Surf’s up!

A Happy Harbor, oil on canvasboard, by little ol’ me.
In two days I’ll be on my way to Maine to teach the first of this summer’s workshops. Today’s task was to finalize selections for my season-long show at Lakewatch Manor.
Although I would dearly love to bring my painting of the HalveMaen Passing Hudson Highlands, the inn itself is more than 250 years old, and my sense is that smaller paintings will be in scale with its rooms.
Surf at Rockport, oil on canvasboard, by little ol’ me.
Often I go back several years and am shocked at how differently I respond to individual pieces. However, the small painting of surf at Rockport, above, was my favorite the instant it was finished. It has waited several years to be shown in its proper place, and I’m thrilled.

However, A Happy Harbor (at top) is a painting that snuck up on me and surprised me. I considered it incomplete when I did it, but I absolutely love its spontaneity now.

Surf at Port Clyde, oil on canvasboard, also by little ol’ me.

I painted the surf at Port Clyde, above, last November. It’s amazing to me how similar the two paintings are, painted many years apart.

Boatyard, oil on canvasboard, also by little ol’ me.

August and September are sold out for my workshop at Lakewatch Manor in Rockland, ME… and the other sessions are selling fast. The June session starts this weekend, but there are still day-student slots open.  Join us in July or October, but please hurry! Check here for more information. 

Teaching at Schoen Place on a Wednesday Evening

(An experiment in mobile blogging…)

It was a cool clear sparkling evening at Pittsford’s Schoen Place.

Discussion commences.
This is Stacey’s first time painting ever.
Brad VanAuken and Lyn Parsons

Lyn and Sophia,

Lyn, Sophia and Brad hard at work.
August and September are sold out for my workshop at Lakewatch Manor in Rockland, ME… and the other sessions are selling fast.  Join us in June, July and October, but please hurry! Check here for more information. 

Must the visual arts be a pale imitation of pop culture?

A still life by Amy Digi, from her website, here.
While thinking of my many friends in the greater New York area who are accomplished painters—Brad Marshall, Amy Digi, Patti Mollica, Cindy Zaglin (to name just a very few)— I came across thisin the New York Times:
“For example, although I’ve lived in New York for close to five years, my only encounters with the work of Hanksy, a graffiti artist who largely makes his art in New York and whose signature pieces involve the clever mash-up of the actor Tom Hanks and the works of the British artist Banksy, have been through Tumblr and Instagram.
“‘MY popularity exists right now because of social media and the Internet,’ he said in a phone interview.
“Hanksy said that after he put up his first piece in New York, he snapped a photo and uploaded it to the Web. Not long after, he said, ‘Tom Hanks tweeted it and it snowballed and here I am, two and a half years later with three successful solo shows and a rabid following of fans online.’”
One of Hanksy’s ‘masterpieces,’ publicized in The Gothamist. In light of the content, is it OK to say it pisses me off?
A man who blatantly (and feebly) copies Banksy while trading off the name of a Hollywood actor gets three solo shows and an interview in the Old Grey Mare. Meanwhile, very fine painters labor in relative obscurity. I’m usually philosophical about this, but somehow this man’s sheer mediocrity annoys me.
Patti Mollica’s Into the Light, acrylic on canvas, from her website here.
“That’s not art; that’s a meme,” protested our own Sandy Quang (MA candidate in Art History).
The problem isn’t with the public, which devours anything that comes up in its search box. The problem lies with our so-called tastemakers, the gallery owners and columnists who perpetuate this mediocrity. Their training ought to give them the authority to make critical distinctions, but apparently they lust after notoriety as much as the Kardashians.
A Stream in the White Mountains, New Hampshire, by Brad Marshall, from his website, here.
My friend Jane recently sent me a link to this, which argues that art is not a meritocracy. That’s true, but does it have to be a pale imitation of pop culture instead?
August and September are sold out for my workshop at Lakewatch Manor in Rockland, ME… and the other sessions are selling fast.  Join us in June, July and October, but please hurry! Check here for more information. 

This post is about food. And cooking. Seriously.

Dessert from my last painting workshop, in the Adirondacks. I have every reason to believe the meals at this workshop will be just as good!
Only six more days, and I’ll be in Maine teaching. I set out this morning to do my task-of-the-day, which was to determine which paintings go to Rockland with me and which ones get held in abeyance for Rye later this summer. Sadly—or not, depending on how you look at it—my painting storage is located next to my bedroom. It being the day after a busy weekend, I sat down on my bed for just a moment… and awoke, groggy, two hours later, having missed a hail-and-rain storm that had all Rochester chattering.
I’d also missed a phone call from Lakewatch Manor. I was half asleep when I returned it. It’s a pity, because they wanted to talk to me about food. They wanted my input, actually, which is silly—as if Degas had dialed me up and asked for advice on drawing dancers.
Those who know about my aversion to cooking will be surprised to learn that I’m terribly in tune with Lakewatch’s approach to the culinary arts. Their chefs believe in locally-sourced, organic, healthful produce, eggs and meats prepared with great care—and I believe in EATING exactly that. So it was a pity that I was only half awake for this conversation. I remember hearing phrases like “lobster bisque” and “rhubarb pie” and “hearty hors d’oeuvre,” all of which make me very happy to roll around in my memory.
The problem with mid-coast Maine, sadly, is that there are also too many great places to eat in addition to the Inn. Just a few: there’s S. Fernald’s Country Store in Damariscotta (which the Maine writer Van Reid introduced me to) with its fantastic deli. There’s Owl’s Head General Store, which was celebrating its Best Burger in Maine status when I was in Rockland last November. There are the Irish Egg Rolls at Billy’s Tavern, which I didn’t sample because I was busy having a fantastic burger there, too, but which I intend to sample next time around. They feature corned beef, sauerkraut and Swiss cheese fried into a wonton. There’s the Rockland Café, with its all-you-can-eat seafood.
Of course, there are a gazillion more upmarket restaurants, too, but I never go to these places, since I usually look like The Wreck of the Hesperus* after a long day in the sun painting.
At any rate, that’s why the Lakewatch Manor people allowed for an evening off to go prowling around Rockland. Not only are there the Farnsworth and a slew of other galleries in town, but there are countless opportunities to dine out.
I’m looking forward to it!

*Longfellow based that poem on the wreck of the Favorite, a ship from Wiscasset, which is just down the road a piece from Rockland.

Every day I do one task to prepare for my June workshop in Rockland, ME. Meanwhile, what are you doing to get ready for it? August and September are sold out for my workshop at Lakewatch Manor in Rockland, ME… and the other sessions are selling fast.  Join us in June, July and October, but please hurry! Check here for more information. 

No mandatory retirement or forced disability for painters

Rain, Steam, and Speed – The Great Western Railway
, by Joseph Mallord William Turner, was completed in 1844, when the artist was 69 years old. Turner moved fully into the  free, expressive, colorful treatment  at an age when most modern Americans have retired.
Two lifelong friends have recently entered hospice—one with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease) and one with metastatic breast cancer.  Despite my grief, I can’t help but smile each time I hear from them. In both cases, the closer they get to physical shipwreck, the more joyous they become.
Another friend mentioned a similar phenomenon in church this morning: for some believers, the older they get, the more their spiritual disabilities are stripped away and the more they are able to enter into their spiritual gifts.
Tate Britain’s upcoming show, Late Turner: Painting Set Free, on the last works of J.M.W. Turner, illustrates a similar phenomenon in the visual arts. Turner moved fully into his romantic, free, expressive, colorful best at a time when most modern people have retired.
Flowers in a Crystal Vase, by Édouard Manet, was painted in 1882, when he was bedbound with gangrene.
Édouard Manet died of gangrene at the age of 51, two years after completing his final tour de force, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère. In his last months he was bed-bound, so he painted still lives of the flowers in his sickroom. These intimate, small, perfectly observed paintings are among his finest works.
In 1941 Henri Matisse was diagnosed with duodenal cancer, which left him with a stoma and confined to a wheelchair. As he began to recover from treatment, his ex-wife and daughter were arrested by the Gestapo; Mme. Matisse remained in prison for six months, while Marguerite was tortured and sent to a concentration camp (from which she ultimately escaped). After this, Matisse entered what he called une seconde vie (a second life). For fourteen years, he worked in cutout paper. These works are among the most influential and frequently cited of Matisse’s entire career.
Polinesia, the Sky, by Henri Matisse, 1947
What is it about artistic maturity that—like spiritual maturity—often catches its practitioners at the end of their lives? For example why did Rembrandt become so deeply reflective in his old age (and why did he paint so many self-portraits at an age when most people have given them up)? Perhaps old age and illness result in freedom from the tyranny of personally-imposed goals.  Despite the enfants terrible we tend to lionize in American culture, perhaps artistic genius is truly the province of the elderly.
August and September are sold out for my workshop at Lakewatch Manor in Rockland, ME… and the other sessions are selling fast.  Join us in June, July and October, but please hurry! Check here for more information. 

Reaching through yourself to the next phase

Students show up at all levels of experience, and the goal is to meet them where they are and usher them to the next phase.

 An inexperienced student is a tabula rasa on which the painting teacher can sketch out an orderly system for painting.  (This is a sweet privilege, and one of the reasons I like teaching teenagers so much.) When working with experienced students, the challenge is to get them to let go of what they know in order to embrace the whole range of what they couldknow.

I was the worst kind of painting student. I’m skeptical, have a strong inner vision, and am an autodidact by nature. When I first started teaching painting, Marilyn Feinberg would tell me “That’s karma; you deserve that,” when I got a student who refused to hear. She was so right.
Most people who take workshops are, in fact, fairly accomplished artists. I know I recently said otherwise, but my primary job isn’t really to know where the bathrooms are. Rather, it’s to help students discern and possess the next step in their painting journey, whatever that may be.
Teaching painting is a great privilege.

The pitfalls are plentiful. Some teachers churn out exact replicas of themselves, so that you can walk into a gallery and immediately know, “That person studied with X.” Others are so fearful of stirring the mixture that they do nothing to advance their students’ skills, providing only vague affirmation. Still others teach systems of rendering—“This is how you paint an eye;” “This is how you paint an apple”—instead of teaching their student to observe and describe with an authentic voice.

That first moment in a new class or workshop can be fraught, especially if you know nobody. Many of us feel a need to excel (or at least I do). That is generally a good thing, but in the creative arts, it can also make us anxious, defensive, and hypersensitive to criticism. My first job is to help the student lay that aside, allowing the best true artist within himself to blossom.  
I asked my friend and fellow artist Sandra Sibley—who also works with therapeutic riding programs—if there was an analogy in training horses. This was her response:
I don’t think there’s an analogy to training horses, as horses pretty much live in the moment and if you keep at it with repetition they learn what’s current.
Riders (and in my case, the volunteers who have horses) are another matter. I think we cling to that which feels comfortable. And with riding, that’s coupled with your brain thinking you are doing something different than what your body is actually doing. I can see that comparison to art, as so many beginners see a tree as green leaves and a brown trunk. Their brain is thinking they have it right, but it comes out wrong on the canvas.
The challenge with teaching riding to beginners is finding the right words/analogy that clicks in their brain to get them to do what you want them to do. IE, move your hips with the motion of the horse…move those hips like you’re salsa dancing. Breathe through your diaphragm… make a Santa belly when you breathe, etc.

Thanks, Sandy. You always do get to the heart of the matter.
I had lunch with a middle-school teacher from Delaware today and broached yesterday’s question. “Some people believe that nobody should have anything nice,” she said. And that, of course is a big part of it. There are many people in our culture who want to elevate the tone, but there are others—a few—who resent beauty or success. I guess the best we can hope for is that the creators outnumber and outwork the destroyers.

August and September are sold out for my workshop at Lakewatch Manor in Rockland, ME… and the other sessions are selling fast.  Join us in June, July and October, but please hurry! Check here for more information. 

The opposite of creativity is what?

New garden, run over. Excuse the bad photo, but it’s monsoon season in Rochester. I don’t dare carry my camera, and my cell phone kept fogging up..
Last evening I talked with a Pittsford farmer (really) about the different ways in people are creative. He has two “artistic” sisters, whereas he likes building and growing things. He figured they’re two sides of the same coin, and, of course, I agree.
This morning, I noticed that a truck had plowed across a brand-new garden here overnight, digging deep ruts into the earth, smashing new shrubs and plants, and fracturing an antique sandstone accent curb. (It would have been nearly impossible for this to be accidental.)
This is petty vandalism in the grand scheme of things, but it still irks me. If this keeps up, will the owner let the lot revert to the packed dirt, weeds and broken glass that is so sadly common in the commercial-industrial areas of our cities?
The worst act of vandalism I ever committed was unintentional: I walked into a sodden, newly seeded lawn before realizing why the owner had a temporary string barrier around it. Thirty years later, it still bothers me. That is not because I’m some kind of moral paragon; it’s because my personality is fundamentally creative, rather than destructive.
Of course, most people’s minds are wired the same way as mine. But what goes on in the heads of that small minority who take joy in defacing or destroying what others do?
Perhaps in some instances, the driving force may be envy or resentment, but I imagine that in most cases it’s some kind of pure spirit of rage—a sort of angry equivalent to the bubbling effervescence most of us experience from time to time. But I really wouldn’t know.

What painting means, indirectly

I can’t imagine why running here makes us think about aesthetics. Since I’ll never paint from a photo, you can enjoy the reflections and shadows now.
Mary and I are running on the canal bank, discussing opening and delayed adverbs and adjectives. (I think middle school teachers invented them to torture students.) She gives an example: “Gracefully, Carol runs along the canal.” (Heh.)
I stop and stare at her—any excuse for a break. “Why would anyone teach a kid to write in such an antiquated manner?”
Mary’s a writer, and she’s in love with words. “It might be useful,” she protests. “Chiaroscuro might be obsolete, but there must be times you use it.”
I shudder involuntarily. “Never. It would never work with direct painting.”
This is from Gamblin’s very fine explanation of indirect painting, which you can find here. The monochromatic phase of an indirect painting is basically a value study.
Mary knows that as long as I’m talking about painting I keep running, so she asks me the difference between direct and indirect painting, and how Rembrandt and other classical painters built up their work. Huffing only slightly, I tell her that the artist started with an imprimatura, an earth tone base, and built up successive layers of transparent warm glazes. These were allowed to show through as dark tones in the final work. Opacity was added on the top, as light tones which glowed against the darks.
In the second phase, the artist has added lights, which are also opaques.
The Impressionists essentially invented an entirely new system of painting—direct painting—where a painting is done in opaque layers rather than built up from transparency. This radical technological shift was possible because modern chemistry was developing so many new pigments.
The finished work allows the imprimatura to show through (although in this example, the artist has muddied the darks and let it show through in the midtones).
 I tell her a bit of my own story: I learned to paint indirectly and was doing it until I went to the Art Students League to study. There, Cornelia Foss told me, “If this were 1950, I’d say ‘brava,’ but it’s not.” Tough words, but the best painting advice I ever got.
“But why is that?” Mary asks. “What about direct painting made it right for the 20th century?”
I speculate: indirect painting is more conducive to well-reasoned, planned paintings of academic or religious themes; direct painting is conducive to emotion expression. This puts it in sync with the overstimulated, nervous, energetic pulse of modern life.
“It’s kind of like the difference between a home-cooked and a restaurant meal,” Mary says.
I stop and stare again. Really, at times Mary boggles my mind.
“A home-cooked meal takes a long time to prepare. It is often, literally, a love offering,” she explains. “A restaurant mealeven the best of themis quicker, and is more an expression of what the chef can do.”
Somehow, that goes right to the heart of the matter. Until the end of the 18th century, painters were looking outward—as missionaries of faith and social justice, or as teachers of classical myth and history. We may think those subjects are dated, but they show that the artist was primarily concerned with his audience. After the rise of the Cult of Genius, the artist’s personal vision became paramount.

So I think Mary’s metaphor is apt: indirect painting was a love offering, and direct painting is all about me.
Every day I do one task to prepare for my June workshop in Rockland, ME. Today’s was cleaning the Prius. Meanwhile, what are you doing to get ready for it? August and September are sold out for my workshop at Lakewatch Manor in Rockland, ME… and the other sessions are selling fast.  Join us in June, July and October, but please hurry! Check here for more information. 

My new field easel

Slik tripod, Guerrilla painter easel head, and En Plein Air Pro shelf.
After I posted last week about my search for a new plein air easel, I found this little number on Amazon. Oddly, while it is listed as being made by Guerrilla Painter, it isn’t on their website. Perhaps it’s a discontinued item.
My brother had actually drawn up a plan to make me a very similar item, but I know he’s relieved to be excused. It seems absurdly overpriced to me, but it’s also exactly what I needed to retrofit my existing tripod into an easel. Like all Guerrilla Painter items, it’s extremely well made. Unlike my Guerrilla Box, however, it’s very lightweight.
Or, I can turn the head 90 degrees and put my palette to the side. Not sure why I’d do that, but it’s nice to know I can.
 I have a Slik tripod that’s a little heavier than I’d wanted—about 5 pounds—but very strong and easy to set up and take down. The Plein Air Pro shelf fits it perfectly, and the easel head works very well with its quick-release head.
I like being able to move my painting to different angles, which is why my lightweight Mabef beechwood field easel with its pivoting head has been the easel I’ve returned to after each flirtation with a different (and mostly more expensive) system.
I don’t generally watercolor like this in the field, but if I wanted to… or, I could put a board in there and a tablecloth over the whole thing and serve afternoon tea. Or, I could take the easel head off and use the tripod to take photos!
This being a component system, I can easily buy a replacement carbon-fiber tripod that will weigh less than 3 lbs. and set me back—oh—not more than $450. But right now, that extra two pounds seems bearable for the price.
The bubble-level is there for leveling a camera. But I think this means I can stop carrying a separate level around in my kit.
The En Plein Air Pro shelf is really intended for watercolorists, but I’ve decided the cup-holder might come in handy for coffee. (Not that it will really show when my palette is open.)
Dismantled and dumped on my steps. Will fit easily in my backpack.
This set-up means the only wooden box I’ll be carrying is my palette. All my other tools are in plastic bags or bins—lighter in weight, easy to toss if they get gummed up, and easily replaced at the hardware store.
It does need to be field-tested, and I’ll be doing that tomorrow. I’m especially interested in how the tripod and my umbrella get along.
And if you haven’t signed up for my Rochester classes or Maine workshops, what on earth are you waiting for? August and September are sold out for my workshop at Lakewatch Manor in Rockland, ME… and the other sessions are selling fast.  Join us in June, July and October, but please hurry! Check here for more information.

Goodbye, Mermaid Madonna!

Mermaid Madonna and her little Mer-baby.
The Mermaid Madonna left my studio today, bound for Stonington, ME, where she will be sold in the Penobscot East Resource Center’s 4th Annual Lobster Buoy and Reverse Auction.
Penobscot East Resource Center works to rebuild a small-scale diversified fishery where fishermen and their communities are a part of the governance of fishing. They serve 50 communities from Penobscot Bay to the Canadian border. This is the most fishery-dependent stretch of the East Coast.
I seldom get attached to my work, but the Mermaid Madonna resonated with me. The Mermaid herself is based on Elisabeth Jerichau Baumann’s Havfrue(1873), and her tiny son is just a confection from my mind. The Mermaid Madonna’s tail wraps all the way around the buoy to touch her baby’s tail. A lone lobsterman works in the distance.
Front view of the Mermaid Madonna.
The baby’s hair, I decided, needed to be the seaweed equivalent of a towhead, so I painted it a brilliant green, low on the back of his head where baby hair first comes in. And his little Mer-bottom was great fun to paint.
Side view showing the Mermaid Madonna’s tail reaching around to touch her baby.
When I was first asked to paint this buoy, I was completely stumped for a subject. A seascape on a buoy would be predictable coming from me, I thought. I pondered the primordial Greek sea goddess Thalassa (Θάλασσα) as a subject.  From there, mermaids were the next logical step.
A lone lobsterman working in the distance on the back of the buoy.
“So God created the great creatures of the sea and every living thing with which the water teems and that moves about in it, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind.And God saw that it was good.” (Gen 1:21)
A few years ago, we had a young woman living with us named Abi; she was obsessed with drawing mermaids. I tried to get her to diversify, but now I owe her an apology; mermaids can easily become an obsession.
Packing her was almost as difficult as painting her, but I figured that mounting the buoy on two pieces of plywood would keep it stable in its box… which was marked in huge letters, “Fragile!” With all the rain and dampness we’ve had, the buoy still wasn’t completely dry.
I’m confident my Mermaid Madonna will go to a good home, but if you want to bid on her, contact Penobscot East Resource Center here and ask them how you can place a remote bid in the auction.
August and September are sold out for my workshop at Lakewatch Manor in Rockland, ME.  Join us in June, July and October, but please hurry! Check here for more information.