Monday Morning Art School: the lost-and-found edge

Sometimes it’s what you don’t say that matters most.

Girl with the Red Hat, c. 1665-66, Johannes Vermeer, courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

I once had a painting teacher who told me that heavy edges were “my style.” Like many younger artists, I just hadn’t learned how to marry edges in my painting. Beginning painters tend to give all edges equal weight—they are borders to be colored in. Part of the learning process is learning when to keep the edge and when to lose it.

Vermeer’s Girl with the Red Hat, above, perfectly illustrates the lost-and-found edge. The smooth transitions between the hair and the hat on the left, within her gown, and the lack of contrast in the shadow side of the model’s face drive our eye to the highlighted passages. Squint and concentrate on just the shape of the highlighted passage for a moment. It’s just one long, beautiful abstract shape in a sea of darkness.
In Church at Old Lyme, 1905, Childe Hassam softened the edges between leaves and sky by making them the same value. Courtesy Albright-Knox Art Gallery.
Losing the edges helps link visual masses into a coherent whole. It deemphasizes things that aren’t important. It’s a way to create rhythm in a painting.
The human mind is adept at filling in blank spots in visual scenes (and seeing things that aren’t there). If you doubt this, squint while looking around your room. In any collection of similar-value objects, you don’t see edges, but you understand what you’re looking at. Your mind sorts it out just fine.
A careful drawing is different from a value study. Both are important, and the wise artist does them both. But a drawing explores the shapes and contours of an object. It’s a fact-finding mission. A value study concentrates on the links between objects and the final composition.
The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, 1882, John Singer Sargent, courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. 
In the oil painting The Daughters of Edward Darley BoitJohn Singer Sargent uses the great dark entryway as a framing device, a compositional accent, and a poignant social statement. Only a hint of light in the shape of a window implies what is behind. The girls recede into space in order of age, with the eldest (Florence, age 14) almost enveloped in the darkness of the drawing room. Florence and Jane have no accents in their hair; their dresses and stockings disappear into the murk.
The Bridge of Sighs, c. 1903-04, John Singer Sargent.
Sargent painted at least two versions of this study of the Bridge of Sighs; a mirror-image is in the Brooklyn Museum. In this version, Sargent placed a hard edge at the top of the arch where sky meets stone. The shadows on the left bleed without any attempt at architectural precision. This creates the same kind of murky dark passage as in The Daughters of Boit. (A note for watercolor purists—the whites of the gondoliers’ clothes were done with white paint.)
In Two Women on a Hillside, 1906, Franz Marc tied the women to the background by repeating greens in their skin and garb. Courtesy Franz Marc Museum.
To lose an edge in painting, start by making both sides of the line the same value, even when they’re different hues. Conversely, the highest contrast will give you the sharpest edge. You can add to either effect by softening or sharpening the paintwork with your brush. Introducing the color of the adjacent object will also soften the contrast between an object and its background, as in the Franz Marc painting above.
Detail from John Singer Sargent’s Lady Eden, 1906, courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Remember that the sharpest, most contrasting edges draw our eye. The trick is to find a balance that supports the composition. Sometimes only a small flick of paint is necessary, as with Sargent’s sequins in the detail from Lady Eden, above. These support the dynamics and direction of the composition. If they didn’t, they’d undermine all his careful compositional work.

This essay was originally posted in July, 2018. I’m repeating it because I’ve been focusing on it in painting class and want my students to concentrate on it.

Five opportunities to study with me

And for my workshops, there are early-bird discounts available!

Four Ducks, by Carol L. Douglas. There are so many ways to paint water!

“There’s no phone reception out on the ocean,” I casually mentioned to my electrical-engineer husband. He immediately outlined a low-cost plan to extend coverage offshore. I looked at him in wonder. “Please don’t. That’s the best thing about sailing!”

I leave this evening for my last workshop of the season, aboard schooner American Eagle. (As many times as I see her, I still have a crush on that boat.) I’ve had so many inquiries about upcoming classes and workshops that I pulled them all together for you before leaving.
How to paint water: I’m speaking to the Waterville Art Society on Thursday, October 3 on how to paint water. The meeting starts at 6 PM at Chace Community Forum, 150 Main Street, Waterville, ME. For more information, email here.
Dennis Pollock, right before he went for a swim during our weekly painting class. (Photo courtesy of Jennifer Johnson.)
Our next mid-coast Maine painting classes start on Tuesday, October 22. These classes meet on Tuesday mornings from 10-1, and this session runs six weeks, from October 22 to November 26.
This is primarily a plein air class.  Autumn is a fantastic time to paint in mid-coast Maine, as it stays warmer here longer than inland. When weather permits, we paint at locations in the Rockport-Rockland-Camden area. When the weather turns, we meet in my studio at 394 Commercial Street, Rockport. For more information, see here, or register here. (If you’re a returning student, you can just email me.)
Painting aboard schooner American Eagle with Diane Fulkerson, Mary Ellen Pedersen, and Lynne Twentyman.
I’ll be teaching two watercolor sketch workshops aboard the historic schooner American Eagle next year. The first is during the opening run of the Maine windjammer fleet and includes the Gam, the annual fleet raft-up. That’s June 7-11. The second, from September 20-24, is timed for the coast’s peak foliage season.
All materials—and they’re professional grade—are included, and if you want, you can help with the sailing too. More information is here.
Rebecca Bense and me, at Sea & Sky on Schoodic Point. (Photo courtesy of Jennifer Johnson.)
Last, but certainly not least, is my annual Sea & Sky workshop at Schoodic Institute. It’s an opportunity to study painting in America’s oldest national park, surrounded by breathtaking nature, but insulated from the ‘madding crowds’.
This workshop is five days long and includes all meals and accommodations. This year we’ve added a commuter option as well. This workshop was waitlisted last year, and for good reason—it’s a fun and informative time, open to students in oils, pastels, watercolor, gouache or acrylic. More information can be found here.
Ellen Trayer and Lynne Twentyman, painting on a deserted island.
All of my workshops include an Early-Bird discountfor those of you signing up before January 1. (Workshops, of course, make great Christmas gifts for the painters in your life.) If you have any questions, you can email me.
I won’t be able to answer until next week, of course, because in a few hours I’m throwing my rope-soled shoes and duffle-bag in the car and heading down to the harbor. That also means no blog on Friday. Fair winds and following seas to you, and I’ll see you on Monday.

Monday Morning Art School: let’s talk about line

The motive line in a painting is the most powerful design tool you have at your disposal.
Lions painted in the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave, c. 30,000-28,000 BC. This is a replica; the cave is sealed from human visitation. 
If you had to isolate the fundamental element of art, across all media and forms of expression, it would be the humble line. By definition, a line is a connection between two points. In math, that’s an ideal, but in art, the line is a visceral reality. Lines can be broken or continuous, violent or serene, implied or obvious. But if you haven’t got a line, you probably don’t have much in the way of art.
Lines are also implicit, in their abstract form, in performing arts like dance and music.
In the drawing stage of a painting, I try to isolate the major line from which my compositions hang. This is the motive line, although it could also be called the kinetic line. It’s the motive force that drives the energy of the painting. It is frequently interrupted, as in the lost-and-found edge. But:
  • It is tied to the major area of focus;
  • It divides two areas of different values, creating a high-contrast edge;
  • It’s complex and carefully-drawn.

“The only stable thing is movement,” said Jean Tinguely, the sculpture who pioneered Kinetic Art. It is true in nature, and it has been true in art history since the Greeks, for whom contrapposto (counterpoise) represented a moment in motion (as I wrote earlier this month).
We think of Impressionism as a color movement, but it was also a great shift in how paintings were composed. Motion is suggested through a lack of equilibrium. Horses and people are off-balance in a way that suggests they must move to catch their balance.
Before the Race, 1882–84, Edgar Degas, oil on panel, courtesy The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore
That extends to the very balance of the paintings themselves. Consider Before the Race, by Edgar Degas, above. The strongest line in the painting is not the horizon, but the bottom edge of the horses. The complex up-and-down eddies of the horses’ legs breaks and softens as it moves to the right. The painting wouldn’t be nearly as compelling without that amazing see-saw of action.
The Artist’s Studio in an Afternoon Fog, 1894, Winslow Homer, courtesy Memorial Art Gallery, Rochester, NY
In Winslow Homer’s The Artist’s Studio in an Afternoon Fog, a line describes structure against sky. But the real motive force is created by the strong diagonal just below it, in counterpoint to the white froth of the sea. In fact, there is nothing to this painting but line. Drawing it is a good exercise in discovering the subtlety of powerful lines. Notice the subtle convergences; they are a hallmark of Homer paintings that give his work its incredible thrust.
Man and Pool, Florida, 1917, John Singer Sargent, courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art
The motive line can be subtle as well. The value structure in John Singer Sargent’s watercolor, Man and Pool, Florida is choppy, to depict a brightly-lit ground. Still, the figure makes a diagonal leading down to the spot of light and contrasting, cool water. To support this, Sargent subtly scribed the outline of the leg in blue.
Your homework—should you choose to accept it—is to find and note the motive lines in nature, architecture, photos and paintings. They may be curved, straight, rough, smooth, intersecting, broken or complete. Each time you identify the strong linear element that holds together a scene, ask yourself what it might be like without that.

How do we respond to slowing sales?

Overall, the shows I’ve done this summer have been flat, so it’s time to rethink my strategy.

Home Port, by Carol L. Douglas, available through Camden Falls Gallery.
Where is the art market going? This is a question I ask myself every year at this time. It’s more important this year than ever, since my same-event sales have been flat.
I had an interesting conversation with artist Kirk McBride, after an event I’ve been doing for six years seemed to let all the air out of its tires. “I think there are too many plein air festivals,” he said. He may be right. They’re in every town, and the smaller markets can’t support them year after year. That doesn’t mean the model is bad; it means the market needs adjustment.

(An important caveat: an individual show can buck all market trends, and there may be regional differences in how your own shows are going. It requires a lot of input to decipher what’s happening, which is why I’m asking for your comments below.)

But here are some sobering facts from Artsy, collected in 2019:
Adjusted for inflation, the global art market shrank over the last decade. It totaled $67.4 billion in 2018, up from $62 billion in 2008. However, these are nominal figures, not adjusted for inflation. Do that, and we see a market that’s shrunk from $74 billion to $67.4 billion.
To compare, global luxury goods grew healthily. In adjusted dollars, they went from $222 billion to $334 billion in the same time period. In some ways, a Hermès bag is more useful to a person who already has everything. It’s portable, easy to change, and you can store a revolving collection in the space that a painting takes up.
Midsummer, by Carol L. Douglas, currently on hold.
Over that same decade, the global economy roared, with global domestic product increasing from 3.3% to 5.4%, according to the IMF. That means art sales should have risen. Instead, just the costs of doing business—rent, materials, and time—increased.
I live in a boom market for galleries. Mid-coast Maine—led by Rockland—has been an amazing success. Nationwide, we’re seeing galleries surviving better than small businesses in general. However, we aren’t seeing a lot of new galleries opening. Colin Page’s new gallery in Camden is one of the wonderful exceptions.
I looked into buying an existing gallery earlier this year and walked away. I still might do something similar, but it won’t involve expensive real estate or labor costs. I’m not passionate about selling art, just making it, and that’s not enough to carry a business.
Ottawa House, by Carol L. Douglas, currently on hold.
There’s been a significant change in the model of selling art. We’re no more immune to globalization or to the internet than any other industry. It’s time to face facts: while our educational institutions threw away technique starting in the 1960s, it was always being taught in Asia. Those painters have as much access to the on-line market as do we, and their aesthetic may be closer to what’s wanted today.
“Auction houses are going begging for people to buy antiques and art,” Andrew Lattimore told me last week. “Kids don’t want their parent’s stuff. They want ‘experiences.’”
He’s right, and that impacts artists who sell to the merely well-to-do (vs. the biggest money players, who are buying an entirely different kind of art). The average United States millionaire is 62 years old. Just 1% of millionaires are under the age of 35, and 38% of millionaires are 65 and older. That means that the people with the cash to buy important paintings are of an age to be getting rid of stuff, and their kids don’t want it. Ouch.
Beaver Dam on Quebec Brook, by Carol L. Douglas, available through 

Gallery of the White Plains County Center

Then there are the ethnic patterns of wealth in America. Asian-Americans are the wealthiest Americans, led by people from the Indian sub-continent. Many of these very wealthy Americans are first- or second-generation citizens, so their aesthetic is more attuned to Asia than to traditional American painting.
Is this the death knell for painters like me? Hardly. We need to act as would any other industry in a time of flux. We adapt or die. That means rethinking pricing and reevaluating our sales channels. Perhaps it means a major strategic change in selling.
I’m very interested in your thoughts on the subject. What kind of market did you experience in 2019? What are your experiences with marketing on the internet? Where do you think we should go from here?

Two contemporary artists to study

When I’m traveling, people often suggest that I look at the work of an artist I don’t know. Here are two I met this summer.
The Dinner Hour, 2006, egg tempera, Tom Forrestall, courtesy Mira Godard Gallery, Toronto 

Tom Forrestallis a magical realist, a term coined in the 1920s by art critic Franz Roh. He meant visual art that explores the inner mystery of our apparently mundane lives. That was in contrast to surrealism, which imposes magic on everyday life.

“[Magic realism] employs various techniques that endow all things with a deeper meaning and reveal mysteries that always threaten the secure tranquility of simple and ingenuous things…. it is a question of representing before our eyes, in an intuitive way, the fact, the interior figure, of the exterior world,” wrote Roh.
In my opinion, Andrew Wyeth is a magical realist, because his narratives transcend mere realism. Forrestall is often called the “Canadian Wyeth” because of his similarity to Wyeth, both in content and because of his meticulous application of egg tempera.
Moon, egg tempera, c. 1971, Tom Forrestall, courtesy Atlantic Fine Art
Forrestall rejects the notion that paintings should always be rectangular, and makes them in fanciful shapes. The Dinner Hour, at top, is an homage to his late wife, Natalie. Forrestall wrote on the back: “Natalie’s little cross over her kitchen door she hung there many years ago — true to her Acadian roots, it shall hang there while I’m still around.” He and Natalie married in 1958, and she ran his art business and household. “She managed things extremely well and it never rattled her with all these six kids,” Forrestall said.
Forrestall came from Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley. He attended Saturday morning art classes at the Nova Scotia College of Art in Halifax. He was awarded a scholarship to the Fine Arts department at Mount Allison University, where he studied with Canadian greats Lawren Harris and Alex Colville. He received one of the first Canada Council grants for independent study, which allowed him to travel throughout Europe. He has been a freelance artist since 1960. He was introduced to me by Nova Scotian artists Michael Fullerand Krista Wells.
Water Filled Quarry, oil on linen, Joellyn Duesberry, courtesy Joellyn Duesberry 
Last weekend at Rye Painters on Location, an auction-goer told me that my work reminded her of the late Joellyn Toler Duesberry. Duesberry once said of her art, “I am not interested in a realist painting, I am not interested in an abstract painting. I am interested in the tension.” That’s a sentiment that rings true to me, although I don’t really see too much similarity in our work.
Duesberry was raised in rural Virginia, and had a deep connection to landscape. “All my life I think I’ve unconsciously tried to re-create the place where bliss or terror first came to me,” she said. “Both emotions seemed so strong that I had to locate them outside of myself, in the land.”
She received a BA with Distinction in art history and painting from Smith College and was awarded a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship. She then earned her master’s degree at New York University Institute of Fine Arts.
Rainy Morning in Maine II, 2009, monotype, Joellyn Duesberry, courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art
She moved to Denver in 1985, saying that the clearer air revealed more of the sharp bones of the landscape. But she also spent 40 years painting on the Maine coast. She cited John Marin and Milton Avery as the greatest influences in her art.
In 1986 she was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts grant. This enabled her to work with Richard Diebenkorn. He encouraged her to try monotype printing, and she began actively producing and exhibiting her monotypes along with her plein-air paintings.

Monday Morning Art School—adding figure to your landscapes

Animals, people, automobiles and other evidence of life add humanity to an otherwise static scene.

Erie Canal, by Carol L. Douglas. The figure is my daughter Julia.

Figures are best incorporated as part of the design, rather than added as an afterthought. Groups of people are such strong design elements that they can overwhelm a composition if they’re not planned in advance. In a different way, that’s equally true of a single animal in a landscape.

An individual figure can dominate a composition as well. We humans are innately curious as to what other people are doing, and a figure in a painting is an invitation for us to indulge in that curiosity.
Therefore, they’d better have a good reason to be where they are. Tossing in a figure or a gull or two to balance a composition is a Hail Mary pass that seldom works. Odds are, these last minute additions will overset your painting. It will look like it’s wearing one too many pieces of jewelry.
Tilt-a-Whirl, by Carol L. Douglas. Someday I’ll write about how to paint a spinning subject en plein air.
Is the figure important to the scene? I think beaches and street scenes benefit from having people in them, because they are how we experience those places. Streets generally have cars; in fact, they’re so ubiquitous that we barely notice them. I generally limit my own animal drawings to dogs or horses, but there are western landscape paintings that would be far less compelling if they didn’t have animals in them.
Decide in advance whether you’re painting a landscape, or a figure in a landscape. If it’s the former, keep detail to a minimum. If it’s the latter, then perhaps you should redesign your painting to be a figural or animal painting. If it’s primarily a landscape, added figures, cars, or animals should be there to complement, not dominate.
59th Street Bridge approach, by Carol L. Douglas. It’s impossible to paint in Manhattan without including cars.
That doesn’t mean you get away without drawing. In fact, drawing is paramount in these added elements. I’ve learned to stop painting and pick up my sketchbook when a figure nearby interests me. I draw it carefully and then insert it into the painting only when I’m sure it’s right, rather than trying to capture the person in two or three brushstrokes as they’re moving.
New Puppy, by Carol L. Douglas. This started as a sketch of the group; the beach is subservient. Available through Camden Falls Gallery.
The good news is that some of the details of drawing that bedevil the beginning artist—like fingernails, eye sockets or nostrils—must to be omitted. But proportion and placement are paramount, so it’s helpful to practice drawing people whenever you have the opportunity.
Castine lunch break, by Carol L. Douglas. Bicycles, cars, and boats are symbols of human activity that can stand in for the figure.
Even when the figure is the focal point, it must be integrated into the greater color scheme of the landscape. A fawn under the cool green canopy of the forest is not going to be as warm in tone as she would be nestled in a dry grass nest. The same is true for humans, and for their cars.
A critical aspect of figure is a sense of scale. That’s the most likely place to make a mistake. Often my figures are a pastiche of different people who’ve passed the site as I’ve been working. I start by drawing a dummy placeholder and checking its size in its position. (A few feet along a sidewalk can change the size dramatically.) Only when I have the scale right do I try to personify the character.

When you’re in the creative desert

Embrace the uncertainty. Don’t panic. Here are some tips.
Mamaroneck River, Carol L. Douglas. I’m really bad at shooting pictures of my Painters on Location work, but this one is from around 2010.
On Wednesday, I wrote about the tendency to paralysis when we start producing a body of work we think is awful. I see this among students, but it happens to all of us. Old-timers just recognize it as an unavoidable part of the job and plow through it, miserable as it is.
The dry desert is an inevitable stop along any creative journey. You have three possible paths out:
  • Scuttle back to what you were doing before;
  • Quit and do something else for a while;
  • Find ways to quiet that awful voice in your head.

Obviously, I choose the third path, but the other two are very common (and self-limiting) reactions. Start by reminding yourself of a basic fact: you haven’t suddenly forgotten how to paint. Dissonance is part of growth. Even experiments that fail are valuable; they’re an essential part of the painting process.
Beaver Dam on Quebec Brook, available through Gallery of the White Plains County Center through November, 2019. For more information, contact Adam Levi, Rye Art Center, (914) 967-0700.
Trusted friends
This morning I’m at Rye Painters on Location. At the first one, I baulked at the starting gate. Daisy de Pothod told me, “You know how to do this!” It snapped me back into reality.
Sometimes friends will suggest changes, but it’s more likely for them to say, “I really like that.” It helps me see past my own skewed judgment.
Regatta off American Yacht Club, by Carol L. Douglas. This is another painting from Rye of which I didn’t take a very good photo.
Ask a teacher or fellow professional
You may be wrestling with a technical, rather than emotional, block. Good painting teachers watch your process and redirect you. Identifying the trouble is more than half the battle. But what about the teacher who undermines your confidence? If there’s bad chemistry between you, I simply would not go back.
Painting-a-day disciplines
Painting-a-day programs are helpful at riding through low spots. Your goal isn’t greatness; it’s to finish something every day.  In the end, ironically, that’s usually when we do our best work.
There are many of them on the internet, but it’s just as easy to make up your own. I devise all kinds of these for myself and run through them whenever I’m stuck. They’ve taken the form of tree-a-day, still-life-a-day, fantasy-landscape-a-day, and more.
Morning fog over Whiteface Mountain, by Carol L. Douglas, is available through Rye Arts Center until September 14. It’s a silent auction starting at less than half the retail price. If you’re interested in bidding call Adam Levi at (914) 967-0700, or stop by the Rye Arts Center gallery at 51 Milton Road, Rye, NY.
Focus on the process instead of the results
I’ve given you protocols for oilsand watercolor. They’re not the only approach to painting, but they’re good general guides. Focus on them and let the results take care of themselves.
Many people baulk at imposing order on creativity, but it is the basis of every great artist’s practice. And running through the scales is oddly soothing when your soul’s in ferment.
Do exercises that support your weak spots enough that they cease to be weak spots
Are you flummoxed by color? Make color charts or mix matches to paint chips from the hardware. Are you trying to add architecture and people to your paintings but they look awful? Practice drawing. Is your perspective wonky? Find an exercise in perspective and practice until you understand it.

It’s too soon to wipe that painting out!

We’re our own worst critics. A little time and you might realize that painting has flashes of brilliance.

Adirondack Spring, 11×14 in a cherry frame, will be available through a fundraiser for the Gerhardt Neighborhood Outreach Center on October 17. This is a mission that provides medical care, job training, after school care and more to the residents of North Rochester, and one I’m delighted to support. If you’re interested in my work and in supporting a great city mission, contact Annie Canon.
As I set down my brush after a long painting session, I have one of two reactions. It’s either, “meh,” or “that’s pretty bad.” All I can see at that moment are the ways in which the painting has fallen short of my inner vision. I don’t see the things that are going right, like audacious composition, new ideas, or bravura brushwork.
I’ve been at this long enough to ignore that reaction. I no longer question whether the work is good or bad. I just ask myself if it’s finished.
Yesterday, Ken DeWaardspoke to the Knox County Art Society (KCAS). He said that he takes plein airwork back to his studio and leans it face-in against the wall for a few days. Only after the struggle has faded from memory does he turn it back around. Then he can dispassionately analyze what it needs.
Fog Bank, by Carol L. Douglas.
The worst self-doubt happens when you’re in a plein airevent and your work is overlooked by buyers and judges. It’s very easy to think you’re painting terribly. This happened to me this year with Fog Bank. I was unimpressed with it, since it’s largely atmosphere and no composition. Three months later, I like the painting more than anything else I did at that event. My goal was to show the movement of a North Atlantic fog, and I think it worked. That nobody else was thrilled by it is immaterial.
I had a similar reaction to another painting in 2017, They wrest their living from the sea. At the time, I thought the whole thing was too fussy and overworked. But set against my intention, the painting is a success. I wanted to contrast the tiny houses of Advocate Harbour with the vast landscape in which its people fish and farm. There are times when skies arefussy and detailed. Sometimes we have to square up to that and paint them realistically, instead of stylizing.
They wrest their living from the sea, by Carol L. Douglas
My old friend Marilyn often wiped out paintings she didn’t like. “Another board saved!” she would say. I don’t do that. Even failed paintings tell me something about my process.
Sometimes a painting is uncomfortable to look at because it’s pointing the way forward. It can seem like an awkward outlier when you do it. Five years later, you realize it was a bellwether and the best thing you painted that year. You’ll blunt your development if you wipe out everything that makes you uncomfortable.
In students, this discomfort with change can result in paralysis. They fuss and get nothing done in class. If that’s you, try falling back on strict exercises that force you to stop thinking in terms of results and start thinking in terms of process. (I’ll get into these on Friday.)
Grand Bahama Palms, by Carol L. Douglas
The last painting in this post is one I did on Grand Bahama in 2017. There is never any guarantee that a moment of beauty will be there when you return. This young palm is in one of the hardest-hit parts of the island, and I imagine it was drowned and broken. If the painting survived, I hope it reminds the owners of the former glory of their patch of land, and is a promise that beauty will return soon.

Monday Morning Art School: painting fall foliage

Autumn has started its great transition; here are some tips to paint it in a believable way.
Catskill Farm, pastel, by Carol L. Douglas. The light is definitely warm in Autumn, but the predominant landscape color is still green.
In the northeast, soft maples start to turn orange and pink at the end of August. There are similar phase changes happening throughout the north. For example, in the Canadian west the aspens are starting to turn yellow-gold and the larches prepare to shed their needles.
The transition from summer green to November’s dun will take roughly ten weeks, but the daily changes are incremental.
The Dugs, oil on canvas, by Carol L. Douglas. The earliest foliage change in the northeast is in the soft maples.
Don’t delete the greens
Until late fall, the predominant local color remains fairly cool: there is the blue of sky and water, and plenty of green leaves. Trees change at different rates. There are some that never change at all, but simply drop their leaves. Mowed grass remains green all year long. And, of course, there are evergreen spruces and pines.
Adirondack Spring, by Carol L. Douglas. The same colors that appear in early spring return in the fall, but in a brassier way.
There are far more colors than just red and gold
The same colors that appear in early spring foliage are repeated in autumn, but in a brassier way—reds, pinks, golds, chartreuse, teals, purples. In early fall, tinge the tops of trees with these hues; as the season progresses, they will become more dominant.
Know how trees change color
Where I live, the brilliant soft maples and ashes change first. Later, the oaks and beeches rattle mournfully in the wind. Each species has a characteristic color as well as a specific time to turn. Observe these changes, rather than just dashing color around.
Glade, watercolor, by Carol L. Douglas. This painting is at the Jackson Memorial Library, Tenants Harbor, ME, through September.
Pay attention to the understory
There are wildflowers blooming on the edges of fields—goldenrod, asters, blue chicory, and Queen Anne’s lace. These are less brilliant than their early-season counterparts, but the overall effect is a beautiful spangle against dried grasses. Meanwhile, hayfields are still bright green and there are apples in every hedgerow.
Underpaint the sky in last
When we put the sky in first, we have a tendency to paint it darker and brighter than it is. (That’s because of how our eyes respond to light.) It’s easy to then make the whole painting too dark.
That’s a great argument for the dark-to-light rule of oil painting, but what should watercolorists do? Start with a monochrome value study, so you hit the blues properly the first time out.
How dark are the leaves?
Trees are often among the darkest features of the landscape, especially when we’re below them. But yellows and golds are naturally light colors. That makes us perceive fall foliage as lighter than it is. We need to take care to check the value of foliage in the design phase.
Avoid white in your foliage mixes, except to articulate a sun-struck passage. Darken yellow-gold with yellow ochre rather than with its complement, or you’ll kill the chroma. And check the leaf values against tree trunks; in some cases, they may not be that different.
Keuka Vineyard, Carol L. Douglas, available through the Kelpie Gallery. This shows the earliest autumn changes, which in New York are in late August.
How intense is fall color?
It’s easy to overstate the chroma in any season. It’s especially easy in autumn, because we’re responding to unusual brilliance. But Nature has a wide variety of chromatic intensities, from the delicate robin’s egg blue of a winter sky to the dazzling reflections off the ocean. There are plenty of greys in the landscape, especially in autumn.
There are other ways to convey the brilliance of autumn than to just use bright colors. Set the subject tree against more neutral tones, or place an intensely warm tone against a cool tone.
Autumn has its own color temperature
Above, I wrote that autumn colors were still predominantly blue and green. But the overall color temperature is warm, because the sun spends a lot more time on the horizon than it does in midsummer.
Autumn is known for its magical lambent light—the “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness/Close bosom friend of the maturing sun,” as John Keats said.
Color temperature is a lengthy subject, and I’ve written about it here, here, here, hereand here(that’ll keep you out of the bars). The basic rule is that the color of the shadow is the complement of the color of the light. If light is golden, shadows are cool.
This was originally posted in September, 2019. Happy Labor Day, my friends!

My 2024 workshops:

Art and order

We think of art as a form of creative expression. It hasn’t always been that way.
Fowling scene from the Tomb of Nebamun, c. 1350 BC, courtesy British Museum. He’s with his wife, daughter and their tabby cat, relaxing in the afterlife.
Contemplating contrapposto (counterpoise)—as I did on Wednesday—inevitably makes me think about the art of ancient Egypt. Contrapposto is the door that separates modern sensibility from ancient thinking. On our side lies personal expression, naturalism, self-direction and change. On the other side was tradition, continuity and ritual. The Egyptians never stepped through.
In fact, looking at Egyptian culture as a whole is like looking at a distorted mirror image of our modern selves. Consider the very useful Pythagorean theorem. The relationship it describes was known to the Egyptians as early as 2000 BC as lists of numbers, but the ability to upgrade that into a predictive formula was lost on them. We had to wait until around 500 BC for the Greeks. This was not for lack of scientific intelligence, for the Egyptians were great builders, miners, and chemists. 
Mortuary figurine of a woman; 4400–4000 BC; crocodile bone. The workmanship gets more sophisticated over time, but the character and pose remain unchanged. Courtesy the Louvre.
Egyptian culture came into being as people were compressed into the Nile River Valley by desertification. Irrigation supported the development of a stable Egyptian culture. By the New Kingdom it was very powerful indeed, reaching around the Levant and down through the Nile Valley.
Egypt was both a fruitful and precarious place to live. Drought and famine were ever-present threats. The Nile, which gave Egypt life, was also home to deadly snakes and spiders, hippopotami and crocodiles. It’s no surprise that theirs was a very structured society. Going outside the rules could be fatal.
Wooden statue of the scribe Kaaper; c. 2450 BC; wood, copper and rock crystal, courtesy Egyptian Museum (Cairo).
In fact, order and continuity were the very hallmarks of Egyptian culture. Ancient Egypt was a series of stable kingdoms, divided by short, painful bursts of instability. These are the times we tend to study, because they’re so interesting. Take for example, the Amarna Period. Around 1350 BC, Amenhotep IV ascended the throne and instituted a series of reforms. He changed his name to Akhenaten, promoted the sun deity Aten as the sole deity, suppressed other gods, and moved his capital to the new city of Akhetaten.
But our fascination with the sun-worshipping pharaoh was not shared by his successors. Subsequent pharaohs, TutankhamunAy, and Horemheb, pointedly worked to erase Akhenaten’s name, ideas and works from Egyptian history. It was back to business as usual in Egypt.
Egyptian statue of the Persian king Darius the Great, c. 500 BC. The robes are Hellenistic, the pose is resolutely Egyptian. Courtesy National Museum of Iran. 
This same conservatism can be seen in their art. It spans a vastly long period as human civilizations go—from the 31st century BC to the 4th century AD. Through most of that time, it changed glacially slowly. Only at the very end, when Egypt was ruled by Achaemenid satraps and the Ptolemy pharaohs, did Hellenistic influences begin to bleed into Egyptian culture. And even then, the changes were subtle.
Of course, most surviving Egyptian art comes from tombs and temples. Religious art is, by nature, conservative and symbolic. Thus, Egyptian art might give us more insight into their religion than into their aesthetic ideas.
But of what we know, Egyptian art was essentially functional and bound up in ideology. There’s an amazing amount of it intact: paintings, drawings, pottery, jewelry, sculpture, architecture, glass and amulets.
But none of it is individual. Unlike the ancient Greeks, we can’t identify Egyptian artists, schools or styles. That’s because ritual art precludes individual expression. The poses, clothing and regalia, colors, and skin tones were all symbolic. Even the delightful worlds recreated in paint on the walls of tombs were idealized.
Art, in such a world, serves the purpose of maintaining cosmic order, rather than exploring new truths. And yet, even here, in the eyes of a scribe or the beating of wings among the reeds, you see glimpses of life. It’s mesmerizing.