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Friday, July 23, 2021

Process, not product

Embracing process is deeper training than simply learning a new way to paint. It’s a new way to see, and it’s the basis of all really good art.

Belfast Harbor, oil on canvasboard, 14X18, $1594.

The hardest part of painting class is the first day, or first few days. Sometimes the students who have the most difficulty are those who are already good at painting or drawing.

Often, they are terrified about painting in front of others. They feel as if they’ll be judged and found lacking. They have a deeply buried nut of pride in being “pretty good at art,” and they’re afraid to expose that to reality. I recognize this because I was once that student myself. When someone resists me, I am patient because I remember all the backchat I gave my teachers back in the day.

These students don’t realize they’ve already taken the most difficult step, which is signing up for classes. It’s an admission that they know something is lacking in their technique. They may also be remembering making art with teenage peers, who can be the most judgmental of all critics. Adults are not cruel like that; they’re genuinely excited for each other’s successes.

Fishing shacks at Owl's Head, 11X14, $1087

We’re never 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. The painting of Belfast harbor, above, is a great example. I was so focused on what it lacked that I never noticed that the color, structure and paint handling were excellent. It had to sit for months on a rack in my studio before I realized it was finished, and it’s now one of my favorite paintings.

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.

Often adult students have been trained to look for results. That’s an unfortunate byproduct of our commercial culture. It makes it difficult to sit back and enjoy learning the process.

Balletic sway, 9X12, $696 unframed.

I once had a delightful student named Ann, who was a good beginning painter. She would start strong, and when it looked like she had a winner on her hands, she’d announce to the class, “I’m painting this for [  ].” That was an instant jinx. She changed the way she saw her work. It became something tangible, a product to be given as a gift. She started seeing it through the potential recipient’s eyes, and that meant she only saw its shortcomings. That flood of negativity paralyzed her. Ann’s warm generosity was, in fact, getting in the way of her painting.

This, by the way, is the difficulty of commissions. The artist starts from the transaction, rather than the germ of an idea. In a world of extremely slick, photoshopped experiences, the physical reality of paint is always going to look clunky and awkward. That’s part of its charm.

My greatest challenge as a teacher is to get people to let go of what they think they know and to relax into the process of exploration. I give them a protocol, and that’s important, but it’s hardly the only thing. Embracing process means divorcing yourself from the results, no longer worrying about whether today’s painting is ‘good’ or ‘bad’, just that it’s been painted and you’ve gotten one step closer to your inner vision. That’s deeper training than simply learning a new way to paint. It’s a new way to see, and it’s the basis of all really good art.

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Broken economy

COVID didn’t cause the supply-chain problems we’re experiencing—it exposed them. Hopefully, we’ll solve them before another, bigger disruptor comes our way.

Main Street, Owls Head, oil on gessoboard, 16X20, $1623 unframed.

Early this month my laptop suffered a catastrophic failure. This is not the fault of Dell; I’d poured molten wax and water into it during a Zoom class in the winter. It had been wonky ever since. In fact, it had limped nobly on for longer than could be reasonably expected.

I called my programmer daughter for advice because my programmer husband is sick to death of fixing my stuff. Through the miracle of modern electronics, we had two calls going for a while.

“He’ll say, ‘she needs one built like a tank,’” I told her, just as I heard him yell, “She needs one built like a tank!” To be fair, that hasn’t actually worked. I once bought a hardened-case, ‘rugged’ specialty laptop. It didn’t last any longer than any other laptop.

Bracken Fern, oil on canvasboard, 9X12, $869 framed.

My daughter has had a Lenovo ThinkPad for four years. It’s doing fine, so we settled on the configuration I needed and placed an order. As you can imagine, one of the critical requirements is that I could actually get the darn thing.

And, of course, I can’t. Every day, its delivery date is pushed back another two days. There is a global semiconductor shortage. Of course, we’re blaming it on COVID, when the real issue is a supply-chain problem that COVID exposed.

Nighttime at Clam Cove, oil on canvasboard, $869 framed.

My workshops are experiencing a related problem. Students report that they can’t get rental cars in their destinations. Yesterday, visitors to my gallery told me that they couldn’t find a rental car in Portland; they had to fly into Boston instead. Rental-car companies sold much of their fleets in the pandemic. Now there’s a shortage of rental cars just as Americans are jonesing to get on the road. The car-rental companies can’t buy replacements because of the aforementioned semiconductor shortage. It’s estimated that this will cut worldwide auto production by more than a million vehicles in 2021.

So, we understand: we must wait patiently for anything that has a chip in it.

Last month the bottom of our garage door crumbled off. It’s far past repair; it’s a heavy, wonky, old thing from the 1940s. I ordered replacement doors from Home Depot because I find them reliable, and you can’t even get a contractor to return your calls in today’s market. Yesterday, I got a notice from their home office—the door will be here in mid-November.

Apple Tree Swing, oil on canvasboard, 16X20, $1623 unframed

That’s been the case with every major purchase we’ve tried to make this year. There’s no inventory, and even things made within the US have a six-month lead time. If these supply-chain disruptions are impacting my business, they’re impacting every business in America.

Of course, COVID didn’t cause the supply-chain problems we’re experiencing—it exposed them. Hopefully, we’ll solve them before another, bigger disruptor comes our way.

So far, we haven’t experienced supply-chain problems in paint or canvases (although there are no manufacturers of pigments within the United States). Therein lies an opportunity.

People generally look at paintings in terms of their own enjoyment, but fine art is also an investment. The art market is fickle, and there are no guarantees of profitability, but with a little critical thinking, you can fill your home with beauty that can appreciate over time.

Monday, July 19, 2021

Monday Morning Art School: basic color harmonies

Understanding basic color harmonies will help you integrate color in your painting.

Split the color wheel in half like this and you have your cool tones on one side, warm ones on the left.

Color is comprised of three elements: hue, value and saturation. We see value first, but our emotional response is largely dictated by hue.

There are some common color schemes, or chords, found in nature and by extension, in art.

The idea isn’t to be slavishly attached to these schemes, but to use them to perceive and point up color relationships in nature. What combinations are in 'good taste' and the reactions a color elicits are largely cultural responses. Nobody but me goes nuts about mauve today, but 170 years ago, it was all the rage.

With all color schemes, one hue should dominate.

Complementary color scheme

These are colors that lie opposite each other on the color wheel. The most famous example is Christmas’ red and green.

This is a vibrant, high-contrast scheme. It’s the basic schematic for the color of light, where shadows are always the complement of the light color. If the light is a warm gold, for example, its shadows will be cool blues.

Analogous colors

Analogous color schemes use colors that lie next to each other on the color wheel. Using analogous colors can make what might be a garish scene (a sunset, for example) more serene.

Equilateral Triad
Equilateral colors

This uses colors that are evenly spaced on the color wheel. The most well-known example is the primary combination of red-blue-yellow.

Triadic color harmonies can be quite vibrant, even without high-saturation colors.  

Harmonic triads
A harmonic triad counting clockwise from the green

This variation counts 3-4-5 in either direction on the color wheel. Start with a key color, and count from there. This is a sophisticated variation on the equilateral triad.

Split complementary omitting the complement of blue

This is the color scheme I go to intuitively. It’s a variation of complementary colors. It substitutes for the complement or includes the complement's adjacent hues. It’s as visually compelling as a complementary color scheme, but allows for much more variation in the accent colors.
Split complementary including the complement of green

Double complements
A symmetrical (square) double-complement color scheme
An asymmetrical (rectangle) double-complement color scheme.

The rectangle or tetradic color scheme uses four colors arranged into two complementary pairs. The colors can be in a rectangle or in a square.

Friday, July 16, 2021

A game of chance

Fog has color, movement, and attitude, and is a great tool to understand atmospheric perspective.

Fog Bank, 14X18, oil on canvasboard, by Carol L. Douglas, $1275 unframed. 

I appreciate the care with which the National Weather Service makes hour-by-hour graphical forecasts. They’re the plein air painter’s best friend, since they predict not only the chance of rain, but the sky cover and the wind. However, they’re often wrong for areas near deep water. Mother Nature is impulsive and unpredictable where warm air first encounters the cold sea. Yesterday I drove to Warren, which is 12 miles to the southwest of me. I traveled through a band of dense fog, a band of brilliant blue, and ended up under a dour, dull sky.

That makes planning my plein air class a game of chance. My primary goal is to teach fundamental skills, but along with that I want my students to master every possible light situation. Yesterday’s nominal subject was value-matching and patterning. However, with a fog as rich and deep as the one we encountered at Owls Head, it seemed a pity to not concentrate on the atmospherics.

Early Spring, Beech Hill, 8X10, oil on canvasboard, $522 unframed.

Few things are more beautiful than fog—or more annoying to the painter who insists on golden sunlight in every painting. Fog has color, movement, and attitude. It’s a great tool to understand atmospheric perspective—and to teach patience with the passing scene. It moves in and out, obliterating a major compositional point here, and adding one there.

The more I teach, the more I realize how much I have to learn about teaching. My student, Jennifer Johnson is in a transitional phase where nothing she paints looks good to her. That’s painful, but it’s a sign she’s about to make a giant leap forward—if she allows it. The fainthearted painter will retreat back into the shell of the familiar. The courageous will allow herself to experience the “I hate everything I’m painting” phase and wrench forward into new discovery. Jennifer is, of course, one of the courageous.

Jennifer Johnson is working her way through her period of dissatisfaction by returning to first principles. That means starting with thumbnails and gridding them onto her canvas.

If you play a musical instrument, you’ve had the experience of mastering a piece part-by-part. You get the left hand down fine. Then you try to add the right hand, and what you’d learned in the left hand falls apart. But if you persist, your brain will integrate the two tasks. Adding new ideas to painting works the same way.

To ride through this, Jennifer has sensibly returned to first principles. One of these is thumbnails and value sketches, which are then transferred to the canvas in the form of a grisaille. Her example, above, from last week’s class, is far better than any I’ve ever made.

What I realized from watching her is how frequently students can do each step well, but not integrate them as a whole. That’s something I need to focus on more. The sense of being needed put a spring in my step. It seemed like only fifteen minutes had passed and the three-hour class was done. Rats.

Frank Costantino with Ann Clowe, Nancy Lloyd and Lisa Siegrist.

Yesterday’s students had the opportunity to watch a real watercolor master at work. My buddy Frank Costantino is in town, and they looked over his shoulder as he painted the lobster boat Daphne Lee. If he can stand more fog, we’ll go out again today.

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Making hay while the sun shines

This, friends, is why I’m not getting everything done!

Beautiful Dream (Rockport Harbor), 12X16, oil on canvasboard, $1449 framed.

I’m a one-man band, which means that in addition to painting, I do all my own accounting, advertising, and vacuuming. Sometimes things slip under the rug—and I’m not talking about just the dog’s duck toy. This time it was advertising my upcoming classes in a timely manner. It didn’t occur to me until yesterday, and my next session of plein air starts tomorrow.

That’s why people will sometimes tell me, “I didn’t know you teach,” or something similar. These pieces are such a big part of my life that it boggles my mind that it didn’t even penetrate their consciousness. That is the price we pay for our divided modern existence—half on-line, half in the real world. One half doesn’t really know what the other is doing.

Balletic sway, 9X12, oil on canvasboard, $696 unframed.

Let me run through my activities this summer and fall:

Plein air class

There are three openings left in this class. It meets on Thursdays from 10-1 AM in the Camden-Rockport-Rockland area. The dates are:

July 15, 22, 29
August 5, 19, 26

The fee for the six-week session is $210.

These classes are strictly limited to 12 people. As always, we’ll be focusing on the water, shoreline, boats, architecture, and outstanding natural beauty of this place we’re blessed to call home.

Early spring, 8X10, oil on canvasboard, $522 unframed.

Zoom Monday evening classes

You don’t need to be in Maine to take these classes. We have students from Texas, Indiana, New York and elsewhere joining us. These are limited to 14 people per session. I can’t remember who’s told me they’re coming back, but I expect that I’ll have 3-4 openings.

We meet on Mondays from 6 to 9 PM EST, on the following dates:

July 26, August 2
August 16, 23, 30

The fee for the five-week session is $175.

Friendship, 9X12, oil on canvasboard, $696 unframed.

Sea & Sky at Schoodic, August 8-13
This workshop is sold out (but you can email me if you want to be wait-listed).

Age of Sail aboard schooner American Eagle, September 19-23
This workshop is also sold out (but you can email me if you want to be wait-listed).

Authentic West at Cody, Wyoming, September 5-10

Cody’s a small airport, so this workshop has run up against the national car-rental shortage. If you’re interested, contact me and we’ll try to work out a transportation solution.

Gateway to Pecos Wilderness, September 12-16

This workshop has five openings. It’s a place I especially love to teach, with all the grandeur and warmth of the west.

Red Rocks of Sedona, September 26-October 1

For this workshop, you contact the art center directly, here.

Moss-draped oaks in Tallahassee Florida

This is being organized by my friend Natalia Andreeva, so you contact her directly here.

Naturally air-conditioned!

Open air gallery at 394 Commercial Street, Rockport, ME

Meanwhile, I’m running my open-air gallery outside my home five days a week. That’s Tuesday-Saturday, noon-6, at 394 Commercial Street, Rockport, ME

And that, friends, is why I’m not getting everything done!

Monday, July 12, 2021

Monday Morning Art School: the value of value

Why do teachers harp on value? Because it drives everything else in the painting.

Belfast harbor, 11X14, oil on canvas, Carol L. Douglas. Available framed $1087.

You cannot overstate the importance of value in visual art. It drives our perception and guides us through the painting. There are various ways to focus on value: notans, value sketches, and grisaille underpaintings being the most popular. However we get there, the first step of a good painting is to see each composition in terms of its value structure.

Claude Monet was the greatest optics experimenter of Impressionism (and probably of art history in general). He visited the question of value over and over—in his haystacks, his waterlilies, his series in the Gare Saint-Lazare. We have been happily exploiting his discoveries ever since. We’ve learned that we can substitute color temperature for value, but the value structure remains the most important part of the painting. Even when the dark shapes are not literally dark, they have a form.

Haystacks, (Midday), 1890–91, Claude Monet, courtesy National Gallery of Australia

Just as the human mind can interpolate blue as dark, it has a great capacity to read red for blue as long as the values are true to the scene. The Fauves experimented with this, painting skies pink and faces green. We have no trouble identifying what they’re painting. However, it’s an either-or proposition. We can substitute hue for value, or we keep the values accurate and mess with the hues. Mixing them both up together makes an unintelligible mess.

Alla prima painting requires great skill in color mixing, because the goal is to nail it on the first strike. That goes not just the for darks, but every color in the picture. Even a painting with wonderful shadows and lights will have many middle tones, often closely related in value. These are actually the most difficult colors to mix accurately. If you have a painting that isn’t working, ask yourself if it has a full tonal range, or is it simply hitting the highs and lows. For example, when people get in trouble painting texture, it’s usually because they’re overstating the contrast.

Les toits de Collioure, 1905, Henri Matisse, courtesy The Hermitage

All color is relative, meaning it depends on its neighbors. That's particularly true when it comes to value. Below see a plate from Joseph Albers’ groundbreaking Interaction of Color. The inner violets are the exact same value. But the framing color influences how we see those values, so one looks much lighter than the other.

To mix paint accurately you must become absolutely conversant with the colors on your own palette. The first step is to identify the natural value of your paint, straight out of the tube. No pigment can go darker than its natural hue without the addition of another color. That’s why it’s so difficult to make shadows on lemons.

Plate IV-4 from Joseph Albers' Interaction of Color, demonstrating how all color is relative. The inner violet colors are the same exact value, but what surrounds them influences how we perceive them.

For oil painters, figuring out the natural value of a pigment is easy. For watercolorists, it’s a bit of work to figure out what that really darkest point is, because it’s never the same as it appears on your palette. The colors wetted are a better guide, but you’ll need a test paper handy to experiment.

When you figure out the darkest natural position of each pigment, you need to see how it tints. For watercolorists, that means dilution. For oil and acrylic painters, that means mixing with white. Every paint has a natural tinting strength. That’s determined by the type of pigment, the amount of pigment and how fine it’s been ground.

There are three things to remember:

·        Value judgments are subjective. There’s no reliable way to measure the value of a color. The camera is as subjective as the human eye.  

·        You can’t get a color to go darker than its ‘natural’ value without distorting the hue or chroma. Thus, there is no natural dark version of cadmium yellow, so the shadows in a yellow object require a workaround.

·        All pigments can make about the same number of discrete steps. While the yellows have a shorter range, the steps are more noticeable. Blues can mix from almost-white to almost-black, but the middle points are very similar. 

Friday, July 9, 2021

Let’s get serious, not

The important thing is not whether you’re painting well or badly, but that you’re painting.

Sunset near Clark's Island, oil on canvasboard, $652 framed.

Yesterday I was with my plein air students looking at the schooner Heron in Rockport harbor. “If I were being serious about this painting…” I started, and then listened to myself. There’s a curious bifurcation among professional painters. We’re at once completely serious and yet—for many of us—total goofballs.

I’m not just speaking about myself; I’ve painted in a lot of events, with a lot of very fine artists. Often, the casual observer would never believe we’re actually working (which may be why we get so many snarky comments from passers-by). We don’t appear to be taking our work at all seriously. That’s self-preservation when so often things go wrong, and it gives us the freedom to experiment. One can’t deviate from the tried-and-true without joie de vivre.

Friendship, 9X12, oil on canvasboard, $696 unframed.

Of course, we all know That One Artist who firmly believes that he (it’s always a he) is a very important personage in art history. It’s easy to see how selling one’s work can subtly morph into an oversized ego. (If I ever start believing my own press, just take me out back and shoot me.)

But most of us are pretty laid back. Of course, our goofiness is earned. It rests on thousands of hours of experience and a rock-hard certainty about technique and method. It’s hard to be larky when things aren’t going right.

Jack Pine, 8X10, oil on prepared birch, $522 unframed.

Transition is (or ought to be) a regular part of the artistic experience. It’s the one thing that can suck the joy out of painting. When we’re integrating new ideas into our own work, we hate everything we’re doing, and it just feels like we’ve forgotten how to paint. “I have no idea what I’m doing!” does not inspire happiness.

I’ve learned to set those transitional paintings aside. They’re not going to sell, but they’re important markers along the road. Often, they end up being my favorites, but it takes me a few years to realize that they were guideposts along a new road.

A ten-minute sketch for my students that has some potential to go somewhere, once I pick off the pine needles.

This summer, I’m going out for an hour or two each morning and doing a quick study before I open my gallery at 394 Commercial Street here in Rockport. This is a funny plein air discipline, driven by necessity. It’s not enough time to do a finished painting so my studio is littered with incomplete starts. Sometimes I take them back out to finish them, and sometimes I leave them for a rainy day.

But these plein air studies are so low-calorie that I hardly need to worry if they’re ‘good’ or not. That gives me the freedom to experiment, so I’ve been doing a lot of that. After all, the important thing is not whether we’re painting well or badly, but that we’re painting.

Note: I’m limping along on a borrowed laptop, so all admin tasks are taking a while. That’s slowing down the transition of my blog to my own website.

Friday, July 2, 2021

Train like a Roman

Currently, the average American can expect to spend 20 years in retirement. That’s long enough to make significant contributions to art.

Apple Blossom Time, 9x12, oil on canvasboard, $696 unframed.

To become a Roman legionary, one needed to be male, between the ages of 17 and 45, and a citizen. One also needed to be extremely fit. Legionaries marched at grueling speeds while maintaining perfect alignment with their fellows. Ordinary pace was twenty Roman miles in five hours, and fast pace was 24 Roman miles in the same time. They did this while wearing 70-lb packs on their backs.

A legionary signed up for a 25-year tour of duty, which meant the youngest they could hypothetically retire was at age 42.

Men signed up because the Roman Legions were one of the few paths of upward mobility in the Roman world. The army was an honorable profession with steady pay and great retirement benefits. Make it to the end of your 25 years, and you’d get a land grant equal in value to twelve years’ wages.

Roman historians were not concerned with the lifestyles of the poor and irrelevant, but Roman skeletons in Britain offer tantalizing glimpses. Of the Roman skeletons unearthed at Cirencester, about half were arthritic.

Spring Greens, 8X10, oil on canvasboard, $522 unframed.

Old Romans—like us—suffered from a panoply of illnesses including nerve damage, injuries that failed to heal properly, and intractable diseases like cancer. Their doctors were savvy about pain management. Ice packs and frigid water decreased swelling. Hot baths decreased muscle spasms. Doctors recommended exercise and weight loss. They prescribed good food, including protein, dairy, fruits, vegetables and grains. When things got bad, they had herbal remedies, up to and including opium.

But opium was for the end-stage sufferer. How did the typical legionary deal with the aches and pains of encroaching old age? Willow bark (aspirin’s precursor) and turmeric helped, but mostly they just worked through it.

I remember reading, long ago, about a legionary cure for joint stiffness: go out for a run. Exercise warms up the muscles, which in turn takes the stress of the joints. That sounds a lot like what one does at the beginning of a modern physical therapy session. In fact, Galen’s emphasis on diet, fitness, hygiene and preventive medicine sounds a lot like modern alternative medicine. (The bloodletting and vivisection, not so much.)

Spring Break, 10X10, oil on canvasboard, $645 unframed.

An old (2010) study showed that Americans averaged about 5100 steps a day, or just 2.5 miles of walking. That probably overstates our movement, since wearing pedometers tends to motivate us. We’re a nation of couch-potatoes, and we’re also a nation that pops pills. 55% of us take prescription medications, and we average four prescriptions apiece.

What does this have to do with painting? In our culture, painting has become the province of retirees. With the exception of undergraduate art programs, painting ateliers are populated by grey-hairs.

Friendship spring day, 9x12, oil on canvasboard, $696 unframed.

The good news is, we tend to live a lot longer. The bad news is, many of us live those last years badly.

For the Roman legionary, retirement didn’t mean a rest; it meant finally being able to take up farming. Roman soldiers worked their bodies hard into extreme old age.

Currently, the average American can expect to spend 20 years in retirement. That’s long enough to master painting, to make significant contributions to art. But to do that, you need to maintain your fitness. I’m not suggesting that you strap a 70-lb pack on your back, but keep moving, for art’s sake.Watch Me Paint is moving. It will be hosted by my website. No, I haven't figured out how to automate anything, but I'm working on it. If you're one of the thousands of subscribers who've been getting my blog through Feedburner, I'm trying to port your email address to a new service. It's the end of Feedburner that has forced me to make this change.

Wednesday, June 30, 2021


In paint, the old ways can be the most dangerous.

Sketch for ‘The Hay Wain’ c.1820, oil on paper on panel, John Constable, courtesy the Yale Center for British Art

In most disciplines, ‘all-natural’ evokes the idea that something is made of pure, safe, wholesome materials, better for us and the environment than the products of a chemistry lab. That may be true of food, although in America, the “all-natural” label means little or nothing.

In paint, ‘all-natural’ can be a very bad label indeed. The pigments drawn directly from the earth are sometimes the most dangerous ones on the palette.

We know what John Constable’s palette contained, because the artist died unexpectedly in 1837, leaving behind four wooden palettes, a wooden sketching box with brushes, chalk holder, palette knife and pigments in glass phials. There was also a wooden box full of pigments, and a metal field-painting box.

Constable’s metal paint box c.1837, courtesy of the Tate

This box contains eleven paint bladders, a piece of white gypsum and a glass bottle of blue pigment. Constable could have purchased these paints pre-mixed, or mixed the pigments and poppy-seed oil binder himself. Since the paint tube hadn’t been invented yet, the mixed pigments were stored in pig’s bladders tied at the top with twine.

Constable was very forward-looking in terms of technique and materials. He popularized plein air painting, and brought respectability to landscape painting. In a milieu where smooth paint application was a primary virtue, he was flicking colors on with a palette knife.

In one respect, though, he was a traditionalist: he persisted in using ground lazurite instead of synthesized ultramarine. He believed that the natural pigment had a better color range than its synthetic analogue.

In Constable’s paint box were:

Chrome yellow
Yellow ochre
Red madder
Cobalt blue
Prussian blue
Emerald green
Raw sienna
Burnt sienna
Flake (lead) white
Lamp black

Sienna, ochre and umber are the oldest pigments known to mankind, going back to prehistory. All of them are based on iron oxide. They differ in color depending on how much manganese is present and how long they’ve been cooked. They are absolutely safe pigments.

Woman Embroidering, 1812, by Georg Friedrich Kersting, courtesy Kunsthalle Kiel. The 19th century craze for copper-arsenite greens was a health disaster among the fashionable.

But others on Constable’s palette are not so benign. Chrome yellow, along with Naples yellow and flake white, are banned from the modern paintbox because they’re lead-based. Vermillion is made from the mineral cinnabar, which contains toxic levels of mercury. All are absolutely natural—and absolutely deadly.

Constable’s cobalt blue was probably ground glass (smalt). In that form cobalt is benign, but the pigment itself is toxic. And emerald green is copper-acetoarsinite, which in addition to use as a pigment, made a good rodenticide and insecticide. That color, fashionable in the 19th century, was the root of countless deaths from arsenic poisoning, and is posited as the cause of Napoleon’s stomach cancer. Even the innocuous-sounding ‘lamp black’ wasn’t as innocent as its name implies. It was made of soot, which is an inhalation carcinogen.

The Battle of San Romano, 1438, Paolo Uccello, courtesy National Gallery. In addition to being toxic, vermillion darkens over time. The horse’s bridle was originally bright red.

Plant and animal pigments are generally not toxic, but they're not light-fast, either. Red madder was an extract of Rubia tinctorum, the same pigment source as natural alizarin crimson. The synthetic analogues are cheaper and more stable.

The carmine (crimson) of antiquity was extracted from an insect, Kermes vermilio, which lives on oak trees in the Mediterranean basin. Unfortunately, carmine and its close cousin cochineal fade rapidly on exposure to sunlight. That’s not a problem if you’re making food coloring, but it is a problem when you use it for paint.

Most modern pigments were first designed to be used in industrial settings, not for painting. Because of this, they must be light-fast and safe to use in large quantities. An example is phthalo blue, used widely in the printing industry. It’s cheap, plentiful, and not known to be toxic to man or animal. 

Monday, June 28, 2021

Monday Morning Art School: the color of evergreens

When drawing and painting these trees, notice the branch placement, the whorls, the broken spots, the needle color.

Black spruce (courtesy of Wikipedia).

If you’ve read this blog for a while, you know that I periodically introduce you to a green matrix, by which you can defeat the ‘wall of green’ that overwhelms us every year at the end of June. That’s when trees and grasses assume their mature foliage. As elegant as nature is, you’re not going to make a compelling painting of them by squeezing puddles of chromium oxide, veridian, and sap green out of their tubes and smearing them everywhere on your canvas.

It helps to start by knowing your trees. Even this early in summer, there are differences in the canopy shape that help to define the tree canopy. This is a place where careful drawing is important.

Our evergreens deserve thought as well, especially if you’re painting along the coast. When drawing and painting these trees, take your time. Notice the branch placement, the whorls, the broken spots from weather. Mix the needle color carefully.

Last week in class, a student was debating the color of the black spruces in the far distance. I suggested he mix them using black. “It is, after all, its name,” I said. That’s not coincidence; that common name comes from the darkness of its foliage in certain situations. 

Black spruce is so widespread in Canada that it ought to be the country’s official plant. We have it in Maine (and in the Adirondacks, Minnesota and Michigan) because we’re an extension of the boreal forest of the Great White North.

Black spruce is a slow-growing, scruffy conifer with a narrow, pointed crown. That scruffiness is exaggerated when it’s growing on the coast, buffeted by weather. But that’s also why black spruces are survivors on lonely promontories; they’re adapted to miserable weather. In fact, that’s the common trait of all our northern evergreen species.

(By the way, if you can’t tell the difference between a black and a red spruce, don’t worry. Neither can they. They hybridize here where their ranges meet.)

Eastern White Pine (courtesy of Wikipedia)

Eastern white pine is, of course, the official state tree of Maine. The massive masts on the windjammers you see off shore are most likely white pine, since the tree can reach 135’ tall in the wild. White pine is an important lumber tree and a superstar food host for wildlife, including black bears, rabbits, red squirrels and many birds. While the tree may not like it, its bark is an important food source for beavers, snowshoe hares, porcupines, rabbits and mice. 

White pines are identifiable by their needles, which are clustered in groups of five. They’re so common here that if you see a pine tree with a blueish green cast to the needles, you can just assume it’s a white pine. It’s got a far nicer habit than the black spruce, growing in a pyramidal shape. Of course, as it gets older and ravaged by time, that shape gets broken up. Just as with us humans.

Jack Pine (courtesy of Wikipedia)

I used to think that Jack Pine was a descriptor of a shaggy, wind-swept tree, rather than a species name. It wasn’t until I saw them growing at Schoodic that I realized they were, in fact, a species in their own right. They’re common enough in Canada, and they grow in pockets here in Maine.

Jack pines seem to pick out the worst rocky or sandy soil on which to make their stand. They’re even more scruffy than black spruces, often bent into the wind.

Balsam fir foliage (courtesy of Wikipedia)

The woods here are also home to balsam fir, which are a small-to-medium fir with a strong pine scent. They’re iconic Christmas-tree beauties, with short, flat, glossy needles and a beautiful habit. They’ve got no great commercial value as lumber, but they’ve been awfully handy to humans as a source of medicine. Many creatures eat their foliage and seeds or seek shelter beneath their boughs.

Although evergreens don’t lose their needles in winter, it’s wrong to think that they don’t change color. They have periods of growth where the green is fresh, and times when they’re dormant. They change color, but the changes are subtle.

Friday, June 25, 2021

What is freedom?

Yes, painting (like music) is about personal expression—but it’s also a finely-honed craft.

Owl's Head fishing shacks, oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas, 11X14, $1087 framed or $869 unframed.

My little granddaughter, age five, recently got her first guitar. Being a smart little nipper, she’s going to shortly become bored with strumming the open, untuned strings. She’ll want to learn how to play the darn thing. Thank goodness it’s not the bagpipes.

Her parents could let her experiment until she miraculously discovers how to finger chords, but a smarter idea would be to ask her aunt Mary to teach her. As a culture we have thousands of years of experience with stringed instruments.

That’s true of every discipline I can think of—mathematics, auto repair, music, carpentry. Only in the visual arts do we persist with the notion that ‘freedom’ means dispensing with technique.

Skylarking, oil on canvas, Carol L. Douglas, 24X30, $3478 framed,

I was reminded of that while sailing aboard American Eagle last week. One of my students is a high-school art teacher. “I realize art is about personal expression,” she said. “But how do you get them to understand there is a better way?”

It’s been a long time since I taught children, and I’ve never taught them in a school, where they’re under compulsion. But I have four kids of my own. I remember how mentally-inflexible they are at that age; they’re always certain they’re right. They don’t like adults touching their head space, but that’s what teachers are supposed to do. Meanwhile, they’ve been told that the art room is the one place in life where their thoughts and emotions have complete freedom. It’s no surprise that they guard that freedom zealously.

Back to basics: Karen experimented with various compositions before she started painting in Thursday's class.

In fact, it’s not until they head off to RISD, where tuition, room and board will set them back an eye-watering $73,000 a year, that they may start listening to their art teachers. (In comparison, Pratt at $69,000, seems like a bargain, not.)

Meanwhile, the clarinetists and violinists among their peers will have had the benefits of private lessons and strict discipline. They’re used to following orders and practicing, and they don’t chafe at it.

But that’s not so in visual arts, and it’s not the fault of their teachers, but of the society that dismisses visual arts as the comic meanderings of dilettantes. This month’s offensive kick in the teeth is an Italian artist who sold a “column of light and air,” i.e., literally nothing, for $18,300. Parents aren’t wrong in wondering if art is just a con game, and teachers aren’t wrong in questioning the point of such a career.

Terrie's sweet sketch for Thursday's class.

Artistic kids are routinely told to pursue some other avenue of creative expression. After a career in teaching, industrial design, or marketing, they’ll finally wander back to me to try to recapture their first love, painting.

At which time I give them the carefully-scripted protocol that they should have had at age 14. As adults, their thinking has matured. They accept that is how art should be taught. They’ve had enough disappointment with their unguided attempts that disciplined learning is a relief.

Yes, painting (like music) is about personal expression—but it’s also a finely-honed craft. Expressive freedom rests on a solid base of experience and technique.

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

What you can and can’t change

Thought and practice moves our painting style, but it’s incremental, just like the Mary Day docking.

Winch (American Eagle), oil on canvasboard, by Carol L. Douglas, 12X16, $1449 framed.

Windjammers are slippery little devils. I should know that by now. You think you understand the rhythm of their comings and goings and you find one or two likely candidates and commit to painting them. Then you look away for a moment and you find a subject slipping away from her berth, heading out to sea.

That happened to me on Monday, when I’d stopped to paint before my dentist appointment. (‘Quickie’ has an entirely different meaning to artists than to the rest of the world.) I’d limned in the ketch Angelique, and the light and shadows were notated, but as I sadly watched her slide out of her berth, I knew she wouldn’t be back for days.

“You didn’t take a photo, did you?” asked Ken DeWaard. He knows most of my bad habits, thanks to my friend Terry spilling the beans. I could almost paint Angelique from memory, but that never ends well. I shook my head ruefully, and begged him for a picture. “I’m just enabling you,” he muttered, but he sent it to me anyway.

Lobster fleet at Eastport, oil on canvas, 24x30, $3478 framed.

There was still the fine flat transom of the Lewis R. French to paint. She celebrated her 150th birthday this year, and that’s something to celebrate. We both set to again, but not five minutes later, Mary Day hove into view. She was heading for the berth directly in front of us. Normally, that would be a good thing, but it would obliterate the rest of our view.

Mary Day doesn’t have an engine; she’s pushed into place by a tender. It’s fascinating to watch 90’ of wood and sails delicately slide into her berth, guided by a tiny gnat of a boat. Since our subjects had vanished into the rhythm of a working harbor, we had no choice but to sit back and enjoy the spectacle. We talked about color and mark-making.

Striping (Heritage), oil on canvasboard, 6X8, $435 framed.

I hold that mark-making is as personal as handwriting. Once you’ve taught someone how to form their letters, you have very little control over the finished product. I’m shocked, sometimes, to see how much my handwriting resembles my mother’s. That’s a real mystery, since I’m a lefty and she was right-handed.

As a teacher, I do influence my students’ marks. “Don’t dab!” I’m wont to say, although I’m well aware that Pierre Bonnard dabbed to great effect. He’s the exception that proves the rule. Dabbing, in the hands of beginners, looks amateurish.

Mostly, I ask them to experiment with all the different things a brush can do and then find their own ways of using them. Once they’ve found that place, it’s pointless to try to shake it up too much. (This is why I don’t encourage palette-knife painting in my classes; it short-circuits this process.)

Pleasure boats, oil on canvasboard, 12X16, $1159 unframed. Even though this is not 'my style', it's still one of my favorite paintings.

“There are things that are immutable, and it’s pointless to try to change them,” I said to Ken as we watched Mary Day’s crew work. “For example, I can’t be 6’5” and you can’t have my curly hair.”

“But there are things you can change,” said Ken. He’s right, of course. Our choices of brushes, canvas and pigments all influence our paint application, just as choosing a gel pen makes us write differently than with a pencil. Thought and practice moves our painting style, but it’s incremental, just like the Mary Day docking. Rush that by copying someone else, and you risk being a parody.

I don’t know a single serious artist who thinks he or she is painting well—even the ones who are highly successful. We’re all on a quest; our vision is constantly changing. But through all that, we have something that’s immutable. For lack of a better term, I’ll call it our styles.