Virtual visits to museums can be as good as the real thing

I want lockdown consigned to the dustbin of history, but I’d like to see virtual museums continue to grow.

Detail of The Night Watch super image by the Rijksmuseum. (It’s a nose.) Get that close to a painting in a museum and you’ll get thrown out or worse.

When I came home from Argentina, I expected lockdown to last a few more weeks. Now we’re talking about cancellations into next autumn. It seems like it’s going to be a long time before I’m able to spend a few hours aimlessly potting around a museum.

But museums have stepped up to the challenge of isolation. It helps that they were starting from a solid base. Most major institutions have been sharing their collections online, either in part or in full, for several years. For someone who learned art history from books and slides, this is a great resource.

Albidia, by Nicolai Fechin, c. 1920s, courtesy of the Philbrook Museum. No, I wouldn’t have driven to Tulsa to see it, but I did enjoy studying it online.

The Philbrook Museum of Artis located in Tulsa, OK. Twice a week I can join them to learn creative projects on YouTube, my grandkids can watch their storytime, or I can browse their collection or take a virtual tour on Facebook. I see that they own a lovely Nicolai Fechin portrait. It wouldn’t be worth flying to Tulsa, but it was interesting enough to ponder on my monitor. Tulsa is not the heart of American art culture, but its museum has responded quickly to COVID-19.

I chose the Philbrook Museum at random, but I think they’re pretty typical. Closer to home, I was planning (in my desultory way) to visit the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museumand the Clark Institute this summer as I crisscrossed Massachusetts to see my kids. Never mind; I’ll visit them online—the kids and the museums.

Two Guides, 1877, Winslow Homer. The only way I’m going to enjoy the Clark Institute’s superb collection right now is online.

Rembrandt’s The Night Watch is one of the world’s celebrated cultural treasures. It was twice damaged by mentally-disturbed vandals. Its home, the Rijksmuseumin Amsterdam, was closed for a long period of renovation. The painting itself underwent a massive restoration and is now visible under LED lighting to reduce UV radiation damage.

Still, the vast majority of artists, art historians, and art lovers will never have the opportunity to study it in person. Last month the Rijksmuseum published a 44.8 gigapixel image of it, which you can view here. It was made from 528 still photographs “stitched together digitally with the aid of neural networks,” the museum announced.

The image was made for scientific purposes, but it’s an invaluable resource for those of us who once visited museums to stand too close to the paintings just to peer at the brushwork. Best of all, it’s touch-screen sensitive.

Portrait of Dr. Samuel D. Gross (The Gross Clinic), 1875, Thomas Eakins, is the subject of an excellent digital ‘close read’ by critic Jason Farago. Courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Art critic Jason Farago of the New York Times recently did a close read of Thomas Eakin’s Portrait of Dr. Samuel D. Gross (The Gross Clinic), 1875, which lives at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It’s like being on a tour with a great docent—personal, informative, never didactic. You can watch it here.

I want lockdown to be consigned to the dustbin of history, but I’m enthusiastic about virtual museums. I hope they continue to expand. Great art is a cultural legacy as much as a commodity. It should be available to as many people as possible.

Necessity is the mother of invention

You might think artists have little to offer when people are concerned about building deep pantries. But the need for comfort, inspiration, and beauty are always there.

Inelegant? Of course. Effective? We’ll see. It’s better than sitting around wringing my hands.

Last winter I made the decision to stay home in Maine and run a gallery out of my studio in Rockport. I bought a full-page ad in the Maine Gallery Guide, devised a schedule of revolving shows, and put up picture hanging rails. Then American retail collapsed.

There’s no foot trade here or anywhere else. On the other hand, all the plein air events I would have done have been canceled or gone virtual. There’s no point in second-guessing my decision. All I can do is keep asking myself what I can do to make viewing art easier for my clients.

Visitors to Maine are now subject to a 14-day quarantine. Retail establishments are just starting to open now, with very stringent rules. Even if that weren’t the case, I don’t want people in my studio-gallery. It’s attached to my home.

It’s a work in progress. Today’s task is reworking the ladder sign so it’s more readable.

I never thought I’d be grateful for the years I spent hawking paintings at art festivals, but the experience has sure come in handy. Setting up an outdoor display has been trial-and-error and it isn’t perfect. The awning over our driveway is shorter than my walls, and there’s no way to angle them.

I learned this the hard way. The wind on the coast is ever-present.  Yesterday was very breezy. I set up the walls to see how they’d fare before I put paintings on them. They did just fine—until the art was added. It created a sail. That was an expensive mistake.

Oops.

Today will be another test, because I can’t tell if it’s going to rain or not. With 5000 miles of inlets and coves on the Maine coast, it’s impossible to predict what will happen when moisture-laden clouds cross from land to sea. My tear-down last night took just seven minutes. That’s far faster than I ever managed on the road, because I can just wheel the walls into the garage.

If this works, I might just replace my old festival tent, which I gave away last year.

The Wall Street Journal recently wrote about Wegmans’ response to COVID-19. Wegmans is my hometown grocery store, now gone superstar.  As a privately-held business, they can react creatively and quickly without having to answer to shareholders. Their response boils down to common sense. They figured out that their customers’ biggest concerns were safety and security. They changed their merchandise to meet those needs. Gone were the gourmet sauces and food tastings; in were ten-pound bags of pasta.

Eventually I realized that the weights on festival tents are to prevent them from going airborne; the problem here is stopping the walls from twisting. Hooking them to the garage solved that.

You might think artists have little to offer in a world where people are concerned about building deep pantries. But the need for comfort, inspiration, and beauty are always there, perhaps never more so than when times are difficult. Our challenge is to figure out those needs and how we can best answer them.

How can we make viewing art a pleasant experience when people can’t get to our galleries? The internet will help, certainly, but we are all hungering for continued personal contact without risk. I’m groping through this just as you are; your ideas and thoughts are, as always, appreciated.

Monday Morning Art School: how to create a compelling still life

If you want to be a good painter, it’s critical that you learn to paint from life rather than from photos.

Baby Monkey, oil on canvas, by Carol L. Douglas

The liturgical year has two periods called Ordinary Time. In fact, we’re entering summer Ordinary Time today, since Pentecost was yesterday.

I have taken to thinking of the-time-before-coronavirus as Ordinary Time. My classes would be moving out of the studio now into field painting. That option is now closed, so I’m asking students to create still lives in their own studios.

If you want to be a good painter, it’s critical that you learn to paint from life rather than from photos. Still lives are an essential tool for that. “Still life is the touchstone of painting,” said Édouard Manet, who believed that you could say everything that needed to be said in a painting of fruit or flowers. He spent his last years paralyzed, so he painted brilliant still lives from his couch.

Butter, oil on canvas, by Carol L. Douglas

Composition

A compelling still life set-up has all the same elements as a compelling finished painting: unity, rhythm, movement and a focal point. Colin Page’s still lives combine modern color and paint handling with the exuberant excess of Dutch Golden Age paintings. As chaotic as they appear at first glance, he’s consciously directing your eye through his paintings. Your first assignment for today is to look at his still lives and ask:

1.      Where are the diagonals?

2.      Where are the dark punctuation points?

3.      Where are the reds and oranges?

There are lines that are spelled out and lines that are implied. Note how many triangles Colin makes with object placement.

New hard drive, oil on canvas, by Carol L. Douglas

Content

A still life is an opportunity to be witty, incisive, or topical. If you’re having trouble thinking of ideas, browse through this list. Or meditate on what most interests you today. For example, I might enjoy a still life based on my new grandson’s baby gear, which is all around my house right now.

Color

“Remember that a painting—before being a battle horse, a nude woman or an anecdote of some sort—is essentially a flat surface covered with colors, put together in a certain order,” said painter Maurice Denis. While gathering the objects for your still life, be thoughtful in developing a sense of color—not just hue (which is easy) but in value and chroma. That doesn’t mean “matching” different items, but playing them against each other.

Light and shadow

Even more important than the colors of the objects is the color of light and shadow that will unify your painting. Natural light will give you the broadest spectrum, but it’s not always possible. Look carefully at the light you’re using—if it’s an LED it will be a lot cooler than an incandescent bulb, which sheds an almost-orange light. If you can’t figure out what color the light is, check the color of the shadows.

Think carefully about shadow placement. It’s what will unify your composition.

Happy New Year, oil on canvas, by Carol L. Douglas

Viewpoint

You can set your composition up on the floor and look down on it, or you can put it at eye level. Looking down gives you the best opportunity for diagonals and converging lines. A composition at your eye level starts with a grid of stately horizontal and vertical lines, which makes it feel lofty and separate.  Most still lives are painted at the same angle as we see things on tables in the real world. That gives the opportunity for both diagonals and verticals.

How will you frame the subject?

The ‘negative space’ around the objects is as important as the objects themselves. Consider these shapes before you start painting. Outlining them with a pencil on your thumbnail is a useful way of analyzing them.

Your homework

Choose five ‘carefully curated’ objects (or more, if you’re ambitious) and create a series of still lives from them in different arrangements. Record them in thumbnail sketches as you go. If you’re lucky enough to have a Lazy Susan, you can set your still life up on it and rotate it to get a sense of how objects can look different from different angles.