Monday Morning Art School: clouds are not flat

Clouds have volume and are subject to the rules of perspective.

Clouds over Whiteface Mountain, oil on canvasboard, available.

Clouds are not flat. The same perspective rules that apply to objects on the ground also apply to objects in the air. We are sometimes misled about that because clouds that appear to be almost overhead are, in fact, a long distance away.

I’ve alluded before to two-point perspective. I’ve never gotten too specific because it’s a great theoretical concept but a lousy way to draw. Today I’ll explain it.

A two-point perspective grid. You don’t need to draw all those rays, just the horizon line. The vertical lines indicate the edges of your paper.

Draw a horizontal line somewhere near the middle of your paper. This horizon line represents the height of your eyeballs. Put dots on the far left and far right ends of this line, at the edges of your paper. These are your vanishing points.

All objects in your drawing must be fitted to rays coming from those points. A cube is the simplest form of this. Start with a vertical line; that’s the front corner of your block. It can be anywhere on your picture. Bound it by extending ray lines back to the vanishing points. Make your first block transparent, just so you can see how the rays cross in the back. This is the fundamental building block of perspective drawing, and everything else derives from it. You can add architectural flourishes using the rules I gave for drawing windows and doors that fit.

A cube drawn with perspective rays. It’s that simple.

I’ve included a simple landscape perspective here, omitting some of the backside lines for the sake of clarity.

As a practical tool, two-point perspective breaks down quickly. In reality, those vanishing points are infinitely distant from you. But it’s hard to align a ruler to an infinitely-distant point, so we draw finite points at the edges of our paper. They throw the whole drawing into a fake exaggeration of perspective. That’s why I started with a grid where the vanishing points were off the paper. It doesn’t fix the problem, but it makes it less obvious.

All objects can be rendered from that basic cube.

(There is also three-point perspective, which gives us an ant’s view of things, and four-point perspective, which gives a fish-eye distortion reminiscent of mid-century comic book art. And there are even more complex perspective schemes. At that point, you’ve left painting and entered a fantastical world of technical drawing.)

Basic shapes of clouds using the same perspective grid.

Still, two-point perspective is useful for understanding clouds. Clouds follow the rules of perspective, being smaller, flatter and less distinct the farther they are from the viewer. The difference is that the vanishing point is at the bottom of the object, rather than the top as it is with terrestrial objects.

Cumulus clouds have flat bases and fluffy tops, and they tend to run in patterns across the sky. I’ve rendered them as slabs, using the same basic perspective rules as I would for a house. They may be far more fantastical in shape, but they obey this same basic rule of design.

You can see that basic perspective when looking at a photo of cumulus clouds.

A flight of cumulus clouds or a mackerel sky will be at a consistent altitude. That means their bottoms are on the same plane. However, there can be more than one cloud formation mucking around up there. That’s particularly true where there’s a big, scenic object like the ocean or a mountain in your vista. These have a way of interfering with the orderly patterns of clouds.

I don’t expect you to go outside and draw clouds using a perspective grid. This is for understanding the concept before you tackle the subject. Then you’ll be more likely to see clouds marching across the sky in volume, rather than as puffy white shapes pasted on the surface of your painting.

Traveling with wet paintings

You’ll need a wet-painting carrier, a drying rack, some wax paper… and plenty of ingenuity.

Confluence, by Carol L. Douglas, is the Athabasca River in Canada. Available.

“What do you use to carry wet paintings?” a student asked. He’s outfitting a new RV in advance of retirement.

For carrying work back and forth from the field, I like panelpak wet panel carriers. They’re lightweight and when you lose or break the rubber bands (which you inevitably will) the company replaces them at a reasonable cost. They come in many sizes, but only one dimension need match the carrier for it to work. For example, I use my 12X16 to also carry 9X12 panels. Since plein air painters usually work on standard size boards, three carriers cover me through almost all circumstances.

The Whole Enchilada, by Carol L. Douglas, was painted in Santa Cruz province, Patagonia, Argentina. Available.

Another good option is Raymar’s wet painting carriers, which are made of corrugated plastic. They hold three wet boards or six dry boards.

If you feel compelled to paint on stretched canvas instead of boards, there are canvas carriers that hold two canvases together so they can ride face-to-face without touching. They’re hard to get in place, and I think they’re more appropriate for the art student carrying work home on the subway than for a plein air painter. The traveling painter is far better off working on boards.

Tie rack as panel drying rack.

These carriers get you from your painting site back to your RV or hotel room. There, you’ll need a drying rack, unless you want to litter your space with drying canvases. In their simplest form, they’re a set of grooved rails that the paintings stand up in. Panelpak and Raymarboth sell versions of this, but I use a ClosetMaid tie rack I bought at Home Depot.*

If you’re on the road for a long time—as I’ve been lucky enough to do—you’ll need a way to carry half-dry paintings. My first stop after the airport is a supermarket where I buy baby-wipes, wax paper and a roll of cheap masking tape. The baby wipes are—obviously—for painting, but the waxed paper and tape are to package partly dry paintings. If they’re dry or almost-dry to the touch, they can travel back-to-front as long as they’re separated by a layer of waxed paper. The tape is to stabilize them on the journey.

I mark these bundles of paintings clearly before flying. The TSA agents don’t want to get covered in wet paint any more than you want them messing up your work.

What if they’re still very wet and it’s time to move on? Your only recourse is to order a pizza. The box is your prize; the meal is a side-benefit. You can stack a lot of pizza boxes in a corner and your paintings will dry peacefully within them.

Sometimes even that can get out of control. When I was driving across Canada, I generated something like 45 paintings in a five-week period. I stopped at a big-box store and bought a plastic bin in which I corralled the loose work between waxed paper. Only one painting—done in very frigid conditions and fairly impasto as a result—suffered any surface damage.

Maureen Hart (r) helping Nancy Huson make a painting box with which to fly at my Sea & Sky workshop of 2017. A little ingenuity will carry you a long way.

There’s nothing like ingenuity, however. I’ve made spacers from old Coroplast yard signs. One of my favorite painting boxes is an old FedEx box for which I rigged handles with duct tape.

*I was shocked to realize I paid $7.98 for them in March, 2017. Today they’re $9.66. That’s up 21%, much higher than the official 6.7% cumulative inflation rate for the same period. Having priced 2X4s, houses and gasoline in the recent past, it’s clear to me we’re entering an inflationary period.

Battery backup

In the age of the internet, what happens to your social and work connections when the power goes out?

Cliffs, oil on canvasboard, by Carol L. Douglas, available.

I seldom get premonitions, so I’ll classify my unease about yesterday’s windstorm as logical. Despite what the experts said about the trees being frozen in place, it seemed like 50 MPH gusts stood a good chance of uprooting something. My home-above-the-shop is on Route 1, just up the road from the hospital. We don’t lose power often, and when we do, it’s mercifully brief.

At 8 AM, the lights flickered and died. My painting students are very nice people, and we’ll just reschedule our regular Tuesday-morning Zoom class. But the experience revealed a weakness in my business plan.

Thirty years ago today, Rochester, NY had a cataclysmic ice storm that paralyzed the city for weeks. Hundreds of thousands of homes were without power, some of them for almost two weeks. The storm caused an estimated $375 million in damage (in 1991 dollars).

Woodshed, oil on canvasboard, by Carol L. Douglas, available.

Most homes built after 1900 have no real way to heat in the absence of electricity. My friend Judie shivered for two weeks next to a lovely, non-working fireplace. Ed’s collection of hundreds of tropical fish died from the cold.

Since then, we have had a secondary heat source (a woodstove) and the lanterns, batteries, and cooking tools necessary to survive a long power outage. When the power flickers, it’s no big deal. I can cook as badly on a woodstove as I do on our electric range.

But that doesn’t address the sea-change in our work habits since 1991. My husband telecommutes to an office in Rochester, where an unattended computer compiles his instructions. I’ve used social media for business for a decade. When the power went down, we both had laptops with long battery life, but we were as cut off as if they’d just collapsed.

Downdraft snow, oil on canvasboard, by Carol L. Douglas, available.

Our server and router have battery backups, but neither are designed for a long-term outage. We can both use our phones as hotspots, but the drop-off in performance was striking. And even the best cell phones really have a working life of only about ten hours between charges.

Still, I’m a painter, which is one of the oldest technologies in the world. The sunlight was beautiful. Ken DeWaard texted to see if I wanted to paint outside, but reconsidered once he’d gone out and felt the wind. It was a studio day.

I sat down at my easel, only to realize that all my reference photos are on another computer. In the old days, I painted from photos, but no more.

Snow at higher elevations, oil on canvasboard, available.

Yes, I could have devised some work. I have a copper plate sitting on my desk waiting for me to cut and print. I could have made a still life. I could even have organized receipts to do my taxes. Instead, I took a long winter nap.

I woke up to realize the power was back on, but it was a caution. Just as we rethought our dependence on the grid thirty years ago, we need some kind of backup plan to access the internet today. And perhaps a little less dependency, as well.

Monday Morning Art School: how to succeed in painting

The essential principle for learning is to keep on doing it until the light clicks on.

Samantha East just started painting this year. So far, so awesome.

I try to link my Monday Morning Art School blog posts to what my students will be studying in the coming week. This week, we’re working on color mixing. Everything I want to say about the subject is here. Since I wrote that just six months ago, I want my students to reread it. Meanwhile, I will address a more important question: how to succeed in painting.

There are many reasons people quit art classes, including overload in other areas of their lives. Most commonly, however, they either need time to integrate what they’ve already learned, or they realize that their interest in painting isn’t a passion.

It’s all about process. Samantha’s thumbnail, about which she writes, “loving this tool, it’s already saved me from myself several times.”

My classes have been full all year (and yes, that opening in the night class was snapped up). That has caused a kind of winnowing effect—the people who stay are very focused. That in turn raises the rate at which we’re learning, which in turn increases the pressure. It’s exhilarating.

The amount of time students can invest in painting varies, of course. Some are working and some are retired. But all of them are highly motivated.

And, yeah, I make them work through the subject in monochrome first.

That means they often solicit my opinion after class is done. I’m happy to comment, although sometimes my responses may seem terse. (I’m not that good at typing on my phone.) Often, the student knows the answer before they hit ‘send’ but it helps to have me verify it.

Ask questions. Lots of them.

Nobody writes more frequently or extensively than Samantha. We met aboard the good ship American Eagle during one of my Age of Sail watercolor workshops. She was not in the class, but she buzzed me with questions. I’ve since learned this is her modus operandi, and it’s key to her success in life.

We had very little contact again for more than a year, when she signed up for a Zoom class and then my workshop in Tallahassee. Samantha has since thrown herself into painting. Most weeks, she sends me a precisof her work. That’s in lieu of posting in our class group on Facebook, because she doesn’t do social media. Which leads me to tip #2:

Seek and accept criticism.

My students have a closed FB group. It’s where they share their finished work. That requires that they trust others to be kind but honest. That’s relationship, and it doesn’t come from social media.

Samantha’s watercolor, which she didn’t like but I did.

The students who will stumble are the ones who take correction with, “yes, but…” I wince when I hear it, because I have a very strong streak of that in myself. It impeded me for many years.

Play your scales

Samantha was recently unhappy with her trees and shrubs. She sat down with Google and YouTube to methodically investigate what others say about painting trees. Then she practiced them, over and over.

“Dern useful, I must say,” she concluded.  “I feel like my chances of producing an aesthetically-pleasing and reasonably-accurate tree are now a lot better.”

If your trees are poor, then study trees.

Revel in your own successes

“I’m pretty happy with this painting,” Samantha told me recently. Then she told me that she didn’t like her watercolor version at all. I strongly disagreed, because I felt the second painting had compelling atmosphere and cohesion. Part of learning is being able to see through someone else’s eyes.

It’s fun to do something well. Too much humility can suck the joy out of anything.

Rinse and repeat

“I remain grimly undaunted,” Samantha told me. “I figure if I keep plugging away at it I’ll eventually get it.” I’m amused by the ‘grimly’ in a woman who’s so full of joy, but she just stated the essential principle for learning: keep on doing it until the light clicks on.