Paint Schoodic

Join us in Acadia National Park in August. Click here for more information.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Monday Morning Art School: packing for overseas trips


Leave home the flammable chemicals, make sure your passport is current, and you should be fine.
I like Panel-Pak carriers but usually run short of slots on a long trip.
Most problems with painting in other countries are due to flight regulations, not your destination. I haven’t had a problem flying with my paints since the early days after 9/11, but they are in a clearly-labeled clear-plastic bag.

Do not bring large tubes of oil paints in your carry-on luggage; they exceed the 3 oz. rule. It is not necessary to empty your pochade box if it still has useful paint on it; paint is no more volatile on the palette than it is in a tube.

According to the FAA, nonflammable paints are those with a flashpoint above 140° F (60° C). Linseed oil has a flashpoint above 550°F. This information is found on the product’s material safety data sheet (MSDS). The flash point is in section 9 of the MSDS. Section 14 indicates if the product is regulated for transportation. Here is a PDF for Gamblin Oil Colors’ general artist oil colors sheet.

My paints are in a clear plastic bag with a label written by Lori Putnam, which I print from the Gamblin website.
Gamsol has a flash point of 144° F, which makes it theoretically transportable by plane, but I’ve never done it. The FAA itself says “paint thinners, turpentine, and brush cleaners are flammable liquids and may not be carried in carry-on or checked baggage.” Odorless mineral spirits (called ‘white spirits’ in some countries) are cheap and easy to buy in any art store. One quart lasts me two weeks.

Don’t plan on bringing medium, either. Most of them have naphtha added as a drying agent. This is a volatile petroleum solvent, more powerful than mineral spirits, and it has a low flash point. It appears across a wide range of pre-mixed mediums including alkyl gels (such as Galkyd) and the Grumbacher mediums that I prefer.
Don't forget the rain gear, especially in Scotland.
Your choices are to buy a small bottle at your destination, paint without medium, or use a traditional drying oil like linseed oil. If you choose to do the latter, remember that it will dry more slowly. Plan accordingly to carry your wet canvases home.

I use PanelPak wet canvas carriers, but there are times (like this morning) when I have more wet canvases than slots. If paintings are almost dry and have little impasto, interleaving them with wax paper will get them home safely. If you have a mess of wet canvases, you may need to improvise. Your goal is to create a space between the canvas boards. The easiest way is to cut cardboard or plastic spacers. Once the strips and the boards are in a stable pile, I tape or tie the whole mess together. Carry the gooiest ones, or the ones you like best, in your carrier.

Interleaved wax paper can stop almost-dry paintings from sticking to each other.
Americans already live in the world’s largest art market, so traveling to other countries to work doesn’t make a lot of sense. Still, it sometimes happens. You may need a work visa. This is a laborious process. Ask the organizer of your event for documentation.

Our State Department maintains a list of travel advisories for foreign destinations. These include additional-vaccination suggestions. Some foreign destinations require visas. Others require that you have at least six months left on a passport. You should check with your health insurance provider about whether you’re covered abroad, and with your auto insurance provider about whether your policy covers an international rental car.
But for gooey paintings, you're going to need to improvise some kind of spacer strip.
You will need power adapters for most foreign destinations. I find a USB power bank very useful for long plane trips. And I just smile and pay the $10 a day fee to use my cell phone overseas; without that, you wouldn’t be reading this blog this morning.

Here is my personal packing list, and here are supply lists for oils, watercolor, and acrylic supplies. I print the relevant ones every time I pack and use them as a checklist.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

The Scots invented everything

Narrow roads, lochs, mountains, the sea, and a pint. The road from Edinburgh to Iona is beautiful no matter the season.
Sheep ambling down to the pub at Fionnphort. Photo courtesy Douglas J. Perot.
I drove from Edinburgh to Fionnphort just three years ago. This year, I relaxed as others managed logistics. At the Green Welly, one of our party purchased a CD of traditional Scottish songs. Amazing Grace was the last tune, and we all sang as we climbed the last rise to Fionnphort harbor. Single-track roads in the UK can make an atheist pray.

The subtext of this week’s trip has been, “The Scots invented everything,” which seems very nearly true. The Scottish Enlightenment was part of a worldwide outpouring of ideas. In Scotland, that took a particularly practical bent. Their chief aim was improvement, virtue, and practical assistance. Matters like lighthouse design were not too plebian for Scotland’s greatest thinkers.

If you head to the Hebrides, you go on a boat operated by Caledonian MacBrayne. This company has been in operation since 1851, although it had a period of government ownership from 1973-2006. As with most ferries, it’s a monopoly. A ditty around here goes:

The Earth belongs unto the Lord
And all that it contains
Except the Kyles and the Western Isles
And they are all MacBrayne's.

Eilean Musdile light, designed by Robert Stevenson. Photo by Carol L. Douglas
Two waters intersect across a bar on the route of the Oban-to-Mull ferry. On either side, there’s a lighthouse standing atop a rock.  Eilean Musdile is the larger of these two. It stands at the mouth of Loch Linnhe and has a prehistoric standing stone as well as other ruins. Its lighthouse was built by Robert Stevenson in 1833.

The Stevensons are famous for their literary son, Robert Louis Stevenson, but they were known in their day as great lighthouse engineers. Robert Stevenson learned his trade from his stepfather Thomas Smith, an engineer with the Northern Lighthouse Board. At the tender age of 19 he was entrusted to supervise the Clyde Lighthouse construction on Little Cumbrae in the Firth of Clyde.
Bell Rock Lighthouse, 1819, watercolor and gouache on paper, JMW Turner, courtesy Scottish National Gallery
His most famous work was the Bell Rock lighthouse. Balanced on a partly-submerged reef, its construction was risky and difficult. It was done so precisely that its masonry has endured for more than 200 years. Robert Stevenson invented the flashing lights that are still used on lighthouses. He also designed and built roads, bridges and other public structures.

In 1797, Stevenson married his step-sister. Three of their sons, Alan, David, and Thomas (RLS’ father), became lighthouse engineers as well. David’s sons carried the lighthouse business into the fourth generation.

Celtic cross on Iona, under last night's waxing moon. Photo courtesy Douglas J. Perot.
Opposite Robert Stevenson’s Eilean Musdile light is the smaller Lady's Rock, which is submerged at high tide except for its small lighthouse. This rock has a romantic Scottish tale attached to it. Lachlan Cattenach was a Maclean of Duart on nearby Mull. He was unable to father a boy and blamed his wife, Catherine. He left her on the rock to await the incoming tide, taking care that it should look like an accident.

Lachlan duly reported her death to her brother, the Earl of Argyll. Later, the earl invited Lachlan to supper, where the scoundrel found Catherine seated next to her brother at the high table. Lachlan was allowed to leave unharmed, but was later found murdered in Edinburgh.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

The Golden Hour


My Edinburgh portrait is finished. Now I can head to Iona and some plein air, once again in the footsteps of the Scottish Colourists.
The Golden Hour, Carol L. Douglas. This isn't a perfect photo, but is the best I could do at the time.
In some ways you might have found the execution of this painting brutally workmanlike. There was no flailing or fits of self-discovery; I save those for my own studio.

I started on Wednesday of last week. I laid down my brushes for the final time at 4:26 PM yesterday. That was exactly four minutes before I’d agreed to finish. Most of those days, I worked strictly from 9 to 5. The exception was Tuesday, when I overran my hours and worked until after sunset. But that wasn’t panic-painting; I simply needed more time for Poppy (the dog), who hadn’t figured in my original plan.

The client stated up front that he wouldn’t look at the painting until it was done. Indeed, he carefully averted his eyes whenever he entered the drawing room.
My worksite.
His only request was that the painting be in the manner of Francis Cadell. I studied a number of Cadell paintings over the winter. Once I entered the drawing room, however, I resolutely looked at no other paintings, except the James Morrison landscape peering over my shoulder. Morrison’s a terrific modern Scottish landscape painter and there are two of his paintings in this townhouse. It was a unique opportunity to study his work closely.

Interior with opera cloak, date unknown, Francis Cadell, courtesy Portland Gallery. This was painted just a few doors down from this townhouse.
I did see one Cadell painting at the preview for Bonhams’ Scottish Sale. But otherwise, I cloistered myself from other painters for the duration. Studying art while in the midst of an important painting muddies my vision.

We’d planned an unveiling for 4:30 yesterday. Yesterday, my client chipped a tooth and needed emergency dental work. By the time he came back, I’d cleaned up my kit and we’d returned the drawing room furniture to its usual places. He looked at the painting, made a brief, eloquent, and complimentary speech, and then turned back to spend more time with the piece. I can’t remember a word he said, but the model was happy, the patron engaged with the painting, and I breathed a great sigh of relief.

My client inspecting the finished work.
Someone asked me how I was able to estimate my time so precisely. Part of that comes from painting for a long time. I’m pretty certain how long it takes to finish a canvas. But part of that is also confidence—not in my own abilities, but in God. “Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead?” Jesus famously asked. I get up every morning knowing that the God who has brought me this far intends to carry me through. That saves me a lot of worry and self-doubt.

I’m off to Iona in two hours and still have not packed. I first visited this island in 2016. Since then I’ve longed to return and paint its white sands and tropical aquamarine waters. This takes me, once again, in the footsteps of the Scottish Colourists. Here Cadell worked in a much looser style, as befits plein air, but on Iona I anticipate working in the manner of nobody but myself.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

In pursuit of the picturesque


Scotland is a stew of genuine Medieval and Victorian architecture, ideas, myths and fables, with a dollop of pop culture thrown in.
Merlin’s Tomb, 1815, by Joseph Michael Gandy, is a fantasy based on Rosslyn Chapel.
The Scotland we imagine was largely the invention of the novelist Sir Walter Scott. It was he who made the legends of the Highlands fit reading for polite society. At the time, Scotland was moving into the modern world of capitalism and engineering. Meanwhile, the Highland Clearances were pushing people out of their tribal lands and off to the New World. Scott wrote at this pivotal time in Scottish history, and his stories drew a line between the romantic then and the pragmatic now.

There’s a monument to George IV in Edinburgh; it marks the first visit of a United Kingdom monarch to this city in two centuries. To be fair, much of that time Scotland was in rebellion.
Portrait of George IV of the United Kingdom, 1829, David Wilkie, courtesy of the Royal Collection. The king actually wore pink tights for his visit.
Scott stage-managed the king’s visit. He had just three weeks to plan the event, but succeeded in creating an affair that impressed both the ruler and his own countrymen. Tartan had been banned after the 1745 Jacobite rebellion, but Scott dressed the king up in it. Overnight, tartan became a potent symbol of Scottish national identity.
Rosslyn Castle, c. 1820, Joseph Mallord William Turner, courtesy Indianapolis Museum of Art
As Scotland went off the boil, many Englishmen visited. Among them was the painter JMW Turner. During his first trip in 1801, he sketched Rosslyn Castle. Later, he returned and painted the Castle for Scott’s serial, The Provincial Antiquities and Picturesque Scenery of Scotland. This teamed the United Kingdom’s greatest romantic writer with its greatest romantic artist. Turner continued to illustrate Scott’s books, becoming enough of chum to visit Scott at his vast country pile, Abbotsford, in 1831.
Edinburgh from Calton Hill, c. 1819, Joseph Mallord William Turner, courtesy National Galleries Scotland
The picturesque was a compromise between two Enlightenment ideals: beauty and sublimity. By the end of the 18th century, thinkers had come to the conclusion that these were not rational, but emotional states. The beautiful was sensual; the sublime provoked awe or terror. The picturesque combined them in a more easily-digested package.

Where better to experience this than in the Scottish Highlands? “The mountains are ecstatic,” wrote Thomas Gray in 1765. “None but those monstrous creatures of God know how to join so much beauty with so much horror.”

Nobody was more susceptible to the Scottish picturesque than Queen Victoria. In 1842, she and Prince Albert paid their first visit to Scotland. They were so struck by the Highlands that they returned regularly, ultimately purchasing the Balmoral estate in 1848.
View from the walk near the Dee in Balmoral Grounds, 1849, Queen Victoria, courtesy Royal Collection Trust
Victoria’s affection for Scotland was deep and abiding. The Royal Couple enthusiastically decorated Balmoral Castle in Balmoral tartan, stags’ heads, and other Scottish tchotchkes. This led to an international craze for all things Scottish.

The queen visited Rosslyn Chapel on her first trip north. It was then half-ruined and overgrown, and she noted that it deserved restoration. Work commenced in 1862, and the chapel was rededicated to worship that same year. Today, Rosslyn Chapel is a stew of Medieval and Victorian architecture, ideas, myths and fables, with a dollop of pop culture thrown in—much, in fact, like the myth of Scotland itself.

A feminist painter and her feminist royal patron


It’s very trendy right now to ‘discover’ women artists. But how lost were they, really?
Mary Moser, c. 1770-71, George Romney, courtesy National Gallery
I’m in Edinburgh finishing a portrait this week. My subject bought me a copy of The Lady. This is one of Britain’s longest-running magazines. Founded in 1885, it was where the gentry advertised for domestic servants. Between the nanny ads and the horoscopes, there are some pieces of surprising interest, including a biography of 18th century painter Mary Moser.

Moser is best remembered for her decorative painting at Frogmore House, an English country house within the Home Park at Windsor. Started in 1680, it was largely renovated by Queen Charlotte, whom Americans know as the wife of King George III.

A Vase of Flowers, 1792-97, Mary Moser, Frogmore House, courtesy Royal Collection Trust
But the Queen was much more than that. Among other things, she was a champion of women artists and a keen amateur botanist who helped expand Kew Gardens. It was this interest in botany that led to her hiring Moser to decorate the South Pavilion at Frogmore House.

The house was more than a century old when Queen Charlotte purchased it in 1792. She used it as a retreat from nearby Windsor Castle, where she and her daughters could practice their hobbies of “painting, drawing, needlework, japanning, reading and ‘botanising’.” The Queen had borne 15 children (13 of whom lived to adulthood) and had a mentally-ill husband, so it’s perhaps understandable that she then built another retreat within the gardens of this retreat. That’s Frogmore Cottage, where the Duke and Duchess of Sussex now live with their new baby.
Queen Charlotte, 1761, studio of Allan Ramsay
Moser was already well-regarded as a floral painter when she took up the commission at Frogmore House. She had been trained by her father, an enamellist and himself a drawing tutor to George III. She was one of 36 artists who joined together to form the Royal Academy of Arts. At the age of 24, she was the youngest Academician and one of just two women among the founders. The other was Angelica Kauffman.

Moser did not marry until later in life. By convention, a woman’s professional life ended upon marriage. “[P]erhaps there was no man worth giving it all up for,” suggested The Lady.

Moser carried on an affair with miniaturist Richard Cosway. He was well-known as a libertine, and “commonly described as resembling a monkey.” (His wife was, in turn, getting it on with Thomas Jefferson.) In his notebooks, Conway made lascivious comments and “invidious comparisons between her and Mrs Cosway,” implying that Moser was more sexually responsive than his wife. He died insane, just in case you’re wondering if there’s cosmic justice.

A Bunch of Flowers, 1792-97, Mary Moser, Frogmore House, courtesy Royal Collection Trust
Moser married at age 49. Bowing to social pressure, she retired and began exhibiting as an amateur under her married name. She’d made a pile of money as a painter; the Frogmore commission alone earned her £900, which is equivalent to £100,000 today. She left most of her wealth to women: relatives, friends, and the wives of other artists.

It’s very trendy right now to ‘discover’ women artists. But how lost were they in the first place? Artemisia Gentileschi, for example, may not have been a household name twenty years ago, but was well-known to students of the Baroque.

The problem wasn’t so much with their own times, but with the peculiar blinders of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Moser’s membership in the Royal Academy was circumscribed to some degree by her gender; she could not attend nude sketch sessions, for example, and some meetings were closed to her. But all in all, she had a happy and complete life as a painter.

Monday, May 13, 2019

Monday Morning Art School: Aging the model


Aging is highly individual but it follows certain predictable paths. Here are some hints to drawing plausible older people.
The Ancient of Days, William Blake, 1794. Relief etching with watercolor. The figure is a curious pastiche of an older face and a young body. Courtesy British Museum
Last week, I shared a drawing of my model in which I managed to make her look fifteen years old.

No two people age the same way. That’s especially true in our modern world, where aging gracefully is a sign of affluence. Many of us have had discreet work ‘done’—including me—and we live less-taxing lives than our ancestors. We keep our hair and brows more stylishly than our forebearers. Most of us retain our teeth; in the US, we keep them whitened. On the other hand, more of us are plagued by obesity, which ages our faces.

Our experiences leave their mark. The weather-beaten lobsterman and an office-worker will age quite differently. The northeastern US is kind to skin, because it’s humid and cool, whereas the sun of the southwest is harsh.
Portrait of the Artist's Mother at the Age of 63. Albrecht Dürer, courtesy Kupferstichkabinett. In one sense, this is an example of how dramatically aging has changed, but if you get past the toothlessness, the changes happen the same way today. Note the cording of her neck and the receding temple.
The human face can be ennobled by ascetism or coarsened by consumption, depending on how we’ve lived. Smokers develop a system of wrinkles because nicotine causes narrowing of the blood vessels in the epidermis.  And then there’s the thing none of us can do anything about: our genes.

Our culture venerates the 25-year-old face, but our faces settle into maturity once we pass thirty. By our fifties, those changes are accelerating rapidly, as our face assumes its elderly shape.

There are more telling signs of aging in the face than wrinkles. The eye socket becomes deeper, leading to pouching under the eyes. Closely related to this, the temples deepen and cheekbones become more evident. As if to compensate for this increased definition above the cheekbones, the lower parts of our faces sag. The flesh of our cheeks droops. Creases form along our noses and mouths.
A very unflattering selfie taken this morning showing the recession at the temples and delineation of the cheekbones. When I was younger, my face was nearly a perfect oval, but I've managed to get it all stretched out by now. (The bags under my eyes are just tiredness.)
Our noses and earlobes grow all our lives. The tip of the nose may turn downward in a person lucky enough to achieve extreme old age. The soft tissue below our jaw starts to sag. The cords of ours neck become more visible after age 60.

At around age 40, a series of furrows appear on our faces. They can be vertical between the brows and along the mouth, but are often horizontal. Most of us don’t get every possible wrinkle, but merely the ones to which we’re predisposed. Wrinkles are not lines or cracks, but folds of skin. Lines are a poor way of representing them.
Head of an Old Man, 1521, Albrecht Dürer, courtesy of the Albertina. Wrinkles are folds, not crevasses. 
Our skin becomes less luminous in middle age, but often in extreme old age it regains the translucence of childhood.

One of the most telling signs of age is the thickness of our hair. In both genders, hairlines recede and our hair thins. Again, this is an area of aging where much work is done to conceal changes but it would be odd to see a glorious mane of hair on an elderly person.

Friday, May 10, 2019

In the drawing room, drawing


The social role of 19th century artists was ambiguous, just as it is today.
Heads of Six of Hogarth's Servants, 1750-55, William Hogarth, courtesy of the Tate Gallery
William Henry Fox Talbot was an English scientist and inventor. He helped create the modern photo developing process. A classic 19th century polymath, he was also an avid Assyriologist and a Minister of Parliament.

Talbot lived for many years in Edinburgh. His longest stay was in the house where I’m working. He lived here with his wife, two unmarried daughters, a visitor, a butler, a footman, a lady’s maid, a cook, a kitchen maid, two upper housemaids and a lower housemaid. That’s eight servants to wait on five people.

A good part of my day yesterday was spent resolving a drawing problem with the floor-to-ceiling shutters. Those in the drawing room are not the same as those in the music room. It’s possible that I’ve stared at those shutters more intensely than since they were last dusted by a Victorian housemaid.
George Clive and his Family with an Indian Maid, 1765, Joshua Reynolds, courtesy Gemäldegalerie, Berlin
“A visitor” may have been a euphemism for a professional assistant, a worker who would have been neither upstairs nor downstairs but occupying the netherworld between classes. An artist employed to paint a portrait of the mistress of the house was of uncertain status. Had I the reputation of Sir Edwin Landseer, I might have been in a guest room on the fourth floor. More humble artists would have been squashed in with the senior servants on a lower floor.

Only a handful of households were able to employ the vast array of servants we’ve seen on television. ‘Upper' servants were the butler, footmen, cook, housekeeper, senior maids and governess. ‘Lower’ servants were the kitchen and scullery maids, laundresses, nursemaids, housemaids, and outdoor help.

To afford a maid-of-all-work, a household needed an income of around £150 per annum, or the very bottom of the professional classes (£18,000 in modern money). This poor skivvy worked terrible hours doing dirty work—cleaning and restocking the heating grates, emptying chamberpots, scrubbing, washing dishes, doing the laundry, and even cooking.
I needed a t-square to draw those shutters properly.
Male domestics were taxed, so they were a sign of a wealthier household. Talbot did not employ a housekeeper, so managing the household would have fallen within the butler’s remit. By the time a man could afford a butler, he had an income of more than £1000 per year (£120,000 in modern money).

The garden floor retains its original layout under its slick new surfaces. There’s a large kitchen with scullery and pantry behind. There would have been a ‘coal hole’ somewhere along an outside wall. The next floor up would have been the domain of senior servants. It might have included a box room where the master could conduct his experiments in photography.
Walking young Poppy in Moray Gardens.
I’m upstairs, working in the drawing room. These are long days behind the easel, if I’m to finish this portrait in a week. At noon I walked down to Princes Street to find a t-square. Then I worked until the natural light had turned sour. My subject was at the symphony, so I snagged her dog and walked through gardens and along the Water of Leith as twilight rose.

Now I must catch her for a few moments before she’s off to St. Andrews and golf. But first, she made me porridge and left it in the Aga, because I'm actually an honored guest. Our 21st century social roles would have seemed inscrutable to Henry Fox Talbot.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

The servant stairs


My diet is in tatters but I’m on schedule with the portrait.
I spent most of my time yesterday moving the coffee table from place to place trying to make an interesting geometry of that bottom left corner.
Mary Killen tells the story of Antony Armstrong-Jones (Lord Snowdon) and his lifelong enmity to Colin Tennant. It began when Armstrong-Jones was told to go to the tradesmen’s entrance while photographing Tennant’s wedding to Lady Anne Coke. The two men had been at Eton together.

I’d assumed it was a story of injured amour-propre. This week I’ve spent some time on the servants’ stairs of a Georgian townhouse, and my sympathy for Lord Snowdon has increased (albeit marginally). I would not have enjoyed hefting the absurdly-heavy photography equipment of 1956 up and down those narrow stairs, skirting past the maids and footmen I ignored in everyday life.
I've rearranged the furniture, set up my easel, and otherwise made a terrible mess of the drawing room. That's a James Morrison landscape overlooking my shoulder there; a happy omen, if you ask me.
The house in which I’m working has had many iterations since its construction. The main staircase, very grand, rises in a beautiful spiral from a first-floor vestibule. There is a modern staircase, added after the building served a stint as offices after World War 1, when the house was converted to flats. This staircase connects the first floor with the basement floors into a three-story unit. But in its original form, the public rooms of this house—the first floor, the piano nobile above it, and the bedrooms above that—were effectively sealed off from the tradesmen’s entrance by this lack of public staircase.

The only staircase which ran the height of the house was a stone one, intended for servants. Despite my familiarity with historical English novels, I didn’t fully grasp what this meant until I’d trotted up and down them a dozen times.

It’s easy to feel how intimidated a homeowner would be at the idea of running down those service stairs to check on the operation of his own home (if such an outlandish idea had even occurred to him). The stone steps are set as far back as is possible without actually being in the garden, and they’re not easy on the feet. They are narrow and turn fast in their circular shaft. The humble historical housemaid must have had legs of steel.
I captured my subject briefly for a quick drawing and managed to make her look all of fifteen years old. The bones are right, however, and I'll try again today.
The modern Scots who live in these terraced houses are more fit than their American cousins, with our easy, lazy two-story homes. The stone stairs are now the main stairs between the garden-level kitchen and the main rooms of the house. Our host, a man in his fifties, regularly trots up and down them. I’m working in a drawing room, and I’m not as strong as a Regency lady’s maid, so I recruited my husband to carry my easel and kit up for me.

This room is a symphony of indirect light and beautiful paneling. The setting is very lovely, but I don’t want to allow it to dwarf my subject. I spent the day carefully measuring and plotting my composition.

I’ve also managed, occasionally, to sit my subject down for some preliminary drawings. I’m afraid I’ll need a butterfly net and some duct tape to fully capture her. She’s a very energetic woman.

Then there is the city itself, which is hilly and congested. It was a foggy, rainy evening, and our hosts graciously took us to dinner. We took a cab there and walked home; the trips took the same length of time, and walking was frankly more pleasant.

I had Shetland scallops, served very differently from the bay scallops at home, with a dry white wine along the lines of a vinho verde. This was followed by a nightcap of a private cask single-malt whisky. My diet is in tatters but I’m feeling less guilty than you might think.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

The Athens of the North

Edinburgh is a glorious medieval, Enlightenment, Victorian layer cake whipped up by canny Scots.
"The Liberal Deviseth Liberal Things," and if a man can make a few dollars in the bargain, that's all to the better, egh?
I defy anyone to sleep in the economy class of a modern airplane. My solution to the transatlantic night flight is to grit my teeth and suffer through the next day, allowing my body to recover at night. No, said my hostess. You’ll feel far better if you rest for a few hours and then restart. With childish stubbornness, I refused.

Instead I headed to the Greyfriars Art Shop on Dundas Street to collect my canvas. There I had trouble remembering the term white spirits, which is what the rest of the world calls mineral spirits. Mercifully, I recognized the Winsor & Newton bottle. “That!” I stammered. By the time I got to my bed, I was sinking fast.

Francis Cadell’s last house on Ainslie Place preserves the open plan of the original Moray Estate townhouses. This allowed the owner a view of neo-classicism to the front and ‘wilderness’ to the back. I peered intently, but didn’t see the mantle in front of which he painted Portrait of a Lady in Black
Three hours later, I awoke miraculously refreshed and quite happy. The sum total of my work toward my project was to take my model into the drawing room in which I will be working and discuss clothing, lighting, and the furniture. Then we took an amble.

Edinburgh’s New Town is the largest and best-preserved example of Georgian town planning in the UK. The severity of its terraces and monuments is offset by abundant green space, now budding out in green and frothed with bluebells and hawthorns. It will be my temporary home for the next week.

The New Town (as distinct from the medieval street plans of Old Town) was started in the second half of the 18th century. It is strictly neo-classical in design, in keeping with the intellectual fashion of the moment.

A back garden along the Water of Leith.
Edinburgh was the seat of the Scottish Enlightenment. This was the distinctly Scottish version of an international outpouring of scientific and intellectual achievement. The Enlightenment as a whole affirmed the importance of human reason, and the Scottish form was practical in nature. It’s upon this that the Scottish reputation for invention and engineering is based.

Not only were Scottish achievements prized in their own right, but their principles were carried around the world, particularly to Canada and the United States. They’ve profoundly affected our material and economic culture to this day.

My own perambulations took me out through the back garden down to the Water of Leith, a small river that touches the city center at the New Town. Below me was the pump house for St. Bernard’s Well. Its name comes from the almost-certainly-spurious legend that the spring was first discovered by St. Bernard of Clairvaux, founder of the Cistercian order in the 12th century. In 1760, it was conveniently rediscovered by three members of George Heriot's School. At the time, ‘taking the waters’ was all the rage among the well-heeled, based on the example set in Bath.
Victorian Hygieia presides over the Georgian temple and purportedly-Medieval well.
With typical Scottish practicality, a new pump room and ornate structure were designed for St. Bernard’s Well and then marketed aggressively:

This water so healthful near Edinburgh doth rise
which not only Bath but Moffat outvies.
It cleans the intestines and an appetite gives
while morbific matters it quite away drives.
(Claudero, or James Wilson)

In 1884 the property was purchased by publisher William Nelson, who commissioned the statue of Hygieia and then gave the property to the city. It’s a capsule history of Edinburgh as a whole: medieval fable capped by an Enlightenment temple, with a Victorian diety overseeing it, all whipped together by a bunch of canny Scots with an eye to the main chance. Ah, what a glorious city!

Monday, May 6, 2019

Style versus substance


I wanna go north, east, south, west
Every which way, as long as I'm movin'…


My method of packing is to start with the important stuff, like vacuuming the floor joists in the basement. That’s excitement speaking. Like Ruth Brown, I'm happy as long as I'm moving. I’ve been home in Maine since February, when I went to Pecos, NM to paint with Jane Chapin. For my mid-Atlantic friends, the plein air season has already started in earnest, whereas we in the north are just starting to believe the snow is finally behind us.

My current adventure started with a deceptively-simple question. Could I do a portrait “in the manner of Francis Cadell?” That the inquirer differentiated between “style” and “manner” meant that he wasn’t asking me for an imitation Cadell painting. I wouldn't know how to do that.

Iona Croft, 1920, by Francis Cadell, courtesy National Galleries of Scotland
“In the manner of” has a specific meaning in art history, which is that it was done by a follower of a particular artist, but after the artist’s death.

Style, on the other hand, is the mark-making, composition, color palette and other visible attributes (or method of working) that give the appearance of the finished work. Style ties a painting to other works by the same artist, or to a specific period, genre or movement. It’s the art historian’s principle tool in classifying artwork. I can never be a Scottish colourist, any more than I can be a Canadian Group of Seven painter. Each of us is tied too closely to our own time and place in history, and imitating the Dead Masters is a sure path to mediocrity. But we can think seriously about the values those painters brought to their work.

Cadell had a palpable affection for his subjects: human, still life or landscape. Even so, people and objects were always somewhat subservient to their settings, which were frequently the Georgian rooms he occupied in Ainslie Place in Edinburgh’s New Town. Ironically, I’ll be painting just down the street, in a similar Georgian townhouse.
Full stop, by Carol L. Douglas. Well, we both like purple.
Cadell chose beauty over stylishness. The difference is depth and staying power. It takes some scratching to get down to fundamental truth. It’s easier to go for pretty scenes, cheap symbols or trendy commentary. But those things are only transient.

My old friend and model Michele Long used to say that figure painting was a collaboration between the artist and the model. I think that was a profound insight, but I’d add a third player: the audience, present and future. Art is primarily communication, and that requires that the subject, artist and audience all bring something to the engagement.

Michelle reading, by Carol L. Douglas
People sometimes ask me if there are paintings I would never sell. There’s one: my grandson Jake as an infant. (It was the last time he was ever still.) Once I’ve laid down my brushes, I don’t think of a painting as mine any longer. From that, it’s easy for me to realize that it was never really mine in the first place.

Thus, it isn’t about me, my skills, my whims, or my inadequacies, but about the subject and the viewer. That takes a lot of the ego out of the process, and makes me able to relax and enjoy painting.

Monday Morning Art School: Add back the banned black

A color exercise that can be done with anything from a dime-store watercolor kit to a professional palette.

The Servant, by Carol L. Douglas
Back before black was banned from the palette, we had shades and tints. Shades are made by adding black to a pure color. Tints are an admixture of white to a pure color. Shades aren’t an effective way to make something darker, but they often make nice new hues.

What we consider acceptable in color-mixing is style-driven, just like everything else. For example, see the Permanent Pigments Practical Color Mixing Guide of 1954, below. It’s all about making shades and tints. That’s a hint about why mid-century paintings looked so grey. A little shading goes a long way.

A mid-century guide to mixing colors.
Today’s exercise is to make a paint chart playing the warm tones on your palette against the cool tones. Both of these examples were done in class by students. My definition of warm vs. cool has shifted over time. Ten years ago, I included quinacridone violet among the cools; last month I had my student stick it in among the warms. That’s because warm-vs.-cool is an arbitrary designation.

The chart in watercolors.
The instructions are a little different for solid-media students than for watercolorists. In either case, start by marking off your paper or canvas with 1” squares, allowing enough room for the cool colors on the left and the warm colors across the top.

Watercolorists (and users of fluid acrylics) just need to mix the colors. Oil painters need to tint their colors with a little bit of white. I’ll get to that below.

In watercolor, the column on the far left should be pure pigments straight from the tube: blues, greens, black, and violets if you want to call them cool. The row across the very top should also be pure pigments, but in the warm tones: reds, oranges and yellows.

The boxes in the middle of the chart are all mixtures. For example, the second-row-second-column box on Sheryl’s chart is black+raw umber. The third-row-second-column box is ultramarine blue+raw umber. The bottom right box is sap green+quinacridone violet, and so on.

The greatest difficulty for watercolor painters is to try and keep the color balance equal. Pigments differ in density, and it’s hard to control dilution. Still, try to use the same amount of each in your mixtures.

Sheryl was doing something my friend Poppy Balser calls “licking the paper.” (That’s partly because she was using a very cheap paper.) That means she was fussing after she put the first brushstroke down. That gave her final chart a mottled appearance. Try to get the mixture down in one brushstroke and leave it.

The chart in oils.
Solid media (oil, gouache, and acrylic) painters have a slightly different assignment. They need to add white to their mixtures. I always add it on the cool side of the chart, by mixing a large clump of the cool-plus-white colors and using that to work across, modulating the warm colors. Working this way, your second-row-second-column box will be (black+white)+raw umber. The third-row-second-column box will be (ultramarine blue+white)+raw umber, and so on.

Note that there is one three-way mixture on the left column. I do not typically paint with a tubed violet, so row five started with a mixed violet to which I added white. If you use a dioxazine purple, it belongs here.

Your last task for this week is to use color temperature, rather than value (lightness or darkness) to define the volume of a sphere, as in Sheryl’s example, below. Her shadows are warm, and her light is cool. Experiment with reversing that as well.



The shape of this sphere isn't defined with value (lightness or darkness) but with a shift in color temperature. Try it!
This blog post was originally published on November 13, 2017. I'm traveling today.

Friday, May 3, 2019

Captain of your own ship


Is your painting led by your subconscious or your analytical brain? Both are important.
Christmas Eve, by Carol L. Douglas
Rebecca is a friend and very-occasional student. Yesterday she lamented that an object in a painting had changed size as she worked on it.  “Maybe it's fine to look at, but it really bothers me about my skillset, that I can't keep things proportional,” she said. From a distance of more than 2000 miles, it was easy for me to see that she had overwritten her underpainting as she proceeded.

Perhaps a more detailed drawing to start would give her some lines to color in, I suggested.

“I’m trying so hard not to go there right now, but point taken. I definitely did give up on drawing the truck, as it was getting truly awful, and just left it for the paint to make sense of,” she responded.

School bus, by Carol L. Douglas
I understand this problem; it’s why my sail in my current nocturne keeps kissing the edge of the canvas even as I use a ruler to try to force it across the edge. That, too, started life as a very loose exercise; heck, the boat has already been three different places on the canvas.

Either we draw carefully and discipline our hands to our brain, or we let our subconscious rip and deal with what it hands out. Clearly Rebecca’s subconscious mind thought smaller was better for that truck. Looking at it in relation to its setting, I think her subconscious mind was being more artistic than the bald truth of her reference photo. By making the truck smaller, the painting had room to state a universal revelation: the sea is so great and my boat is so small.

The subconscious has been a big deal in painting ever since the Surrealists became interested in the probing of Sigmund Freud and his fellow psychoanalysts. The Surrealists were not just interested in exploring the relationship between the conscious and self-conscious; they wanted to see rationalism overthrown, both personally and socially. They believed that art that comes from our subconscious is more powerful and authentic than the products of our conscious, analytical, minds.
Christmas night, by Carol L. Douglas
That made them try all kinds of games to draw the subconscious to the fore: automatic writing, dream interpretation, free association, and a kicky 1920s parlor game called Exquisite Corpse. But the subconscious is designed to run in the background. The Surrealists who continue to have the greatest influence today are those who also spent the time to analytically master their craft: Giorgio de ChiricoMax ErnstYves TanguySalvador Dalí, and Alberto Giacometti.

Perhaps the greatest artist to marry subconscious imagery to painting was Marc Chagall. His was a world of ghostly floating figures, scale inversions, transparent wombs, and animal/human hybrids. They are not his individual dreams, but the collective imagery of a people. Chagall painted through the bitterest years for European Jews in modern times, but his canvases are not terribly frightening. He didn’t give in to night terrors.

A demo painting for the Bangor Art Society.
The problem with our inner mind is that most of us don’t like it that much. That’s why we’re constantly trying to blot out our brushwork and trying to school our shapes into photographic conventionality.

I sometimes amuse myself by painting landscape from abstraction, which is a loose form of automatic writing. In fact, all of the paintings illustrating this post were done with no reference. It’s a rebellion against literalism, an attempt to push my analytical mind back a bit before it crowds my soul out entirely.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Why should my students have all the fun?


What to do when you don’t know what to do.
Underpainting. The schooner is just a placeholder. I vowed to not paint nonsense from my head anymore. That lasted about ten minutes.  
This week, my painting class worked on skies. Not the one outside, which was crabby, but the ones in their imaginations. It was a small class, which sometimes allows time for my mind to wander.

I idly swooped some bright orange lines across a large, dull canvas I’ve been noodling to death. “That helps!” Jennifer Johnson said. The lines were ridiculous, but they pointed to a solution to my problem: the night has no color.

If you look at Winslow Homer’s Sleigh Ride or Edward Hopper’s Room for Tourists, you’ll see that they get around that problem by simply lying about what can be seen in the dark. I admire that, but I haven’t figured out yet how to do it convincingly. This canvas is the battleground on which I fight with myself over it.
Dawn sail out of Camden, so unfinished and a terrible photograph.
When class ended, I left the orange lines, intending to come back later. Before I knew it, it was bedtime.

One of our kids is studying fundraising. “The antidote to fear is a plan,” she said. “One of the biggest challenges in life is deciding what to do when you don’t know what to do.” I decided to mix some colors I want to see in this painting and then figure out where to add them. I had the orange-to-red already on my palette, so I mixed some reds-to-purples and let it rip.

How can I toss these colors in a nocturne?
I spent much of the day painting dreck and then scraping it out. But I think, in the end, I figured something out. The orange is still there, in all its original places, but subdued and modulated. When I get home from Scotland, this phase will be thoroughly dry. I’ll finish the water, tighten up the edges of the sails, and add the rigging. Then it will be done, for good or ill.

Canvases that never resolve are torture, but fertile ground for self-discovery. It’s taken time to understand what isn’t working chromatically, but it’s a lesson I’ll carry with me forever.

“Spare me from painting with no reference,” I muttered. But what to do with all those garish sunrise colors on my palette? Why, underpaint something new, of course. That will be dry when I get home too, and I can start to build another fantastical schooner painting. My resolution to avoid painting from my head lasted about ten minutes.

Fuel dock, by Carol L. Douglas
I was on a roll of sorts, so I picked up the plein air piece I hated last week. A few brush strokes and I’d lightened the wall’s reflection in the water and added a fictitious highlight to the boat. Would it still qualify as plein air for purposes of judging? I think so, but no matter; it’s not good enough. But it’s less horrible than I thought.

I’m not going to paint the island tanker Capt Ray O’Neill again any time soon, I vowed. It’s the second time I’ve tried and come up short. That resolution is probably as good as the one about painting without reference.

Sleeping model, by Carol L. Douglas
All too soon, it was time for life drawing, where I focused on a portrait of our sleeping model. This is familiar territory for me, so it went just fine. Now I can head to Scotland feeling as if my finer drawing skills have been buffed up.