Paint Schoodic

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

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

It’s all about the traps, man

The Blue Umbrella, by Carol L. Douglas. Even without detail, you should be able to see that there are three different species of palm in this painting.

There are 629 living species of conifer in the world. In contrast, there are 2600 known species of palm trees, with the greatest diversity being on islands. They range in shape from draping to spiky to fan-shaped to pom-pom.

Studying the differences between trees helps me get the structure right in my paintings. In Karl’s Garden, yesterday, there were three different species shading the table. It’s a challenge to paint them accurately without being pedantic.

I vary my compositional technique depending on the subject. When I’m unsure about positioning, I sketch on paper, crop my sketch, and transfer the result to my canvas. For boats and buildings, I use a watercolor pencil and a straight edge. I draw directly on the canvas, using water for erasure. 

In my studio, I often start with an abstracted grisaille. This can be risky in the field, since those sloppy wet darks can migrate up into the painting, creating mud. Being rigorous about the fat-over-lean rule helps prevent this. So does marrying the underpainting color to the final shadow color. For this reason, I often end up using a violet-blue rather than the more conventional desaturated reddish-brown.

The rare and elusive pom-pom palm, at Coral Beach in Freeport.
We couldn’t get odorless mineral spirits in the Bahamas. Our choices for solvent were conventional white spirit or turpentine. We chose turpentine. It dries very fast, making the bottom layer less squishy than it would be at home. Going directly to paint meant I could develop paintings that relied on patterning, rather than modeling.

I like complicated images (even though I usually regret them halfway through the painting). I look for angles, light, and, most importantly, the negative space created by the objects. Then I determine where on the canvas the most important elements should fall. Quite literally, I paint quick circles in those spots and then stretch and bend the other objects to fit into the space.

The branching structure varies widely, as do the evergreen, pinnate leaves.

There’s a limit to what a grisaille can tell you about composition. In addition to value structure, paintings have chromatic structure. That was where I went wrong with the painting I wiped out this week. I didn’t take into consideration the coolness of the sea and sky when I was doing my underpainting. If I had, I could have swept them through the painting.

I had a painting teacher once who liked to intone “there is no negative space.” She was trying to say that there are no areas of the painting where nothing important is happening. This is true. However, it is useful to have a term to describe the interstices between objects. In painting a complicated image, those negative spaces are critical. For trees, the silhouette is important, but the traps—that negative space where sky shows through the canopy—is paramount.

After we'd downed brushes for the last time, we took a short car ride. There a line of tankers waits to approach Grand Bahama. I didn't want to paint it, but it was a lovely image.

My week of painting in the Bahamas is now over, and I head back to Boston this afternoon. “The real question,” I told Bobbi Heath this morning, “is, where am I heading next?”

Monday, February 27, 2017

The Decline of the Raj

Karl's Garden, oil on canvasboard, by Carol L. Douglas
 In towns like Camden, ME or Freeport, Grand Bahamas there are year-round residents, seasonal residents, and vacationers. Because painters sit or stand like great lumps of coral for long periods of time, people forget that we’re there. That means we often overhear conversation. Anywhere Americans gather on the road, I will hear a variation on the following:

“I love this place!” the passing tourist exclaims.

“You should have been here before the hurricane/market crash/election/everything got built up,” responds the seasonal resident.

Shortly, they move on to the crux of the discussion: “The problem with these people is…”

The American Coot is a seasonal visitor to the Bahamas. Some, of course, elect to stay year-round.
I assume this conversation has been happening for as long as people have traveled for fun, and that there are variations in Chinese, Japanese, and every other language. It makes me want a gin-and-tonic on the verandah, reminding me of the sun setting on the British Empire, of Henry James and Rudyard Kipling.

Wiped out. I didn't like the composition.
Normally, I enjoy listening to it, but I was off my game on Friday. Of course, this had nothing to do with the conversation and everything to do with composition. There is nothing inherently interesting in the shape of inlets on low-elevation, sandy cays. Without some background architecture—jetties, buildings, boats, trees—they are simply a boring ellipse that barely changes color.

On the other hand, the water itself is gorgeous. I want the opportunity to solve this dilemma, but the beach here is too hot for us pasty northerners. We take quick photos and then retreat to the shade of the palms.
Palm and sand, oil on canvasboard, by Carol L. Douglas
We’ve been warmly welcomed by Eva and Karl Dehmel, who have invited us to paint at their beachfront house twice. Here the conversation bounces along far less predictable pathways. I wrote about Eva’s artwork last week; Karl is also a retired doctor and an avid gardener. Were I not on a mission, I’d have been among the palms with him and his machetes.

Karl has a light hand with the jungle, allowing it to sprawl about in its tropical way. The sky holes and traps are very different from those created by northern deciduous trees. I have been painting much more intuitively than normal, eschewing any kind of compositional sketch or pencil drawings. The subject seems to bring out the Fauvist in me.

Boat, oil on canvasboard, by Carol L. Douglas

“It looks kind of like a Paul Gauguin,” my husband mused, when I showed him Karl’s Garden.

“I think it looks more like a Tommy Bahama shirt,” I responded.

Alas, all good things come to an end, and we said our final goodbyes to Karl and Eva on Sunday evening. As we headed back toward Freeport, I noticed that I was coming out in hives. It was too late to get to the grocery store, which closes at six, and we’d just left the company of two doctors. Talk about bad timing.
The scope of our activities.
I’m an old hand at allergies, however. I figured I could make it through the night without an antihistamine. “You don’t want to go to a Bahamian hospital if you can help it,” Cali Veilleux had told us.

By 11 PM, I was covered with bumps and my lips were swollen. I slathered myself with aloe and debated waking up Bobbi Heath to take me to the Emergency Room. Whether it was a food, bug spray, sunscreen, the sun itself, or something environmental, I’m still swollen and itchy this morning. In a few minutes, however, we can pop over to the store and get some Benadryl. That should be the end of that.

Friday, February 24, 2017

The Artist's Way is to eat and drink

Partly finished palm tree by Carol L. Douglas
We rented our Bahamian cottage from a fellow artist from Spruce Head, Maine—Cali Veilleux. She’s a warm soul and has been very generous in sharing her time and knowledge. “I love seeing artists here,” she told us. (If you’re in the market for a Bahama rental, by the way, her place is comfortable and immaculate.)

When we first arrived, she gave us a tour. “That’s the best KFC in the world,” she announced. We all laughed because, of course, that’s setting the bar very low. We tried it last night. By gum, she was right. It was light, crunchy, and delicious; in short, not just your Colonel’s chicken.

The ice-cream colors of the cottages in our little neighborhood are lovely. We painted here in the morning while waiting for the weather to settle. I made it most of the way through my study of this palm tree and its shadow before it was time to head out to the beach.

Another one that got away. I hope to get back there today.
Alas, it was much too windy to paint on the shore, so we settled for a beachside lunch of grilled shrimp instead. When the wind refused to settle, we scouted inland. 

There aren’t natural harbors on Grand Bahama Island, so people moor their boats in a network of canals and lagoons. For boat people like Bobbi Heath and me, that’s unfortunate, since they don’t show to best advantage. Nevertheless, we were invited by the Sir Charles Hayward Yacht Club to return to watch their under-10s do their sailing class later in the afternoon.

Kitchen at Garden of the Groves, by Carol L. Douglas
In the meantime, we went to the Garden of the Groves to paint foliage. This is a large artificial environment stuffed to the gills with birds and trees. It’s a sort of tropical Garden at Giverny, with innumerable painting moments. I, naturally, gravitated to the bar. This leaned over a small lagoon. I was wrapping it up when I heard a voice drifting over the water.

“We don’t drink and drive. We drink and then drive!” Oh, boy. We'd been told that the Bahamas were relaxed about drunk-driving. That makes me nervous to drive in the evening here.  

There were turtles everywhere in the Garden of the Groves. One kept me company while painting.
The Optimist Pram class was everything you could hope for from a group of wee rascals. They were very good and managed to line up and race twice in the hour of their lesson. Nobody capsized, deliberately or otherwise. When they were done, several children came over to talk to us about our work.

Optimist Pram Class at Sir Charles Hayward Yacht Club, by Carol L. Douglas
“Do you know how old I am?” a boy demanded of Bobbi. “I’m six.” A moment later, he added, “I just peed my pants.”

We made it home with barely enough time to shower and dress for an opening for the Grand Bahamas Artists Association, which included work by Eva Dehmel and Cali. A mere two days on the island and we were invited to swill plonk with the natives.

Grand Bahamas Artists Association opening.
As the designated driver, I stuck to ice water. Even so, I was nearly killed walking across the street to the opening. The car in my lane stopped to let me through. The oncoming car never even slowed down, despite my wearing white and being in a lighted crosswalk. Bobbi and Joelle Feldman screamed a warning. I jumped back just in time. I wonder how drunk that fellow was.

“I would have hated to have to call Doug and tell him you were dead,” Bobbi told me after the shock had worn off. It's nice to be loved.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Princess of flying thoughts


Princess of flying thoughts II, 2008 Acrylic on palm shaft, Eva Dehmel
As I write this the last echoes of thunder are moving off to the east, ending a night of rain and clamor. “This cold front will move through fast,” a woman named Eva confidently told us in McLean's Town. That was just after she had fried us some exquisite fresh snapper, followed with slivers of Key Lime Pie that would not have been out of place in any fine restaurant. As compensation for a no-painting day, it was sublime.

We’d optimistically packed our gear and then headed to the farthest western point we could reach by car. Although that was about 45 miles, it took us several hours, between the roads, the scenery, and our general potting around.

Where your dinner-time conch shell goes to die.
Eva and Karl Dehmel live in a mushroom house on the beach near Lucayan National Park. A retired dermatologist, Eva works in clay, acrylics, chalks, and found material. The painting above hangs in her kitchen. The figure represents a Cuban deity, a wood princess, surrounded by her birds. In Eva’s mind, those birds represent thoughts flying away, an idea I found quite charming. More of Eva’s work can be seen here.

Making a pole for a fishing boat.
We stopped at the former East End Missile Base and tromped around for a while at their abandoned quay. Tiny blue buttons drifted on the surf. Porpita porpita looks like a jellyfish but is in fact a colony of hydroids. Its intense blue-green color is a variation of the Caribbean waters.

Cold front moving in on West Grand Bahamas.
McLean’s Town is a popular place for sport bonefishing. The bonefish lives in inshore tropical waters and moves onto shallow mudflats with the incoming tide in search of its dinner. These mudflats are surrounded by mangrove swamps. “What a weird little structure this forest is,” I remarked to Bobbi Heath. Apparently, mangrove swamps are important in protecting low coastal areas from erosion and storm surges. Their massive root systems dissipate wave energy and trap sediment.

If those were 35 mph gusts, I'm glad I wasn't here for a hurricane..
I announced that I was rested and ready to take the wheel. I haven’t driven on the British side since August, and I wondered whether I retained the muscle memory. No problem, and while Bahamian drivers are erratic and ebullient, they’re also very courteous. We were home and unpacked before the skies truly opened.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

The anti-Sanibel Island


Fire in Freeport.
If you’ve ever been downwind of a forest fire, you know they smell more like burning trash than like a nice log fire. There’s one poking in a desultory way around Freeport, the Bahamas, right now. Nobody seems to be doing much about it. 

“I felt a little like Evil Knievel driving right through it,” artist Cali Veilleux told us, but she still went. Things to do, you know. She was worried that the smoke would linger in our cottage, but it was fine.

The fire is burning in a residential neighborhood.
Damage from Hurricane Matthew was less transient. All over Freeport, roofs are knocked apart and large palm trees slumber across fences or buildings. A steady rain today—and there’s one on the forecast—could make for a lot of damp stucco.

Yes, there's a fire, but a girl's got to get to school.

Life replays recurrent themes. The unfinished painting on my easel at home is of a wildfire burn near Banff, Alberta. I experienced Hurricane Matthew’s leavings during a memorable up the Great Northern Peninsula in Newfoundland during the same trip. Why this happens, I don’t know, but it does neatly connect my familiar, much-loved Canada with this new place.

I’ve absolutely no experience in the Caribbean. The last time I was in Florida was in 1968. My friends have either visited swank resorts or they have gone on mission trips to Haitian and Dominican orphanages. This neighborhood in Freeport is stubbornly normal, a place where people live, eat, work and shop.

Unfinished wildfire painting in my studio back in Maine. It all seems to work together somehow.
It’s all very modest, even by Maine standards. You disembark straight onto the tarmac when you arrive at the airport. Customs waved us through without questions. We sat on a bench and flexed our joints to release the New England cold from our bones.


A trip to a grocery store elsewhere is always a reminder of how spoiled we Americans are for price and choice. The differences are sometimes inexplicable. Here, Eggland’s Best Organic Eggs are the same price as at my local store, but a large jar of peanut butter is $11 and change. Most peculiarly for an island, there is no seafood department. “You get that at the beach,” Cali explained.

Trees lie around lazily in the sun, blaming Hurricane Matthew for their inactivity.
None of us had the energy to deal with a car last night. This morning we will immerse ourselves in the bracing business of driving in what the Duke of Windsor once referred to as “a third-class British colony.” (That man really was spoiled.) Being only sixty miles off the American coast, only half the cars have right-side steering wheels. That and the exuberant, erratic driving ought to shake off our flying lethargy in a hurry.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

How not to pack for a painting trip




I love travel but loathe packing. My clothes take me fifteen minutes or so, as one pair of paint-stained clamdiggers is interchangeable with any other. It’s the tools, paints and supplies that require thought.  I always print out my student supply list as a starting point. (You can find a copy here.)

I had unexpected company on the weekend. That meant I was even less prepared than usual. Still, with list in hand, I was unlikely to forget anything useful.

I’m on my way to Freeport in the Bahamas to paint with Joelle Feldman and Bobbi Heath. I felt good about my packing job until I saw theirs. Bobbi also works from a list, but hers is separated into “checked luggage” and “carry on.” Bobbi’s painting kit was lost en route to Brittany last year and not recovered until long after she got home. She has learned the painful lesson that some things shouldn’t be checked.

Less attention to my pedicure, more to packing would have helped.
Recently, one of my students arrived at the airport with a new 150 ml tube of paint in her carry-on bag. “Everyone knows you can’t do that,” we think. You’d be surprised at the mistakes you can make if you’re rushed or tired. Mercifully, it was just titanium white instead of a more expensive pigment.

Bearing that in mind, I carefully tucked my paints into my checked luggage. My tools and easel I kept in my carry-on. They are the priciest part of my kit and would be the hardest to replace on the road.

Joelle is a pastel painter. Her entire kit and clothing fit into a carry-on bag. That’s partly because she’s very efficient. Her clothes were vacuum-packed. Bobbi and I have the excuse of being oil painters to explain our extra luggage. We’d also been advised to bring toilet paper and paper towels with us, so our bags were fluffier than normal.

You really packed a half-empty bottle of plonk, Carol?
The first intimation that I might have done a bad job packing came last night when I realized I’d tucked my umbrella into my kit. It’s cumbersome and I never bring it on the road if I can help it. There was no going back, so it is heading to the Bahamas with me. This morning I noticed an odd shape sticking out of my suitcase. Investigating, I found a half-finished bottle of wine. It has been in my luggage since I returned from Canada in October.
Bobbi's suitcase was far more orderly than mine.
Even we couldn’t face stale red wine before 6 AM. So I rinsed my hair with it.

But my real painting advice for the day is to make sure you put your palette knives, scraper and Leatherman tool in your checked luggage, not your carry-on. The alternative—replacing them or paying for another checked bag—are both expensive, as I now know.

Looking for packing advice? You should probably ask Bobbi or Joelle.



Monday, February 20, 2017

How to avoid the #1 obstacle to being a good artist

Yes, it's a lighthouse. Wanna fight me?
Years ago, I was stymied by a large canvas of figures framed by a little house and an orchard. Following the conventional advice of the time, I took it to a well-known artist for critique. “It looks like an immature Chagall,” she said. In trying to fix that, I destroyed the work. 

My mature self knows exactly what was wrong with that painting: I was messing around way too much with glazing. A few decades of maturity have also taught me that orchards and fruit trees are important images to me. There was no cribbing from Chagall.

That critique set me back in my development because the artist looked at my work through the narrow lens of her own education and experience. She had no idea what I was striving for. Neither did I, of course, because I was a callow youth. These things require time and work to become clear.

I get lots of advice in my mailbox. I generally scan and ignore it. But this one irked me: “How to Avoid the #1 Obstacle to Becoming a Professional Artist,” it trumpeted. It went on to talk about how painters need to take classes and critiques and seek feedback from their peers to avoid what the writer calls “illusory superiority”—the idea that you think you’re better than, in fact, you are.

This painting of Beauchamp Point has few fans, but it still resonates with me. That's because it was pointing in the direction in which I was moving at the time.

In fact, the fastest way to be a mediocre painter is to seek too much advice from others.

I’m all for learning one’s craft within structured instruction—it saves a lot of time and wasted material. Beyond that, however, group thinking should be approached with a certain wariness.

Once you get out of art school, most painting groups are comprised of supportive, kind, and helpful people. But even these tend to reward those whose work looks a certain way and ignore those whose inner vision is radically different from the group’s norm.

If you don’t believe this, just imagine taking your carefully-crafted landscape to this gallery and asking for representation. The art world is all about conformity, while at the same time it paradoxically hungers for individual expression.

A lot of research has been conducted on normative social influences and conformity. Human beings are social animals. To be liked and respected within their group, they tend to moderate their own opinions. Research tells us that group norming is consistent across cultures and gender. In short, it’s everywhere where two or more of you are gathered together. The ability to get a group of people to think and work alike is useful in corporate culture, but not so good for making innovative art.

I once heard an artist I admired sneer at “lighthouse paintings.” Ever since, I’ve approached painting them with some trepidation. Yes, I understand they are overdone for the tourist trade, but they are also powerful symbols and beautiful buildings. There is nothing inherently wrong with them. It irks me that he planted this idea in my mind with a casual comment he doubtlessly doesn’t even remember.

This painting of the Raising of Lazarus was savaged in a newspaper review. It's not something I'm likely to forget in a hurry.
I can’t count how many times I’ve heard one painter say to another, “Stop! You’re done! Not one more brushstroke!” Of course one can diddle a painting to death, but that process is sometimes necessary for the next observational breakthrough. By saying that to another painter, you’re putting yourself in charge of his or her development.

When I was younger, the exposed background in my paintings often took the form of dark, heavy lines. “That’s your style!” one teacher told me. I’d had enough art-history classes to know that ‘style’ is a transitory thing, and I found those lines frustrating. Later, Joe Peller taught me how to marry edges. What a less-competent teacher took as style, Peller recognized as a technical deficiency.

This is why we should teach and critique with a light hand. Even more importantly, we should accept criticism and commentary with a healthy dose of skepticism. They are no substitute for doing our own hard thinking about our own work.

Friday, February 17, 2017

If you wonder where meticulous went, it went offshore.

Like all artists, I get frequent notices touting upcoming shows. If I am not familiar with them, I’ll look at last year’s entrants and prize winners to see if there is anything interesting there. The second international Art Olympia in Japan interested me. The prizes are big, the institutions it’s affiliated with are legitimate, and the jurying is transparent. But I don’t expect to apply, because I—like many American painters of my age—am too impressionistic for this competition.

People often tell me their goal in studying with me is to become looser. This has been a core principle in American art for a century. The trouble with this kind of universal truth is that, by the time we’ve adopted it, it’s probably outdated.



Often, people who say they want to be looser are conflating that with confidence and proficiency. Confusion and insecurity are what constrict our drawing. Whatever style one wants to work in, one isn’t going to succeed unless one takes the time to learn one’s craft, to draw, and to master one’s materials.



Meanwhile, we live in a very edgy world. Modern society’s hallmark is anxiety. In 2012, roughly 13% of Americans were taking prescription antidepressants (which makes you wonder what value there is in living in such a rich, safe country). We spend lots of time in digital space. Our visual thought is driven by video, not stationary images. Video’s goal is to fool us into believing we’re in real space and time, albeit a very surrealistic dimension. All of that is reflected in the work at Art Olympia.



The art there is part of a larger trend toward surrealism. I like reading magical realism, so I’ve often wondered why I have no interest in painting it. Part of the problem is that to do it successfully, you must be fantastically detailed, as was Salvador Dalí. More importantly, I’m with JRR Tolkien in not wanting to amplify the anxiety of the current world with morbid paintings.




Since 2015 was the first Art Olympia show, it’s not surprising that the prizes went largely to Japanese artists. The American work is comical in comparison, falling on the side of being overly political and artistically naïve. But overall the work is sophisticated, well-realized, and perfectly executed. It’s well worth spending some time browsing through the 2015 winners. You can find them here.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Exercises are so much more fun in the abstract

Goes right into the slush pile...
 Last week, I wrote about my troubles painting lobster traps. Bob Baines, a lobsterman from S. Thomaston, ME, kindly lent me a trap to study. As a teacher, I know the only answer to confusion is close examination of the troubling object. As a student, I don’t like hard work any more than anyone else. Exercises are good for us, but so much more exciting when they’re still in the planning stages.

Bob’s trap weighs as much as a fresh bale of hay or a kindergartener. Now imagine shifting 800 of the things. My respect for lobstermen—already high—rose another notch.

The trap is four feet long, a generous foot deep, and almost two feet wide. It has two “parlors”—the space where lobsters wait for their fishermen visitors—and one “kitchen”—the space where the bait is hung.

The real deal weighs as much as your kid.
Speaking of language, you may have heard that the expression “the bitter end” is a nautical term, referring to the inboard end of a chain, rope or cable—in other words, the part that gets wound around a bitt or bollard. There’s also a part of a lobster trap called the “ghost panel.” It allows lobsters to escape if a trap is lost. According to Maine’s state regulations regarding lobstering, buoys should be attached to their lines with so-called “weak links” to protect whales from entanglements.

Who knew lobstering was such a poetic exercise? Mankind has been getting its food from the sea almost as long as we’ve been talking, so I suppose language is deeply entwined with fishing.

Axonometric projection grids were a cheat for draftsmen back in the days when they drew by hand. You laid them on a light table and drew above them. I still have a set. I could have made this easier on myself by using them to draw the wire mesh, but I chose to do it freehand instead. Estimating perspective is always good for the mind.

My real goal was to try to figure out a way to represent the color interference of different layers of mesh without drawing every gridline separately. I drew the trap freehand—by which I mean I used a straight edge and no measurements—on a very cheap bit of canvas from Ocean State Job Lots.

My erasures with water pulled the gesso right off this very cheap canvas.
I keep those canvases for students who forget their own, but now I’m not sure they’re good even for that. Erasing, I rapidly peeled the gesso off the boards. They handled paint just as badly.

My trap was squatter and shorter than the real thing, but no matter. I wanted to paint it using the #6 or #8 filberts I was using on my actual work. Obviously, this is no way to get any detail, but I haven’t been after detail, just an impression.

And the brush I painted with...
Had I been working in either watercolor or acrylics, I’d have approached this by painting the background and contents of the trap and applying the grids on top of these. But oil paint doesn’t work that way. I settled for painting in a dark pattern for the grids, plugging the holes with color and then restating the darks by incising back to my initial darks.


It’s never going to win me a scholarship to art school, but I’ve learned what I needed to know. Thanks, Bob, for the loan of your trap.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Who taught JRR Tolkien to draw and paint?


Rivendell, by JRR Tolkien  (Tolkien estate)
The other day, I found the above picture of Rivendell for a friend, and it struck me anew that J.R.R Tolkien was an accomplished illustrator. He could have worked as an artist had he not had an even greater facility with the written word. “Who taught him to paint?” I mused.

Turns out, it was his mother. After their father’s death in 1896, she moved young Ronald and Hillary to Sarehole, a hamlet that has now been absorbed into greater Birmingham. Mabel Suffield Tolkien was a capable artist and passionately interested in botany. “Ronald can match silk lining or any art shade like a true ‘Parisian Modiste,’” she wrote to her mother-in-law in 1903.

Those lessons ended tragically young, since Mabel died of diabetes when her young sons were 10 and 12. She entrusted his care to Fr. Francis Xavier Morgan of the Birmingham Oratory. This put him within visiting distance of one of the most important collections of Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood painters, that in the Birmingham Museum.

Fangorn Forest by JRR Tolkien was originally done as a Silmarillion painting in the late 1920s, and reflects the current aesthetic. (Tolkien estate)

That the medieval fantasies of the Pre-Raphaelites would appeal to an adolescent of Tolkien’s temperament seems obvious, but we have a scholar’s word for it. Humphrey Carpenter, author of Tolkien’s authorized biography, wrote that Tolkien associated his childhood gang, the TCBS (Tea Club, Barrovian Society) with the Pre-Raphaelites, indicating that he and his pals were certainly aware of them.

Tolkien began to make visionary pictures after he went up to Oxford in 1911. These included scenes that would later be expressed in words. For his story Roverandom, conceived in 1925, Tolkien made at least five illustrations. In the late 1920s or early 1930s he produced a picture book, Mr. Bliss, in colored pencil and ink. These pictures and others, however, were for his own and his family's amusement, not for print.

His illustrations for The Hobbit, however, were intended for publication. The first printing of this book, in 1937, contained eleven black-and-white illustrations and maps. Full-color plates were added to later editions.

Tolkien used drawing as a means of understanding the complex topography of his imaginary world. He made many sketches and drawings during the writing of The Lord of the Rings. These have subsequently been published, but his intention was not to illustrate the novel, but to aid in his writing.

Lamb's Farm, Gedling, (c. 1914) represents a real farm, owned by Tolkien's aunt. (Tolkien estate)

“In human art Fantasy is a thing best left to words, to true literature,” wrote Tolkien. “In painting, for instance, the visible presentation of the fantastic image is technically too easy; the hand tends to outrun the mind, even to overthrow it. Silliness or morbidity are frequent results.”

Tolkien continued to paint and draw all his life. His home was supplied with “paper and pencil and a wonderful range of coloured chalks, paintboxes and coloured inks. We knew as we got older that these things gave him particular pleasure, and they continued to do so right through his life,” his daughter Priscilla recollected.

His work was in the style of his times—realism with lashings of the Art Nouveau of his childhood and the Art Deco of his young manhood. 

To answer my initial question, Tolkien learned to paint from everybody and nobody. His initial instruction was that of a good, bright, home-schooled lad of his time. He then built on that as an autodidact, absorbing the architecture and art of the world around him. How he applied that to his own inner vision was, of course,  his own unique gift.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Seasick in my studio


Athabasca Glacier, oil on linen, by Carol L. Douglas
We bought this house during a fierce February a few years ago. It hasn’t snowed like that since. Yesterday’s storm was the first blizzard I’ve worked through in this studio. It has glass on three sides. The rolling, boiling, rocketing snow was more than my stomach could take.

That’s the first time in my life I’ve ever been seasick. Tea and crackers sorted it out soon enough, though.

I visited the Athabasca Glacier in the Columbia Icefield in the Canadian Rockies at the end of September. It was approximately the same weather as yesterday in Maine—bitterly cold, with wind that roared like a freight train. This is why I painted it from a photo.

I freeze my palette between uses. It was a bit of work finding it in the middle of that storm.

There is no way to get a sense of scale from this vantage point, but that small footpath leading up to the toe of the glacier is about 6/10ths of a mile long and rises precipitously. It is marked with signs noting the farthest reach of the glacier at points over the last century. One seldom sees the effect of time on the landscape so graphically. Short of including a ghost glacier, however, I can’t include that information in this painting.

In a sense, this painting is a transcription, because it’s an accurate rendering of the only vantage point most tourists will ever see. The painting I started next is the opposite. It is based not on a real spot, but on a moment in time.

Underpainting of wildfire, by Carol L. Douglas
The northern Rockies are pockmarked by wildfires; they’re a natural part of that area’s life cycle. There’s something very ominous and beautiful about those still, dead forests. I painted a small portrait of one along the Alaska Highway. We passed through other, monumental ones, on the Top of the World Highway and in the Banff-Jasper park complex. These fire zones are often posted with the dates of the fires. Some forests regenerate achingly slowly. Others seem to sprout back almost overnight.

Mary and I found ourselves winding up a steep mountain grade within a very large burn area. The sky was milky in the angry way it is during a blizzard, or downwind of a forest fire. There was no sun, just a hazy light indicating where it might be.

My palette returns to the cold at the end of the day. That drift is close to my height.
What I’ve started here is based on that experience of winding and twisting in a dead forest. For the most part painting doesn’t concern itself with time or motion—we leave that to filmmakers and musicians. But both are, of course, part of the natural world. 

Monday, February 13, 2017

Why paint from life? For one thing, you can't wander through a photograph


This is the site from which I did Friday's painting of the Chugach Range. Which is more "realistic"? My painting, of course. The mountains in Anchorage are an everpresent force, not a nice little outline in the background.
“Why should a painter work from life rather than photos?” a reader asked me. “I can see that work painted from photos can lack a certain depth, but I don’t understand why.”

First, let me be clear: almost all painters work from photos at times, if only to clarify something they didn’t understand out in the field. On a morning like today, when Mother Nature is creating a ruckus, there’s no way I’m going to be anywhere but in my studio, with slippers on. And that means working from photos.

But that should be the lesser part of the experience, not the greater.

I mentioned last week that neither the human eye, nor the camera, nor my monitor are objectively correct about the color of distant mountains. If I had used photos to paint my trip across Canada, the mountains would have been large cutouts in blue-violet shapes because that’s what my camera recorded. In real life, they had dimension, shadows, and rocky ridges—all things that disappeared in the photographic record. A better camera would have given me a better image, but no camera can equal my own eyes, as old as they are.

Chugach range from Anchorage, oil on canvasboard, by Carol L. Douglas. The colors in my painting are warmer, and the mountain is more important and detailed.
“Digital adds lots of cyan to an image, usually about 30% in the lighter and mid-tones. And RGB color space doesn't ‘see’ as many colors as a human's eye/brain perceives,” responded Victoria Brzustowicz, who, in addition to being a painter is a graphic designer.

The human eye is a dynamic sensor. The resolution in the center of our eyes is far higher than at the edges, so we create images by shifting our focus very, very fast—so fast, in fact, that we’re not aware of it. We do a similar thing with darks and lights—although our eyes have less dynamic range than cameras, we just record the full range of impressions in our memories, stitching them seamlessly into an image we think we see.

Put away the camera and draw, draw, draw. You can draw anywhere, and in this climate, you can bring your own still life with you.
We don’t see in rectangles, either, but in a cone shape that somehow takes in lots of information at the periphery. That’s the big reason I don’t like my students using viewfinders in class. Viewfinders reduce what is possible to what can be contained inside a rectangle. Often, what’s actually there in life includes something amorphous and looming that gives character to the whole scene. Yes, it’s harder to capture that, but that’s the difference between an artist and a scribe.

Cameras also distort our sense of space. There is no one lens that exactly duplicates our range of vision. We humans see in neither telephoto nor wide-angle. The photographed view is, sadly, a choice somewhere between the two. That doesn’t match human perception.

My hiking poles, along with my tam (left) and mittens (above) went to church with me on Sunday. I'm listening to every word, but I'm also keeping my hands busy.

Years ago I took an anatomy-of-drawing class from the late Nicki Orbach. I had the shape of the shoulders wrong. “Get up and look at him from the other side,” she suggested. It was only then that I could see how I’d ignored the pull of the trapezius muscles, which control the neck but are mainly visible from the back. You can’t get up and wander through a photo to collect more information, and it’s something I do surprisingly often.