What’s a poor artist to do?

Perhaps my dream is telling me I ought to paint about something more serious than the beauty of nature.

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

I am seldom engaged by the news, but the death of 51 smuggled illegal migrants in a tractor-trailer in Texas has shattered my calm. It’s not just the absolute horror of the end of their lives, or the inhumanity of whatever monster left them to die. I subscribe to three different news feeds. In each of them, the story was buried somewhere below Ghislaine Maxwell’s sentence, SCOTUS protests, and the trial in Washington. That’s callous.

There was a time when this story would have resulted in a national soul-searching. In a nation where mass murder is no longer remarkable, I guess it no longer matters. I’m not interested in casting blame for it, by the way, but I sure wish there was a way we could guarantee it won’t happen again.

Charles IV of Spain and His Family, 1800–01, Francisco Goya, courtesy the Prado.

Last night I dreamed about that most remarkable and revolutionary painter, Francisco Goya. He was a professional success, being named Primer Pintor de Cámara to the Spanish court. That was the very top of the heap for Spanish painters. His reputation was based on royal portraits and Rococo decorative arts. Had he stopped there, he would have probably been remembered as a second-rate Diego Velázquez, because, frankly, there’s nothing unique about his court painting.

And then came the Peninsular War, with Spain, Portugal and Britain attempting to stymie Napoleon’s imperial ambitions in the Iberian Peninsula. It was seven years long, it was bitter and bloody, and it was the first war in which guerrilla warfare played a major role. It left Spain and its institutions in ruin. The violence and instability didn’t stop with the end of the war, either. A long-running civil skirmish then erupted.

Plate 47 from The Disasters of WarAsí sucedió (This is how it happened). Murdered monks lie by French soldiers looting church treasures, Francisco Goya, courtesy the Prado.

Goya remained in Madrid during the war, which affected him profoundly. He never wrote or spoke of his feelings; instead, he produced the shocking Disasters of War series. It was so explosive that it wasn’t published until 35 years after his death. He also painted two paintings about the invasion, The Second of May 1808 and The Third of May 1808 (at top). The latter is one of the most famous canvases ever painted on the impact of war.

He didn’t reserve his criticism for the French, either. The Caprichos and Los Disparates etching series are about the superstition and folly of his fellow Spaniards. In fact, his entire output from this period is troubled and desperate, heavy on metaphor and allusion.

The Dog, c. 1819-23, Francisco Goya, oil mural on plaster transferred to canvas, courtesy the Prado.

At the age of 72, Goya moved into a two-story house outside Madrid called Quinta del Sordo. Here he painted a series of murals on the walls, now known as the Black Paintings. These include The Dog, now considered the precursor of modern art. Goya never meant for anyone to see these paintings; he lived in total isolation and they weren’t removed from the walls and exhibited until 50 years after his death.

I’m no Goya—for one thing, I’m an irrepressible optimist. (That’s easier when you live in the fat and sassy United States instead of troubled 19th century Spain.) So why did I dream about him? Perhaps my reverie is telling me I ought to paint about something more serious than the beauty of nature. I shrink from examining the pain of those poor sufferers in Texas too closely, but, for heaven’s sake, someone needs to.

Monday Morning Art School: the four steps of landscape painting

Being technically accurate frees up your subconscious mind to analyze and interpret what you see.

Main Street, Owls Head, 16X20, oil on gessoboard, $1623 unframed.

Observation

I once took an artist on a long loop to see all my favorite painting sites here in midcoast Maine. “But there’s nothing to paint,” she wailed. She was suffering an extreme case of sensory overload. We all experience this to some degree when we’re forced to buckle down to work. We’re asking ourselves to choose one subject among an infinite number of possibilities. And the obvious and iconic may not make the best (or most interesting) painting.

We all want to jump quickly into painting, but the better path is to spend some time relaxing and looking. I prefer to do this with a sketchbook and a lawn chair. If you’ve spent 10 minutes just drinking in the beauty, and then do four thumbnails of different scenes, you haven’t ‘wasted time.’ You’ve saved yourself immeasurable amounts of work on mediocre paintings, by answering the following questions:

  • Where does the visual strength in this composition lie?
  • How can the picture plane be broken into light and dark passages?
  • How can I crop my drawing to strengthen the composition?
Belfast Harbor, 14X18, $1594 framed.

Measurement

At some point, you need to get precise. Fast, loose painting rests on a base of good drawing. If you haven’t been taught to measure with a pencil, start herehere and here.

People tell me all the time, “I can’t draw a stick figure.” It depresses me, because drawing is a technical exercise, and anyone can learn it, just as they learn to write or do arithmetic.

I recommend the book Sketching from Square One to Trafalgar Square, by Richard E. Scott. It’s a comprehensive introduction to drawing from observation. Books and classes that focus on the interpretive side of drawing are not useful for the artist who needs to get things right, so before you sign up, make sure that teacher, video, or book is actually teaching drawing, not some form of self-analysis with a pencil.

Beach erosion, 8X10, oil on canvasboard, $522 unframed.

Interpretation

Being technically accurate, oddly enough, frees up your subconscious mind to analyze and interpret what you see. We all paint through the filter of our own experience, values and aspirations. That’s why one artist will edit out the power lines and trash cans on a street scene, and another will focus on them.

But there’s a deeper level at which this happens, and that’s in the colors, forms and shapes themselves. They’re tied to your subconscious. Within the rubric of ‘good composition’ or ‘good taste’ are infinite variations. What you perceive is highly individual, so your interpretation will also be individual.

Marshall Point, 12X9, oil on canvasboard, $696 unframed.

Reiteration

The first three phases are all essentially input—identifying, measuring, and analyzing the subject you’re painting. The final business of producing a work of art is collecting all that input and restating it on your canvas or paper. If you’ve done the first three steps conscientiously, this last step should be relatively relaxed and free. It should also go quickly. Your own ‘handwriting’, in the form of brush or pencil work, will be unfettered and loose.

This post was originally published in August, 2021, but I thought it was worth restating.

Monday Morning Art School: fat over lean, what does it mean?

Mastering fat-over-lean will remove the need for varnishing and ensure a long life for your paintings.

Ottawa House, oil on canvas, available, is going in my gallery this summer.

There are three fundamental truths of oil painting, which are:

  • Big shapes to small shapes
  • Darks to lights
  • Fat over lean

The first one is more about how to think than about the technical aspects of oil paint. The second is a response to white paint’s infinite ability to dilute darker shades. The third is really the most difficult one to master, and the one that has long-term archival implications.

Belfast Harbor, oil on canvas, available, is also going in my gallery this summer.

The business of laying down paint is a craft, one that’s been developed over millennia. It’s possible to take this craft to new places, but only on a firm foundation of technique. That doesn’t mean that things don’t change; if they didn’t, we’d all be still painting encaustic funerary portraits a la the Romans. But there is still broad consensus on how oil paint is applied.

Fat-over-lean developed to prevent two problems: sinking color and cracking paint emulsion. The first is that dullish grey film that develops over paint that’s overthinned with solvent. Cracking paint doesn’t usually appear until after the artist is dead but is a major issue in some masterpieces.

Some manufacturers of alkyd mediums argue that the fat-over-lean rule no longer applies. I take this with a grain of salt. It’s a familiar argument to conservators now trying to fix 20th century masterpieces that were painted with zinc oxide, once considered a great substitute for lead white. It takes time for problems to appear in paintings, time that’s measured in decades, not years.

Owl's Head, 11X14, oil on canvas, available.

Fat over lean sounds simple, but the application is tricky. By ‘fat’ we mean the medium—either commercially-mixed mediums or drying oils like linseed, poppy or walnut. Remember that the paint itself contains some of this medium as a binder, usually in the form of linseed oil. By ‘lean’ we mean the pigment and a solvent, usually odorless mineral spirits (OMS), or, if there are unreconstructed traditionalists out there, turpentine.

The usual way to achieve this is by cutting the initial underpainting layer with OMS. Since it evaporates, it leaves a thin layer of paint on the surface. As you develop additional layers, increase the amount of paint and, ultimately, medium.

Drying oils don’t evaporate, they oxidize. That means they stay there, bonded with oxygen, creating a new chemical structure on the surface of the paint. This can be extremely durable, when done on a proper lean base.

In plein air, this process is usually cut back to two or three steps: an underpainting cut with OMS, a layer that’s pure paint, and then possibly a detail layer cut with medium on the top. However, in more complex paintings with more layers, the shift from lean to fat can be more gradual.

Vineyard, 30X40, oil on canvas, available. In larger works, the shift from lean to fat is more gradual.

Either way, you want the bottom layers to have more OMS and less oil and the top layers to have more oil and, hopefully, no OMS at all.

Another way to get there—less accepted—is to use only painting medium, starting with almost none in the bottom layers and building more and more oil into the layers as you develop the painting. However, the vast majority of painters start with thin underpainting as a means of sorting out their ideas. For them, there’s little advantage to this method.

Many painters never use medium at all. I use very little myself. I like Grumbacher’s traditional oil painting mediums (labeled I, II, and III), but the looser my method has become, the less I use at all. It’s almost always just refined linseed oil, since I can fly with it.

Gone sailing

Breaking Storm, oil on linen

Sailing is a great disperser of cares.

Breaking Storm, oil on linen, available
Breaking Storm, oil on linen, available. That’s of course American Eagle in the starring role.

By the time you read this, I’ll be sailing in Penobscot Bay, teaching my first workshop of the season aboard the schooner American Eagle. Between the pressures of work and some personal issues, I’ve been struggling since I got home from walking across Britain. Sailing is just the tonic I need right now.

Occasionally, someone will tell me that they suffer terribly from mal de mer and ask me for suggestions. There are better medications available these days, but if you really can’t look at a glass of water without getting queasy, you’re better off just taking a different kind of workshop.

You never know what you’re going to find in the ocean.

But if you’ve got the stomach for it, sailing is a great disperser of cares. You’re at one with the boat; you have to be, as ignoring her swings and rolls will cause you to fall down. That puts you totally in the moment, watching the sails, the waves, the shifts in air, and being an active part of the amazing complexity of 19th century transport technology. Sail power is the original renewable energy resource, but the boat doesn’t go if we don’t help. Someone has to hoist those sails, and we’re it.

Painting and sailing and sailing and painting…

Schooners are defined not by their hull shape but by their rigging; they’re fore-and-aft rigged on two or more masts, with the foremast generally shorter than the mainmast. They were the workhorses of the preindustrial sea, designed mainly for fishing and to move cargo. The overwhelming majority of them were never meant as passenger boats. The whole Maine windjammer thing was an impossible idea realized by people who primarily wanted to preserve and sail these big, beautiful beasts. The best way to do that turned out to be to operate them for the tourist trade.

There’s occasional shore leave… and lobster.


One of these people is Captain John Foss, who restored American Eagle and sailed her for 37 years. He’s passed the wheel to Captain Tyler King. I’ve sailed with Tyler, and he’s a nice young man who clearly knows what he’s doing. I’m quite confident Tyler won’t hit anything, but I’ll sure miss the old gaffer. But as they say, the only constant in this world is change.

I won’t be back until Saturday, so there will be no blog post here on Friday. But on Saturday afternoon, I’ll open my gallery at 394 Commercial Street, Rockport, for the first time this year. It’s going to be a soft opening (meaning I don’t have my act together) but I sure would enjoy seeing you if you want to stop by.

Alone or apart?

A painting class or group is good for your mental health.

Painting aboard American Eagle last September.

I’m puzzling out a problem, so I’ve been peppering Ken DeWaard with texts. It’s just as likely to be Bobbi HeathJane Chapin or Eric Jacobsen on the receiving end of one of these barrages, but it was Ken’s unlucky week. They’re all smart cookies whom I trust with my confidences—in short, my friends. And how do I know them? Through plein air painting.

Painting is a fundamental contradiction in work style. It’s solitary, but it’s also a form of communication. Most artists I know are sociable beings, but we’re required to spend long hours alone to achieve our goals. That push and pull can be tough on the psyche.

Main Street, Owl's Head, available, click for details. I started this painting with Eric Jacobsen.

Artists invented work-from-home, so a study that analyzed the effects of work-from-home during the pandemic should be of particular interest to us. The majority of people working remotely said they experienced adverse impacts on their mental health, including isolation, loneliness and difficulty separating from the job at the end of the day.

The workplace is a strong influence in modern culture. We no longer live in a society that’s village- or church-centered. Work takes up the biggest part of our waking lives. Often, people struggle to make and maintain friendships outside of the formal workplace, especially those who are socially-anxious or buried under family responsibilities. Work colleagues often share the same background, education, interests and values. They may not be our closest friends, but they usually understand us.

Mountain Fog, available, click for details. I painted this with Sandra Hildreth.

When one paints full time, work friendships are far harder to create. Yet there are times when only a colleague or peer gets it. Facebook is a poor substitute for that kind of conversation.

When I moved from Rochester to Maine, my former students wanted to keep painting together. They formed a group and called themselves Greater Rochester Plein Air Painters. That’s since morphed into a dynamic, active painting group with a few hundred members. It couldn’t have happened had I stayed in Rochester, because as their painting teacher I stood in the way of creating a peer group.

Quebec Brook, available, click for details. I also painted this with Sandra Hildreth.

However, people make lasting friendships in painting classes. I still have friends from my student days, and I’m blessed with students who like and support each other outside our classes and workshops.

A group or class can be healthy, but it also has the potential to be subtly overwhelming. Groupthink is the tendency of members of small, cohesive groups to value consensus over truth. That can stifle artistic development. If the ‘stars’ of your group all paint exactly the same way, you might be in a group or class where conformity is too strong a value. The answer, of course, is to find a different class or group, and luckily, that’s not too difficult—they’re everywhere!

Buying a painting is a good hedge against inflation. Seriously.

Chosen wisely, a painting is a durable asset that will increase in value over time.

Spring Greens, 8X10, oil on canvas, click for more information.

If you were in midcoast Maine on Monday, you might have heard my yelp as I cashed out a 16-pound bag of Purina kibble. I checked to see if I’d accidentally scanned it twice. No, it really was $26.48.

I’ve been following the current crisis, of course. I know gasoline is over $5. I’m getting regular pings from Discover telling me, “One of your recurring charges seems different” as they all go up. But sometimes it takes a single purchase to bring home the enormity of the problem, and dog food was it.

Apple Tree with Swing, 16X20, oil on canvas, click for more information.

This all seems sadly familiar. Inflation, a GDP contraction, whiffs of a bear market—“it's all a bit 1970s, but without the decent tunes,” wrote the gossip columnist Steerpike.

There are few sure-fire inflation hedges, but the worst thing to have is money in the bank—especially when it’s earning no interest (which is different from the 1970s). Some of us are investing in groceries, but for those who are a little more flush, art is a recognized inflation hedge.

“Art gives its owners the pleasure of looking at it on their wall, and no rate of inflation can take that away. It is both an investment and a form of consumption, and the latter is quite protected against any macroeconomic conditions. When all else fails, spending money is one surefire inflation hedge. Art also happens to be a durable asset, so the expenditure is not entirely wasteful,” wrote Tyler Cohen of Bloomberg.com.

Bracken Fern, 9X12, oil on canvas, click for more information.

This of course requires choosing wisely. Original art by known artists of quality are a different kind of art from mass-market prints of dubious quality. (I’m afraid that here is where NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, will reveal their true worth. In the end, they’re just an ownership record of limited edition digital ‘prints’, not significantly different from the giclee prints we were all hawking a few years ago.)

The problem, of course, is that for every winner who picked up a Van Gogh when he was just an unknown crazy guy, there is a loser who bought art that sank into obscurity. How do you tell the difference? The art market is both excruciatingly logical and highly subjective.

Apple blossom time, 9X12, oil on canvas, click for more information.

Educate yourself. Identify artists you love and learn more about them. Are they showing and selling in good venues? Do they have a social media presence? Ten years ago, I’d have said that their gallery representation was a good indicator, but the internet has changed that. In the end, it’s not just about the talent of the painter, but about marketing as well. Van Gogh might never have become famous had his brother’s widow, Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, not tirelessly marketed him after his death.

Of course, if making money is your only consideration, you’re still best off taking all your spare pennies and buying an index fund. Nothing beats equities. But let’s be real here—none of us are shoveling every spare dollar into the future, and art will have a better return than other durable assets like a car, a refrigerator, or a washing machine—assuming those are durable in the first place.

Monday Morning Art School: what is critique?

It’s not an emotional response or mere fault finding.

Skylarking 2, 18X24, available.

This week I begin a new online class dedicated to critique. Since it’s a totally new idea, the shape of this class is evolving. However, the plan is that students will bring work they’ve done on their own for analysis within the group. The hope is that we can develop a sort of executive function that will oversee our painting processes outside of class. This, as you can imagine, is much harder than “hold your brush like this” painting classes.

Critique is a long-standing tool in every intellectual discipline, artistic and technical. However, it’s more straightforward to tell your co-worker, “I can’t duplicate your results,” than it is to put into words why a painting isn’t working. “I don’t know about art, but I know what I like,” is only a funny joke because it’s to a large degree true.

Lobster Pound, available.

What critique is not is an emotional response. It must be disciplined and systematic, but art is at the same time intuitive and subjective. We bridge that gap by analyzing works based on a series of values:

  • Focal point
  • Line
  • Value
  • Color
  • Balance
  • Shape and form
  • Rhythm and movement
  • Texture (brushwork)

These elements of design transcend style or period. Every painting includes them to some degree. The critic must consider how they work together. Do they coalesce into something arresting or not? If not, what forces are blocking the full expression of the artist’s idea?

Beautiful Dream, 12X16, available.

There should be no censure involved. We’re all intelligent adults; if our ideas aren’t working, it’s because we’ve run into a problem that another set of eyes can help us unravel.

The very first question we must ask (and answer) is, what are you trying to do or say in this painting? That’s not always simple, so it deserves time. Every subsequent point of discussion should be weighted in regards to that answer. For example, if what interested me was the loneliness of a home on a rocky crag, my composition, color, brushwork all need to support that aloofness.

Criticism should never be mere fault-finding. There is a seed of brilliance in almost every painting, and it needs to be enlarged upon. That means discussing the merits of a painting as much as discussing its faults.

Belfast Harbor, 11X14, available.

For critique to work well, the critic and artist must both approach the process with humility and mutual respect. I once took a painting I couldn’t finish to a noted teacher for criticism. She told me that it looked like a ‘bad Chagall.’ In trying to execute her ideas on the canvas, I completely destroyed my own vision. My self-doubt met her self-confidence in a terrible concatenation.

I’m speaking here of narrow peer criticism. There’s a larger world of art criticism that seeks to analyze artists in terms of their culture and times, but it has nothing to do with us.

By the way, I’m also starting my mid-coast plein air sessions tomorrow. There’s more than ample room in this class, so if you’re interested, email me for more information.

Your brushes suck. What are you going to do about it?

While you can paint a good oil painting with a stick (if you know how), decent brushes certainly help.

They used to be my first-string brushes, until some kindly friends staged an intervention.

A few months ago, a student in my Zoom class asked me to check a brush for him. He held it up to the camera.

“Shot. Toss it,” I said.

“How about this one?”

“Total c--p. Toss it.”

“This one?”

“It’s a stub! You can’t paint with a stub!”

A taklon wash brush can be the watercolorist's best friend.

After more of this than I ever expected, we came up with some ground rules for assessing brushes. While watercolor brushes will last forever if you care for them properly, oil painting brushes do wear out. You can’t paint with a brush that’s:

  • Hardened with paint;
  • Splayed (because it has paint dried in the ferrule);
  • Developed a wicked curve (either a manufacturing problem or because it’s sat in solvent);
  • Worn to the point of having no flexible fibers left;
  • Missing chunks of hair.

I’ve puttered endlessly trying to revitalize hardened, splayed or curved brushes, and its simply not worth the effort. Pitch them.

In a pinch, I've found that coconut oil can soften hardening oil brushes. But in most cases, it's not worth trying.

Most of us need fewer brushes than we think, but the difficulty lies in knowing which brushes are appropriate. There is no one-size-fits-all answer. The first question is what fiber is appropriate.

  • For alla prima oil painting, hog bristle brushes (synthetics are generally too soft for stiff paint);
  • For indirect oil painting, synthetic or sable along with hog bristle;
  • For acrylic painting, either hog bristle or synthetic brushes, because acrylic paint is softer than oil paint;
  • For watercolor painting, sable or synthetic, including taklon. (It’s too early in the morning for me to consider plucking squirrels. Sorry.)
You can waste a lot of money in the discount bins at art stores.

There is very little application for tiny brushes in painting unless you’re a miniaturist. In watercolor, a ½” flat, a 1” wash brush, a #6 quill and a #8 round are enough to get you started. Add a set of short synthetic flats (or mottlers, as they’re sometimes called) in ¾”, 1” and 1½”. A little pointed brush to sign your name is helpful.

In oils and acrylics, a life list would include:

  • Brights (short flats) in 6, 8, 10, possibly 12, depending on how big you’re going to paint;
  • Rounds: 2, 4, 6;
  • Long (true) flats: 3, 4, 5;
  • Filbert: 2, 4, 6;
  • A few tiny rounds in sable for detail and to sign your name: 2,4;
  • 1” badger blender brush;
  • 2” spalter or hog bristle background brush—this is for blocking.

I generally recommend Princeton brushes to students; they come in a range of quality and material and are good value for money. I’m currently painting with Rosemary & Co. in both watercolor and oils. Other brushes I’ve known and loved include Isabey, and Winsor & Newton. But brushes are a highly-personal thing, and you’re best buying one or two from a maker and running them through their paces before you commit to a relationship.

The best brushes in the world will do you no good if you abuse them. My daughter makes me castile soap, which cleans my oil brushes beautifully. You can buy it in the laundry section of your grocery store. Saddle soap and conditioning brush soap are also excellent products. The important thing is to clean your brushes as soon as you finish a painting session.

Watercolor brushes need nothing more than a good rinse in tepid water. Shake dry and gently reshape the bristles.

All brushes will be ruined if they’re allowed to stand in solvent or water. That’s a terrible habit, so don’t let it develop. Swish them free of solvents and set them down on a paper-towel or in a brush holder.

Good design is in the details

The people who made beautiful art in earlier eras weren’t focused on themselves, but on craft and how it fit into a greater whole.

The rood screen of York Minster featured the kings of England from William the Conquerer to Henry VI. That's the only reason these figures weren't smashed, and they give us an idea of what the saints in their niches might have looked like.

York was founded by the Romans, slumped into inconsequence under Anglian rule, was rebuilt by the Northumbrians, conquered by Vikings, was sacked by the Normans, and then rose slowly again, only to be pummeled during the Dissolution of the Monasteries and the English Civil War. It is, in short, deep and complex, and that is visible on the very fabric of the city.

York Minster contains three monuments designed by Grinling Gibbons. They don’t stand out. That’s not a slam on Gibbons, but rather a reflection of the depth and breadth of good design in the Minster. It’s hard to be moved by massive marble reliquaries to slumbering prelates, but they’re all masterworks. They make their point powerfully.

There are thousands of beautiful small details in the Minster.

The north transept contains the so-called Five Sisters window. Five long, narrow lancet windows are the largest example of grisaille glass left in the world today.  Grisaille glass came into vogue after a prohibition on the use of colored glass by the Cistercian Order in 1134, and these are dated to around 1260.

These windows are so contemporary in effect that I wondered if they were modern. Yet they are almost 800 years old. There’s a lesson there: if your art is solely about ideas, it’s unlikely that it hasn’t already been done.

The quire at York Minster.

York Minster survived the hacking and smacking of Henry VIII’s evil minions, but the saints in its innumerable niches did not. They stand empty to this day, a stark reminder of the dangers of iconoclastic fury. Still, one has a sense of the power of the cathedral’s design as it moves from broad concept to finest detail. First there is its standard cruciform shape, oriented to the east and balanced by a tower rising above the crossing. This became so standardized in ecclesiastical design that we sometimes forget that it was a new language then. So, too, was the inexorable visual sweep upward and the glorious light. It must have seemed amazing to people accustomed to squat wattle-and-daub or stone huts.

Contemporary needlework at York Minster.

It is impossible to describe all the layers of design that were integrated into this new cathedral form—arches, buttresses, niches, gargoyles, right down to tiny bits and bobs of sculpture. It has evolved over the centuries. Thus, the tiny headless saints dancing on the western wall seem as much a part of the fabric of the place as the Great East Window. The statues were sculpted in 2004 by Terance Hammill and they are sending a semaphore message with their haloes: Christ is here.

Semaphore Saints, 2004, by Terance Hamill, York Minster.

I was raised in the era of Brutalism and Scandinavian modern and have a fondness for stripped-down design, whether it’s in architecture or painting. But there’s something missing in that: the integration of detail and depth.

Part of that comes, I think, from the egocentricity of our own age. The people who made beautiful art in earlier eras weren’t focused on themselves, but on craft and how it fit into a greater whole. That’s as true of the metalwork of the Vikings and Romans as it is of the ecclesiastical art at York Minster.

The stonemason's yard is an eternal verity of a great cathedral as parts are constantly wearing out and must be replaced.

The Five Sisters window is too extensive to have been the work of any single man. It fits in an austere blind arcade of banded stone, and is topped by another group of five lancets. I expect the glassblowers, the men who leaded the windows, and the stone carvers each had their specific instructions, handed down to them by someone who, in turn, was following instructions. These plans would have been rigorous and limited. That ruled out the self-expression we consider basic in our own time, and yet it resulted in one of the glories of civilization.

Feel the Love

Kind Cumbrians cheered us on as we hiked the last few miles of the wall. Now on to the Queen’s Jubilee celebrations.

The churches of Cumbria are built of reclaimed wall stone, including pagan shrines and inscriptions.

The last few hundred yards of the Hadrian’s Wall path took us down the main street of Bowness-on-Solway, population 1126. It being a warm day in June, there were people out on their business or sitting in their front gardens. Each smiled and nodded, or offered congratulations and last-minute encouragement.

Rambling is a uniquely British pastime, supported by a network of footpaths across private land. We have no equivalent in America, and it’s a wonderful way to see the backside of Britain—its farmyards (complete with ordure), sheepfolds and gardens. The Roman engineers were interested in a strategic fort to keep the Picts out, so the wall misses most settlements and marches resolutely east to west.

These fellows were celebrating a bike ride across England in honor of the Queen's Jubilee.

There were places where I thought those engineers were daft as brushes. In the crags of Northumberland National Park, the wall seesaws crazily across sharp rises and gullies. It’s miserable hiking, so it must have been just terrible for the toiling stonemasons. “Why didn’t they just fill these parts in and make less work for themselves?” I grumbled as I lurched down yet another steep pass.

The wall is an amazing feat of architecture. Much has been dismantled, for shielings, barns, walls, byres and houses. But what remains still stands impossibly true 1900 years later.

There are times on the path when you are walking through someone's back garden.

Bowness-on-Solway is the terminus because it’s the westernmost point where the Solway Firth can be forded at low tide. There was once a large fort and garrison stationed here. Other defenses continue 40 miles down the coast to Maryport. Selgovae raiders weren’t the only problem; there were also troublesome Celts just across the Irish Sea.

But here is where the wall itself ended. The wall’s second-largest fort, Maia, lies under little Bowness-on-Solway.

Drumburgh castle has bits of Roman arch and shrine in its walls. It's a private home today.

The wall is disembodied, but its presence is all around us. In places, it shows as a stiff turf line in low meadowlands. Bits and bobs are baked into churches, houses, and the 14th century pele-tower castle at Drumburgh.

Alas, no wading in the Irish sea for me.

The Cumbria shore looks tranquil but is prone to flooding. Signs warn us against quicksand and fast current changes. We’ve tramped through fields containing innumerable cows, sheep and horses, but it was here that we finally encountered a beast who took umbrage. She quickly decided to boss someone else around.

Our intrepid group, from left: Alison, Doug, Kenneth, Martha, me and wee Poppy, who took at least twice as many steps to go the same distance.

Perhaps fewer people than I imagine really finish the walk. “We just had a party quit in Carlisle,” the publican at The Inn at the Bush told me. “They were in their 30s.” A walker we encountered in Burgh-by-Sands told us that his partner had quit along the way. Yet this is considered the easiest of all the national pathways.

Yarn bombing seemed silly in Manhattan, but is so right for the Queen's Jubilee.

As for us, our feet are terribly blistered. We ache in places we didn’t even know we had. But today we stuff our hiking clothes in a plastic bag and dress for a weekend in Yorkshire. This is the Queen’s Jubilee, and we are looking for lawn fetes and evensong in her honor.