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Friday, November 30, 2018

When the artist likes his subject


I’m studying Francis Cadell before a portrait commission takes me to his home town.
Portrait of a Lady in Black, c. 1921, Francis Cadell, courtesy National Gallery of Scotland.
Winston Churchill hated his state portrait, painted by Graham Vivian Sutherland. It so rankled that his widow, Clementine Churchill, had her secretary burn it more than a decade after his death. That’s the fate of a portrait that pisses everyone off. It must have felt like a stinging rebuke to Sutherland, who was blameless.

Sutherland was not primarily a portrait artist, but a tapestry designer and landscape painter. He thoroughly embraced modernism. There are some artists who could combine that with warmth, but for most of the 20th century, modernism was coupled with cool disdain. Sutherland’s portraits, mainly done in the 1950s, are icily insightful. Many illustrious people sat for him, so he was a logical choice for the parliamentarians who commissioned the painting. Sutherland was fashionable.
Interior, The Orange Blind, c. 1914, by Francis Cadell, courtesy Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum. Unless Cadell was on a ladder, this is an imagined viewpoint.
Another painter who did portraits as part of a larger ouevre was the Scottish Colourist Francis Cadell. He was skilled at still life, interiors, and plein air landscapes. He was also a portrait painter in his native Edinburgh. Unlike Sutherland’s, his portraits are sympathetic. They tie their subjects to what interested him most—the house and furnishings that provided the setting.

Lesser thinkers might have made a cynical statement about materialism, and in more sophisticated cities, that would have been lapped up. However, there’s absolutely no condescension in Cadell’s worldview. He is as interested in interiors as they are. As an artist, he comes across as a thoroughly nice man.
The Parting, c. 1915, Francis Cadell, courtesy National Gallery of Scotland.
Cadell was the only Colourist to serve in the Great War. Before he was sent to the Front, he did a series of drawings in ink and watercolor. These are fast, witty drawings built on graphic design and splashes of color.

His later paintings worked off the same idea. He created meticulous, exciting value compositions in white, cream and black, and shot them through with highlights of bold color. That color was often red.

I’m studying Cadell because I’m going to Scotland next Spring. I’ll do a portrait, in a home on the next street to where Cadell lived and worked for nearly 12 years. He painted his Portrait of a Lady in Black, above, in his Ainslie Place studio. As with so many of his paintings, it’s as much a portrait of a place as of a woman. In fact, the model, Bertia Don Wauchope, was not a client at all, but his regular model.

We read the shape between the fan and her torso first, because it’s the highest contrast in the painting. Rapidly, though, we begin to see the spaces defined in mauve, and the reflection of her great hat in the mirror. It’s a stunning monochromatic composition alleviated only by the pink of that ridiculous flower and a slash of lipstick. And yet there’s nothing dehumanized about it.

The Vase of Water, 1922, Francis Cadell. His studio had mauve walls, so it's an indication that the painting was done there.
The key to Cadell’s portraits are, in fact, his still lives. He ruthlessly reduced detail and shadow into blocks of brilliant color. Their main purpose was to provide a brilliantly faceted abstract framework. And yet there is a casualness to them that make them plausible moments stolen from life.

Sticking an international trip into my summer schedule is impossible, so I plan to go in May, as soon as the weather warms enough to paint outdoors. A side trip to Iona seems inevitable. After all, that’s where I first met Cadell and the other Colourists. This time, I’m bringing my oils.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

The light in the Dark Ages


While Europe floundered, the British Isles continued to create great art.
The Chi-Rho monogram from the Book of Kells, courtesy of Trinity College Library, Dublin
If you went to school back in the last millennium, you learned that western civilization fell off a precipice with the Sack of Rome. What followed were centuries of Germanic tribes overrunning, displacing and reshaping the former Roman Empire. This was the end of the Pax Romana and the beginning of a long period of unrest.

International trade and social ties across Europe collapsed rapidly. The many Roman industries that required cooperation and transportation ended. These included pottery, glass, olives, wine, African grain, Chinese silk, Indian spices and much more. Systematic agriculture vanished, along with most organized education. The military posts that had created cultured society on the outposts of Empire were gone.

We have ways of estimating the impact of these changes. One is population decline. In formerly-Roman Europe, there was a population drop of about one-third between 150 and 600 AD. Then came a series of plagues that knocked off another half of the population.

Ancient shipping is measured in shipwrecks. They fell off abruptly after the fall of Rome. Europe was extensively reforested as farming declined.
The Great Buckle from Sutton Hoo, courtesy of the British Museum
Britain always stood uneasily on the rim of the Roman Empire. It had less to lose. While the rest of Europe was floundering, “Britain lead the world in areas such as poetry, medicine, and organisation of land and taxes,” according to Dr. Claire Breay. She curated Anglo Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Words, War, now at the British Library. If I were in a mood to travel, I’d go.

Almost a thousand books written or owned in Medieval England have survived. These include the Domesday Book, Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People, a hymn by England’s first poet, Cædmon, and the epic poem, Beowulf. In addition, written law codes, wills, and account books show a people who could, at minimum, keep their own affairs in order.

Th' owd Man is an Anglo-Saxon carving in St Mary's Church, Wirksworth, Derbyshire. It is the oldest-known depiction of a miner. Courtesy geograph.org.uk.
The Anglo-Saxon kingdoms did not convert to Christianity until the late 6th century. The missionary Augustine was invited by Bertha, the wife of King Æthelberht of Kent. Bertha was literate enough to exchange letters with Pope Gregory the Great. She had the influence to bring about the Christianization of Anglo-Saxon England.

Christianity sparked a new literacy in Britain, both in English and Latin. At the forefront were abbesses, women of high status who presided over double monasteries where both men and women served. These were the major cultural, economic, and intellectual centers of their day. Anglo-Saxon women could inherit and bequeath property. Æthelflæd, daughter of Alfred the Great, ruled Mercia in her own right, kicked the Vikings out of Mercia, and defended and fortified her cities. According to researcher Christine Fell, women were “near equal companions to the males in their lives, such as husbands and brothers, much more than in any other era before modern time.”

Hilda of Whitby (c. 614–680) was the most famous abbess of her day, a wise woman consulted by kings.  
We know Anglo-Saxon art mainly from manuscripts like the Lindisfarne Gospels and the Codex Amiatinus, the oldest existing copy of the Latin Vulgate Bible. Christianity discouraged the burial of grave goods but their pagan predecessors had no such scruples. Both groups left a tremendous legacy of metalwork, textiles, ivory carvings, wall paintings, and monuments.

The Bayeux Tapestry is a massive embroidered wall-hanging commemorating the Battle of Hastings and Norman Conquest. It was designed and executed in England by Anglo-Saxon artists.
And then, in 1066 AD, it suddenly ended. The Norman Conquest meant a massive plundering of the churches and courts by the new ruling class. They had little interest in the arts. Eventually, the Norman influence would create a new art—perhaps the greatest in British history—but for the moment, the light of the so-called Dark Ages was snuffed out.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

The straw that broke the camel’s back


And the kindness that unbroke it.
Thunder Bay Freighter, Carol L. Douglas
I’ve driven more than a million miles in the last three decades. I'm a good, safe driver. That doesn’t mean I’m immune from problems created by others; nobody is.

On Sunday I was rear-ended in Massachusetts. (No, it was not my trusty Prius art-cart, but our family car.) The damage was minor. One can be graceful about such setbacks when one has good insurance.

On Monday I tried to write my blog and couldn’t remember the names of common paintbrushes. What typically takes me 90 minutes took, instead, four hours. Was I simply overtired? Probably, but I began to develop a throbbing headache. In the afternoon, I saw my PCP, just to be on the safe side. Either my brain was sloshed around a mite too hard, or I was in shock. In either case, the solution was rest.
Marshes along the Ottawa River, Carol L. Douglas
I didn’t have time for this; I never do. I teach plein air on Tuesdays; I was looking forward to speaking to the Bangor Art Society yesterday evening. I have four commissions to finish, a workshop ad to rewrite, paintings to collect, paintings to display. My sign needs its seasonal lights put up. The car, of course, must be fixed.

Add a problem with this blog that resolutely resists fixing. Thousands of Blogger users report that their readership has slumped, myself included. Either our usual sources of traffic have changed their algorithms or Google has changed its counters.

The answer is for people to subscribe, not grab the blog from Facebook. However, most people now read blogs on their phones. Blogger doesn’t support subscriptions on its phone version. To subscribe, readers must go to the desktop version and click the subscription box on the right. That's a tricky thing to ask people to do.
Great Lake Storm, Carol L. Douglas
Suddenly, it all seemed like too much. I put my head under my blanket and went to sleep. And slept until my husband came home from the Post Office.

“You have a package from Rosseau, Ontario,” he said.

Rosseau is a small village about two hours north of Toronto, where southern Ontario leaks into the wilderness of northern Canada. This is Group of Seven territory, not terribly far from Algonquin Provincial Park.

Inside was a copy of Jane Urquhart’s The Underpainter, and a note.

Dear Carol,

This may seem odd, receiving a book in the mail from a stranger in another country, but I wanted to send you this particular book because I just finished reading it, and I think it may resonate with you for many reasons, not only because the main character is an artist, but also because of the settings such as Rochester and Thunder Bay—places that I know you are familiar with. This is my very small way of saying thank you for sharing wisdom and observations so generously and eloquently. I have learned and grown so much as an artist thanks to you.

Paula Banks
Rosseau, Ontario

Eastern Manitoba Forest, Carol L. Douglas
I’ve lived near the Canadian border all my life. The notion that Canadians are nice is a stereotype, but it’s also true. It’s particularly admirable when your next-door neighbor is a brash empire like we are.

Thank you, Paula Banks from Rosseau, Ontario, for setting me back on my feet. I hope we meet someday.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Hypocrites


If you can ignore human suffering to hold on to something that isn’t yours, you don’t deserve the label (or the tax status) of a philanthropic organization.
l’Acteur, 1904-05, Pablo Picasso, courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art
The Nazis seized an estimated 650,000 works of art between 1933 and 1945. There are well over 100,000 items that have not been returned to their rightful owners. Tens of thousands of these works ended up in public collections in the United States.

In 1998, 44 nations created the Washington Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art, spearheaded by our own State Department. It called for a “just and fair solution” if heirs came forward to reclaim their family’s legacy. Museums also pledged to thoroughly research their acquisitions.

That was twenty years ago. In the meantime, many of our museums have stalled for time, using the classic American defense—the courts—to avoid compliance.
Artillerymen, 1915, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, courtesy Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.
“Prominent U.S. museums have evaded the restitution of Holocaust-era stolen art to rightful owners and heirs by refusing to resolve claims on their facts and merits and by asserting technical defenses, such as statutes of limitations,” the World Jewish Restitution Organization reported in 2015.

The city with the highest Jewish population in the world is not Jerusalem, but New York, where 1.5 million Jews make their home. Most are the descendants of Jews who escaped persecution in Europe in the 19th and 20th century. Many are enthusiastic supporters of the arts. Sysco co-founder Herbert Irving and his wife Florence are one example among many. Last year their foundation gave the Metropolitan Museum a cool $80 million.

In February of this year, the heirs of Paul Leffmann lost their suit against the Met for the return of Pablo Picasso’s L'acteur. Leffmann sold it under duress for $13,200 when his family fled Cologne in 1938. It is now worth an estimated $100 million.

“The Leffmanns would not have disposed of this seminal work at that time, but for the Nazi and fascist persecution to which they had been, and without doubt would continue to be, subjected,” argued their lawyers. The case is now being appealed.

In October, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation announced it would return Artillerymen by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner to the heirs of its original owner. Kirchner, a founding member of Die Brücke, was a seminal figure in Expressionism. He too was a victim of Nazi Germany. Branded a “degenerate,” he ultimately took his own life, but not before he lived to see his entire ouevre confiscated.

The Guggenheim spent two years doing the right thing. They discovered that the painting’s initial attribution was a fabrication. It had in fact been owned by art dealer Alfred Flechtheim, who fled Berlin in 1933. It passed to Flechtheim’s niece, Rosi Hulisch. She committed suicide before she was to be shipped to a concentration camp in 1938.

It was then acquired by Dr. Kurt Feldhäusser. After he died in 1945, his mother sent his art collection to New York to be sold. Artillerymen was purchased by MoMA and then traded to the Guggenheim.
Portrait of Tilla Durieux, 1914, Auguste Renoir, courtesy of Metropolitan Museum of Art
The Metropolitan hasn’t been nearly as obliging. Among its treasures is the Portrait of Tilla Durieux, painted by an elderly Auguste Renoir. The sitter, a famous actress, took the painting with her when she and her husband fled Berlin in 1933. She survived; he died in Sachsenhausen in 1943. Their heirs claim that the couple sold the painting under duress in 1935 as they scrambled to find a way to leave Europe.

According to the New York Post, the Neue Galerie, Morgan Library and MoMA all hold looted works by Egon Schiele. These were part of a personal collection belonging to Austrian Jewish cabaret artist Fritz Grünbaum. Grünbaum owned more than 400 pieces, including eighty by Schiele. A quarter of the collection appeared on the art market in the early 1950s through Swiss art dealer Eberhard W. Kornfeld. The whereabouts of the rest are unknown.

Grünbaum died at Dachau in 1941. His wife, Elisabeth, was forced to surrender the family’s art collection to the Nazis before her transfer to a death camp in 1942.

If you can ignore that kind of suffering to hold on to something that isn’t yours, you don’t deserve the label (or the tax status) of a philanthropic organization.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Monday Morning Art School: what do different brushes do? (Part 2, watercolor)

Brushes are much more important in watercolor than in oil painting. Here's what each brush is for.
The more vertical the brush, the more flow.
Recently a student asked me why he was carrying so many different brushes. What were their uses? This is the second part of the answer; I addressed oil painting brushes last week.

Watercolor brushes are softer than oil-painting brushes. The most expensive are sable brushes, and unlike oil-painting brushes, the difference is worth paying for. Natural bristles combine strength with suppleness and hold more paint than synthetics. However, there are some fine synthetic brushes out there. Several of my go-to brushes are Princeton Neptunes. 

Unlike oil-painting brushes, your watercolor brushes should last a lifetime, so buy the best you can afford. The only absolute rule is to never leave them standing in water. Set them down flat between brushstrokes and rinse them thoroughly when you're done.
Made with the synthetic spalter brush, above.
Except for squirrel mops, watercolor brushes drop more pigment the more vertically they're held. You can use this to move from a filled area to a broken one in one brush stroke. In all the following examples except for the mop, I've held the brush both ways. A good general rule is to carry the vertical brush slowly and in a controlled manner; pull a horizontal brush more rapidly to get the least amount of paint contact with the paper.

The brush I used for the photo montage above is a 2" flat synthetic mottler or spalter brush. I like this shape for both oils and watercolor. It's a relatively inexpensive brush that gives a beautiful wash. It's useful for covering large areas quickly, but with precise edges.

A flat gives you a good even wash. Used on its side, it can give you a controlled line.
And that would be the bright. More punch, less pigment.
Flats and brights give you nice flat washes, but can be used to make expressive lines as well. Brights have more control and carry less paint, just as they do in oil painting. Turn them on their sides to make a controlled line. Twisting the brush while painting gives an infinite variety of shapes. So too does varying the ratio of paint and water.
You can't do either of these things in any other medium.
Because of the way watercolor bleeds, its brushes can be used in ways not possible in any other medium--a long blend of different pigments, or by painting a shape in clear water and then dropping pigment into it.

Round brushes are just more lyrical than flats.
I don't normally carry riggers with me in either watercolor or oils. (They're meant to paint perfect lines, and my world-view apparently doesn't have many perfect lines in it.) Most of my line work is done with rounds. They do not give as much control on long lines, but they are very expressive.

A mop brush makes a perfect wash, but it does so much more as well.

Squirrel mops are the most uniform wash brush you can use. It's virtually impossible to make them skip, so use them where a lovely flat wash is a goal.

Mop brush on very textured paper.
But a good mop can also point, hold vast amounts of paint and sweep across the paper in style.

One of my favorite tools, a natural sponge.
Natural sea sponges are multi-purpose painting brushes. Use them to apply or remove paint. They can be as subtle or bold as you wish.
Paint lifted (left) and applied (right) with a sponge.

Your brushwork contributes immeasurably to the quality of your painting. Don't dab or be diffident; plan your strategy and then execute it with boldness. To do this, of course, you have to practice.

Friday, November 23, 2018

A short history of being offensive


Shocking the bourgeoisie is so old-fashioned.
A Decadent Girl captures the ennui of the movement. 1899, Ramón Casas, courtesy Museum of Montserrat.
The Aristocrats is a very old dirty joke. A family—not the Kardashians—pitches their act to a talent agent. It is a long list of obscene sex acts, none of which I'm prepared to repeat in print. When they finish, the agent asks what their act is called. The father proudly responds "the Aristocrats!”

A tag line is sometimes added:

“Is that all you got?” the agent responds.
Pornocrates, etching and aquatint, 1878, Félicien Rops 
Épater la bourgeoisie was the slogan of the Decadent poets of fin de siècle France. It meant “Shock the bourgeoisie.” In other words, they weren’t just interested in the sensual experience of breaking taboos; they wanted to be sure to offend the middle class while doing so.

Decadents focused on pleasure, sex, and the bizarre. Their overriding aesthetic was, simply, excess. Of course, the movement was fascinated by drugs: opium, hashish and absinthe (the hallucinogenic properties of which were probably mostly in the drinker’s mind).
Green Muse (absinthe), 1895, Albert Maignan, courtesy Musée de Picardie d'Amiens. 
The seminal Decadent work is the now-forgotten À rebours by Joris-Karl Huysmans. Its hero, Jean des Esseintes, is the last member of a great noble family. Disgusted with human society, he retreats to the countryside, where he contemplates literature and art, punctuated, of course, with his own erotic fantasies.

French Decadence was more than just a rejection of middle-class values, however; it was an obsession with sensuality, death, exotic beauty, fantasy and beautiful language.

Like the closely-related Symbolists, the Decadents were disillusioned with the meaning and truth offered by Nature. There can be no doubt about it,” Hysmans had his hero say. “This eternal, driveling, old woman is no longer admired by true artists, and the moment has come to replace her by artifice.”
La Mort et le Fossoyeur, c. 1895, Carlos Schwabe
While the Decadents were a French movement, they exported their transgressive spirit to other European nations. In England, they were mimicked by the Aesthetes, including Oscar Wilde, Algernon Charles Swinburne, and Aubrey Beardsley.

The movement gained little foothold in the bustling, religious United States, however. We strongly resisted the spirit of declining culture emanating from Europe. Less than a century later, however, shock art, shock literature, shock TV, shock movies and shock music were all the rage here. French Decadence was just ahead of its time.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Our blessings

Roosevelt called for freedom worldwide. Norman Rockwell's paintings were so distinctly American, however, that they came to represent us.
Freedom from Want, c. 1941-45, Norman Rockwell, courtesy National Archives at College Park
I had a painting teacher who hated Norman Rockwell. She was in tune with the art establishment of her time, which derided him as ‘just an illustrator.’ In fact, Rockwell understood painting just fine. Very few artists of any time could have balanced the plane of the table in Freedom from Want so elegantly.

Norman Rockwell’s Four Freedoms were meant to illustrate a passage from President Franklin Roosevelt’s State of the Union address of January 6, 1941. Nazi Germany occupied most of Western Europe, and the outlook for western culture looked grim. America was still steadfastly isolationist. Roosevelt exhorted his fellow Americans to think beyond our own borders. His Four Freedoms were universal rights of mankind, and he felt an obligation for America to help preserve them in Europe.
Freedom of Speech, c. 1941-45, Norman Rockwell, courtesy National Archives at College Park
Norman Rockwell's paintings, however, were so idiosyncratically American that they have come to represent us. Freedom from Want is now irrevocably entwined with the American holiday season, which kicks off tomorrow.

The foil for the whole painting is the white-on-white table, surrounded by a wreath of faces. If you’ve ever wondered about Rockwell’s legacy as a painter, study that table. He’s as brilliant with the whites as Joaquín Sorolla, but in a cooler, more American way.

Freedom of Worship, c. 1941-45, Norman Rockwell, courtesy National Archives at College Park
He painted the figures from life, using his friends and neighbors as models. About the turkey, Rockwell said, “Our cook cooked it, I painted it and we ate it. That was one of the few times I've ever eaten the model.”

There’s almost no other food on the table. Such is the magic of his realism that Rockwell makes you believe it’s an overloaded table. In fact, that was the criticism of it at the time, that it depicted indulgence while Europe was starving.

Freedom from Fear, c. 1941-45, Norman Rockwell, courtesy National Archives at College Park
We’re so swamped in bad news that it’s easy to forget how blessed we are. “No famine has ever taken place in the history of the world in a functioning democracy,” wrote Nobel-winning economist Amartya Sen. Americans are particularly blessed with freedom of speech: in 2015, the Pew Research Center polled 38 countries around the world in 2015 and found that Americans are more tolerant of free speech than other nations.

Fear is tough to measure as it’s subjective. However, attacks on American soil have been blessedly few; most of our wounds are self-inflicted. And we are free to worship where we want, and to have lively debates in court and the media when religious rights and other rights intersect.

If you say grace tomorrow, you could do worse than thanking God for the four freedoms enumerated by President Roosevelt all those years ago.

Have a very blessed holiday! (There will be no blog tomorrow.)

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Yes, art is a business


The problem with worshiping genius is that for every Albert Einstein, there’s an Adolf Hitler.
Aristocratic Heads on Pikes, authorship unknown
Yesterday, a reader sent me an interview with painter Larry Poons. It was in The Art Newspaper as part of the run-up to the release of The Price of Everything on HBO.

Larry Poons is an abstract painter who currently teaches at the Art Students League in New York. He had valuable things to say, but this struck me as absolutely wrong:

“Success is in the studio. That’s the only success there is. The only other type of success is business: it’s not art. There’s nothing wrong with business and there’s nothing wrong with art but they’re two separate things. If you define success as being able to sell something to pay the rent, then that means you’re successful at paying your rent. It doesn’t mean that your art is any good or not.”
Napoleon on his Imperial throne, 1806, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, courtesy Musée de l'Armée
I sympathize with his frustration with the high-end art market, but his attitude, shared by many of his peers, is part of the problem. This is the Cult of Genius that has beleaguered art since the Enlightenment—the idea that artists are above the struggles that drive mere mortal men. Prior to the 18th century, artists were considered craftsmen. While they may have been very successful and well-paid, they had no intellectual pretensions.

The Enlightenment asked artists to talk about civics and politics instead of religious values. This raised their status to that of intellectuals, almost gentlemen, in fact. Their training moved from the old apprenticeship/atelier model to formal art schools. For example, the Royal Academy of Arts was founded in 1768. Its mission was to raise the professional status of the artist by establishing a sound system of training. Along with these formal schools came the idea that artists were intellectuals.
Portrait of Sir Isaac Newton, 1704, by Sir Godfrey Kneller, courtesy National Portrait Gallery
The idea of genius was born in the Enlightenment. It was the age of Newton and Napoleon, and it created a curious dichotomy. While governments were being formed on the idea that all men were created equal, certain men—geniuses—were growing ever more more equal than others.

More and more, these geniuses, like Percy Bysshe Shelley, began to operate outside the norms of society. The Cult of Genius brought us some great art, but it also ushered in a dreadful time in Europe. This included Robespierre’s Reign of Terror in France, the genius cult of the Nazis, and Stalin’s Cult of Personality. All were possible because Great Men were more influential than unyielding values.
Self Portrait (dressed as an academic, not a craftsman), 1776, Sir Joshua Reynolds, courtesy Uffizi Gallery
As counterintuitive as it seems, in the end this has landed us in the modern dilemma of having so much banal, boorish, casual and ultimately meaningless material foisted on us as art. The genius doesn’t communicate; he proclaims. That means he doesn’t have to listen.

Ultimately, a person who is above money is completely out of touch with almost everyone else. In the end, that kind of attitude is what’s given artists such a terrible reputation in modern America, and why parents don't believe their kids can make livings in the arts.

Monday, November 19, 2018

Monday Morning Art School: what do different brushes do? (Part 1)

The best way to learn about your brushes is to experiment, but meanwhile, here's a handy guide to oil painting brushes.

Plein air painters usually favor hog’s bristle brushes. These are far less expensive than softer hairs like sable. They are the only brushes that spread thick paint smoothly and evenly, making for the freshest technique.

Bristle brushes tend to form a flag (a v-shaped split) at the end over time. However, if the brush is made properly, with good interlocking bristles, it will have a natural resistance to fraying. Because field painters often go long periods without being able to clean their brushes, this durability is important.

There are some good synthetic brushes on the market, but none of them are quite as stiff as a good natural bristle brush. 

In the following exercises, I've tried to keep the amount of solvent the same (except with the fan brush).

Above is a sable flat brush by Rosemary & Company. It can put down a very smooth surface and offers a lot of control, but it doesn't carry the quantity of paint that an equivalent bristle brush will. I do have many sable brushes, but I save them for thin work in the studio.

This is a Robert Simmons Signet flat brush. The paint it lays down is both rougher and more impasto than the sable.

Flat brushes make an immediate, energetic mark. They're excellent for fast, powerful surface work, long sweeping strokes, and blocking in shapes.

Used on their sides, they also make great lines, far more evenly than a small round can do.

Two rounds of very different sizes. A round is a more lyrical brush than a flat, and is a classic tool for painterly surface marks. It can be used to make lines that vary from thin to thick. A pointed round is used for fine detail. Bristle rounds tend to lose their points very quickly, however.

The great advantage of a filbert is the variety of brushstrokes you can get from one brush. This is great for single strokes that taper, such as in water reflections. Its rounded edges are good for blending. Set on its side, it makes nearly as good a line as a flat does.


A bright is a less-flexible version of a flat. It's great for short, powerful strokes or situations where you want a lot of control.

A fan brush probably has no place in a plein air kit, but I carry one anyway. I use it for blending, as on the left, although some people like using it to make whacked out marks as on the right. The problem is, it can carry very little paint, so its marks tend to be either gooey, as above, or very abrupt.

In my studio, I just use a clapped out soft-haired brush to blend.


The only ‘novelty’ brush I carry is a double filbert, or Egbert, above. It’s a lyrical brush that has a lot of expressive quality.

Many plein air painters also carry liners and riggers, which are useful in paintings that are built up smoothly. I don’t paint that way, so I seldom use them. Another brush that is good for detailed work is an angled brush. However, you can do almost any work you can envision with just the brushes I've shown you above.

Next week, I’ll talk about watercolor brushes.

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.