice, but here's a nugget of good news.

Couple, Carol L. Douglas
I’ve written many times about gender issues in the art world.* I grew up at a time when there were no great women artist models. Historical figures like Artemisia Gentileschi had been expunged from the record. Abstract-Expressionism, which reigned supreme in the post-war era, was almost wholly a bad-boy phenomenon. I’m still waiting to see the inequality addressed. I’ll probably die waiting.

If you can stand the dissing of ‘white straight males,’ a recent essay in Artsy has a small bit of good news buried in it: young galleries are more likely to be run by women, and women-run galleries are slightly more likely to show work by women artists.

The Joker, Carol L. Douglas
Their sample is narrow: the 200 or so galleries that showed at Art Basel in Miami Beach. Their graphing makes one wonder if they passed the sixth grade, although it looks very pretty. 

Among galleries under ten years old represented at Miami, almost half were run by women. Younger galleries and women gallerists are slightly better at selling work than their male counterparts. Younger male-run galleries had 32% female artists, compared with just 23% at galleries more than 20 years old. The younger female-run galleries had 41% female artists; at the older female-run galleries, the share of female artists was 28%.

Moreover, there was better representation for women in North American galleries (36% to 64%) than in supposedly-enlightened Europe (30%-70%), and there were proportionally more American women dealers than European women dealers.

The Laborer Resting, Carol L. Douglas
But even there, the differences are minor; male dealers at the high-end of the market outnumber women dealers 3 to 1. At the top end of the market, the money is overwhelmingly male. “When you get to the $10 million, $20 million levels, that’s where the disparity comes…when that amount of money is at stake, politics go out the window,” said London dealer Pilar Corrias.

Another industry that’s famous for mouthing feminist platitudes but practicing gender bias is Hollywood. According to the Los Angeles Times, only 1.9% of directors of the top-grossing 100 films of 2013 and 2014 were women. “Of 25 Paramount Pictures films that have been announced through 2018, not a single one has a women director attached, in a tally first noted by The Wrap. The same is true of the 22 Twentieth Century Fox films that have been announced…”

Saran Wrap Cynic, by Carol L. Douglas
And then there’s Congress, where only 19% of lawmakers are female, a percentage that didn’t change much in the last election.

The biggest news story of 2017 has been #metoo. One thing it ought to tell us is that where there’s huge gender disparity, there’s also sex abuse. Where there's endless sexualization of women's images, there's also abuse, and the art world for the last two hundred years has been littered with insipid, pulchritudinous images of women.

The 19th and 20th century art scenes were famous for abusive, egotistical male ‘geniuses.’ As Germaine Greer said about the Pre-Raphaelites, “If they hadn't had sex with their models, they wanted you to think they had.”

* Here, here, here, here, here, and probably elsewhere as well.