Losing yourself in paint

The time you spend painting is not deducted from your lifespan.

One of my Monday night students told me her father lived to 107. He said, “the time you spend sailing is not deducted from your lifespan.”

He also believed that oatmeal every morning and a wee dram before supper would extend your life. I’ve got that part half right. Unfortunately, it’s the oatmeal; I eat it every morning.

I told my other class this and we speculated on what other activities might qualify. “Cocktail hour,” one suggested. I’m afraid that’s probably situational; some cocktail hours are fraught.

I think there’s something to Carol’s dad’s theory. There are activities that are so deeply satisfying that they flush the cares of the day right out. I’m not saying they’re easy; they are, as my friend Martha said of sewing, both mindful and mindless at the same time. Time doesn’t stand still; it vanishes. We each have our own list. For many, that includes painting. Like sailing and sewing, it rests on a firm technical foundation. It engages the mind and yet lets it roam.

Numerous studies have shown that engaging with the arts increases lifespan,  soothes chronic pain, staves off symptoms of dementia and accelerates brain development in kids.

My next session of classes is starting soon, and the exciting news is that we’ll be painting en plein air in the Rockport—Rockland—Camden area again. These classes will be Thursdays from 10-1 AM. The dates are:

  • May 27
  • June 3, 10, 24 (skips 17th for Age of Sail workshop)
  • July 1, 8

The fee for the six-week session is $210.

If you’re in the midcoast area and want to sign up, please contact me soon. As of last night I had four openings left. These classes are strictly limited to 12 people, because my legs can carry me only so fast. As always, we’ll be focusing on the water, shoreline, boats, architecture, and outstanding natural beauty of this place we’re blessed to call home.

If you’re not in midcoast Maine, you can sign up for another session of weekly classes by Zoom. Since some of my local students will be moving to the plein air group, there should be a few seats in each online class. These are limited to 14 people per session.

ZOOM morning Session

We meet on Tuesdays from 10 AM to 1 PM EST, on the following dates:

  • May 25
  • June 1, 8, 22, 29 (skips 15th for Age of Sail workshop)
  • July 6

The fee for the six-week session is $210.

ZOOM evening Session

We meet on Mondays from 6 to 9 PM EST, on the following dates:

  • May 24, 31
  • June 7, 21, 28 (skips 14th for Age of Sail workshop)
  • July 5

The fee for the six-week session is $210.

You don’t need to be in Maine to take these classes. We have students from Texas, Indiana, New York and elsewhere joining us.

As always, registration priority will be given to current students; if you’re interested, contact me to be put on a waitlist.

About these classes:

We cover the same subjects indoors and outdoors:

  • Color theory
  • Accurate drawing
  • Mixing colors
  • Finding your own voice
  • Authentic brushwork

We stress painting protocols to get you to good results with the least amount of wasted time. That means drawing, brushwork and color. I’m not interested in creating carbon copies of my style; I’m going to nurture yours, instead. However, you will learn to paint boldly, using fresh, clean color. You’ll learn to build commanding compositions, and to use hue, value and line to draw the eye through your paintings.

Watercolor, oils, pastels, acrylics and—yes, even egg tempera—are all welcome. Because they are small groups, I can work with painters of all levels.

All my classes are strictly limited to 14 people.

Email me for more information and supply lists.

Monday Morning Art School: the silhouette

Want to paint like John Singer Sargent? Start by learning to draw like him.

Singer with a Glove, 1878, pastel, Edgar Degas, courtesy Fogg Museum

In Edgar Degas’ Singer with a Glove, above, the model’s hand has no volumetric form. There is almost no shading in that hand, merely a silhouette. Yet our minds can immediately decode the image. We understand it because of its context and the accuracy of its drafting. It’s a silhouette of a hand, and it illustrates an important point in painting. The accuracy of drawing matters.

In this painting—so remarkable in many ways—there is, in fact, a carefully-plotted harmony of silhouettes. There are the dark outlines of her cuff and bodice, the inverted triangle of her torso, and the long stripes of color in the background. In fact, very little of this painting relies on modeling; most of it is a series of shapes. Volume is secondary to that dazzling array of shapes and color.

The Valpinçon Bather, 1808, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, courtesy the Louvre

I used this painting as an example because it’s overwhelmingly obvious. However, in the context of painting, silhouette does not mean a solid shape of black. It means the major shape(s) within a painting. In Ingres’ The Valpinçon Bather, above, the body is the silhouette—solid and tangible. You could almost cut it out with scissors and paste it in a book.

To lead with silhouette, the artist must get the line as perfect as possible from the beginning. That means drawing a proper line, with all its jots and tittles. Want to paint like John Singer Sargent? Start by learning to draw like him.

W. B. Yeats, charcoal on paper, 1908, John Singer Sargent, Private collection.

The two ideas—volume and silhouette—are the fundamental elements of painting. The silhouette is simply the outer contour of the modeled shape. If you draw it perfectly, you can suggest the form with minimal modelling. But it’s through modeling that the form becomes expressive and we have a sense of reality.

In general, artists choose to emphasize either volume or silhouette, but they both exist in most paintings. You can see that co-existence quite clearly in Bruegel’s Peasant Wedding, below. It’s a positive cornucopia of dazzling shapes. Still, the faces are fully formed and evocative, and the figures have volume.

The Peasant Wedding, 1566-69, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, courtesy Kunsthistorisches Museum

It’s tempting to think of silhouette as intellectual and volume as intuitive, because in practical painting, that’s often how they progress. We work from big shapes down to little shapes (‘modeling’) and as we progress, we’re drawing more and more from our non-intellectual reserves.

This post was drawn from a long Facebook discussion between artist Tom Root and his friends. Thanks, Tom!