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Monday, October 25, 2021

Monday Morning Art School: The Canon of Human Proportion

The only generalization you can make about the American figure is that we’re well-fed.

Vitruvian Man, c. 1492, by Leonardo da Vinci.

Throughout history, artists have subjected the human figure to canons of proportion. That means they’ve overridden what they see, in favor of what they think is beautiful or graceful. In fact, in some cultures (classical India, for example), drawing from life was not considered an advantage. And until the age of photography, subjects like squirming infants were difficult to draw.

Every flourishing culture has developed its own canon of proportion. The best known examples are the art of ancient Egypt and classical Greece, both of which had rigid standards of what was true and beautiful.

Vitruvian Man, illustration in the edition of De Architectura by Vitruvius; illustrated edition by Cesare Cesariano, Como, Gottardus da Ponte, 1521

Marcus Vitruvius Pollio was a Roman architect and civil engineer whose ten-volume de Architectura profoundly influenced Roman building. He believed that beauty derived from nature, with universal laws of proportion and symmetry. He carefully measured the human (male) body, thinking it a model of natural proportional perfection. He demonstrated that the 'ideal' human body fitted into both a circle and a square, which illustrated the link between perfect geometry and the perfect body.

Leonardo da Vinci drew Vitruvian Man as a sort of rebuttal to this, since he knew there was no way the circle and square could have the same midpoint on the human form. He used his own measurements and idealized them into a system that’s written across his drawing.

His is, at least to modern eyes, a more beautiful scheme; compare it to an illustration from the 1521 version of de Architectura, which bears an uncomfortable resemblance to a crucified man.

The human measurements I learned as a child in mid-century America.

Fast forward to our own times and our own canon. We’re taught that the human form is between 7.5 and 8.5 heads tall. As a child, I learned that the midpoint of the body is the hipbone, that the line from top of head to chin equals the line from chin to nipple line, from nipple line to natural waist, from natural waist to hips, and then an equal distance from there to the feet.

This of course is the measurement of a long-limbed person. A stockier person will have a bigger head, and the measurement will be more like 7 figures tall.

Tableau Vivant by German actress Olga Desmond, c. 1908. I’ve taken the liberty of adding the hashmarks to demonstrate how variable those proportions are.

Of course, what is considered beautiful changes with the generations. Consider the figure of Olga Desmond, a German dancer who performed nude at the turn of the last century. Even making allowances for her head being tipped down, she is significantly large-headed and short-waisted compared to the ideal of the 20th century. Her legs are three head-units long, rather than four.

Idealized proportions are a useful guide, especially when you’re drawing people from imagination. I probably sketched them a few hundred times as a kid, before I had access to models. They’re also useful for checking your work. If your drawing seems way out of proportion check it against this standard.

But relying on memorized proportions will lead to lazy, generalized, generic drawings. It’s far better to measure carefully.

This is especially true in our polyglot American culture. A society that idolizes both Emily Ratajkowski and Lil' Kim has no rigid standards of beauty, and that's a great thing. The only generalization you can make about Americans is that we’re, by and large, well-fed.

My primary goal in writing Monday Morning Art School is as a study guide for my painting students. This week we’re working on figure in the landscape. As preparation, they should read this introduction to drawing the figure.

Friday, October 22, 2021

Generalization is a trap

In science or art, it’s always better to describe what you see, rather than what you think you know.

Figure painting by Carol L. Douglas

Somatotyping was developed in the 1940s by psychologist William Sheldon. He sorted the human physique into three 'somatotypes':

  • Ectomorphs are tall, skinny, weak, and have low testosterone levels.
  • Mesomorphs are naturally hard and strong, with even weight distribution, muscular with weight training, thick-skinned, and have good posture with a narrow waist.
  • Endomorphs are fat, short and have trouble losing weight.

Sheldon didn’t stop there. He then concluded that:

  • Ectomorphs are intelligent, gentle and calm, but self-conscious, introverted and anxious.
  • Mesomorphs are competitive, extroverted, and tough.
  • Endomorphs are outgoing, friendly, happy and laid-back, but also lazy and selfish.
Figure painting by Carol L. Douglas

Ultimately, he decided that criminals tended to be 'mesomorphic'—you know, the hard guys in film noir.

Somatotyping is now rightly dismissed as quackery verging on eugenics. But it did have an impact on policy worldwide, and is still in use today, in the variant called the Heath-Carter formula for measuring total body shape.

I can’t help but think his description of endomorphs was targeted at the millions of southern European immigrants who came to the US in the late 19th and early 20th century. They tended to be short and round. They didn’t match the northern European phenotype of long bones and narrow skulls.

Figure painting by Carol L. Douglas

Sheldon’s ideas were less of a theory than an assumption: that you can see a relationship between structure and behavior. We deny it, but we still think that way today. Yesterday, I watched a Labrador retriever wallow in a puddle. His owner proudly remarked that it was classic Lab behavior.

In fact, the greatest swimming dog I ever had was a Jack Russell terrier. Meanwhile, my friend Mary kept standard Poodles who hated water. Dogs have been closely bred for behavioral traits since they were first domesticated around 20,000 years ago. Yet they’re continuously acting outside the bounds of their so-called breed characteristics.

Never is this truer than with the humble apple. You can’t get it to breed to type. There are between 7,500 and 10,000 apple cultivars worldwide, depending on who’s counting. But apples must be propagated asexually, via grafting. Apples are extreme heterozygotes. Seedlings don’t run true to their parents. You might see a beautiful apple tree in the wild, take a bite of its lovely fruit and—blech! It’s mealy and indigestible.

Figure painting by Carol L. Douglas

In figure drawing, we use a variation of somatatyping when we idealize measurements. We sometimes teach that:

  • The average person is generally seven-and-a-half heads tall.
  • An ideal figure is eight heads tall.
  • An heroic figure is eight-and-a-half heads tall.

Those figures are based on the Nordic model, and they’re no more accurate than Sheldon’s somatotypes. It pays to paint what you see, not what you ‘know’.

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

The power of affirmation

Left to their own devices, the voices in our heads take up a litany of “I can’t do this, I don’t know what I’m doing, all my work sucks.”

Glacier Cagliero from Rio Electrico, 12X16, oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas, $1159 unframed

“At the core of true leadership is the idea that high value is placed on empowering people to become all that God has destined them to be,” said Pastor Bryan Carle this weekend. He went on to discuss how affirmation and validation are powerful tools to accomplish this.

To ‘affirm’ means to confirm or state positively. To ‘validate’ means to recognize, establish, or illustrate worthiness or legitimacy. “Affirmation is one of the most powerful aspects of the human experience,” said Bryan.

Fogbank, 14X18, oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas, $1275 unframed

The power of words spoken over us was keenly demonstrated by my friend Helen, who’d been classified as ‘learning disabled’ as a child. Having taught her for many years, I know she was anything but slow. But when things got difficult, she would retreat into a shell of “I can’t do this; I’m stupid.” It was impossible to reach her when she got into that angry knot of self-loathing.

That doesn’t mean that classifications aren’t important in education; they obviously are. But we live up or down to the labels that others apply to us.

Helen tried to start a blog. I encouraged this by sharing it on Facebook. One of my friends sharply criticized Helen’s poor grammar and spelling. She never published her writing again. It was a loss to her, but an even greater loss to the rest of us. She had insights from the population permanently living in poverty. We frequently read writing about them, but seldom from them.

Beach Erosion, 8X10, oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas, available through Ocean Park Association.

I never learned my multiplication tables. That and my gender, coupled with my apparent talents in the arts, morphed into a label of “she can’t do math.” It became part of my self-identity until I returned to college as an adult. There, I found that I loved mathematics, particularly calculus.

A lot of hay is made about the dumbing-down of modern education, but positive affirmation is a tool I would have welcomed in my school days. How much more helpful a kind word would have been than the ruler across my knuckles. (Yes, I’m really that old.) Kindness and support changes mindsets from “I can’t do this,” to openness.

Years of teaching have disabused me of the notion that some personalities make better painters than others. We all have experiences and traits that can contribute to great art. The only telling factors are a willingness to work hard and openness to correction. Ironically, many of the most talented students fail because they protect their little nut of competence too fiercely. They’re afraid their teacher will invalidate them as artists.

Bracken Fern, 9X12, oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas, $869 in a gold plein air frame

There isn’t a painter alive who hasn’t entertained self-destructive thoughts. Left to their own devices, the voices in our heads take up a litany of “I can’t do this, I don’t know what I’m doing, all my work sucks.” It’s particularly easy to fall into this in painting, because we generally work alone. Moments of validation—sales and prizes—are all too infrequent.

If professional artists can feel invalidated and alone, how much harder is it for painting students? That’s why teachers should be more interested in pointing out what’s right than in belaboring what’s wrong.

Monday, October 18, 2021

Monday Morning Art School: drapery

Drawing drapery isn't a dated skill; it's as fundamental to the t-shirts and skinny jeans we wear today as it was to the gowns, kirtles, jerkins, doublets and linen chemises of the 16th century.

Drapery study, Albrecht Dürer, undated.

I spent a lot of time painting the human figure at the Art Students League, but I never studied drapery, unless you count the drapes that might be behind a model or still-life. That’s typical, but unhelpful. In the real world, artists are far more likely to draw the clothed figure than the nude.

“The masters must be copied over and over again,” wrote Edgar Degas, “and it is only after proving yourself a good copyist that you should reasonably be permitted to draw a radish from nature.” In that spirit, I’ve illustrated this post with a series of drapery studies by the Renaissance master Albrecht Dürer. I suggest you copy them not on paper, but in creating a drape—and then draw from your draped copy.

Drapery study, Albrecht Dürer, 1506.

The t-shirts and skinny jeans we wear today are worlds apart from the gowns, kirtles, jerkins, doublets and linen chemises of the 16th century. Modern clothing is more formless and forgiving than ever. But the principles, regardless of the fabric, remain the same.

Wherever fabric is held down or comes into contact with the underlying support, it creates a pivot point. That point is a hub from which folds radiate. That’s easiest to see if you hold a towel in your hand and let it drape. Where you’ve pinched it is the hub from which all folds originate. If you hold the same towel in both hands and let it drape, you’ll see the collision of folds from two pivot points.

Drapery study, Albrecht Dürer, undated.

In clothing, there are often several points of contact, creating several different hubs. Across the back of a shirt, our two shoulder blades strain the cloth in opposition to each other. In jeans, our knees, ankles, derrieres and hipbones are all in contact with the fabric. Even in tight jeans, there will be folds, albeit subtle. Wherever the figure presses against the fabric, it makes a hub for folds.

A person and his clothing tend to move and act as one. Not only does our clothing conform to our bodies in the moment, it carries the memories of past movement. Think of the knees of your favorite jeans. That’s one reason it feels strange to borrow another person’s clothes, and why we develop old favorites we’re loath to get rid of.

This is my favorite of Albrecht Dürer's drapery studies. Undated.

To draw folds accurately, you need to see them as having shape and volume. It’s useful to see each fold as having three surfaces: a top and two sides. The valley between folds is the base from which the folds arise. You may not always see both sides, because one might be folded back, but they’re always there.

It may be difficult to puzzle out whether you’re seeing the top or sides of a fold. The answer is really immaterial, as long as you’re drawing the fold as a three-dimensional object. Folds are infinitely variable, and sometimes the top will take the form of a sharp crease, or a side will disappear for a while. Even when that happens, bear in mind that you’re drawing a three-dimensional object. Folds are never simple lines drawn over the surface of fabric.

Like the rills on a hillside, folds have a way of transmogrifying into other shapes. They twist and turn and merge into other folds, or vanish entirely. It’s helpful to block out drapery as a whole before you start drawing. Just as if you were drawing a hillside, start by measuring the big shapes and checking angles .

In your first pass, don’t worry about subtleties of shading. Think of your this phase as a plan from which you’ll draw or paint. In other words, make it clear, concise, and accurate.

When you’ve finished, you can test the accuracy of your drawing by dropping a contour line across it. Imagine a bug crawling in a straight line from one side to another. Trace that line with your pencil. When your imaginary bug hits a fold, he’ll crawl into it and out the other side. If you get to a point where you can’t figure out where your bug should go, you’ve made a drawing error or been unclear. Go back and resolve that.

Friday, October 15, 2021

Carry on!

You can’t always force yourself out of a difficult mood. However, that’s no excuse to not paint.

Fernald's Neck, 9x12, oil on loose linen, available. When Ken Dewaard and I painted here last year, it was in a biting wind and with snowflakes. This week has been warm and sunny.

My painting pals Eric Jacobsen and Ken DeWaard have been at Cape Ann Plein Air, where they bagged a bouquet of prizes. Eric took Second Prize and Ken won Best Nocturne and the Artist’s Choice/Greg LaRock Legacy Award. Greg passed away unexpectedly last year. “As much as it was a huge honor to win this, it was the most difficult award I’ve ever had to accept,” said Ken.

Those prizes are a tremendous honor for my friends, but also for wee little Knox County, Maine, population fewer than 40,000. Of course, about half of these are artists. You can’t throw a cat here without hitting a painter. It’s an exhilarating milieu to live and work in. We learn from and influence each other. Thus are ‘schools’ of painting created.

Eric Jacobsen with his prizewinning painting.

As lovely as it was to have Ken and Eric gone, they were bound to come back sooner or later. With our various schedules, I haven’t painted with either of them in quite a while. This was a good week to rectify that, as the fall color is blazing and the light is clear and sweet. Of course, I can’t suddenly transform into a happy person on demand; I’ve been brooding after the death of my friend Helen.

On Wednesday, Ken and a few other friends and I painted together. I painted a contre-jure landscape I’d had my eye on. I have no idea if it’s good or bad, because I haven’t even taken it out of its carrier.

I am a creature of process and routine. It both saves and exasperates me. “I should ask my boss for bereavement leave,” I told myself, and cackled. I’m self-employed and have built a life of tightly pressing commitments. It’s easier to carry through than to try to reschedule them.

You can’t always force yourself out of a difficult mood. However, that’s no excuse to not paint.

Ken DeWaard's body of work for Cape Ann Plein Air.

Furthermore, there’s never a guarantee that what you paint will be good. That’s also no excuse. Anyone who paints in a disciplined manner will know there are periods when the well runs dry. There’s nothing to do but work through them. That’s one reason our studios are littered with unfinished paintings, false starts and bad ideas. It’s also why paintings are so darned expensive. You’re not just paying for that gem you love, but for all the experiments and tries that are lying on my studio floor.

The Nazis have many great things to answer for. One small thing was their corruption of the phrase Arbeit macht frei, which they emblazoned, with hideous cynicism, on the gates of Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps. It means “work sets you free,” and it was a horrible thing to say to slave laborers you intended to kill.

However, the underlying idea is in fact true. The repetition and structure of work can be redemptive. It pulls your conscious mind away from your troubles. That lets your unconscious mind do its job, which is to process emotions.

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

In memory of a former gangbanger

How can she be gone when there’s so much work still to be done?

Grain elevators, Buffalo, by Carol L. Douglas.

I can’t remember when or why I first met Helen McCombs, but I do remember who introduced us: Dr. Jennifer Kruschwitz. That a self-described former gangbanger would know an optics professor is surprising, but Helen was like that. She also called Pennsylvania’s lieutenant governor, John Fetterman, her friend.

Helen was excitable, easily angered, and wrote in the worst pidgin English. At the same time, she had a penetrating intelligence. She’d been coded as ‘learning disabled’ as a kid. It’s more likely that she was traumatized.

First Ward, Buffalo, by Carol L. Douglas.

“You really don’t think I’m stupid?” she’d often ask me.

“No, but I think whoever gave you that high school diploma really ripped you off,” I’d answer.

She took an entrance exam for community college and failed dismally. We hatched a remediation plan, starting with basic arithmetic. I gave her homework and she did it faithfully. She consumed western history voraciously. Her reading and writing skills improved with exposure to great literature.

You can’t work with someone that closely and not become good friends. Helen was a newly-hatched Christian, so we started reading the Bible together. Two chapters a night, week by week, month by month, year by year. Let God speak for himself, I reasoned.

And he did. Helen began to look at ghetto life in a different way. We had long discussions about anger and forgiveness, in particular. Swearing and yelling and getting mad was cultural, she told me. “No matter what you call it, it’s sin, and it’s self-destructive,” I’d counter.

North Rochester, by Carol L. Douglas

Go ahead and accuse me of cultural imperialism. But if you’d listened to her agonize over the violence and loss in her daily life, you might feel differently. The blood feud is alive and well in inner-city America. It manifests itself in casual killings that have become so routine that we no longer even notice them.

My pal Cuevas Walker does. He ministers in Rochester, NY. Every few months, he’ll mention that he knew the victim of whatever homicide ticked up the numbers that day. It always brings me up short.

Even worse than not noticing is the idea that it’s no big deal if gangbangers all shoot each other. That’s terrifically judgmental. Each of them is invested with the same miraculous gift of life as you and me, and we don’t know what history brought them to that dismal end. (Also, gangbangers are constantly missing and hitting unintended targets, including my goddaughter’s family restaurant on Monday.)

Heart of Darkness, monotype, by Carol L. Douglas

For these communities, the message of forgiveness and reconciliation is the only hope. Everything else we’ve tried has failed.

In the last few years, the Holy Spirit began to move in Helen. Several months ago, her nephew-by-marriage died by tainted drugs. The community began to mobilize in its usual tiresome way, with accusations and recriminations that threatened to spill over into violence. In the past, Helen would have been the first to break a few heads. Instead, she counseled peace.

Helen died Monday, unexpectedly, alone, and way too young. How can she be gone, I thought, when there’s so much work still to be done? That is one of life’s unanswerable questions.

Monday, October 11, 2021

Monday Morning Art School: painting reflections

The ocean complicates matters by being bouncy, but it reflects light the same way as does glass or tinfoil.

Butter, by Carol L. Douglas, oil on canvasboard. Even something as transparent as Saran Wrap will have reflections.

Reflections are a distortion of the surrounding environment. That’s true whether you’re painting them in water or from glassware in a still life. Managing them is mainly a question of observation.

Imagine an ocean that is perfectly flat, and that you can walk on water. Looking at your feet, you can see straight down into the water. It’s not reflecting anything. Looking at a rubber ducky floating ten feet away, you’re looking at the surface at about a 26° angle. You’ll see a reflection of the ducky, the sky, and a glimpse of what’s under the surface. As you look farther away, the angle gets smaller and smaller, and all you see is the reflected sky.

Hard Drive, by Carol L. Douglas, oil on canvasboard.

Reflection involves two rays - an incoming (incident) ray and an outgoing (reflected) ray. Physics tells us that the angles are identical but on opposite sides of a tangent. This is why the reflection of a boat needs to be directly below the real object in your painting. You can add other colors into that area, but the reflection can’t be wider than the object it’s reflecting.

The reflection should be directly below the object. Don't let it grow wider.

Water is transparent, but it has a shiny surface. Some rays of light make it through and bounce back at us from the sea floor. Reflections in glass work the same way. You can see through the glass in the surface that’s facing you, but the curving sides reflect light from around the room. Because glass is imperfect, these reflections will be distorted.

The ocean complicates matters by being bouncy. Even on the calmest day, the surface of water is never perfectly flat; it’s wavy or worse, just like a fun-house mirror. Waves are a series of irregular curves. How they reflect light depends on what plane you’re seeing at that nano-second. It seems like the easiest thing to do is to capture it in a photo and paint from that, but what we see in photos is sometimes very different from what we perceive in life.

My quick watercolor of waves, done from the deck of American Eagle during our Age of Sail workshop

Instead, sit a moment with and watch how patterns seem to repeat. They’re never exactly the same, since waves are a stochastic process (think random but repeating). But they’re close enough to discern general patterns.

Solid objects can also trip you up in their reflections. Consider the humble spoon. It’s concave. That distorts its reflections. There’s no point in trying to predict what you might see; it’s best to just look. Likewise, a mirror only reflects straight back at you if you’re in front of it.

Tin foil hat, by Carol L. Douglas. Oil on canvasboard.


It’s always best to paint the reflections at the same time you’re doing the rest of the painting, rather than adding them as an afterthought. They’re a fundamental part of the design.

Only smooth surfaces reflect light coherently enough to make reflections. That’s why burlap has no reflections. Sometimes, when water is being wind-whipped, it doesn’t have reflections either. To paint such a sea, keep the contrast low.

Ottawa House, by Carol L. Douglas, oil on canvasboard, available. The wind-whipped sea has very little contrast, but it does have texture.

Some people say that reflections should be lower in chroma than their objects, but I don’t think that’s true. Often, the ocean seems to concentrate color. Sometimes, the water will be lightest at the horizon; other days there will be a deep band there. However, the farther away, the more its colors shift toward blue-violet.


Friday, October 8, 2021

What constitutes a beginner painter?

I don’t want painting students to pass a test before they start with me; I just want them to be able to thread their metaphorical sewing machine on their own.

 Midsummer, 24x36, $3985 framed. In honor of Canadian Thanksgiving, which is Monday, let's feature paintings I've done in Canada.

As soon as I announced that I wasn’t taking beginners anymore, a number of my students expressed trepidation about continuing with me. “But I’m a beginner!” they said. In some cases, they’re right, but they’re already on the path to understanding painting. In other cases, they don’t have a clue how well they’re painting, and how much they’ve learned.

When I said ‘beginning painters,’ I meant people on their first date with a brush. They’re unclear on the materials and what they’re used for. They’ve never mixed paint or handled a brush. They’ve never heard or considered basic terms like hue, saturation or value.

Anyone who’s taken one of my classes is past this newbie-phase, by definition. And anyone who’s studied with another teacher or taught themselves with the aid of books or videos is unlikely to be a beginner, either.

Ottawa House, 16X20, oil on canvas, $2029 framed. All these paintings were done en plein air.

My friend and student Jennifer Johnson—who taught quilting for many years—says that she would have students in her classes with advanced design skills, and others who’d never threaded a sewing machine before. “Neither of these things are more important than the other,” she said. “But I spent 90% of my time rethreading the machine for the beginner.”

I’m trying to describe something analogous in paint. I don’t want painting students to pass a test before they start with me; I just want them to be able to thread their metaphorical sewing machine on their own.

In fact, I think it’s important to have a class of different levels. Hearing the steps justified and explained to a less-experienced painter is often helpful to the more-experienced painter. Sometimes, an essential principle hasn’t really clicked. Or, our willful brains just forget something important.

Clouds over Teslin Lake, Yukon Territory, 8x10, oil on canvasboard, $522 unframed.

As with every discipline, painters improve at different rates. How fast they learn depends on their natural quickness, how much time they can practice outside of class, distractions, anxieties, and other factors. I could start twelve painters at exactly the same level, teach them the same lessons for a year, and there’d still be a wide range of achievement at the end. That’s natural, and if you’re someone who learns more slowly, it’s nothing to worry about.

The greatest painting classes are marked by camaraderie and good will. The best way to learn something is to explain it to someone else. Those painters generous with their own knowledge are helping themselves as much as they’re helping their friend.

Cobequid Bay farm, oil on canvasboard, 6X8, $348 unframed.

Having said all that, Bobbi Heath tells me she has run up against a problem and will not be offering her introductory oil-painting class this fall. That means that for the short term, new oil painters will still be coming to me (subject to space limits in my classes, of course). Cassie Sano will still be offering introductory watercolor classes, concurrent with my own fall classes.

Wednesday, October 6, 2021

A glossary of basic painting terms

Now you, too, can sound like an artist! Here’s my glossary of art terms—highly subjective and relevant mainly to painters.

Fallow field, Carol L. Douglas, 12X16, $1449 framed.

Abstraction: non-representational art in which meaning is expressed through a formal pattern of shapes, lines and colors. Sometimes called “non-objective.” There are degrees of abstraction.

Alkyd: an oil-based medium which uses a polyester resin to speed drying.

Alla prima: a painting finished wet-on-wet, in just one or a few sessions.

Analogous color: those next to each other on the color wheel.

Atmospheric (or aerial) perspective: creating a sense of distance using color.

Autumn Farm, Carol L. Douglas, 12X16, $1449 framed.

Binder: the material that holds pigment together in paint.

Chroma: The purity or intensity of a color. Also called “saturation.”

Color: an object’s pigmentation, comprised of three elements: value, hue and chroma.

Color temperature: a convention where we agree that greens, blues and violets are cool and that reds, yellows and oranges are warm. Entirely subjective but it works.

Color wheel: a circular grid that shows the relationships between hues in color theory.

Complements: hues directly opposite each other on the color wheel.

Three Chimneys, Carol L. Douglas, 12X16, $1159.

Composition: the fundamental design of the painting, created by line, color and shape. See also design.

Contour: a line that encircles a space, separating it from what’s next to it.

Direct painting: laying down colors opaquely on the canvas, with the same hues and tones as are intended in the final work.

Focal point: the object(s) given the greatest dominance in a painting. There can be more than one.

Glaze: a transparent layer of paint applied over a dry layer.

Grisaille: a painting in monochrome, in my classes used as an underpainting.

Ground:

  1. The substance applied to a drawing support in preparation for painting, e.g. gesso;

  2. An initial coating in printmaking (doesn’t concern us here);

  3. The background in a painting, as distinguished from the figure.

Hue:

  1. The position on the color wheel, i.e. red, orange, blue, yellow—that which we generally refer to as ‘color’; sometimes these are referred to as ‘color families’;

  2.  A pure pigment; e.g., not a tint or shade;

  3. An analogous combination of pigments that mimics a single-pigment paint color that may be obsolete or expensive.

Impasto: thick paint.

Imprimatura:  an initial stain of color painted on a ground that creates a transparent, toned surface.

On Fernald's Neck, Carol L. Douglas, 9X12, $696.

Indirect painting: applying layers of glaze onto a drawing or underpainting to subtly alter colors and tones. See Rembrandt as an example.

Linear perspective: giving a sense of three-dimensional depth on a two-dimensional surface through drawing.

Lost-and-found edge: a line that goes from hard to soft (or invisible) in different passages in a painting.

Medium:

  1. The material with which an artist is working;

  2. The binder in a pigment or its equivalent, which is used in the top layers of painting to provide viscosity and prevent oxidation.

Motive force: the energy within a painting.

Motive line: the line that carries the motive force.

Negative space: the space around an object.

Neutral: having low saturation or chroma.

Pigment: the material in paint that gives it its color.

Plein air: painted outside while looking at the subject in question.

Primary colors: Colors that can’t be mixed; e.g., red, blue and yellow.

Proportion: the size relationship between things.

Realism: art which attempts to represent things as they’re seen. This is, of course, a moving target.

Secondary colors: colors that are made from mixtures of two primary colors; e.g., orange, green and violet. A secondary color is always opposite a primary color on the color wheel.

Sketch: a preliminary drawing for a work of art.

Still life: any combination of inanimate objects that form the subject of a painting, in contrast to a landscape painting or figure painting.

Solid media: media designed to create an opaque surface, e.g., oil paints, pastels, gouache, and acrylics.

Tertiary color: the six colors located between the primary and secondary colors on the color wheel.

Texture: real or illusory roughness or smoothness on the surface of your work.

Toning: painting a light, warm transparent stain onto a primed canvas, see also imprimatura.

Transparent media: media designed to work transparently, e.g., watercolor and acrylics.

Underpainting: the first layer of oil painting, usually a value statement in monochrome.

Value: How light or dark the color is.

Value sketch: a drawing designed to create a value map for the finished painting.

Wash: a broad thin layer of diluted paint; primarily a watercolor technique.

Monday, October 4, 2021

Monday Morning Art School: contre-jour

Contre-jour is a great effect for figure and landscape painting, but you can practice it in still life.

Tête-à-tête, by Carol L. Douglas, long since gone to its new home.

Contre-jour is French for ‘against daylight’ and it simply means a back-lit subject. The viewer is looking towards the light. When the sun is low, contre-jour results in silhouetting, as with a sunset. However, when the light source is high but still behind the subject, contre-jour can create wonderful rim lighting with prismatic color effects. Contra-jour minimizes details, increases contrast, and emphasizes simple shapes. It casts shadows forward, and these shadows are often as interesting as the subject itself.

The human eye has a much better response to wide ranges in lighting than does a camera lens. Our eyes adjust constantly to shifts in lighting, and our brains interpret this data on the fly. If, say, we’re in Rosslyn Chapel attempting to spy out the Green Man in the murky light above our heads, we have no trouble also seeing the well-lighted docent who’s giving the tour. It’s only in extreme lighting shifts that the eye and brain need time to catch up.

Sunset sail, by Carol L. Douglas, available through Folly Cove Fine Art. A sunset is an extreme example of contre-jour painting.

A camera (at least to date) hasn’t got this flexibility. Photos tend to be too dark in the dark passages or too light in the light passages. That’s not just an aesthetic problem; they simply don’t record data in those places, so there’s no fixing the problem in Photoshop.

That’s why it’s important to practice contre-jour in real life, not from photos. A photograph sets the relative light levels, and you’ll have a hard time overriding what you see, even if you’ve taken multiple exposures.

La repasseuse à contre-jour, 1874-1878, Edgar Degas, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Ironically, that same inflexibility sometimes makes cameras better for recording images in silhouette, like sunsets. The camera doesn’t try to insert information that isn’t there. The most common error in painting sunsets is putting color in the foreground. That’s the brain telling the artist, “trees are green,” when all the visual evidence is to the contrary.

Contre-jour is a wonderful technique in figure painting, as it creates an aura of privacy and anonymity. I’ve included one example by Edgar Degas, but he used it repeatedly, creating a sense of dignity for his laborers, ballerinas, and bathing women. Contre-jour is also very effective in landscape painting, but if you can’t get out to paint en plein air right now, practice it with still life.

To paint contre-jour effectively, one must carefully attend to color. Take the time to check values and record them in the form of a sketch, because contra-jour lighting effects change more quickly than spotlighted scenes. That’s particularly true in the structure, shape, and density of shadows.

Belfast harbor, 14x18, Carol L. Douglas, $1275 unframed.

Value is obviously important, but so too are the subtle shifts in hue and chroma that tell you an object is in shadow. Except for extreme silhouette, backlit subjects are never uniformly dark. They catch rim light and reflected light.

Almost all scenes will include some translucent or transparent objects like flowers, glassware, and fabric. These let light through, and when placed in front of a dark background, they stand out. Your contra-jour still life can look very different in daylight than it does at night, so it might take some adjusting.

Don’t underestimate the power of shadows; they’re often the best part of a contra-jour scene. They can transform the often-neglected bottom of your canvas from predictable to riotous. For example, try shining a light through a vase of flowers and note the lovely shadows dancing across your table.

Friday, October 1, 2021

A new system of training new painters

I’m confident this approach will prepare confident, competent painting students ready to tackle higher-level observational painting, composition, color theory and mark-making.

Breaking storm, 48X30, oil on canvas, Carol L. Douglas, available through Folly Cove Gallery, Rockport, MA

After this session of painting classes, which ends on November 2, I will no longer take beginning painters. I’m simply stretched too thin. Instead, I’m going to send brand-new painters to two excellent teachers. That’s a simple, six-week process in which they will learn the rudiments of paint application, brush-work and color mixing. When they’ve completed this preparatory work, I’ll welcome them back into my classes.

That doesn’t mean every new student must start this way. If you already know the fundamentals of applying paint, I’m happy to work with you, whether you are self-taught or you started in another class. And en plein air, I’m happy to welcome painters of all levels.

Michelle Reading, oil on linen, Carol L. Douglas available through Rye Arts Center.

I’ll be sending oil and acrylic painters to my old friend, Bobbi Heath. I’ve taught students prepared by her and they’ve come to me knowing the order of operations in solid-media painting. Bobbi painted on the side during a long and successful business career. That shows in the workmanlike way she trains new painters. You won’t get a lot of rhetoric from her, just a good step-by-step introduction in how alla prima painting is supposed to be done.

I’ll be sending new watercolor painters to one of my own students, Cassie Sano. Cassie has experience teaching, but she developed a syllabus specifically to train new painters for me. She too is a very logical thinker, and a person of great compassion and kindness. She’s a crackerjack watercolorist, and, more importantly, she can explain how each step works. She’ll demystify watercolor for the beginner.

Main Street, Owls Head, 16X20, Carol L. Douglas, oil on gessoboard, $1,623 unframed.

Where does this leave me? Relieved. My students have been galloping forward for the past few years, working on higher-level observational painting, composition, color theory, and mark-making. It’s unfair to the new painter to be thrown into this melee without the basics under his or her belt.

Alla prima painting comes under many names, including wet-on-wet, direct painting or au premier coup. That French version means ‘at the first strike’, and it’s a perfect description of what has to happen to get the freshness that alla prima painting promises.

Wreck of the SS Ethie, oil on canvas, Carol L. Douglas, 18X24, $2318 framed.

To hit it right on the first strike means a lot of things have to have become second nature—drawing, color mixing, and brushwork. The whole point is to keep do-overs to a minimum. That requires preparation and confidence. I’m confident that this new system of training will enhance both.

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Three artists, one view

It’s not what you paint, it’s how you paint it.

Asters by Björn Runquist, 12X24. Courtesy of the artist.

Last week, I got a text from Björn Runquist that read “Asters!” and included a photo of the roadside along Maine 131 in Thomaston. I was out on American Eagle teaching, so I couldn’t rush over there. On Monday, Ken DeWaard and I went chasing after Björn’s view. Route 131 is narrow, heavily traveled, and has a wicked ditch, making parking and set-up difficult. That meant all three of us painted from the same place, at the same angle. Björn’s painting is beautifully finished; Ken’s and mine are still incomplete.

It’s common enough for us to paint in the same place, but rare that we would choose the same frame. Within that, different things attracted us. Björn concentrated on the broad sweep and the punctuation of greens. Ken was interested in the big sky. For me, the asters were right at eye-level, so I painted a forest of purple.

Ken DeWaard's asters, 18x24, courtesy of the artist.

Bearing in mind that they’re at different stages of completion, are any of these paintings ‘better’ than the others? Subjected to formal analysis, they all finish strong. They’re properly drafted, have good composition, clear focal points, and use color competently. None are boring.

Therein lies the juror’s conundrum. Their ‘quality’ rests on how you, the viewer, respond emotionally to them. In that, they’re radically different. Ken, Björn and I are roughly the same age, have the same social background, and use the same alla prima technique. I’m not going to psychoanalyze my peers, let alone myself, but we each bring different sensibilities to our paintings.

My asters, 12x16.

That’s why painting matters, of course. It’s also one of the many paradoxes of art. Most consumers respond to paintings based on subject matter—for instance, they look at boat paintings because boats mean something to them. The objectivity of time renders the subject less important, and the artist’s inner life becomes paramount. Vincent van Gogh is not an Immortal because the art-loving public has an abiding love for Arles. Heck, most of us have never been there.

Last week, I told you about an exercise where my students have to paint a scene chosen by committee. (Joe Anna Arnett called me an ‘evil genius’ for this lesson, and it’s the greatest compliment I’ve ever received.) The subject matters, yes, but what you bring to it ultimately overrides content. Never worry about a peer painting the same thing as you—he simply can’t.

A footnote: please check out Peter Yesis’ wonderful flower paintings. He’s willing to take on those flowers petal-by-petal, something the rest of us never dare do.



Monday, September 27, 2021

Monday Morning Art School: painting from photographs

There’s a world of difference between copying a photo and creating a painting using photos for reference.

Skylarking 2, 18x24, $1855 unframed. It's difficult to paint boats under sail en plein air, so mostly we use photographs for that.

It is not true that I never paint from photos; I just prefer painting from life. However, there are times (winter) and subjects (boats under sail, babies) that lend themselves to painting from photographs. Size is also a limiting factor; nobody can finish a painting much larger than 40x40 in the field without two stout oafs to stabilize the canvas.

What I don’t do is slavishly follow a single photo. Instead, most of my studio paintings are compilations of images.

All flesh is as grass, oil on linen, 36x48, $6231 framed.

Start with an idea. Let us say, for example, that you want to paint the “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness/Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun,” as John Keats put it. Symbols of that idea might include apple orchards, golden light, morning fog over the blueberry barrens.

Gather photos, from your own stash. I have tens of thousands of reference photos on my server; you probably have a few thousand on your phone alone.

Think of this step as similar to the interior decorator’s design board or a Pinterest board. Your goal is not to find a photo you’ll ‘paint from,’ but to find ideas you want to incorporate into your painting. I do this on my laptop (as most of you probably will) but there’s no reason it can’t be done the old-fashioned way, on a bulletin board.

After allowing these images time to percolate, identify the major motif of your painting. That’s its focal point. Then, do a sketch balanced around that motif. It’s helpful to set your reference material aside at this point, and let the sketch bubble up from your subconscious. If that doesn’t work for you, think about compositional armatures. Place your focal point accordingly, and work out from there.

Then it’s simply a matter of borrowing a bit from here, a bit from there, until you have a coherent, cohesive sketch.

Do not simply trace or grid a photo and expect to get a good painting from it. The whole point of painting is to allow room for your subconscious mind to enter the dialogue. You should be drawing from your photo until you have a powerful picture, then building on that drawing in your painting. If you can’t draw well enough to do this, then you need to improve your drawing skills, stat!

Vineyard, 30X40, oil on canvas, $5072 framed. This started life as the field painting below, and was painted again in the studio using the process outlined in this post.


If your goal is wild-animal portraiture, you should work with a good camera with a telephoto lens, but for most reference photos, a modern cell phone is sufficient. The images are large enough and the controls good enough that they outshoot most pocket cameras. There are situations, such as in Argentina, where I will bring a ‘real’ camera, but most of my photos are taken with my cell phone.

Other than for animals or glaciers, extreme telephoto lenses are not great for reference photos. They create pincushion distortion that can seriously muck up a drawing. Cell phones have wide-angle lenses. These create different problems, but they’re easier to correct in the drawing phase.

When I take photos for reference, I always leave in more background than I would have if I were shooting for the photo’s sake. I can always crop later, but there’s no way to add back in the missing information if I decide I need it.

Never try to replicate the out-of-focus background of a photo with a shallow depth-of-field. That’s not how human perception works, and it’s a dead giveaway that you simply copied a photo, rather than created a picture using reference photos.

Vineyard, 9x12, courtesy private collection

Try to keep the lighting the same in all your reference photos. In general, it’s wise to avoid high-contrast pictures for painting. When whites are bleached out and darks are black, we lose all the information that might have been in those passages, and they inexorably lead us to paint in excessive contrast.

While I use my own photos almost all the time, there are times when I use photos from the internet. It makes no sense for me to hunt down a Friendship sloop to check its rigging when the information is right there in someone else’s photo. It goes without saying that you shouldn’t be copying substantive portions of other people’s work without permission. However, you can use the internet for research into how a shoe might reflect light, or the color of cornflowers, or what the mist looks like in an orchard in April.