Snow Day!

Winter comes from the Arctic to the Temperate Zone, 1935, Lawren Harris
One snow day is perfect: a surprise, a gift from nature, a moment out of time. More than that, and it gets tiresome, the kids start squabbling, and everyone feels housebound. 
Our visit from the so-called Polar Vortex this week was perfectly timed. This is an old friend gussied up with a new name. In my youth, we just said the arctic air was dipping down from Canada. In Winter comes from the Arctic to the Temperate Zone, above, Lawren Harris painted exactly that phenomenon. As a native of Brantford, Ontario he would have been very familiar with it.
Winter Landscape with Pink House, 1918, Lawren Harris
Lawren Harris was the scion of a family of wealthy industrialists—after mergers and acquisitions, his family business comes down to us as part of the Massey Ferguson Company. Because of this, he could be the silent supporter of his other Group of Seven painters. With Dr. James MacCallum, he financed the group’s studio building in Toronto.
Pine Tree and Red house, Winter City, 1924, Lawren Harris
But Harris was no wealthy dilettante. Of the Group of Seven, he traveled the farthest in his search to represent the Great White North, from an Art Nouveau-inspired realism in the teens and twenties to complete abstraction at the end of his career.
Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

Even failures are not a waste of time

Can’t quite cope with that diagonal bisecting the picture, but I’ll try again.
When I do a drawing like this, I try to remind myself that even failures are not a waste of time, because one needs to pass through the problem to arrive at the solution.
How I managed to convert the lovely diagonal arrow in my sketch into the overwhelming bisecting diagonal in my drawing, I don’t know. But this is the most difficult of the sketches on my list, and I will repeat it tomorrow and wrestle it into submission.
It worked so much better in the sketch.
Midcoast Maine is full of limestone deposits, probably laid down as seashells. When limestone is burned, the carbon-dioxide burns off and quicklime is left. This is an enormously useful material, used to make plaster, paper, mortar, concrete, fertilizer, leather, glue, paint, and glass.
By 1828, there were 60 lime kilns in Midcoast Maine. By the Civil War, the region was producing more than a million casks of lime a year. It helped that Midcoast Maine is heavily forested, fueling the kilns and building the casks used to move the lime to market.
Quicklime had one big problem for the age of wooden ships: if it gets wet it catches on fire.
The master needed a keen sense of smell. The odor of lime being slaked by water was an ominous danger signal… Every crack and crevice through which air might get into the hold and the doors, ports, and smokestack were quickly sealed with plaster made from the lime. Then the craft was headed for the nearest harbor and anchored some distance from the shore and away from other vessels. For at any time she might burst into flames. The schooner was stripped of all movables and the captain and crew sat down to await developments. Sometimes three months would go by before their patience was rewarded and the vessel saved. If, however, the fire could not be smothered, the vessel was towed to some secluded place and scuttled.(W.H. Rowe, The Maritime History of Maine)

Lime tailings on the Goose River at Rockport, ME
A devastating fire in 1907 put the final spoke in Rockport’s lime industry, but the ruined lime kilns are still there. More than a hundred years later, great piles of lime tailings are still visible along the banks of the Goose River. Nature slowly attempts to cover this wound, but it is a slow process.
Uninterested as I was in wading across the Goose River or trespassing on private property, I was unable to photograph the lime tailings at an easy angle for drawing. But I think adjusting that diagonal will suffice to fix compositional problem, and the painting will work just fine.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

The genius isn’t inside the camera

An artist drawing a seated man onto a plane of glass through a sight-vane, from the fourth book of Albrecht Dürer’s Four Books on Measurement.
Last month, a number of people sent me Vanity Fair’s pieceon engineer Tim Jenison’s painstakingly-complex recreation of Johannes Vermeer’s The Music Lesson. Jenison faithfully built the room and objects depicted in the painting, and then repainted the scene using a version of a camera obscura. In the end, he discovered what any freshman art history student could have told him: yes, it’s possible that Vermeer used a camera obscura. He’d have hardly been alone.
Sir Robert Hooke’s portable drawing machine should be familiar (in concept) to any of my plein air painting students. There is nothing new under the sun.
The peculiar properties of the pinhole camera were known and described in antiquity from Greece to China. In the west, the principles behind it were analyzed and described by the eleventh century Arab scientist, Ibn al-Haytham. In the 13th century, Roger Bacon described the use of a camera obscura to watch solar eclipses. Leonardo da Vinci puttered with one, and even came up with a proto-telescope based on it:
…in order to observe the nature of the planets, open the roof and bring the image of a single planet onto the base of a concave mirror. The image of the planet reflected by the base will show the surface of the planet much magnified.
Above, A man drawing a can, and below, A man drawing a recumbent woman, in foreshortening through a frame with a network of squares on to a paper also with squares, in order to be able to reduce or enlarge proportionally, both from the fourth book of Albrecht Dürer’s Four Books on Measurement.
Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446), sculptor, architect, artist and engineer, is generally (and perhaps falsely) credited with the invention of linear perspective in art. He also created a device to demonstrate that perspective, which we call Brunelleschi’s peepshow, but which is in fact a version of a camera obscura:
“[He] had made a hole in the panel on which there was this painting; … which hole was as small as a lentil on the painting side of the panel, and on the back it opened pyramidally, like a woman’s straw hat, to the size of a ducat or a little more. And he wished the eye to be placed at the back, where it was large, by whoever had it to see, with the one hand bringing it close to the eye, and with the other holding a mirror opposite, so that there the painting came to be reflected back; … which on being seen, … it seemed as if the real thing was seen: I have had the painting in my hand and have seen it many times in these days, so I can give testimony. (Antonio di Tuccio Manetti)
A Man Drawing a Lute, from the fourth book of Albrecht Dürer’s Four Books on Measurement. 
Albrecht Dürer was not a visionary in the manner of Leonardo, but he was peerless in investigating and recording his experiments. Several woodcuts of drawing aids come down to us from him, so we know he used them. Nevertheless, using a camera obscurawas not the only thing he could do; the man could draw brilliantly. Very few living artists today could duplicate his Young Hare or Large Piece of Turf, neither of which relied on optical tools.
Courtyard of the Former Castle in Innsbruck without Clouds, 1494, Albrecht Durer. Was it done with a drawing device? Perhaps. Does that make it less brilliant? I don’t think so.
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether Vermeer used an optical device. That’s the one thing Tim Jenison’s experiment proves. It’s ultimately nothing more than a fair copy of a masterpiece, such as art students churn out every day. Vermeer’s incalculable genius is safely his own.
Artists used the camera obscura until the development of photography made it obsolete. Here are four camera obscura drawings by Canaletto from the early 18th century.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

Something sketchy

Sketch for painting, 9X12, #2 pencil on vellum.
Having assembled my reference photos for my upcoming project, it is time to do something with them. I am still only good for about three hours of work a day, but I mean to take advantage of those hours. 
The apple tree was an icon in our neighborhood, a gnarled old thing that produced bushels of delicious fruit. Years ago, the homeowner told me I could pick any apples I wanted. He is gone now, and one frigid day earlier this month we awoke to the whine of chainsaws. The first casualty was this tree, whose grace would not be apparent to someone looking for conventional suburban plantings of juniper and euonymus planted in unyielding 3-5-7 formations.
I took a single photo for my own sentimental reasons, never intended to paint it. However, my husband pointed out that it dovetailed with my current project. I had cropped my snapshot, and so my sketch was largely about imagining a different composition as well as thinking about what might have been outside the frame. To this purpose I added two other reference pictures: the orchard photo I posted Friday and a shot of a dead tree I found on the internet.
My initial sketch. That big ugly line across the bottom is my crop.
I quartered my original sketch and loosely gridded it onto my drawing vellum. To me this is the most important point: that you transcribe the big shapes from your sketch and not from a photo, unless you’re just intending to transcribe a photo (in which case you can skip this step and move directly to gridding on a canvas).
Once the large shapes were in place, I flipped between my three reference photos, adding details and allowing the movement of the final composition to emerge in its own time.
The shapes are positioned not from the photograph, but from the above sketch. At this point the diagonals of the composition are attempting to assert themselves.
I will set this drawing aside and repeat those steps for each of the paintings I intend to do. Partly this is about allowing my ideas to mature outside my consciousness. Partly it has to do with avoiding yanking my easel around so soon after surgery. When I’m done drawing (hopefully at the end of this week) I can proceed to making small oil studies of the finished paintings.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

A great day to work from photos

Headwaters of the Hudson (Lake Tear of the Clouds), 40X30, Oil on Canvas (Private Collection).
I haven’t (surprise, surprise) bounced back quite as quickly as I expected, but I did manage to do some sketching while loitering in the hospital. Yesterday I catalogued reference photos that I need for my current project, in the hope that today I can start making tightened drawings.
Why sketch first? I don’t like working from photos in the first place, but for certain projects, there is no other way. I certainly don’t want my photos to drive my paintings. It’s best for me to seek out the composition on my own, and then find the details and plug them in. The last thing we want is to be slavishly realistic.
Canoe floating in the tide off Moose Island, ME. I’ve used this canoe in two different paintings. I cropped this version of the photo to match my overall composition, above. (Photo my own.)
A good reference picture is not necessarily a good photo. A great photo is almost never a good reference picture. The purpose of a reference photo is not to make your composition, lighting, and color decisions for you, but to provide you the information you need to make them in paint.
I have tens of thousands of snapshots on my server, archived by where and when they were taken. But imagine, for a second, an image of rolling surf. I‘ve taken many of them, but was the right one on the Great Coast Road in Victoria, Australia, at Sandy Hook in New Jersey, or at Port Clyde in Maine? Nothing for it but to search every folder for the image I want.
Apple orchard in Orleans County, NY. The fallow apple trees will play a bit role in the painting I’ve planned, so why kill myself over their composition? (Photo my own.)
When I take reference pictures I make a point of shooting far more peripheral material than I would for an artistic shot. This is because I’ve outsmarted myself too many times by cropping out essential information in the viewfinder. Go ahead and crop in Photoshop when you’re ready, but more overall information, not more detail, is generally what you’re looking for.
Sometimes you see something in someone else’s photo that makes you understand the physics driving your painting. This river snag, far distance, will inform a painting I’m working on right now. It was taken by Joe Wagner of Rochester and I saw it on Facebook. Where else?
The light in Rochester is frequently very dim, as we live in the shadow of a great rain cloud that hovers over Lake Ontario much of the year. That flat light can be really boring in a painting. On the other hand, you’re never stuck fighting a lighting source that doesn’t work.

And, yes, I google images.Some ideas are things I have seen in life but have never photographed—as with the Northern Lights, which appear here frequently enough but which I’ve never caught in a photo. Some I’ve photographed, but my reservoir of pictures isn’t sufficient. I keep these pictures as background information. The last thing I want to do is copy someone else’s artistic ideas.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

Someone’s creeping on me.

The painting that appears in Buck Rack Lake, now in the private collection of novelist Jay Giess. By little ol’ me, of course.
Last month I was given a copy of Jay Giess’ new novel, Buck Rack Lake. It was inscribed “For Carol: see page 22, enjoy! Jay Giess.” I dutifully turned to page 22
This opening scene is set in a modern version of an Adirondack Great Camp. A guest is speaking: “‘None of us would be sitting here in this room,’ he motioned with his right hand in an arc, pointing to the bookshelves, the windows crafted out of native oak, and the landscape by Carol L. Douglas, “if we didn’t take risks. But there are good risks and there are bad risks. And this, I’m sorry to say, is a very bad risk.”
Back before Jay gave up cubicle dwelling for the writer’s life, he collected art. Among the paintings in his house are several by yours truly. So I was amused but not totally shocked to see my work mentioned. (Perhaps he wanted to prop up the value of his investment.)
Beaver dam along the road to the camp where my son went; any resemblance is strictly coincidental, of course, because they all say they are trying to make ‘real men’ out of our boys. By little ol’ me, of course.
I’ve got a fair amount of experience painting alone on rickety bridges or along lonesome trails in the Adirondack preserve and other back-of-beyond locations. Many painters won’t do it, but I figure the risk is actually almost nil. But in the back of every solitary plein air painter’s mind is the realization that it would take only one lunatic to end an otherwise pleasant career. I tell myself the possibility is remote, but it somehow all seems more plausible when one is alone in a deserted mountain camp in the dead of winter, or the light suddenly fails along a lonely trail.
View of the lake from the hostelry where I taught in the Adirondacks. Now in a private collection. By little ol’ me, of course.
I never should have taken Buck Rack Lake to the hospital; it was just a little too scary and a little too familiar for a person quaffing narcotics. A beautiful, solitary hostelry on the edge of an Adirondack lake, furnished with Stickley antiques—didn’t I just teach there a few years ago? A boys’ camp where the parents are discouraged from contacting their son while they do survivalist field trips—didn’t my kid go there for years? Gravel roads leading to clapped out summer camps that might hide neo-Nazis or other species of lunatic—I can point you to any number of them. One of the characters even has the same French surname as my son-in-law.
And then I got to the end and laughed aloud. A wealthy woman from Rye (and I paint there every year, too) is killing time in the room mentioned above. “She looked at the painting over her right shoulder. It was an image of a river flowing out of the mountains, a very pleasant blend of blues, oranges and greens. She noted the name. I’m going to have to find out more about this Douglas artist, she said to herself. Then she grabbed a copy of Adirondack Life from the coffee table and pretended to read.”
I know that painting well, and now you do too; it’s at the top of this post. Jay’s wife bought it for him for a gift years ago.
Canoes play a big part in Buck Rack Lake; here are the ones from the secluded lakeside hostelry where I taught and painted. Also now in a private collection. By little ol’ me, of course.
For the record, I swear I haven’t talked to Jay in quite a while; it’s all just coincidence. But more than that, Buck Rack Lake is a fun read: tightly plotted and lots of local color for anyone who loves the Adirondacks. My copy is no longer a pristine, signed first-edition; I found it gripping, so I gripped. I hope you enjoy it, and when you get to the end, you can tell yourself you know exactly what that painting looks like.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

Happy New Year!

The Last of England, 1855, Ford Madox Brown

I pray that 2014 will be my year of long-sought escape from New York. (I’m not alone in this—New York barely holds its own in population, but the 52 counties outside the New York City area have been in a steady decline for decades. My home town of Buffalo is half the size it was the year I was born.)
Nothing could express my sentiments better than Ford Madox Brown’s iconic The Last of England, above. Brown was inspired by his close friend, the poet and sculptor Thomas Woolner, who was forced by financial difficulties to emigrate to Australia in July of 1852. This was the peak of emigration from England, with 350,000 people leaving each year. Brown was himself thinking of leaving for India with his young family. The painting seems to have been his way of working through the issue. It depicts Brown and his wife Emma, with their daughter, Catherine (the blonde child in the background) and their baby Oliver, visible only as a tiny hand emerging from the bundle in his mother’s arms.

Work, 1852-63, Ford Madox Brown

Leaving a place you love for a better opportunity is never a simple process. It combines loss and gain, fear and hope. Every potential émigré’s emotional conflicts are written on the faces in Brown’s painting, which is what makes it such an amazing and beloved work.

Brown never managed to emigrate, and although he is remembered as a great painter, he spent his life in a state of perpetual anxiety and financial insecurity. His anxiety only fed his financial problems, since it took him forever to finish anything.

Woolner only stayed in Australia for a short while, but while there he embarked on a lucrative career sculpting British imperial heroes. He was able to transplant that career back to his native England and was not only a successful sculptor and poet but an art dealer as well.
The Hayfield, 1855-56, Ford Madox Brown
Was Woolner’s audacity the result of his move, or the move the child of his audacity? We’ll never know until we try. I wish you all a very happy, audacious and fulfilling 2014.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!