Paint Schoodic

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Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Symbol and subconscious

Leonardo da Vinci painted two Madonnas set in caves. Why?
Madonna of the Rocks, Leonardo da Vinci, c. 1483-86, courtesy of the Louvre.
We moderns are very good at seeing subconscious imagery in everything. In contrast, our ancestors communicated with universally-understood symbols. These represented an idea, a person, or even a relationship. Earlier this week, I came across a quotation from Leonardo da Vinci’s notebook, in which the distinction between symbol and subconscious gets a little fuzzy:

 “Having wandered some distance among gloomy rocks, I came to the mouth of a great cavern, in front of which I stood some time, astonished,” he recalled. “Bending back and forth, I tried to see whether I could discover anything inside, but the darkness within prevented that. Suddenly there arose in me two contrary emotions, fear and desire—fear of the threatening dark cave, desire to see whether there were any marvelous thing within.”

Madonna of the Rocks, c. 1503-06, Leonardo da Vinci, courtesy National Gallery
Leonardo painted two versions of The Madonna of the Rocks, twenty years apart. These are based on a legend of the time. The Holy Family, on the flight to Egypt, encounters a toddler John the Baptist, who then worships (adores) his savior cousin.

Artists before and after Leonardo regularly placed nativities in caves. This made historical sense, as Jesus’ birthplace was assumed to be the grotto under the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. (Natural caves were used as homes and barns in Bible-era Israel.)

Leonardo also painted St. Jerome in a cave, but everyone did that. Jerome translated his Bible into Latin in the cave where Jesus was born.
St Jerome, c. 1480, unfinished, Leonardo da Vinci, courtesy the Vatican
But Leonardo stepped out into new territory when he painted his adoration scene. What did he mean by painting what is essentially an idyll framed by something he found terrifying?

Back to his own narrative. Desire won out over fear, and Leonardo entered the cave. He found a great, fossilized whale. “O mighty and once living instrument of formative nature. Incapable of availing thyself of thy vast strength thou hast to abandon a life of stillness and to obey the law which God and time gave to procreative nature…

“You lashed with swift, branching fins and forked tail, creating in the sea sudden tempests that buffeted and submerged ships. Now destroyed by time thou liest patiently in this confined space with bones stripped and bare; serving as a support and prop for the superimposed mountain.”
Madonna of the Carnation, 1478, Leonardo da Vinci, courtesy Alte Pinakothek. Isn’t this just a more stylized version of the same traps and dark passages as in the cave paintings?
There are those who assume his maudlin meanderings are metaphorical, a sort of picture of what lies before us all. But Leonardo was more an earnest student of nature than a poet, and whale fossils are indeed found in Tuscany. Real or imagined, he read a lot into the experience.
Apocalyptic scenes from da Vinci’s notebooks, c. 1517-18, Royal Collection Trust
Leonardo went on to describe the end of existence as we know it. “The rivers will be deprived of their waters, the earth will no longer put forth her greenery; the fields will no more be decked with waving corn; all the animals, finding no fresh grass for pasture, will die. In this way the fertile and fruitful earth will be forced to end with the element of fire; and then its surface will be left burnt up to cinder and this will be the end of all earthly nature.” He went on to illustrate these dark, apocalyptic scenes.

Biographer Walter Isaacson described these pages as a sort of existential crisis. That’s a very modern mindset. I’d first be inclined to look for religious imagery—leviathan, Jonah and the whale, Resurrection, Revelation. Was he was setting the Adoration of the Christ Child against his own deepest fears, or those of the culture in which he lived?

Monday, March 18, 2019

Monday Morning Art School: Mark Making

Mark-making can be loose and gestural or very controlled. It’s personal, but it’s also something you can learn.
Dining Room in the Country, 1913, Pierre Bonnard, courtesy Minneapolis Institute of Art. Bonnard used small brush strokes, intense colors, and close values.
When I was a student, I often left heavy edges in my paintings. A teacher told me, “That’s your style.” Well, it wasn’t; I’d just never learned to marry edges. It was a deficiency.

Our marks are our handwriting. I’d rather see them develop naturally, so I generally avoid teaching much mark-making. But sometimes students fall into traps that severely limit their development. It’s better to understand all the ways your brush works and then settle down into something that reflects your character, rather than have to break bad brushwork down the road.

Self Portrait with Beret and Turned Up Collar, 1659, Rembrandt van Rijn, courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Pay close attention to the economy of the brushwork in the hair, and the expressive, unfinished brushwork in the face. In this way, Rembrandt was able to create a powerful focus.
Let’s first talk about how not to do it:
  • Unless you’re doing close detail, don’t hold your brush like a pencil. It’s a baton, and holding it to the back of the center-point gives you more lyrical motion.
  • Don’t dab. This means a pouncing/stabbing motion with the tip of your brush. It’s amateurish in oils, anemic in acrylics, and only possible with any elegance with a wet watercolor brush.
  • Don’t use brush strokes that go in all one direction. Learn to apply paint in the round.
All these rules are successfully broken by great artists. You may go on to break them yourself, but it behooves you to learn the full range of motion of your brush before you do so.

Wheatfield with Crows, 1890, Vincent van Gogh, courtesy Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam. The motion in the painting is created by his brush strokes.
Mark-making can be loose and gestural or very controlled. It’s not just pertinent to painting; it applies to any material applied to a surface, including three-dimensional and digital art. It’s purely personal, and can be where the artist expresses—or suppresses—his feelings about the subject.

Waterlilies, c. 1915, Claude Monet, courtesy Neue Pinakothek, Munich. Monet makes no attempt to hide his drawing in this painting. The brushstrokes are wet-over-dry.
Mark-making is an important aspect of abstract art, including the kind where the mark-making is not done with a brush (as with Jackson Pollack or Gerhard Richter). But tight brushwork is just as much a hallmark of modern painting—see pop art, for example.

Lady Agnew of Lochnaw, 1892, John Singer Sargent, courtesy Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh. Note that the transparent sleeves are not produced by glazing, but with direct, long brushstrokes.
I’ve included five great artworks in this assignment. Each has one or more close-ups with it. Your assignment is to try to figure out the brush used and copy the brush-strokes as accurately as you can on an old canvas. Note that I’m not asking you to make a painting; that would be too confusing. I’m just asking you to try to mimic the brushwork.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Saying goodbye

Portraits of the dead are difficult, but they’re also satisfying and meaningful to paint.
Reunited with Jesus, by Carol L. Douglas
Occasionally I have the opportunity to do a portrait of someone who has shuffled off this mortal coil. These are the most difficult portraits to paint, because there are never good reference photos available. You’re changing angles and planes, guessing their height and weight, and dealing with terrible flash or shadows. Yet these are the best photos the family has.

It’s no wonder that they often feel overworked to me when I’ve finished; I’ve struggled to invent a structure from a snapshot. However, if Hans Holbein the Younger could paint his magnificent lost portrait of Henry VIII from a pattern, I’ve got nothing to complain about.

This infant died after birth, and all his mother had was a very blurry snapshot. It's, unfortunately, the only photo I have of the painting.
Despite the technical difficulties, these reflections on mortality are among my favorite subjects. They’re a comfort to the survivors, who struggle to find meaning in their own personal disaster. They force me to draw from my own painting and drawing experience. Can I draw a plausible hand or foot with no reference photo at all? Most importantly, they’re thought-provoking.

Death is the deepest question facing mortal man. We all will die someday. That’s absolute. What will it be like? Where will we end up? Will we see our loved ones again? Will we work, or sing endlessly? (Will singing feel like work, or will I be able to belt out a tune like Kate Smith?)

The subject of this portrait passed away last summer, much too young—my age, in fact. Her daughter-in-law sought a way of comforting her husband on the loss of his mother, of reassuring him that her final destination was, indeed, Heaven.

This is someone I knew very well: my sainted Aunt Mary, who died the day before her sixtieth birthday. It's a portrait of her servant's heart.
I’d intended to concentrate on the figures and scumble a vague background. However, I’ve been thinking about angels for months. Angels are not cute putti or disembodied beings. They’re vigorous workmen in the Kingdom of God. It seemed like a good opportunity to paint them and think about what Heaven might be like. My deep subconscious apparently thinks that it’s a bustling kind of place.

For those unfamiliar with traditional Christian imagery, here’s some explanation: Jesus has a seat at the right hand of God because, in the Biblical era, that meant an honored guest shared eminence and authority with his distinguished host. But he’s relaxed enough to come down from his throne and welcome an individual to heaven, just as he was comfortable coming to earth to share our human struggles.
Only one person in this portrait is deceased. He's dancing with his elegant and wonderful wife, in the Pennsylvania woods he loved so much.
The lamb on his seat-back is the Agnus Dei, the “lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” The figure to the right of God is the Recording Angel, mentioned by two Old Testament prophets. The orb in God’s hand is not a strictly Christian symbol. Its origin is the plain round globe held by the god Jupiter. This became a standard symbol of power in the post-Roman world. It came into Christian iconography through the Salvator Mundi. God’s outfit is quoted directly from God Inviting Christ to Sit on the Throne at His Right Hand (1645) by Pieter de Grebber. The floating cross on which the Throne of God sits is my own idea, although there’s certainly “nothing new under the sun.”

All this sounds very Catholic, and for good reason. During the time when Christian symbolism was evolving, the Catholic church was the only game in town. I was concerned that it would be too much for a modern client. It turns out that the recipient of the painting was raised as a Catholic. These will be familiar images to him. It's just another example of how “all things work together for good for those who love God.”

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Locking it in

How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice!

 Watercoloring at Schoodic Point with Rebecca Bense.
Sometimes, the people who struggle in painting class are the ones you’d least expect to have trouble. They’re accomplished in their professional life, and they’ve demonstrated the capacity to master complex subjects quickly.

That proficiency can be their undoing. When they don’t immediately understand the process, they’re flummoxed. Understand ideas helps, but it’s not everything. They have to learn another way of learninggrasping an idea from the hands, not the head.

The critic may understand all the elements that make a good painting, but it’s unlikely that he or she can paint or draw anything. The working artist may understand none of those things, but is still able to make enchanting paintings. It’s all about where they’ve concentrated their effort.
It's not all about what the teacher says; it's mostly about what you do with that information.
You’ll do better in a workshop or class if you aim to enjoy the process, rather than focus on the end result. You can’t expect perfection in a week. The more time you spend working on art, the better you’ll be.

In my classes, I concentrate on one aspect of painting each session. I’m limiting the scope of the project. Painting involves so many complex skills and techniques that if they were all thrown at us at once, we’d be overwhelmed. If you’re teaching yourself, you need to find ways to limit scope on your own. Choose one or two things that you want to improve—such as your color handling or mark-making—and concentrate on just those until you’ve made them better. Then move on to the next thing.
Painting buddies on Penobscot Bay.
A painting buddy is a great asset, as a coach, a sounding board, and for moral support. I love the interactions in my classes, because they’re uniformly positive. In most cases, people really do wish their friends the best.

Gaye Adams has some shrewd advice about practice: “It is important to lock in the learning. Recognize that workshops shorten the learning curve, which is awesome, but they are not a substitute for easel time.”

It’s difficult to paint for a short time every day, because of the set up and clean up. However, you can always carry a sketchbook and draw. Drawing is the single best thing you can do to improve your painting, and it's fun. Save the painting for those periods when you have a few hours of uninterrupted time.
Painting aboard American Eagle last summer.
Sometimes we need more support than can be offered by practice alone. In that case, a teacher is very helpful. Check out their class size, the work being done by their students, and—above all—if they’re painting in a style that pleases you.

My own August workshop at Schoodic Institute in Acadia National Park is sold out. However, there are still a few openings in my sketch-watercolor workshop aboard the schooner American Eagle, June 9-13, 2019. This is a class to learn how to catch landscape quickly and expressively in watercolor, pen and pencil. Materials are provided. For more information, see here, or email me for more information.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

What mastery does for you

If you’ve learned to do one thing well, you can apply that technique to anything else you want to do.
Abstraction, by Carol L. Douglas. My hair looks a lot like this.
Those who know me will be surprised to learn that I occasionally brush my hair. I like it long, but it has more than a little ‘fro in it, which makes it hard to maintain. Earlier this year I went to a new hairdresser. Kim spent a great deal of time teaching me how to shape my hair without a hairdryer. When she was done, I looked smashing—until the next day, when it was back to its usual, out-of-control, self.

My first reaction was to just let it go, even though I hate it looking like a bottle brush. “But wait,” I thought. “If Kim could make this work, it means it’s possible. She showed me how; what I have to do is practice.” And so, I practiced. And while I’m still not as good at it as she is, somedays it doesn’t look half bad.

My friend Jane, by Carol L. Douglas. She's taught me a lot of things over the years.
I see a physical therapist twice a week to work on my back. She’s very young, and she’s very tough. Every visit, she adds something new, kinky (in the pretzel sense) and too complex for me. “Now, remember to breathe,” she admonishes after she’s just given me eighteen other orders. I can’t seem to activate my back, contort my extremities, and draw air all at the same time. Every week, I leave feeling confused.

Yet I go home and try again, because I promised her that I’d practice three times a week. The first time is always awkward and messy. By the time I go back to my next appointment, though, I’ve got it more or less mastered. Three months ago, Krista told me, “Age is just a number.” I laughed; she’s my youngest daughter’s age. Now I’m starting to believe her. The improvement has been life-changing.

Listening in church, by Carol L. Douglas. Part of learning to paint is incessant drawing.
By the time we’re adults, we’ve all pretty well mastered something— Crêpes Suzette, tax preparation, Greek diacritics, Morris dancing… the list is as infinite and varied as humans ourselves. Here are some things I’ve mastered:
  1. Making pies;
  2. Cleaning;
  3. Numerical computations in my head;
  4. Driving;
  5. Folding laundry.

What about you? What are you good at?

For most people, it’s easier to enumerate our shortcomings than our successes, but that’s a mistake, as I wrote here. I certainly have things I’m not good at, starting with cookery. But I’m a bad cook because I have absolutely no interest in food.

That’s the first difference between success and failure: we succeed at what we love; we fail at what we dislike. “You could do it if you just tried,” I heard as a kid, and now I know it was true. Our failures represent disinterest far more than incompetence.

Bailiff in County Court, by Carol L. Douglas. Draw, draw, everywhere, even in court.
Thinking about our masteries is not a feel-good exercise; it’s an invitation to look at our learning process and figure out how it worked. I made my first pies in 4H. I found better recipes and techniques, other bakers gave me tips, and I’m still looking for ways to up my game.

It’s exactly the same with more complex activities like art, music and higher mathematics. Your successes determine the method you’ll use to keep developing. Other masteries not only tell you that you have the intellectual tools necessary to take on the challenge, but that you have a method of learning that works.

Notice that I’ve not said a word about talent here. It’s the most overrated quality in success. Thomas Edison was entirely right when he said, “Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.” Now get to work!