All images © Carol L. Douglas, Rochester, NY.
No reproduction or reuse permitted without
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Friday, January 20, 2017

How to paint something that makes no sense

"Coal Seam," by Carol L. Douglas
“Coal Seam,” by Carol L. Douglas
We’ve all had the experience of loving an abstracted landscape painting, only to finally visit the site on which it was painted and realize it was much more realistic than we’d thought. Visiting Ghost Ranch with Georgia O’Keeffe in mind is an excellent example. There are iconic views that make sense no matter who paints them, like Motif Number One in Rockport, MA. On the flip side, there are things that wouldn’t be believable even in the most realistic of styles.
This was the case with the coal seam I painted along the Red Deer River in Canada’s badlands. It’s small, it’s odd, and I like it, even though I’m still not sure I’m finished.
This is what my camera saw of the coal seam. It's an excellent argument for plein air painting.
This is what my camera saw of the coal seam. It’s an excellent argument for plein air painting.
I didn’t finish the painting on-site because the vibrations from the high winds were making my easel unusable. I was shocked to look at my reference painting and see how bleached the place looks in a photo. Those seams of rock were a beautiful cross-play of color in real life.
"Goosefare Reflection," by Carol L. Douglas
“Goosefare Reflection,” by Carol L. Douglas
This summer I painted Goosefare Creek in Ocean Park, ME, which ended up being a similar abstraction. The Goosefare’s mouth changes course with every nor’easter that blows through. That means you can take any artistic liberty you want. I was interested in the sand and its reflection in the wide arc of the stream.

"Sunset off Stonington," by Carol L. Douglas
“Sunset off Stonington,” by Carol L. Douglas
Sunrises and sunsets sometimes seem artificial to me. The one above was painted from the deck of the American Eagle off Stonington, ME. I threw it down in disgust after touching up the colors last week, complaining that I had ruined it.
“What do you do with the ones you don’t like?” a friend asked.
“Swear and get back to work on them,” I answered.
In fact, after a few days not looking at it, I think the light and color are really quite accurate.
"Rain squall on Lake Huron," by Carol L. Douglas
“Rain squall on Lake Huron,” by Carol L. Douglas
I had about fifteen minutes to limb out this storm on Lake Huron before the blowing rain emulsified my paint. Finishing it was just a matter of adding some final coverage. I wouldn’t do more with it, because even though it’s just a few brushstrokes, it tells the viewer everything he needs to know.
There’s something to be said for not jumping in too fast to ‘fix’ a plein air piece. You can easily destroy what’s quirky and wonderful about it because to your tired eyes it looks just wrong.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

It’s all Michael’s fault

"Berna's rocks," Carol L. Douglas
“Berna’s rocks,” Carol L. Douglas
A few years ago, I plopped down on the front lawn at my pal Berna’s house. I’d just handed in my six paintings to Castine Plein Air. These were done and framed in two and a half days, which is a brutal schedule but one which we itinerant painters are used to.
I’m not sure why I was still fired up to paint, but I picked up my brushes and started the little sketch above. It was late in the afternoon, and Berna and I each had a glass of very cold white wine and some chips. Since I was hot and sweaty and more than a little tired, it may have been more than one glass of wine.
A car pulled up, driven by my friend and fellow painter Michael Chesley Johnson, who was staying next door. Michael’s usually a pretty dapper fellow, but he was looking even dressier than usual.
“Where are you off to?” I asked him.
“Our opening,” he answered. “We’re supposed to be there right now.”
I threw my stuff down and ran to dress. I’ve never looked so bad at an opening, and I blame Michael. It’s all his fault.

What I look like after a day's painting.
What I look like after a typical day’s painting.
Castine will do its fifth plein air festival again on July 20-22. It’s one of my favorite events. It’s well-juried, and the artwork is excellent. Castine itself is an oasis of old-fashioned amiability. I’d call it Mayberry-by-the-sea, except it’s a lot smaller and doesn’t run to a traffic light. If you were thinking of visiting Maine this summer, you might want to add this festival to your itinerary.
That incomplete painting got thrown in the back of my car. “I’ll finish it when I get home,” I told Berna, but of course there was another event and more paintings, and I never got to it. That’s all Michael’s fault, too.
Painting at Castine with Poppy Balser. I don't understand why I'm always a mess.
Painting at Castine with Poppy Balser. I don’t understand why I’m always a mess.
Then a Nor’easter blew into Castine. The tree in my painting, a supple young thing that should have weathered many more storms, suddenly was no more. I had no photos of it, because I’d had to leave in such a hurry. That, of course, was Michael’s fault.
I ran across that painting last week. It’s nothing important: just the rocks in Berna’s and Harry’s yard, incised with their house number, with a now-non-existent tree in the background. Since they still have the real rocks and the real house, they hardly need this painting, but memorizing what it looks like might help get them home at night.
So I finished it and I’ll mail it to them when it dries. And Michael will get no credit for that. That I will do all on my own.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Resolving disagreement, the art history way

Seven Sacraments Altarpiece (detail), 1445 to 1450, Rogier van der Weyden.
Seven Sacraments Altarpiece (detail), 1445 to 1450, Rogier van der Weyden.
Recently one of my kids asked me why I had her baptized as an infant. I answered her from an Anglo-Catholic perspective, citing the practice among early Christians and references in Acts 16 and 1 Corinthians. I added the medieval argument that, while babies don’t consent to baptism, they hardly consent to Original Sin either.
This question of infant baptism is the reason we have Baptists in the first place. They, along with their Anabaptist brethren, believe that baptism only counts along with a confession of faith. My favorite Baptist is a self-described ‘hedge preacher,’ Pastor John Nicholson of Siloam Baptist Church in Marion, AL. Knowing him convinced this Yankee that everything I thought I knew about Southern Baptists was probably wrong.
John challenged me to show him where in Scripture infant baptism was justified. I challenged him to show me where it was prohibited. Is baptism a statement of faith (as Baptists believe) or a sign of grace (as Anglo-Catholics believe)? John pointed out that Jesus was baptized as an adult; I pointed out that baptism is “the circumcision of the heart.” He pointed out that Peter said, “Repent and be baptized…”
And then one of us mentioned pictures. We both love art. Usually I answer almost every historical question not by citing literature but by looking at the art. But on the subject of infant baptism, the visual record is strangely mum.
Baptism of Christ, first half of 3rd century, Catacomb of Callixtus, Rome.
Baptism of Christ, first half of 3rd century, Catacomb of Callixtus, Rome.
The oldest painted baptism image I know of is from the third century, from the Catacomb of Callixtus in Rome. Whatever its virtues when it was new, it’s now not much more than a smudge. The uninitiated might think that the smaller figure is a child, but it is probably Christ, as evidenced by the flying shape—most likely a dove—to the right. The figure on the left is probably a personification of the River Jordan, a charmingly pagan symbol painted into this secret Christian artwork.

Detail of Christ as the Good Shepherd (left) and the Baptism of Christ (right), Santa Maria Antiqua Sarcophagus, 3rd century, Church of Santa Maria Antiqua, Rome.
Detail of Christ as the Good Shepherd (left) and the Baptism of Christ (right), Santa Maria Antiqua Sarcophagus, 3rd century, Church of Santa Maria Antiqua, Rome.
It makes sense that Christ’s baptism would be more important for artists than the baptism of unknown people, infant or otherwise. Why baptism was associated with sarcophagi is less clear, but there are more (and better preserved) examples of third-century sarcophagi with baptism imagery than there are paintings.
It was not until the Middle Ages, when the Seven Sacraments were first enumerated, that infant baptism—or indeed the baptism of anyone but Jesus—became a subject for painting. By that point, the Church’s position on infant baptism was well established, so such paintings tell us exactly nothing.
The Baptism of St. Paul, 12th century mosaic, Palatine Chapel, Palermo, Sicily.
The Baptism of St. Paul, 12th century mosaic, Palatine Chapel, Palermo, Sicily.
John had the last word on the subject, from Augustine of Hippo: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, love.” If only all contentious discussions ended that way!

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Is love really too much to ask?

Sir Stanley Spencer did not paint violence often, but when he did, as in “Crucifixion,” he focused on our response to it.
Stanley Spencer didn’t paint violence often, but when he did, as in “Crucifixion,” he focused on our response.
Years ago I belonged to an anti-polygamy activist group. I broke with them when they published a photo of a suspected child molester sleeping with his infant granddaughter on his chest. Yank the troll’s chain all you want, I said, but keep the children out of it.
My friend’s nephew is going to be sentenced for a high-profile crime on Friday. Yesterday his picture was published on a racist website, with frequent bandying of the n-word. He’s an adult and can take it, but they also published photos of his two little boys. Their only offense was the color of their skin.
I sent the link to my programmer husband in the hope that he could identify the host. My husband overcame his revulsion and looked long enough to tell me that there wasn’t an open-or-shut identity. “There is some obfuscation employed,” he said.
Spencer’s “Christ Carrying the Cross,” 1920, is an image of bystanders ogling violence. It’s a very real response that spans history.
Spencer’s “Christ Carrying the Cross,” 1920, is an image of bystanders enjoying someone else’s misfortune.
Beyond that, all I can do is to pray that God strikes the server with lightning and counsel my friends to ignore it. That’s easier said than done, I realize.
I am blessed with many friends. They are, on the whole, civilized people. “I hate that guy” is empty verbiage to us. I’m always shocked when I hear about real hateful behavior. And yet, if you believe our crime statistics, it’s not only all around us, but it’s increasing.
This week’s incident is race-based, but it isn’t always. Several years ago, my friend’s son was arrested for second-degree murder. The lad was (rightfully) acquitted, but that didn’t stop him from receiving death threats. His family—innocent in every respect—had to sell their home and moved to a different town.
“Knowing (the Beatitudes of Love),” Stanley Spencer
“Knowing (the Beatitudes of Love),” Stanley Spencer
In some cases, the dangerous places we live are physical. In others, violence is a mental climate, fed in part by media and the internet. It’s a pity that these have become vectors for lies and hatred, because they have been a boon in so many ways.
The people who published those little boys’ picture obfuscated their service provider because they have been reported before. They know what they’re doing is wrong. My friend would like them to creep back under the rock from which they crawled, but to me that is only a short-term solution. They’ll just crawl back out somewhere else.
None of this can be blamed on the election or any other outside force. People choose to hate, just as they can choose to love.
“I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven,” Jesus said.
Sir Stanley Spencer was a true naïf whose innocence was much abused. And yet his reactions to love and violence were very much along the lines of those suggested by Jesus. It’s why he is one of my favorite painters.
“Gardening,” Stanley Spencer
“Gardening,” Stanley Spencer
“I love them from within outwards and whatever that outward appearance may be it is an exquisite reminder of what is loved within, no matter what that exterior appearance may be,” Spencer said.
Is love really too much to ask?

Monday, January 16, 2017

Made in China

"Stone of Hope," 2011, Lei Yixin
“Stone of Hope,” 2011, Lei Yixin
Having spent my weekend with a 2” sash brush, I turned to my husband this morning and asked, “Now do I get a day off?” He reminded me that it’s a holiday.
Martin Luther King, Jr. deserves better than the national memorial we’ve created for him. It is simply terrible, the worst of art-by-committee.
Its master sculptor, Lei Yixin, is a communist-trained public artist from the People’s Republic of China. He has sculpted some 150 public monuments, including multiple statues of Mao Zedong. If you’ve never seen his other work, join the club. Lei hasn’t got an online persona as would a western sculptor. He churns out politi-prop and decorative art, a state-sponsored artist of no particular distinction.
"Abraham Lincoln," 1920, Daniel Chester French
“Abraham Lincoln,” 1920, Daniel Chester French
Lei’s sculpture of King is not a portrait in the western sense. Compare it to Daniel Chester French’s Abraham Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial. French was one of most acclaimed of 19th-century American sculptors. His work is across America, including the Minute Man at Concord. He was immersed in American hagiography, and it shows.
Lei’s is a colossus in the totalitarian sense, similar to busts of Lenin, Saddam Hussein and Chairman Mao. These have a long history, including the many colossi erected by various Roman emperors. They are an emblem of power and control.
"Bound slave (Atlas), 1530–34, Michelangelo
“Bound slave (Atlas), 1530–34, Michelangelo
Lei’s idea of King emerging from stone came from western artistic practice. In this case, the source is non-finito sculpture, practiced from Michelangelo to the present time. Michelangelo’s slaves have been interpreted in many ways, but they’re clearly emblematic of a struggle to freedom. For Auguste Rodin, the unfinished marble was more complex, as shown in his 1895 “La Pensée.” But for Lei, it’s simply a paralyzing device.
Why did we pay China millions of dollars, hire a Chinese artist to create an icon to an American freedom fighter, and import granite from China when all of Maine is made of the stuff?  In part, it’s because the Chinese government kicked back $25 million to make it possible. In part, this is what you get when art is done by committee.
While still an undergraduate, sculptor Maya Lin won a public design competition for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, beating 1,441 other competition submissions. Lin’s idea was simple: a wound in the earth that represented the loss of the soldiers. Her work was controversial at the time, but for different reasons—none of us had ever seen anything like it.
Lin believes that had the competition not been open and blind, she never would have won. Her ethnicity, her age, her gender, and her lack of experience all told against her. Her experience is a powerful argument for jurying.
"La Pensée," 1895, Auguste Rodin
“La Pensée,” 1895, Auguste Rodin
In contrast, Lei’s work was chosen by three guys on a committee. In 2006, Public Art St. Paul held a sculpture competition and symposium similar to the Schoodic Sculpture Symposium held here in Maine. Lei was one of the participants. (His hometown, Changsha, Hunan, is one of St. Paul’s Sister Cities.)
“They [the committee members] knew that a 30-foot sculpture of Dr. King was going to be the centerpiece of the memorial, and they’d been looking for several years for a sculptor who could work on that scale. And they had despaired,” Christine Podas-Larson, president of Public Art St. Paul told media.
“But when they saw publicity about how we had all these sculptors from around the world in St. Paul, they hopped on a plane,” she continued. “They knew they were going to find their sculptor. They didn’t know which one, but they knew they’d find their artist.”
For our next generation’s sculptors, shut out of the process before it even started, that hurts. For King’s legacy, that hurts too.

Friday, January 13, 2017

A sane estimate of my capabilities

"The Creation of Adam," c. 1508-1512, Michelangelo
“The Creation of Adam,” c. 1508-1512, Michelangelo
The other day I read a translation of Romans 12:3 that cracked me up: “Don’t cherish exaggerated ideas of yourself or your importance, but try to have a sane estimate of your capabilities by the light of the faith that God has given to you all.”
I think of myself as a person who can do anything, and I pretty much have done. However, a ‘sane estimate’ of my capabilities probably ought not continue to include stripping wallpaper. My back is in open rebellion this morning.
My self-worth doesn’t lie in the things I make with my hands, but my work is how I spend my days. Would I continue to paint if I were confined to a wheelchair and could no longer scramble around rocks while doing so? I don’t know. Would I continue to create if I were blind? I don’t know.

"The Ancient of Days in Europe a Prophecy," copy D, 1794, William Blake
“The Ancient of Days in Europe a Prophecy,” copy D, 1794, William Blake
Would I be less valuable without a strong back or good eyes? No. Would I be happy? Since I’m thrown if the toothpaste is in the wrong drawer, the answer is a decided no.
When I was 40 years old, I ran. I was fit enough to still wear a two-piece bathing suit. That year I had cancer that resulted in a colostomy. Not only was my appliance ugly, uncomfortable and expensive to maintain, but it leaked. There’s nothing like bowel spillage down your shirt to undermine any sense that you’re beautiful or desirable.
Eventually, they were able to reverse my ostomy, but in the time I had it, it changed something in my self-concept. I was no longer powerful and sexy; I was a cancer survivor. I’ve written about shedding that latter self-identity, but I’m afraid these self-images might be like the layers of an onion.
Detail from "The Creation of Adam"
Detail from “The Creation of Adam”
I was at a class this week where groups were asked to make posters. I flipped open my phone to Blake’s The Ancient of Days, which, I thought, made the visual point better than anything I might draw. Another person grabbed a marker and translated Blake’s idea to poster form. A third translated it to words. Even though I wasn’t drawing, I was still operating within ‘a sane estimate’ of my abilities.
The Ancient of Days was not intended by Blake to be a portrait of God. He is Urizen, a demiurge. That, in gnostic systems, is an artisan who makes and maintains our physical universe. In our popular imagination, Urizen has come to represent the creative face of God. (Blake was a true seer, subject to visions from the age of four, but he was also a Christian.)
Note the hand holding the compass in The Ancient of Days. It is taut, energetic, and in absolute control.
Detail from "The Creation of Adam"
Detail from “The Creation of Adam”
Compare that hand to the hand of God in Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam in the Sistine Chapel. Again, God’s hand is taut and active. Adam’s is limp. God is surrounded by the unborn, in a great carapace that resembles a human uterus. Chief among these is Eve. Still in the womb, wrapped in God’s embrace, she looks more lifelike than her future mate. Michelangelo is making a point here: our life force comes from God.
Like life itself, the gifts we have are transitory. Once given, they can be lost again in an instant. They don’t totally define us, but they are a part of who we are.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

In search of an imaginary boat

"Swells," by Carol L. Douglas
“Swells,” by Carol L. Douglas
Yesterday a visitor to my studio told me about recently purchasing her first piece of artwork, a print by University of Maine’s own Karen Adrienne. My friend had sold some possessions to pay for it, trading unwanted treasures for something she really loved. The look on her face as she told me this was radiant joy.
Just the day before, my piano tuner had, coincidentally, told me about the first piece of art he’d purchased. As he described this photograph, his face was lit by the same expression of joy. Both works were, to their new owners, highly prized and personally transformative.
We all wrestle with questions of calling. Artists, in particular, can have a hard time justifying their careers to others. We seldom see the impact of our work on the people who receive it. I’m grateful for that rare glimpse.
I’d never intended to finish the painting above. It was badly drawn and the composition—two crossing boats—seemed static. I came home from the harbor and threw it on my slush pile to be ignored. Someday my kids can shingle a house with that slush pile, but in the meantime, a visitor saw this painting, liked it, and asked me to finish it.
I can’t tell you why that happens, but it happens enough for me to say with some certainty that artists are frequently the worst judges of our own work.
Now I had a badly-drawn boat and absolutely no reference photos. (It’s a lot harder to substitute boats than it is to substitute roses or trees.) After fiddling for a while, I decided to add swells. That rectified some of the twist in the hull, and I could figure out the rest.
Working without a clear drawing is a sure-fire route to muddy color. However, I do occasionally like puddling around totally in my own imagination. I don’t think I’m done, but I’m going to let it rest a few days.
Basalt below West Quoddy Light in Lubec. These are either grey rocks or weathered basalt, depending on how much attention you're paying.
Basalt below West Quoddy Light in Lubec. These are either grey rocks or weathered basalt, depending on how much attention you’re paying.
Painting landscape without paying attention to reality can strip it of its character. After all, we can be either in our heads or in the world, but seldom in both places simultaneously.
For example, Maine is a world of granite studded with occasional basalt. Granite is blue, pink, purple, orange and peach; basalt is black. The muddy result in photographs might be browns and greys, but that is not the real color of our rocks, and painting our rocks brown is a sign of not paying attention.
I was reminded of that when I ran across this old photo of the rocks under West Quoddy Head Light in Lubec. At the time, I didn’t realize that I was seeing weathered basalt columns. My painting was fine, but I think it would have been so much more dynamic had I understood the play between the basalt and granite on Quoddy Head.
My poor defunct living room.
My poor defunct living room.
I have a friend staying with me this week. She decided to strip the wallpaper in my living room. Since the plum stripes clashed with my red couch, I am very grateful. In the evenings, I’ve had the satisfaction of peeling a bit of paper myself.
In other words, it’s been a week for doing, not thinking. Inevitably, that leaves me with a lot of deferred thinking to do. That’s what I love most about my job. It’s a constant tug-of-war between my hands and my head.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

When does it stop being plein air painting?

"The Three Graces," Carol L. Douglas
“The Three Graces,” Carol L. Douglas
I have never been much for the debate over what constitutes plein air painting. What percentage needs to be done on location? Does painting from your car count? These questions mostly just annoy me. At every plein air event I’ve done, painters continue to work at night after they leave their location. Years of painting give you excellent visual memory. Letting your eyes rest after a day of working in bright light is an important step.
Since the only requirement is that the work be finished within a certain period, it’s up to us to interpret what “painted en plein air” actually means. And the vast majority of artists, I find, are very strict about the rules they establish.
"The Three Graces" as it looked when I took down my easel.
“The Three Graces” as it looked when I took down my easel.
In most cases, I can tell at a distance whether a work was done on location or not. The energy of plein air painting is not easily faked, although the lighting and brushwork may be indistinguishable from studio painting. In plein air painting, the whole scene is constantly subject to change. That lends a frisson of nerves to the process.
“My clients don’t care whether it was painted on location or not,” Brad Marshall once said during one of these interminable discussions. “They’re just interested in whether it’s a good painting.”
"Mercantile's anchor," Carol L. Douglas
“Mercantile’s anchor,” Carol L. Douglas

That’s true, but it becomes an issue for painters when they’re selecting paintings to apply for upcoming plein air events. At what point do after-the-fact edits disqualify a work from consideration?
I did the two paintings in this post during the same week. There was gorgeous weather and I painted almost non-stop on the floating docks at Camden. Of course there were interruptions, since wherever I go, that’s where the party’s at.
Had I gone back to my studio and made the same changes I made yesterday, I’d have had no hesitation in calling them en plein air paintings. However, my husband flew home from Norway, and I didn’t get back to them until yesterday.
"Mercantile's anchor" as it looked when I took down my easel.
“Mercantile’s anchor” as it looked when I took down my easel. Because I’d painted this boat in dry-dock, I know its black hull is underpainted in green.
I made no structural changes to either painting, because I’m trying to make a point. (Otherwise, I’d have moved that boom out of directly behind the anchor.) In neither case was a photo necessary to finish. But in both cases, the surface has been overpainted almost completely, and I had the luxury of time in which to finish them.
So, for the purpose of jurying, is this plein air painting? I don’t have a ready answer, and I’m interested in your opinion.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The meaning of blue: color temperature on a snowy day

"Lewis R. French raising her sails," by Carol L. Douglas
“Lewis R. French raising her sails,” by Carol L. Douglas
I’m busy finishing plein air work from last season. Some of this needs nothing more than a few brush-strokes and a signature, some of it returned home as nothing more than color notes that need to be fleshed out into a painting.
That was the case with this small painting of the Lewis R. French raising her sails at Pulpit Harbor. I started this in the early morning, knowing I had only a few minutes to finish before the American Eagle sailed out. I probably did fewer than twenty brush strokes on site, but Sue Baines of the Kelpie Gallery saw something in it and urged me to finish it.
Normally, I trust my plein air sketches for color notes. In this case what I’d recorded didn’t match my emotional memory of the day, which told me that this had happened just after sunrise. So I heated up the lighting structure and it much more closely resembles the mood of that early morning in Pulpit Harbor.
"Doe drinking in the woods," by Carol L. Douglas
“Doe drinking in the woods,” by Carol L. Douglas
Blue shadows on evening snow. (Carol L. Douglas)
I painted Doe drinking in the Woods years ago. It was a demonstration to my students on how the color of light works in practice. The setting and lighting were imaginary.
The photograph of footprints in the ice on a winter evening, above, clearly shows blue shadows across the snow. I think it also gives a sense of my frustration about the condition of the sidewalks.
The exception to the color-of-light rule happens in indirect light. There are many places where an ambient cloudy milkiness is the dominant weather condition. In it, both color temperature and contrast are muted.
Snow shovelers in a snow squall. (Carol L. Douglas)
Snow shovelers in a snow squall. (Carol L. Douglas)
A snowstorm is an exaggeration of indirect light. There are no shadows; there are merely objects in space. A snowstorm exaggerates atmospheric perspective, too, rendering even middle-distance objects indistinct and neutral.
Artists constantly check themselves against a construct called “color temperature.” There are warm and cool colors, and warm and cool variations within each color. A warm color gives us a sense of warmth and energy and tends to draw our eye, like the life preserver on my painting of the Cadet. A cool color recedes from the eye and gives us a sense of static coldness, like the underside of Rockwell Kent’s iceberg from yesterday.
I’ve written before about the color of light, and it’s one of the most important concepts in painting. The earth’s atmosphere bends light just like a prism does, so what you see is always tinted. Either the light is warm and its shadows cool, or the light is cool and its shadows warm. Which that is depends on the time of day and the season of the year.
In the wintertime, the sun barely crests the treetops here in the North. The ground is often covered with neutral white snow. That gives us textbook conditions to see light temperature in action, for the sun on the horizon always gives us warm light and cool shadows.
Blue shadows on evening snow. (Carol L. Douglas)

Monday, January 9, 2017

Painting the Great White North

“Hayfields, Niagara County,” Carol L. Douglas
“Hayfields, Niagara County,” Carol L. Douglas
My bedroom is unheated. On a -3F morning like this I am not anxious to jump out of bed. Yes, I’ve painted outdoors on days like this and, no, I’m not not in any hurry to repeat the experience.
Among my painting fraternity, the two people out there painting last week are both watercolorists: Poppy Balser, who’s up in Nova Scotia using vodka in her wash cup to keep the paints moving, and Russel Whitten in Ocean Park, who just worked fast until his paint crystallized.
Oil paint will eventually stop moving in this weather as well, although it takes this kind of extreme cold to get there. The painting of hayfields, above, was done on a similarly frigid morning. It was so cold that my car battery died while I was painting. I trekked to a farmhouse to call for help. “I couldn’t figure out what you were doing out there on a day like this,” the woman answering the door said. “I thought you were watching coyotes.”
That year, I had committed to a plein air painting every day, six days a week, regardless of the weather, which in Rochester, NY can be wicked. I painted in gales along the Lake Ontario shore, blasting snow in a vineyard, lashing rain, and occasional electrical storms. That year made me into a painter, and it is also how I finally moved from being an amateur to a professional. I had so many paintings lying around, I had to sell them. It also proved to me that I could paint in any conditions, and that I didn’t need to ever again—unless I wanted to.
“Iceberg: Sledge Dogs, Greenland,” 1935-7 and 1952, Rockwell Kent
“Iceberg: Sledge Dogs, Greenland,” 1935-7 and 1952, Rockwell Kent
Rockwell Kent first visited Greenland in 1929, saying the visit “had filled me with a longing to spend a winter there, to see and experience the far north at its spectacular worst; to know the people and share their way of life.”  In 1931, Kent built himself a hut in in the tiny settlement of Illorsuit (then called “Igdlorssuit”), a village north of the Arctic Circle. He wintered and painted there. As a socialist, Kent was enamored of Inuit society, considering their little village a kind of utopia.
Kent later said that his year in Illorsuit was the happiest and most productive time of his life. Among his other pursuits, he acquired a sled and team so that he could make even more remote painting and camping expeditions. In a witty aside, Kent painted himself painting this iceberg, surrounded by his sled dogs, here.
“The Sea of Ice,” 1823–24, Casper David Freidrich
“The Sea of Ice,” 1823–24, Caspar David Friedrich
As a German Romantic, Caspar David Friedrich could, I suppose, be described as a utopianist of a different stripe. His goal was to portray that sublime moment when the contemplation of nature causes a reawakening of our spiritual self.
Friedrich set out a manifesto for painters that still rings true: “The artist should paint not only what he sees before him, but also what he sees within him. If, however, he sees nothing within him, then he should also refrain from painting that which he sees before him. Otherwise, his pictures will be like those folding screens behind which one expects to find only the sick or the dead.”
“The Hunters in the Snow,” 1565, Pieter Bruegel the Elder
“The Hunters in the Snow,” 1565, Pieter Bruegel the Elder
Friedrich recognized winter as a still and dead time, and the only hint of human activity in The Sea of Ice, above, is the subtle, moralizing shipwreck. This is very different from Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s ““The Hunters in the Snow,” which is a panoply of everything we do in the wintertime. While the overwhelming sense is one of order and human industry, there are precursors of Friedrich’s wrecked ship in this painting: the hunters and their dogs are exhausted, and their bag is one measly red fox.
This painting was done during the Little Ice Age, when the threat of famine was real. It is both a medieval Labours of the Month painting and a Renaissance narrative painting.
“Winter Comes From The Arctic To The Temperate Zone,” 1935, Lawren Harris
“Winter Comes From The Arctic To The Temperate Zone,” 1935, Lawren Harris
Lawren Harris was one of the driving forces behind the Canadian Group of Seven, and the most plastic of those painters. He went from impressionism to art nouveau realism to complete abstraction in a matter of two decades. His break with realism occurred in the early 1930s, after he visited and painted in the Arctic.
Harris believed in the arctic as a living force: “”We are on the fringe of the great North and its living whiteness, its loneliness and replenishment, its resignations and release, tis call and answer, its cleansing rhythms. It seems that the top of the continent is a source of spiritual flow that will ever shed clarity into the growing race of America.”