It takes all kinds of thinkers

Whatever happened to the educated, literate generalist in our public life?

Apple orchard in spring, Carol L. Douglas

If you followed my recent trip to Argentina, you know we returned home with a virulent intestinal bug. It’s lasted for more than two months and resisted diagnosis, even with extensive testing. My husband was looking like a starving Biafran so Brien Davis, our nurse-practitioner, ordered a new round of tests. Mirabile dictu, it’s giardiasis! We start treatment as soon as we round up the proper drugs. Kudos to Brien for exceptional persistence.

When we left Rochester, my biggest concern was leaving the practice of our doctor, Bernard Plansky. His specialty is family medicine, which we used to call ‘general medicine’. I credit him with saving my life, since he figured out that I had cancer after two other specialists missed it. He’s also knowledgeable on subjects as diverse as Shakespeare, etymology, bagpipes, publicans and surfing. He’s that 18th century ideal, a polymath.

Apple tree with swing, Carol L. Douglas

Being a two-time cancer survivor, I had been under a high level of specialized care. Moving to Maine, I wasn’t at all sure about switching to a nurse-practitioner. But it’s worked very well. Under Brien’s care, I’ve lost 60 lbs., resolved most of my back problems, and am no longer hypertensive. In his spare time, Brien runs Hope Orchards. As with all farming, orchard husbandry takes intelligence and optimism. Both of these medical men have served my interests well, although they’ve approached the questions very differently.

I’ve been thinking about thinking because of a something I chanced across while reading about Alexander von Humboldt. He had a warm friendship with president Thomas Jefferson, whom he visited several times at the White House.

Dame’s Rocket in an old orchard, Carol L. Douglas

Jefferson was—like von Humboldt—a true son of the Enlightenment. He was a farmer, interested in scientific agriculture. He taught himself the principles of architecture and designed Virginia’s statehouse as well as his own home, Monticello. He was an inventor who gave us both the moldboard plow and the swivel chair. He could speak, read, and write in many languages.

Jefferson was a keen naturalist and anthropologist. Not only did he commission the Lewis and Clark Expedition, he tutored Meriwether Lewis in the skills he needed to lead the trip, including mapping, botany, natural history, mineralogy, astronomy and navigation. He was interested in Native American cultures and languages. And, somehow, he found time to be a very successful politician and lawyer.

Farm country, Carol L. Douglas

My sad thought for yesterday was that the last president with a background like that was Teddy Roosevelt. It’s hard to imagine what von Humboldt would have in common with modern politicians, whatever their affiliation.

Of course, we’ve done this to ourselves. We moderns assume that the best person for any job is the most specialized. But how well has that served us, exactly?

Postscript: The Bangor Arts Society’s 2020 Open Juried Show runs from June 1-15. There’s still time to sneak in a last-minute submission. The juror is art writer Carl Little. In a time when there are almost no live art shows, it’s refreshing to see America’s oldest continuous art society sticking with tradition, come hell or high water.

Towering genius disdains the beaten path

Today, art and science run in very separate tracks. That wasn’t always true.

Cotopaxi, 1862, Frederic Edwin Church, courtesy Detroit Institute of Arts 

Because of lockdown, museums and galleries are closed. That means I won’t seeing Alexander von Humboldt and the United States: Art, Nature, and Culture at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Luckily, I can tour the show virtually or buy the book.

Not only was Alexander von Humboldt the towering genius of early 19th century science, he had a profound influence on American art and culture. There’s a Humboldt Street in Portland, a Humboldt Parkway in my home town of Buffalo, and various fixtures named Humboldt across our country.  He was a famous explorer, but he was also the fellow whose work inspired Frederic Church’s The Heart of the Andes.

Self-portrait, 1815, Alexander von Humboldt. Gentlemen-scientists once knew how to draw.

Humboldt was the last of that breed of brilliant scientific generalists, largely self-taught, who contributed so much to the world’s knowledge of botany and geography. Between 1799 and 1804, he traveled throughout South America, exploring and describing it in scientific terms.

Humboldt is the first person to have realized that the coasts of South America and Africa dovetail, and he proposed the idea that they might have once been joined. He noted that volcanoes fall in linear chains and demonstrated the fallacy of the idea that rocks were formed from the world’s oceans. He laid the foundations of modern geography and meteorology. In his spare time, he surveyed Cuba and stopped to visit President Thomas Jefferson at the White House.

Geography of Plants in the Tropics, 1805, Alexander von Humboldt and A.G. Bonpland.

Humboldt saw the physical world as a unified system and the physical sciences as interlinked. He understood that botany was dependent on biology, meteorology, and geology. To prove that took 21 years and resulted in his opus magnum, Cosmos. It changed the way scientists see the world.

Humboldt mentored many young scientists. He was equally generous with visual artists. He expected them to play a part in the collection of natural data, by accurately portraying the landscape. Humboldt recognized landscape painting—then in its infancy—as among the highest expressions of love of nature.

Alexander von Humboldt and Aimé Bonpland at the foot of the Chimborazo, 1810, Friedrich Georg Weitsch

Church was not the only artist to follow in Humboldt’s footsteps, but he was by far the cleverest. In 1853 and 1859, he traveled to South America to replicate Humboldt’s journeys. While Humboldt had used family money to finance his explorations, Church enlisted an American financier, Cyrus West Field, who wanted to encourage investment in his South American ventures.

The Heart of the Andes is a composite of South American topography and botany. Its monumental scale and detail can’t be appreciated through photographs; you really need to go to New York and stand in front of it.

The Heart of the Andes, 1859, Frederic Edwin Church, courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

But in 1859, Americans weren’t flocking to the Metropolitan Museum of Art; it didn’t yet exist. Our nation didn’t even have a decent rail system. Church took his painting on tour, visiting seven American cities and London. At its opening in New York (April 29 to May 23, 1859) 12,000 people paid a quarter apiece to see it.

At the end of its tour, Church sold the painting for $10,000—at the time, the highest price ever paid for a work by a living American artist. Church had hoped to ship the painting to Berlin to show it to his mentor, but Humboldt, alas, died before that was possible.

The more you give, the more you get

Try giving it away for free. You might be pleasantly surprised.

Jonathan Submarining, by Carol L. Douglas. I painted this plein air with my pal Poppy Balser.

On Wednesday, I published a quick-and-dirty guide to teaching painting online. It was in response to a question by my friend Mira Fink; I expected she would read it and nobody else would be interested. Instead, it’s gotten responses from teachers from all over the country*. “I have been making my outline for my first online class this fall. This makes it seem so possible,” wrote Cat Pope from Mobile, Alabama.

Last month I askedwhether I was intrepid enough to move to online teaching. I think many painting teachers have been asking themselves the same thing. The current crisis may weed out many veteran teachers. At first, that seem like good news to younger artists.

Fish Beach, by Carol L. Douglas. I painted this with my pals Mary Sheehan Winn and Bobbi Heath.

But the discipline of painting is just beginning to recover from the bad teaching of the later 20th century, when technique became subservient to theory. There’s a vast repository of technical knowledge in those grey heads, and they’re part of a renaissance in American painting. This is no time to winnow the ranks.

At any rate, Mary Byromtalked me through my crisis. She did it without wanting compensation, as she so often does. So, when I wrote that blog post, I was, to use a tired old trope, just “paying it forward.”

Mary and I talked briefly about the current crisis. We got on the subject of generosity, where we’re in absolute agreement: it’s more important now than ever. “Cast your bread upon the waters, for you will find it after many days,” wrote King Solomon. “Give a portion to seven, or even to eight, for you know not what disaster may happen on earth.” You don’t have to be religious to see the wisdom there.

More work than they bargained for, by Carol L. Douglas. I painted this alone; I don’t always travel in a pack.

On Tuesday, I told my students that they could actually learn everything they need to know about painting from reading this blog. There’s no need to take my workshop or my classes, although I’m really grateful when people do.

I earn about $200 a year in advertising sales from this blog. That’s pathetic for a blog with this one’s readership. Google is always telling me how I can improve monetization, but I can’t be bothered. I barely have time to paint as it is.

Why give it away for free? I can think of lots of reasons. First, while teachers deserve their wages, knowledge is an entity in its own right and nobody owns it—despite Pearson Education Publishing. Free content is a form of indirect marketing, of course. But most importantly, what you give away freely, you get back multiplied. That’s true everywhere in life. Try it; you might be pleasantly surprised.

*I did get one negative response: “How is this not an advertisement?” wrote one arts administrator before yanking the post. I should have clarified that I was just enumerating the features that matter to painting teachers. I have no stake in Zoom, of course, and I don’t do paid product placements.

How to teach on Zoom (quick and dirty)

Hopefully we won’t need this long, but if we do, we can all learn together.

Me on Zoom, captured by Chrissy Pahucki.

Mary Byrom started teaching by Zoom a few weeks before me and she kindly helped me set up a protocol that works. Yesterday, Mira Fink asked for tips. I was answering on my cell phone so couldn’t be as specific as I’d like. Mira, this post is for you and anyone else trying to navigate the shoals of teaching in the age of coronavirus. It’s a quick-and-dirty way to get started teaching online; hopefully we won’t need this long, but if we do, we can all learn together.

I’m using the pro version of Zoom, which sells for $14.99 a month. I chose it for the following features:

  • No time limit, which allows for a three-hour class without interruption;
  • Full interactivity; we won’t have to have discussions via “chat” only;
  • “Share screen” function, which allows me to lecture with slides. If you want to do a prerecorded demo, it’s possible;
  • “Pin screen” function, which lets students keep me on the main screen while others are talking;
  • “Mute/unmute” which cuts down on the ambient noise.
My physical set up, after the laptop and phone have been removed. I can swivel the pochade box so my phone camera can shift between the easel and still life.
Physical setup

My laptop is on a small table below a large monitor. This is my painting monitor, doing double duty. Perched on the monitor is a small USB webcam. My phone is in a flexible gooseneck phone holder attached to my pochade box. This is easily adjusted, yet strong and stable. I have a power bank taped to the top of the box. This powers my phone through the entire three-hour class.

Yesterday I learned that double sign-in also prevents the meeting from disconnecting if one of your host devices freezes.

The webcam is aimed at my face. The phone is shooting over my shoulder at my easel. Be sure to mute and turn the sound off on one device or you’ll get a nasty ringing feedback.

Because I’m teaching in both watercolors and oils, I have each setup on a separate small folding table beside me. I have a small rolling task chair. Unfortunately, the Zoom platform really discourages teaching from a standing position, since the camera area is so small.

I have two diffuse photo lights I set up as fill lights. One is aimed at my face, and one at my still life.

Prep for a class about combining reference photos. Normally, my photos would be on my monitor, but for demonstration purposes, they’re on a board.

Class prep

Mary Byrom encouraged me to create a written class outline and a syllabus, because online teaching is less interactive and responsive than live teaching. This was great advice. I have a six-week syllabus and an outline of what I want to cover in advance. Of course, I am constantly tweaking this based on the needs of my students.

We are almost never going to paint from photos in my class, even if we’re trapped inside. That means my students also have set-up to do. Each weekend, I send them:

  • A link to the upcoming class;
  • A description of what I want them to set up for their still life.
An composition exercise from a Zoom class.
Meanwhile, I prepare lecture notes and create a slide show. This is generally about twenty slides long, and covers a specific topic. It can include exhibits specifically made for this class or masterworks by others. Despite my writing experience, I’m finding this tricky. It’s way too easy to overload students with information.

I demo specific points about painting, but I generally don’t demo every week. If that’s all we offer, students are better off buying an instructional video than taking a class.

I don’t like to do long demoes, but I do demonstrate specific points and skills as we go along.

Class structure

In a live class, people usually show me their homework when they arrive. It’s been an uphill battle to remember to ask for it. After we’ve reviewed last week’s assignments, I go through my planned lecture.

I teach a specific painting protocol, so most of the class is watching people execute that protocol while incorporating that week’s lesson. I go round-robin through the class, just as I’d walk around my studio. I look at each person’s work, make suggestions, and then move on to the next person. The downside to Zoom is not having the time to stand there thinking. The upside is that others in the class can look and comment on what’s being shown. Often, my students are more insightful critics than me.

Class size

I generally limit my classes to twelve people in real life, so I’ve done that with these Zoom classes as well. It seems a natural limit that works well for me.

Monday Morning Art School: color temperature and palette

Mixing paints is simple if you understand how pigments work.

Tilt-a-Whirl, by Carol L. Douglas, plein air.

In theory, you can paint with just four pigments: red, blue, yellow and white. For beginning painters this is sometimes a good idea, because it’s the fastest way to learn color management. It simplifies the thought process so you have only one decision to make at a time, and it is easier to get a more unified color scheme.

But there is a big limiting factor, and that’s the impurity of pigments. They all have overtones that muddy them up in certain mixes. That’s why your local paint dealer uses many, many more pigments than just red, blue, and yellow.

Split the color wheel in half like this and you have your cool tones on one side, warm ones on the left.

Claude Monet’s palette shifted over time, but included these paints:

  • Chrome yellow
  • Cadmium yellow
  • Viridian green
  • Emerald green
  • French ultramarine
  • Cobalt blue
  • Madder red
  • Vermilion (red)
  • Flake white
  • Ivory black (before 1886)

These are sets of paired pigments. That means he has a warm and a cool of each color, plus black and white. 

I use paired primaries as well, omitting the green but adding in some other earths. (Here are my supply lists for oils,  acrylics, and watercolors.)

The distinction between warm and cool colors has been important in painting since the Impressionists. Warm colors are said to be hues from red through yellow and cool colors are said to be the hues from green through violet. Each hue around the color wheel also has a warm and a cool version.

Paired primaries from my palette.

There’s no factual hot or cold point because this is just a poetic description that works. Much of what we believe about the psychology of color is hocus-pocus, but it’s true that if the light is what we call “warm,” the shadows are what we call “cool,” and vice versa.

Winter sun along my hedgerow, by Carol L. Douglas, plein air. If the light is warm, the shadows are cool, and vice versa.

When we say that lemon yellow is cooler than cadmium yellow deep, we mean that if you are trying to mix a greenish yellow, you’ll get a clearer shade with the lemon than you will with the cadmium yellow deep. The warm-cool language is just a convenient way of saying that.

Different pigments may look the same when squeezed out of the tube, but there the similarity ends. Pigments are impure, and you have to learn and work around those impurities.

Three blues that look similar out of the tube, but behave very differently. The ‘glaze’ on the left is the undertone. Courtesy Gamblin paints.

Mass tone is the color a pigment is straight out of the tube, dense and unmixed with another color. No real-world pigment, however, is as pure as a color on a video screen. While two pigments may look the same to the naked eye, their behavior when mixed can be radically different.

Undertone is the color revealed when a paint is spread thin enough that light bounces back up from the substrate. Some pigments are fairly consistent when moving from mass tone to undertone. Others have significant color shifts. Not understanding those undertones tones can lead to muddy mixes.

Cadmium Red Hue is usually made with napthol red and a little white. They mix very differently, which is why the hue is a bad substitute for the real pigment. (In its own right, napthol is a fine red, however.) Courtesy Gamblin paints.

Ultramarine, Prussian and phthalo blue are colors that shift radically from mass tone to undertone. They’re all so dark out of the tube that their differences aren’t apparent to the naked eye. But dilute them, and you’ll find a wide range of blues.

Undertones are why buying “hues” instead of pure pigments can be such bad value. Take, for example, cadmium red hue, which is usually a napthol red with a small amount of white added. Out of the tube, the two paints are indistinguishable, but they mix very differently.

To see a pigment’s mass tone, put a small dab of paint on a smooth white board or glass palette and draw it down with a knife, creating a uniform, solid stripe that completely obscures the painting surface.

To see the undertone, draw the sample down again so it is translucent. You should be able to see minute variations in the color, and in the covering power.

Click to get a printable PDF

Another way to test colors is to mix through what you have on your palette. Make the above color chart, using three sets of paired primaries:

  • Prussian blue—Ultramarine blue
  • Quinacridone violet—Cadmium orange
  • Indian yellow—Lemon yellow

The purpose of this exercise is to understand how paired primary pigments work together, so that you can make neutrals when you want them, and avoid mud when you don’t.

Draw the chart onto a canvas, and then mix across and down for each square. When I say “mix”, I mean mix them before applying, rather than in the squares themselves.

The left column and the top row should be pure pigments. Fill it in, then, just like the multiplication tables of your youth. For example, the intersection of cadmium orange and ultramarine blue should be a 50-50 mix of those two colors.

If you’re painting in watercolor, use enough water to make a jewel-tone transparency. In oils, the results should be opaque.

The discipline of solitude

If you want to make any progress as an artist, keep the door firmly shut.

Victoria Street, by Carol L. Douglas. Available.

Shelter-in-place has, perversely, not given me lots of alone time. My adult children have, in various combinations, come to quarantine themselves at our house, and who can blame them? Tiny apartments may be smart options for young working professionals, but they’re challenging to be stuck in. That’s especially true when one or both partners are working from home.

There are things about lockdown that are trying my artist peers’ patience, starting with economic dislocation. For those in my age group, the most terrible consequence is not being able to see their elderly parents. But I’ve noticed that none of my artist friends are complaining about the alone time.

Fallow pasturage, by Carol L. Douglas. Available.

Ingmar Bergman ran through his first sixty years of life as an enfant terrible, admiring Hitler and impregnating eight women with nine children. In 1976, he was arrested in his native Sweden on tax evasion charges, which led to self-imposed exile in Munich. In 1978, Bergman returned to Sweden and moved to the island of Fårö. He stayed there for the last 29 years of his life. There he pursued a radically-different lifestyle, married to one woman and spending his days working, walking, and watching movies.

“Our social relationships are limited, most of the time, to gossip and criticizing people’s behavior. This observation slowly pushed me to isolate from the so-called social life. My days pass by in solitude,” he wrote.

Autumn farm, pastel, by Carol L. Douglas. Available.

Bergman managed to embrace the two radically-different impulses in the artist’s life into one memorable lifespan. There’s the lure of chaos, where ideas and inspiration are shaken up and fizz into new forms. That has to be balanced with the discipline of solitude, or the artist gets nothing done.

Of course, most of us go from ferment to discipline as we age. Part of that is embracing solitude. We progress from coffee-shop conversations about art to the difficult business of producing it alone, in our studios. We may love talking about art, but the creative disciplines are not a great career choice for the naturally-gregarious.

Paul Cézanne spent most of his career in obscurity. (It helped that he had a banker father and no financial worries.) His critical success didn’t happen until later in his life, meaning he had the solitude to work out his ideas in paint. Would Cézanne have been able to create the bridge between Impressionism and modern art if he’d needed popularity? It’s doubtful.

Wood pile, Hope, by Carol L. Douglas. Available.

One could say that Cézanne died of aloneness. He developed severe depression in the last decade of his life and was sadly alienated from much of his social circle. Painting alone, he was drenched in a storm and collapsed. He was taken home by a passerby, and his housekeeper nursed him back to consciousness. The next day, he got up and attempted to paint from a model. He collapsed again and was put to bed; he never rose again.

That’s a terrible death, but a good attitude towards work. The problem with company is that dialog mutes your own thoughts, and they’re what’s necessary for the business of creation. If you want to make any progress during lockdown, keep the door firmly shut.

Appreciating liberty

“This is bigger than 9/11,” she said sadly, “and did we ever go back after 9/11?”

Stormy Skies, by Carol L. Douglas. Available.

Yesterday was a Zoom-intensive day. I started with my class. Then I switched channels to the Maine Arts Commission. That’s a meeting I had to attend, since the commission is working heroically for our economically-battered arts sector.

That meant six hours of online meetings. Later I texted a friend whose job involves doing this all day long. “It left me feeling extremely out-of-sorts,” I told her. “I’m kind of anxious, and I’m not an anxious person.” She said the same thing sometimes happens to her.

A group in which I serve is operating on the principle that we won’t meet in person at all for the foreseeable future. That means we must put all our activities online as much as is possible. But how to do that and in what form remains to be seen.

After the storm, pastel, by Carol L. Douglas

I also belong to a group that’s trying to figure out how to start meeting in person if the limit on gatherings is eased in June. There’s varied opinion in our circle about the importance of the restrictions now in place. However, we’re united in wanting to make live meetings happen. That means doing what’s necessary to make everyone comfortable.

Wise leaders are struggling to meet people where they’re at, rather than dictating what their response should be. I have friends who think this is a conspiracy to deprive them of their rights, and friends who are afraid to go to the grocery store. All must be accommodated as we grope our way forward.

How much will we appreciate our liberty when this is all over? The answer depends, in part, on whether you find the current crisis much of an impingement. Not everyone does.

Parrsboro Dawn, by Carol L. Douglas. Available.

As someone whose livelihood and religious practice have both been swept off the table, I recognize that things have changed. The question I ask myself is whether I’m intrepid enough to venture out into this new reality, or whether I should retire to the country and raise chickens.

Last night I asked my friend Cheryl whether she thought we’d ever go back to life as we knew it. “This is bigger than 9/11,” she said sadly, “and did we ever go back after 9/11?”

I’ve always wondered why so many people willingly collaborated with the Nazis during WW2. Today people apparently denounce their neighbors for having company or for not wearing masks. I know people have noticed the New York plates in my driveway because they’ve remarked on them. Luckily, these were people who like me.

Sunrise in Virginia, pastel, by Carol L. Douglas

I begin to understand the social pressure that drove the collaborators. They were driven by fear, anger, and opportunism as much as ideology. These are all social behaviors, just as much as love and friendship are. We humans are ultimately social animals, even when we’re sheltering apart. We’re so strongly designed that way that it can be our undoing. As I discovered in Argentina, the answer to the question, “If all your friends jumped off a cliff, would you, too?” is, apparently, yes.

Still, don’t for a moment think I’m unduly pessimistic about the future. My faith can be derided as simple, but simple isn’t necessarily a bad thing. “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you,” wrote the prophet Isaiah. I know that good will come of these trying times; it always does.

Monday Morning Art School: the tree outside your window

There is always something to see, even when we’re stuck at home.

The tree outside my front door is a maple, and it’s bereft of leaves right now.

Sue Colgan-Borror has been encouraging her fellow Knox County Art Society painters to take up a new art challenge each week. Last week’s subject was, “Where would you rather be,” to which Mary Ann Heinzen-Hackett responded, “Right here!” and went out and painted in the bitter cold.  I’m with Mary Ann. Although I enjoy jetting off to exotic places to paint, I love my own home the best.

One of the issues we face in lockdown is that many of us are being deprived of meaningful contact with nature. This is not a mere luxury. Research has shown that people who regularly spend time in green spaces are physically and mentally healthier than their peers. This finding cuts across lines of race, economics and gender.

A few weeks ago, I had my weekly painting classpaint the view from their windows. This was a limited exercise, in that each of them was working from their studio space. That meant they had one, or possibly two, windows to work from. But what about the views from all the other windows, the ones we barely notice?

The tree on the dooryard is an Eastern White Pine.

There are windows in my house that I seldom look out. I simply pass by them. I’m not alone in that. “When I encouraged people on social media to take a photo of a tree outside their window, one man replied that he’d thought it sad that he had no tree to photograph, before peering out into the street and realising that there was one right outside,” wrote Isabel Hardman.

Some of these tiny views that I ignore are arresting vignettes. Take the view from my front door. This door is never used; everyone uses the kitchen door, which opens off an area still called the dooryard in Maine. That neglected front door has a lace curtain over it, allowing only filtered light to come through. Outside is a beautiful old maple, the last survivor of a long line that once ran along Route 1. But since I never look at it, it’s seldom in my consciousness.

Tiny watercolor thumbnails done outside my window in Waldoboro, ME in the dead of winter.

There’s looking, and then there’s looking. There’s a difference between glancing at a tree and spending time drawing or painting it. The latter will give you most of the health benefits of a trek through Acadia National Park, and you won’t have to break quarantine to do it.

The tree outside your window is just one example of the beauty to be found in the everyday. There is always something to see, even as our viewpoint narrows with circumstances. Édouard Manet died tragically young of syphilis; he suffered from pain and paralysis during the last three years of his life. Yet during this time he completed many small still lives of flowers, fruit and vegetables that are today among the most admired and beloved of his work. I’ll bet they brought him joy, too.

Most of these thumbnails were done from my window in Rochester, NY.

A big part of learning to paint is learning to see.  Your assignment this week is to travel around your house and make small thumbnail sketches from various windows. If you’re lucky enough to get outside, sketch what you see out there as well. All the examples I’ve included in this blog were done in my daily travels around town or from my own home. They’re in watercolor, but you can work in pencil or marker. 

A marker sketch of my current house. Your window sketches don’t need to be any more complicated than this.

The goal here is two-fold:

  • To see beauty in the everyday;
  • To learn how to draw or paint better thumbnail sketches.

Hilda Bush

I can just hear the old ladies whispering that I’ve finally come to my senses.

Seaside Provincetown House, 1960, Hilda Bush. Sadly, this is the only painting of hers I could find online.

There was a lady in my home town who made and sold landscape paintings. Her marketing technique was very simple: she would string clothesline between the old maples on her lawn and clip the paintings to the lines. The prices were modest but not as cheap as you might imagine for a sidewalk sale. The example above (the only painting I could find online) was tagged in 1961 at $40. That’s $350 in today’s money.

Mrs. Bush graduated from Middleport High School in 1922, after which she started teaching art in the two local schools. That was a time when the best-educated teachers were graduates of normal schools, so she wasn’t as unprepared as you might think. For the record, these teachers managed to turn out students who read primary sources in Latin, could do math and diagram sentences, understood civics, and drew accurately and sang in tune.

Mrs. Bush went to work at Harrison Radiator as part of the WW2 war effort. In 1946, she married and settled in to domestic life. And, of course, she painted. Even after she went to live with a granddaughter down in Pavilion, NY, she was still painting. She sent a picture of lilacs to my mother shortly before she died; I confess I gave it only a cursory glance. A combination of good genes and country living meant that Mrs. Bush lived to the ripe old age of 106.

Hilda Bush

As a child, I was young and impressionable and extremely snooty about art. As we trundled by Mrs. Bush’s house, I was certain of one thing: I would never be an artist who made sweet, silly paintings, and I would never sell them by tying them to trees.

Fast forward fifty years. I’ve been through my period of painting meaningful blight. I’ve done angst and soul-searching. Now I’m most interested in painting the same subjects as Mrs. Bush—the simple beauty that is all around us. If it makes people happy, I’m all for it.

With all non-essential public spaces closed down in my state, nobody can visit my studio-gallery for the foreseeable future. So I’m thinking of displaying art in my front yard. It won’t be on clotheslines, but only because I don’t have properly spaced trees. I can just hear the old ladies of Zion Lutheran Church whispering that I’ve finally come to my senses.

Erie Canal, by Carol L. Douglas, private collection. Mrs. Bush spent her entire life in this little hamlet outside of Buffalo.

Mrs. Bush and her entire generation (including my own parents) are, for the most part, gone now. They aren’t here to observe the 75thanniversary of VE Day today. I cannot say this any better than Mark Piggott did in the Spectator, so I’ll just quote him:

I’m glad the Allied Forces destroyed the Nazi machine and like millions of others on 8 May I’ll give thanks to the millions – including members of my family – who laid down their lives to prevent Hitler’s demented dream becoming reality.

In a world which seems to be more complicated than ever, where notions of good and evil, right and wrong are increasingly blurred, it’s good to be reminded of what true evil really is – and be proud that so many people, from all around the world, fought so bravely to defeat it.

Finding my center

NOTE: My Tuesday Zoom class is sold out. If you’re interested I’m waitlisting another class for Monday evenings starting May 18.

          I’ve been looking at this all wrong. This time is a gift, an opportunity to try new things, starting with online classes. 
Sunset sail, by Carol L. Douglas. Available through Folly Cove Fine Art.

I could avoid the struggle of redefining my work and teaching while in Argentina, but once home, it hit me at gale force. It didn’t help that I spent five weeks battling an intestinal bug. Every event, workshop and class I’d meticulously planned for this summer was either cancelled, postponed, or in limbo. Suddenly, I had no business plan at all.

Last week I accepted paintings back from two galleries that have quietly closed their doors. Both were suffering from pre-existing conditions, or what I’ve taken to calling ‘business co-morbidities.’ I’m seeing that a lot right now. This crisis may end up being like a spring ice storm that does Nature’s severe pruning. They’re scary but lead to a healthier forest. However, they also leave tremendous short-term damage. In human lives, that translates to heartache.

I’ve started spending Sundays listening to my friends preach. Bill Carpenter talked about how hard this shutdown is for kinesthetic learners. That’s me, so a piece of the puzzle slotted into place. Then our own Tommy Faulk talked about using this time to ask why we’re doing what we’re doing. Maybe I’ve been looking at this all wrong. Maybe this time is a gift, an opportunity for a reset.

White Sands of Iona, by Carol L. Douglas.

Mary Byrom
is weeks ahead of me in transitioning to teaching online. She listened carefully as I laid out all my frustrations. Mary’s a great teacher, so I wasn’t surprised that her solution was lucid and simple. I already had all the tools I needed; it was really a question of adapting them to this new medium of Zoom.

It took no time for me to put her suggestions into practice. Tuesday’s class (which was the last one of my current session) was a joy to teach. If the feedback I got is any indication, it was good for the students, too. So, yes, we’ll have another online session and hope that the need for social distancing is gone by the time it ends.

The Alaska Range, by Carol L. Douglas

We meet on Tuesdays from 10 to 1, on the following dates:

  • May 12
  • May 19
  • May 26
  • June 2
  • June 9
  • June 16

I’ve had two people joining me from out of town during the last session. That made me realize that you don’t need to be in Maine to take this class. That means my old students from New York or my former workshop students can join me. 

We still stress the same subjects as we would do outdoors:

  • Color theory
  • Accurate drawing
  • Mixing colors
  • Finding your own voice
  • Authentic brushwork

We utilize painting protocols to get you to good results with the least amount of wasted time. That means drawing, brushwork and color. I’m not interested in creating carbon copies of my style; I’m going to nurture yours, instead. However, you will learn to paint boldly, using fresh, clean color. You’ll learn to build commanding compositions, and to use hue, value and line to draw the eye through your paintings.

Beach erosion, by Carol L. Douglas. Available through Ocean Park Association.

Watercolor, oils, pastels, acrylics and—yes, even egg tempera—are all welcome. Because it’s a small group, I can work with painters of all levels. The fee is $200 for the six-week session.

As with all my classes, this class is strictly limited to twelve people. Email me for more information and supply lists.