Spirit repellent?

It’s the season of ghosties and goblins and night hags. Try some blue for relief.
Haint blue porch ceiling. Photo courtesy of Lake Lou.
Like many Americans, I painted my porch ceiling a soft, watery blue (when I had a porch). I knew it was originally a Southern custom, but it’s one that also has surprising traction in the Northeast. No matter what color your house is, it’s a pretty, restful detail, especially on an overcast day.
I didn’t realize that we get that tradition from Hoodoo. That’s the folk magic of the low-country Gullahpeople. It has African and Creole roots, overlaid by the Bible. The Boo Hag is a regional variation of the night hag.This is a worldwide mythological idea that gives us the modern expressions nightmareand hag-ridden.
The Nightmare, 1781, by Henry Fuseli. Courtesy Detroit Institute of Arts. The night-hag was a worldwide explanation for sleep paralysis, nightmares, shortness of breath, and waking up feeling tired.
Hags gain strength from riding or sitting on their victims. Boo Hags, in particular, get sustenance from their victim’s breath. Because they have no skin, they’re red. So, to be less obvious, they steal human skin and wear it for as long as it lasts. Talk about disposable ‘fast fashion.’
Once the hag finds a potential victim, she gains access to the house and then hovers over her victim sucking out its breath. Of course, the hag must be back in its hole by dawn, so the victim either awakes as if out of a terrible dream, or feeling tired and out of sorts. Like my husband this morning.
Back to the blue paint. That color was originally called ‘haint blue’ and was made with the fermented leaves of the indigo plant. Adding lye causes the color to precipitate into something that can be pressed, dried and powdered and—voila! It’s a stunner of a color, still worn all over the world in the form of blue jeans.
Indigo dye. Photo courtesy of Evan Izer (Palladian)
Indigo is among the oldest dyes known to mankind, and therein lies its first mystery. Its development and manufacture originated in India and southeast Asia, but the oldest known example of indigo-dyed fabric (6000 years) was discovered in Peru.
By the time our slave trade was being developed, indigo was a plantation crop in the American south. How the paint color became a talisman to ward off haints and hags is conjecture. Either it mimicked the appearance of the sky so spirits could pass right through, or it looked like water, which ghosts couldn’t cross.
Or, there was something about the color that repelled insects. That actually might be true, although it isn’t true today. Indigo dye was made with lye, and there was lime in the historic milk (casein) base. The resultant paint may indeed have been a good bug repellent.
Remnants of Haint Blue ceiling at Owens-Thomas House slave quarters. Photo courtesy of Telfair Museums.
The Gullah people used this beautiful blue far more liberally than we do today. They painted it on their porches, doors, window frames, shutters, even ceilings. It barred entrance, and if the haints got in, it encouraged them to scoot.
I can tell you, however, that haint blue doesn’t repel the short, costumed witches, goblins and other creatures of modern Halloween. As long as we had a blue-ceilinged porch, they came out in droves, like locusts. And it was great fun.
A special thanks to Jennifer Johnson, who told me this story in painting class yesterday.

Monday Morning Art School—drawing from the inside out

There are times when you have to dance backwards in 2-inch heels. Or at least do the equivalent in pencil. Here’s how.

My soap dish and towel. These are very small drawings, by the wayabout three inches across.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know I stress working from big shapes to little shapes.  We start with generalizations and move to detail. This is such a fundamental rule of drawing that it seems almost inviolable.

Yet there are times where the reverse can work brilliantly. There are artists—Albert Handell, for example—who work from their focal point outward. It’s a good trick to have in your kit. Practicing it occasionally helps you see composition differently.
Don’t hate me for the state of that soap dish. At least I wash my hands!
Your assignment this week is to draw a small still life, starting from whatever detail first catches your eye. I used my grimy soap dish. For me, the most attractive thing was the elliptical shadow thrown by the bar of soap, so I started there.
The soap and its shadow. That would soon change.
When is a still life not a still life? When it’s a-travelin’, man. The soap and brush were still wet. As the towel settled down into its pose of casual insouciance, it deflated somewhat. All the pieces moved, imperceptibly at first, and then faster. The soap and brush slithered across the table and on to the floor. This happened three times before I got them to sit and stay.
Finding the arcs of the soap dish around the soap.
One of the advantages of drawing the what interests you first is that it helps you avoid losing your subject. This is particularly important if you draw people on the subway, or lobster boats in harbor. Both will leave on their schedule, not yours.
Fit the dish shapes around the soap like puzzle pieces. Note that the brush has mysteriously flipped over.
If you were drawing this big-to-small, you would start with the ellipse of the dish and its placement on the bigger shape of the towel. You would then break the dish down into its parts. Reversing that, I started with the bar of soap and its shadow. I then built the dish around those objects. To do that, I figured out how they fit around my brush and soap, like pieces of a puzzle, paying careful attention to the so-called negative shapes that resulted.
Brush and soap in their bowl.
(Remember that what you see in the photo isn’t what I saw in real life. Photos distort reality.)
After that, it’s just a question of continuing the process outward. At the end you’ll want to spend a few moments integrating everything and setting a few final, strong lines to hold the composition together.
Growing a shadow.
Where might I use this technique? If there’s one object that’s the focus of my piece, like a beautiful tree, I might start by positioning it elegantly on my canvas and working around it. I sometimes draw hanging coats from small-to-big, since it can be difficult to get the parts to flow together. I always work small-to-big when the object of my attentions is in danger of moving along soon. 
I developed the drapery from the inside out, as well, like little puzzle pieces.
This is a technique applicable to drawing, for the most part. The only time I do it when painting is when my subject is a boat and I’m concerned it will soon be off to sea. Oil paintings can’t be cropped as easily as watercolor or pastel. Making an error of placement at the beginning is a difficult mistake to work around. In oils, it makes the most sense to do a careful drawing and tuck it away against the possibility of losing your subject.
This technique works well for drapery. This is someone’s jacket, draped over a chair.

(This post originally appeared on January 15, 2018.)

The intensity of color

Travel always reminds me of regional differences in color. 
Reed beds, by Carol L. Douglas, 9×12, oil on canvasboard

There were five Maine painters at Plein Air Brandywine Valley this year. One thing that was obvious was that our work was, overall, higher in chroma than that of the mid-Atlantic painters around us. Generalizations always lie, of course. For example, pastellist Tara Will is from down thataway, and she’s nothing if not eye-popping brilliant.

But a brief survey of well-known painters of the Maine coast—people like Henry Isaacs, Connie Hayes, Colin Page, Jill HoyEric Hopkins, etc.—show a painting culture interested more in color and light than in fidelity to fact. Compare that to the paintings recently completed for the Hudson Valley Plein Air Festival. With the exception of Maine’s own Olena Babek, these painters are from eastern New York and Pennsylvania. Their work is less saturated and generally warmer in tone than the work here in Maine.
Fog over mountain, by Carol L. Douglas, oil on canvasboard (available)
We Mainers have no hammerlock on high chroma. Go out to Santa Fe and paint with the folks from Plein Air Painters of New Mexico. They’re working in their own palette. It’s as intense as ours, but pushes the reds, ochres and blue-violets.
To a large degree, geography shapes our color choices. The light in Maine and New Mexico is harsher than that of the mid-Atlantic states, where skies often have high, filtered clouds. These create softer light.
A little (8×10) fantasia I finished in my studio on Tuesday (available)
Maine has more artists than you can shake a stick at, and many of us are ‘from away.’ Yesterday I was at a meeting and couldn’t help but notice the Long Island accent of one of my fellow artists. “Where are you from?” I asked. It turned out that all but one of us in the room were expatriated New Yorkers. Some have been here a very long time; others, like me, are recent transplants.
When I first moved to Maine, I was asked whether I’d moved because of the light. That’s certainly part of it. The Great Lakes regions of New York are actually temperate rainforests, they get so much precipitation. That means dark winters and many cloudy days. But that was only part of my decision. Maine art has a culture of color, and it appealed to me.
Midsummer, by Carol L. Douglas, 24×30, oil on canvas, available
Regional schools develop through example and imitation, and that’s a natural, healthy human interaction. But what should you do when you find yourself painting at cross-purposes to the people around you? I did that for a long time, and it was difficult. The misfit artist is under subtle pressure to change his style to match prevailing fashion. He doesn’t get the sales or the gallery space, and he starts to wonder what’s wrong with him.
The answer, of course, is that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with someone following his internal muse. The internet is a wonderful tool for getting out and finding one’s own tribe, but it doesn’t hold a candle to traveling in person. Go, take workshops, make friends in other communities, and validate your vision.

Talent, and other lies we tell our children

What’s the difference between a duffer and a star in any business? Hard work, intelligence and luck, not some ineffable quality of ‘talent’.
Painting of an Airstream trailer by Kathleen Gray Farthing for Plein Air Brandywine Valley.
When Kathleen Gray Farthing was a lass, her parents didn’t want her to major in art in college. You know the arguments; they start with “you can’t make a living as an artist.” Then her engineer father needed a graphic designer on a project. He was astonished at how much this man charged to do art, which he’d always thought of as a hobby.
Kathleen’s father took her drawings to this visiting graphic designer and asked him for a pronouncement. “She’ll never be a Brooks Robinson,” the man opined, “but she can play ball.”
The Cottage, by Kathleen Gray Farthing for Plein Air Brandywine Valley
It was both a cold assessment, and a curse intended to consign her to mediocrity. The equivalent to Brooks Robinson in the art world at the time was perhaps Jamie Wyeth. He was being lauded as the ‘heir of the Brandywine tradition’. There has only ever been one person born with his advantages. To his credit, he’s used them well. But there are many other great painters out there as well. They may not be on the cover of glossy magazines, but they build happy lives painting work that brings joy to many thousands of people.
I was terrible in math in high school. I’d been told all my life that my gifts lay in art and language and not in math or science, so I lived down to that prediction. Then I discovered that math is just a language that describes spatial relationships. I took math to multivariable calculus in college, earning all As. I accidentally escaped the curse of being bad at math by being good at art.
Walking into October, by Kathleen Gray Farthing for Plein Air Brandywine Valley
I’ve taught enough people to know that they blossom and grow in amazing ways. Take Sandy Quang, who is the daughter of non-English-speaking immigrants. She went to community college because that was her only option. Today, she has a BFA from Pratt Institute and an MA from Hunter College.
I had a teenage superstar in my studio back in Rochester. He had all the drive, ambition, and skill to be a very successful painter, and he want to RISD. Today he’s a set painter, working in the theater district, a paid-up member of Local One IATSE. But he’s not painting on canvases anymore, to my great regret.
Two of his classmates also studied with me. One was interested in science and art. Today, she’s a graduate architect, working toward her full licensing, and painting landscape in her spare time. The other went off to Hollywood to try his hand at acting. Today, he’s studying at Gobelins, L’École de L’Image in Paris.
Raining on John Deere, by Kathleen Gray Farthing for Brandywine Plein Air
Perhaps that long-ago critic thought Kathleen was too traditional to be a success in the art world of the late 20th century. Realism, after all, had been buried with full honors, and Kathleen isn’t the type to use her naked body as a printing plate. But it was an error to think the art world would stay in that state forever. Since then, realism has made an amazing comeback.
Like all of us, Kathleen’s had home runs and strikeouts in the decades since. Just last week, she painted a stunner, a miniature with loose brushwork, assured composition, and great mystery in the background. (It’s not online, so I can’t show you.) She’s overcome that curse through sheer hard work, and that’s an excellent lesson for all of us.

Monday Morning Art School: losing your drawing

You do a lovely underpainting and you lose it in the top layers. Why does that happen?
Home Farm, by Carol L. Douglas. Painted at Winterthur in Delaware.

The human mind loves complex, irrational space divisions. The same mind perversely regularizes what it paints and draws. A split-rail fence, where the gaps between posts diminish haphazardly into infinity, attracts us when we see it. However, unless we’re mindful, when we paint it, we regularize the spacing. The same thing happens with trees, flowers and clouds. In nature, they’re artfully erratic. We too often space them in neat lines. Bobbi Heath calls this anti-entropy. It’s a good description of the brain’s powerful impulse to push ideas, images and tones into patterns.

We’re best at drawing when we’re fresh. The challenge is to keep that freshness throughout the finished layers of a painting.
Visan Vineyard underpainting, by Bobbi Heath
Bobbi graciously allowed me to share an example for this post. She painted the underpainting above last year in France and finished the work this month in her own studio. That in itself is a challenge. No matter how good your visual memory is, it diminishes over time. You’ll always be most accurate if you finish work quickly.
Visan Vineyard, by Bobbi Heath
Bobbi made significant changes between the drawing and the final work. The far hill doesn’t rear up as energetically. The ends of the rows are lower on the canvas, and thus less important. More critically, she reduced the contrast, softened the perspective lines, and the ends are less incisive. She also changed the value of the midfield. In my opinion, the painting was weakened by these changes (although it’s still beautiful).
I stress drawing on paper before painting, instead of going straight to the canvas. It’s important to work out the compositional questions before you pick up a brush. It’s just as important to have reference to consult when the light changes or your painting gets distorted. A photo on your phone will just tell you what was there, not how you drew it.
Avoid too much solvent in the bottom layers. In alla prima painting, the bottom layer should have enough OMS in it to move fluidly, but not enough to run. You cannot keep a tight drawing if you’re painting over mush, nor can you keep the colors separated and bright.
Detail from Home Farm, at top.
It’s a fallacy to think that you draw first and paint second. Painting is continuous drawing, and the initial drawing must be restated constantly. I leave important lines showing until I’m certain I have finished the passage, and sometimes (as in the detail above, from the painting at the top) I don’t obliterate them at all. You can’t cover your drawing and expect to reiterate the freshness of the original line. That early drawing will always be your most delightful.
I prefer to work large in general. It’s easier to be accurate and poetic with a large sweeping line. The smaller the canvas, the more jarring small errors of measurement become. For most brushwork, I recommend holding the brush at a point more than halfway back from the ferrule. That gives your brushwork bounce and grace. But for accurate fine drawing, hold it like a pencil.
Kudos to Bobbi for offering to let me critique her painting publicly. “I wish I’d showed it to you earlier so you could have told me to restate the drawing,” she said. That’s a pal.

A week of channeling other painters

In the end my paintings ended up mostly like me.
Home farm, by Carol L. Douglas
On Monday, I wrote about my WWCD experience, where I tried to channel Colin Page but ended up painting like a Fauve. I continued similar experiments all week, channeling different masters each day. In fact, the ‘What Would So-and-So’ riff was embedded so deeply that I made up one based on Kirk Larson: “WWKD? Never turn down a free bottle of water.”
Yesterday’s painting started off as riff on Paul Gauguin, whose Yellow Christ hangs in the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in my hometown of Buffalo. That made it a seminal influence on my young brain.
Swiss Chard and red umbrella, by Carol L. Douglas
I might have started with his color palette, but by the time I finished, the painting was pretty clearly my own. Perhaps that’s because brushwork and spatial design are more deeply embedded than color, which is relatively easy to manipulate. Or, it may be that I was concentrating on color first.
Why did I set out to do this? I had a conversation with Ken DeWaard this summer about trends in painting, particularly about high-key painting and whether an old dog like me can learn new tricks. (Since Ken just took the top prize at Cape Ann Plein Air, he doesn’t need to think about it.) I’ve been teaching about color harmonies, which put it in my mind. Also, it was a way to amp up my energy to finish the season well.
Marshaltown Inn, by Carol L. Douglas
But other than that, I had no great intellectual pretensions; it was a whim and I followed it. That’s one of the joys of being an artist; you don’t have to clear your brainstorm with a committee.
It was a valuable exercise, one that I’m going to subject my students to at the first opportunity. But it takes months for the results of a class or workshop to insinuate themselves into one’s painting style (which is one reason that people who only paint in class seldom make great progress). I won’t be able to tell you how it benefitted me until much later.
The Radnor Hunt, by Carol L.Douglas
Meanwhile, we’re done painting for Plein Air Brandywine Valley, and have a free morning before the opening reception. There are five painters here from Maine, and four of us are heading up to the Navy Shipyard in Philadelphia to paint boats. After that, we’ll get into the serious business of selling, but it’s our reward for working so hard.

Should you keep your painting locations secret?

It’s not the location; it’s what you bring to it.
Fallow field, by Carol L. Douglas

I’m at Plein Air Brandywine Valley (PABV) this week. Torrential rain was forecasted starting at midday, so I took the unusual step of leaving to paint before dawn. I intended to blog in the afternoon. Of course, I didn’t get back to my billet until 7 PM, which is why you’re reading this so late.

I had the opportunity to test a favorite hypothesis of mine: that location doesn’t matter as much as subject and style. I know painters who jealously guard their ‘special’ painting locations. I’ve always done the opposite. No two painters look at things the same way, and various paintings of the same site will all come out radically different.
Same subject, by Lisa BurgerLentz. Note the raindrops; we were chased away around noon.
PABV provides us with choices of venues at which to paint every day, but we’re required to do the bulk of our work at one of these assigned venues. That allows us to visit properties we’d otherwise not have access to. Equally important, it lets them bring us lunch every day.
Today, we were spoiled for choice, with five options. Only a few painters joined us at Kirkwood Preserve. It’s a lovely, rugged patch of fallow fields and old trees, but fearing an imminent washout, most of us stayed close to our cars. That meant that four of us chose to paint along the same sightline: Nancy Granda, Lisa BurgerLentz, Bobbi Heath, and me.
Same subject, by Nancy Granda
Nancy, Lisa and Bobbi all agreed to let me share their paintings to demonstrate my point. Four paintings could not be more similar in subject outside a sip-and-paint, and yet they are very different. Even thought they’re all roughly the same composition, they each have their own tonal range, level of abstraction, and brush or knife work.
I was once next to Alison Hill at an auction preview when a client stopped to look at our work. She was conflicted. “I love her style, but I prefer your subject matter,” she told me. I asked her which was more important to her. “Both,” she responded. I think she’s very typical of the knowledgeable art connoisseur, who responds both with the head and the heart.
Same subject, by Bobbi Heath
I’d painted rocks and surf, which are a passion of mine. But she didn’t know exactly where those rocks were, nor did she care. It was the interplay of water and stone that attracted her. I know how to get to Raven’s Nest in Schoodic, a spot that is intentionally somewhat concealed. It isn’t promoted by the National Park Service because it’s dangerous. But I’m happy to tell you, unless I think there’s a chance you’ll slip and kill yourself. Raven’s Nest is stunning, but a painting of it isn’t going to be any better than any other well-composed painting of rocks and surf.
With the exception of Paris, no other site is more closely associated with the birth of impressionism than Argenteuil, wrote art historian Paul Hayes Tucker in Impressionists at Argenteuil. Claude Monet (who lived there for a time) was joined by other avant-garde painters, including Eugene Boudin, Gustave Caillebotte, Edouard Manet, Auguste Renoir, and Alfred Sisley. These painters were working in roughly the same style, painting the same subjects, and overlapping in the same time period. Yet nobody finds their work redundant today.

Monday Morning Art School: paint like a fauve

When the light is bad, give yourself a jolt of color.
Hardwood, by Carol L. Douglas, 6X8, oil on canvasboard 
Driving from Boston to Philadelphia, the sky was full of light, fleecy cirrus clouds. Bobbi Heathand I watched them happily. We were due to start painting at Plein Air Brandywine Valleyat 3:30 in the afternoon. While I love the wooded, rolling hills of Brandywine country, it’s not my natural subject. But I know that a good sky drives everything, and we seemed set to have a great sky.
Unfortunately, by the time we arrived, the clouds had solidified into a solid, grumbling, low mass of grey. The site we were painting on—a sloping, treed lot—wasn’t helped by the lack of sunlight. My go-to answer in impossible situations is to think of how other, greater artists have handled the same situation. (That’s another good reason to know art history.)
It’s hard to get excited about this light.
I could have channeled Andrew Wyeth and romanced a figure into that bleakness, but that would have taken it outside the realm of observational plein air. Plus, we were limited to a 6×8 canvas. And I have no interest in luminismor tonalism, although they may be the right answer for you.
I saw Colin Page briefly at his opening last week. That sparked the question, “What Would Colin Do?” The answer—as well as I can understand another painter—would be to amp the color relationships up, systematically and logically. Of course, Colin does this fluidly and gracefully, because this is the visual space in which he lives.
Salt Marsh, by Carol L. Douglas
Last week, I posted on color harmonies. Two of my students did color harmony paintings last week, both very successfully. I might as well put my own instruction to the test, I thought. I chose a split-complement scheme of gold against green-violet-blue. In truth, the scheme flipped a bit as I went, becoming less systematic, but that was fine too.
Soft Wood, by Carol L. Douglas, oil on canvasboard. This was a rain soaked day.
This kind of painting is the reverse of adding color to a subject under dull light. Soft Wood, above, was painted in a rollicking rainstorm from a farm porch. It’s a more typical way of adding color to a dull scene, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with it. In fact, it relies on the same understanding of color harmonies.
Autumn trees in Durand Park, Carol L. Douglas, oil on canvasboard. A similar color sketch from long, long ago.
When I finished yesterday’s painting, I said it looked like a bad Van Gogh. It’s probably more Fauvist. Post-Impressionistfor sure, and that’s not a bad color space for a plein air painter to wallow for a while. Once I’ve started down this rabbit hole, I’m staying here for the nonce. It’s dawning pink and blue here in Delaware, so who knows where the light will go?
Why do I go down these paths, when I already have a style that sells? Why does any artist do that? We’re always striving to get better. Artists are driven to paint because they’re essentially thinkers. When we stop thinking, we stop really painting.

The compensation question

Artists get asked for free work constantly. Only do it if you want to support the organization, because there’s no business advantage for you.
Glade, by Carol L. Douglas, watercolor on Yupo.

Where are you in this story?

When I first started working as a photographer, I was doing so many jobs for free. Nobody would pay me, but they’d offer dinner. Or drinks. Or publicity. Or experience. Or connections. Or insight. Even though I felt like my work was worth more, I never thought I was in a position to negotiate. I’d become so small when discussing compensation. I’d shrink. I needed everyone to like me. I assumed that if people liked me, they’d respect me. They’d treat me with dignity. They’d value my work. And they’d eventually pay me for it. But instead—they kept asking me back without pay. I think it’s so hard for creators to get out of that cycle, but my mom gave me the best line to use: ‘I’m sorry, but I can’t afford to do that for free.’ I still do free gigs, but only on my terms. Only if they provide value beyond a person’s gratitude. I’m never aggressive or mean. But I’m clear. I’m not sure what I’m worth to them. But I know what I’m worth to myself. And I want it put in writing. I’m still nice about it. I’m still polite. But I’m more dominant. Well, maybe not dominant. Actually, I will say dominant. You can still be dominant and nice.” (Humans of New York)
Every creator has found themselves running through this arc. Photographers and musicians get asked to perform for free, and painters get asked to donate work for fundraisers. It’s a great way to help the world, but it delivers absolutely no business advantage to you.
Glen Cove, by Carol L. Douglas, oil on canvas
If I like the organization, I’ll still send a painting, but I’ve also noticed that unless the organization is arts-based, my work often sells for a fraction of its real value. The non-art audience thinks they’re buying the equivalent of décor, and bids accordingly.
For several years, I sent a customized piece to a fisheries-conservation group I really like. My donations consistently sold for about a tenth of their open-market value. Finally, I realized I could help more efficiently by just sending a check.
The Dugs, Carol L. Douglas, oil on canvasboard
That’s especially true because of an anomaly in our tax code. My cash donation is completely deductible; my painting donation is not. If I were to donate a painting by another artist, I could take a deduction (with certain limitations), but not for my own work. So, never donate work thinking you’re getting a tax deduction, because you’re not.
At the beginning of our careers, we usually don’t know how much our work is worth. The donation-auction can help create some kind of selling history. But setting your prices based on charity auction prices will keep them artificially low. You’re better off to set them using a repeatable formula.
Adirondack Spring, Carol L. Douglas, oil on canvasboard. This is going to be auctioned to support the Gerhardt Neighborhood Outreach Center in Rochester, NY, on October 17.
Having said all that, I have a piece going up for auction to support the Gerhardt Neighborhood Outreach Center in Rochester, NY on October 17. This group provides a medical clinic, help with new babies, holiday baskets and backpacks for kids, transitional housing for women, counseling, vocational training, and a food pantry in one of the city’s bleaker neighborhoods. I’m happy to send them a painting, because I care about their work. If you want to know more about this event, contact Annie Canon here or at 585-288-0030.

Art history can make you a better painter

We are affected by what has happened before us, and we have the power to influence those who follow. 
Blueberry Barrens, Clary Hill, will be at Camden Falls Gallery’s Autumn Hues show, opening this Thursday.

I know a painter whose flawless technique is hitched to 19thcentury luminism. Another excellent painter watched him one day and sighed, “if he knew any art history, he’d be brilliant.” It was a sage comment. With a little understanding of modern art movements, my friend’s ability could be updated into something powerful, something that resonated with today’s viewers.

I’m not talking about putting on a new style like a shirt you bought at FatFace. That never works. Style is something that integrates one’s training, technique, emotional state, and personality. It’s what’s left when you’ve eliminated everything but inner truth. Done right, the artist has no more control over his or her style than he does over his autonomic nervous system. Try to put on an acquired style, and you’ll immediately be recognized as a poseur.
Downdraft snow in the Pecos, by Carol L. Douglas, oil on canvas
But note that I included training in that equation. To paint like a 19th century luminist today means ignoring the impact of a century and a half of war, the horrors of government-sponsored genocide, and the relentless push-pull of modern urban living. It means ignoring abstract-expressionism, magical realism, the invention of movies, color photography, and the entire digital age. There’s a reason modern painting has an edge that 19thcentury painting didn’t.
Beach Erosion, by Carol L. Douglas, oil on canvasboard.
With rare exceptions, my art-history posts are the least-read of anything on this blog. (I moved to this platform in 2007 and have my stats since then, with the exception of the period I was writing for the Bangor Daily News.) It’s always disappointing to write about a great artist of the past and realize nobody cares to read about him or her. But, like cod liver oil, I know art history is good for you, so I’m going to continue to offer it regularly.
None of us stand alone in the great continuum of history. We are affected by what has happened before us, and we have the power to influence those who follow. But to do that, to take our rightful places as painters or teachers, we need to be part of our epoch. To do that, we must understand where we are and where we came from.
Tricky Mary in a Pea-Soup Fog, by Carol L. Douglas, oil on canvasboard
That’s not limiting; it’s liberating. For example, observing how Bronzino painted energy into apparently-static portraits can make us better landscape or still-life painters. Our predecessors have experimented in color and composition in ways that can give us a firm foundation for our own exploration.
Understanding the goals of Rogier van der Weyden or Kazimir Malevich doesn’t make us paint like them. But understanding their place in the great sweep of time helps us to position ourselves in our place. Ultimately, that is the most important thing we learn through art history. It is the difference between a pretty painting and one that will have meaning to future generations.