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Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Georgia O’Keeffe has an acne problem—and she’s not the only one

Artists are, for the most part, practical chemists with no education in the subject.
Pedernal, 1941, Georgia O’Keeffe, courtesy Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. All three paintings in this post have been identified as suffering from saponification.
For decades, conservationists, scholars and even Georgia O’Keeffe herself assumed that the tiny bumps along her paintings were grains of sand from the desert of New Mexico. Eventually, those bumps began to grow and flake off.

The bumps are metal soaps, formed by a chemical reaction between lead and zinc pigments and the fatty acids in the linseed oil binder. Medieval alchemists made boiled linseed oil by exploiting this same reaction, tossing lead oxide in to make the oil thicken.

O’Keeffe’s paintings aren’t the only ones suffering from these surface pimples. The problem is found in works by artists as diverse as Rembrandt and Vincent Van Gogh. As many as seven in ten museum masterpieces may be affected.
The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp, 1632, Rembrandt courtesy the Mauritshuis 
Anecdotal evidence shows that moving paintings, exposing them to daylight, and changes in humidity contribute to the problem. “There seems to be some correlation between the number of times the paintings have traveled to public exhibitions and the size and maturity of the surface disruption. The more times the paintings have traveled, the more likely it will be that the protrusions are larger and more numerous, said Dale Kronkright, head of conservation at the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum.
Detail of Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau), John Singer Sargent, 1884, showing saponation in the black dress.
To test this theory, a team from Northwestern's McCormick School of Engineering has developed a handheld scanner to document continuing changes in painting.

“If we can easily measure, characterize and document these soap protrusions over and over again with little cost to the museum, then we can watch them as they develop,” said Oliver Cossairt, an associate professor of computer science at McCormick. “That could help conservators diagnose the health and prescribe treatment possibilities for damaged works of art.”

What does this have to do with us working artists? After all, we’re not using lead paint anymore, and if we’re smart, we don’t use zinc white, either. The problem is, most artists are all practicing chemistry with very little education in the subject, self included.

Falling Leaves, 1888, Vincent Van Gogh, courtesy Van Gogh Museum
Don’t think you’re getting away from the metals because you’ve moved to a modern palette. Metals are naturally-occurring elements of great usefulness, and that includes making pigments. An incomplete list of the metal pigments we currently use includes cobalt blue and violet, manganese blue and green, ultramarine blue, the cadmiums, Prussian blue, viridian, the iron oxide pigments (sienna, umber, and black), and titanium white. In other words, you can’t get away from them. Nor can you get away from the fatty acids in oil binders. Whatever the binder you’re using—walnut oil, beeswax or linseed oil—it’s an organic fatty acid.

This process of saponification is also what is going to make you and I dissolve into a pile of grave wax someday. Even the ancients knew that nothing lasts forever: “Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun,” (Eccl 2:11)

Meanwhile, we’ve managed to keep paintings intact for a few thousand years and we can continue to do just that. Just continue to paint fat over lean, avoid known fugitive or reactive pigments, and don’t follow untried, crackpot approaches, and your work should last a long time.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Fugue State

I may be the only plein air painter in the world who comes home and says, “I wish I’d simplified less.” 
Late winter along the Pecos River, by Carol L. Douglas
I know the rules of good design. In my studio, an informal formal analysis always runs in the back of my mind. I have goals for each painting, and my work is a challenge to meet those goals.

Get me in the field, however, and I enter a sort of fugue state. I paint almost unconsciously. The more difficult the physical challenges, the truer that is.

Horno in the snow, by Carol L. Douglas
Fugue state is an old-fashioned term for a rare kind of a dissociative disorder where the patient forgets who and where they are. I don’t mean to deprecate the sufferings of people with dissociative disorders, which are exceedingly serious. But if the American Psychiatric Association wants to abandon the term, I’m going to adopt it. It perfectly fits my mental state when I’m plein air painting.

Having painted alongside many, many artists who flail around in anxiety, I think I’m very blessed. I can just cut out the world and think about nothing at all.
Below the Ridge, by Carol L. Douglas
A fugue state often involves putting on a whole different identity. That seems to be what happens to me, because my plein air and studio work have very different characters. I may be the only plein air painter in the world who comes home and says, “I wish I’d simplified less.” Everything is mosaic with very little form, and less and less detail as the years go by.

Snow along the Pecos River, by Carol L. Douglas
My husband obliquely challenged that while we were in New Mexico. To challenge myself, I spent one morning in New Mexico staring at pictures of Peredvizhniki paintings of log cabins. Then I went out to paint log barns. I think some of that Russian technique permeated the deepest parts of my brain, because I was able to do the log walls with enough detail, without getting fussy. But overall, the painting was pretty similar to everything else I painted that week.
Upper Reaches of the Pecos River, by Carol L. Douglas
I can set out to consciously paint a certain way, and it makes no difference. Get me in the woods with my brushes and instinct crowds out all my thinking. Whether that’s good or bad, I don’t know, but it does reflect that I’m happiest outdoors.

Occasionally, readers ask me why I travel to paint—after all, I live in America’s Vacationland. It’s not the studio that’s the problem, it’s my desk. Sometimes I just want to go away and let the paperwork pile up somewhere I'm not. 
Snow at higher elevations, by Carol L. Douglas
It’s like a vacation for the brain, except it’s not restful. I work very hard on the road, but mercifully none of it involves marketing. That's exactly why you should consider a workshop, as well. Mine are here, if you're interested.

I got home from New Mexico a week ago today. Yesterday was the first day in which I managed to unpack and photograph my work. Because it has been cold and my paint was thick, most of them were still wet when I left. That necessitated building a more stable carrier system, which I did with an old box, tape and slender strips cut from an old Coroplast political sign. (Jane Chapin throws away nothing, bless her heart.)

Snow below the summit, by Carol L. Douglas
Interesting, the only one which sustained any damage in transit was in a PanelPak carrier. A drop of thick white paint migrated on its surface. That had nothing to do with the carrier, and everything to do with how fat the paint was.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Monday Morning Art School: an exercise in color

This exercise teaches you to think of the three aspects of color as separate properties.
Water lilies (Yellow Nirwana), 1920, Claude Monet, courtesy the National Gallery, London. Much of Monet's work was experimenting about the nature of color.
When we ask people, “what’s your favorite color,” we’re using the word color in a simple way, and we expect a simple answer. In fact, color has three basic characteristics:

Value – How light or dark is the color? Blue-indigo is the darkest color, yellow is the lightest. Red and green fall somewhere in the middle.
Hue – Where does it sit on the color wheel? All colors fall into one of the following hue families: red, orange, yellow, green, blue and violet. Within those families, however, are many subdivisions.
Chroma – How much intensity, or “punch” does the color have? Grey is low-chroma; fuchsia is high-chroma.

For more detail, see here.

Complementary colors are opposite positions on the color wheel.
Analogous colors are a set of colors that sit next to each other on the color wheel.

This exercise teaches you to hold value and chroma steady and manipulate only hue. It's hard to make these judgments subjectively, so your samples may not look exactly like someone else's.

Go to the paint store and select paint chips in two different color schemes—complementary and analogous. I want you to choose paints with the same value and chroma but the hue will be different.
Complements where the value and chroma are the same.
They don’t necessarily have to be high-chroma combinations. Here’s a pair of complementary hues which have less saturation (lower chroma):
An example of an analogous color scheme where the value and chroma are the same for all three hues:
Once you’ve selected the three paint samples, chop them up and arrange them on a little card as a design. Glue them down in a pattern that pleases you. Try to leave no space between the different colored tiles so your finished work looks something like this:
Above: my chops. Below: Photoshop's evaluation of how close I came with the values. (Remember, Photoshop is interpreting as much as I am.)
I don’t care what kind of shapes you make or how complicated your design is. I just don’t want white showing between the sections.

If it proves difficult to get out, and you want to get started, you can always make your own paint swatches. But it’s fun to get them from the hardware store, cut them up and make patterns.

Friday, February 15, 2019

Radical feminist of the Victorian era

Cropped-haired, chain-smoking, pants-wearing lesbian, she was a darling of Victorian collectors.
The Horse Fair, 1852-55, Rosa Bonheur, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Henry James, who invented the fictional New Woman of the 19th century, made his heroines pay a price for their independence. Was that accurate?

Recently I wrote about les trois grandes dames of Impressionism and the early feminists who came to be known as New Women. Their rise coincided with James’ novels, so it’s hard to say which came first, the fiction or the truth. Either way, the accepted story is that they made great sacrifices in order to be true to themselves.

Americans know Rosa Bonheur mainly for the sprawling The Horse Fair in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Bonheur was a genre painter, an animalière, as they were called in the 19th century.

Weaning the Calves, 1879, Rosa Bonheur, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Bonheur was a fractious child and an indifferent student, but she was an apt draftsman from a very young age. That’s not surprising, since she was from a family of excellent artists. Her father was painter Oscar-Raymond Bonheur. Among her siblings were painters Auguste Bonheur and Juliette Bonheur and sculptor Isidore Jules Bonheur. Improbably, they all focused on animals as their subject. All of them were highly competent artists. None of them were as successful as their sister.

Bonheur was the eldest. It was not until she failed an apprenticeship as a seamstress at the tender age of 12 that she returned to her father’s studio for serious training. He set her to traditional study, copying works from books and sketching plaster casts. From there she moved to dissection and anatomy studies of animals in the abattoirs of Paris.
Bonheur’s permission de travestissement from the Paris police.
To make The Horse Fair, Bonheur visited the Paris horse market twice weekly for 18 months. She sought and gained a permission de travestissement (permission to cross-dress) from the Paris police to avoid drawing attention to herself. Earlier forays to the slaughterhouse, she said, had resulted in harassment.

That may have been a polite fiction, as Bonheur routinely dressed like a (male) peasant at home. This was not solely a political statement; she felt that trousers were more practical when working with farm animals. She wore her hair at collar length—slightly longer than the male styles of the time, but too short to be worn up as most women did. And while she wore trousers at home, she dressed in feminine style for formal portraits.
Rosa Bonheur in her garden at By, c. 1890s, provenance unknown
Bonheur was openly lesbian; she lived with her childhood chum Nathalie Micas for over 40 years, until Micas' death in 1889. Later, she lived with American genre painter Anna Elizabeth Klumpke. “I am a painter. I have earned my living honestly. My private life is nobody's concern,” she wrote.

What effect did this have on her career? Apparently, none. She exhibited regularly at the Paris Salon from 1841 to 1855, winning exemption from jury approval in 1853. Her greatest sales, however, were in the United Kingdom, where she was introduced by her dealer in 1855. She made many trips to England and Scotland to sketch. On one of these trips, she was introduced to Queen Victoria, who was a fan.
Changing of Meadow, 1863, Rosa Bonheur, Kunsthalle Hamburg
As she grew older, Bonheur's work gained popularity among the new American millionaires, including Cornelius Vanderbilt. When he bought The Horse Fair in 1887 on the secondary market, it was for a record sum.

By 1860, Bonheur was wealthy enough to acquire a chateau at By, near Fontainebleau. She remodeled it extensively, including adding pens for her animal models. She was the first woman to be awarded the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honour, in 1865. And she was famous enough to paint “Buffalo Bill” Cody when his Wild West show visited Paris in 1889.

Bonheur made a success of her life, on her own terms. It’s the work, not the artist, which ultimately sells.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Reflections of a recovering coffee addict

Love may be an addiction, but it’s at the heart of everything we do. Happy Valentine’s Day!
Birthday, 1915, Marc Chagall, courtesy Museum of Modern Art
Yesterday I quit drinking coffee. This wasn’t my choice; it was on the advice of my medical professional. He’s loads of fun; this regimen also precludes alcohol, sugar, wheat and dairy. None of those other things caused me a moment’s trouble, but the coffee? I’ve been drinking it since I was nine years old. I like the taste, the smell, the buzz. Coffee is a very mild stimulant, I thought, and dropping it out of my diet should be no big deal.

Wrong. I have withdrawal symptoms in spades: headache, tremors, and the need to sleep forever. I looked out at the snow piling up in the driveway, said a bleary “fuggetaboutit” and cancelled my appointment for the afternoon.
Two Lovers Beneath an Umbrella in the Snow, color woodblock print, c. 1767, Suzuki Harunobu, courtesy Art Institute of Chicago
Clearly, coffee is a much bigger player in my biochemistry than I thought. It’s clearly a physical addiction, but it’s one I’ve never paid attention to. That got me wondering what other habits are running in the background, messing with the fine-tuning of my operating system.

When I’m on the road, I can be outside in the field painting by the time the sun clears the trees. My blog is written, I’m showered, my lunch—such as it is—is made, and my gear is set up. Why, then, does it take me until late morning to get into my studio at home? I’m not lazy; in fact, I’m pretty darned disciplined.
The Cradle, 1872, Berthe Morisot, courtesy Musée d'Orsay
It’s this infernal machine I’m holding in my hands. Much of what it shoots at me is chaff, but some things are important. Is there a way to quit my computer like I quit coffee? I don’t think so.

“Back when I first decided to become a painter, of my ‘art’ time, I spent 80% of it painting and 20% on marketing. Now, a couple of decades later, I spend 20% on painting and 80% on marketing,” lamented Michael Chesley Johnson yesterday. I feel his pain.

That’s not all I do on this machine. I use my computer to ‘talk’ to my friends, read the news, and keep in contact with my adult kids and grandkids. But those are things I enjoy. Relationship is programmed into our minds; our systems rise to it like fish to a lure.

On the other hand, that’s what I said about coffee.
The Resurrection, Cookham, 1924–7, Sir Stanley Spencer, courtesy the Tate
Next week, I’m going to gum up my productivity still farther, by having my grandchildren here for the week. We’ll go see if Little Bear is still sleeping, take a twirl or two on our skates, and visit the beach. All painting will be with tempera on a very short easel.

Love may be an addiction, but it’s the heart of living. Happy Valentine’s Day!

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Nocturnes, fear and longing

Now the outsider is us, alone in the dark, excluded from whatever is going on in that beautiful spot of light.
Nocturne in Grey and Gold: Chelsea Snow, 1896, James McNeill Whistler, courtesy Fogg Art Museum
Last week my husband was studying a beautiful nocturne by the Taos painter Oscar E. Berninghaus. The dim light is a soft greenish-blue, and he wondered why. Berninghaus didn’t have the advantage of ‘knowing’ what the night sky looks like through color photography. That gave him the liberty to paint what he felt and saw.

The human eye can’t make the adjustment between gloom and brilliance very fast. Because of this, modern photography and lighting have changed how we paint nocturnes, as I wrote here. The change is technological but it also reflects our changing worldview. Nocturnes are about fear and longing as much as they are about design.

Nocturne: Blue and Silver: Chelsea, 1871, James McNeill Whistler, courtesy Tate Museum
Night-painting evolved into its own discipline in the 19th century, about the same time as the first gas lights were invented. This corresponds to the Industrial Revolution and urbanization in Europe and America. Suddenly, people were out of their beds and working and playing until all hours.

James McNeill Whistler, more than anyone else, made the nocturne an important subject for painting. His nocturnes are reticent, diffuse and spare. They resolutely refuse to tell any stories. “I care nothing for the past, present, or future of the black figure, placed there because the black was wanted at that spot,” he said of Nocturne in Grey and Gold: Chelsea Snow.

Whistler is credited for ushering in modern art with these nocturnes. “By using the word ‘nocturne’ I wished to indicate an artistic interest alone, divesting the picture of any outside anecdotal interest which might have been otherwise attached to it. A nocturne is an arrangement of line, form and colour first,” he wrote.

Apache Scouts Listening, 1908, Frederic Remington, courtesy National Gallery of Art
His peer in nocturne painting was Frederic Remington. He didn’t particularly like Whistler’s arty-farty attitude to painting, or his nocturnes. “Whistler's talk was light as air and the bottom of a cook stove was like his painting,” he wrote in his diary. Remington, trained as an illustrator, was primarily a storyteller.

He painted his nocturnes late in his short life, as he tried to find a transitional path between illustration and fine painting. The dark, wavering light of night provided a relief from excessive observation. “Cut down and out—do your hardest work outside the picture and let your audience take away something to think about—to imagine,” he wrote in 1903.

The End of the Day, c.1904, Frederic Remington, courtesy Frederic Remington Art Museum
What was ‘outside the picture’ was often the most important element. Consider Apache Scouts Listening (1908). There’s a fantastic diagonal composition that draws us to the wavering black tree line in the distance. Shadows are cast by unseen trees in the foreground. The crouching scouts listen to some sound we can’t hear, as does the trooper. Even the horses are on edge.

Whistler and Remington had even less photographic color reference than did Berninghaus. That’s why their night skies are so fascinating—they could be any color or texture. The contrast is low, and the unlit night sky is brighter and more varied than we see today.
Rooms for Tourists, 1945, Edward Hopper, courtesy Yale University
Set their nocturnes against those of later artists like Edward Hopper or contemporary painter Linden Frederick. Their skies are inky blue or black, thrown into utter darkness by the ever-present electric lights.

Likewise, the narrative has been completely set on its head. Now, what’s ‘outside the picture’ is us. We’re alone in the dark, excluded from whatever human activity is going on inside.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Two fine painters taken by cancer too soon

Both will be remembered as far more than the sum of their work. We should all aspire to that.
Jorge, by James Asher, courtesy of the artist's website.
When I met painter Jim Asher, he and his wife, Joe Anna Arnett, had just learned that he had untreatable esophageal cancer. One would never have known that from their demeanor. They had invited the painters of Santa Fe Plein Air Fiesta to their home, a 1930s adobe that was featured on This Old House. Despite their personal disaster, they soldiered through.

Jim and I talked briefly about his diagnosis, as I’m a cancer survivor myself. We talked much more extensively about the North Atlantic, which they both knew well and loved.
Joe Anna Arnett and James Asher, courtesy Santa Fe New Mexican.
In the normal course of things, I would not have attended his memorial service. However, I was in New Mexico with our mutual friend, Jane Chapin. It seemed wrong to send her alone. 

The service celebrated Jim’s life’s work, which was notable and well-recognized. But the central theme was love. Jim loved his family, friends, fishing, poetry—and, of course, painting. Others mourned the loss of that love; I walked away with a keen regret that I hadn’t met him decades ago.

That same day, another fine painter, Walter Lynn Mosley, died on the other side of the country. Walter had been suffering visibly from throat cancer since long before he told the world, growing thinner with each passing month. I knew him from the Art Students League but mostly kept up with him through my friends in New York Plein Air Painters, and, of course, on Facebook.
Walter Lynn Mosley, courtesy Cloud Gallery.
Walter was a Brooklynite by choice but a Southerner by birth, and it showed in his manner. He was a kind, gentle, man, humble in his very fine painting skills. His graveside service will be private, and his family asks that donations be made in lieu of flowers “to local artists and faith communities in his honor.”

In neither case did my thoughts leap to their work when I heard of their deaths. I thought of the men themselves and of the people they left behind.

Once, a long time ago, I was moaning about some material setback, now long forgotten. “In the end,” my wise friend Toby told me, “what does it matter? We all end up in a recliner in a nursing home somewhere.” Or a hospital bed, or if we’re exceedingly lucky, we can have a quiet death at home.

That is inescapable. None of us take anything with us—not our work, not the encomiums we have earned here on earth, not even a passport stamped with our good works on behalf of others.
Williamsburg Bridge Sunrise, Walter Lynn Mosley, courtesy artist's own website.
“The grave’s a fine and private place/But none, I think, do there embrace,” wrote Andrew Marvell in the 17th century. We may have invented a whole new world since then, but that truth remains inescapable. We still must seize the day.

And if we’re remembered as nothing more than painters, we hardly deserve remembering at all.

Jim was, at the end of his life, able to peek through heaven’s doors twice, and he came back to tell his family about it. “The next time, I think I’ll stay,” he told them—and he did.

A week before he died, Walter posted a video on Facebook where he claimed healing through Jesus Christ. You may scoff, but he has that final healing now. Godspeed to both of them, until we meet again.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Monday Morning Art School: how to set up a studio on the cheap

Our ancestors produced masterpieces in badly-lighted, small, cold cramped spaces. You don't need to spend a fortune to furnish a studio.
The Testrite #500 easel has served me well for many, many years.
I recently got an email about how to set up a studio. After counting about $20,000 in construction and equipment, I laughed and pitched it in the trash. For most new painters, such an expenditure is not justified. Buy expensive easels, taborets, and lighting systems if you can afford them and like pretty things. But never confuse equipment with competence. Nobody ever painted better because he or she had pricey equipment.

When I first started painting professionally, my ‘studio’ was a corner of my kitchen. I had toddlers then, and I worked when I could steal time. The basement was damp and moldy, with occasional freshets of water across the floor. There was simply no room for a dedicated painting space.

Autumn in the Genesee Valley, by Carol L. Douglas. Pastel dust is a bigger environmental concern than oil paint in a small space.
So I threw down a mat to protect the kitchen floor and set up an easel by my son’s high chair. For a taboret, I used an old rolling kitchen cart. I retired it, eventually. Now I’m using a hand-me-down taboret from a retired artist friend. You can buy used rolling kitchen cabinets for $25-50. They’re durable and have storage and a wooden top. The only functional difference between them and the pricey oak cabinets at the art store is that they don’t come with pretty stainless-steel turps cans. Use a coffee can with a coiled wire or pebbles on the bottom. It works just as well.

My teaching studio is furnished with Testrite #500 aluminum easels. They’re less than $100. Mine have survived a few decades of student abuse. When a part gets lost—as they inevitably do—I just buy a replacement online.

Mohawk Valley midnight, by Carol L. Douglas. Oil pastels are less likely to go airborne, and sometimes they're fun to goof around with.
My own work easel is the Testrite #700, which handles 60” square canvases with no trouble. Anything bigger, I just lean on a wall. I think aluminum easels are great value for money, especially if you’re in a climate with big humidity changes.

The best light source you can have is a north- or east-facing window. If you lack that, you used to have to buy expensive daylight florescent tubes or an Ott Light. Now you can put LED daylight-balanced bulbs in a regular fixture. (These are not appropriate for video, however.)

Just as better lightbulb colors have dropped in price, so have air cleaning systems. I have a $5000 heat-exchanger/filter sitting in a case in my garage. It’s no longer necessary. The introduction of cheap HEPA filter air cleaners made it obsolete. (In general, it’s not the medium but the pigments that are dangerous in art. Worry more about pastel dust than your Gamsol or the vegetable oils in your paints.)

Niagara Falls, by Carol L. Douglas (pastel)
It’s a bad idea to clean your brushes in the kitchen sink. If you don’t have a utility sink, you can make a dry sink. Buy a used sink; our local ReStore always has them. A 5-gallon bucket underneath can catch your drain-water and a 2-liter soda bottle is sufficient to clean most brushes. If that’s too big for your space, be sure to scour your sink carefully after each art cleanup. You don’t want to add pigment to your food.

I use a tie rack, set on its side, as a drying rack for boards and a plate rack for canvases. If a canvas is large enough to need extra support, I simply put a piece of cardboard behind it while it dries.

I bought my flat files used from a printing shop that was going out of business. They’re the one thing that doesn’t have a real-world analog that’s cheaper, but they’re also heavy and take up a lot of real estate. If your collection of papers, etc. is small, you can put it in flat cardboard frame boxes and store it under your bed(s).

Now, to catch my plane!

Friday, February 8, 2019

Places we shouldn’t have tried to go

As long as we have three wheels on the ground, we’re fine, she insisted.
Below the Ridge, by Carol L. Douglas.
If you’ve worked with me in the last few years, you know that I can no longer stand to paint. My back has given me fits since I had radiation twenty years ago. I’ve seen three different surgeons since then. The consensus was that I wasn’t a good candidate for spinal surgery.

Last summer, a fellow painter gave me a prescription pain patch for my lower back. With that, codeine, and a brace I stood long enough to do a (bad) Quick Draw. I could barely sit to drive home to Maine.

Doctors are thin on the ground where we live, so we see a nurse practitioner. He suggested I try physical therapy for my back. I’ve been at it for a bit more than a month now, twice a week when I’m home. I try very hard to do my assigned exercises no matter where I am.

Snow sublimates rapidly at this altitude, even in sub-freezing temperatures.
After Jimmy the Donkey came to help me paint on Tuesday, I decided I’d best try to stand for a while. I trust him, but he shares his pasture with two horses. It felt great—better by far than sitting. I’ve now stood to paint for the past three days. It hasn’t been perfect, but if I have a nearby fence or branch to stabilize myself with, I’m fine. Miracles come in many forms, and one of them is my physical therapist.

The snow here is lighter and finer than what’s back east, and the sun so intense that it rapidly burns off of south-facing exposures. Jane Chapin and I drove to a nearby hamlet to paint log barns in the snow. It was in the teens and low twenties when we started, with a stiff wind. Even as we shivered, the local dogs basked comfortably at our feet.
The beautiful dogs that kept me company while I painted. Don't they look like lions in the dry grass?
I doubt these dogs have a breed name; I've heard them called ‘Mexican dogs’. They’re often brindle- or golden-coated, with strong terrier bodies and lots of smarts. These two kept me company during Santa Fe Plein Air Fiesta, and they were back again as if no time at all had passed. They’re such fine animals that if the opportunity to buy a puppy presented itself, I’d seriously consider it.

There are roads here that are no more than lanes. Slipping down one with difficulty, our canine pals trotting at our side, we came to a point where we couldn’t see over the drop. It was time to back our way out. Piñon and white pine branches that had moved grudgingly when we were heading forward, steadfastly refused to budge as we backed out. “That’ll buff out,” Jane said optimistically. I hope so; it’s her truck.

By the time we were done painting, my hands were so cold I could no longer even draw accurately.
We tried the high road. “I think there’s a turnaround right past the overlook,” Jane said. Possibly, but the road was drifted in. There was a thousand-foot drop to our left. Still, Jane managed to do a 37-point turn to get us out of there. “As long as we have three wheels on the ground, we’re fine,” she said as I gingerly opened one eye.

Jane is very petite, and that truck is very large, but she handled it like a pro. She’d be a great one to paint in the Arctic with, but at that point, a warm lunch by the stove sounded like a more prudent plan.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Why the details matter

Super-simplified paintings may intrigue at first, but do they have enough information to satisfy over time?
Snow at higher elevations, by Carol L. Douglas
Yesterday we let the software engineer out of his cage. He traveled down to Pecos National Historical Park with us. He could get a signal enabling him to work. Meanwhile, we painted a snow squall approaching across the Sangre de Cristo mountains. (We’re limited to satellite here on the ranch and a tethered hotspot is faster.)

As is true on the ocean, the sight-lines in the west are extended. You have hours to watch weather unfold. It made for great painting for us, and a nice work setting for him.

A friend once told me, “I’d never date an engineer; they’re too boring.” I’ve found exactly the opposite to be true. This one has an undergraduate arts degree and is a serious musician as well as being a programmer. When he talks about aesthetics, I listen.
An abandoned farmstead in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
We took him for a brief walk through a small, abandoned farmstead with log and stone barns. It was where I’d spent most of my time during Santa Fe Plein Air Fiesta last April. The difficulty, I’d found, was in the surfaces, which are textured and edgy and needed more definition than my usual painting style. How could I paint them convincingly without being too detailed?

Alla prima painting applies a low-pass filter over everything,” he told me. “You need a way to convey high-frequency information in some places.” Huh?

Think about the sound of clapping. It’s impulsive and unexpected. If you were to look at a graph of it, you would see a spike. That’s what they call a high-frequency sound, and it’s exactly the same as a line, a dot, or an edge in your painting—in other words, it’s a big, sudden, value shift, packed with information. It gets your attention. It’s the opposite of low-frequency sounds, which are more like the hum of your dishwasher in the background.

Our office on the road. My trusty Prius is not up to this terrain. (Photo courtesy of Douglas Perot)
There are low-frequency passages in painting, too. A grey sky is an extreme example. Nothing much changes there. When you save a photo at too low a resolution and it gets blurry, it’s essentially been subjected to a low-pass filter.

When your teacher tells you, “focus on big shapes,” or “ignore the detail,” he or she is telling you to apply a low-pass filter to your painting. In general, that’s good advice—within limits.

And then there was snow, and a gravel road up a mountain ridge. (Photo courtesy of Douglas Perot)
In photography, those blurry, low-resolution photos may intrigue at first glance, but they aren’t that satisfying over time. In the long run, that may be true of paintings as well.

The trick, I think, is to vary high information passages with super-simplified ones. It's a good goal but it’s not always possible in plein air painting, where you often have to quit before you think you’re finished.
Horno in the snow, by Carol L. Douglas. I haven't looked out yet to see how much stuck.
And that was exactly what happened to us. One minute, it was dark and cold, and the next, snow was swirling everywhere, obscuring our view.  We slipped up the road back to the ranch. I’m hoping for snow-cover to last through today. If it doesn’t, I’m sure we’ll find something to paint.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

There’s no law west of the Pecos

Suffering from over-the-next-hill-itis? Over the next hill it is, then.

Snow along the Pecos River, by Carol L. Douglas.
I’m in New Mexico with painter Jane Chapin. She’s prepping for surgery on her painting hand; I’m doing physical therapy for my back. Some people might think we ought to be in a retirement home. Instead, we’re ducking under four-strand fences, stomping over icy trails, and generally making a nuisance of ourselves far beyond cell-phone range.

The mountains along the headwaters of the Pecos River are some of the most beautiful country in the world. I painted them while on crutches last spring and did about as well as could be expected. Now my arms are truly free, and I have more mobility.

There wasn’t snow on the desert floor yesterday, but it still filled washes in the higher elevations. It has the granularized texture of old snow; they got a lot of it earlier this winter and it’s lingering. More is predicted. That’s good news in this arid landscape.

The critic is an ass. Photo courtesy of Jane Chapin.
What joy is to be found in painting in snow? It’s hard to struggle in and out of your snowsuit. Painters with circulatory deficits may find their hands hurt, and warm boots are a must. But if you can do it, there’s simply no experience like it.

Snow reflects colors and form like no other surface (other than the sea). It throws pure light back at you, perfectly reflecting the peaches, blues and purples of the western sky. It sets light relations on their heads, putting the lightest colors at the bottom of the canvas and the highest chromas in the sky.

But there’s no point in trying to do it from photos. They simply don’t capture the range of color and texture in real snow. There’s no sculptural form. Everything is flattened to a uniform, dull, white. “It is hard to get the feeling of winter without feeling the winter,” Stapleton Kearns once said.

Upper reaches of the Pecos River, by Carol L. Douglas
Jane’s horses are in their winter pasturage down by the Pecos River. We chose a corner of their space to paint in. Scout and Lucy were uninterested, but Jimmy the donkey had no compunctions about expressing his opinion. It took several minutes of ear-twitching before he gave me the full ears-up.  “The critic is an ass,” mused Jane.

From there we drove up to Cowles Lake, hoping to get a good painting view of snow-covered Pecos Baldy. This is 4WD country. Our Toyota Tundra 4X4 didn't look like too much truck at all as we fishtailed through slush and ice.

The Cabana Trail is closed for the season, and there were no safe overlooks on the switchbacks. Photos would have to do. The great risk of plein air painting is the temptation to drive around looking for a better view. “I suffer from over-the-hill-itis as much as the next person, but we have to settle down somewhere,” said Jane.

Barbed wire is tough on horses, but it does make a handy sketch-holder.
We stopped and did one more small painting, of the Pecos winding below a wildfire-swept ridge. I love mountains that have suffered forest fires. In the short decades before new growth covers them, their bones are open to examination. It was dark by the time we returned to the ranch, happy, cold and tired. This is the best of plein air painting.