Paint Schoodic

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Tuesday, July 31, 2018

There's nothing new under the sun, and that includes glazing


Is it true that the fat-over-lean rule is suspended when using alkyd paints and mediums?

Grain Elevators, by Carol L. Douglas, is an example of a cold-wax medium painting. I used it to add the rough texture of a beaten down industrial setting to the sky.
 Oil paints are pigments suspended in vegetable oil. These drying oils are most commonly linseed oil but also may be walnut oil or tung, poppy, or perilla seed oils. They do not dry by evaporation, but by oxidation. To speed up the drying process, metal salts are sometimes added. 

In my youth, we made our own medium with equal parts linseed oil, turpentine, damar varnish and a few drops of cobalt drier. After seeing the condition of some 20th century masterpieces, cracked and brittle after less than a century, I stopped making my own and started to use commercially-prepared medium instead.

Alkyd mediums have almost completely taken over the industrial coating world. They dry more quickly than old-fashioned drying oils. There are many ways to make an alkyd medium, but they all involve cooking a vegetable oil with a polyol like glycerine. Before you consider eating the results, however, alkyds generally have Xylene added to control the viscosity. Alkyds for decorative painting have extra oil cooked in to lengthen the oil strands and to make a more durable finish.

The Sacrifice of Isaac, c. 1527, by Andrea del Sarto, courtesy of the Cleveland Museum of Art, shows a painting at the pre-glaze point.
I’m seeing more and more students come to class with alkyd-based products like Galkyd or Liquin. I’ve used both and like them well enough; they don’t feel significantly different from conventional media. But I’m skeptical of replacing something proven with something unproven to save dry time, which is relatively unimportant in alla prima painting. Classic painting mediums last for centuries when properly applied.

It’s claimed by some teachers that alkyd media allow you to ignore the fat-over-lean rule in painting. That’s the principle that higher-oil paints (i.e., mixed with medium) belong on the top levels, whereas lower-oil mixes (i.e. cut with turpentine or OMS) belong in the initial underpainting. 

The Sacrifice of Isaac, c. 1522, by Andrea del Sarto, courtesy of the Prado, shows the same subject in what del Sarto would have called its finished form, after meticulous glazing.
Pigments affect the dry time of paints as much as the oil binder does. However, as a general rule, the more oil, the longer it takes for paint to dry. The less oil, the faster the paint dries, but this produces a more brittle film. That’s one reaason we use thin layers at the bottom and save the juicy paint for the top.

There’s been a trend toward painting techniques using glazing layer after glazing layer of thin pigment dissolved in alkyd media. I’ve even seen paintings done by laying down layers of alkyd medium and then painting into that. None of that is proven technology, and won’t be in our lifetimes. It will take another few generations before the durability of indiscriminate alkyd glazing is proved.

Self-portrait, c. 1655, Rembrandt van Rijn, courtesy Kunsthistorisches Museum. His technique involved painting impasto passages above transparent ones, or the opposite of glazing.
Glazing has been used since oil painting was invented. It was traditionally done by applying transparent colors over an opaque monochromatic grisaille or colored foundation. That doesn’t mean the masters just indiscriminately glazed everything. Most passages were painted alla prima, just as we do today. Glazing was restricted to dynamic passages and fine modulations.

To do it right is very tricky; I’ve never mastered it. It’s hard to predict how a passage will look when dry. You get no second try at the underpainting, so if it’s wrong, too bad. And the thickness of the glaze affects not only the paint’s tonal value, but its surface finish.

Still, pigment suspended in a binder is very beautiful. If you’re interested in this effect, you might try cold-wax medium instead. Unlike encaustic, which uses heat to thin the wax, cold-wax medium is whipped with mineral spirits. It has a milky, soft, appearance. You can sand it, scrape it, and rework it to your heart’s content, and it’s thoroughly modern in its final appearance.

Monday, July 30, 2018

Monday Morning Art School: perspective of boats


Don't fall into the trap of drawing what you know instead of what you see.
The Bridge at Argenteuil, 1874, Claude Monet. All three waterlines are parallel to the horizon.
I prefer painting from a floating dock, where I’m at eye-level with the boats regardless of the tide. However, on Friday, I found myself up on the wall looking across Camden Harbor. That creates a different perspective.

The horizon line in a drawing is the viewer’s eye level, regardless of where the viewer is standing. At the top of Mount Rainier, your horizon line is around 14,410 feet above sea level, and everything is below you. If you’re swimming in the Caribbean, your horizon line is about three inches above sea level and everything but the sharks are above you.

I explained basic perspective in this post about drawing clouds; the exact same rules apply to boats, except that everything is flipped over. We can see down into objects that are at our feet, but not into objects at the same level that are far away. The farther away the object is, the more horizontal our gaze is as we look at it. Our measly 5 or 6 feet in height is nothing compared to the distance across. 

When a boat is a few hundred feet away in the water, it’s for all intents and purposes at eye level. Its waterline is almost absolutely flat, regardless of whether you’re looking at its side, transom, or bow.

The Seine at Argenteuil, 1872, Alfred Sisley. Although it's also from towpath height, Sisley included more foreground, creating the sense that we are looking down into the Seine.
During the 1870s and 1880s Argenteuil, northwest of Paris on the Seine, became an important painting location for the Impressionists. They immortalized its bridges and boats from every conceivable angle.

We can infer Monet’s point of view in the top painting as being about equal to the house across the river. In other words, he was standing on a towpath. That allows us to see into the boat slightly, as we’re at mast height to it and it’s close to the near bank. We cannot see into the far boats at all. Note that the far bank and the waterlines of the far boats are parallel to the horizon. The bridge, which reaches across the river to us, is not.

Alfred Sisley’s painting is from the same height, but he’s given us more foreground, and therefore the sense of looking down into the water. But while the tree in the river is definitely below us, the boats are not. Again, their waterlines are parallel to the horizon. The river bends, and the land curves away, but the curve is very gradual.

Boating, 1874, Édouard Manet. Here we’re looking straight down into the boat from impossibly close quarters.
We are definitely looking down into Édouard Manet’s pleasure boat in his 1872 painting done on the same river. Manet has us practically standing on the rail looking down into the well of the boat. The horizon isn’t even visible. It would be yards above the boaters' heads.

An example of incorrectly drawn boats.
Ignoring these rules results in the most common error I see in painting boats. This is from an example I picked up on the internet. The boats are close to the horizon but we still seem to be looking down into them. In fact, the closest boat is at about the angle of Manet's Boating. This is an impossibility, as the three masterpieces from Argenteuil have demonstrated.

This happens frequently with painters unaccustomed to boats. I think it is a case of painting what we think we know vs. what we see. We know that boats have form, therefore they must have perspective, too. Well, they do, but it's very subtle from the distance we usually see them.

Friday, July 27, 2018

Simple Gifts


The world still has a place for exceptionalism; the young person’s first job is to recognize his own unique gifts. 
Full Stop, by Carol L. Douglas
I have a friend who has a warm, light, perfectly-feminine speaking voice. However, she sings with the basses in her church. There are women who have naturally deep voices; they’re contraltos. I express my skepticism that she is one. The true contralto voice is a matter of where the timbre and power lie, not what notes the untrained voice finds comfortable.

Recently, she spent a Sunday evening with her Amish neighbors, singing. People called out hymns and then were expected to lead their selections. “Croaking” was the word she used to describe her star turn. That, I tell her, is because she’s not singing in her true voice.

It’s a great metaphor for doing the wrong thing and expecting good results. As long as she sings in the bottom of her range, she’s going to sound like a strangled frog.

Little Giant, Carol L. Douglas, courtesy Camden Falls Gallery
We’re very blessed to live in the time and place we do. My mother, the daughter of immigrants, once said, “I never had time for self-actualization.” She wasn’t kidding. She worked like a dray-horse from her sixteenth birthday on. It’s no surprise that I was discouraged from going to art school. To children of the Depression, that seemed very flighty.

Young people often ask, “How did you become an artist?” I was one of those kids born with a pencil in my hand, but that wasn’t enough. I was painting in oils before I reached my teens (thanks to my father) but that wasn’t enough, either. I worked in other fields for several decades, drawing or painting in my few private moments. It wasn’t until my fourth kid was born that I had the courage to step into my calling.

Headlamps, Carol L. Douglas
It wasn’t my epiphany at all. My husband had a far clearer understanding of how I was “singing bass” when I’m a natural soprano. He pushed me in the direction of painting, and then supported me when I flitted off to New York City and the Art Students League to learn to do it properly.

Do I regret those years doing other work? Not hardly. For one thing, that’s how I learned the craft of writing. Working a day job also put me firmly on the side of the doers rather than the dreamers. That profoundly shaped my view of art.

American Eagle in Drydock, courtesy of Camden Falls Gallery.
Young people ask these questions because they’re struggling to figure out their own places in the world. They’re often trying to figure out how to make a living off the beaten path. I can only tell them my own story and then counsel them to dig down to their primary gifts—the ability to teach, to tell stories, to think clearly, to lead, to work with their hands, to serve, or to create. The world still has many places for unique and exceptional people; their problem is to understand their own gifts and how to use them in the service of others.

I’ve got one more workshop available this summer. Join me for Sea and Sky at Schoodic, August 5-10. We’re strictly limited to twelve, but there are still seats open.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Showing Alison the ropes


And in Camden harbor, there are ropes everywhere.
Pea Soup, by Carol L. Douglas
This week is the Camden Classics Cup, which draws all sorts of lovely boats to Camden, Maine (as if the place had any shortage on its own). Howard Gallagher asked artists from Camden Falls Gallery to scamper down to the harbor to paint the beautiful beasties, which I’ll be doing while dodging raindrops. It’s nice to do an event close to home, although it doesn’t happen often.

Alison Menke was up at Castine Plein Air last week. We’d met in June, when we did the Parrsboro International Plein Air Festival in Nova Scotia. She went from there to take first place at Telluride Plein Air, and then bounced back up to Maine. I’m a fan of her bravura brushwork, but she’s also a lovely person. When I realized she was hanging around the Maine coast, I invited her to join me in Camden.
Alison and me, in the murk of a foggy day.
I’ve grown accustomed to the wealth of schooners in the harbor. It was enlightening to see them through fresh eyes. We set up on a floating dock to paint the bow of the Mistress, with Mercantile in the background. Mistress’ dinghy, Tricky Mary, hangs half-suspended from her bow. It’s a nice, odd angle. She’s neither floating nor swinging.

The first time I ever painted in Camden, I was shy about setting up on a floating dock. Still, it’s the only place to paint in places where tides run high. Otherwise, you’ll inevitably get a twist in the hull as the angle changes. Steve Pixley, Camden’s harbormaster, reassured me that it was alright, and I’ve been painting on the docks ever since. This is one of the many ways in which Maine is not like other places.
Our paintings before the little yawl pulled in.
Alison was overly impressed by my knowledge of the schooners’ habits. It’s really just a question of asking the crews endless questions, something that’s going to result in my being pitched in the water one of these days. The most important of these is always, “When are you going back out?”

I love the cluster of day-trippers on the wall—Appledore, Olad, and Surprise—but it’s difficult to paint them live, since they’re never in one place long enough. However, in such heavy fog, they make fewer trips.
A FitzHugh Lane Day at Camden, Carol L. Douglas. There are boats you can only catchon foggy days.
“It’s a real pea-souper,” said a couple coming in from Isleboro to do their weekly shopping. With so many visitors and exotic yachts, it’s easy to forget that for many people, Camden is a working harbor.

By midafternoon, we both needed coffee and lunch. We downed brushes and walked up to town. In retrospect, I feel badly about my choice of dining establishments. Alison has been enjoying such Maine delicacies as Nutella crepes, blueberries and lobster rolls, and I directed her to a boring old chicken salad and a Tootsie Roll. I should have taken her to Harbor Dogs instead. That’s fine coastal dining.

It draws visitors from around the world, so Camden harbor is never boring.
We sat on a bench enjoying the sea mist and our lunches when we noticed a little yawl coming in. She tied up right next to our easels and blocked our view. Pretty enough, but at that moment, I hated her. Alison decided she was finished and packed up to head to Port Clyde. I reworked the bottom of my canvas, ruthlessly excising the mizzen mast.

 
“I’ll see you around someplace,” Alison said. Well, actually, she’ll see me in three weeks at Adirondack Plein Air. I’m looking forward to it.

I’ve got one more workshop available this summer. Join me for Sea and Sky at Schoodic, August 5-10. We’re strictly limited to twelve, but there are still seats open.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Try not to bankrupt your students, fellow teachers


We should remember that pinch in the pocketbook when we draw up our supply lists.

Plastic wrap, by Carol L. Douglas. I can paint without cadmium yellow or cadmium red, but not without cadmium orange.
During my absence last week, one of my students took a workshop with another painter, an excellent artist I quite admire. Studying with other teachers is good practice. It reinforces what is essential. And since every teacher has ideas that are simple preference, it helps put those in perspective, too.

Before she went, we spent time talking over the supply list. A student should go into a class with the materials the teacher has requested; otherwise she is hobbled from the beginning. On the other hand, I have had too much experience to not be skeptical of supply lists, which often include everything but the kitchen sink.

True to form, she came back with three or four unopened tubes of paint. I really wish teachers would stop doing that. It’s expensive and its irresponsible.

Teachers should strive to help students navigate through color space. This was a class exercise by Jennifer Johnson.
I moved a tube of Cadmium Green around for years. It currently lists at $24.95 for 37 ml. It’s a great color for the sallow greens in skin tones, but an effect that can easily be approximated with black and yellow. I was painfully poor the year I took that class, but we never touched the tube.

I’ve come to feel the same way about Cerulean Blue in oil painting. It’s a heavy, dense blue that sells for $34.95 for 37 ml. I learned to paint skies with it, and there is nothing more luscious. Still, skies can be painted quite adequately with Ultramarine or Prussian Blue, which cost exactly a third of what Cerulean costs. 

However, because it’s dense and opaque, Cerulean Blue occupies a niche in watercolor that can’t be easily filled by other pigments; hence it stays on my watercolor palette.

Cobalt violet is beautiful but hardly indispensable.
Cobalt Violet is another very pricey pigment that can be approximated at a fraction of the cost. Note that I said “approximated,” rather than mixed. You can’t mix a respectable Cerulean Blue or Cobalt Violet hue. (For an explanation of hues and other arcana of paint tubes, see here.) You can only learn ways to paint with less expensive pigments. When possible, that should be the starting point for the teacher. Let your students shop for their Cadillacs on their own.

Our responsibility is more than just financial. We have a duty to train up new artists in safe, environmentally-friendly techniques. All three of the colors I mentioned above are toxic inorganic pigments. They’re harmless as paint, unless you eat or bathe in the stuff. The problem lies in their manufacture (and, to a lesser extent, their disposal). There’s only one plant currently making cadmium pigments in the US, under our strict environmental and worker-safety controls. That means the pigments in your paint are probably coming from offshore, and we have no idea if the process is safe or not.

It’s nearly impossible to clear all the inorganic pigments off our paint-tray, but we can minimize their use. My palette still contains cadmium orange, I’m afraid, because I’ve never found an analog that answers.

Part of my goal is to teach people to mix colors rather than buy them.
Then there is the question of substrates. Most beginning students are fine with cheap boards, with the caveat that once they start selling work, they need to move up to an archival-quality board. The problem is in the backing, and that’s an issue for future conservators, not for painting class. When I was a student, we worked as often on gessoed paper as on canvases. There is absolutely no reason to make your students buy archival boards for value exercises.

The exception to this is in watercolor and pastel. In both cases, the substrate is as important as the pigment. But even here, one can buy decent-quality student products.

The flip side of this is the teacher who’s afraid to tell his or her students what to buy at all. I find it’s helpful to just list what you carry and work from there, being mindful that some things are just preference, not necessities. Be specific—if you want sanded pastel paper, specify that, for example. But don’t be so specific as to be restrictive. If a student is using a phthalo blue, there’s no point in having him replace it with Prussian blue. They function in the same niche.

Here are my supply lists:

I’m happy to share them with painting students and as a template for teachers to create their own supply lists, but please don’t copy them without credit!

I’ve got one more workshop available this summer. Join me for Sea and Sky at Schoodic, August 5-10. We’re strictly limited to twelve, but there are still seats open.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

What I saw in Castine


We humans really have no idea how tiny we are compared to nature.

Towering Elm, Carol L. Douglas, painted at Castine Plein Air
Trees are the largest living beings surrounding us, but we pay them scant attention. Until one drops a limb, we have no sense of their power or scale. Most of us can’t identify more than one or two species. Gardeners may fuss over the flowering trees, but they pay scant attention to the large masses of green just beyond their fences.

There are about 3.04 trillion trees on Earth, or around 422 for each person. It seems like we ought to pay more attention to them.

As with everything visual, my ‘knowledge’ sometimes overwrites what I see. I told you how I once repeatedly mis-corrected a student’s drawing of a lobster boat. Being able to draw something from memory is a skill. The downside is when we stop observing altogether.

I had a similar epiphany last week in Castine. I’d seen Don Tenney of the Castine Arts Association over the winter. He told me about a survey map of elms in the town.

Photo of Delaware Avenue near Summer Street, 1939, by Wilbur H. Porterfield, courtesy Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society. 
“Elms?” I asked, disbelieving. I’m from Buffalo, where Dutch Elm Disease first appeared in 1951. By the late 1960s, almost every elm was dead. Buffalo, once known as the City of Trees, lay bare, its Cathedral Arches of about 180,000 trees gone forever. I was a small girl when the city arborists cut down the remaining trees on our block. It went from a magical green tunnel to an unremarkable, clapped-out neighborhood instantly.

I assumed the elms were gone everywhere, gone the way of the American chestnut, into the annals of history.

Dutch Elm Disease arrived in the US in 1928. Of an estimated 77 million elms in North America in 1930, over 75% were gone by 1989. But it turns out there are remaining pockets of elms, most notably in Canada’s western provinces. And there are still a lot of them in Castine.

Once I realized they were there, I couldn’t stop seeing them. They’re even taller and statelier than in my memory. They’re no longer in an unbroken line, except for a stretch of Court Street, but they still arch over Castine’s lovely streets.

In Republic of Shade: New England and the American Elm, Thomas J. Campanella documents the importance of the American elm to our American identity. Elms were planted in formation across the country. 
The Elm Tree, c. 1880, George Inness, courtesy of the Clark Museum.
Dutch Elm Disease notwithstanding, elms were hardy and long-lived. They have a dense canopy with a unique parasol shape, echoing a vase or the Gothic arch. Since they had no commercial usefulness, they were allowed to grow untouched on the edges of fields and in the forest. They came to represent the primeval forest in the American imagination.

I painted the above example of an elm at the corner of State and Court Streets as dusk fell. Next year, I’ll approach the composition differently.  But this painting was useful in setting the scale of the trees. I had to erase the house repeatedly and make it smaller to make it true to reality. We humans really have no idea how tiny we are compared to nature.

I’ve got one more workshop available this summer. Join me for Sea and Sky at Schoodic, August 5-10. We’re strictly limited to twelve, but there are still seats open.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Monday Morning Art School: don’t chase the light


Nice advice. How exactly do you avoid making mush as the light changes?

The Thimble, Carol L. Douglas, oil on gessoboard, sold.
I’m painting bigger this season, with the goal of doing some very large landscapes during my Joseph A. Fiore Art Center residency. Down the Reach from last week, is 24X20; The Thimble, above, is 20X16. Big paintings outlast the light. Having a protocol to deal with shifting light is essential.

One technique is to go back to the same location over many days. In the Northeast, weather is capricious. You’re as likely to come back to a sea fog as to the limpid light of the prior day. The tide doesn’t move in sync with daylight, meaning the light may be the same but the scene will change.

In many cases, it’s impossible to come back and set up at the same spot over and over. A little preparatory work will save you hours of frustration later in your painting.

Value sketch of the Monument.
Make a value sketch.

This is the most important step in painting. I don’t care whether you do this in watercolor, with charcoal, a gel pen, as a notan, or in mixed media. Make a study, or multiple studies. 

In my classes I strongly discourage the use of viewfinders. The value study is where one explores relationships and determines the ‘final cut.’

Don’t make a bounding box and fill it in; instead, do a drawing and then crop it to the shape of your board. It’s in the value sketch that you can make subtle adjustments to the elements of the scene. You can’t do that when you’re slavishly transcribing a scene from a viewfinder.

Value underpainting for The Monument. This early in the morning, the light was warm.
Choose a color scheme.

I’ve written about the color of light many times. One of three situations must prevail:
  • Shadows are warm and the light is cool. This is what happens at midday.
  • Shadows are cool and the light is warm. This is the golden light of early morning and late afternoon.
  • Shadows and light are neutral. This happens mostly on grey days.

Choose one of these and stick with it.

Do a fast underpainting that’s a direct transcription of your value sketch.

I don’t look at the landscape very much at this stage. I have my sketch in my right hand and my brush in my left. I paint in the big dark shapes in an already-mixed shadow color and the big light shapes in an already-mixed highlight color. At this phase, my paint is lightly thinned with odorless mineral spirits or turpentine. Knowing how much thinner to use is a matter of practice. The paint layer should be thin, but there shouldn’t be so much turpentine that everything applied over it turns to mush.

The Monument, by Carol L. Douglas.
Paint the details on top of that underpainting, making sure to retain your original values.

Go ahead and paint in details now, matching values to what’s on your canvas rather than what you see. During the great flat light of midday, you will have a good opportunity to paint into your already-defined shadows and highlights. However, at some point after the sun swings completely over the yardarm, you’re going to have to stop. Your light source will be inverted. 

Make a drawn reference to any spectacular lighting effects that whiz by.

Atmospheric effects like crepuscular rays, breaking clouds and rainbows are transient. Before you add them, be certain they support your composition. If so, and you’re in a position to do so, paint them right in. If you’re not at that point of development, sketch what’s happening so you can refer back to your notes.

They may be beautiful but clash with your existing composition. If that’s the case, just sit back and enjoy them, or record them in your sketchbook for another painting.

Sea Fog on Main Street, by Carol L. Douglas. By the time I finished this, the fog had completely evaporated. My sketch and underpainting saved this painting.
Notice there is nothing in here about capturing effects on your camera.

You should be able to develop a plein air painting without any relying on photo reference at all.

I’ve got one more workshop available this summer. Join me for Sea and Sky at Schoodic, August 5-10. We’re strictly limited to twelve, but there are still seats open.

Friday, July 20, 2018

This has not been one of my better days


It only takes a moment to change your frame of reference.
Down the Reach, by Carol L. Douglas
My father said, “This has not been one of my better days” nearly every day. When I’m having a difficult time, I tell myself that. Then I laugh, remembering that all discomfort is relative. That invariably restores my good humor.

I was hot on the trail of a painting and refused to stop for anything. My pal Berna brought me scones and coffee in the morning. Chrissy Spoor Pahucki and her son Ben brought me cake in the afternoon. Still, I should have taken a break. I stumbled around in the wind and sun breaking things. I tore the end off my tube of ultramarine blue. I broke my framing gun for the second time. I was a filthy mess myself and got blue paint all over a frame. In trying to clean it off, I scoured the frame corners raw. As I fumbled, the wind blew my umbrella into my painting. Yes, it was one of those days.

I’m usually pretty mellow about problems, but I was incandescent, ready to take easel, paints and brushes to the cove and dump them in. A car pulled up. It was an old friend with whom I’ve painted and shared digs at Adirondack Plein Air.

“This has not been one of my better days.” I told her, but this time saying it didn’t help.

Tom Sawyer's fence, by Carol L. Douglas.
“I was painting something really good,” she responded. “But my phone kept going off. Finally, I checked and the calls were from my new daughter-in-law. They’ve only been married a month.”

We love our families, but we don’t necessarily want to talk to them when we’re working. It’s hard to answer the phone when you’re covered in goop. They generally don’t call unless it’s an emergency, so I completely understood her worry as she looked at her screen.

“She wanted to tell me she’s pregnant,” she explained. I had to laugh, because I fully appreciated what was going through my friend’s head.

“That’s wonderful,” she was thinking, along with, “Now hang up and let me finish this blasted painting.” Well, the painting didn’t happen; instead she burst into tears. Mazel tov, Grandma!

Jonathan Submarining, by Carol L. Douglas. The kids raced around in their 420s while Poppy Balser and I stood in the surf painting. It was a magical day.
That completely restored my good humor. I went home and had dinner with two teenage boys and their grandmothers. One of them modeled in the best painting I ever did at Castine, Jonathan Submarining. That day, he was a little kid bouncing around on heavy seas. Just a blink of an eye, and he’s now a young adult, teaching in the same sailing school.

“You’ve gotten so old,” Berna exclaimed.

“It’s a good thing they don’t say that to us,” I laughed. Castine may be Brigadoon in many ways, but even here, time doesn’t stand still. It’s a reminder that the work will keep; treasure the ones you love.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

How long did that take you?


Our actual painting time is a fraction of the total time we spend on our work.
The Stage Door, by Russel Whitten.
For the past four years, the third Wednesday in July has been the longest day in my calendar year. This year was no exception. It started at 6 AM, when I started writing for this blog. At 8 AM, I’d breakfasted and was in the field painting for the last day of Ocean Park’s Art in the Park. I finished at 1 PM, arranged my display and then set up my tools for Castine Plein Air (which starts this morning). From there, I returned to my host’s home, where I showered and dressed in respectable clothes. Then I packed my car. The reception ended at 7:30; at 7:42 I was pulling out of my parking spot. I did not even stop to eat.

I’ve driven into Castine when it lay enchanting under a full moon, and through dense coastal fog. Last night, a crescent moon hung low in the sky. “Midnight blue” is not advertising jargon; it’s the real color of the sky when there’s no ambient light and the stars seem to quiver in the night sky. It was beautiful but also very, very late when my friend Harry welcomed me back to his home.

Laundry, by Christine Tullson Matthieu
Recently a reader asked, “How do you stay awake for those long drives?” I find that singing is the best cure for sleepiness, so I do it loudly and enthusiastically. In fact, I sing so much that I’ve decided to form a NeedtoBreathe cover band, as I may be the only person in the world who can decipher their lyrics.

Temple, by Anthony Watkins.
Several people have asked, “How long does a painting that size take?” It’s a difficult question to answer. An 8X10 might take me three or four hours of actual painting time. That doesn’t include the time I spend setting up my palette, or dragging my gear across a beach, or the hours I spend driving or priming canvases and making frames.

Ocean Park Ice Cream Parlor, by Ed Buonvecchio.
Yesterday, Russ Whitten was trying to remember where he’d left a stack of watercolor paper. He spent precious time tracking it down, which cost him a final painting. That kind of thing happens because we’re tired, we’re hot, and we’re stressed. It has to be factored in to our schedule, as do equipment failures.

Some days it rains, by Carol L. Douglas
Two people asked me, “Of the five paintings you did for this show, which is your favorite?” It made me think about the values I was aiming for. In the end, I chose my rain painting. It was technically difficult and I think it captures the energy of that storm.

Based on that, I asked each of the other artists to choose their favorite painting to share with you. Meanwhile, I'm off to paint; our boards were stamped starting at 6 AM this morning.

If Rembrandt and Van Gogh could time travel


What would they think of modern painting in Maine?

Some days it rains, by Carol L. Douglas.
Last week, I wrote about Maine’s Art Museum Trail. A reader commented, “Standing in front of Rembrandt's Saint Matthew and the Angel at the Louvre, or Van Gogh's The White Orchard in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam are sure to change one forever.” He’s right, of course, but were these two masters somehow superior to, say, Rockwell Kent?

I wonder what either artist would think of the contemporary work being done in landscape painting today. Both would have delighted in the wealth of pigments and materials at our disposal. That’s especially true of Rembrandt, who did so much with such a limited palette. Van Gogh was an admirer of the Primitivist Paul Gauguin; he would have understood that our contemporary painting style reflects the pace and shape of our lives. Both artists were misfits in their times and cultures. It is only retrospectively that they—and their styles—are lauded as brilliant.

Mostly, I think they’d like what they saw simply because mature artists tend to be very interested in other artists’ technique, approach and worldviews.

Ed Buonvecchio painted me painting the rain in the doorway of Ocean Park's temple. We oil painters have it a little easier in a deluge than watercolorists. Russ Whitten's solution was to run home and grab a hair dryer.
Russel Whitten and Christine Tullson Mathieu are having an especially tough time with the fog and rain at this year’s Art in the Park. It buckles watercolor paper and the paint never dries. This makes for extremely soft passages. Commiserating with Russ, I showed him the John Singer Sargent watercolor from Monday’s post, with its great amorphous, wet blob of darkness. In response, Russ told me that Andrew Wyeth, after seeing a Sargent show, came out and told the waiting critics, “I want to kill myself.”

It’s comforting to imagine a painter of his skill and stature reacting like that. We’ve all said something similar along the way.

Sea Mist, by Carol L. Douglas.
Why don’t artists see their own brilliance, but are keen to recognize brilliance in others? We know our own work too intimately to be impressed with it. The more one paints, the truer that becomes. Running down other artists is the province of amateurs.

“People strengthen each other when they work together, and an entity is formed without personality having to be blotted out by the collaboration,” Van Gogh wrote to Anthon van Rappard. That’s exactly what’s happened to this group at Ocean Park. This is our fourth year painting in a small ensemble.  We’re secure enough in our friendship to help each other.

It was inconvenient for painters and vacationers, but we needed that rain.
Meanwhile, the rain ended at midnight, and the last droplets are splattering down from the ancient trees overhead right now. That gives us a few hours before we have to pack our supplies, shower and deliver our work. Our show opens at 5 this evening at 50 Temple Avenue, Old Orchard Beach. If you’re in southern Maine today, come out to see us!

I’ve got one more workshop available this summer. Join me for Sea and Sky at Schoodic, August 5-10. We’re strictly limited to twelve, but there are still seats open.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Alone but not lonely


Technique is important, but it’s emotional power that draws people to paintings.
Reading, by Carol L. Douglas.
“I see artists who paint only flowers, only still life, only barns, only open landscapes, only portraits, only pets, only kitchen utensils, only books, only sailboats,” an artist said. “Why isn’t the artist painting more subjects, and trying new things?”

I’ve been painting long enough to have been there, done that. Some things I've tried simply don’t move me enough to focus on them. If I painted them, it would be only for mercenary reasons, and I don’t think that ever pays in the long run.

I paint still life when I can’t get out, but my interest is limited. Still, anyone who paints professionally ought to be able to paint a credible impression of almost anything in his or her line of sight.
Beach Grass (Goosefare Brook) by Carol L. Douglas
Ocean Park is typically crowded in the high season. If we were to be perfectly honest, our paintings would be full of people. I can draw people, so I don’t have much trouble adding them to my landscapes. Still, I don’t often do it. The problem is in meaning.

Yesterday, I set up downtown, looking at a table on a side-porch at the Curtis. There was nothing especially pictorial about the scene. But it had an evocative quality, suggesting a small, convivial party, relaxing after a day on the beach.

That’s the shell of sociability, and it’s as biographical as the clothes we wear. We recognize it in many places—a lonely writing desk, the objects in the console of another person’s car. In fact, much of still life is intended to suggest character that’s just briefly stepped away. Landscape can do exactly that, too.

Beach Toys, by Carol L. Douglas, 2017. In this painting, the figure is completely neutral, neither supporting nor distracting from the composition.
And yet the composition was still not satisfying to me. A person reading could add to the sense of stillness and anticipation, I thought. He or she should not be central to the frame, so I set a figure on the rail, feet dangling, a book in her lap. That was a mistake. The dangling legs interrupted the serenity of the scene. I turned the still androgynous figure to the right, in the classical languor of a Maxfield Parrish nymph. That didn’t work, either, because it’s a silly pose for 2018. However, it gave me the general bounding box of where the figure should fall.

A note: if you’re doing this, have a friend stand in the general area just long enough to make some marks to indicate their approximate height. Even the most perfectly-drawn figure will look ridiculous if it’s too large or small for the scene.

Later, Ed Buonvecchio and I went out to paint in the fog. It seemed like a good place to use my four-way flashers.
Why did I reject dangling feet and or a figure seated in a chair?  Either would have made a good subject for a painting, but they weren’t right for this one. I was feeling the terrific stillness of morning in Maine, and action and presence would have diminished that. In fact, too often, our last-minute tchotchkes end up damaging, not helping, our paintings.

As I was finishing, a lady carefully inspected my painting. It spoke to her on the same level as it spoke to me, so she commissioned me to do another version for her. There’s a lesson there for me: it’s not all composition or technique. People ultimately react to the emotional pull of place. Unless you feel it, they won’t, either.

I’ve got one more workshop available this summer. Join me for Sea and Sky at Schoodic, August 5-10. We’re strictly limited to twelve, but there are still seats open.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Monday Morning Art School: the lost-and-found edge


Sometimes it’s about what you don’t say.
Girl with the Red Hat, c. 1665-66, Johannes Vermeer, courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.
Earlier this month, I mentioned I once had a painting teacher who told me that heavy edges were “my style.” Like many younger artists, I just hadn’t learned how to marry edges in my painting. Beginning painters tend to give all edges equal weight—they are borders to be colored in. Part of the learning process is learning when to keep the edge and when to lose it.

Vermeer’s Girl with the Red Hat, above, perfectly illustrates the lost-and-found edge. The smooth transitions between the hair and the hat on the left, within her gown, and the lack of contrast in the shadow side of the model’s face drive our eye to the highlighted passages. Squint and concentrate on just the shape of the highlighted passage for a moment. It’s just one long, beautiful abstract shape in a sea of darkness.
In Church at Old Lyme, 1905, Childe Hassam softened the edges between leaves and sky by making them the same value. Courtesy Albright-Knox Art Gallery.
Losing the edges helps link visual masses into a coherent whole. It deemphasizes things that aren’t important. It’s a way to create rhythm in a painting.

The human mind is adept at filling in blank spots in visual scenes (and seeing things that aren’t there). If you doubt this, squint while looking around your room. In any collection of similar-value objects, you don’t see edges, but you understand what you’re looking at. Your mind sorts it out just fine.

A careful drawing is different from a value study. Both are important, and the wise artist does them both. But a drawing explores the shapes and contours of an object. It’s a fact-finding mission. A value study concentrates on the links between objects and the final composition.

The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, 1882, John Singer Sargent, courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. 
In the oil painting The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, John Singer Sargent uses the great dark entryway as a framing device, a compositional accent, and a poignant social statement. Only a hint of light in the shape of a window implies what is behind. The girls recede into space in order of age, with the eldest (Florence, age 14) almost enveloped in the darkness of the drawing room. Florence and Jane have no accents in their hair; their dresses and stockings disappear into the murk.

The Bridge of Sighs, c. 1903-04, John Singer Sargent.
Sargent painted at least two versions of this study of the Bridge of Sighs; a mirror-image is in the Brooklyn Museum. In this version, Sargent placed a hard edge at the top of the arch where sky meets stone. The shadows on the left bleed without any attempt at architectural precision. This creates the same kind of murky dark passage as in The Daughters of Boit. (A note for watercolor purists—the whites of the gondoliers’ clothes were done with white paint.)

In Two Women on a Hillside, 1906, Franz Marc tied the women to the background by repeating greens in their skin and garb. Courtesy Franz Marc Museum.
To lose an edge in painting, start by making both sides of the line the same value, even when they’re different hues. Conversely, the highest contrast will give you the sharpest edge. You can add to either effect by softening or sharpening the paintwork with your brush. Introducing the color of the adjacent object will also soften the contrast between an object and its background, as in the Franz Marc painting above.

Detail from John Singer Sargent’s Lady Eden, 1906, courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Remember that the sharpest, most contrasting edges draw our eye. The trick is to find a balance that supports the composition. Sometimes only a small flick of paint is necessary, as with Sargent’s sequins in the detail from Lady Eden, above. These support the dynamics and direction of the composition. If they didn’t, they’d undermine all his careful compositional work.