Monday Morning Art School: what is color?

Understanding color space is the most important thing an artist can do.

A little bit of everything, by Carol L. Douglas. That’s the incredibly cool light of a midsummer day.

Color is a word with radically different definitions depending on its use. In optics, it refers to

the unique way in which the cone cells in the human eye are stimulated by electromagnetic radiation. How an object reflects or emits light gives it its unique color.
In common parlance, we think of red, green or blue as colors. In art, however, those aren’t colors. Colors have three attributes, all of which you must understand in order to navigate color space successfully:
Value – How light or dark is the pigment?
Hue – Where does the color sit on the color wheel? All colors fall into one of the following hue families: red, orange, yellow, green, blue and violet. Within those families, however, are many subdivisions.
Chroma – How much intensity, or “punch” does the color have?
Doe drinking in the woods, by Carol L. Douglas, has warm light and cool shadows.
Since color has three attributes, it exists in a three-dimensional color space. However, we’re used to looking at it in two dimensions, in the form of a color wheel. I think the Quiller watercolor wheel is the best color wheel, since it shows you where neutral pigments fall inside the hue families.
Still, the conventional color wheel doesn’t take value into consideration. Every pigment has its own natural darkness or lightness. Dioxazine purple, for example, is very dark coming out of the tube. Lemon yellow is very light coming out of the tube. That does not mean that dark colors are cool and light colors are warm, however. Consider burnt umber. It’s very dark, and it’s also very warm.
Winch (American Eagle),by Carol L. Douglas. There was definitely some warm light that winter day.
There’s a misunderstanding that mixing across the color wheel darkens pigments. Only with certain greens and reds does this work. Mixing across the color wheel gives you neutrals: grays and browns.
We call the hue families of green, blue and violet “cool” and the hue families of yellow, orange and red “warm.” Within each hue family, there are warm and cool variations. Gamblin has this nifty chart of warm and cool pigments so you can see where your paints fall.
White, black, and grey are chromatic neutrals. Raw umber is fairly neutral. Naphthol red and phthalo blue are very high-chroma colors. In general, modern pigments are much more intense than the mineral pigments of the Renaissance.
Cobequid Bay Farm, by Carol L. Douglas. Warm evening light translates to cool evening shadows.
It works to sort colors this way. I use a system of paired primaries which gives me a great, high-key mixing range. However, the whole idea of warm-vs.-cool is a painterly convention. It’s best to not have this discussion with a physicist, who will tell you that you have it backwards. He may be right, but that doesn’t mean he can paint.
I’ve written about the color temperature of light here, but there’s a simple rule that helps. The predominant shadows will always be the opposite (across the color wheel) from the color of the light. On a sunny day, the light will be cool and the shadows will be warm. At dusk the light will be golden and the shadows violet. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule, but it’s a good place to start.
Breaking storm, by Carol L. Douglas, courtesy Camden Falls Gallery. I’m potting around on this boat this week, teaching watercolor. Wish you were here!
I strongly recommend this video from Gamblin, which organizes color space in three dimensions. It’s also full of information about the history of color.
There’s no internet (and darn little cell phone service) out in Penobscot Bay. After this post, my blog is going dark for the week. Don’t be alarmed! Assuming there are no pirates, I’ll be back next Monday.

Fears and doubts

To go where no man has gone before, you have to give up the safety net.
Keuka Lake Farm, by Carol L. Douglas. In honor of my friends painting at Finger Lakes Plein Air this week, I give you some work from that region.

 A reader yesterday sent me a long, thoughtful response to my post on leisure. “I, too, beat myself up for contemplation time,” she concluded, “but then I have learned that I do better work if I give myself over to it. What I do battle with most is the belief that I am a complete hack, so contemplation can’t go on for very long. My enemy, anymore, is being riddled with doubt.”

The painting world is as fashion-driven as any other human endeavor. There are always themes which get a response and are relentlessly copied. (Today’s landscape motif, for what it’s worth, seems to be birches. Last year it was nocturnes.)
Autumn in the Finger Lakes, by Carol L. Douglas
This is not to be confused with the major developments of an art period. These are driven by technology and the zeitgeist, and the painter is wise to understand his own place within them. Our own time, for example, values intensity, immediacy, and direct painting. That’s in part because we have the tools to make those things possible, and in part because we live in a culture with immediate, nerve-racking stimulus. We can appreciate the painting of our Renaissance forebearers, but any attempt to paint like them is doomed to be a curiosity.
But that’s not a fashion question. Catching the wave of fashion is a good way to gain public approval and sell work. It’s not a great way to think radically outside the box. Push it far enough and you’ve turned yourself into a mass-market commodity as did Thomas Kinkade. He created an empire, but it made him so miserable that he died at 54 of acute intoxication.
Finger Lakes Farm, by Carol L. Douglas
We say we want artists to be visionaries, but the ease with which we sell birches and the difficulty in finding a market for paintings of abuse tells us just how commodified art is. In the end, people want something to hang on their wall that makes them happy. There’s nothing wrong with that, as long as you understand where you’re standing.
More commonly, we’re straddling the line. On the one hand, I’m painting landscapes. On the other, I’m not painting them in a way that makes them terrifically accessible. We should always be going places that make us nervous.
Bloomfield Farm, by Carol L. Douglas
Writing this blog often requires me to look at my work going back several decades. I always notice:

  • It’s better than I remember;
  • The work which I like the best now is often the work I hated when I did it.
  • The work I loved then sometimes seems very conventional in retrospect.

Even if you don’t write a blog, you can take time to review your past successes. It’s the best way I know to calm my own internal doubts. On a road with no signposts, the only way you know where you’re going is to remember where you’ve been.
Keuka Lake, by Carol L. Douglas
If you are sometimes paralyzed with the doubt, frustration, and creative blocks of making art, read Art & Fear: Observations On the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking, by David Bayles and Ted Orland. If nothing else, you’ll realize you’re not alone.
I leave Sunday night to teach my watercolor workshop aboard American Eagle. There’s no internet (and darn little cell phone service) out in Penobscot Bay. I’ll pre-publish Monday Morning Art School, but after that my blog will probably go dark for the week. Don’t be alarmed!

Art career, interrupted by life

Hard work has to be balanced by leisure, delay by activity. There’s a season for everything.

Tilt-a-whirl, by Carol L. Douglas

A reader sent me this reviewof On Doing Nothing: Finding Inspiration in Idleness, by author and illustrator Roman Muradov. I found the review so stressful that I think reading the book is in order. Of course, I don’t have the time right now, but I’ll get to it.

This came on the heels of a conversation with a former workshop student, a woman who is in some ways my doppleganger. She works incredibly hard, and feels both guilty and bored if she sits still for long. She wanders around in shapeless old clothes, because it would be wrong to spend her resources on herself. Right now, she’s in a slough of exhaustion. I can relate.
More than they bargained for, by Carol L. Douglas
I pointed out the story of Mary and Martha from the gospel of Luke. Jesus was visiting, and Martha was overwhelmed by the preparations that had to be made. She asked Jesus, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”

“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

Of course, Martha is exactly how we both roll. Periodically, I find myself having taken on so many responsibilities that there’s no room for reflection. I’m tired, hurting, and cranky. That’s when I know it’s time to shed something and try to enjoy the space I’m in.
Why do I work so hard? I had years of delay in my art career—years when I needed to work elsewhere to earn a living, when I was raising my kids, had elderly parents, and was sick with two different cancers. It’s my season to work hard, but I’m still fine-tuning exactly how to do that without killing myself. My son-in-law calls me a “binge worker.” That needs fixing.
Headlights, by Carol L. Douglas
Josef Pieper’s Leisure, the Basis of Culture argues that culture is born of contemplation, and contemplation requires time spent sitting around. Of course, I read this book in high school, when I had the energy to eagerly absorb new ideas. I remember my father telling me that he no longer read for pleasure. “I don’t have time,” he lamented. Of course, what he really meant was that he didn’t have the necessary energy and peace. Thinking requires a refreshed mind.
At any rate, back to Pieper. He got his ideas of leisure from Aristotle, who said “We work in order to be at leisure.”
“For the Greeks, ‘not-leisure’ was the word for the world of everyday work; and not only to indicate its ‘hustle and bustle,’ but the work itself,” wrote Pieper. He described compulsive work as “the hard quality of not-being-able-to-receive; a stoniness of heart, that will not brook any resistance…”
Beach Haven, by Carol L. Douglas
Joseph Pieper was a German Catholic philosopher. He said he would have devoted himself entirely to social sciences had the Nazis had not come into power. From 1934 on, it was impossible for a Christian to speak in public about social issues. That gave him an enforced period (including a spell in the army) to reassess his priorities and develop his great thesis. It wasn’t until middle age that he was able to take a position at a German university.
All of which comes full circle to the importance of delay, interruption, and periods of inactivity as celebrated in Muradov’s book. Had Pieper been able to take a university chair right after completing his studies, he never would have written Leisure, the Basis of Culture. For those of us whose art careers have been frequently interrupted by life, that’s an important lesson.
Next up, a watercolor workshop aboard American Eagle, June 10-14, and my annual Sea & Sky workshop at Acadia National Park, August 5-10. Email me if you have any questions.

Two openings this Friday

You looking for me? This is where I’ll be this Friday.

Village at Camden Harbor Maine, Ann Trainor Domingue, courtesy of Camden Falls Gallery
I’ll start with Homecomingat Camden Falls Gallery, on Friday from 5-7 PM. This features the work of mixed media artist Ann Trainor Domingueand other gallery artists, of which I am one. I love Trainor Domingue’s work, which explores the interplay of family, friends, work and home in symbolic, playful, and non-realistic, terms.
I’m also looking forward to seeing owners Howard and Margaret Gallagher. They’ve been retailing art and craft in Camden for 37 years but decided to become official ‘snowbirds’ last winter.
“I don’t want to say it’s like migrating fish returning to their place of origin, but there’s something really special about coming home to the gallery on the edge of Camden Harbor,” said Howard.
Ann Trainor Domingue was born in Fall River, Massachusetts and raised in Barrington, Rhode Island. Summer holidays spent on Cape Cod deepened her affinity for coastal estuaries, harbor towns, and the doughty New Englanders who earn their living from the sea.
Best Part of the Day, Ann Trainor Domingue, courtesy of Camden Falls Gallery
After graduating from Rhode Island College, Trainor Domingue had a successful career as an illustrator and art director. Two artist residencies from the Copley Society in Boston enabled her to return to Provincetown to paint after her escape from the corporate world.
Camden Falls Gallery is located at 5 Public Landing, Camden, ME. For more information, call (207) 470-7027 or email [email protected].
Yellow dinghy (Camden), Ed Buonvecchio, courtesy of the artist.
Then I’ll amble down to Tenants Harbor to see Inspirations: 4 Paint Maine, featuring the work of Ed Buonvecchio, Suzanne deLesseps, Kathryn Baribeau, and Fran Scannell. Ed and I are good friends. We paint together at Ocean Park every year, and traveled to Nova Scotia together last year for the Parrsboro International Plein Air Festival. For some reason, this season has gotten away from me and I haven’t seen him yet.
Iced in at Rockport, Ed Buonvecchio, courtesy of the artist. This is a scene I know well.
Ed is from Camillus, NY, and has a BFA from SUNY Buffalo. An avid outdoorsman, he started painting in oils seriously while he and his wife Julie Richard lived in Arizona. “Plein airpainting has been an extension of my love for nature and a way to study it. Painting is my way of sharing what I see and feel with others,” he said.
The show opens at Jackson Memorial Library, 71 Main Street, Tenants Harbor, ME, also from 5-7 PM. If you haven’t seen a show here, it’s worth the trip just to visit the library.

The car cures itself

Summer for a professional plein air painter can involve as much driving as painting.

Cape Blomiden makes its own cloud, by Carol L. Douglas, was painted during a rainstorm in the first annual Parrsboro International Plein Air Festival.
One of my students missed last weekend’s workshop due to a painful flareup of plantar fasciitis. Another student, himself a doctor, told me about taking the disease into his own hands. He simply stretched the offending tissue until it audibly tore. “The relief was instantaneous,” he told me as I stared at him aghast.
My little Prius has done something similar. It has, over the last year, developed a loud scream at high speeds. Turning up the radio was useless. I had the tires rotated to see if that helped. No luck. A front wheel bearing was replaced in March; I replaced its mate two weeks ago. The right rear brake locked up while my car was in Logan Airport long-term parking in April. That wasn’t the root of the noise either. Meanwhile, every month I’ve been spending more money on this car than the payment on a Ford F-150.

I appreciate AAA’s tow service, but I’ve seen too much of it recently.
But even the money hasn’t been the real problem. “It’s no longer reliable,” I lamented to my husband. Next week I drive alone to Parrsboro, NS, where I’m painting in the second annual Parrsboro International Plein Air Festival. There are some lonely stretches up that way, and I don’t like the idea of getting stranded. I’ve started car shopping, but I don’t have the time to do proper research.
Meanwhile, I’ve had a busy spring. On the night of my daughter’s wedding rehearsal, I stopped for a light at a busy intersection. I woke up seconds later to find that I’d rolled right into the line of oncoming cars.
I have more than a million miles of accident-free driving under my belt and I’d like to keep it that way.  Yesterday when I found myself blinking away sleep on the New York State Thruway, I did something I never do: I relinquished the wheel to my co-pilot. Thus, it was he, not me, who was driving when a tire burst on the interstate.
Two Islands in the Rain, Carol L. Douglas, also from Parrsboro International Plein Air Festival
In the end, this turned out to be the Prius healing itself. A few hours later, we were back on the road. The sound that’s been plaguing me for months was gone. It was a defective tire after all.
We rolled into Rockport around the time that the fishermen are up rubbing the sleep from their eyes and checking the weather. The thermostat in my car read 43° F. and it was foggy and pouring.
I have a short tight week here in Maine. I leave to teach watercolor on the schooner American Eagle on Sunday evening. After we dock, I leave directly for Parrsboro, NS.
Teaching watercolor aboard American Eagle mercifully involves no driving. The dock is just minutes from my home.
I’ll be missing the opening reception for the latter, but Poppy Balser kindly stopped by on her way to Paint Annapolisto collect my boards for me. She’ll get them stamped so I don’t have to spend half of my first day there trying to find someone to stamp them for me. I’ll just have to find Poppy.
And the eco-warrior is back on the road, all healed.
This is nothing unusual; it’s the life of many of my friends each summer. We sort events into boxes. Sometimes we can stop at home, swap the boxes, and do our laundry. But often we stack our calendars up in the back of our vehicles: frames and supports for the different events share trunk space. If we’re crossing the border, we take a deep breath as we approach Customs. We’re not breaking the law, but a search of our cars will result in an awful mishmash of our supplies.

Monday Morning Art School: the basic rules of oil painting

This weekend’s workshop was all oil painters. This gave me the opportunity to review some fundamentals.
Nicole Reddington’s painting ruthlessly subjugated detail for design, and was tremendously powerful for that. I wish I had more student work to show you, but I can’t find my camera!

Use enough paint

Using too little paint is a rookie error. Too little paint on your palette means you’ll try to stretch it with solvent on the bottom layers or medium on the top layers, and before you know it, you’re going to have a mushy, monochromatic mess on your hand. In the northeast, that soup usually assumes an unpleasant green tone.
Modern paints are formulated to use almost straight out of the tube. They may need a small amount of solvent for underpainting, or a dab of medium to create a juicy top layer, but too much of either ruins paintings.
In my weekly classes, I don’t let students touch painting medium until they have the steps of constructing a painting firmly in hand. That’s hard to do in a workshop, but remember that painting medium is a boost, not a crutch.
Sandy Quang’s painting of a downed tree.
Big shapes to little shapes
Stop thinking of your value sketches as something you must get through before you get to the fun of painting. They’re the most important part of the process, and they’re also a lot of fun.
I like to do lots of preparatory sketches before I start to paint, either in marker or in monochromatic watercolor. The abstract pattern is far more important than the details. In the early phases of a painting, you must relentlessly sacrifice detail to the good of the whole.  This is true whether the results you want are hyper-realistic or impressionistic.
The untrained eye looks at a scene and thinks about it piecemeal and in terms of objects: there’s a flower, there’s a path, there’s a tree. The trained eye sees patterns and considers the objects afterward.
Is there an interesting, coherent pattern of darks and lights? This pattern is the primary issue in composition.

Stop thinking of drawing as something you have to get through, and start doing your dreaming in a sketchbook.
Darks to light
In oils, it’s easy to paint into dark passages with a lighter color; the reverse isn’t true. Put down white paint too quickly, and you’re going to fight all afternoon to avoid fifty shades of meh.
This doesn’t mean oil painters don’t jump around after we set the darks; we can and do. But that dark pattern controls your paintings.
Don’t choose slow-drying or high-stain pigment to make your darks. The umbers are great because the manganese in them speeds drying. However, I don’t want to carry an extra tube just for this. I use a combination of burnt sienna and ultramarine.
A student’s palette… This is the color space in which the modern painter can work. It sizzles.
Fat over lean

Odorless mineral spirits (OMS) replaces turpentine as the modern solvent. This is different from medium, which is some combination of oil, drying agent, solvent and varnish. Paint with solvent in the bottom layers. Paint with medium in the top layers. As noted above, use both sparingly.
The more oil in a layer, the longer the binder takes to oxidize. This keeps paints brighter and more flexible. However, oil also retards drying. Using too much in underpainting will result in a cracked and crazed surface over time.
The makers of Galkyd and Liquin say their products are designed to circumvent this rule. However, we have no track record for these alkyd-based synthetic mediums, whereas we have centuries of experience layering the traditional way.
Even if we could change it, why would we want to? Underpainting with soft, sloppy medium gives soft, sloppy results. The coverage is spotty and thin. The traditional method is tremendously variable and gives great control. It just takes a little while to learn it properly.
Next up, a watercolor workshop aboard American Eagle, June 10-14, and my annual Sea & Sky workshop at Acadia National Park, August 5-10. Email me if you have any questions.

Cloudy with a chance of rain

A reader asks for advice teaching his first workshop.

Janith Mason at a Sea & Sky workshop. One of my all-time favorite photos of a student.

It looks like the rain predicted for Monday has moved up to Sunday, but I’m prepared; I rented a shelter for this workshopmonths ago. It can be a fly tarp, a tent, a shelter, your studio, or a porch, but you must have a place for students to keep working when the weather goes bad. Rain is inevitable.

Your first and most important step, however, is to get consent from the places you’ll take your class. The rules change when you’re not alone. For example, if you bring a group to Acadia or another national park, you need a permit and proof that you’re carrying insurance (which you should have anyway). Many state and local parks have similar requirements. Historic sites often also charge a fee.
Rain is inevitable. Here we are getting soaked on the Monhegan ferry.
If you’re painting a view along a street or road, remember to ask the property owner first. Stay on the sidewalks, the shoulder of the road, or in a pocket park if you’re in a public place.
You’re morally and legally responsible for the safety of your students. That’s why I don’t teach at Raven’s Nest in Schoodic, even though it’s a fantastic view. It’s not safe for big groups. Keep your people back from the road, and away from drop-offs and heavy equipment.
Know your own process and be able to break it down into discrete steps. Can you explain why you’re doing what you’re doing each step of the way? If not, go back and run through a painting in your studio and note each step. If you don’t have a consistent protocol, you’re probably not ready to teach.
You can’t demo convincingly unless you understand how and why you do each step in your process.
In a similar vein, if you’re not a natural-born encourager and coach, teaching might not be the best option for you. Teaching painting is far more than just technical advice. Your own personality is the biggest indicator of your potential as a teacher.
Write supply lists and disseminate them freely. Mine are in this blog post. (No, I don’t mind if you use them as templates.)
Every workshop should have a focus. This weekend’s is the composition questions raised by the gently rolling landscape of the Genesee Valley. In The Age of Sail, it will be watercolor sketching on the fly. Sea & Sky at Schoodic is longer, so we work more intensively on essentials of painting rocks, water, trees and skies.
Students need time to work alone, but they also need your attention.
Don’t take too many students. For me, twelve is about the maximum. Bigger classes end up with the teacher spending too much time demoing, and a video is cheaper and better for that. They’ve paid for your individual attention and problem-solving, and they should get them.
I do ask students to not spread out too far apart, or I spend all my time walking from person to person. When possible, I carry a bicycle with me to get from painter to painter faster.
The bottom line for a good workshop is one-on-one attention. Oh, and sunscreen.
Any time I have more than six students, I engage a classroom monitor. This person is responsible for setting up my supplies, logistics and answering simple questions (but not for teaching).
Lastly, I carry a teaching bag containing extra boards, rain slickers, palette knife, and bug spray. People inevitably forget something, and we want them to have a good time.
Addendum: I forgot to mention restroom access here. In the deep wilds you can use a porta-potty or nature itself, but in more civilized place, find a site with public restrooms.