Paint Schoodic

To see more paintings, learn about workshops and classes, and more, visit my website.

Friday, January 28, 2022

It was the best of tomes, it was the worst of tomes

I’m flailing around in the undergrowth in this new-to-me medium.

In Control (Grace and her Unicorn), oil on canvas, 24X30, is heading to Rye Arts Center for the month of March.

Last fall, I made the commitment that I’d spend a day a week this winter writing a painting book. That should be easy; after all, I’ve been blogging on the subject since 2007 on this platform (and still earlier on WordPress). I’ve almost as much experience as a writer as I have as a painter. Writing is an ‘unconsciously competent’ skill for me, or so I thought.

I have an outline and a plan. That’s the writerly equivalent of a value sketch, right? If I continue with the model of painting, I should then rough out each chapter (my underpainting, in big shapes), and then do a final pass for details.

Saran Wrap Cynic, 24X20, is heading to Rye Arts Center for the month of March

I’m not finding it works that way. I keep forgetting where I am, so I stop to reread what I already have. I then get sucked into editing. But if I forge ahead without checking my place, I inevitably repeat myself.

I need illustrations, especially of the exercises, so I stop to paint them. That’s probably a mistake, but I’m unsure of myself, blundering ahead.

I’m not clear on how long this book should be. I’ve gotten about 9500 words so far, and you, dear student, have just learned how to transfer your sketch to canvas. Arthur Wesley Dow wrote an exhaustive painting book, but I don’t think that will work for modern readers. We like looking at pictures.

Pinkie, pastel, 6X8, is heading to Rye Arts Center for the month of March.

After major surgery eight years ago, I amused myself during my recovery by writing a novel. I had no trouble leaving the hero on the edge of a precipice, taking a nap, and then jumping back to his rescue. Perhaps it was because I was temporarily benched with few other distractions.

I realized that writing just one day a week gives me too much time to forget what I’ve done. I’ve ramped that up to two days a week—just temporarily, mind you, until I find my groove. That’s definitely helped, but it wipes out any time I have for actual painting. Teaching currently occupies the better part of two days. Marketing owns another.

Ten years ago, I’d have felt terrible about that, as if I was a poseur—someone who talks the talk but doesn’t walk the walk. Right now, I’m treating it like a necessary evil, and taking my joy in painting the examples for the book.

The paintings are nestled all snug in their beds...

But, if after this predicted Nor’easter passes, one of my buddies texts me and says, “Carol, let’s go paint snow,” I’m outta here in a flash.

This week, curator Kicki Storm and I worked out the layout for my upcoming show at the Rye Art Center. The paintings are packed and waiting in the middle of my studio. The trailer is ready to roll. I’m chuffed to see these paintings heading down to a larger audience. If you’re on my mailing list, I’ll be sending you out the video tomorrow. If not, why not? Email me here, and I’ll fix that.

Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Resisting learning

Every one of us knows, in our heart of hearts, that we’re geniuses. If only we didn’t have the distractions of life, we could be brilliant at [insert discipline here].

Yesterday, my student Terrie told our Zoom class about something she’d read in a composition book. “Wow, the things I could learn if I actually read the books on my shelves instead of just looking at the pictures,” I joked, because I have the same book too.

It turns out that she was describing the ‘conscious competence’ learning model. It posits the following phases in learning a new skill:

Unconscious incompetence—the student doesn’t know what they don’t know;

Conscious incompetence—the student has figured out that they don’t know, and is making the mistakes necessary to learn;

Conscious competence—the student has figured out how to do it, but the steps require a lot of concentration;

Unconscious competence—the skill is second nature.

Fogbank, 14X18, oil on archival canvasboard, available

Every painting teacher has had the experience of the student who responds to every suggestion or criticism with ‘yes, but.” I was once that student myself, so it’s fairly easy for me to overlook, although it does take up valuable class time.

However, over twenty years of teaching, I’ve learned that if they don’t drop that attitude, they’ll take one session and then not come back. They’ve built up a protective wall around their self-image. Challenging that is too uncomfortable.

Little Village, 6X8, oil on archival canvasboard, available

Every one of us knows, in our heart of hearts, that we’re geniuses. If only we didn’t have the distractions of life, we could be brilliant at [insert discipline here]. However, it’s one thing to doodle, but another thing to drop the excuses and really challenge ourselves. All our shortcomings are revealed.

Going from dreamer to practitioner is an immensely humbling experience. That’s why—I think—so many truly-skilled artists are actually very modest people.

The instruction-resistant student can still make progress. One can teach oneself to paint with videos and books. However, that attitude is an impediment to learning, so they’ll linger in the phase of unconscious incompetence much longer than is necessary. I think I spent twenty years there, myself.

Fog over Whiteface Mountain, 11X14, oil on archival canvasboard, available

Mercifully, most of my students start somewhere in the second phase—they’re completely aware of how little they know, and how much they have to learn.

Yesterday I watched Jennifer paint a lovely red carnation in a bud vase. When she started my classes, she was doing delicate botanicals in watercolor; now she’s doing energetic, well-composed paintings across three media. She can prowl around all kinds of subjects with authority.

She’s one of my students who are in the third phase. She knows the steps and she’s refining her technique. I’m really there to stop these students from wandering off into the scrub and losing their way.

And then they’ll graduate to the last phase. These are the students I don’t mind losing, because I’m watching them fade out of my classes and into the world of their own mastery.

Monday, January 24, 2022

Monday Morning Art School: brushwork

Mark-making can be loose and gestural or very controlled. It’s personal, but it’s also something you can learn.

Dining Room in the Country, 1913, Pierre Bonnard, courtesy Minneapolis Institute of Art. Bonnard used small brush strokes, intense colors, and close values.

Brushwork is, on one hand, the most personal of painting subjects. It’s also (especially in watercolor) highly technical. Much of what is called ‘style’ comes down to what brushes we choose and what marks we make with them. I wrote about that here.

Modern viewers are immediately captivated by bravura brushwork; it’s a sign of self-confidence and competence. It comes from lots of practice. It also must rest on a firm foundation of proper color mixing and drafting. Flailing around to fix something negates the freshness and decisiveness of good brushwork.

Wheatfield with Crows, 1890, Vincent van Gogh, courtesy Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam. The motion in the painting is created by his brush strokes.

The best, most immediate, brushwork lies on a foundation of careful planning. Continuous modification, glazing, changing color, etc., make for diffident marks.

Let’s talk about how not to do it:

  • Unless you’re doing close detail, don’t hold your brush like a pencil. It’s a baton, and holding it to the back of the center-point (away from the ferrule) gives you more lyrical motion. Your grip can still be controlled by your thumb, you can hold it loosely, or even clutch it in your fist. The important thing is to let your arm and shoulder drive the movement of the brush, rather than just your wrist and hand. The farther back you hold the brush, the more scope of movement. To loosen up, blast some music and pretend you’re the conductor and that brush is your baton.

  • Don’t dab. By this I mean a pouncing/stabbing motion with the tip of your brush. It’s amateurish in oils, anemic in acrylics, and hell on your brushes.

  • Don’t use brush strokes that go in all one direction. Learn to apply paint in the round. This is a rule that can be broken, but make sure you’re doing so intentionally, not just because you don’t know how to paint in every direction.

  • Don’t bury your line. Much of the power of Edgar Degas’ mature work comes from his powerful drawing; he was the most accurate draftsman of his age, and he let that stand prominently in his work.

Self Portrait with Beret and Turned Up Collar, 1659, Rembrandt van Rijn, courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Pay close attention to the economy of the brushwork in the hair, and the expressive, unfinished brushwork in the face. In this way, Rembrandt was able to create a powerful focus.

There are many painters whose brushwork I admire, but there’s little point in trying to copy them in my own work. Brushwork is as personal as handwriting. It’s where the artist expresses—or suppresses—his feelings. There’s value in attempting to copy passages by great painters, and I suggest you do so with the samples I’ve attached to this blog. But don’t try to paint like Sargent or Van Gogh or Rembrandt; use what you learn to create your own mature style.

Waterlilies, c. 1915, Claude Monet, courtesy Neue Pinakothek, Munich. Monet makes no attempt to hide his drawing in this painting. The brushstrokes are wet-over-dry.

Style is the difference between our internal vision and what we’re capable of. We often don’t like our own brushwork when we lay it down; I think that’s because it’s too personal. Don’t continuously massage your brushstrokes hoping to make them more stylish. If the passage is accurate in color, line and precision, move on. You may come back to realize it’s wonderful.

Lady Agnew of Lochnaw, 1892, John Singer Sargent, courtesy Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh. Note that the transparent sleeves are not produced by glazing, but with direct, long brushstrokes.

Use your brushwork to highlight the focal points in your painting. Sharp, clean, contrasting marks draw the eye, where soft, flowing, lyrical passages encourage us to move through. Let there be dry-brush texture and unfinished passages in your painting.

Friday, January 21, 2022

A paean to black paint

Avoiding black keeps you from some of the most elegant colors available in painting.

Vineyard, 30X40, oil on canvas, available. Black can make a whole array of beautiful greens.

One of the absurdities of 20th century art education was the injunction to ‘never use black.’ That limits artists from some of the most elegant colors available in painting. The argument is supposedly based on Claude Monet’s palette; he never used black and you shouldn’t either. Like the so-called Zorn Palette, that’s a stew of half-truth and myth. Most artists’ palettes shift over time.

Asked in 1905 what colors he used, Monet said: “The point is to know how to use the colors, the choice of which is, when all's said and done, a matter of habit. Anyway, I use flake white, cadmium yellow, vermilion, deep madder, cobalt blue, emerald green, and that's all.” But earlier in his career, he certainly used a wider palette, including black.

The Servant, 36X40, available. Black is invaluable in creating skin tones.

The argument went that Impressionists avoided black because it doesn’t exist in nature. Black certainly does exist in nature: in basalt, in deep shadows, and in the subtle undertones in animals and people.

Moreover, it was argued, the painterly effects created by managing warm and cool hues are richer and brighter than those created by manipulating tones and shades. They’re more brilliant, certainly, because adding black (or white) always reduces chroma. But part of painting is the dance between high chroma and neutrals.

Anyway, Monet’s buddy and fellow founder of Impressionism Édouard Manet used black paint by the bucketful.

Monet said a mouthful in that quote, however, and it wasn’t the list of colors (most of which would not be great choices in the 21st century). Most of us choose paint colors purely out of habit. We become familiar with them and develop deep loyalty to them. That’s smart, as long as we choose wisely to start with.

But then the painter often gets into the bad habit of only mixing colors in a certain way. And that, in the tail end of the 20th century, meant never using black.

Obviously, you should never make grey by mixing black and white, because it’s lifeless. But there are many subtle colors available only through black admixture.

Black admixture chart of my palette. You should make one too.
In painting:

  • Tint is a mixture of a color with white;
  • Tone is a mixture of a pigment with grey (black plus white);
  • Shade is a mixture of a pigment with black.

What we consider acceptable in color-mixing is style-driven, just like everything else. For example, see the Permanent Pigments Practical Color Mixing Guide of 1954, below. It’s all about making shades and tints. That’s a hint about why mid-century paintings looked so grey, and probably why the pendulum then swung so far in the other direction. A little shading goes a long way.

Yes, it's a mess. It's been kicking around various paint boxes in my family since 1954.

This antipathy to carbon-based blacks resulted in Gamblin’s introduction of chromatic black, which is a convenience mix and thus a waste of money. Like all ‘hues’ It simply doesn’t mix true.

This product was a response to market demand. It’s very hard to paint without some black on your palette, and the real stuff was banned by the cognoscenti. But when I was in school (she says with a geriatric cackle) chromatic black was something we were taught to mix. That’s a valuable exercise in complements. Buying it premixed in a tube circumvents the point.

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Inside the blue line

I’ll be teaching in the Adirondacks on August 13-14. Be there or be square.

Spruces and Pines in a Boreal Bog, painted at the Paul Smith's VIC and long since gone to a private collector.

I cut my teeth teaching workshops in the Adirondack wilderness, so it’s with great pleasure that I’ll be doing that again, August 13-14, at Paul Smiths College in the High Peaks region. (For more information see here or contact Jane Davis.) 

My Acadia workshop is sold out, so this is your only opportunity to study plein air with me here in the northeast. It's part of the Adirondack Plein Air Festival, but you do not have to be a participant in the festival to take the workshop. 

Bracken fern, also painted at Paul Smith's VIC. 9X12, oil on archival canvasboard, $869 in a plein air frame.

(Of course, I have other workshops that still have openings—see my website for the full listing.)

New Yorkers are justly proud of the Adirondack Park. It covers most of the Adirondack Mountain massif and is the largest park in the Lower 48. Unlike most state parks, about half of the land is privately-owned, with state land wrapped around towns, villages and businesses.

I’ve been visiting the Adirondacks since I was a baby, and have painted, hiked, canoed and driven countless hours within it. But nobody can know the whole park intimately. It’s just too vast.

There are 6.1 million acres with more than 10,000 lakes and 30,000 miles of rivers and streams. There are boreal bogs and old growth forests, mountain peaks and roaring rivers. I’ve visited (and painted in) many wild places, and have found none wilder or more beautiful.

The Dugs, painted in the Adirondacks near Speculator, NY. 9X12, oil on archival canvasboard, $869 in a plein air frame.

As parks go, it’s pretty old. In 1885 the state legislature designated lands there and in the Catskills to be forever wild. This would come to be called ‘inside the blue line’. Those land protections were preserved in the state constitution in 1894. In contrast, the National Park System wasn’t formed until 1916.

There are about 130,000 full-time residents within the park and another 7-10 million visitors every year. That puts tremendous pressure on the land, but the relationship between residents, visitors, wilderness and government somehow holds together.

Because the park has so much private land within its borders, there are accommodations for every budget. You can stay at the newly-restored Hotel Saranac, or you can go back-country camping at a state-owned campsite. (The popular camping sites sell out fast, so don’t dither.)

Whiteface makes its own weather, 9X12, oil on archival canvasboard, $869 in a plein air frame. Whiteface Mountain is one of the 46 High Peaks of the Adirondacks.

My workshop will be held at the Visitors Interpretive Center (VIC) at Paul Smith’s College, which is located in the hamlet of Paul Smiths, NY. Town and college are named after Apollos (Paul) Smith, who started as a humble Vermont fishing guide and ended up an entrepreneur.

The VIC is an assortment of Adirondack habitats. There’s a large pond, running streams, a boreal bog, and lots of woodlands. Mountain peaks rise in the distance. Luxurious for a backwoods workshop, there are bathrooms with running water.

This teaching gig comes with the responsibility of being juror of awards for the Adirondack Plein Air Festival. Sandra Hildreth is the grande dame of Adirondack painting and the founder of the festival. She wanted a juror who was plugged into the ethos of wilderness and plein air painting in general. These are two things I’m passionate about.

But my intimacy with the venue is also a potential downside—I know many of the painters who participate. Could I be objective? After a point, there are just too many of my acquaintances involved for me to favor anyone. I think I’ll be fine.