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Friday, July 30, 2021

Painting in strange places

Boats, mountains, glaciers—I like painting off the beaten path.


I don’t worry about much, but setting up the coffee this morning I was stopped by the sound of running water near the sink. It was rainwater coursing down the window in great gouts. Not a domestic problem, but it’s a hard start for the inaugural Camden on Canvas, which has brought top-tier artists to paint in our little burg.

Camden on Canvas is the pet project of Colin Page, and it’s a fundraiser for the Camden Public Library. Colin’s got bigger worries this morning than where he himself will paint. Anyway, he could paint Camden harbor blindfolded and with a sling on his good arm—after all, it’s his home harbor. As for the rest of us, we’re professionals, and we have two days to finish our paintings.

I’ll be heading down to Camden a little later this morning and setting up on the docks on the harbormaster’s side. I’ll work on a harbor painting today, but tomorrow my real adventure starts. I’m climbing to the top of Bald Mountain early in the morning and painting the vista of Camden from a high peak. Any fool can drive up Mt. Battie and paint from the parking area at the summit, but it makes a mediocre picture, having no foreground. Bald Mountain is a 2.6-mile round-trip hike of moderate difficulty (although it will be slippery after all this rain).

View from Bald Mountain.

If you plan to go up there to watch me paint, bring your own chair. I’m not carrying one up for you. You don’t have to work that hard, however; last time I checked, the signal on Bald Mountain was great. I’ll live-broadcast my painting on Facebook. It’s hard to predict an exact time, but expect me to start early, while the sun is still low in the east. I’ll update times on my Facebook page.

Speaking of video, my friend and student Terri Lea Smith made this wonderful video of schooner American Eagle during our June workshop. If you’ve ever wondered why I have a crush on this particular boat, her film should answer that question. Boats, mountains, glaciers—I like painting off the beaten path.

On that note, students interested in my Pecos workshop might be happy to learn that Our Lady of Guadalupe Abbey has added camping spots to their accommodations. It’s a stunning location along the Pecos River and very convenient to all our painting sites. If you’re interested, I’d call them—quickly—at 505-757-6415. And then let me know, too.

My 2020 painting for Cape Elizabeth's Paint for Preservation.

Cape Elizabeth’s Paint for Preservation is August 13-15. We’re assigned sites to paint, and these came this week. I’ll be at Trundy Point, which is a massive rock jutting out into the ocean. It’s got surf, beach roses, scree, and beautiful rocks.

I’ll only be there on Saturday, as I’m finishing my workshop in Schoodic that Friday. That occasional problem of unavoidable schedule conflicts is another reason they give us two days to paint at these events. As you can imagine, I’m praying for no rain.

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Loosen up

Jettison your deep thoughts. You and your painting will both be better for it.

Apple tree and swing, oil on canvasboard, $1623 unframed.

Illustrator Christoph Niemann spoke to the New Yorker about learning to draw a tree:

I took the same approach as I did when learning to draw the human body—trying to understand the structure, the weight, the proportions. But I always got lost in the details, and the results didn’t look convincing. Trees are much too complex to follow rules; each is unique, especially in the summer, and I’ve made my peace with that.

I do keep looking to see how the masters solved trees. (I recommend Matisse, Félix Vallotton, and Wayne Thiebaud.) But I admit the most important lesson came from watching the TV host Bob Ross: if you want to draw trees, you have to loosen up and be in a good mood.

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

I was once an intense youngster myself. In fact, a wise teacher once suggested that I stop being so ‘sophomoric’. “But I am a sophomore!” I responded, and continued to make ‘serious’ art—all of which I hope has long been consigned to a dumpster. All that angst hinders the process of painting. It’s possible to be serious without being sour.

I never watch TV, so I’ve never seen an episode of Bob Ross’s show. Most of my friends who watched it back in the Eighties were doing so cynically, as an excuse to get high. I was surprised to learn that it was at one point PBS’ biggest show, watched by people from all walks of life.

Those of us in the narrow world of art probably don’t realize that Bob Ross is America’s most celebrated painter—bigger than all the Wyeths put together. He endures in reruns almost 40 years after his show first went on the air.

Jack Pine, 9X12, oil on primed birch, $696 unframed.

How is it that Ross endures when so many more ‘important’ painters of Ross’ heydey, like Julian SchnabelDavid Salle or Eric Fischl, are unknown to most people? It’s not because of Ross’ paintings. Rather, it’s the way he painted, and who he was.

“I got a letter from somebody here a while back, and they said, 'Bob, everything in your world seems to be happy.'” Ross said. “That's for sure. That's why I paint. It's because I can create the kind of world that I want, and I can make this world as happy as I want it. Shoot, if you want bad stuff, watch the news.”

When his show went on the air, I was recently married and blasting the Kinks’ Give the People What They Want in our tiny Buffalo flat. If you want to understand anxiety, give the soundtrack of the Eighties a spin. The world was a kaleidoscope of political and economic change, all set against the end of the Cold War.

Along Kiwassa Lake, 9X12, oil on canvasboard, $696 unframed.

Most of us can’t just loosen up on demand, but we can make environments which are conducive to happiness. Perhaps that’s one reason that painting is overwhelmingly popular with older people—they’ve learned to jettison their Deep Thoughts and exist in the moment.

Bob Ross was the master of process—his whole show was about it. He painted to encourage himself and others. Apparently, it worked. I agree with him and Niemann—loosen up! You’ll paint better and enjoy the process more.

Monday, July 26, 2021

Monday Morning Art School: simplifying values

Thinking about the landscape as a series of planes will help you create depth in your painting. 

Ice Bound Locks, John F. Carlson, courtesy Vose Galleries

When Eric Jacobsen told us that he was teaching the theory of angles and consequent values in his recent workshop, I was baffled by the big words. “What’s that when it’s at home?” I asked him. Ken DeWaard was equally confused, responding in a torrent of emojis.

“C’mon, guys, it’s John F. Carlson 101!” Eric exclaimed. Björn Runquist immediately checked, and announced that there was nothing about any angles on page 101. (Actually, it’s in chapter 3; I checked.)

It’s no wonder that Eric’s no longer returning our calls.

Sylvan Labyrinth, John F. Carlson, courtesy of Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

All kidding aside, Carlson’s Guide to Landscape Painting is a classic. His theory, although it has a high-flown title, is actually quite intelligible to even the meanest intellects (and you know who you are, guys).

“Every good picture is fundamentally an arrangement of three or four large masses,” Carlson began. That’s as good an organizing principle as any in art. Value is what makes form visible, so we should see, translate, simplify and organize form into value masses.

Carlson wrote that any landscape would contain four groups of values bouncing off three major planes:

  • The horizontal ground plane;
  • The angle plane represented by mountain slopes or rooftops;
  • The upright plane, which is perpendicular to the ground plane, such as trees.

In the middle of the day—our most common circumstance for painting—the value structure would be as follows:

  • The sky is our light source. It should be the highest value in our painting.
  • The ground plane gets the most light bouncing off it, so it should be the next-lightest plane.
  • The angle planes such as rooftops or mountain slopes, are the next lightest planes.
  • The upright objects in our painting, such as trees, walls or people, should be the darkest value element.

Snow Lyric, John F. Carlson, courtesy of The Athenaeum


That doesn't mean that the shapes are crudely simplified, as a glance at Carlson's own paintings confirms. The shapes can be beautiful, elegant, complex, and lyrical without too much value overlap.

Thinking about the landscape as a series of planes will help you create depth in your painting. However, it can be tricky to see the landscape as a series of planes rather than objects. It can be helpful to keep each value group completely separate, with no overlap of values, but, in reality, there will always be overlap.

Your assignment is to find a photo among your own snapshots and reduce it to a series of four values. Then paint it.

As you try to integrate this idea into your painting, exaggerate the separation of planes.

Of course, there are many circumstances where this doesn’t hold true—where the sky is leaden and darker than a snow plane, or when the fading evening light is hitting the vertical plane rather than the ground. But understanding it will help you paint the exceptions in a more arresting way.

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
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
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
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.