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Thursday, December 14, 2017

When you’re a terrific failure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

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

Can a painting preach peace? I certainly hope so.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Young dealers, more women

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 11, 2017

Monday Morning Art School: How to mix skin tones

Michelle reading, by Carol L. Douglas
Recently I gave you an assignment on mixing warm and cool tones. The example I used was my figure-painting palette. A reader asked for more specific information on mixing skin tones.

I have read many short articles on mixing skin tones and they all seem to start with a basic misconception. That is that the human form can be represented by just a few brownish colors.

An extended matrix for mixing skin tones, by student Matthew M. The warm tones are quinacridone violet, burnt sienna, naphthol red, raw sienna, yellow ochre, cadmium yellow, transparent yellow and something I can't identify. He modulated them with tints of ultramarine blue, black, Prussian blue, dioxazine purple, and a warm mix. Overkill, perhaps, but it explains how he learned to paint so well.
We all understand that the human race has a variety of skin tones. Each person has a range of tones as well. There are pinker areas and yellower areas, and areas with distinct blue and green tones. Our skin varies by the season, the lighting, and even by the day, which is why we sometimes say, “your color is off,” or “you look peaked.”

If you mix three colors to make a human figure, you’re going to end up with something very inadequate. There are as many different tones in a single human body as there are in a landscape.

The resulting tones. With more or less white, these all appear in the human figure.
The palettes I’ve shown were done by a high-school student working in my Rochester studio. In practice, I don’t usually mix the entire array, but as a learning experience, it’s very useful. When I’m painting a person I’ve never painted before, I usually start with an extensive selection of these tones. Only after I’ve worked for a while can I see what sections of the palette I will use, and whether I need more or less white added into the mix.

You could, of course, skip that step and just hold a print of Matthew’s palette up to see if your model tends to have blue or violet or warm undertones. There are, in fact, entire books of color recipes for skin tones, which you're supposed to use exactly that way.  I recommend against that, because as soon as you do that, you’re making assumptions instead of looking.

The workhorse dark-neutral, ultramarine blue and burnt sienna.
I always start my figure drawings on canvas with a mix of ultramarine blue and burnt sienna. If the shadows are cool, I push the mix to the blue side. If they’re warm, I push it to the brown side. If I balance them perfectly, they’re as close as is necessary to a chromatic black.

Self-Portrait with Beret and Turned-Up Collar, Rembrandt van Rijn, 1659, National Gallery of Art
Getting the shadow color right allows you to leave your darks thin and loosely worked, a technique that Rembrandt used with great effect. This is usually a technique associated with indirect painting, but it works well in all figure painting.

To make a mix for blocking in the midtones, I generally start with a mixture of cadmium orange, black and white. But these are colors I use only for drawing. When it comes to applying measurable paint, I use the matrix above.

A figure painting still at the drawing stage. As you can see, I'm not interested in the subtlety of color here, but rather in getting the shapes right.
Two things will wreck the color in figure painting. The first is working under spotlights. Wherever possible, figure should always be worked under natural light. Spotlights change and narrow the color range of human skin. The second is working from photographs. Even the best cameras narrow the chromatic range of human skin.

I used the exact same palette for this portrait as I did for the figure painting at the top, with less tinting.
Race has far less to do with differences between people than is generally believed. In 1972, geneticist Richard Lewontin showed that most of the variation (80–85%) within human populations can be found within local geographic groups. Differences we casually attribute to race are a very minor part of human genetic variability. A study by Noah Rosenberg, et al showed that differences among individuals account for 93-95% of all genetic variation. Race accounts for just 3-5% of all human difference. As Ken Malik wrote, “Imagine that some nuclear nightmare wiped out the entire human race  apart from one small population – say, the Masai tribe in East Africa.  Almost all the genetic variation that exists in the world today would still be present in that one small group.”

And I usedthe same palette for this painting, whose model is Central American.
But, surely, skin tone is one area where racial differences are pronounced, you might say. After painting figure for many years, I disagree. There’s really no such thing as “white” skin color, “black” skin color, or “Asian” skin color. They are mixed with the same array of paints; we just control how much white paint we add to the mix.

Friday, December 8, 2017

The Adoration of the Magi in the Snow

Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s painting is still among the masterpieces of western art that move me most.

The Adoration of the Magi in the Snow, 1567, Pieter Bruegel the Elder
Pieter Bruegel’s birth was unrecorded, but it is thought to have been around 1525-30 in either Liège or Brabant. Just as there is ambiguity about his birthplace, there is no record of whether Bruegel died as a Protestant or Catholic. (He was shrewd; he asked his wife to burn his papers after his death.)

Bruegel’s youthful world was wholly Catholic. His training and early career were excellent and orthodox: apprenticeship to a leading Antwerp painter in the Italianate style (Pieter Coecke van Aelst), further studies with an artist-priest (Giulio Clovio) in Rome, a now-lost church altar in 1550-51. The anomaly was Coecke’s wife, Mayken Verhulst, an artist from Mechelin. This city was an early center for peasant genre painting, and she is sometimes credited with transmitting this idea to Bruegel. (She also trained his young sons after his early death in 1569; art history knows her mainly as the root of the Brueghel painting dynasty.)

Bruegel worked with three themes throughout his career: peasants, landscape and religion. In his early work, these converged and diverged in no particular pattern. As a member of a successful atelier family (he married the Coeckes’ daughter) he flourished; he had a high degree of skill as well. But his most brilliant paintings were at the end of his life. Was that simply because he had grown to maturity, or was he responding to the trials of his times?

The Census at Bethlehem, 1566, Pieter Bruegel the Elder
One of the decrees of the Council of Trent was that religious painting must be suitably elevated; saints must be set apart from mere mortals in dress, demeanor and activity. The Church recognized that saints with dirty feet were a dangerous endorsement of the Protestant concept of a priesthood of all believers.

By then, Reformation was smoldering in the Netherlands; Anabaptists and Calvinists met secretly and illegally. Bruegel left no record of what he thought of this or anything else. But from a Catholic standpoint, his paintings became positively impertinent. Of these paintings, three deserve mention. Bruegel located his Tower of Babel (1563) in a Flemish city and dressed Nimrod as a European king. The Sermon of St. John the Baptist (1566) is militant—subversive, actually—because it clearly depicts a contemporary Calvinist or Anabaptist service. In it he identifies the heretic Protestant preachers with John the Baptist. The Adoration of the Magi of 1564 is a straight-up Nativity scene, but anything but saintly. Notice Mary’s droopy veil, Joseph’s distraction, and the brutish faces of the peasants to his right.

One could ask whether these reflected the views of his patrons or his own religious convictions. I would guess that the two were so intertwined that the question is meaningless.

The Tower of Babel, 1563, Pieter Bruegel the Elder
How powerful art can be! In 1566, the Reformation ignited in the Low Countries. It did so over the issue of art, in the form of the Beeldenstorm (“picture storm”), in which church art was systematically destroyed throughout the Netherlands. Spain responded by sending the cruel Duke of Alba to Brussels (where Bruegel had settled) to extirpate the rebels. This reign of terror—in which thousands died and many more were dislocated—led directly to the Eighty Years’ War.

It was during the height of this terror that Bruegel painted The Adoration of the Magi in the Snow. It’s lovely, but it isn’t peaceful. The central stream of figures is very nearly on the march.

This weekend I uncrated a set of porcelain crèche figures. They are clichéd and indistinguishable from millions of others worldwide. Our museums are full of similar Nativities—some brilliant, many not. Some religious art slipped over the line to idolatry, and much was commissioned for base reasons of power and prestige. The Beeldenstorm set out to destroy the fruits of these bad intentions, but it destroyed indiscriminately. In his last years, Bruegel was feeling his way along the narrow space between the Beeldenstorm and the Duke of Alba. Today we see his Adoration as quaint; we don’t remember that it was radical.

The Protestant impulse forced a new way of painting. Artists couldn’t produce idols, so the pattern books of their faith—unchanged for a millennium—were closed to them. How, then, could they articulate their religious feelings? Bruegel actually painted three winter scenes of the Biblical Infancy Narratives. The others are The Slaughter of the Innocents (1565-66) and The Census at Bethlehem (1566).

Bruegel was addressing a problem which bedevils our own age: how can the artist tell an ancient, unchanging story in a new language? He solved the problem by quoting a traditional icon in the context of a new reality. In these three paintings, the new context was the Protestant priesthood of all believers, represented by the peasantry. Today we call this “appropriation art” and imagine it’s a new idea.

The Slaughter of the Innocents, c. 1565-67, Pieter Bruegel the Elder
The Nativity (particularly the Virgin and Child) is the most commonly painted subject in art. Even in our secular age, even among non-Christians, it is universal. Bruegel’s brilliance was in realizing that he didn’t need to spell out the scene inside the stable; everyone knew it. In fact, in not doing so, he allowed us to regain something mysterious and personal about that night.

I must mention Bruegel’s technical prowess. Since he invented the winter landscape, he can also be credited with chromatic modeling in snow, in the form of violet shadows and the warm highlights. Note how the roof in the building on the top left is shaped by these shifts in color rather than with darker grey shadows. (This was an artistic choice; the snow on a dark winter day is generally flat.) The dark mass of people sweeps in an arc to the Nativity, pulling it back up into importance. Bruegel emphasized this sweep by making it the busiest part of his painting, and by making the figures darker and in greater contrast than the surround. This arc of humanity plays off against the perfectly composed diagonal lines of the surround.

Bruegel was an acute observer of reality. I respond to his winter scenes because they are true to my own experience, even if the details have changed beyond all imagining. I respond to his religious vision because I spent decades feeling my way gingerly between Protestantism and Anglo-Catholicism.

(This was originally published on December 11, 2007.)