Losing yourself

"The Farm at Olana," oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas

“The Farm at Olana,” oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas

I am blessed to have friends in many art communities. Often the only time I see some of them is at events where we are painting side-by-side. These events are work, yes, but they are also the chance to catch up with people I care about.

That inevitably leads to unconscious comparison with their work, what I call the “paint-out effect.” I think every artist does this. We immediately focus on the strengths of the other person’s painting, instantly forgetting that our own work emphasizes other things.  Chasing our friend’s strengths—for example, suddenly painting in the details of a building that had been allowed to stand as a shape on the edge of a field—is frequently a recipe for disaster.

Jamie Williams Grossman's painting of the Farm, done the same day. I started comparing the two and lost my bearings.

Jamie Williams Grossman’s painting of the Farm, done the same day. I started comparing the two and lost my bearings.

This is the time of year when artists dust off their work from prior years to send out in show applications. I was struck by how much I liked the work I did at Olana last year. I pretty much hated it at the time.

There’s a lesson in that, one that can’t be stressed enough: we are not always the best judges of our own work, particularly when it’s still wet.

There’s another issue at play here. Every area with a vibrant art community has a distinctive regional look. That is very true in the Hudson Valley, which has an active plein air painting scene. Many of its best painters continue in the tradition of the Hudson River School—their work is luminous, romantic, detailed, and bucolic.

"Lake, Olana," oil on canvasboard, by Carol L. Douglas

“Lake, Olana,” oil on canvasboard, by Carol L. Douglas

That regional style becomes a kind of group norming. People are selected for shows and their work is lauded when they epitomize that regional style. Consciously or subconsciously, every artist reacts to this.

Part of the reason I moved to Maine was that I’d found a painting scene that was closer to my training and personality than was Rochester’s. My peers here tend to concentrate on shapes, abstraction, and simplification—the same issues that interest me.

Moving is probably an extreme way of locating your tribe, but it’s worth being aware that the people you paint with may be subconsciously influencing you to work against your own grain. For all that painting is about communication, it’s often best a solitary pursuit.

Carol Douglas

About Carol Douglas

Carol L. Douglas is a painter who lives, works and teaches in Rockport, ME. Her annual workshop will again be held on the Schoodic Peninsula in beautiful Acadia National Park, from August 6-11, 2017. Visit www.watch-me-paint.com/ for more information.