All images © Carol L. Douglas, Rochester, NY.
No reproduction or reuse permitted without
express consent of the artist.

Monday, September 15, 2014

So you can't draw a straight line, redux.

Martha's first painting. And for those who know us too well, let me say up front that that's not a whisky bottle.
You may remember my friend Amy telling me last summer that she couldn’t draw a straight line, and me challenging her to let me teach her. Her sister Martha was in town this week, and she asked me if she could come to my painting class on Saturday.

Like Amy, Martha has a doctorate from a prestigious American university. She also recently went back and got an MS in landmark preservation from an art school. However, the last time Martha actually took a hands-on art class was when she was a freshman at Brighton High School. (By my calculations, that must have been at least twenty years ago.)

Her sketch for the same.
Here is her drawing, and here is her painting—both done in a single three-hour class.

“This is some kind of parlor trick,” my daughter Laura told me afterward. “You take people who ‘can’t do art’ and in three hours prove to them that they can.”

Well, duh, honey. Most people believe the lie that art is magic, rather than craft. And the methodology for teaching drawing and painting has become impossibly corrupted in modern America (with a few notable exceptions). Yes, I'm repeating myself here, but I'll continue to do so as long as people believe the lie that they can't draw.

If you’re interested, there is more information on my fall classes here.

Message me if you want information about next year’s workshops.

Friday, September 12, 2014

A personal aside

Selbstbildnis, mit der Hand an der Stirn (Self-portrait, hand at the forehead), etching, 1910, by Käthe Kollwitz,  
Forty-five years ago, I was at a school pool in Niagara County, New York, when my sister had a brain bleed. She died. With us were my friend S. and her mom, although at the time they seemed tangential to the tragedy that engulfed my family.

It was compounded four years later when my brother—who happened to be S.’s classmate—was killed by a drunk driver.

Sorrowful old man, pencil, black lithographic crayon, wash, white opaque watercolor, on watercolor paper, by Vincent Van Gogh, 1882
We move on. Our flock tends to be made of birds of the same coloration. And I think I’m probably an unmotivated intellectual. Why, just yesterday, I was discussing Steiner and Kandinsky and their daft color theories with three dear friends. This is fun, it’s fluff, and no more or less meaningful than talking football is for other people.

I haven’t seen S. in years, but through the miracle of Facebook, we’re in loose contact.

Last evening, my mom died. I refuse to discuss my grief with anyone, but it is substantial.

And then S. posted this video:

For the first time I understand what it meant to praise God from the depths of grief. That’s wisdom, and it’s a far greater thing than knowledge.

Message me if you want information about next year’s workshops.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Itinerant painters (2 of 2)

This version of The Peaceable Kingdom, from the mid-1840s, includes William Penn negotiating with Native Americans. He often included this in the paintings as an example of how disparate peoples could work together in peace.
Perhaps the most famous early American itinerant painter was the Quaker pastor, Edward Hicks.

Hicks was born in 1780 to Anglican parents, but his mother’s early death resulted in him being raised in a Quaker family.

An earlier iteration shows the influence of decorative painting on Hicks' canvas work. We call him 'primitive' but his interest in design over realism actually seems very modern in retrospect.
At the age of 13, Hicks was apprenticed to a coach-making firm, where he learned the craft of decorative painting. He stayed there for seven years before moving on as a journeyman coach and house painter. He was accepted into the Society of Friends in 1803 and married a fellow Quaker that same year.

By 1813, Hicks was traveling as an itinerant preacher. Like St. Paul supporting his ministry with tent-making, Hicks supported his ministry with decorative painting. This, unfortunately, annoyed some of his Quaker brethren, who felt that decorative painting was at odds with Quaker principles. He gave up painting in favor of farming, but that decision was a financial disaster.

This version of The Peaceable Kingdom, from 1829-30, includes Quakers bearing banners.
Unlike St. Paul, Hicks had a growing family. Necessity forced him to resume decorative painting. He reeled off the first of many copies of The Peaceable Kingdom by 1820. Ironically, most of his canvases were not done for money, but for the edification of friends and family. In his lifetime, he was known as a preacher, and his living came from painting decorative objects.

Hicks painted an astonishing 61 iterations of The Peaceable Kingdom, which illustrates Isaiah 11:6-8:

The wolf will live with the lamb,
    the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
    and a little child will lead them.
The cow will feed with the bear,
    their young will lie down together,
    and the lion will eat straw like the ox.
The infant will play near the cobra’s den,
    and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest.

That he painted it over and over tells us much about his intention, which was to share and teach the Bible. It was a humble aspiration in opposition to his contemporary art scene (which I wrote about in a series of posts starting here).

The Cornell Farm, 1848. Hicks may not have had the classically-trained artist's ability to render spatial depth in a landscape, but he sure did understand animals. 

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Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Itinerant painters (1 of 2)

Historical Monument of the American Republic, finally finished in 1888, was Field’s most famous painting. It was rejected for the Centennial Exposition, which it was painted to commemorate.
As I traveled from event to event this summer, people would ask me whether I was interested in doing this or that upcoming show. With the rise of plein air events, it would be easy to carve out a life as an itinerant painter, going from place to place all year long. I’m not planning to do it, but we have a tradition of itinerant painters in this country and its romance does kind of bewitch me.

Erastus Salisbury Field was a 19th century itinerant folk painter. Most of Field’s life was spent in western Massachusetts and the Connecticut Valley, although he did do two stints in New York City.

Woman with a Green Book (possibly Louisa Gallond Cook), 1838, was one of many itinerant portraits painted by Field before photography made this business obsolete.
By age 19, Field had displayed sufficient drawing chops to be taken as a student by Samuel F. B. Morse—yes, that Morse, who was a well-known painter and teacher besides being the inventor of the single-wire telegraph and the Morse code. Field’s few short months with Morse were the sum total of his formal education in painting. After Morse abruptly closed his teaching studio, Field returned to Massachusetts with enough technique to set up shop as an itinerant decorative painter and portrait painter.

In the 1840s, Field answered the siren call of New York again, relocating his family to Greenwich Village. After seven years, he was called back to Massachusetts to manage his ailing father’s farm.

The Garden of Eden, c. 1860, by Erastus Field.
It’s believed that Field studied the nascent art of photography in New York, but whether that’s true or not, he certainly saw the handwriting on the wall. He turned from painting portraits to painting landscapes and history and Bible scenes. His most famous work, The Historical Monument of the American Republic, is a complex metaphor for American history. He worked on it for 21 years. He was a terrifically productive painter, with about 300 works still surviving.

Field died at home on June 28, 1900 at the age of 95.

Field’s granddaughter-several-times-removed was my friend in Lewiston in the 1980s. She was also a talented and largely self-trained artist.

Message me if you want information about next year’s workshops.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

The Open Road (continued)

Landscape with a Carriage and a Train, Vincent van Gogh, 1890
Yesterday, I wrote about contemporary paintings of the open road. These would be impossible without photography or the automobile, so they are very much of our time.

Prior to the Industrial Revolution, people moved around on foot, by horse, or by ship. While there were genre painters dealing with those subjects, the mechanics of life did not particularly interest artists or their patrons. The social realism (or naturalism) movement of the 19th century changed that. Its concern with the lives of the working class included the ways in which people travelled.

Vincent van Gogh painted Landscape with a Carriage and a Train shortly before his death, after he had left the asylum at Saint-Rémy. “Lately I’ve been working a lot and quickly; by doing so I’m trying to express the desperately swift passage of things in modern life,” he wrote.

The Third-Class Carriage, Honoré Daumier, 1864
The Third-Class Carriage by Honoré Daumier is the most well-known, and perhaps the earliest, depiction of mass transit, which has become such a fact of life in our modern existence.

Third-class railway carriages were dirty, crowded, and uncomfortable. They were filled with the lower orders. In short, they were the coach seats of their day. While the little family in the front row of Daumier's painting are fully delineated, the figures in the back rapidly dissolve into the anonymity of the endless human crowd.

Steaming Streets by George Bellows (1908) is a harshly honest look at urban transport. No Currier and Ives romanticism here.
In our nostalgic imaginings we like to believe we would have achieved a first-class railway ticket, but the vast majority of us would have been traveling coach then, just as we do now.

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Monday, September 8, 2014

The Open Road

Evening Train, Trans Canada Highway, by Robin Weiss
I have always been interested in paintings of expressways, which is helpful when I’m driving as much as I have been since July. This week’s road follies were not intentional, being precipitated by a set of personal crises on either end of New York State. I saw a lot of Interstate 90 this week, and repeatedly.

Study for Freeway, 1978, by Wayne Thiebaud
To the artist, painting is more about the play of color, shape and texture than it is about subject, but I’ve noticed that viewers don’t generally feel that way. They select paintings based on a personal, emotional, call and response.

Lost Highway, by Peter Harris
The open road is neutral, although to many of us, it’s the thing that stands in the way of getting where we’re going. In their own gangly way, our expressways are beautiful.  Like me, the Interstate Highway System itself is a prime example of mid-century modern. Authorized in 1956, the first sections were completed that same year (although in some states, including New York, previous highways were incorporated into the system).

Untitled by Rodgers Naylor
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Friday, September 5, 2014

Boy Genius

Illustration from Norman Rockwell's second year as a professional artist. He was all of 19 years old.
Spending time in the Berkshires this week, I got to wondering what artist might be identified with this area.

Norman Rockwell is most famous for the cover illustrations he did for The Saturday Evening Post. Born in New York, he attended both the National Academy of Design and the Art Students League. By age 18, he had a published book illustration to his credit. That year he was hired as an illustrator for Boys’ Life. At 19, he was promoted to be their art editor, in which role he did his first cover illustrations.

It's absurd to try to choose a favorite from his many illustrations for the Saturday Evening Post. Rockwell layered images rather than trying to create a full-dimension space; this is a great example of that technique.
At age 21, he submitted his first cover illustration to the Saturday Evening Post. He was published eight times total on the Post’s cover within that first year. Over his career, Rockwell did 323 original covers for the Saturday Evening Post.

Rockwell painted his most famous works, the Four Freedoms series, in 1943. It took him seven months. The series was inspired by a speech by President Roosevelt, in which he described four principles for universal rights.

When he wanted to create a fully realized space, however, he had the chops. Freedom from Want's Puritanical white-on-white tablecloth brings the faces into focus, and they are an essay in optimism in the dark days of WWII. 
In 1953, Rockwell and his family moved to Stockbridge, Massachusetts. From 1961 until his death in 1978, Rockwell was a member of the Monday Evening Club, a men's literary group based in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, which is where my daughter lives, and where I regularly stop on my trips back and forth to Maine.

Rockwell's portrait of his adopted Stockbridge, MA, would do any landscape painter proud.
The early part of the 20th century is often called the Golden Age of Illustration. Why were so many fine 20th century illustrators able to do such fine work at such young ages? In part, there was an expectation that people in their late teens were fully formed adults, capable of bearing adult responsibilities. In part, the schools were teaching traditional drafting and drawing.

Message me if you want information about next year’s workshops.-*

Thursday, September 4, 2014

So you want to learn to paint

Autumn is the best time of the year to paint en plein air in Rochester. The light is beautiful, the foliage is an ever-changing kaleidoscope, and the weather is usually more stable than in summer.

If you’re a new painting student, we’ll start by experimenting with different kinds of media, learning the fundamentals of drawing, and then concentrating on the process by which pigment goes from the tube to the canvas.

If you’re an experienced painter, we’ll develop processes for mixing clean color accurately and quickly, talk about the difference between studio painting and painting outside, and work on composition.

When the weather closes in, we segue to working in my studio, which is located at 410 Oakdale Drive, Rochester, NY 14618.

Saturday lessons begin on September 13; Tuesday lessons begin on October 7. Both classes are from 10 AM to 1 PM. Tuition is $100 a month.

While I assume most readers already know who I am, my bio can be found here. For more information, email me here.

Message me if you want information about next year’s workshops.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014


Reed beds at the Irondequoit Inn didn't thrill me that much when I painted it, but it turns out to have been predictive of where I'm going as a painter.
Recently, I was listening to some fellow painters talking about how to reuse canvas-boards on which they'd done unsuccessful paintings. I remarked that I almost never reuse boards, because I almost never throw things away. My studio and workshop are full of field sketches and paintings that aren’t going to be shown but aren’t going to be painted over, either. As long as I have the luxury of space, I’m going to continue this practice.

Hayfield in Paradise (private collection) was painted about a decade ago. Yes, it's obviously by me, but my color sense, my brushwork, and my composition are all much different today.
I think most artists are poor judges of whether something they’re working on is a success. We usually think it works when it flows off the brush without too much pain. However, often the most important work we’re doing isn’t easy. Trailblazing involves hacking out a path with an ax, after all.

I had most of my inventory off my own walls this summer because it was in galleries. To fill the nailholes, I put up some small works from my slush pile. One of these pieces is hanging on the wall opposite my bed, where I see it when I wake up. I didn’t like it that much when I painted it, but after a week back home, I realize that it’s actually very good. It was jarring several years ago; it seems a lot more like me today.

I loathed this painting of the mouth of the Genesee River when I did it, and almost wiped it out. It has really grown on me over the years, and now I think it's a really cool painting.
Another small painting—a sketch for a larger work—accidentally traveled with me to Maine this summer. Since it had nothing to do with the Maine works I was delivering, I used it to decorate my cabin. When I painted it, I thought it was both elegant and loose. However, the subdued palette has little in common with my work today.
Keuka Vineyard accidentally traveled to Maine with me. I realized after looking at it for several weeks that it's not that connected with my work today. Nevertheless, I still like it.
You can’t really make these judgments if you obliterate everything you paint that makes you uncomfortable. That's analogous to ruthlessly weeding out all new seedlings under the mistaken notion that they are weeds. You really can't tell what's in your garden until it has a chance to grow.

Message me if you want information about next year’s classes or workshops.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

How I spent my summer vacation

Janith Mason epitomizes the joy most people feel at painting in Maine. It's just that kind of place.
Summer slipped past me like road markers on the interstate, perhaps because I’ve driven 7500 miles since June 27. Working sun up to sun down with almost no days off for five weeks is exhausting, but it was deeply rewarding at the same time.

Sunset over the Hudson was painted at Olana.
In early June I drove to the Catskills to join a select group of New York plein air painters at a retreat organized by Jamie Williams Grossman.  I came home to miss my own opening of God+Man at Aviv! Gallery, because of a health issue—the first time that’s ever happened to me. (Mercifully, I made my student show's opening the following Sunday afternoon.)

Back in Rochester, the official first day of summer found my class huddled up against a cold wind off Lake Ontario. Since the lake nearly froze solid last winter, that was understandable. In fact, it’s been a cooler-than-average summer here, and our tomatoes are just now thinking of ripening.

I may have missed my own opening in June, but I did make it to my student show. Of course, there was beer.
I was walking in Mt. Hope Cemetery on Independence Day when I saw a young man painting en plein air. Turns out to be an RIT graduate named Zac Retz. He and another young friend joined us one more time before I left for Maine. I hope to see them again.

July found my duo show with Stu Chait, Intersections of Form, Color, Time and Space, closed down by RIT-NTID’s Dyer Gallery. The nude figure paintings might have offended young campus visitors. That’s a gift that keeps on giving, since the paintings had to be packed and moved in a hurry by two young assistants; they’re still in my studio awaiting their final repacking and storage.

My $15 porta-potty turned out to be one of the best investments I've ever made.
I couldn’t move them myself because by that time I was living off the grid in Waldoboro, ME. From there I went to one of my favorite events of the year, Castine Plein Air, which was followed by ten days of painting in Camden and Waldoboro.

Evening Reverie, sold, was one of many pieces I painted for Camden Falls Gallery this summer.
Then on to my workshop in Belfast, which was a lovely mix of friends old and new. This year, a number of participants traveled with their families, which lent a wonderful tone to the experience. From there I joined Tarryl Gabel and her intrepid band of women painters in Saranac Lake to participate in Sandra Hildreth’s Adirondack Plein Air Festival.

By the time you read this, I will be on the road again. This time it’s not work; I’m going to see family. I’m really looking forward to being back in Rochester teaching again, and starting on a new body of studio work.

 Message me if you want information about next year’s classes or workshops.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Altering Magic Cards

Wolf in Sheep's Clothing by Aaron Boucher. It really does look less threatening.
My son-in-law Aaron Boucher is a pretty talented kid, although he doesn’t have much formal art training. I’m never going to turn him into a full-time painter (at least if my daughter has anything to say in the matter), but when he expressed an interest in altering Magic: The Gathering cards, I gave him some Golden Fluid Acrylics and fine brushes to work with. Golden Fluid Acrylics are sheer enough to work well on the flimsy cardboard cards, and he spent a happy afternoon painting.

Rampage at the State Fair by Sandy Quang.
Altering Magic cards perfectly fits my personal definition of fine art: the expression of creative imagination in a format that is completely without usefulness. That’s different from my definition of fine craft, which I think means the expression of creative imagination in a format that’s primarily useful. (Other than that, I make absolutely no distinction between art and craft.)

Portrait of Madame X, by Aaron Boucher is an extension alter.
The project worked out great for my Labor Day weekend. Nobody suggested a ten-mile hike over broken terrain. I got to read a novel, my daughter got to cook, and my husband took a long nap.

Mesmeric Eyes, by Aaron Boucher.
Happy Labor Day! Message me if you want information about next year’s workshops. Information about this year's programs is available here.

Friday, August 29, 2014

That’s sophomoric

The Magazine Women Believe In was a spoof of style of 1950s publications. I painted it back in the day; I wouldn't paint it today because my feminist thinking has matured. So has my painting style.
As a young person, my brain was fizzing over with half-cocked ideas. Some of my projects were musical—like writing a rock opera with my chum Michele, or writing and recording a cowpunk album with my husband. Some were literary. Most were visual. But some were just larks, like going on the Maid of the Mist in my bikini or going skiing in grease-stained Carhartt overalls—what today we might dignify with the label ‘performance art,’ if we could find funding for it.

I grew up in a time and a town which was too conservative for performance art, and my parents tended to cast a jaundiced eye on my antics. So I burrowed into the art form I knew best—drawing and painting—and gradually left the more conceptual stuff behind. I don’t think I’m any less creative at this advanced age, but my creativity is more yoked to what I do best.

Submission was painted during the first phase of the Iraq War and addresses the still-thorny issue of whether oppression or libertine impulses are more stifling for women. It's one of the paintings that got my RIT show closed down.
Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity by economist David Galenson looks at the schism between the creativity of youth and that of maturity. Galenson says that some of us work by trial and error, and arrive at our major contributions incrementally, usually in old age. In contrast, there are conceptual innovators who make sudden breakthroughs by formulating new ideas at an early age. Galenson puts Michelangelo, Rembrandt, and Cézanne in the “old master” category, and Vermeer, van Gogh, and Picasso in the “young Turk” category.

Would I have painted The Beggar of St. Paul today, with its cynical depiction of Starving Africa as part of the money cycle? Probably not. I'm weary of hectoring people.
I think he has the division in thinking right, but not the outcome. We are all more daring thinkers when young, and more methodical workers when old. The difference is in when we’re discovered and what the society in which we live values. Today we live in a society which values audacity above craftsmanship, which tends to highlight the conceptual over the incremental.

Message me if you want information about next year’s Maine workshops. Information about this year's programs is available 

Thursday, August 28, 2014

The first artists called by name

Creatures on the shrine doors in the Egyptian pharoah Tutankhamun's tomb. Since they’re more-or-less contemporary with the Bible narrative, they probably provide a good idea of what the cherubim over the Mercy Seat were intended to look like.
I read four chapters of the Bible every day, and when I get to the end I just flip back and start again at the beginning. (This is hardly brilliant for exegesis, but it works for me.) Right now I’m at the end of Exodus, reading the story of the building of the Tabernacle.

Bezalel was named the chief artisan of the Tabernacle by God himself. Not only was Bezalel a skilled engraver in his own right, he was versatile enough to be put in charge of artisans and apprentices in all the other crafts. He had an assistant, Aholiab, who was described as a master of carpentry, weaving, and embroidery—a strange combination to modern readers.

According to Exodus, Bezalel was called by God to direct the construction of the Tent of Meeting and its sacred furniture, and to prepare the priests' garments and the oil and incense required for the service. That’s a pretty wide remit; it’s probably similar to running a major design house today.

Moses and Joshua In the Tabernacle, by James Tissot, c. 1896. Even the best painters seem to go haywire trying to interpret the instructions in Exodus. It's hard to see where Tissot got anything right.
The Bible is clear that both his remit and his talent came from God:  “I have endowed him with a divine spirit of skill, ability, and knowledge in every kind of craft.” (Ex. 31:3). The “divine spirit” mentioned is the Elohim Ruah, or the breath of God Himself.

This representation of the Ark of the Covenant was sculpted in the fourth century AD. From a synagogue in Capernaum.
There is great disagreement on the age of the Torah, but it’s clear that Moses was an historical figure and that Exodus records the origins of the Jews as a people. (How literally is a question for the reader to decide on his own.) That means that early in human history, an artist was elevated for his skill and his value to his civilization. I’m all for math, science and engineering, but next time you're thinking of discouraging a kid from pursuing a career in the arts, remember that some of us are called to be artists, and our contribution hasn’t been negligible.

Message me if you want information about next year’s Maine workshops. Information about this year's programs is available here.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

What does style mean?

A Pool With A View, by Bruce Bundock, is an example of the artist's worldview.
The women I lived with last week are all at the top of their game, but paint in a variety of styles. Tarryl Gabel paints meticulously detailed, ethereal landscapes. Crista Pisano’s are minute but less about detail and more about form. Mira Fink is a high-chroma pattern-maker, a lot like me but in watercolor. Kari Ganoung Ruiz paints in the subdued palette of her native Finger Lakes. The two pastel painters were as different as chalk and cheese: Marlene Wiedenbaum is a romantic, while Laura Bianco works in bold, fast strokes.

Baroque Arch, Rome, is an example of Brad Marshall's meticulous drafting.
What do those differences mean? Do they reflect something about the personality? I doubt it. Brad Marshall (whose show Italia is opening at the Fischbach Gallery on September 12) is a far more methodical and controlled painter than me. He’s more of a risk-taker in his 9-to-5 life—hanging from scaffolding on the side of tall buildings—but there are no glaring differences between our values, our lifestyles, the cars we drive, or our homes.

Certainly the content of a painter’s work reflects his worldview. Consider, for example, Bruce Bundock’s Faces of Vassar: An Appreciation, which opened last February. I love his work because Bruce is less interested in the grand than he is in the everyday.

Millbrook Hill, a pastel by Marlene Wiedenbaum, is wonderfully romantic.
I had a conversation last week with a successful, professional painter lamenting her lack of formal art education. Many formal art programs teach very little about actual painting and most artists do most of their learning on their own, after the classes and workshops end. Since she paints beautifully and her style is fully realized, there is little she can gain from a teacher now, and much she could muddy up.

Whereas Autumn Glow, a pastel by Laura Bianco, is absolutely graphical.
I don't think style comes from the personality, but I do think it comes from the soul. The goal in painting is to get rid of the stuff that stands between us and our true self. Personal style is what’s left when we have tried our hardest to tell an accurate story with our brushes. It’s an artifact of imperfection. True personal style can’t be taught or learned. It comes from within. That's why teachers who try to create copies of themselves among their students inevitably fail to foster greatness.

Message me if you want information about next year’s workshops. Information about this year's programs is available here.