That “how-to” I didn’t do yesterday…

Megunticook River at Camden, ME, 9X12, oil on canvas, by little ol’ me.
Yesterday I intended to write about how I do field sketches, but distracted myself with raving about a most-excellent new student. Today, then, I get down to business. This is my method of producing a relatively-quick, finished field study with a minimum of “flailing around,” as my pal Brad Marshall so memorably termed it.
My first step is a value study. Whether I do this with charcoal, greyscale markers, or pencil is immaterial—if the value structure doesn’t work, the painting won’t work. 
A value study can be done in charcoal, with greyscale markers, or in pencil.
As I mentioned yesterday, I decided to decompress the center of the painting and omit a wall that encroached on the view from the left, and both—in the end—proved to be the lesser choices. I can’t call those highly-subjective decisions “wrong,” but I did change my mind halfway through.

The Megunticook River wending its way through Camden’s old buildings. Isn’t it beautiful?

 My next step was to draw the picture on my canvas. This is never simply a question of transferring my rough value sketch; nor is it a finished drawing into which I paint. What I do is a carefully-measured map of the future painting. I find this particularly useful when painting architecture, where measurement matters a great deal. I generally do this drawing with a watercolor pencil. I can erase to my heart’s content with water, but when I finally start painting in oil the drawing is locked into the bottom layer.

Not a transfer of my value study; not a “drawing” per se. A map for the finished painting.

 From there, I blocked in the big shapes, paying attention to preserving the values of my sketch, and working (generally) from dark to light. This is especially important if you plan to take more than a few hours to do a painting, because it allows you to paint through significant changes in lighting.

I say “big shapes,” but while I focus on these, I do not obliterate all the drawing I did earlier.

It was upon reaching this degree of blocking that I realized how little I liked this scene without the wall on the left pushing in against it. Putting it in over wet paint (without a drawing) resulted in it being somewhat vague compared to the rest of the painting, but I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. (Whenever I do something like this, I amuse myself by speculating on what art historians might adduce as a ‘meaning’ of my painterly screw-ups.)
I plan to repaint this scene next week, when I participate in Camden Falls Gallery’s Plein Air Wet Paint Auction. But more on that tomorrow.

Join us in October, 2013 at Lakewatch Manor—which is selling out fast—or let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in 2014. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

Painting side by side with a beginner, you learn things

My painting (left), my student’s painting (right).
I had the opportunity this week to paint side-by-side with a student. He has painted exactly three observational pieces in his life, all under my tutelage. However, as a lifelong builder, he actually has pretty decent drawing chops; he just hasn’t dignified his sketching by calling it art.
The Megunticook River runs beneath and between old mill buildings in Camden, ME.
I set out to do a how-to post about my technique for developing a field sketch. He just happened to be standing next to me, or so I thought.
The Megunticook River runs underneath and around old mill buildings in downtown Camden, Me. I loved the light on the water and the shimmering reflections of the white buildings in the background. However, I felt that it would be better to decompress the gap between the far buildings and remove the building that squeezed the scene down from the left. My student chose to represent the scene exactly as he saw it. About halfway through the painting, I realized that my editorial changes—intended to let the scene “breathe”—had in fact robbed it of its idiosyncratic charm. I would not have realized this had I not been looking at his painting taking shape next to mine.
Working a pretty narrow view, in a pretty narrow space.
The owner of the business next door stopped by several times to see what we were doing. He raved about this man’s painting. But my student—like so many of us—couldn’t hear that praise as genuine, or doesn’t understand how truly gifted he is to be able to do this on the third try. 
His palette, acrylics.
“Someday, they’ll be talking about you as the new Grandma Moses, and I’ll be a footnote in your personal history,” I told him.
His finished painting. 
Sometimes you need to see a painting dignified with a frame; it is as if it puts on its tuxedo and is ready to perform. So I tossed his painting in a frame while I framed mine. I think he suddenly realized just how good it is and was shocked.
Later this week, I’ll post my step-by-step instructions. After all, technique is important; the joy of painting… well, that is something far greater.

Join us in October, 2013 at Lakewatch Manor—which is selling out fast—or let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in 2014. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

Three paintings on the block in Castine, ME

Midsummer Reverie, 6X8, oil on canvas.  One of three paintings for sale at Castine Historical Society today.
I finally figured out what I like so much about Castine, Maine—it reminds me of Lewiston, NY, where I spent a good deal of time in my salad days.
Anyone who knows Lewiston will recognize a parallel with this from Castine’s history: “In 1607, Samuel de Champlain, the great French explorer and colonizer, sailed up the Penobscot River and wrote of the beauty of the river and its shores. Four years later Father Pierre Biard, a French Jesuit, met here with a group of Indians…”
Owl’s Head Light, 8X10, oil on canvas.  One of three paintings for sale at Castine Historical Society today.
That was three years after Champlain went through Lewiston, but WNY’s Jesuit didn’t arrive until 1640 or thereabouts. Lewiston had René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle and Fr. Louis Hennepin; Castine had Jean-Vincent d’Abbadie de Saint-Castin.
Both regions were contested territory long before the surrounding forests were of much value, because both were on navigable routes into the interior. That means that both places have a great depth of native, French and British pre-colonial history packed into them.

Rising Tide at Wadsworth Cove, 12X16, oil on canvas.  One of three paintings for sale at Castine Historical Society today.
I have three paintings in the Castine Historical Society Art Show and Sale, which ends today. (One of the downsides of not blogging while traveling is that you don’t stay current.) I also recently heard that my mermaid buoy for the Penobscot East Resource Center auction was purchased by a Vinalhaven fisherman. There’s something darn authentic about that.
Join us in October, 2013 at Lakewatch Manor—which is selling out fast—or let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in 2014. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

The Corn Harvest (alt. the Harvesters), 1565

This week I’m on the road. I’ve left you with six landscape paintings that should be on everyone’s Top Ten list, but probably aren’t (for the simple reason that there are way too many great paintings out there).
The Corn Harvest (alt. the Harvesters), Pieter Bruegel (Brueghel) the Elder, 1565
Bruegel’s great device is in putting important action of his painting into a seemingly unimportant corner—in this case, in the far distance, a group of villagers are cock throwing, a blood sport  in which a rooster was tied to a post and people took turns throwing coksteles (special weighted sticks) at the bird until it died.

This is one of a series of six paintings depicting the change of the seasons, the most famous of which is The Hunters in the Snow.

Join me in October, 2013 at Lakewatch Manor—which is selling out fast—or let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in 2014. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

The Meeting (Bonjour Monsieur Courbet), 1854

This week I’m on the road. I’ve left you with six landscape paintings that should be on everyone’s Top Ten list, but probably aren’t (for the simple reason that there are way too many great paintings out there).
The Meeting (Bonjour Monsieur Courbet), Gustave Courbet, 1854
Courbet was one cocky artist, and he knew how to work at his own celebrity. In this painting, Courbet painted himself meeting his patron and supporter, Alfred Bruyas. The servant is—duh!—servile, but patron and artist are meeting on the same social plane.  Gone is any idea of the artist as a hired hand; here Courbet announces his own genius.
Courbet was controversial, charismatic and absolutely political. He was uncompromisingly realistic in both his landscape and figure painting (which were, in some cases, absolutely pornographic). I can’t aspire to his artistic genius, but I sure like his approach to life. On the other hand, he died of liver failure at age 58.

Join me in October, 2013 at Lakewatch Manor—which is selling out fast—or let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in 2014. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

On the Delaware River, 1861-1863

This week I’m on the road. I’ve left you with six landscape paintings that should be on everyone’s Top Ten list, but probably aren’t (for the simple reason that there are way too many great paintings out there).
On the Delaware River, 1861-1863, George Inness
That’s the Delaware Water Gap in the background. US Interstate 80 runs through it now, making it difficult to know whether such a limpid pool ever existed in this spot. But there is no mistaking that peculiar mountain range.
My geology text says that a water gap is carved by water flowing across a mountain ridge, but I find that impossible to contemplate. Evidently, it indicates a river that is older than the current landscape, which is why they’re common in the old, old Appalachians. I associate them particularly with Pennsylvania.

We focus so much on the Hudson River School painters that we sometimes forget Inness and the other tonalists. 

Join me in October, 2013 at Lakewatch Manor—which is selling out fast—or let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in 2014. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

Harvest at La Crau with Montmajour in the Background, 1888

This week I’m on the road. I’ve left you with six landscape paintings that should be on everyone’s Top Ten list, but probably aren’t (for the simple reason that there are way too many great paintings out there).
Harvest at La Crau with Montmajour in the Background, Vincent Van Gogh, 1888
It’s absurd to try to pick out a “best” or a most-representative Van Gogh, so I just chose one which emphasizes the things I like most about him: his color sense, his meticulous draftsmanship, his love of place (in this case, the rocky outcrop of Montmajour) and his passing allusions to religion (the Benedictine abbey at Montmajour is in the background). It is high summer in this painting, and it’s high summer here. However, all the color sense in the world wouldn’t have made this painting successful had Van Gogh not trained himself to draw perfectly.

Join me in October, 2013 at Lakewatch Manor—which is selling out fast—or let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in 2014. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

Le pont de Narni, 1826

This week I’m on the road. I’ve left you with six landscape paintings that should be on everyone’s Top Ten list, but probably aren’t (for the simple reason that there are way too many great paintings out there).
Le pont de Narni, 1826, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, oil on paper, the Louvre.
This oil sketch, done on site in Italy when Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot was thirty, could have been done by a 20th century California realist, or in fact been done today. 
While the Impressionists are generally credited with inventing plein airpainting, Corot was doing it decades earlier. Unlike the Impressionists, he was mixing his colors, and he didn’t have access to the full gamut of pigments they did.

Join me in October, 2013 at Lakewatch Manor—which is selling out fast—or let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in 2014. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

Beamsville, 1919

This week I’m on the road. I’ve left you with six landscape paintings that should be on everyone’s Top Ten list, but probably aren’t (for the simple reason that there are way too many great paintings out there).
Beamsville, 1919, Frank Johnston

Landscape painting and war art are closely tied. In 1919, Frank Johnston (later a Canadian Group of Seven painter) did this aerial view of a training exercise over Beamsville, Ontario, which is between St. Catharines and Hamilton.

Johnston spent five days painting at the School of Aerial Fighting at Beamsville. Having flown into Buffalo  many times, I know that the aerial view here is exactly what Johnston painted. How did he do that when flight was so rare, and cameras were so slow? I imagine he went up in the air in one of those Sopwith Camels and sketched, but I don’t really know for sure.
Join me in October, 2013 at Lakewatch Manor—which is selling out fast—or let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in 2014. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

A world without art is a world without common culture

Yesterday I railed about the educational establishment, which practices intellectual gavage on our children at the expense of creativity. Perhaps they should remember that all, or nearly all, of the unifying icons of the American experience were created by artists.

Daniel Chester French’s colossal Lincoln in Washington’s Lincoln Memorial

Daniel Chester French’s name is not widely known today, but a century ago he was one of America’s most prolific and popular sculptors. His most famous work is the colossal statue of Abraham Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, completed in 1920.

The National Mall sees about 24 million visitors a year, and the Lincoln Memorial is the most-visited of its presidential monuments.

The strangest thing about it, though, is the quiet that descends over the tourists who climb the wide sweeping stairway and step into the cool of the marble chamber. Before long their attention is drawn to one or both of the two Lincoln speeches etched in the walls on either side of the famous statue. After all this time I am still astonished at the number of visitors who stand still to read, on one stone panel, the Gettysburg Address, and, on the other, Lincoln’s second inaugural address.

What they’re reading is a summary of the American experiment, expressed in the finest prose any American has been capable of writing. One speech reaffirms that the country was founded upon and dedicated to a proposition—a universal truth that applies to all men everywhere. The other declares that the survival of the country is somehow bound up with the survival of the proposition—that if the country hadn’t survived, the proposition itself might have been lost. Sometimes the tourists tear up as they read; they tear up often, actually. And watching them you understand: Loving Lincoln, for Americans, is a way of loving their country. –Andrew Ferguson, author of Land of Lincoln

There is a legend that Lincoln’s hands are positioned to form his initials in American Sign Language. (French’s son was deaf.) This may or may not be true, but the story points out that, even 150 years after his death, we each feel a special affinity to Lincoln.
Detail of Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ Robert Gould Shaw Memorial, Boston, MA
 Augustus Saint-Gaudens worked on his Robert Gould Shaw Memorial, now in Boston Commons, for 14 years. Although it officially commemorates Col. Shaw, the monument is in fact a portrait of both him and the black soldiers who served under him in the 54thMassachusetts (Colored) Volunteer Infantry Regiment.

On July 18, 1863, almost half of the 54th Massachusetts were killed, wounded or captured in an assault on Ft. Wagner in South Carolina. Col. Shaw—a newlywed 25-year-old—was among the dead. The fort’s defenders said his body had been dumped in a mass grave “with his niggers.” It was meant to humiliate, but Shaw’s father publicly said that he considered it the highest honor that Shaw was buried with his men.

The frieze captures Shaw and his men marching out of Boston and into eternity. We are at street-side, watching a parade; we understand that this line of soldiers extends both in front and behind the narrow frame.

Joshua Benton Smith, a veteran of the 54th Massachusetts, conceived of the memorial to “commemorate the great event… by which the title of colored men as citizen-soldiers was fixed beyond recall.” Today hundreds of thousands of people walk Boston’s Black History Trail each year and see Saint-Gaudens’ memorial.
Maya Lin’s plan for the Vietnam Memorial. I am awed by the people who recognized the genius in it.

Maya Lin was a 21-year-old architecture student when her design was selected for the Vietnam Memorial in Washington. Her design submission was highly controversial, with great public outcry against its nihilism and austerity.

Photos don’t do the Memorial justice, since it is experienced spatially rather than viewed like sculpture. One descends into the earth to honor the dead, and one generally shares this experience with others who are experiencing real, not abstract, grief for the war’s dead.

The Vietnam Memorial has since become a much-loved public shrine. There have been at least six different portable copies and three fixed copies of the Vietnam memorial.
It’s important to remember that all three artists were trained artists. (Lin, the “greenest” of them, was halfway through her schooling and the daughter of the dean of Ohio University’s College of Fine Arts.) Do you think artists of their caliber could be made under an educational system that penalizes students for not meeting unreal standards by depriving them of art enrichment?

Society may have forgotten the importance of art education, but we haven’t! Join me in October, 2013 at Lakewatch Manor—which is selling out fast—or let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in 2014. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!