Paint Schoodic

We had another successful painting workshop at the Schoodic Institute in beautiful Acadia National Park. Join us in 2018!

Friday, September 22, 2017

Why art?

Art brings you joy. It takes you to new and different worlds.

Almost finished.
Today's client is two, and she knows what she wants. “An orange cow! A barn!” Because I’m her grandmother, she’ll get them, even though I’ve never painted a mural before.

This is a limited-palette painting. I have red, yellow, blue and white latex eggshell-finish wall paints. All of them run on the warm side, and they can’t make a convincing green. It’s good that I’m painting over a green base.

This morning, I’ll extend the trees behind the barn. I’ll pop and model the foliage a little with some acrylic paint I bought at Michael's. Then it’s back to plain wall painting for me. There’s still a lot to do, and I'm keenly conscious of the ticking clock.

My son-in-law believes primer is a sufficient covering for the walls. I try to explain that wall paint is a lot like a pedicure: the color is just a bonus. What you’re really gaining is a harder, durable, more easily-cleaned surface. “What a waste of time and money!” he exclaims.

I used sidewalk chalk to make my sketch, such as it was.
Still, when I got to a hard part, he took the roller from me, and even did a credible job. Then he went back to the mysteries of connecting their electrical service to National Grid.

My daughter is a mechanical engineer. She went to a plumbing store in Albany to buy a fitting for their well pump. She had designed and installed the system herself. “If you don’t know which one you need, you should hire a contractor,” the clerk sneered. Mostly, sexism of the kind our grandmothers endured is gone in America, but once in a while, it shows back up.

My granddaughter is still very short, so all the action is at the bottom of the picture.
Thirty years ago, my husband and I also did the site work and systems for our first home, also a modular. Our children are far less excitable than we were. There's no blue cloud of swearing hanging in the air these days, even as they press against their final deadline.

I never painted a mural for my own kids. Like everyone else, I was scrambling to hold together a house, family, and job. This is one of the luxuries of grandparenting, and I’m enjoying it very much.

Last night, my granddaughter and I did a project review. She thinks her mural might need a black bear up on the hill. Her look of total absorption was the same as that of an adult contemplating a painting. It didn’t matter that my painting was done mostly with a two-inch wall brush and I don’t know what I’m doing. Her hillside farm transported her. That’s the whole point: painting should take us to new and different worlds.

Can I fob off a mere oil painting on her brother? I doubt it.
Meanwhile her three-year-old brother announced, “I want a farm, too!” I have a painting of a crane I did last spring at the boatyard; I hope I can fob him off with it.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

What is style?

Want to become a caricature of yourself? Just focus on your style rather than the content of your work.
Commissioned portrait, by Carol L. Douglas. In this instance, high-key lighting was necessary to convey the spirit of the model, and so I used it.
Art & Fear, by David Bayles and Ted Orland, is a book that every artist should read. Not only does it destroy the myth of genius, it also points out that there is no end point in art making. The working artist can never rest on his laurels. Art-making is a constantly-renewing process of discovery. This is something that can be seen in the careers of every great master from Rembrandt to Monet.

A good artist investigates knotty questions. When they are answered, he moves on, just like Omar Khayyam’s moving finger. So often, by the time we get through the cycle of making and mounting a body of work, we’re no longer that interested in it. We’ve moved on to another struggle.

Castine Lunch Break, by Carol L. Douglas. For many years, I was interested in patterning. Of course, I can only say that after the fact; I didn't realize it at the time.
Most of us (especially those who have worked as commercial artists) can mimic other painters. There’s also significant variation in how we approach painting problems. For example, I'll occasionally paint in great detail, with lots of modeling. I was initially trained to paint that way, and I know enough about how paints handle to be able to blend and layer them.

However, what truly interests me right now is not mastering representation, but something far more visceral. This is more fundamental than style. Can I put a name to the question that’s currently bedeviling me? No; I’ve learned that is a shortcut to putting myself in a box. However, not being verbalized doesn’t make it any less real.

After the Storm, pastel, by Carol L. Douglas, is a very old work. Is it stylistically that different from my current work? I don't think so.
I discourage painting students from ‘embracing their style,’ because to me that’s a trap that they may not be able to escape. Sometimes, what people call style is just technical deficiency. For example, some painters separate their color fields with narrow lines—white paper in watercolor, dark outlines in oils. I’d like to know that they embraced this voluntarily, not because they never learned how to marry edges.

Mature artists don’t generally think about style. At that point, style is the gap between what they perceive and what comes off their brush. That’s deeply revelatory, and it can be disturbing when we see it in our own work.

Wreck of the SS Ethie, by Carol L. Douglas. This was painted in 2016, but would not have worked in a looser style, since the shipwreck and rocks provided the abstraction.
Some of us try to cover that up with stylings, not realizing that those moments of revelation are what viewers hunger for. They—not the nominal subject of the piece—are the real connection between the artist and his audience.

There’s a difference between style and being stylish. I enjoy Olena Babak’s ability to describe reflections in a single, fluid brush line. I feel the same way about Kari Ganoung Ruiz’ emotive, energetic highlights. Neither of these are styles. They are, instead, self-confident skill, which results in stylish brush work.

Flood Tide, 2017, by Carol L. Douglas. Where am I going now? I'll let you know.
I do not admire painters who use the same scribing or pattern-making on the surface of every painting. It’s style for its own sake, and it often is just a ruse to cover up badly-conceived paintings.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Busman’s holiday

When buying paint, it’s all about that base.
My second-favorite kind of painting.
I’m in the western Berkshires painting the interior walls in my oldest kid’s new house. She’s 28 and it’s her first house, and she’s very excited. So am I; like many artists, my idea of a good vacation is to paint walls. (Ceilings, not so much, but you must take the good with the bad.)

In artists’ oils, I like RGH paints. This is a small company based in Albany, NY. The owner, Rolf Haerem, has been making paints since 1989, and is a painter himself. In acrylics, I prefer Golden. Today, Golden is a large national brand. However, it also started as a small New York business, the brainchild of retired paint-maker Sam Golden, in New Berlin, Chenango County. In oil painting mediums, I like Grumbacher, which was founded in New York City in 1902. It’s now owned by Chartpak, based in Northhampton, MA. In brushes, I like Robert Simmons Signet.

None of these brands are sacred in themselves. They’re just my preferences, developed over decades of painting.  They work with my technique. On Monday, I wrote that I’d used a gel medium in an emergency, and it messed with my style. Still, other painters love it. It depends on what you’re striving for.

Nevertheless, there’s a theme running through my choices. They’re professional grade materials. I, too, was once an impecunious student buying student-grade materials, so I understand economy. But at some point, artists need to buy the right stuff, or they’ll never get the right results.
The new homeowner, surrounded by her paint chips.
In wall paints, I also have strong preferences. I’ve been painting with Benjamin Moore for decades. I know I can drop a bead of color alongside wooden moldings without taping or endless massaging, and I can generally get full coverage in a single coat. As with oil paints, wall paints are made with various combinations of pigments, binder and filler. It’s important to find one you like.

Here in the wilds of the New York-Massachusetts border, it’s been a problem to find it. And my budget-masters kvetch at the sticker price. Yesterday I capitulated for expediency’s sake, and used a brand sold by a large big-box retailer. I immediately regretted it. It clumped in the roller, and it didn’t slide easily off my brush.

When I first arrived on Sunday, I drove up to see my son-in-law digging a trench, sweaty and hot in the September warmth. He and my daughter are the same age as my husband and I were when we built our own first house. It was also a modular, also on a wooded rural hillside, and we also did all the sitework and finishing ourselves.

I was happy to watch the lad dig. One of the consolations of getting old is that you never need to pound another copper ground rod into rocky soil if you don’t want to. Some jobs are best enjoyed through the rose-colored glasses of nostalgia.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

From Spain to Maine

This reclusive artist never showed his work during his lifetime. It’s worth seeing now.


Untitled, by Erik Lundin. Courtesy of the Kelpie Gallery.
On my way out of town last week, I stopped at the Kelpie Gallery in South Thomaston to see a retrospective exhibition of the works of Erik Lundin. For 45 years, Lundin shuffled between Rockland, Maine and Madrid, Spain. His work has never been shown before.

Lundin received an MA in English Literature from Ohio University and taught English Literature for ten years at Lake Superior State College in Michigan. Eventually, he relocated, spending half the year in Madrid and half in Thomaston, Maine. Lundin then spent the next 45 years painting geodynamic landscapes of Maine, the clay cliffs of Guadalaraja, the Seven Peaks of Cercedilla and the Ontigona Sea of Aranjuez. In 2000, Dr. Antonio Dominguez Rey reproduced a waxing by the artist in his magazine of poetry and poetics, Serta (volume 5). Lundin was also an accomplished pianist.

Untitled, by Erik Lundin. Courtesy of the Kelpie Gallery.
“Lundin surrounded himself with creative and academic friends while living in Spain, yet kept very much to himself while in Maine,” said the Kelpie Gallery’s Susan Lewis Baines. “A true academic and artist, his work is both cerebral and esthetically pleasing. Many of his paintings successfully show the struggle of being two persons in one, the socialite and the recluse.”

Untitled, by Erik Lundin. Courtesy of the Kelpie Gallery.
The paintings on display at The Kelpie Gallery span Lundin’s entire creative life. How he could be an extrovert in Madrid and a loner in Rockport, and why he felt the need to alternate between both existences, is a mystery now shrouded in time. But his social bifurcation is not the only dichotomy in his work.
Untitled (balistraria), by Erik Lundin. Courtesy of the Kelpie Gallery.
His paintings were strongly influenced by Spanish Cubism and Spanish subjects, including the balistraria (arrow slits) of medieval fortresses. Meanwhile, his other self was deeply engaged in painting the granite coast of Maine, particularly the rocks at Pemaquid. While most of his work studies the architecture of natural forms, the collection also includes some traditionally-rendered, sensitive portraits of friends and a lover.

Untitled, by Erik Lundin. Courtesy of the Kelpie Gallery.
Because he wasn’t interested in showing and selling his work, Lundin had the latitude to explore ideas. He did so extensively. For example, the collection includes several composite boards with postcard-sized sketches. Each board explores a single theme.

Lundin’s color sense was particularly strong. He used strong chromatic contrasts in lieu of the neutrals we typically associate with the granite coast.

Untitled, by Erik Lundin. Courtesy of the Kelpie Gallery.
Sales of Lundin’s paintings will benefit end-of-life care at the Sussman House, a seven-bed hospice in Rockport. The Sussman House provides seven-day-a-week/24-hours-a-day compassionate care, pain management, and skilled nursing for patients whose symptoms cannot be managed at home. While the show has officially closed, the works can be viewed by appointment at the Kelpie Gallery.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Let that be a lesson to you

If I’d waited and painted on the second day, I’d have flubbed the whole event.
Playland Boat House, by Carol L. Douglas. A bad photo of a good painting.
I’m bothered by procrastination. I’m not happy unless I’ve finished my work in ample time to meet my deadline. There are good reasons why Rye’s Painters on Location gives us two days to finish one painting. Still, it makes sense to me to get it done early.

I haven’t painted Playland in several years. This lovely Art-Deco amusement park is entering its 90th year. It’s carefully maintained, and no major revisions have ever been made to its buildings or grounds. It was also closed, so I was alone as I drew on my canvas. The first glaze of gold was settling on the trees, and a soft onshore breeze cooled my shady corner.

Rye Playland from an angle I could never paint, public domain.
At lunchtime, Tarryl Gabel stopped by. Her timing was fortuitous. I’d just realized I was out of painting medium. Tarryl had some with her that she’d gotten from Jamie Williams Grossman. Jamie is a natural-born fixer, always coming up with solutions for other people’s problems. Here she was fixing something for me from miles away.

Tarryl and I are very dissimilar painters. She’s atmospheric, detailed and ethereal. I’m from the slash-and-burn school. When she handed me that tube of gel medium, she also handed me a lesson in how materials matter. Gel medium is perfect for her style of painting, but it dissolves edges. That was most apparent in the water, where I couldn’t keep the color crisply separated.

Somewhere near the halfway point.
I handed my work in and headed back to Queens. On the way, my car developed a dragging rear brake. In the stop-and-go traffic of rush hour, it rapidly overheated. By the time I arrived at Rego Park, it was screaming. (This car passed its inspection three days earlier.)

I tried unsuccessfully to rustle up a mechanic in Queens. The next morning, I decamped early and headed back to Westchester to try my luck there. On the way, I stopped at Playland. I couldn’t have painted there on Saturday; the park was open and ready for business.

And then my left rear brake pad fell out. I’ve been driving for more than forty years, and I’ve never seen that happen. It’s very bad, since it exposes the caliper—and thus the brake lines—to heat and stress. I wended my way slowly up the Boston Post Road, looking for a mechanic on duty.

The brake pad in question.
The first one I found, on the Boston Post Road in Port Chester, was both knowledgeable and kind. He said he didn’t like to leave travelers stranded, and he did the repair immediately and at a good price. Meanwhile, Tarryl had just arrived in Port Chester. We went to the art store and made our opening with time to spare.

There are several lessons here: don’t procrastinate, check your kit before you leave, use materials you know, be flexible. But more importantly for me, it was a reminder that the vast majority of people in this world are kind, and I don’t need to sweat the small stuff. God’s got my back.