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Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Art and fear

Great art doesn't spring fully-formed from the minds of geniuses. It is made incrementally.

Prom shoes, by Carol L. Douglas. 6X8, oil on canvas, $348 unframed. Every time a student tells me "I don't like still life," I point out that it is the best training ground for painting available to us.

Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland is a book I frequently recommend to students. The title is misleading because it’s less about the insecurities that stalk the artist and more about the reiterative, plodding process that produces great art. If the book does anything, it shreds the Cult of Genius that has dogged the art world since the Enlightenment.

Among the silliest distinctions in the world of art is that between so-called ‘fine art’ and ‘fine craft.’ Prior to the Age of Enlightenment, artists were craftsmen. It was only with the Romanticism that artists developed the slight stink of intellectualism.

Dish of Butter, by Carol L. Douglas. 6X8, oil on canvas, $348 unframed. 

Art & Fear comes down firmly on the side of craft. Art gets made by ordinary people like you and me, who work at our craft regularly. We chip away at a problem, and we master it, and we are content… until our minds throw up a new problem. We then repeat the process, and somehow, in all that indefinable chaos, there’s progress.

Nevertheless, there is fear in the art process. I was first introduced to this concept at the Art Students League, where my instructor gleefully announced to her new students, “You’re all terrified!” I’m naturally pugnacious, so my reaction was to deny that, loudly. It’s taken a long time for me to realize that some of my stalling mechanisms are, indeed, fear at work.

Back it up, by Carol L. Douglas. 6X8, oil on canvas, $348 unframed. Still life does not have to be about elegant old dishware. 

Fear is one reason artists have studios full of unfinished work. We can either leave it in this state, where it has potential, or finish it so that all its shortcomings are revealed.

A healthy respect for the process can be a good thing, when it stops us from charging in and making stupid mistakes. When I was much younger, I did a surrealistic dreamscape of young mother on a broken-down farm. I was stumped trying to marry my currently-realistic style with the theme. I made the mistake of consulting a professional for a critique. “It looks like an imitation Chagall,” she said. I went home and covered it in a froth of bad paint. When I came to my senses, the original painting was irretrievable.

But fear can quickly become corrosive. I see it when new students are unable to engage in the exercises that I set in front of them, or constantly answer every suggestion with, “yes, but…”

Tin Foil Hat, by Carol L. Douglas. 6X8, oil on canvas, $348 unframed. There was no point to this when I painted it, but it's since become my self-portrait.

It is not the beginners who have this difficulty, but people who have achieved some mastery of painting. They have a hard nut of competence that they hold tight against their hearts. To polish and shape it, they have to be able to hold it at arm’s length, but they can’t—they’re afraid that examining it will destroy something vital to their self-image.

I’m speaking as their soul-sister in this, by the way. It’s something that’s taken me a long time to get over.

Not that we ever really do get over our insecurity. Last week, Eric Jacobsen showed me a Charles Movalli painting he particularly admired. “That’s it! I quit,” I said. Of course, I’d said the same thing the week before that, and the week before that, too. In the face of great accomplishment, we are often momentarily cowed.

The difference—as Bayles and Ormond point out in their book—is that we sit back down at the easel and start again. And again. And again. That’s how great art happens.

Monday, April 19, 2021

Monday Morning Art School: creating depth in your paintings

Paintings with depth engage our minds more and keep us looking longer.

Sunlight on the Coast, 1890, Winslow Homer, courtesy Toledo Museum of Art

Pictorial depth in a painting, is—of course—not real. It’s an illusion, suggested by cues that help the observer translate a 2D image to a 3D space. These cues include shadows, size, and lines that dwindle into the horizon.

Since the human mind is programmed to perceive depth, the artist doesn’t have to work terribly hard to engage his viewer. We can break the tools we use into three distinct approaches, however, and then see how we can move beyond the most obvious into more challenging approaches.

The first is to create receding bands of content. Larger objects create a screen through which we see a layer of smaller objects behind them. The human eye records this as distance. Painterly marks decrease in size along with objects, the farther we travel into the painting.

Tired Salesgirl on Christmas Eve, date unknown, Norman Rockwell, courtesy Christies. This is the acme of layered planes for effect; we don't even notice that there's no real perspective.

I had a painting teacher who kvetched that this was all Norman Rockwell ever did, to which I responded that he did it very well for a guy who was churning out weekly magazine covers. I’ll cede the point though. This is the least difficult design concept, and it can prove static, especially when it takes the form of a lonely tree posed against a far hill.

The second method is to establish perspective with lines that move into the distance. This is sometimes simplified into the idea of “a path into the painting.” This may not be a literal path but rather a design armature. In paintings like this, we are seeing over the objects, and they recede into distance, drawing us in with them.

High Surf Along the Laguna Coast, Edgar Payne, before 1947, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

The two paintings above, by Winslow Homer and Edgar Payne, illustrate the difference. Homer has established his design with walls of water and rock, which we’re allowed to peek over. In Payne’s painting, we’re above the roiling surf, and we follow it back into the distance.

For this latter kind of painting to work, the artist must have excellent drawing chops, because the relative sizes of the objects, their placement, their angle, and—above all—the negative shapes, must be spot on. So, if you want to graduate from the first kind of perspective to the second, keep practicing your drawing.

The third kind of perspective is atmospheric. This relies on some general optics rules that are based on the interference of bouncing light and dust in the atmosphere:

  1. Far objects are lower in contrast and generally lighter in color.
  2. Far objects are generally lower in chroma than near objects, because:
  3. Warm colors drop out over distance.
First the reds drop out, next, the yellows drop out, leaving us with blue-violet. Which is how we end up with “purple mountain majesty” as we approach the Rockies, or did, before excessive growth on the Front Range polluted the skies.

Payne Lake, before 1948, Edgar Payne, courtesy Steven Stern Fine Arts

Psychologists have researched the subject of distance perception (of course) and it turns out that depth perception is linked to our higher thinking. That’s no surprise, since visual cues are very basic for survival. From that, we can construe that paintings with depth engage our minds more and keep us looking longer.

Friday, April 16, 2021

Five half-finished paintings in search of a conclusion

The beautiful warmth of Wednesday was just a dream. It’s still April in Maine, and we all know April is the cruellest month.

Not done.

On Wednesday, I met Peter Yesis and Ken DeWaard at Spruce Head. In the warm spring air, it felt like we were playing hooky. The neighborhood dogs trotted over to welcome us. There was a lobster boat on the pier, and the fisherman by the docks was working on his traps. Two Canada geese gamboled in the shallows. Perfect peace, and intimations of summer at long last.

I must have disconnected my common sense in the soft air, because I got there to realize I’d left my tripod at home. There are two absolute necessities for oil painting—an easel and white paint. Your other tools are helpful, but you can usually make a workaround solution. Forget your brushes? Take up palette-knife painting. Forget a canvas? One of your friends will have a spare.

Not done.

I improvised by putting my pochade box on a chair and balancing myself in front of it on Ken’s camp stool. It was wobbly but effective. However, Sandy Quang was meeting us after she stopped for a routine COVID test. The lab is near my house. She stopped by and collected my tripod.

I didn’t feel like grinding anything down to its final solution, so what I painted were sketches—sketches that can join the others sitting on my workbench in search of conclusion. Not that any of them need too much—a flourish here, a bit of light there. The overall structure is fine.

Not done.

Sandy peeled off in early afternoon, and then Peter left. I realized that I had to make the dump before it closed at 4 PM. Ken was starting his sixth sketch, but I was happy with my three, because I had all day Thursday before the weather closed in. I got the trash to the town dump with five minutes to spare.

Except, as so often happens, Thursday didn’t work out at all way I’d planned. I got to Rockport harbor, sat down and drew a composition I quite liked. Meanwhile, the boatyard crew was lowering a sloop into the water. I took a phone call while I waited to see where the boat would end up. “As soon as I start this painting in earnest, they’ll move that boat right into this slip,” I said. That’s always the way with boat paintings—they come and go.

Not done.

It turned out to not be a problem. This time I’d managed to leave my pochade box at home. By the time I drove home to get it, the tide had risen enough that my sketch was meaningless. Not to worry; the tide hits the same point four times a day. I’ll catch it on the flip side. Maybe by then the mast will be stepped on that beautiful winter visitor from Stonington, ME.

Later, I had some explanation for my absentmindedness. In the afternoon, I was laid low by a terrific headache and low-grade fever. I doubt it’s COVID, as I’ve had all my shots. I’m more concerned about Lyme, since I found a tick in my head after being in the Hudson Valley over the weekend. Yes, I’m calling my PCP. This is, sadly, routine in the northeast.

Meanwhile, we’re back to cold, dark and irritable weather. It won’t get out of the 30s today, and there’s snow on the forecast for New England. The beautiful warmth of Wednesday was just a dream. It’s still April in Maine, and we all know April is the cruellest month.

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Stop playing it safe

I’m willing to look like a fool for art. Are you?

Channel marker, 9x12, oil on canvasboard, $696 unframed.

I did a set of long demos in my classes this week. I worked from two different snapshots, one for each class. I’d never looked at them before. In fact, I chose them because they didn’t have any obvious structure.

It was up to my class to create that structure, so I didn’t crop or make any choices in advance. (To make the demo meaningful to all my students, I did each painting in oils and watercolor simultaneously. That’s hard.) The goal was to give my students a broad view of the overall processes of painting, from start to finish.

They said they learned the most from the many places where I dithered. At one point, I said something like, “stupid, stupid, stupid!” One student particularly liked hearing that; she thought she was alone in making choices she later regretted.

Fog Bank, 14x18, oil on canvasboard, $1275 unframed.

Another said that the most instructive part of the demo was the moment I took a rag to an entire passage of the oil painting. (My correction turned out to be a mistake. Stupid, stupid, stupid.)

The actual painting results were mediocre. But great paintings were never my goal. Instead, we worked our way through the process of a painting as a team, discussing our questions and dilemmas.

Home farm 2, oil on canvas, 20X24, $2898 framed.

I received this email from a student who wishes to remain anonymous:

“A couple of weeks ago, on a whim, I signed up for another zoom painting class with an artist I follow on social media... The most important thing I have come to realize is how much I value your approach to teaching and how much better your class is. I enjoy your [art] history lesson and how it wraps around the weekly lesson. We all work from our own still life set-ups or reference photos making our paintings more personal.

“In this other class, I was sent a reference photo (which didn't particularly interest me) and we all painted the same thing. During class, there is a lot of talk about which particular colors were used in which particular spots. Questions like these make me nuts.

“We have to send a photo of our painting and there is a critique of everyone's work so we are looking at basically eight versions of the same painting for two hours. Tedious, at best. In the end, I feel like I have spent time and materials on a painting that is not really mine since I don't own the reference photo and I know there are eight other versions of the same painting out there.”

Home Port, oil on canvas, 18X24, $2318 framed.

This student is a graphic designer by trade, so when I saw her painting, I was amazed at how boring it was. Her work usually sparks with arresting design and quirky ideas.  But here she was working from someone else’s idea, and all the thinking was already done. There’s little to be learned in that.

On Monday, I wrote that I don’t think canned painting demos are very helpful. A shrewd painter rehearses these performances. He has already made the critical decisions before he ever lifts a brush in public. This creates an impression of mastery and confidence, but it’s a falsehood. The real process of painting is all in the choices.

Art’s greatest enemy is safety. That may seem strange coming from a painter who works in landscape—surely the least risky of genres. But the risks I’m talking about are in composition, structure, color choices, and brushwork, not in content. The best painters take chances all the time. They mess things up and toss them in the trash. The public will only see 10-20% of our starts. The rest are, to us, failures.

Monday, April 12, 2021

Monday Morning Art School: how to succeed in painting

Truthfully, how much does your painting ever advance from curling up on the couch and watching painting videos?

Early spring in the boatyard, oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas

Every successful artist I know has a process. That means we work up a painting in pretty much the same way every time. These processes are different in the details, but the same in the fundamentals. Over the past two weeks I’ve been tinkering with my process. I’m checking to see if there’s a more efficient way.

I borrowed a stick of charcoal from Ken Dewaard on Thursday to set up hash marks like he does. “I use a little charcoal,” he laughed, when my canvas looked as if I’d grilled a turkey on it.

The point isn’t whether Ken’s process is better than mine, or whether I can learn it—of course I can. It’s not whether I can hit hash marks on a canvas. It’s whether I would see spatial relationships differently with a different system of marking. The jury’s out on that one; I haven’t been doing it enough to tell.

Early spring in the boatyard (2), oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas, available.

Note that I’m tinkering, not doing major surgery. That’s because painters all end up doing their work in a specific way:

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

In oils that protocol is:

  1. Fat over lean;
  2. Dark to light;
  3. Big shapes to smaller shapes.

In watercolor, the order of operations is:

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

Acrylics, being a new medium, are still in flux, but if you’re using them as a solid medium, stick with the oil-painting protocol.

Mountain spring, Carol L. Douglas, oil on canvasboard.

When I was taking harpsichord lessons many years ago, I noticed that introducing a new technique would make me forget, momentarily, how to play. Asking my left hand to do something new would make my right hand suddenly go stupid. I don’t know why the human mind is programmed like this, but it happens in painting, too. Toss in one unfamiliar concept and things that are routinely easy suddenly feel terribly complicated.

That’s why practice is so important. Repeat that new technique until it’s integrated into your thinking. That usually happens just in time for your teacher to throw something new at you.

It’s also why good instruction is so infernally difficult. The student is constantly left feeling off-kilter. But somehow it works, and better musicians and painters are created in the chaos.

Spring cleaning, oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas

Mary Byrom and I recently discussed why we hate canned videos and long demos. Neither of us use them much, because they demand no effort from our students. Truthfully, how much does your painting ever advance from curling up on the couch and watching painting videos?

Having said that, I’m about to do a long demo in both my classes this week. But it will be interactive. My students will be making the decisions; I’ll just be the trained monkey putting them on canvas and paper.

On that note, there’s still an opening in my Monday night class starting tonight. Email me if you’re interested.