Love and friendship

A friend is a friend, and love is love, no matter if it comes by airmail or through the internet, or in person.

My mother and her cousin Gabriel on her last trip to Australia.

My brother gave me a thumb drive containing about 500 scanned slides from my childhood. They’re very interesting, but they are largely of an era when my parents still only had three children—my sister Ann, my brother John, and, eventually, toddler me.

They went on to have three more—my brothers David, Robert and Daniel. Then John and Ann died in two separate, horrible accidents. My children have only heard stories about them, so their interest is natural. But I could almost not bear the pain of those photos. They’re gripping images of another life entirely, before my family was blown apart by cataclysm. We were miserable for so many years that I’d almost forgotten that we were once happy.

My brother John, me, and my sister Ann kicking up our feet in the Niagara River.

On the other hand, Doug and I are in Albany with our own four adult children and three grandchildren. They’re nice kids. All of them are productively employed; three of the four are happily married. They love each other enough to want to live in the same city. I understand exactly how blessed I am.

Last year’s blog on this date was called, Joy and tragedy are two sides of the same coin. It was about our first COVID year, but it’s universally true. We lose people we love, and then we gain new people to love. The cycle grows more marked over time, but none of us are immune. Grief is the price we ultimately pay for love.

I have friends who have never escaped the acute phase of grief. I lived there for several decades myself. Faith helps, but it comes with its own questions.

For me, the key to surviving has been to keep my pain in a small box and resolutely look outward and forward. I wasn’t always this way. After my father died, I took on the role of ‘memory keeper.’ 

Our lovely boat, now long gone, on the wall at Rich Marine in Buffalo.

Eventually, I realized that I didn’t need to do that. Happiness wasn’t somehow disloyal to the past. If there is omniscience from beyond the grave (and I doubt that, on theological grounds), I don’t think they’d want me to be permanently miserable.

My husband and I don’t exchange Christmas gifts. Now that our kids are grown, there’s seldom anything under our tree. This year, however, I received a package from one of my online students. It contained a cute little ornament that looks just like me. There was also a package marked ‘do not open until Christmas.’ It was squishy and for some reason I decided that it was a stollen.

I was wrong; it was a collection of fine oil-painting brushes from a group of my online students. To say I was speechless, shocked and moved is an understatement. I couldn’t imagine why anyone would give me such a lovely gift. “We call that being ‘surprised with love,’” said the instigator.

I haven’t met all these students ‘in the real world.’ I’m no longer certain that such a distinction even exists. The line between real-world and internet contact is now so blurred as to be almost meaningless.

You young’uns may have never seen an airmail letter. It was a thin, parchment paper and you filled every inch of it with script, because it was expensive to mail. (Courtesy ebay)

My mother and her cousin-in-law in Australia wrote to each other for five decades, starting in the early 1960s. They never met in person until middle age, but they were always friends; decades of indirect contact forged intimate relationship.

I remember telling my youngest that his online friendships were not ‘real’. I’m afraid I owe him an apology. A friend is a friend, and love is love, no matter if it comes by airmail or through the internet, or in person.

In a few minutes, I’m going to head over to my eldest daughter’s house and play with my grandkids and look resolutely forward and outward. Have a blessed, happy new year, my friends.

Busman’s holiday

Good technique means laying off the weird experiments, and pouring your creativity into the narrow area that matters—the content itself.

My current canvas.

“Has anyone ever bought a house and not thought the previous owner was nuts?” my daughter Laura asked me. Our current home is the exception to that rule, but we bought it from friends who are meticulous. In general, she’s right.

We’re in Troy, New York, helping our third daughter work on her first house—a classic fixer-upper starter home. It was an accretion of bad style choices over solid bones and a dry basement; in other words, it was a good buy.

A 220 line and water line snaking up through an old cast-iron grate. Up to code? Possibly not.

They’ve already removed the shag carpeting, hideous wallpaper, paneling, and five layers of flooring in the kitchen, including ceramic tile that someone nailed hardwood over. (I wouldn’t have believed it was possible.) But they stopped cold when they discovered that the stove’s 220 power line and the refrigerator’s water line both snaked through an old cast-iron heating grate in the kitchen, which was then covered with all those layers of flooring. My husband spent yesterday sorting that mess out.

Artists have an affinity for these quixotic projects. Yes, it’s cheaper to do it ourselves, but the same impulse that makes us create works on canvas also propels us into building projects. I love nothing more than a project that involves a brad nailer, miter saw, clamps, and a lot of swearing.

My son-in-law spent hours yesterday trimming these drawers to accept new faces.

My part in this kitchen project is cosmetic. I’ve spent two days sanding and prepping the cabinet frames. Today, if all goes well, I’ll spray everything with primer. Mind you, I’ve never used an airless sprayer in my life.

“I admire that our kids are not afraid to try new things,” my husband said. I reminded him that we were building our first house at their age. “And we did lots of things flat-out wrong,” he countered. For example, we backfilled the foundation with crusher-run gravel and then had to dig it back out, laboriously, by hand. DIY is always a learn-as-you-go proposition.

My parents helped up with those building projects thirty-five years ago, and we’re helping our kids. I guess you could say we’re paying it forward.

“I think of my dad every time I do this stuff,” my wise student Mark Gale said. “Your kids will think of you when they pass down the same knowledge thirty or forty years from now.”

The old doors appeared to have been assaulted by a wildcat which needed its claws trimmed, so new doors it is.

My bête noire in renovation is the use of whackin’ big nails to hang trim. They make no difference in the trim while it’s in place but they create an awful mess for the renovator. I inevitably spend a lot of time filling divots in plaster and raining invective down on the heads of my predecessors. Somewhere, someone is probably saying the same things about jobs I did.

That has its parallels, of course, in painting. Practically speaking, there’s no real reason you can’t paint on cardboard—it has good tooth and it’s cheap and plentiful. But if you happen to create a masterpiece, your ideas will really annoy the archivist who must stabilize it sometime down the road.

Good technique means laying off the 2” nails and the experiments with substrates, and pouring your creativity into the narrow area that matters—the content itself.

Have a wonderful time painting, and I’ll let you know how the airless sprayer works.

Monday Morning Art School: why study art history?

Understanding the major movements in western art will make you a better painter.

Yo Yos, 1963, Wayne Thiebaud, courtesy Albright-Knox Art Museum. This, I think, is the first Thiebaud canvas I ever saw.

Wayne Thiebaud passed away on Christmas Day at the age of 101. Thiebaud is best known for his pop-art still lives of everyday objects, but should be equally remembered for his superlatively-drawn landscapes. He worked right into his centenary year, and that in itself should be a lesson to us all.

I regularly haul him out in class as an example of paint application, controlling edges, simplification and draftsmanship. Now he has crossed over from being a working artist to being an Old Dead Master, but his voice as a painter and teacher is not stilled.

Girl with the red hat, Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665-7, courtesy National Gallery of Art. No painting better demonstrates how to intentionally control the viewer’s eyeballs.

I had the fortune of growing up near a good art gallery which, moreover, was free. There were gaps in its collection, of course, because Seymour Knox was monomaniacal about abstract-expressionism. However, Paul Gauguin’s Yellow Christ, James Tissot’s trophy wife, the Buffalo newsboy, the little Charles Burchfield watercolors and huge Clyfford Stillabstractions are all imprinted in my memory, stroke by stroke. I’m sure they’ve influenced my painting.

There is no substitute for time spent in art galleries, but there is—equally—no substitute for time spent understanding the major movements in western art. It will make you a better painter.

I think of this every time I meet a new student stuck in indirect painting. It’s how I learned, since a small mania for Rembrandt had blossomed in mid-century (and continues to throw up shoots here and there).

Portrait of George Washington (The Athenaeum Portrait), 1796, Gilbert Stuart, courtesy Museum of Fine Arts

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with indirect painting, but in 2021, it’s a nod to the past. Perhaps some great genius will come along and divert the course of art history back to glazing (as, in a way, Andrew Wyeth did for realism). Or, more plausibly, an advance will be made in paint technology that drives a style change.

But right now, you may as well lecture in Attic Greek for all the influence you’ll have if you pursue indirect technique. We’re in an age of alla prima, bravura brushwork and brilliant color. One may be contrarian and reject that, but it’s at least helpful to know where you stand.

I vividly remember my first class with Cornelia Foss. She set me the task of drawing and painting an orange. When I was finished, she said, “If this was 1950, I’d say, ‘brava’, but it’s not,” the implication being that I needed to get with the times.

Napoleon I on his Imperial Throne, 1806, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, courtesy Musée de l’Armée

There’s probably not a lot that hasn’t been tried with oil paint. Tonalism involved a lot of dabbling, including glazing with experimental substances. Many canvases by Albert Pinkham Ryderand Ralph Blakelock have deteriorated beyond recognition. Knowing this would save a lot of anguish going forward.

Equally, there are brilliant technical skills that can be best mastered from looking at Old Masters. Nothing demonstrates edge control better than Vermeer’s Girl with a Red Hat, for example. Some of my students are currently on an Edgar Payne journey. They’ll learn more from studying his canvases than I can teach with all my bloviating.

But, beyond that, art can teach social history as well as any lecture. Think of Gilbert Stuart’s unfinished portrait of George Washington, the one which became our one-dollar bill. Compare its austerity with its contemporary, IngresNapoleon I on his Imperial Throne and you have all the difference between the French and American Revolutions in a nutshell. I don’t know what any teacher could say that would improve on that.

Christmas Eve memories

It wasn’t Santa Claus but it was magic nevertheless.

Santa toy, oil on archival canvasboard, $435 in a narrow silver frame, available this month through Camden Public Library.

We were raised without Santa Claus, my parents believing that it was bad to lie to children. Furthermore, my mother was inept at gift-buying. It was the Swinging Sixties, and my friends were getting Barbies, slot cars and record players. We got winter gloves, long underwear, clothes and socks.

I don’t remember feeling particularly deprived about it. We were rich in playthings. We had dirt bikes, dogs, horses, chickens, cows, and a sailboat. Mom was just whimsy-impaired. There were never Barbies or Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots when we were little.

Christmas Presents, sold this month through Camden Public Library.

We were not churchgoers, so nothing set Christmas morning apart. We would open our gifts, have breakfast, and then do as we always did on weekends and holidays—go outside and scare up some fun.

Christmas Eve was the holiday that mattered. Our grandmother’s home in South Buffalo was an hour’s drive in perfect weather. The weather in Buffalo in December is often horrible. Blizzards blow in across Lake Erie in the so-called ‘lake effect’ storms of early winter. Yet we never missed a year, even when it meant inching along the Thruway in white-out conditions.

There was always a battle for a window seat, because there was no car radio or light to read by. Instead, there was frost on the windows, in which one could draw pictures, and a kaleidoscope of winter scenes.

Christmas Eve, oil on archival canvasboard, $435 in a narrow silver frame, available this month through Camden Public Library.

It’s said that my Aunt Mary once laid my infant cousin Liz down in the huge pile of coats on my grandmother’s bed and forgot her. I can no longer remember if that is true or not.

What I remember most was the noise. The tables were set down the center of my grandmother’s apartment, and we were seated in descending order of age. There was no segregation of kids from adults. My grandmother was an immigrant and a young widow. She was the head of her clan, with six kids and 25 grandkids. In a sense, we were her life’s work, and she liked seeing us all together.

There was no dishwasher, of course. After dinner, aunts and cousins retreated to the kitchen to clean up, and my grandmother’s standards were exacting. That might gall today, but we didn’t mind. I got to know my cousins standing in Grandma’s kitchen drying plates.

Christmas Angel, courtesy private collector.

If it was not storming, my parents might be persuaded to go to Midnight Mass at my grandmother’s parish church. The hush, the candles, and the strange beauty of Catholic liturgy were all alien and yet so familiar. I’d been watching it from outside for my whole short life.

And then, the long drive home through the snow. Dozing, perhaps, but never really sleeping, the squeak of tires in snow, windshield wipers flapping. Dark roads and sometimes moonlight. It wasn’t Santa Claus but it was magic nevertheless.

My sister Ann died, and then my brother John, and then my cousin Frankie. My dad pretty much fell apart after that. Grandma got too old to make the white pasta and baccalà, so the aunts took over with sheet pans of lasagna. The Christmas feast wandered, irresolute, from house to house until it finally died.

But Christmas Eve remains one of my favorite days of the year. We’ll fry fish tonight, and video-chat with our kids and grandkids, and then wait with the rest of the world, in a silent hush of anticipation. Tonight, we celebrate the Incarnation, when God sent his only son to deliver us from our own stupidity. Of all the gifts I’ve ever received, that understanding is undoubtably the greatest.

Go outdoors and enjoy the weather

“’The trick,’ said I, turning on my stool with coffee cup in hand, ‘is not to adopt a siege mentality.’”

All flesh is as Grass, 30X40, oil on linen

The above quote is from novelist Van Reid. He was musing on the winter. I copied his essay here and I hope you will read it over your morning coffee.

The other day, I posted a night photo on Facebook. “An evening walk to church through a snowy wood? Norman Rockwell merely painted such idyllic moments; you live them,” commented my friend Roger.

The great irony is that such moments are easily accessible to us all. They surround us all the time. But if we’re inside, or inside our cars, or on Facebook, or watching television, they pass by unnoticed.

Lonely Cabin, 8X10, oil on archival canvasboard.

I’m a habitual rambler, as the British call people who walk for fun. Walking is one of the most popular outdoor recreational activities in the United Kingdom, but it has no traction here. Part of that is because we’re too spread out. Part is that we don’t have the network of rights of way and footpaths that give access to the countryside.

But you can always find places to wander: the Erie Canal towpath in New York, or rail-to-trail access in other places, or land trust and park trails, to cite some examples. My friend Mary and I spent many happy hours rambling through the suburbs, speculating on the people behind those facades.

Rambling shows you the world through a macro lens. I see all kinds of things that are hidden from the person who zips by in a car—the fat, lazy porcupine looking for his winter billet, a hare coursing through the barrens, red winterberries after the shrub has shed its leaves.

Nighttime at Clam Cove, 9X12, oil on archival canvasboard.

It’s taken me six years to understand the weather here, and that understanding came from being outdoors in all kinds of weather. If I walk over Ben Paul Lane and through the old farm road into Erickson Fields, I can avoid the prevailing westerlies in the bitterest weather. But in a Nor’easter, that’s inverted. It will, paradoxically, be warmest on the exposed path to the summit of Beech Hill—that is, until you make the final turn, at which point, the wind will blast the blood cells clear out of your body.

In summer, my usual treks here are filled with the noise of too many people. Americans are very gregarious people, so they share their thoughts with strangers. Petty irritations are inevitable. In winter, the same trails are empty. If we run across anyone at all, it’s likely to be someone we know.

The Late Bus, 6X8, oil on archival canvasboard.

I observed the winter solstice in part by discussing with my intrepid daughter Mary (with whom I’ve been north of the Arctic Circle) how we might get to Svalbard. That’s the northernmost inhabited island in the world. There are times, I speculated, that the sea ice might be solid enough for us to drive. “Yeah, but it’s dark then,” she pointed out.

My family are all bred-in-the-bone northerners, going back now several generations. “It does not mean that we have more character than anyone else, only that winter is an integral part of our character,” Van wrote.

Monday Morning Art School: the opacity of paints

To understand refraction, just remember that hideous invention of the 1970s, the wet t-shirt contest.

The Logging Truck, 16X20, oil on linen, on exhibit this month at Camden Public Library.

Opacity (or ‘hiding strength’, if you prefer) is a simple way of describing a paint’s refractive index. Opaque pigments refract, or bend, more light. Transparent pigments (which really ought to be called ‘translucent’) allow light to pass through to bounce off the substrate before it returns to you. Understanding the opacity or transparency of your paints gives you more control in color mixing and glazing. This is obviously important for watercolors, but it matters in oil paints and acrylics as well.

The hiding power of a paint is also dependent on the ability of a pigment to absorb light. That’s why black is opaque—it’s bouncing no light back at us. For most pigments, it’s a combination of these two properties—the ability to absorb and scatter light—that give us opacity.

Mountain Path (the Susurration of Dried Leaves), 11X14, on exhibit this month at Camden Public Library.

Most 20th century pigments, like ultramarine, are milled very small. They have a particle size of less than 1 micrometer (something akin to white flour). Milled mineral pigments can have particle sizes of over 100 micrometers (more like sand). Moreover, the size of these mineral pigments isn’t consistent; they are, after all, basically ground-up rocks. Some of these mineral pigments can cause an effect called granulation, which watercolor painters prize.

In watercolor, smaller particle size gives you higher tinting strength, more transparency, and more staining, because the pigment particles more easily penetrate the paper. In oils and acrylics, smaller particle sizes make the pigments more transparent and saturated. In watercolors, there’s just less pigment covering the paper, which allows the paper to show through. Even opaque pigments look more transparent when diluted, although they do not usually excel at being treated like transparent pigments.

Spring Allee, 14X18, on exhibit this month at Camden Public Library.

That brings us to the question of paint quality. Students are often instructed to ‘buy good paints’ without any idea why that is important. Pigment load is the primary consideration. Manufacturers make paint more cheaply by adding less of the good stuff. Compensating for inferior pigment load can build bad habits in the beginning painter. Buy a good student-grade paint from a good manufacturer, like Gamblin, Winsor & Newton, or Grumbacher.

The boiled linseed oil you buy at the hardware store is never appropriate for oil painting. It darkens and turns yellow with age.

A pigment’s natural refractiveness is only one consideration. The binder it’s suspended in also affects what’s refracted. You have only to think of that hideous invention of the 1970s, the wet t-shirt contest, to understand this. (And then ask yourself: what the #@$ were those young women thinking?) A t-shirt that appears opaque when dry will suddenly become transparent when wet. Air does not have the same refractive index as water. That’s why watercolor shifts in color as it dries.

And of course, acrylic and linseed oil binders also play a role in refraction. They never disappear on drying, so their refractive index, if close to that of the pigment, can render some paints permanently transparent.

Evening in the Garden, 9X12, is on exhibit this month at Camden Public Library.

We know that, as linseed oil ages, the refractive index increases. This can cause oil paint to lose its hiding strength, which is why we see pentimentiappearing hundreds of years after masterworks were painted. To avoid this, painters need to learn to use sufficient quantities of paint. And, of course, acrylics, alkyds, and water-miscible oils have not been around long enough to have any track record on the subject.

Most paints fall somewhere in the middle of the continuum of opacity and transparency. The most opaque are titanium white, carbon black, raw sienna, burnt umber and yellow ochre. We typically use white to create opacity, but there are times when its lightening properties make that inappropriate. In those instances, one of the other opaque pigments is appropriate.

Zinc white, sold as China white to watercolor painters, is not as opaque as titanium white. (It’s also more brittle.) That’s why its application in oil painting is limited to glazing, but is also why it’s so useful in watercolor.

(I have two more openings in my Tuesday AM online class and one in my Monday night class, starting January 3-4. If you’re interested, the information is here.)

What is essential?

That’s a question that operates on both the technical and the spiritual planes.

Beautiful Dream, oil on canvasboard, 12X16, $1449 framed.

Tom Root recently attempted to make a pithy saying about simplification. “It’s not simplification, it’s essentialization,” he wrote. While that’s unlikely to be printed on tee-shirts, it does get to the nub of the matter.

When I told him I wanted to share his quote with my students, he elaborated that he was riffing on a quote from the teacher and painter Henry Hensche: “I have never liked the word simplify, because it makes people think simplistically, there is nothing simple about what we are trying to do, I prefer ‘to eliminate all but the essential,’ and the essential is achieved by suppressing or eliminating as much detail as possible.”

Belfast Harbor, oil on canvasboard, 14X18, $1594 framed.

What is essential in painting? That’s a question that runs on two tracks, the tangible and the intuitive. In tangible terms, we need to look at the classic design elements of art:  color, tone, line, shape, space, and texture. We might call this ‘objective critique,’ since there are standards for each of those elements against which we can measure a painting’s success.

In intuitive terms, we could have asked:

“What do you notice first? Second?”

“Does this evoke a feeling or response in you?”

“What is the point of this work?”

While we might have to work harder to come up with answers to this latter set of questions, they’re equally as important. A work can be technically perfect but pointless.

Skylarking 2, 18X24, oil on linen, $2318 framed.

The idea that both are equally essential is one that comes from western philosophical thought. Traditionally, Christianity understands that there are spiritual and material matters, but it rejects any division between the two. That’s Dualism. It’s always treated as heresy, and for good reason. It inevitably elevates one side of creation and devalues its counterpart.

When art rejects meaning, or art rejects formal structure, it too elevates one side of its being and devalues the other. That’s how we end up taping bananas to walls or having to look at the impossibly-overloaded kitsch of Thomas Kinkade. What is essential, then, must be a combination of the two.

Penobscot bay overlook, 9X12, linen, unmounted, $250.

That doesn’t mean that you, the artist, have to be able to put into words what is essential about your painting. Visual art and writing operate on two separate tracks, and your ability (or lack thereof) to spin words has nothing to do with your ability to paint.

My students are going to do a 45-day watercolor challenge in the new year, but I also like my pal Peter Yesis’ New Year’s Resolution. He’s going to do a daily sketch every evening. Since drawing is the basis of all painting, he’s definitely on to a good idea.

Simplification—essentialization, as Tom Root called it—is the net result of hours and hours of practice. Perhaps in the New Year, you can commit to a discipline that will get you closer to the essentials in your painting.

Imagination without follow-through is mere fantasy

If not now, when? If not you, who?

The Late Bus, 6X8, oil on canvasboard, $435, available through Camden Public Library this month.

“Imagination without follow-through is mere fantasy,” pastor Quinton Self said on Sunday, making me almost drop my sketchbook in a shock of self-recognition. I have a good idea nearly every day. I’ve learned to ignore them and focus on my core mission (painting) but for decades I was bedeviled by ideas I couldn’t execute.

Until I was 40, that included painting itself. I was too tied to making a living to have time for my life’s work. How my husband (and cancer) helped me escape that is a story for another day. However, I do know the intense longing of staring through the shop window at the world of art and longing to be allowed in.

Owl’s Head early morning, 8X16, oil on linenboard, $722 unframed.

There are many reasons why we defer our creative dreams. Greatest among them is fear of failure. Somewhere in the business of learning a discipline, we face the fact that what we create will never match what we’ve dreamed. In our minds, we’re all brilliant artists; in reality, we’re all somewhat impeded. That’s a good thing, too, because the gap between what we see and what we execute is what the world calls ‘style’.

Nevertheless, the fear of mediocrity stops many people from starting at all. They defer their dreams to some future time. Their most common excuse is that they’re too busy right now. There’s a meme that reads, “being an adult is just saying ‘But after this week things will slow down a bit again’ to yourself until you die.” I’m not saying that our responsibilities are not real, but, to some degree, we all insulate ourselves in a cocoon of busy-work.

Lonely Cabin, 8X10, oil on canvasboard, available through Camden Public Library this month.

We’re all mediocre when we start—if we’re lucky. Some of us are truly terrible. You have to get through that phase in order to start being good, and you have to get through being merely good in order to be great. That’s the nature of every worthwhile venture.

We never know, when we start, where we’re going to end up on the continuum between awful and greatness. That’s played out over time. As a teacher, I can’t tell either. But I can tell where a person will end up if he never picks up a tool and starts working: he’ll remain a fantasist until his dying day.

Nocturne, 9X12, oil on canvasboard, $869 framed.

Painters hear the same comments over and over from people who stop to talk to us, so much that there is a small cottage industry of jokes about them. The one that strikes me as terribly poignant is, “I used to paint, but then…”

My father, in a sense, was one of those people. He had a scholarship to art school, but enlisted for World War II. He became a photographer and then a psychologist and painted on the side (and taught me). He intended to pursue painting in retirement, but by then the fire had been damped by tragedy.

I recently put a deposit down for a walking trip along Hadrian’s Wall in Britain. Yes, I know that travel restrictions are tightening; we live in uncertain times. But as I explained to my daughter, I don’t have any guarantees that in two years, or five, I’ll be strong enough to hike 75 miles. None of us are guaranteed a future.

I am reminded of two questions asked by a former pastor, Tony Martorana, that have resonated with me over the years:

“If not now, when?”
“If not you, who?”

Of course, pastors Tony and Quinton were talking about something far greater than mere art, but the point is universal. What are you going to do with the next year?

I can’t leave this subject without a plug for my workshops and classes; sorry about that.

Monday Morning Art School: color harmonies and accidental color

 Color harmonies are easy enough for a kindergartener to understand, but devilishly difficult to apply in paint.

Landscape at Saint-Rémy (Enclosed Field with Peasant), 1889, Vincent van Gogh, courtesy Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields

In music, an accidental is a note that is not part of the scale indicated by the key signature. (The sharp, flat, and natural symbols mark them, so those symbols are also called accidentals.) Accidental notes make music more beautiful, complex and intriguing.

In art, we sometimes work within structured color in the form of color harmonies. But too strict a reliance on color harmonies may result in static painting. We need to deviate from these strict concepts with the addition of other color notes. I call these ‘accidental colors.’

Half-Length Portrait of a Lady, Francis Campbell Boileau Cadell

Color harmony isn’t a simple question of matching up complements or a triad. We respond to color emotionally and cognitively, just as we respond to music. We’re influenced by our age, gender, mood, culture, and our learned responses. Then there’s the question of context. Fashion has always played a big part in color awareness, as has the availability of pigments. In that the healthy human eye can perceive millions of variations of color, it’s impossible to quantify every possible combination.

The Yellow Curtain, 1915, Henri Matisse, courtesy Museum of Modern Art

When I was young, I learned that red was the color of rage, blue of calm. That was based on Wassily Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art. Kandinsky was under the influence of a 19th century cult leader, Madame Helena Blavatsky, and everything he wrote about color was total hokum, but it continues to be parroted to this day.

I mention this because there’s no real ‘science’ behind color harmonies as we currently perceive them, any more than there is behind the scales we use in Western music.

Moonrise by the Sea, 1822, Caspar David Friedrich

Still, there are color harmonies that appear to work, so we continue to use them. They’re easy enough for a kindergartener to understand, but devilishly difficult to apply in paint. Two errors I commonly see are:

  • Thinking that the color harmony you chose includes the only colors permissible in your painting, so you don’t put other colors on your palette;
  • Thinking that the colors you chose are the basis of mixing. That’s just an extreme extension of limited palette.

Winter comes from the Arctic to the Temperate Zone, 1935, Lawren Harris

Most masterworks include color notes that are outside the strict color harmony chosen by the artist. When they don’t, it’s to set a mood, for example with nocturnes and sunset paintings.

This post originally appeared in August of this year, but I’m teaching on the subject again this week, so here it is!

In praise of large paintings

It’s a mistake to think of our large canvases as drugs on the market. They’re often the most important work we do.

Winter Lambing, 36X48, oil on canvas, $6231 framed.

Björn Runquist told me about the perambulations of a large work, 72” high, as we hung paintings at Bangor Savings Bank yesterday. It takes time to sell a major painting, so it’s no surprise that his canvas is more well-traveled than some of my friends. Like actors, these big works ‘rest’between gigs. They can take up almost as much house-room as a twenty-something between jobs.

My out-of-work canvases live in the closets of our guest room. That’s an improvement, because until this house, we didn’t have a guest room; we just had lots of bedrooms for our numerous children. Then, my inventory was stored behind a false wall in my room. It was the antithesis of House Beautiful, and it irritated me every time I saw it. My husband studied aesthetics as undergraduate, but it never bothered him. Go figure.

Vineyard, 30X40, oil on canvas, $5072 framed.

There are many large canvases in my storage, because I love to paint big: God + Man, which I did originally for a solo show at Roberts Wesleyan College, and a whole slew of nudes that were censored at Rochester Institute of Technology. The latter will be going to the Rye Arts Center in New York in March, for a duo show with sculptor Anne De Villemejane.

We artists love to paint big, but it’s easier to sell smaller paintings. They fit better on people’s walls, and they cost less money. Still, it’s a mistake to think of these large canvases as a drug on the market. Because they require such careful thought, they’re often the most important work we do. It makes sense to think of them as an asset that should be carefully rationed into the marketplace, rather than as large, bulky objects we trip over, that we’re only too happy to sell to the first comer.

Breaking Storm, 30X48, is available through the Camden Public Library this month.

Surplus art is our lot in life. For example, Ken DeWaard counted up the unfinished work in his studio at the end of the summer and announced he had something like 145 unfinished canvases in his studio. I haven’t counted mine, but it’s something similar; we’re like musicians in that we must constantly practice. We might finish or paint over them; we ruthlessly cull them before we show them, or we’d never have room for them all.

Between changing out the show at Camden Library and hanging paintings at the bank, I have moved a lot of paintings from place to place. It’s an excellent opportunity to bring the nudes out for an airing, as they need to be cleaned and rewrapped before they travel down to New York. “I hope you sell a lot of them!” my friend Marjean exclaimed. She’s speaking from the housewife’s standpoint here; she’d really like to see that closet better-organized.

All Flesh is as Grass, 30X48, oil on canvas, $6231 framed.

I’m just thrilled to have an opportunity to show those paintings again. The lot of women worldwide wasn’t great when I painted them, and it hasn’t gotten any better. 

Meanwhile, I’ll be at Camden Public Library tomorrow from 1 to 3, for a reception for Fantastic Places and Magical Realms. The work ranges in size from 6X8 to 30X48, so there’s something suitable for every space and budget. Stop by and I’ll give you your Christmas treat.