Loss and love

We think of it as a political problem but every single coronavirus death in America is, first and foremost, a personal tragedy.

My late Aunt Mary, painted a long time ago by me.

I’m in Buffalo for a memorial service. My uncle was in fine fettle when I was in Argentina in March, texting me about my trip. A few days later, he was dead. Yes, I’m aware that he had lived a rich, full life, but that is small consolation for the sudden loss of someone I loved very much.

My cousins endured their father’s death in the worst parts of the epidemic, separated and unable to comfort him or each other. They’re no strangers to loss; their mother (my aunt Mary) died the day before her sixtieth birthday. I am comforted by the idea that my aunt and uncle are reunited now, along with the infant son they lost so many years ago.

Like my whole extended family, my uncle was a committed Catholic Democrat. I’m sure he was puzzled when I ended up a born-again Reagan Republican. But that was never a factor in our relationship. It puzzles me when people use politics or religion as an excuse to fight with their families.

Grain Elevators, Buffalo, by Carol L. Douglas. The waterfront in my hometown looks so much better than when I painted this. I really should teach a workshop there sometime soon.

A friend sends me videos every day criticizing our government’s response to coronavirus. I delete them without responding. The last emperor to be criticized for his response to plague was Pharaoh, and that was by his escaped Hebrew slaves; his subjects certainly didn’t mention it. Was the Emperor Justinian castigated for allowing bubonic plague into Europe, or Edward III deposed because he didn’t prevent the Black Death?

Mankind’s historic understanding has been that there are only two possible tools against plagues: prayer and science. The Ghost Map is an excellent read about the origins of epidemiology. In 1854, people were more interested in containing cholera than blaming their political opponents for its rise.

First ward, Buffalo, oil with cold-wax medium on gessoed paper, by Carol L. Douglas

Still, there are questions that require communal response. What we do with kids in a few weeks’ time, when they’re supposed to return to their classrooms? How do we protect our elderly? Perhaps both of these questions really point up that we have gotten a little too reliant on large institutions.

None of my kids were born in Buffalo, but they are all traveling back to pay their respects to a man I loved. I’m very touched by this. Last night I went for a walk with my oldest grandchild. He may be only five, but he has insights into complex concepts. If he never spends another day in a classroom, he’ll be fine. Both parents are engineers and quite able to teach him all the way up through multivariable calculus.

When my mother started kindergarten, she did not speak English. Her own mother was illiterate. Public school was a lifeline and the way out of poverty for my mother and her siblings. The same is true of my goddaughter, whose parents are Chinese-speaking former refugees. We have record-high levels of immigrants in the US today. They need public school. The same is true of native-born kids whose parents didn’t have good educations. We must find ways to teach them.

I’ve watched many small businesses close this year. Many of them were already struggling. Lockdown was the coup de grace that brought them down. This is economic pruning. It may yet prove to be a healthy thing for our economy, just as the Black Death ultimately resulted in the end of serfdom in Europe. I remind myself of that every day. Crisis is opportunity. Either we adapt, or we retire from the field.

But all of that is political. Every single coronavirus death in America is, first and foremost, a personal tragedy. This weekend, I’ll be thinking of my uncle and what a fine man he was, and how immeasurable a loss his death is to me, and to a whole community.

Water everywhere

What is the dominant theme that threads through your work?

La Dordogne, c. 1902, Frits Thaulow

I stopped in the western Berkshires to collect eggs for my daughter. (She has pullets who are just learning to lay and she is out of town.) The leading edge of Tropical Storm Isaias had arrived. There was water everywhere, making a river of her driveway, washing the birds’ run clean. After a few moments, it didn’t much matter to me if I was running in the rain or swimming in nearby Kinderhook Creek. I loved every second.

Western New York (where I’m from) gets so much precipitation that it would be a temperate rain forest if it weren’t domesticated. It has a filtered light that has much in common with northern Europe. That can be tough to translate onto canvas. This is part of the reason I moved to Maine. I needed to escape the 200-or-so days a year when the eastern Great Lakes sit under a fat, wet cloud.

A River, c. 1883, Frits Thaulow, courtesy the Hermitage

Low light is difficult to paint and difficult to sell. Every time I suggest we go out and paint on a misty day, Ken DeWaard tells me, “I already have a closet full of paintings done on grey days.” That has an element of truth to it, but it’s not a universal rule. My own Tricky Mary in a Pea-Soup Fog was painted on a very dull day in Camden, and it was just purchased by a collector who likes the indirect light.

I think that light is in part what has denied Scandinavian Impressionists, in particular the Skagen Painters, their due prominence in art history. (The other reason is regional bias, which is why the Heidelberg Painters, the Group of Seven, and the Peredvizhnikiare not as famous as the French Impressionists.)

Norsk vinterlandskap, 1890, pastel, Frits Thaulow

Frits Thaulow was among the earliest painters to go to Skagen (Denmark’s northernmost town). At age 32, he sailed from Norway with his friend and fellow painter Christian Krohg. They spent the summer months painting the fishermen and boats of Jutland before returning home.

Thaulow was from an affluent family and had the advantages of a good art education. He studied with C.F. Sorensenand Hans Gude. With Sorensen as his mentor, it’s no wonder he could paint water.

Winter at the River Simoa, 1883, Frits Thaulow, courtesy National Gallery of Norway

He then spent four years living and working in Paris. His return to Norway coincided with a general rise in interest in Impressionism in Scandinavia. He rapidly established his reputation as one of Norway’s best young painters, turning out beautiful canvases that combine the low light of winter with beautifully-reflective water. But being a big fish in a small pond was not enough. In middle age, Thaulow moved himself and his family back to France.

There, he quickly discovered that he had no taste for life in Paris. While it may have been the center of the painting world, it was too urban. Thaulow packed his family to the small town of Montreuil-sur-Mer, in the north of France. It is not, despite its name, on the sea; it’s located on the Canche River. From there, he relocated to Dieppe in Normandy, and then to Brittany, and then in central France.

The Smoke, 1898, Frits Thaulow

I don’t know what drove his restlessness, but through all of his moves, his paintings were grounded in his primary interest: the play of light on water. Wherever he painted, the foreshortened path created by rivers and creeks was his main design element, and the water itself is what elevates the work.

In many cases, the backdrops to his rivers and creeks are, in fact, mundane. But Thaulow excelled in low-light situations where the power of water overshadows the sky, the landscape, and human activity. One could learn everything one needs to know about painting water by studying these canvases. In fact, the only painter who measures up to him in his ability to capture the reflectivity of water is his fellow Scandinavian, Anders Zorn.

In many ways, man has formed his landscape; the vast majority of us live, after all, in a highly-artificial, built environment. But it’s every bit as true that the landscape forms the man. Thaulow abandoned the maritime painting of his youth, but rushing water stayed with him all of his life.

What is the dominant motif that threads through your work? It may not be as tangible as a stream of water; it may be an idea like solitude. I don’t find it an easy question to answer, especially as I’m not much like the person I was when I started painting. However, I do think it’s a worthwhile question, and I think I find echoes of an answer in the same rushing water that drove Frits Thaulow.

Monday Morning Art School: Tone your canvases

Toning makes a difference in how you see lights and darks.

Bracken fern, by Carol L. Douglas. Available through Maine Farmland Trust, Portland, ME.

Imprimatura is the initial stain of pigment painted on a gesso ground. In indirect painting, this color is left open where possible, reflecting back up through the paint layers and creating a cohesive tonal structure.

We don’t paint indirectly in the field, so why do we still tone canvases? Toning is invaluable in the initial stages of work. Not only will a white canvas blind you on a sunny day, it changes how you perceive darks and lights. The tendency when painting on a white board is to start your darks too dark. A toned canvas helps the painter establish a pleasing value structure. We touched on this in our Monday Morning Art School lesson based on Josef Albers.

I use a clapped-out oil-painting brush, but a 2″ wall brush works just fine and is cheaper.

Traditionally, artists chose a warm earth tone like a sienna or ochre, diluted it half-and-half with turpentine, applied it on the canvas with an old brush, and then wiped the residue off with a rag. This is still the best way to tone, since it leaves a layer porous enough to grab the gesso, but in a light, sparkling manner.

With oil-primed canvas and boards, you absolutely must tone that way. While oil paint can be applied over acrylic, acrylic must never be applied over oils. It delaminates. There are some fine painting boards with oil primer, and it’s easy to confuse them with the more common acrylic-primed boards. Read the labels. 

If you’re painting in acrylics, you must use acrylic primer and you cannot use an oil-primed board.

A more traditional toning color, and a frankly bad application. I can say that; I did it.

There is no reason that oil painters can’t also tone acrylic panels with oils, however. It will give you a slightly smoother painting surface, and it’s a good use for leftover paint. However, to save time, we often tone acrylic-gesso boards with acrylic, treating the tone as an extension of the ground rather than as the first layer of the painting.*

Alla prima painters often let the board show through in some passages. What color you want to show depends on your own taste, so I recommend experimenting. Traditionally, painters used earth tones—the ochres, umbers and siennas. I prefer 20th century pigments, so I’ve tried red, lavender, orange, yellow, and blue. I think our predecessors had it right: warmer tones work better.

Birch board is sealed, not toned, allowing the wood color to shine through.

I toned with naphthol red for several decades. I got that idea from Steven Assael, who probably got it from someone else. It’s a good counterpoint to green and blue, the dominant colors of our northeastern environment. It’s energetic, which I aspire to be, and it makes me immediately think in terms of all the accidental colors in the environment.

However, I’ve been experimenting with painting on plain birch panels for the past two seasons. These come naturally-toned, as long as one uses a clear sealant. That points out the basic character of imprimatura—the hue doesn’t matter nearly as much as the value does.

Safety check, by Carol L. Douglas. Available.

Toning makes a terrific mess. Cover your work surfaces. Smooth application isn’t a priority. If you’re toning with acrylics, you don’t want to wipe out the excess so much as mix it to the proper consistency at the beginning, paint it on, and let it dry. In either case, don’t over-coat your canvas; you still want the luminosity of the board to show through.

Acrylic paint manufacturers say you shouldn’t dilute acrylic paint more than 50-50. That’s true even at the toning level. If it’s breaking down into droplets, it’s got too much water in it.

*I recently had a student underpainting in acrylics. I investigated this myself a long time ago and abandoned it for two reasons. The first is that it requires two full paint kits in the field. More importantly, the underpainting becomes part of the ground, rather than the painting. If these are separated for some reason (like relining), there goes the bottom layers of the painting. Far better to just learn to apply the underpainting properly in oils.