Paint Schoodic

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Friday, November 16, 2018

Prozac or painting, my friend?

Peppermint tea with a serving of art and music might be just what the doctor orders.
The Three Graces, by Carol L. Douglas, courtesy Camden Falls Gallery
I gave my head cold to my husband. Since we were scheduled to have a snowstorm this morning, I decided to turn off our alarms and let him sleep as long as he wants. He can make up his work-hours on the weekend. There are times that the body needs to rest, or so people tell me.

Meanwhile, I want to share the most delightful news story of the week. British doctors may soon be prescribing arts and culture to their patients, under a scheme unveiled by Health Secretary Matt Hancock.

To an American, the scheme seems politically daft. It provides for the creation of a National Academy for Social Prescribing that will “ensure general practitioners, or GPs, across the country are equipped to guide patients to an array of hobbies, sports and arts groups.” This is part of a larger government scheme to combat social isolation called the Loneliness Strategy.

Keuka Lake Vineyard, by Carol L. Douglas, courtesy Kelpie Gallery
When we’re done raising an eyebrow at our cousins across the pond, we have to ask the question of whether arts-starvation and social loneliness are problems that we can solve with our independent American can-do spirit.

The British scheme seems aimed at the elderly, who do experience loneliness, as we’ve all seen firsthand. Getting Grandma on a bus to the museum and giving her a playlist of heavy metal to remind her of her youth seem like good, practical ideas.

Health insurer Cigna surveyed 20,000 American adults on the question of loneliness. They found that 46% of Americans experience some form of loneliness, and 47% experience social exclusion. 43% felt isolated from others, and the same percentage said they lack companionship and their relationships lack meaning.

Surprisingly, it wasn’t the elderly complaining about isolation, but their young children. Social media wasn’t a factor at all. Rather, the important issues were family connections, work, sleep and physical activity.
Cadet, by Carol L. Douglas, private collection.
They should have asked about religious practice. Going to church and synagogue weekly are time-honored ways of becoming and staying engaged in community.

“We’ve been fostering a culture that’s popping pills and Prozac, when what we should be doing is more prevention and perspiration,” Hancock said.

As of this month, doctors in Montreal can prescribe a visit to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts for their patients in the doldrums. It’s a much smaller initiative than the British one. “There’s more and more scientific proof that art therapy is good for your physical health,” said Dr. Hélène Boyer, vice-president of Médecins francophones du Canada. “People tend to think this is only good for mental-health issues. That it’s for people who’re depressed or who have psychological problems. But that’s not the case. It’s good for patients with diabetes, for patients in palliative care, for people with chronic illness.”

And, possibly, for the common cold. As of now, I’ll be serving a dollop of art along with my husband’s peppermint tea.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Is it still plein air?

When do your touch-ups cross a line and make your work a studio painting?
Autumn, by Carol L. Douglas
Earlier this season, a reader asked me what I do with work that doesn’t sell at plein air events. Most artists use this work to sell elsewhere. Occasionally, however, we’ll bring home stuff that’s so site-specific it has no place in our current inventory.

Earlier this month, I painted a Moorish tent at Winterthur. It was one of about twenty garden follies they’d set up for the season. The pink, orange and turquoise confection flapped proudly in front of a blazing panorama of trees. However, nobody else seemed as amused as me; the painting garnered nary a second look.
To make the change, I had to remove the brush marks from the folly. First, I carefully applied a small amount of mineral spirits, taking care that they didn't run.
Yesterday, I excised the tent from the painting. I didn’t replace it with another focal point; I just let the landscape find its own structure.

It was necessary to get rid of the brushwork on the tent and the summerhouse so that they didn’t eventually appear in the surface as pentimenti. Because this painting is only a few weeks old, I was able to soften the paint with mineral spirits, and then carefully scrape down the top layer until it was flat. 
Gently, gently. You just want to take down the ridges.
It wasn’t necessary to remove all the paint, just the ridges. If you do this, be careful to confine the mineral spirits to the area you want to correct. It will soften both good and bad passages indiscriminately. And don’t press while scraping; you’ll distort the canvas.

Bye-bye, Moorish tent!
Then it was a matter of mixing some new green to fill in the area. If you aren’t careful at this point, you’ll end up repainting half your canvas trying to get the color right. You aren’t mixing a wall paint, so you’ll need to mix a few tightly-analogous colors. Then make sure you use a similar brush to the one you used originally.

This painting probably has about fifty added brushstrokes from the original. Is it still plein air for the purposes of jurying? I used no additional reference, and the modification, although striking, was small. I think it counts, but I’m interested in what other people have to say.
Penobscot, by Carol L. Douglas
The second painting I changed was one done in Santa Fe in April. At the time, I realized that a few brushstrokes would convert this to Penobscot Bay. It has been curing too long to open the surface and flatten it. It didn't need that, in fact. It does not have one single bit of solid paint over the old painting; every change was made by glazing. Again, there was no reference used and very little paint. However, the subject has changed completely. Is it still plein air? I don't think so because the finished work has no basis in reality.

Sunset, by Carol L. Douglas
The third painting I included because it has had absolutely nothing done to it. I painted it with Poppy Balser on a brilliant, cold evening at Rockport harbor last month and tossed it on the pile to be finished later. Pulling it out, I realized it needs nothing. It’s bright and fresh and perfect as is.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Black and white all over

A class exercise on design, and a chemistry question I can’t answer.
Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery, 1565, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, image courtesy of the Courtauld Institute of Art but the painting has been stolen.
Yesterday was the kind of day that drives poets mad. Just below freezing, it rained heavily, with gusts of wind. Our plein air painting class was forced into the studio.

grisaille (pronounced griz-eye) is a painting done entirely in shades of grey or another neutral color. Historically, it was used as decorative painting in imitation of sculpture. Some are what we moderns call duotones. They have subtle colors added to extend the value range. But for our class, they would be strictly in black and white.

Abstract design by Christine Covert
Painting runs along two parallel tracks. The first is design. This is why painting teachers relentlessly push students to do thumbnails and other value sketches. Value is our most important tool. Get it right, and you can be wrong about a lot of other things.

(I came to this realization late, by the way. I studied with Cornelia Foss, who tinkers endlessly with the ‘rules’ of painting. From her I got the hairbrained idea of minimizing value as a structural concept. However, this was a misinterpretation on my part. That’s a good lesson in not asking the right questions at the opportune moment.)

Grisaille by Jennifer Johnson.
The second track is color. It’s so much more interesting in some ways that it can be a distraction to the beginning painter. Mixing paints is both difficult and exciting.

Of course, value is part of color. In color space, value is the range from black to white. All successful paintings have some kind of pre-meditated value range in them. A high-key painting is one in which the contrasts are extreme. A low-key painting is one in which the range is narrower. In either case, there must be midtones too. They are also part of the design process.

Grisaille by David Blanchard.
It’s a lot easier to experiment with value when you’re not fussing about color management at the same time. One way to familiarize yourself with this idea is to paint a ten-step scale ranging from black to white. That’s not a bad exercise, but it’s boring. Instead I asked my students to do the monochromatic still life that I assigned in Monday Morning Art School last month.

Grisaille by Chris Covert.
Before that, however, they did an abstraction in charcoal, based loosely on the drawing I included in yesterday’s blog. Charcoal is the most painterly of drawing tools, but this is something you can do in a sketchbook while watching TV. It is a bit intimidating for someone to ask you to do an abstract drawing, but if I call it “doodling,” you can relax and get on with it.

There are only two rules:
  • Have a full range of tones, not just a line drawing.
  • And no realistic objects belong in your drawing at all.

A question: One of my students has had a problem with red pigment from her toned boards bleeding into her final paintings. She prepared a sample board for me to test her M. Graham acrylics vs. a similar red from a very inexpensive craft paint. I tried the squares at 15 minute- and 30 minute-intervals. The M. Graham pigment bled into the white paint, but the craft paint did not. I then tried the same intervals using my own Golden-toned board. Again, there was no bleeding.

Acrylic is pigment suspended in acrylic polymer emulsion. It is supposed to be water-resistant when dried. That doesn’t mean it’s oil-resistant. I’m beyond my chemistry knowledge here, but if any readers can suggest what’s happening, I’d be very grateful.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

You can’t draw a straight line, and other falsehoods

“I’m not talented” is the most pernicious lie in the world. Science is slowly disproving it.
Under a milky sky (Hare Bay, Newfoundland), Carol L. Douglas. It’s exactly what today’s sky looks like.
Like Thomas Edison, I firmly believe that “Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.” I have zero tolerance for the 18th century idea of the Cult of Genius or for Sigmund Freud's theories of poetic madness.

These ideas stripped rationality from the creation of art and the art market. They made it inevitable that art and music would be considered non-essential, meaning we could cut them from our schools. They removed the joy of making art from the everyday experiences of ordinary people. Early in our educations, some of us are labeled ‘talented’ and the rest are encouraged to do something else. That’s rigid and it limits everyone, artist and non-artist alike. 

Creativity is the one of the defining characteristics of mankind, after all, and it should flow through everything we do. That's especially important in our post-industrial society, where making stuff—canning, farming, woodworking, sewing, etc.—is now unnecessary.
Abstraction, by Carol L. Douglas. Drawing takes many forms, and all of them are helpful to the human mind.
Science is slowly returning us to a pre-Enlightenment understanding of art as part of the toolkit of the rational man. Drawing is not just a tool to communicate; it’s a tool to classify and learn.

Sadly, educators seem to be the last ones on board with this idea. Here’s another study which says what I told my kids’ principals in vain: if you want my son to learn, let him doodle it. Don’t just try to cram it into his brain.

The researchers in this recent study figure that drawing gives your brain different ways to engage with new material—imagining it, rendering it, and looking at your visual record. All those steps encode it in your memory. I’d add one more thing—doodling is the spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine go down.
My late friend and student Gwendolyn Linn attracted a flock of kids eager to learn.
Adults can leave a work environment that discourages doodling. Kids aren’t so lucky.

Many of us were riveted by last week’s story of 40,000-year-old figurative cave drawings found in Borneo. "It now seems that two early cave art provinces arose at a similar time in remote corners of Paleolithic Eurasia: one in Europe, and one in Indonesia at the opposite end of this ice age world," wrote co-researcher Adam Brumm.

It actually means that scientists have only found these drawings in Europe and Indonesia. Not every cave has conditions to preserve art, of course. But reason tells us that if there’s cave art in two such distant places, it was probably practiced worldwide by paleolithic man.

There’s a connection between these two stories, and it comes from my pal, artist Diane Leifheit.
Adult students getting fresh air and intellectual exercise last summer near Spruce Head. We won't be so fortunate today; it's raining.
“When someone says, ‘Oh I can’t draw,’ I say, ‘We have been making art for thousands of years. It is in our DNA. We just have to scratch the surface to find it,’” she said.

Next time you tell me you aren’t talented, remember that. As for drawing straight lines, I carry a straight-edge in my painting kit. Works every time.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Monday Morning Art School: How to use medium

The actual process is simple, but it has to be done right to prevent chalkiness or cracking.
The Farm at Olana, by Carol L. Douglas
“How should I treat older, unvarnished paintings that have become chalky?” a reader asked me. “And for that matter, what kind of varnish do you recommend?”

Chalky paintings are best revived with varnish. My personal preference is Winsor and Newton Artist’s Matt Varnish. It’s easily removable by a conservator, provides UV protection, and it doesn’t shine. (If you want more reflection, they make both gloss and satin finishes.) As with all varnishes, it shouldn’t be applied for a year after the painting has been finished, and it should never be used as a painting medium.

But learning to use medium properly is a better protection against chalkiness. (If you’re new to oil painting, consult my basic rules of oil painting.)

Mamaroneck River, by Carol L. Douglas, in its finished form right before it went on the auction block.
There are several families of oil painting mediums out there:
  • Traditional mediums are made from a slow-drying oil (poppy, linseed, etc.) a resin, and a solvent, sometimes with a siccative like Cobalt Drier added to improve the drying time.
  • Alkyd mediums are made with a slow-drying oil reacted with an alcohol and an acid. They dry faster, making them suitable for multiple glaze layers, but they carry less pigment. They should never be used on top of traditional oil mediums.
  • Solvent-free mediums do not include any petroleum distillates. All unmixed slow-drying painting oils are inherently solvent-free, being plant-based.
  • Wax based mediums include cold wax and encaustic.

Mamaroneck River, when the second layer was done but the top layer hadn't been started.
For field painting, I prefer a traditional medium: Grumbacher’s Oil Painting Medium II. It retards the drying time and allows me to work wet-on-wet longer. In particularly dreary conditions, I’ll use their Medium III, which has a drier. For studio work, I sometimes use their Medium II, because it dries to a matte finish. I buy this brand because I prefer a very thin medium. There are many good brands out there, and I would trust any medium made by a reputable paint house.

Grain elevators, Buffalo, by Carol L. Douglas is an example of a cold-wax medium painting. It gives tremendous latitude in effects.
Back in the last millennium, there was a popular recipe of linseed oil, turpentine, Damar varnish and a few drops of Cobalt drier. I stopped making it when I realized that so many 20th century masterpieces were degrading terribly. Chemists understand chemistry better than painters do.

The drawing layer is always done with solvent, whether in the studio or in the field. That's Sandy Quang, back when she was my studio assistant.
Neither medium nor solvent is a substitute for good, open paint. If you’re poking a skin off your paint and extending it with solvent, it’s time to clean your palette and get new paints out.

The actual process for using medium in alla prima painting is simple: fat over lean. Your first layer—where you’re drawing the picture on the canvas, called the underpainting—is cut with a small amount of solvent only. Use too much and you’ll have muck above. Your middle layer should be as close to pure paint as you can get, applied thinly. Your top layer should be paint with a small amount of medium, and here’s where you can get as impasto as you want.

Clip this and paste it in your pochade box until it's a habit.
Medium doesn’t belong in the bottom layers of a painting. The more oil in a layer, the longer the binder takes to oxidize. This keeps paints brighter and more flexible. However, oil also retards drying. Using too much in underpainting will result in a cracked and crazed surface over time.

Use too much medium and you’ll have a soup that dries to a plasticky finish. Use too little, and the paint will drag as you paint and cloud as it dries. I generally just touch the tip of my brush to the medium before mixing it into a brushstroke’s worth of paint.

This traditional method is tremendously variable and gives great control. Practice it.