What is the nature of compassion?

Triste Herencia (Sad Inheritance) by Joaquin Sorolla (1899)

In counterpoint to Joaquin Sorolla’smany light and luminous canvases of naked children playing on the beach, Triste Herencia (Sad Inheritance) is a dark painting of children in a dark sea. Examined carefully, the painting is a detailed catalogue of woes—blindness, club foot, leprosy, and above all, polio, which was just starting its reign of terror at the time this was painted.*
Sorolla’s Chicos en la Playa (1910) is more typical of his beach children.
 The monk at the center of it has been on my mind this week. In contrast to my mental image of a compassionate shepherd, this fellow, of the Orden Hospitalaria de San Juan de Dios, appears rather grim—almost intimidating, in fact. He has the stern face and bearing of a saint painted by Zurbarán, or the confessor or inquisitor of our imagination.  Yet he is with great delicacy doing a job few of us would volunteer for.
Dwarves have a long history as palace accessories to the European nobility, so it’s no surprise that they’ve been painted by many masters. Perhaps the most famous of these paintings is Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas, which includes both an achondroplasticdwarf (Maria Barbola) imported from Germany and an Italian proportionate dwarf(Nicolas Pertusato), kicking the dog.
The Jester Calabacillas, Bobo de Coria or Juan de Calabazas (1637-1639) by Diego Velázquez
Velázquez painted an entire lexicon of dwarfism, and his portraits are notable both for the respect he shows his subjects and for the honesty with which he portrays their condition. His portrait of Don Juan Calabazas is a highly sympathetic portrait of mental retardation. Calabazas was nicknamed “Calabacillas” or “Pumpkinhead,” a nickname we would find utterly objectionable today. Velázquez does not shrink from Don Juan’s disabilities, carefully documenting his subject’s symptoms, including his vacant smile, the frantic gesturing of his hands, his crouching posture. But in spite of that, Velázquez painted him with as much respect and affection as he ever did Philip IV or his family.
Compare this to the most well-known American painting of disability, Christina’s World, by Andrew Wyeth(1948). One would never crawl across a Maine hayfield naked, so Anna Christine Olson’s disability is masked to some degree by her clothing. But beyond that, the painting tells us nothing about her. It is a carefully constructed, beautiful composition focusing on the surface of the field and the elegant shapes of the buildings. (Both the buildings and the figure are substantially altered from their reality.) 
Christina’s withered limbs are an addendum to a completely separate idea. They draw us into what otherwise would be “Triangular Composition: Girl in Pink Dress on a Grass Field.” Seen in its most cynical light, they’re there to sell the painting.
Christina’s World, by Andrew Wyeth (1948) is a very American view of disability.
That’s not an indictment, of course; Wyeth is just treating disability the way the rest of America does. As the parent of four children, I know that schools offer the disability label as a ticket to purchase compassion from an otherwise inflexible system, and the pressure to buy into this system is overwhelming.  All of this is a diminution to the truly disabled, many of whose withered limbs are hidden from us.
This being the season of the Compassionate Shepherd, I am reminded of his encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well, told in John 4:4-26.
The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.”
He told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.”
 “I have no husband,” she replied.
Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband. The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.”
To our modern ears, that’s a pretty harsh exchange, but it was absolutely necessary that she acknowledge her reality before she could begin any process of renewal.
We moderns cannot be honest about the human condition because we are relativists; the only truth we understand as absolute is “don’t be judgmental.” But resolution requires honest assessment. Perhaps it is no surprise after all that Sorolla’s monk starts with the naked, brutal truth to help his poor charges. Perhaps it is no surprise that he is grim.


*I was shocked to read that polio epidemics were a 20th century scourge, although the disease itself has been known since antiquity. Before the 20th century, poor sanitation resulted in a constant exposure to the polio virus, which provided natural immunity from infancy. As sanitation improved in Europe, childhood exposure declined. The first localized epidemics occurred in Europe and the United States around 1900, the time Sorolla painted Triste Herencia.

It’s not gonna snow forever

Spring really is just around the corner, I swear.

I think the dead of winter is God’s way of telling me it’s time to paint the figure, so I generally lay off plein air in the coldest months. The last day I painted out-of-doors was the day before Thanksgiving. But watching spring snow falling outside my studio window is a reminder that in a week or so, we can be outdoors, so it’s time to get my pack in order.
Is this the year I buy a new brush holder? Nah…
I use the same palette indoors and out, but my umbrella, my backpack, and my field easel get stashed in a corner, from whence they silently reproach me for not going outside to play. The first order of business is to pull them out and inspect them for cracks, tears and other damage, and to thoroughly vacuum out my pack.
If brush cleaner/conditioner doesn’t
salvage them, replace them.
Then it’s time to consider what condition my brushes are in. A few need replacement every year, particularly the flats and long filberts. Some need reshaping, and a few need to be rescued, but mostly I have to track down the ones that have wandered out of my brush holder into a coffee can in my studio.

 I don’t use tubes, but buy my paints in cans (from RGH Paints in Albany). I keep my paints in this segmented vitamin box, given me by my pal Jamie Williams Grossman. Generally this box of paints will get me through a week of travel without reloading, and it weighs a fraction of what the same paints in tubes do. Having used this box without cleaning it since last May, this seems like a good time to clean out any residual old paint and wipe out the reservoirs. But it’s also a sensible time to check my supplies and order new paint.
Ditching tubes cuts down on weight. Cheap, efficient, and faster.
More drawing means less struggling, so I carry them all: charcoal, watercolor pencil, graphite, greyscale markers for fast value studies, and a viewfinder/dry erase marker. I often use watercolor pencils and a straight edge when architecture is involved, and I particularly like that one can erase errors with a damp paper towel. I definitely need some new watercolor pencils this year.
Draw slow, paint fast. From left, charcoal, watercolor pencils and sharpener, grey-scale markers, graphite sticks and sketchbook, viewfinder and dry-erase marker.
Another group of supplies that’s frequently looted over the winter is personal care supplies. I note that I need replacement suntan lotion and I need to track down my lucky painting cap, apron, and water bottle. The latex gloves are primarily for warmth, not cleanliness, so I’d better order liquid gloves. (You Southerners will be surprised to learn that the hand warmers can be dropped out again after, say, July.) I always carry two ponchos—one for me, and one for my painting, because when it rains in the spring, it really rains. I put my IPod and my camera in this category, but they don’t need to be checked; they’re used every day.
Never discount the value of being comfortable. From left, insect repellent, baby wipes, poncho for my easel, hand-warmers, my poncho, latex gloves.
I have two sets of tools, so my field ones generally don’t go walkies, but they still need to be checked, because they’re the most important tools I own: my compass (because I want to know where the sun is heading), palette knifes and a scraper, bungee cords, a level, S-hooks, clips, an all-purpose tool, a straight edge/angle finder, double pots, soap.
The most important part of my kit after paints and brushes. From top left: compass, two palette knives, scraper, bungee cords, level, soap, palette cups, angle finder/straight edge, all-purpose tool, clips, S-hooks.
It’s time to order new fast-dry medium, and check my supplies of mineral spirits. Because I want to travel light, I’ll repurpose the medium container to hold mineral spirits, and carry my medium in the tiny pot in the foreground (bought as part of a cosmetic travel set from my local dollar store). A hotel shampoo bottle serves equally well for this. I always carry a few plastic grocery bags for trash, and I stash the larger containers and a funnel in my car. I’ll go out in my shop and run a few rolls of paper towel through my chop saw so they’re half size, and I’ll be good to go.
You need a big bottle of mineral spirits in your car and a little one to carry, a big bottle of medium and a little one to carry, a brush-washing tank, some boards to paint on, and a way to move the finished paintings.
I’ve been using thumbtacks, a strap and waxed paper to move wet paintings, but this year I think I’ll go all-out on a new carrier system made from cheap frames and big rubber bands, as suggested by my pal Marilyn Fairman. And it’s definitely time to check my inventory of painting boards. I like Ray-Mar boards and they always have a Memorial Day sale, so I always try to arrange my inventory to limp along until then. But this week I’ll sort my remaining inventory and count them so I know what I need to order.
That’s my routine for checking my oils. You can extrapolate the same checklist for watercolors and pastels—check your pigments, check your tools, check the stuff you need to be comfortable, reorder what’s gone, repair what’s broken. For a complete list of my recommended oil painting supplies, check here. For watercolor supplies, check here. For pastel supplies, check here.

Talking about polygamy with Michelle

The Servant, 36X40, oil on canvas

This week I fasted with my pals from Americans Against the Abuses of Polygamy. Our fast took the form of unrelieved beans and water, because sources inside the FLDShave said that this is what the kids of that community are living on. The children are doing religious penance for their leader’s continued stay in a Texas prison cell, courtesy of his conviction on two felony counts of child sexual assault.
Talking about Polygamy with Michelle,
oil sketch on canvas, 24X30
By Friday, I was in a mental fog that made painting difficult. So when Michelle arrived for our semiweekly work session, I was quite ready to say “Sod it; let’s just talk.” So we did, and I painted.
People often assume my objection to polygamy is religiously-based, but in fact it’s primarily a feminist position. Polygamy is antithetical to women’s rights; for that matter, it’s antithetical to human rights. There’s never been a healthy democracy that has allowed it, and the benighted societies which have practiced it have also exhibited a sad tendency to tyranny and to dispose of their surplus males by sending them off to fight endless wars.
It seems to me that, worldwide, women’s rights have achieved a sort of high-water mark and are now sliding backward. Gender-selectiveabortion means that many women never even take first breaths. Child marriage imperils their youth. And something like a third of the world’s population live in countries where polygamyis legal.
Of course, we live in a nation of apologists who insist that my attitude is some sort of cultural imperialism, but I like living in a nation where women have the same civil and economic rights as do men, and that’s the future I want for my children.
An oil sketch from 2003 on this subject. I still like it.
These are easy enough issues to write about, but how does one paint them? I’ve spent more than ten years working on a series of paintings about abuse. They’re interesting; they may even be good, but on some level I understand that they’re also finished. So it made sense to just sit and talk Friday, and wonder where we will go next.

Where the Sea Meets the Sky: Painting Maine in the footsteps of Winslow Homer, George Bellows, Rockwell Kent, and the Wyeths

See here for more information.

See a brochure here.

“Sunset at Marshall’s Point” oil on canvas, 8X6

“This was the best painting instruction I have ever had. Carol’s advice in color mixing was particularly eye-opening. Her explanations are clear and easy to understand. She is very approachable and supportive. I would take this course again in a heartbeat.” (Carol T., prior workshop participant)

Mañana Island view from Monhegan (courtesy of Carolyn Mrazek)

 Last fall I was invited to go to Maine to scout out painting locations for a series of workshops this summer. (The managers had observed me teaching at another workshop and liked what they saw.)

I’ve painted on two different trips in the Rockland-Rockport area, once by myself and once with my pal Kristin. However, painting for—and by—oneself is different from planning a painting program for others.
One of the many lovely places we’ll be painting.
Painting is a process of exploration; guiding other painters is largely a process of elucidation. When planning a workshop, I endlessly crisscross the region, painting and reconnoitering. (My old atlases have now been replaced by GPS, but the principle of look, paint, and take notes remains the same.) There are practical considerations as well; to me, the most important is to locate comfort stations and coffee.
A good plein air teacher is more than just a decent painter. She has to be a bushwacker, with a decent sense of direction and common sense. She has to meet each of her students at the level at which they’re working.  And above all, she must resist the temptation to create a bunch of mini-mes, but rather watch for and nurture each individual “voice” in her class.
Countless fantastic views.
A good venue makes teaching that much easier. There should be room for rainy-day painting and a place to clean brushes. There should be comfortable public space to chat and drink wine after a day of hard work. There should be other activities available—hiking, shopping, dining, etc. Lakewatch Manor meets all those criteria.
Plus they are offering a fantastic added attraction: a day painting on Monhegan Island. Twelve miles offshore, Monhegan is a Maine treasure, dotted with hiking trails and artists’ studios. We’ll have painting time and lunch at a private property which adjoins Rockwell Kent’s home—now owned by Jamie Wyeth. From it, we can paint Mañana Island, or we can move off elsewhere on the island for its other iconic views.
One other detail: if you haven’t visited the Farnsworth in Rockland, or the very high-end galleries that have sprung up around it, you’re in for a treat. It’s an extraordinary art scene, and I’m a fairly jaded customer in that respect, having regular access to Manhattan.
Sun, Mañana, Monhegan by Rockwell Kent, 1907. Lousy image of a great painting,
and we will get to paint this exact view.