Open-air gallery opens

Growth in painting sales is almost all online, which means that we either learn a new way of doing things, or we retire.

Belfast Harbor, 18×14, oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas

This weekend my open-air gallery at 394 Commercial Street opens for the season. It’s a soft opening, meaning that the brilliant Aubrie Powell isn’t making any noshes (sorry about that). I’ve been so busy painting that I forgot to do any advance marketing. Them’s the travails of a one-man show.

To make up for that, I’m having a 25% off sale. Yes, that’s any painting in the gallery, including my newest work. That’s an unheard-of discount, only made possible because I’m my own boss. Traditional galleries don’t have sales. That’s because they operate on a consignment basis. They must clear discounts with every artist they represent. In addition to that being a daunting task, artists operate on notoriously narrow margins.

Why am I still doing open-air when COVID restrictions are ending? I found I like the warm light, soft breezes off Rockport harbor, and the less-restrictive space of my side yard. My former gallery space is now rigged up as a Zoom teaching studio. COVID changed my workflow permanently. It drastically winnowed my galleries. I especially rue the closure of Kelpie Gallery in Thomaston and Maine Farmland Trust Gallery in Belfast. Both were wonderful galleries with curatorial vision and purpose.

COVID showed us the weakness of the traditional gallery model. Growth in painting sales is almost all online, which means that we either learn a new way of doing things, or we retire gently into the night. I’m not ready to go there yet.

Beautiful Dream (Rockport), 16×12, oil on birch, Carol L. Douglas

One thing I do not miss is getting damaged frames back from events and galleries. I spent a long time on Thursday taking adhesive labels off the backs of frames and this afternoon I’ll be touching up dings. Anyone dealing with art should know to not use tape or other permanent adhesives anywhere on a painting or its frame. Thank goodness for Goo-Gone.

My summer hours will be:

  • Monday—open this Memorial Day, otherwise closed
  • Tuesday—noon-6
  • Wednesday—noon-6
  • Thursday—1:30-6
  • Friday—noon-6
  • Saturday—noon-6

You can text or call me at 585-201-1558, or message me here.

Fish Shacks, Owl’s Head, 14×11, oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas

Thursday’s opening is later because I teach plein air in the mornings.

As you all know, I teach a variety of workshops, in Acadia National Park, Arizona, New Mexico, Wyoming, Florida, and right here in Maine aboard the schooner American Eagle. That’s enough to satisfy anyone’s wanderlust, but for those who are looking for something here in the Rockland area, I want to recommend two of my plein air buddies.

Eric Jacobsenis new in town, but a familiar face on the national art scene. He will be teaching Painting Expressive Landscapes through Coastal Maine Workshops from July 13-16. Ken DeWaard will be teaching Design! Essence! Design! there from August 9 to 13.

I paint with these guys frequently and I know their character well. They’re patient and kind and they know their craft, so I’m sure they’re good teachers.

What’s an artist to do?

There’s no ‘there’ there to rebel against anymore.

Winter Lambing, 48X36, available, Carol L. Douglas

My goddaughter Sandy is the child of immigrants. Her family escaped China at the conclusion of the Civil War, when it was clear the communists had won. They went to Vietnam, which has an active community of Chinese emigres. After the fall of Saigon in 1975, they became Vietnamese boat people, ultimately ending up in the US. (For many reasons, let us hope that this time their refuge is secure.)

“Americans are in a constant state of rebellion against their parents,” Sandy observed as we did our daily constitutional up Beech Hill yesterday. “Why is that?” For Asians, filial piety is a virtue.

Wreck of the S.S. Ethie, 24X18, Carol L. Douglas

I’m familiar with some of the roots of that rebellion, being a product of the Swinging Sixties myself.  But it goes farther back, to the Roaring Twenties. Both the 1920s and the 1960s are thought by historians to be periods of nihilism in response to the cataclysm of world war, but that’s an incomplete explanation. The American Civil War was the greatest cataclysm in American history, and no such period followed it. The closest we came was the anarcho-communism of the turn of the century.

In art, we’ve been at this business of rebellion ever since the Impressionists showed in the first Salon des Refusésin 1863. We’re now in a position where vast sums of money are exchanged for intangible art. If there’s anything left to rebel against, I can’t see it.

Deadwood, 48X36, Carol L. Douglas

“Where is art going?” is a question every thinking artist should constantly ask himself. For our predecessors there were clear trends (although I’m sure they are clearer in retrospect). The past filled the galleries, and the bright young things were all in the coffee house complaining about it.

It’s harder for today’s young artist. The most obvious means to success is to make a spectacle of oneself, but that’s a different artform altogether. There are digital art and electronic installations, but for a painter, it’s difficult to see a direction in the current maelstrom. When plein air shows happily embrace abstraction and great galleries laud incompetence, there’s nothing left to push against.

All flesh is as grass, 36X48, Carol L. Douglas

One answer is to become more international in our viewpoint, to import other cultures’ attitudes about art. After all, we live in a global world. That’s a mixed bag, of course. Asian artists honor technique, but their governments don’t necessarily honor intellectual property rights.

I see certain trends in my little niche of landscape painting. As the digital world shapes our seeing, chroma (intensity) in painting increases. Detail decreases. But these are merely stylistic flutters. We’ve seen them come and go before. They’re meaningless in the bigger scheme of things.

Of course, I don’t have an answer to this question, or I’d already be doing it.

Monday Morning Art School: some basic color theory

Mixing paints is simple if you understand how pigments work.

Fallow field, 12X16, oil on canvasboard, available.

In theory, you can paint with just four pigments: red, blue, yellow and white. For beginning painters this is sometimes a good idea, because it’s the fastest way to learn color management. It simplifies the thought process so you have only one decision to make at a time, and it is easier to get a more unified color scheme.

But there is a limiting factor, and that’s the impurity of pigments. They all have overtones that muddy them up in certain mixes. That’s why your local paint dealer uses many, many more pigments than just red, blue, and yellow.

Claude Monet’s palette shifted over time, but included these paints:

  • Chrome yellow
  • Cadmium yellow
  • Viridian green
  • Emerald green
  • French ultramarine
  • Cobalt blue
  • Madder red
  • Vermilion (red)
  • Flake white
  • Ivory black (before 1886)

These are sets of paired pigments. That means he has a warm and a cool of each color, plus black and white. 

I use paired primaries as well, omitting the green but adding in some other earths. (Here are my supply lists for oils,  acrylics, and watercolors.)

The distinction between warm and cool colors has been important in painting since the Impressionists. Warm colors are said to be hues from red through yellow and cool colors are said to be the hues from green through violet. Each hue around the color wheel also has a warm and a cool version.

There’s no factual hot or cold point because this is just a poetic description that works. Much of what we believe about the psychology of color is hocus-pocus, based on the teachings of 19th century cult leader Madame Blavatsky. However, it’s true that if the light is what we call “warm,” the shadows are what we call “cool,” and vice versa.

Paired primaries are simply warm and cool versions of each color.

When we say that lemon yellow is cooler than cadmium yellow deep, we mean that if you are trying to mix a greenish yellow, you’ll get a clearer shade with the lemon than you will with the cadmium yellow deep. The warm-cool language is just a convenient way of saying that.

Different pigments may look the same when squeezed out of the tube, but there the similarity ends. Pigments are impure, and you have to learn and work around those impurities.

To better understand color space, watch Gamblin’s excellent video on the subject, here.

Three blues that look similar out of the tube, but behave very differently. The ‘glaze’ on the left is the undertone. Courtesy Gamblin paints.

Mass tone is the color a pigment is straight out of the tube, dense and unmixed with another color. No real-world pigment, however, is as pure as a color on a video screen. While two pigments may look the same to the naked eye, their behavior when mixed can be radically different.

Undertone is the color revealed when a paint is spread thin enough that light bounces back up from the substrate. Some pigments are fairly consistent when moving from mass tone to undertone. Others have significant color shifts. Not understanding those undertones tones can lead to muddy mixes.

Ultramarine, Prussian and phthalo blue are colors that shift radically from mass tone to undertone. They’re all so dark out of the tube that their differences aren’t apparent to the naked eye. But dilute them, and you’ll find a wide range of blues.

Cadmium Red Hue is usually made with napthol red and a little white. They mix very differently, which is why the hue is a bad substitute for the real pigment. (In its own right, napthol is a fine red, however.) Courtesy Gamblin paints.

Undertones are why buying “hues” instead of pure pigments can be such bad value. Take, for example, cadmium red hue, which is usually a napthol red with a small amount of white added. Out of the tube, the two paints are indistinguishable, but they mix very differently.

To see a pigment’s mass tone, put a small dab of paint on a smooth white board or glass palette and draw it down with a knife, creating a uniform, solid stripe that completely obscures the painting surface.

To see the undertone, draw the sample down again so it is translucent. You should be able to see minute variations in the color, and in the covering power.

Creative recreation

Slowing down, shutting up and listening to the Universe—I find that difficult.

Waiting to play, oil on canvasboard, by CarolmL. Douglas. No, that’s not my Penn Yan.

When I brought my Penn Yan back this March, it was in recognition that there was something missing in my life. When work is all-consuming, it’s easy to end up with no hobbies. I walk and I read, but these are self-care. The creative things I used to do—sewing, gardening, playing the piano—have all been sacrificed because of time.

Ken DeWaard helped us pull the boat off its trailer so I could start restoration at the very bottom. I then came face-to-face with the second limitation of my current life: I really don’t have the time or energy for new projects. In this world of merciless measurement, my phone tracks my steps. I regularly have more than 10,000 a day without trying. I start at 6 AM and I work until I can’t move anymore. Then I get up the next day and do it again, six days a week.

White Sands of Iona, oil on canvasboard, by Carol L. Douglas. Unless Boris Johnson has a fast change of heart, I won’t be relaxing in Scotland this year, either.

Working until you drop may work for 30-somethings, but it’s not a lifestyle I recommend at retirement age, which is where I am right now. Don’t worry; I don’t intend to quit. Wayne Thiebaud (age 100) and Lois Dodd (94) are my role models. Still, there’s something that shifts, if not in your body, then in your worldview, as you enter the social desert we call “old age.”

Sometimes you hear the universe talking; I believe that’s God. For a while now, I’ve been hearing the same message: “Slow down, shut up, and listen.” That’s not an easy message for a person of my temperament to accept, but I’m trying.

I’m an old workhorse. Let off my traces, I just amble back to the barn to be harnessed back up. It’s hard for me to break my routine. I think that’s really a problem for most of us. We’ve worked so hard for so many years that we can’t cope with freedom, as much as we talk about it during our working years. We tend to choose passive recreation—television, movies—instead of creative recreation. It’s been worse this year, when so many options have been reduced.

Beaver Dam, oil on canvasboard, by Carol L. Douglas

Sadly, some people who find the adjustment to retirement difficult resort to drinking to fill the void. Studies have found that retirement leads to increased drinking. (Alcohol is the most common form of substance abuse by older adults). Having my share of alcoholic role models, the possibility frightens me.

The question I’ve been asking myself is a silly, Konmari one: what brings me joy? There are lots of answers, including but not limited to: my family, nature, being on the water, my friends. I mean to incorporate them more in my day-to-day life, instead of pushing them all off to some far-off point of retirement.

Home farm, oil on canvas, by Carol L. Douglas

That’s a long, roundabout way of telling you that I’m skiving off work today and going hiking with Seven Dwarfs (really middle- and elementary-school kids) and their parents, who are my friends. (Yes, the kids are skipping school, too, which really brings me joy.) We’re going to Mt. Apatite to look at minerals. I imagine they’ll learn something, but that’s just coincidental. We’re slowing down, shutting up and listening to the Universe. It’s never too soon to start.

Choose your friends wisely

The people you paint with will influence your work and your attitudes toward success.

Channel Marker, 9X12, Carol L. Douglas, available.

If you’ve ever felt the powerful need to adjust your thinking to fit in, it’s not just moral weakness. We’re designed as herd animals, and that need to conform is built into us on a neural level. Disagreeing with our friends and neighbors makes us physically, emotionally and mentally uncomfortable.

Social norms are the rules that govern our group behavior, and they’re important. They’re how we all agree to forgo self-serving behaviors for the good of the group. These social norms—more so even than the force of law—govern our society.

Fog Bank, 14X18, Carol L. Douglas, available.

Some social norms (“thou shalt not kill”) are static, but others are fluid; for example, we’ve decided over the last three hundred years that child labor is morally wrong.

Group norming affects artists as much as anyone. We tend to slip into painting like our friends and neighbors. That’s why we develop painting schools like the Group of Seven. Artists working together subtly create a stylistic group norm.

This was demonstrated to me over the past weeks as we studied composition. There are rules we accept today that wouldn’t have occurred to a Manneristpainter.

Midsummer, 24X36, Carol L. Douglas, available.

Groupthink is aspirational, too. Successful thinking can be transmitted through a group as surely as clothing choices can.

I’ve just finished a year-long session with two very successful groups of students. Mary Silver found representation in a gallery in downtown San Antonio. Patty Mabie won “best floral” in the April Plein Air salon. Lori Capron Galan was juried into the Rochester Art Club. Several sold paintings over the past few months. All painted consistently to a high level. They created a culture of success, and that has pushed all of them to a high level of performance.

There are times when artists feel very alone. I felt stylistically isolated in western New York because my own painting was based on different norms. That went away when I moved to coastal Maine. Coastal Maine is inherently no better than western New York, but my own painting ethos was there, rather than in the Hudson River School.

Sometimes it rains, 8X10, Carol L. Douglas, available.

This points to the conundrum of the artist’s way, which is two-fold. Our work is communication, but it must be done very much alone. Moreover, we are part of a social continuum, but we strive to say something unique.

In the end, that’s the definition of leadership. That has nothing to do with seniority, titles, wealth, or management. It’s a process of social influence, and it’s a great responsibility.

Mixing beautiful greens

The rookie error for summer is to paint all foliage using the same basic color. You lose more points if it’s sap green.

Bracken Fern, by Carol L. Douglas, 9X12, oil on canvasboard, $869.

This weekend, the mercury climbed to 70° F., which forced the “wall of green” into budding. New England is now in her summer raiment, although it will get a bit deeper and more solid. It’s time to talk about mixing pretty and varied greens.

Michael Wilcox published a famous watercolor pigment guide called Blue and Yellow Don’t Make Green. It’s where I first got the idea to add back the banned black.

Mixed greens. Almost a salad.

His point was that there are many routes to the same destination, and that to really mix colors, you need to understand what pigments you’re using, not work from trade names for colors. Consider sap green, for example—a staple of many plein air painters’ toolkit. It’s really a convenience mix. The same is true of Hooker’s Green in watercolor.

The single-pigment (‘true’) greens available are chromium oxide green, viridian, and cobalt green. Chromium oxide green is a lovely, heavy, natural green. Unfortunately, it outweighs everything it’s mixed with. Viridian and cobalt green are lovely, but expensive. Beware viridian hue—it’s just another phthalo in disguise.

Chart courtesy of Victoria Brzustowicz

The rookie error is to paint all your greens using the same hue, modulating lighter or darker for highlights and shadows. You’ll have much more life in your trees if you know all the different ways you can get to leafy green. One of the most useful greens is black plus cadmium yellow lemon (or Hansa yellow).

The best way to navigate the colors of foliage is to avoid greens out of a tube altogether. A system of paired primaries gives you more options, avoiding the acidity of phthalo, the weight of chromium oxide green, or the soul-sucking darkness of sap green.

In my experience, bad paint mixing causes paintings to go wrong faster than anything else. Constantly over-daubing to modulate the paint color distorts the original drawing and makes a grey mush. If you’re confident of the color, you can apply it fast and accurately.

I make my greens on a matrix, which I’ve shown you both mixed and on a chart. Note that blue/black pigments are much stronger than the yellows. You need about half the amount of blue or black as you do yellow.

Swatches by Jennifer Johnson

First mix greens according to the chart, and then modulate your resulting greens with tints (meaning a mix of white and a color). The specific tints are unimportant, but the most useful one for landscape is a mix of white, ultramarine and quinacridone violet, making a pale lavender. It is great for atmospheric perspective.

Your assignment is to hit paint swatches as closely as you can. 
The second exercise involves stopping at your local hardware store for a few paint swatches. These are Benjamin Moore brand, but you should be able to find similar ones elsewhere. There are two off-whites: one cool and one warm. There’s yellow, green, and two soft blues. Your assignment is to mix until you think you’ve hit the exact color. Then put a dot of it on the card to see how close you got. (If you’re working in watercolor, the dot goes on paper instead.)
Detail of Jennifer's chart, above.

I also have my students make neutrals using combinations of ultramarine blue with burnt sienna and raw sienna. I use ultramarine blue and burnt sienna as my standard dark-neutral, because it can go to the warm or cool side depending on how it is mixed. Raw sienna plus ultramarine is my go-to starting point for granite and the sands of our northern beaches.

My 2022 workshop schedule can be found here. That includes the beautiful red rocks of Sedona, urban painting in Austin, TXJune and September workshops aboard schooner American Eagle, mountain vistas in the Berkshires, and our ever-popular Sea & Sky at Schoodic in Acadia National Park.

Penny-wise, pound foolish

Cheap materials or weird deviations from process inevitably lead to disastrous results, but artists keep doing it.

Untitled (Floral), 1960, Morris Louis, showing deterioration of untreated cotton duck ground, courtesy the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (it’s since been restored).

This week, I’m assembling materials for my watercolor workshops aboard schooner American Eagle. I’m giving them QOR watercolors by Golden. These are professional-quality paints, not student-grade—even though some of my students will have never painted before. I want to create impassioned painters, and bad materials are the best way to nip creativity in the bud.

Cheap materials are only part of the problem. There’s a mistaken association between ephemeral materials and ‘authenticity’ that arose in the latter part of the 20th century. It echoes today, and drives artists to experiment with painting on cardboard, collaging paper with oil paints and other unstable methods.

Misty Moonlight, c. 1885, Albert Pinkham Ryder, courtesy Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art

“I was beginning to wonder if it was just the art historian in me, but I see people using such unbelievable crap in their artwork and it makes me shake my head,” a reader wrote.

There are vogues that sometimes result in spurious results. Oiling out is a traditional technique where a hint of linseed oil is applied to a dried layer to make the next layer appear to sink into it. A variation appeared about a decade ago. Painters would paint into a soup of wet medium. It was supposedly okay because the medium was fast-drying alkyd, and it allowed mediocre painters to produce something that looked like Tonalism.

Moonlight, c. late 1880s–1890s, Ralph Albert Blakelock, courtesy Phillips Collection

I was immediately reminded of the sad fate of Ralph Blakelock’s paintings. He was a Tonalist, also interested in luminosity. He tinkered with his paint application in search of new effects. Unfortunately, many of his canvases are badly deteriorated because of it.

Another painter whose work has rotted out because of bad technique is Albert Pinkham Ryder. Ryder built up his paintings with layers of paint, resin, and varnish applied haphazardly on top of each other. He painted into wet varnish and disregarded the different dry times of his pigments. He experimented with candle wax, bitumen and novel oils. That gave his paintings the luminosity that he was aiming for, but at a price.

Paintings by Ryder are consistent only in their instability. They’ve darkened seriously over time and developed terrible cracks and crazing. In some cases, they’ve never fully dried or have completely disintegrated.

There are only a few oils with natural drying properties. These are linseed, tung, poppy seed and walnut oil. Non-drying oils like almond or olive oil are never suitable for oil painting

Similarly dubious is the process of starting a painting in acrylics and then finishing it with oils. It’s unnecessary once the painter masters the process of wet-on-wet painting, and it has no long history proving it to be archivally sound. We know that the reverse (acrylic over oil) delaminates almost immediately. That means the layers do not bond.

I learned to paint back in the 1970s with a homemade medium comprised of turpentine, Damar varnish, linseed oil and a drop of cobalt drier. It was fairly standard for the time. I used it until I spent a day wandering around the Albright-Knox Art Gallery looking at the terrible cracks and crazes in Clyfford Stillpaintings. The 20th century masters are not paradigms of painting technique; many of their paintings are now in terrible shape. Zinc oxide grounds were much in vogue at the time, and the heavier cadmium pigments are pulling away from them now.

Companies like Grumbacherand Gamblin hire chemists to make and test materials. I trust them far more than I trust my own judgment in chemistry.

Bad grounds are a chronic problem for conservators. “Morris Louis did wonderful color work on unprimed canvas,” my reader noted. “Museums tear their hair out.” Yes, a good ground can be expensive, but it will extend the life of your paintings—and make the painting itself easier. If you insist on painting on cardboard, make sure you insulate it from your paint with an acrylic or PVA sealant.

Oil painting is 1400 years old. There’s not much that hasn’t been tried in that time, and the standard protocol we use today is the result of that trial-and-error. Cheap materials and weird deviations inevitably lead to disastrous results, but artists keep doing it. That’s a misdirection of creativity.

Tone your canvas, trick your eyes

There’s science—okay, at least pop science—behind the idea that a bright white canvas will distort your painting.

One example of the Delboeuf Illusion, courtesy Wikipedia.

Why tone my canvases?” is perhaps the most common question oil-painting students ask me. It’s all about optical illusion. The size, shape and color of the objects we paint are influenced by their background.

The Delboeuf illusion is a distortion of relative size. In the illustration above, the two black disks are the same size, but one is surrounded by a tight ring; the other by open white space. The human eye sees the surrounded disk as larger than its non-surrounded twin.

The Delboeuf Illusion is in pop-science news these days because psychologists have found that people who eat meals served on smaller plates have a tendency to feel fuller faster. Oddly, animals also display food preferences based on plate size, but they don’t always correlate to our reactions. Dogs, for example, go for bigger plates. Dogs are such unwilling dieters.

One example of the Ebbinghaus Illusion, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Closely related is the Ebbinghaus Illusion, in which perception is influenced by the presence of nearby shapes. In the example above, the circle surrounded by a ring of large shapes appears smaller; that surrounded by a tighter ring of smaller shapes appears larger.

In both examples, if the shapes were all on a neutral-value ground, the contrast would disappear and the illusion would be broken.

Susceptibility to the Ebbinghaus Illusion is strongest in those with highly-developed visual cortexes (such as artists). It’s context dependent, so little children fall for it less often than adults. That would indicate that these visual cues are part of how we learn to navigate our environment. Relative size is a big clue to how far away an object is.

Sarcone’s Cross Illusion, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Sarcone’s Cross is an illusion that works in the opposite way. The cross dwarfed by large black squares appears larger, not smaller. The takeaway lesson for artists is that there isn’t an easy way to predict how the color and value of neighboring objects will influence what we next put down on paper or canvas. However, we can be sure that they will. This is why value studies are such an important part of painting design.

All of these optical illusions are explored in color in Josef Albers’ classic textbook, Interaction of Color. It may not be that much help on a practical level, but it’s great fun to think about.

One of Josef Albers’ experience on space illusions, from Interaction of Color, courtesy Yale University Press.

So, what does this have to do with toning? Toning is invaluable in the initial stages of a work because it changes how you perceive masses placed on the canvas. A toned canvas helps the painter establish a pleasing value structure.

There are many fine painters who don’t need a toned ground to produce a fine painting. If our reactions to these optical illusions are learned, then it’s possible to unlearn them (or at least learn to compensate for them). But why work that hard when a simple sweep of color on your canvas will save you a lot of work?

None of this pertains to watercolorists, of course. The white of their paper is part of the design, and that makes the illusions part of their magic.

Monday Morning Art School: color harmony

Color harmony is not just a question of placing or finding objects that look good together; it means using those colors within your painting to build a great composition.

Rachel Carson Wildlife Refuge, by Carol L. Douglas

Nearly all beginning painters focus primarily on matching local color. That’s an important skill, but it is just a bare beginning. To make paintings sing, one must think carefully about color schemes. Sometimes a subject can achieve color harmony naturally, but most of the time we need to think through our color choices and placement.

In painting, local color means the natural color of an object, unmodified by lighting. Leafy trees are green, for example. But there are circumstances where they can appear black (at sunset, for example), golden or even orange. There are other circumstances in which, for compositional purposes, it is better to paint them blue or lavender. The rookie error is to persist in what we know—that trees are green—instead of what we see or would be more visually appealing.

Self portrait, by Tom Root. Courtesy of the artist.

Colin Page is a master of color harmony; I encourage you to study his work. Above is another excellent example, a recent self-portrait by artist and teacher Tom Root. He’s a fabulous portrait painter; I’d take a workshop from him.

I could go on and on about the virtues of this painting, which are legion. For now, I’ll talk about his color use.

Isolated colors from Tom Root’s painting, above.

The background and shirt are tied together in a tight arrangement of blues and greens. The face and jacket, meanwhile, are equally tightly-grouped. Photoshop allows me to check the inverse of any color. The blue-greens and flesh tones are almost exact complements, making this a classic complementary color scheme. These complements are arranged in a pleasing, slightly asymmetrical triangle. Tom’s drawing, in a blue-violet, stands outside this color scheme, giving it great impact.

Monochrome reduction of the painting above.

Tom uses hue as much as value to model. (If you need a refresher on what this means, see here.) That gives his painting a solid contemporary feel. But that doesn’t mean he uses no value. In fact, if you look at the monochrome reduction of the painting, you’ll see a beautiful sweep of darks from the bottom left to the upper right. That creates contrast to drive our eye to the most important part of his painting: the face.

I didn’t ask Tom how he arrived at this color scheme; by the time you’re at his level of expertise it’s intuitive anyway. But it doesn’t start off that way. To master color harmonies, you must spend a great deal of time thinking about color and practicing it.

All color schemes rest in the standard 12-color wheel that’s been kicking around for centuries. I’m a fan of the Quiller Wheel because it’s based on paint pigments, but you can just as easily make your own. That gives you the advantage of understanding the paints you’re actually using. (Many store-bought wheels are overloaded with useless information, making them more trouble than they’re worth.)

Tinfoil hat, by Carol L. Douglas. The color scheme shouldn’t be primarily about the objects, but about how you use the colors in your painting.

Here’s a link that gives you a complete description of the classic color harmonies, but let’s review them here:


These are colors that lie opposite each other on the color wheel. The most famous example is Christmas’ red and green.


Analogous color schemes use colors that lie next to each other on the color wheel. Using analogous colors can make what might be a garish scene (a sunset, for example) more serene.

Peppers, by Carol L. Douglas. Every once in a while I paint something very realistic, just to remind myself that I know how.

Equilateral Triad

This uses colors that are evenly spaced on the color wheel. The most well-known example is the primary combination of red-blue-yellow.

Harmonic triads

This variation counts 3-4-5 in either direction on the color wheel. Start with a key color, and count from there. This is a sophisticated variation on the equilateral triad.


This is a variation of complementary colors. It either substitutes for the complement or includes the complement’s adjacent hues.

Double complements

The rectangle or tetradic color scheme uses four colors arranged into two complementary pairs. The colors can be in a rectangle or in a square.

As nice as that information is, color cannot be learned from reading, but only through trial and error. Your assignment this week is to set up a small still life in one of these color schemes and paint it, paying careful attention to how the lighting unifies the scene.  Remember, it’s not just a question of placing objects in a pleasing array; it’s a question of using colors within your painting to make a great composition.

This post originally appeared on May, 4 2020.

The Zeitgeist

We’re all saying something with our paintings. Do we have the courage to buck the times and paint reverence, happiness, and kindness?

American Eagle in Drydock, 12X16, oil on canvasboard, sold. I’ll be down at the boatyard this morning to paint Heritage on the ways.

This month’s discussion of the picture plane in painting inevitably ended up including Philip Pearlstein, who wrote:

“Photographs do not break the picture plane, and so they parallel one of the great dictums of 20th century modernist art, which is that form follows function. The paper is flat, that is, the picture plane is flat, therefore the artist must keep his picture flat. Therefore the photograph is accepted as modernist art. Therefore one of my aims in painting is to break the picture plane.”

Striping, 6X8, oil on canvasboard, $435 framed.

By which—practically speaking—he let heads, arms, etc. escape out of the picture, in much the same way as a child takes a snapshot.

“I was strictly interested in the way ordinary people looked.  And that became part of the kind of philosophy in a sense, to paint the ordinary, the everyday, not to go out of my way to make them tell some kind of story,” he saidin 2006.

Pearlstein is a lauded American painter, on the forefront of modern realism, and he deserves credit for that. But I cannot look at his huge canvases of naked people and not wince. They’re technically admirable, and yet they’re so unlikeable. Human beings, he seems to say, are just so much meat spread around the room. That’s especially true in canvases with more than one figure, pointedly not engaging with each other even when they’re buck naked in a small space. When their heads are cut off, their character, emotion and dignity are rendered inconsequential. We humans interact mostly through our faces, after all.

Captain Doug Lee (chasing the rats), 6X8, oil on canvasboard, $435 framed.

That is, of course, the Zeitgeist, the spirit of our age, so Pearlstein gets full marks for relevance. The German Romantics who coined that phrase had some strange ideas, and they were talking of a literal, invisible force that shaped the time and place. Today we think of it as our common ethos, but either way, we’ve been living in a demeaning culture for decades now.

I don’t watch TV, but my goddaughter tells me that the heroes of modern television are sarcastic and cynical. “Nasty” is the word she used. Certainly, you see that in our so-called leaders, and it’s in full bloom in popular music.

I occasionally reference the painter Tom Root, who my pal Eric Jacobsen calls “a national treasure.” His Holiday (Rest on the Flight to Egypt) is one of the few paintings that carries the western tradition of religious painting successfully into the modern era. Technically, he’s superlative—far more assured, in fact, than Pearlstein. And yet he labors in far greater obscurity than does Pearlstein, with all his honors.

Rising Tide at Wadsworth Cove, 12X16, oil on canvasboard, $1159 unframed.

Root paints the dignity of the human being, and that’s just contrary to the spirit of our age. Not that he can help it; he can no more embrace nihilism than I can. But it raises the question of how much we conform to our times, and why. People do that, of course, for reasons other than fame or fortune.

I don’t suggest that people should steer away from difficult subjects in paint. I spent several years painting on the subject of misogyny. They’ll be at the Rye Arts Center in 2022, by the way.

We’re not mere products of our times, we also shape them. The painter may hide behind the non-verbal nature of our art to deny responsibility for the culture, but we’re all saying something with our paintings. Do we have the courage to buck the times and paint reverence, happiness, and kindness?