Paint Schoodic

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Friday, February 28, 2014

Spring is just around the corner

Spring plein air painting of an upstate farm, by little ol' me.
On this last day of February, when it’s 2° F. and blowing, it’s good to recollect that spring is just a moment away. Officially, it starts in twenty days. Unofficially, here in Rochester the snow pack should be melted by the end of March, and no matter how daft Mother Nature is, we will not see any snow showers after the first week of May.

Just how cold has this winter been? The coldest since the 1970s, according to meteorologists.

Plein air painting of Jamie Grossman's waterfall, by little ol' me.
Those same meteorologists warn that the warm-up is going to be very, very slow. Makes sense, considering the Great Lakes are a frozen block of ice (except ours, which is very stingy with its freezing). Nevertheless, in a few weeks the bravest of us plein air painters will be outside again, stomping our heavy boots against the hard ground, and recording the first breath of spring—the clear, china-blue skies, the rising color in the twigs, the freshets of water everywhere.

Plein air painting of Sea Breeze Amusement park, by little ol' me.
Which means it’s time to check your brushes, order fresh paint, clean out the pochade box, repack your backpack—in short, do all those tasks you meant to do last autumn but didn’t get around to.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Sometimes metaphor is an uphill battle

Winter lambing, underpainting, by little ol' me.
If you were properly brought up on James Herriot, you know that a late winter blizzard can play havoc with lambing. This is not just an historical oddity; last spring a mid-April blizzard in Northern Ireland killed 17,000 lambs and sheep. Cold is not their only enemy. Weak and stranded sheep are at the mercy of predators. 

I’m apparently in the minority in being a fan of snow, but it’s a great thermal insulator, it supplies us with all the fresh water we need, and it sweeps the world clean. I think it makes a perfect metaphor for grace. As for the lamb, I assume that needs no explanation.

The Scapegoat by William Holman Hunt, second version, 1854–6.
William Holman Hunt made a similar assumption with The Scapegoat. The painting was deeply meaningful to the artist, who painted two versions following a crisis of faith. The painting identifies the scapegoat of Leviticus 16:22 as a prototype for the Messiah as “suffering servant” as described in Isaiah 53:4.

The Scapegoat by William Holman Hunt, first version, 1854–5.
After struggling for two years to make something of it, Hunt showed the painting to the Belgian art dealer Gambart:

“What do you call that?”

The Scapegoat.” 

“Yes, but what is it doing?”

“You will understand by the title, Le bouc expiatoire.”

“But why expiatoire?” he asked.

“Well, there is a book called the Bible, which gives an account of the animal. You will remember.”

“No," he replied, "I never heard of it.”

“Ah, I forgot, the book is not known in France, but English people read it more or less,” I said, “and they would all understand the story of the beast being driven into the wilderness.”

“You are mistaken. No one would know anything about it, and if I bought the picture it would be left on my hands. Now, we will see,” replied the dealer. “My wife is an English lady, there is a friend of hers, an English girl, in the carriage with her, we will ask them up, you shall tell them the title; we will see. Do not say more.”

The ladies were conducted into the room. “Oh how pretty! What is it?” they asked.

“It is The Scapegoat,” I said.

There was a pause. “Oh yes,” they commented to one another, “it is a peculiar goat, you can see by the ears; they droop so.”

The dealer then, nodding with a smile towards me, said to them, “It is in the wilderness.”

The ladies: “Is that the wilderness now? Are you intending to introduce any others of the flock?”

Sometimes metaphor is an uphill battle.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Abstract-Expressionism bails me out

Underpainting of a hailstorm. That's painting #6 underpainted; one more to go.
When I had a composition problem on this underpainting of a hailstorm, I reached back to an old friend: the color field painter Clyfford Still.

Living on the Lake Plains as I do, I know that a level field is perfect for growing crops, but not so attractive for painting. It resolves into bands—a border of green at the bottom, an expanse of gold, a distant, straight hedgerow of green, and then the sky. (This is the same problem with painting Lake Ontario, with its regular shoreline.)

1956-D, 1956, by Clyfford Still
Clyfford Still’s compositions—while emphatically non-representational—still carry the whiff of the natural world about them. In part, this comes from their texture: they may be of color fields, but they are gloriously impasto. But in part it comes from the shapes themselves, which are evocative of the real world.

One of Still’s devices was to lay a contrasting band right along the edge of his canvas, which is then elegantly and perfectly balanced against the other shapes in his canvas. So when I find myself at a loss about how to deal with that edge band of grass that always shows up in a flat landscape, I go and potter among Still’s paintings for a while.

1952-A, 1952, by Clyfford Still
Perhaps it is because I grew up with them. Buffalo’s Albright-Knox Art Gallery owns 33 paintings dated between 1937 and 1963, and they are as familiar to me as my own skin.

That’s small potatoes compared to his oeuvre. The majority of his paintings were never sold in his lifetime and are now on display at the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

How many artists does it take to screw in a light bulb?

Much better. Underpainting done. Boys remain, rocks have changed.
I decided to take one more look at Friday’s painting before scraping out the boys on the rocks and repainting them. I used Photoshop to analyze the painting; it’s much easier to hit CTRL-Z than spend three hours repainting something you shouldn’t have changed.

Turns out that the problem wasn’t the kids; it was the foreground rocks. I should have realized that, since on Saturday Carol Thiel told me she didn’t think the perspective worked, and she’s almost always right.

Jane Bartlett stopped by at lunchtime yesterday. I kvetched at her that when painting from an office chair (still a temporary necessity) I can’t get far enough back from my painting. Jane suggested that if I turned my easel 30°, I could step out onto the landing and get a better sense of the big picture. Now, why didn’t I think of that?

When I was done beating my head against the wall, Sandy shifted my easel for me. Four artists, one easel, and I’m back in business.

My easel, rotated.
So, back to the original question:

Q. How many artists does it take to change a light bulb?

A. Two. One to do it and one to say, “Pfft! My four-year old could’ve done better than that!”

A. Three. One to pile hundreds of light bulbs in the corner and smash them, one to glue light bulbs to an embalmed shark, and one to rail against the darkness.

A. Four. One to change it, and three to reassure him about how good it looks.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

Monday, February 24, 2014

Three boys in search of a painting

It's easier to remove the kids when you haven't really painted them completely, but, darn, they're cute!
This is the second time I’ve tried to put these three boys in a painting, and the second time it’s been an awkward fail. It’s hard for me to just excise them, since I’m fond of them. They’re my cousin’s children, and we were rock-climbing together in South Gippsland when I snapped their photo. That they’re all in high school now tells you just how long this has been rattling around my hard drive.

But either they or the spray are messing this painting up. Although all scale in rocks and people is relative, I think they’re twice as big as they should be, so today I will scrape them out and try again.

If I had a dollar for every time someone has told me, “I can’t draw a straight line” I’d be a wealthy woman. The fact is, I can’t draw a straight line, either, and there are lots of times when I rather spectacularly mess up, as I did here.

Underpainting. Sadly, I think it would work just fine without the boys, although my daughter Mary insists the plumes on the left look like rabbit ears. But for my concept, it needs evidence of human existence.
There is no secret gnosis in painting. It’s just a long slog to success. He who doesn’t quit, wins.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click 
here for more information on my Maine workshops!

Friday, February 21, 2014

Made without hands

Diptych with Saint John the Baptist and St. Veronica, right panel, by Hans Memling, c. 1470.
Nothing divides the Christian world faster than the subject of idols. Protestants generally follow Clement of Alexandria, who wrote, “For we are not to delineate the faces of idols, we who are prohibited to cleave to them; nor a sword, nor a bow, following as we do, peace; nor drinking-cups, being temperate.”

Catholic and Orthodox believers generally follow St. Basil the Great, who asked, “If I point to a statue of Caesar and ask you ‘Who is that?’ your answer would properly be, ‘It is Caesar.’ When you say such you do not mean that the stone itself is Caesar, but rather, the name and honor you ascribe to the statue passes over to the original, the archetype, Caesar himself.”

Icon-painters follow a very strict (and relatively modern) protocol, but there is a small class of them for which no human agency is claimed: the Acheiropoieta, or “Icons Made Without Hands.” These are always images of either the Virgin Mary or Jesus. They are said to have come into existence miraculously or during the life of Christ.

There are more of these than you might suppose. In Orthodoxy, the most famous are the Image of Edessa and the Hodegetria. In Catholicism, they include the Shroud of Turin and the Virgin of Guadalupe, which sprang into existence in 1531 in Mexico.

 Among these should be counted a relic that went missing in the 17th century. In its day, it was one of the most famous wonders of the Christian world, a symbol for the Corporal Works of Mercy. This is the Veronica, a strip of linen veil on which a compassionate bystander wiped Jesus’ face on his way to the Cross.

King Abgar receiving the Image of Edessa. 10th century icon at St Catherine's monastery, Mount Sinai.
The name Veronica is a conflation of Latin vera (true) and icon (image). It originally referred to the veil itself, but over time was applied to the nameless woman who held it. Veronica became closely identified with the Via Dolorosa and Stations of the Cross, but she is an early-Medieval invention. By the end of the 12th century, pilgrims were recording visits to the veil in Rome. By 1300, the Veronica was one of the Mirabilia Urbis, or wonders of the city, which pilgrims were expected to visit. It had its own chapel in Old St. Peter's Basilica.

The Veil of Veronica, by Domenico Fetti, c. 1620
As with all icons, the Veronica was extensively copied by free-lancers, until the 17th century when the Church threatened copyists with excommunication and put the Veronica away for safe-keeping. Where it ended up is a mystery. There’s a relic case in the Vatican (and some others scattered throughout Europe) but nobody has seen the actual veil in a few hundred years.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

Thursday, February 20, 2014

How’d that happen?

Underpainting (incomplete) of river snags, 48X36, by little ol' me
My friend Sandy Sibley told me that my underpainting of northern lights reminded her of the Canadian painter Emily Carr. That’s quite flattering, but I don’t quite see it myself.

Yesterday’s underpainting went a little bit slower—in part because it’s complicated, in part because I’m working the color organization from my psyche, and in part because working from a chair is giving me terrific upper arm pain. (This too shall pass.)

Cedar Sanctuary, 1942, by Emily Carr
But it struck me as funny and strange that today’s painting reminds me of Emily Carr. It could be the subaquatic coloration of the distant trees, it could be the massive, simplified shapes, or it could be the vague menace of the foreground tree itself.

Born in Victoria, British Columbia, Emily Carr attended San Francisco Art Institute for two years before traveling to London to study at the now-defunct Westminster School of Art. A short-lived teaching gig in Vancouver ended due to Carr’s unladylike behavior—she smoked and swore. Once more she traveled abroad—this time to France, where she came in contact with Fauvism and post-Impressionism.

Blue Sky, 1932, by Emily Carr
Until 1927, Carr labored in obscurity, often quitting painting entirely. At an exhibition of West Coast aboriginal art at the National Gallery in Ottawa, Carr met members of the Group of Seven. “You are one of us,” Lawren Harris told her, and her role as a significant modern Canadian painter was assured.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

Wednesday, February 19, 2014


Underpainting of Northern Lights. Got a lot of work to do here before it's intelligible.
On January 1, I made a pact with a friend to periodically check up on our progress toward our 2014 goals. Mine were:
  1. Regain where I was in October in terms of health and work;
  2. Finish and hang my show at Roberts Wesleyan opening 3/24;
  3. Get a workshop schedule together for 2014 and market it;
  4. Get my house on the market.

That seemed reasonable at the time, even while recovering from cancer. But man proposes and God disposes, and I landed back in hospital with a significant bleed, which means my recovery started again from scratch on February 4. 

No lifting, no bending, and I won’t even drive until after I see the surgeon on Thursday. However, today is the day when we check in with each other to see how we’re doing at meeting our goals.

Same painting, gridded. The red suggests my year so far, I think.
So where am I?
  1. I was able to walk 2.6 miles yesterday and painted for almost three hours. Some days are better than others, but the general trend is positive.
  2. Of the seven paintings I plan to show at Roberts Wesleyan, I have 2.5 underpainted, and five gridded. That’s terrifyingly behind schedule, but I’ve decided to show them in whatever phase of completion they’re in. Cancer is part of this “God and man” thing, isn’t it?
  3. I’ve done absolutely nothing to put a workshop schedule together for 2014.
  4. My first appointment with my Realtor was interrupted by my hemorrhage and hospitalization. This week she cancelled. On the other hand, I can’t do the detailing I want to do to sell it, either, so we’re at a stalemate.
Yeah, it's a swank little studio, but it's attached to more house than I want or need at this point in my life, so it's going on the block. In the highly desirable Duchy of Oakdale. Call Angie Flack Brown at Keller-Williams in Rochester if you want it.

What goals did you set at the beginning of the year? How close are you to seeing them realized?

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Art is what’s left when you take all the function out

One of the biggest quality-of-life problems in Western New York cities is the number of abandoned houses. The city in which I live (Rochester) aggressively destroys them. About five years ago, Buffalo launched a program to tear thousands of them down. At $16,000-20,000 a clip, these demolition programs put a strain on already-diminishing tax bases.

I was born in Buffalo in 1959. My home town and its neighbor, Niagara Falls, have 49% of the people they did that year. Rochester has done slightly better, but still has only 63% of its 1959 population.  The houses they’ve left empty are a danger to the communities left behind.

“You gotta get rid of all those shacks that have been run down to the ground, that are endangering property values, that are endangering people’s lives. They can set fires in them, drug dealers stash stuff in them,” said David Franczyck, Fillmore District Councilmember.

A vacant city lot redeployed as a dahlia farm in Rochester.
In the past five years, Buffalo has torn down about 4,600 houses. My ancestors came through the German neighborhood on the East Side; this neighborhood is now as depopulated as your basic farm town.

What happens with these vacant lots? A few are maintained as urban gardens by neighbors, but the  majority are grassy lots that look like missing teeth in the urban grid.

Artfarms billboard.
In Buffalo, a group called Artfarms is encouraging artists and farmers to design large-format sculpture for the East Side’s vacant properties and nascent urban farms.

This fledgling program received a $35,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts last April. Whether it can grow a viable program remains to be seen, but since it’s my home town, I wish it the best.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

Monday, February 17, 2014

Painting with blood and guts

Marc Quinn's Alison Lapper Pregnant is a beautiful, difficult work that would not have been possible before the modern era.
One of my children works with severely handicapped adults. His duties include stopping clients from smearing feces on the walls. These non-verbal, intellectually-broken adults share a means of communication with some of the more rarified intellects in the art world.

From left: Lucas, 2001, by Marc Quinn, sculpted of human placenta and umbilical cord. Self, 1991, by Marc Quinn, sculpted from the artist’s own frozen blood.
Last night my kids and I were discussing the worst trends in millennial art. We came up with the following list:

·         Bodily fluids and excretions
·         Abortions
·         Nail clippings
·         Placental anything
·         Tumors
·         Body parts
·         Things in formaldehyde

What struck me was how self-referential this art is. They aren’t just Vagina Monologues, they’re My Vagina Monologues. It’s not just a bullwhip in an anus; it’s a bullwhip in Robert Mapplethorpe’s own anus. It’s not just art about abortion, it’s a project where Aliza Shvarts impregnates herself and then induces as many abortions as possible.

Piss Christ, 1987, by Andres Serrano, outraged the American public because it received public funding. It seems almost quaint in comparison with more contemporary bodily fluid art, much of which offends even my sensibilities and can't be posted here.
This is the final step in Cartesian dualism: when you get to the point of ultimately rejecting the non-material, all you’re left with is your own body fluids. Can such art have any lasting meaning or value? I’m afraid it can; if we are the age of self-centered nihilism, such art perfectly represents us.

This is not to say that modern sensibilities cannot inform art beautifully. Alison Lapper Pregnant is a beautiful, difficult work that would not have been possible before the modern era, when our ideas of disability have undergone such a profound shift. But even this is a one-off in the oeuvre of its creator, Marc Quinn. He diddles endlessly with a work called “Self,” which is a frozen sculpture of his own head made from 4.5 liters of his own blood, and has been known to sculpt in feces.

But some of us are repulsed by this, which tells us that nihilism hasn’t completely triumphed. To counter it, we should ask ourselves why we are not nihilists—and then paint the answer.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Painting the absurd

Still life by Sandy Quang. About 18X24, oil on canvas.
I’ve had several students painting and drawing a sprawling still life over the last few weeks. Sandy Quang has done a bang-up job with it.

Sandy has a BFA from Pratt and is finishing her MA from Hunter College, so I must share some credit for teaching her. However, she has studied with me since she was in high school. She is just now coming into maturity as a painter.

The still-life set-up includes an Altoids box, wallpaper brush, bust of Pericles, Golliwog, phone receiver, hatbox, beads, plastic reindeer, lace mantilla, and two ugly silk flowers. They were chosen so that students couldn't fall back on narrative, historical patina, or folksy allure as crutches.
Her first draft was a funny idea—juxtaposing the Golliwog and bust of Pericles—but a mediocre composition. I included it here to remind people that even good painters mess up regularly. The difference between good and great is returning to the subject until you get it right.

Sandy's first draft, juxtaposing the Golliwog and bust of Pericles, was a good idea but a bad composition, so she jettisoned it.
Take the time to consider why her final painting works, because it is instructive. The objects themselves don’t have any narrative, historical patina, or folksy allure to use as crutches (which is why I chose them). She treats the painting not as a series of items but as a pattern on the surface of the canvas. It works as a value pattern and as a color pattern. Her drawing is very accurate. She doesn’t get hung up on the details, but she does include the over-the-top sparkles on the reindeer’s back.

A careful comparison of an earlier iteration with the finished painting shows you her extensive redrawing, until the finished work was simplified but accurate. Every brush-stroke should be toward the goal of greater accuracy.
Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

Friday, February 14, 2014

I do love me a good conspiracy theory

January, from the fresco cycle Cycle of the Months by the Bohemian master Venceslao, c. 1400, in Trento.
A Facebook friend posted a photo of a snowball he’d attempted to melt with a lighter. Turns out he was responding to a conspiracy theory that the stuff that fell over Atlanta wasn’t real snow. (It’s pretty exhaustively debunked here.)

Trying to burn snow must be a southern thing. I’ve lived in snow country all my life, and it’s never occurred to me to take a lighter to the stuff. Here in the north, we know snow mainly goes away by sublimation or compression.

Winter, from the fresco cycle Allegories of good and bad government by Ambrogio Lorenzetti, 1338 – 1340, in Sienna, Italy.
Some Atlantans said the snow didn’t look “normal.” Up here in Rochester, we see too many kinds of solid precipitation to expect any consistency in snow texture: hoarfrost, graupel, needles, rime, powder, sleet, slush, and more.

Still, it isn’t typical for storm after storm to batter the mid-Atlantic region while holding the northern interior in deep freeze. A schoolteacher in Wilmington, DE tells me her students have had ten snow days so far this year.

The Frozen Thames, 1677, Abraham Hondius

The Little Ice Age was a period of cooling from about 1350 to 1850 (or, depending on whom you’re asking, from the fifteenth to the 19th century). The population of Iceland fell by half. The Norse colonies in Greenland starved and vanished.

The Thames froze so solidly that frost fairs were regularly held on its ice from 1607 to 1814. The Golden Horn and southern Bosporus froze. In the winter of 1780, New York Harbor froze, and “Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death” (1816) caused summertime frosts all over the northern hemisphere and resulted in widespread famine and death.

This century’s normal might just be last century’s freak snowstorm. But normal shouldn’t include arresting people for throwing snowballs. Art history tells us we’ve been doing that for as long as there’s been snow.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

Thursday, February 13, 2014

This is just the coolest thing

Sometimes the coolest art is made by engineers. Consider the giant morphing wall at the entrance to Olympic Park in Sochi.

The designers originally designed the wall to add realistic color, but found that too creepy. 
“It looked like a giant was there. I mean, it was really scary,” said Khan.
The wall was designed by Briton Asif Khan and Basel-based engineering firm iart for Megafon, one of the games’ sponsors. Visitors can have their likeness captured at one of seven photo booths in the park. The booths generate a 3D facial image, which is then rendered using 11,000 lighted pistons. The visitors then get a QR code that lets them know when their faces will be projected.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

What is the lesson here?

Underpainting of lime tailings in Rockport. I was a little confused about what I intended to do with those rocks at the bottom; that's the problem with having your work so rudely interrupted.
Every day I get up wondering how much I can work. It’s been a stop-and-start recovery, and I haven’t enjoyed my enforced inertia.

So perhaps that’s lesson #1: revel in the opportunity to work, because you don’t know when it will be taken away from you again.

It's an amazing feeling to not be able to open a can of paint, lift anything much heavier than your brush, or adjust your easel. I couldn't be painting at all if Sandy weren't doing all the heavy lifting.
I have a show opening on March 24 at Roberts Wesleyan College, and these large works are what I want to show. Back in December the gallery director gave me a chance to opt out and I didn’t take it; I was certain I could meet my commitment. At the time, it seemed like this was a cut-and-recover cancer.

So I’m doing something I’ve never done before: letting my studio assistant (the wonderful Sandy Quang) do some of my gridding. After all, why train a wonderful painter if you don’t let her paint? I realize this is historically acceptable, and you will never see her brushstrokes, but it’s still taken me a lot to let someone else touch my canvases.

Sandy gridding. The kid sure can paint. I take credit for it, of course, but I have to admit Pratt probably had some part to play.
So that’s lesson #2 of this round of cancer: stop being such a control freak.

A visitor to my studio saw the red peeking out from the snow in an underpainting and said, “I kind of like that. It looks like your recent past.” That has gotten me thinking that I won’t polish these paintings to death.

So that’s lesson #3: I don’t need to overwork everything in life.

And me, in a rolling office chair, actually painting. Maybe next week I can work standing for a little bit at a time.
Lastly, I’m kind of amazed at how rough things are around the edges right now. Mostly these are minor things like shoveling the walk or sweeping the floors. (I can’t bend or lift at all.) I’ve spent so many years acknowledging that my husband is unique because he does so much housework and makes it possible for me to travel that I’ve come to see myself as superfluous to my own life.

And that’s lesson #4: Son-of-a-gun! I am actually useful.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

When the Olympics included artists

The Charioteer at Delphi was erected in 478 or 474 BC, to commemorate the victory of a chariot team in the Pythian Games (a forerunner of the modern Olympic Games).
The arts were part of the modern Olympic Games during its formative years. From 1912 to 1948, medals were awarded sporadically in architecture, literature, music, painting, and sculpture. The problem wasn’t so much in the attitude of the Olympic Committee but that of artists, who are not nearly as inclined as athletes to embrace amateurism. Artists may not make much money in their lifetimes, but they jealously protect the right to do so.

The International Olympic Committee was founded in 1894 under the aegis of Pierre de Frédy, Baron de Coubertin. An educator and historian, Coubertin was himself the son of a Légion d'honneur-winning painter. He himself went on to win a gold medal at the 1912 Summer Olympics for a poem entitled Ode to Sport.

Rugby, by Jean Jacoby was an award winning drawing in the 1928 Olympic art competitions.
In 1906, the Olympic Committee decided to add art competitions; the primary mandate was that the work had to be inspired by sport.

A series of snafus delayed implementation until the 1912 Summer Olympics in Stockholm. Only 35 artists sent work, but they managed to award gold medals in all five categories.

The 1924 Summer Olympics in Paris were the first games in which a respectable number of artists participated; 193 artists submitted works. There were 1,100 visual works submitted to the Amsterdam Olympics in 1928. Participation in the arts competitions remained stable until after WWII, when the conflict over professional vs. amateur status again reared its ugly head. The art competitions were a dead letter after 1948.

Alfred Reginald Thomson’s The London Amateur Boxing Championship Held at the Royal Albert Hall won the last gold medal for painting, in 1948.
The essential incompatibility between the Olympics and the fine arts is apparent in retrospect: no major art figure from the period ever won a medal at the Olympic Games. Perhaps the closest were the British painter Alfred Thomson and the Czech violinist Josef Suk, whose category was made more difficult because judges had to content themselves with reading written scores. (In fact, nobody cared enough to even publicly perform the award-winners at the Games.)

George Bellows (arguably the best painter of boxing ever) painted Dempsey and Firpo in 1924. It was not an Olympic committee contender; Bellows was a professional, not an amateur.
The guy who gets to the end first wins the race; that’s a purely objective thing. Performances, like ice dancing or gymnastics, are somewhat more subjective but still conform to stated rules. Art does nothing of the kind.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

Monday, February 10, 2014

We've arrived!

New York, 1911, by George Bellows
Until recently, the National Gallery in London considered its purview to be European painting of the 13th through 19th centuries. One has to smile at its recent decision to finally acknowledge America’s coming of age as an artistic powerhouse. It has done so by the acquisition of a 20th century painting, Men of the Docks, by George Bellows.

That the National Gallery considers Bellows to be the iconic American painter is peculiar, considering we are also the nation that produced Cole, Church, Whistler, Sargent, Hopper, Copley, Homer, Prendergast, Rockwell, Glackens, the Wyeths, and so many other indisputable greats.

Blue Snow, the Battery, 1910, by George Bellows. Bellows was exploring the tension between the natural and built world in his New York snow paintings.
“Bellows has almost always been seen in the context of American painting, but the way he painted owed much to Manet, and his depiction of the violence and victims of New York derived from Goya and earlier Spanish art,” said gallery director Dr. Nicholas Penny.

Ah. America seen through the lens of violence and victimhood. While that is a narrow view of America, it is also a narrow view of Bellows.

Cliff Dwellers, 1913, by George Bellows.

Bellows' urban paintings depict the energy and chaos of working-class New York. His boxing paintings are undeniably violent, but there is no particular victimhood there—rather, there is brute power. Nor is there any overt victimhood in the slums of New York or in his shipbuilding scenes. Americans of the time saw tenements and hard work as opportunity rather than oppression.

Builders of Ships / The Rope, 1916, by George Bellows.
Bellows was associated with a group of radical artists and activists called “the Lyrical Left.” This group, which included the photographer Alfred Stieglitz, was not leftist in the modern sense of the word. Rather, they advocated an extreme idea of personal liberties, tending toward anarchism.  While Bellows contributed work to socialist publications, he was frequently at odds with their editorial staff.

In 1918, he did five large oils and 16 lithographs about atrocities against civilians by the German army at the beginning of World War I. These works—rather than his New York scenes—most explicitly quote Goya.

Breaking Sky, Monhegan, 1916, by George Bellows. My workshop students ought to recognize this view.
Yes, he focused on the grime of urban living and on social commentary, but he also painted untouched expanses of snow, shipbuilding in New England, and the pounding of waves on the rocks at Monhegan and Matinicus.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

Sunday, February 9, 2014

How to Draw a Tree (for Sandy)

Along the Bridle Path, by little ol' me. Early spring in a place I used to ride, a long time ago.
We tend to see trees as silhouettes instead of three-dimensional objects. This is because the branches that move toward us in space become smaller as they get closer, obviating the primary visual clue of perspective—that things are bigger the closer they are to us. The trick to drawing a tree is to see it as a three-dimensional shape rather than a silhouette.

Here are some common 3-D solid shapes that you can recognize in nature, in the human form, and in architecture. Often, the crown of a tree conforms to one of these shapes, or a combination of these shapes.

Learning to see common shapes in nature will advance your drawing chops.

When the hidden lines are shown, as below, these are called “wireframe” renderings. Being able to interpolate the hidden lines of shapes is an important part of perspective drawing.

Rendering those shapes as wireframe drawings will help you see the perspective.

The woody parts of plants are essentially tubes constructed of xylem (wood) which moves water. These tubes are covered with phloem (bark) which carries sucrose.

Since we know that a tree is a system of tubes, we realize that the cylinder is the fundamental wireframe shape we encounter in drawing it. I have taken this handsome white oak and rendered it as a series of cylinders:

A beautiful old white oak in Nassau, Rensselaer County, New York. How do I know it's a white oak? By its branching pattern, its crown, its bark, its leaves, and the fact that it's on the grounds of the now-defunct Camp White Oaks.
Drawing it as a series of tubes allows you to render it in three dimensions rather than as a silhouette.

The white oak above, rendered as a wire-frame drawing of tubes stacked on tubes. I do this every time I draw or paint a portrait of a tree.
We can identify the species of a distant tree from the shape of its crown (which is also three-dimensional), the texture of its bark, and its branching pattern. Paying careful attention to these attributes will make your trees more realistic.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!