God Save the Queen

Here in the countryside, her subjects love her.

 

Shop window display in Cumbria

 

Every small town we’ve walked through has been decorated for the Jubilee. That’s not with big-box generic décor, either, although there are Jubilee flags and bunting everywhere. Every little shop window and many, many front gardens sport tributes from the heart—handmade signs, memorabilia from the Coronation, and many, many teacups of the kind your grandmother collected.

A laundromat in Haltwhistle, Cumbria

It's not my country, she’s not my Queen, but the sentiment chokes me up. This is England’s famous red wall, the Labour heartland that went Conservative in the last election. In other words, it’s in political flux. There are both conservative and workingmen’s pubs in these villages, but none of that touches the Jubilee. The Queen truly transcends politics in a way Americans don’t understand. This Jubilee is her celebration.

Every pub is decorated for the Jubilee.

I am an unabashed fan of the Queen. She reminds me of my mother and all the women of her generation—stoic, composed, hardworking, redoubtable and dignified. I miss them, terribly.

The Jubilee is tied with memories of WW2, which are made more poignant by the current Ukraine war.

The Washington Post opined recently that the Queen should retire. We Americans are not entitled to an opinion (something we should practice saying regularly about a whole host of things). The British monarchy has had no impact on America for 250 years. Any road, the question of whether she’s ‘fit’ for the role is absurd. The modern monarchy is largely her creation, and for all we know she’ll keep on defining it.

The Queen Bee and her subject bees in Gilsland.

I will be in Yorkshire for the Jubilee celebrations proper, but there could be no better place to observe them than right here in Brampton, Cumbria—or any of the other little villages we’ve passed through. There will be prayer vigils and parties for the old people. Tomorrow night, there will be beacons lit across England, including along Hadrian’s Wall. These will range from “private bonfires to full-blown spectaculars with fireworks, choirs, pipers, and buglers.”

The Queen's corgis in a large yarn-bomb in Brampton, Cumbria.

I’ve been to Britain before, but always to big cities or World Heritage Sites. This time, I’m waiting out the rain in country bus stops and drinking in rural pubs. This England is to London as Pecos, NM is to New York. I had breakfast yesterday with a Shropshire farmer. We discussed the labor shortage, just as I might with my Maine neighbor.

In the window of an Indian restaurant in Brampton.

Two nights ago, we stayed at The Centre of Britain in Haltwhistle. It’s in a stone building that wraps around a 15th century Border Reivers' Pele Tower. It’s ridiculously atmospheric, and it’s for sale for a fraction of the price of a boutique inn in Maine. You’d have to deal with muddy boots, but if you want to throw over your current life for one in a small English village, email the proprietors here. The beer, I promise you, is very, very good.

Many people have pulled out treasured memorabilia from the Coronation in 1952.

The care and feeding of your dogs

Poppy discovered the joys of manure, but my feet were thoroughly blistered.

The beautiful Northumbrian landscape.

This is what I’d call ‘hill-walking’ but my friend Kenny—who was raised on the shores of Loch Linnhe, just a hop, skip and a jump from Ben Nevis—thinks of as a doddle. Shortly after leaving the Tyne at Newburn, we started the long slog up to Heddon-on-the-Wall. There is no urban sprawl here—just long agricultural vistas and Constable skies.

These small Northumbrian villages are Cotswold-beautiful, built of golden-brown stone and perched on high hills with magnificent vistas in every direction. Still, all the beauty in the world doesn’t prevent one from being parched and in need of a pee by midmorning. There was a public house but it seemed a bit early, even for me.

The ever-polite British have deferred the 1900th birthday celebrations for the wall until September, so as to not take away from the Queen's Jubilee.

“Look for a Methodist church,” said Alison, and she was right. They had a bathroom, and they offered us coffee, tea, and cheese scones. We had a lovely sit in their garden before we went to look at our first section of unreconstructed wall. Thank you, lovely Methodists!

From there we walked a section of military road planned by Field Marshal George Wade following his inability to move artillery and troops cross-country in pursuit of Bonnie Prince Charlie. The old wall was torn out and used as the base for the highway. The British were pretty sick of the Jacobites by that point.

Our first glimpse of the wall since Wallsend.

After crossing the A69, we dropped down into a peaceful meadow where Poppy discovered the joys of cow dung. Poppy is a well-bred lass from Edinburgh but that didn’t stop her from rolling ecstatically. Fifteen minutes and a package of baby wipes later, we’d fairly evenly distributed the manure among our human persons, with only a moderate amount left on the dog.

Rural England is crisscrossed by public rights-of-way, but they’re shared with livestock. I don’t mind cows; they’re generally leery of people. Horses so far have been behind fences; that’s good as they’re far too canny to be trusted with daypacks.

Rudchester Farm.

At Rudchester, we crossed a sheepfold, the site of the fourth fort along the Wall, Vindobala. The only reminder of its existence was the unnatural flatness of the farmyard—and the ancient stone walls, undoubtably made of reclaimed stone. As we gathered to read the explanatory sign, Poppy found sheep manure and joyfully worked it with her muzzle.

I am an assiduous hiker who does 4.5 miles up Beech Hill every morning before breakfast. I’d hoped that would prepare me for this walk, but by midafternoon, my own poor dogs were blistered. They were sliding forward with every downward step. At lunch, Martha cleverly relaced my hiking shoes for me, but the damage was done. I limped the remaining distance.

The path is very well marked, and surprisingly busy.

Kenny is very kind. For the last four miles, he promised me that there was a pub just another half mile along.

It worked.

The Perfect English Holiday

I dipped my feet in the North Sea. It rained. I ate an ice cream. There was a dog. How much more British can you get?

Dipping my toes in the North Sea, with the requisite British dog. Her name is Poppy and she's a gem.

Last week, I wrote here and here that nothing lasts forever. In Britain, is sometimes turned on its head; antiquity seems to pop up everywhere.

The Moray Estate was built in the early 19th century on a steep slope above the Water of Leith. Ownership is by feu, a feudal land tenure system peculiar to Scotland. The freeholder is somehow a vassal to the mesne lord, in this case the Earl of Moray. This is all pretty vestigial at this point, but it seems to confer some rights, including the beautiful gardens of the Moray Estate.

Portrait of Dr. Martha Vail Barker, 2019, Carol L. Douglas.

I came to Scotland in 2019 to paint a portrait in one of these townhouses, located on Great Stuart Street. In the end it became as much a portrait of the rooms as of the subject. I’d heard the townhouse had sustained serious flooding last year, but the scale of the damage shocked me. There is nothing left of the rooms but the radiators, the fireplace and the wooden shutters. The ornate plaster ceiling friezes have been restored; but the floors are gone completely. The ground floor has been restored, with just a few fiddly bits left to finish, but the first floor is uninhabitable. Nothing lasts forever.

The Moray Estate was built to house Edinburgh’s rich and famous, but the only one that truly interests me is the Scottish ColouristFrancis Cadell, whose family home was at 22 Ainslie Place. Cadell used that interior in many of his paintings, so I play Peeping Tom whenever I walk by.

Interior, The Orange Blind, c. 1914, Francil Cadell

My goal for this trip is actually England, not Edinburgh. Yesterday, we traveled by train to Newcastle-upon-Tyne. The East Lothian landscape would serve up a lifetime of painting in itself. Quietly rolling, impossibly green, dotted with sheep and cattle, it lies along the North Sea. Unlike America, every inch of shoreline has not been coopted by the rich.

We spent the afternoon dutifully touring the Roman ruins of Segedunum. There are only so many clay pots and bronze brooches I can take, but the cavalry barracks were touching. Each man lived back-to-back with his horse in adjoining rooms and stalls. How do they know this? On one side of the wall were the remains of cooking hearths. On the other, horse piss and manure.

The Spanish City in its heyday.

The seaside holiday resort of Whitley Bay is dominated by the Spanish City, a pleasure hall that opened in 1910. It once included a concert hall, ballroom, funfair, restaurant, tea room and roof garden, but all are closed. Now there’s a gift shop, a restaurant, and a wedding venue.

I ate an ice cream on the lido and dipped my toes in the North Sea. It rained. In short; it was a perfect English holiday.

Today we start our walk in earnest—11.5 miles through Tyneside. We’ve been promised that this is the most boring part of the walk, as we’re essentially crossing the city. The upside, as I reminded my partners in this venture, is that we can lunch in a pub, and that will include a half pint of Newcastle Brown Ale.

Boys will be boys

Boys must be boys

The ick factor in art history is compounded by our own era’s obsession with sex and power.

The Milkmaid, c. 1600, Johannes Vermeer, courtesy Rijksmuseum

During Monday’s class, I zipped quickly through Vermeer’s oeuvre on line, when a sentence about Vermeer’s The Milkmaid stopped me cold. This is one of the most well-known paintings in western art, so familiar that it’s become background noise.

“For at least two centuries before the painting was created, milkmaids and kitchen maids had a reputation as being predisposed to love or sex, and this was frequently reflected in Dutch paintings of kitchen and market scenes from Antwerp, Utrecht and Delft. Some of the paintings were slyly suggestive, like The Milkmaid, others more coarsely so.”

This interpretation apparently came from a 2009 show at the Metropolitan, curated by the late Walter Liedtke, because most of the text was lifted verbatim from his catalog.

“The physical appeal of the ‘milkmaid’ is sensed naturally,” wrote Liedtke, “like the taste of milk or the touch of bread. Rough sleeves reveal bare arms, where the skin (unlike that of the wrists and hands) is rarely exposed to sunlight. The ruddy wrists and face, the woman's generous proportions, and her warmth, softness and approachability are qualities not found in Vermeer's more refined young ladies. They too are alluring, but the kitchen maid is frankly so.”

Kitchen Scene, 1620s, Peter Wtewael, courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art

There are certainly coarse Dutch kitchen scenes—the Peter Wtewael kitchen scene, above, is a compendium of every sex reference that can be crammed on a canvas. Dutch painting of this time was full of jokes and bawdy comic references. Frans Hals’ laughing faces contrast vividly with the rest of Europe’s dour demeanor in Baroque portraiture. Art history tells us that the Dutch drank copiously.

Yes, the 17th century Dutch Republic was Calvinist. Prostitution and adultery were against the law. That didn’t stop the Dutch from recognizing the realities of life, and laughing at them.

The Laughing Cavalier, 1624, Frans Hals, courtesy the Wallace Collection

But Peter Wtewael’s kitchen scene is the attraction of equals. That’s very different from the class abuse of men like Samuel Pepys groping their maids.

These paintings are no longer in middle-class Dutch homes. They have been moved to palaces and museums, where their caretakers and interpreters are the wealthy, educated and powerful. It’s no surprise that their own privilege subtly colors the work they analyze.

To Liedtke, the wide-mouth jug in The Milkmaid was a symbol of feminine anatomy. “By inserting a foot warmer and, next to it, a Delft tile depicting Cupid, Vermeer intimates that love and desire, as well as work, are burdens the maid must bear… Foot warmers do not heat rooms. They heat feet and, under a long skirt (as in Van Loo's Wooing), more private parts.”

Ick.

The Procuress, c. 1622, Dirck van Baburen, courtesy Museum of Fine Arts.

This is not to say that there wasn’t an erotic underpinning to Dutch art, or that servants weren’t the objects of male lust. “I am perfectly willing to believe that you are knowledgeable in the delectable art of preparing stews / But I feel even more appetite for you / Than for the stew that you are preparing,” read the French caption for an engraving of Gerrit Dou’s A Girl Chopping Onions.

It’s just that the ick factor is compounded by our own era’s obsession with sex and power.

Vermeer was just too intelligent to have played this game of simple parts. His mature paintings show keen psychological insight. His milkmaid is a dignified, moral presence. It’s obscene to suggest otherwise.

Romance or reality?

Be honest or sanitize the view? What’s actually there can be a hard sell.

Lobster Pound at Tenants Harbor, Carol L. Douglas, available.

I painted the above, of a lobster pound at Tenants Harbor, ME, just a few years ago. These days, a backhoe is clearing the property. This is no paeon to a lost way of life, because lobstering is a healthy $1 billion business in Maine (although it is currently is threatened by Federal regulation). It’s just an observation that things change. Paintings can be a way of marking what was once there.

But that’s only if we’re honest. Years ago, I painted the upper falls at Letchworth (below). There has been an old steel railroad bridge above it for as long as I can remember. I wanted to minimize it as much as possible, as I thought it was an ugly, ominous intrusion into the landscape. Still, it needed to be there. It was as much a part of the place as the rocks and water.

Upper Falls at Letchworth, Carol L. Douglas, private collection

In 2017, the bridge was replaced with a newer, squatter, safer model. Last year, a visitor from New York saw my painting. “That’s the old railroad bridge!” he enthused. What I thought was annoying was, to him, a part of history.

Landscape artists—myself included—have a tendency to minimize the effect of people in the landscape and to paint what is already obsolete or rustic. We paint lobster boats but delete the shiny white cruise ships in the harbor. We delete cars, in part because they’re difficult to draw, and in part because they’re ubiquitous.

A 1917 postcard of a car accident below the Upper Falls, showing the railroad bridge. Eleven people were in that car when it tumbled off the gorge wall. Two died.

This has always been the case. Artists have the same ideas about what’s beautiful as the rest of humanity. There are exceptions, of course. Childe Hassam used carriages and cars as motifs in his paintings. George Bellows nearly rubs our face in the humanity of the early 20th century. But for the most part, landscape artists paint a romanticized, sanitized version of reality.

The new bridge changes the view forever.

In earlier times, that meant the horse manure and mud were removed from the street and steam engines and coal didn’t deposit soot everywhere. Today we excise power lines, fire hydrants, bus stops and plastic kids’ toys.

Why? Mostly, I think, because our audience demands it. Landscape art is in many ways an escape from reality. It is a reflection of what we as a society want, not what is.

Consider Daniel Greene’sseries on the New York subway. Yes, we get a sense of its subterranean light, utilitarian architecture and fabulous tile walls. However, he omits the filth, dripping water, ubiquitous crazy people, and the overall crush of humanity. These are portraits of the subways as some future archeologist might see them, not as they really are.

Fishing shacks at Owls Head, Carol L. Douglas, available.

Would these have been better paintings had he included reality? I think so, but they might not have sold so well.

Attention to prosaic reality is not without its risks. There are exceptions of course, like Rackstraw Downes or Linden Frederick, but mostly it doesn’t pay. Buyers aren’t that keen on truth-telling.

I used to do an annual event with a painter who has a wonderful heart for working-class life. Year after year, he turned out well-designed paintings of local landmarks in all their utilitarian beauty. They languished at auction compared to highly romanticized views of sea and woods in gilt frames. Yet, by any critical standard in painting, they were superior paintings. There’s a lesson in that, and it’s not a pretty one.

Monday Morning Art School: paint with precision

We’re all proponents of loose-is-more, but there are times when you have to be able to hit it right.

Cremorne Pastoral, 1895, Arthur Streeton, courtesy Art Gallery of New South Wales. There are few details, but the ones that are, are very accurately painted.

Detail and precision are not in style right now. “The artist should fear to become the slave of detail,” wrote Albert Pinkham Ryder. “They should strive to express their thought and not the surface of it. What avails a storm cloud accurate in form and color if the storm is not therein?” We’re all proponents of this loose-is-more theory of painting.

However, this is a current trope, and not an artistic truth. There are contemporary figure and still life painters who focus on detail, and artists practicing modern trompe l’oeil. Even in plein air, there are fine painters who eschew looseness for careful attention to detail. Richard Sneary, Jay Brooks and Patrick McPhee come to mind.

The Girl with the Wine Glass, c. 1659, Johannes Vermeer, courtesy Herzog Anton Ulrich Museum. We’re so focused on the clarity of Vermeer’s vision that we barely notice how empty the room is.

Many people get caught up in the details before they get the big shapes right. That’s overwhelming. Before you ever get to the point of painting in blades of grass, the rhythm of light and dark must be researched and articulated properly. How do you do that? The same way as with an alla prima finish—through sketch and underpainting.

Even the exuberant Dutch Golden Ageartists left things to the imagination. We’re so busy looking at all the stuff they crammed into their canvases that we sometimes don’t notice what they’ve left out. Not every detail deserves the same attention.

Banquet of the Amsterdam Civic Guard in Celebration of the Peace of Münster, 1648, Bartholomeus van der Helst. Courtesy Amsterdam Museum

Great painters distill the visual noise, and then concentrate on the important parts. Consider the problems facing Bartholomeus van der Helst in his monumental commission, Banquet of the Amsterdam Civic Guard in Celebration of the Peace of Münster, above. It’s a portrait of 24 august gentlemen and one lady. (And wouldn’t you love to know why she was included?) None of the subjects would have been happy to be represented with a few Impressionistic brush strokes. There were symbols that needed to be included—pikestaff, drum, silver drinking horn and the paper on the side of the drum. In addition, the men were garbed in their very best frippery, and they meant to show that off.

Van der Helst pared away at the composition with ruthless efficiency. The background is muted. He let black hats and black garb sink wherever he could. Thank goodness for the fashion of ruffs and white linen collars—they allow the faces to stand out. The remaining textiles are held in a rigid pattern of gold, blue, and red. The color harmony is, in large part, holding the picture together.

It’s unlikely that an artist will ever paint a monumental commission like this again. It’s more likely that we’ll add a few details to a much looser painting. These details can fool the eye into thinking there’s more there than is actually present.

Out Back, Peter Yesis, courtesy of the artist.

Peter Yesis is the best painter of flowers I know. In my mind’s eye, I see his paintings as detailed, but they’re actually very restrained. The focal points draw our eyes, allowing our minds to fill in the other areas. This engages our imagination, which is far more potent than anything on the canvas.

I wrote last week about pareidolia, our ability to see meaningful images in ambiguous visual patterns. Humans find this much more compelling than having things spelled out for them.

We’ve been using that technique since the Impressionists to engage viewers. But to do it, you need to be able to occasionally lay down a tight, accurate line.

Painting precisely is a matter of slowing down and exerting greater direct control over your brush. Smaller brushes can help, but a light hand is most important. (Most of us are slightly tremulous, and smaller brushes can result in shakier lines.) There’s no way to get there but to practice your fine motor control.

Nothing lasts forever

Wildfire is threatening an area I know and love. It’s a reminder that nothing lasts forever, even the trees and hills.

Hermit’s Peak from El Porvenir, Carol L. Douglas, oil on archival canvasboard, available.

I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time recently watching the wildfire at Hermit’s Peak in New Mexico. “Much of the fire’s growth is in thick, heavy timber and steep, rugged terrain,” writes officialdom. That is, if anything, an understatement. I’ve painted in El Porvenir with my buddy Jane Chapin. The area is desolate.

As sad as the current fire destruction is, it’s where the fire is heading that concerns me. It’s been burning slowly toward the villages of Upper and Lower Colonias and county road B44A. The Pecos River basin is just a few miles from the fire’s edge.

Upper Reaches of the Pecos River, Carol L. Douglas, oil on archival canvasboard, available.

This is where my Gateway to the Pecos Wilderness workshop is centered, and I’ve come to know and love this tiny slice of Creation. It’s deeply wooded, high, fresh and mountainous.

Of course, I’m worried about Jane, who is in the evacuation ‘set’ zone. However, Jane’s the person who extracted us all from Patagonia after lockdown. There’s nobody I’d rather be in a crisis with.

Old farmhouse in Pecos, NM, Carol L. Douglas, oil on archival canvasboard, available. This is one of the historic structures in the evacuation ‘set’ area.

The fire started as a prescribed burn lit on a windy April day. It’s now burned out of control for five weeks and shows no sign of imminent containment.

The terrain is extremely inaccessible. “It has more roads on the east side of the ridge but the Pecos Wilderness side is forest roads. They’re often a challenge even for a 4-wheel-drive truck,” Jane told me. “They are steep, full of big rocks, tight switchbacks and big drop-offs, and there’s no turning around.” 

Dry Wash, Carol L. Douglas, oil on archival canvasboard, available.

It was the area beyond Lower Colonias where Jane and I scratched the tar out of her truck trying to back away from a steep drop. There’s no need to go off-roading for adventure; the roads themselves are terrifying.

“We now have over 1900 firefighters on this fire, most of whom are unfamiliar with the area and are sleeping on the ground in tents in fire camps,” Jane said. That’s hard work, complicated by the natural fauna of the area: bears, bobcats and mountain lions will be on the move, along with whatever horses, dogs and cattle may be caught within the fire line. Lest you think that’s an exaggerated risk, a soldier was killed at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage, AK on Tuesday by a grizzly sow protecting her cubs. Where civilization and nature collide, stressed animals sometimes behave erratically.

Snow at Higher Elevations (downdraft), Carol L. Douglas, oil on archival canvasboard, available.

This week, we’re reading about mansions burning in Southern California, but those people have the resources to rebuild. In contrast, San Miguel County, NM, is poor. A quarter of the population live below the poverty line. That makes them voiceless in modern society. They’re unlikely to be able to challenge the Forest Service about the wisdom of ‘controlled’ burns, and this is the second time in seven years where a prescribed burn has gotten loose in this area.

Log barns, Carol L. Douglas, oil on archival canvasboard, available. This historic farmyard is in the evacuation ‘set’ area.

But that’s all politics. What saddens me, deeply, is the potential destruction of a place I love. As Jane said, it seems somehow wrong to pray that the wind shifts and takes the fire to the east. If her home is saved, someone else’s will be destroyed. Instead, I pray for rain.

Nothing lasts forever, even the seemingly immortal forests and hills. That makes it even more imperative to get out and look at them—and paint them if you will—while you can.

What I don’t know

Painting is a solitary journey, but there are times when you need the help of others.

Main Street, Owl’s Head, 16X20, oil on archival canvasboard.

I’ve fussed and worried about migrating this blog to my website for close to a year now. Blogger has discontinued its subscription widget, which makes maintaining readership almost impossible. I started on WordPress, moved over here in 2007, went to the Bangor Daily News for a few years and then came back. With those moves, I just wrote off my prior content and moved on. But this blog has become too deep to do that. It’s essentially, the repository of every Great Thought I’ve ever had about painting.

Belfast Harbor, 14X18, oil on archival canvasboard, framed, $1594.

Every few weeks I’ve spent a morning trying to work out the problem. I’ve watched YouTube tutorials, read expert advice, and gotten nowhere.

I’m not computer-illiterate. Twenty-five years ago, I was a semester short of a degree in programming when my husband suggested that I take up painting full time. “The world is full of programmers,” he said, “but it needs more artists.” I’m not sure he was right, but I can, mostly, fix my own computer problems.

Last week, I folded. I called my software developer daughter and laid out the problem. By the time we ask for help, we’re usually pretty angry with ourselves. All our self-doubts come to the fore.

“First of all,” my daughter said, “you’re not stupid. This stuff is hard.” I was terribly proud of her at that moment. Whatever intellectual gifts she has, they’re dwarfed by the fact that she’s kind.

Marshall Point, 9X12, oil on archival canvasboard.

She then told me what I should have realized all along: I need to hire a professional. I contacted the woman who monetized my website for me, and she’s working on it now.

(Note that all the programming in this story is being done by women. Female programmers account for just 5% of the field worldwide, so that tickles me pink.)

I have felt that same frustration in painting. After my epiphany 25 years ago, I started taking painting classes, in Rochester and at the Art Students League in New York. Some of those classes were enormously useful—with Cornelia Foss, for example—and some were less so. I’m acutely aware of the feeling of frustration when faced with a painting problem I can’t figure out.

Much of that frustration could be avoided if someone would lay out the process clearly and concisely. That’s what Foss did for me, bringing me into the 21st century in her own crusty way. It’s what I try to do for my students. Painting is a technical exercise, so it should be addressed primarily in technical terms.

Beach Erosion, 8X10, oil on archival canvasboard.

Last week, I was being bedeviled by a watercolor question. Mick McAndrews answered it for me. He sounded eerily like my daughter—what I was trying to do was hard. Sometimes, just knowing that is important, because it takes out the background chorus of negative thoughts.

Every few months I’ll ask my pal Eric Jacobsen how he makes mauve, a color he uses to fantastic effect in landscapes. Apparently, I don’t like the answer, because I immediately forget what he tells me. That’s a different problem: simple willful ignorance.

Painting is a solitary journey, but there are times when you need the help of others. How much advice varies based on your personality and level of experience, but it’s foolish to go it alone. Sometimes, taking a class or workshop is the best investment you’ll ever make.

Monday Morning Art School: avoid the Velvet Elvis

How do you paint the sunset without it looking like kitsch?

Sunset Sail, oil on canvas, Carol L. Douglas, available.

In class last week, a student said she’d painted the shadow areas of a sunset painting grey. “I wanted to avoid the Velvet Elvis look,” she said.

As with so many things in mid-century America, the popularity of velvet paintings in the 1970s was the result of one person’s mad ingenuity. Doyle Harden created a block-long factory in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico to mass-produce velvet paintings for the American market. “I never met many people who would even admit they would have them in their homes,” Harden said. “But I’ve sold more than $100 million worth of velvets, and to me it’s beautiful art.”

A mid-century velvet sunset painting.

(If you do have one, there’s a thriving secondary market on ebay. You may be able to recoup what Grandma paid for it.)

Black velvet painting, in fact, may be the reason that black paint fell out of favor at the end of the 20th century. What distinguishes black velvet painting is the inky blackness of the dark passages, created by the fabric itself. It’s a by-word for kitsch, and that’s what my student wanted to avoid.

But black is, in fact, what’s left optically in contrast to the sunset. Objects in relief in front of a sunset will read as dark neutrals or, at best, as inky indigo blue.

Grand Canyon at sunrise, Carol L. Douglas, available. One issue with extremely dark paintings is that they’re tough to photograph.

There will, however, be an aura of the sun’s light. It may be directly around the orb, as in the photo above, or it may reflect across a valley, as in my painting of the Grand Canyon at sunrise. Either way, everything in relief is not unremittingly black.

There will likely be shades of grey within that darkness. Here you can gain some relief by adding blues or even purples.

American Eagle at sunset, taken during my September Age of Sail workshop last year.

We have two kinds of color receptors in our eyes—rods and cones. Rods work better at night, but are less receptive to the red end of the spectrum. This is the Purkinje effect, and it leaves us perceiving things as deep blue—right before we lose any sense of color at all.

Some objects are partially illuminated by the sunset light streaming through them. The flag of American Eagle, above, is an extreme example, but there are others, including glass and water.

Watercolor sketch of sunset, Carol L. Douglas, NFS.

In addition, we can see some color in objects that are close to us. That’s because there’s still reflected light bouncing around us. However, a lot of that is remembered or implied color. For example, in the photo of American Eagle, we ‘see’ the name of the boat as gold, but sampling it in the photo tells you that it’s really a very desaturated greyish brown. A little color goes a long way in these dark passages.

But that’s optical perception, and on top of that you have to add emotional response. I ‘knew’ there were greens and reds in the Grand Canyon; I could just see the ghostly outlines of trees. Adding them into that stew of darkness was not a problem as long as I kept the value universally dark.

In watercolor, the problem is exacerbated by the fact that deep darkness is not always watercolor’s best look. One option is to run head-on into the darkness, as Bruce McMillan did here, to great effect.

The Scarlet Sunset, c. 1830-40, watercolor and gouache, JMW Turner, courtesy the Tate.

Still, sunsets are overwhelmingly the province of oil painters, because of that darkness issue. The exception to the rule is Joseph Mallord William Turner, who painted them many times in watercolor and gouache. His solution is to lighten the dark passages considerably, letting them fade into inconsequence.

A little Dada goes a long way

No wonder people don’t take art seriously as a profession.

Vilanova’s raincoat, hanging next to an exhibit about Picasso. Hanging it next to a large monochrome picture was great design… by the curator.

An art heist in Paris has the art world laughing at old people once again. A 72-year-old, ‘elderly’ woman mistook an art piece hanging on the wall for an abandoned jacket. Frugal, she took it home and then to a tailor to have the sleeves shortened.

A few days later, she returned to Musée Picasso, only to be immediately arrested.

The artist, Oriol Vilanova, expressed mild surprise that the museum’s security was that lax. They countered that they’d already spoken to him about the risks of hanging a jacket on a nail, and he’d refused to tighten it down. The idea, he pointed out, was that visitors should be free to rifle through the pockets and leaf through the postcards within.

The perp has widely been described as ‘elderly’. That is too often a synonym for ‘clueless’ in these stories. In fact, I suspect she was on Vilanova’s secret payroll, since she catapulted his work into a one-day wonder.

The piece has traveled to other venues since 2017. If the coat is hung next to a Picasso, for example, the pockets are stuffed with postcards of other Picasso paintings. On its own, it’s a fairly thin idea.

La Parisien, which originally reported it, said that this woman had converted the work to a mise en abyme.

mise en abyme is an image within an image, often repeating indefinitely. With the advent of computer science, we’ve started to call that recursion, as it resembles something that happens in software and mathematics.

Las Meninas, 1656-57, Diego Velázquez, courtesy of the Prado

But a mise en abyme doesn’t have to be a straight-up copy; it can be a reference, as in Diego VelázquezLas Meninas, where the artist frames his subjects in the context of having a portrait painted.

This 17th century painting looks for all the world like a snapshot. It’s a portrait of the five-year-old old Infanta Margaret Theresa, who is, in turn, surrounded by her personal coterie of attendants, dogs and dwarves. Velázquez himself is in the picture, as are the hazy images of the king and queen in the mirror in the background.

It is daring, inventive, complex, weird and mysterious. It’s fascinated viewers for almost four hundred years. In comparison, I wouldn’t be fascinated by Vilanova’s recursion for fifteen minutes.

Raincoat hanging over forsythia, 2022, Bruce McMillan, courtesy of the artist. I like it better than the original piece, since it subtly references the issue of our day, the war in Ukraine.

Bruce McMillan, who first pointed out this story to me, asked:

Art installation
on a rainy day
of an artist’s raincoat

hanging over the
flowers the artist
paints where art was to be,

or with unseen eyes
not to be, that was
the silent art question.

I’m afraid I have to come down firmly on the ‘blind’ side. The question Vilanova raises about art reproduction is sophomoric.

A mise en abyme from 20th century commercial art.

There is much in contemporary art that I like, but equally much that I resent. We’re enduring a time of relentless tearing down of western values. That includes the values we have traditionally revered in art: intellect, craftsmanship, beauty.

Western civilization has made us the fattest, happiest, most-literate society in the history of mankind. Even our poorest citizens are wealthier than most of the world. We haven’t endured warfare in our own country since 1865. Our kids have never known true economic privation.

These times are, historically speaking, an anomoly. They’re also an incredible blessing, but as Joni Mitchell once sang, “you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.”

Bananas taped to walls? Raincoats stuffed with postcards? They make a mockery of the importance of art, with little serious thought behind them. A little Dada goes a long way, and we’ve endured a century of it so far. No wonder people don’t take art seriously as a profession.