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Friday, September 24, 2021

Just another day in paradise

I’m not much of a photographer, but this trip inspired me to try.

Sunset, approaching our home-away-from-home, the schooner American Eagle.

The northeast’s best season is autumn, and we rolled into it while I was teaching aboard schooner American Eagle. Warm sun, blue skies, and light breezes meant that I kept telling myself, “I wish I could bottle this and save it for winter.” That, of course, is impossible. Instead, I soaked it up as well as I could.

Schooner Heritage soaking up the last of the sun at Pulpit Harbor.

This was my last workshop of calendar year 2021. I’m pretty chuffed at how well all my students have painted all year, and this week has been no exception.

Tidal flats on an unoccupied island. The beach is washed clean twice a day.

A photo is a poor approximation of an experience, but that and our memories are all we generally come home with. (Of course, my students also bring home paintings.)

The sky created crazy beautiful effects.

I’m not much of a photographer to start with. I tend to snap and let the pieces fall where they may. I don’t generally even pick up my cell phone when I’m painting. That’s not a philosophy, it’s sheer cussedness. I’ve had to ask Ken DeWaard if he has pictures after we’ve painted somewhere together.

Lobsterboat coming home at dusk to Isleford harbor.

This sailing trip was different. I came home with dozens of snaps on my cellphone. The sky constantly shifted its optical effects. Our fellow windjammers flew against a backdrop of blue-against-blue. Harbor porpoises wheeled alongside our boat. We stopped at Little Cranberry Island and walked its peaceful streets.

Bell buoy and the Bass Harbor Light.

Next week, we start a new session of Zoom and plein air classes. If you meant to enroll but haven’t, I have limited openings:

  • Monday nights, 6-9 PM EST, there is one seat left.
  • Tuesday mornings, 10 AM-1 PM EST, there are three seats left.
  • Local plein air, Thursday mornings, 10 AM-1 PM EST, there are many seats left.

If you want more information or to register, email me.

There are times when the ocean appears to be made of aluminum foil.

Friday, September 17, 2021

It’s not the subject that makes the picture

It’s what you bring to it. That’s true in life as much as in painting.

A wee little demo I did of water tumbling over rocks. I'm using the same watercolor kit as my students will use next week aboard American Eagle.

This week I’m on a ranch high above Pecos, NM. The owners and the cloud of dogs who usually trail after them are elsewhere. It’s just me, three horses and a donkey. “Aren’t you worried about being alone out there?” one of my workshop students asked me. No.

I had horses when I was young but it’s been a long time since I’ve handled them closely. They set a rhythm to my day. I block out time in the morning and evening to attend to them. Among the pinon and dust of a New Mexico September, I have long stretches of absolute silence. That’s a rarity in the modern world.

Donna finds serenity in the Pecos River.

We don’t form as tight a bond with horses as we do with our dogs, but the potential is there. In 1910 there were about 20 million domestic horses in North America, or around one for every six people. They lived and worked side-by-side with their humans with an intimacy we can’t imagine today.

The owner of Scout, Lucy, Duke and Jimmy (the donkey) is a tiny woman, but she bosses them with impunity. She’s their alpha human. I’m a stranger. Inevitably, like children, they had to test me.

The monkey business started on Tuesday evening, when I came out of the tackroom with an armful of hay to be mugged by the two geldings and a donkey. I’m half a foot taller and sixty pounds heavier than Jane, and I could not push those knuckleheads out of my way. They leaned on me, inevitably getting me to drop their supper. After I’d retrieved and separated it, they started fussing at each other.

Yves painting in the historic barrio of Santa Fe.

Duke bit Jimmy, and Jimmy kicked out at anyone who was nearby. I yelled. Jimmy laid back his ears, stuck out his lip, and brayed. He looked so much like an angry toddler that I started laughing. “I don’t know which one of you started it,” I yelled, “but you’re all grounded!” At that moment they reminded me powerfully of my own children back in the day.

The horses outweigh me, but I have an advantage: my opposable thumbs. On Wednesday, I scarpered out the back and around to the other side of their corral, where I distributed their hay before they realized where I was. Peace has reigned ever since in the Horse Kingdom.

I'll horse-sit these darlings any time!

I love this place, but that doesn’t lessen my appreciation for my own home in Maine, or my workshop aboard American Eagle, which starts Sunday. Would I be this happy in a flat in a rust-belt city? It’s been almost forty years since I’ve lived that life, but I hope so.

I do an exercise with my workshop students where I ask them to paint a scene chosen by committee. It’s not the subject that makes the painting, it’s what they bring to it. That’s true of life as well. Obviously, crisis and grief are exceptions; we all go through seasons of loss, and we’re not expected to be happy in them. But in the general run of events, we are designed for happiness. If it eludes us, it behooves us to figure out why—and to fix it.

No blog next week, because there’s no internet on Penobscot Bay. Please, techies, never fix that!

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Afraid of the darks

It’s only when you’re no longer struggling to manage the technical problems that you can start telling a story with your brush.

Northern  New Mexico, 8X10, oil on Ray-Mar board, $522 unframed.

When teaching, I usually find myself sounding out little ditties with my brush rather than playing through the whole score. Nobody can absorb all the nuances of painting in one marathon demonstration; if that’s what they want, they’re better off buying a video and watching it repeatedly. I prefer to paint a passage that shows a solution to whatever problem is bedeviling my class at the moment. Rarely does that result in a fully-realized painting, but I feel that it’s the best way to teach.

Students setting up to paint in a quiet hamlet. What a paradise New Mexico is!

I was doing that yesterday, demonstrating how to hit a dense, rich color on the first strike. Watercolor students are often afraid of the darks, because they know there’s no going back from an incorrectly-placed deep passage. With few exceptions, watercolor doesn’t take correction well.

“That’s the bitch of watercolor,” I said, sadly.

“Ohhh, the Bitch of Watercolor!” someone riposted. “What a great title!”

My students. I love them.

"Enough of that stupid horse!" said Jimmy the Donkey. "Look at my beautiful Roamin' Nose!" That was the end of that painting.

The diffident watercolorist tries to circumvent their fear of darks by substituting a series of glazes. Glazing has its place, but you can’t use it in lieu of courage. Excessive glazing makes for muddy color and indistinct edges. The end result is lifeless. Paradoxically, that struggle against the darks sucks all the light out of the painting.

Just as watercolorists have problems with darks, some oil painters have an equal and opposite problem with light. They understand intellectually that they work from darks to lights, but they’re somehow unable to make the jump. Sometimes that’s caused by working in bright sunlight, which lies about the true values in our paintings. Or the painter thinks they should lay down a bunch of dark color and then lighten things by adding white into them. That’s a misunderstanding of indirect painting.

White, incorrectly used, makes for chalky color.

New Mexico can sure put on a show with her skies.

The problem may also be that they have too much solvent in the bottom layers. If those layers are too wet, nothing above them stays separated and clean. A good rule of thumb is that solvent gets used in the bottom layer only (and sparingly), paint in the middle layer, and paint and medium in the top layer. The fat-over-lean rule is not only archivally sound, it’s easier to manage.

Confident color is integral to alla prima painting. There is only one way to achieve this:

  • Draw well enough that you have confidence in where you’re placing your color, and,
  • Mix and test your color so you’re sure of it before it hits your finished painting.
My dog buddies came out to visit me, as they do every year. It's painful to see the grey in their muzzles and the hitch in their gitalong.

“Why this emphasis on process?” a student once asked me. “Shouldn’t art be about freedom of expression?” Well, yes and no. All expression rests on a firm foundation of technique. It’s only when you’re no longer struggling to manage the technical problems that you can start telling a story with your brush.

I’m teaching in Pecos, NM this week. Yee-hah!

Monday, September 13, 2021

Monday Morning Art School: the color of earth

The earth pigments are our oldest colors, and they’ve served humanity well.

Dry Wash, oil on canvasboard, 12X16, $1159 unframed.

Years ago, I met an artist in Taos who told me that he never used the earths—siennas and umbers—in his paintings. I don't remember his name, but I vividly remember his rationale. They were too close in color to the rocks of New Mexico. He did better to mix those warm shades.

That is very close to my own rationale for not having greens on my palette. The East is a predominantly-green environment. Using greens straight out of the tube is the best possible way to deaden your painting into a universal dull greenness without variety, sparkle or light.

Old Barnyard in New Mexico, oil on canvasboard, 12X16, $1159 unframed.

I'm teaching in New Mexico this week, so I have to adjust my own palette. My reliance on the earths has to ease up. However, my students are all from the south or east, meaning they’ll go back to a green landscape. I want them to take home the logic behind my palette, not an arbitrary rule.

The earth pigments are minerals that have been used in painting since prehistoric times. They’re primarily iron oxides and manganese oxides. We know them as the ochres, siennas and umbers. They’re extremely lightfast. In watercolor they granulate beautifully because of their large particle size. They’re relatively non-toxic* and they’re cheap. Those are all valuable properties to the painter, which is why they’re so widely used.

On the other hand, they look just like the earth because they’re made of dirt and rust (although we synthesize some of them today). They’re complex colors with lots of overtones. In mixtures they stubbornly retain traces of their own character. In a painting predominated by the natural reds and browns of the west, that can get pretty dull, pretty fast. If you want to know how a reliance on the earth pigments will turn out, see Rembrandt—great for Dutch interiors, not so good for American landscape.

Downdraft snow, oil on canvasboard, 12X16, $1159 unframed.

The world of greens cannot be simulated by something taken from nature. The pigments that give us green in nature—chlorophylls—are not lightfast. Instead, painters rely on an inorganic compound, chromium oxide green, which we know as viridian or chrome green. Chromium oxide is synthetic, but it does appear in nature as a rare mineral. It is relatively low-stain and inexpensive. It too granulates, which makes it valuable to watercolorists.

Chromium oxide green is a good workhorse pigment, far preferable to the deadening sap green that so many painters love. Sap green started as an unstable extract of buckthorn berries. What we buy today is a convenience mix based on phthalo green. That’s also true of the mixture marketed as ‘viridian hue.’ Paints based on phthalocyanine dyes are very high-stain and have a different color profile than the pigments they’re mimicking. That’s not to disparage the phthalo blue and greens; in themselves they’re lightfast, cheap, and have transformed the modern world.

Spring thaw along the upper reaches of the Pecos River, oil on canvasboard, 12X16, $1159 unframed.

Hooker’s Green is another convenience hue. It’s named after an English botanical illustrator, William Hooker, who first put Prussian blue and gamboge together to make a clear, light green. There’s nothing wrong with that mixture—but you should be able to make it yourself, not buy it out of a tube.

That’s true across your palette. You’ll have more flexibility and less expense if you stop buying convenience mixes and ‘hues’.

*Don’t ever fall for the idea that if it’s natural, it’s non-toxic. Mother Nature has hidden a lot of dangerous minerals in this beautiful earth, including cinnabar, galena, lead, asbestos and more.

Thursday, September 9, 2021

I used to know everything

Who cares if the Dunning-Kruger effect is measurable? We’ve all known people for whom it’s true.

Wreck of the SS Ethie, oil on canvas, 18X24, $2318 framed

When I couldn’t paint, I thought I knew everything. The more I learned, the more I realized I didn’t know. Now, I often finish a painting wondering if it’s any good at all.

I’m not unique in that—many experienced painters recount similar metamorphoses. I learned from author Van Reid that there’s a name for this: the Dunning-Kruger effect. Psychologists found that low-ability students thought they were much better at their subject than they actually were, while high-ability students downplayed their own skills.

Deadwood, 30X40, oil on linen, $6231 framed

It’s a hypothesis, because it hasn’t been proved yet, but it sure feels right.

An answer that “feels right” is one example of the kind of heuristic reasoning that inevitably leads to the Dunning-Kruger effect. Heuristics are mental shortcuts that match our current question to our prior experience. They may not provide perfect answers, but they give us quick ones. If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, we generally assume it’s a duck. If it turns out to be a shelduck instead, well, the error probably isn’t that important—unless you’re an ornithologist, in which case you already knew and thought the rest of us did, too.

The human mind is programmed to see patterns even where none exist. Modern life throws an amazing array of information at us every day. It’s no surprise that our overtaxed minds try to cut through the welter by using mental shortcuts. Sometimes they go spectacularly wrong.

Quebec Brook, oil on canvasboard, 12X16, $1449 framed

This phenomenon is something you’ve likely experienced in real life, especially if you spend much time on social media. A self-proclaimed ‘expert’ will begin spouting off at length, blissfully unaware of how silly he or she sounds. It might even be me.

As originally described by psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger, the bias results from two different problems. Low-ability people don’t perceive their own incompetence. “If you're incompetent, you can't know you're incompetent, wrote Dunning. “The skills you need to produce a right answer are exactly the skills you need to recognize what a right answer is.”

On the other hand, people of high ability consistently overestimate the abilities of others. They erroneously presume that tasks that are easy to them will be easy for others as well.

Skylarking, oil on canvas, 24X36, $3985 framed

The Dunning-Kruger effect has nothing to do with intelligence; in fact, really smart people are often supremely overconfident. That leads them into making complete asses of themselves in fields outside their own competence. Think, for a moment, of William Shatner’s music career, or Richard Dawkins on theology.

Who’s happier: the cock-sure, incompetent young painter, or the self-deprecating master? It’s a question nobody can answer. We can’t look at the past except through the filter of what we now know. As a teacher, I would hate to ruin anyone’s enjoyment of painting by making them a better painter. But there’s consolation in knowing that there are paint-and-sip nights for those who really don’t want to know what they’re doing.