Paint Schoodic

We're offering three workshops for 2020, at Acadia National Park and aboard the schooner American Eagle. Register before January 1 for an Early Bird Discount!

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Uncovering your mark and more

Two opportunities to learn in mid-coast Maine
Meeting Up, by Ann Trainor Domingue, acrylic on canvas
Baby Joshua and his mom are doing great, so I can concentrate on work again. There are several things I should have told you about and missed with the excitement of the last two weeks. Here are two very important ones.

I’m bringing Ann Trainor Domingue to teach a day-long workshop in my studio because she does something that seems magical to me, and I want to know how. Ann paints lyrical, mysterious, narrative paintings, seemingly drawn from within her own psyche. “I love the same things you do about New England. I just reflect on them in a different light,” she says. Annie’s developed a series of exercises to loosen up our thinking, and they will be good for everyone, no matter what their style.

Here's Annie!
Uncovering Your Mark, with Ann Trainor Domingue

Sat June 6th, 10-4
Carol L. Douglas Studio
394 Commercial Street, Rockport, ME 04856
Cost $95 per person.

Confused by too many options? Feel uninspired? Need help to get back to your artmaking? Uncovering Your Mark workshop could be just what you need to find your way!

Discover personally meaningful imagery and ideas through a fun guided exploration of things you love. Bring clarity and focus to help make sense as you implement fresh ideas for this phase of your lifelong art journey.

Think quietly about what kinds of things energize you. Sort and combine insights to form something new that feels more authentic by finding your mark.

Take time to work on loose sketches to explore these exciting new ideas and directions to help you stay on your path.

This workshop is a hands-on class aimed at artists of all levels. The first part of the class is a process of guided inquiry. Then, students will apply their self-discoveries through small scale sketching exercises and preliminary color play. It’s strictly limited to twelve students so you’ll get lots of attention. Every style is welcome.

Ann Trainor Domingue is a graduate of Rhode Island College with a BA Studio degree in painting. Her career has included working in adver­tising, as a teacher and as a painter. She is represented in public collections and galleries nationwide.

Download a flyer here or a registration form here.

Tin-foil hat, by Carol L. Douglas. You don't have to learn about painting reflections by looking at a vase!
Next session of weekly classes in my Rockport studio starts next week.

Some people wonder what we paint when the winter weather drives our class indoors. I build still lives, but they aren’t typical. For example, yesterday’s creation was a clash of greens including pine boughs, gift bags, wine bottles and more. The idea was to learn to mix and use a medley of greens without using any green out of a tube. That's excellent preparation for spring, which really is just around the corner.

Marie told me, “I always come in and see a still life and think, ‘ugh’, but then I get into it and it’s great.” I’m not interested in still-life as a genre either, but I think painting from life is critically important, so I make an effort to make them unusual and interesting.

Back it up (hard drive and bubble wrap), by Carol L. Douglas
Working in my studio gives us a great opportunity to focus on color theory and technique. We have more time to concentrate on mixing colors and brushwork than we do in the field, where the demands of the scene takes over.

Our next mid-coast Maine painting session will meet on Tuesday mornings, from 10-1. The dates are:

February 25
March 3
March 10 (followed by a two-week break while I hare off to Argentina)
March 31
April 7
April 14

Peppers, by Carol L. Douglas
Painters are encouraged to broaden their skills in drawing, brushwork and color. Your own individual style will be nurtured. We’ll learn how to paint boldly, with fresh, clean color, to build commanding compositions, and to use hue, value and line to draw the eye through our paintings.

Watercolor, oils, pastels and acrylics are welcome. Because it’s a small group, I can work with painters of all levels. The fee is $200 for the six-week session, and we meet at 394 Commercial Street in Rockport.

Monday, February 17, 2020

Monday Morning Art School: softly, softly

The edge is where everything is happening. There are many ways to control it.
Brad Marshall’s painting of coral in Maui (unfinished).
Edges are where one shape ends and another starts. This might mean a border between two things, or it might be a fold or shadow within an object. Either way, there are many ways to approach edges. One way to control the line is the lost and found edge.  Softness is another.

My friend Brad Marshall is working on a painting of a coral reef right now, and it’s a stellar example of keeping it soft. He graciously allowed me to use his work here.
Brad Marshall’s color block-in. He’s soft right from the start.
We’ve talked a lot about the importance of line in painting. Sharp edges with high contrast draw your attention. But to be effective, they require other passages where edges aren’t as crisp. In the case of this reef, Brad was seeking a special optical effect of being underwater, where things are blurry and greenish-blue.  

Looking at the screen on which you’re reading this, you’ll note items in the periphery of your vision. The screen is in focus, but the items on the edges are blurred. This is how our eyes work—we have a highly developed cone of vision, and some peripheral vision to keep us oriented. You can take that same principle into your painting, to direct the eye into looking at what you want it to notice.
“Painted midground coral (except for that little one in the crevice. Keeping edges on soft. A little lighter and darker to push it forward from the background,” said Brad.
Brad started his painting softly because of the subject. But it’s also important because the coral at the bottom of the canvas has the potential to be the strongest draw. It’s lighter in color, and it’s closer to the viewer. But Brad, being a pro, isn’t going to be suckered into that rookie mistake. By keeping the painting very soft at the beginning, he is able to control where and what he concentrates on.

This is a studio painting being built in layers. That gives Brad ample time to work with thin paint handled wet-on-wet. In addition to his brushwork, he developed softness by carefully controlling value and hue shifts. Even in his central motifs he started with an underlying natural blur.

“Here is a close-up detail. I wanted to give it a soft-focus look.”
In oil painting, soft edges can be made by dragging a brush from one color to another, or painting directly into another color. Oil paints are absolute champs at blending and softening. So too is watercolor: washes and wet paper will assure you that edges stay soft until you want them to be defined.

Gouache and acrylic (correctly applied and not just mimicking watercolor) are not nearly as useful for blending. However, you can achieve the same effect of softened edges by employing optical blending.

In fact, since the 19th century, many oil painters (myself included) have generally eschewed the broad range of blending that oil paints offer. We’ve been influenced by Impressionism. We use flat blocks of closely analogous color to get the effect of blending without the brushwork.
Cliff Rock, Appledore, 1903, Childe Hassam, courtesy Indianapolis Museum of Art
Consider the Childe Hassam painting, above. He used optical blending to create the effect of blurriness that Brad is getting with brushwork. Note that the top of the rock outcrop is the same value as the sea. Your eye doesn’t notice the edge any more than it would have had he blended the edges with a brush.

Hassam used a staggering array of brushwork in his painting to create a variety of edges. However, none of it was done with traditional blending. Looked at closely, each color is distinct from its fellows.

Friday, February 14, 2020

Painters of the middle class

There’s no shame in painting what people love, as long as you do it well.
Two chattering housewives, 1655, Nicolaes Maes, courtesy Dordrechts Museum
If I weren’t in Buffalo, I could fly to see Nicolaes Maes: Dutch Master of the Golden Age, opening on February 22 at the National Gallery in London. (London and Los Angeles are roughly equidistant from my house, so that’s not as daft as it seems.)

The Dutch Golden Age (the 17th century, roughly) was when trade brought prosperity to the Netherlands. That, in turn, fostered a flowering of scientific thought, military might and culture. The conditions that made this possible were the nation’s recent liberation from Spanish rule, a solid Protestant work ethic, and the development of a new kind of business: the corporation.

The Dutch East India Company was founded in 1602. It was the first multinational corporation and it was created by exchanging shares on the first modern stock exchange. This may seem humdrum to us, but at a time when for most of the world wealth and poverty were inherited conditions, it allowed for the creation of thriving merchant and middle classes.
The Eavesdropper, 1657, Nicolaes Maes, courtesy Dordrechts Museum
Until the Dutch Golden Age, great art was commissioned by extremely wealthy people, who essentially dictated the tastes of the times. Suddenly, middle class people were buying art. This radically changed what artists painted.

The Dutch Reformed church and Dutch nationalism informed the aesthetic of Golden Age painting. Catholic Baroque was out; simplicity and Calvinist austerity were in. Dutch art concentrated on reality and ordinary life at all levels of society. The focus on realism is why the period is sometimes called Dutch Realism.

Always that realism was invested with meaning. Significant in this worldview was a rapid growth in landscape painting, particularly as it represented unique Dutch values and scenes. A windmill on a flat plain or a boat at sea may seem like tropes today, but they were symbols of heroism to the audience of the time.

The Dutch painted lavish still lives that seem overly full and overripe to modern eyes. They were simultaneously objects of beauty, symbols of abundance, and full of symbolic meaning. Among these are floral vanitas paintings, done with scientific accuracy while warning us of our ultimate destiny.

The Virtuous Woman, c. 1656, Nicolaes Maes, courtesy Wallace Collection
Genre painting underwent a renaissance, because home and hearth were as important to these middle-class buyers as they were irrelevant to princes elsewhere. Nicolaes Maes was among the most important of these genre painters. After studying with Rembrandt for five years, he hung out his shingle, first in Dordrecht and then in Amsterdam. Like so many artists, he didn’t specialize in the beginning, painting whatever was necessary to make a living. After about 1660 he focused on lucrative portrait paintings. It was a good strategy, because he died a very wealthy man.

The contemporary American artist has two broad market paths open to him. The first is to produce conceptual art that is meaningful to high-flyers in New York. The second is to produce work that appeals to middle-class buyers. If the latter is your target audience you can learn a lot by studying the careers and subjects of Maes and his peers.

There are those who sneer at plein air painting even as it develops into the largest modern movement in painting. But the critical message of the Dutch Golden Age is that there’s no shame in painting what people love, as long as you do it well.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

When things don’t go as planned

I'm sorry I've missed posting on this blog, but I was overtaken by events.
Baby Joshua and his Nuk, by Carol L. Douglas.
Last Saturday was to be my daughter’s baby shower. I had an orderly exit planned. I’d write my Friday blog, pack my car, stop in Rockport, Massachusetts to drop off work at Folly Cove Fine Art, and head to Buffalo. All that ended with a phone call. Laura was preeclamptic and they were taking the baby at 31 weeks. He had passed the threshold of viability so it was safe for him to be born.

I’ve faced my own health trials with equanimity. It’s different when it’s your kid. Then, the need to do something is almost overwhelming. My husband and I dropped everything and headed out. It took us two days to get to Buffalo, since our trip collided with back-to-back winter storms, but we were here in time for baby Joshua’s entry into the world.
The smallest preemie diaper, left, and the one Joshua is in, right. It's miraculous that such tiny babies are born with everything they need to not just survive, but thrive.
Laura’s blood pressure refuses to drop, so she’s parked in a hospital bed. She is anxious to be sprung. But she’s really better off than when she goes home and has to drive every day to see her son. Her careful plan did not allow for weeks in the NICU and the added cost on a high- deductible insurance plan, so she’s trying to strategize to minimize the damage.

I spent five weeks in hospital when she was born and was equally anxious about similar things. But from this vantage point, I know that the problems fade and the turning point is what matters. We’re designed to be ambitious at thirty and wise at sixty. That’s one reason we live in intergenerational family relationships.
My son-in-law drawing his son in the NICU.
Baby Joshua is perfectly miniaturized and wonderfully robust for a 31-week preemie. He rapidly learned to grasp with his tiny fingers and pulled out his vent. Now he’s on oxygen and he’s yanked the cannula out, too. He’s tolerating tiny amounts of formula and I’m almost certain he’s got eyeballs under those resolutely-closed lids.

A nurse showed us the smallest preemie diaper, which I could use to bandage a finger. “Even the smallest twenty-something-weeks ones are born with all the parts they need to survive,” she said. “I don’t see how anyone could look at that and not believe,” she added.

I asked staff members why they thought this small Catholic hospital has become the go-to place to have babies. Certainly, the care is top-notch. “It’s a good place to work and that means the staff are happy,” said a nurse manager. I know my anesthesiologist friend came here thirty years ago because he did not want to do abortions. I have to believe that the Catholic culture of life has an impact. There’s certainly no fatalism in this NICU.

St. Francis covered in snow outside Labor and Delivery. We're expecting another winter storm today. 
Joshua’s parents have very little contact with him. He’s in a temperature-controlled isolette, and all work done on him is through portholes. Aaron and Laura can gently stroke his arm, diaper him and take his temperature. Once every twelve hours they are allowed to hold him. It’s hard on the parents, but little Joshua doesn’t seem to care. He’s busy with his own things.

Because it was too late to cancel the baby shower, the hosts turned it into a 0th birthday party. Most out-of-town guests drove downtown to see the parents, threatening to swamp the new parents. Some resisted. “I’m on a ‘need-to-know’ basis, not a ‘need-to-see’ basis,” a wise guest said. I appreciated that attitude.

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Where are they now?

I asked last summer’s workshop students to share what they’re working on now. Some are painting like mad; others are weighed down with work, elder-care or other responsibilities, but they’re all doing art. That, to me, is their greatest success.

Ann Trainor Domingue

“I’m using small collage pieces to design much larger paintings. Exploring more graphic, simpler design, with my ‘relationship’ series. I’m basically continued on my coastal-inspired work but contemplating how to include aspects of the sailing adventure. In the above watercolor-and-ink I have used a rocky coastline with evergreens as found along the coasts we sailed past on the American Eagle.

 “Collage has been new for me. It is a way to simplify my designs, and I love using found small flat papers, packaging, fabric to build design I wouldn’t have using a drawing tool.”

(Note: Ann Trainor Domingue will be teaching a workshop in my studio on June 6. For more information, click here.)

Lisa Magoun

“I've been painting since this summer in watercolor.  I also take a class painting in acrylics with a palette knife. I sometimes run out of subjects and should paint the same thing more than once.  But I rarely do.” 

Jennifer Johnson

“I am currently enjoying a year full of endless summer by painting in Australia. Most of my efforts have been attempted inside because the annoying bush flies are worse than ever and it is hard to paint wearing a black bug net/veil.”

Patty Mabie

I am ‘wintering’ in Florida for the first time! We are staying in Key West until the end of February, then driving across the country and back in March, to visit our kids in Birmingham and LA, with stops in New Orleans, Austin, Tucson, the Grand Canyon and who knows where else along the way. Then Myrtle beach in April, and Colorado after that to go to the Plein Air Convention and do some painting with friends in the mountains.

I bring paints everywhere and even knock one out in the car once in a while (while someone else is driving, obviously), with my Guerilla pochade box and some Gamsol in the cup holder. I’ve been doing boat studies and palm trees. I found some local art organizations and a plein air group that meets on Wednesdays here, which is great. I’m also doing an online mentoring program with Matt Smith through Tucson Art Academy Online.

Rhea Zweifler

I've been very interested in paths and keying up local color and the interplay of compliments together in color instead of just copying one of the Group of Seven.

Jennifer Little

Since I returned from Maine, I have had more energy for painting than I've had since my twenties! That week of painting really opened up something, so thank you!  

Currently I am working from photos, some from Schoodic, but a theme I'm working on is related to humans and nature/the sea. I use family photos. There is something about the atmosphere in the candid shots - family dynamics, some have tension, some so serene. I am also exploring glazing geometric and hopefully dynamic skies with these organic sea scenes.

Rebecca Bense

I painted a study of sky every day in June, July and August. Then September came and I went back to my ‘real’ life, thinking I was going to keep this up for a year, but I found on day 10 of September that I was 5 days in arrears and what I had done was phoning it in. So, I stopped. Long and short: not much painting has been going on. I find myself exhausted. I decided to keep a sketch book-journal/planner and I have been doing these mandala type doodles out of ink and whatever I might have a hand. I am finding these so much fun and so little pressure to produce something. Also (not coincidentally) my drawing skills have improved.

I am teaching a drop-in watercolor class and about 80 students at a Montessori school. They range from 3 to 14 years of age. I also teach a differently-abled adults art class.

I get together with my plein air friends as much as I can. We paint outside when possible and often have at least one meal together. Nice bunch of peeps!

Sandy Waldo

The holidays are over and now winter settles in. With the business of the season painting became less of a priority. We had some snow over the weekend which inspired this view of my favorite walking trail.

Mary Ellen Pedersen

I worked on this for months in multiple versions. The boat was too big - too small - didn’t fit the right angles. I was working from a photo.  Then I just said it was my painting, not the photo, and was free. I was able to be creative with it and it now hangs in my daughter’s apartment in Tennessee. I actually like my dory and the age of the vessel. I think it looks old and well used. The water and sky are a combination of dry brush with paint and paper.

Robin Miller

I have applied new learnings to an old backlog of unfinished projects with commendable results, and completed three new paintings. They were not, alas, painted outside. I probably won't do much plein air until I can retire. But the new tools have definitely been helpful in moving through projects more quickly. And, since I tend to think of my work as a giant art project anyway, it has made that more fun as well. All in all, the Schoodic Workshop was excellent mind expansion, artistically and otherwise.

You can learn more about my workshops aboard schooner American Eagle here, or at Schoodic here. Rumor has it I’ll be teaching in New Mexico in September, but since the details aren’t yet finalized, just send me an email if you want to learn more.

Monday, February 3, 2020

Monday Morning Art School: don’t buy ‘hues’

The imperfection of paint is what gives it its liveliness and depth, but it also makes mixing colors tricky.
Autumn, by Carol L. Douglas. This painting contains no reds. The red tones are a combination of cadmium orange and quinacridone magenta.

A “hue,” is made a blend of less-expensive pigments that mimics more expensive ones. There is nothing inherently wrong with these pigments, but they don’t behave the same as the more expensive ones, and you should at least know what you’re buying.

Generally speaking, there’s little to be gained by buying a hue mimicking a more expensive pigment. If you are comfortable painting with a hue, then learn what’s in it and mix it yourself. You always have the greatest flexibility by working with pure pigments (rather than mixes) out of the tube.

How do you know if something is a hue, not a true pigment? First, ‘hue’ is often in the name, as in ‘cadmium yellow hue’. But you should learn to read the paint tubes, too. I’ve spelled that out in How to read a paint tube. It’s information every painter should know.

Three blues that look similar out of the tube, but behave very differently. The 'glaze' on the left is the undertone. Courtesy Gamblin paints
A mass tone is the color a pigment is straight out of the tube, dense and unmixed with another color. No real-world pigment is a pure color. While two pigments may look the same to the naked eye, their behavior when mixed can be radically different.

Undertone is the color revealed when a paint is spread thin enough that light bounces back up from the substrate. Some pigments are fairly consistent when moving from mass tone to undertone. Others have significant color shifts. This is where painting with hues can lead to muddy mixes, because they will not behave the same way as the original pigment.

Ultramarine, Prussian and phthalo blue are colors that shift radically from mass tone to undertone. They’re all so dark out of the tube that their differences aren’t apparent to the naked eye. But dilute them, and you’ll find a wide range of blues. Luckily, they’re all inexpensive pigments, so they’re never mimicked.

But they can be used to make hues of other colors—particularly phthalo, which is often found in viridian hue. Real viridian green (PG18) is a moderately staining, moderately dark and moderately dull blueish green. Viridian hue is terrifically staining and powerfully bright, because of its phthalo component.
Cadmium Red Hue is usually made with napthol red and a little white. They mix very differently, which is why the hue is a bad substitute for the real pigment. Courtesy Gamblin paints.
Cadmium red hue is usually a naphthol red with a small amount of white added. Out of the tube, the two paints are very similar, but they mix very differently. There’s nothing wrong with naphthol red; it’s my red of choice, but it doesn’t behave much like its cadmium cousin.

Even paints with the same pigments can have different undertones depending on the manufacturer. That comes back to the imperfectability of pigments and their essential complexity.

A drawdown test showing a paint's undertone. Courtesy Utrecht paints.
If you're considering two different pigments, or thinking about switching brands, you can test them. It's fast and easy. To see their mass tone, put a small dab of paint on a smooth white board or glass palette and draw it down with a knife, creating a uniform, solid stripe that completely obscures the painting surface.

To see the undertone, draw the samples down again so they are translucent. You should be able to see minute variations in the color, and in the covering power.

This old paint chart from my childhood explains tints, shades and tones. It’s so old, it’s from before they banned black. 😉
But to understand the behavior of each more fully, you need to make tints, tones and shades of each sample.
  • A tint is a color plus white.
  • A shade is a color plus black.
  • A tone is a color plus black and white.
Even when the mass tone appears quite similar, two close colors will act very differently when mixed. Their unique qualities of tinting strength, chroma, undertone and color temperature come into play here. But mixing paint with white or black immediately adds another layer of complexity. Different blacks and whites have their own undertones. Titanium white is cool. Zinc white is warmer, but it’s also brittle and thin, making it a bad choice for general painting. Ivory black is slightly warm.

Friday, January 31, 2020

Go ahead, Senators. Doodle.

If you’re fidgety, it will help you hear better.

Church sketch by Carol L. Douglas
“I just heard on the news that Rand Paul has been sketching during the impeachment trial. One of the reporters added that Paul was really good at drawing,” my pal texted me last week.

Paul has been good at keeping his drawing on the low-down, however. Neither my friend nor I could find any examples online. (Perhaps that’s because there was a mid-century advertising art director named Paul Rand, whom Google likes better for art.)

Drawing is much better than a fidget-spinner, I said to a friend. He strongly disagreed. “They should be paying attention!”

Church sketch by Carol L. Douglas
As a former hyperactive student (they hadn’t invented ADHD back then), I know that not all of us are wired to sit still and listen. I’m married to a church musician, which means that occasionally I sit through two services. I can do it because I also draw in church. I’m paying enough attention that I could tell you—in some detail—how the pastor changed up his sermon between the two services.

That’s a little different from Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), who read a book during the trial. “Busy mamas are the best at multi-tasking. Try it,” she tweeted.

She’s flat-out wrong. You can’t hear and read words at the same time and process them both. They’re using parallel channels in the brain. To some degree, multitasking is a myth. Yes, you watch TV while folding laundry, but when you try to do two high-end brain tasks at once, you’re overflowing your working memory, inhibiting creative thinking, and reducing productivity.

Church sketch by Carol L. Douglas
Occasionally, my students will mention that they see things differently once they start to draw or paint. That’s because drawing changes how the brain works, as surely as studying music or language does. This is neuroplasticity in action.

Before the invention of the camera, all educated people were expected to know how to draw. Being able to depict something was almost as important as writing. Nobody had the luxury of saying, “I can’t draw a straight line.”

Church sketch by Carol L. Douglas
That’s why I still love this old news from Scientific American. Dr. Jennifer Landin of North Carolina State University expects and gets beautiful drawings from her biology students. “Drawing is merely making lines and dots on paper. If you can write your name, you can draw,” she wrote. “But we all take shortcuts when we see; often our brains fool us, and we skip over most visual details.”

Kids draw all the way through childhood until they reach adolescence. Why they stop is not well-studied, but cultural factors surely play a part. Not only do we devalue the arts in our culture, but we believe that only people with talent (whatever that is) can do them. As Dr. Landin so wonderfully demonstrated, talent is mostly about doing the work.

Church sketch by Carol L. Douglas
I sketch in church because I process words better when my hands are in motion. I’m not alone in that; it’s why so many people knit. But try applying that principle to school or some workplaces, and rationality breaks down. The modern answer to restlessness and anxiety is drugs. That’s criminal.

Dr. Landin knows that drawing an object cements it in the mind in a way that simple observation cannot do. My experiences drawing in church tell me that the same thing is true about abstract concepts like grace or community.

“Real life isn’t neatly divided by subject,” wrote Dr. Landin. Society would do well to remember that.

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

She was no victim

She was married (miserably) at age 17 to save her family’s fortunes. She not only survived, but went on to create a new art form.
Mary Delany (née Granville), date unknown, by John Opie, courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London
Mary Granville Delany was an eighteenth century English bluestocking. She survived an awful first marriage to become famous in later life as an artist.

Mary Granville grew up in the last years of the Stuart royal family. She had a traditional feminine education that would have served her well had her family’s ambition been manifested.  That was that she would become a Maid of Honour to Anne, Queen Regnant of Great Britain. With Anne’s death in 1714 and the passing of the British throne to the Hanoverians, these aspirations came to naught.

Passiflora laurifolia L., collage, by Mary Granville Delany, courtesy of the British Museum
Mary’s Tory family had backed the wrong horse. To compensate, she was married off at age 17 to an alcoholic Parliamentarian 43 years her senior. Her uncle’s grim hope was that when Alexander Pendarves died, Mary’s inheritance would compensate her for her misery.

Later, Mary wrote, “when I was led to the altar, I wished from my soul, I had been led, as Iphigenia was, to be sacrificed. I was sacrificed.” And upon his death seven years later, Mary found he’d left her nothing but a widow’s pension. He’d never bothered to rewrite his will.

Pancratium maritimum L., collage, by Mary Granville Delany, courtesy of the British Museum
But he’d inadvertently left her something invaluable. Widows could move through society, unlike wives or unmarried women. Adept at the social arts, Mary became a traveling houseguest, landing eventually in the home of the Duchess of Portland. She was the wealthiest woman in England and a keen amateur botanist.

Mary had no shortage of suiters, but she wasn’t inclined to remarry. In 1743, however, she was proposed to by a man she’d known for over a decade. Dr. Patrick Delany was a widower, churchman and passionate botanist and gardener. But he was also a commoner. The Granvilles balked at the perceived misalliance. She married him anyway. It was a true love match.

Delany encouraged his wife in her artwork, which included painting, shell-work, paper-cutting and needlework. They were happily married for 25 years. But at the age of 68, Mary Delany was again a widow.
Rubus odoratus L., collage, by Mary Granville Delany, courtesy of the British Museum
She returned to her friend, now the Dowager Duchess of Portland, at Bulstrode Park, where the Duchess housed her enormous botany collection. It was there that Mary Delany met botanists Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander and where Mary developed the first collage in western art.

Decoupage was fashionable among ladies of the court. Mary melded it with paper-cutting, designing what she called ‘paper mosaicks’ of flowers. She cut minute bits of colored tissue paper, using lighter and darker bits to make shadows. She stuck them on paper blackened with India ink. Each of her final pictures is comprised of hundreds of tiny pieces of paper.

Mary Delany became famous for these ‘paper mosaicks’, and scientists and donors began sending her samples to cut. Ultimately, she did over a thousand of them. They are now in the British Museum.

Mary Delany ended her life in a small cottage at Windsor with a pension from King George III and Queen Charlotte. Ironically, the Hanover dynasty which had ruined her fortunes as a young girl ended up supporting her as an old woman.

Mary Delany is a reminder that we need not be a slave to our past experiences. She rose past an abusive marriage into a life of creative freedom. 

Monday, January 27, 2020

Monday Morning Art School: why follow the rules?

There is broad consensus on how paint is applied, even if you take your craft to places I’ve never dreamed of.
The Race, by Tim Moran, watercolor on cold-press paper.
If you’ve studied with me for any length of time, you know I’m big on protocol. “Do it this way now,” I urge my students. “Then when you go back to your everyday painting, you can incorporate the things that work and discard what doesn’t work for you.”

The business of laying down paint is a craft, one that’s been developed over millennia. It’s possible to take this craft to new places, but only on a firm foundation of technique. That doesn’t mean I think that things don’t change; if they didn’t, we’d all be still painting encaustic funerary portraits a la the Romans. But there is still broad consensus on how oil paint and watercolor paint are applied. When you take my class, you’re not getting anything new. Everything I tell you, I learned from someone else.
Tim's first value sketch.
What’s different is that I’ve written these instructions down as protocols. I’ve already shared them with you: here in oil, and here in watercolor. Students usually balk at the idea of spending so much time in the preparatory stages, particularly if they know an excellent painter who doesn’t bother. There are some. These are usually people who have a tremendously refined sense of design, and can do the first steps in their heads. People who do that well, by the way, are not that common.

I also assign homework to make sure these protocols are locked down in my students’ heads. Last week, watercolor student Tim Moran came in with such a perfectly-executed process that I asked him if I could share it with you.
Tim's redesign, done after he did his monochromatic painting.
Tim started with a value drawing in his sketchbook of four sailboats racing off Camden. He did that because identifying a strong value structure at the beginning is the most important thing a watercolor artist can do to make a strong painting.

Then he did a monochromatic value study, using a combination of burnt sienna and ultramarine to make a dark neutral. This was where he made choices of his values for lights and darks. It’s a crucial step in being able to apply watercolor confidently. Being unsure of the color makes us naturally diffident.

But Tim was not just blindly following my instructions here. He was also thinking. And what he thought was that the four-boat structure was static. So, he went back—literally—to the drawing board, and reconfigured his drawing to be three boats.

Tim's monochromatic painting, at top, and his final painting, at bottom. Note that he's testing his paints before he applies
He didn’t have to redo the monochromatic value study because the value structure was the same whether there were three or four boats. Instead he moved directly to the final painting.

Note that he tested his pigments on the left side of his paper. That test strip is another important part of watercolor that many people skip. The more thinking you’ve done about placement and composition before you start, the less likely you are to obliterate your light passages.

It’s a little harder to see those phases in an oil-painting student’s work because the monochromatic underlay gets obliterated in the final phase. But this is a class that’s taking my instruction very seriously. It’s days like this that remind me of how much I love to teach.

Friday, January 24, 2020

The built environment

My personal instinct is anti-social, to look at nature rather than the man-made environment. But that’s a mistake.
Pasturage, by Carol L. Douglas
The Mohawk River forces a separation between the Catskill and Adirondack Mountains, making it one of the only natural passages across the Appalachians. This is the heartland of Linden Frederick’s Night Stories. The Mohawk Valley has fallen on hard times. It’s dotted with small, moldering cities of great charm.

Canajoharie is on the southern bank of the Mohawk River. In a sense it’s prehistoric, since it was one of the two main Mohawk settlements before white settlers arrived. The little town has a few 18th century remnants from the heyday of the Haudenosaunee, but most of it is 19th century.

Genesee Valley Farm, pastel, by Carol L. Douglas
Driving past yesterday, I was struck by how high above the water these historic buildings are. They stretch along a ridge overlooking the town, which in turn overlooks the river. In fact, that’s true of much of the Mohawk Valley as it winds through the hills and mountains. Nothing old or historic is built on or near the alluvial plains. Only in the 20th century has humankind been foolish enough to build on the river bottoms—most notably the Governor Thomas Dewey Thruway. Our ancestors could just wait for the Mohawk to fall. Now we need extensive flood control systems. Even with them, the Mohawk is known to rise and inundate communities downstream.
Nunda farm in autumn, pastel, by Carol L. Douglas
Today if you build your own home, your contractor will build from a set of architectural plans. In the 19th century, architects designed very grand buildings, but most homes were designed and constructed by local carpenters, and they did a fine job of it, too. There are certain universal designs, and there were trends in house styles, just as there are today. For example, you’ll find T-shaped farmhouses all over North America. That big cube, with a little kitchen addition off to one side, is practical to build and live in. But the proportions of these buildings, their curliques and furbelows, and even the way their outbuildings are placed are unique to every location.

Home port, by Carol L. Douglas
In the South, kitchens were often separated from the main house. In Maine, farmsteads were built as connected farms. The house is connected to a shed, then to a carriage house, and finally a livestock barn. A characteristic Maine home is a story-and-a-half cape with Greek Revival details. Where most American cellars were built from fieldstone, old homes here often have granite block foundations. I pointed that out to a visiting architectural historian, who was more interested in the bargeboards. “They’re waves!” she exclaimed.

In western Massachusetts and New York, a different kind of 19th century structure is common—square houses with hipped roofs and a cupola centered on the roof. They are frosted with Carpenter Gothic excess. However, the essential form is not Victorian, but rather something new. This basic shape would blossom in the next century as American Foursquare, our first truly-American architectural form. I grew up in one of these houses. It’s as much of a pastiche as any mini-mansion from the 1980s—Federal-style windows, elaborate Carpenter Gothic brackets, and an Italianate cupola, all pasted on that resolute squareness.

Field in Paradise, by Carol L. Douglas
These architectural anomalies are as much a part of the landscape as the hills, rocks, trees and meadows that surround them. My personal instinct is antisocial, to pull back from people to look at nature. However, that’s a painting error, one I fight against. Most of the paintings I love are not of nature alone, but the built environment—Corot’s The Bridge at Narni (1826) being an excellent example.

I know the Mohawk Valley intimately, and yet there’s always something new to see. These can be teaching moments in our paintings, if only we can slow down enough to see before we paint.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Don’t be so quick to judge

If it’s not love at first sight, maybe it’s because you’re doing something right.

Captain Linda Striping, oil on canvasboard, by Carol L. Douglas
One of my old painting pals frequently scrubs out paintings that she feels are going wrong. “Look, I’ve saved a good board,” she’ll say. My surplus plein air paintings, if stacked in one pile, would be about the same height as me. They’re almost all on expensive boards, so I see her point. Nevertheless, I think scrubbing out is generally a terrible idea.

Art growth is all about taking risks. The bravest paintings are sometimes the ones you hate as you’re doing them. That’s particularly true if your experiments are about mark-making. Most of us would rather have someone else’s brushwork; ours is somehow too self-revelatory. That’s not to say that mark-making can’t be taught or learned. Just like handwriting, it starts with general rules and ends up being very individual.

Sea Fog, oil on canvasboard, by Carol L. Douglas
I have a student who paints lyrically until he reaches the top layer in his paintings. Then he feels the need to apply a higher level of finish. It squeezes the energy right out, and obscures his basic ebullience.

(This is not, by the way, the same thing as ‘overworking.’ That’s a bogeyman used to scare beginning painters into not figuring out how to finish a painting. Paint is far more forgiving than most people think, and nothing on your canvas is so precious as to be irreplaceable.)

Scrub a painting out or obsessively overpaint, and you may murder a new idea before it’s even hatched. I’ve lost count of how many times I have set a painting aside in disgust, and then looked at it a few years later and realized it was very good. That’s one reason I keep all those surplus plein air paintings.

Captain Doug on the ratlines, oil on canvasboard, by Carol L. Douglas
We’re not good judges of our own work as we’re doing it. The disconnect between what we’ve envisioned and what actually happened is too pronounced. You may set out to paint the iridescence of lustreware, and fail miserably. You are so focused on that failure that you never notice that the color, structure and paint handling in your work is simply stunning. That’s where a teacher can be helpful, and why positive criticism is so useful. But time itself is a great healer. It allows you to stop seeing the painting from inside your own head.

All this assumes that you have a painting protocol that you follow, one which includes significant design steps. A poorly-designed painting is really the only thing you can do that’s unsalvageable. Your process ought to include thumbnails, notan studies, paint studies, or value drawings. Many people waste lots of time producing mediocre paintings because they’re too impatient to design carefully. But if the design is good, you have to work hard to wreck a painting.

Tricky Mary in a Pea Soup Fog, oil on canvasboard, by Carol L. Douglas
Still, you often can’t tell until the end whether you’re going to pull it off or not. RebeccaGorrell once told me, “I was really unhappy with it till the last half hour—a good recurring lesson.” She’s so right. Paintings sometimes gel after a long hard fight. The only way you’ll know is by continuing to slug it out.