Painting the absurd

Still life by Sandy Quang. About 18X24, oil on canvas.
I’ve had several students painting and drawing a sprawling still life over the last few weeks. Sandy Quang has done a bang-up job with it.
Sandy has a BFA from Pratt and is finishing her MA from Hunter College, so I must share some credit for teaching her. However, she has studied with me since she was in high school. She is just now coming into maturity as a painter.
The still-life set-up includes an Altoids box, wallpaper brush, bust of Pericles, Golliwog, phone receiver, hatbox, beads, plastic reindeer, lace mantilla, and two ugly silk flowers. They were chosen so that students couldn’t fall back on narrative, historical patina, or folksy allure as crutches.
Her first draft was a funny idea—juxtaposing the Golliwog and bust of Pericles—but a mediocre composition. I included it here to remind people that even good painters mess up regularly. The difference between good and great is returning to the subject until you get it right.
Sandy’s first draft, juxtaposing the Golliwog and bust of Pericles, was a good idea but a bad composition, so she jettisoned it.
Take the time to consider why her final painting works, because it is instructive. The objects themselves don’t have any narrative, historical patina, or folksy allure to use as crutches (which is why I chose them). She treats the painting not as a series of items but as a pattern on the surface of the canvas. It works as a value pattern and as a color pattern. Her drawing is very accurate. She doesn’t get hung up on the details, but she does include the over-the-top sparkles on the reindeer’s back.
A careful comparison of an earlier iteration with the finished painting shows you her extensive redrawing, until the finished work was simplified but accurate. Every brush-stroke should be toward the goal of greater accuracy.
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!

I do love me a good conspiracy theory

January, from the fresco cycle Cycle of the Months by the Bohemian master Venceslao, c. 1400, in Trento.
A Facebook friend posted a photo of a snowball he’d attempted to melt with a lighter. Turns out he was responding to a conspiracy theory that the stuff that fell over Atlanta wasn’t real snow. (It’s pretty exhaustively debunked here.)
Trying to burn snow must be a southern thing. I’ve lived in snow country all my life, and it’s never occurred to me to take a lighter to the stuff. Here in the north, we know snow mainly goes away by sublimationor compression.
Winter, from the fresco cycle Allegories of good and bad government by Ambrogio Lorenzetti, 1338 – 1340, in Sienna, Italy.
Some Atlantans said the snow didn’t look “normal.” Up here in Rochester, we see too many kinds of solid precipitation to expect any consistency in snow texture: hoarfrost, graupel, needles, rime, powder, sleet, slush, and more.
Still, it isn’t typical for storm after storm to batter the mid-Atlantic region while holding the northern interior in deep freeze. A schoolteacher in Wilmington, DE tells me her students have had ten snow days so far this year.
The Frozen Thames, 1677, Abraham Hondius
The Little Ice Age was a period of cooling from about 1350 to 1850 (or, depending on whom you’re asking, from the fifteenth to the 19th century). The population of Iceland fell by half. The Norse colonies in Greenland starved and vanished.
The Thames froze so solidly that frost fairs were regularly held on its ice from 1607 to 1814. The Golden Horn and southern Bosporus froze. In the winter of 1780, New York Harbor froze, and “Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death” (1816) caused summertime frosts all over the northern hemisphere and resulted in widespread famine and death.
This century’s normal might just be last century’s freak snowstorm. But normal shouldn’t include arresting people for throwing snowballs. Art history tells us we’ve been doing that for as long as there’s been snow.

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!

This is just the coolest thing

Sometimes the coolest art is made by engineers. Consider the giant morphing wall at the entrance to Olympic Park in Sochi.

The designers originally designed the wall to add realistic color, but found that too creepy. 

“It looked like a giant was there. I mean, it was really scary,” said Khan.
The wall was designed by Briton Asif Khan and Basel-based engineering firm iart for Megafon, one of the games’ sponsors. Visitors can have their likeness captured at one of seven photo booths in the park. The booths generate a 3D facial image, which is then rendered using 11,000 lighted pistons. The visitors then get a QR code that lets them know when their faces will be projected.

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!

What is the lesson here?

Underpainting of lime tailings in Rockport. I was a little confused about what I intended to do with those rocks at the bottom; that’s the problem with having your work so rudely interrupted.
Every day I get up wondering how much I can work. It’s been a stop-and-start recovery, and I haven’t enjoyed my enforced inertia.
So perhaps that’s lesson #1: revel in the opportunity to work, because you don’t know when it will be taken away from you again.
It’s an amazing feeling to not be able to open a can of paint, lift anything much heavier than your brush, or adjust your easel. I couldn’t be painting at all if Sandy weren’t doing all the heavy lifting.
I have a show opening on March 24 at Roberts Wesleyan College, and these large works are what I want to show. Back in December the gallery director gave me a chance to opt out and I didn’t take it; I was certain I could meet my commitment. At the time, it seemed like this was a cut-and-recover cancer.
So I’m doing something I’ve never done before: letting my studio assistant (the wonderful Sandy Quang) do some of my gridding. After all, why train a wonderful painter if you don’t let her paint? I realize this is historically acceptable, and you will never see her brushstrokes, but it’s still taken me a lot to let someone else touch my canvases.
Sandy gridding. The kid sure can paint. I take credit for it, of course, but I have to admit Pratt probably had some part to play.
So that’s lesson #2 of this round of cancer: stop being such a control freak.
A visitor to my studio saw the red peeking out from the snow in an underpainting and said, “I kind of like that. It looks like your recent past.” That has gotten me thinking that I won’t polish these paintings to death.
So that’s lesson #3: I don’t need to overwork everything in life.
And me, in a rolling office chair, actually painting. Maybe next week I can work standing for a little bit at a time.
Lastly, I’m kind of amazed at how rough things are around the edges right now. Mostly these are minor things like shoveling the walk or sweeping the floors. (I can’t bend or lift at all.) I’ve spent so many years acknowledging that my husband is unique because he does so much housework and makes it possible for me to travel that I’ve come to see myself as superfluous to my own life.
And that’s lesson #4: Son-of-a-gun! I am actually useful.

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!

When the Olympics included artists

The Charioteer at Delphi was erected in 478 or 474 BC, to commemorate the victory of a chariot team in the Pythian Games (a forerunner of the modern Olympic Games).
The arts were part of the modern Olympic Games during its formative years. From 1912 to 1948, medals were awarded sporadically in architecture, literature, music, painting, and sculpture. The problem wasn’t so much in the attitude of the Olympic Committee but that of artists, who are not nearly as inclined as athletes to embrace amateurism. Artists may not make much money in their lifetimes, but they jealously protect the right to do so.
The International Olympic Committee was founded in 1894 under the aegis of Pierre de FrĂ©dy, Baron de Coubertin. An educator and historian, Coubertin was himself the son of a LĂ©gion d’honneur-winning painter. He himself went on to win a gold medal at the 1912 Summer Olympics for a poem entitled Ode to Sport.
Rugby, by Jean Jacoby was an award winning drawing in the 1928 Olympic art competitions.
In 1906, the Olympic Committee decided to add art competitions; the primary mandate was that the work had to be inspired by sport.
A series of snafus delayed implementation until the 1912 Summer Olympics in Stockholm. Only 35 artists sent work, but they managed to award gold medals in all five categories.
The 1924 Summer Olympics in Paris were the first games in which a respectable number of artists participated; 193 artists submitted works. There were 1,100 visual works submitted to the Amsterdam Olympics in 1928. Participation in the arts competitions remained stable until after WWII, when the conflict over professional vs. amateur status again reared its ugly head. The art competitions were a dead letter after 1948.
Alfred Reginald Thomson’s The London Amateur Boxing Championship Held at the Royal Albert Hall won the last gold medal for painting, in 1948.
The essential incompatibility between the Olympics and the fine arts is apparent in retrospect: no major art figure from the period ever won a medal at the Olympic Games. Perhaps the closest were the British painter Alfred Thomson and the Czech violinist Josef Suk, whose category was made more difficult because judges had to content themselves with reading written scores. (In fact, nobody cared enough to even publicly perform the award-winners at the Games.)

George Bellows (arguably the best painter of boxing ever) painted Dempsey and Firpo in 1924. It was not an Olympic committee contender; Bellows was a professional, not an amateur.

The guy who gets to the end first wins the race; that’s a purely objective thing. Performances, like ice dancing or gymnastics, are somewhat more subjective but still conform to stated rules. Art does nothing of the kind.

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!

We’ve arrived!

New York, 1911, by George Bellows
Until recently, the National Gallery in London considered its purview to be European painting of the 13th through 19thcenturies. One has to smile at its recent decision to finally acknowledge America’s coming of age as an artistic powerhouse. It has done so by the acquisition of a 20th century painting, Men of the Docks, by George Bellows.
That the National Gallery considers Bellows to be the iconic American painter is peculiar, considering we are also the nation that produced Cole, Church, Whistler, Sargent, Hopper, Copley, Homer, Prendergast, Rockwell, Glackens, the Wyeths, and so many other indisputable greats.
Blue Snow, the Battery, 1910, by George Bellows. Bellows was exploring the tension between the natural and built world in his New York snow paintings.
“Bellows has almost always been seen in the context of American painting, but the way he painted owed much to Manet, and his depiction of the violence and victims of New York derived from Goya and earlier Spanish art,” said gallery director Dr. Nicholas Penny.
Ah. America seen through the lens of violence and victimhood. While that is a narrow view of America, it is also a narrow view of Bellows.
Cliff Dwellers, 1913, by George Bellows.
Bellows’ urban paintings depict the energy and chaos of working-class New York. His boxing paintings are undeniably violent, but there is no particular victimhood there—rather, there is brute power. Nor is there any overt victimhood in the slums of New York or in his shipbuilding scenes. Americans of the time saw tenements and hard work as opportunity rather than oppression.
Builders of Ships / The Rope, 1916, by George Bellows.
Bellows was associated with a group of radical artists and activists called “the Lyrical Left.” This group, which included the photographer Alfred Stieglitz, was not leftist in the modern sense of the word. Rather, they advocated an extreme idea of personal liberties, tending toward anarchism.  While Bellows contributed work to socialist publications, he was frequently at odds with their editorial staff.
In 1918, he did five large oils and 16 lithographs about atrocities against civilians by the German army at the beginning of World War I. These works—rather than his New York scenes—most explicitly quote Goya.
Breaking Sky, Monhegan, 1916, by George Bellows. My workshop students ought to recognize this view.
Yes, he focused on the grime of urban living and on social commentary, but he also painted untouched expanses of snow, shipbuilding in New England, and the pounding of waves on the rocks at Monhegan and Matinicus.

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!

How to Draw a Tree (for Sandy)

Along the Bridle Path, by little ol’ me. Early spring in a place I used to ride, a long time ago.
We tend to see trees as silhouettes instead of three-dimensional objects. This is because the branches that move toward us in space become smaller as they get closer, obviating the primary visual clue of perspective—that things are bigger the closer they are to us. The trick to drawing a tree is to see it as a three-dimensional shape rather than a silhouette.
Here are some common 3-D solid shapes that you can recognize in nature, in the human form, and in architecture. Often, the crown of a tree conforms to one of these shapes, or a combination of these shapes.
Learning to see common shapes in nature will advance your drawing chops.
When the hidden lines are shown, as below, these are called “wireframe” renderings. Being able to interpolate the hidden lines of shapes is an important part of perspective drawing.
Rendering those shapes as wireframe drawings will help you see the perspective.
The woody parts of plants are essentially tubes constructed of xylem (wood) which moves water. These tubes are covered with phloem (bark) which carries sucrose.
Since we know that a tree is a system of tubes, we realize that the cylinder is the fundamental wireframe shape we encounter in drawing it. I have taken this handsome white oak and rendered it as a series of cylinders:
A beautiful old white oak in Nassau, Rensselaer County, New York. How do I know it’s a white oak? By its branching pattern, its crown, its bark, its leaves, and the fact that it’s on the grounds of the now-defunct Camp White Oaks.
Drawing it as a series of tubes allows you to render it in three dimensions rather than as a silhouette.
The white oak above, rendered as a wire-frame drawing of tubes stacked on tubes. I do this every time I draw or paint a portrait of a tree.
We can identify the species of a distant tree from the shape of its crown (which is also three-dimensional), the texture of its bark, and its branching pattern. Paying careful attention to these attributes will make your trees more realistic.

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!


Canoeing with Shirley and Carol at Adirondack workshop. Life can’t all be fun and games.
I set out this morning to write something deep and serious, but events overtook me. (It’s a temporarily rocky road I’m on.)
Sue and Brad painting in my front garden during roses-and-peony season.
What I really want is to think about painting outdoors in the summer, so here are some scenes from previous seasons. I’ve painted at 10°F—indeed, I’ve painted at 0°F—but not this year.
These are just a small sample of the many people I’ve been privileged to paint with and/or teach over the year, but just looking at good weather and good company reminds me that Spring is—indeed—right around the corner.
Teressa at the swing bridge, Rochester side.
Catherine in my garden.

Kamillah at Lock 32 on the Erie Canal.
Jake and Sam at the Pont de Rennes bridge in downtown Rochester. Can you tell they’re related?
Cindy at her own farm.
Painting on the porch at the Irondequoit Inn.
Quick draw on the floating dock at Camden.

Nancy, Matt and Pamela painting on Monhegan.
Shirley painting at Owl’s Head Light.

A break with Lynne and John at Owl’s Head, ME.
Resting on the Monhegan ferry.
Break time at Camden harbor.
Matt in Highland Park in Rochester.
Painting with Brad at Rye.
Garrett at Port Clyde, ME.

And Kamillah freezing in a late Spring snowstorm in the Adirondacks. A good place to finish this up!
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!


Among the missing: Vincent van Gogh’s Vincent on his way to work / The painter on his way to Tarascon, Property of Kulturhistorisches Museum in Magdeburg, Germany (formerly the Kaiser-Friedrich Museum). Missing from the Stassfurt salt mines art repository near Magdeburg, Germany, on April 12, 1945.
When I was doing art festivals, I never worked very hard to secure the inventory. Most other painters took the same approach. While jewelers and other craftsmen sometimes had things stolen, paintings were immune. Most working artists sell paintings to people who have an emotional response to their work, and that’s something that would be blunted if the work in question were acquired dishonestly. Artwork at this level hasn’t been commodified in the same way that collectible masterworks are.
Among the missing: Emil Nolde’s Red Poppies. Purchased for Sl. Dr. Koch, documented on artist’s list (“Purchaser List”). Lost at Hamburg harbor (Ăśberseehafen) in 1939. Painting appeared again in the 1980s and went from a northern Germany collection into a North German Gallery (Kiel or Hamburg?), and after not selling at auction was sold through the Austrian art market (Salzburg) to an unknown purchaser.
That’s vastly different from one of the main moral dilemmas facing our age: the problem of repatriating paintings stolen by the Nazis. Today’s announcementby Federal officials that an eighteenth century painting has been returned to Poland was timed to coincide with the release of George Clooney’s The Monuments Men.
“If members of the American public question the provenance of cultural objects from World War Two in their possession, they are urged to call Homeland Security Investigations,” said Nicole Navas, a spokeswoman for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Right. The bald fact is that, sixty years after the fact, most Nazi loot is returned only reluctantly.
Among the missing: Claude Monet’s Manet painting in Monet’s Garden, Property of Martha and Max Liebermann Collection. Bought by Max Liebermann in France in 1898; visible in a photo hanging in the salon of his Berlin apartment at Pariser Platz, in 1932. It remained in the possession of Liebermann’s widow Martha until it was confiscated and sold in Berlin in 1943.
The Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg or ERR was dedicated to stealing cultural property from subdued nations, Jews in particular. It managed to steal 20% of the known art in Europe, operating in France, Belarus, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Greece, Italy, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Ukraine and the Baltic states.
A vast amount of that was recovered immediately post-war; however, there are still hundreds of thousands of items that have never been returned to their rightful owners (or their descendants, since those owners are mostly now dead).
Among the missing: Raphael’s Portrait of a Young Man. Property of The Czartoryski Museum in Krakow, Poland. Confiscated by Nazi officials in September 1939 for Hitler’s FĂĽhrermuseum, Linz, Austria. Last seen in Dr. Hans Frank’s chalet in Neuhaus on Lake Schliersee, Germany, in January 1945.
Somewhere there is a rich collector who goes to his basement vault to revel in possessing the spectacular haul from the never-solved Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist of 1990. That person is pretty twisted. But the unrecovered Nazi loot is far, far worse, in part because of its scale. There are hundreds or even thousands of people out there holding on to it. They eat off silver and crystal in dining rooms graced with paintings that were bought and paid for with the blood of millions of genocide victims. That’s beyond simple theft; that’s absolute perversion of the soul.

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!

Painter of the Running Stream

At Quimperle, 1901, Fritz Thaulow. 
Where I could plan around expected surgery, an unexpected hospitalization left me unprepared, and I haven’t had anything for you the last few days. Sorry about that.
I’d say you have to get up pretty early in the morning to find a painter I’m not familiar with. It figures, then, that a British friend—five hours ahead of us—would come up with one: Fritz Thaulow.
Alkejegeren, 1892, Fritz Thaulow. It was the ripple pattern from the oars in this painting that first caught my attention.
Johan Frederik “Fritz” Thaulow was a Norwegian impressionist who specialized in painting water. He was one of the earliest of the Skagen Painters, a group of artists who gathered in Skagen in the last decades of the 19th century. Skagen, in northernmost Denmark, was a summer holiday destination. Its scenery and quality of light attracted artists to paint using the plein air method of the French impressionists. Its fishing industry attracted them to paint social realism in the style of the Barbizon painters.
A Factory Building near an Icy River in Winter, pastel, 1902, Fritz Thaulow. 
In 1892, Thaulow moved to France, where he lived until his death in 1906. By that time, Thaulow was well-known in America. “He was the painter of the running stream, of the effects of light upon the snow, of the twilight that suggests more than it reveals and softens and etherealizes what it clothes,” F.E. Grant wrote in requiem.
On a French River, 1893, Fritz Thaulow. He was the painter of the running stream, indeed.
I understand the impulse to relocate to the center of the known art world, since I live on the periphery of the New York art scene. But I’ve also wondered why the art world is so centered on certain places—Paris and San Francisco and London and New York—that great painters from elsewhere end up as historical footnotes. Australia’s David Davies and the rest of the Heidelberg School, for example, are fundamentally unknown in the United States, and undervalued as well.

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!