Short break to move studio

I am painting this week with a much larger brush, relocating my studio to accommodate more students. I love to paint, no matter if it’s on a wall or a canvas. Back soon with another “how to paint” adventure!

Visiting Paradise with Susie and Marilyn

When my friend Susie arrived at the farm where we’d agreed to meet, she raised her arms and said, “Paradise!” It was a lovely farm alright, but Paradise?

We wandered. We looked at bales of hay in a pole barn and hiked to a rise where we could look down on the dairy barns. (Marilyn and Susie had previously met the farmer.) This was indeed a well-run and beautiful farm, set in a gently sloping valley.

I asked them why they liked this place. Susie said she was enthralled by the colors and the roll of the land. Marilyn said she saw the human figure in the sinuous twists of the hills.

The Bristol Hills aren’t breathtaking but they are gently beautiful. Long ranges of blue hills overlap in the distance. I never respond to these hills in their purely natural state. I need to see that slash of pale gold in a faraway upland field to understand the lavender and indigo and green of the woods.

The Kingdom of Heaven is in some ways a cooperative venture between God and man. So is this landscape. No wonder Susie called it “Paradise.”

I continue to try to paint in the spirit of the Group of Seven and Tom Thomson. This isn’t really their kind of scene, but the wide disked field presents some of the paint handling issues they addressed. I chose this view for the difficulties presented by that large neutral foreground.

I was working on a 16X20 canvas, a breath of fresh air after all the small studies I’ve done this month. I started with an underpainting in Gamblin’s Transparent Earth Red. You can read more about their transparent Mars colors here.

Although I’ve been trying to work much dryer, the transition from board to untoned canvas makes that a little more difficult. The shadow above the hills is from erasure and isn’t really part of the value study.

Here is the midpoint of my painting. I have decided to do a potentially ugly thing and include the fringe of green at the bottom. As long as the value of the green and the brown are close, I don’t think it will be too awkward-looking.

I still have to unify the sky (yes, there were clouds; they showed up after I started). I have to figure out a paint-handling technique that works for the disked field and make some drawing adjustments on the hill to the right. But, oops! My easel fell and dumped my painting into the ditch.

There are bits of gravel, seeds, and dirt all over the right side of my canvas. The solution is to stop painting, let the surface harden up, and knock the debris loose with a palette knife. Oh, well. I was ready to quit anyway.

BTW, this is my painting buddy Susie:

And Marilyn:

Ironically, when they aren’t wearing billowing white shirts and off-kilter ball caps (to keep the glare out of their eyes) they are both very elegant women.

Field sketch to finished painting

Here are two paintings by Tom Thomson which demonstrate how he went from a field sketch to a finished painting. He changes the aspect ratio a bit but it’s blown up roughly 3.5 times in the final work.

“The Opening of the Rivers: Sketch for ‘Spring Ice’” (1915)

oil on wood-pulp board21.6 x 26.7 cm (8.5X10.5 in)

“Spring Ice” (1916)

oil on canvas72 x 102.3 cm (28.3X40.3 in)
Both are owned by the National Gallery of Canada, and displayed on

Napoleon I on his Imperial Throne,_Napoleon_on_his_Imperial_throne.jpg

My husband and I saw the show “Citizens and Kings” at the Royal Academy of Art in London. Three months later, the painting which sticks in my memory is Ingres’ Napoleon I on his Imperial Throne (1806).

Most paintings are better seen in life, and this is no exception. The marble ball on the throne simply floated in the dim light of the gallery. Ingres was a superb draftsman and renderer of surfaces (see here and here, for example). In fact his crystalline accuracy is one of many things which annoyed his early critics.

Despite his skill, Ingres was no photorealist. He was, in fact, deeply sympathetic to medieval art, and you can see that in the rigidly symmetrical composition and symbolism of this portrait. Napoleon holds Charlemagne’s own sword and hand of justice to shore up his legitimacy. Compare this to Jacquie-Louis David’s portrait of Napoleon crossing the Alps (1800), here, and David’s portrait of the Emperor when things started going sour (1812), here.

Ingres’ early career was promising. He won the Grand Prix de Rome in 1801, which entitled him to study in Rome on the French government’s tab (the government, however, was too broke to send him until 1806).

This portrait of Napoleon, however, damaged his career. It was shown at the Salon of 1806 to great criticism, including by his painting master David. He was panned for his imagery, harsh color scheme and his cold precision with paint. But what most baffled his audience was his deliberate quotation of pre-Renaissance art.

Ingres was so stung by the criticism that he remained in Italy more or less until 1841. His career was stunted by persistent criticism of his Salon entries over the years. For a while he earned his bread as a street artist doing pencil sketches of tourists.

In addition to the Napoleon portrait, Ingres showed three portraits of the Rivière family at the 1806 Salon. Compare his portrait of Mlle Rivière (1805), below, to DaVinci’s Lady with an Ermine (1485), below that.

The two portraits above have far more in common than Ingres’ has with his contemporary David’s portrait of Madame Récamier (1800).

While modern art viewers understand and value this kind of historical reference, it was unappreciated at the beginning of the 19th century. But I am not sure that was why this painting was reviled at the Salon of 1806.

Ingres depicted something ugly and disturbing about Napoleon. He was not the only painter to depict Napoleon in Imperial garb, but to me this portrait walks a fine line between hagiography and caricature. Perhaps Napoleon’s stiff stance makes him seem a bit of a poseur. Perhaps it is the bland arrogance of the expression (probably not painted from life).

To me, Ingres goes someplace dangerous in this portrait. I think the critics lashed out at Ingres in their fear of the Emperor. At the time, it must have seemed like stupidity on Ingres’ part. Now it reads as brilliance.

Delaware Water Gap

A water gap is a place where a river cuts a notch sideways through a mountain range. Geologists tell us this indicates a river which is older than the mountains it flows through. Pennsylvania is rich in these water gaps, and one of the most well-known is the Delaware Water Gap on the Delaware River between Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

Above: Lighting at 8:30 AM, 11:30 AM, and 2:30 PM

I started this painting around 8 AM or so and finished about 2:45 PM. The light shifted radically during this time. While the copse of trees on the opposite shore was delightful in the early morning, by midday the rock faces across the gap had emerged from mist. I was facing due east, so I knew the sun would track directly above me, gradually illuminating the scene before me.

I started by making a terrible mistake. That plant you see to the left of my palette is New Jersey’s state flower, poison ivy. I had dumped my painting supplies on top of it without noticing. My paper towels went into the trash; the rest of my stuff (and my feet) I washed with baby wipes as well as I could. Nonetheless, I await the rash with trepidation.

I started with a rudimentary sketch for placement. I was working on a small canvas (9X12) and I needed to scale the big landscape down to a workable size.

Next, I refined my sketch into a value study (meaning a sketch of the placements of darks and lights). This study is good for two things. You work out a pleasing composition, and you practice and refine your drawing.

As I continue to study the Canadian Group of Seven, I realize how they framed the landscape in overhanging branches and screens of tree limbs. I have avoided this kind of device because in my hands it looked tacky. But I was determined to try it here. I realized that these branches couldn’t be an afterthought. Instead, they must be part of the original composition, as carefully drawn and realized as the rest of the painting.

I mixed colors for the far hill with my palette knife. To paint with authority, you must mix enough paint. Mixing with a brush is bad for your painting and your brushes. The three colors at the bottom are for the trees—warm highlights and cool shadows on this summer morning. The two colors above are for the rock. Even though the slope hadn’t emerged from shadow yet, my knowledge of the Water Gap told me the faces would be pinkish with violet shadows. My midtone for the rocks was burnt sienna.

I am painting very dry—no turps and no medium, in an effort to keep each color clear and separate from its neighbors. This leads to my second error, about which more below.

I’ve added three higher key colors for the closer mountain, on the right. As you can see, my palette is creeping dangerously close to the poison ivy again.

The problem I mentioned earlier becomes apparent. Because I’m painting very dry, there is little blending going on between paints. In the past I’ve relied on the underpainting to mute my painting automatically, but that wasn’t happening here. I had to go back and “dull” the background colors before I could begin to paint the foreground.

Here is my painting at the point when I quit. I need to resolve the sky a bit and reset the water on the left, which should be more of a grayish olive.

Cathedral of St. John the Divine, New York

Since Monday was a day of heavy rain, painting outdoors without shelter was out of the question (eventually the paint starts sliding off the canvas). The Cathedral kindly gave me permission to paint inside. I know the Cathedral fairly well, and have always been enthralled by Dutch church interiors (for example, see here, here, and here.)

My husband asked me, “How does it compare to Canterbury Cathedral?” It doesn’t have the patina of a thousand years of continuous use, but in fact it compares pretty well. For example, the stone carvings near the high altar are sensitive and traditional, yet very fresh and lively.

A serious fire swept through the north transept of the Cathedral in 2001, damaging tapestries, organ pipes and stone work. Today, the chancel and choir have been thoroughly cleaned and the great nave (601 feet long) should be finished by this fall. Perhaps this is my only complaint—I wish that in a thousand years, a docent could point high above to the vaulting and say, “These marks are traces of the Great Fire of 2001,” as a memorial to New York’s annus horribilis. For in addition to the World Trade Center cataclysm that year, the second-most-deadly plane crash in American aviation occurred in Queens in November. Although the Cathedral fire was far less important than the other catastrophes, it was etched into stone laid for perpetuity.

The Cathedral is a continual ongoing project. Although the cornerstone was laid in 1892, work has progressed in fits and starts (dictated by finances and two world wars) and is at this time moribund. I am totally charmed by the cinderblock-and-corrugated iron sheds along the south wall, which were built as temporary structures. It takes no effort to see them as wattle-and-daub huts pressed against medieval cathedrals-in-progress.

The light in the Cathedral was very dim, with the nave closed off and the high chancel windows dark on such a dreary day. That made paint mixing difficult, since I was literally guessing at color. Many tourists stopped to visit while I was painting, and I never let on that I was not from Gotham—it would have spoiled their fun.

Gwendolyn enters the room

Gwendolyn is a beginning watercolorist who is reengineering the world of plein air for her classmates (and for me). She has made her French easel more functional than I ever imagined possible. Look here to read her first entry, which explains her innovations to date. I plan to make one of her noodle brush holders tomorrow myself. Brava, Gwendolyn.

How did I end up with more than fifty tubes of paint in my studio?

OK, it’s not that I’m a packrat exactly, but how long do you suppose this tube of paint has been kicking around? (For the record, there are also 58 tubes of watercolors…)

I have the terrible habit of buying paints without checking my inventory first. There are paints from my teen years, squatters left by former students, and orphan colors I bought but don’t like. There are also specialty paints, including a few metallics and zinc white.

But most of the tubes of paint in my studio are there because of my carelessness. That’s how I ended up with seven started tubes of titanium white, five different dark reds ranging from alizarin crimson to mars violet, several phthalo green mixes, and many other overlapping pigments.

There is a four-character colour index international (CII) code listed on every tube of good paint. Recognizing pigments from these codes is an important skill for the painter.

Just as Benjamin Moore uses names like “Yukon Sky” to peddle grey paint, art paints are often marketed with evocative names. Generally these names appeal to our sense of tradition, even when the old paint has no relationship to its namesake. For example, Indian Yellow was once made from the urine of cattle which had been fed mango leaves. Today it is made from lightfast diarylide yellow (PY83).

Other obsolete paints are approximated by blends. Naples Yellow started as lead antimoniate, but today is approximated by a blend of four pigments.

Then there are the modern synthetic organic pigments, which I enjoy tremendously. These were developed for industrial purposes and have no historical antecedents. They are great for their high chroma and clarity when tinted with white. The problem comes when they are used to mimic more expensive pigments. For example, I once bought a paint called “viridian” which was not genuine but a blend including a phthalo green. It looked like viridian coming out of the tube but stained like crazy.

When I was sorting today, I found three tubes of cerulean blue. One is Gamblin’s cerulean (PB35), which is “true” cerulean, made of oxides of cobalt & tin. This is a pricey paint but invaluable in the plein air paint-box. The second is cerulean blue hue, which is a much less expensive paint designed to mimic the color and opacity of PB35. It is a mix of zinc white and phthalo blue (PW4, PB15). The third was an off brand which I chucked before noting the contents.

There are places I can substitute the hue for the real thing, but why buy a mix to do it when I already own both the phthalo and white? A good general rule is to stick to single pigment paints whenever possible and mix your own colors. This gives you the greatest latitude.

There are great resources on the web to learn more about pigments. For oils, see Gambin Paint, here. For watercolors, see Bruce MacEvoy’s, here. (I am personally grateful to my friend Kristin Zimmermann for teaching me about CII pigment identification.)