Paint Schoodic

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Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Where does art come from?


A new dating technique calls into question what it means to be ‘human’.

The ladder-shaped figure dates back at least 65,000 years, making it Neanderthal in origin. Courtesy P. Saura, Science.
The first recognized artists in the western canon are Bezalel and his assistant, Aholiab, who decorated the Tabernacle sometime between 1400 and 500 BCE, depending on who’s dating the book of Exodus. Polygnotus of Thasos, who worked in the mid 5th century BC, was a superstar in ancient Greece, as was his student Pheidias. But of their actual work we know nothing except copies and descriptions.

The oldest extant western art is all anonymous, the work of early Homo sapiens. Our ancestors, after all, have been scrawling on walls for at least 80,000 years. Why they did this, we don’t know, but we do know that art-making is a uniquely human activity, linked to our higher reasoning skills.

Snowbound, 1911, Charles R. Knight. This is our traditional understanding of Neanderthal culture.
Our slower-witted cousins, the Neanderthals, didn’t have those skills, and thus didn’t create and embrace culture as did Homo sapiens. For that and anatomical reasons, we call them archaic humans, implying that they weren’t quite up to Homo sapiens’ standards. In fact, Carl Linnaeus used the word sapiens because it means ‘wise’.

Or that’s what anthropologists thought until recently. A study published in Science this past February indicates that Neanderthals weren’t nearly as low-brow as we thought. They too created art.

We know that in Africa, Homo sapiens adorned their bodies with pigments and wore beads. There’s some indication that Neanderthals in Europe did the same thing, but anthropologists have always assumed this was something they borrowed from Homo sapiens as the latter arrived in Europe.

Cave art is a step up in the decorative arts, just as painting is a step up from applying makeup. We’ve always assumed that the cave art seen in Europe was the work of recently arrived Homo sapiens. Of course, that was guesswork, since the art can’t be accurately radiocarbon dated.

Skeleton and restoration model of the La Ferrassie 1 Neanderthal man, courtesy National Museum of Nature and Science, Tokyo. Looks just like a guy I saw yesterday.
Radiocarbon dating is useless for mineral-based pigments. Even when our ancestors were using something organic—like charcoal—contamination issues and sample destruction made radiocarbon dating nearly impossible.

Researchers turned to the mineral deposits that form in caves, called speleothems. Stalagmites and stalactites are the most visible examples, but deposits form in all caves. These can be dated by measuring the natural decay of trace amounts of uranium. This is called uranium-thorium dating.

Speleothems form over the surface of cave paintings just as they do everywhere else. Researchers realized that these can give us a latest-possible date without affecting the artwork itself. “In La Pasiega, in northern Spain, we showed that a red linear motif is older than 64,800 years. In Ardales, in southern Spain, various red painted stalagmite formations date to different episodes of painting, including one between 45,300 and 48,700 years ago, and another before 65,500 years ago. In Maltravieso, in western central Spain, we showed a red hand stencil is older than 66,700 years,” wrote Chris Standish and Alistair Pike.

Yet according to everything we think we currently know about human migration, there were no Homo sapiens in western Europe before 45,000 years ago.

Neanderthal tools
“[T]he types of paintings produced (red lines, dots, and hand stencils) are also found in caves elsewhere in Europe, so it would not be surprising if some of these were made by Neanderthals, too,” wrote the authors.

According to our current understanding, Neanderthals lived in Eurasia from 250,000 to 40,000 years ago, disappearing about 5000 years after the arrival of Homo sapiens. We first assumed they were made extinct by Homo sapiens’ superior culture; we now believe they were absorbed into the surviving population. That makes more sense if we consider that they had the same capacity for symbolic thinking as their African cousins. We now know that Neanderthals made tools, built structures, used fire, made art, and buried their dead. In short, they were every bit as human as Homo sapiens.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Home is where they wear you out with parties


When your car is too ratty for Buffalo, you may have a problem.
Erie Canal, by Carol L. Douglas
I woke up to the smell of lake water in the air—a uniquely Buffalo smell, and one that presages rain. It’s my last day here, and I’ll be glad to head home after eight days on the road. I can’t keep up the pace of all this partying. It’s the official sport of Buffalo, after all.

Buffalo’s always been a hard-partying kind of town. At one time the bars stayed open all night to cater to shift-workers. There are no more manufacturing jobs, and the bars now close at 4 AM. I don’t know any American city more dedicated to drinking than that.

Rock tumble at the Holley canal spillway, by Carol L. Douglas
My childhood chum Tim Wendel is in town promoting his newest book, Cancer Crossings. I’d like to catch up, but I comfort myself with the idea that he doesn’t have any more time than I do. I’d hoped to connect with another childhood friend, dancer Cynthia Cadwell Pegado. She’s one of my oldest friends, actually, since we met at our infant dedication at Delaware Baptist Church. I managed to connect with my sister-in-law and her new husband yesterday. And I had dinner in Ellicott Creek Park with my brother and his family. When your life is in your car, you meet up where you can.

It’s like this every time I go on a road trip, but never more so than when I’m in Buffalo. This is my home town, and I’m proud to be from here. However, I can’t see myself ever coming back to live. I can’t handle the pace.

Bluebells on the Erie Canal towpath. WNY has its moments of fascination, for sure.
Buffalonians are, in general, polite drivers, but I still don’t much enjoy sitting in traffic. There’s more and more of that in my old haunts. After a sixty-year hiatus, my home town is finally coming into its own. I’ve waited for this, but I can’t say that I like it much.

I followed a Lamborghini down Niagara Falls Boulevard yesterday. This was always a city of rusty cargo vans. Suddenly, I’m self-conscious about the condition of the old Mercury Monterey we’re tooling around in. I didn’t realize it was possible to drive a car that’s too ratty for Buffalo.

I drove to Grand Island to look at a replacement for my trusty Prius yesterday. At 257,000 miles, it’s grown fragile. My best option, I think, is a pickup truck. “That’s a rather extreme shift,” my daughter commented.

After 257,000 miles and 13 years, the Prius is growing fragile.
I’m spending more and more time on back roads. My Prius, while indomitable, has broken two springs. It was never designed for the dirt roads of Nova Scotia, for example. It’s too small to camp in, and I had to have the roof repainted after (inadvisably) carrying my canoe on it.

I looked at SUVs, but they all seem designed more for luxury than for off-roading. I hate scrubbing paint out of upholstery, so a truck is starting to look like my best choice. Still, $40,000 is a lot to spend on a vehicle.

I don't even remember painting this sketch of a NYSDOT tug on the Erie Canal. I wonder where it ended up.
I have one more task—to load my youngest kid’s stuff in my van—and then we can take off. By mid-afternoon, I should be tooling east on US 90 toward Massachusetts. After that, I get to work in earnest. I have a commission to finish, and a piece to write for Saranac Lake, and if I plan to make any money this summer, I’d better deliver some new work to my galleries.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Monday Morning Art School: the architecture of trees


To paint trees, you have to know trees. That doesn’t mean you need to memorize species, but you do need to be able to see the differences.
Along the Ottawa River, by Carol L. Douglas. You don't need to be able to identify species at 200 paces, but you do need to be able to recognize how trees differ.
Trees, clouds and rocks are all frequently abused in the same way: the oblivious painter never thinks about their individual characteristics but paints them interchangeably. That's a mistake.

Old Bones, by Carol L. Douglas
There is a major division in the forest world between conifers (the trees with needles) and broadleaf trees. Most, but not all, conifers are evergreens; the biggest exception being the larches (tamaracks), which turn a delicious yellow-gold in autumn. Which are dominant in your landscape? Even in the Pine Tree State, the distribution of conifers to deciduous trees is about 50-50.

Most scenes will include a variety of canopy shapes.
For broadleaf trees, the most important distinguishing characteristic is the branching pattern of the tree, which defines the shape of its canopy. Silver maples are large trees with open, vase-like canopies. Oaks have large spreading crowns; beeches have similar crowns that appear to have melted. Most broadleaf trees branch alternately but maple, ash, dogwood and horse chestnut branch in opposite pairs.

Pines have fewer branches than spruces or firs, and their branches grow in circular whorls on the trunk. As they age, they develop an open, jagged canopy. Spruce branches grow in an upturned direction; as youngsters, they look the most like ‘Christmas trees’. In their dotage, they turn a fine, weathered figure to the wind. Firs have wide lower branches and a downcast mien. Notably, their cones point upward.

Along Kiwassa Lake, by Carol L. Douglas
Conifers are most easily identified by their needles. Pine needles grow in clusters of two, (red pines), three (yellow pines), or five (white pines), held onto the stem with a tiny papery wrapper. Spruce needles are short, stiff and grow individually from twigs. Fir needles are soft and flat. Cedars have flat, scale-like leaves and stringy bark. Junipers (including, confusingly, the Eastern Red Cedar) have berrylike, bluish cones on the tips of their shoots.

Basic broadleaf leaves.
Many people can identify the common broadleaf trees by their leaves, and I’ve included a chart to help you. The important part for the painter, however, is to see the differences in color. Silver maples have a lovely grey-silver color. Sycamores are garbed in military-fatigue green. Black spruces are dark while Eastern White Pines are fair and soft in their coloring.

This is why I discourage my students from using tube greens and encourage them, instead, to mix a matrix of green colors.

Baby black spruce and pines, by Carol L. Douglas
Too often, we painters ignore young trees, something I tried to rectify (with varying success) last season. Young trees often look radically different from their aged ancestors, but they have a beauty of their own.

To be a convincing painter, you don’t need to memorize the species of trees, but you do have to learn to distinguish between them. Any plausible landscape will contain a variety of them, with different bark, branch structures, and leaf colors.

It's about time for you to consider your summer workshop plans. Join me on the American Eagle, at Acadia National Park, or at Genesee Valley this summer.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Approaching the finish line

Joined together under a single cell-phone plan, they are now (almost) man and wife.

The artist's great conceit is that he or she can make anything. Today I'm going to make bouquets out of heirloom roses and thistles. I kind of wish the bridal party was carrying helium balloons instead.
Some time this afternoon, I’m supposed to close down my workroom, freshen up my makeup, and appear at the wedding rehearsal as if I’ve been doing nothing more than hanging out at a spa all day. Plein air artists do this every time we have an event opening. One moment, we’re madly framing on the back decks of our cars. Then the final bell tolls. We’re done, for better or worse. We find a public restroom, wash as well as we can, and slip into our nice clothes. Then we go into the sale gallery and look at our paintings and think of all the things we wish we’d done differently.

I once did an event with Laurie Lefebvre where, under her beautiful clinging party dress, she was spattered with brilliant paint that wouldn’t wash off. Laurie is statuesque and beautiful, so she carried it off. I usually have paint rubbed into my eye sockets, so I often look like I’m coming off a nine-day drunk.

Some of the other flowers in my order didn't travel as well.
When my first daughter was married, I missed her rehearsal and dinner entirely. The crystal and flatware at the venue were not cleaned to my standards. There were more than 200 guests at that wedding, so washing the dishes and resetting the tables was no small feat. Still, it had to be done—or so I thought at the time.

I’ve smartened up since then. I’ve resolved to take Philippians 4:5-7 as if it were a pointed comment directed right at me. I asked another daughter yesterday (not the bride) whether I was overreacting about browning on the flowers. She assured me I wasn’t, so I’m waiting now for a replacement delivery. My chef friends tell me your results are only as good as the ingredients you use. It’s certainly true of painting.

The designer put boning in this bodice for a reason. A tailor removed it. I replaced it. Hopefully, when the owner shows up today, the dress will fit her.
I’m not faulting the online vendor. The flowers were packed on the wrong truck and carted around Niagara Falls by mistake. So far, the company is responsive. Still, I’m starting to feel the pressure of delays against a fixed deadline.

Daughter number two is furloughed this week, waiting for the Federal government to renew her contract. I’m terrifically proud of this kid for many things, but one of them is that she and her husband are careful money managers. They’re not knocked off their pins by this setback, and it’s given us a chance to spend time together.

At one point yesterday, she was deboning a chicken while I was boning the bodice of a dress. My youngest found the language so offensive he went out for a walk.

The bride found my tasteful fascinator too funereal, so I fun-fettied it.
Meanwhile, the bride and groom met up with Sandy Quang at a restaurant near Rochester, where she handed over the critical documents needed for a marriage license in New York. They then went to the closest town clerk and got the business done. Future genealogists will be stumped looking for that license, since Henrietta, NY plays no part in either of their histories.

They then proceeded to a T-Mobile store to buy a cell phone plan. That, in modern parlance, is probably the true joining together of man and wife.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Sensible Maine


Not all regional differences are about the landscape, the accents and the buildings. There are also differences in character.
Erie Canal Sketch by Carol L. Douglas. You're pretty, New York, but don't let it go to your head.
Last year, Bobbi Heath and I stopped on the road and bought boxes, bubble wrap and tape. We left these, carefully marked, for our work to be returned after a show in New Jersey. Mine were mailed back unsecured and unwrapped. Mercifully, nothing was damaged, but had that $3000 of inventory been ruined, the Postal Service would have been justified in not paying the claim. Our host at that event was gracious and kind, but the slipshod mailing left me thinking poorly of the event.

Compare that to my experience at Santa Fe Plein Air Fiesta earlier this month. When my frames arrived broken, co-chair Jane Chapin loaned me three of hers. That flexible, kind attitude was visible in small and large ways throughout the event. They held three receptions for the artists. They cooked for us and cared for us. Their attitude makes me want to hurry back.

There are invisible differences from place to place in America, and sometimes they're more important than what you see.

Erie Canal Bridge Sketch, by Carol L. Douglas.
I engage with government in very limited ways—the department of motor vehicles, the town clerk, the planning office, and the post office. In my small town of Rockport, ME (pop. 3,330), I’m accustomed to public officials being accommodating and thoughtful. The other day I visited the clerk’s office to ask what my excise tax would be on a new car I’m considering. It was a few minutes before closing time. The deputy clerk calculated it, commiserated, and made a friendly joke as we left.

In New York, it’s a high crime and misdemeanor if every dot and tittle is not in place. Its clerks guard their prerogatives assiduously. I should have remembered that, but I’ve gotten soft.

Catskill Farm, by Carol L. Douglas
So I was a little blindsided when my daughter ran into trouble at the local town hall. She and her fiancé need a marriage license by the weekend. They had followed the instructions on the New York State website. Of course, like everyone else, they followed them wrong. She was carrying the wrong identification.

Still, the town she is getting married in is very close to the town where she was born. She’s carrying the highest-and-greatest form of identification—her United States Passport. It ought to have been no big deal to just get a new birth certificate.

No way, no how. They won’t give it to her without her Social Security card, one of the most loosely-controlled documents Americans carry. “Homeland Security visits us, you know!” the clerk told her.

The Dugs, by Carol L. Douglas
“This is New York, right?” a friend quipped. “Try bribing them.” I won’t do that, but if it doesn’t get straightened out today, I’m going to try sending a little muscle along. And there’s always ‘the touch’, putting the word out to friends and family to see who knows someone who knows someone. Because in New York, that’s how things get done.

But back to sensible Maine for the answer. I called Camden Falls Gallery and got Howard Gallagher on the phone. “Sure!” he said, and he sent Sandy Quang over to my house to get the requisite documents from my safe. Then she got into her car and left for New York a few hours earlier than she had planned. If all goes well, Mary’s birth certificate and social security card should be in her hand by midday and the wedding will proceed as planned.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

$2 billion in art distributed for free


The Corcoran’s demise is a sad reminder that many cultural institutions in America skitter on the brink of insolvency.

Simplon Pass, 1911, John Singer Sargent, has gone to the National Gallery.

In 2014, the board of trustees for the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, announced that they were closing that venerable institution and offering its assets—for free—to other agencies to manage. That meant its school, its Beaux Arts building, and its collection would all be given away. The assets were staggering, somewhere around $2 billion, and somehow the money machine would be kept out of the process.

This week the deal became final, with the Corcoran board announcing the dispensation of the final 11,000 artworks. (The National Gallery had first dibs and took about 40% of the collection.) The art school, the building, and about 800 works go to George Washington University. Much of the rest of the collection is headed to the American University Museum, with the Smithsonian American Art Museum and other institutions rounding out the list. The art will stay in Washington, in the public view.

Niagara, 1857, by Frederic Edwin Church, has gone to the National Gallery.
The Corcoran was one of America’s oldest art museums, founded to house the private collection of a 19th century financier, William Wilson Corcoran. Doing nothing by half-measures, Corcoran hired James Renwick, designer of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York and the Smithsonian ‘Castle’ in Washington, to build his museum.

Corcoran made his fortune on war bonds and retired to a life of philanthropy by 1854. His good works were legion. They included the land and chapel for Oak Hill Cemetery, a benevolent fund for the poor of Georgetown, innumerable gifts to universities, and securing Mount Vernon for the nation. He was also a southern sympathizer who left for Paris at the outbreak of war.

Forty-two Kids, 1907, George Bellows, has gone to the National Gallery.
Corcoran was also an early patron of American art. He counted painters Albert Bierstadt, Frederic Edwin Church, Thomas Doughty, and George Inness among his friends. The Corcoran was established in 1869. Its School of Art was founded in 1878.

Fast forward a century and Corcoran’s vision was showing signs of financial strain. “When news broke that Board was considering selling the building, it felt like every conversation I had placed the beginning of the Museum’s decline to an earlier and earlier point,” wrote Blair Murphy. “One D.C. artist I spoke with argued that the Museum had never recovered from declining to purchase the collection of the shuttered Washington Gallery of Modern Art. That was in 1968.”

Ground swell, 1939, Edward Hopper, has gone to the National Gallery.
In 1989, the gallery agreed to host Robert Mapplethorpe’s The Perfect Moment. Worse, it cancelled the show when trustees and supporters voiced opposition. A change in leadership staved off bankruptcy temporarily. But history conspired against the institution. Rerouted traffic after 9/11 made it harder to get to. In 2005, the museum was unable to raise funds for a highly-touted addition by Frank Gehry. The financial crisis of 2008 hit cultural institutions hard. Giving to the Corcoran fell off sharply.

The Last of the Buffalo, 1888, Albert Bierstadt, has gone to the National Gallery.

Washington is a city of free, government-subsidized museums. The Corcoran was neither. By the end, in 2014, the admission fee was $10. Why pay that when there are so many other options that cost nothing?

The Corcoran’s demise is a sad reminder that many cultural institutions in America skitter on the brink of insolvency. What do we do about that?

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Meanwhile my paints are languishing in the van


The forest primeval, ticks, and open-toed sandals.
My granddaughter demonstrates the importance of wearing Wellies to tick avoidance.
I’m in Rensselaer County, NY, at the home of my oldest child. This lies in that strip of New York that’s on the east bank of the Hudson, in the eastern Berkshires. It is often mistaken by non-New Yorkers for Massachusetts. I’m here because there is a large, open kitchen and all three of my daughters are present. That means plenty of hands to help me with last-minute rote work for Saturday’s wedding.

Julia has an ant problem. Ants are creatures of habit, and the mere presence of a new house sitting on their ancient pathway won’t deter them. When we built our first house in the woods, we had ants and snakes in abundance. Did our frontier ancestors constantly battle ants in the kitchen along with the more palpable dangers of wildcats and bears?

Ants are famous for their work ethic, a subject of some discussion as I slump into exhaustion. “More Mary, less Martha,” my kids tell me. The bride is a line cook at Olive Garden. She and I compared our capacity for repetitive, boring work by spending hours assembling favors. She’s faster than me.

My sons-in-law made me 24 maple tree cookies for the centerpieces.
I’m pretty tired, but my task list is steadily shrinking. That means I drive into Albany later to get glamorous, although my favorite activity with my daughters—a pedicure—is out due to my incisions.

Rensselaer County is in Ground Zero for ticks. The disease that made them famous was first identified in Old Lyme, CT, just about a hundred miles from here. Ticks are everywhere here and more numerous than anywhere else I visit. To give you an idea of the scale of the problem, almost every artist I know who works in the Hudson Valley has had Lyme Disease or one of its hideous cousins.

Part of a huge dog pack waiting to be spraypainted.
My grandchildren spend a lot of time outside in the woods. They’re assiduously checked for ticks every time they come inside. It’s sweet to watch their father hose them off in the shower, carefully checking them for parasites.

Wellies are the best protection against ticks, but I’m stuck in sandals until the incisions on my feet heal. That means no walking in the spring woods and careful tick checks.

Scottish shortbread wrapped in the groom's family tartan. It's a meeting of the clans.  
I’ve heard that the explosion in Lyme is based partly on our “slicing and dicing of the forest,” but if you actually live in New York or Maine, that’s laughable. The forest is back in the northeast with a vengeance as agriculture becomes less economically feasible. Rebounding also are the white-footed mice, deer and other animals who host ticks. 

In many ways, New York and New England are reverting to the forest primeval. We don’t know if our frontier ancestors had the deer tick problem that we do, but combined with a lack of indoor plumbing it would have been downright exasperating.

Tomorrow, I collect the flower order and deliver the tchotchkes (and the check) to the wedding venue. Meanwhile, my watercolor kit is sitting in the van untouched. Oh, well. There’s a season for everything, and this week’s season is for wedding prep.

It's about time for you to consider your summer workshop plans. Join me on the American Eagle, at Acadia National Park, or at Genesee Valley this summer.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Monday Morning Art School: How to throw a party for 200

The artist’s job is to give linear thinkers a respite from their own minds. That starts with your opening.
The artist dancing with her eldest child.
Great gallerists also know how to throw great parties. Regular openings and developing a circle of fans is part of their job. There’s no value in having all that work assembled in one place if nobody ever stops by to see it. Selling—whether it’s art or cars—requires a person to be likeable.

That’s true for the artist too. Art-making may be a solitary job, but the artist needs to be convivial to sell his or her own work. I’ve thrown more brawls for a hundred or more people than I can count. Actually, I’d far prefer to do that than to have you over for dinner, which terrifies me.

An opening done by gallerist Sue Leo at Davison Gallery, for my show God + Man. Photo courtesy 
Iván Ramos .
The invitation is the key
Whether you call it an ‘invitation’ or an ‘advertisement’, the way you announce your event is key. It tells your intended guests the tone of the event, and hints at what kind of good time they’ll have. Graphic design is ruthlessly trend-driven. Spend time on Pinterest and Etsy and pay particular attention to fonts. They’re as fashion-sensitive as shoes.

Hound your guests
You’ll find yourself repeating, “Are you coming to my party?” over and over for weeks. This is a good thing. They won’t be excited if you’re not excited. Scarcity marketing—as perfected by the old Studio 54 in New York—is a great way to pack the house, but it only works if you’ve already demonstrated that your parties are worth attending.

Sue Baines’ hors d'œuvres are not like those in any other gallery.
Play to your strengths
Sue Lewis Baines of the Kelpie Gallery is a wonderful cook, and the hors d'œuvre at her openings could make me rise from my deathbed. Howard Gallagher of Camden Falls Gallery knows how to assemble great bands for a dance party. I can bake. Know your strengths and capitalize on them.

Make a budget and stick to it
I saw the most wonderful fairyland floral arrangements at the Renaissance Minneapolis Hotel three weeks ago. I whipped out my phone and snapped several shots, and then set them aside. To change my decorating scheme at this late date would cost a small fortune. A budget set in stone is the only way to survive to throw another party.

A beer-themed opening of my students' work at VB Brewery in Fairport, NY.
Work way in advance
Procrastination is the worst possible habit for the host or hostess of a party. I have been working on this upcoming one for months.

Be surprising
Good taste is so highly overrated. What’s important is that people laugh and have a good time. If they can’t figure out how ceramic dogs, moose, and woodland animals go together, they might be overthinking this. The artist’s job, after all, is to give linear thinkers a respite from their own minds.

Ask for help
Nobody can throw a party for 200 without help, so when someone offers to help, smile and accept gracefully. Hire out what you can.

And on that note, I’m shuffling off to Buffalo for my third daughter’s wedding. It's about time for you to consider your summer workshop plans. Join me on the American Eagle, at Acadia National Park, or at Genesee Valley this summer.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Sea Captains Carousing


It's an iconic New England painting, and it’s fun to imagine with your friends in it.
Sea Captains Carousing in Surinam, oil on bed ticking, 1755, John Greenwood, courtesy St. Louis Art Museum. Greenwood painted himself in the doorway, leaving with a candle.
Last night I had a glass of wine with my pal Cathy. She doesn’t want to learn to paint, but she likes to sail, so she asked me about my Age of Sail workshop aboard the schooner American Eagle. In the way of small towns, her husband knows Captain John Foss, and remarked about what a great story-teller he is. That’s true of sailors in general, but he’s a wry master of the art form.

I got home to this essay about iconic New England paintings. It includes the wonderful Sea Captains Carousing in Surinam, 1755, by John Greenwood. Since moving to Maine I’ve gotten to know a number of sea captains, and even more lobstermen, and it’s wonderful to imagine them in their tricornes, dancing around in this painting.

Sea Captains Carousing is what art historians call a genre painting. These are scenes from everyday life: markets, homes, inns, brothels, churches, streets. Often, they’re moralizing, as in the work of English painter William Hogarth. Those fantastic Flemish and Dutch food paintings? They’re genre paintings, and they instruct us on the transience of luxury and the perils of gluttony.

Portrait of Richard Waldron, oil on wood, 1751, John Greenwood, courtesy New England Historical Society
Just to be confusing, the word genre also means in painting what it means in other arts—a type of subject matter. In fact, classical art had a hierarchy of genres, formulated by the Italians. It persisted right up to the modern era:
  1. History, religious and allegorical painting
  2. Portraits
  3. Genre paintings
  4. Landscapes
  5. Animals
  6. Still life
Greenwood was raised and trained in the hinterlands of the British Empire (Boston), so he didn’t have the advantages of such classical ideas. Still, he knew there was money in portraits, and he executed hundreds of the things.

Unless they emigrated from England as adults, most of our earliest painters were self-taught. They emulated British styles of painting, which they knew through prints and the works of émigré artists. This was true of both primitive painters like William Jennys or sophisticated artists like John Singleton Copley.

John Richard Comyns of Hylands, Essex, with His Daughters, 1775, John Greenwood, courtesy Yale Center for British Art 
Greenwood had the advantage of an apprenticeship with self-taught engraver Thomas Johnston. In addition to portraits, Greenwood painted many satirical works. Sea Captains Carousing in Surinam is the best known of them. Surinam was a Dutch colony in South America, now the Republic of Suriname. Greenwood lived there for five years, during which time he painted 115 portraits. He never returned to North America, traveling east to Amsterdam, Paris, and London, where he eventually settled.
Portrait of the painter Tako Jajo Jelgersma, c. 1750-58, John Greenwood, courtesy Rijksmuseum.
The beauty of Sea Captains Carousing is in what its subjects would later become in the history of Rhode Island. In addition to many prominent merchants, it includes Declaration of Independence signatory Stephen Hopkins, Governor Joseph Wanton, Admiral Esek Hopkins, and Governor Nicholas Cooke.

It's about time for you to consider your summer workshop plans. Join me on the American Eagle, at Acadia National Park, or at Genesee Valley this summer.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Suffering from a loose wig?


No problem, you’re just a creative.
Creation, by Carol L. Douglas
Intelligence is a complex subject. I doubt we’re measuring it correctly, let alone that we understand how it forms. Still, I love reading studies on the subject. For example, this one said that people in cold states have higher IQs. It may not be true, but it seems like a good justification for freezing so much of the year.

Researchers recently went looking for a correlation between cortical thickness and intelligence. That makes sense, right? A V-8 engine is more powerful than my four-cylinder Prius, after all. Therefore, the more grey matter we have, the smarter we ought to be. Except that brain mass doesn’t really correlate very well with intelligence, something scientists have known for a long time.

This is your brain in the cold.
In a recent neuroimaging study by US and Canadian scientists, participants were given questionnaires that assessed their intellect and openness. ‘Openness’ is an even more amorphous quality than intelligence, defined by researchers as “engagement with fantasy, perception, and aesthetics.”

Researchers then correlated the results of those tests with MRI images measuring the thickness of the cerebral cortex. This part of your brain is responsible for memory and cognitive control.

But the bigger-is-better model failed once again to deliver. There was no relationship at all between cortical thickness and intelligence. There was a negative relationship between cortical thickness and ‘openness’. In other words, the less cortical thickness, the more likely you are to make creative associations.

Untitled, by Carol L. Douglas. There might be a face in there. I might have a loose wig.
Since the cortex plays a role in memory and structuring thought, the researchers thought it made sense that reduced thickness would be associated with openness. “It’s almost like a reduced filter mechanism that, in some cases, can be beneficial,” said researcher Oshin Vartanian.

This all just supports the old canard that creatives are eccentric. The fancy name for that is cognitive disinhibition, and it means that we artists have less control over our thoughts than ‘normal’ people, whatever they are.

Scientists—those poor unfortunate linear thinkers—posit that creatives suffer from schizotypal personality, a mild form of being nuts.

You are more than the contents of your brain case, kiddo, by Carol L. Douglas.
“In my research at Harvard, done in part with my colleague Cynthia A. Meyersburg, I have found that study participants who score high in a measure of creative achievement in the arts are more likely to endorse magical thinking — such as belief in telepathic communication, dreams that portend the future, and memories of past lives. These participants are also more likely to attest to unusual perceptual experiences, such as having frequent déjà vu and hearing voices whispering in the wind,” wrote Shelley Carson.

Sound like any successful artist you know? Me neither, and I know a lot of successful artists. This kind of ‘analysis’ is in itself the worst kind of magical thinking. Since science’s chief claim is rationality, that's kind of funny.

The human animal is more than the sum of his or her parts. That's worth remembering.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Party dogs

What is art? That’s something nobody can agree on.
Great Danes and Doberman Pinschers talk about what they plan to wear to my daughter's wedding.
Last night I assembled an august panel of artists to help me with a project. Barb is a printmaker with an art degree from University of Maine. Sandy is a gallerist with degrees from Pratt and Hunter College. Together, we dressed 42 dogs in wedding finery. (As so often happens in sweatshops, I ‘forgot’ to pay them.)

“Is this art?” I asked two other artist friends.

“It’s like asking if a soy product in the shape of a chicken leg is food,” said one. “Technically, yes, but it’s bad food.”

“I guess the individual sculptures are art,” hedged the other, who then raised the question of whether they’re craft or even, just possibly, crap.

Two coats of silver and three of glitter... good taste, by the way, is repressive at times.
‘Artistry’ is easier to define than art itself. That means the skill necessary to produce a work of the imagination. But what defines the product of the imagination as art rather than engineering or craft?

Ars longa, vita brevis, wrote Hippocrates. He probably meant that it takes a long time to acquire and perfect artistry, but that the practitioner has only a short lifespan in which to practice. We repeat it, instead, to mean, “art lasts forever, but life is short.” That is, of course, a modern conceit. The ancients understood that “what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” (2 Cor. 4:18)

Barb felt that a DeWalt glue gun was not the tool for the job.
Plato said that art is always a copy of a copy, an imitation of reality. This leads us from the truth and to illusion, making art inherently dangerous. (Rich words from a philosopher!) Elsewhere, he hinted that the artist, by divine inspiration, makes a better copy of truth than may be found in everyday experience. This makes artists prophets of sorts.

A lot of artists have had a go at defining art. Many are coy, like Marc Chagall, who said that “Art is the unceasing effort to compete with the beauty of flowers–and never succeeding.”

Even in non-traditional art, imitation is a recurring theme. “Art is either a plagiarist or a revolutionary,” said Paul Gauguin. What makes an Andy Warhol painting of soup cans different from the soup cans themselves? Intent and meaning. Pablo Picasso said that art is a lie that makes us see the truth.

In some way, art is the taking of an idea and making it manifest. Otherwise, it’s just a fleeting thought.

Sandy and I sewed their garments, Barb dressed them.
People frequently debate the line between art and craft. Art is useless in practical terms; it exists solely to drive emotion and thought. Fine craft does that and more. It must serve a practical purpose along with being beautiful. Since I didn’t drill their noses out to hold flowers, my party dogs fall on the side of art. 

Neither fine art nor fine craft are mass-produced, however. That is manufacturing. Those brass birds from Home Goods, as inscrutable as their meaning and purpose might be, qualify as neither art nor craft.

“The craftsman knows what he wants to make before he makes it. The making of a work of art… is a strange and risky business in which the maker never knows quite what he is making until he makes it, wrote R.G. Collingwood in The Principles of Art. That sounds very nice, until I think of dye-master Jane Bartlett throwing pots of color into the snow to see what shows up. Her textiles end up as clothing, but her process is wildly unpredictable.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Where do the dogs go?


Failed paintings are less common than you think. You just have to look at them the right way.
This is an example of an unfinished painting that pointed the way forward. It took years for me to understand where I was going with it.
Last week, as I dithered about which paintings to submit to Santa Fe Plein Air Fiesta, a reader wrote, “Can you write a post sometime about what you do with the second-tier paintings you make? Do you just scrape them? Give away to unsuspecting strangers? Donate, unsigned, to charity thrift shops? Let them accumulate and breed in a dark basement?”

First of all, let me be clear that I don’t think any of last week's five (or the one I didn’t finish on Friday) are ‘second tier’ paintings. I’m happy with them all, and I think they’re sellable. They’re not sellable in either of the galleries that represent me on the Maine coast, however. I have two options: I will market them through my own studio, or sell them online through Chrissy Pahucki’s pleinair.store.

Spring, by Carol L. Douglas. I hated this when I painted it. Now I've almost caught up with it.
I’ve done plein air events where I’ve sold exactly nothing, and other events where I’ve sold everything. It’s unpredictable. At the end of the summer, I usually have more work left over than I’ve sold. Usually these works end up selling in future years. Occasionally, they end up donated to fundraisers, but only for organizations I care about, who can get a fair-market price for their work.

But let’s talk about paintings that aren’t good enough to sell. It happens, although the artist in his or her post-creative exhaustion is the usually the last person to be a good judge of whether a painting has merit or not. Some artists are quick to scrape out everything they don’t like. After all, professional-grade painting panels are expensive.

Hollyhocks, by Carol L. Douglas. Sometimes you have to paint something a number of times to realize you aren't interested in the subject. I thought I should be, since I'd planted this garden.
I don’t think scraping out is a good idea. It means new and difficult ideas are stillborn. How do you find a path forward without contemplating each tangled byway to see if this is the way forward?

These paintings—the edgy, difficult ones that don’t seem to have much value—go on racks to dry, and then into into bins in my studio, where they’re available at a reduced price. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve looked through those bins and suddenly seen something wonderful that I’ve never noticed before. My brain likes the status quo. Often it takes a few years for it to catch up with the intelligence of my hands. Those bins are part of the process of dragging it forward.
59th Street Bridge Approach, by Carol L. Douglas. There are subjects I used to love, but love no more.
I have a few customers who love the bins, and they root through them every time they visit. They can definitely get a good bargain there, because the binned paintings are available for a fraction of the cost of framed paintings.

Sometimes, these binned paintings live on as reference for larger works—I’d much rather scale up a field sketch in the studio than a photograph. Sometimes, I revise and finish in the studio. For example, the seasonal lag between New Mexico and Rockport, ME, means that I can comfortably find an apple tree here to use to finish Friday’s painting.

But, yes, sometimes I paint total dogs that aren’t useful for reference, for overpainting, or for any purpose known to mankind. These I destroy. Although that doesn't happen very often, I reserve the right to edit my own legacy.