Paint Schoodic

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Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Come see me on Sunday at Open Studio Day


Gallery, studios, music, ice cream, a beautiful lake—and it’s all free!
Clif Travers works on his great tree for long hours every day. I help him along by constantly asking, "Are you finished?"
 I’ve been at the Joseph A. Fiore Art Center at Rolling Acres Farm this month. This Sunday (September 30th) I get to show you what I’ve been doing. You, the public, are invited to Open Studio Day, from noon to 3. Stop and see what we’ve accomplished.

Our resident gardener, Rachel Alexandrou, will offer hourly tours of the Center’s garden. Rachel has odd ideas about what a Maine garden can support. She grew red cotton, cardoon, artichokes, amaranth, and tiny black grape tomatoes in a small riot of color. When Rachel isn’t gardening, drawing, or taking photographs, she’s entertaining us with mournful songs on her ukulele. However, she’s a bubbly person, so they’re frequently interrupted with peals of laughter.
Rachel Alexandrou is outstanding in her field. (Courtesy Maine Farmland Trust)
Clif Travers has made himself an enormous tree of recycled tree products. He’s now painting it in oils, a highly-detailed process. On first read, it’s stained-glass, reminiscent of hours spent in church as a child. But his tree is oddly anthropomorphic, standing protectively over creation. In a nod to Renaissance painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo, many of its parts are made of vegetables. Certain viewers, however, have insisted they’ve seen a hot dog, lamb chop, and other meat products. It is, as far as I can see, totally gluten-free.

Each morning, I’ve met Heather Lyon creeping out of the house at dawn, heading down through the fields to the lake. There, she’s shot beautiful footage of herself in various interactions with water. Wearing a $6 reflective survival poncho she bought at Renys, she was transformed into a beautiful, otherworldly creature. Heather also chilled herself and a collaborator in the very cold waters off Pemaquid Point for the sake of swift-moving footage with seaweed and a crab or two.

Heather Lyon in her studio. (Courtesy Maine Farmland Trust)
I came here with a high-minded idea of painting the confluence between man, water and the land. In reality, I ended up thrashing around between watercolor on Yupo and oil painting. I alternated media every day, painting each subject first in oils, then in watercolor. After a month of this, I can say with certainty only that my brain hurts.

The Gallery here is showing Nature Observed: The Landscapes of Joseph Fiore, with oil and pastel paintings by the late artist and environmentalist. These paintings have influenced my thinking all month. If you practice or love plein air painting, you should come by just to study them.

Damariscotta Lake, by Carol L. Douglas, watercolor on Yupo.
There will be live music on the lawn by jazz trio The Extension Chords, with Myles Kelley on piano, Katherine Bowen on bass and Owen Markowitz on drums. Coffee, tea and local ice cream will be served.

The Joseph A. Fiore Art Center at Rolling Acres Farm is a program of Maine Farmland Trust. Its mission is to actively connect the creative worlds of farming and art making. The Center’s purpose is to continue and evolve the dialogue between human and environment within the context of our current culture and time.
  
My own studio is more of a repository than a workspace. As usual, I'm working out of my Prius.
It’s located on Damariscotta Lake at 152 Punk Point Road in Jefferson. Bring a picnic and enjoy the Center’s grounds for the day.

MFT also runs MFT Gallery, at 97 Main Street, Belfast. It is open Monday through Friday from 9 to 4. On Fourth Friday Art Walks, it is open until 8pm.

Maine Farmland Trust is a statewide, member-powered nonprofit working to protect farmland, support farmers, and advance farming. Maine Farmland Trust created its gallery to celebrate agriculture through art, and to inspire and inform the public about farming in Maine.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Monday Morning Art School: drawing a face

Have trouble drawing people? Here's a way to get a good likeness in a hurry.
Robbie, by Carol L. Douglas
Most artists don’t have trouble drawing individual features. They run into trouble hooking all those parts up into a plausible whole. Sadly, a person’s likeness starts with the overall structure of their head, not with the details. This is a fast and easy way to measure features so you get them straight. The hardest part, I think, is that I'm showing you in words and pictures instead of in person. But if you take the time to practice it, your portrait drawings will improve.

I seldom work from photos, but I’m at the Joseph A. Fiore Art Center this month. That means I can’t conscript any family members to model. Instead, I found this old photo of Sandy Quang on my laptop. (It’s odd because she’s not laughing her fool head off.)

If you don't remember the rudiments of measuring with a pencil, please brush up here and here before you start.


I start by drawing a line indicating the angle at which the head is cocked.



The second line goes right through the eyeballs. This is not absolutely perpendicular to the center line, but it's usually close. Remember, you are measuring a 3-D object onto a 2-D surface. It's easy to mistake these lines for a grid. They're not; they're just measurements.

From there, go on to measure the remaining distances as shown above. Eventually, you can add a line for the eyebrows and the bottom of the bottom lip, but I find them confusing at this early stage.

The angle from the bottom of the nose to the pupils is the most important measurement in the face. Check, double check, and then place dots where it intersects with your eyeball line.
Next, draw lines from the bottom of the nose through the center of the pupils. You should create a triangle from eyes to bottom of nose. That's the most important measurement you'll do, and the most confusing.

Why are we using an angle instead of straight measurements on the eyes? This is the most important dimension in a human face, and angles allow us to double-check our work. A triangle is a shape, and that's just easier for the brain to process than a line. That's why I use angles to measure whenever I can. (Brush up on angle-drawing here.)

Unless the model is looking right at you, each eye is not the same distance from the center line. Check and double-check.
This triangle is the most important measurement in the whole face.
Then draw lines down from the center of the eyeballs to the corners of the mouth. In most people, the mouth is about as wide as the pupils of the eyes, but Sandy's mouth is narrower than her eyes.
I did the drawing freehand but added this because it's so difficult to understand from just words.
My last measurement is from the center line to outside of her ear. Conveniently, it's about the same distance as from her hairline to the bottom of her nose. Remember, all measurements are relative. "It's slightly less than two noses long," is how we measure in drawing.


I managed to drop her ear too low at this point; I corrected it as I went. There are always fine corrections to be made. To me, that refinement is the best part of drawing. It's like doing a puzzle.

Having made all those measurements, I was ready to rough in the overall features. I drew the nose and chin as volumes. (The angled line from the nose was to figure out my ear error.)


The drawing guides are superfluous after this point. Time to erase them and start having freehand fun.


Block in the mass of hair. Your eye perceives shapes and sizes differently depending on value and the color, as we learned here. That dark shape is important.


Refine the features, erasing and redrawing as time allows.


Because I was working with a #2 pencil on a cheap sketchbook, I waited until the end to add the shadow masses. Otherwise, they'd smear.

Throwback Sandy, by Carol L. Douglas

We are taught to draw the human face in ‘perfect’ terms: the eyes are halfway down the head, the tear ducts line up with the edges of the nostrils, the face is divided into thirds, etc., etc. In fact, human faces are infinitely varied. 

These ‘perfect’ laws fall apart especially fast when the subject isn’t white. For example, everything you learned about drawing eyes falls apart with an Asian person with no epicanthic fold. It’s far better to start with what’s really there.

This is a system that works, but you'll need to practice it a few times before it feels comfortable. If you have any questions, email me and I'll try my best to answer them.







Friday, September 21, 2018

The corrosive power of chance remarks


Words have the power to inflict or bind wounds. May we choose ours carefully.
Posted, by Carol L. Douglas. Watercolor on Yupo paper. I never did figure out a color for those water-lilies.
I was checking into an event when the canvas-stamping person said, “Oh, you paint on a red ground? I’ll have to check your work out. A lot of people do that near where I live, and I hate it.”

I have no idea what—or even if—she was thinking when she said that. But it has subtly affected me ever since. I’m finding myself less likely to leave the ground showing, more likely to lard the paint on. Neither is good technique.

I’m a confident painter. Imagine if I was less experienced, or less secure. It might have completely shaken a painter at the start of a competitive event. It’s a perfect example of how not to offer criticism.

Private Island, oil on canvas. This was interrupted by headache last week.
Compare that to my dear friend Mary Byrom, who doesn’t like that red ground either. Mary is a crackerjack painter herself. I know she has good technical reasons for her opinion. She is also a loyal, kind, supportive friend. I know her intentions are good. I can listen to her opinion and weigh it fairly, without being defensive. She’s earned the right to critique my painting.  

I’ve spent the month looking at and absorbing Joseph Fiore’s paintings, and I plan to start tinkering with some of his technical approaches, particularly his surfaces and scribing. He clearly—and successfully—paints on white canvases. He leaves areas white, scrubs the paint back, and lets the ground show through.
After checking every day this week, I decided I had to paint the reflections from my sketch, because there's a constant breeze on Damariscotta Lake right now.
Toning, for those of you who aren't painters, means painting the white gesso a color before you start the painting proper. I was taught to always tone my canvases, and it’s something I also teach my students. Of course, the way I learned was to lightly tone with an earth tone in sepia, yellow ochre or grey. The brilliant red was a later addition.

Toning is as old as painting itself, but its rationale is explained through the 19th century concept of simultaneous contrast. This is a fancy way of saying that a color looks lighter against black, darker against white. To see it accurately, you need to see it against something that’s a neutral value.

Toning:
  • Establishes the mid-tone values from the start;
  • Unifies the color of the composition;
  • Sets an emotional tone for the painting;
  • Stops any specks that peek through from competing with your highlights;
  • Gives you a more accurate sense of the value and size of your darks when you first set them down.
In the field, it also stops you from being blinded by brilliant white.
Working Dock is the painting I showed you yesterday, properly photographed this time. (I finished it at dusk.)
From observation, I'd say the majority of my plein air peers start on toned boards. It is something I'll continue to recommend to my students. But should I keep doing it? That I can’t answer until I experiment on a white canvas. And that will wait until this workshop is over, because I only brought toned canvases with me.

While I’d like to say I’m thinking through this as a response to the Fiore paintings, there’s a small niggling part of me that’s still reacting to that woman’s comment. It’s a reminder that words have the power to inflict or bind wounds. Good advice is invaluable, in painting and in life. But may we all be as kind as Mary Byrom when we offer our opinions.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

They like what they see


If you paint in your studio, you miss some marvelous conversations—with animals as well as people.
Working Dock, oil on canvas, by Carol L. Douglas.
I’m using this residency to explore ideas I might otherwise skip over, because they’re not particularly marketable. Yesterday, for example, I managed to channel David Hockney’s peculiar perspective and flat planes onto a grey working lobster dock in Maine. I was surprised when a lobsterman asked me how much I wanted for the painting.

I don’t want to sell any of this work before I’ve shown it as a series. But I looked up my price and told him how much it will eventually be.

He repeated it back to me awestruck, and asked, “Are you famous?
A lobster pound at Tenants Harbor, by Carol L. Douglas, courtesy the Kelpie Gallery. Working docks are fascinating to paint. 
Well, not unfamous. But that’s not really the point. It’s like lobstering, I said. Both lobstermen and plein air artists have high operating costs and significant business risk. (We also work outside in all kinds of weather, but their job is far more dangerous than mine.)

“It’s a lot more than lobster,” he laughed. Well, if you price it by the pound, yeah.

My intention for this residency has been to do each locale first in oils and then in watercolor, but that’s been shaken up some by the recent rain. Today’s painting is the mate to Monday’s watercolor. I hope I get it straight before I head home at the end of next week.

Little Giant, by Carol L. Douglas, courtesy of Camden Falls Gallery.
The other day, Bobbi Heath and I were hit onvery politely, mind you. Bobbi and I are both, erm, grandmotherly, and neither of us were remotely chic. Heck, I never even combed my hair that morning. Then again, I never do.

“Are either of you ladies single?” he asked. Bobbi thought that line needed work, but we were polite in kind.

Later, he came back and asked me, “But are you happily married?”

Pilings, by Carol L. Douglas.
A couple from Pennsylvania stopped to chat. A ruckus erupted in front of us.

“A kingfisher!” the husband exclaimed. After a moment his face fell. “A chipmunk.” Chipmunks are my most steadfast painting companions. They’re always chattering at me.

I’ve seen so many turkeys this year that I’m almost inspired to them (in my studio, in the winter). I’ve also seen a lot of deer mice in unnatural poses. They like to visit the pantry at the end of summer, and they pay for it with their lives.

I’ve met a lot of surprising creatures over the years. I’m basically silent, except for the swish-swish of my brush, and animals get curious. Here in Jefferson, it’s been the usual woodland creatures. A few days ago, I had to stamp my feet at a squirrel who was coming too close. “I’ll make a brush out of your tail!” I told him.

Working Dock in its Hockney phase. There are elements of this abstraction that I'd like to recapture.
Working Dock, above, spent a long time looking as if the far wharf had erupted in flames. I wanted to maintain a separation between the trees. Passers-by avoided it when it was in that stage, particularly the guys who work on the dock. Perhaps they know something they’re not telling.

A studio painter told me that when he paints outside, he’s thrown by the public commentary. I understand how that can happen, particularly if you’re not confident in your skills. But most people are kind, even to the rawest, newest student. They genuinely like what they see: the miracle of that scene over there being translated into this picture, right here.

If you work in a studio, or you work outside with headphones on, you miss some wonderful interactions. Yes, the public can be a distraction, but they’re also a joy.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

A common footman in the army of art


Plein air painting isn’t highbrow, but it speaks to my soul.
La casa de los abuelitos, by Carol L. Douglas
“You’re lucky to love to do something that people love,” Clif Travers told me soon after we’d met. He meant that sincerely. It’s easier to sell landscape paintings than the large-scale installation piece he’s working on.

The earliest known “pure landscapes” (with no human figures) are Minoan murals dating from around 1500 BC. Landscape flowered in Rome, Egypt and China. It died out in western art and was rediscovered in the Renaissance.
Rocky, by Carol L. Douglas
In China, the mountain-water ink painting was traditionally the most valued form of picture. Here in the west, landscape occupied a low position in the accepted hierarchy of genres, which went:
  1. History, including all that allegorical stuff;
  2. Portrait;
  3. Genre painting, or scenes of everyday life;
  4. Landscape;
  5. Animals;
  6. Still life.
This hierarchy was established in 16th century Italy. It elevated those things which rendered the universal essence of things (imitare) over the mere mechanical copying of appearances (ritrarre). While the Impressionists did much to knock this on its head, there’s still a decided whiff of lowbrow to landscape painting, particularly the plein air variety. I think it’s because people actually like it.

Some days it rains, by Carol L. Douglas
The 17th century Dutch Golden Age painters were among the first artists with middle-class customers, so it’s no surprise that they painted lots of landscape. But they were conflicted about it. Samuel Dirksz van Hoogstraten was the century’s most important art critic. He called landscape paintings “the common footmen in the army of art.” But he also recognized that landscape “provides scope for artistic freedom, for coloristic virtuosity and for chance: for a dialogue between Mother Nature and the artist’s own innate ability.”

It’s surprisingly difficult to find data on what genres of art sell the best, but I did find this top-ten list from Art Business Today. It's for the UK art market, but ours isn't much different:
  1. Traditional landscapes
  2. Local views
  3. Modern or semi-abstract landscapes
  4. Abstracts
  5. Dogs
  6. Figure studies (excluding nudes)
  7. Seascapes, harbor, and beach scenes
  8. Wildlife
  9. Impressionistic landscapes
  10. Nudes

Beach Grass (Goosefare Brook) by Carol L. Douglas
Obviously, none of us invented landscape painting, but each of us invents ourselves as landscape painters. When we start out, there’s absolutely no market for our work. We create that market through dialogue. We produce our first paintings, gauge the audience’s reaction (through sales and critiques), and then refine our message and reenter the fray with new work. That’s an ongoing process throughout our careers. It’s no different from many other lines of work.

There are artists working out there in splendid isolation, not caring what the audience thinks, but they’re very rare. For most of us, painting is a dialogue, and the other half of the dialogue is the buying public.

Bracken Fern, by Carol L. Douglas
Most artists don’t shape their work because a certain kind of landscape painting will sell better (although we are influenced by our peers and gallerists). But the best feedback we get is often in the form of a purchase.

I don’t paint en plein air because I think it’s somehow higher on a hierarchy of landscape. I do it because it appeals to me on a soul level. My friend Brad Marshall once said, “My clients don’t care if I did it in the studio or out. They only care about the quality of the work itself.” Plein air is not, in itself, a virtue. It’s only when it helps the painting become transcendent that it matters.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

A sense of place


I can’t get a painting out of my mind. That means the artist did an unusually good job.
Lobster dock, by Carol L. Douglas, watercolor on Yupo paper.
In September, our days often start with fog, as the cooler, longer nights of autumn dance with the warm ocean. “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,” John Keats called it. It’s exquisitely cool on the skin and a delight to paint. But I was having none of that joy on Sunday. In fact, I was miserable.

As the sky cleared, the day emerged perfect. There is a limpid, golden light from now until March in this latitude. Still, it’s not cold; a warm, gentle breeze floated across Damariscotta Lake. September is the most glorious month in Maine, and the knowledgeable holiday-makers know it.

They were out in force, zipping along the water on their jet skies, in power and pontoon boats. I like boats, and don’t generally begrudge them their fun on the water, but the engine sounds were drilling neat holes in my temples. After six hours, I capitulated to my awful headache and packed up my brushes.
I'm not a crank, I have hay fever. Really.
Yesterday morning I noticed that my eyes were swollen. The penny dropped. I used to have fierce autumn allergies when I lived along the Lake Plains. Here, my bedroom overlooks a hundred-acre hayfield. I have hayfever again.

I’d planned on meeting Bobbi Heath to paint in the pickerelweed above Damariscotta Mills. When I showed her my eyes, she suggested that we go, instead, to the shore, where the ocean breezes could clear my sinuses. That is how we ended up at Round Pond, and it suited me to a T.

Private Island, definitely unfinished, by Carol L. Douglas
I’m having fun with Yupo, and doing some interesting work with it, but the medium is driving my painting, rather than being subservient to any sense of place. That’s shifting, but it’s a slow process.

“Sense of place” is difficult to define. Most geographic places have strong identities, although some (like shopping malls) are interchangeable. But sense of place isn’t merely geographical. It’s also perception, based on history and feelings.

A sense of place needn’t be positive. Charles Dickens opened Great Expectations in a miasma of graveyard, swamp, and convict hulks on the river. Charles Burchfield has a tremendous sense of his adopted hometown of Buffalo, and it’s threatening. But in painting, sense of place is generally a positive thing.

In the national imagination, Maine has a strong place identity. That is why gazillions of ceramic lighthouses are flogged here every year. But a sense of place is deeper than simple media coverage and souvenir shopping. Digging to its essence is one of the trickiest jobs in landscape painting.

View from Mount Pisgah, by Deborah Lazar, has a tremendous sense of place. It comes from the brushwork as much as from the forms.
I’ve thought a lot about a painting I saw last month at Adirondack Plein Air that has a stellar sense of place. It was a tiny gem, almost unnoticed in the crush, but it’s resonated with me ever since. I asked its painter, Deborah Lazar, if I could share it with you.

Deborah has captured the Adirondacks’ essential color and form in simple terms. I can practically feel the wind in the looseness of her brushwork. She couldn’t have done that had she focused on style rather than content, because her mark-making would have overridden the movement of the wind. 

Style is often what's rewarded by jurors. But this painting has stuck with me long after the prize-winners have faded from my memory.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Monday Morning Art School: mass tones, undertones and mixing


The imperfection of paint is what gives it its liveliness and depth, but it also makes mixing colors tricky.
Autumn, by Carol L. Douglas. This painting contains no reds. The red tones are a combination of cadmium orange and quinacridone magenta.
Last week, I made a flippant remark about clashing colors. This weekend, I had an opportunity to see clashing at work, in an ottoman proposed for my living room. It was a cool rose tint and looked horrible with my sectional’s warm red cushions. I’m usually happy with putting closely analogous colors together but this combination would be terrible. The mass tones were fine; the undertones were all wrong.

A mass tone is the color a pigment is straight out of the tube, dense and unmixed with another color. No real-world pigment, however, is as pure as a color on a video screen. While two pigments may look the same to the naked eye, their behavior when mixed can be radically different.

Undertone is the color revealed when a paint is spread thin enough that light bounces back up from the substrate. Some pigments are fairly consistent when moving from mass tone to undertone. Others have significant color shifts. Not understanding those undertones tones can lead to muddy mixes.
Three blues that look similar out of the tube, but behave very differently. The 'glaze' on the left is the undertone. Courtesy Gamblin paints.
Ultramarine, Prussian and phthalo blue are colors that shift radically from mass tone to undertone. They’re all so dark out of the tube that their differences aren’t apparent to the naked eye. But dilute them, and you’ll find a wide range of blues.

Undertones are why buying “hues” instead of pure pigments can be such bad value. Take, for example, cadmium red hue, which is usually a napthol red with a small amount of white added. Out of the tube, the two paints are indistinguishable, but they mix very differently.

Cadmium Red Hue is usually made with napthol red and a little white. They mix very differently, which is why the hue is a bad substitute for the real pigment. (In its own right, napthol is a fine red, however.) Courtesy Gamblin paints.
Even paints with the same pigments can have different undertones depending on the manufacturer. I’m experiencing this right now with my quinacridone violets, which I’ve been replacing with whatever I can buy along the road. That comes back to the imperfectability of pigments and their essential complexity.

A drawdown test showing a paint's undertone. Courtesy Utrecht paints.
If you're considering two different pigments, or thinking about switching brands, you could test them. It's fast and easy. To see their mass tone, put a small dab of paint on a smooth white board or glass palette and draw it down with a knife, creating a uniform, solid stripe that completely obscures the painting surface.

To see the undertone, draw the samples down again so they are translucent. You should be able to see minute variations in the color, and in the covering power.

To understand the behavior of each more fully, you now need to make tints, tones and shades of each sample.

  • A tint is a color plus white.
  • A shade is a color plus black.
  • A tone is a color plus black and white.

This old paint chart from my studio explains tints, shades and tones.
Even when the mass tone appears quite similar, two close colors will act very differently when mixed. Their unique qualities of tinting strength, chroma, undertones and color temperature come into play here. But mixing paint with white or black immediately adds another layer of complexity. Different blacks and whites have their own undertones. Titanium white has a cool undertone. Zinc white is warmer, but it’s also brittle and thin, making it a bad choice for general painting. Ivory black is slightly warm.

The imperfection of paint is what gives it its liveliness and depth. It's also why I don’t use a limited palette, but a system of paired primaries, which I described here.

Friday, September 14, 2018

Equipment troubles


It’s time to make some hard choices about my two wooden easels.
The last cutting, v. 2, by Carol L. Douglas. Watercolor, same subject as yesterday, but turned the other way. This is one of those times where a square canvas would be appropriate.
 On Wednesday, I realized I’d lost my watercolor palette on Clary Hill. The palette—$14.79 at Jerry’s—is no big deal. It was, however, fully loaded with paint. That’s an expensive nick in the wallet.

I use an old Mabef tripod swing easel for watercolor. I’ve had it forever. It has been replaced by a larger version in most catalogues, but this old friend has been a reliable, versatile workmate for several decades. A few years ago, the head cracked on one side. I compressed and glued it so it worked again. The thumbscrew no longer tightens enough to hold the arm perfectly stable, so I prop it up with my knee when painting. For big boards, I’ve been taping the support to the easel’s head rather than trying to hold it mechanically. I seem to end up using this easel in preference to newer, snazzier ones.

On Tuesday in the dripping rain, that original crack opened back up again. I duct-taped it tightly and hoped for the best. Yesterday, the other side of the head cracked. Again, I taped it together. However, with no tension in the head, the arm is free to bounce around willy-nilly on its pivot. I’m afraid my old friend may be headed for the woodstove.

With both sides of the head cracked, there is nothing to keep tension on the pivot head, and the arm can swing willy-nilly.
There are many reasons to love wooden easels—they’re relatively cheap, they’re stable in high winds, and, properly cared for, they can last for years. However, they have two shortcomings. The first is that wood is heavy. Few modern-day plein air painters have donkeys or servants to carry our equipment up steep hillsides. When I was forty, this wasn’t a big issue. As I approach sixty, it has become a limiting factor. An aluminum pochade box and a lightweight tripod weigh a fraction of what a decent wood easel does.

Wood is hygroscopic. That means the moisture content changes depending on the relative humidity. That’s the killer for all unfinished wood used outdoors, and easels are no exception. My Gloucester easel—also old, purchased used many years ago—requires a rock to hammer the pins into place, because they’ve swollen over time.

Painting earlier this year with a Gloucester easel. It's the only easel tough enough for on-shore winds. Photo courtesy of Karen Lybrand.
That’s an easel with an interesting history. It is a traditional European design that was brought to Gloucester, MA, at the turn of the last century by painter Oscar Anderson. He made and sold them to fellow artists; old ones bear his name-plate.  The Anderson easel became known generically as a “Gloucester easel.” Today there are two versions available—a beautifully milled, expensive one called the Take-It Easel, and a mass-produced one called the Beauport Easel. They work exactly the same, although I imagine the better-made one will last longer.

It’s a very stable design, and it has the great advantage of allowing work to tilt forward toward a sitting painter. Still, I don’t like to carry it any farther than I can trundle it in a wagon. Not only is it big and cumbersome, it is held in the folded position by only a canvas strap. (Mine rotted away years ago.) And it’s useless for watercolor, because the head doesn’t pivot.

Meanwhile, the unsettled Atlantic is giving us some very interesting sunrises. This was yesterday's; this morning we were socked in with fog.
I have a spare pivot-head easel in my studio in Rockport, and I’ll collect it on Saturday. It’s a Guerilla painter head that I adapted to hold a larger board. With its tripod, it weighs a ton, but that won’t matter for this residency. After that, I’ll take apart both my wooden easels and make some hard choices. Can they be rehabbed, or must they be replaced?

Thursday, September 13, 2018

The road home


How much of what we know is truth and how much is the convention of our times?
After the final cutting, Carol L. Douglas
In the 21st century, we are being driven inexorably toward higher and higher chroma (color intensity). This isn’t just happening in painting, but also in photography, home furnishings, and hair coloring. Occasionally an artist will take refuge in monochrome, but the delicately modeled colors of our predecessors are out of vogue. We live and die at 1280 x 720 pixels, and delicacy just doesn’t cut it on a computer monitor.

Yesterday, David Dewey spent a few hours with Clif Travers and me, going through a wealth of Joseph Fiore paintings. These are in storage and represent his entire career, from his studies at Black Mountain College until shortly before his death. Unlike most painters, Fiore didn’t run through clearly defined stylistic periods. He operated on parallel tracks of abstraction and realism, each informing the other.
Guardian of the Falls, 1983, Joseph Fiore, oil on canvas, 52 x 44, courtesy of the Falcon Foundation.
His folios are full of small studies in watercolor, oil, and pastel, now chemically stabilized. The majority are formal color exercises, many based on a mathematical grid of his own devising. David identified these as Bauhaus in character, which in turn takes us back to Paul Klee, Josef Albers and Wassily Kandinsky.

Klee closely connected color and music, making the connection between harmony and complementary colors, and dissidence and clashing colors (whatever they may be). Albers was a hands-on scientific colorist who taught at Black Mountain College when Fiore was there.

Field sketch for Guardian of the Falls (above), courtesy of the Falcon Foundation. It’s watercolor and about 12x16.
Fiore’s color studies are a balm to the eye starved for subtlety. There are grids of closely analogous greens and browns; grids punctuated with black. In addition to being beautiful, they fly in the face of our current color model. 

That just shows how much of what we think we know is the convention of our time, not eternal truths of painting. Take, for example, all of Kandinsky's twaddle in Concerning the Spiritual in Art.  For much of the twentieth century, people took that seriously.

The artist’s job is to get through all that to the nut of the matter. The only way I know to do that is to paint—a lot.

David mentioned that he uses Arches 500 in his studio work, but mixes it up in the field. The accidents that ensue help him avoid staleness. This is exactly my goal in alternating between watercolor and oil in this residency, and in painting so big and fast. I am trying to shake up my oil painting.

I was able to maintain the truth of the landscape in my sketch.
Nature has a certain awkwardness. We landscape painters are taught to edit that away into a ‘better’ composition. After examining so many paintings, I wondered how much of that is also a fashion issue. I resolved to not do it in my afternoon painting, but to be completely faithful to what God and man had laid down in that field. I don’t think I succeeded. The personal impulse is just too strong to ignore.
But when I started painting, I succumbed to the urge to prettify.
With all that fizzing in our heads, Clif and I went back to the farm and returned to work. The lake was still unsettled from this week’s storm, so I painted the small private cemetery and its lane. The lake beyond made this very much a painting of the intersection between land, water and man.

Having spent the morning in study, I didn’t finish the painting to any high surface. It’s slightly easier to do that with watercolor, since it goes faster. But in either case, the pace is starting to tell on me. I’m getting tired.