Paint Schoodic

We had another successful painting workshop at the Schoodic Institute in beautiful Acadia National Park. Join us in 2018!

Friday, October 20, 2017

Am I done yet?

“Don’t overwork it” is terrible advice. Even the freshest of Impressionists reworked paintings.
Vase of Flowers, started 1882, Claude Monet
Yesterday I wrote about scientific research into color perception and how that affected painting at the end of the 20th century. Another major change of the same period had to do with what constituted a finished painting.

For earlier generations, a painting was complete when it had a slick surface with plenty of detail. The mechanics of painting were carefully hidden underneath the bling of the finish layer. Part of the ideal was that the viewer should have no idea about the sheer hard graft involved in painting. Unfinished paintings had no place in collections and were often destroyed on an artist’s death.

Late 19th century painters inserted the process of painting into the finished work. They used thick impasto, left parts of their canvas bare, and kept outlines and drawing marks visible. That made the painting a temporal record of development as much as a snapshot of a moment. These ideas continue into the modern period (perhaps in some cases to overripeness).

Edmondo and Therese Morbilli, started 1866, Edgar Degas
But were they ever that straightforward? Recently, researchers Kimberly Jones and Ann Hoenigswald analyzed Edgar Degas’ portrait of Edmondo and Thérèse Morbilli at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. They were trying to determine what “finished” meant to Degas.

Degas was a compulsive tweaker of his paintings, sometimes repainting them even after they’d been shown and sold. Many of his paintings appear to be unfinished, but are they? Jones and Hoenigswald discovered that this Morbilli portrait (he painted the couple more than once) was extensively reworked over a period of decades. Passages that appear to be open ground were, in fact, painted over sections with finished detail. The researchers' conclusion was that, even though they could lay the order of his process bare, they could not determine his intentions.

The myth is that Impressionists recorded things quickly, easily and confidently. Claude Monet’s Vase of Flowers appears to be a finished painting, but in his correspondence, he mentioned his dissatisfaction with it. Analysis shows that he repeatedly returned to it, scraping paint off or painting over dried sections. It sat in his studio for forty years, occasionally being reworked, until he signed it in the 1920s. Did he truly think it was finished, or was he, in his eighties, just sick of working on it?

Route tournante à La Roche-Guyon (A Turn in the Road at La Roche-Guyon), 1885, Paul Cézanne. When part of the aesthetic is to show the bare bones of process, how can anyone but the artist say a painting is done?
Part of the shift in what constituted ‘finished’ might have been driven by economics. During the Renaissance, most work was done to commission. An artist didn’t have the luxury to continuously fiddle with his work.

But part of this is also attitude, and it’s worth thinking about in terms of our own work. Camille Picasso famously said, ‘To finish a work is to kill it.’ The modern interpretation of this is the overused injunction to “not overwork” a painting. This is a corruption of the process-baring aesthetic, and usually terrible advice. If you don’t hit your limit, you’ll never learn how to negotiate past or around it. Jones and Hoenigswald’s analysis shows us that, for Degas, it was possible to bring a painting back from the brink repeatedly.

When part of the aesthetic is process—as it is now—only the artist can definitely say that a painting is finished.

How we arrive at completion is another matter. I prefer a less-detailed surface myself. I often get there by painting over, painting out, and scraping out fussy passages, and, yes, paintings sit around my studio for a long time sometimes. It’s nice to see these techniques validated by art historians.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

The scientists of color

We owe a great debt to the engineers and scientists of the 19th century. In many ways, they invented modern painting.
In the Time of Harmony. The Golden Age is not in the Past, it is in the Future, 1893–95, Paul Signac, Mairie de Montreuil
A friend once told me engineers were ‘boring.’ Having now been married to one for 37 years, I can tell you that she was wrong. Equally importantly, we wouldn’t have much art without science and engineering. Art rests on discoveries in the physical world.

Bright Earth: Art and the Invention of Color by Philip Ball is a fun read. It also makes the serious point that art isn’t created merely by artists. Art incorporates the scientific and engineering innovations of its day.

Ball’s emphasis is on the advances made in pigment technology in the 19th century, and how they influenced Impressionism. That’s true as far as it goes, but scientific insight into perception also influenced how painters handled color.

Impression, soleil levant (Impression, Sunrise), 1872, Claude Monet, Musée Marmottan Monet. This painting is what gave the movement its name.
Michel Eugène Chevreul was a famous French chemist. He is best remembered for having invented margarine. He was also the director of the dye works at the Gobelins Manufactory in Paris. In trying to make a uniform black dye, he realized that a color was perceived differently based on its setting. This lead to the idea of simultaneous contrast, which in turn led to the Impressionist understanding of complementary colors.

Scientists have a great influence on art, but they are sometimes reactionary. Chevreul believed chiaroscuro was the most important element in creating natural, or lifelike, paintings. Instead, Impressionists turned to his color relationships to define light and shadows.

Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell is most famous for his theory of electromagnetic radiation, but his interests were wide. He was particularly interested in color perception, color-blindness, and color theory. Using linear algebra, he proved that all human color perception was based on three types of receptors. He is the father of colorimetry, or the systematic measurement of color perception.

An image of James Clerk Maxwell's color photograph of a tartan ribbon. Scanned from The Illustrated History of Colour Photography, Jack H. Coote, 1993
Based on his research into the psychology of color perception, Maxwell designed the first color photography system. He proposed that a color photograph could be made by shooting three black-and-white pictures through red, green and blue filters and then projecting it in the same way. He demonstrated this first color photograph in 1861.

American physicist Ogden Rood was also an avid painter, a member of the American Watercolor Society. Rood divided color into three constants: purity, luminosity, and hue. In 1874 he gave two lectures to the National Academy of Design in New York on Modern Optics in Painting.

La Récolte des Foins, Éragny, 1887, Camille Pissarro, Van Gogh Museum.
Rood suggested that small dots or lines of different colors, when viewed from a distance, would blend into a new color. He believed that the complementary colors of his color wheel, when applied in pairs by the artist, would enhance the presence of a painting: “... paintings, made up almost entirely of tints that by themselves seem modest and far from brilliant, often strike us as being rich and gorgeous in colour, while, on the other hand, the most gaudy colours can easily be arranged so as to produce a depressing effect on the beholder.”

Rood's theory of contrasting colors influenced Impressionism, and was particularly influential on  Georges-Pierre Seurat. Seurat called his new style chromo-luminarism; Pointillism was a derogatory term invented by his critics. We are now so used to optics experiments in painting that we hardly  give any thought to their origins. But we, along with the painters who came before us, owe a great debt to the work of Maxwell, Chevreul, Rood and others.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Linden Frederick: Night Stories

What happens when you create the illustration first and ask a writer to craft the story?
50 Percent, 2016, oil on linen, by Linden Frederick. This painting inspired the short story, Vital Signs, by Lois Lowry. (Forum Gallery.)
Last week my pal Pamela took me to Rockland to see Linden Frederick: Night Stories at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art (CMCA). Pamela is an avid reader of contemporary fiction. She was interested in the short stories accompanying the paintings. These are by some of the most renowned fiction writers in modern America. As usual, I just looked at the pictures.

Nocturnes are experiencing a wave of popularity right now, but Frederick is probably more cause than follower; this show was eight years in the making. The premise was to invert the relationship between words and illustration. Frederick offered fifteen contemporary writers a finished painting and asked them to create a written narrative inspired by it.

Frederick is a native of Amsterdam, NY. While he currently lives in Belfast, ME, the paintings in this series represent more of the stunted economy of the Mohawk Valley than the hip regeneration of Belfast. Offramp, 2016, is not the split between Routes 1 and 3; it’s the Governor Thomas E. Dewey Thruway in New York. Vacant might as well be the street where my husband grew up. In fact, it could be in any town in New York north of Westchester County. (One of the writers in this series is Richard Russo, also a native of the Mohawk Valley, also expatriated to Maine.)

Vacant, 2016 oil on linen, by Linden Frederick. This painting inspired the short story, Constellation, by Ann Patchett. (Forum Gallery.)
That these paintings are physically situated in upstate New York doesn’t mean that their story isn’t universal. Maine certainly has its share of struggling small towns.

Although we associate the Dust Bowl and Great Depression with flight to the cities, it was not until the 2010 census that rural America officially lost population for the first time. This shows up in odd ways, such as a lack of medical care outside of cities. “About a fifth of Americans live in rural areas, but barely a tenth of physicians practice there,” reported the Atlantic in 2014, and the situation hasn’t improved since then.

I once calculated that I’ve driven more than a million miles. Much of it has been on rural roads in the Northeast. I found Frederick’s paintings happily evocative of many late nights behind the wheel. Another person in our party, also a native New Yorker, pronounced the paintings ‘depressing.’ In both cases, we were bringing our own story to the work. There was no need to superimpose another story on them. Pamela, of course, felt differently.
Offramp, 2016, oil on linen, by Linden Frederick. This painting inspired the short story, Offramp, by Dennis Lehane. (Forum Gallery.)
The book can be purchased at CMCA’s gift shop or on Amazon. The featured writers are Anthony Doerr, Andre Dubus III, Louise Erdrich, Joshua Ferris, Tess Gerritsen, Lawrence Kasdan, Lily King, Dennis Lehane, Lois Lowry, Ann Patchett, Luanne Rice, Richard Russo, Elizabeth Strout, Ted Tally, and Daniel Woodrell.

The show is on until November 5, at CMCA, 21 Winter Street, Rockland. If you’re in coastal Maine, it’s worth the visit. If you’re not, autumn is a beautiful time to come here, friend. 

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Messing around

“The light changed,” is a ridiculous complaint anywhere, but nowhere more so than on the sea.

Somewhere in Eggemoggin Reach, as the rain cleared off. (All images by and reserved by Carol L. Douglas)
My intent in going out on the American Eagle wasn’t to paint. I planned to relax, talk to new people, listen to Captain John Foss’ hoary jokes, and read. At the last minute, I slipped my watercolors in my duffel bag and made it a busman’s holiday. Not only did I have a good time, so did several other people who tried out my paints.

An oil painting from the deck, during last summer's venture.
Last June I painted in oils from this boat. I had fun but was an obstacle to the crew and captain. Even my small easel took up too much space along the main cabin. I was constantly grabbing it to prevent it flying into the sea. American Eagle is a highly-polished, much-loved vessel. I worried that I would accidentally stain her deck with some brilliant pigment that would forever rankle the captain.

Dinghy in Bass Harbor.
Watercolor simplified things. It meant I could work on a board on my lap, it’s a smaller kit, and it’s faster. My mistakes would wash away.

The passing ocean scene provides limited composition options. You can put the horizon high, low or in the middle. Short of the occasional porpoise, grey seal, or lobster boat, there isn’t much happening to break it. That hard, unbroken line is, in some ways, the essence of the subject. I had to learn to love it.

Browns Head Lighthouse.
I used sea-water, which is something I learned from Poppy Balser. It causes the paint to granulate slightly as it dries, similarly to sprinkling salt on select passages. I had a bucket and therefore all the salt water I needed. I did wash my brushes in fresh water at night, to preserve the ferrules.

I tend to splash things around with great abandon however I paint. These usual slovenly habits got in my way on this trip. The bright sun was deceptive. On the ocean, in the middle of October, my paper took a very long time to dry. I filled the time as best I could by messing around. Still I occasionally misjudged my surfaces.

Exiting Stonington.
The sea is ultimately a reduction to two elements: water and air. Even out of sight of land, the view is different in every direction. The sky changes and the water changes. To paint this is anything but simple. In moments the sea can go from molten silver to deepest green, and you can do nothing but follow obediently along. “The light changed,” is a ridiculous complaint anywhere, but nowhere more so than on the sea.

Looking home toward Beech Hill.
On our last day out, Captain John Foss turned over the wheel to Sam Sikkema, who captains the Picton Castle out of Lunenburg, NS, in her trans-Atlantic training trips. I was sketching Beech Hill at the time and a new friend, Lee Auchincloss of Navigator Publishing, was painting the Camden Hills.

Sam let out the old Eagle’s stays. Suddenly, the rail was low and my subject obscured. But I’m hardly complaining. It was a fleet finish to a beautiful week. Now, it’s back to work for all of us.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Monday Morning Art School: Reflections

Time for art class. Get out your pencils and get started.

Reflections off American Eagle in Stonington, watercolor, by Carol L. Douglas
Artists often trip up on the stochastic processes: things that have a general pattern but can’t be predicted precisely. We tend to either ignore the pattern altogether or overstate it into rigid regularity. These are everywhere in nature: in the distribution of leaves on trees, wildflowers in fields, the cleaving of rocks, and the behavior of water.

The surface of water is one of the most fascinating and difficult things to paint. It can be utterly still, or random and choppy, or it can create orderly patterns of surface ripples or waves. When it hits an obstacle like a ledge or the shore, its surface behavior is dictated by what’s underneath. In a rainstorm, fresh water floats on the surface of salt water, adding another pattern.

I like to sketch what the surface of water is doing. This changes quickly, so it helps to do this in a fast-working medium like pencil or watercolor. I did the above sketch while anchored off Stonington last week, but you don’t need an ocean for this exercise. There’s standing water almost everywhere: in ponds, lakes, or streams.

Light reflects identically but opposite. That's immutable. What changes with water is the shape of the surface.
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 immutable. It’s why reflections that do not run in a generally-straight line down to the viewer are always wrong.

If water were perfectly still and perfectly reflective, its surface would be a mirror. Two factors prevent that. First, some rays of light are absorbed, and not reflected. This is true in both directions. Some of the light from the sky is absorbed. At the same time, we can see some of the color (or objects) under the water. Furthermore, the surface is never flat; it’s wavy or worse, just like a fun-house mirror.

The surface of the water at the Isaac H. Evans' berth in Rockland.
In most cases, a sea wave’s surface is also windblown and irregular. That makes its surface infinitely varied. Rays are reflected at many different angles, radically disrupting the image. This gives the surface of the sea or its spray a solid or matte appearance.

Where we see directly into water, it’s the least reflective. That can either mean looking straight down or into the face of the wave. These surfaces are most likely green or brown in tone, depending on what’s underneath. The tops of the waves reflect the sky, but the sky isn’t the same color in all directions. Other surfaces reflect what’s in the distance—moonlight, other boats, structures, trees. Often these last reflections take the form of rings.

In relatively still water, reflections are irregularly elliptical.
In relatively still water, reflections are generally elliptical, although those ellipses may join in long strings or have vibration interference depending on the surface breeze. As the water becomes less still, water generally sorts itself into waves with identifiable patterns.

Waves can range from very tiny ripples to towering structures nearly a hundred feet tall. Most of us see waves as they approach the shore. There their behavior changes radically. They tend to pile up as the water gets shallower, effectively growing taller and slowing down. As they break, all predictability ends. The spray from a breaking wave can and does go anywhere.

The light stream is fresh water on top of salt water during a rainstorm.
Your assignment, then, is to find a body of standing water somewhere near you, and draw or paint the reflections. Don’t worry about the setting; we are only concerned with the behavior of the waves you are seeing.