Paint Schoodic

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Thursday, January 31, 2019

The winter doldrums

All painters should occasionally go somewhere else to paint, even if it’s just the next town over.
Snow squall at Twelve Corners, by Carol L. Douglas
It’s 3° F at my house. That’s positively balmy compared to other places in the north. It’s -13° in the Dakotas, -11° in Detroit, and so cold in Saranac Lake, NY that the National Weather Service refuses to speculate. This is what newscasters are breathlessly calling a polar vortex. It’s just our old friend winter, rebranded.

I was born and raised in Buffalo, NY. I have antifreeze in my veins. The coldest weather I’ve ever painted in was -10° F. That was about twenty years ago, when I made the commitment that I’d paint outdoors six days a week for a whole year through. Sub-zero weather is a fact of life in Western New York, as are blizzards and wind-swept deluges in the warmer months. I painted through it all.
Path, by Carol L. Douglas
I came away from that year realizing two things. The first was that if you paint that much, you have to sell your work, if only to be able to afford more paint and canvases. That was the start of my consistent business practice.

More importantly, I didn’t need to do it again. Now I paint outdoors in the winter because I want to, not because I’ve got something to prove. That means I can set limits: no subzero weather, no gloomy days, and no howling winds. Snow paintings are best with sunlight.

One more thing I’ve only recently concluded: you can’t skimp on winter clothes. I’ve spent way too much time being cold because I was underdressed. That’s foolish.
Hayfield, Niagara County, NY, by Carol L. Douglas. The lumpiness in the paint is because it was so cold even my oils froze.
The painting above was done in a hayfield in Niagara County, NY. When I packed up to leave, I realized my van had a dead battery from the cold. Twenty years ago, I didn’t have a cell phone, so I trudged down the road to call my brother. “I was wondering what on earth you were doing there,” said the kind lady who answered the door. My brother just called me an idiot.

What do plein air artists do in the winter? Mostly, we paint indoors. All of us have ideas for studio paintings, commissions, etc., that need to be executed sometime. If we have any sense, we also rest. I haven’t done a good job of that this year; I’m scrambling to finish work before the season starts again.
Rock wall, by Carol L. Douglas. Winter means a lot of twilight in the north.
If we’re lucky, we sneak in a short trip South to paint, as I did last winter. This year, I’m being contrarian and flying west instead, to New Mexico (where it’s a balmy 25° and sunny today). Jane Chapin and I plan to paint some winter mountain scenes high above Santa Fe. Yes, we have mountains in the Northeast, but they’re a very different character.

All painters should occasionally go somewhere else to paint. It doesn’t have to be an expensive, extensive trip. If you live on the coastal plains, go to the hills. If you live in a town, go to the countryside. Even the smallest shift of viewpoint profits us. The land has a different shape, different focal points, different light, different masses. We stretch when we paint what’s outside our norm.
Suburban snowstorm, by Carol L. Douglas. Wherever there are trees and snow together, you can paint a landscape.
I leave Monday, weather permitting. I’m starting to pack my winter gear. But first, I must clear the driveway and bring in more wood. Ah, winter! You may be beautiful, but you’re also a lot of work.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Les trois grandes dames of Impressionism


Three great women painters who navigated tricky social rules before there was modern feminism.
The Boating Party, 1893-94, Mary Cassatt, courtesy National Gallery
Today we look at the intimate mother-child paintings of Mary Cassatt and pigeonhole her as a woman artist, or, worse, ‘sentimental’. She would have disliked either description. She thought of herself as a New Woman, and her paintings were depictions of that ideal. Although she never married or had children, she viewed motherhood as a high calling.

Cassatt was riding a wave of feminism that swept America during the 1840s, when universities began opening their doors to women and all-women schools, most notably the Seven Sisters colleges, were formed.

Reading Le Figaro, 1878, Mary Cassatt, private collection. The model is the artist’s mother, an educated and well-read woman who had a profound influence on the artist.
The New Woman was popularized by the heroines of Henry James. She controlled her own life, purse and thoughts. Mary Cassatt was not stridently political in the 20th century sense, but she depicted women and their work in a whole new way. There would be none of the bathtub voyeurism painted by her close friend and sometimes-collaborator, Edgar Degas. In short, she was a feminist and most of her fellow Impressionists were not.

Cassatt was described by critic and art historian Gustave Geffroy  as one of "les trois grandes dames" of Impressionism. The other two were Marie Bracquemond and Berthe Morisot. Each chose to negotiate the difficult territory of career and family in different ways.

Under the Lamp, 1877, Marie Bracquemond, courtesy Galleries Maurice Sternberg, Chicago
Marie Bracquemond was the daughter of an unhappy, arranged marriage. Her sea-captain father died shortly after her birth, and her widowed mother and stepfather were ramblers, giving her an unsettled childhood. Yet she was a prodigy. As a teenager, she began studying in a local atelier. A painting of hers was accepted into the Salon when she was just 17. She studied for a time under Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, who didn’t think much of women painters.

At 29, she married fellow artist Félix Bracquemond. They’d had a passionate two-year affair, but Marie should have listened to her mother, who hated the fellow.

According to their son, Félix was resentful and critical of his wife’s painting, particularly when she began to explore Impressionism. By 1890, she was so discouraged that she gave up professional painting altogether. Despite her fragile health, she lived to 76, only outlasting her husband by two years.

The Mother and Sister of the Artist, 1869-70, Berthe Morisot, courtesy National Gallery
Just as Cassatt had a deep friendship with Degas, Berthe Morisot was an intimate of painter Édouard Manet; in fact, she married his brother. Eugène Manet could not have been more different from Félix Bracquemond. Also a painter, Eugène never achieved much of a reputation, instead devoting himself to promoting his wife’s career.

Berthe Morisot was the granddaughter of Jean-Honoré Fragonard and was born into an affluent bourgeois family. Because she was very self-critical, it is difficult to trace her development and training with any certainty. She met Édouard Manet, in 1868, and married Eugène in 1874.

She first showed with her fellow Impressionists in 1874. Le Figaro critic Albert Wolff wrote that the Impressionists consisted of “five or six lunatics -- among them a woman -- a group of unfortunate creatures.” Morisot, he added, had a “feminine grace [that] is maintained amid the outpourings of a delirious mind.”

By the time her daughter was born in 1878, Morisot was a mature artist who was showing and selling regularly. Morisot died when Julie was just 16. She had contracted pneumonia while nursing her precious child back to health.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Business realism


If a tire-kicker like me will buy a snowblower online, it’s time to retire my arguments against internet stores.
Breaking Storm, by Carol L. Douglas
This is the week when I hole up with my fellow painter Bobbi Heath and talk about our business plans for the coming year. The question I’m asking myself has been niggling at my planning for at least three years: do I want to invest significant resources into setting up online marketing? Or a bricks-and-mortar gallery in my Rockport studio?

My arguments for not doing so have been:
  • It takes a lot of time to set up an e-commerce-enabled website;
  • People won’t buy expensive things sight unseen;
  • All painting sales are relational;
  • Conflict with my current gallery representation;
  • I’d rather be painting.

Cape Elizabeth Cliffs, by Carol L. Douglas
Ten days ago, I was lying in bed whining about an upcoming winter storm. We’ve always shoveled snow rather than hire a plowman. But I’ll be sixty years old next month. While snow never gets old, I sure am. “Let’s buy a snowblower,” I said to my husband.

I pulled out my cell phone and texted my gearhead son-in-law to ask what brands he thought were most reliable. “My uncle has an Ariens,” he said. That was enough for me. Said uncle always buys quality equipment.

Fifteen minutes later I’d charged an $1100 snowblower on my credit card on an online site attached to a bricks-and-mortar store nearby. it was in our garage, ready to use, by dinnertime.

That’s anecdotal, but my own metrics tell the same story. In 2018, my family placed 115 orders on Amazon alone. The total value was nearly $10,000.
Parrsboro Sunrise, by Carol L. Douglas
If frugal, older, careful tire-kickers like me are doing that much business online, that can only mean our arguments against selling art on the internet are out of date. This year, I go into this planning session not with a generalized idea, but with a firm goal.

The problem will be implementing something so far outside my skill set. There are only two ways to do this. The first is to pay someone to do it for me, and the second is to suck it up and learn how myself.

Dry Wash, by Carol L. Douglas
Then there’s the question of the brick-and-mortar gallery. I spent yesterday morning looking at spaces where there are galleries, spaces where I know there will be galleries, and comparing the shopping districts of area tourist towns. I walked away thinking there may be marginally better retail spaces than the one I already own, but none with such great advantages that they’re worth the extra cost.

Note: before you can start specifically planning a retail business, you need a basic strategic plan. If you don’t understand your customers, the work you like to do, your strengths and your weaknesses, you’re more likely to fail.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Monday Morning Art School: the basic elements of design


Design elements are there whether you’re conscious of them or not. Learn to use them.

I and the Village, 1911, Marc Chagall, courtesy MOMA. In this painting, line is a dominant design element, articulating the relationship between man, beast and place.
Line

In math, a line is straight, has no thickness and extends in both directions through space. Sometimes that’s what we mean by a line in art—for example, a horizon line.

More typically in art, a line is just a path through space. Wherever you have an edge, you also have a line. However, lines also refer to mark-making, so in that sense they can be fat, thin, punctuated, tapering, diffident, bold or whispering.

Diagonals and curves tend to keep us more engaged than unbroken verticals, as they’re more difficult for the eye to ‘solve.’

Interior of the Laurenskerk in Rotterdam, 1664-66, Cornelis de Man, courtesy Mauritshuis. The illusion of three-dimensional form is created with drawing and value.
Shape and form

Shape and form define objects in space. Shapes have two dimensions–height and width–and are usually bounded by lines. Forms are three-dimensional. The artist’s dilemma is to give the illusion of three-dimensional form in a two-dimensional painting.

Ploughing in the Nivernais, 1849, Rosa Bonheur, courtesy Musée d'Orsay. The vast sky and field create as much narrative as do the team of oxen.
Space

Space is, in the real world, three-dimensional. In art, the term refers to a sense of depth, or the artist’s use of the area within the picture plane. The illusion of three-dimensional space is created with perspective drawing, atmospherics, positioning, size, and defining volume through modeling.

Sometimes we refer to negative and positive space, which means the division between the primary object(s) and what we perceive as the background. Positive and negative space were a very big deal in much twentieth-century design, which often used the vast emptiness of the page as a counterweight to the primary object.

The Crucifixion of Saint Peter, 1601, Caravaggio, courtesy Cerasi Chapel. Chiaroscuro relies primarily on value to drive the eye.

Color has three essential characteristics:
  • Hue—where it falls on the color wheel (red, blue, etc.),
  • Chroma—how brilliant or dull it is,
  • Value—how light or dark it is.
Color is also described as ‘warm’ or ‘cool,’ but these are useful artistic conventions and not measurable as fact.

Historically, value did much of the heavy lifting in painting. The Impressionists began using hue and chroma to define volume, and that is essentially how most alla prima painters work today.

Portrait of the Baronness James de Rothschild, 1848, by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, private collection. We see satin, lace, tulle, feathers and jewels primarily due to Ingres' exquisite control of reflected light.

Texture refers to the surface quality of an object. Paintings have implied texture, conveyed by color, line and brushwork. They also have real texture in the form of smooth or impasto surfaces.

Your assignment is to take one of your own paintings and subject it to formal analysis. Consider each of these elements of design in turn. How are you using them? How could you use them better?

Friday, January 25, 2019

Beautiful, anonymous death


Were they holy relics, or disgusting displays of hypocrisy?
A relic from the Holy Catacombs of Pancratius, originally from Prince Abbey of St. Gall, courtesy of the Historical Museum of St. Gallen, photo by David Bu.
The jeweled skeletons and ‘mummified’ corpses of catacomb saints represent one of the creepiest passages in the long history of the Catholic Church.

The Protestant Reformation unleashed the Beeldenstorm, a wave of iconoclasm across Europe and England in the 16th century. The result was the destruction of significant cultural works, including many more Northern European Renaissance paintings than were ever saved.
Altar of St. Almachus, a ‘hermit martyred in Rome.’ He was moved in 1788 from the monastery of St. Anna in Bregenz and reconstituted by the nuns of Bonlanden in 1910, courtesy Bene 16 on wiki.
In England, 90% of religious art was destroyed in the years following the Reformation. The percentages are probably similar in Germany and the Low Countries. The purge extended equally to music and literature.

The Beeldenstorm also suppressed another uniquely Catholic tradition, the display and veneration of body parts of former saints. Consider the earthly remains of St. Thomas Becket, canonized a mere two years after his death in 1170. A stone cover was placed over his tomb, with two holes through which pilgrims could kiss his casket. Shortly thereafter, his bones were moved to an elaborate, gold-plated and bejeweled shrine behind the high altar in Trinity Chapel. The anniversary of that move became a major holiday in its own right. Becket's bones attracted countless pilgrims for three hundred years, until Henry VIII ordered the obliteration of the tomb, the bones, and even his name.

In addition to lying in state in Canterbury, St. Thomas Becket's body parts were distributed through Europe in Limoges caskets like this. About 45 examples remain. This one courtesy of the British Museum.
The Counter-Reformation brought a hunger for all that missing iconography. In response, the Vatican sent out bespoke saints to the faithful. Hundreds of thousands of anonymous skeletons were exhumed from the Christian catacombs beneath Rome and sent to previously-Protestant areas. Their recipients assumed they were early Christian martyrs. 

Some came already decorated from Rome. In other cases, donors lavished thousands of dollars of jewels and gold on them. Some have jewels wired to their bones, some have wax features covering their skulls, some wear silk ‘faces’ or crocheted skin. Finishing a catacomb saint could take up to five years of painstaking, skilled work.
The jeweled skeleton of St. Benedictus, from Paul Koudounaris’ Heavenly Bodies (see below).
They were then proudly displayed in their new churches. They were focal points of veneration and symbols of the resurgent Church flexing its power.

Although the identities—even the gender—of the skeletons were unknown, it is possible they were those of real Christian martyrs. The early Christians preferred burial to the prevailing Roman practice of cremation. Martyrs were laid to rest under the city in secret. After Christianity was decriminalized in the 4th century, the practice of catacomb burial slowly tapered off. The tombs were forgotten. In 1578, they were spectacularly and conveniently rediscovered, just in time to send dead saints out to reclaim Europe from the Protestants.

An x-ray of 'St. Aurelius' reveals missing parts. It's impossible to tell the gender of the skeleton. Courtesy Stefan Alves, from Imagem-relicário de Santo Aurélio mártir pertencente à Sé Catedral do Porto, by Joana Palmeirao.  
The arrival of these remains was usually a source of great excitement for local parishes. It offered a tangible connection between the martyrs and their own recent persecutions.

St. Aurelius' sandal reveals that he was a pre-fab job assembled in Rome. Courtesy Joana Palmeirão, 2015, Imagem-relicário de Santo Aurélio mártir pertencente à Sé Catedral do Porto.
And then came the modern age and embarrassment about what everyone knew were trumped-up saints. Today only a handful of the catacomb saints remain. It has only been since the publication of Paul Koudounaris’ Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures and Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs that they’ve regained any kind of attention at all.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Another of those infernal Pankhurst women


Emmeline Pankhurst’s daughters were as intense and volatile as their mother. One of them was also a painter, and the Tate has rescued her from obscurity.
On a Pot Bank: Finishing Off the Edges of the Unbaked Plates on a Whirler, 1907, gouache on paper, Sylvia Pankhurst, courtesy Tate Britain
Artist Sylvia Pankhurst was one of the daughters of the famous British suffragette, Emmeline Pankhurst. Four of her gouaches were recently acquired by the Tate. They’re competent and historically important. They hint at a career that might have been brilliant had the artist not been derailed by politics.

Sylvia was a gifted student who trained at Manchester School of Art, and the Royal College of Art. She gave up art totally in 1912 to dedicate herself fully to the Pankhurst family business of political protest.

The Tate gouaches were painted during a tour of British mills and potteries that employed women. Her written commentary was as vibrant as the paintings themselves. In Glasgow she wrote about “the almost deafening noise of the machinery and the oppressive heat… so hot and airless that I fainted within an hour.”

In a Glasgow Cotton Mill: Minding a Pair of Fine Frames, 1907, gouache on paper, Sylvia Pankhurst, courtesy Tate Britain
The Pankhursts were middle-class, so the grueling conditions in the mills were a novelty to Sylvia. Still, they suffered. They were famous cranks in a society that valued order. Their beliefs destroyed any chance of a peaceful, happy existence.

Richard Pankhurst was a Socialist barrister of many and varied causes. His primary contribution to history were the Married Women's Property Act of 1882, and marrying Emmeline, 24 years his junior.

Emmeline did not found the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) until after his death, but he would have supported it. The Pankhursts never minded a little rough protest; they were both present at the Bloody Sunday Riot in Trafalgar Square.

The couple had five children. Both sons died young. All three daughters became suffragettes. The oldest, Christabel, directed the WSPU from exile during the period when its members were being force-fed in prison and slashing the Rokeby Venus at the National Gallery. In 1914 she returned to England, reborn as a militant anti-German. She encouraged her followers to shame men for cowardice by handing out white feathers to those in civilian dress. She called for conscription and the internment of foreign nationals.

Christabel ruled the WSPU with an iron hand. “She was our mother's favourite; we all knew it, and I, for one, never resented the fact,” wrote Sylvia.

In a Glasgow Cotton Spinning Mill: Changing the Bobbin, 1907, gouache on paper, Sylvia Pankhurst, courtesy Tate Britain
Adela, their younger sister, was a disappointment, even though she was arrested many times. “I would not care if you were multiplied by a hundred,” Christabel told Sylvia, “but one of Adela is too many.”

Adela was given £20, a ticket to Australia, a letter of introduction, and firm instructions from her mother to leave England. She never saw her family again.

Sylvia was a committed Communist, as interested in labor rights and pacifism as she was in feminism. With her friend Amy Bull, she founded the Workers' Suffrage Federation. This was too much for Christabel, who was already consolidating her hold on the WSPU by expelling members who disagreed with her.
Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters Christabel (center) and Sylvia (right) at Waterloo Station, London, 1911. Courtesy Imperial War Museum
“She [Christabel] turned to me,” recollected Sylvia. “’You have your own ideas. We do not want that; we want all our women to take their instructions and walk in step like an army!’… I was oppressed by a sense of tragedy, grieved by her ruthlessness.”

At age 45, Sylvia gave birth to a son with her Italian anarchist partner, outside conventional marriage. She called this child “a triumph of eugenics,” since both parents were fit and bright. Her mother, who was standing for Parliament, was so furious that she never spoke to Sylvia again.

None of the Pankhurst daughters were destined to die in England. Adela married an Australian trade unionist and had a large family, veering from Communism to the far right in her later years. Sylvia spent her later life agitating on behalf of Ethiopia and died there. Christabel went to America to preach her religious theories. She was found dead, sitting bolt-upright in a straight-backed chair, at the age of 77.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Why paint that?


My goal is to give you a process—a series of steps and techniques—that you can use to go make masterpieces on your own.
Ken, by Carol L. Douglas. Modern clothing can be so difficult to paint attractively.
Yesterday I was leaving a meeting and a friend asked, conversationally, what I’d taught in class that morning. “Drapery,” I answered.

She paused. “Drapery? Why?”

She’s a musician herself. Had I had been thinking, I could have told her, “It’s like doing voice exercises. It may seem pointless to the outsider, but it’s a technical exercise on which other skills are based.”

I prefer to teach outdoors, but there are days that’s impractical. It’s 7° F right now and by tonight it will be raining. There will be a stiff wind out of the southwest, with gusts up to 30 mph. It’s one thing to put on my insulated boiler-suit and snow boots and go paint in bad weather, but quite a different thing to ask a student to do it, or for us to have an intelligent conversation in the midst of a storm. For those working in water-media, winter conditions are particularly difficult to manage.
Reading, by Carol L. Douglas. Michelle may be beautiful, but how about that sheepskin?
If there was nothing to learn indoors, I’d tell my students to just stay home on weeks like this, but a good painter should be able to paint whatever is thrown in front of him or her. That’s the virtue and fascination of January’s annual Strada Easel Challenge, where artists are encouraged to paint daily for 31 days. If you’re on Instagram, follow #stradaeasel.

Sometimes these daily exercises have great emotional depth. Yesterday, Julie Riker painted an old-fashioned electric percolator. It evoked an instant emotional memory of the sort made famous by Marcel Proust and his tea-soaked madeleines in À la recherche du temps perdu. I was instantly transported to my grandmother’s house. 

Those percolators made darker, more-complex coffee than modern drip machines, and it smelled heavenly in the early morning before I headed off to school. We would have to wait patiently as it gurgled through its final rigamarole. There were no timers on coffeemakers back then.

Waiting, by Carol L. Douglas. The coat over a chair is a motif of our age.
Julie may have been just painting an old percolator, but it touched a chord in me. In this case the subject was the key, but it wouldn’t have evoked without great skill in rendering the chrome surface and the awkward power cord. You can’t really call yourself an artist unless you can take any object in front of you and arrange it into a pleasing pattern.

How does knowing how to paint draped fabric make you a better landscape painter? Of course, fabric might make it into your landscape art. More importantly, there’s a specific kind of skill required in rendering fabric. It’s very low in contrast, and often dull in color, and its variations are subtle.
And then, one day, you get the opportunity to paint a silk and gold mantilla in a commission, and, bam!
Drapery plays peek-a-boo with forms, whether it’s reefed to a spar or thrown over a chair or over the shoulder of a portly man striding through the airport. Studying it is an exercise in the lost-and-found line that is at the heart of the mystery of painting, that elevates it above photography.

My job as a teacher is not to drive and correct my students into creating a perfect result in my classes. If you sign up for that, you’re going to be very disappointed. My goal is to give you a process—a series of steps and techniques—that you can use to go on and make masterpieces on your own. If I succeed in that, my mission is complete.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

If it was good enough for my grandfather


Was litharge in earlier paintings, or did Rembrandt just get lucky?
Rembrandt's impasto.
I’m constantly railing about using time-tested technique in your painting. Painters have been experimenting with weird additives in their paints for centuries. The results are often disastrous. Rembrandt van Rijn may be the exception that proves the rule.

Now, 350 years later, we tend to think of Rembrandt as the model of traditional art. That’s especially true since, through most of the 20th century, his indirect painting techniques were taught as a sort of ‘purer’ painting in reaction to the volatility of Abstract-Expressionism.

It’s easy to forget that he and his Dutch Golden Age fellows were highly innovative, creating whole new genres of painting and challenging the Baroque status quo.
Portrait of Marten Soolmans, 1634, is one of three Rembrandt paintings in which plumbonacrite has been found. Courtesy of the Louvre.
Rembrandt’s is probably the most-studied technique in art history. We know his palette: lead white, ochre, Cassel earth, bone and ivory char, vermillion, madder lake, yellow lake, lead-tin-yellow and very limited use of azurite and ultramarine blue.

We know that, in his later paintings, he used moody glazes of dark color punctuated by fat impasto passages of pure light, often modeled with a soft brush after they were laid down. These impasto layers were then glazed with color.
Susanna and the Elders, 1647, is one of three Rembrandt paintings in which plumbonacrite has been found. Courtesy of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin.
For that he needed a thick, fast-drying white. The danger with that is brittlenesss and cracking. Adding lead and heat-treated oils kept the paint layers more pliable over time. So Rembrandt used a combination of lead white, chalk, and smalt (ground glass). His paintings look great today.

Recently, researchers have found traces of a lead carbonate mineral— plumbonacrite—in three of Rembrandt’s best-known paintings. They’re terrifically excited, because the previously earliest-known appearance of plumbonacrite was in Vincent Van Gogh’s Wheat Stack under a Cloudy Sky (1889).
Wheat Stacks under a Cloudy Sky, 1889, Vincent Van Gogh, Kröller-Müller Museum
Since lead is cheap and plentiful, it’s been used in paints since antiquity. But it can darken or fade other pigments. In 2015, chemists were trying to figure out what was damaging the red lead pigment in Van Gogh’s picture. In the space between the sample’s reddish-orange Pb3O4 core and the light blue PbCO3 layer that surrounds it, they found plumbonacrite. That was the first time it was ever seen in a pre-20th-century painting.

How did Rembrandt manage to get plumbonacrite into his paintings two centuries before it came into common use? “[O]ur research shows that its presence is not accidental or due to contamination, but that it is the result of an intended synthesis,” wrote Victor Gonzalez of the Rijksmuseum and Delft University of Technology.

Bathsheba at her Bath, 1654, is one of three Rembrandt paintings in which plumbonacrite has been found. Courtesy of the Louvre.
Their best guess is that it came from litharge, which is an oxide of lead used to refine silver. In the seventeenth century litharge was made by pumping a set of bellows to send very hot air across molten lead, creating the oxide and sending it flying into a nearby receptacle. If this sounds dangerous, it is.

Litharge did create some pretty colors. Litharge of gold is litharge mixed with red lead, which may have been how Van Gogh acquired it. Litharge of bismuth is a brownish silver color—just the kind of color that would appeal to Rembrandt, in fact.

Why would Rembrant have even considered adding litharge to his paint? The most obvious possibility is that it was in use all along, and appears in other, earlier paintings that scientists haven’t examined yet. Or, Rembrandt was messing around and got lucky.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Monday Morning Art School: applying to a plein air event


Judging art is very subjective. You can’t take the results personally, or the process will chew you up.
Tom Sawyer's Fence, by Carol L. Douglas
This weekend, a reader asked for help in choosing slides to apply to her first plein air event. She recognizes that her favorites might not be a juror’s favorites. Every artist feels like he or she could be better at this, including me. I’ll share what I’ve observed, but I’d welcome your input.

Apply for shows that match your level of experience. Think of these events like applying to college: there are dream, target and safety schools. Later on, you can throw money away applying to dream schools, but for your first event, a safety or target school is a smarter choice. How can you tell what level the event is geared to? Look at the prize money. The bigger the prize money, the fiercer the competition to get in.

Look at last year’s participants. Are they painting at a level you feel comfortable challenging? If not, find a different event to start with. There are many of them out there, and you’ll have a much better experience if you’re not thrown at the first hurdle.
Parrsboro Sunrise won a prize but I can't seem to make it photograph well.
Take good photos of your work. One of my best paintings from 2018 won’t be in my submissions because I don’t have a decent photo of it—it was gone before I got a color-balanced picture. It’s very difficult to take a good photo of a very wet oil painting in the back of your car, but try your best. The photo should meet the minimum pixel requirements of  the application. If all you have is a low-res cell phone photo, send something else.

I did a few paintings in 2018 on very smooth boards, just to experiment. One of them won a prize at PIPAF, so the board has nothing to apologize for, but it has no tooth. That meant that my paintings have little impasto, and that in turn makes them look out-of-focus in photos. It’s maddening, because they’re beautiful in life, just not so nice in the digital world.

Jonathan Submarining apparently made me happier than it made anyone else (except Jonathan's grandmother, who bought the painting).
Ask a trusted friend to look over your submissions. I have a painting from a few years ago that I adore, Jonathan Submarining. It was of a bunch of kids in a sailing lesson on a riotous day, and it was painted very fast, standing in the tide, with a fierce wind threatening to knock over my easel. But nobody scanning hundreds of photos will ever know what was involved in getting that painting right.

It took a disinterested friend to point that out to me. Sometimes, we’re the worst judges of our own work. We see the struggle instead of the finished product.

Santa Fe Sunset, by Carol L. Douglas.
Look at your work as thumbnails first. If a juror has a hundred applicants and has to look at five slides each, that may be all they ever see of your work—unless something about it really stands out to them.

Familiarize yourself with the entry juror, if that information is public. I’m not saying you should paint like him, but you ought to understand what’s important in his work. If every painting he does is carefully drafted and includes buildings and canyon walls, don’t send three structure-free marsh paintings and expect to be his favorite. If he’s a luminist, he’ll respond to light, and if he’s a brilliant compositor, he’ll respond to design.

Even so, I think it’s a mistake to pitch too closely to the entry juror. A lot of shows don’t identify the entry juror at all. Some use a committee. In any case, try to mix it up. If you can handle radically different subjects well, you demonstrate your versatility and your drawing chops.

Best Buds is a favorite from my 2018 season. While it was within the parameters of the show it was done in, it wasn't actually done outdoors, so I won't be using it for my slides.
Consider the order of your images. Online jurying systems allow you to define the order in which slides are viewed. If the entry juror is looking at your slides in sets, he’s going to read them left to right, just as he reads text. Make the first and last images particularly compelling—the first one to catch his interest and the last one so you’re remembered.

For heaven’s sake, don’t cheat. There are all kinds of carefully formulated ‘rules’ about what constitutes plein air, and most of them are hot air. But if you didn’t do the painting outdoors, on location, don’t include it among your slides.

Don’t feel bad if you don’t get in, even if you’re a much better painter than some of the people who did. There are often factors involved in jurying that you don’t know about, such as a need to have more watercolorists, or geographical representation. Or, the juror just woke up hating sunsets that morning. Judging art is a very subjective experience and you can’t take the results personally, or the process will chew you up.

Friday, January 18, 2019

The first great comic book artist


Voluptuous women, muscle-bound men... Rubens was just ahead of his time.
The Triumph of Henry IV, c. 1630, Peter Paul Rubens, courtesy the Met
The first great comic book artist was the great Flemish baroque painter, Peter Paul Rubens. Long before The Glasgow Looking Glass printed the first modern comics, Rubens was shoving dynamic action stories into oil sketches.

Rubens was the most important artist of the Flemish Baroque. But it was in his oil sketches that he was able to kick over convention and go for complete, riotous action. Rubens made these sketches because he was first and foremost an “idea man.” His busy workshop designed decorative schemes, tapestries, and altarpieces while churning out portraits, landscapes and history paintings. Since much of the finish work was done by someone else, it’s in his oil sketches that we find the ‘true’ Rubens.
Mercury and a Sleeping Herdsman, 1625-28, Peter Paul Rubens, courtesy Dulwich Picture Gallery
These sketches were usually (but not always) in color. They were studies for works in oil or other media. “Nothing reveals more clearly the ways in which his muscular and agile mind worked than the study of his more intimately scaled drawings and oil sketches,” wrote Peter Sutton. “It is the work of art that comes closest to recording the moment of conception.”
The Virgin as the Woman of the Apocalypse, 1623-24, Peter Paul Rubens, courtesy of the Getty Museum
The Virgin as the Woman of the Apocalypse was a sketch for the main altarpiece at Freising Cathedral. It’s a riot of action. The Virgin Mary holds the Christ Child while trampling the serpent, who in turn curls around the moon at her feet. To the left the Archangel Michael and his supporting cast drive out Satan and other ghoulish demons. Above, God the Father instructs an angel to place a pair of wings on the Virgin's shoulders. All of this is incredibly complex and would be tough to fit into a vast altarpiece. It approaches the impossible when you realize the sketch is only about 20 by 25 inches.
Head of a Negro, 1618-20, Peter Paul Rubens, courtesy the Hyde Collection. Rubens often painted stock heads that he could later insert into his vast history canvases.
Rubens was the son of a Calvinist attorney from Antwerp. Religious turmoil caused the family to flee Antwerp for Cologne. There, the elder Rubens met Anna of Saxony, wife of William of Orange, and was hired to reclaim her confiscated fortune from the Duke of Alba. If you think that sounds like the plot for a novel, it gets worse: Rubens, senior either had an affair with the princess or he was set up to take the fall. She was divorced, imprisoned, and died; he did a stretch in chokey himself.

Returned to Antwerp, the younger Rubens was educated as a gentleman, which served him in his role as diplomat and courtier. He apprenticed at age 14, and followed that with the requisite tour of Italy. TitianVeronese, Tintoretto, and that recent phenomenon, Caravaggio, all profoundly influenced his later style. 

The Defenders of the Eucharist from The Triumph of the Eucharist tapestry series, ca. 1628, Woven by Jan Raes, Jacob Fobert, and Hans Vervoert, after Peter Paul Rubens, wool and silk. Courtesy Convent of the Descalzas Reales, Madrid 
Tapestry cartoons provided a large part of his workshop’s business. Triumph of the Eucharist was ordered by Rubens’ friend, the Archduchess Isabella, for the Convent of the Descalzas Reales in Madrid. It included 16 tapestries that covered the walls of the Convent’s chapel on feast days.

Rubens wasn’t shy about his own talent. Angling for the job of designing the ceilings for Inigo Jones’ Banqueting House in Whitehall Palace, he wrote, “my talent is such that no undertaking, no matter how large in size, how varied in subject, has ever exceeded my confidence.”

Thursday, January 17, 2019

The greatest draftsman of modern times


A cinematic genius who could do his finished drawings in a single take. Wow!
Storyboard with notes by Jack Kirby, provenance unknown.
I was leafing through Facebook the other day and came across the above storyboard. Not only is it brilliantly composed, but it is worked out in a single draft across the panels. That’s essentially backwards from the way most artists work. We start slowly, letting our fingers work out the ideas through multiple sketches. But nothing about this work is haphazard.

This is the work of that most brilliant American artist of the 20th century, Jack Kirby. To understand him better, I consulted Alan Spinney, who’s been reading and drawing comics forever.

Pencil panels along with final inked versions. Kirby did not ink his own work. Courtesy of Alan Spinney.
“Jack Kirby was one of the fastest comic artists in history, and was kind of driven,” Spinney told me. Kirby did not make preliminary sketches, rough work or layouts. He started work directly on his board. He rarely erased, the story having flowed from his mind fully formed.

Pencil art from Fantastic Four, courtesy of Alan Spinney, from TwoMorrow's Publishing.
Kirby was raised in the tenements of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, the son of a garment worker. Perhaps that’s how he learned to work so fast. He taught himself to draw by tracing characters from comic strips and editorial cartoons. At age 14, he enrolled at the Pratt Institute. He lasted exactly one week.
Black Panther concept by Jack Kirby, courtesy of Alan Spinney, from TwoMorrow's Publishing.
“I wasn't the kind of student that Pratt was looking for. They wanted people who would work on something forever. I didn't want to work on any project forever. I intended to get things done.” Kirby got his first professional drawing gig at the tender age of 19.

His meeting with Joe Simon resulted in the creation of Captain America and a working partnership that would last a decade and a half.

“I had a suit and Jack thought that was really nice. He'd never seen a comic book artist with a suit before. The reason I had a suit was that my father was a tailor. Jack's father was a tailor too, but he made pants,” said Simon.

One of Jack Kirby's fantastical machines. Courtesy of Alan Spinney.
Knowing his star artists were about to be drafted into WW2, their publisher asked them to ‘bank’ material. The pair hired writers, inkers, letterers and colorists and created a year's worth of panels.

Kirby went on to repeat a similar performance in the 1960s, with Stan Lee.  “He would do script breakdowns for other artists to draw from, like thumbnails,” Spinney said. “They would finish the drawings and ink them, so all the books looked like Kirby drew them.”

From Jack Kirby Quarterly, published by TwoMorrow's Publishing.
Jack Kirby was, above all, dynamic. He pushed people through his stories in a cinematic way. “I found myself competing with the movie camera. I had to compete with the camera. I felt like John Henry ... I tore my characters out of the panels. I made them jump all over the page. I tried to make that cohesive so that it would be easier to read. I had to get my characters in extreme positions, and in doing so I created an extreme style, which was recognizable by everybody,” Kirby said.

“Marvel worked very loosely; Kirby and Stan Lee would chat about a story, Kirby would draw it and then Lee would write the dialogue,” said Spinney. “Kirby was famous for his machines, his character design, and high drama in his figures.”

Photocopy of page from Fantastic Four, courtesy of Alan Spinney, from TwoMorrow's Publishing
His collaboration with Lee resulted in more abstraction, foreshortening and diagonal motion, all relentlessly driving the reader. It also resulted in a Pantheon of superheroes who have influenced all comic art since. 

Jack Kirby was the William Blake of comics and New Gods was his masterpiece, an epic cosmic war between evil gods and good gods,” wrote Grant Morrison. Comic books may seem trivial to some, but in the hands of a master, they dealt with the deepest issues of our times.