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

Monday, October 20, 2014

Do as I say, not as I do

Winter coats thrown over chairs are the sketch artist's dream.
I advocate drawing anywhere you’re required to sit quietly: the subway, doctors’ offices, and especially in church. (‘Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.’) I have stacks of sketchbooks filled with drawings of unsuspecting people, but I’ve noticed recently that my drawing is falling off both in quality and quantity.

Part of this, I’m afraid, is because I got a smart phone at the beginning of summer. It’s too easy to pick it up when I have a few idle moments. But as dissolute as I am, I would never hang out on Facebook in church.

I’ve been letting my kids choose where we sit. Their inner WASP leads them unerringly to the back row. When church is lightly attended that’s not a problem; I can still see well enough to draw. But when it’s crowded (as it usually is) all I see is the hair in front of me. Unless the wearer has spectacular cornrows, that’s of limited appeal.

Even I get tired of always drawing people from the back.

But this week I was saved by the season. It was 40° F. when we left for church and our fellow worshippers were bundled up in coats. Our church being humble, there is no narthex, so winter clothing ends up thrown over chairs. And fabric tossed willy-nilly is the sketch artist’s dream.

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

Friday, October 17, 2014

Why do we draw? (Part 3)

Two pieces of silverware and a coffee cup: a tricky thing to draw. But when you're done, you'll have the basic tools to draw anything.
Yesterday’s lesson on the pencil and thumb method was easy to teach in person, but difficult to write out in steps. Today’s lesson, on using angles, is easier to write, but will be a little trickier to master.

This has to do with how our brains are wired, not how “talented” you may or may not be. We simply don’t ‘read’ angles and negative space when we’re not focusing on them. This is why we use our pencil as a visual aide. It forces our brains to pay attention.

The good news is that you can rapidly teach your brain to notice angles and negative space.

Once again, close one eye and focus on the pencil, not the object you’re measuring. Hold the pencil along an imaginary plate glass window in front of you, and tilt it to match the angle you’re measuring. Then reproduce the line on your paper.

If at first you screw up, it’s probably that you’ve canted one end of the pencil away from you. Straighten it up and try again.

Once you’ve mastered measuring with the pencil and thumb method and learned to see and copy angles on to your paper, you can draw anything from portraits to animals to landscapes to figure. I promise.

Start by measuring the basic shapes using the pencil and thumb method we learned yesterday. Mark off the  heights and widths of all the basic shapes.
Use your pencil to determine the angles at which the silverware, the sides of the cup, and the handle are traveling. Draw them in as straight lines. This takes a little practice, so be patient and take your time looking at each one.
Use your measuring and angle hash marks to block in the major shapes.
Often, you can see distortions, objects that are too close together, etc. more easily in the negative space than you can in your drawing of the positive objects. It's best to check this before you go on to finish your drawing.
You can use angles to check your work. Here I checked the angle from the right tine of the fork to the handle of the cup, and the angle across the top of the two pieces of silverware.
 Message me if you want information about next year’s classes and workshops.




Thursday, October 16, 2014

Why do we draw? (Part 2)

Teachers often tell their students to hold the pencil fully outstretched. I disagree, because moving it up and down and sideways makes you move in an arc, as Sandy demonstrates, above. 
Many people tell me they would like to learn to draw, but they live too far away to take my class. Often they are going through some kind of crisis. From long experience, I know that drawing is cheaper than therapy, it always calms anxiety, and a tablet of paper and pencil are so small and benign that they can be carried anywhere.

I can teach most people the rudiments of life drawing in a single class session. Drawing is a series of actions, rather like dance. The best way to teach it is to sit next to the student and demonstrate the steps. Still, a half loaf is better than none.

Drawing starts with measurement. Get that right, and everything else is just details.

Instead, hold your pencil loosely and comfortably, as if there were a plate glass window along which you were running it. You will have to recheck your measurements frequently, but you should be doing that anyway.
1. Put yourself a few feet from the object you want to draw. Make sure you’re comfortable.

2. Hold your pencil between your thumb and fingers as shown. Most art teachers tell you to do your measurements with your arm completely outstretched; I prefer to have my arm loose and to visualize an imaginary plate glass window I'm running my pencil along.

3. Close one eye and focus on the pencil.

4. Holding your pencil upright and straight, align the point of your pencil with the top of the vase.

5. Slide your thumb down the pencil until it is at the bottom of the vase. This is now one unit of measurement in space.

6. Put marks on your paper where you want the top and bottom of the vase to end up. This is now one unit of measurement on your paper. It doesn’t have to be the same size as your unit of measurement on your pencil.

7. Go back and line your pencil up again with the vase so that it fills the pencil from the point to your thumb. Now raise the pencil so you are measuring the flowers. Are they as tall as the vase?  Twice as tall? Half as tall? When you’ve determined this, add another mark to your paper to indicate where the top of the flowers should be. This should be the same ratio on paper as it was in space.

8. Go back and recheck the measurement on the vase height. Then just flip your pencil sideways and see how wide the vase looks in comparison to its height. Is the object as wide as it is tall? Twice as wide? Half as wide? Once you’ve determined this, go ahead and put horizontal marks on your paper to represent the width of the vase.

9. Turn your pencil to the side and observe that the flowers are about 2 or 2.5 times as wide as the vase (depending on where you’re standing).  Make those marks on your picture.

10. Once you have the proportions of the objects marked out, mark in the big shapes with a light pencil and then start breaking them down into smaller shapes. You are well on your way to drawing the object. 

Tomorrow I will talk about using angles and negative space to measure.
Your pencil is your ruler. You are measuring ratios and then transferring them to the paper. (Note: my ratios look slightly different from what Sandy was seeing because I drew the picture later, from a slightly different angle.)

Recheck the height with your pencil and then flip it to see how the width of the vase compares. It's that simple. 
It really doesn't matter where you start measuring or what order you measure in. You will figure out a system that works for you.
Once you have the measurement hash marks in place, draw in the big shapes and start breaking them down into smaller shapes. The rest is just details.
Message me if you want information about next year’s classes and workshops.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Why do we draw? (Part 1)

Corroboree, 1880s, William Barak, Natural pigments over charcoal on paper
It’s only been in the last few years that drawing has been studied as a cognitive process along the lines of language and mathematics. I have written about the psychological resilience that making art helps to produce and its ability to aid concentration and memory, and I will return to that tomorrow.

In The Visual Language of Comics, Neil Cohn argues that drawing is related to language, and that comics are drawn using a visual language that uses patterns and repetition to support the story being played out in its word balloons. Although we artists think of drawing as primarily spatial, Cohn has demonstrated that reading comics causes the same neural regions to kick in as reading a written sentence.

Yinma - A gathering of people for ceremonial purposes, 1973, Yumpululu Tjungarrayi, Australia
Sand stories among the Warlpiri and the Arandic people of Australia are mostly told by women, and they seamlessly combine words and changing pictures. They use repetitive symbols (which also appear in Aboriginal paintings). Their intended audience understands them as easily as we understand the words on this page.

All toddlers go through a phase where they scribble. When they do this on walls, they’re mostly just irritating, but it does seem that their scribbles are similar from child to child. Are they a precursor to a drawing language, just as babbling is a precursor to a spoken language? And have we cut off the development of that language with our disdain for the visual arts?

 (See Are We Hard-Wired to Doodle, here.)


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

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

American Exceptionalism

Young Girl Singing into a Mirror, Jean-Etienne Liotard, 18th century.
There’s a lot of conversation about American Exceptionalism in the media today. This is the theory that, because of its unique ideology of liberty, equality, and individualism, the United States is qualitatively different from other countries.

It’s true that our colonial forebears were uncommonly interested in the written word, and that literacy and numeracy were widespread among all classes, in marked contrast to the European nations from which we drew.

Tis to ye Press & Pen we Morals owe
All we believe & almost all we know.
(George Fisher, 1748)

Buffalo Newsboy, Thomas Le Clear, 1853. In America, education was never limited to the upper classes.
In New England, about 60 percent of the population was literate between 1650 and 1670, 85 percent between 1758 and 1762, and 90 percent between 1787 and 1795.

And what were these people reading? Well, not technical manuals. Overwhelmingly, education involved ancient languages, ancient history, theology, and mathematics, and most people could sketch and sing or play an instrument because these were fundamental skills in a world without photography or radios.

These New Englanders went on to lead the Second Industrial Revolution, which started with the rapid industrialization during the Civil War and culminated in 20th century American economic hegemony.

Réunion de dames, Abraham Bosse,17th century. The salon was a mechanism for continuing education from the 17th century on. 
In other words, it was quite possible to build a technological empire without STEM classes. But is it possible to build the 21st century equivalent without the humanities?

Researchers at Michigan State University recently identified a link between childhood participation in the arts and adult success in business. As they put it, “A young Picasso or Beethoven could be the next Edison.”
A Young Girl Reading, Jean-Honoré Fragonard, 1776.
People who own businesses or were granted patents were up to eight times more likely to participate in music and art as children than the general public. “The most interesting finding was the importance of sustained participation in those activities,” said Rex LaMore, director of MSU’s Center for Community and Economic Development. “If you started as a young child and continued in your adult years, you’re more likely to be an inventor as measured by the number of patents generated, businesses formed or articles published.”

“The ability to make art is really critical to the creative mind and getting into the sciences,” added James Lawton. 


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

Monday, October 13, 2014

Choosing a watercolor easel

My own contraption, easily assembled from off-the-shelf parts. It functions equally well for oils and watercolors.
This weekend I got a letter from a southern California watercolor artist asking about field easels. I’ve written a lot about oil-painting easels but very little about watercolor easels. However, the same fundamental rule applies: there is no single “right” easel for every person and every situation.

En plein air pro watercolor easel.
For me, a movable mast is an important consideration for watercolor, because I want my work surface to be able to go almost flat for washes. One commercial easel with that flexibility is the Anderson Swivel Easel. The trade-off for lighter weight in aluminum field easels is that they can be flimsy compared to their wooden counterparts, but this is a good alternative to a wooden box-style easel.  At 5’6”, I find it to be slightly too short for me to work standing. But if you work from a seated position, the small storage area and slightly shorter profile will pose no great problems.

Anderson Swivel Easel
I made myself a heavy-duty variation, using a mast from Guerrilla Painter, a shelf from En Plein Air Pro, and a ball-head tripod I had from back in the days when we used real cameras. This is the workhorse easel in my collection—it is virtually indestructible, very stable and easy to adjust.  And there’s no assembly needed: just buy the parts and put them together. If you already have a good tripod, you can assemble this easel for less than $120.

Mabef beechwood field easel has a pivoting head. Mine has been amazingly durable and is the first easel I grab for new painting students to try.
The trouble is, it’s quite heavy. That’s no problem for painting from the back of your car, but if you let your friends talk you into long hikes, it’s just too much. For a truly lightweight easel, I'd look at En Plein Air Pro’s line. As I noted above, the trade-off for their light weight is that they are less able to endure the shocks of truly extreme plein air painting.

I also have a Mabef field easel, which is an economical answer to the pivot-head problem for watercolor artists. Its major downside is that you need to bring a table with you, but it’s my most useful teaching easel, and has outlasted a lot of fancier alternatives. While the head doesn't pivot 360°, it can be turned flat, and that’s enough for most applications.

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

Friday, October 10, 2014

Umbrella Revolution

Umbrella Man, by the artist known as Milk.
The ‘Umbrella Movement’ in Hong Kong may or may not be over but these have been the largest protests seen in China since Tiananmen Square. The protests demand free and fair elections, and public opinion polls during the protests showed about 60% support for the protesters.
A banner from the Umbrella Movement.
Unlike the Occupy protests in the United States, the Hong Kong protesters have been noticeably tidy, polite, and nonviolent. The term 'Umbrella Revolution' was adopted by the media because protesters brought umbrellas with them to protect themselves from pepper spray. However the protesters themselves rejected it, because they do not want to be seen as revolutionaries. Their request is a finite one: they want open and fair elections.
A nonviolent banner from the Umbrella movement.
This movement has been accompanied by a flowering of extemporaneous art. The most-widely reported example is a large statue created of wooden blocks, called Umbrella Man. He stands ten feet tall and clutches a yellow umbrella in his hand. His face is white, to represent the tear gas and pepper spray endured by student activists.
One of many thousands of Post-It note messages in Hong Kong.
Umbrella Man faces a wall of bright Post-It notes. News venues show these walls in many places, representing many thousands of hand-penned messages.
 
A "Lennon Wall" with Post-It note messages.
A protest movement so gracious that it has time for art—what a contrast with the Occupy movement in America.
Message me if you want information about next year’s classes and workshops.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Hobby losses


The Au Sable River at Jay, 12X9, oil on canvasboard. Painted on the side of the road in Jay, New York.
I once had the following discussion with an IRS auditor:

She: “Your mileage log doesn’t identify destinations. You need to show destinations.”

Me: “I’m a plein air painter. There are no ‘destinations’. I drive until I find what I want to paint, and then I paint it. The best I could come up with is something like ‘cows at the side of the road’.”

She (unmoved): “For the purposes of a mileage log, you need to show destinations.”

Teaching on the side of a road somewhere near Lincolnville, ME.
At the end of the interview, she suggested to me that I’d better start showing a profit or the IRS would consider my work a hobby. She was (contrary to popular opinion) very nice. But I am keenly aware that my tax returns are a red flag: we have high W2 income and Schedule C losses.

That’s actually typical for artists. Even the most successful of us usually do something else, like teaching or graphic design, to cobble a living together. But if you ask us our profession, we are artists. The big money on our work will be made after we’re dead. Denying us the tax advantages other businesses get is adding insult to injury.

Sunset over Saranac Lake, by little ol' me. Painted on the side of a road somewhere in the Adirondacks.
In 2010, the IRS accused Professor Susan Crile of underpaying her taxes by more than $81,000, saying that her work was not a profession but something she did as part of her job teaching Studio Art at Hunter College. (See Forbes’ coverage here and here, and the NY Times’ coverage here.)

The IRS’ determination was based on her lack of a written business plan (!) and the idea that she made art not primarily to sell but to keep her job as a teacher. Never mind that her work hangs in the Metropolitan Museum, the Guggenheim, the Brooklyn Museum, the Phillips Collection, the Hirshhorn, and at eight colleges and universities. 

Painting at the side of the road near Lake Placid, NY.
Mercifully, the judge saw it differently:

She has worked for more than 40 years in media that include oil, acrylic, charcoal, pastels, printmaking, lithograph, woodcut, and silkscreen. She has exhibited and sold her art through leading galleries; she has received numerous professional accolades, residencies, and fellowships; and she is a full-time tenured professor of studio art at Hunter College in New York City. (Judge Albert Lauber)

“Bottom line is that, in general, lawyers have much better educations than accountants,” wrote Peter J Reilly. He went on to note that Judge Lauber holds an MA in Classics from Clare College, Cambridge.

Painted at the side of a road in Camden, ME. (Available from Camden Falls Gallery)
While Professor Crile has prevailed on the Section 183 (hobby loss) question, she still has to answer the question of how much of the quarter million or so in losses she claimed over the last five years will be deemed legitimate. That’s a reminder to us to be honest, even conservative, in our bookkeeping.


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

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Dance of Death

The Triumph of Death, c. 1562, Pieter Bruegel the Elder
I admit that I’m fascinated by pandemics, and am morbidly curious to see how the Ebola epidemic works its way through the First World.
Doktor Schnabel von Rom, engraving by Paul Fürst, 1656. Plague doctors were hired by towns to control epidemic. Some wore a beak-like mask which was filled with aromatic herbs designed to prevent the spread of disease through “miasma” or putrid air.
The mother of all pandemics was the Black Death, which peaked in Europe in 1346–53. It killed between 75 and 200 million people at a time when the world’s population was only 450 million people. (Amazingly, it wasn’t until a few years ago that the pathogen responsible for it—the Yersinia pestis bacterium—was definitively identified.)
The Triumph of Death, c. 1446, fresco, Palazzo Abatellis, Palermo
Originating in the plains of central Asia—the ‘Stans’—it traveled down the Silk Road to the Crimea. From there, it was carried into Europe by fleas on the rats on merchant ships. It is estimated to have killed 30-60% of Europe’s population.

Knight, Death and the Devil, 1513, engraving by Albrecht Dürer
The plague returned repeatedly in Europe through the 14th to 17th centuries. It came to the United States as part of a 19th century pandemic that started in China. It is still active today, although treatable with antibiotics; each year a dozen or so Americans are diagnosed with it. Rather more worrisome, a drug-resistant form of the disease was found in Africa in the 1990s.
Murder of Archbishop Ambrosius in the Moscow Plague Riot of 1771, engraving by Charles Michel Geoffroy, 1845. The Archbishop had attempted to prevent citizens from gathering at the Icon of the Virgin Mary of Bogolyubovo in Kitaigorod as a quarantine measure.
The plague caused great social upheaval in Europe. Those with means left their urban homes and shut themselves off from the world—the first recorded ‘survivalists’. The dead received perfunctory attention, since their corpses were dangerous. Faith was bifurcated: some abandoned it in an ‘eat, drink and be merry’ hedonism, while others became more frenzied.  Local and global trade was frozen, resulting in shortages and spiraling inflation. On the other hand, the sudden, extreme shortage of laborers led to the end of the manorial system of serfdom and the beginning of a wage-based economy in Europe.
Danse Macabre, Bernt Notke, end of the 15th century, St. Nicholas' Church, Tallinn, Estonia. The Danse Macabre is a medieval art genre which tells us that—no matter our station in life—Death unites us all. 
Message me if you want information about next year’s classes and workshops.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Libeling the dead

Southern Justice (Murder in Mississippi), 1965, Norman Rockwell
In America, the dead can’t sue for defamation, so a writer who makes outrageous statements about the deceased can’t be touched in a court of law. In the past, we were protected by an unspoken code of decency: a publishing house like Farrar, Straus and Giroux would not have taken a biography like American Mirror, and it wouldn’t be nominated for a PEN award.

Saying Grace, 1951, Norman Rockwell
“The thrill of [Norman Rockwell’s] work is that he was able to use a commercial form to thrash out his private obsessions,” writes author Deborah Solomon. And what, according to Solomon, were those obsessions? That he was a repressed homosexual with pedophilic impulses.

Rosie the Riveter, 1943, Norman Rockwell
Rockwell’s granddaughter Abigail did a great job debunking Solomon’s book in this column, and it’s worth reading in its entirety.

I once made the mistake of mentioning to an instructor in Manhattan that I love Norman Rockwell’s work. That was the first experience I had of the animus some intellectuals direct toward Rockwell, who—as a ‘mere’ illustrator—achieved fame and fortune most of us can only dream about.

The Scoutmaster, 1956, Norman Rockwell
Why is it that men who paint children are suspect? A decade ago, we saw the same phenomenon with Caravaggio. It’s now received wisdom that he was a bisexual pederast—a theory that totally ignores the painterly and social conventions of his time, and is almost purely speculative (since there is very little historical record of his life). This desire to tear down icons reflects less on the artists in question than on the art world’s deeply rooted sexism and its own twisted desires.

Freedom from Fear (one of the Four Freedoms series), 1943, Norman Rockwell
Norman Rockwell is being accused of pedophilia at the same time as other intellectuals attempt to destigmatize that perversion. This is part of the vast value-leveling going on in our society today, an insistence that no ideals or values deserve to be elevated above others. By making Rockwell look tawdry, we can dismiss all those hokey mid-century values he painted: family, patriotism, courage, equality, freedom, faith.


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

Monday, October 6, 2014

Growing pain

The Yellow Christ, Paul Gauguin, 1889, is no longer the “art of the present” but it’s one of my favorites at the Albright-Knox. 
The Albright-Knox Art Gallery has announced that it plans an addition to its venerable space on Elmwood Avenue in the city of Buffalo. While it’s true that the current 19,000 square feet of floor space is crammed, one wonders—of course—who is going to pay for the addition.

The museum’s collection contains about 6,740 works, of which it can only exhibit about 200 at a time, according to Thomas R. Hyde, president of the museum’s board. “Campus development is no longer an option; it is a necessity,” he added. “We are, in many ways, a middleweight museum with a heavyweight collection.” And then he mentioned the cracks in the marble floors of the gallery’s original building.

(Veterans of capital campaigns will recognize that last gambit: throw in some deferred maintenance and people are supposed to stop kvetching about major changes.)

Side of Beef, Chaim Soutine, c. 1925, is another of my favorite Albright-Knox pieces.
Meanwhile, gallery director Janne Siren insists that plans are still in the ‘conversation’ phase. Having said that, the board has been rattling the can for expansion since publication of their 2001 strategic plan.  “Siren took over the directorship of the Buffalo gallery shortly after city fathers in Helsinki, Finland rejected a plan he had spearheaded to build a large Guggenheim museum there using public funding,” reported WGRZ radio.

In 2007 the Albright-Knox Art Gallery deaccessioned a Roman bronze sculpture that subsequently netted $28.6 million at Sotheby's. It was part of a larger deaccessioning of works that fell outside the ‘core mission’ of the gallery, which then-director Louis Grachos defined as “acquiring and exhibiting art of the present.” Alert Buffalonians immediately wondered what that meant for their own favorite works.

The deaccession vote was approved only on the contingency that the funds raised would be used to buy additional artwork. That meant that the money from the sale would be added to the paltry $22 million acquisitions endowment. (The overall endowment of the museum was then about $58 million.)

Being from Buffalo, I first visited the Albright-Knox while in diapers. Deaccessioning the Roman sculpture and clearing that exhibition space for other work was the right thing to do. But I share the Buffalo cynical mind, and I have my doubts about the viability of this project.

Buffalo is now half the size it was the year I was born, and there’s no sign that the population drain will abate any time soon. Clearly the board is counting on tourists to make up their numbers, and with the elegant expansion of the Burchfield-Penney Art Center across the street, an argument can be made that an arts corridor is possible on Elmwood Avenue.

La Maison de la Crau (The Old Mill), Vincent van Gogh, 1888, is another Albright-Knox piece that can no longer be termed ‘of the present.’ 

But that doesn’t address the question of how it will be paid for, or where the expansion will go. The Albright-Knox is landlocked, with Delaware Park at its front and Elmwood Avenue by its back door. Any kind of significant expansion would infringe on its parking lot, its neighbors, or the park.

1957-D No. 1, Clyfford Still, 1957. The Albright-Knox has a large collection of Still’s paintings. Last time I was there, I noticed how many 20th century paintings needed conservation. It’s not as sexy as expansion but still necessary. 
I await future developments with great interest.


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

Friday, October 3, 2014

Second Sleep

Squash stored in the off-the-grid compound. Wish I would be here in the winter.
My current travels have made me think about segmented sleep—the idea that we sleep in two separate chunks during the night. Over a twelve-hour time frame, people historically slept for 3-4 hours, were awake for three or four hours, and then slept again for three or four hours. This is not a new idea, and a lot of research supports it.

Sea captain carved by a Maine ship's carpenter some time in the last century. A few pieces by him in the off-the-grid compound.
Like all kids do, my new grandson Jake came out of the womb as a nocturnal creature. Listening to him fuss during the night, I was reminded that the first, most pressing job of new parents is to train their children to sleep at night. I remember this as the hardest job of parenting, and my own children effectively wrecked my ability to sleep through the night. I’m still a cyclical insomniac.

I'm in Maine looking for locations for my 2015 workshops. Here's surf at Popham Beach.
We’ve spent the last two nights off the grid, where the only light from 6:14 PM to 6:38 AM comes from the moon and stars or candles and flashlights. Since a lot of hay has been made about how electric light, TV, radio, and the internet confuses modern man’s sleep cycle, being off line should help, right? Honestly, I don’t think it has, but perhaps a few nights here and there can’t erase a half-century of bad habits.

Granite blocks at Ft. Popham State Historic Site, a Civil-War era fort.

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