Paint Schoodic

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

Friday, April 28, 2017

Mixing greens

There are many paths to the final destination, grasshopper. This is just one fast, easy route to mixing summer greens.
Mixed greens, in oils.
Here in mid-coast Maine, the fog and rain are finally releasing the leaves from their winter sheathes. Hints of green show in my lawn, and the hardiest perennials poke their noses through last year’s leaf litter. We are very close to painting greens again, in all their light, airy delicacy.

By June, we will be wrapped in a blanket of immature, emerald foliage. By August, the color will have settled into a deeper, more uniform tone. The only way to navigate this is to avoid greens out of a tube. A system of paired primaries gives you more options, avoiding the acidity of phthalo green, the weight of chromium oxide green, or the soul-sucking darkness of sap green.

Jennifer's exercise in mixing and modulating greens.
Michael Wilcox published a watercolor pigment guide called Blue and Yellow Don’t Make Green. Well, of course they do, but his point was that there are many routes to the same destination. One of the most useful landscape greens is black and cadmium lemon or Hansa yellow. Of all the greens I mix, this and ultramarine with yellow ochre are the two I use the most.

In my experience, bad paint mixing causes paintings to go wrong faster than anything else. Constantly over-daubing to modulate the paint color distorts the original drawing and makes a grey mush. If you’re confident of the color, you can apply it fast and accurately.

Loren's exercise in mixing and modulating greens.
For the past two weeks, I’ve drilled my students on mixing color. These are simple exercises you can do at home.

I make my greens on a matrix, which I’ve shown you both mixed (at top) and on a chart (below). The two swatch charts were done in acrylics by students. I asked them to first mix greens according to the chart, and then mix the resulting greens with tints (meaning a mix of white and a color) of ultramarine, raw sienna, and quinacridone violet. What the specific tints were was unimportant; what mattered was how differently tints mix from white out of a tube.

Cadmium lemon can be substituted for Hansa yellow
The range of results is infinite. It depends on both the proportions you choose and the brand of paint you use. However, note that blue/black pigments are much stronger than the yellows. You need about half the amount of blue or black as you do yellow.

These are Benjamin Moore swatches but you can find similar colors in other brands.
The second exercise involves stopping at your local hardware store for a few paint swatches. These are Benjamin Moore brand, but you should be able to find similar ones elsewhere. There are two off-whites: one cool and one warm. There’s yellow, green, and two soft blues. Your assignment is to mix until you think you’ve hit the exact color. Then put a dot of it on the card to see how close you got. (If you’re working in watercolor, the dot goes on paper instead.)

Jennifer's neutral swatches.
I also had my students make neutrals using combinations of ultramarine blue with burnt sienna and raw sienna. I use ultramarine blue and burnt sienna as my standard dark neutral, because it can go to the warm or cool side depending on how it is mixed. These are also my go-to mixes for rocks and sands.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

A light in the darkness of heroin

A program that works to help heroin addicts. Even if I didn’t believe in God, I’d still support them.

Shenandoah Valley sunrise, pastel, Carol L. Douglas
In December I wrote about going back to my hometown for a funeral for the victim of a heroin overdose. I was both grief-stricken for the family and shaken by the evidence that the iron grip of heroin now reaches everywhere in our culture.

Relapse rates for heroin and opiate addiction are around 90%. The rate for alcoholics and meth users are about the same. Even with drug treatment programs many users will relapse, and there just aren’t enough treatment programs to fill the need.

There were about one million heroin users in the U.S. as of 2014. That’s almost three times the number as in 2003. Heroin deaths have quintupled since 2000. Today, more Americans die from drug overdoses than car crashes or guns: 47,000 people in the US in 2014. In New England, the problem is compounded by heroin’s synthetic cousin, Fentanyl.

The Raising of Lazarus, Carol L. Douglas
Law enforcement officials have long pointed out the relationship between legal and illegal drugs, and how oxycodone addiction leads people to heroin, which is cheaper and easier to get. But even without making the leap to illegal drugs, opiods can and do kill. A 2013 CDC study pointed out the “epidemic levels” of prescription pain medication overdoses among women. The older you get, the easier it is to off yourself with prescription drugs, which might be why we frequently read about middle-aged celebrity overdoses.

I was familiar with Teen Challenge from Rochester, because my husband would occasionally play music for them. This is the group founded by David Wilkerson of The Cross and the Switchblade fame. I knew that Teen Challenge wasn’t for teenagers anymore; in fact you have to be 18 to enter the program.

I didn’t realize that they are focused on the heroin epidemic until this past Sunday. A dozen men from Teen Challenge New England visited our church. Some were functioning addicts before catastrophe forced them into treatment. Some were in jail. All have committed to finishing the 15-month program and rejoining the world.

After church, we had lunch with a few of the guys. One of them was about the same age as my kids. “I came from a good family,” he told me. “It wasn’t like my parents had done anything wrong.” That’s a scary thought. Parents believe that if they do everything right they can inoculate their children against bad choices. It’s true to a degree, but it’s not universally true.

End of the storm, pastel, Carol L. Douglas
Teen Challenge has a demonstrated track record, with a 70 to 86% success rate. Of course, it does this by insisting on personal responsibility. That is not a universally-popular strategy for our times. As one of the guys said on Sunday, “We get no government funding. They would make us remove Jesus from our program. Jesus is our program.”

That reminds me of something my thug pal recently told me: “Everyone finds God in jail.” Since ours is the God of extremis, that makes a certain kind of cynical sense. And, yes, I'd like to see more programs for women addicts.

But before you criticize Teen Challenge, ask yourself if you have a better plan. Even if I didn’t believe in God, I’d still send money to them. Their program works, and we’re running out of ideas.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Will the artist tax penalty be eliminated?

Artists can’t take tax deductions for their donated work. Will that change?

A Fitz Hugh Lane Day in Camden,12X9, oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas
 Anyone who works in the arts is regularly asked by non-profits for donations of work. These organizations will often naively include a letter saying the donation is “tax-exempt.” That’s flat-out wrong. The deductibility of a created work is generally limited to the value of the canvas, paints and frame (which are so imprecisely measured that they have already been deducted as business expenses).

I learned this the hard way. I took a deduction for a painting I’d donated to the fine conservation group, Ducks Unlimited. A kindly IRS auditor explained the facts to me—right before she struck out the deduction and totted up the interest I owed.

It hasn’t always been this way. Before 1970, creators could deduct the fair-market value of the work they donated. According to a fascinating opinion piece by Michael Rips in the New York Times, the deduction was eliminated because former presidents were inflating the fair-market value of their papers.

Unlike Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, I can document the value of my artwork with a track record of sales. The paintings used to illustrate this post, for example, are among the hundreds I’ve sold in my career.

Drying Sails, 10X8, oil on canvasboard, , Carol L. Douglas
This anomaly of the tax code, which punishes artists for the sins of their social betters, is regularly discussed in Congress. Nothing ever happens, and nothing ever will happen. Artists don’t have the social muscle to force that change.

But according to Rips, help may be on the way from a deliciously ironic source, the challenge of campaign spending laws by the conservative group Citizens United. That’s the case that has liberals’ panties in a twist about corporations being given the rights of people.

More precisely, it held that our First Amendment freedom of speech rights prohibited the government from restricting independent political expenditures by a nonprofit corporation. Citizens United attempted to air a film critical of Hillary Clinton before the 2008 Democratic primary. This violated a Federal statute that prohibited corporations and unions from engaging in politicking.

“Donations are a protected form of ‘symbolic speech’ (such as gifts of money, and flag-burning), and the withdrawal of the fair market tax deduction from the creators of those works is — under the precedent of Citizens United — a prohibited form of speaker discrimination,” wrote Rips, who, as a lawyer and novelist, is uniquely qualified to speak to the question. “The government would have to demonstrate a ‘compelling state interest’ for removing the deduction — nearly impossible when attempting to justify the denial of the fair market value deduction to those who donate their own work to cultural institutions.”

Big Boned (Heritage), 16X12, oil on canvas, , Carol L. Douglas
Rips and his pals are interested because of the negative effect this has had on new collections in American museums. I’m more interested in the ability of my fellow painters to support organizations in which they believe.

I sincerely hope Michael Rips is right, but I'm not changing my strategy just yet. 

Give if you support the organization’s goals, and if they can get a fair-market price for your painting. Give if the fund drive is chaired by your Great Aunt Helga. Just don’t give under the mistaken notion that you’ll get a tax deduction. 

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Flotsam and Jetsam

As soon as animals stop eating boats, I’ll stop eating animals
Sketch of scaffolding, by Carol L. Douglas
On Monday I wrote about painting despite lack of inspiration. Yesterday I was inspired. It was the first truly lovely day of spring. Bobbi Heath was visiting and we were heading to the North End Shipyard to paint boats. Even though the Willow Bake Shoppe isn’t properly open for the season, I did catch the delivery guy, who gave me two packages of doughnuts for the sailors.

Heritage is up for what you might call the long haul—a week out of the water. She is having her worm shoe replaced. This is a strip of wood that runs along the keel as a sacrificial dinner for shipworms. Shipworms aren’t actually worms, but mollusks. Teredo navalis started life in the North Atlantic but has since spread around the world, probably courtesy of sailors. No timber treatment for shipworm damage has been completely successful; the only solution is to periodically replace the submerged wood.

Who knew that a 145' schooner would have a centerboard? Of course, it's several times bigger than my car.
Sam Clark works on Heritage during the fit-out. When I asked him how it was going, he rolled his eyes. He had just wrestled a piece of the keel out. The shipworms had finished off what was on their plate and more.

When a new painter joins me at the shipyard, I like to take him or her on a tour of my favorite vantage points. I asked Captain John Foss if I could paint off the floating dock. “Sure,” he said, “but your angle will change.” That I thought I could compensate for, but I wrenched my back climbing back up. Bobbi, more sensible, set up to paint off the landing, and I went to retrieve my things from the car. That’s when I realized I’d left my field palette at home.

As they say, I'd lost the light.
I’d just returned when Bobbi got a call from Margaret Burdine of Artists Corner & Gallery in West Acton, MA. She was in Camden and wanted to stop and say hello on her way home. We had a lovely chinwag and a lunch of boiled eggs and cake.

By that time, the sun had flipped over to the west side of the boat. I should have known enough to move along with it, but I’d invested time in that sketch, and I was infatuated with the manlift. I foolishly invested the bulk of the afternoon in it. It’s not inaccurate, it’s just not lovely.

Bobbi, meanwhile, had wisely cut her losses early and gone to paint Heritage’s bowsprit from the sun side. I decided to set up nearby and just swirl paint around on a small canvas until she finished. The result, top, was no more than a half-hour of work, but it’s a lot more interesting than my earlier painting was.

Sam Clark fixes what the shipworms hath wrought.
When I left, Sam was cheerfully scarphing a new piece into the keel, Bobbi had a lovely painting, a new crewmember had arrived, and I was happily sunburned. It was less productive than Friday, but far more enjoyable.

I want to introduce you to the real meaning of a phrase we use all the time: “flotsam and jetsam.” Flotsam is the wreckage of a ship or its cargo. Jetsam is cargo that has been jettisoned, or thrown from a ship to lighten its load. 

Sometimes I float like a jellyfish through the currents of life. Sometimes I’m a beachcomber. But in either case, it’s the flotsam and jetsam, not the main chance, which intrigues me.

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.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Consider the source.

Canaletto did not use a camera obscura. People repeat that because they’re uncomfortable with the fact that they can’t draw.
Westminster Abbey with a procession of Knights of the Bath, 1749, Canaletto
It has long been held that Canaletto achieved the amazing accuracy in his vedute through the use of the camera obscura. This is not a modern thesis, although it is widely repeated as fact. It came down to us from Canaletto’s earliest biography, written in 1771, but it’s convenient for our modern sensibilities. After all, Canaletto’s landscapes are so perfect, they could not have been rendered from life—could they?

The Royal Collection Trust has released a report that seems to prove, conclusively, that this theory is wrong. While infrared technology is often used to examine what’s under the surface in oil paintings, it’s not commonly used on drawings. The Trust applied this technique to their collection of Canaletto’s works on paper. This is significant; they own a third of known Canaletto drawings.

They discovered the ruler edges, pencil markings and other traces of the drawing process under the finished surfaces. It was enough for the curators to state “categorically” that the stories of Canaletto’s use of the camera obscura were mythical.

Architectural Capriccio, drawing, Canaletto. “Capriccio” means it’s a fantasy landscape.
There is nothing inherently wrong with the camera obscura or any other mechanical aid to drawing. Nor was David Hockney revolutionizing the art world when he proposed that our ancestors used it. Leonardo da Vinci described its workings in 1502, and a similar pinhole drawing device was illustrated in Albrecht Dürer’s Four Books on Measurement. For Canaletto, born simultaneously with the Age of Reason, the temptation to try the camera obscura would have been overwhelming. But he would have quit for the same reason many mature artists stop working directly from photos:

The results are boring.

The Stonemason's Yard, 1726–29, is considered Canaletto’s early masterpiece.
What is seen by the human eye, with its pronounced center pole, is so much more interesting than the flattened line of ‘real’ optics. That is why our photographs so often disappoint us, and why photography really is a lot more complicated that simply pointing a camera and firing away.

The popularity of the Hockney thesis lies in an uncomfortable fact: by and large, moderns don’t draw well. We haven’t put in the hours with ruler, pencil and paper. We rely on viewfinders, photographs, and other devices for our underpaintings. Rather than face up to that deficiency, it’s easier to imagine that drawing is impossible.

Of course, it’s not, and nobody can really paint until they master the elements of drawing. Too often, modern landscape painting is about fragment and impression. Is that because fragments are so interesting, or because we've given up on drawing?

Friday, April 14, 2017

The weighing of souls

In which I paint the schooner Mercantile and am reminded that in God’s eyes, all men are equal.

Schooner Mercantile in drydock, by Carol L. Douglas
I awoke this morning laughing heartily at a chemistry joke. It evaporated as soon as I remembered that what chemistry I know would fit in my wash cup. People who assume I am well-educated ought to have known me in school, is all I can say.

That’s why I don’t quite understand what they’ve been doing to the masts of Heritage this week. It comes under the broad heading of “refinishing.” Each step involved being hoisted up and down the mast in a wooden basket, and there’s lots of scraping and buffing and brushing involved. If you want to feel particularly dumb, watch craftsmen at work in a discipline you don’t know.

Working on a mast of Heritage.
Meanwhile, Captains Doug Lee and John Foss are using the Little Giant crane to drop floating docks in the water. The crew of Mercantile has busy caulking and painting, because it’s her turn up in the cradle.

Mercantile was launched from Little Deer Isle, Maine in 1916. Until 1943, she was in the coasting trade, after which she briefly went into mackerel fishing. She is one of the earlier boats adapted to the tourist trade. She’s called a “bald-headed schooner” because she carries no topsails.

That's Mercantile at the back of The Three Graces, by Carol L. Douglas
I’ve painted Mercantile many times, mostly at Camden harbor. “I didn’t know she was so pretty,” exclaimed a hand after he looked at my painting. Actually, she’s beautiful, especially when her green undercoat is replaced with its glossy black topcoat.

I’m always at a loss about how to treat the flotsam that accumulates on the shipyard ground. It’s part of the scene but it can be distracting. The crew had made themselves a long trestle table with sawhorses and planks. I put it in in various places, dissatisfied each time. I moved it again this morning because it was cutting off the bottom of my composition.

Mercantile, 2016, by Carol L. Douglas
It was so warm in the morning that I wore clamdiggers instead of long pants. I always forget that the open water at Rockland makes it cooler and windier than at my house. I was glad that I had to be back at Rockport in the early afternoon, because by the time I quit painting, my teeth were chattering. 

I was meeting a young man to finish burying the power line to my commercial sign. “She tells me I’m dumb,” he said of one of his employers. I’ve heard several variations on this theme recently. As a person who was never much good at school, I find it irritating.

There are many ways in which “judge not, lest ye be judged” can be applied. If you have the good fortune to be particularly smart or talented, bear in mind that these are gifts for which you paid nothing. And remember that there are many kinds of intelligences and talents out there. You may mock that humble man today, but in a hurricane his ability to tie knots may save your life.

In God’s economy, all men truly are equal. They are not measured by their looks, talents, race, or achievements, but by the weight of their souls, as mystics from the Egyptians onward have poetically observed. Once you start seeing the world through that lens, you will be kinder to yourself and others. Today is Good Friday, the historic date of the assassination of Jesus Christ. If you take nothing else from Christian faith, remember that in God’s eyes we are all equal.

Have a blessed Easter.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Old subject, new technology

Yesterday I went all digital on a schooner. Allowing for the learning curve, this has potential.

Underpainting of American Eagle passing Owl's Head, by Carol L Douglas
I’ve toyed for a while with the idea of doing a large, Fitz Henry Lane-influenced scene of the American Eagle under sail. A large canvas of a boat in motion is not something you do en plein air, but the studies I’ve done in harbor certainly influence it.

A student recently asked me if I like painting ‘just water.’ I do, indeed, because to me there’s no such thing as ‘just water.’ There’s light, reflection, movement, the skipping of the wind, clouds, and promise. I showed him the wave study I did while cruising on the American Eagle last spring. That is the closest I get to a purely personal painting, one that has meaning for me and nobody else.

This field study of waves from last summer was the genesis of the painting above.
It was also the genesis of this larger idea. What better landform to use as a background than Owl’s Head, which sits just outside Rockland harbor, and where I paint many times every season?

When enlarging a sketch to a final composition, I generally use gridding, which I’ve explained here.  It’s laborious and time consuming. It’s also extremely accurate and allows you to execute a pretty decent grisaille on the fly, depending on how much time you want to spend.

The horizon has to be straight on a nautical painting, or else the oceans will run dry.
My daughter gave us a cast-off video projector last year. Yesterday I decided to experiment with it. I haven’t used projection to enlarge a sketch since the demise of 35mm slides. 

These projectors are designed to shoot an image high on a wall, so they are set up to correct for the keystone effect, which is the distortion you get when you project an image at an angle. Once I managed to undo that correction, squaring the image was relatively easy. Making it exactly the size of my canvas was harder.

Level and square relentlessly.
I started with relentless leveling and squaring. The easel was perpendicular to the floor, the canvas leveled, the two lower corners the exact same distance to the projector. Even with all those preparations, the image was slightly canted. Fixing that took a lot of fussing.

From there, it was just a question of tracing the lines in the original sketch. However, my ability to see differences in value was vastly reduced.

I couldn't see values but it was a neat optical effect.
Lest you think tracing is the answer to all your drawing problems, it’s still possible to make drafting errors. Note the slight sag in the bowsprit. I’ll fix that in the next iteration.

With all my fussing, I was able to finish underpainting this 30X48 canvas in a single day. There’s promise there.

It's anemic compared to my usual gridding, but I still think it has potential.
I tell my students to use a combination of ultramarine and burnt sienna for their initial drawing, but in practice I generally use leftover paint for this step. The exact color isn’t nearly as important as the value. Yesterday, I chose an old tube of Williamsburg Brown Pink. I don’t use this brand because I find the pigment load in the blues to be too low for my style. 

That wasn’t true with this color. This morning my whole studio is swimming in a butternut-colored haze. There is brown stain everywhere—creeping along the canvas, in my brushes, on my hands, possibly in my hair.