Soul ties

What makes one painter stand out in our mind when another doesn’t even create a ripple?

River at Belvidere, date unknown, Chauncey F. Ryder, courtesy Blue Heron Fine Art

I was contemplating the dormant branches of a birch tree when Eric Jacobsen suggested I look at the work of Chauncey Ryder. “Who?” I asked. Eric goggled.

“He’s the reason I became an artist,” he enthused. Once he showed me some images on his phone, I understood, but until that moment, Ryder had never pierced my consciousness.

Mín Herðubreið / My Herðubreið, 1938, Gísli Baldvin Björnsson, courtesy Icelandic Times

My pal Bruce McMillan writes frequently about Icelandic painters on his blog. Without him, I never would have been introduced to the austere abstraction of painters like Louisa Matthíasdóttir or Gísli Baldvin Björnsson. At first, I found them uncomfortably brutal. Recently I’m finding that their exceptionally cool mien speaks to me.

I myself have a long-standing passion for mid-century Canadian and British painters, many of whom are, frankly, quirky. I was thrilled to find the work of Alfred Wallis, a Cornish fisherman who didn’t pick up a brush until he was widowed, past the age of seventy (which ought to be an inspiration to us all). To call his work naïve is to underrate its sheer oddity.

The Hold House Port Mear Square Island Port Mear Beach, c. 1932 by Alfred Wallis

Wallis was ‘discovered’ by mid-century British modernists Ben Nicholson and Christopher Wood in 1928. They brought his work to London; Nicholson even bought one of his paintings and presented it to MoMA. But Wallis never saw himself as anything but a retired St. Ives laborer who painted what he knew—“What I do mosley is what use To Bee out of my memory what we might never see again,” he wrote. It was unnecessary for him to laboriously unlearn the artistic conventions of his time; he’d never learned them in the first place.

I have a deep affection for Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven, but I never saw their work until I was an adult. And yet I grew up a few blocks from the Canadian border, right across the Niagara River from Group of Seven country. Buffalo’s Albright-Knox Art Museum has a very fine Abstract-Expressionist collection because its leading light, Seymour Knox II, was crazy for modernism. His tastes were firmly fixed by New York, so the museum owns nothing of Thomson and his peers. They were too figurative for Mr. Knox’ taste.

Evening, (field sketch) 1913. Tom Thomson, courtesy Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto

What makes one painter stand out in our mind when another doesn’t even create a ripple? In the past, it might have been a question of what we could see. Outside the major cities we had limited access to the panoply of art being made out there. But that’s not true today. We can all see new art, almost in real time, via social media and online museum shows.

Part of this, I’m sure, comes down to maturity. I probably wasn’t ready to see the quiet beauty of Chauncey Ryder when I was 14 and being dazzled by Clyfford Still. Part of it comes from looking at lots of art. The more I learn, the more I realize how little I know, and the less I’m inclined to quick judgments. But there’s something else there, too, and that’s the response of the soul, which is—simply—ineffable.

Monday Morning Art School: why does composition matter?

It’s been said that a painting needs to be compelling at three inches, three feet and thirty feet. That’s simple enough, but how does the artist make that happen?

Erosion, 9×12, by Carol L. Douglas, available through Ocean Park Association.

Looking at a painting from a distance (or on the tiny screen of your phone), you’re not compelled by brushwork or even—mainly—by subject matter. You’re being drawn by the internal structure and abstract masses of value and hue on the canvas.

Music, sculpture, poetry, painting, and every other fine art form relies on internal, formal structure to be intelligible. This is easiest to see in music, where even the rank beginner starts by learning chords and patterns. These patterns are (in western music, anyway) pretty universal, and they’re learned long before the student transforms into another Bach or Ray Davies. In other words, you start at the very beginning.

Mountain Fog, by Carol L. Douglas, available from the artist.

This structure has nothing to do with the subject matter and everything to do with inherent beauty. It starts before the artist first applies paint, in the form of a structural idea—a sketch, or a series of sketches in monochrome, that work out a plan for the painting.

What composition isn’t is the sudden realization, when you’re halfway finished, that you have a lot of boring canvas with nothing going on. Slapping a sailboat in there isn’t going to fix an essentially deficient construction.

Hiking boots and toilet paper, by Carol L. Douglas. Boy has this become the symbol of my past year! (Available from the artist.)

Music is an abstract art because it’s all about tonal relationships, with very little realism needed to make us understand the theme. (Think of the cannonade in the 1812 Overture, which comes at the very end, but we’ve all gotten the point long before that.) A composer doesn’t need little bird sounds to tell us he’s writing about spring, although they can be cute. Done right, the painter doesn’t need to festoon little birdies on his canvas to tell us he’s painting about spring, either. That should already be apparent in the light, structure and tone of his work.

Abstraction is harder for the representational artist to grasp, even when we understand the critical importance of line and abstract shapes. We still have to stuff a huge three-dimensional reality into a two-dimensional picture plane. That’s a big job and it must be handled with deliberation.

Inlet, by Carol L. Douglas, available from the artist.

Just as with everything else, some of us are naturally better composers than others, but that only takes us so far. We all fail when we don’t put composition at the beginning of our painting process.

All of us have closets full of bad paintings we can’t resolve. (“How long did that take you?” “Just the ten bad ones I did before I did this one good one.”) In almost every case, the problem is far deeper than modeling or paint application—it comes from ignoring the fundamentals of composition.

How can you avoid this and reduce the number of bad starts in your painting collection?

Respect the picture plane: the four ‘walls’ of your canvas are the most important lines of your painting. All composition must ultimately relate to them.

Armature: the fundamental lines of movement that connect the main elements of the painting must be dynamic and clearly articulated;  

Abstract shapes: these are the building blocks of painting; they must relate as values and colors before they ever become real objects.

Then, and only then, can you move on to specific subjects and painterly detail.

“Remember, that a picture, before it is a picture of a battle horse, a nude woman, or some story, is essentially a flat surface covered in colors arranged in a certain order,” wrote one of the fathers of modern painting, Maurice Denis. As the direct heirs of Modernism ourselves, we would do well to listen.

Pretty little boat

In the last year, I’ve dragged home a tractor, a dog, a pickup truck and a boat. My poor husband doesn’t know what hit him.

Not much to it, in terms of working parts.

A year ago, Jane Chapin, Kellee Mayfield and I were gassing up our cars, getting ready to make a midnight run across Patagonia to catch a plane for Buenos Aires and eventually home. It took a while for us to realize that we were all bringing the microscopic parasite Giardia duodenalis with us.

I’ve dragged home a number of other things since then—a tractor, a dog, a pickup truck and a boat. My poor husband doesn’t know what hit him.

“People are going to take you for a native,” a friend teased. Hey, junk in the side yard is the heritage of my people, too. I’m from Buffalo.

I picked up the little boat at our family farm last weekend. It’s a 1946 Penn Yan Swift. My father shoved it in the back of the hayloft around 1965. He then ignored it.

After all, he had a beautiful, deep-keeled wooden sailboat that he far preferred. She was old but fast and graceful. The head was strictly for show; being the only female onboard, I did not appreciate the need to pee over the side. There was a tiny icebox, but that didn’t matter. My father couldn’t cook.

Then my older brother and sister died in their teens. My mother fought back from her grief; my father never recovered. Thereafter our trips were only short-term, on rented boats, or with friends. For me, that was another blow, because there is nothing I have ever liked more than being out on the water.

Note to self: outboards weigh a lot more than you expect. I’m still in pain.

The Penn Yan belonged to an earlier time in my father’s life, before he’d had a wife and six kids and a working farm. Prior to pulling it into the yard here on Sunday, I’d never seen it with its cover off. But something had to be done with it.

My first surprise was seeing our old dinghy balanced on top. When we were very small and useless as deckhands, Dad would tow us in it. It was probably the only way he had any peace and quiet. A good dinghy is useful and I’m glad to have it.

Everything is shipshape and Bristol fashion, as if he’d intended to take her out again the next weekend. Even the red rubber floor mats were there, although they’ve decayed into dust. A spare steering spool was carefully labeled in my father’s distinctive handwriting.

It was touching to see his things put away with such care. After John and Ann died, despair rendered him chaotic. He’d lay tools down and lose them and go buy more. His workshop was a mess. But in a prior time—before life ripped him apart—he was a meticulous and methodical craftsman.

I think about his last years a lot. I keenly remember the Slough of Despond and I never want to go back there.

At its new home in Maine.

“What do you plan to do with her?” people have asked, just as they asked me what I’ll do with the 1941 Ford 9N parked next to the garage. I understand the boat better than I do the tractor, but in both cases, I expect I’ll buff them up, use them a few times, and then spend the rest of my life tripping over them. Both have been around longer than me. If I have any say, they’ll both outlast me. 

Another gallery bites the dust

The galleries and artists who will succeed now are the ones who can sail the internet, constantly shifting tack and adjusting their sails.

Blueberry Barrens, Clary Hill,  oil on canvas, 24X30, available.

This week I learned that a fine coastal Maine gallery, associated with two other exhibition spaces besides its home shop in Belfast, is closing this Friday. Their gallerist, whom I like and admire, is now unemployed.

This gallery had a good reputation among knowledgeable art connoisseurs, but was hampered by its physical space. It simply could not host visitors in a safe, socially-distanced manner. Maine’s business season is ruthlessly short, so they wisely closed before the season opened.

Bracken Fern, 9X12, oil on canvasboard, available.

This is the third gallery I’ve been associated with that’s closed since the start of the pandemic. I’m not taking credit; it’s the times. But I’ve hated to watch them close.

I was halfway through writing this when I received an email cancelling a plein air event for the second year in a row. “The driving force is finding hosts for our artist friends who travel great distances… In addition, we cannot be sure what restrictions will be lifted, or re-enforced come July 1,” wrote the organizer.

Let’s be brutally frank here: it’s unlikely that the events or galleries that miss a second season will survive. Their customers will move on to other venues, other products, and other interests. 

Beaver Dam, oil on canvasboard, 11X14, available.

These changes are no surprise to those who watch the art market. Although no systematic count has been made of attrition in galleries, the American art market is estimated to have shrunk 24% during 2020. That’s the worst contraction since the crash of 2008. There’s one light in all this, but it’s a dim one: online sales doubled in 2020. It’s clearly the direction in which art sales are moving.

“Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door” is a quote attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson. It may have been true in the 19th century, when economies were local, but it’s not true now. In modern America, the quality of your product is no more important than your marketing skills.

Home Farm, oil on canvasboard, 20X24, available.

That marketing happens increasingly on social media. The difficulty is that social media is relatively new, so it is constantly being tweaked. Its constantly-shifting algorithms mean that yesterday’s strategy won’t work today.

Compared to most artists, I know a lot about digital marketing. That’s not very good, because compared to the worst-run big box store, I know almost nothing at all. I’m a one-woman shop, and I don’t have all day to research and tinker with my website, email, blog and Instagram. I can’t even fix the deficiencies I know about, because I also need to paint.

But I know that the galleries and artists who will succeed now are the ones who can sail the internet, constantly shifting tack and adjusting their sails. There is no other answer.

Monday Morning Art School: notan

Notan differs from value study because it is based not just on what we observe. It is the orderly restriction of shapes into patterns. It is reality subservient to beauty.

Sextant, c. 1917, Marsden Hartley, oil on panel, courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art

When I saw this collection of eight paintings based on the color orange, I realized they could demonstrate notan as neatly as traditional value-based examples do. Orange is uniquely high in chroma, so it’s easy to notice. It’s easy to see how the artists made a pattern based on it. From there, it’s not a great leap to see how great paintings can be constructed around a value-pattern too.

The Gossip, 1912, John White Alexander, oil on canvas, courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art 

Notan is a traditional concept that refers to the harmony of light and dark elements in a painting. It’s been integral to East Asian art for centuries, and it was introduced in the West in the middle of the 19th century.

On paper it is easy to see that dark shapes do not exist without boundaries, which are made by a surrounding area of light. Equally, light shapes don’t exist without dark to define them. (This is the Chinese philosophical construct of yin-yangin a nutshell.)

Card, 1971, Helen Frankenthaler, color lithograph with crayon, courtesy the Art Institute of Chicago

This concept of notan reached its apogee in the East Asian artform of brush painting. This was the fourth and final discipline a Chinese scholar-gentleman was expected to learn, because it was the most difficult. Through brush painting, a Chinese noble demonstrated his mastery over the art of line, which had supreme artistic (and cultural) importance.

Excavation at the White House, c. 1941, Mitchell Jamieson, watercolor on paper, courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum

The idea of notan came to the west with our 19thcentury mania for all things Asian. It was introduced as a teaching system by Arthur Wesley Dow, who wrote the definitive book on composition for twentieth-century painters. He taught students to restrict the infinite range of tonal values in the visible spectrum to specific values—perhaps black, white and one grey. He wanted students to realize that all compositions are, underneath, a structure of light and dark shapes.

Beth, 1960, Morris Louis, acrylic on canvas, courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art

But before Dow ever let his students get that far, he had them start with line drawing. Composition is above all about cutting the picture frame into shapes, which Dow called “space cutting.” We’re doing that every time we think about negative space, for example.

Untitled, 1958, Kenneth Noland, acrylic on canvas, courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum

Only when his students had created beautiful shapes did he allow them to start adding value. First black, then greyscale, and then—step by slow step—they could add color.

Child in Orange Dress with White Pinafore, 1911, Egon Schiele, gouache, watercolor and pencil on paper, courtesy Sothebys

Today we use the word notan as a noun, as a substitute for a value study before we paint. But the word never meant that to Dow or in the eastern cultures from which he borrowed it. Notan differs from value study because it is based not just on what we observe. It is the orderly restriction of shapes into patterns. It is reality subservient to beauty.

Church with Red Roof and White Walls, 1914, Maurice Utrillo, oil on canvas, courtesy Barnes Collection

Of course, notan encourages a specific aesthetic, one that we’ve pretty much abandoned over the last century. But it’s worth practicing and understanding, as a way to start thinking about the important tenets of composition.

A special thanks to Bruce McMillan, for cheerfully sharing his collection of orange paintings.

The trouble with Paradise

Choosing a subject can be difficult when you live in the most beautiful place in the world.

American Eagle in Drydock, 12X16, oil on canvasboard, by Carol L. Douglas. Available.

This winter I’ve been painting with Ken DeWaard, Eric Jacobsen, and Björn Runquist. None of us were born in Maine; we all choose to live here: for the fabulous light, unspoiled little villages, boats, and the rockbound coast. We all love to paint outdoors. So how does a typical morning conversation go?

“Got any ideas?”

“I dunno… don’t have a plan. How windy is it, anyway?”

“Miserable. My dog blew over.”

“Well, how about the creek?”

“Snow’s too deep. Next week. Is that where you’re headed?”

“I was thinking about it. Unless you can think of someplace better.”

Coast Guard Inspection, 6X8, oil on canvasboard, by Carol L. Douglas, available.

This can go on for a silly amount of time. The problem is, we’re spoiled for choice. If we lived somewhere else, we’d head out to that place’s one beauty spot and be happy.

Nevertheless, we did manage to agree on a spot in Spruce Head. It was crisp and brilliant, and there are enough subjects in that one small curve of coast to last us for a whole painting season. Of course, that doesn’t mean we won’t have the same loopy conversation next week.

Changing Tides, 16X12, oil on canvas, by Lori Capron Galan.

On Wednesday I wrote about an exercise in my class, where I asked my students to start with abstraction. Lori Capron Galan did it wrong, but it turned out weird and wonderful: she turned her canvas and reference 90° and painted the whole thing sideways.

That took her to the same place I was trying to get my students—to divorce themselves from slavish fidelity to reality, and to start thinking about shapes, colors and movement instead of simple pictorial representation.

The resulting painting, above, is so inspiring that I intend to try it myself soon.

Breaking Storm, by Carol L. Douglas, 24X36, available from Folly Cove Fine Art.

This Tuesday, Captain John Foss of schooner American Eagle will appear on Captains’ Quarters, a Zoom presentation of the Sail Power and Steam Museum. The captain is a witty and smart fellow, and sailing with him is always a lark. (That’s the boat on which I teach my twice-a-year watercolor workshops.)

I wanted to email people who might want to tune in—those who’ve sailed with him, ought to sail with him, love wooden boats, etc. Then I realized it was most of the people I know.

That’s Tuesday, March 23, 2021, from 6:30 to 7:30. More information is here. To go directly to the registration, click here.

Launched in June of 1930 in Gloucester, MA, American Eagle was originally named Andrew and Rosalie and was the last of the Gloucester fishing schooners.  Renamed American Eagle by a new owner in 1941, she fished until 1983, when she was purchased by her current owner and captain, John Foss.  She arrived in Rockland in 1984 where Foss led her multi-year restoration at the North End Shipyard.  She was relaunched in 1986 and began her new career, carrying passengers along the coast of Maine.

Alien Mango Tree Progression

The first rule of composition is, “don’t be boring.”

Step one of Maggie Daigles Alien Mango Tree Progression, as she called this exercise. She drew 90° from this, and flipped it because she liked this view better.

Composition is an enormous subject, rather like the Chinese language, and it is hard to shoehorn into a single class or blog post.

The first step is to unlearn what we think we know. We’ve all been corrected and criticized with petty compositional ‘rules’. Heck, I preach petty rules myself. But most of them are, to some degree, questions of fashion. All are breakable—once you understand why they were formulated in the first place.

Step two of Maggie’s process; she saw the large shape at left as a rock but didn’t like it.

Consider the rule that tells students to not center their subject, or to follow the Golden Ratio or the rule of thirds in space division. The point is to be interesting, but it would be far more sensible to ask yourself: “What’s the best way to include everything that needs to be in my painting, and nothing more?”

The mathematical approach is dogmatic, rigid and boring; asking yourself the compositional question provokes thought. In freeing ourselves from those rules, we might just realize that symmetry can be visually powerful, especially in an age that rejects it.

Maggie’s finished painting. Since I have no idea what a mango tree looks like, I can’t judge its realism, but I can say it’s much more interesting than your typical painting of a beach.

I teach realistic painting, but that’s no reason to disregard abstraction. I’ve written before about my admiration for the color-field painter Clyfford Still. I learn a lot from his paintings because they’re all about composition, with no pesky details thrown in.

In class this week, I resurrected an old exercise I haven’t used in at least a decade (and never on Zoom). I asked my students to create monochrome abstractions and then turn them into realistic paintings. The details of that realistic framework didn’t matter, but I chose the beach as our subject. That’s because the beach is an amorphous concept. It can be anything you want it to be. The clouds, the surf, the dunes, the rocks, and even the sun are all manipulable. Put them anywhere you want.

Paula Tefft did the same exercise in watercolor.

If you doubt that’s true, look at the mature work of Winslow Homer through a very blurry lens. He’s nominally painting the coast of Maine but what he’s really doing is experimenting with the play and placement of light and dark, particularly the relationship between diagonals.

Reality should not be the artist’s guiding light. Nor should another painter. What separates you from the masses of other aspiring painters is what comes from within—the entirety of your experience and learning up to the point at which you pick up a brush.

Paula’s finished beach scene.

“Students of painting should devote more energy to educating themselves about their own idiosyncrasies and less energy on trying to find that perfect paintbrush, brand of paint, canvas etc. that will make them be able to paint like ‘so and so’,” Kyle Buckland wrote recently. “You can paint a compelling design with mud on a stick if you know what you want to do.”

The only absolute compositional rule I believe in is, “don’t be boring” (although heaven knows I break it enough). Of course, I can make some practical suggestions to help you avoid lack of excitement, but if your design isn’t thrilling to you, it won’t be to anyone else, either. That requires digging in, and that’s best done in the design phase, not when you’re being bothered by the pesky details of reality.

Monday Morning Art School: the fundamentals of a good painting

What’s important in painting? It all comes down to drawing and composition.

Weymouth Bay, 1916, John Constable, uses closely analogous colors to create cohesiveness in a painting of raw natural elements.

We enter every painting at some point, although there doesn’t need to be a literal ‘path in’ to a painting. It’s more typical (and interesting) that there are a series of focal points that the reader notices and absorbs in order. These are supported by incidental matter that contributes tone and information. A good artist doesn’t leave this to chance. It’s organized in the composition phase and supported in the painting phase. The artist has a set of tools to drive us through his composition. They are:

Value: A good painting rests primarily on the framework of a good value structure. This means massed darks in a coherent pattern, simplified shapes, and a limited number of value steps. In a strong composition, one value generally takes precedence over the others. It in effect ‘sets the mood.’

Mother of Pearl and Silver: The Andalusian, 1888–1900, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. This painting demonstrates the power of value.

Color: Right now, we focus on color temperature, but that hasn’t always been the case. Every generation has had its own ideas about color unity, contrast, and cohesion. A good color structure has balance and a few points of brilliant contrast to drive the eye. It reuses colors in different passages to tie things together.

Movement: A good painter directs his audience to read his work in a specific order, by giving compositional priority to different elements. He uses contrast, line, shape and color to do this. If nothing’s moving, the painting will be boring.

Even the most linear of painters uses movement to direct the viewer in reading his work. The Valpinçon Bather, 1808, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, the Louvre.

Line: These are the edges between forms, rather than literal lines. These edges lead you through the painting. They might be broken (the “lost and found line”) or clear and sharp. Their character controls how we perceive the forms they outline.

Motive line: that’s the fundamental line that draws you through the painting, and it’s explained here.

Form: Paintings are made of two-dimensional shapes, but they create the illusion of form. That is the sense that what we’re seeing exists in three dimensions. While some abstract painting ignores form, a feeling of depth is critical in representational painting.

Loose brushwork does not mean lack of drawing or preparation. Vase of Sunflowers, 1898, Henri Matisse, Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia.

Texture: A work is called ‘painterly’ when brushstrokes and drawing are not completely controlled, as with Vincent van Gogh. A work is ‘linear’ when it relies on skillful drawing, shading, and controlled color, as with Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres.

Unity: Do all the parts of the picture feel as if they belong together, or does something feel like it was stuck there as an afterthought? In realism, it’s important that objects are proportional to each other. Last-ditch additions to salvage a bad composition usually just destroy a painting’s unity.

Whalers, c. 1845, oil on canvas, JMW Turner, courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art. There are only three intelligible passages in this painting—the whale, the whalers in their dories, and the ship. Yet we infer the rest from those profound focal points.

Balance: While asymmetry is pleasing, any sense that a painting is heavily weighted to one side is disconcerting.

Focus: Most paintings have a main and then secondary focal points. A good artist directs you through them using movement, above.

Rhythm: An underlying rhythm of shapes and color supports that movement.

Content: I realize this is a dated concept, but it’s nice if a painting is more than just another pretty face, if it conveys some deeper truth to the viewer.

Artist with the soul of an accountant

There are some unique lessons to be found in the detritus of our COVID-year returns.

Cerro Fitz Roy and Cerro Electrico, painted in my extended sojourn in Patagonia last year. Available.

I like to tell people I’m an artist with the soul of accountant. This isn’t really true; I’m just making fun of my painting. I hate bookkeeping as much as the next guy.

This time of year, my accountant friend Laura Turner is doing a lot of tax returns. She likes it because each one is a small bit of history. I don’t share her enthusiasm for slogging through the minutiae of the tax code (which changes constantly), but auditing your own books does take you back.

Last year I wrote a lot of refund checks—$4,550.40 worth, to be precise. These were deposits for workshops, and they all went in a flurry in late Spring, as we realized the world was not going to open back up again. They represented future payments as well. Compared to others, my losses were small, but for me they were painful.

Cliffs, painted in Patagonia last year. Available.

My computer tells me to whom I issued those refunds. More than 80% of them turned around and bought something else from me during 2020—another workshop, a class, or a painting. There’s a lesson in that, one we can learn from our retail neighbors.

Modern big-box stores are open and easy about taking returns. Buy it, take it home and contemplate it. If you don’t like it, return it. My late friend Gwendolyn used to call it “buying on the American plan,” which tells you it’s not universal. It’s possible here because these retailers work in volumes so large that the cost of this goodwill gesture is relatively small.

Powerhouse on the Rio Blanco, painted in Patagonia last year. Available.

That is not true for the sole proprietor, whose operation may include unrecoverable deposits and expenses. But it’s still a good idea to issue refunds cheerfully when you can. It establishes your integrity and goodwill.

I’m conservative by nature. I prefer to do business as I always have. But in April 2020, I was forced to rethink that. Every gallery I did business with was closed, either permanently or temporarily.

I made my first diffident step in buying a license for something called ‘Zoom’. By June, I was confident enough to convert that to an annual license. It was the best investment I’ve ever made.

Rain, painted in Patagonia last year. Available.

That month, I also bought a party tent and opened an ad hoc gallery in my driveway. I went on to have the best sales year I’ve ever had. Nobody is more surprised about that than me, but it speaks to a second essential truth: we usually have to be smacked upside the head to make positive change.

I think citizens should prepare their own tax returns so they have a notion of how the tax code actually works. My fellow Americans don’t agree; in 2018, only 43% of electronic filers did their own returns. Even those who use a tax preparer are responsible for laying out the bones of their story. Garbage in, garbage out, as they say.

I always hover above the ‘send’ key for a few moments, hoping I’ve remembered every important thing. Itemized returns are never perfect; there are always bits and bobs you mislaid and just don’t recall. But hopefully, I’ve written it more as a memoir and less as a novel.

From hard times, great art

Two artists whose paintings in adversity remind us that we don’t always have to paint from our happy place.

Forgotten Man, 1944, Maynard Dixon, courtesy Wikiart

Maynard Dixon

Maynard Dixon is less remembered than his second wife, photojournalist Dorothea Lange, but they shared the same social justice concerns. Dixon had just finished a mural for the Biltmore Hotel in Phoenix and was scheduled to start its mate when the stock market crashed in October of 1929. The Great Depression defined life in the 1930s, for artists as much as anyone.

Dixon finished 282 pieces from 1930 to 1935. He sold just five. That wouldn’t have even covered the cost of the paint.

Dixon, Lange, and their children lived from 1929 to 1931 in a borrowed adobe building in Taos. “Well, if we can drag it out here until Christmas I may show something myself—though it will be hell trying to out it.  Other than financially we are going fine and wish you the same,” he wrote a friend in 1931.

Abandoned Ranch, Maynard Dixon, 1935, courtesy Wikiart

Today we remember Lange as the voice of the downtrodden, but Dixon was equally passionate about their plight. Although he was a well-known painter of the southwest, he began to paint his fellow sufferers, particularly those encamped near his California studio.

 “The most interesting thing in this country for me is a sense of dark tragedy, imminent, and just beneath the light surface: the unchangeable Indians, always facing toward death, the starving Mexicans, already half dead, and the garrulous gringos oppressed by a vague feeling of impending doom,” he wrote.

During the summer of 1933 Dixon and his family camped through southern Utah. They stopped at Boulder Dam to observe its construction. Six months later, Dixon returned with a Public Works of Art project grant to document the project. This combined Utah work was exhibited in San Francisco the following year. Not one of the forty paintings sold.

Algernon Newton

The Surrey Canal, Camberwell, 1935, Algernon Newman, courtesy of the Tate

Algernon Newton had a wonderful pedigree as a painter; he was the grandson of one of the founders of Winsor & Newton. However, he learned to paint in an atypical way, avoiding the straight route through the Academy. That allowed his own interests to blossom. While his peers were immersed in abstract-expressionism, he was studying Canaletto.

Invalided out of service at the end of the Great War, he was reduced to selling pictures on the street. It was a horrible time, when his fellow veterans were begging. And then there was a new, unseen enemy, the Spanish flu.

The Regent’s Canal, Twilight, 1925, Algernon Newton

Newton’s sympathies were very much with the common man and his environment. “There is beauty to be found in everything, you only have to search for it; a gasometer can make as beautiful a picture as a palace on the Grand Canal, Venice. It simply depends on the artist’s vision,” he wrote.

In America, he would have been following in the footsteps of the Ashcan School. In London, he chose a middle way, creating empty, eerie portraits of somewhat-dilapidated Regency and Victorian terraces, preferably fronting bodies of water. Unlike Canaletto’s compositions, his are curiously uninhabited, which gives them a strange modernity. As Martin Gayford wrotethis week, “Especially now, in this odd era of daily walks in semi-deserted towns, he often comes to mind.”