Paint Schoodic

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

Friday, September 29, 2017

Respecting private property

Nobody’s around and you want to paint. Find the owner, ask for permission, or just don’t do it.

The Dugs in Autumn, by Carol L. Douglas, was painted from the shoulder of a public road.
We don’t have air conditioning here. On the most torrid of coastal Maine nights we might run a box fan. This morning I woke shivering and ran to my closet for my fluffy robe. It’s 40° F, with an expected high of 62°. This is the start of sweater weather, and it’s the maddest, gladdest season of the whole year. It’s my favorite season to paint, and I will be heading out as soon as I finish this.

Last year I followed autumn across the continent from Alaska to Labrador. It’s very different in the west, where the gold aspens flame across the dark spruces. Here in the northeast, we have a more conventional show of reds and golds against the greens. That’s because we live in a hardwood forest.

Yesterday I went out exploring with Bobbi Heath. She showed me a nature preserve in my own back yard. This is Fernalds Neck, which juts out into Megunticook Lake in Camden. I’d been down the road, since a friend lives there, but didn’t realize it continued on past her house. I’m cautious about trespassing, as a general rule.

Rockport Autumn Afternoon, by Carol L. Douglas, was painted on private property, with permission.
The red (or swamp) maples were starting their show of brilliant crimson, but that’s not where we will head today. Instead, we’re aiming for the St. George Peninsula. Yesterday we scoped out a footbridge, a dinghy, and some slow-rolling waves, the last remnants of hurricane.

Some of these require standing on private property. We asked for permission at the places that interested us. Part of our job is to be ambassadors for plein air painting. That means respecting private property rights.

An artist is within his or her rights to paint from the shoulder of the road. However, boathouses, lawns and businesses are private property. So are the inviting water meadows that stretch out from the road. That ‘million dollar view’ may, in fact, be a commercial investment of a great deal of money. It looks unoccupied and poetic to you, but those heaps of buoys, pot-warp and traps are part of the owners’ livelihood, and they don’t want you messing around with them.

Wabash bottom lands, by Carol L. Douglas, was painted on private property with permission.
A few years ago, Bobbi and I set up on a roadside in Port Clyde, near an unassuming garage. While we were there, several other painters bushwacked behind the garage to paint. The owner showed up. He was rightfully enraged by the encroachment. Since we were on the road, we caught the brunt of his anger.

I’ve asked for permission to paint hundreds of times. I’ve been told ‘no’ many times. Usually it’s because the owner is chary of a lawsuit. In Indiana, I once set up along a swampy road along the Wabash River. A local warned me off. “There’s a meth house down there,” he told me.

Sadly, that’s a more common danger in modern America than wild animals. In rural New York, I set up on a roadside to paint a bucolic barn scene. A woman came out of her house and asked what I was doing. I explained and asked her, as a courtesy, if she minded. “I sure do,” she snapped. In that case, you should just leave.

Cattle, Sweets Corners Road, by Carol L. Douglas, was painted from the road side of an electric fence.
Of course, you should also respect fences. Cows and horses are pretty, but they can also be territorial, and you have no business being inside their enclosures.

Having said that, most people like artists and are curious about what we’re doing. In fact, most of my easel sales have been unexpected purchases by property owners who stopped by to look at my work.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

The value of obscurity

Does fame make artists conform? Critics impact our careers, but what makes their judgments 'right'?
Woman Reclining of 1928 (Marguerite Kelsey), 1928, Meredith Frampton, courtesy Tate
I’ve dedicated my brief staycation to reading detective stories by the late Georgette Heyer. Heyer is famous as a romance writer. Artist Meredith Frampton was her contemporary and countryman, and he is just being discovered. There are many parallels between their work: they are both sleek, smooth, and perfectly finished. Intellectuals may scoff, but their work burbles with joy.

Meredith Frampton was the only child of the distinguished British sculptor, Sir George Frampton, and his wife, painter Christabel Cockerell. While Frampton was raised in affluent, arty St. John’s Wood, he was also the grandson of a stonemason. His painting reflects an ethos of craftsmanship and hard work.

Sir Ernest Gowers, KCB, KBE, Senior Regional Commissioner for London, Lt Col AJ Child, OBE, MC, Director of Operations and Intelligence, and KAL Parker Deputy Chief Administrative Officer in the London Regional Civil Defence Control Room, 1943, Meredith Frampton, courtesy Imperial War Museums
Frampton attended the Royal Academy Schools, where he won both a first prize and a silver medal. During WWI, he enlisted in the Artists’ Rifles. This was a famous Victorian volunteer corps that had expanded to include members of other professions. Frampton served on the Western Front with a field survey unit, scrutinizing aerial photographs and making meticulous maps of enemy trenches.

During the postwar period, he resumed his career as a painter, focusing on portraits of academics and beautiful women. He was, however, a victim of his time and place in culture.

A Game of Patience, 1937, Meredith Frampton, courtesy Ferens Art Gallery
“At that time, the Tate was fixated on this idea that what mattered in 20th-Century art was the forward movement from one progressive ‘ism’ to the next, a kind of handing on of the torch,” said curator Richard Morphet, who has championed Frampton throughout his career. “And art like Frampton’s, which didn’t exemplify stylistic innovation, was regarded as having nothing to do with that story. That’s why I wasn’t allowed to show it.”

Frampton had only one significant show, two years before his death. It has never been repeated.

Frampton was a slow, meticulous painter who worked largely by commission. That meant he never had inventory lying around for a gallery to pick up and show. He did, however, participate in the annual Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, sending 32 paintings over a period of 25 years.

It would be easy to dismiss his paintings as reactionary realism in an era of enormous upheaval. However, Frampton was very much a visionary. There is a strong sense of surrealism in his glacial, immaculate, perfectly-ordered surrounds.

King George VI as the Duke of York, 1929, Meredith Frampton
Like his fellow realist Andrew Wyeth, Frampton sold paintings even as the rainmakers ignored him. His career tells us something about the power critics and gallerists hold over artists. Perhaps even more important, his subsequent rediscovery tells us something about the limits to that power.

It’s much easier to paint within the conventions of your time and place, but Frampton reminds us that’s not the only path to greatness. Moderate success, followed by obscurity and then rediscovery, was the career path of Rembrandt and Bach.

I’m still pondering the impact obscurity had on the paintings of Erik Lundin. In his case, and that of Meredith Frampton, the lack of adulation seems to have given them the freedom to follow their own muses.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Bending the knee

None of us are truly independent. We all have our struggles, and our highest calling is to help each other through them.

Stormy Weather, by Carol L. Douglas
Yesterday I had a short chat with writer Tim Wendel. He has finished his 13th book, called The Cancer Crossings, which is now in production by Cornell Press. It is about his brother Eric’s treatment and ultimate death from leukemia. It also mentions my own brother’s death at the hands of a drunk driver. Tim and John were close friends at the time, and our families were intertwined in many other ways.

Tim has kept me apprised on his progress, and I’m grateful. I plan to read the book, but I can’t say anything as insipid as “I’m looking forward to it.” Rather, I’m braced against emotional shock. These are deeply buried griefs, but still painful. I can’t imagine how Tim wrote it. It must have felt like being keel-hauled.

Safe Harbor, by Carol L. Douglas
At any rate, we were discussing our lack of autonomy in decision-making. I told Tim that I’d had this same conversation with 3/5 of my kids over the weekend. We all want to be the master of our fate, but it never works that way. I have a high level of financial and professional independence, and I still defer to others. It’s part of the cooperative human existence.

Yesterday I mentioned that there is a power struggle at play in all artist-gallery relationships. That’s not true in just art, of course, but in all of life. I told my son he can’t avoid his struggle by changing his major; he’ll just run into different obstacles. The only answer is the mature understanding that we ultimately pass through the problem.

The Harbormaster's Dinghy, by Carol L. Douglas
To wildly misquote my friend Mary Byrom, if there’s no struggle, you’re not aiming high enough. She was talking specifically about getting into shows and winning prizes, but her logic can be extended to all aspects of life.

I end up listening to people’s problems a lot—not just with my own kids, but to all kinds of people in temporary distress. I’d like to blame it on being old, but it’s happened since I was a kid. Inevitably, I always take on a bit of their burden. Most of the time, I can shake it off, but occasionally it overwhelms me.

Mouth of the Mamaroneck River, by Carol L. Douglas

Recently I heard someone refer to this as helping clear the weeds from their propellers (props). It’s an apt metaphor. Weeds can wrap around a boat’s prop and screw up the water flow. This makes the engine rev up and lose thrust, working harder and getting nowhere. Left uncleared, this can permanently damage the engine.

It would be stupid to stand by and watch someone wreck their outboard. It’s equally stupid to let them do that in their lives as well. We all help clear the weeds from each other’s props every day, through concrete help, suggestions, or prayer.

I think this prop-clearing is perhaps our first and greatest calling. It’s what Jesus did throughout the Gospels. It’s also an insight into Jesus’ miraculous character. He had infinite patience with needy people. I, a mere human, don’t stand a chance of that.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Online vs. gallery sales

The mechanics of selling are changing, but common courtesy (I hope) will never go out of style.

Headlights, by Carol L. Douglas
Yesterday I wrote about the inevitability of online sales. Until now, I’ve avoided it, preferring to sell the old-fashioned way. But more and more professional artists are embracing the idea, and I doubt it will go away anytime soon.

A professional artist sent me the following comment:

I still want to be in galleries, but only a very few that I have a great relationship with. The appeals of online selling to me are these:
  • No framing, you ship only when you sell, and you can charge for shipping or not (free shipping on small paintings is a nice thing to be able to offer your subscribers);
  • You can offer a painting on multiple online venues at the same time, as long as you remember to remove or mark them sold everywhere;
  • It's a nice way to be able to offer a sale without offending your galleries.
Commercial scallopers, by Carol L. Douglas
Most galleries have contracts with their artists that limit their sales in the local geographical area. Artists should respect these agreements, not just in their letter but in their spirit. If you think being an artist is a dicey financial venture, consider the costs to run a bricks-and-mortar store selling artwork. If a gallery has taken you on, you owe it the courtesy of supporting its marketing efforts.

Online marketing is, in fact, a good way to do that, but as with everything, you should talk with your galleries first. Some have specific rules about cross-listing with selling websites. Avoid putting yourself in the position of retrieving a painting from a gallery because you sold it somewhere else. Your gallery deserves a commission for work it’s showing.

A lobster pound at Tenant's Harbor, by Carol L. Douglas (courtesy of the Kelpie Gallery)
Artists occasionally do dumb things that undercut their relationships with galleries. Showing at other venues in violation of their contracts is one thing. Undercutting prices in side deals is another. Even worse is saying disparaging things after a few glasses of wine at openings. Alcohol and business don’t generally play well together.

You, the artist, ought to be more of a salesman for yourself and your work than anyone else. “Be relentlessly positive,” is the best motto I can think of in sales. If you’re doing business with a person you don’t respect, what does that say about you?

The new sandbar, by Carol L. Douglas
This same logic extends to social media. There is no distinction between your identity as a person and your professional identity as an artist; you are one and the same. “I was just being funny,” is never an excuse. People read your Facebook posts.

Yes, galleries and artists need each other, but there is a power dynamic at play, too. It shifts depending on who is more successful, the gallerist or the artist. In general, we need galleries at least as much as they need us.

I doubt that will change as we buy and sell more across the internet. There will always be makers of merchandise and sellers of merchandise. The names of the relationships may change, but common courtesy (I hope) will never go out of style.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Strategic thinking

My plein air events for 2017 are all done. It’s time to consider how to improve things in 2018.
Full Stop, by Carol L. Douglas. Part of my self-analysis is to consider what paintings gave me the most joy to paint this summer. This is a small sample.
Mary Byrom asked me why I moved to Maine just to spend so much of my time on the road. It’s a good question, and one I take seriously as I plan for 2018.

Boston is a cork blocking Maine’s access to the rest of the country. I’ve been driving on I-90 for the better part of 40 years. This summer, traffic in eastern Massachusetts seemed particularly bad. Keeping that in mind, we timed our departure from Pittsfield to avoid the worst traffic on I-495. Instead, we sat for nearly an hour on the Masspike outside Worcester. It was a perfect bookend to our trip south eleven days earlier, when we rode the brakes all the way down I-84 to New York City.

Two Islands in the rain, by Carol L. Douglas
It felt wonderful to pull into our driveway. When I got out of my car in the far reaches of the night, there was the Milky Way, hanging directly over my head. It seemed as if I could have reached out a hand and scooped up diamonds.

I’ve spent the last month fighting a wicked bout of asthmatic bronchitis. That’s a dead giveaway that I need to cool my jets.

In the belly of the whale, by Carol L. Douglas. I got to spend a day looking at the guts of a scalloper. What could be better?
Years ago, the organizers of an invitational event told me that they did a three-year running average of sales for each artist. Each year, the bottom 25% of performers were cut from their roster. Friendship and sentiment were never considered. The lowest-performing artists were replaced with new people. By giving painters a pass for the first two years, the event gave new painters a chance to gain a foothold in the community

I’m thinking of doing a similar analysis on my own calendar. I want to spread my work out across a longer season. That means, sadly, cutting some mid-summer events.

Along Kiwassa Lake, by Carol L. Douglas. Is there anything more lake-camp than a clothesline strung along the shore?
However, I must consider distance, convenience, and opportunity costs. An event in New Jersey needs to yield a better return than one in Maine. If it provides housing for its artists, it is better than an event where I need a hotel. And any time I’m painting elsewhere, I’m not on the docks in Camden, which might well have a better return.

I’m not sure I can design a matrix that’s as brutally, beautifully simple as my friends at the art center's, but I can still think this through objectively.

Penobscot Early Morning, by Carol L. Douglas. Painted from a friend's deck while drinking coffee.
Another thing I’m considering for 2018 is creating a limited-liability corporation. I’ve never actually lost a painting student yet, and I’m insured, but why expose my family to the financial risk?

I am revisiting the question of online painting sales. I’ve pondered this repeatedly over the last five years. The recurring nature of the question tells me that online marketing isn’t going away. It’s not a question of if, but when. The changeover isn’t going to be easy; it means enabling e-commerce on my website, changing my marketing strategy, and—most importantly—changing the way I think about selling paintings. But it’s our current reality.

That high-level thinking will all wait, though. Today, I’m going to just read the mail and water my tomatoes. I’ll go collect my car from the garage and stop at the post office and the library. Perhaps I’ll walk down to the harbor and see what beautiful boats have floated in. It’s a glorious time of year in the Northeast and I aim to enjoy it.

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.

Friday, September 15, 2017

What about Goya?

Who really invented abstraction? Everyone.
A dog engulfed in sand, 1819-1823, Francisco Goya, courtesy of Museo del Prado
A thoughtful reader sent me this essay yesterday, which nominates the Swedish painter Hilma af Klint, rather than Wassily Kandinsky, as the first practitioner of abstract art. Like Kandinsky, she was a follower of Madame Helena Blavatsky, occultist, spirit medium, and founder of Theosophy. Like Kandinsky, she believed her abstract paintings were, in fact, representations of spiritual ideas.

When I studied art back in the last millennium, the first abstract painting was attributed to the great Spanish romantic, Francisco Goya. The painting in question, now called A Dog Engulfed in Sand, or simply El Perro, was one of Goya’s so called ‘black paintings,’ from the end of his life. These are haunted works, reflecting Goya’s bitter disillusionment and fears.  He had lived through the terrible Napoleonic Wars and their political aftermath in Spain. He was elderly, nearly deaf, and had survived two brushes with death.

Seascape Study with Rain Cloud (Rainstorm over the Sea), 1824-28, John Constable, courtesy Royal Academy of Arts
Goya never intended El Perro or any of the other black paintings to be shown. By the 20th century, however, El Perro was famous. Pablo Picasso certainly knew it. Antonio Saura called it "the most beautiful picture in the world". Rafael Canogar described it as the first symbolist painting of the West. The sculptor Pablo Serrano paid homage to it.

A study in pencil, ink, ink wash, brush and pen, for The Death of the Virgin, 1601-1606, Caravaggio
“The sleep of reason begets monsters,” wrote Goya about Los Caprichos. By the end of his life, the monsters were visiting him during the daytime, too.

Any meaning we ascribe to A Dog Engulfed in Sand comes from its title. That was added later, by art historians. None of the black paintings were titled. They were intensely private, painted as murals on his walls. And what a happy home that must have been.

The Monk by the Sea, c. 1808–1809, Caspar David Friedrich
At first sight, El Perro doesn’t seem to be a figurative painting at all. Two dominant blocks of color intersect. At that point a blob of grey paint, the face of a dog, represents all of Goya’s anguished humanity. We, the viewers, are being squashed between relentless forces.

“Abstraction” is a word Goya would not have understood, let alone used. But it is abstraction that gives El Perro its awful power.

Mountain market, clearing mist, Yu Jian, Song Dynasty, China
Many early artists used raw abstraction to work out ideas, or just to doodle, just as figurative painters still do today. I’ve included a few famous examples here, ranging from Caravaggio to Caspar David Friedrich. And that’s just in the western canon. In eastern art, the idea of the void meant that slavish adherence to representation was never a paramount virtue.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

A love affair that’s ended

New York City is no longer the center of the known world for me. How did that happen?
Queensboro Bridge Approach, by Carol L. Douglas
My dream job, when I was young, was to be a cabbie in New York. That had nothing to do with going fast, and everything to do with being aggressive, and in being able to squeeze myself and my car through knot-holes.

I told this to Cornelia Foss one time, as we were scooting north along Madison Avenue. She shuddered. Now I realize that’s because she was older and wiser. (I wish I could take another class from her. At 86, she continues to break new ground as a painter.)

Today I live in a state where the locals, by and large, drive the speed limit and are polite. You’ll never get anywhere here in Maine by driving aggressively. Jump the queue and there will just be another slow-moving vehicle ahead.

Under the Queensboro Bridge, by Carol L. Douglas
This was a strange concept in driving, but I learned to embrace it. Now I roll down my windows and enter that quiet state of pokiness that drives the visitors crazy.

Last time I drove to Queens to meet my pal Brad Marshall, I found myself really irritated with New York drivers. That same exuberance that once goaded me to pass on the right, to joyously sound my horn for no reason, to budge into the box at intersections—it all just annoyed me. We had somewhere to go, and Brad offered to drive. Rare for me, I happily agreed.

In my youth, I said that I would stop going to New York if the vista crossing the George Washington Bridge failed to move me. I saw it a lot in my younger days. I commuted from Rochester to take classes at the Art Students League. I had a crash pad with my friend Peter, on the Upper West Side. We would take classes all day and then I would drive home to Rochester. Rinse and repeat. If I die young, it will be with the consolation that I lived my life very fast.

Underpass, by Carol L. Douglas
I voided that test by moving east. I no longer use the GW to get into the city. Instead, I come down through Massachusetts and Connecticut. There’s no astonishment along that route.

The first sign I was growing cynical about New York came a few years ago, when I met a Southerner for a weekend. She remarked, in passing, at how filthy the city is. That’s one of those things, like your aunt’s fascinating chin hair, that everyone sees but doesn’t mention. But once she commented on it, I began to see detritus everywhere.

I used to love to paint in the city. Now I understand that was the granite calling to me. Much of New York, Washington and Chicago are built of Maine granite. Somehow, I enjoy it more in its natural state.

Staples Street, by Carol L. Douglas
This morning I’m heading back down to Westchester County for Rye’s Painters on Location. Brad’s floating around in the North Atlantic somewhere, but he loaned me his flat. I’m on my own for both painting and driving. Luckily, Painters on Location is always a blast, and I'll see lots of other friends there.

I still admire New York City, but I’ve met other art scenes that match my personality better. I’ll visit for a blockbuster show, or to see friends. But, as for it being the center of the known world, those days are, sadly, gone for me.