Paint Schoodic

We're offering four workshops for 2020, at Acadia National Park, Pecos, NM, Tallahassee, FL, and aboard the schooner American Eagle.

Friday, June 5, 2020

Virtual visits to museums can be as good as the real thing

I want lockdown consigned to the dustbin of history, but I’d like to see virtual museums continue to grow.

Detail of The Night Watch super image by the Rijksmuseum. (It’s a nose.) Get that close to a painting in a museum and you’ll get thrown out or worse.

When I came home from Argentina, I expected lockdown to last a few more weeks. Now we’re talking about cancellations into next autumn. It seems like it’s going to be a long time before I’m able to spend a few hours aimlessly potting around a museum.

But museums have stepped up to the challenge of isolation. It helps that they were starting from a solid base. Most major institutions have been sharing their collections online, either in part or in full, for several years. For someone who learned art history from books and slides, this is a great resource.

Albidia, by Nicolai Fechin, c. 1920s, courtesy of the Philbrook Museum. No, I wouldn’t have driven to Tulsa to see it, but I did enjoy studying it online.


The Philbrook Museum of Art is located in Tulsa, OK. Twice a week I can join them to learn creative projects on YouTube, my grandkids can watch their storytime, or I can browse their collection or take a virtual tour on Facebook. I see that they own a lovely Nicolai Fechin portrait. It wouldn’t be worth flying to Tulsa, but it was interesting enough to ponder on my monitor. Tulsa is not the heart of American art culture, but its museum has responded quickly to COVID-19.

I chose the Philbrook Museum at random, but I think they’re pretty typical. Closer to home, I was planning (in my desultory way) to visit the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and the Clark Institute this summer as I crisscrossed Massachusetts to see my kids. Never mind; I’ll visit them online—the kids and the museums.

Two Guides, 1877, Winslow Homer. The only way I’m going to enjoy the Clark Institute’s superb collection right now is online.

Rembrandt’s The Night Watch is one of the world’s celebrated cultural treasures. It was twice damaged by mentally-disturbed vandals. Its home, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, was closed for a long period of renovation. The painting itself underwent a massive restoration and is now visible under LED lighting to reduce UV radiation damage.

Still, the vast majority of artists, art historians, and art lovers will never have the opportunity to study it in person. Last month the Rijksmuseum published a 44.8 gigapixel image of it, which you can view here. It was made from 528 still photographs “stitched together digitally with the aid of neural networks,” the museum announced.

The image was made for scientific purposes, but it’s an invaluable resource for those of us who once visited museums to stand too close to the paintings just to peer at the brushwork. Best of all, it’s touch-screen sensitive.

Portrait of Dr. Samuel D. Gross (The Gross Clinic), 1875, Thomas Eakins, is the subject of an excellent digital ‘close read’ by critic Jason Farago. Courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Art critic Jason Farago of the New York Times recently did a close read of Thomas Eakin’s Portrait of Dr. Samuel D. Gross (The Gross Clinic), 1875, which lives at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It’s like being on a tour with a great docent—personal, informative, never didactic. You can watch it here.

I want lockdown to be consigned to the dustbin of history, but I’m enthusiastic about virtual museums. I hope they continue to expand. Great art is a cultural legacy as much as a commodity. It should be available to as many people as possible.

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Necessity is the mother of invention

You might think artists have little to offer when people are concerned about building deep pantries. But the need for comfort, inspiration, and beauty are always there.

Inelegant? Of course. Effective? We'll see. It's better than sitting around wringing my hands.

Last winter I made the decision to stay home in Maine and run a gallery out of my studio in Rockport. I bought a full-page ad in the Maine Gallery Guide, devised a schedule of revolving shows, and put up picture hanging rails. Then American retail collapsed.

There’s no foot trade here or anywhere else. On the other hand, all the plein air events I would have done have been canceled or gone virtual. There's no point in second-guessing my decision. All I can do is keep asking myself what I can do to make viewing art easier for my clients.

Visitors to Maine are now subject to a 14-day quarantine. Retail establishments are just starting to open now, with very stringent rules. Even if that weren’t the case, I don’t want people in my studio-gallery. It’s attached to my home.

It's a work in progress. Today's task is reworking the ladder sign so it's more readable.

I never thought I’d be grateful for the years I spent hawking paintings at art festivals, but the experience has sure come in handy. Setting up an outdoor display has been trial-and-error and it isn’t perfect. The awning over our driveway is shorter than my walls, and there’s no way to angle them.

I learned this the hard way. The wind on the coast is ever-present.  Yesterday was very breezy. I set up the walls to see how they’d fare before I put paintings on them. They did just fine—until the art was added. It created a sail. That was an expensive mistake.

Oops.

Today will be another test, because I can’t tell if it’s going to rain or not. With 5000 miles of inlets and coves on the Maine coast, it’s impossible to predict what will happen when moisture-laden clouds cross from land to sea. My tear-down last night took just seven minutes. That’s far faster than I ever managed on the road, because I can just wheel the walls into the garage.

If this works, I might just replace my old festival tent, which I gave away last year.

The Wall Street Journal recently wrote about Wegmans’ response to COVID-19. Wegmans is my hometown grocery store, now gone superstar.  As a privately-held business, they can react creatively and quickly without having to answer to shareholders. Their response boils down to common sense. They figured out that their customers’ biggest concerns were safety and security. They changed their merchandise to meet those needs. Gone were the gourmet sauces and food tastings; in were ten-pound bags of pasta.

Eventually I realized that the weights on festival tents are to prevent them from going airborne; the problem here is stopping the walls from twisting. Hooking them to the garage solved that.

You might think artists have little to offer in a world where people are concerned about building deep pantries. But the need for comfort, inspiration, and beauty are always there, perhaps never more so than when times are difficult. Our challenge is to figure out those needs and how we can best answer them.

How can we make viewing art a pleasant experience when people can’t get to our galleries? The internet will help, certainly, but we are all hungering for continued personal contact without risk. I’m groping through this just as you are; your ideas and thoughts are, as always, appreciated.

Monday, June 1, 2020

Monday Morning Art School: how to create a compelling still life

If you want to be a good painter, it’s critical that you learn to paint from life rather than from photos.

Baby Monkey, oil on canvas, by Carol L. Douglas

The liturgical year has two periods called Ordinary Time. In fact, we’re entering summer Ordinary Time today, since Pentecost was yesterday.

I have taken to thinking of the-time-before-coronavirus as Ordinary Time. My classes would be moving out of the studio now into field painting. That option is now closed, so I’m asking students to create still lives in their own studios.

If you want to be a good painter, it’s critical that you learn to paint from life rather than from photos. Still lives are an essential tool for that. “Still life is the touchstone of painting,” said Édouard Manet, who believed that you could say everything that needed to be said in a painting of fruit or flowers. He spent his last years paralyzed, so he painted brilliant still lives from his couch.

Butter, oil on canvas, by Carol L. Douglas

Composition

A compelling still life set-up has all the same elements as a compelling finished painting: unity, rhythm, movement and a focal point. Colin Page’s still lives combine modern color and paint handling with the exuberant excess of Dutch Golden Age paintings. As chaotic as they appear at first glance, he’s consciously directing your eye through his paintings. Your first assignment for today is to look at his still lives and ask:

1.      Where are the diagonals?

2.      Where are the dark punctuation points?

3.      Where are the reds and oranges?

There are lines that are spelled out and lines that are implied. Note how many triangles Colin makes with object placement.

New hard drive, oil on canvas, by Carol L. Douglas

Content

A still life is an opportunity to be witty, incisive, or topical. If you’re having trouble thinking of ideas, browse through this list. Or meditate on what most interests you today. For example, I might enjoy a still life based on my new grandson’s baby gear, which is all around my house right now.

Color

“Remember that a painting—before being a battle horse, a nude woman or an anecdote of some sort—is essentially a flat surface covered with colors, put together in a certain order,” said painter Maurice Denis. While gathering the objects for your still life, be thoughtful in developing a sense of color—not just hue (which is easy) but in value and chroma. That doesn’t mean “matching” different items, but playing them against each other.

Light and shadow

Even more important than the colors of the objects is the color of light and shadow that will unify your painting. Natural light will give you the broadest spectrum, but it’s not always possible. Look carefully at the light you’re using—if it’s an LED it will be a lot cooler than an incandescent bulb, which sheds an almost-orange light. If you can’t figure out what color the light is, check the color of the shadows.

Think carefully about shadow placement. It’s what will unify your composition.

Happy New Year, oil on canvas, by Carol L. Douglas

Viewpoint

You can set your composition up on the floor and look down on it, or you can put it at eye level. Looking down gives you the best opportunity for diagonals and converging lines. A composition at your eye level starts with a grid of stately horizontal and vertical lines, which makes it feel lofty and separate.  Most still lives are painted at the same angle as we see things on tables in the real world. That gives the opportunity for both diagonals and verticals.

How will you frame the subject?

The ‘negative space’ around the objects is as important as the objects themselves. Consider these shapes before you start painting. Outlining them with a pencil on your thumbnail is a useful way of analyzing them.

Your homework

Choose five ‘carefully curated’ objects (or more, if you’re ambitious) and create a series of still lives from them in different arrangements. Record them in thumbnail sketches as you go. If you’re lucky enough to have a Lazy Susan, you can set your still life up on it and rotate it to get a sense of how objects can look different from different angles.

Friday, May 29, 2020

It takes all kinds of thinkers

Whatever happened to the educated, literate generalist in our public life?

Apple orchard in spring, Carol L. Douglas

If you followed my recent trip to Argentina, you know we returned home with a virulent intestinal bug. It’s lasted for more than two months and resisted diagnosis, even with extensive testing. My husband was looking like a starving Biafran so Brien Davis, our nurse-practitioner, ordered a new round of tests. Mirabile dictu, it’s giardiasis! We start treatment as soon as we round up the proper drugs. Kudos to Brien for exceptional persistence.

When we left Rochester, my biggest concern was leaving the practice of our doctor, Bernard Plansky. His specialty is family medicine, which we used to call ‘general medicine’. I credit him with saving my life, since he figured out that I had cancer after two other specialists missed it. He’s also knowledgeable on subjects as diverse as Shakespeare, etymology, bagpipes, publicans and surfing. He’s that 18th century ideal, a polymath.

Apple tree with swing, Carol L. Douglas

Being a two-time cancer survivor, I had been under a high level of specialized care. Moving to Maine, I wasn’t at all sure about switching to a nurse-practitioner. But it’s worked very well. Under Brien’s care, I’ve lost 60 lbs., resolved most of my back problems, and am no longer hypertensive. In his spare time, Brien runs Hope Orchards. As with all farming, orchard husbandry takes intelligence and optimism. Both of these medical men have served my interests well, although they’ve approached the questions very differently.

I’ve been thinking about thinking because of a something I chanced across while reading about Alexander von Humboldt. He had a warm friendship with president Thomas Jefferson, whom he visited several times at the White House.

Dame's Rocket in an old orchard, Carol L. Douglas

Jefferson was—like von Humboldt—a true son of the Enlightenment. He was a farmer, interested in scientific agriculture. He taught himself the principles of architecture and designed Virginia’s statehouse as well as his own home, Monticello. He was an inventor who gave us both the moldboard plow and the swivel chair. He could speak, read, and write in many languages.

Jefferson was a keen naturalist and anthropologist. Not only did he commission the Lewis and Clark Expedition, he tutored Meriwether Lewis in the skills he needed to lead the trip, including mapping, botany, natural history, mineralogy, astronomy and navigation. He was interested in Native American cultures and languages. And, somehow, he found time to be a very successful politician and lawyer.

Farm country, Carol L. Douglas

My sad thought for yesterday was that the last president with a background like that was Teddy Roosevelt. It’s hard to imagine what von Humboldt would have in common with modern politicians, whatever their affiliation.

Of course, we’ve done this to ourselves. We moderns assume that the best person for any job is the most specialized. But how well has that served us, exactly?

Postscript: The Bangor Arts Society’s 2020 Open Juried Show runs from June 1-15. There’s still time to sneak in a last-minute submission. The juror is art writer Carl Little. In a time when there are almost no live art shows, it’s refreshing to see America’s oldest continuous art society sticking with tradition, come hell or high water.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Towering genius disdains the beaten path

Today, art and science run in very separate tracks. That wasn’t always true.

Cotopaxi, 1862, Frederic Edwin Church, courtesy Detroit Institute of Arts 

Because of lockdown, museums and galleries are closed. That means I won’t seeing Alexander von Humboldt and the United States: Art, Nature, and Culture at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Luckily, I can tour the show virtually or buy the book.

Not only was Alexander von Humboldt the towering genius of early 19th century science, he had a profound influence on American art and culture. There’s a Humboldt Street in Portland, a Humboldt Parkway in my home town of Buffalo, and various fixtures named Humboldt across our country.  He was a famous explorer, but he was also the fellow whose work inspired Frederic Church’s The Heart of the Andes.

Self-portrait, 1815, Alexander von Humboldt. Gentlemen-scientists once knew how to draw.

Humboldt was the last of that breed of brilliant scientific generalists, largely self-taught, who contributed so much to the world’s knowledge of botany and geography. Between 1799 and 1804, he traveled throughout South America, exploring and describing it in scientific terms.

Humboldt is the first person to have realized that the coasts of South America and Africa dovetail, and he proposed the idea that they might have once been joined. He noted that volcanoes fall in linear chains and demonstrated the fallacy of the idea that rocks were formed from the world’s oceans. He laid the foundations of modern geography and meteorology. In his spare time, he surveyed Cuba and stopped to visit President Thomas Jefferson at the White House.

Geography of Plants in the Tropics, 1805, Alexander von Humboldt and A.G. Bonpland.

Humboldt saw the physical world as a unified system and the physical sciences as interlinked. He understood that botany was dependent on biology, meteorology, and geology. To prove that took 21 years and resulted in his opus magnum, Cosmos. It changed the way scientists see the world.

Humboldt mentored many young scientists. He was equally generous with visual artists. He expected them to play a part in the collection of natural data, by accurately portraying the landscape. Humboldt recognized landscape painting—then in its infancy—as among the highest expressions of love of nature.

Alexander von Humboldt and Aimé Bonpland at the foot of the Chimborazo, 1810, Friedrich Georg Weitsch

Church was not the only artist to follow in Humboldt’s footsteps, but he was by far the cleverest. In 1853 and 1859, he traveled to South America to replicate Humboldt’s journeys. While Humboldt had used family money to finance his explorations, Church enlisted an American financier, Cyrus West Field, who wanted to encourage investment in his South American ventures.

The Heart of the Andes is a composite of South American topography and botany. Its monumental scale and detail can’t be appreciated through photographs; you really need to go to New York and stand in front of it.

The Heart of the Andes, 1859, Frederic Edwin Church, courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

But in 1859, Americans weren’t flocking to the Metropolitan Museum of Art; it didn’t yet exist. Our nation didn’t even have a decent rail system. Church took his painting on tour, visiting seven American cities and London. At its opening in New York (April 29 to May 23, 1859) 12,000 people paid a quarter apiece to see it.

At the end of its tour, Church sold the painting for $10,000—at the time, the highest price ever paid for a work by a living American artist. Church had hoped to ship the painting to Berlin to show it to his mentor, but Humboldt, alas, died before that was possible.