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Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Marsh paintings and why they can be truly terrible

I don’t begrudge people painting for fun, but I assume you read this blog because you’re interested in being the best painter you can be.

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

I had finished writing a lecture I’d mentally subtitled “why am I torturing you like this?” That’s hard work, so I whirled away a few minutes on the internet. I came across a painting that took my breath away, for all the wrong reasons. It had no focal points, no energy, no depth of field. At the same time, the brushwork was easy and assured. It was obviously not this painter’s first rodeo.

I’m not interested in embarrassing another artist, so I made a fair copy of it while teaching my class. (That way you can laugh at my bad painting, not someone else’s.) I did mine on cheap demo paper, which means there isn’t much staccato in the scumbling, but that’s really the only difference. That I could copy it while talking about something else is a good indicator of its lack of complexity.

My fair copy of a boring marsh painting.

This is an example of what I call “marsh painting.” I really need a better term, for there are brilliant painters of marshes. My pal Mary Byrom is a great example. She reduces the salt marshes of southern Maine into simple shapes that are dynamic, colorful and evocative. The secret, of course, is that Mary draws brilliantly and works tirelessly at her craft.

The bad marsh painter is visually lazy. He or she does not look at the marsh as a surface that recedes in space, but as a series of flat bands that overlap the horizon. Norman Rockwell and Winslow Homer demonstrated that it’s possible to do this very well, but neither of them did it in lieu of drawing.

Inlet, 9X12, available through Camden Public Library.

A marsh painter may have heard that he “needs a path into the painting,” and will put a stream running back in S-curves to the distance. This recommendation was meant as a visual, not a literal, recommendation. It really means that you need some kind of compositional structure to anchor your painting. If that’s an S-curve, it ought not be as blatant as a lazy river.

The marsh painter shies away from anything difficult. Houses, people, automobiles, and boats are all tough to draw. It’s far better to stick to trees and grasses. And there—they believe—they’ve found their m├ętier, in the tireless (and tiresome) representation of blades of grass and branches. But detail is never a substitute for good painting.

I don’t begrudge people painting for fun, but I assume you read this blog because you’re interested in being the best painter you can be. Learning to draw is the first requirement. Anyone who’s not mentally handicapped can learn to draw. Period. And drawing will give you the courage to tackle more difficult subjects in paint. Since I can’t teach everyone, I recommend this book.

Prom Shoes, 6X8, Carol L. Douglas. $435 framed. It's all about that negative space, baby!

But, moving beyond drawing, there are basic principles to good painting:

I’ve just given you a reading list that will keep you out of the bars until Thanksgiving. Enjoy!

2 comments:

stevemabley said...

Appreciate your insights!
In therea way to "subscribe"
steve@stevemabley.art

Carol Douglas said...

Steve, my website is in a redesign right now, and until it's done, the best I can do is put you on my mailing list for weekly digests. After the website's done, I'll be moving back to wordpress and then will have a subscription button.

For anyone else who wants to subscribe, email me at malerincd at gmail.com and I'll add you manually to the weekly email.