Why should my students have all the fun?

What to do when you don’t know what to do.
Underpainting. The schooner is just a placeholder. I vowed to not paint nonsense from my head anymore. That lasted about ten minutes.  
This week, my painting class worked on skies. Not the one outside, which was crabby, but the ones in their imaginations. It was a small class, which sometimes allows time for my mind to wander.
I idly swooped some bright orange lines across a large, dull canvas I’ve been noodling to death. “That helps!” Jennifer Johnson said. The lines were ridiculous, but they pointed to a solution to my problem: the night has no color.
If you look at Winslow Homer’s Sleigh Ride or Edward Hopper’s Room for Tourists, you’ll see that they get around that problem by simply lying about what can be seen in the dark. I admire that, but I haven’t figured out yet how to do it convincingly. This canvas is the battleground on which I fight with myself over it.
Dawn sail out of Camden, so unfinished and a terrible photograph.
When class ended, I left the orange lines, intending to come back later. Before I knew it, it was bedtime.
One of our kids is studying fundraising. “The antidote to fear is a plan,” she said. “One of the biggest challenges in life is deciding what to do when you don’t know what to do.” I decided to mix some colors I want to see in this painting and then figure out where to add them. I had the orange-to-red already on my palette, so I mixed some reds-to-purples and let it rip.
How can I toss these colors in a nocturne?
I spent much of the day painting dreck and then scraping it out. But I think, in the end, I figured something out. The orange is still there, in all its original places, but subdued and modulated. When I get home from Scotland, this phase will be thoroughly dry. I’ll finish the water, tighten up the edges of the sails, and add the rigging. Then it will be done, for good or ill.
Canvases that never resolve are torture, but fertile ground for self-discovery. It’s taken time to understand what isn’t working chromatically, but it’s a lesson I’ll carry with me forever.
“Spare me from painting with no reference,” I muttered. But what to do with all those garish sunrise colors on my palette? Why, underpaint something new, of course. That will be dry when I get home too, and I can start to build another fantastical schooner painting. My resolution to avoid painting from my head lasted about ten minutes.
Fuel dock, by Carol L. Douglas
I was on a roll of sorts, so I picked up the plein air piece I hated last week. A few brush strokes and I’d lightened the wall’s reflection in the water and added a fictitious highlight to the boat. Would it still qualify as plein airfor purposes of judging? I think so, but no matter; it’s not good enough. But it’s less horrible than I thought.
I’m not going to paint the island tanker Capt Ray O’Neillagain any time soon, I vowed. It’s the second time I’ve tried and come up short. That resolution is probably as good as the one about painting without reference.
Sleeping model, by Carol L. Douglas
All too soon, it was time for life drawing, where I focused on a portrait of our sleeping model. This is familiar territory for me, so it went just fine. Now I can head to Scotland feeling as if my finer drawing skills have been buffed up.

The color of the sky

Is the sky blue? That’s in the eye of the beholder.

Midsummer, by Carol L. Douglas
The sky, by convention, is blue, but it’s not an even sheet of blue like a recently-painted wall. On a clear day, it’s more turquoise at the horizon, more violet at the zenith. Except when a line of gold or pink sits offshore, or it’s full of moisture and a solid blue-grey. The sky, like the ocean, is big enough to do anything it wants.
Anyone who hangs around with kids has learned the scientific explanation of why the sky is blue. Our sun produces yellow light because its surface temperature is 5,500°C. Still, we don’t have a yellow sky, for the most part. Sunlight reaches Earth’s atmosphere and is scattered in all directions by the gases and particles in the air. Blue light is scattered more than the other colors because it travels as shorter, smaller waves. There’s a lot of that going on, which is a good thing, because it means our planet home is protecting us from deadly high-energy radiation. That’s a nice, pat explanation and it certainly satisfied me when I was little.
A prism refracting and reflecting an incoming beam of uniform white light, after Newton, courtesy Wikipedia. It’s violet, not blue, that’s at the bottom.
It wasn’t until recently that I noticed that this doesn’t match what Isaac Newton discovered about the visible light spectrum back in 1665. Blue is not the shortest wavelength in the visible spectrum; indigo and violet are shorter. So why isn’t our sky violet? For that matter, how do I know that it isn’t violet? Do I believe it is blue because people tell me that?
In reality, the spectrum of skylight, when analyzed, is about equal parts violet and blue. While daylight is actually a complex spectrum, it’s dominated by the color range that falls between 400 nanometers (violet) and 450 nanometers (blue). That falls neatly into the human eye’s response range, which is about 380 to 740 nanometers. So why have we all decided the sky is blue?
Off Ogunquit, by Carol L. Douglas
We have cones in our eyes for detecting color. There are three kinds. Long cones detect yellow at 570 nanometers, medium detect green at 543 nanometers, and short cones detect blue-violet at 570 nanometers. But we perceive up to 10 million colors, because these cones fire off in combination to distinguish the subtleties of color. (This is all happening in our eyeballs, not our brains, by the way.) Blue-plus-violet is perceived by the eye as blue plus an admixture of all colors, or pure white light.
Other animals must see the sky very differently from humans. Most of them only have two types of eye cones. Some birds and honeybees have receptors for ultraviolet light.
Sea Fog, by Carol L. Douglas
More importantly, humans do not always see colors the same. Beyond the obvious issues of colorblindness, some tend to see less blue altogether. But mostly, it’s a question of paying attention.
Next time you go out on a beautiful day, pay attention to how many different shades of blue there are in the sky, depending on where you look. If you don’t feel that violet thrum deep down in your soul, I’ll be surprised.