What about Goya?

Who really invented abstraction? Everyone.
A dog engulfed in sand, 1819-1823, Francisco Goya, courtesy of Museo del Prado

A thoughtful reader sent me this essay yesterday, which nominates the Swedish painter Hilma af Klint, rather than Wassily Kandinsky, as the first practitioner of abstract art. Like Kandinsky, she was a follower of Madame Helena Blavatsky, occultist, spirit medium, and founder of Theosophy. Like Kandinsky, she believed her abstract paintings were, in fact, representations of spiritual ideas.

When I studied art back in the last millennium, the first abstract painting was attributed to the great Spanish romantic, Francisco Goya. The painting in question, now called A Dog Engulfed in Sand, or simply El Perro, was one of Goya’s so called ‘black paintings,’ from the end of his life. These are haunted works, reflecting Goya’s bitter disillusionment and fears.  He had lived through the terrible Napoleonic Wars and their political aftermath in Spain. He was elderly, nearly deaf, and had survived two brushes with death.
Seascape Study with Rain Cloud (Rainstorm over the Sea), 1824-28, John Constable, courtesy Royal Academy of Arts
Goya never intended El Perro or any of the other black paintings to be shown. By the 20th century, however, El Perro was famous. Pablo Picasso certainly knew it. Antonio Saura called it “the most beautiful picture in the world”. Rafael Canogar described it as the first symbolist painting of the West. The sculptor Pablo Serrano paid homage to it.
A study in pencil, ink, ink wash, brush and pen, for The Death of the Virgin, 1601-1606, Caravaggio
“The sleep of reason begets monsters,” wrote Goya about Los Caprichos. By the end of his life, the monsters were visiting him during the daytime, too.
Any meaning we ascribe to A Dog Engulfed in Sand comes from its title. That was added later, by art historians. None of the black paintings were titled. They were intensely private, painted as murals on his walls. And what a happy home that must have been.
The Monk by the Sea, c. 1808–1809, Caspar David Friedrich
At first sight, El Perro doesn’t seem to be a figurative painting at all. Two dominant blocks of color intersect. At that point a blob of grey paint, the face of a dog, represents all of Goya’s anguished humanity. We, the viewers, are being squashed between relentless forces.
“Abstraction” is a word Goya would not have understood, let alone used. But it is abstraction that gives El Perro its awful power.
Mountain market, clearing mist, Yu Jian, Song Dynasty, China
Many early artists used raw abstraction to work out ideas, or just to doodle, just as figurative painters still do today. I’ve included a few famous examples here, ranging from Caravaggio to Caspar David Friedrich. And that’s just in the western canon. In eastern art, the idea of the voidmeant that slavish adherence to representation was never a paramount virtue.

A love affair that’s ended

New York City is no longer the center of the known world for me. How did that happen?
Queensboro Bridge Approach, by Carol L. Douglas

My dream job, when I was young, was to be a cabbie in New York. That had nothing to do with going fast, and everything to do with being aggressive, and in being able to squeeze myself and my car through knot-holes.

I told this to Cornelia Foss one time, as we were scooting north along Madison Avenue. She shuddered. Now I realize that’s because she was older and wiser. (I wish I could take another class from her. At 86, she continues to break new ground as a painter.)
Today I live in a state where the locals, by and large, drive the speed limit and are polite. You’ll never get anywhere here in Maine by driving aggressively. Jump the queue and there will just be another slow-moving vehicle ahead.
Under the Queensboro Bridge, by Carol L. Douglas
This was a strange concept in driving, but I learned to embrace it. Now I roll down my windows and enter that quiet state of pokiness that drives the visitors crazy.
Last time I drove to Queens to meet my pal Brad Marshall, I found myself really irritated with New York drivers. That same exuberance that once goaded me to pass on the right, to joyously sound my horn for no reason, to budge into the box at intersections—it all just annoyed me. We had somewhere to go, and Brad offered to drive. Rare for me, I happily agreed.
In my youth, I said that I would stop going to New York if the vista crossing the George Washington Bridge failed to move me. I saw it a lot in my younger days. I commuted from Rochester to take classes at the Art Students League. I had a crash pad with my friend Peter, on the Upper West Side. We would take classes all day and then I would drive home to Rochester. Rinse and repeat. If I die young, it will be with the consolation that I lived my life very fast.
Underpass, by Carol L. Douglas
I voided that test by moving east. I no longer use the GW to get into the city. Instead, I come down through Massachusetts and Connecticut. There’s no astonishment along that route.
The first sign I was growing cynical about New York came a few years ago, when I met a Southerner for a weekend. She remarked, in passing, at how filthy the city is. That’s one of those things, like your aunt’s fascinating chin hair, that everyone sees but doesn’t mention. But once she commented on it, I began to see detritus everywhere.
I used to love to paint in the city. Now I understand that was the granite calling to me. Much of New York, Washington and Chicago are built of Maine granite. Somehow, I enjoy it more in its natural state.
Staples Street, by Carol L. Douglas
This morning I’m heading back down to Westchester County for Rye’s Painters on Location. Brad’s floating around in the North Atlantic somewhere, but he loaned me his flat. I’m on my own for both painting and driving. Luckily, Painters on Location is always a blast, and I’ll see lots of other friends there.
I still admire New York City, but I’ve met other art scenes that match my personality better. I’ll visit for a blockbuster show, or to see friends. But, as for it being the center of the known world, those days are, sadly, gone for me.

Empty Space

What do we really know about traditional Chinese art? It could inform our painting in exciting ways.

Lotus Flowers, After Zhang Lu, c. 1701, courtesy the British Museum.

 Until the Jesuits arrived in China at the end of the 16th century, western and eastern art traditions operated independently. Europeans prized certain of the minor arts—porcelain and silk—but had no interest in Chinese painting. In the 20th century, the influence ran mostly west-to-east. Only in the last few decades has the traffic reversed.

Chinese painting principles rest on the philosophical tradition of Taoism.  The Tao is an intuitive, experiential understanding of life. It emphasizes the weak over the strong, the feminine over the masculine, the water that wears down the rock, the space between things rather than the things themselves.
Taoism advocates “attaining the limit of empty space, retaining extreme stillness,” wrote the ancient Chinese philosopher Laozi. Space is the “fasting of the heart,” wrote Master Zhuang. Empty space is, in Taoism, “the beginning of the myriad things.” That makes it foundational.
A hanging scroll painted by Ma Lin on or before 1246. Ink and color on silk, courtesy National Palace Museum, Beijing.
Traditional Chinese painting treated empty space as solid space. “Knowing the white, retaining the black, it is the form of the world,” wrote Laozi.  White in Chinese painting signifies emptiness. Black means solidity. In Chinese calligraphy, empty space is called ‘designing the white’.
In Chinese art, empty space is expected to convey information through its very lack of imagery. The sizes and contours of the empty shapes create rhythm and unity. The solid shapes give meaning to the empty, and vice-versa.
Those empty spaces often represent cloud, mist, sky, water or smoke, depending on the cues in the solid forms surrounding them. Of course, those so-called empty spaces are full of life and action in real life as well. Chinese painting acknowledges this. That energy in the emptiness is called qi.
Loquats and Mountain Bird, Chinese painting, album leaf, colors on silk, courtesy National Palace Museum, Beijing.
Whenever I see disparate cultures reaching the same conclusion, I’m inclined to think it’s a soul tie of the deepest order. It’s interesting to ponder the relationship between qi and the Hebrew נִשְׁמַת חַיִּים (nishmat chayyim) or רוּחַ (ruach).
Without qi, empty space is the same as blank space. Qi is the principle of life in painting. If it’s not there, a painting will be lifeless. Qi comes from the artist’s soul. It is a result of the interaction between the artist and the object he or she is painting. When qi is still, a painting is tranquil; when qi moves, a painting is lively.
Making Farewells, Shen Zhou, 15th century, courtesy Shanghai Museum.
The 20th century murdered much of this tradition. Since the Chinese cultural revolution, artists have worked around Mao’s dictum that “art should serve the masses.” Traditional forms and ideas were out; artists were persecuted and suppressed. Chinese philosophies were replaced by one-size-fits-all Communism. And Chinese painting dropped its historic roots and adopted western realism.
In western art, empty space has a place in the canon of graphic design, but not in painting. “Painting the void” in 20thcentury western painting was about destruction, not about emptiness. We are a people of loud bangs, not silence.

One exception to this was the abstract expressionist Ad Reinhart, who took the time to study Chinese concepts in painting. I think I will join him, in my desultory way. There’s much to be learned about the power of emptiness.

Apple picking time

Old apple trees make for good painting as well as good eating.

Apple tree swing, by Carol L. Douglas. Available through the Kelpie Gallery.

Today, I’m teaching my first class in Rockport since mid-July. I wanted a special subject for my students. I’ve passed wild apple trees along the roadside. I know they’re ripe and starting to drop. But to find one that was suitable for a class has been a different matter.

The ones above Rockport Harbor are too high to paint from the parking lot. The one at the Opera House bore no fruit this season. It must be a biennial bearer, which some apple trees are. I finally found a suitable tree, with parking and permission to paint, but it took more work than it should have.
For someone from the heart of apple country, this is a paucity of resources. I know the heritage orchard peopledon’t think New York’s miles and miles of commercial orchards are ‘real’ apples, but they’re an important food crop there. Fruit trees are very long-lived; many of them can easily make the century mark. Old apple trees make for good painting as well as good eating.
The old orchard, by Carol L. Douglas
I know there are apple trees in Maine. I painted one in Castine this summer, and I have a plan for another one for next year. They’re just not lined up in neat rows as they are in my home state.
Long before the McIntosh apple became the champion apple in the northeast, a variety named the Baldwin was our most popular apple. It tolerated cold-storage and shipping. That meant you could keep it through the winter and send it to market.
Conventional wisdom says it was developed in Wilmington, MA, and, after the dust-up, the good citizens there were quick to put up a monument to it. But in the 19th century, several towns brawled for the title of birthplace of the Baldwin apple. One of them was Baldwin, in Cumberland County, ME. Baldwin was noted for its orchards, and it had a factory for drying apples.
Young apple trees in bloom, by Carol L. Douglas
The connection isn’t completely spurious. Baldwin, ME, was named after Col. Loammi Baldwin, who is largely credited with disseminating scions of the Baldwin apple through New England. (Apples don’t grow true from seed. The best way to get edible ones is to collect twigs from a good tree and graft them onto parent stock.)
Col. Baldwin was a Revolutionary War soldier and is considered the father of American Civil Engineering. He was also Johnny Appleseed’s cousin.
All Flesh is as Grass, by Carol L. Douglas
The harsh winter of 1933-34 wiped out the Baldwin apple orchards in New England. It was largely replaced by its Canadian cousin, the McIntosh, which is disease- and cold-resistant. However, Baldwins make for good cider, especially hard cider. In an historically dry state like Maine, that was curiously important. I’m sure there’s more than one gracing an old dooryard here.
I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a Baldwin apple on a tree, but as of today, I’m looking for one.

A #2 pencil is a pretty cheap way to find your joy

Put down your cell phone and pick up a pencil.

A quick sketch of captive models, by Carol L. Douglas
On Friday, I suggested a list of drawing books for those who want to improve their drawing skills but don’t have access to a class. Reader Michael Schaedler of Jay has the traditional Maine opinion that it’s silly to spend money on something you can find for free. He located a text online and has been faithfully doing its exercises. It’s Dorothy Furniss’ Drawing for Beginners and it runs through all the basic subjects.
Looking at old drawing texts, I’m reminded of what an unlettered generation ours is. We want the technical stuff, fast, and don’t want to waste time on rhetoric. I’m as bad as anyone; I buy art books mainly for the pictures. Still, in this week of enforced solitude, I’ve found myself reading and appreciating these older writers and their thoughts on the craft of drawing.
Teenage boy sleeping through church, , by Carol L. Douglas
A reader asked me for tips about figure drawing. That’s a separate subset of knowledge from drawing inanimate objects.
George B. Bridgman (1865–1943) was a Canadian-American artist. He taught anatomy for artists at the Art Students League of New York for 45 years. His books were the standard for 20th century instruction on the subject. They can still be purchased today. Start with his Complete Guide to Drawing from Life.
Most of the time, you’ll find very boring stuff when you wait at doctors’ offices. But occasionally, you’ll find a skeleton. By Carol L. Douglas.
I think every studio should have a copy of Frank H. Netter’s Atlas of Human Anatomy. It’s useful to know how things work. Pressured by his family, Dr. Netter left a career in art to go to medical school. The Great Depression had the last laugh; there was more work for a medical illustrator than there was for a doctor. His anatomy book is a masterpiece, and it explains to the visual learner what parts go where.
Bailiff at Hall of Justice, by Carol L. Douglas
My reader should be practicing gesture drawings constantly—one or two-minute sketches of people done from life. Gesture drawing is very personal; it’s an impression of a form. There’s no ‘right way,’ but it should be fast. If it goes more than two minutes, it’s no longer a gesture drawing.
The only true gesture drawing I have on my laptop is of a horse. Figures. By Carol L. Douglas.
The more he draws people, the more skill he will develop. Modern life presents all kinds of opportunities to draw surreptitiously. They just require that we put down our cell phones and pick up a pencil.
Note: This week, art conservator Lauren R. Lewis shared resources for those of you dealing with hurricane clean-up, here. Since then, she found this fantastic resource. It includes hotlines as well as tips for first-phase cleaning of flood-damaged artwork. May nobody need it.

Learning to draw without a teacher

Can you learn to draw from a book? Absolutely! Here are some suggestions, and I’d love to hear about your favorites.

Occasionally, I’ll send a student home from a workshop with the advice that he or she should take a basic drawing class. I’ll see that person the following summer only to learn that there wasn’t a drawing class in his town.
Drawing is, to the outsider, the most mundane of the arts. It’s not splashy and it can seem mechanical. To the insider, it’s the guts on which everything else rests. It’s a great shortcut to work out problems of design. To paint without knowing how to draw is to practice surgery without ever having anatomized. You could have all the skill in the world in your hands, and you’d still be clueless about what you’re doing.
No pianist ever got anywhere without first playing études and scales. Think of drawing like that, and practice a little every day. It’s the single best thing you can do to improve your painting.
Drawing is easy; it can be learned from books. Realizing this, I asked Bobbi Heath, Poppy Balser and Mary Byrom for recommendations. Their ideas, along with mine, follow.
The Practice and Science of Drawing is a classic text from the early twentieth-century. Harold Speed was an English painter and renowned teacher. His book includes both practical instruction and intelligent commentary on the nature of art. It’s available on Project Gutenberg here, if you want a preview.
How to Draw What You See is the granddaddy of self-help drawing books. It is based on the premise that all objects are basic shapes, stacked and refined. It is very good, but you’ll have to substitute 21st century examples—the plates haven’t been updated since I used it in the early 1970s.
Betty Edwards’ classic Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain is a book about which I’m conflicted. I’ve had it since the first edition was published in 1979. The exercises are fine, and it’s a great starting point for the timid. However, it spends too much time on her brain theories and not enough on measuring. Still, it’s one of the top-selling how-to-draw books of all time.

Poppy recommends Andrew Loomis, author of Successful Drawing and Figure Drawing for All It’s Worth. “I haven’t ‘read’ them as they aren’t instructive texts in the true sense,” she told me. “But I do pore over them when I’m looking for help with figures or division of space.”
Drawing for the Absolute Beginner is a good basic primer on how to handle a pencil. As with all good how-to books, it includes basic exercises.
Sketching from Square One to Trafalgar Square was recommended by Bobbi, and I’m adding it to my own library. It takes you through both the mechanics and the visualization necessary for field drawing. Both are important.
Perspective Made Easy, also recommended by Bobbi, outlines the rules of perspective drawing. This is a purely mechanical subject, so it’s easily learned from a book. Perspective is deceptively simple, and it trips up more artists than any other aspect of drawing.
Art of Sketching was recommended by Mary. It is out of print now but available on the used-book market. It emphasizes dry-media mark-making, something most painters could use to focus on. It’s another book I am adding to my own library, since I’ve seen how Mary’s sketches powerfully inform her finished work.
Is there a drawing book you love? I’d like to hear about it! Please comment.

The self-righteous art critic, he’s everywhere

Did Wyeth appropriate Christina Olson’s suffering for money? Only a really young person would ask such a question.

Christina’s World, 1948, Andrew Wyeth, courtesy Museum of Modern Art.

On his centenary year, I suppose I should join the throng and comment on Andrew Wyeth. There is little new to say. An indubitably great painter, he had the courage to embrace realism at a time when it was devalued. His body of work speaks for itself.

Then I read essays like this and think some rebuttal is necessary. Zachary Small is too young and too self-righteous by half. He understands neither the artist’s relationship to the model nor mid-century American culture.
Christina’s Worldis an abstract painting masquerading as a narrative. It could have as easily been titled Three Objects on a Yellow Field.At 31, the artist was not yet famous, but he was subject to great expectations. He had been tutored at home by his world-famous father, NC Wyeth. They rubbed elbows with other luminaries of their day.
His training and instincts pointed him to realism. Nevertheless, the art world was in open rebellion against representational painting.
Trodden Weed, 1951, Andrew Wyeth, courtesy here. Three years later, it addressed the same formal questions as Christina’s World, but is a much more self-revelatory painting.
Most of us would have melted in that kind of crucible. Wyeth, instead, created this enigmatic masterpiece. This is, of course, magical realism, not realism, a direct riff on his dad’s storytelling. Not only did he beautify Christina Olson, he radically redrew the Olson House.
In modern parlance, Zachary Small objects to Wyeth’s ‘appropriation’ of Christina’s story of courage and disability. On Wyeth’s behalf, I claim a sort of fair-use exemption. That’s what artists have always done—taken particular pathos and raised it to be a universal statement.
In 1948, the United States was on the front edge of the biggest outbreak of poliomyelitis in its history. In 1952 alone, nearly 60,000 kids were infected with the virus. Thousands were paralyzed; more than 3000 died. Wealth was no insulator. There was no vaccine and no cure. Kids went into iron lungs and parents prayed.
Historians now believe that Christine Olson didn’t have polio, but rather Charcot–Marie–Tooth disease. That’s irrelevant. It wasn’t Wyeth’s understanding, and it wasn’t the American understanding in 1948. Wyeth was painting the polio epidemic.
I like to take students to the Farnsworth Museum to see whatever Wyeth sketches and drawings they have on display. They spell out Andrew Wyeth’s meticulous method. I find him, posthumously, to be a great teacher of painting.
Lovers, 1981, Andrew Wyeth, courtesy here.
But as to his finished paintings, I’m always deeply conflicted. They’re technically perfect, but hidden, reserved, and cool. As with Edward Hopper, Andrew Wyeth painted our isolation. Surrounded by hype, activity and people, twenty-first century man still lives a solitary existence.
Hopper told this story through buildings. Wyeth told it through faces and the human form. His paintings throw up masks I can’t get past. I find that most moving, and terrifying at the same time.

Newly discovered old artist

Erik Lundin didn’t show his work. What he did was paint, beautifully.

By Eric Lundin
Last winter, Sue Lewis Baines, owner of the Kelpie Gallery, told me about a fascinating collection she had recently discovered. The late Erik Lundin was a long-time resident of Rockland and Thomaston and Madrid, Spain. His work, she said, was wonderful, energetic and prolific. We made tentative plans for me to see it, but life got in the way.
Lundin was a prolific painter who never showed during his lifetime. I was excited to read that Sue is doing a short show of his work. It opens this Saturday, September 9, at 5 PM and runs for a week. Frankly, that isn’t much time.
50% of the proceeds will go to the Sussman House hospice here in Rockport. The way I’m feeling today, I’m more likely a candidate for the hospice than the opening, but I encourage those who can to get out to see it. Not only is the work interesting, but the gallery is beautiful and Sue puts on a nice party.
The Kelpie Gallery is located at 81 Elm Street, S. Thomaston, ME. That’s about five minutes south of downtown Rockland.
Sadly, my breathing is getting worse, not better. I have much to say about art, as always, but no energy with which to say it. I’m sorry, friends.

Laid low

Asthma. My body has just told me to spend a little time on self-care. I think that means a pedicure.
Painting at the American Yacht Club with Brad Marshall. (Courtesy Rye Arts Center)

I spent the weekend dealing with asthmatic bronchitis, and yesterday at the ER having it calmed down. This happens. Providing it’s managed, it’s not going to kill me. But it is a sign of fatigue, and it means that I won’t be teaching my regularly scheduled class this morning.

Asthmatic bronchitis is not contagious, but it can be rude. There’s no reason to douse my students with spittle. That’s a pity, because I had a nefariously challenging idea and just the students to rise to the challenge.
One year I shared my painting location at Rye with this fisherman. He explained surf casting in great detail, none of which I remember.
Speaking of this class, there are a few openings. It meets locally in Rockport, ME—outdoors when the weather is fine, and in my studio when it’s not.
Visitors may go home at Labor Day, but we know that the weather in the northeast is at its most beautiful in September and October. It’s cool and crisp. The trees turn in a brilliant panoply of color that contrasts with the lakes and ocean.
The tuition for a six-week session is $200. You can contact me here if you’re interested.
Meanwhile, I’ve cancelled today’s class and I feel badly about it. I have an assignment for my students which I’ll share with you. I will ask them to clip off a bud from an Eastern White Pine and a Black Spruce and render each, in detail, in watercolor, before our next class. If you don’t have watercolor, do it in pencil. This is an exercise in observation, not in artistic sensibility. Assuming I can get out to collect samples, I’ll be doing the same thing.
I must feel better soon because it’s nearly time for Rye’s Painters on Location, September 15-16, in Rye, NY. This show was launched in 2001, making it a granddaddy among plein air events. It certainly has been a major fixture in my calendar. I love going back and seeing old friends in the community and among the artists.
My favorite thing I ever painted at Rye was this painting of the bridge at Mamaroneck. This, alas, is the only photo I have of it.
We set up our easels on Friday and Saturday, September 15-16. For the first time, the Rye Arts Center will post our locations on a Google Map so we can be more easily found. This, I suppose, requires some planning on my part.
I usually paint with my pal Brad Marshall, but he will be in Britain at that time. That leaves me on my own to choose a site. I’m still dazzled by the choices, despite the better part of two decades’ experience: beautiful architecture, a historic amusement park, lots of boats and Long Island Sound itself.
Spring at the boatyard, 14X18, is my silent auction piece. You can bid on it by contacting the Rye Art Center.
Two years ago, Brad and I prepared to paint into a hurricane, but it fizzled. I’m watching the weather reports now, since we seem to be in another season of high activity.
Yesterday I got a note from a reader who lives on St. Martin in the Caribbean, thanking me for publishing Lauren R. Lewis’ information about rescuing water-damaged artwork. The eastern Caribbean islands are, according to the National Weather Service, just now being mauled by this Category 4 hurricane. This isn’t an abstraction. I know people along that string of islands. I pray for their safety. 

Protecting art damaged by Hurricane Harvey

Yesterday I received a note from a reader in La Porte, Texas, one of the areas hard hit by Hurricane Harvey. “Any tips on taking care of a wet oil painting? It is on a wood frame and is lying flat. We took it out of the large external wooden frame and it seems to be drying. There is not a backing on the canvas.”
Surf on Saco Bay, by Carol L. Douglas
I turned to Lauren R. Lewis of Lewis Conservation Services in S. Thomaston, ME, for an answer. Here is her advice:
As the flood waters recede and people return to what remains of their possessions, many difficult decisions need to be made and challenges will need to be addressed. While the first impulse would probably be to contact professionals to deal with your artwork, books, photographs and other keepsakes, local conservators will likely be overwhelmed with the amount that needs to be done.
Perhaps next you would turn to the internet, but I would encourage caution when reading advice on how to deal with your priceless possessions. There is much information on the web that might actually cause further damage. Where, then, should you turn for advice? I am attaching some articles, links, and practical advice that I hope will be helpful in your salvage efforts.
Take care of yourself first. Mold growth and toxins in the flood waters risk your health, so please use safety gear (gloves, respirator, etc.). This cannot be stressed enough.
Link to keeping yourself safe after a flood:
The most important first aid that can be given to flood damaged items is to remove any water and to dry them. Lay things flat, preferably on a moisture-wicking surface like blotter paper or even on a platform made of screening, so that air can reach top and bottom of the item. Use fans to move the air, but make sure there is no loose paint that might be lifted by air movement. The goal is slow, even drying. Don’t use hairdryers. Don’t try to flatten photographs before they are dry as the surfaces will be easily damaged when wet. Keep paintings on stretchers if possible so they dry with even tension.
Once the items are dry they can be reviewed by a conservator for further treatment.
National Heritage Responders is a group of conservators trained to deal with disasters. An article in Museum of Modern Art blog deals with contemporary paintings damaged in flood.
Stay safe and please share with anyone that could use this information!