In paint, the old ways can be the most dangerous.

Sketch for ‘The Hay Wain’ c.1820, oil on paper on panel, John Constable, courtesy the Yale Center for British Art

In most disciplines, ‘all-natural’ evokes the idea that something is made of pure, safe, wholesome materials, better for us and the environment than the products of a chemistry lab. That may be true of food, although in America, the “all-natural” label means little or nothing.

In paint, ‘all-natural’ can be a very bad label indeed. The pigments drawn directly from the earth are sometimes the most dangerous ones on the palette.

We know what John Constable’s palette contained, because the artist died unexpectedly in 1837, leaving behind four wooden palettes, a wooden sketching box with brushes, chalk holder, palette knife and pigments in glass phials. There was also a wooden box full of pigments, and a metal field-painting box.

Constable’s metal paint box c.1837, courtesy of the Tate

This box contains eleven paint bladders, a piece of white gypsum and a glass bottle of blue pigment. Constable could have purchased these paints pre-mixed, or mixed the pigments and poppy-seed oil binder himself. Since the paint tube hadn’t been invented yet, the mixed pigments were stored in pig’s bladders tied at the top with twine.

Constable was very forward-looking in terms of technique and materials. He popularized plein air painting, and brought respectability to landscape painting. In a milieu where smooth paint application was a primary virtue, he was flicking colors on with a palette knife.

In one respect, though, he was a traditionalist: he persisted in using ground lazurite instead of synthesized ultramarine. He believed that the natural pigment had a better color range than its synthetic analogue.

In Constable’s paint box were:

Chrome yellow
Yellow ochre
Red madder
Cobalt blue
Prussian blue
Emerald green
Raw sienna
Burnt sienna
Flake (lead) white
Lamp black

Sienna, ochre and umber are the oldest pigments known to mankind, going back to prehistory. All of them are based on iron oxide. They differ in color depending on how much manganese is present and how long they’ve been cooked. They are absolutely safe pigments.

Woman Embroidering, 1812, by Georg Friedrich Kersting, courtesy Kunsthalle Kiel. The 19th century craze for copper-arsenite greens was a health disaster among the fashionable.

But others on Constable’s palette are not so benign. Chrome yellow, along with Naples yellow and flake white, are banned from the modern paintbox because they’re lead-based. Vermillion is made from the mineral cinnabar, which contains toxic levels of mercury. All are absolutely natural—and absolutely deadly.

Constable’s cobalt blue was probably ground glass (smalt). In that form cobalt is benign, but the pigment itself is toxic. And emerald green is copper-acetoarsinite, which in addition to use as a pigment, made a good rodenticide and insecticide. That color, fashionable in the 19th century, was the root of countless deaths from arsenic poisoning, and is posited as the cause of Napoleon’s stomach cancer. Even the innocuous-sounding ‘lamp black’ wasn’t as innocent as its name implies. It was made of soot, which is an inhalation carcinogen.

The Battle of San Romano, 1438, Paolo Uccello, courtesy National Gallery. In addition to being toxic, vermillion darkens over time. The horse’s bridle was originally bright red.

Plant and animal pigments are generally not toxic, but they’re not light-fast, either. Red madder was an extract of Rubia tinctorum, the same pigment source as natural alizarin crimson. The synthetic analogues are cheaper and more stable.

The carmine (crimson) of antiquity was extracted from an insect, Kermes vermilio, which lives on oak trees in the Mediterranean basin. Unfortunately, carmine and its close cousin cochineal fade rapidly on exposure to sunlight. That’s not a problem if you’re making food coloring, but it is a problem when you use it for paint.

Most modern pigments were first designed to be used in industrial settings, not for painting. Because of this, they must be light-fast and safe to use in large quantities. An example is phthalo blue, used widely in the printing industry. It’s cheap, plentiful, and not known to be toxic to man or animal. 

Monday Morning Art School: the color of evergreens

When drawing and painting these trees, notice the branch placement, the whorls, the broken spots, the needle color.

Black spruce (courtesy of Wikipedia).

If you’ve read this blog for a while, you know that I periodically introduce you to a green matrix, by which you can defeat the ‘wall of green’ that overwhelms us every year at the end of June. That’s when trees and grasses assume their mature foliage. As elegant as nature is, you’re not going to make a compelling painting of them by squeezing puddles of chromium oxide, veridian, and sap green out of their tubes and smearing them everywhere on your canvas.

It helps to start by knowing your trees. Even this early in summer, there are differences in the canopy shape that help to define the tree canopy. This is a place where careful drawing is important.

Our evergreens deserve thought as well, especially if you’re painting along the coast. When drawing and painting these trees, take your time. Notice the branch placement, the whorls, the broken spots from weather. Mix the needle color carefully.

Last week in class, a student was debating the color of the black spruces in the far distance. I suggested he mix them using black. “It is, after all, its name,” I said. That’s not coincidence; that common name comes from the darkness of its foliage in certain situations. 

Black spruce is so widespread in Canada that it ought to be the country’s official plant. We have it in Maine (and in the Adirondacks, Minnesota and Michigan) because we’re an extension of the boreal forest of the Great White North.

Black spruce is a slow-growing, scruffy conifer with a narrow, pointed crown. That scruffiness is exaggerated when it’s growing on the coast, buffeted by weather. But that’s also why black spruces are survivors on lonely promontories; they’re adapted to miserable weather. In fact, that’s the common trait of all our northern evergreen species.

(By the way, if you can’t tell the difference between a black and a red spruce, don’t worry. Neither can they. They hybridize here where their ranges meet.)

Eastern White Pine (courtesy of Wikipedia)

Eastern white pine is, of course, the official state tree of Maine. The massive masts on the windjammers you see off shore are most likely white pine, since the tree can reach 135’ tall in the wild. White pine is an important lumber tree and a superstar food host for wildlife, including black bears, rabbits, red squirrels and many birds. While the tree may not like it, its bark is an important food source for beavers, snowshoe hares, porcupines, rabbits and mice. 

White pines are identifiable by their needles, which are clustered in groups of five. They’re so common here that if you see a pine tree with a blueish green cast to the needles, you can just assume it’s a white pine. It’s got a far nicer habit than the black spruce, growing in a pyramidal shape. Of course, as it gets older and ravaged by time, that shape gets broken up. Just as with us humans.

Jack Pine (courtesy of Wikipedia)

I used to think that Jack Pine was a descriptor of a shaggy, wind-swept tree, rather than a species name. It wasn’t until I saw them growing at Schoodic that I realized they were, in fact, a species in their own right. They’re common enough in Canada, and they grow in pockets here in Maine.

Jack pines seem to pick out the worst rocky or sandy soil on which to make their stand. They’re even more scruffy than black spruces, often bent into the wind.

Balsam fir foliage (courtesy of Wikipedia)

The woods here are also home to balsam fir, which are a small-to-medium fir with a strong pine scent. They’re iconic Christmas-tree beauties, with short, flat, glossy needles and a beautiful habit. They’ve got no great commercial value as lumber, but they’ve been awfully handy to humans as a source of medicine. Many creatures eat their foliage and seeds or seek shelter beneath their boughs.

Although evergreens don’t lose their needles in winter, it’s wrong to think that they don’t change color. They have periods of growth where the green is fresh, and times when they’re dormant. They change color, but the changes are subtle.

What is freedom?

Yes, painting (like music) is about personal expression—but it’s also a finely-honed craft.

Owl’s Head fishing shacks, oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas, 11X14, $1087 framed or $869 unframed.

My little granddaughter, age five, recently got her first guitar. Being a smart little nipper, she’s going to shortly become bored with strumming the open, untuned strings. She’ll want to learn how to play the darn thing. Thank goodness it’s not the bagpipes.

Her parents could let her experiment until she miraculously discovers how to finger chords, but a smarter idea would be to ask her aunt Mary to teach her. As a culture we have thousands of years of experience with stringed instruments.

That’s true of every discipline I can think of—mathematics, auto repair, music, carpentry. Only in the visual arts do we persist with the notion that ‘freedom’ means dispensing with technique.

Skylarking, oil on canvas, Carol L. Douglas, 24X30, $3478 framed,

I was reminded of that while sailing aboard American Eaglelast week. One of my students is a high-school art teacher. “I realize art is about personal expression,” she said. “But how do you get them to understand there is a better way?”

It’s been a long time since I taught children, and I’ve never taught them in a school, where they’re under compulsion. But I have four kids of my own. I remember how mentally-inflexible they are at that age; they’re always certain they’re right. They don’t like adults touching their head space, but that’s what teachers are supposed to do. Meanwhile, they’ve been told that the art room is the one place in life where their thoughts and emotions have complete freedom. It’s no surprise that they guard that freedom zealously.

Back to basics: Karen experimented with various compositions before she started painting in Thursday’s class.

In fact, it’s not until they head off to RISD, where tuition, room and board will set them back an eye-watering $73,000 a year, that they may start listening to their art teachers. (In comparison, Pratt at $69,000, seems like a bargain, not.)

Meanwhile, the clarinetists and violinists among their peers will have had the benefits of private lessons and strict discipline. They’re used to following orders and practicing, and they don’t chafe at it.

But that’s not so in visual arts, and it’s not the fault of their teachers, but of the society that dismisses visual arts as the comic meanderings of dilettantes. This month’s offensive kick in the teeth is an Italian artist who sold a “column of light and air,” i.e., literally nothing, for $18,300. Parents aren’t wrong in wondering if art is just a con game, and teachers aren’t wrong in questioning the point of such a career.

Terrie’s sweet sketch for Thursday’s class.

Artistic kids are routinely told to pursue some other avenue of creative expression. After a career in teaching, industrial design, or marketing, they’ll finally wander back to me to try to recapture their first love, painting.

At which time I give them the carefully-scripted protocol that they should have had at age 14. As adults, their thinking has matured. They accept that is how art should be taught. They’ve had enough disappointment with their unguided attempts that disciplined learning is a relief.

Yes, painting (like music) is about personal expression—but it’s also a finely-honed craft. Expressive freedom rests on a solid base of experience and technique.

What you can and can’t change

Thought and practice moves our painting style, but it’s incremental, just like the Mary Day docking.

Winch (American Eagle), oil on canvasboard, by Carol L. Douglas, 12X16, $1449 framed.

Windjammers are slippery little devils. I should know that by now. You think you understand the rhythm of their comings and goings and you find one or two likely candidates and commit to painting them. Then you look away for a moment and you find a subject slipping away from her berth, heading out to sea.

That happened to me on Monday, when I’d stopped to paint before my dentist appointment. (‘Quickie’ has an entirely different meaning to artists than to the rest of the world.) I’d limned in the ketch Angelique, and the light and shadows were notated, but as I sadly watched her slide out of her berth, I knew she wouldn’t be back for days.

“You didn’t take a photo, did you?” asked Ken DeWaard. He knows most of my bad habits, thanks to my friend Terry spilling the beans. I could almost paint Angeliquefrom memory, but that never ends well. I shook my head ruefully, and begged him for a picture. “I’m just enabling you,” he muttered, but he sent it to me anyway.

Lobster fleet at Eastport, oil on canvas, 24×30, $3478 framed.

There was still the fine flat transom of the Lewis R. French to paint. She celebrated her 150th birthday this year, and that’s something to celebrate. We both set to again, but not five minutes later, Mary Day hove into view. She was heading for the berth directly in front of us. Normally, that would be a good thing, but it would obliterate the rest of our view.

Mary Day doesn’t have an engine; she’s pushed into place by a tender. It’s fascinating to watch 90’ of wood and sails delicately slide into her berth, guided by a tiny gnat of a boat. Since our subjects had vanished into the rhythm of a working harbor, we had no choice but to sit back and enjoy the spectacle. We talked about color and mark-making.

Striping (Heritage), oil on canvasboard, 6X8, $435 framed.

I hold that mark-making is as personal as handwriting. Once you’ve taught someone how to form their letters, you have very little control over the finished product. I’m shocked, sometimes, to see how much my handwriting resembles my mother’s. That’s a real mystery, since I’m a lefty and she was right-handed.

As a teacher, I do influence my students’ marks. “Don’t dab!” I’m wont to say, although I’m well aware that Pierre Bonnard dabbed to great effect. He’s the exception that proves the rule. Dabbing, in the hands of beginners, looks amateurish.

Mostly, I ask them to experiment with all the different things a brush can do and then find their own ways of using them. Once they’ve found that place, it’s pointless to try to shake it up too much. (This is why I don’t encourage palette-knife painting in my classes; it short-circuits this process.)

Pleasure boats, oil on canvasboard, 12X16, $1159 unframed. Even though this is not ‘my style’, it’s still one of my favorite paintings.

“There are things that are immutable, and it’s pointless to try to change them,” I said to Ken as we watched Mary Day’s crew work. “For example, I can’t be 6’5” and you can’t have my curly hair.”

“But there are things you can change,” said Ken. He’s right, of course. Our choices of brushes, canvas and pigments all influence our paint application, just as choosing a gel pen makes us write differently than with a pencil. Thought and practice moves our painting style, but it’s incremental, just like the Mary Day docking. Rush that by copying someone else, and you risk being a parody.

I don’t know a single serious artist who thinks he or she is painting well—even the ones who are highly successful. We’re all on a quest; our vision is constantly changing. But through all that, we have something that’s immutable. For lack of a better term, I’ll call it our styles.

Monday Morning Art School: quit wasting time

We all have dreams we’re deferring until the timing is right. We believe, in our innocent way, that we have all the time in the world to do them. But we don’t.

Belfast harbor, oil on canvasboard, by Carol L. Douglas

I had intended to write about fast, efficient color mixing, but you can read about that here, or here. This has been a weekend of wild upheaval for me. Its takeaway message has been that life is ephemeral and precious. If you’ve always wanted to do something, I suggest you start now, because none of us are promised tomorrow.

Cat is a young lady I’ve known of since she was an undergraduate art student at a small college in Alabama. Her pastor was my friend John Nicholson, and he thought we’d like each other. We became Facebook and—later—real-world friends. I knew that she and her husband were not childless by choice. I prayed for her when she underwent treatment for the disease that caused her infertility.

Spring on Beech Hill, oil on canvasboard, by Carol L. Douglas

As long year stretched into long year, I accepted that their calling was not to be parents. After all, they’re smart, caring people who will serve humanity no matter how that’s shaped. But I couldn’t help musing about all the babies who are born into neglectful homes when other people want children but remain childless.

On Saturday Cat posted that she’s pregnant. The baby’s due in January. “We serve a God of miracles- I cannot begin to tell you how He is so faithful. If you are still waiting on His timing, please don’t give up. Your miracle is coming,” she wrote. I was humbled by the faithfulness of God, who answered their prayers when I’d given up on them.

Three Chimneys, oil on canvasboard, by Carol L. Douglas

Last February, our old friend Kathy died of COVID in Buffalo. I’ve known Kathy and her husband Jim for decades. We watched their daughter Amy grow up and have a daughter of her own. If you haven’t been touched personally by COVID, let me tell you: it is an ugly beast. Kathy had it, Jim had it, Amy had it, and their granddaughter had it; everyone recovered except Kathy. She wasn’t old or morbidly obese, so why she died and they did not is another of those impossible questions.

I’ve kept in contact with Amy on Facebook since I moved from Buffalo. Last week she posted that her daughter Erika had finished the 9thgrade with honors. And then suddenly, without warning, Amy died. That was Sunday morning. She was just in her early 40s. I can’t even begin to process the cataclysm that has engulfed my old friend Jim and his granddaughter Erika.

Owl’s Head Fishing Dock, oil on canvasboard, by Carol L. Douglas

My faith teaches that Satan (Death) has temporary dominion over this world. That still doesn’t answer the question of why Cat has had a miracle and Amy had a disaster; that’s an answer buried deep in their own relationships with God. But I do know that life is fleeting and ephemeral, and its ours to savor or squander.

When our kids were small, our friend Jan would invite us to stay in her cottage at Ogunquit. Jan had never married and was childless, but she loved children. Those vacations sparked my love affair with Maine.

Life goes on and we drifted apart. I’d think of her as I drove up Route 95, but never picked up the phone to call her. Last year, I found myself in Ogunquit and decided to give her a ring. I was a few weeks too late; she’d just died.

We all have dreams we’re deferring until the timing is right. They may be as simple as making a phone call, or they may involve travel, writing, or even learning to paint. We believe, in our innocent way, that we have all the time in the world to start them. But we don’t. The clock is ticking.

Welcome back to real life

Sailing is a great disperser of cares.

Practicing painting aboard American Eagle. What a fabulous group of students I had this trip!

I’m back from teaching watercolor aboard the schooner American Eagle—a little tanned, a little heavier (thanks, Matthew) and a whole lot more content.

Sailing is a great disperser of cares. You’re at one with the boat; you have to be, as ignoring her swings and rolls will cause you to fall down. That puts you totally in the moment, watching the sails, the waves, the shifts in air, and the amazing complexity of 19th century transport technology. Sail power is the original renewable energy resource. American Eagle has been ‘leave no trace’ since long before the slogan was thought up.

We all start at the beginning–how to mix color, how to see color, how to lay it down on the paper.

The gam—the annual raft-up of the windjammer fleet—was modified this year, as COVID made it unwise to scramble over each other’s boats. Instead, the windjammers dropped anchor near one another off Vinelhaven. A dinghy zipped around with grog. The captains devised a scavenger hunt over the water.

I have a crush on every boat, but I especially have a crush on American Eagle. She’s terrifically elegant and clean-limbed for a boat that started life as a fishing vessel.

Captain John Foss returning from the co-op with fresh lobster for our supper. 

I was rather surprised to see her little sister joining us. That was the Agnes & Dell, proudly flying the flag of Newfoundland and Labrador. She’s a smaller version of American Eagle, with the same proud curved prow and lovely rounded transom. At around 50 feet, she was being sailed by a crew of just two. That’s a manageable dream, I thought. My affections wavered just a tiny bit. But, no, as long as I get to sail twice a year on American Eagle, I don’t need a boat of my own.

Agnes & Dell was also built as a fishing schooner. She’s almost as lovely as American Eagle.

At any rate, I was out there to teach watercolor, not moon over boats. It’s always a great time, and I’m blessed to be able to do it twice a year, in June and September. None of us knew how we were going to return from COVID, but this was a heartening start to a new season.

I had eight enthusiastic students. With a few exceptions, they’re all at the beginning of their artistic journey. It was a special privilege to help them with that. We painted, ate, and laughed—a lot. If you’re interested in the September trip, or any of my other workshops, check my website here. There are still openings.

Dorothy hard at work next to the memorial to quarry workers at Stonington. Even the toughest painters get shore leave. 

On the subject of returning to reality, post-COVID, I’m having an opening at my outdoor gallery on Saturday. Somewhere in the middle of winter I started painting regularly with Ken DeWaardEric Jacobsen, and Bjὂrn Runquist. Inevitably, that’s influenced the way I think about and approach my work.

I’m looking forward to sitting down and have a glass of wine with you and talking about the past year. It’s been a sea change for us all, and I want to hear about it from your side, as much as I want to show you it from my side.

Welcome Back to Real Life opens from 2-6 PM, Saturday, June 19 at Carol L. Douglas Studio at 394 Commercial Street in Rockport, ME. The gallery hours are Tuesday-Saturday, noon to 6. Or email me if you want to make an appointment.

Gone sailing

I treasure these few days when I can’t blog, answer texts, or pay bills.

Aboard schooner American Eagle.

There is no cell phone signal over the water on Penobscot Bay. It’s not a complete blackout; you might pick up something from the mainland, but it’s very spotty.

My husband is an electrical engineer who works with radios. Like most people in his profession, he’s an inveterate fixer. When he first realized I was going to be out of contact on the water, he launched into a technical soliloquy involving buoys and repeaters. “That would be an easy problem to fix,” he mused.

I looked at him in horror. “Don’t even think about it!” I remonstrated. I treasure these few days when I can’t blog, answer texts, or pay bills.

Yes, my blog is going dark for the next week. I’ll be cutting around Penobscot Bay teaching watercolor to an avid group of new students. Many of these people have waited patiently for a year for this workshop, as their long-planned trip was canceled due to COVID.

The Gam is the season-opening raft-up of the Maine windjammer fleet. It didn’t happen in 2020, thanks to COVID.

I love being on the water, and teaching on American Eagle gives me the opportunity to sail without the effort and expense involved in keeping up a 90-ft. long historic boat. That’s Captain John Foss’s problem. This is the part of windjamming the public never sees: the sheer hard graft to keep these boats in perfect nick.

I have a knack for choosing back-of-beyond places for painting workshops—places where the signal is spotty and nature is stupendous. This is what’s left on my schedule this year:


Our second trip is September 19-23, 2021.

As with this trip, you’ll learn watercolor on the fly on the magical waters of Maine’s Penobscot Bay, aboard the historic schooner American Eagle. In September, the bay is still warm from summer and autumn colors are just starting on the islands. All materials, berth, meals and instruction included.

Jack Pine, 8×10, oil on canvasboard, by Carol L. Douglas. Available through my open-air gallery, $522 unframed.


AUGUST 8-13, 2021

This trip has three openings left. It’s a perennial favorite: five days of intensive plein air in America’s oldest national park. Lodging and meals included at Schoodic Institute. All levels and media welcome.

Yes, there are places in America where buffalo still roam. This one’s near Cody, WY.


SEPTEMBER 5-10, 2021

Study in an authentic western ranch setting just minutes from the restaurants, museums, and resorts of Cody. We’re based on a ranch above the south fork of the Shoshone River, surrounded by mountains. Five days of intensive plein air, all levels, all media welcome.

Linda DeLorey painting an old adobe building near Pecos, NM.


SEPTEMBER 12-16, 2021

This is another favorite, and is about half-filled right now. It’s high plains and mountain wilderness above Santa Fe in historic, enchanting New Mexico. Five days of intensive plein air instruction, all media and all levels welcome.



This is a new offering, in conjunction with the Sedona Arts Center. Sedona is a geological wonderland, with world-class restaurants, galleries, and accommodations. Five days of intensive plein air instruction, all media and all levels welcome.


JANUARY 17-21-2022

I’ll be returning to gracious Tallahassee for another great session of painting through Natalia Andreeva Studio. This is a great opportunity to get away to the warmth and sun of Florida during the worst of our northern winter! Five days of intensive plein air instruction, all media and all levels welcome.

More time to paint

We shove our painting into narrow windows of opportunity. Maybe that isn’t such a bad thing.

Inlet, oil on canvasboard, 9X12, available at Carol L. Douglas Gallery, 394 Commercial Street, Rockport ME

I’m surrounded by land trust lands and very grateful for them. I hike in them and in some cases actively work to support them. (For example, see Cape Elizabeth’s Paint for Preservation.) In my area, the Coastal Mountains Land Trust is the big player. It owns land directly behind my house as well as the beautiful Beech Hill and Erickson Fields Preserves.

This month, someone has taken to dropping limbs and sticks onto a Beech Hill path. I have no idea why. This week, two downed saplings were hung in the trees. After joking about beavers—there aren’t any this high up—I returned to my regular musing on human folly.

The mysterious stick artist started with this. Now the path is completely blocked.

There is a human impulse to ‘decorate’ nature. We build cairns, or in the case of Erickson Fields, put up silly signs about fairies. It’s futile, and it diminishes the woodlands experience. The occasional sign keeping people from falling over a cliff is all that nature needs. It was designed by the Creator, and nothing humans can or will build will ever compare.

It goes without saying—I hope—that this includes lighting fires. We’ve had a very dry spring. The Memorial Day rains were too light to really help. My friend Sarah reports that her well ran dry this week. All it would take is one idiot to create a lot of damage, and we’ve got a lot of out-of-town visitors with more enthusiasm than sense right now.

I’ve been getting up at 5 to walk my dog because of the increase in traffic on the trails. Some mornings are like Grand Central Station up by Beech Nut, the historic folly at the top of Beech Hill.

Beaver Dam, 12X16, oil on canvasboard, available through Carol L. Douglas Gallery, 394 Commercial Street, Rockport, ME

That’s a pleasant time to be out and about, but it makes for a very long day. I write my blog and then try to fit in 2-3 hours of plein air painting. I’ve been amazed at how much I can get done in that short time. Yesterday I limned out a complicated picture of the docks at Port Clyde on a 14X18 canvas. There’s something liberating in knowing I can’t finish.

It helps to do those hours early, because it’s been hotter than a two-dollar pistol this week. We seldom get real heat in Maine. We don’t have air conditioning in our old farmhouse so we’re surrounded by the thrum of fans. It makes communication very interesting, since we can’t hear anything.

Paint pots. I’m far less efficient than a machine, but I know what colors I want in those kits.

The life of a working artist is mostly prosaic, just like any job. I come home and hoist up the walls of my open-air gallery at 394 Commercial Street. Then I concentrate on the back-room stuff involved in selling any product. Yesterday, I sat at my picnic table and filled 160 tiny pots of paint for next week’s boat workshop.

All that is like any other job. The difference is in those 2-3 hours of pure painting every morning. Every painter I know makes the same compromises in order to earn a living. Either we’re teaching or selling or working a second job (which may be homemaking or child care). We fantasize about a time when we can just paint, but I wonder if we’d paint any better if we had all the time in the world.

Monday Morning Art School: what we can learn from pointillism

Not every color that’s on your painting must be there in real life.

A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, 1884, Georges Seurat, courtesy Art Institute of Chicago

Pointillismand its twin, Divisionism* developed as painters sought to advance and understand the optical revolution that was Impressionism. Their flagship painting—and the root of the concept—is Georges Seurat’smasterpiece, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. Seurat called his painting style ‘chromoluminarism,’ which hints at what he was striving for—a way to enhance the ability of canvas and paint to reflect light.

For the record, Seurat didn’t paint La Grande Jattein one sweep. It would have been close to impossible to hold that many ideas simultaneously. In the first pass, he used conventionally-mixed pigments including earths. In the second, he dispensed with the earths and limited the number of paints on his palette. It wasn’t until his last sweep that he introduced the dots of color that we see today. Remember that next time you want to toss a canvas that isn’t working.

The Pine Tree at Saint Tropez, 1909, Paul Signac, courtesy Pushkin Museum

Seurat believed that he could get more vibrant and pure colors by letting the viewer’s eye do the mixing, instead of mixing colors on the palette. In truth, what he was striving for—an additive color scheme—is impossible with paint; it remains subtractive because it’s reflecting light. What Seurat really wanted was digital painting, and it wouldn’t be invented for another 100 years.

Nevertheless, he did create an exciting new way of putting down paint. Placing contrasting colors next to each other causes an optical excitation that typical color mixing cannot achieve. In some way, every color in a Seurat painting manages to maintain its individuality while contributing to a larger whole.

Le séchage des voiles (The Drying Sails), 1905, André Derain, courtesy Pushkin Museum

To create these effects, the divisionist painter first identified the local color of objects. Then, he interspersed dots of yellow-orange in the sunlit passages, and blues, reds and purples in the shadows. Pointillists worked a little differently, thinking through the entire painting in raw color, much like modern printing creates an image in CMYK.

The impact of adjacent colors on perception is a well-known and -researched phenomenon, one that touches on the area of optical illusion. These optical sleights-of-hand are known as contrast effects. By putting dots of contrasting colors next to each other, pointillists hoped to recreate these contrast effects in their paintings.

Were the pointillists and divisionists able to make colors seem brighter than their peers who were still mixing and painting the conventional way? Perhaps slightly, because they avoided the muddiness that can happen in paint-mixing. However, that was a battle that had largely already been won by their Impressionist peers.

Portrait of Irma Sèthe, 1894, Théo van Rysselberghe, courtesy Musée du Petit Palais  

Nor were they able to entirely express shadow and light with hue; these still need some value shifts to make them intelligible.

Nevertheless, their optical experiments influenced a century of painting, ending in the experiments of op art in the 1960s. We don’t have to want to paint like them to learn from them.

The takeaway lesson of the pointillists is that not every color that’s on your painting must be there in real life. Your job as an artist is to represent the inner reality of a situation, not its photographic shell. If the trees are moving, perhaps a flash of orange will add a sense of motion. The sky may be blue, or it may be yellow; it’s hard to say.

The human eye craves interest, and as long as you have the value right, you can play fast and loose with the actual hue.

*What most of us call Pointillism is actually Divisionism but there’s really little point (ahem) in dividing them, at least for our purposes.

The photograph lies but my sketch yells the truth

Stop taking snapshots you’ll never use and start sketching instead.

Collapsing shed, 9X12, oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas, $696 unframed, 25% off this week.

“The photograph lies but my sketch yells the truth,” I told my student, and then gawped at what I’d just said. In our culture, we talk about ‘photographic proof’ as if it is an absolute. If you’re looking for evidence to nail a drug dealer or your philandering husband, photographs are great—although by now we all know they can be manipulated.

For guiding a painting, photos have their limits. They distort distance and spatial relationships. Modern point-and-shoot cameras (especially cell phones) blow contrast up, because that’s what buyers like. In exchange, subtle value shifts disappear.

“Great!” you answer. “You’re always telling me that paintings are an interplay of light and dark, warm and cool, so exaggerating the value structure will help, right?”

Unfortunately, the exaggeration of light and dark happens at the expense of warm and cool. On Wednesday, I painted a sketch of lupines in a field, above. There was a soft haze of mauve at the far edge of the field, created (I assume) by the immature seed heads of the grasses. In the foreground, rain-beaten weeds reflected a cool aquamarine. The light shining through the lupine leaves was yellow-green. I recorded those color shifts as accurately as I could.

My snapshot. Who would be interested in painting that wall of green?

Compare that to my snapshot of the scene. All those subtle shifts in color are washed away. We are left with a wall of green that would be horribly uninteresting in a painting. The subtle shifts in color that make lupines so beautiful are all washed out; in fact, they’re ugly in the photo. There’s nothing in this photo that would inspire me to paint.

Pincushion distortion from a telephoto lens.

Cameras are great at creating depth in the picture frame; excessively so, in fact. Cell phones are made with wide-angle lenses so we can all crowd into our selfies. Wide angle lenses expand space. Objects look further apart and more distant than normal. This exaggerates the size difference between the foreground and background, creating an illusion of greater depth than is really there.

That’s great for photos of the Rockies. It makes for laughable results when shooting pictures of the Bidens with the Carters. It also makes your photos of a barn in the middle-distance appear flat and uninteresting.

But let’s say you’re a keen photographer and you’ve invested in a top-end Nikon with interchangeable lenses (as I did before my Argentina trip). You can also create equally-bad distortion with a telephoto lens. They compress space, making objects appear larger and closer together than normal. That spatial compression creates great abstractions, but it also distorts perspective.

Prospettiva accidentale di una scala a tre rampe, eseguita con il metodo dei punti misuratori, 1995, Luciano Testoni, courtesy Wikipedia.

The farther away we are from an object, the flatter the perspective. In the beautiful drawn example above, the top line is the horizon. The closer we get to the it (our furthest point), the flatter the lines get. So, if you take a photo of a beautiful building on a far hill with your 300 mm telephoto lens, the perspective will be flattened out of all recognition.

Photos have their place, but for recording impressions, working from life is always better. That means sketching instead of taking snapshots. The human brain has a remarkable capacity to interpret and interpolate information. We can access that quickly, with nothing more complex than a pencil and paper. In a world filled with lies, you can usually trust your own eyes to tell you the truth.