Seeing and re-seeing

Painting what you know, vs. what’s actually there.

Spruces and pines on the Barnum Brook Trail, by Carol L. Douglas

Yesterday I was visited by a filmmaker from Wisconsin. Patrick Walters is in Rockport for a workshop at Maine Media Workshops being taught by my pal Terri Lea Smith. I didn’t catch his name when he texted, so I didn’t look him up beforehand. That meant I had no preconceptions and did no prep.
I thought he was looking for background shots for a film, “b-roll” as he called it. He would photograph a few things in my studio, ask me some cursory questions and move on. Instead, we talked for nearly an hour.  What seems to fascinate him is the question of seeing, or re-seeing, the familiar, as he termed it.
The first thing that ought to go out the window in plein air is slavish fidelity to reality. Painters can aggressively edit subjects on the fly in a way that traditional photography (in contrast to Photoshop) can’t. Walters asked me how we do that.
Sunset near Clark Island, by Carol L. Douglas
The easiest way is through the discipline of drawing. It’s where you can experiment without wasting hours on a painting that won’t work. Drawing saves time, and it helps you narrow your focus. All of the important design work in a painting is contained in the drawing. The better you know your subject, the better you’ll paint it.
We spoke about seeing what you know, rather than what is actually there. Art students are told early on to stop drawing “an eye” or “a hand” and actually try to draw what’s in front of them, but that’s an easy lesson to forget. Walters told me about painter Bo Bartlett’s experiences with vision, chronicled in the movie SEE. As Bartlett’s vision ebbed temporarily, he substituted what he expected for what was actually there.
A lobster pound at Tenants Harbor, by Carol L. Douglas
For years, Rockport harbor was home to a red lobster boat called Becca & Meagan. Many artists have painted or photographed it over the years, including me. One summer, I held my class at the harbor. A new watercolor student chose our red lobster boat as her subject. “You’ve got the hull wrong,” I told her, and corrected it. She, in her own turn, drew it back the way she saw it. We seesawed back and forth through most of the class, both of us getting frustrated. Finally, she interrupted me and insisted that I look again. I realized Becca & Meagan had been hauled and replaced by Kenny Dodge’s new red lobster boat, Hemingway. What I ‘knew’ had overwritten what I was seeing.
Familiarity helps us telegraph our drawing, but it does have pitfalls. Still, I think it nets the best pictures. The value of my road trips is not necessarily in the high finish of the work, because it isn’t finished at all. Rather it’s in learning new ways to see, to represent atmospherics, and to measure distances.
Anticipation, by Carol L. Douglas
Paul Cézanne painted Mont Sainte-Victoire more than 60 times. His familiarity with the mountain meant he didn’t have to waste time exploring its contours. He was free to experiment with mark-making and composition instead.
His Mont Sainte-Victoire paintings also demonstrate the flexibility artists have to manipulate their subject. From his vantage point on Les Lauves, he could see the Croix de Provence, which stands 19 meters tall on the highest visible ridge. It’s been there for a long time and is a notable landmark in the region. Cézanne edited it out. Doing so allowed him to focus on the mass of the mountain itself.

Intimations of mortality

You can have it all. You’d just better be prepared to work very hard.

Clouds over Teslin Lake, Yukon Territory, by Carol L. Douglas. We did some icy camping here.

I recently was rejected from a residency I really wanted, in Gates of the Arctic National Park. (Rejection is how these things roll, so don’t worry about my feelings.) I’ve spent three months doing intensive training to ensure I could backpack my gear in the mountains. While I don’t think they discriminated on the basis of age, I will always wonder if it was a factor. Sixty-year-olds, in conventional wisdom, are not fit enough to climb mountains north of the Arctic Circle.

My physical therapist saw no reason I couldn’t meet the demands of the residency, as long as I worked hard, which I have. Not being chosen changes nothing in my fitness routine. Two of the other residencies I’ve applied to are also remote and arduous. And I have plans to paint in Scotland in May and in Patagonia next March. I don’t want my body to be a barrier to success.
This is the northernmost place I’ve ever painted, just a few miles from Gates of the Arctic National Park.
Meanwhile, I watch with some stupefaction as some of my peers move to senior living, take early retirement, or capitulate to the crippling disorders of a sedentary lifestyle. I feel good and I’m not bored. Why would I not want to keep rolling?
There have been at least four times in my life when I’ve been closer to death than I am today. (If I’m wrong about that, enjoy a hearty laugh at my expense.) The first was as a teen, when I did something so monumentally stupid that I could have killed both myself and my horse. The second was when I had an undiagnosed cancer that metastasized. The third and fourth times were when I hemorrhaged after surgery.
Another friend is 52. She’s stuck working because she’s an indispensable cog in the family business. When I said I had no interest in retirement, she was gobsmacked. “But why?” she asked. “You only have two more years!” (Actually, I have almost seven more years until I can take so-called “full retirement,” but that’s irrelevant.)
Blueberry barrens, Clary Hill, oil on canvas, by Carol L. Douglas. This is at Maine Farmland Trust Gallery until May 24.
It turns out that she doesn’t really want to retire; she wants to write books instead of keeping them. That’s a career change, and it’s something I heartily endorse.

Young readers, you’ll reach not one but many forks in the road. At each juncture, you can choose between security and risk. If you’re not courageous enough to take risks at 20, 30, or 40, when are you going to develop courage?

Choices don’t end when you enter the work force. I know many fine artists and musicians who combine their work with careers and/or child-rearing. Sometimes, however, people can only make drastic changes after their pension kicks in.

I have a student right now who is a retired Army officer. She went to art school in her youth but chose a military nursing career. Since retiring, she pours her energies into being the best painter she can be. Because she’s dedicated, she’s succeeding. And I bet it keeps her young long after her peers have subsided into their final rest.

Blueberry barrens, Clary Hill, watercolor, by Carol L. Douglas. This is at Maine Farmland Trust Gallery until May 24.
I have two paintings in the Joseph A. Fiore Art Center Residents Exhibit at Maine Farmland Trust Gallery, 97 Main Street, Belfast, ME. The show runs until May 24, with artist talks on Friday, May 24 at 5 PM. I hope you have a chance to stop and see this work.

The limits of relevance

The historical portrait is a great way to understand our legacy. Don’t consign it to the back room.

Sir William Sidney Smith, by John Eckstein, oil on canvas, 1801-02, courtesy National Portrait Gallery. Although the subject is a real event, the sitter is revealed as a theatrical, egotistical, and rather absurd character. But he was a star in his day.

One of my favorite museums is the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in London. That’s not because its collection is stellar—it’s piddling compared to the nearby National Gallery. It tells the story of Britain through art, and I love history.

There’s so much you can learn from portraits—the manners and mores of the times, the sitters’ blind spots and where they had to be flattered. Portraits, particularly painted ones, are romantic in a way that photographs are not. And then there’s simple curiosity. What did Thomas Cranmer, Admiral Nelson or Florence Nightingale really look like?
Among the paintings on display when I visited the NPG were the portraits of Iroquois chieftains—Joseph Brant, Red Jacket, Cornplanter and Governor Blacksnake. The Iroquois Confederacy played important roles in both the Revolution and the French and Indian War, as full allies of the British. Joseph Brant was once important enough to have been painted by court painter George Romney in London and Gilbert Stuart here.
Queen Elizabeth I (‘The Ditchley portrait’), c. 1592, by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, courtesy National Portrait Gallery. Elizabeth stands astride the globe, but the portrait’s symbolic theme is her forgiveness of Henry Lee for retiring from court.
The NPG is suffering from falling visitation, dropping from 1,703,411 in 2017 to 1,586,451 visitors in 2018. As bad as that sounds, it understates the problem. Visits are down more than 25% from the 2.1 million visitors they recorded in 2015/16. Then, management blamed the drop on a counting error by an external company.
Now critics suggest that the current decline may be due to director Nicholas Cullinan’s pursuit of diversity. “If the implication of this criticism is that we and other museums should not programme contemporary artists (which in our case happen to be mostly women) and only feature well-known names, I think we have a problem with metrics that focus on quantity alone.”
That’s a bit of a red herring. Britons have a long and sometimes mystifying affection for contemporary art. In fact, Tate Modern is the UK’s biggest visitor attraction.
The Slave Gang, c. 1900, by unknown artist, glass magic lantern plate, published by The London Missionary Society, courtesy National Portrait Gallery.
Still, it’s hard to imagine that people come to the NPG for the contemporary portraits. They come to see the Chandos William Shakespeare, exquisite Elizabethan miniatures, or ponder the sad story of Lady Jane Grey. The NPG’s charm lies in its antique fustiness. It’s the thinking tourist’s Tower of London experience.
The portrait gallery can only be as diverse as the society it represents, which in much of Britain’s history meant white people painted by men. Today British society is more plural, but it’s also glutted with imagery. Nobody needs to go to the NPG to see what the Prime Minister look like—her photo is everywhere. Nobody needs to go there to look at the British Everyman, either, since he’s just down the street.
Winston Churchill, 1916, by Sir William Orpen, courtesy National Portrait Gallery. Churchill resigned as First Lord of the Admiralty after the disaster at Gallipoli, which claimed 46,000 allied lives. His reputation was ruined, albeit temporarily. This portrait was painted at the lowest point in Churchill’s career.
Emphasizing diversity can be a way of saying, “Look how backwards our ancestors were.” England was, from the 16th century to the 20th, an empire. Empires are by nature diverse. Those Iroquois leaders in a museum dedicated to British subjects were one example. So are 31 different maharajas represented in more than 200 portraits. Or the two great empire-building British rulers, Elizabeth I and Victoria, and the longest-reigning British monarch, Elizabeth II. There’s plenty of diversity in British history once you stop pigeonholing what diversity means.

Why plein air

If you can paint en plein air, you can paint anything else you can draw.
Teddi-Jann Covell, me, and Truth Hawk model appropriate gear for winter painting. Photo courtesy Jennifer Johnson.
In some of our coastal harbors, plein air painting approaches performance art. We spend more time answering questions than we do painting. For new painters, that can be unnerving. But Rockport is the least-visited, most-beautiful harbor on our section of coast. In Rockport in March, our only visitors are people eating sandwiches in their trucks, or the occasional dog-walker. That makes Rockport the perfect place to start the new painting season.
Finished paintings by students Mary Whitney and Teddi-Jann Covell. Photo courtesy Jennifer Johnson.
This post revolves around the photos; I wrote it largely for the amusement of my southern readers, who perhaps can’t conceive of painting in freezing weather. And yet it’s done regularly, not just here but in Vermontand upstate New York. My friends in Greater Rochester Plein Air Painters are already out testing the ice at Mendon Ponds. And they’re probably already out in Indiana and the Cascades and, for all I know, in Anchorage, AK, too. Plein airpainters merely tolerate indoor painting; our brush hands are happiest outdoors. It’s all about the right clothing and materials.
(By the way, while being physically fit makes plein air painting easier, physical disability is not an absolute barrier. I’ve had students with walkers in both my weekly classes and my annual workshop. We just select more accessible painting locations.)
Ed Buonvecchio with two pro tips: insulated LL Bean boots and his cap over his toque. You need a warm head and a sun visor in late winter. Photo courtesy Jennifer Johnson.
Like most art students, my painting education was skewed toward figure drawing and painting. I grew up thinking the human form was the apotheosis of painting. Since the Renaissance, the western art canon had a hierarchy of genres, which rated the importance of pictures as follows:
  1. History, including all that allegorical stuff;
  2. Portrait;
  3. Genre painting, or scenes of everyday life;
  4. Landscape;
  5. Animals;
  6. Still life.
Robert Lichtman doubled his hat too, but was able to paint bare-handed. Photo courtesy Jennifer Johnson.
If we were to draw up a modern hierarchy it would probably read:

  1. Abstraction (a big label including a lot of categories)
  2. Symbolism
  3. Surrealism
  4. Outsider art
  5. Representational art
  6. Plein air

Finished work by Colleen Lowe, Ed Buonvecchio and David Blanchard. Photo courtesy Jennifer Johnson.
And yet, having worked in most of the traditional categories, I think plein air is in fact the hardest form of painting. It requires the painter to pull one big concept out of a vast landscape, and stick with it. It teaches you to simplify, simplify, to focus your view, and narrow your goals.
Mary Whitney painting harbor ice. Photo courtesy Jennifer Johnson.
I have a current student who didn’t realize this would be primarily a plein air class when she signed up. I have no problems encouraging her to stay. When you master en plein air, you can then paint anything else that you can draw. The reverse is decidedly not true.
A note: For those of you who have been following the fortunes of the waterlogged dinghy in Rockport harbor, it was off its mooring yesterday. It may have dropped below the surface, but since the harbormaster is resetting the buoys for spring, I think she probably brought it in.

Monday Morning Art School: stop flailing

An efficient plan for fast outdoor painting in oils.
Camden harbor, by Carol L. Douglas

Sometimes people ask me how we manage to get so many paintings done during an event. We avoid what my friend Brad Marshall called “flailing around.” That means those times when you seem to lose your way. We’ve all done it, when apparently everything we know falls out the bottom of our mind. I’ve written a simple protocol to avoid this. If you always work in this order, you’re less likely to flail around.

1. Set up your palette with all colors out, organized in a rainbow pattern; may be done before going out.
Putting your pigments in the same spots each time speeds up your process. And putting out all of them when you start ensures that you develop the painting based on what you see, rather than on what’s at hand.
Beach saplings, by Carol L. Douglas
2. Value drawing of the scene in question, in your sketchbook.
If you do this on your canvas and then paint over it, you won’t have it to refer back to when the light changes or you need to restate your darks.
3. Crop drawing, identify and strengthen big shapes.
If you start by filling in a little box, you only allow yourself one way to look at the composition. Instead, draw what interests you first, and then contemplate how it might best be boxed into a painting.

Parrsboro sunrise, by Carol L. Douglas
4. Transfer drawing to canvas with paint as a monochromatic grisaille.
This allows you to draw with a brush and check your composition’s values.
5. Underpaint big shapes making sure value, chroma and hue are correct. Thin with OMS.
This underlayer should be thin, but not soupy, so it can accept top layers without making mud. You don’t want a lot of oil in this layer as it can lead to cracking in the future.

Eastport harbor, by Carol L. Douglas
6. Second layer: divide big shapes and develop details. A slightly thicker layer.
This is the body of your painting, without a lot of detail. Almost pure paint without either medium or heavy impasto. Note: for some painters, this is combined with the last layer.
7. Third and last layer: use medium and more paint, adding highlights and impasto.
This is the final layer, the one with painterly flourishes. Controlled use of medium here results in an even, bright, tough final surface.

Rejected in favor of dreck

If you can buy something similar at TJ Maxx/Home Goods, it’s not really art.

Spring Mountain Lake, Carol L. Douglas

Earlier this year, a young artist asked me about a gallery she was approaching. I gave her what advice I could and wished her well. This week she sent me a note telling me they’d chosen to represent another artist instead. One could accept that with equanimity, but she also sent me some images of the other artist’s work. Frankly, it’s schmaltz. It’s no more complex or insightful than the ‘art’ they sell at TJ Maxx/Home Goods. I can see why my friend was upset.

What the other artist has is breezy, light patter on Instagram, and cute graphical pictures to match. Like shoes, these are easy to market on-line, but they have no depth. That doesn’t mean all online paintings have to be shallow. In fact, I can help my young artist friend develop her online presence. First, she’s got to get past her disappointment.
Small boat harbor, Carol L. Douglas
There are roughly 19,000 galleries in 124 countries and 3533 cities worldwide, according to the Global Art Gallery Report 2016. The vast majority of them are in the US, Britain and Germany, with the US being the far-and-away leader. That means that my correspondent has lots of options, but she may have to leave her town to find them.
The gallerist’s primary job is to cover his or her nut. Generally, galleries do this very badly. They are risky revenue generators, even in good economic times. 30% of them are running at a loss. Only 18% make a healthy profit margin of over 20%. This means there’s lots of turnover. Only 7% of galleries are 35 years old or older, and almost half have opened since 2000. (These are international figures; the US has a healthier gallery scene, but it’s certainly not easy even here.)
The gallerist who rejected my young friend’s work was thinking about what he could sell, not what’s insightful or brilliant. Or perhaps he’s not thinking acutely at all—remember that almost a third of galleries are losing money.
Keuka Lake Vineyard, Carol L. Douglas, courtesy Kelpie Gallery.
Rejection itself is a sign that the relationship wouldn’t go anywhere. There’s no future with a gallery you have to woo aggressively. The gallerist has to understand and appreciate your work. “I have a perspective worth sharing,” my friend said, and she’s right. But if the gallerist isn’t on board with her message, her work will languish on the walls, or, worse, in a storeroom.
One advantage of old age is that you’ve experienced rejection enough that it generally doesn’t hurt so keenly. You realize that the difference between success and failure is picking yourself back up and pounding your head against the door… again and again.
Sentinel trees, Carol L. Douglas
When I said my correspondent might have to leave her town to find better options, I was speaking of both geographically and online. The Art Gallery Report asked gallerists to rank their key competitors. They said:
  1. Other galleries
  2. Dealers
  3. Artists
  4. Auction houses
  5. Online platforms
Their heads are in the sand. Online selling is a far bigger threat to gallerists than artists’ occasional studio sales. It’s an area that my young friend can exploit, and I hope she does.

One messed-up dude

But Egon Schiele certainly could paint a lovely boat.

Segelschiffe im wellenbewegtem Wasser (Der Hafen von Triest), 1907, Egon Schiele, private collection
I have a hard time loving the work of Egon Schiele. Erotic paintings, emaciated figures, and anguished self-portraits leave me cold. I far prefer the Expressionism of Käthe Kollwitz and Gabriele Münter. They weren’t happy, either, but at least they had something real to complain about.
Then my friend Bruce McMillan introduced me to Schiele’s boat paintings. They don’t quite make up for all those tortured people, but they’re beautifully drawn and kinetic. Interestingly, the highest auction prices for Schiele’s work are not for his erotica, but for his landscapes, including the record-setting Häuser mit bunter Wäsche ‘Vorstadt’ II, which sold for $40.1 million in 2011.
Boote im Hafen von Triest, 1908, Egon Schiele, courtesy Landesmuseum Niederösterreich
There’s no question that Schiele was a prodigy. At 16, he was the youngest student ever to enroll at Vienna’s Academy of Fine Arts. After three years, he quit without graduating. In school and after, he was mentored by Gustav Klimt, who did much to advance his career.
“Klimt was an established star and Schiele a cocksure student when the two first met in 1908,” wroteLaura Cumming. “But it is immediately obvious… that their obsessions were already mutual.”
Klimt had innumerable affairs and fathered 14 children out of wedlock. But he was staid compared to his protégée, who was completely amoral in matters of sexuality. Schiele was incestuously attracted to his sister Gerti, to the great consternation of their father (who went on to die of syphilis himself). At age 16, Schiele took Gerti, then 12, by train to Trieste and spent the night with her. 
At 21, he met Walburga (Wally) Neuzil, age 17, one of Klimt’s models. Aspiring to leave ‘repressive’ Vienna behind, the couple moved to a small Bohemian village. Driven out due to their lifestyle, they moved to slightly-larger Neulengbach. There, Schiele was accused of seducing a young girl and making pornographic images available to children. Although the rape charge was eventually dropped, he spent a month in jail for the pictures.
Dampfer und Segelboote im Hafen von Triest, watercolor, pencil and gouache on Japan paper, 1912, Egon Schiele
Back in Vienna, he wrote a friend, “I intend to get married, advantageously. Not to Wally.” Instead, he’d picked out Edith Harms, from a good middle-class family. As a former prostitute and artist’s model, Wally was a professional liability. Schiele proposed that he and Wally continue their relationship, vacationing together every summer without Edith. Wally indignantly refused.
Four days after the wedding, Egon Schiele was drafted into the army. He was given a job as a clerk in a POW camp. There, he drew and painted imprisoned Russian officers, nicking extra rations for himself and Edith on the side.
Die Brücke, 1913, Egon Schiele, private collection
By 1917, Schiele was back in Vienna. He was invited to participate in the Vienna Secession’s 49th exhibition in 1918, with a prodigious 50 works in the show. His success was spectacular. Demand—and prices—for Schiele’s work rose rapidly.
It was, alas, a short-lived triumph. In autumn of that year, Spanish flu pandemicreached Vienna. Edith and their unborn child died on October 28. Schiele lived just three days more. He was just 28.
It’s tempting to wonder what marriage, parenthood, and maturity would have done to temper the wild excesses of his youth, or how it would have changed his style. But, had he lived to ripe old age, Schiele would have also experienced the annexation of Austria by the Nazis twenty years later. It’s hard to imagine he would have prospered.

We’re all emerging artists

It’s not really a question of labels, but of who can work his way through the shifting sands of market change.
More work than they bargained for, by Carol L. Douglas
Recently I had the opportunity for a nice chin-wag with a friend. I don’t remember what the subject was, but she told me, “I’m just an emerging artist.”
This is a term that’s annoyed me since it was first coined. Until we’re dead, we’d better be emerging, as part of a process of constant growth. We must restlessly seek better galleries, bigger shows, and more important venues, just as we improve our skills.
But what does that mean to gallerists, who sometimes want to show ‘emerging artists’ and sometimes want to show ‘mid-career’—another meaningless term until we’re dead—or ‘established’ artists? These are terms that are hardening into acceptance, so it behooves us to think about what the people who bandy them around are trying to say.
The terms have nothing to do with age, and everything to do with experience. You may be 15 or fifty, but if you’re just starting out, you’re an emerging artist. You’re working, you’re probably selling, but you haven’t got an inventory of paintings or a settled, consistent practice.
Dinghies, Fish Beach, Monhegan, by Carol L. Douglas
The mid-career artist is someone who’s been doing art for several years, created a body of work, and shown and been recognized. He has had a significant number of solo shows at recognized venues, and been written about in publications. His following is not regional, but national or even global.
A mature artist is one who’s been commodified. His work sells in the secondary market and he has a sales record that supports rising prices.  He is represented in public collections, and by excellent galleries in major metropolitan areas. In short, he is at the pinnacle of career. Sadly, this often means someone with one foot in the grave, as well.
Drying sails, by Carol L. Douglas
The problem with these descriptions is that they’re about success, rather than experience. There are factors involved in success that have nothing to do with skill. Just compare the public recognition of Alex Katz and Lois Dodd. Similar pedigrees, similar experiences, similar skills, and yet he’s far more widely recognized than she. And misogyny is justs one factor that comes to play in determining who’s going to be a star.
The art market is just too vast for anyone to categorize painters in this way. Even the greatest landscape painter on the Maine coast or in Santa Fe may mean nothing to a Manhattan dealer who hunts relentlessly for the next enfant terrible to promote. Would he, for example, have a clue who the quiet, reflective Scottish painter James Morrisonis?

Ask the Manhattanite who’s emerging and who’s established, and you’re going to get a far different answer than if you ask in, say, Houston. Meanwhile, regional landscape art—including plein air—sells like mad.

Spring, by Carol L. Douglas
Anyone who’s been selling paintings for a while also recognizes that the whole marketplace is changing rapidly. What happens in the art markets of New York and London is almost completely irrelevant in the decentralized world of painting sales elsewhere, including on the internet. It’s not really a question of who’s emerging or established, and I’d make no business decisions based on what label you think applies to you. Rather, it’s a question of who can work his way through the shifting sands of the current art market.

Symbol and subconscious

Leonardo da Vinci painted two Madonnas set in caves. Why?

Madonna of the Rocks, Leonardo da Vinci, c. 1483-86, courtesy of the Louvre.

We moderns are very good at seeing subconscious imagery in everything. In contrast, our ancestors communicated with universally-understood symbols. These represented an idea, a person, or even a relationship. Earlier this week, I came across a quotation from Leonardo da Vinci’snotebook, in which the distinction between symbol and subconscious gets a little fuzzy:

 “Having wandered some distance among gloomy rocks, I came to the mouth of a great cavern, in front of which I stood some time, astonished,” he recalled. “Bending back and forth, I tried to see whether I could discover anything inside, but the darkness within prevented that. Suddenly there arose in me two contrary emotions, fear and desire—fear of the threatening dark cave, desire to see whether there were any marvelous thing within.”
Madonna of the Rocks, c. 1503-06, Leonardo da Vinci, courtesy National Gallery
Leonardo painted two versions of The Madonna of the Rocks, twenty years apart. These are based on a legend of the time. The Holy Family, on the flight to Egypt, encounters a toddler John the Baptist, who then worships (adores) his savior cousin.
Artists before and after Leonardo regularly placed nativities in caves. This made historical sense, as Jesus’ birthplace was assumed to be the grotto under the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. (Natural caves were used as homes and barns in Bible-era Israel.)

Leonardo also painted St. Jerome in a cave, but everyone did that. Jerome translated his Bible into Latin in the cave where Jesus was born.

St Jerome, c. 1480, unfinished, Leonardo da Vinci, courtesy the Vatican
But Leonardo stepped out into new territory when he painted his adoration scene. What did he mean by painting what is essentially an idyll framed by something he found terrifying?
Back to his own narrative. Desire won out over fear, and Leonardo entered the cave. He found a great, fossilized whale. “O mighty and once living instrument of formative nature. Incapable of availing thyself of thy vast strength thou hast to abandon a life of stillness and to obey the law which God and time gave to procreative nature…
“You lashed with swift, branching fins and forked tail, creating in the sea sudden tempests that buffeted and submerged ships. Now destroyed by time thou liest patiently in this confined space with bones stripped and bare; serving as a support and prop for the superimposed mountain.”
Madonna of the Carnation, 1478, Leonardo da Vinci, courtesy Alte Pinakothek. Isn’t this just a more stylized version of the same traps and dark passages as in the cave paintings?
There are those who assume his maudlin meanderings are metaphorical, a sort of picture of what lies before us all. But Leonardo was more an earnest student of nature than a poet, and whale fossils are indeed found in Tuscany. Real or imagined, he read a lot into the experience.
Apocalyptic scenes from da Vinci’s notebooks, c. 1517-18, Royal Collection Trust
Leonardo went on to describe the end of existence as we know it. “The rivers will be deprived of their waters, the earth will no longer put forth her greenery; the fields will no more be decked with waving corn; all the animals, finding no fresh grass for pasture, will die. In this way the fertile and fruitful earth will be forced to end with the element of fire; and then its surface will be left burnt up to cinder and this will be the end of all earthly nature.” He went on to illustrate these dark, apocalyptic scenes.
Biographer Walter Isaacson described these pages as a sort of existential crisis. That’s a very modern mindset. I’d first be inclined to look for religious imagery—leviathan, Jonah and the whale, Resurrection, Revelation. Was he was setting the Adoration of the Christ Child against his own deepest fears, or those of the culture in which he lived?

Monday Morning Art School: Mark Making

Mark-making can be loose and gestural or very controlled. It’s personal, but it’s also something you can learn.
Dining Room in the Country, 1913, Pierre Bonnard, courtesy Minneapolis Institute of Art. Bonnard used small brush strokes, intense colors, and close values.
When I was a student, I often left heavy edges in my paintings. A teacher told me, “That’s your style.” Well, it wasn’t; I’d just never learned to marry edges. It was a deficiency.
Our marks are our handwriting. I’d rather see them develop naturally, so I generally avoid teaching much mark-making. But sometimes students fall into traps that severely limit their development. It’s better to understand all the ways your brush works and then settle down into something that reflects your character, rather than have to break bad brushwork down the road.
Self Portrait with Beret and Turned Up Collar, 1659, Rembrandt van Rijn, courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Pay close attention to the economy of the brushwork in the hair, and the expressive, unfinished brushwork in the face. In this way, Rembrandt was able to create a powerful focus.
Let’s first talk about how not to do it:
  • Unless you’re doing close detail, don’t hold your brush like a pencil. It’s a baton, and holding it to the back of the center-point gives you more lyrical motion.
  • Don’t dab. This means a pouncing/stabbing motion with the tip of your brush. It’s amateurish in oils, anemic in acrylics, and only possible with any elegance with a wet watercolor brush.
  • Don’t use brush strokes that go in all one direction. Learn to apply paint in the round.
All these rules are successfully broken by great artists. You may go on to break them yourself, but it behooves you to learn the full range of motion of your brush before you do so.
Wheatfield with Crows, 1890, Vincent van Gogh, courtesy Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam. The motion in the painting is created by his brush strokes.
Mark-making can be loose and gestural or very controlled. It’s not just pertinent to painting; it applies to any material applied to a surface, including three-dimensional and digital art. It’s purely personal, and can be where the artist expresses—or suppresses—his feelings about the subject.
Waterlilies, c. 1915, Claude Monet, courtesy Neue Pinakothek, Munich. Monet makes no attempt to hide his drawing in this painting. The brushstrokes are wet-over-dry.
Mark-making is an important aspect of abstract art, including the kind where the mark-making is not done with a brush (as with Jackson Pollack or Gerhard Richter). But tight brushwork is just as much a hallmark of modern painting—see pop art, for example.
Lady Agnew of Lochnaw, 1892, John Singer Sargent, courtesy Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh. Note that the transparent sleeves are not produced by glazing, but with direct, long brushstrokes.
I’ve included five great artworks in this assignment. Each has one or more close-ups with it. Your assignment is to try to figure out the brush used and copy the brush-strokes as accurately as you can on an old canvas. Note that I’m not asking you to make a painting; that would be too confusing. I’m just asking you to try to mimic the brushwork.