Paint Schoodic

Join Carol L. Douglas at beautiful Acadia National Park, August 6-11, 2017. More details here!

Monday, April 24, 2017

The knotty question of brilliance

If you wait around for inspiration, you’ll wait forever. On the other hand, you can’t grind yourself into dust and expect to get good work done, either.

American Eagle at Owl's Head (unfinished), by Carol L. Douglas
Friday I woke up profoundly uninspired. My back has been out, and I’ve been taking a mild narcotic. That makes it possible for me to stand upright, but it also reduces my interest in staying upright. Anyways, being in pain is exhausting.

My studio has been a mess, because I’ve been finishing a set of bookcases in it. Normally, this would have been a job for the garage, but it’s still too cold for paint to properly cure. The sky was dismal, and it was following a series of dismal days.

A cluttered workspace throws me, and these bookshelves were in the way.
At 11 AM, I curled up on the couch and took a nap. But I’m really too Puritan for that. I believe that days off should be doled out judiciously. The difference between success and failure in a competitive field is hard work. It is too easy for artists to fool themselves into thinking they’re working when they’re off task.

So at noon I was back at my easel doing what my friend Sari Gaby calls ‘border work.’ That’s all the background and edges that must be painted thoughtfully but are not central. In the process of limning out the clouds, I realized I wanted Owl’s Head shrouded in one of those localized rains so common on the coast. While it’s only 250 miles as the crow flies from Kittery to Eastport, there are 5,500 miles of Maine coast. That convoluted border between earth and sea has an intoxicating effect on Mother Nature, so it can be pouring in Camden when neighboring Lincolnville is fine.

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, copy after Pieter Bruegel the Elder, c. 1558.
Pieter Bruegel the Elder had a genius for putting the action of the painting somewhere in the background. It’s a great trick to keep the viewer engaged. One has to hunt to find Icarus in the painting above. (That’s a fact remarked on by William Carlos Williams and W. H. Auden, among others. I’ve appended their poems on the subject here.) While I won’t go as far as dropping Icarus from the sky, I happily embraced the sea change in the weather. That idea wouldn’t have occurred to me had I taken the rest of the day off.

This problem of inspiration is not unique to artists. My husband told me he’s been pondering a software problem for four weeks. “Last night the code came to me, I tried it, and it worked perfectly,” he said on Saturday.

Of course, he didn’t spend those four weeks waiting on his muse. He still puts in more than forty hours a week.

There has to be a balance. If you wait around for inspiration, you’ll wait forever. On the other hand, you can’t work seven days and grind yourself into fine dust and expect to get good work done, either. 

Friday, April 21, 2017

Checking my drawings

Even the most traditional painter can check his drawings against the photo evidence. It’s a great use for Adobe Photoshop.

Mary Day (unfinished) by Carol L. Douglas
 As I mentioned in an earlier post, tracing from a projection is no guarantee you’ll get the drawing right. It was cold and wet yesterday. Instead of going to the North End Shipyard to finish my painting of the Mary Day, I stayed in my studio and fixed the bowsprit on my painting of the American Eagle.

That got me wondering whether I could check the accuracy of my field drawing. After all, the tools are crude: a pencil or brush, used as both ruler and protractor. The circumstances in which we draw are often difficult, too. The studio has the great advantage of being physically comfortable.

Mary Day in drydock.
I decided to compare my half-finished painting of the Mary Day to a reference photo I took of it. Since I have Adobe Photoshop, I used its ‘poster edges’ filter on the reference photo. I then superimposed it on my painting. (If you don’t have Photoshop, you can superimpose photos using the freeware GIMP.)

Clearly, I’ve taken significant license in raising the angle of the bow in my painting.  Within the structure of the hull itself, the volume relationships are pretty accurate. Of course, that’s easy enough to check on site, by comparing the shapes of all the interstices within the cradle.

Superimposing the photo over my painting shows how far off the masts and booms are.
Where I went off the beam was in the rake of the masts. The forward one is too vertical for the angle of the hull. Furthermore, multiple masts should tend to 'toe in' at the top, which mine definitely don't do. This problem was then compounded in the booms. Since I set them relative to the horizon line, they ended up too high. That won't do, and fixing them is now a high priority.

I’m also making a note to myself to make sure I do my measurements from the boat, not the background.

Little Giant (North End Ship Yard), 16X12, oil on canvas, Carol L. Douglas
Note the pickup truck pulled in alongside the cradle. It was only there for a few minutes, but that’s a subject for a painting of its own. Pickup trucks go with boats like cheese goes with apple pie, and they’re often pretty close to actually being in the water.

I seldom take photos of things I’ve painted. This isn’t a conscious choice; I’m just finished and I move on. But I did find a picture of the Little Giant crane I painted last month. In this case, I’d made a decision to angle the bed of the truck slightly to avoid a strong diagonal pointing toward the corner of my canvas. I’d also raised the hook. But the photo tells me that the space relationships between the crane and the masts of the Heritage are very different in my painting and in the photo.

Superimposing the photo over my painting shows that I exaggerated the distance between the crane and the Heritage.
The camera distorts reality as assuredly as does the human eye, so in no case would I assume that one or the other is objectively more accurate. But, lightly applied, comparing one’s paintings to photographs is a useful exercise.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Masters of the northern skies

On a bitter spring day, a painter’s thoughts turn to clouds and how to paint them. It beats going outside.
Rainstorm over the Sea,  c.1824-28, John Constable
Yesterday, I asked Shary Cobb Fellows whether the Mary Day had hauled last year. “I think so,” she mused, “because these boats need their bottoms done every year.”

“Then how did I miss her?” I wondered. A few hours in the blistering, paint-peeling wind answered that question. It was probably too miserable to paint that week.

I wrapped myself in the blizzard blanket that’s still in my car. However, I could barely squeeze the paint out of my tubes. My easel was thrumming in the wind. I’ve got a good start and if the weather cooperates before the Mary Day moves out, I’ll be able to finish.

Easter Morning, 1835, Caspar David Friedrich
Most of the schooner fleet were originally coastal cargo or fishing boats, saved from ignominious decay in some shaded inlet by their conversion to the tourist trade. Mary Day is different; she was purpose-built in the 1960s as a tourist boat. I chose a high angle, painting off an access road that leads down into the shipyard. It’s a pretty view, but it magnified the wind, and the sky was terribly gloomy.

Gloom has its purposes. Caspar David Friedrich used it to convey a world in mourning in his Easter Morning, above. 

The Thames above Waterloo Bridge, c. 1830-5 Joseph Mallord William Turner
Fog, too, can convey emotional moods as varied as that in Claude Monet’s Waterloo Bridge, Sunlight Effect to J. M. W. Turner’s The Thames above Waterloo Bridge. They were both painting the dangerous industrial pea soupers that plagued London until the Clean Air Act of 1956, and they handled the subject in very different ways.

The Maas at Dordrecht, c. 1650, Aelbert Cuyp
When the land is flat and low or the subject is the sea, clouds assume monumental importance. It is no surprise that the Dutch Golden Age Painters had a particular mastery of the sky in all its phases and seasons.

The Danish painter Christen Købke had a special affinity for the flat, low light of the far north, in those times when clouds barely permeate the overall gloom. A nationalist and a Romantic, he was determined to paint his nation’s delicate beauty on its own terms.

Roof Ridge Of Frederiksborg Castle, Christen Købke
John Constable did many field studies of clouds, which are startling in their modernity. “Skies must and always shall with me make an effectual part of the composition,” he wrote. “It will be difficult to name a class of landscape in which the sky is not the key note, the standard of scale and the chief organ of sentiment.”

The example I’ve shown is close to a modern gesture drawing, a quick capture of that moment when the clouds start dumping their load of water as they move in from the sea. It is not just a rainstorm, it is “an extraordinary force of emotion,” as critic Andrew Shirley observed.

An Teallach between Bristol and Mullagragh, James Morrison, University of Sterling Art Collection
The finest cloud painter working today is Scotland’s James Morrison. Born in Glasgow in 1932, he studied at the Glasgow School of Art and is an Academician of the Royal Scottish Academy. His paintings of the landscapes around his home in Angus and of Assynt in Sutherland are, in truth, mostly sky studies. He is a meticulous observer of the movement and development of clouds.

I have written about how to paint clouds here, using examples from my own work. It’s important to know the different types of clouds and how they move across space. Yes, you can paint clouds without being able to draw, but they’re not going to be as convincing as those that are carefully observed. As with everything, practice makes perfect. 

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Everyone needs a hobby

When your job is what most people think of as a hobby, what do you do for fun?
Lady Standing at a Virginal, 1670-72, Johannes Vermeer
My reenactor friends have an all-consuming passion that I sometimes envy. They shimmy out of their office clothes each Friday, reach for the worn cotton frock or woolen tunic, and spend the weekends trudging through mud, carrying water, marching in the heat, whittling, sewing, slopping hogs, or pursuing whatever other aspect of pre-modern life floats their boat.

I love painting and can’t imagine doing anything else. But twenty years ago when I picked up my brushes full time, I never thought for a moment about what it meant to start earning money in one’s primary avocation. Nobody can focus on one thing to the exclusion of everything else. This is embarrassing to admit, but I have no hobbies, unless you consider cleaning up after the elderly dog a hobby.

When my friend Dennis told me he is an accountant with the soul of an artist, I realized that, in some ways, I’m an artist with the soul of an accountant. So why not take up accounting for fun? I looked into the possibility of joining an investment club. That could be profitable, I thought. Of course, once it’s profitable, it’s no longer a hobby.

Music panels from the Ghent Altarpiece, 1430-32, Hubert and Jan van Eyck
When my kids were young, I took up gardening. This was easy, since I was raised on a farm and had extensive experience with shovel and rake. Gardening is a brilliant hobby for young parents. It allows them to keep a sharp eye on the youngsters without appearing to hover.

As so often happens, that hobby started to balloon. Pretty soon I was planting and maintaining sprawling gardens at the corner church, and schlepping my wheelbarrow over there three times a week.

Today my schedule involves too much time on the road during the peak gardening months. I can barely keep the weeds at bay in the small foundation beds we have.

Before children, I used to play the keyboard and guitar and sing. I wasn’t a complete moron at any of those things. I’d had instruction from well-regarded musicians. However, my first cancer treatment left me with lung problems that ruined my voice.  My piano taunts me from across the room, but after 28 years I doubted I remember much about it.

The Bagpiper, 1624, Hendrick Terbrugghen. I even have the tam!
A few days ago, I sat down and played. I was every bit as bad as I expected, but the funny thing is, in some ways playing the piano really is like riding a bicycle. The keys are all there where I left them. As for my voice, it’s a mess. But my husband doesn’t mind the caterwauling. He just puts on his headphones and turns up the volume while I run through my vocal scales. If I can just remember to never open the windows, we should be fine.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Rejection

If you get into every show you apply to, you’re not reaching. If you don’t get into any, you need to reassess your process.
Jonathan Submarining is one of my favorite plein air paintings, because of the difficulty in capturing the sailing class on a windy day in Penobscot Bay.
We all know the feeling of not getting into a show we really wanted. It’s really disheartening, especially when you compare your work with that of the accepted painters. I recently discovered something almost as bad: when your friend doesn’t get into a show you were accepted into. I suspect it’s even worse from the friend’s side.

We all know we shouldn’t take it personally, but I don’t know anyone who can do that all the time. Of course we’re going to personalize rejection; that’s only human. But it helps to be businesslike about it. When a business’ bid is rejected, they do not sulk. They lay the groundwork to succeed the next time.

We long to understand what goes on behind the curtain, and sometimes our conclusions are flat-out wrong. A fellow artist recently commented about a show I’ve done since its inception, saying that I was ‘guaranteed a place for life.’ I know the organizers are committed to changing up the talent, and that show is anything but a sinecure. I sweat bullets every year.

Red Truck at Lumber Yard is another favorite that I don't think translated well into a submission.
An invitational show I’ve done for many years has a ruthless process: they tot up sales and cull the bottom quarter of performers. That may seem heartless, but it does raise the bar.

When you apply to a show, you know the overt criteria; they're spelled out for you. You don’t know the covert criteria, like demographics. Then there's the question of style. You ought be able to see if you’re a good fit by looking at the judge’s own work, but that is no guarantee. No good juror picks only painters whose work looks like his or hers.

Dyce Head in the early morning light works as a painting, but are lighthouses a no-no with the cognoscenti? 
Then there is the question of collegiality. Yes, people are biased to like their friends. The best shows are juried at arm’s length, by a juror from another region. But that’s expensive. Sometimes it works for a small show to invite artists they know and like and who they know can sell.

We artists are terrible judges of our own work. I tend to like the paintings that were the greatest challenge or struggle to create. These are usually not the most aesthetically pleasing. The more anxious we are to ‘make an impression’ with our entries, the more our judgment is fouled. I've illustrated this post with four paintings that have been rejected by jurors.

There are times when we’re making radical changes to our technique. I’ve found that during those periods, I’m less likely to get into shows than when I’m coasting along doing what I know. Since growth is an important part of art, the last thing you should do is try to retard it. Instead, be patient with the temporary check on your career. It will resolve itself. I once took an entire year off from showing just because I didn’t understand the work I was creating. It was a great move.

Fish Beach is another painting I love but jurors haven't..
It helps to have a friend you trust with whom you can discuss your submissions. If you keep track of what paintings you submit where, you’re sitting on your own data mine. Compare your successful applications to your failures and see if you can find a pattern. I’ll be interested to hear what you find.