Paint Schoodic

We're offering three workshops for 2020, at Acadia National Park and aboard the schooner American Eagle. Register before January 1 for an Early Bird Discount!

Friday, January 17, 2020

Beautiful glimpses of the past

Today dories are an historical relic. When the Wyeths painted them, they were part of the saga of man and the sea.
Deep Cove Lobster Man, c 1938, N.C. Wyeth, oil, courtesy of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts
Sometimes great emails get directed to my spam folder, particularly when they contain a dollar sign in the text. Thus it was when I saw Bruce McMillan’s note about seeing N. C. Wyeth: New Perspectives, which started at Brandywine River Museum and then moved to the Portland Museum of Art. It’s on its way to the Taft Museum of Art, opening on February 8.

What Bruce said that tripped my server was that the catalogue, $45 from the museum gift store, was available for $24.50 from Amazon, including shipping. Even with his member discount, he saved $17, or 42%. I immediately ordered the same book and paid $28.49, because books aren’t always the same price on Amazon.
Untitled, 1938, watercolor, Andrew Wyeth, sold at auction in 2017
That price difference is particularly noticeable in museum catalogues and fancy art books. I recently ordered an art text for my brother-in-law that was listed at over $200; he paid $24 for it. Because of this, I’ve learned to check my phone as I exit a show. Feel free to support an institution by paying a higher price in the gift shop, just be aware that you’re doing so.
The Lobsterman (The Doryman), 1944, N.C. Wyeth, egg tempera, courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art

Bruce noted that the painting above, The Lobsterman (The Doryman), is “where people stopped and gazed longer than almost any other painting. There’s so much to see in its simplicity; it keeps people looking.”

This is one of five Maine dories I’m looking at today. All are by the first two Wyeths, père et fils, and all of the boats are occupied by people. The last image, Adrift, is almost funerary, and that points to the particular storytelling genius of the Wyeth clan. Was Andrew painting about the model or the working boat?
Adrift, 1982, Andrew Wyeth, egg tempera, private collection
“This is Walter Anderson, Andrew’s devilish friend since childhood, who his parents didn't like Andrew associating with, who Ed Deci, former curator of the Monhegan Museum, considered a despicable crook, and who I knew when living on McGee Island, off Port Clyde for two years,” Bruce wrote.

Andrew Wyeth was a young boy when he and his family first began summering in Maine. Andrew became friends with Walter and Douglas Anderson, son of a local hotel cook. Walt and Andrew became inseparable, and spent their days in a dory, exploring the coast and islands where locals fished. The two men remained friends for life. While Walt was clamming or otherwise ramshackling around, Andrew was painting.

Dark Harbor Fishermen, 1943, N.C. Wyeth, egg tempera, courtesy Portland Museum of Art
That’s the biggest difference between contemporary dory paintings and the Wyeths’ of nearly a century ago. They knew the boats and the men and boys who used them, intimately.

Before there were decent roads, working dories were the best way to move around coastal Maine. They were easily hauled up onto the beach. They could carry a few hundred pounds of fish or freight. From early settlement until mid-century, they were used as working boats, casually rowed (often standing) by working fishermen.

The Drowning, 1936, N.C. Wyeth, oil, courtesy Brandywine River Museum. This painting is in response to the drowning death of sixteen-year-old Douglas Anderson, who disappeared while lobstering. His body was found by his father and his younger brother, Walt.
Today they’re an historical relic, whereas to the Wyeths, they were part of the story of man and the sea. Dories today are divorced from their close association with working people. We paint them at their moorings, shimmering in the light, with no sense of the thin skin they once provided between the working fisherman and the cold, cold North Atlantic.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Censored. Me. Really.

I’ll be presenting the nudes that got me closed down this Saturday, from 4 to 6 PM. You’re invited.

In 2014, I was part of a duo show at a university gallery in Rochester, NY with my pal Stu Chait. Stu was doing large abstract watercolors; I was showing equally large nudes. The gallery is enormous, and our show was equally vast: a body of sixty pieces sprawled across three rooms.

I didn’t think much of about edginess in my own work; after all, my own kids had seen these canvases leaning against the walls of my studio for the year in which the work was produced. But I am not much for coy. My work dealt largely with the marginalization of women, exploring issues like religious submission, bondage, slavery, prostitution, obesity, and exploitation. It was serious, and it got a serious reception, featured in the university news and a city newspaper.

Then, college administrators saw the show and closed it down. The paintings have not been shown as a body of work since.

The cynic in me thinks that if I painted Odalisques there would have been no objection. Young people are exposed to sexually-charged but stupid images every day; in fact, this is part of the problem facing women today.

We’re accustomed to market-driven nudity and violence. Consider Kylie Jenner’s Glosses ads. I’ve seen two versions, both of which feature Kylie and two other barely-clothed light-skinned women killing dark-skinned black men. They’re offensive to many values we like to talk about, but in 2018, Jenner was estimated to be worth $900 million.

We not only tolerate but glorify the cardinal sins: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride. On the other hand, we are leery of serious conversations, we don't like serious effort, and we vilify those with whom we disagree.

After years of stepping over these paintings in my store room, I’ve decided to look at them carefully once more. Censored. Me. Really opens this Saturday from 4-6 at Carol L. Douglas Studio, 394 Commercial Street, Rockport. I will give a short presentation on the subject, the process, and the impact of censorship on my work. I hope to see you there.

Monday, January 13, 2020

Monday Morning Art School: start with drawing

Before you can paint successfully, you have to learn to draw.
I love drawing in church, especially when there are sleepy teenagers. This drawing started with simple analysis of shape.
One of the problems with writing about 'how to do art' is that you’re speaking to all levels of experience. Today we’re going right to the beginning of measurement. Almost everyone can get the details of a drawing right. Where they go wrong is with overall proportion. Drawing is, first and foremost, a technical exercise in seeing size relationships. Get that right, and the details hardly matter.

All objects can be broken down into simple shapes and angles.
You’ve all seen artists holding a pencil up to an object. What they’re doing is rough measuring. It’s simple to do, but tough to photograph. Hold your pencil up like a ruler in front of the object you’re drawing. Move it around to see the relative height and width of the thing. For example, the toy truck below is about 1.5 times as wide as it is tall. Figure that out by holding your pencil first along the vertical access, then along the horizontal access, and comparing where the lengths stop along the pencil.
It's not just an affectation; it's really how artists measure.
A common beginner error is thinking that you have to transcribe the lengths exactly to the paper. The drawing can be any size you want. Start by figuring out how big you want the object to be on your paper, and make two hash marks to represent that. Then, if your object is half as wide as it is tall, figure out that relationship and mark it too.
Start by measuring out the simple shapes and angles.
You can also use your pencil to figure out the other important thing in drawing: the angles of lines. Formal perspective is important, but not as important as learning to see angles. If you develop the ability to see angles, you’ll have better natural perspective than if you try to fit up what you see to a theory.
Next, rough in the values. That means the lights and darks.
Do your measuring with one eye closed, especially if you’re working in a tight space. Art books will tell you to measure with your arm straight out. That’s not always practical. Instead, try to have the pencil the same distance away from your eye each time you take a measurement. I do that by noting how my arm is cocked.

Today’s exercise is based on a tissue box I drew in church. It had lovely angles. However, what you see in the photo isn’t what I saw while working. A drawing from life will never match what the camera records. Cameras lie just as much as artists do.
Begin to refine and strengthen the light and dark shapes.

All drawing starts with simple shapes. After laying them down, I check and correct them. I do this by analyzing each large shape. Where does the back of the box intersect the tissue column? Is the curve of the cutout fat enough? I discovered that my cube wasn’t really tall enough, so I added some to the bottom. 

The next step is to establish some overall values.  “Value” just means how light or dark something is. This box was sitting on a south-facing windowsill behind a person who was casting another shadow. Thus, the window-frame behind the box was in deep shadow, but not nearly as dark as the photograph. I roughed in those darks first. They helped me know how to shade the box properly.
If you're using graphite or charcoal, you can blend with your finger. Otherwise, use a stump, a tortillon, or a bit of rag.
Next, I set shadows on the tissue box itself. I am more concerned with the column of tissue, so with each pass, I spend more time on that.

Finally, I did some blending, using the handiest tool I carry: my finger. You should use a stump or tortillon on work you care about, but in a pinch, your finger works great. But don’t blend pigments other than graphite or charcoal with your finger; they may contain toxic metals.
Voila! I have a tissue box drawn and my pastor is just winding down his peroration.
Note that I never bother much about my mark-making. It can take care of itself. I’m mostly interested in applying accurate values. I did this drawing with a mechanical pencil, which will never be as luscious as a good graphite stick, but it survives banging around in my purse week after week.

Some general rules:
  • Draw everyday objects. The better you get with these, the better you’ll be with complex subjects. There’s amazing beauty in everyday things.
  • Draw any time you get the chance. I did this drawing in church, and I didn’t miss a word. Drawing and language don’t use the same channels of your brain.
  • Measuring is the most important part of drawing. Keep checking and correcting sizes.
  • Start with big shapes and break them down into little shapes. If the big shapes are right, the smaller parts will slip into their spots just fine.
  • Value is relative. How dark something is, is only important in terms of how dark its neighbor is.
  • Constantly recheck shapes and values as you go.

Friday, January 10, 2020

Why show your art?

Even if you have no interest in selling, you should still be showing.
More work than they bargained for, by Carol L. Douglas
For those painters who want to make sales, exhibitions are a no-brainer. Gone are the days (if they ever existed) when the world would beat a path to your door for a better mousetrap. If you want your work to be seen, it has to be where it can be found.

There are other artists who paint for love, not money. It’s still important for them to show their work.  Art is essentially a form of communication. That can be as personal as a private gift between two people, or as general as a landscape. A painting should say something. For that to be complete, it needs an audience.
Monhegan schoolhouse, by Carol L. Douglas
I first started showing when I’d built up an inventory of work and didn’t know what to do with it. They were modestly priced works. When they sold, they enabled me to buy more paint and create more paintings. I imagine the need for shelf space and materials has motivated many painters to go from amateur status to professional.

Every group show is in some way a competition. Your work stands next to others, so it can be judged as part of a group, on formal or intuitive standards. This makes you think about ways you can improve.
Fish Beach, by Carol L. Douglas
There is one pitfall in local shows, and that’s local groupthink. If you’re a Luminist painting in a community of Impressionists, you’re going to feel pressure to conform to the prevailing ethos. If you find yourself in this position, start showing outside your geographical pool; that’s a great way to find your own tribe.

Still, that’s the exception. Viewers often have incisive observations on our work. We ponder them and take them back to our studio. Over time and many shows, our body of work starts to take on aspects of dialogue, rather than being a strict monologue. (That’s also the great advantage of classes and workshops.)
Jonathan submarining, by Carol L. Douglas
Showing is a great way to build confidence. In my experience, the viewing public is overwhelmingly kind. Regularly participating in art shows helps you develop a sense of perspective about your own work. Yes, it’s important and wonderful, but it’s also part of a panoply of work being done by other artists. It’s great when you realize you have a place in this wonderful parade of images. That shatters ‘imposter syndrome’.

Many of my close friendships were developed at art shows. That’s important in a career where you spend lots of time working alone.

Everything I’ve said about real world exhibitions pertains equally to social media. Getting your work out there, and reacting and responding to other’s work is the goal. Art always looks best in person, but social media has a longer reach. If you don’t use Instagram and Facebook, you should start.

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Drawing as prayer, play and thought

“Drawing is prayer,” Delacroix famously said. He could have added that it’s play as well. And thinking.
The Giaour on Horseback, by Eugène Delacroix, c. 1824–26, by Eugène Delacroix, pen and iron gall ink with wash over graphite, courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art
Shelving books this week, I came across a small volume of drawings by Eugène Delacroix. I flipped it open and the better part of an hour was lost.

Delacroix was a Romantic painter. He is considered the last of the Old Masters and the link between Romanticism and the Impressionists. He rejected the more-structured romanticism of Géricault and the classical coolness of Ingres in favor of frenzied brushwork and explosions of color. But there is nothing modern in his painting; it is far too topical for us to dive right in. Delacroix was a man of his times—perhaps the illegitimate son of the great diplomat Tallyrand—and it’s hard for us to skim past the allusions to Shakespeare and Greek myth and find the passion within. But it’s there, a kind of fervor we usually associate with Spanish visionaries.

Louis of Orléans Unveiling his Mistress, by Eugène Delacroix, c. 1825–26, courtesy Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection
Still, he’s a cool observer of the human condition. Consider his portrait of the 14th century Duke of Orléans, above. The historic figure was a young, debauched, power-hungry prince. Delacroix portrays him considering a young woman as if she were a side of beef. It’s both a well-realized portrait of female powerlessness and a devastating attack on the French nobility. Delacroix was both politically incisive and technically proficient, a combination that is largely lost today.
Evolution of an idea: the following illustrations take us through Delacroix’ thinking process. Study for The Sultan of Morocco and His Entourage, by Eugène Delacroix, c. 1832–33, brush and brown ink, courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art
But it was his drawings I was interested in. Immediately before his death in 1863, he wrote a will ordering the contents of his studio to be sold. At the sale the following year, an amazing 9140 works were attributed to him: 853 paintings, 1525 pastels and watercolors, 6629 drawings, 109 lithographs, and over 60 sketch books. “Color always occupies me, but drawing preoccupies me,” he frequently said.
Study for The Sultan of Morocco and His Entourage, by Eugène Delacroix, 1845, graphite, squared in white chalk, courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art
Delacroix’s drawings and sketchbooks outline a classical artistic training and developing career. They include academic nude figure drawings, écorchés and compositional studies for his paintings and murals. They included drawings from life and nature, and the many, many drawings he created from his imagination.
The Sultan of Morocco and his Entourage, by Eugène Delacroix, 1845, courtesy
Musée des Augustins de Toulouse. By this time, the French and Moroccans had been at war.
They weren’t, by any means, all graphite pencil drawings. Many are in ink or wash and demonstrate a calligraphic assurance. Others are in watercolor. “Drawing is prayer,” Delacroix famously said. He could have added that it’s play as well. And thinking.
He couldn’t leave the idea alone. Study for The Sultan of Morocco and His Entourage, by Eugène Delacroix, c. 1855–56, graphite, courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art.
If you’re serious about painting, you ought to take him as an example and draw every day. Yes, it’s important to learn to lay down paint, but drawing is the foundation from which painting rises.