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Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Why is plein air painting significant?

It’s immediate and visceral, in a way that incorporates the lessons of abstract-expressionism, but it’s also grounded in reality. In short, it’s painting for our times.

Spring Greens, oil on canvasboard, 8X10, $652 in a plein air frame.

Last week Mary Byrom asked me, “Why is plein air painting significant?” I was at a loss for an answer. Then she sent me this essay, What’s the Point of Painting from Life? It sets out a compelling argument for why we should paint from real objects, rather than from photos. I hope my students all read it. But it glances off Mary’s question, rather than answering it.

There’s a lot of dreck in the plein air movement. It’s hindered by its sheer volume. But that was also true in the Dutch Golden Age and other periods in art history. Dreck is the inevitable consequence of lots of work, but that’s also what gives us brilliance. Time winnows out the worst paintings.

Belfast harbor, 14X18, oil on canvasboard, $1594 in a narrow black presentation frame.

Plein air painting is largely ignored by the contemporary Academy, by which I mean our university and museum culture. It’s a movement of the people, and it takes the artist down a few pegs, from intellectual to craftsman. Its training is done mostly in the old atelier system, by which I mean the workshops and classrooms of working artists. That’s in contrast to the university system, which teaches kids to be post-modern artists.

Our university system has no interest in teaching people to paint. Until the explosion of interest in plein air, traditional painting was perilously close to being a lost art. Yes, there are colleges in America teaching it, but they are rare and absurdly expensive.

Early Spring on Beech Hill, 12X16, oil on canvasboard, $1449 in a plein air frame.

In the twentieth century, meaning in painting took a radical turn. It stopped being about symbols and became about the artist’s own psyche. Odilon Redon, for example, wrote that he wanted to place “the logic of the visible at the service of the invisible.” Pablo Picasso famously said, “I paint objects as I think them, not as I see them.” Everything Picasso painted was autobiographical.

From there it was a short jump to the position of the later 20th century, when meaning was banished from art entirely. It became about form and color, rather than anything the artist wanted to say.

The Woodshed, 11x14, oil on birch, $869 unframed.

Stubbornly, the human mind has an insatiable desire for narrative and meaning—both in the telling and in the listening. It’s a great relief for all of us to leave the nihilism of the 20th century behind.

Plein air painting surged just as we Americans were learning that we can’t take our natural world for granted. In my lifetime the population of the United States has doubled. Fields and farms that I roamed as a child are now housing developments. Streams have been fouled, natural reserves of fish and wildlife depleted. Plein air painting is a both a record of these changes and a plea for the natural world.

The rise of plein air painting is inextricably tied to the development of internet culture, where museums and universities are no longer arbiters. There’s been an explosion of painting workshops, classes, books and videos to teach painting to the masses. And what do people want? Not abstraction, but representational painting grounded in real life.

I studied figure because I was taught that it was the most difficult genre, and the basis of the most important kinds of painting. After a lifetime of drawing and painting, I know that’s not true. Landscape is the most challenging, and therefore the most instructive, form of painting. It’s immediate and visceral, in a way that incorporates the lessons of abstract-expressionism, but it’s also grounded in reality. In short, it’s painting for our times.

Monday, December 6, 2021

Monday Morning Art School: practice makes perfect

Beautiful brushwork rests on a foundation of good preparation.

Ravening Wolves, 24X30, is in my show, Fantastic Places and Magical Realms at the Camden Public Library, month of December.

I recently came across the sketch below, of two wolves. I was surprised and pleased, because it’s something I drew about a decade or so. It became the subject of a painting I finished Friday, called Ravening Wolves, above. (You can see the whole show in the video here.)

The sketch for Ravening Wolves was much older, and was based on a personal crisis.

Stop thinking of drawing as something you have to get through, and start doing your dreaming in a sketchbook. You never know when you’ll use the images thus created.

“Painterly” describes a painting that is comfortable in its own skin. The paint creates movement and expression. Painterly works are loose and emotive, and they lead with their brushwork.

This is a sensual, rather than intellectual, quality. You’re there when you no longer fight the paint, but work with it. It’s the opposite of photorealism, where the artist works hard to conceal all evidence of his process. A painterly painting doesn’t fuss over the details.


Christmas Eve, 6X8, is a memory of driving home from my grandmother's house in deep snow.

The term “painterly” was coined in the 20th century by art historian Heinrich Wölfflin. He was trying to create an objective system for classifying styles of art in an age of raging Expressionism. The opposite of painterly, he felt, was “linear,” by which he meant paintings that relied on the illusion of three-dimensional space. To him this meant using skillful drawing, shading, and carefully-thought-out color. Linear was academic, and painterly meant impulsive.

That didn’t make the Old Masters inevitably linear, however. Rembrandt and Lucian Freud are both painterly painters. Richard Estes and Sandro Botticelli are both linear.

Today, we don’t see accurate drawing as an impediment to expression. Acute drawing is often overlaid with expressive brushwork. The idea of painterliness—of being loose and self-assured—is treasured even as we strive for accuracy.

The Hunter and the Hare started life as a demo. It ended up being a portrait of our midnight race to leave Patagonia

How do we develop painterliness?

First, master the fundamentals. “You can practice shooting eight hours a day, but if your technique is wrong, then all you become is very good at shooting the wrong way,” said basketball great Michael Jordan. “Get the fundamentals down and the level of everything you do will rise,” he said. That’s very true of painting, where there is a specific protocol for putting paint down.

Then practice, practice, practice. “I’m not out there sweating for three hours every day just to find out what it feels like to sweat,” said Jordan.

Expect failure. It comes with pushing your technique. “I have missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I have lost almost 300 games,” said Jordan. “On 26 occasions I have been entrusted to take the game winning shot… and missed. And I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

You can’t teach yourself to be relaxed; you can only get there through experience. The only way to be painterly is to paint. I can show you expressive brushwork techniques, but there are still no shortcuts. It happens automatically and naturally with experience. You stop focusing on the mechanics, and start focusing on what you see. Your eye is on the ball.

Many times, artists only realize their painterliness in old age. That is when Titian started painting in blotches, in a style that came to be known as spezzatura, or fragmenting. However, Vincent Van Gogh is the personification of painterliness, and he died at 37.

Great painters all end up doing their work in a specific way:

  • They figure out a composition based on line, form, and value masses;
  • They transfer that to their paper or canvas;
  • They paint colors in a predetermined order, established with the invention of their medium.

In oils that protocol is:

  • Fat over lean;
  • Dark to light;
  • Big shapes to smaller shapes.

In watercolor, the order of operations is:

  • Washes to detail;
  • Dark over light (not written in stone).

Practice until you get it perfect.

Friday, December 3, 2021

Fantastic Places and Magical Realms

I chose the title and theme long before I chose the paintings. Looking at them together in my studio, I thought, they’re oddly autobiographical.

The Camden Public Library will present “Fantastic Places and Magical Realms” on Saturday, December 11, from 1 to 3 PM. The public is invited.

When Julia Pierce asked me to hold my show over through December at the Camden Public Library, I thought, “what’s the fun in that? We might as well switch it up.” Four weeks is short notice to put together a show, but I have a secret stash of quirky paintings. They’re things I painted to amuse myself, or to think through an idea that was on my mind.

Many people commented that Welcome Back to Real Life—which I’m taking down tomorrow—was grounded in mid-coast Maine. They were easily-recognized scenes, with a sense of place. “It’s the Maine I grew up with,” said one visitor.

The Late Bus, oil on canvasboard, $435 framed. 

For this show, I wanted to get as far as possible from that reality. I was looking for themes that are common to all of us, no matter where we live. Some started as plein air paintings that went haywire along the way. Some are real places that could be anywhere. Some are the product of my own imagination.

I could have titled this show, “A look into the recesses of the cluttered cabinet I call my mind.” It’s less polished and more visceral than the work I showed last month.

My classes are focused on narrative painting right now—painting that tells a story that’s greater than mere pictorial prettiness. I tried to select work for this show that operates within that idea, although few of them actually contain figures.

Best Buds, oil on canvasboard, $1087 framed.

Don’t expect Disney here. I’m probably the least-whimsical person in the world. Asked to do a series on Holy Week for children twenty years ago, I produced a set of Stations of the Cross that are black-and-white, gritty, blood and gore.

I’m more influenced by Renaissance genre painting. It depicts everyday life and ordinary people. But they’re never real places or real people, just stories played out in paint. They often tell a folk tale or relate a moral precept.

Thus, a shipwreck, to me, is more than just a bunch of rusty stuff strewn along a beach. It’s a fable about the inevitable end of all earthly endeavor, including my own.

Red buds and red osier, 12X16, oil on canvasboard, $1449 framed.

But striving is built into our human character, and we have to respect that, too.

Boats often stand in for people in my painting. They’re a metaphor for our existence. They remind me of our human journey through life. They sail through all sorts of weather; they are sleek and beautiful, or stout and utilitarian. They can move effortlessly, or they can founder.

Fantastic Places and Magical Realms will open on Saturday, December 11, from 1 to 3 PM. I will be catering with candy again, and I ask—for the sake of my diet—that you eat a little more of it this time.

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen

Change is hard. Embrace it.

At the End of the Rainbow, oil on canvasboard, 16X20, $2029 framed.

This weekend, I received a frame back from a gallery, unwrapped, battered and bruised. Some galleries treat artists’ work with shocking disrespect, so there’s no news there. However, it’s a large, expensive frame and there’s coffee splattered all over the linen fillet, as if it was stood in a corner during a party for the other, more popular paintings. That just adds insult to injury.

“What’s the point of galleries, anyway?” I grumbled. That’s a question I’m asking myself more and more. The internet and COVID have expedited shifts in the art market that are, I’m afraid, permanent. I can either roll with them or whine that everything is changing.

The Late Bus, oil on canvasboard, $435 framed.

Rage, rage against the dying of the light, is a line by Dylan Thomas that was part of every schoolchild’s repertoire in my youth. Along with Invictus, it was just about the worst advice ever.

The truth threads a narrow line between those two poems. We’re not the masters of our own fate, and raging against change is a fatal misdirection of our energy.

Meanwhile I need that painting for a show that I’m hanging this weekend. I’ve taken the frame apart, sprayed the fillet with hydrogen peroxide, and will start the laborious business of repairing the corners this morning, if it’s possible.

Red bud and Red Osier, oil on canvasboard, 12X16, $1449 framed.

Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen is one of the great lies we all labor under. Many people get stuck in it. Sadly, the troubles we’ve seen—disrespect, death, abandonment, duplicity, hypocrisy—are horribly common.

“But you don’t understand!” the soul cries out. “It’s worse because it’s happening to me!”

We humans love to discuss our injuries, hurts and losses. We take them out, caress and feed them, and then wonder why they grow. We especially like to convert our hurt into anger, because grief is enervating and anger at least feels alive.

Best Buds, 11X14, $1087 framed.

I had a potential exposure to COVID and have to quarantine until tested. I’m vaccinated and unlikely to get sick (although I can be a carrier), so it’s an inconvenience and I’m getting the test as a courtesy to others. That’s something to be profoundly grateful for, because until very recently, the potential implications were far more dire. COVID has hit me hard and personal, so I know of what I speak.

“I’m so mad at anti-vaxxers,” a family member texted. What’s the point, I asked. Anger just sows division. And if and when we ever get around to solving our soul problems, it adds another layer that must be unpicked.

Meanwhile, I chatted with the charming lady who sold us our new dishwasher and stove. “You already know this,” she said, “but every place is having trouble getting good help these days. I’m working six days a week because I’m the only person in this department.”

On Monday, I made oatmeal on a borrowed hot plate. “Do. Not. Talk. To. Me,” I told Doug and the dog, because I had to concentrate. By Tuesday, the hot plate and I were old friends. Change is hard, but we have no choice but to embrace it.

Monday, November 29, 2021

Monday Morning Art School: Narrative painting

The public’s embrace of plein air painting tells us that our audience, too, is hungry for a good story.

The Veteran in a New Field, 1865, by Winslow Homer, courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art. Painted at the end of the Civil War, it’s a poignant metaphor for the coming demilitarization.  

The human mind is hardwired for narrative. Long before the written word was developed, our paleolithic ancestors were telling stories on cave walls. Imagination is fundamental to human life.

“Narrative painting” simply means that the painting tells a story. During most of art history, that was the norm. A narrative painting can illustrate a cycle of ideas, as did Egyptian tomb frescoes or Michelangelo’s ceilings in the Sistine Chapel. Or, a narrative painting can illustrate a single moment, as does Sandro Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus.

While narrative painting is well suited for mythology and religion, it was also used to transmit historical ideas. The Death of General Wolfe, for example, is a 1770 painting by Benjamin West that commemorates the deciding affray in the struggle between Britain and France for control of the New World. It could also be propaganda, as with IngresNapoleon I on his Imperial Throne. And it was used to convey moral truths ranging from early Renaissance genre paintings to the great French Social Realist art.

Haymaking (Les Foins), 1877, Jules Bastien-Lepage, courtesy Musée d'Orsay

And then came the Cult of Genius, when artists shifted from being craftsmen to being intellectuals. That was a product of the Age of Enlightenment, and among other ideas, it gave us the concept of the enfant terrible, offensive, rebellious artist. In fact, this individualism was so popular that it earned a label: Bohemianism.

The phrase “Art for art’s sake!” meant that all ‘true’ art should be divorced from moralizing, instructive, political, or utilitarian functions. In short, it was art only when it was useless, practically speaking.

“Art should be independent of all claptrap — should stand alone… and appeal to the artistic sense of eye or ear, without confounding this with emotions entirely foreign to it, as devotion, pity, love, patriotism and the like,” wrote James Abbott McNeill Whistler.

Cromwell and the corpse of Charles I, 1831, Paul Delaroche courtesy Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nîmes

Pure art would be art that resonated with all people, regardless of their language, histories, or creeds. That idea marks the beginning of modern art. Since it allowed for the development of Impressionism and other forms of modern painting, it was extremely useful. But like all good ideas elevated to the point of religion, it eventually became an impediment to creativity. Much of human understanding lies in culturally-derived images. The cognoscenti may understand the meaning of a pile of bricks on the floor, but the average viewer doesn’t, and doesn’t want to.

(And of course, the cognoscenti was just replacing one set of images with another, with the added insult of being exclusionary. Either you pretended to understand, or you marked yourself out as uncouth.)

Paintings which told a story were either from the dustbin of history, or the province of those odd American realists, the Wyeths. This was the world in which I came of age as a painter. I’m a natural-born storyteller, so it’s no surprise that I didn’t know what the heck I was doing, or where I belonged.

Then came the post-modern era, which we could call “meaning without art.” Extracting a scroll from one’s vagina, vomiting paint, or defacing a First Folio of Goya’s Disasters of War may have seemed witty, but hardly required skill or craftsmanship.

In the post-post-modern era, plein air painting—an exercise in realism—is one of the most significant art movements, despite being largely ignored by art institutions. Most plein air painters are didactic by nature. We are speaking about our love of nature, the fragility of our world, and more. The public’s embrace of plein air painting tells us that our audience, too, is hungry for a good story.