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Friday, September 24, 2021

Just another day in paradise

I’m not much of a photographer, but this trip inspired me to try.

Sunset, approaching our home-away-from-home, the schooner American Eagle.

The northeast’s best season is autumn, and we rolled into it while I was teaching aboard schooner American Eagle. Warm sun, blue skies, and light breezes meant that I kept telling myself, “I wish I could bottle this and save it for winter.” That, of course, is impossible. Instead, I soaked it up as well as I could.

Schooner Heritage soaking up the last of the sun at Pulpit Harbor.

This was my last workshop of calendar year 2021. I’m pretty chuffed at how well all my students have painted all year, and this week has been no exception.

Tidal flats on an unoccupied island. The beach is washed clean twice a day.

A photo is a poor approximation of an experience, but that and our memories are all we generally come home with. (Of course, my students also bring home paintings.)

The sky created crazy beautiful effects.

I’m not much of a photographer to start with. I tend to snap and let the pieces fall where they may. I don’t generally even pick up my cell phone when I’m painting. That’s not a philosophy, it’s sheer cussedness. I’ve had to ask Ken DeWaard if he has pictures after we’ve painted somewhere together.

Lobsterboat coming home at dusk to Isleford harbor.

This sailing trip was different. I came home with dozens of snaps on my cellphone. The sky constantly shifted its optical effects. Our fellow windjammers flew against a backdrop of blue-against-blue. Harbor porpoises wheeled alongside our boat. We stopped at Little Cranberry Island and walked its peaceful streets.

Bell buoy and the Bass Harbor Light.

Next week, we start a new session of Zoom and plein air classes. If you meant to enroll but haven’t, I have limited openings:

  • Monday nights, 6-9 PM EST, there is one seat left.
  • Tuesday mornings, 10 AM-1 PM EST, there are three seats left.
  • Local plein air, Thursday mornings, 10 AM-1 PM EST, there are many seats left.

If you want more information or to register, email me.

There are times when the ocean appears to be made of aluminum foil.

Friday, September 17, 2021

It’s not the subject that makes the picture

It’s what you bring to it. That’s true in life as much as in painting.

A wee little demo I did of water tumbling over rocks. I'm using the same watercolor kit as my students will use next week aboard American Eagle.

This week I’m on a ranch high above Pecos, NM. The owners and the cloud of dogs who usually trail after them are elsewhere. It’s just me, three horses and a donkey. “Aren’t you worried about being alone out there?” one of my workshop students asked me. No.

I had horses when I was young but it’s been a long time since I’ve handled them closely. They set a rhythm to my day. I block out time in the morning and evening to attend to them. Among the pinon and dust of a New Mexico September, I have long stretches of absolute silence. That’s a rarity in the modern world.

Donna finds serenity in the Pecos River.

We don’t form as tight a bond with horses as we do with our dogs, but the potential is there. In 1910 there were about 20 million domestic horses in North America, or around one for every six people. They lived and worked side-by-side with their humans with an intimacy we can’t imagine today.

The owner of Scout, Lucy, Duke and Jimmy (the donkey) is a tiny woman, but she bosses them with impunity. She’s their alpha human. I’m a stranger. Inevitably, like children, they had to test me.

The monkey business started on Tuesday evening, when I came out of the tackroom with an armful of hay to be mugged by the two geldings and a donkey. I’m half a foot taller and sixty pounds heavier than Jane, and I could not push those knuckleheads out of my way. They leaned on me, inevitably getting me to drop their supper. After I’d retrieved and separated it, they started fussing at each other.

Yves painting in the historic barrio of Santa Fe.

Duke bit Jimmy, and Jimmy kicked out at anyone who was nearby. I yelled. Jimmy laid back his ears, stuck out his lip, and brayed. He looked so much like an angry toddler that I started laughing. “I don’t know which one of you started it,” I yelled, “but you’re all grounded!” At that moment they reminded me powerfully of my own children back in the day.

The horses outweigh me, but I have an advantage: my opposable thumbs. On Wednesday, I scarpered out the back and around to the other side of their corral, where I distributed their hay before they realized where I was. Peace has reigned ever since in the Horse Kingdom.

I'll horse-sit these darlings any time!

I love this place, but that doesn’t lessen my appreciation for my own home in Maine, or my workshop aboard American Eagle, which starts Sunday. Would I be this happy in a flat in a rust-belt city? It’s been almost forty years since I’ve lived that life, but I hope so.

I do an exercise with my workshop students where I ask them to paint a scene chosen by committee. It’s not the subject that makes the painting, it’s what they bring to it. That’s true of life as well. Obviously, crisis and grief are exceptions; we all go through seasons of loss, and we’re not expected to be happy in them. But in the general run of events, we are designed for happiness. If it eludes us, it behooves us to figure out why—and to fix it.

No blog next week, because there’s no internet on Penobscot Bay. Please, techies, never fix that!

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Afraid of the darks

It’s only when you’re no longer struggling to manage the technical problems that you can start telling a story with your brush.

Northern  New Mexico, 8X10, oil on Ray-Mar board, $522 unframed.

When teaching, I usually find myself sounding out little ditties with my brush rather than playing through the whole score. Nobody can absorb all the nuances of painting in one marathon demonstration; if that’s what they want, they’re better off buying a video and watching it repeatedly. I prefer to paint a passage that shows a solution to whatever problem is bedeviling my class at the moment. Rarely does that result in a fully-realized painting, but I feel that it’s the best way to teach.

Students setting up to paint in a quiet hamlet. What a paradise New Mexico is!

I was doing that yesterday, demonstrating how to hit a dense, rich color on the first strike. Watercolor students are often afraid of the darks, because they know there’s no going back from an incorrectly-placed deep passage. With few exceptions, watercolor doesn’t take correction well.

“That’s the bitch of watercolor,” I said, sadly.

“Ohhh, the Bitch of Watercolor!” someone riposted. “What a great title!”

My students. I love them.

"Enough of that stupid horse!" said Jimmy the Donkey. "Look at my beautiful Roamin' Nose!" That was the end of that painting.

The diffident watercolorist tries to circumvent their fear of darks by substituting a series of glazes. Glazing has its place, but you can’t use it in lieu of courage. Excessive glazing makes for muddy color and indistinct edges. The end result is lifeless. Paradoxically, that struggle against the darks sucks all the light out of the painting.

Just as watercolorists have problems with darks, some oil painters have an equal and opposite problem with light. They understand intellectually that they work from darks to lights, but they’re somehow unable to make the jump. Sometimes that’s caused by working in bright sunlight, which lies about the true values in our paintings. Or the painter thinks they should lay down a bunch of dark color and then lighten things by adding white into them. That’s a misunderstanding of indirect painting.

White, incorrectly used, makes for chalky color.

New Mexico can sure put on a show with her skies.

The problem may also be that they have too much solvent in the bottom layers. If those layers are too wet, nothing above them stays separated and clean. A good rule of thumb is that solvent gets used in the bottom layer only (and sparingly), paint in the middle layer, and paint and medium in the top layer. The fat-over-lean rule is not only archivally sound, it’s easier to manage.

Confident color is integral to alla prima painting. There is only one way to achieve this:

  • Draw well enough that you have confidence in where you’re placing your color, and,
  • Mix and test your color so you’re sure of it before it hits your finished painting.
My dog buddies came out to visit me, as they do every year. It's painful to see the grey in their muzzles and the hitch in their gitalong.

“Why this emphasis on process?” a student once asked me. “Shouldn’t art be about freedom of expression?” Well, yes and no. All expression rests on a firm foundation of technique. It’s only when you’re no longer struggling to manage the technical problems that you can start telling a story with your brush.

I’m teaching in Pecos, NM this week. Yee-hah!

Monday, September 13, 2021

Monday Morning Art School: the color of earth

The earth pigments are our oldest colors, and they’ve served humanity well.

Dry Wash, oil on canvasboard, 12X16, $1159 unframed.

Years ago, I met an artist in Taos who told me that he never used the earths—siennas and umbers—in his paintings. I don't remember his name, but I vividly remember his rationale. They were too close in color to the rocks of New Mexico. He did better to mix those warm shades.

That is very close to my own rationale for not having greens on my palette. The East is a predominantly-green environment. Using greens straight out of the tube is the best possible way to deaden your painting into a universal dull greenness without variety, sparkle or light.

Old Barnyard in New Mexico, oil on canvasboard, 12X16, $1159 unframed.

I'm teaching in New Mexico this week, so I have to adjust my own palette. My reliance on the earths has to ease up. However, my students are all from the south or east, meaning they’ll go back to a green landscape. I want them to take home the logic behind my palette, not an arbitrary rule.

The earth pigments are minerals that have been used in painting since prehistoric times. They’re primarily iron oxides and manganese oxides. We know them as the ochres, siennas and umbers. They’re extremely lightfast. In watercolor they granulate beautifully because of their large particle size. They’re relatively non-toxic* and they’re cheap. Those are all valuable properties to the painter, which is why they’re so widely used.

On the other hand, they look just like the earth because they’re made of dirt and rust (although we synthesize some of them today). They’re complex colors with lots of overtones. In mixtures they stubbornly retain traces of their own character. In a painting predominated by the natural reds and browns of the west, that can get pretty dull, pretty fast. If you want to know how a reliance on the earth pigments will turn out, see Rembrandt—great for Dutch interiors, not so good for American landscape.

Downdraft snow, oil on canvasboard, 12X16, $1159 unframed.

The world of greens cannot be simulated by something taken from nature. The pigments that give us green in nature—chlorophylls—are not lightfast. Instead, painters rely on an inorganic compound, chromium oxide green, which we know as viridian or chrome green. Chromium oxide is synthetic, but it does appear in nature as a rare mineral. It is relatively low-stain and inexpensive. It too granulates, which makes it valuable to watercolorists.

Chromium oxide green is a good workhorse pigment, far preferable to the deadening sap green that so many painters love. Sap green started as an unstable extract of buckthorn berries. What we buy today is a convenience mix based on phthalo green. That’s also true of the mixture marketed as ‘viridian hue.’ Paints based on phthalocyanine dyes are very high-stain and have a different color profile than the pigments they’re mimicking. That’s not to disparage the phthalo blue and greens; in themselves they’re lightfast, cheap, and have transformed the modern world.

Spring thaw along the upper reaches of the Pecos River, oil on canvasboard, 12X16, $1159 unframed.

Hooker’s Green is another convenience hue. It’s named after an English botanical illustrator, William Hooker, who first put Prussian blue and gamboge together to make a clear, light green. There’s nothing wrong with that mixture—but you should be able to make it yourself, not buy it out of a tube.

That’s true across your palette. You’ll have more flexibility and less expense if you stop buying convenience mixes and ‘hues’.

*Don’t ever fall for the idea that if it’s natural, it’s non-toxic. Mother Nature has hidden a lot of dangerous minerals in this beautiful earth, including cinnabar, galena, lead, asbestos and more.

Thursday, September 9, 2021

I used to know everything

Who cares if the Dunning-Kruger effect is measurable? We’ve all known people for whom it’s true.

Wreck of the SS Ethie, oil on canvas, 18X24, $2318 framed

When I couldn’t paint, I thought I knew everything. The more I learned, the more I realized I didn’t know. Now, I often finish a painting wondering if it’s any good at all.

I’m not unique in that—many experienced painters recount similar metamorphoses. I learned from author Van Reid that there’s a name for this: the Dunning-Kruger effect. Psychologists found that low-ability students thought they were much better at their subject than they actually were, while high-ability students downplayed their own skills.

Deadwood, 30X40, oil on linen, $6231 framed

It’s a hypothesis, because it hasn’t been proved yet, but it sure feels right.

An answer that “feels right” is one example of the kind of heuristic reasoning that inevitably leads to the Dunning-Kruger effect. Heuristics are mental shortcuts that match our current question to our prior experience. They may not provide perfect answers, but they give us quick ones. If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, we generally assume it’s a duck. If it turns out to be a shelduck instead, well, the error probably isn’t that important—unless you’re an ornithologist, in which case you already knew and thought the rest of us did, too.

The human mind is programmed to see patterns even where none exist. Modern life throws an amazing array of information at us every day. It’s no surprise that our overtaxed minds try to cut through the welter by using mental shortcuts. Sometimes they go spectacularly wrong.

Quebec Brook, oil on canvasboard, 12X16, $1449 framed

This phenomenon is something you’ve likely experienced in real life, especially if you spend much time on social media. A self-proclaimed ‘expert’ will begin spouting off at length, blissfully unaware of how silly he or she sounds. It might even be me.

As originally described by psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger, the bias results from two different problems. Low-ability people don’t perceive their own incompetence. “If you're incompetent, you can't know you're incompetent, wrote Dunning. “The skills you need to produce a right answer are exactly the skills you need to recognize what a right answer is.”

On the other hand, people of high ability consistently overestimate the abilities of others. They erroneously presume that tasks that are easy to them will be easy for others as well.

Skylarking, oil on canvas, 24X36, $3985 framed

The Dunning-Kruger effect has nothing to do with intelligence; in fact, really smart people are often supremely overconfident. That leads them into making complete asses of themselves in fields outside their own competence. Think, for a moment, of William Shatner’s music career, or Richard Dawkins on theology.

Who’s happier: the cock-sure, incompetent young painter, or the self-deprecating master? It’s a question nobody can answer. We can’t look at the past except through the filter of what we now know. As a teacher, I would hate to ruin anyone’s enjoyment of painting by making them a better painter. But there’s consolation in knowing that there are paint-and-sip nights for those who really don’t want to know what they’re doing.

Wednesday, September 8, 2021

Cutting it fine

Why do some Americans work so darn hard?

Best Buds, 12X16, $1449 framed

I don’t typically travel for fun in the summer, but with my Cody workshop cancelled due to the national car rental shortage, I had a few free days. Of course I filled them in with another trip. It wasn’t until I was unpacking my truck last night that I realized that I left my watercolor kit at my daughter’s house in New York. Oops.

 “Do nothing, say nothing, and be nothing, and you'll never be criticized,” wrote Elbert Hubbard.

In 1913, Hubbard pleaded guilty to six counts of using the US mail to distribute “obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy and indecent material.” He was fined $100 and surrendered his rights as a citizen.

Apple Tree with Swing, 16X20, $1623 unframed

Here is one of the jokes that earned him disgrace:

“The bride of a year entered a drugstore.  The clerk approached.  ‘Do you exchange goods?’ she asked. ‘Oh, certainly! If anything you buy here is not satisfactory we will exchange it.’ ‘Well,’ was the reply; ‘here is one of those whirling-spray [contraceptive] affairs I bought of you, and if you please, I want you to take it back and give me a bottle of Mellin’s [baby] Food, instead.’ And outside the storm raged piteously, and the across the moor a jay-bird called to his mate, ‘Cuckoo, cuckoo!’”

Another concerned “the new stenographer whose name was Miss Mary Merryseat. But Old Man Lunkhead, Senior member of the firm of Lunkhead Sons & Co., Ltd., never having taken a course in Dickson's Memory Method, called her Gladys.”

Owls Head Fishing Shacks, 9X12, $869 framed

Leaving aside his penchant for criminally-bad jokes, Hubbard was a busy man. He is credited with the aphorism, “If you want something done, ask a busy person.” He’s best remembered for founding the Arts and Crafts Movement called Roycroft. Based on the ideas of William Morris, it was a community of printers, furniture makers, metalsmiths, leathersmiths, and bookbinders in East Aurora, NY.

Roycroft’s creed was a quote from John Ruskin: “A belief in working with the head, hand and heart and mixing enough play with the work so that every task is pleasurable and makes for health and happiness.”

It’s the ‘play’ part that is frequently neglected by Americans. I found, during my four-day interlude in New York, that I kept falling asleep. That’s a sign of exhaustion, and it’s no way to do art or anything else.

Belfast Harbor, 14X18, $1594 framed

Why do we live like this? In part, it’s training and competitiveness. And in part it’s the culture. Americans have long been the hardest-working people of all the industrialized nations

The middle class bears the brunt of our work-mania. “The average middle-class married couple with children now works a combined 3,446 hours annually, an increase of more than 600 hours—or 15 additional weeks of full-time work—since 1975,” according to the Brookings Institution.

In 1960, when I was learning to toddle, only 20% of women with children worked outside the home. Today, 70% of American children live in households where all adults are employed. That means all the unpaid work of the household is now done by parents after work and on weekends.

I’m a product of my culture, so I beat myself up for forgetting my watercolor kit. I leave to teach back-to-back workshops on Friday. I need it, and there’s no chance I can get it back in time.

Had I stayed home over the holiday weekend, I never would have mislaid it. I would have opened my gallery and maybe sold a painting. I’d have finished projects to button up for winter.

And I’d also have missed my granddaughter’s sixth birthday party. Relax, Carol, and learn to play a little.

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

The pernicious practice of group norming

Feeling out of place, like a failure? Perhaps the problem isn't you, but your tribe.

The Late Bus, 8X6, oil on canvasboard, $435 framed

This week, kids start trickling back to school in the northeast. Every year at this time, I’m pensive. I was never one of those mothers who celebrated the first day of school; I regretted the end of summer and the loss of freedom it represented. I hated school myself; I wasn’t good with rigid structure. As a parent, I felt that the system skirted on the thin edge of abuse, battering down individuality, curiosity and creativity. (That goes for the teachers as well as the kids.)

“We’re trying to prepare your child for the real world,” a principal once lectured me, ironically unaware of how little reality intruded into his neat little building. Long before COVID forced a reckoning, he couldn’t conceive of success outside of reporting to a white-collar office job punctually every morning.

Wreck of the SS Ethie, oil on canvas, 18X24, $2318 framed

I left New York in part because I can’t paint like a Hudson River School painter. It is a continuous tradition dating back two hundred years, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it. I admire it, but it’s not how I see the world.

There is a distinctive Maine style as well: higher in chroma, looser in execution, not as interested in modeling, and verging on abstraction. It relies on accurate drawing to allow for loose brushwork. Not only do I like it better, it’s a better fit for me.

Vineyard, 30X40, oil on canvas, $5072 framed

As long as I painted en plein air in New York, I was pushed toward painting within that New York style. How does that happen? Galleries seek it out, jurors award it, painters you admire work that way. Above all, collectors buy it.

Human beings are social beings. We have a powerful need to belong. This makes us vulnerable to the influence of others. This is called normative social influence, or group norming, and it’s a powerful force in all social units from the family on up.

This is built into us because we’re herd animals. Group norming promotes social cohesion, which confers stability, safety, and harmony. But this cohesion has a cost, and that’s the sacrifice of individualism.

Deadwood, 36X48, oil on linen, $6231 framed

It can be extremely painful to be on the outs with your tribe. Whistleblowing is an example. Consider the story of Lindsey Boylan, the first woman to accuse Andrew Cuomo of sexual harassment. Cuomo was a star of Boylan’s own political party, the winner of an Emmy, the darling of celebrities and power brokers. Boylan was smeared in the press with the release of supposed confidential personnel records. Even Times Up leader Roberta Kaplan, nominally a spokeswoman for sexually-harassed women, colluded with the governor to discredit Boylan.

We give lip service to the idea of “thinking outside the box,” but in fact nobody much likes having their own pet prejudices challenged. Society routinely ostracizes those who dare to be different, and that’s true of artists as much as anyone.

This is where a good knowledge of art history proves useful. It allows you to see over the lip of the basket you live in, to see where you fit in the greater scheme of things. If you’re constantly feeling wrong-footed or inadequate, perhaps the problem isn't with you, but your tribe.

A difference of intention

There’s a difference between painting fast and phoning it in.

Main Street, Owls Head, 16X20, oil on gessoboard, $1,623 unframed

The hiker makes constant adjustments to his course, although he does most of them automatically. When sailing, the helmsman trims frequently to follow changes in the wind. On a zip line, a person makes one decision (to jump) and then hangs on for dear life. As our speed increases, our control decreases.

That’s as true for painting as anything else in modern life. It’s one reason why so much modern art has been about expression of a single idea or feeling, rather than craft. It’s a true representation, in tangible form, of the chaotic speed at which we hurtle through life.

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

If that’s your schtick, there’s not much a traditional painting teacher can offer you. We’re no substitute for the creative genius that will motivate you to vomit pigment onto a canvas. What we teach is rather shopworn: a process by which you can transfer ideas onto canvas, using technique that’s more than a thousand years old. It’s not for the easily-bored, because it takes time to master. And even when it’s mastered, it takes time to execute properly.

That doesn’t mean that good paintings are necessarily slow paintings (or vice versa). “How can you finish a painting that fast?” is a question every plein air painter has heard many times. We’ve learned an efficient way of approaching the problem. If we deviate too far from it we get bogged down in the process of painting, at the expense of our personal vision.

Autumn blues, 12X16, oil on canvasboard, $1449 framed

When my advanced watercolor students have finished a long project, I’ll sometimes tell them, “Now, paint it again in ten minutes.” They’re often surprised that the second, fast painting is better than the one they spent so much time on. But that second painting didn’t take them ten minutes—it took them that plus all the time they spent on the first one. It’s just a second iteration of the same work.

There’s a difference between painting fast and phoning it in. It’s a difference of intention. I was dissing a well-known artist with an avid collector at a reception last week. “His new work has become…” He paused, unable to think of how to finish his sentence.

“A schtick?” I suggested.

His eyes widened. “I own one of his paintings from the ‘90s,” he protested, “and it’s really good.”

“That’s because he wasn’t copying himself yet,” I said.

Fallow field, 12X16, oil on canvasboard, $1449 framed

It happens to many excellent painters—they figure out a motif that sells, and produce a lot of it, and then suddenly, it’s ‘what they do.’ They’re no longer engaged on a deep level; they’re phoning it in, either out of laziness or fear of losing their audience.

Galleries don’t help, because they want painters to produce shows that are unified and coherent. There’s visual impact to twenty almost-identical paintings, especially if they lean heavily on graphic design. But that’s only true in the showroom; take one home and it loses that impact. Then it must stand or fall on its own merit.

That doesn’t mean that we artists don’t have one finger raised to the wind of painting fashion. Obviously we do, or we would still be painting like Mannerists. But within our time and place, we have great scope for personal creativity, exploration, and deep thinking. The artists with long-term staying power are those who never forget that.