Paint Schoodic

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Thursday, May 31, 2018

Toning canvases


I tone my canvases bright red because it works for me, but you can choose any warm color. The important thing is that you always do it.

I use a clapped-out oil-painting brush, but a 2" wall brush works just fine and is cheaper.
Imprimatura is the initial stain of pigment painted on a gesso ground. In traditional indirect painting, this ground color is left open where possible, reflecting back up through the paint layers and creating a cohesive tonal structure. Imprimatura was used the Middle Ages but became standard practice during the Renaissance.

We don’t paint indirectly in the field, so why do we still tone canvases? Toning is useful in the initial stages of work, since it helps the painter establish a value structure. Not only will a white canvas practically blind you on a sunny day, it changes how you perceive darks and lights, which in turn mucks up your composition. We touched on this in our Monday Morning Art School lesson based on Josef Albers.

A more traditional toning color, and a frankly bad application. I can say that; I did it.
Traditionally, a painter would choose a warm earth tone like a sienna or ochre, dilute it half and half with turpentine, paint it on the canvas with an old 2” wall brush, and then wipe the residue clear with a rag. This would leave a layer still porous enough to grab the gesso, but in a light, sparkling tone.

If you’re using oil-primed canvases or boards, you’d better tone exactly like that, or you’re creating an archival nightmare. Everything I’m about to say applies only to acrylic-primed boards, which are the ones most commonly used in the field.

I use diluted naphthol red for a ground. This isn’t something I made up myself; I got it from Steven Assael, who probably got it from someone else. (In fact, I keep meaning to ask a conservator whether it’s the right red, or if there’s an analog that’s more migration-fast.)

I want enough pigment to be solid, but not enough to interfere with the tooth overmuch.
I like naphthol because the color is warm yet hot, unlike cadmium red, which tends to be dull. (That’s a great attribute for a painting red, just not for a ground.) Naphthol red is a good counterpoint to green and blue, the dominant colors of our northeastern environment. It’s energetic, which I aspire to be, and it makes me immediately think in terms of all the accidental colors in the environment.

Beginning painters often make the mistake of being skimpy with the paint, especially if their earliest training was with watercolor. There is nothing more amateurish than watery paint on a white board. A toned ground encourages the use of proper amounts of paint, and it makes those first efforts look more cohesive.

So what color should you use? What are you going for in terms of mood and feel? The typical answer to this is the earth tones—the ochres, umbers and siennas, either solo or in combination. I tend to like 20th century ‘hot’ pigments. I’ve used lavender, orange and pink with success. Straight-up lemon yellow, however, was a dismal failure.

Spring Pruning, by Carol L. Douglas. Sometimes I let the ground show, as here.
Manufacturers say you shouldn’t dilute acrylic paint more than 50-50, and I think that’s true even at the toning level. If it’s breaking down into droplets, it’s got too much water in it.

Toning makes a terrific mess. Work on the floor, the lawn, or cover your work surfaces. You can kill yourself to apply the paint smoothly, but I never bother. It doesn’t seem to make much difference in the finished product.

This afternoon I leave for Rochester, NY for my Color, Composition and Technique workshop. After that, there’s a watercolor workshop aboard American Eagle, June 10-14, and my annual Sea & Sky workshop at Acadia National Park, August 5-10. Email me if you have any questions.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Dealing with GDPR


If it stops our data from being sold, that is a good thing. For now, GDPR is just one more compliance task, and I don’t even live in the EU.

Beach toys, by Carol L. Douglas
I read with mild amusement that galleries may be faced with “onerous new requirements” to prove they are not selling undocumented antiquities, laundering money, or any of the other things covered under the Bank Secrecy Act. I don’t think this is necessarily a bad idea. “The art market is an ideal playing ground for money laundering,” said Thomas Christ, of the Basel Institute on Governance, a Swiss nonprofit that studied the issue.

Most galleries in the US, aren’t dealing with foreign princes and Monet-style pricing. Instead, they’re dealing with compliance of a different sort. On May 25, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) went into effect in the European Union. Living and selling art in a coastal town, even my relatively small list contains names from the EU. There is no exemption from compliance for sole proprietors or small businesses, and the penalties are stiff.

Sea and sand, by Carol L. Douglas
This is why you’ve suddenly been getting emails from vendors asking if you want to remain on their mailing lists. They’re hustling to remain in compliance.

Can I document why I have every name on my list? No way. Some were collected long ago, when I was schlepping a tent from town to town selling paintings on village greens. I will proceed on the assumption that those people would have cleared off my mailing list long ago, had they wanted to.

If you hold and work with data collected from clients, then you need to have a contract with the client stating how that data is to be held and managed. There are two principles involved. The first is that you must have appropriate legal grounds for processing the data and that you do it in a transparent manner. The second is that you must only collect data for a specific purpose and use it only for that purpose.

Off the Marginal Way, by Carol L. Douglas
For the gallerist or artist, this generally comes down to clearly informing your subscribers about how you plan to use their information. It also means that you can’t take the list you got from the church lawn fĂȘte and use it for your own business.

You’re also supposed to recite the subscribers’ rights and how they can lodge a complaint. Frankly, that’s more than I can deal with. Luckily, I use Blogger and Mailchimp, and they handle the jargon for me.

I added this note to my blog: “Subscribe here and receive every post by email. Never used for anything else; never passed along.” Had I enough room, I would have added, “because I have no idea how to even collect the darn things from Google, or any plan to sell the names once I collect them. I’m just not that smart.”

Surf, by Carol L. Douglas

It’s one more way that blogs and emails are being pushed into the hands of big operations like Google, but I don’t see any option. Who among us has the expertise to navigate these legal shoals or the resources to lawyer up? Certainly not me.

There is one part of the GDPR that tickles my fancy. That’s “the right to be forgotten.” Say I took photos of you in a drunken brawl at one of my openings and for some reason decided to post them on Instagram. Twenty years later, older and possibly wiser, you objected. You could ask me to delete the photo and I’d have to justify why I shouldn’t. It will be interesting to see how that meshes with American free speech rights.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

What’s in a name?


How dare anyone lecture Emily Carr—even posthumously—on relations with her indigenous neighbors?
The Indian Church, 1929, Emily Carr, courtesy Art Gallery of Ontario. Lawren Harris once owned this painting.
Canadians are a mythically polite people. That reputation has at least some basis in fact. Why else would they rename Emily Carr’s iconic 1929 painting Indian Church as Church at Yuquot Village?

Georgiana Uhlyarik, of the Art Gallery of Ontario, told CBC Radio that the former title contained “a word that causes pain.” (Uhlyarik is not indigenous herself.) I'm not certain why it should be a painful word. If anything, ‘Indian’ is an indictment of our ancestors, not the people it was applied to. Emily Carr named her painting in the common parlance of her day.

Carr was always sympathetic and knowledgeable about the native people she painted. In her lowest days she made pottery for sale to tourists. “I ornamented my pottery with Indian designs — that was why the tourists bought it. I hated myself for prostituting Indian Art; our Indians did not ‘pot,’ their designs were not intended to ornament clay — but I did keep the Indian design pure.

Blunden Harbour, 1930, Emily Carr, courtesy National Gallery of Canada
“Because my stuff sold, other potters followed my lead and, knowing nothing of Indian Art, falsified it. This made me very angry. I loved handling the smooth cool clay. I loved the beautiful Indian designs, but I was not happy about using Indian designs on material for which it was not intended and I hated seeing them distorted, cheapened by those who did not understand or care as long as their pots sold,” she wrote.

Carr was born in Victoria, BC, in 1871 to English parents. She studied art at the San Francisco Art Institute and in London. By the turn of the century she was already focusing on her subject: the indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest. But it was not until she visited France in 1912 that she would marry that subject to post-impressionism.

Kitwancool, 1928, Emily Carr, courtesy Glenbow Museum
Her personality was too uncouth to be a good teacher, and her work was too distinctive to sell easily. She struggled to find a business model that worked. Failing, she traveled north to the Queen Charlotte Islands (now Haida Gwaii) and the Skeena River, to document life among the HaidaGitxsan and Tsimshian people.

Carr documented the art of the Pacific Northwest with anthropological precision. “These things should be to us Canadians what the ancient Briton's relics are to the English. Only a few more years and they will be gone forever into silent nothingness and I would gather my collection together before they are forever past,” she said.

Public response remained dismal. Carr returned to Victoria to run a boarding house, doing almost no painting. She grew fruit and vegetables in her backyard and raised chickens, rabbits and bobtail sheepdogs for sale.

She was middle-aged when she was finally ‘discovered’. After a visit to her studio in 1926, anthropologist Marius Barbeau wrote to Eric Brown, director of the National Gallery of Canada, suggesting that the Gallery purchase her entire collection. Brown was cool to the idea until he visited her studio during planning for a show entitled Exhibition of Canadian West Coast Art - Native and Modern.
Odds and Ends, 1939, Emily Carr, courtesy Art Gallery of Greater Victoria. In later life, Carr began to focus on pure landscape and environmental issues.
Brown selected twenty-six paintings and hooked rugs and pottery for the exhibition. He suggested that Carr read Frederick Housser's A Canadian Art Movement, introducing her to the Group of Seven. He also gave her a complimentary rail pass to get to Ottawa for the opening. 

On the way, she visited A. Y. Jackson’s studio in Toronto. “I felt a little as if beaten at my own game. His Indian pictures have something mine lack — rhythm, poetry. Mine are so downright. But perhaps his haven't quite the love in them of the people and the country that mine have. How could they? He is not a Westerner and I took no liberties. I worked for history and cold fact. Next time I paint Indians I'm going off on a tangent tear. There is something bigger than fact: the underlying spirit, all it stands for, the mood, the vastness, the wildness, the Western breath of go-to-the-devil-if-you-don't-like-it, the eternal big spaceness of it. Oh the West! I'm of it and I love it,” she wrote.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Elegy for a house


I have no idea what the next chapter in this house’s history will be, but for many years it was a haven for New York plein air painters.
Kaaterskill Falls, by Carol L. Douglas
If the legal system creaks along as it should, an important property will pass out of the plein air world today. This is Jamie Williams Grossman’s home in Palenville, NY. Jamie is married to New York State Supreme Court Justice Victor G. Grossman. Vic is required to live in his district, which covers Westchester and four other counties. When it came time for them to downsize, it was the Catskill house that had to go.

The house is a long, open structure, originally built as a barn for the farm across the road. Its conversion was top notch—steel stairs, a large open kitchen, and pleasant, airy rooms. The foundation rested on bedrock which intruded poetically into the basement. Along one side of this lower level, Jamie built a long, sunny studio. When she was in residence, so too were her birds.

Clouds over the Catskills, by Carol L. Douglas
To get there, you turned off a local road and dropped sharply down a gravel lane that seemed to peter out in scrub. Even when you knew where you were going, it was easy to miss.

The property is dotted with waterfalls. Some are seasonal. If you felt so inclined, you could hike to one of the more remote ones. The most beautiful passed right under the driveway. Dropping rapidly down from the road, it broke and crashed on huge granite boulders before burbling away in a small stream. I once dropped a palette knife into the water. A year later, Jamie found and returned it, after inscribing it with my name so I wouldn’t lose it again.

Kaaterskill Creek, by Carol L. Douglas
A meadow sits below the house, surrounded on all sides by woods. A venerable old tree crabs Wyeth-like to the sky, skirted by an old stone wall. There was never a shortage of material, but the property itself wasn’t the reason most painters came to stay with Jamie. Her house was minutes away from some of the most storied sites of Hudson River School painting: Platte Clove, Kaaterskill Falls, North-South Lake, and the Pine Orchard, where the Catskill Mountain House once stood. Drive a few minutes more and you were at Cedar Grove, the home and studio of painter Thomas Cole, founder of the Hudson River School. Cross over the river and you were at Olana, the estate of Frederic Edwin Church.

I had the good fortune to be invited back many times. I was not alone. There are always fine artists around when I visited. Sometimes we spent as much time tweaking our gear as painting. It was on a hike up Kaaterskill Falls that Johanne Morin showed me her super-lightweight aluminum easel, which I then copied and have used ever since.

Olana overlook, by Carol L. Douglas
There were men among the painters who gathered there, of course. But the group always seemed weighted toward women. This was the first true sorority of serious, professional women painters I ever knew. I met lifelong friends in Jamie’s creek, and cemented relationships over her table.

I’ll still paint in that area, and I’ll still stop and see Jamie no matter where she is, but it’s the end of an important era in the New York plein air community. Jamie and Vic, from the bottom of my heart, thank you for your years and years of hospitality and support.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Braided rivers and other geomorphology


Stuck in traffic? Far more interesting to study a river bed than ponder the next rest stop.

The Alaska Range, by Carol L. Douglas. The Yukon River, foreground, is a classic braided river. It stretches a mile across, carrying silt... and gold.
It normally takes about 5 hours and thirty minutes to get from my house in Rockport, ME to my daughter’s house in Rensselaer County, New York. Taking the scenic route—Massachusetts Route 2—adds another half hour. There is the still-more-northerly route 9 through Vermont and New Hampshire.

There are times when even the most experienced road warrior unclenches her hands from the steering wheel and says goodbye to the interstate highway system. I moved to Maine to reduce the time I spent on Interstate 90 between Buffalo and Boston. However, with my daughter’s wedding I’ve been up and down that road too much recently. And I’ll be back on it in 9 days, heading to Rochester to teach a workshop.

Confluence, by Carol L. Douglas. The Athabasca River is another classic braided river.
We’d hung around Buffalo waiting for our youngest to finish his finals. A geology major, he finds himself buried in calculus and chemistry instead of thinking about rocks and minerals. Geomorphology is the study of why landscapes look the way they do. Why not think about that on the last leg of our trip home?

East of North Adams, Route 2 climbs into the Hoosac Range via a series of hairpin turns. The vistas into Vermont are fabulous. The road then follows the old Mohawk Trail, a trading footpath that connected the coast with the Iroquois Confederacy. Because pre-industrial commuters weren’t keen on extra climbing, their path ran along the Deerfield River and several of its tributaries. This ultimately dumps into New England’s longest river, the Connecticut.

River Rocks, Upper Jay, New York, by Carol L. Douglas. The Appalachians deposit their debris very differently from western rivers.
The drainage system of these small meandering streams, my son tells me, is typical of old folded mountains like the Appalachian Chain. It’s called a trellis drainage system. As the river flows along a valley, smaller tributaries feed into it at right angles, dropping down the steep mountain slopes.

Where the sediment load is high and the slope is low, rivers become braided. They form shifting sandbars and islands, or eyots, as our British cousins call them. There is certainly sand and rock in our small eastern rivers, but for a true braided river you have to go to the Pacific Northwest, especially Alaska and the western Canadian provinces. I’ve painted a few of them.

Upper Falls, Letchworth, by Carol L. Douglas. This deep gorge is geologically very young, and is cut through shale, limestone and sandstone.
Unfortunately, the steep valleys of the Mohawk Trail also meant that spring road work cut the pavement down to one lane. The whole trip took us just over eight hours. I’d promised Howard Gallagher of Camden Falls Gallery that I’d do something for him around noon; I finally had the chance to call him at 4:30. “It’ll keep until morning,” he said cheerfully.

Next up—a brace of workshops. The first is at Mendon Ponds in Rochester, NY, June 2-3. That’s followed almost immediately by a watercolor workshop aboard American Eagle, June 10-14. There’s still a small number of spaces available for each, along with my August workshop at Acadia National Park. Email me if you have any questions.

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.