Paint Schoodic

We're offering three workshops for 2020, at Acadia National Park, Pecos, NM, and Tallahassee, FL.

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Lonely children, beautiful art

A day painting a mural with kids reminds me of how precious friendship is.

Joe Anna Arnett painting with two girls in Pecos, NM.

Jane Chapin bought a beautiful but worn adobe building in Pecos last winter. Her goal is to create a new Art Center for the town. This will be a place where kids can get more art education than they do in school. The art center will also be a base for adult painting workshops.

Regular readers may remember Jane as the organizer of our trip to Argentina in March. She’d planned to paint a mural with schoolkids in Buenos Aires at the end of that trip. They would work from artwork done by the Pecos kids. In return, she’d bring back artwork from Argentina that would become a mural in Pecos. This cross-cultural effort collapsed with the world shutdown from COVID-19.

My students pitched in too. Here's Jeannie Cole working with a young lady named Mariah. (Photo courtesy of Linda DeLorey.)

Normally, art centers take a percentage of tuition as their fee from instructors. As Jane sketched it out, the new art center would work differently. We teachers would teach our workshop and then do a project with the local kids as our contribution. I don’t often teach kids, but I like them just fine. I was looking forward to working with them.

Then COVID-19 hit, and the whole world ground to a halt. The county dragged out the process of issuing permits. Building renovations are still only half finished.

New Mexico imposed draconian limitations on visitors, so that hotels and B&Bs were essentially closed. My workshop only happened by the grace of God and the graciousness of Jane and her husband, who moved the whole operation to their home in the mountains above town.

Jane and a few of her minions.

As of last week, the Pecos school district was doing remote learning only. This is absurd: to date, all of San Miguel County has had 103 cases and no deaths from COVID. This is a remote, rural, poor community, with some 30,000 people spread out over 4700 square miles of mountainous terrain. That means lousy or non-existent internet and cell-phone service. And it means extended isolation for these kids, who haven’t been in school since the end of March.

Jane gamely changed the mural project so she could salvage something for these kids. Instead of an exchange with Buenos Aires, she would have the Pecos kids paint their own images on the walls of the Pecos Art Center. She transcribed the drawings to the walls, and worried that nobody would show up.

But they did, and both kids and parents were enthusiastic. There were enough volunteers, including artists Joe Anna Arnett, Lisa Flynn, Gail Ewing, and two of my students, Jeannie Cole and Linda DeLorey. We were able to work very closely with the kids, and most of the mural got painted. It’s lovely, a sign of promise and hope.

Not finished, but most of the way there.

But the greatest joy of that day turned out to be the simplest thing. We watched these youngsters play together, chatter, run around and simply have fun. Their happiness was palpable. They’ve been lonely. One mother admitted to me that she’d allowed her daughter’s best friend a socially-unsanctioned sleepover, because the girls have been so sad. I lived in the country. I know that kids who ride the bus do most of their socializing in school.

I left shaking my head at the utter stupidity of adults. Kids don’t die from COVID. While they could bring it home to their families, the chances are pretty remote in a place like this. Yes, children are resilient, but it’s creating completely unnecessary hardships for them.

I’m sorry for skipping Monday’s post. I got in at 2 AM, and there was nothing left in my tank.

Friday, September 18, 2020

Let down your defenses

I understand and empathize with defensiveness very well, but I also know that it is paralyzing.

Annett Sauve lets me demonstrate on her canvas. (Photo courtesy of Jane Chapin)

Thomas Edison is credited with saying that “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.” He ought to have added persistence in that equation. It’s a kind of intelligence, one that isn’t measured on tests and used as a predictor of success—but it ought to be.

Of the six students in this workshop, two are returning students. They share that trait of persistence. For both of them, the process of painting has really clicked on this trip. I refine my teaching method with every class, which I think makes it clearer, but the difference is mostly in them.

Mary Whitney's painting in paradise.

Painting is not simple. Learning it takes time, and is a two-way dialogue. The student must be open to what’s being taught in order to make any real progress. Likewise, the teacher must be listening constantly for cues from the student.

For a long time, I was a very defensive painting (and everything else) student. I knew what I thought I knew and wasn’t willing to let others change that, even as I understood I needed help. It was a pity, because it blunted any possibility of becoming a better painter.

What were the symptoms of this self-defeating viewpoint? Whenever a teacher suggested I try something a different way, I responded with a rationalization. “I know, but…” saved me from having to try and fail. I was unnecessarily critical of others’ work, and there was a very limited range of paintings I understood enough to love.

Karla King and me, working at Pecos National Historic Park. (Photo courtesy of Jane Chapin)

What cured that? My broken self-image was repaired. To explain how I was broken would require delving into a maelstrom, so I will skip it. But the cure was a combination of my developing faith (I was made in God’s image, so I can’t be fatally flawed) and the slow development of real competence. This was not just as a painter, but as a parent, a spouse, and a functioning adult.

I understand and empathize with defensiveness very well, but I also know that it is paralyzing. I can’t fix it by simply saying, “let down your defenses.” That insecurity is the very nut the student is trying so hard to protect.

Instead, I sidestep the whole question by insisting that, for one week, workshop students try it my way. It’s not arrogance on my part, but rather the desire that students get value for the money they’re shelling out.

Historic New Mexico.

Of course, the process I use is not the only way to paint alla prima, nor is it in any way my own invention. Painting—like most other human endeavors—has been developed incrementally by thousands of practitioners. Our best practices are a synthesis of their ideas. Before a student rejects the basic rules of painting, he or she should not only understand why they are used, but have thoroughly mastered them.

I’m thinking about this because I’m going to do a free cocktail-hour webinar on October 2, where I’ll talk about objectives in studying painting. Everyone is welcome, and I hope you bring lots of questions.

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

“The first time I felt normal in a long time.”

If you’re depressed or anxious right now, for heaven’s sake, turn off your laptop and TV.

Jane Chapin with my new dog, Guillo (short for Guillermo and pronounced Gee-zho).

There’s a small hamlet here that’s a New Mexican Brigadoon, a tiny community that time forgot. It’s otherworldly, like a set from a movie. Modest adobe houses are set on a bluff overlooking a verdant valley. The dogs and the people are generous and friendly.

This is one of my favorite places, where I could paint the rest of my life in contentment. That’s a fairly high bar, since I’ve painted in many of the world’s beauty spots.

Yesterday I shared this place with the six students in my Pecos workshop. It’s a well-earned reward, because I’m working them harder than I’ve ever worked students before. On Monday, we did a day-long joint project where I demoed step-by-step in watercolor and oils. They followed along, duplicating my processes exactly. On Tuesday, we threw color theory into that mix. All six of them draw well, so they’re able to keep up.

Mary Silver working on values. It's all about that base.

Yesterday, they were spread out along a dusty track running from the road back to the morada, which is the meeting house of New Mexican penitentes. As is my usual technique, I spent much of the day going from person to person, working one-on-one. This creates the opportunity for intimate conversation (and is why so many of my students have become lifelong friends).

“This is the first time I’ve felt normal in a long time,” two of them told me independently of each other. Those within earshot heartily agreed with them. We’re in a place that’s anything but normal. Our group is disparate, with students from students from Texas, Missouri, New Mexico, New Hampshire and Maine. I had to ask them what made them feel normal.

Jean Cole with our ride. And here I thought I had overdone it by getting a full-size truck.

It’s being in a group and not wearing masks, they thought. I suspect they’re right. Human beings are primarily social animals. We read each other through body language and facial expressions as much—or more—than with our words. Here we can talk and laugh, and we needn’t worry overmuch about whether we’re maintaining a proper two-meter separation (as if there was any science behind that rather arbitrary number).

But there’s more to it than that. We’re also in a media blackout. One thing I like about painting here (and in Acadia, and Alaska and Patagonia and other remote places) is that I don’t have cell-phone reception. I’m not seeing the news or looking at Facebook. Here I can’t even take a phone call. If you want me, text me and I may see your message by the end of the day.

Linda DeLorey and Jean Cole painting in Paradise.

That means we haven’t talked or thought about COVID-19 all week. And there’s a lesson in that—if you’re depressed or anxious right now, for heaven’s sake, turn off your laptop and TV. Go for a walk in this crystalline September air. Play with a puppy. Do anything that involves your real community and doesn’t involve the whole generalized human condition. It’s what’s around you that’s real, not what the talking heads keep telling you.

A student asked me whether we are going to have safe-distancing accommodations at Sea & Sky this year. The answer is yes. For this year only, everyone gets their own apartment. However, if you’re coming from Massachusetts or any other supposedly high-risk state, you will need a negative COVID test to stay at Schoodic Institute. (Of course, that too may change by October.)

Last but certainly not least, I’m going to do a free cocktail-hour webinar on October 2, where I’ll talk about objectives in studying painting. Everyone is welcome, and I hope you bring lots of questions.

Monday, September 14, 2020

Monday Morning Art School: mastering value

The essence of alla prima painting is to nail the color on the first pass.

The top of this canvas is a simple grisaille; the bottom is a single layer of paint applied right over that. This is the gist of alla prima painting. 

You cannot overstate the importance of value in painting. Even when artists represent value with hue (a technique pioneered by the Impressionists) the dark shapes in a painting have a form. That form drives our perception and guides us through the painting. There are various ways to get this right, but the most common is a quick value sketch. I ask watercolor students to then make a value study in paint before they start their finished project. I have oil and acrylic students do their paint study in the form of a rough grisaille on their canvases. It has to be thin, and it has to be worked fairly dry, or you can’t paint over it.

Where early oil painters sometimes trip up is in making that bottom layer too dark, thick, or soupy. Then, they hope they can somehow lighten it up by adding white back in. Indirect painting works almost like this, so they may have seen something similar on a video. In indirect painting, the artist works into this dark layer; in modern direct painting, or alla prima, it’s there as a roadmap, so it's applied more lightly.

Close-value mixing is the heart of painting, and the hardest mixing to do.

Direct painting requires great skill in color mixing, because the goal is au premier coup, or to nail it on the first strike. That goes not just the for darks, but every color in the picture. Even a painting with wonderful shadows and lights will have many middle tones, often closely related in value. These are actually the most difficult colors to mix accurately. If you have a painting that isn’t working, ask yourself if it has a full tonal range, or is it simply hitting the highs and lows. When people get in trouble painting texture, it’s usually because they’re overstating the contrast.

Plate IV-4 from Joseph Albers' Interaction of Color, demonstrating how all color is relative. The inner violet colors are the same exact value, but what surrounds them influences how we perceive them.

All color is relative, and that's particularly true when it comes to value. Above see a plate from Joseph Albers’ groundbreaking Interaction of Color. The inner violets are the exact same value. But the framing color influences how we see those values, so one looks much lighter than the other. This is why oil painters should tone canvases, by the way.

I made the oil-painting sample at the top of this page for my students. The top is the value study; the bottom is a finished painting. I keep it around to demonstrate that when we say “darks to lights” we don’t mean a thick mask of dark paint; we mean that we think through our values in that order. (In watercolor, we do the same thing, but the application is reversed to go from light to dark.)

Copy and print me.

To mix paint accurately you must become absolutely conversant with the colors on your own palette. You can download this pigment test chart and print it on watercolor paper (trimmed to size) on your laser printer. Or, just grid off a canvas or paper to match. (Don’t try doing this in watercolor on plain copy paper. It isn’t sized, and your pigment will just sink.)

Use the pigments you usually have on your palette (if there’s more than eleven, we may need to talk).

What is the natural value of your paint, straight out of the tube? Compare it to that scale above.
 
The first step is to identify the natural value of your paint, straight out of the tube. For oil painters, this is easy. For watercolorists, it’s a bit of work to figure out what that really darkest point is, because it’s never the same as it appears on your palette. The colors wetted are a better guide, but you’ll need a test paper handy to experiment.
Your finished exercise should look something like this.

When you figure out the darkest natural position of that pigment, paint it in the appropriate position on your scale. Then make lighter steps to match the greyscale strip you’ve printed from the sample above. For watercolorists, that means dilution. For oil and acrylic painters, that means cutting with white.

There are three things to remember:

  1. These judgments are subjective. There’s no reliable way to measure the value of a color. The camera is as subjective as the human eye.  

  2. You can’t get a color to go darker than its ‘natural’ value without distorting the hue or chroma. Thus, there is no natural dark version of cadmium yellow, so the shadows in a yellow object require a workaround.

  3. All pigments can make about the same number of discrete steps. While the yellows have a shorter range, the steps are more noticeable. Blues can mix from almost-white to almost-black, but the middle points are very similar. 

Friday, September 11, 2020

Practical painting

Art theory is great, but workshops and classes should give you a clear process by which you can design and produce a better painting.

Blueberry Barrens, Carol L. Douglas, available through Maine Farmland Trust Gallery.

Natalia Andreeva is organizing my Find Your Authentic Voice in Plein Air workshop in Tallahassee in November. She asked me for objectives. That was great timing on her part.  I leave for the Pecos National Wilderness Saturday night and then head to Acadia National Park in two weeks.

The list (which follows) is short, but it took me more than a day to write. That, in turn, led me to redesign my workshop process. I already had a good reputation as a teacher, but this year has radically sharpened my focus. For that I can thank lockdown.

Ocean Park Beach Erosion, available through Ocean Park Association.

The biggest problem in plein air painting is what my buddy Brad Marshall once memorably referred to as “flailing around.” It’s easy to get stuck in the tall grass. In my opinion, the only classes worth taking are ones that give you a clear process by which you can design and produce a better painting. I love art theory and history, and I share them with my students. However, they have little to do with the mechanics of making a good picture.

Nor am I very interested in ‘style.’ To me that’s very personal—it’s what’s left when we’ve pushed our technique to the highest limit. When people try to teach it, they just create a small army of copyists.

Dawn, available through the artist
Parrsboro Dawn, available through the artist.

I’ve always focused on practical painting, but Natalia’s question got me thinking about the how and why. These are the objectives I came up with:

Finish a painting in three hours or less

Working fast (and well) in the field requires a clear, easily-understood process. We’ll go through the steps, explain why they’re important, and practice each one.

Better composition

A good painting has a structure of lights and darks with clear focal points. We talk about how to improve the structure of your painting, both with rules and by breaking rules.

Accurate, fast color mixing

Mixing right the first time is the key to beautiful, clear color. Theory is important, but how do you apply it with the paints on your palette?

Sea Fog, available through Folly Cove Fine Art.

Landscape perspective and pictorial distance

A sense of space sets off the best paintings. Learn to create that using drawn and aerial perspective.

You don’t need to record everything you see

What you leave out is as important as what you include. Learn to lose edges and direct the viewer’s eyes where you want them.

Let your own voice shine through

Process-based painting is all about technique, not style. That allows your own inner voice to emerge.