It’s not what you say or what you do, but how you make people feel that matters the most.
Damariscotta Overlook, by Carol L. Douglas.
Yesterday started auspiciously enough, with clearing skies and a warm sun. I was potting around in my studio when I noticed something awful. The rain on Saturday night had pounded torrentially on the roof above our heads. It also washed its way down an interior beam of my studio and across four of my watercolor landscapes. They were fixed with Krylon acrylic, and the result was a series of sticky driplines.
I reeled. The damaged work represented a quarter of my oeuvre for this residency. “I bet you feel like crying,” Clif Travers said, sympathetically. If he’d looked closer, he’d have seen tears pricking at the corners of my eyes.
Well, there was nobody to blame and nothing I could think of to do about it. My studio space at the Fiore Art Center has a spanking new roof, door and siding. Water must have migrated along a beam from elsewhere and down the wall. This was freak damage, which can happen anywhere, at any time. Furthermore, our work—as precious as it is to us personally—is still just stuff. It was a rotten experience, but by no means did it rise to the level of disaster.
Damariscotta Lake, by Carol L. Douglas. I’ve finished this residency with eight pairs of landscapes, one in oils, one in watercolor.
“It’s no use crying over spilt milk,” I told myself sternly, and set off to paint.
Paint is a perverse mistress. I’ve struggled for a month in oils (which are my primary medium) while watercolor has flowed much more smoothly from my brush. Here on this last day, in the grip of distress, the paint flowed freely from my brush. In fact, it went so smoothly that when Anna Abaldo of Maine Farmland Trust contacted me about the damaged paintings, I declined to talk. Why drag myself back to earth when my work was going so well?
Clouds over Teslin Lake, by Carol L. Douglas. This was painted in 2016, and is quite small.
When we eventually met up, she—with very few words but immense compassion—made me feel infinitely better. She has a plan to deal with the damage, which is in itself reassuring. More importantly, the experience cemented my already-high confidence in her character. “At the end of the day it’s not what you say or what you do, but how you make people feel that matters the most,” said Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos.
Point Prim, watercolor, by Carol L. Douglas. This was painted in 2017, with a pretty bad head, I’m afraid. That’s all Poppy Balser’s and Bobbi Heath’s fault.
Later that evening, Lois Dodd—who’s a personal idol and Maine’s greatest living oil painter—came for supper. I’m totally star-struck around her, and can’t think of a thing to say. However, she’s a lovely, warm, articulate lady. She critiqued one of my paintings. That’s an experience I’ll treasure.
David Deweyslipped me a small notebook before our meal. It contains a series of charts that were the basis of Joseph Fiore’s color exercises. They’re little mathematical puzzles, and they fascinate me. Today I’ll stop at a drugstore and buy some graph paper, and tomorrow—my painting finished for this residency—I’ll sit quietly and try to puzzle them out. I couldn’t ask for a better end to a lovely month.
Interested in fall foliage? This is the ultimate road trip for a leaf-looker.
Glade #1, by Carol L. Douglas. Watercolor on Yupo.
We haven’t had a frost yet, but with each day I see a bit more color. To date, it’s mostly the sumacs and undergrowth, but the top of the birches are starting to glint gold.
Someone sent me this cool interactive fall foliage map. It’s probably a good, broad sketch, but I’m skeptical about the details. I know, for example, that Penobscot Bay is unlikely to change in tandem with Fort Kent, ME. Nor will Rochester turn side-by-side with the high peaks of the Adirondacks.
Maine’s official color-spotters agree with me. “Northern Maine is at or near peak conditions the last week of September into the first week of October. Central, and western mountains of Maine are at or near peak Columbus Day week/weekend. Coastal and southern Maine generally reach peak or near peak conditions mid-to-last October.”
Glade #2, by Carol L. Douglas. Oil on canvas.
If it were up to me, I’d be heading north to Canada’s Algonquin Provincial Park today, with my canoe. It’s not a western park, but it would give me aspen, tamarack and maples, set against black spruce.
Then I’d spend a few days in Ottawa, Montreal and Quebec City for a dose of Canadian city life. I’d continue to Halifax and spend a few days knocking about Nova Scotia’s eastern shore, reveling in ancient maritime Canada. Eventually, I’d head to Digby and the ferry to St. John, NB. I’d then roll south, making sure to stop at West Quoddy Head Light and the boreal trail at Quoddy Head State Park.
Marshes along the Ottawa River, Plaisance, Quebec, by Carol L. Douglas
Stop right there, Carol. “You just skipped mysterious, moody Eastport,” I admonish myself. Well, I also skipped Lunenburgand Peggy’s Cove in Nova Scotia, and the fossil cliffs of New Brunswick. Not to mention the superlative Group of Sevencollection at the National Gallery in Ottawa. It’s impossible to list the interesting stuff you’d see on this trip, but if you can’t blow four weeks driving from Algonquin to Boston, you’re not really trying.
It’s under 3000 km. The trip of a lifetime, I tell you.
Speaking of the Group of Seven, I’m finishing up my residency at the the Joseph Fiore Art Center with a classically Go7 exercise which I periodically attempt and at which I never excel. That’s painting a glade. I don’t want a dominant tree, or to use white birches as a foil for dark foliage. I’m looking for a deeper kind of compositional integrity, and, so far, I haven’t found it.
This tiny glade first attracted me because of the glitter of the lone yellow tree against all that green. It would have been difficult enough to paint it in sunlight. In the dripping gloom and mist and rain we’ve had this week, it’s been maddening. I don’t think either painting was a success, but they’re both interesting, and that’s all I really want for today.
We’re winding down now. Clif Travers and I agree that today is the last day it’s possible to paint in oils and have work that’s dry enough to move. I may paint in watercolor Saturday, or I may coo at my brushes and clean up my kit for my next big event.
Great ideas don’t pay the rent. You need a practical plan.
Autumn farm, pastel, Carol L. Douglas
First this: my pal Jennifer tells me, quite reasonably, that if I don’t tell anyone I’m teaching a class in October, they’re unlikely to come. Apparently the same principle applies to parties. Who knew?
If you are interested in improving your painting, or taking up painting for the first time, and you’ll be in mid-coast Maine for its most beautiful season—Autumn—then by all means put me on your schedule.
This is a six-week plein air class, starting October 2 and ending November 6. We’ll meet from 10 AM to 1 PM every Tuesday. If the weather permits, we’ll go out to a location. If not, we’ll be in my studio at 394 Commercial Street in Rockport. Oils, watercolor, pastel and acrylic painters are all welcome. And I don’t care if you’re a beginner or have an MFA. I spend my time one-on-one, not pontificating in front of an easel. The fee is $200.
Have I ever mentioned that I love teaching plein air painting?
Now, to the meat of this post. I’m presenting at Maine International Conference on the Arts (MICA) this Friday, September 28. This is a two-day conference for Maine artists, arts educators, and arts organizations. It addresses the questions of art making, arts education, capacity-building strategies and skills, and more.
I don’t know a single artist who doesn’t want to make money doing his or her art. In fact, money is part of the communication between the artist and his clients. Your clients are saying “I like your work enough to want to share my space with it,” each time they make a purchase. A purchase is an important form of validation.
Public market, by Carol L. Douglas.
Many artists are singularly inept at business. Some cover that up with lofty sentiments about being above mere money. But great ideas don’t pay the rent. If you’re confused about how to monetize your art, this conference is a good place to start.
“I’m just not good at business” is as dumb an excuse as, “I can’t draw a straight line” is for drawing. I’m pretty fuzzy on practical matters myself. But I’ve learned to present myself and my work, make strategic plans, and use the internet to promote my work. If I can do it, you can too.
The Dugs, by Carol L. Douglas
I’m talking about a narrow topic—how to write a successful art blog—but I’m one tiny cog in this vast conference. There are twenty break-out sessions altogether. I’ve put together a short presentation that’s practical and narrow. I assume my fellow presenters have been similarly economical and to the point.
That means you’ll have good information to take home and mull over through the off season. If a better business model is your goal, MICA is a great place to start.
Gallery, studios, music, ice cream, a beautiful lake—and it’s all free!
Clif Travers works on his great tree for long hours every day. I help him along by constantly asking, “Are you finished?”
I’ve been at the Joseph A. Fiore Art Center at Rolling Acres Farm this month. This Sunday (September 30th) I get to show you what I’ve been doing. You, the public, are invited to Open Studio Day, from noon to 3. Stop and see what we’ve accomplished.
Our resident gardener, Rachel Alexandrou, will offer hourly tours of the Center’s garden. Rachel has odd ideas about what a Maine garden can support. She grew red cotton, cardoon, artichokes, amaranth, and tiny black grape tomatoes in a small riot of color. When Rachel isn’t gardening, drawing, or taking photographs, she’s entertaining us with mournful songs on her ukulele. However, she’s a bubbly person, so they’re frequently interrupted with peals of laughter.
Rachel Alexandrou is outstanding in her field. (Courtesy Maine Farmland Trust)
Clif Travers has made himself an enormous tree of recycled tree products. He’s now painting it in oils, a highly-detailed process. On first read, it’s stained-glass, reminiscent of hours spent in church as a child. But his tree is oddly anthropomorphic, standing protectively over creation. In a nod to Renaissance painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo, many of its parts are made of vegetables. Certain viewers, however, have insisted they’ve seen a hot dog, lamb chop, and other meat products. It is, as far as I can see, totally gluten-free.
Each morning, I’ve met Heather Lyon creeping out of the house at dawn, heading down through the fields to the lake. There, she’s shot beautiful footage of herself in various interactions with water. Wearing a $6 reflective survival poncho she bought at Renys, she was transformed into a beautiful, otherworldly creature. Heather also chilled herself and a collaborator in the very cold waters off Pemaquid Point for the sake of swift-moving footage with seaweed and a crab or two.
Heather Lyon in her studio. (Courtesy Maine Farmland Trust)
I came here with a high-minded idea of painting the confluence between man, water and the land. In reality, I ended up thrashing around between watercolor on Yupo and oil painting. I alternated media every day, painting each subject first in oils, then in watercolor. After a month of this, I can say with certainty only that my brain hurts.
The Gallery here is showing Nature Observed: The Landscapes of Joseph Fiore, with oil and pastel paintings by the late artist and environmentalist. These paintings have influenced my thinking all month. If you practice or love plein air painting, you should come by just to study them.
Damariscotta Lake, by Carol L. Douglas, watercolor on Yupo.
There will be live music on the lawn by jazz trio The Extension Chords, with Myles Kelley on piano, Katherine Bowen on bass and Owen Markowitz on drums. Coffee, tea and local ice cream will be served.
The Joseph A. Fiore Art Center at Rolling Acres Farm is a program of Maine Farmland Trust. Its mission is to actively connect the creative worlds of farming and art making. The Center’s purpose is to continue and evolve the dialogue between human and environment within the context of our current culture and time.
My own studio is more of a repository than a workspace. As usual, I’m working out of my Prius.
MFT also runs MFT Gallery, at 97 Main Street, Belfast. It is open Monday through Friday from 9 to 4. On Fourth Friday Art Walks, it is open until 8pm.
Maine Farmland Trust is a statewide, member-powered nonprofit working to protect farmland, support farmers, and advance farming. Maine Farmland Trust created its gallery to celebrate agriculture through art, and to inspire and inform the public about farming in Maine.
Have trouble drawing people? Here’s a way to get a good likeness in a hurry.
Robbie, by Carol L. Douglas
Most artists don’t have trouble drawing individual features. They run into trouble hooking all those parts up into a plausible whole. Sadly, a person’s likeness starts with the overall structure of their head, not with the details. This is a fast and easy way to measure features so you get them straight. The hardest part, I think, is that I’m showing you in words and pictures instead of in person. But if you take the time to practice it, your portrait drawings will improve.
I seldom work from photos, but I’m at the Joseph A. Fiore Art Center this month. That means I can’t conscript any family members to model. Instead, I found this old photo of Sandy Quang on my laptop. (It’s odd because she’s not laughing her fool head off.)
If you don’t remember the rudiments of measuring with a pencil, please brush up here and here before you start.
I start by drawing a line indicating the angle at which the head is cocked.
The second line goes right through the eyeballs. This is not absolutely perpendicular to the center line, but it’s usually close. Remember, you are measuring a 3-D object onto a 2-D surface. It’s easy to mistake these lines for a grid. They’re not; they’re just measurements.
From there, go on to measure the remaining distances as shown above. Eventually, you can add a line for the eyebrows and the bottom of the bottom lip, but I find them confusing at this early stage.
The angle from the bottom of the nose to the pupils is the most important measurement in the face. Check, double check, and then place dots where it intersects with your eyeball line.
Next, draw lines from the bottom of the nose through the center of the pupils. You should create a triangle from eyes to bottom of nose. That’s the most important measurement you’ll do, and the most confusing.
Why are we using an angle instead of straight measurements on the eyes? This is the most important dimension in a human face, and angles allow us to double-check our work. A triangle is a shape, and that’s just easier for the brain to process than a line. That’s why I use angles to measure whenever I can. (Brush up on angle-drawing here.)
Unless the model is looking right at you, each eye is not the same distance from the center line. Check and double-check.
This triangle is the most important measurement in the whole face.
Then draw lines down from the center of the eyeballs to the corners of the mouth. In most people, the mouth is about as wide as the pupils of the eyes, but Sandy’s mouth is narrower than her eyes.
I did the drawing freehand but added this because it’s so difficult to understand from just words.
My last measurement is from the center line to outside of her ear. Conveniently, it’s about the same distance as from her hairline to the bottom of her nose. Remember, all measurements are relative. “It’s slightly less than two noses long,” is how we measure in drawing.
I managed to drop her ear too low at this point; I corrected it as I went. There are always fine corrections to be made. To me, that refinement is the best part of drawing. It’s like doing a puzzle.
Having made all those measurements, I was ready to rough in the overall features. I drew the nose and chin as volumes. (The angled line from the nose was to figure out my ear error.)
The drawing guides are superfluous after this point. Time to erase them and start having freehand fun.
Block in the mass of hair. Your eye perceives shapes and sizes differently depending on value and the color, as we learned here. That dark shape is important.
Refine the features, erasing and redrawing as time allows.
Because I was working with a #2 pencil on a cheap sketchbook, I waited until the end to add the shadow masses. Otherwise, they’d smear.
Throwback Sandy, by Carol L. Douglas
We are taught to draw the human face in ‘perfect’ terms: the eyes are halfway down the head, the tear ducts line up with the edges of the nostrils, the face is divided into thirds, etc., etc. In fact, human faces are infinitely varied.
These ‘perfect’ laws fall apart especially fast when the subject isn’t white. For example, everything you learned about drawing eyes falls apart with an Asian person with no epicanthic fold. It’s far better to start with what’s really there.
This is a system that works, but you’ll need to practice it a few times before it feels comfortable. If you have any questions, email me and I’ll try my best to answer them.
Words have the power to inflict or bind wounds. May we choose ours carefully.
Posted, by Carol L. Douglas. Watercolor on Yupo paper. I never did figure out a color for those water-lilies.
I was checking into an event when the canvas-stamping person said, “Oh, you paint on a red ground? I’ll have to check your work out. A lot of people do that near where I live, and I hate it.”
I have no idea what—or even if—she was thinking when she said that. But it has subtly affected me ever since. I’m finding myself less likely to leave the ground showing, more likely to lard the paint on. Neither is good technique.
I’m a confident painter. Imagine if I was less experienced, or less secure. It might have completely shaken a painter at the start of a competitive event. It’s a perfect example of how not to offer criticism.
Private Island, oil on canvas. This was interrupted by headache last week.
Compare that to my dear friend Mary Byrom, who doesn’t like that red ground either. Mary is a crackerjack painter herself. I know she has good technical reasons for her opinion. She is also a loyal, kind, supportive friend. I know her intentions are good. I can listen to her opinion and weigh it fairly, without being defensive. She’s earned the right to critique my painting.
I’ve spent the month looking at and absorbing Joseph Fiore’s paintings, and I plan to start tinkering with some of his technical approaches, particularly his surfaces and scribing. He clearly—and successfully—paints on white canvases. He leaves areas white, scrubs the paint back, and lets the ground show through.
After checking every day this week, I decided I had to paint the reflections from my sketch, because there’s a constant breeze on Damariscotta Lake right now.
Toning, for those of you who aren’t painters, means painting the white gesso a color before you start the painting proper. I was taught to always tone my canvases, and it’s something I also teach my students. Of course, the way I learned was to lightly tone with an earth tone in sepia, yellow ochre or grey. The brilliant red was a later addition.
Toning is as old as painting itself, but its rationale is explained through the 19th century concept of simultaneous contrast. This is a fancy way of saying that a color looks lighter against black, darker against white. To see it accurately, you need to see it against something that’s a neutral value.
Establishes the mid-tone values from the start;
Unifies the color of the composition;
Sets an emotional tone for the painting;
Stops any specks that peek through from competing with your highlights;
Gives you a more accurate sense of the value and size of your darks when you first set them down.
In the field, it also stops you from being blinded by brilliant white.
Working Dock is the painting I showed you yesterday, properly photographed this time. (I finished it at dusk.)
From observation, I’d say the majority of my plein air peers start on toned boards. It is something I’ll continue to recommend to my students. But should I keep doing it? That I can’t answer until I experiment on a white canvas. And that will wait until this workshop is over, because I only brought toned canvases with me.
While I’d like to say I’m thinking through this as a response to the Fiore paintings, there’s a small niggling part of me that’s still reacting to that woman’s comment. It’s a reminder that words have the power to inflict or bind wounds. Good advice is invaluable, in painting and in life. But may we all be as kind as Mary Byrom when we offer our opinions.
If you paint in your studio, you miss some marvelous conversations—with animals as well as people.
Working Dock, oil on canvas, by Carol L. Douglas.
I’m using this residency to explore ideas I might otherwise skip over, because they’re not particularly marketable. Yesterday, for example, I managed to channel David Hockney’speculiar perspective and flat planes onto a grey working lobster dock in Maine. I was surprised when a lobsterman asked me how much I wanted for the painting.
I don’t want to sell any of this work before I’ve shown it as a series. But I looked up my price and told him how much it will eventually be.
He repeated it back to me awestruck, and asked, “Are you famous?”
A lobster pound at Tenants Harbor, by Carol L. Douglas, courtesy the Kelpie Gallery. Working docks are fascinating to paint.
Well, not unfamous. But that’s not really the point. It’s like lobstering, I said. Both lobstermen and plein air artists have high operating costs and significant business risk. (We also work outside in all kinds of weather, but their job is far more dangerous than mine.)
“It’s a lot more than lobster,” he laughed. Well, if you price it by the pound, yeah.
My intention for this residency has been to do each locale first in oils and then in watercolor, but that’s been shaken up some by the recent rain. Today’s painting is the mate to Monday’s watercolor. I hope I get it straight before I head home at the end of next week.
The other day, Bobbi Heath and I were hit on—very politely, mind you. Bobbi and I are both, erm, grandmotherly, and neither of us were remotely chic. Heck, I never even combed my hair that morning. Then again, I never do.
“Are either of you ladies single?” he asked. Bobbi thought that line needed work, but we were polite in kind.
Later, he came back and asked me, “But are you happily married?”
Pilings, by Carol L. Douglas.
A couple from Pennsylvania stopped to chat. A ruckus erupted in front of us.
“A kingfisher!” the husband exclaimed. After a moment his face fell. “A chipmunk.” Chipmunks are my most steadfast painting companions. They’re always chattering at me.
I’ve seen so many turkeys this year that I’m almost inspired to them (in my studio, in the winter). I’ve also seen a lot of deer mice in unnatural poses. They like to visit the pantry at the end of summer, and they pay for it with their lives.
I’ve met a lot of surprising creatures over the years. I’m basically silent, except for the swish-swish of my brush, and animals get curious. Here in Jefferson, it’s been the usual woodland creatures. A few days ago, I had to stamp my feet at a squirrel who was coming too close. “I’ll make a brush out of your tail!” I told him.
Working Dock in its Hockney phase. There are elements of this abstraction that I’d like to recapture.
Working Dock, above, spent a long time looking as if the far wharf had erupted in flames. I wanted to maintain a separation between the trees. Passers-by avoided it when it was in that stage, particularly the guys who work on the dock. Perhaps they know something they’re not telling.
A studio painter told me that when he paints outside, he’s thrown by the public commentary. I understand how that can happen, particularly if you’re not confident in your skills. But most people are kind, even to the rawest, newest student. They genuinely like what they see: the miracle of that scene over there being translated into this picture, right here.
If you work in a studio, or you work outside with headphones on, you miss some wonderful interactions. Yes, the public can be a distraction, but they’re also a joy.
Plein air painting isn’t highbrow, but it speaks to my soul.
La casa de los abuelitos, by Carol L. Douglas
“You’re lucky to love to do something that people love,” Clif Travers told me soon after we’d met. He meant that sincerely. It’s easier to sell landscape paintings than the large-scale installation piece he’s working on.
The earliest known “pure landscapes” (with no human figures) are Minoanmurals dating from around 1500 BC. Landscape flowered in Rome, Egypt and China. It died out in western art and was rediscovered in the Renaissance.
Rocky, by Carol L. Douglas
In China, the mountain-water ink painting was traditionally the most valued form of picture. Here in the west, landscape occupied a low position in the accepted hierarchy of genres, which went:
History, including all that allegorical stuff;
Genre painting, or scenes of everyday life;
This hierarchy was established in 16th century Italy. It elevated those things which rendered the universal essence of things (imitare) over the mere mechanical copying of appearances (ritrarre). While the Impressionists did much to knock this on its head, there’s still a decided whiff of lowbrow to landscape painting, particularly the plein air variety. I think it’s because people actually like it.
Some days it rains, by Carol L. Douglas
The 17th century Dutch Golden Agepainters were among the first artists with middle-class customers, so it’s no surprise that they painted lots of landscape. But they were conflicted about it. Samuel Dirksz van Hoogstraten was the century’s most important art critic. He called landscape paintings “the common footmen in the army of art.” But he also recognized that landscape “provides scope for artistic freedom, for coloristic virtuosity and for chance: for a dialogue between Mother Nature and the artist’s own innate ability.”
It’s surprisingly difficult to find data on what genres of art sell the best, but I did find this top-ten list from Art Business Today. It’s for the UK art market, but ours isn’t much different:
Modern or semi-abstract landscapes
Figure studies (excluding nudes)
Seascapes, harbor, and beach scenes
Beach Grass (Goosefare Brook) by Carol L. Douglas
Obviously, none of us invented landscape painting, but each of us invents ourselves as landscape painters. When we start out, there’s absolutely no market for our work. We create that market through dialogue. We produce our first paintings, gauge the audience’s reaction (through sales and critiques), and then refine our message and reenter the fray with new work. That’s an ongoing process throughout our careers. It’s no different from many other lines of work.
I don’t paint en plein air because I think it’s somehow higher on a hierarchy of landscape. I do it because it appeals to me on a soul level. My friend Brad Marshall once said, “My clients don’t care if I did it in the studio or out. They only care about the quality of the work itself.” Plein air is not, in itself, a virtue. It’s only when it helps the painting become transcendent that it matters.
I can’t get a painting out of my mind. That means the artist did an unusually good job.
Lobster dock, by Carol L. Douglas, watercolor on Yupo paper.
In September, our days often start with fog, as the cooler, longer nights of autumn dance with the warm ocean. “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,” John Keats called it. It’s exquisitely cool on the skin and a delight to paint. But I was having none of that joy on Sunday. In fact, I was miserable.
As the sky cleared, the day emerged perfect. There is a limpid, golden light from now until March in this latitude. Still, it’s not cold; a warm, gentle breeze floated across Damariscotta Lake. September is the most glorious month in Maine, and the knowledgeable holiday-makers know it.
They were out in force, zipping along the water on their jet skies, in power and pontoon boats. I like boats, and don’t generally begrudge them their fun on the water, but the engine sounds were drilling neat holes in my temples. After six hours, I capitulated to my awful headache and packed up my brushes.
I’m not a crank, I have hay fever. Really.
Yesterday morning I noticed that my eyes were swollen. The penny dropped. I used to have fierce autumn allergies when I lived along the Lake Plains. Here, my bedroom overlooks a hundred-acre hayfield. I have hayfever again.
I’d planned on meeting Bobbi Heath to paint in the pickerelweed above Damariscotta Mills. When I showed her my eyes, she suggested that we go, instead, to the shore, where the ocean breezes could clear my sinuses. That is how we ended up at Round Pond, and it suited me to a T.
Private Island, definitely unfinished, by Carol L. Douglas
I’m having fun with Yupo, and doing some interesting work with it, but the medium is driving my painting, rather than being subservient to any sense of place. That’s shifting, but it’s a slow process.
“Sense of place” is difficult to define. Most geographic places have strong identities, although some (like shopping malls) are interchangeable. But sense of place isn’t merely geographical. It’s also perception, based on history and feelings.
A sense of place needn’t be positive. Charles Dickens opened Great Expectations in a miasma of graveyard, swamp, and convict hulks on the river. Charles Burchfieldhas a tremendous sense of his adopted hometown of Buffalo, and it’s threatening. But in painting, sense of place is generally a positive thing.
In the national imagination, Maine has a strong place identity. That is why gazillions of ceramic lighthouses are flogged here every year. But a sense of place is deeper than simple media coverage and souvenir shopping. Digging to its essence is one of the trickiest jobs in landscape painting.
View from Mount Pisgah, by Deborah Lazar, has a tremendous sense of place. It comes from the brushwork as much as from the forms.
I’ve thought a lot about a painting I saw last month at Adirondack Plein Air that has a stellar sense of place. It was a tiny gem, almost unnoticed in the crush, but it’s resonated with me ever since. I asked its painter, Deborah Lazar, if I could share it with you.
Deborah has captured the Adirondacks’ essential color and form in simple terms. I can practically feel the wind in the looseness of her brushwork. She couldn’t have done that had she focused on style rather than content, because her mark-making would have overridden the movement of the wind.
Style is often what’s rewarded by jurors. But this painting has stuck with me long after the prize-winners have faded from my memory.
The imperfection of paint is what gives it its liveliness and depth, but it also makes mixing colors tricky.
Autumn, by Carol L. Douglas. This painting contains no reds. The red tones are a combination of cadmium orange and quinacridone magenta.
Last week, I made a flippant remark about clashing colors. This weekend, I had an opportunity to see clashing at work, in an ottoman proposed for my living room. It was a cool rose tint and looked horrible with my sectional’s warm red cushions. I’m usually happy with putting closely analogous colors together but this combination would be terrible. The mass tones were fine; the undertones were all wrong.
A mass tone is the color a pigment is straight out of the tube, dense and unmixed with another color. No real-world pigment, however, is as pure as a color on a video screen. While two pigments may look the same to the naked eye, their behavior when mixed can be radically different.
Undertone is the color revealed when a paint is spread thin enough that light bounces back up from the substrate. Some pigments are fairly consistent when moving from mass tone to undertone. Others have significant color shifts. Not understanding those undertones tones can lead to muddy mixes.
Three blues that look similar out of the tube, but behave very differently. The ‘glaze’ on the left is the undertone. Courtesy Gamblin paints.
Ultramarine, Prussian and phthalo blue are colors that shift radically from mass tone to undertone. They’re all so dark out of the tube that their differences aren’t apparent to the naked eye. But dilute them, and you’ll find a wide range of blues.
Undertones are why buying “hues” instead of pure pigments can be such bad value. Take, for example, cadmium red hue, which is usually a napthol red with a small amount of white added. Out of the tube, the two paints are indistinguishable, but they mix very differently.
Cadmium Red Hue is usually made with napthol red and a little white. They mix very differently, which is why the hue is a bad substitute for the real pigment. (In its own right, napthol is a fine red, however.) Courtesy Gamblin paints.
Even paints with the same pigments can have different undertones depending on the manufacturer. I’m experiencing this right now with my quinacridone violets, which I’ve been replacing with whatever I can buy along the road. That comes back to the imperfectability of pigments and their essential complexity.
A drawdown test showing a paint’s undertone. Courtesy Utrecht paints.
If you’re considering two different pigments, or thinking about switching brands, you could test them. It’s fast and easy. To see their mass tone, put a small dab of paint on a smooth white board or glass palette and draw it down with a knife, creating a uniform, solid stripe that completely obscures the painting surface.
To see the undertone, draw the samples down again so they are translucent. You should be able to see minute variations in the color, and in the covering power.
To understand the behavior of each more fully, you now need to make tints, tones and shades of each sample.
A tint is a color plus white.
A shade is a color plus black.
A tone is a color plus black and white.
This old paint chart from my studio explains tints, shades and tones.
Even when the mass tone appears quite similar, two close colors will act very differently when mixed. Their unique qualities of tinting strength, chroma, undertones and color temperature come into play here. But mixing paint with white or black immediately adds another layer of complexity. Different blacks and whites have their own undertones. Titanium white has a cool undertone. Zinc white is warmer, but it’s also brittle and thin, making it a bad choice for general painting. Ivory black is slightly warm.
The imperfection of paint is what gives it its liveliness and depth. It’s also
why I don’t use a limited palette, but a system of paired primaries, which I described here.