Monday Morning Art School: Narrative painting

The public’s embrace of plein air painting tells us that our audience, too, is hungry for a good story.

The Veteran in a New Field, 1865, by Winslow Homer, courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art. Painted at the end of the Civil War, it’s a poignant metaphor for the coming demilitarization.  

The human mind is hardwired for narrative. Long before the written word was developed, our paleolithic ancestors were telling stories on cave walls. Imagination is fundamental to human life.

“Narrative painting” simply means that the painting tells a story. During most of art history, that was the norm. A narrative painting can illustrate a cycle of ideas, as did Egyptian tomb frescoes or Michelangelo’s ceilings in the Sistine Chapel. Or, a narrative painting can illustrate a single moment, as does Sandro Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus.

While narrative painting is well suited for mythology and religion, it was also used to transmit historical ideas. The Death of General Wolfe, for example, is a 1770 painting by Benjamin West that commemorates the deciding affray in the struggle between Britain and France for control of the New World. It could also be propaganda, as with IngresNapoleon I on his Imperial Throne. And it was used to convey moral truths ranging from early Renaissance genre paintings to the great French Social Realist art.

Haymaking (Les Foins), 1877, Jules Bastien-Lepage, courtesy Musée d’Orsay

And then came the Cult of Genius, when artists shifted from being craftsmen to being intellectuals. That was a product of the Age of Enlightenment, and among other ideas, it gave us the concept of the enfant terrible, offensive, rebellious artist. In fact, this individualism was so popular that it earned a label: Bohemianism.

The phrase “Art for art’s sake!” meant that all ‘true’ art should be divorced from moralizing, instructive, political, or utilitarian functions. In short, it was art only when it was useless, practically speaking.

“Art should be independent of all claptrap — should stand alone… and appeal to the artistic sense of eye or ear, without confounding this with emotions entirely foreign to it, as devotion, pity, love, patriotism and the like,” wrote James Abbott McNeill Whistler.

Cromwell and the corpse of Charles I, 1831, Paul Delaroche courtesy Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nîmes

Pure art would be art that resonated with all people, regardless of their language, histories, or creeds. That idea marks the beginning of modern art. Since it allowed for the development of Impressionism and other forms of modern painting, it was extremely useful. But like all good ideas elevated to the point of religion, it eventually became an impediment to creativity. Much of human understanding lies in culturally-derived images. The cognoscenti may understand the meaning of a pile of bricks on the floor, but the average viewer doesn’t, and doesn’t want to.

(And of course, the cognoscenti was just replacing one set of images with another, with the added insult of being exclusionary. Either you pretended to understand, or you marked yourself out as uncouth.)

Paintings which told a story were either from the dustbin of history, or the province of those odd American realists, the Wyeths. This was the world in which I came of age as a painter. I’m a natural-born storyteller, so it’s no surprise that I didn’t know what the heck I was doing, or where I belonged.

Then came the post-modern era, which we could call “meaning without art.” Extracting a scroll from one’s vagina, vomiting paint, or defacing a First Folio of Goya’s Disasters of War may have seemed witty, but hardly required skill or craftsmanship.

In the post-post-modern era, plein air painting—an exercise in realism—is one of the most significant art movements, despite being largely ignored by art institutions. Most plein air painters are didactic by nature. We are speaking about our love of nature, the fragility of our world, and more. The public’s embrace of plein air painting tells us that our audience, too, is hungry for a good story.

With first world problems come first-world responsibilities

Our workloads are tailored to the times we live in. None of us can balance a 21st century job and a 19th century lifestyle.

Hard drive and bubble wrap, 6X8, oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas, $435 framed or $348 unframed, shipping included.

I first glimpsed our new economic reality a year ago, when I damaged my laptop. I picked out a new Lenovo ThinkPad, and waited. And waited. After months of temporary delays, they announced that it was never, in fact, going to be available.

That scenario has played out, with variations, over and over. Even the simplest tasks are drawn out almost beyond endurance. I was in a fender-bender on October 18; the repair is tentatively promised for Christmas week. I ordered garage doors in mid-summer. They came last week, minus their openers.

Toilet paper and hiking boats, 6X8, oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas, $435 framed or $348 unframed, shipping included.

Last summer I looked at dishwashers and was told that I couldn’t get the model I wanted. Ever. But my local big box store is reliable. We ordered a new dishwasher and stove. On Monday, the dishwasher arrived. The delivery guys ripped out the old one, installed the new one, and decided that it was defective. They left us with a kitchen swimming in water and a storage cubby where a dishwasher is supposed to be.

That evening, our old stove self-immolated, with our best bean pot bubbling inside. Our kitchen has been reduced to a coffee bar. The irony, of course, is that we’ve been trying to remodel it for a year; we haven’t found a contractor.

Monkey toy and candy, 6X8, oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas, $435 framed or $348 unframed, shipping included.

“Be grateful that you have towels, indoor heat, indoor running water, and a washing machine,” a friend chided. She’s echoing those who have characterized our supply chain issues as ‘high class’ or ‘first-world’ problems.

With first world problems, of course, come first-world responsibilities. Automation didn’t free us to create leisure time. It freed us to increase productivity, creating the most robust economy in world history.

Blonde Santa, 6X8, oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas, $435 framed or $348 unframed, shipping included.

Women have always worked outside the home; they were, for the most part, servants. In 1939 there were as many domestic servants as employees of the railroads, coal mines, and automobile industry combined. It was not until World War II that the work life of women was modernized.

My own grandmother was one of these working women. During the Great Depression, she took a job that required she live in; my father was farmed out to her sisters.

Dish of butter, 6X8, oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas. Please don’t mention to my refrigerator that its mates have both died, lest it get ideas. $435 framed or $348 unframed, shipping included

Most servants were employed by middle class households. Before the ‘labor-saving devices’ of the 20th century, it was impossible to run a middle-class home on one person’s labors alone. Automation first eliminated the need for domestic servants, and ultimately freed all women to pursue careers.

People say we’re suffering a ‘labor shortage.’ My local Hannaford can’t hire people to stock its shelves, for example. But the population hasn’t changed significantly in the 20 months since COVID struck. Our economy is a vast and finely-tuned apparatus and we’ve somehow thrown a wrench into it.

I don’t normally shop on Black Friday, but I’ll be going out today. I want to see how we cope with shortages of everything. Will there be sales in an economy that can’t stock necessities? Will people be able to check out their purchases in stores without employees? Will my goddaughter find a tree skirt that looks good on her? It’s hard to say.

Meanwhile, you can always book a painting workshop, although Sea & Sky at Schoodic is almost sold out. The rest of them are here.

Freedom from want

If you say grace tomorrow, you could do worse than thanking God for the four freedoms enumerated by Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Freedom from Want, 1943, Norman Rockwell

I had a painting teacher who hated Norman Rockwell. She was in agreement with the art establishment of her time, which derided him as ‘just an illustrator.’ They also rebelled against his view of America, but that wasn’t what she said. “He has no sense of perspective,” she told me. “He just layers objects to give the illusion of depth.”

For some of his cover art that was true. Consider The Runaway (below), painted for the September 20, 1958 cover of the Saturday Evening Post. It’s just three figures square to the picture plane, surrounded by the horizontal lines and miscellany of the soda shop counter. If that was the only Rockwell painting you ever saw, you could be forgiven for thinking as she did.

The Runaway, 1958, Norman Rockwell

Compare that with Shiner (also below), from the May 23, 1953 cover of the same magazine. The little girl is again square to the picture plane, but there is a second focal point at the top right. They’re tied together by the linoleum. We’re seeing the subject from a kid-height viewpoint. Rockwell understood perspective quite well, thank you.

Freedom from Want was painted during World War II as part of Norman Rockwell’s Four Freedoms series. The series was meant to illustrate a passage from President Franklin Roosevelt’s State of the Union address of January 6, 1941, when Nazi Germany occupied most of Western Europe. The paintings were so idiosyncratically American, however, that they instead have come to represent American values. Freedom from Want is now irrevocably entwined with the American holiday season, which kicks off tomorrow.

The foil for the whole painting is the white-on-white table, surrounded by a wreath of faces. If you’ve ever wondered about Rockwell as a painter, study that table. He’s as brilliant with the whites as Joaquín Sorolla, albeit in a much more American way.

Shiner, 1953, Norman Rockwell

The table is significantly foreshortened and the centerpiece—a fruit bowl—is at the very bottom of the picture. That and the truncated faces at the bottom make you wonder how much longer the table actually is.

This clever cropping make you think you’re looking at a snapshot of someone’s dinner. Of course, you’re not. He painted the figures from life, using his friends and neighbors as models. About the turkey, Rockwell said, “Our cook cooked it, I painted it and we ate it. That was one of the few times I’ve ever eaten the model.”

Note that there’s almost no other food on the table. Such is the magic of his realism that Rockwell makes you believe it’s an overloaded table. In fact, that was the criticism of it at the time, that it depicted indulgence while Europe was starving.

Of course, Thanksgiving is a meal of excess. (I myself plan to make seven pies today.) But if you say grace tomorrow—and I hope you do—you could do worse than thanking God for the four freedoms enumerated by President Roosevelt all those years ago:

Freedom of Speech

Freedom from Want

Freedom from Fear

Freedom of Worship

This was originally published in 2017. Have a very blessed holiday!

Monday Morning Art School: drawing the human hand

Hands are worth mastering because they speak about our experiences and character.

Study of a Woman’s Hands, 1490, charcoal and silverpoint, Leonardo da Vinci, courtesy Royal Collection, London

I wish I’d had the opportunity to study with one of the comic book greats like Jack Kirby or Steve Ditko. They had a gift for compressing human expression into explosive images. That’s especially true of their hands.

I look at my own hands every day. When I’m writing this blog and when I’m painting, they’re always in the periphery of my vision. The trained observer could read some of my history from my nails and calluses. Beyond that, our hands move expressively. The carpenter has power in his grip; the musician has grace.

Hands can be difficult to draw due to their complexity. However, it’s easy enough to get reference for your drawings. You’ve always got a spare hand hanging around. When I’m drawing in church, my right hand is often my model. Or, if you want to draw a two-handed or more complex pose, hire a model or take a reference photo. Hands shift shape as they move through their range. It’s difficult to get that right without photo reference.

Praying Hands, detail study for the Heller Altarpiece, 1508, India ink and wash, Albrecht Dürer, courtesy Albertina.

Start by understanding the bone structure. There are 27 fixed bones in the hands (plus an indeterminate number of sesamoid bones). A rookie error in drawing is to treat the thumb as if it sticks sideways out of the hand; instead, it sprouts from that nest of bones at the wrist called the carpals. The fingers don’t stick straight forward, either; instead, they’re arrayed like a bouquet of flowers. All movement in the hands starts at the wrist, not the fingers.

Our thumb is our most mobile digit, because its metacarpophalangeal joint isn’t locked down. Pay attention to that joint; it’s important in drawing. In our fingers, that joint is tied to its mates. Our little fingers and index fingers have some sideways mobility, but the poor suckers in the middle are pretty well stuck. However, our hands are designed to move in coordinated arches, which is why we can grip so strongly and accurately.

Metacarpophalangial joints, courtesy Wikipedia.

There are age- and sex-specific differences in hands. Older people develop arthritic bone spurs and knobbiness and lose the fatty deposits on the back of the hands. That means we can see their bones and blood vessels more clearly. The length ratio between the index and ring fingers are often different between men and women. Men tend to have less body fat, so their blood vessels in the hands are visible from a younger age.

Mark out the positions of each knuckle. The metacarpophalangeal joints (our first knuckles) form the major hinge of our hands. While they move in concert, they’re not always on the same plane, so mark their positions as circles. Do the same for the second and third knuckles. At this point, your drawing should look like a loose mishmash of circles. From there, limn out the shapes of the fingers in terms of simple geometry. The palm is a trapezoid, and the fingers are flattened rectangular or rounded shapes. The heel of your hand has volume, especially the plump part at the base of your thumb.

Study of hands, 1955, pencil, Andrew Wyeth, courtesy Swann Auction Galleries

Fingers aren’t flat. They’re more box-like than round, and they can be quite individual in their shape. But you must think of them as having volume and size, or you can’t visualize how they’re changing in perspective.

The last tricky thing you have to deal with are the fingernails. They’re curved, and mostly visible by the deep shadow they cast on their edges. Don’t make too big a deal of them or they’ll overwhelm your drawing.

Once you have the fundamental shapes and landmarks in place, drawing the lights and shadows is easy. The blocking on the knuckles makes the delicate shadows around them visible.

Art as information

When we paint, we speak to our present generation, but we’re also speaking to the future.

Giant deer from the replica of Lascaux.

The Irish elk was one of the largest deer that has ever lived. Its range was vast, across all of Eurasia from the Atlantic to Siberia, feeding on the same boreal woodlands that appeal to modern moose. Males had ridiculous showy racks. Some scientists think those racks were their downfall, because they made grazing too difficult.

What we know about them is limited mainly to fossils, and to the cave art of Lascaux (17,000 years old) and Chauvet Cave (30,000-35,000 years old). The interpretation of paleolithic art can be problematic, colored as it is by our own preconceptions. However, the animals themselves are straightforward, rendered with an eye to detail and description.

Lion painting replica from Chauvet Cave, courtesy Brno museum Anthropos.

At Lascaux, they include aurochs (the wild cattle that preceded our domestic cows) and a large animal that looks like a unicorn. There are big cats, horses, ibex, red deer and bison. At Chauvet Cave, the walls feature predators: cave lions, cave hyenas, leopards, bears, and rhinoceroses. Many of these species, like the Irish elk, have been extinct for millennia.

Fossils can be reconstructed, but they’re often just bones. They almost never give us a sense of musculature or color. Real-time paintings coupled with the fossil record give us a much more rounded view of these extinct animals.

Meanwhile, in Australia, scientists discovered a 17,300-year-old painting of a kangaroo. (Well, it’s a line drawing, and it’s been partially obscured, but it’s certainly a marsupial of some sort.) In Indonesia, there are cave paintings of a wild pig (45,000 years old) and a buffalo(44,000 years old). All of which tells us that there’s a whole world of undiscovered art underground, for those with the courage to go spelunking.

Nakht and Family Fishing and Fowling, Tomb of Nakht, c. 1400-1390 BC, courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The fruits, vegetables and game that we eat have been portrayed in art since the ancient Egyptians. These paintings tell us a lot about the evolution of the human diet, including when certain staples appeared in different parts of the world.

Dutch Golden Agepainters were focused on the abundance of their trade-based culture. That makes them a treasure-trove of information about food (and ships’ rigging, and window hardware, and almost every other aspect of 17th century European culture). Their traders were importing goods from all over the world, and the Dutch artists recorded it all. When we look at their paintings through the lens of art history, we tend to gloss over the taxonomy of what’s shown. However, the meticulous painting style that was prized in the Dutch Republic makes these paintings a scientific and historical resource.

Still life with monkeys, 1630-40, Frans Snyders (Flemish), courtesy National Gallery of Prague. Does that lobster call into question the story that they originated as food given to prisoners in Massachusetts Bay Colony?

Photography and our current excessive written history seem to have erased the need for paintings as documentation; that’s one reason for the explosion of abstraction in the 20th century. But, surely, that’s a short-sighted view. The nameless cave-painters at Chauvet Cave weren’t painting lions to preserve them for history—and yet they did. When we paint, we speak to our present generation, but we’re also speaking to the future. How that’s interpreted, and what it will mean, is beyond our current understanding.

Marsh paintings and why they can be truly terrible

I don’t begrudge people painting for fun, but I assume you read this blog because you’re interested in being the best painter you can be.

Beach Erosion, 8X10, Carol L. Douglas, available through Ocean Park Association.

I had finished writing a lecture I’d mentally subtitled “why am I torturing you like this?” That’s hard work, so I whirled away a few minutes on the internet. I came across a painting that took my breath away, for all the wrong reasons. It had no focal points, no energy, no depth of field. At the same time, the brushwork was easy and assured. It was obviously not this painter’s first rodeo.

I’m not interested in embarrassing another artist, so I made a fair copy of it while teaching my class. (That way you can laugh at my bad painting, not someone else’s.) I did mine on cheap demo paper, which means there isn’t much staccato in the scumbling, but that’s really the only difference. That I could copy it while talking about something else is a good indicator of its lack of complexity.

My fair copy of a boring marsh painting.

This is an example of what I call “marsh painting.” I really need a better term, for there are brilliant painters of marshes. My pal Mary Byrom is a great example. She reduces the salt marshes of southern Maine into simple shapes that are dynamic, colorful and evocative. The secret, of course, is that Mary draws brilliantly and works tirelessly at her craft.

The bad marsh painter is visually lazy. He or she does not look at the marsh as a surface that recedes in space, but as a series of flat bands that overlap the horizon. Norman Rockwell and Winslow Homer demonstrated that it’s possible to do this very well, but neither of them did it in lieu of drawing.

Inlet, 9X12, available through Camden Public Library.

A marsh painter may have heard that he “needs a path into the painting,” and will put a stream running back in S-curves to the distance. This recommendation was meant as a visual, not a literal, recommendation. It really means that you need some kind of compositional structure to anchor your painting. If that’s an S-curve, it ought not be as blatant as a lazy river.

The marsh painter shies away from anything difficult. Houses, people, automobiles, and boats are all tough to draw. It’s far better to stick to trees and grasses. And there—they believe—they’ve found their métier, in the tireless (and tiresome) representation of blades of grass and branches. But detail is never a substitute for good painting.

I don’t begrudge people painting for fun, but I assume you read this blog because you’re interested in being the best painter you can be. Learning to draw is the first requirement. Anyone who’s not mentally handicapped can learn to draw. Period. And drawing will give you the courage to tackle more difficult subjects in paint. Since I can’t teach everyone, I recommend this book.

Prom Shoes, 6X8, Carol L. Douglas. $435 framed. It’s all about that negative space, baby!

But, moving beyond drawing, there are basic principles to good painting:

I’ve just given you a reading list that will keep you out of the bars until Thanksgiving. Enjoy!

Monday Morning Art School: the human face

The best portrait painters drag us into the emotional space of their sitters.

Henry VIII at 49, 1540, Hans Holbein the Younger, courtesy Gallerie Nazionali d’arte antica, Palazzo Barberini, Rome 

My students will be painting self-portraits this week. One of them asked me for a masterpiece to copy. Without hesitation, I recommended the Tennessee painter Tom Root.

My pal Eric Jacobsen calls Tom Root “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. He’s technically superlative and keyed into the contemporary zeitgeist. Since I want my students to paint in the modern idiom, it’s best that she studies a modern painter.

La Monomane de l’envie (Insane Woman), 1822, Theodore Gericault, courtesy Museum of Fine Arts of Lyon

The best portrait painters drag us into the emotional space of their sitters. That is why we can look at a Renaissance painting and feel that sudden start of connection. This is an absurdly truncated list that misses many masterpieces, but it’s a start for any student who wants to study portraiture.

Albrecht Dürer’s Self-Portrait at Twenty-Eight could be subtitled, “Look at me and my glorious hair.” Dürer chose to present himself with the iconography usually reserved for Christ, but he’s not saying he’s a god. Rather, he’s telling us that all followers of Jesus are imitators of Christ, and that his own talents are God-given.

How very different is the lesson in Bronzino’s Portrait of a Young Man with a Book. Bronzino was a Medici court painter, and his portraits are all assured, stylish and reserved. This haughtiness reflects the rarified atmosphere in which he worked, but he still reveals the underlying vanity of youth in this young scholar whose name is lost to time.

The Jester Don Diego de Acedo, c. 1644, Diego Velázquez, courtesy Museo del Prado

Jan van Eyck is known to most of us for the Arnolfini Portrait, truly one of the most beautiful and enigmatic paintings ever made. Its complex iconography, perspective and rare attention to detail are absolutely clear, and yet we have no idea what the painting actually means.

In his day, he was best known for history painting, but the French romantic Theodore Gericault was a sensitive portraitist. He painted a series of ten portraits of the insane, on the encouragement of Dr. Étienne-Jean Georget, a pioneer in psychiatry. His best portraits are the inverse of Bronzino’s—humble, sensitive and honest.

Hans Holbein‘s art is superlatively realistic, and he was able to capture likenesses with rare facility. He had a penetrating understanding of character, and combined technical skill with allusion and symbolism. He must have been a skilled courtier himself, to have survived the intrigues of the English court as well as he did.

The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, 1882, John Singer Sargent, courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Sir Anthony van Dyck was a Flemish Baroque artist who became the next great English court painter. He was a favorite of Charles I, and for good reasons: his keen observation, the liveliness of his depictions, and his ability to portray that most elusive of characteristics, majesty.

No list of portrait painters would be complete without Diego Velázquez. Hired to paint popes and princes, his affinity was to the court dwarves and jesters who were kept as enslaved human pets. That doesn’t mean he didn’t understand his regal subjects; his portrait of Pope Innocent X is the penetrating gaze of an ambitious and self-satisfied man.

Rembrandt is considered the greatest painter of the Dutch Golden Age. He was prolific in many genres, but particularly as a student of the human face—especially his own, which he used as a map of the human condition. His Self-Portrait with Beret and Turned-Up Collar is a masterly disquisition on the subject of aging. With age comes wisdom—and sagging jowls.

And then there’s John Singer Sargent, whose motto had to be “Give the people what they want.” He captured the incredible wealth of the Gilded Age, but it’s never clear that he likes his models. In many cases, he reduces them to mannikins, but in The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, he makes a poignant statement about the role of women and girls in society. The girls recede into space in order of age, with the eldest (Florence, age 14) almost enveloped in the darkness of the drawing room.

You can’t abstract if you can’t draw

Try reducing one of these paintings to a notan, and you’ll realize just how much drawing underpins this seeming simplicity.

Plein air painting by Tara Will, courtesy of the artist.

“Why are you teaching us self-portrait?” a student recently asked me. The human face is the most demanding subject to draw, because very slight errors make a huge difference. It teaches the artist to use angles and distance to measure. And we might as well start with our own faces, since they’re the ones we know best.

“But I’m interested composition and color, not drawing!” my student responded. That’s like saying you’re interested in literature without first learning to sound out your letters. Drawing is the foundation of everything that follows.

Tara Wills’ lily pond painting from this week, courtesy of the artist.

Yesterday, I came across the above plein air painting by Tara Will, a pastel painter from Maryland. I don’t know Tara well, but what I do know, I like—both personally and professionally. We met doing plein air events, where she created work that seemed fast, effortless, and stylish. That’s deceptive; her work is underpinned with strong fundamentals, and she works hella hard at it.

Like all great literature, Tara’s lily pond painting is a complex story told with great economy. Count the shapes; they’re limited. She’s abstracted her subject to its absolute essentials. That’s where uninformed critics of modern art sometimes go off the rails; they think simplified drawing should be easier than working out the details. In fact, it’s the culmination of years of thinking and winnowing.

Tara started with a perfectly-executed perspective drawing of the surface of the water. Note how she draws you back along that plane before crashing headlong into the far shore. Without that draftsmanship, the painting would have collapsed into an unintelligible mess. Lesser painters sometimes conceal their lack of drawing skills with a muddle of details. These ‘marsh paintings’ are drearily similar and uninspiring.

Plein air painting by Tara Will, courtesy of the artist.

It would be nice to be able to buy a box of pastels and immediately tap into this sort of vibrancy, but color is more complicated than that. Resting under Tara’s effortless explosions of color is a complex and well-reasoned value structure.

It’s been said that “value does all the work; color gets the credit.” That’s an absurdity, because value is just one aspect of color, along with hue and saturation.

However, it is true that value is the first thing the human eye and mind read when they see a color pattern. Our brains are strongly programmed to interpret value patterns, and great artists have always taken advantage of that. Think first of value, and you can substitute a range of hues and saturation for what’s really there. The viewer’s mind will interpret the pattern, and have fun doing it.

Plein air painting with strong contre-jour, by Tara Will, courtesy of the artist.

But, again, that rests on a solid foundation of drawing and pattern making. The more Tara deviates from what’s there in terms of hue and saturation, the more she needs a solid value anchor. That’s especially true of contre-jourpainting, where the light comes from behind the subject, as in the painting above.

I picked out four of Tara’s recent plein air works to share with you. Her studio work is here. Try reducing one of these paintings to a notan, and you’ll realize just how much study underpins this seeming simplicity.


Intimate knowledge is a spur to creativity, because it places facts at the disposal of your subconscious brain.

Early Spring on Beech Hill, oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas, 12X16, is available through the Camden Public Library.

I’m in Boston waiting to board a plane. Logan International Airport bears scant resemblance to the historic city it serves (except for the inexplicable popularity of Dunkin’ Donuts). I can say that because I know Boston.

I’ve never been to Houston, but I will see it from the air since I have a layover there. I know it only by reputation: it’s big, new and southern.

Beauchamp Point, oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas, 12X16, is available through the Camden Public Library.

If I were to write a novel set in a contemporary city, which of these would be the sensible choice?

“Better if the country be real, and he has walked every foot of it and knows every milestone. As he studies it, relations will appear that he had not thought upon; he will discover obvious, though unexpected, short cuts and footprints for his messengers; and even when a map is not all the plot, it will be found to be a mine of suggestion,” wrote Robert Louis Stevenson.  

We’ve shortened that to the pithy statement “write what you know,” but that loses the point of Stevenson’s pronouncement. Intimate knowledge is a spur to creativity, because it places facts at the disposal of your subconscious brain. (It also stops you from making stupid mistakes, but that’s really the lesser consideration.)

Home Port (Rockport), oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas, 24X36, is available through the Camden Public Library.

The same is true of painting. To paint well, you have to know your subject. When my show opened at the Picker Room of the Camden Public Library last Friday, my very first visitor asked me, “Are you from Maine?”

That’s a loaded question; it usually means “Were you born here, and your parents and grandparents, up to and including seven generations?” The answer, of course is, no—I’m from Buffalo and proud of it.

She was surprised. “You’ve caught the Maine of my childhood,” she said. “The real Maine.” I heard variations on that comment several times over the evening, enough that I started to consider what it meant.

Clark’s Island, oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas, 8X10, is available through the Camden Public Library.

In Maine, people talk about ‘the dooryard.’ That’s a fine old term that’s fallen into disuse in the rest of America. It means that area around the door that everyone actually uses (which is not generally the front door). Paint Maine houses enough, and that dooryard emerges as something important. It doesn’t matter if you can articulate how or why you’re thinking about it; it will become a focus of your painting in a form louder than words.

That sort of truth-telling starts with careful observation, and observation in painting means drawing. We’ve somehow dropped that from our toolbox, but learning accurate drawing is the basis of all visual communication. It’s no different (or more difficult) than learning your times tables or how to sound out letters. And it’s just as basic and useful a skill.

“When my daughter was seven years old, she asked me one day what I did at work,” wrote artist Howard Ikemoto. “I told her I worked at the college—that my job was to teach people to draw. She stared at me, incredulous, and said, ‘You mean they forget?’”

I’m on my way to Mexico for a family wedding. I’ll be back on the weekend.

Monday Morning Art School: Draw a face, yours or others

Have trouble drawing people? Here’s a way to get a good likeness in a hurry.

Robbie, by Carol L. Douglas

We’re going to be doing self-portraits in my classes during the next two weeks. We’ll be using mirrors, but this is a technique that works with pictures of yourself or others, from the live model or from photographs. It’s not mine, of course; it is a process that came from the late portrait painter Daniel Greene.

Most artists don’t have trouble drawing individual features. They run into trouble hooking all those parts up into a plausible whole. Sadly, a person’s likeness starts with the overall structure of their head, not with the details. This is a fast and easy way to measure features so you get them straight. The hardest part, I think, is that I’m showing you in words and pictures instead of in person. But if you take the time to practice it, your portrait drawings will improve.

This is a repeat of a blog post from 2018. It’s based on an old photo of Sandy Quang I found on my laptop. In real life Sandy is almost always laughing. However, I’m not sure that the American selfie grin is the best thing to immortalize in paint.

If you don’t remember the rudiments of measuring with a pencil, please brush up here and here before you start.
I start by drawing a line indicating the angle at which the head is cocked.

The second line goes right through the eyeballs. This is not absolutely perpendicular to the center line, but it’s usually close. Remember, you are measuring a 3-D object onto a 2-D surface. It’s easy to mistake these lines for a grid. They’re not; they’re just measurements.
From there, go on to measure the remaining distances as shown above. Eventually, you can add a line for the eyebrows and the bottom of the bottom lip, but I find them confusing at this early stage.
The angle from the bottom of the nose to the pupils is the most important measurement in the face. Check, double check, and then place dots where it intersects with your eyeball line.
Next, draw lines from the bottom of the nose through the center of the pupils. You should create a triangle from eyes to bottom of nose. That’s the most important measurement you’ll do, and the most confusing.
Why are we using an angle instead of straight measurements on the eyes? This is the most important dimension in a human face, and angles allow us to double-check our work. A triangle is a shape, and that’s just easier for the brain to process than a line. That’s why I use angles to measure whenever I can. (Brush up on angle-drawing here.)
Unless the model is looking right at you, each eye is not the same distance from the center line. Check and double-check.
This triangle is the most important measurement in the whole face.

Then draw lines down from the center of the eyeballs to the corners of the mouth. In most people, the mouth is about as wide as the pupils of the eyes, but Sandy’s mouth is narrower than her eyes.

I did the drawing freehand but added this because it’s so difficult to understand from just words.

My last measurement is from the center line to outside of her ear. Conveniently, it’s about the same distance as from her hairline to the bottom of her nose. Remember, all measurements are relative. “It’s slightly less than two noses long,” is how we measure in drawing.

I managed to drop her ear too low at this point; I corrected it as I went. There are always fine corrections to be made. To me, that refinement is the best part of drawing. It’s like doing a puzzle.
Having made all those measurements, I was ready to rough in the overall features. I drew the nose and chin as volumes. (The angled line from the nose was to figure out my ear error.)
The drawing guides are superfluous after this point. Time to erase them and start having freehand fun.
Block in the mass of hair. Your eye perceives shapes and sizes differently depending on value and the color, as we learned here. That dark shape is important.
Refine the features, erasing and redrawing as time allows.
Because I was working with a #2 pencil on a cheap sketchbook, I waited until the end to add the shadow masses. Otherwise, they’d smear.
Throwback Sandy, by Carol L. Douglas

We are taught to draw the human face in ‘perfect’ terms: the eyes are halfway down the head, the tear ducts line up with the edges of the nostrils, the face is divided into thirds, etc., etc. In fact, human faces are infinitely varied. 
These ‘perfect’ laws fall apart especially fast when the subject isn’t white. For example, everything you learned about drawing eyes falls apart with an Asian person with no epicanthic fold. It’s far better to start with what’s really there.

This is a system that works, but you’ll need to practice it a few times before it feels comfortable.