Monday Morning Art School: the color of darkness

Painters spend lots of time thinking about the subtractive color system. We spend very little time thinking about the additive system. That’s a mistake, because this is the color of light.

A deer I painted years ago as a demonstration for my class. Shadows are the complement of the morning light.

Every artist is familiar with the three primary colors: red, blue and yellow, and their complements, the secondary colors green, orange and violet. This is the fundamental color wheel for the subtractive color system, or what’s used for paint and ink.

There’s another set that became more important in the 20thcentury, with the rise of electric lights and then electronics. These are the so-called additive color primaries, which are red, green and blue. This color system doesn’t have a color wheel, but it does have complements, which are shown below.

Additive complements (left) and subtractive complements (right). Courtesy Wikipedia.

Painters spend lots of time thinking about the subtractive color system. We spend very little time thinking about the additive system. That’s a mistake, because this is the color of light.

For painters, color theory is a balance between natural light (additive color) and their paints (subtractive color). That’s mind-blowing but they’re not alone in this challenge. Despite working in an additive-color medium, many web designers still think in terms of subtractive color. This system has influenced our aesthetics since the 18th century, and we don’t let go of what ‘looks right’ easily.

But in practical terms, shadows are the absence of light. If light is full-spectrum, then its shadows will be full-spectrum too. That means a white light will cast a grey shadow.

However, natural light is far more complex than that. It seldom shows up with all wavelengths being equal.

Sunrise, or the so-called ‘golden hour’ on Beech Hill. The shadows are definitely blue.

For this reason, artists have a useful rule: shadows are the complement of the color of the light. In the north on a snowy morning, golden light casts blue-violet shadows on the snow. In overcast light, the shadows are vaguer and full-spectrum, meaning they appear greyer. That’s easy to see, and demonstrates an idea that you can then generalize to all subjects. Although you should never trust your camera for color, I have included two photographs that show this.

Midday at the same location, the light is diffuse and so are the shadows.

It’s a mistake to get too attached to theory, however. For one thing, light is tricky. And for another thing, ‘primary color’ is another one of those constructs that we use because it’s useful, not because it’s absolute or provable. Our understanding and technologies are imperfect. CRT televisions of the 20th century were dull compared to modern LED screens. As technology got better, so did the color gamut, and what was considered ‘primary’ changed accordingly.

Most importantly, all these color systems are a dim mirror of the interaction of natural light and the human brain. Both are complex and imperfectly understood.

Light and shadows exist in the additive system, so your understanding of primaries is wrong if it’s based on what you learned in kindergarten. The complement of yellow in subtractive color is violet. The complement of yellow in additive color is blue. So, if the light is golden, the complement is more likely to be blue than violet.

At sunset, shadows appear black. There’s color in those darks, but our eyes can’t process it.

On the other hand, at sunset, the light is often red. The complement of red in additive color is cyan, but we almost never see any colors in the shadows at sunset. Instead, they’re just black, because we’ve hit the limit of what our poor rods and cones can process.

There’s a lot of latitude in what colors you can make your shadows, as long as you maintain the warm-cool balance. And—as always—all the theory in the world is no substitute for observation.


War and rumors of war

The violence and inhumanity of war is apparently a lesson that every generation needs to learn for itself.

The Third of May 1808, 1814, Francisco Goya, courtesy Museo del Prado.

Francisco Goya was the most important Spanish artist of his day. His late painting, The Dog, was an icon for modern and symbolist painters through the 20th century. There’s a good reason: it prefigures modern art.

Goya became a court painter in 1786 and the First Court Painter to the Bourbon monarchy in 1799. This made him, in effect, a courtier of the Crown. As expressive as his painting was, he wrote nothing about current affairs.

In 1808, Napoleon turned on his former allies and occupied Spain. He forced the abdication of the King and installed his brother Joseph Bonaparte on the throne. Spaniards rejected French rule and fought a long and bloody guerrilla war to oust them.

The Third of May 1808, 1814, Francisco Goya, courtesy Museo del Prado.

The war started with the Dos de Mayo Uprising, the reprisals to which were memorably recorded by Goya in his masterpiece above. This was painted in 1814, after the war ended. Whatever his private thoughts, Goya meant to stay alive and working.

Goya remained in Madrid through the conflict. His ruminations resulted in a series of prints called The Disasters of War. That’s a modern title; Goya’s only written comment was on a proof-set, where he wrote, “Fatal consequences of Spain’s bloody war with Bonaparte, and other emphatic caprices.” In using the word caprichos, which also translates as ‘whims’, Goya said a mouthful.

Plate 10: Tampoco (Nor do these). Spanish women being raped, Francisco Goya from The Disasters of War, courtesy Museo del Prado.

The Disasters of War is a series of 82 prints, finished between 1810 and 1820. They are an expression of revulsion against the violence of the Peninsular War, an outpouring from the gut against the inhumanity of war. There is no polemic about the causes of the conflict, despite the fact that Goya retained his position in the Bourbon court while working on them. They were private works, and not published until 35 years after his death. Their influence has been incalculable.

Fast forward to 2003 and a pair of British art enfants terrible, Jake and Dinos Chapman. They purchased a folio of the Disasters of Warand set about systematically defacing it with cartoon figures drawn over Goya’s art. They called this appropriation work, Insult to Injury and the overall show Rape of Creativity.

One image of Jake and Dinos Chapman’s defacing of Disasters of War, which they retitled, What is this hubbub?

“Drawings of mutant Ronald McDonalds, a bronze sculpture of a painting showing a sad-faced Hitler in clown make-up and a major installation featuring a knackered old caravan and fake dog turds,” is how the BBC described the show at the time.

For this twitting of human suffering, they should have been spanked and sent to their rooms. Instead, they were nominated for the Turner Prize.

The Chapmans were born in the 1960s. They have lived through the longest period of peace in modern British history. The Disasters of Warmight have seemed funny to them, but it would not have amused those who remembered the convulsions of the two great 20th century European wars.

That kind of generational amnesia is an odd function of the human mind. It’s the only possible explanation for why we get into war over and over again.

I hadn’t meant to write on this subject, but the war in Ukraine couldn’t have happened without the slow forgetting of the violence and inhumanity that is war. Apparently, it’s a lesson that every generation needs to learn for itself.

In control

Every day, in every way, things are not necessarily getting better.

In Control (Grace and her unicorn), 24X36, is one of the paintings that’s going to Rye Arts Center’s Censored and Poetic: the works of Carol Douglas and Anne de Villemejane, March 2022.

A visitor to my studio recently asked me about the gender disparity in painting. “Eighty percent of art students are women,” I said—and that may be a low estimate. “But 80% of the top cadre of professional painters are men.” That, too, may be a low estimate.

“Why?” she asked. I was stumped for an answer. If I’d thought about it at all, I’d have attributed it to change—women moving up through the atelier system to take their rightful place in the art world. But since the 19th century women have studied and practiced painting with great seriousness. There were more girls in art class when I was young, and the earning disparity didn’t disappear when we came of age.

Michelle Reading, 24X30, is one of the paintings that’s going to Rye Arts Center’s Censored and Poetic: the works of Carol Douglas and Anne de Villemejane, March 2022.

This is not anecdotal. There have been many studies worldwide that document this phenomenon. The most exhaustivewas done in 2017. It analyzed 1.5 million auction transactions in 45 countries, and found a 47.6% gender discount in prices. The discount was worst (unsurprisingly) in countries with greater overall gender disparity.

Do women drop out, practicing art as dedicated amateurs rather than professionals? No; 51% of practicing visual artists are women.

Are women’s paintings somehow more ‘girly,’ and therefore less attractive to buyers? In blind studies (with the artist’s name excised), participants could not guess the gender of the artist. Women’s art sells for less because the signature is feminine. Period.

The Beggar, 36X48, is one of the paintings that’s going to Rye Arts Center’s Censored and Poetic: the works of Carol Douglas and Anne de Villemejane, March 2022.

My childhood chum Cynthia Cadwell Pacheco was a professional ballet dancer. While she was traveling around the world, her mother regaled me with stories of the culture of submission, abuse and body-shaming that the corps de ballet were subject to.

It’s a miserable career choice for women, but, ironically, serious ballet used to be a women-led art form. That was before it spun money. Today, it’s a multi-billion-dollar business. As it has grown in economic importance, women have been pushed out of leadership. Today’s companies are run by men, the work is choreographed by men, the jurors are men, and the big bucks go to men. Let that be a lesson to you if you believe that every day, in every way, we’re getting better and better.

“Despite the fact that girls outnumber boys 20 to one and pay most of the fees in ballet schools, and despite the audience and donor base being 70% women, female artistic directors are paid 68 percent of what their male counterparts earn,” wrote Elizabeth Yntema.

Saran Wrap Cynic, 20X24, is one of the paintings that’s going to Rye Arts Center’s Censored and Poetic: the works of Carol Douglas and Anne de Villemejane, March 2022.

Our culture actively discourages boys from dancing. That’s foolish and unfair, and it leads to a tremendous imbalance in dance classes. If there is a boy at all, he won’t lack for principal roles, no matter how execrably he dances; the great classical ballets require male dancers. No wonder boys in the dance world grow up thinking they’re the cock of the walk.

No other legal American industry is as gender-skewed as ballet, but the visual arts do share some of its daft values. You only have to compare the career of Lois Dodd with her contemporaries to see that.

Identifying the problem is only the first step. What can we do about it? Young artists might choose a gender-neutral nom de pinceau, but that perpetuates the problem. Women’s role in the arts will only be as strong as women’s role in the greater culture. I’m old enough to have seen some remarkable changes in society, but I’m also alive to the very real risk that we can move backwards, just as the dance world has.

Monday Morning Art School: is that painting finished?

Our hectoring superegos are not always the best judges of painterly quality.

Self Portrait with Disheveled Hair, 1628-29, Rembrandt van Rijn, courtesy Rijksmuseum

In my studio, there are more than a hundred unfinished paintings in drying racks. I’d feel bad about that, except that most plein air artists I know store up unfinished pictures like squirrels store nuts. We say we’re going to work on them during the winter, and sometimes we do. Other times, we just go out and start more paintings.

There is another stack on the other side of my studio. These are paintings I’ve either decided aren’t first rate or that I won’t ever bother to finish. I periodically go through them with the intention of winnowing them down. Often, I’m surprised that they’re actually not bad at all.

Self Portrait at the Age of 63, 1669, Rembrandt van Rijn, courtesy National Gallery, London

“Ah, a procrastinator,” you might say, but you’d be wrong. I’m actually disciplined in my work habits. I’ve just learned to trust my subconscious more than I did as a younger person. Twenty years ago, I thought a painting was finished when it achieved the effect I was striving for. Today a painting is finished when I’m sick of working on it. I’ve learned to be less critical of myself. My hectoring superego is not always the best judge of painterly quality.

The division between brilliantly-raw and plain-unfinished is highly subjective. That line often changes over the course of an artist’s career. Paul Cezanne’s paintings of Mont Sainte-Victoire done in the 1880s are significantly more refined than those done from 1904-6. Rembrandt’s youthful Self Portrait with Disheveled Hair is an amazing exercise in chiaroscuro, but the brushwork is much tighter than his Self-Portrait at the Age of 63 (the year of his death). The changes in Claude Monet’s final paintings are usually blamed on his failing eyesight, but they are also the culmination of a career-long path toward looser, more audacious painting.

Women in the Garden, 1866–1867, Claude Monet, courtesy Musée d’Orsay

That is not to say that every artist becomes looser as they age. Grant Wood painted in the same precise style until his death of pancreatic cancer at age 51. Of course, we have no idea how he might have painted had he lived longer. The same is true of Caravaggio, who only made it to 39. On the other hand, Titian, who lived until his late eighties, spent his last years as an impossible perfectionist. He returned to older works and repainted them, fixed up copies made by his students, and kept some paintings in his studio for more than a decade of tweaking—all of which must give art historians the vapors.

The difference lies in what drove these artists in the first place. Cezanne, Rembrandt and Monet were never interested in a high degree of finish, but rather in the effects of paint. The culmination of their efforts was looseness. In contrast, Caravaggio, Titian, and Wood were what we call linear painters, interested in creating the illusion of three-dimensional space through careful modeling. For them to suddenly become interested in dynamic brushwork would have been a complete repudiation of their life’s work.

Weeping Willow, 1918–19, Claude Monet, courtesy Kimball Art Museum

One of the cliches of art instruction I particularly hate is, “Not another brushstroke! Don’t overwork it.” Nobody else can tell you positively that your painting is finished, because nobody else knows your intentions. We can engage you in dialog and help you clarify your thinking. But the only legitimate judge of whether you’re done is you, the artist. 

I have found that when I can’t finish a painting, the best thing I can do is to set it aside. Sometimes, my skills aren’t up to the effect I was trying to achieve, and I need to practice. Sometimes I don’t know how to finish it, and I need to think. Sometimes it’s a lousy painting, and it belongs in the reject pile. And sometimes a period of reflection reveals that the painting was, in fact, finished all along.

How long did it take you to become a genius, anyway?

Mastery is a moving target. Occasional moments of greatness are a byproduct of that continuing struggle.

Autumn farm, evening blues, oil on archival canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas

“How @#$% long does it take great painters to learn to paint?” asked a student recently, with only the slightest hint of frustration in his voice. “I’m not looking for affirmations,” he added. “I really would like some perspective.”

In the age of apprenticeships and less-flexible standards of art, that was an easier question to answer. Titian started his apprenticeship somewhere around age 10-12, and finished it around ten years later. Diego Velázquez did a six-year apprenticeship starting at around age ten. Peter Paul Rubensdid a 7-year apprenticeship starting at age 14. The British portrait painter George Romneydid only four years, but he started at age 21, with watchmaking and drawing experience under his belt. Most women at this time studied with family members.

Vineyard, oil on canvas, 30X40, Carol L. Douglas

These budding artists made learning their craft a full-time occupation during their apprenticeships. They were also responsible for elements of painting we don’t bother with today, such as preparing panels and grinding pigments, along with the scut-work of any successful business. In addition, their master (or more probably, his wife) taught them the necessary skills for living.

By the end of the 18th century, the apprenticeship system was dead. Painters were more likely to come up through atelier training. Many artists of this period, including Édouard Manet and Vincent van Gogh, came from affluent families. They had the liberty to direct their own destinies and well-heeled friends to buy their first paintings.

Mary Cassatt is typical in that she had a good liberal education (including exposure to great art in Europe) before enrolling at the  Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts at the age of 15. She spent four years there. It was not coincidence that atelier training took about as long as a humanities degree; artists had transitioned from being craftsmen to intellectuals.

Midsummer, 24X36, oil on canvas (plein air), $3188 unframed, Carol L. Douglas

By the 20th century, the down-and-dirty craftsmen in the art world were illustrators. Norman Rockwell also spent four years studying art, but he didn’t have the advantage of a Grand Tour. He started art school at age 14 and was working for Boy’s Life at 18.

The 20th century was a confused time for art education in the western world. Grant Wood is representative of mid-century painters in that he moved around through various schools and collectives learning his craft. Andy Warhol, on the other hand, had a BFA from Carnegie-Mellon. Those who came up outside the formal art world, like Jasper Johns, still put in a lot of years perfecting their craft.

There have always been outliers. N.C Wyeth had a fairly typical art education for his time, with Howard Pyle and others. However, when it came to the next generations, Andrew Wyeth and grandson Jamie Wyethwere both tutored at home. This hearkens back to historic family painting dynasties like the Brueghelsor Gentileschis.

Termination Dust, oil on archival canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas

We love stories of instant success, but most, like Grandma Moses, were working hard at art for decades before their discovery. Moses spent a lifetime doing fine needlework until her arthritis forced her to take up a brush at age 78.

My student’s question presumes there’s a point at which the painter says, ‘whew, I’ve made it!” Every credible painter I know is simply striving to be good at what he or she does, but the goal keeps moving. Greatness is merely a by-product of that continuing struggle.

Historically, masterpiece had a specific meaning. It was a work produced to earn membership in one’s guild. Velazquez’ first Waterseller of Seville was such a painting, done to prove that he was good enough to hang out his own shingle. It was the start of his professional life, not its culmination.

I had just one job…

COVID kicks like a mule, which is why I failed at my goal, and why I’m just getting this information out about my next session of classes.


I set out two weeks ago on an impromptu excursion with my son to West Yellowstone, Montana. We would look at geysers in the snow, and celebrate his Prius clicking over 300,000 miles, which we calculated would happen somewhere on the NYS Thruway as we returned to Albany, NY.

I was last in Yellowstone 26 years ago with a baby in a backpack saying “bub-ble”. On this trip, her younger brother was more erudite. He’s a newly-minted geologist. I now know more about the Yellowstone Supervolcano than I ever thought possible.

Coyote at Yellowstone, photo courtesy Dwight Perot.

On Monday of last week, my husband told me he had COVID. I was starting to develop cold symptoms myself, but according to the CDC we’d been apart too long for me to have been exposed with him. However, by Tuesday morning, it was apparent that my son and I also had COVID. We decided to beat feet back home.

If you’re not feeling well, a car provides a strange insulation. You stop at roadside rest stops, you eat fast food, you sleep, and then you do it all over again. It’s amazing how fast you can travel 2600 miles when you’re self-quarantined.

Yellowstone in the snow, photo courtesy Dwight Perot.

One problem became evident as we approached Ohio. We would be 55 miles short of our 300,000-mile goal. “No problem,” I said. “We’ll just take a fast run up the Northway when we get back to Albany.”

Except that we couldn’t. Even in its Omicron form, COVID has a wicked kick. I left the boy on his sickbed, drove home and slept all weekend.

Yellowstone River, photo courtesy Dwight Perot.

That’s why I’m just getting around to telling you about my openings for my next session of Zoom classes. There are three seats open in each class. (My current students always have first dibs on returning.)

These classes are open to intermediate painters in watercolor, acrylics, pastels and oils. What do I mean by that? You have a basic understanding of how to apply paint, but want to learn more about how to paint boldly, use fresh, clean color, build commanding compositions, and draw the eye through your paintings. (If you need a beginner class, contact me and I’ll put you in contact with some excellent teachers.)

The great thing about Zoom classes is that they’re one place you can’t spread a virus. And having just done COVID myself, I think that’s an awesome thing.

ZOOM Tuesday morning Session

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

February 22

March 1, 8, 15, 29 (off week of March 21 for Sedona workshop)

April 5 

ZOOM Monday evening Session

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

February 21, 28

March 7, 14, 28 (off week of March 21 for Sedona workshop)

April 4

For more information, see here.

Monday Morning Art School: get to that color fast

To paint with assurance, you need to be able to mix colors effortlessly. These tips will help you get there.

Peppers, by me. Cool light, warm shadows.

Start with an organized palette. I paint with my pigments moving from blues on the left through reds and yellows, followed by the three earth pigments to the far right. White is at the bottom. My particular system isn’t what’s important. But always put paints in some kind of logical order and in the same spot.

These basic rules make mixing easier:

  • Never try to paint with hardened paints;
  • Squeeze out enough paint;
  • Put out every color, regardless of what you think you’ll need. Every painting should have a broad range of colors in it, regardless of the subject;
  • Put out more of each color when you use it up, not when you think you’ll need it again;
  • Start mixing each color with the closest match on your palette, and adjust from there;
  • Add small amounts of paint as you adjust the mixture.
Jamie Williams Grossman‘s lovely painting and palette in the Hudson Valley style, showing color strings. Photo courtesy of the artist.
A color string is a set of premixed paints, usually modulated with white or another light color. Artists sometimes mix a series of these starting from each base color. In the Hudson Valley, you’ll sometimes see artists working from vertical palette boxes containing a slew of these premixed colors.

I use a simpler variation of that idea. I make mid-tone tints of each pigment. Different pigments may look the same when squeezed out of the tube, but there the similarity ends. Knowing how a pigment works when tinted with white is critical. Moreover, these tints become the backbone of a bright finished painting. 

A matrix is a color string in 3-D.

In watercolor, the equivalent is tonal steps, or how the pigment acts in different dilutions. You can’t premix them, but you should understand them.

Before you lift a brush, premix three colors for each major object:

  • A light tone, the color of the lightest side of the object;
  • A mid-tone, which is the local color of the object;
  • A dark tone, which is the deepest color.

These should be fairly close in value. For the extremes, you’ll use your global shadow and highlight colors.

In the example at top of the page, the light is cool—you can tell by looking at the tray. There is a warm dark shadow, a ‘true’ mid-tone, and a cool light color for each pepper. The tray is black. Since the shadows are warm, they’re a reddish black. They were made by tempering burnt sienna with ultramarine blue. The highlights are pale blue.

Start by getting the value right first. That’s usually the most difficult part. You can’t raise the chroma of a paint, so if you get it too neutral, set it aside and start again. If it’s too intense, mix in a bit of its complement.

My palette, diagrammed by Victoria Brzustowicz. I generally don’t use red in landscape painting.

Black has a role in painting, but it’s not in making grey. If you need grey, make one by mixing two complements. Greys are never totally neutral in real life; they always have overtones of color. Start by figuring out what that is. Then start from that color, and add its complement until you hit the perfect neutral note.

Once you’ve mixed your color ‘puddles’, look at them as a whole. How do they go together? Which do you want to emphasize?

Keuka Lake, by Carol L. Douglas. Available.

I use a green matrix for painting foliage. Otherwise, greens can be oppressively monochromatic in high summer. Remember those tints I had you mix? You can use them to modulate these greens into hundreds of different shades. Just use blues and violet tints to drive the greens back in space, and yellows and oranges to bring them forward.

By thinking through color relationships before you start painting, you can keep them consistent and unified. As time goes by, you’ll learn to do this intuitively. However, when I muck up a painting, it’s almost always because I haven’t really thought the light and color structure through.

This was originally posted in 2020.

The universal nature of children’s art

We can smile at a little Russian boy who lived almost 800 years ago, and think of how he reminds us of ourselves at that age.

Drawing by Onfim of Novgorod, c. 1260. All illustrations courtesy of Wikipedia.

Onfimwas a little boy who lived in the area of Novgorod in the 13th century. What became of him is a mystery, but we know that in 1260, at the age of 6, he dutifully did his homework, and then decorated it with doodles.

Onfim scratched his texts into soft birch bark, which was preserved in the clay soil of the region. These birch bark sheets are called beresty, and there are nearly a thousand of them, dating from 1050 to 1500 AD. The vast majority of them are commercial transactions, legal documents, and Bible verses, but a few give us a glimpse into more ephemeral aspects of medieval Slavonic culture.

In this fragment, Onfim started off copying a Bible verse but got distracted.

Onfim—like little children everywhere—loved to draw. If you’ve ever spent time with a child of six, you’ll be impressed by two things in Onfim’s scant oeuvre. First, Onfim was almost exactly as literate as a similar child in modern American culture, dutifully writing out his alphabet and simple rote sentences. Second, his drawings are classic, not just in style, but in content. Little boys love action scenes, and Onfim was no exception.

Onfim was drawing in what psychologists call the schematic stage of art development, which is, I presume, how they have estimated his age. He had developed a ‘person’ symbol that was easily recognizable, with a head, trunk and limbs, albeit in very rough proportion. Living in the Middle Ages, he also had a ‘horse’ symbol, just as a modern child might include a ‘car’ symbol. As with many children, he played fast and loose with details, including the number of fingers on his people. For kids, these aren’t important facts.

Gramata 200, by Onfim.

Gramata 200’s text is an alphabet and Onfim’s name. In the drawing there’s a horse, a weapon, and a defeated enemy. It’s a fantastical drawing of a battle scene. Psychologists say that children of this age can’t think abstractly. However, it’s obvious that they have a great fantasy life.

Gramata 203, by Onfim.

Gramata 203 also includes a figure on horseback, with either absurdly wavy hair or something else we don’t understand, and another figure standing. The text reads, “Lord, help your servant Onfim.” That’s a conventional medieval statement that may or may not have anything to do with the drawing.

My experience raising kids tells me that their minds don’t generally require much of a connection. Onfim’s teacher may have assigned the text, and then wandered away to do something else, leaving the lad to deface his bark paper. “Oh, Onfim,” his mother may have sighed. “I can’t keep you in beresty. How do you expect to grow up to be a successful trader like your father if you’re constantly doodling on your papers?”

Gramata 199, by Onfim. The reverse is just his schoolwork.

In Gramata 199, the horse announces, “I am a beast.” Our young artist has added a dedication, “Greetings from Onfim to Daniel.” Were the boys passing notes, or was Onfim just dreaming about getting outside to play with his pal? We’ll never know.

What we can take from Onfim’s doodling is the universal nature of children’s art. The stages children grow through as they mature are integral, rather than learned behavior. Put a pencil in a toddler’s hand and he will scribble with it. Put a pencil in a young boy’s hand today, and he will draw people and cars, or, if he’s raised with them, guns. Children draw what’s in the fantasy space in their heads. While there are cultural overtones to their choices, the fundamentals are constant.

Drawing is a child’s first recorded communication; writing comes later and ultimately supersedes it. Why is that? I suspect that for most children, the transition from fantasy to realism is hard work. But in that first precious burst of artistic expression, we recognize our universal humanity. We can smile at a little Russian boy who lived almost 800 years ago, and think of how he reminds us of ourselves at that age.

Monday Morning Art School: why copy a masterpiece?

Think of it as getting a painting lesson from the masters.

Great Springs of the Firehole River, by Thomas Moran, 1871, is one of the paintings my students will be copying this week. Courtesy National Park Service.

If you visit art museums regularly, you may have seen students set up to copy masterpieces. Or, you’ve seen copies made by great artists of other artists’ work. What were they trying to accomplish?

Vincent van Gogh admitted himself to the Saint-Paul asylum in May, 1889. He painted around 150 canvases there, including the iconic The Starry Night. He also made about thirty copies of masterworks of others.

“I started making them inadvertently and now find that I can learn from them and that they give me a kind of comfort,” he wrote. “My brush then moves through my fingers like a bow over the strings of a violin – completely for my pleasure.”

The Champion Single Sculls (Max Schmitt in a Single Scull), by Thomas Eakins, 1871, is one of the paintings my students will be copying this week. Courtesy Metropolitan Museum.

Copying masterworks is a time-honored way of learning, both in western traditions and in others. Transmission by Copying is one of the six principles of Chinese painting laid down by the Chinese art historian Xie He in 550 AD.

“Nobody is born with a style or a voice. We don’t come out of the womb knowing who we are. In the beginning, we learn by pretending to be our heroes. We learn by copying,” wrote Austin Kleon.

The Pine Tree at Saint Tropez, by Paul Signac, 1909, is one of the paintings my students will be copying this week. Courtesy Pushkin Museum.

Copying is a way to study and evaluate a painting that’s far more immersive than simple looking. It enables us to understand another artist’s process. It forces us to consider what we find admirable in art in general. And it teaches us brushwork.

Most importantly, it sets aside our own need to tell a story. That liberates us from the frustration of our own limitations. We can concentrate on composition and color instead of being fully engaged in the problem-solving of unique subject matter.

It makes sense to copy works you admire. If you’re drawn to the paintings of the Canadian Group of Seven, don’t copy a Titian. You’re going to be paying a lot of attention to the painting you copy. It should be something you really love.

Today, we have a technical advantage over Van Gogh, locked up as he was. We can easily retrieve high-quality images from the internet. Many museums even have scalable images on their websites.

You must be able to see the brushwork to fully immerse yourself into the work. (Of course, if you’re copying a linear painter like Bronzino, there may not be much visible brushwork to copy.)

Woman with a Parasol, Turned to the Left, by Claude Monet, 1886, is one of the paintings my students will be copying this week. Courtesy Musée d’Orsay.

What you can’t see on the internet is the dimensionality of the painting, its impasto, so that is one area where you’ll have to interpolate.

“I was surprised at how small the Mona Lisa is,” is a common sentiment about one of the world’s most-copied paintings. It’s important to know how large the work you’re copying is, even if your copy is going to be very small. The brushes appropriate to a massive painting are not appropriate to a miniature, and that will affect your interpretation.

Mona Lisa shows that paintings can undergo significant changes through restoration, fading, or the appearance of pentimenti. She once had eyebrows and eyelashes and was lighter in color; all those changes have occurred in the 500 years since Leonardo set down his brush. That doesn’t mean we can’t learn from copying her, but it’s something we should be aware of.

Snowdrifts and shadows

A world without shadows is disconcerting; objects seem to float in space. Shadows give objects form and ground them.

My son Dwight Perot took this photo of the Wyoming night sky last year at this time. It’s almost like this winter jaunt down US 90 is getting to be a habit.

It’s a balmy -2° F as I type this on Thursday afternoon in Blue Earth, Minnesota. These are temperatures we don’t typically encounter in the northeast, where our idea of deep cold is somewhat warmer. But it is, as they say, a dry cold. It’s miserable.

The Prius is ticking along quite beautifully, although we seem to have lost the front valance and lower grill somewhere in that snowstorm in Ohio. It was a typical winter storm, dumping about a foot of powder in Chicago, but it was preceded by a warm front which made wicked ice. That effectively encased the car, necessitating a quick windshield-wiper swap today. A few minutes without our gloves on, trying to manhandle the frozen clips loose, and our fingers were frozen.

The trucks follow each other into the median like lemmings. I rapidly lost count of the wrecks along the Indiana Toll Road. It was just the same last year.

“There’s nothing to paint in the Midwest,” is a lament I sometimes hear, and one I adamantly disagree with. The sky is so spacious and the earth so flat that all spatial relationships are upended.

In the tropics, the summer solstice sun sits directly overhead at noon for just two days a year. The only American state that experiences this is Hawaii; the rest of us are too far north. A world without shadows is disconcerting; objects seem to float in space. Shadows give objects form and ground them.

Here in the north, the drifting snow drops down along the roadside, creating a curling ribbon of blue shadow that plays against the golden light of the sun. I’m not here to paint, but if I were, I’d stop and paint that.

The ice storm shredded what was left of Dwight’s windshield wipers, necessitating a quick change.

There are solitary farms set within copses of trees, and power lines marching resolutely toward the horizon. A windsock is frozen in the last storm’s position.

The snow isn’t deep. Its surface is marbleized like sand dunes. That makes sense because they’re both sculpted by wind. But unrelated natural forms also mimic each other. The map of a river tributary system bears, for example, a striking resemblance to a tree. Why is that? Chance? Mathematics? Intelligent design?

Windmills are part of the prairie landscape.

The grain elevators of Minnesota are mostly metal, unlike the frame elevators of the Canadian prairie just to our north. The prairie states and provinces developed with the same cultural, economic and environmental influences, so why did wooden elevators persist in Canada and not here? Are human beings that much more idiosyncratic than nature?

West of Illinois, rest stops become more austere. You no longer run a gauntlet of goods and services to reach the washrooms. But at the Missouri River in South Dakota, there’s a surprise: art and a small display about the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

At the Camp Pleasant rest stop above the Missouri River.

I-90 is the longest and coldest east-west road in the national interstate system. It was started in 1958 and not completed until 1978. It’s been part of my life for as long as I can remember, because the New York and Massachusetts sections are older than me. I know the section from Boston to Buffalo intimately, and that from Buffalo to Chicago quite well. I’ve driven the western section to Wyoming, but not often. The piece from Idaho to Washington is a mystery to me.

After yesterday’s storm, the sky is utterly clear. It would make for perfect night-sky photography, and both Dwight and I have cameras with us. However, we didn’t shoot any pictures. It was too miserably cold out there.