Paint Schoodic

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Friday, May 20, 2022

Boys must be boys

The ick factor in art history is compounded by our own era’s obsession with sex and power.

The Milkmaid, c. 1600, Johannes Vermeer, courtesy Rijksmuseum

During Monday’s class, I zipped quickly through Vermeer’s oeuvre on line, when a sentence about Vermeer’s The Milkmaid stopped me cold. This is one of the most well-known paintings in western art, so familiar that it’s become background noise.

“For at least two centuries before the painting was created, milkmaids and kitchen maids had a reputation as being predisposed to love or sex, and this was frequently reflected in Dutch paintings of kitchen and market scenes from Antwerp, Utrecht and Delft. Some of the paintings were slyly suggestive, like The Milkmaid, others more coarsely so.”

This interpretation apparently came from a 2009 show at the Metropolitan, curated by the late Walter Liedtke, because most of the text was lifted verbatim from his catalog.

“The physical appeal of the ‘milkmaid’ is sensed naturally,” wrote Liedtke, “like the taste of milk or the touch of bread. Rough sleeves reveal bare arms, where the skin (unlike that of the wrists and hands) is rarely exposed to sunlight. The ruddy wrists and face, the woman's generous proportions, and her warmth, softness and approachability are qualities not found in Vermeer's more refined young ladies. They too are alluring, but the kitchen maid is frankly so.

Kitchen Scene, 1620s, Peter Wtewael, courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art

There are certainly coarse Dutch kitchen scenes—the Peter Wtewael kitchen scene, above, is a compendium of every sex reference that can be crammed on a canvas. Dutch painting of this time was full of jokes and bawdy comic references. Frans Hals’ laughing faces contrast vividly with the rest of Europe’s dour demeanor in Baroque portraiture. Art history tells us that the Dutch drank copiously.

Yes, the 17th century Dutch Republic was Calvinist. Prostitution and adultery were against the law. That didn’t stop the Dutch from recognizing the realities of life, and laughing at them.

The Laughing Cavalier, 1624, Frans Hals, courtesy the Wallace Collection

But Peter Wtewael’s kitchen scene is the attraction of equals. That’s very different from the class abuse of men like Samuel Pepys groping their maids.

These paintings are no longer in middle-class Dutch homes. They have been moved to palaces and museums, where their caretakers and interpreters are the wealthy, educated and powerful. It’s no surprise that their own privilege subtly colors the work they analyze.

To Liedtke, the wide-mouth jug in The Milkmaid was a symbol of feminine anatomy. “By inserting a foot warmer and, next to it, a Delft tile depicting Cupid, Vermeer intimates that love and desire, as well as work, are burdens the maid must bear… Foot warmers do not heat rooms. They heat feet and, under a long skirt (as in Van Loo's Wooing), more private parts.”


The Procuress, c. 1622, Dirck van Baburen, courtesy Museum of Fine Arts.

This is not to say that there wasn’t an erotic underpinning to Dutch art, or that servants weren’t the objects of male lust. “I am perfectly willing to believe that you are knowledgeable in the delectable art of preparing stews / But I feel even more appetite for you / Than for the stew that you are preparing,” read the French caption for an engraving of Gerrit Dou’s A Girl Chopping Onions.

It’s just that the ick factor is compounded by our own era’s obsession with sex and power.

Vermeer was just too intelligent to have played this game of simple parts. His mature paintings show keen psychological insight. His milkmaid is a dignified, moral presence. It’s obscene to suggest otherwise.

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Romance or reality?

Be honest or sanitize the view? What’s actually there can be a hard sell.

Lobster Pound at Tenants Harbor, Carol L. Douglas, available.

I painted the above, of a lobster pound at Tenants Harbor, ME, just a few years ago. These days, a backhoe is clearing the property. This is no paeon to a lost way of life, because lobstering is a healthy $1 billion business in Maine (although it is currently is threatened by Federal regulation). It’s just an observation that things change. Paintings can be a way of marking what was once there.

But that’s only if we’re honest. Years ago, I painted the upper falls at Letchworth (below). There has been an old steel railroad bridge above it for as long as I can remember. I wanted to minimize it as much as possible, as I thought it was an ugly, ominous intrusion into the landscape. Still, it needed to be there. It was as much a part of the place as the rocks and water.

Upper Falls at Letchworth, Carol L. Douglas, private collection

In 2017, the bridge was replaced with a newer, squatter, safer model. Last year, a visitor from New York saw my painting. “That’s the old railroad bridge!” he enthused. What I thought was annoying was, to him, a part of history.

Landscape artists—myself included—have a tendency to minimize the effect of people in the landscape and to paint what is already obsolete or rustic. We paint lobster boats but delete the shiny white cruise ships in the harbor. We delete cars, in part because they’re difficult to draw, and in part because they’re ubiquitous.

A 1917 postcard of a car accident below the Upper Falls, showing the railroad bridge. Eleven people were in that car when it tumbled off the gorge wall. Two died.

This has always been the case. Artists have the same ideas about what’s beautiful as the rest of humanity. There are exceptions, of course. Childe Hassam used carriages and cars as motifs in his paintings. George Bellows nearly rubs our face in the humanity of the early 20th century. But for the most part, landscape artists paint a romanticized, sanitized version of reality.

The new bridge changes the view forever.

In earlier times, that meant the horse manure and mud were removed from the street and steam engines and coal didn’t deposit soot everywhere. Today we excise power lines, fire hydrants, bus stops and plastic kids’ toys.

Why? Mostly, I think, because our audience demands it. Landscape art is in many ways an escape from reality. It is a reflection of what we as a society want, not what is.

Consider Daniel Greene’s series on the New York subway. Yes, we get a sense of its subterranean light, utilitarian architecture and fabulous tile walls. However, he omits the filth, dripping water, ubiquitous crazy people, and the overall crush of humanity. These are portraits of the subways as some future archeologist might see them, not as they really are.

Fishing shacks at Owls Head, Carol L. Douglas, available.

Would these have been better paintings had he included reality? I think so, but they might not have sold so well.

Attention to prosaic reality is not without its risks. There are exceptions of course, like Rackstraw Downes or Linden Frederick, but mostly it doesn’t pay. Buyers aren’t that keen on truth-telling.

I used to do an annual event with a painter who has a wonderful heart for working-class life. Year after year, he turned out well-designed paintings of local landmarks in all their utilitarian beauty. They languished at auction compared to highly romanticized views of sea and woods in gilt frames. Yet, by any critical standard in painting, they were superior paintings. There’s a lesson in that, and it’s not a pretty one.

Monday, May 16, 2022

Monday Morning Art School: paint with precision

We’re all proponents of loose-is-more, but there are times when you have to be able to hit it right.

Cremorne Pastoral, 1895, Arthur Streeton, courtesy Art Gallery of New South Wales. There are few details, but the ones that are, are very accurately painted.

Detail and precision are not in style right now. “The artist should fear to become the slave of detail,” wrote Albert Pinkham Ryder. “They should strive to express their thought and not the surface of it. What avails a storm cloud accurate in form and color if the storm is not therein?” We’re all proponents of this loose-is-more theory of painting.

However, this is a current trope, and not an artistic truth. There are contemporary figure and still life painters who focus on detail, and artists practicing modern trompe l’oeil. Even in plein air, there are fine painters who eschew looseness for careful attention to detail. Richard Sneary, Jay Brooks and Patrick McPhee come to mind.

The Girl with the Wine Glass, c. 1659, Johannes Vermeer, courtesy Herzog Anton Ulrich Museum. We’re so focused on the clarity of Vermeer’s vision that we barely notice how empty the room is.

Many people get caught up in the details before they get the big shapes right. That’s overwhelming. Before you ever get to the point of painting in blades of grass, the rhythm of light and dark must be researched and articulated properly. How do you do that? The same way as with an alla prima finish—through sketch and underpainting.

Even the exuberant Dutch Golden Age artists left things to the imagination. We’re so busy looking at all the stuff they crammed into their canvases that we sometimes don’t notice what they’ve left out. Not every detail deserves the same attention.

Banquet of the Amsterdam Civic Guard in Celebration of the Peace of Münster, 1648, Bartholomeus van der Helst. Courtesy Amsterdam Museum

Great painters distill the visual noise, and then concentrate on the important parts. Consider the problems facing Bartholomeus van der Helst in his monumental commission, Banquet of the Amsterdam Civic Guard in Celebration of the Peace of Münster, above. It’s a portrait of 24 august gentlemen and one lady. (And wouldn’t you love to know why she was included?) None of the subjects would have been happy to be represented with a few Impressionistic brush strokes. There were symbols that needed to be included—pikestaff, drum, silver drinking horn and the paper on the side of the drum. In addition, the men were garbed in their very best frippery, and they meant to show that off.

Van der Helst pared away at the composition with ruthless efficiency. The background is muted. He let black hats and black garb sink wherever he could. Thank goodness for the fashion of ruffs and white linen collars—they allow the faces to stand out. The remaining textiles are held in a rigid pattern of gold, blue, and red. The color harmony is, in large part, holding the picture together.

It's unlikely that an artist will ever paint a monumental commission like this again. It’s more likely that we’ll add a few details to a much looser painting. These details can fool the eye into thinking there’s more there than is actually present.

Out Back, Peter Yesis, courtesy of the artist.

Peter Yesis is the best painter of flowers I know. In my mind’s eye, I see his paintings as detailed, but they’re actually very restrained. The focal points draw our eyes, allowing our minds to fill in the other areas. This engages our imagination, which is far more potent than anything on the canvas.

I wrote last week about pareidolia, our ability to see meaningful images in ambiguous visual patterns. Humans find this much more compelling than having things spelled out for them.

We’ve been using that technique since the Impressionists to engage viewers. But to do it, you need to be able to occasionally lay down a tight, accurate line.

Painting precisely is a matter of slowing down and exerting greater direct control over your brush. Smaller brushes can help, but a light hand is most important. (Most of us are slightly tremulous, and smaller brushes can result in shakier lines.) There’s no way to get there but to practice your fine motor control.

Friday, May 13, 2022

Nothing lasts forever

Wildfire is threatening an area I know and love. It’s a reminder that nothing lasts forever, even the trees and hills.

Hermit's Peak from El Porvenir, Carol L. Douglas, oil on archival canvasboard, available.

I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time recently watching the wildfire at Hermit’s Peak in New Mexico. “Much of the fire’s growth is in thick, heavy timber and steep, rugged terrain,” writes officialdom. That is, if anything, an understatement. I’ve painted in El Porvenir with my buddy Jane Chapin. The area is desolate.

As sad as the current fire destruction is, it’s where the fire is heading that concerns me. It’s been burning slowly toward the villages of Upper and Lower Colonias and county road B44A. The Pecos River basin is just a few miles from the fire’s edge.

Upper Reaches of the Pecos River, Carol L. Douglas, oil on archival canvasboard, available.

This is where my Gateway to the Pecos Wilderness workshop is centered, and I’ve come to know and love this tiny slice of Creation. It’s deeply wooded, high, fresh and mountainous.

Of course, I’m worried about Jane, who is in the evacuation ‘set’ zone. However, Jane’s the person who extracted us all from Patagonia after lockdown. There’s nobody I’d rather be in a crisis with.

Old farmhouse in Pecos, NM, Carol L. Douglas, oil on archival canvasboard, available. This is one of the historic structures in the evacuation 'set' area.

The fire started as a prescribed burn lit on a windy April day. It’s now burned out of control for five weeks and shows no sign of imminent containment.

The terrain is extremely inaccessible. “It has more roads on the east side of the ridge but the Pecos Wilderness side is forest roads. They’re often a challenge even for a 4-wheel-drive truck,” Jane told me. “They are steep, full of big rocks, tight switchbacks and big drop-offs, and there’s no turning around.” 

Dry Wash, Carol L. Douglas, oil on archival canvasboard, available.

It was the area beyond Lower Colonias where Jane and I scratched the tar out of her truck trying to back away from a steep drop. There’s no need to go off-roading for adventure; the roads themselves are terrifying.

“We now have over 1900 firefighters on this fire, most of whom are unfamiliar with the area and are sleeping on the ground in tents in fire camps,” Jane said. That’s hard work, complicated by the natural fauna of the area: bears, bobcats and mountain lions will be on the move, along with whatever horses, dogs and cattle may be caught within the fire line. Lest you think that’s an exaggerated risk, a soldier was killed at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage, AK on Tuesday by a grizzly sow protecting her cubs. Where civilization and nature collide, stressed animals sometimes behave erratically.

Snow at Higher Elevations (downdraft), Carol L. Douglas, oil on archival canvasboard, available.

This week, we’re reading about mansions burning in Southern California, but those people have the resources to rebuild. In contrast, San Miguel County, NM, is poor. A quarter of the population live below the poverty line. That makes them voiceless in modern society. They’re unlikely to be able to challenge the Forest Service about the wisdom of ‘controlled’ burns, and this is the second time in seven years where a prescribed burn has gotten loose in this area.

Log barns, Carol L. Douglas, oil on archival canvasboard, available. This historic farmyard is in the evacuation 'set' area.

But that’s all politics. What saddens me, deeply, is the potential destruction of a place I love. As Jane said, it seems somehow wrong to pray that the wind shifts and takes the fire to the east. If her home is saved, someone else’s will be destroyed. Instead, I pray for rain.

Nothing lasts forever, even the seemingly immortal forests and hills. That makes it even more imperative to get out and look at them—and paint them if you will—while you can.

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

What I don’t know

Painting is a solitary journey, but there are times when you need the help of others.

Main Street, Owl's Head, 16X20, oil on archival canvasboard.

I’ve fussed and worried about migrating this blog to my website for close to a year now. Blogger has discontinued its subscription widget, which makes maintaining readership almost impossible. I started on Wordpress, moved over here in 2007, went to the Bangor Daily News for a few years and then came back. With those moves, I just wrote off my prior content and moved on. But this blog has become too deep to do that. It’s essentially, the repository of every Great Thought I’ve ever had about painting.

Belfast Harbor, 14X18, oil on archival canvasboard, framed, $1594.

Every few weeks I’ve spent a morning trying to work out the problem. I’ve watched YouTube tutorials, read expert advice, and gotten nowhere.

I’m not computer-illiterate. Twenty-five years ago, I was a semester short of a degree in programming when my husband suggested that I take up painting full time. “The world is full of programmers,” he said, “but it needs more artists.” I’m not sure he was right, but I can, mostly, fix my own computer problems.

Last week, I folded. I called my software developer daughter and laid out the problem. By the time we ask for help, we’re usually pretty angry with ourselves. All our self-doubts come to the fore.

“First of all,” my daughter said, “you’re not stupid. This stuff is hard.” I was terribly proud of her at that moment. Whatever intellectual gifts she has, they’re dwarfed by the fact that she’s kind.

Marshall Point, 9X12, oil on archival canvasboard.

She then told me what I should have realized all along: I need to hire a professional. I contacted the woman who monetized my website for me, and she’s working on it now.

(Note that all the programming in this story is being done by women. Female programmers account for just 5% of the field worldwide, so that tickles me pink.)

I have felt that same frustration in painting. After my epiphany 25 years ago, I started taking painting classes, in Rochester and at the Art Students League in New York. Some of those classes were enormously useful—with Cornelia Foss, for example—and some were less so. I’m acutely aware of the feeling of frustration when faced with a painting problem I can’t figure out.

Much of that frustration could be avoided if someone would lay out the process clearly and concisely. That’s what Foss did for me, bringing me into the 21st century in her own crusty way. It’s what I try to do for my students. Painting is a technical exercise, so it should be addressed primarily in technical terms.

Beach Erosion, 8X10, oil on archival canvasboard.

Last week, I was being bedeviled by a watercolor question. Mick McAndrews answered it for me. He sounded eerily like my daughter—what I was trying to do was hard. Sometimes, just knowing that is important, because it takes out the background chorus of negative thoughts.

Every few months I’ll ask my pal Eric Jacobsen how he makes mauve, a color he uses to fantastic effect in landscapes. Apparently, I don’t like the answer, because I immediately forget what he tells me. That’s a different problem: simple willful ignorance.

Painting is a solitary journey, but there are times when you need the help of others. How much advice varies based on your personality and level of experience, but it’s foolish to go it alone. Sometimes, taking a class or workshop is the best investment you’ll ever make.