Monday Morning Art School: preparation

A drybrush in ink by a young Andrew Wyeth, courtesy American Artist Magazine

James Gurney somehow unearthed a 1942 copy of American Artist Magazine that included an interview with a young Andrew Wyeth on his technique. Wyeth, in his later years, became schtum about method and his estate is highly restrictive about images. As a teacher, this is frustrating. Students could learn much from studying his method and work, even if they have no interest in painting like him. He was one of the principal realist painters of mid-century American art.

This interview was done when Wyeth was a callow 25-year-old, before Christina’s World catapulted him into superstardom.  At that age, he painted watercolor in quick wet washes, into which he dropped or drew off color as needed. “Wyeth’s practice is to skim off the white heat of his emotion and compress it into a half hour of inspired brush work. He is the first to admit the presumption of this kind of attack, and is ready to confess that it fails more often than it succeeds.”

A sketch of a young spruce clinging to a rock. I plan to paint it.

That fast, emotional attack was the influence of abstract-expressionism, and a way to separate himself from his famous illustrator father, NC Wyeth. Even then, it was a far cry from Andrew's studio work, which was intentional, deliberate and labored. That was a function of his chosen medium. Egg tempera is transparent and thus suitable for working in glazes (indirect painting). Layers are laboriously built up, starting from a grisaille that gives definition to the whole.

Wyeth ultimately moved away from the pea-soup approach to watercolor, employing more dry brush and deliberation. That’s hard to see in the limited information available on the internet. I often suggest to students that they visit the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland specifically to look at Wyeth’s watercolors.

The Farnsworth has been as tight about sharing images as the Wyeth family themselves. But they have recently gotten better at putting their extensive collection online. You can find some gems there, including preparatory sketches for Wyeth’s paintings.

The same spruce, in a photo. Why would anyone find this compelling?

In that 1942 interview was the image at top, with the caption, “Wyeth often makes rapid ink sketches like this, on the spot, and then does the watercolor in his studio.” That’s the money shot right there, because Wyeth was employing a traditional technique of painters—creating a greyscale or notan sketch of the subject first.

Wyeth’s method ultimately involved lots of tinkering with the details in the form of sketches and alternate layups for his paintings. What I want my students to see is how much effort and thought he put in before he ever picked up his brush.

On Friday, I watched my workshop students’ kit while they went off to Corea Wharf for lunch. (There was no sacrifice there; I’m not a fan of lobster.) A small spruce, about two feet high, has audaciously laid claim to the top of a granite outcropping. It caught my eye. There can’t be more than a gallon or two of topsoil there. What there is, is poor.

I quickly drew a small sketch of these rocks with the idea of doing a painting later in my studio. Because Ken DeWaard’s voice was nattering in my head, I also took a reference photo. The sketch catches the curve that attracted my eye; the reference photo is completely anodyne. Nobody would choose to paint from it.

I really do follow that same procedure with every painting: sketch, grisaille, color.

Perhaps at age 25 we are in touch with our internal frenzy to the point where we can say something useful without thinking too much, but there comes a time when our minds start to self-regulate. There are variations, but the process has traditionally been something along the lines of sketch-value study-final painting. Without that, we’re left with what Wyeth observed long ago—we fail more often than we succeed.

The value of critique

Becky Bense. Remember our post about Frixion pens? This was done with one.

Critique ought not be a question of likes and dislikes. It involves analyzing a painting in terms of formal elements of design, which include:

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

I’ve expanded on these ideas here, for those of you interested in how to use formal criticism to make your own work better. It’s helpful to use these standards in any group critique session.

Cassie Sano.

The same rubric can also be applied to work that you have no direct relationship with, such as paintings you see in a gallery. They can help you understand why a painting moves you or leaves you cold.

Your gut reaction, after all, is a profoundly reliable indicator. It may be telling you that something is off-kilter long before your rational mind understands what’s wrong. It may be reacting to an idea whose only mistake is newness or audacity. Or, there may be something in the psychological makeup of the artist that grates on your own complex psychology. I have this latter response to the work of Pablo Picasso. It doesn’t make Picasso’s work good or bad; it’s just intolerable to me.

Today we finish our annual five-day Sea & Sky workshop at Schoodic Institute in Acadia National Park. “Don’t sandwich me!” one of my students remonstrated at one point. She’s referring to a well-known management technique where one ‘sandwiches’ the bad news between positive feedback. I wasn’t doing that; I really did see marked improvement in her painting.

Shelley Pillsbury

For students, every painting is a wrestling match. Not only are they attempting to master new ideas, they’re fighting their own internal demons. For me, each painting is a step on a road to mastery, and I am watching to see how things have improved. I’m less interested in whether a particular painting is good or bad than I am in whether a student has resolved whatever knot is currently bedeviling him or her.

By the way, I’m going through the same process of learning as my students; I’m just at a different point along the road. I sometimes wish I had a teacher. Since I don’t, I repeat the same lessons to myself that I tell them.

Lauren Hammond

At some point in a critique session, we inevitably come to a point of disagreement. Yesterday it was about a grey in a painting. I felt it was chromatically disjointed and pulled against the composition; several students thought it was a good foil for other colors.

Who was right? Nobody and everybody. There are degrees of objectivity. If you doubt that, just consider the various interpretations of the scientific facts we understand about COVID.

Without further ado, here are this year’s paintings, minus those by Paula Tefft, Linda Smiley, Jen Kearns, and Areti Masero-Baldwin, who couldn’t be with us last night.

Germaine Connolly


Linda DeLorey

Karen Ames

Diane Fulkerson

Jennifer Johnson

My 2022 workshop schedule can be found here. That includes the beautiful red rocks of Sedona, urban painting in Austin, TX, June and September workshops aboard schooner American Eagle, mountain vistas in the Berkshires, and our ever-popular Sea & Sky at Schoodic in Acadia National Park.

Why does anyone paint plein air?

Painting the fog at Blueberry Hill
Painting the fog at Blueberry Hill

I’m in Acadia teaching my annual Sea & Sky workshop, and yesterday was a fog-bound day. We were at Blueberry Hill. The great granite slope, the spruces, and Schoodic Island drifted in and out of their wrap of soft wool. Not only do I love painting in this atmosphere, but it is a wonderful sensory experience. Fog can be grey or greenish or blue or even pink. It’s cool on the skin, sound is deadened and distorted, and one feels a sense of peace and solitude (assuming one isn’t attempting to navigate a tricky channel without satnav or radar).

“There is no extra charge for the facial,” I told my students.

Talking color theory with my homies. All photos courtesy Jennifer Johnson.

At around 11, the fog started to burn off. The sea glowed blue against the pink rocks. Offshore, every spruce on the island was picked out in relief. A regular observer of the coast would have bet that it was clearing for the day—and would have lost the bet. In as much time as it would take to redraft a painting to reflect these new optics, the fog settled back in.

It was ebb tide when we arrived. Blueberry Hill has wonderful irregular tidal pools rimmed with seaweed. Long fingers of granite reach down into the sea, and a spit of surf-worn cobbles stretches out into East Pond Cove. They’re a design delight, but you have to work fast. By the time we finished for the day, the sea had come in, covered every rock, and was receding again.

“Why does anyone paint plein air?” asked a student in exasperation. “It’s always changing!”

The world's best classroom.

That is, of course, the point. There is dynamism in these changes, whereas reference photos are never more than a vague approximation of what happens in nature. Yes, I sometimes paint from photos—we all do—but it’s never as informative or energizing as painting outdoors.

I see Dennis during my Sea & Sky workshop. He’s accompanied his wife Paula for the past few years. While we’re painting, Dennis goes birding and hiking. “I saw a family of sharp-shinned hawks,” he told me yesterday. I was curious about how he identified them, and he told me about the app Merlin Bird ID. Last night I put it on my phone.

When you spend a lot of time standing in one spot outdoors, you hear lots of birds, and you meet a lot of birders. Hikers, bicyclists and kayakers amble through your field of vision. Our disciplines are united by a common reverence for nature, so we always have something to talk about.

Shelly paints a nocturne.

Radical changes in weather can be disconcerting. I won’t paint outdoors in a snowstorm or an electrical storm, for example. Extreme heat can be just as dangerous, but luckily, it’s not part of my everyday experience.

Last night, we met to paint a nocturne. On the way over, Cassie saw a black bear cub. That’s an experience you’d never have in your studio.

We set up at 8 PM outside Rockefeller Hall. It’s elegant and old, and we could turn on interior lights. We distributed headlamps and easel lights. I settled down in a corner, excited to spend time with my watercolors after a day teaching. Nocturnes in watercolor are challenging in their own right, and even more so in the damp of a foggy night. It can be like painting into a wet paper towel.

Forty-five minutes later, the skies dumped on us. Our gear, our paintings, and our composure were all soaked to the bone. We scrambled to pack up, laughing and chattering in the cold rain. Yes, we could have been in our rooms painting from photos, but instead we had a convivial adventure, and a new story to tell.

Monday Morning Art School: more better, faster

My painting for Camden on Canvas, called "So Many Boats!" Sold at auction yesterday.
My painting for Camden on Canvas, called "So Many Boats!" Sold at auction yesterday.

One of the questions we are often asked at plein air painting events is, “Did you really finish that whole painting in one day?” The answer, of course, is yes—or sometimes two or three paintings. We have trained ourselves to be fast, but that didn’t happen by painting large set pieces. It’s by churning out small studies.

My buddy Bobbi Heath recently wrote an excellent post on how to do ten-minute daily exercises in paint. It’s complete and I have little to add, except the rationale for why lots of little paintings will get you to your stylistic goal long before a few major set pieces.

All the chaos of Camden. This was my 'also ran' painting for Camden on Canvas; it was a touch choice.

Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking, by David Bayles and Ted Orland, is a book I frequently recommend. I’m up in Schoodic and can’t access my copy, so this will be a very loose interpretation of what they actually wrote. They described an art class where the students were divided into two groups—the first would be graded on quality, the second on quantity. It was the students pushed to produce lots of work who, in fact, made the best work. That is because talent, in the end, is really about perseverance and hard work. The artist must paint a lot of duds before he or she creates something that is truly brilliant.

But these duds do not have to be large, serious paintings—a fact I wish I’d realized much earlier, before I cluttered up my studio with so many big canvases. Often, painting students have lovely photos they took on vacation, or of the perfect sunset, and they want to immortalize them in paint. That’s a laudable goal in its own right, but it won’t actually make you a better painter. In fact, their emotional investment in the content might get in the way of pure painting success. Far better to grab a few objects from around the house and paint them, or paint the view out your front window.

Owl's Head, Early Morning, is a painting that started as a quick practice but turned out to be one of my personal favorites.

There’s much to be said for the humble still life. Eric Jacobsen is a wicked good expressionist painter, and he often paints still lives—the busier, the better. I’m not a still-life painter myself; I strongly prefer fresh air. But I do live in the north, where winter can make for unpleasant painting. During a blizzard, the best way I know to stay fresh is to set up a still life in the studio and hack away at it.

That’s why so many of my Zoom classes are based on still life. I understand when students say, “I hate still life,” and that they’d rather paint landscape or portrait. However, they won’t learn half as much from copying a photo as they will learn from painting from life. Still life—as Bobbi Heath says—is the next best thing to painting plein air, in terms of training and growth.

To be honest, I never get my oil paints out for a ten-minute exercise. I’ll paint an apple in gouache or watercolor; the clean-up is easier. (Switching between media teaches you new ways of applying paint, and different ways of looking at things. However, for a beginner, it can be confusing.)

Sometimes watercolor is just what you need for a fast sketch. This was the Pecos River, painted by me.

I have my own interpretation of fast warm-ups; I call them ‘practicing my scales’ or ‘practicing chip shots.’ They usually involve running down to the harbor to paint a few boats before my gallery opens, but they might also be something as silly as painting a basket of beach toys in my driveway. The important thing is the daily discipline, and it’s something I’m concentrating on right now.

My friend Peter Yesis has done a lot of these fast warm ups over his career—for a long time, they were his daily discipline. They served him in good stead at Camden on Canvas this weekend. Peter’s taken a long hiatus due to serious illness, but he knocked this week’s painting out of the park. The brushwork and paint application were assured; the drawing was perfect.

So, if your goal is to get better, fast, try practicing with small, unassuming paintings. They might just end up being masterpieces.