Monday Morning Art School: drawing the human hand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Metacarpophalangial joints, courtesy Wikipedia.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday Morning Art School: the human face

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

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

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

My pal Eric Jacobsen calls Tom Root “a national treasure.” His Holiday (Rest on the Flight to Egypt) is one of the few paintings that carries the western tradition of religious painting successfully into the modern era. He’s technically superlative and keyed into the contemporary zeitgeist. Since I want my students to paint in the modern idiom, it’s best that she studies a modern painter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday Morning Art School: drapery

Drawing drapery isn’t a dated skill; it’s as fundamental to the t-shirts and skinny jeans we wear today as it was to the gowns, kirtles, jerkins, doublets and linen chemises of the 16th century.

Drapery study, Albrecht Dürer, undated.

I spent a lot of time painting the human figure at the Art Students League, but I never studied drapery, unless you count the drapes that might be behind a model or still-life. That’s typical, but unhelpful. In the real world, artists are far more likely to draw the clothed figure than the nude.

“The masters must be copied over and over again,” wrote Edgar Degas, “and it is only after proving yourself a good copyist that you should reasonably be permitted to draw a radish from nature.” In that spirit, I’ve illustrated this post with a series of drapery studies by the Renaissance master Albrecht Dürer. I suggest you copy them not on paper, but in creating a drape—and then draw from your draped copy.

Drapery study, Albrecht Dürer, 1506.

The t-shirts and skinny jeans we wear today are worlds apart from the gowns, kirtles, jerkins, doublets and linen chemises of the 16th century. Modern clothing is more formless and forgiving than ever. But the principles, regardless of the fabric, remain the same.

Wherever fabric is held down or comes into contact with the underlying support, it creates a pivot point. That point is a hub from which folds radiate. That’s easiest to see if you hold a towel in your hand and let it drape. Where you’ve pinched it is the hub from which all folds originate. If you hold the same towel in both hands and let it drape, you’ll see the collision of folds from two pivot points.

Drapery study, Albrecht Dürer, undated.

In clothing, there are often several points of contact, creating several different hubs. Across the back of a shirt, our two shoulder blades strain the cloth in opposition to each other. In jeans, our knees, ankles, derrieres and hipbones are all in contact with the fabric. Even in tight jeans, there will be folds, albeit subtle. Wherever the figure presses against the fabric, it makes a hub for folds.

A person and his clothing tend to move and act as one. Not only does our clothing conform to our bodies in the moment, it carries the memories of past movement. Think of the knees of your favorite jeans. That’s one reason it feels strange to borrow another person’s clothes, and why we develop old favorites we’re loath to get rid of.

This is my favorite of Albrecht Dürer’s drapery studies. Undated.

To draw folds accurately, you need to see them as having shape and volume. It’s useful to see each fold as having three surfaces: a top and two sides. The valley between folds is the base from which the folds arise. You may not always see both sides, because one might be folded back, but they’re always there.

It may be difficult to puzzle out whether you’re seeing the top or sides of a fold. The answer is really immaterial, as long as you’re drawing the fold as a three-dimensional object. Folds are infinitely variable, and sometimes the top will take the form of a sharp crease, or a side will disappear for a while. Even when that happens, bear in mind that you’re drawing a three-dimensional object. Folds are never simple lines drawn over the surface of fabric.

Like the rills on a hillside, folds have a way of transmogrifying into other shapes. They twist and turn and merge into other folds, or vanish entirely. It’s helpful to block out drapery as a whole before you start drawing. Just as if you were drawing a hillside, start by measuring the big shapes and checking angles.

In your first pass, don’t worry about subtleties of shading. Think of your this phase as a plan from which you’ll draw or paint. In other words, make it clear, concise, and accurate.

When you’ve finished, you can test the accuracy of your drawing by dropping a contour line across it. Imagine a bug crawling in a straight line from one side to another. Trace that line with your pencil. When your imaginary bug hits a fold, he’ll crawl into it and out the other side. If you get to a point where you can’t figure out where your bug should go, you’ve made a drawing error or been unclear. Go back and resolve that.

Why travel to paint?

Sometimes it takes different light, and different objects, to shake us into really seeing.

The artistically-mature Vincent van Gogh: View of Arles, Flowering Orchards, 1889. Courtesy Neue Pinakothek

It’s possible to achieve mastery as an artist while never leaving your little village. That’s especially true today, with museum and learning resources so widely available. Yet few great artists ever stayed put. The ones who did—like Frans Hals—lived in places like Haarlem, which were so cosmopolitan that they brought the world to the artist.

Artistic itchy feet are nothing new. In medieval Northern Europe, painters (and other craftsmen) were expected to complete the wanderjahre. For a minimum of three years after their apprenticeship, they traveled around Europe learning their craft from different masters. This is where the English word (and custom) ‘journeyman’ originated.

Van Gogh developing his color sense in Paris: Fritillaries in a Copper Vase, 1887. Courtesy Musée d’Orsay

The most intrepid, of course, traveled the farthest. Albrecht Dürer was on the road for four years after his apprenticeship ended, including two trips to Italy. (An unhappy arranged marriage might have contributed to his wanderlust.) Pieter Bruegel the Elder went to France and Italy. Not only did the wanderjahreallow craftsmen to study with the best practitioners of their age, it had a tremendous effect on culture itself. The ideas and practices of the Renaissance were transmitted across Europe by these working journeymen.

Vincent van Gogh invented himself as a painter with his move to Paris in 1886. There he met the avant-garde and dropped the somber color palette and subjects of his northern painting. It was not until he went to the south of France in 1888, however, that his style became fully realized.

Van Gogh newly arrived in Paris: Le Moulin de Blute-Fin, 1886. Courtesy Bridgestone Museum of Art

Van Gogh found a place that fitted his sensibilities, and his painting expanded to embrace the place. That’s something that happens to many artists, and is perhaps why so many of them are so darn footloose (myself included). But isn’t this just self-indulgence? Can’t you achieve the same thing at home?

A few years ago, I assigned a student to draw a fishing boat in Rockport harbor. Becca & Meagan was iconic; she’s red and was a popular subject for artists and photographers. Sheryl would draw a line; I would correct it. We went back and forth until she finally stopped me and made me really look. The boat she was drawing wasn’t Becca & Meagan at all; the owner had hauled her and replaced her with a different red boat. I was so familiar with the scene that what I ‘knew’ had overwritten what I saw.

Van Gogh in the Netherlands: his first major work, The Potato Eaters, 1885. Courtesy Van Gogh Museum

I had an epiphany while watching a student painting an horno in New Mexico last week. These bake ovens are traditional conical structures, deceptively simple in form. Linda, who’s from New England, couldn’t rely on what she thought she knew. She had to hunker down with the essentials of measurement and line to get it right. Because she did, she drew (and then painted) the hornoaccurately.

When we’re painting what we’re familiar with, we can fall into relying on a few sketchy lines to suggest what we already know. That leads to ambiguous, waffling painting. Sometimes it takes different light, and different objects, to shake us into really seeing.

I’m doing a FREE Zoom workshop on Friday, October 2 at 5 PM. Consider it Happy Hour, and join me with a glass of wine, a spritzer, or whatever else. We’re going to talk about studying painting. What should students expect to get from a workshop or class? What should teachers offer? Have you always wanted to try painting but been afraid of classes? Are you taking classes but want to get more out of them? Join us for a free-ranging discussion.

While this is in advance of my Find your Authentic Voice in Plein Air workshop in November in Tallahassee, everyone is welcome. There’s absolutely no charge or obligation. Signups are already brisk, so register soon!

Arbitrary distinctions

What is art? What is illustration? Does it matter?
Trick-or-Treat! From my brief period illustrating; prints available (DM me).
“I am trying to understand the difference between a painter and an illustrator,” writes a reader.
Paint is a just a medium. You can use it to illustrate, or you can hurl it in meaningless patterns. Conversely, you can illustrate with any two-dimensional medium, including pencils, ink, photography or cut paper. The difference is in intent.
An illustration is usually a visual accompaniment to a text. However, that’s not always true. There are illustrated books (Albrecht Dürer’s Passions, for example) that do not need words at all. There are many children’s books with no words. In fact, one could argue that all of western religious art is illustration. The text (the Bible) was just not written down. Either the intended audience was illiterate or they all knew the story anyway.
Gas Station, by Carol L. Douglas. From my brief period illustrating; prints available, DM me.
Illustrators are usually hired by writers or publishers. The work is limited in scope and concrete in character. Fine artists have no middleman between them and the market. They can be as obscure as they wish. But fine artists certainly work on commission, and illustrators often work on spec, so even that distinction is hazy.
There was a time when this question mattered to me. I was trying to make the jump between graphic design and painting full time. I did it by writing and illustrating two books. We are all born with an innate ability to imagine pictures, but I’d disciplined my artistic sensibilities to be subservient to the client. It took these stories for me to loosen up and find my focus. It’s never been a problem since.
Girl in Closet, by Carol L. Douglas. From my brief period illustrating; prints available, DM me.
But there’s an insidious way in which this question is sometimes asked. What’s implied is that fine art is somehow better than other forms of artistic expression.
Yes, illustration is a fine craft rather than a fine art. Like tapestry, jewelry, carving, etc., illustration has a practical purpose aside from beauty. Paintings have none, unless you’re using them to plug holes in the wall. If you want to know if you’re an artist or craftsman, ask yourself if your finished product has any tangible purpose. If it’s useless, you’ll know you’re an artist.
The problem lies in assuming that either one is more important than the other. Our modern viewpoint comes from the 19th century Cult of Genius, which mistakenly put fine artists in the category of intellectuals instead of tradesmen.
Kitchen Table, by Carol L. Douglas. From my brief period illustrating; prints available, DM me.
This is why plein air painting gets so little respect, by the way. It rejects the idea that fine art is primarily an intellectual activity. Instead of making great statements, plein air painting has a lowly and practical view of the world. It seeks to make pictures that make people happy.
There’s never been any distinction between fine art and illustration in terms of quality. If there ever was a gap, it was bridged long ago, starting with the unknown monks who illuminated books before the printing press was invented.
With the advent of industrialization, individuality and beauty was stripped from the objects we use every day. Brilliant craftsmen-artists like William MorrisCharles Rennie MackintoshMargaret Macdonald, and the Roycroft Movementclosed the gap between art and function once again. And who in this world would argue that N.C. Wyeth  and his peers of the Golden Age of Illustration are not among the world’s greatest artists?

Monday Morning Art School: how to draw an angel

Angels are devilishly difficult to draw, even though we all ‘know’ what they look like.
Choir of angels from the Ghent Altarpiece, early 15th century, by Jan van Eyck, courtesy Sint-Baafskathedraal, Ghent
The Bible is notorious for its lack of description when it comes to celestial beings. The Archangel Michael appears to Daniel and all the prophet can say is that Michael looked like a man. The angelic form also differs depending on context. Mostly, though, angels are spirit beings. You, the artist, have a lot of latitude in drawing them.
Still, we all ‘know’ what angels look like: they are infinitely sweet, sing in choirs, have wings and ringlets and wear white robes.
Wing of a European Roller, watercolor on vellum, 1510-12, Albrecht Dürer, courtesy of the AlbertinaVienna
The gap between the Biblical text and tradition has bedeviled artists through history. For example, who says that angels have to have bird wings? I’m not the first person to note this. Jan van Eyck gave the Archangel Gabriel fabulously iridescent wings in the Ghent Altarpiece, just like a bug. William Blake, that old curmudgeon, gave the angel of Revelation no wings at all.
Albrecht Dürer painted a dead European (blue) roller twice, meticulously observing its plumage and structure. His research paid off: his angels never suffer from static, limp wings.
Dead bluebird, watercolor on vellum, 1510-12, Albrecht /Dürer, courtesy of the Albertina, Vienna
If you try this at home, a turkey or chicken won’t do. The modern grocery store versions have had the flight bred out of them. A bird’s shoulders—or scapula—are actually part of its wings. In the wild, they’re strong and muscular. After all, most birdlife revolves around flight. If angels are to fly, their wings must be part of their structure, not just pinned on as in a Christmas play.
The Expulsion from Paradise, 1510, woodcut, Albrecht Dürer. He’d studied wings enough to know how the different coverts, or sets of feathers, move.
Human shoulders are adapted for operating our arms and hands. Winged angels must have two sets of scapula and the muscles to operate both. That’s hard to imply in a painting, but the best ones have the wings operating in parallel with the shoulders.
For most of art history, angels were depicted wearing the luxurious robes of the high princes of their day. The Renaissance artist often didn’t give a lot of consideration to tailoring wing-sleeves into these gowns. Sometimes they look as if the wings are sprouting from the drapery.  Leonardo da Vinci (as usual) had an ingenious solution in his Annunciation. The archangel Gabriel wears feathers around the base of his wing that echo the poufs of his sleeve. Tres chic!
The Annunciation, 1474, Leonardo da Vinci, courtesy the Uffizi Gallery
Angels were depicted in togas—the garb of ancient, pagan Rome—in the fifth century mosaic cycle of the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. I particularly like the contrast with the hipsters in their modern dress at the bottom.
Angels in togas from the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome.
If you extend that to modern life, you’ll dress your angels in jeans and a t-shirt. These, however, can be unsatisfying to draw. Here is a quick lesson on drapery if you want to be traditional.
Halos were used in the iconography of many ancient people, including the Romans. Halos were adopted by early Christian artists to indicate that here was something worthy of veneration. The new naturalism of the Renaissance pretty much did away with them. If you want to add one to your angel, make sure you get your ellipse right by following the instructions here.
Song of the Angels, 1881, by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, courtesy of the Getty Center.
By the time William-Adolphe Bouguereau painted Song of the Angels in 1881, angels had been sanitized and softened, undergoing a gender transition in the process.
Historically, angels were depicted as male and terrifying. However, the paucity of description in Scripture allowed artists wide latitude. With the Enlightenment, angels became less frightening. This is when they began to transition into females in popular culture. (A classic case of a profession letting women in after its power has diminished.)
Worse, they started showing up as infants, in the form of putti.
Eastern Orthodox icon of a tetramorph cherub, depicting four essences in one being. Is there anything cute about this? 
Putti were originally meant to symbolize the profane passions of the pagan Romans. That’s why Cupid is frequently depicted as a winged boy. In the Baroque period, however, putti came to represent the omnipresence of God. Weirder, they became conflated with the Biblical cherubim. How cherubim—the fierce, serious beings that guarded the Garden of Eden—became fat little boys is one of the enduring mysteries of art.
This post first appeared last Christmas. I solemnly promise that my vacation ends after the new year, and I’ll be back with more art instruction, art history, and art criticism. Happy New Year, one and all!

It’s not the brushes, kiddo

Brushes are ordinary; it’s what you can do with them that is extraordinary.

Home Port, by Carol L. Douglas, 18X24, oil on linen.
At Castine Plein Air, Ken DeWaard did a small boat painting that I thought was darn near perfect. (I don’t have an image of it, but you can see it at Camden Falls Gallery.) One of the things that struck me was the fluid brushwork. My brushes are getting frayed, so none of my flats are still flat, and many of my rounds are splayed. And, frankly, I abuse them, tossing them in my hot car and forgetting to clean them. I’ve had trouble with my last batch of Robert Simmons signets—the ferrules are loose—so I’m interested in experimenting with something else.
I asked Ken what brushes he’s using. “Some Rosemarys, and some cheap synthetics,” he answered. That made sense. In oils, the trade off with synthetic or soft animal hair is that you get better control, but they carry less paint. You can’t be rudely aggressive with them. But if you want lyrical linework or detail, or want to glaze, they’re unbeatable. I’ve been messing with a Princeton Snap! brush this month. Synthetics have come a long way.
What I was working on while painting with Ken DeWaard on Monday. Another day and I think I’ll be well on the way to finishing.
Monday, Ken and I painted together in Rockport. I took the opportunity to look at his brushes. They’re a saturated, half-hardened mess—even worse than mine. If he can paint that beautifully with those cudgels, I need to stop grumbling about my brushes.
Albrecht Dürer was arguably the most facile brush-wrangler who ever lived. Whether it was in watercolor, as in the Young Hare, or in oils, as in his many self-portraits, he could seemingly lay down every single hair on man or beast’s head. He was famous for this skill all over Europe.
He was in communication with the major Italian artists of his time, including RaphaelLeonardo da Vinci, and Giovanni Bellini. His relationship with Bellini was more than merely professional. Dürer visited Venice twice and developed a friendship with the older man. Bellini was the most famous member of a prestigious family of artists and very influential. He was no slouch with the fine brush himself.
Self-Portrait at Twenty-Eight, 1500, Albrecht Dürer, courtesy Alte Pinakothek, Munich
By Dürer’s second visit, Bellini was at the end of his long life. He extended many professional courtesies to Dürer, not the least of which was introducing the younger man to his own noble Venetian clients.
One day, after carefully examining the head of one of Dürer’s saints, Bellini asked to use the brush that had creating such lifelike hair. Dürer handed the old man the brush in question. Bellini tried it and failed to produce anything fine. Dürer took the brush back, still loaded with Bellini’s paint, and painted a lock of hair so marvelous that the older man said he wouldn’t have believed it had he not seen it with his own eyes.
Doge Leonardo Loredan, after 1501, Giovanni Bellini, National Gallery, London
This story is apocryphal, but makes a true point. Dürer’s brush was ordinary; his abilities were extraordinary. Brushes influence our mark-making, but they don’t control it. Strength, age, experience, personality and patience all play roles in how we lay down paint.
Dürer, by the way, was inordinately proud of his own hair, painting his ringlets in several wonderful self-portraits. I have the same ringlets as that cocky young man had five hundred years ago, and I’m almost as vain about them as he was. But I’ve never painted a self-portrait. Perhaps this winter I should rectify that.

Monday Morning Art School: Aging the model

Aging is highly individual but it follows certain predictable paths. Here are some hints to drawing plausible older people.
The Ancient of Days, William Blake, 1794. Relief etching with watercolor. The figure is a curious pastiche of an older face and a young body. Courtesy British Museum

Last week, I shared a drawing of my model in which I managed to make her look fifteen years old.

No two people age the same way. That’s especially true in our modern world, where aging gracefully is a sign of affluence. Many of us have had discreet work ‘done’—including me—and we live less-taxing lives than our ancestors. We keep our hair and brows more stylishly than our forebearers. Most of us retain our teeth; in the US, we keep them whitened. On the other hand, more of us are plagued by obesity, which ages our faces.
Our experiences leave their mark. The weather-beaten lobsterman and an office-worker will age quite differently. The northeastern US is kind to skin, because it’s humid and cool, whereas the sun of the southwest is harsh.
Portrait of the Artist’s Mother at the Age of 63. Albrecht Dürer, courtesy Kupferstichkabinett. In one sense, this is an example of how dramatically aging has changed, but if you get past the toothlessness, the changes happen the same way today. Note the cording of her neck and the receding temple.
The human face can be ennobled by ascetism or coarsened by consumption, depending on how we’ve lived. Smokers develop a system of wrinkles because nicotine causes narrowing of the blood vessels in the epidermis.  And then there’s the thing none of us can do anything about: our genes.
Our culture venerates the 25-year-old face, but our faces settle into maturity once we pass thirty. By our fifties, those changes are accelerating rapidly, as our face assumes its elderly shape.
There are more telling signs of aging in the face than wrinkles. The eye socket becomes deeper, leading to pouching under the eyes. Closely related to this, the temples deepen and cheekbones become more evident. As if to compensate for this increased definition above the cheekbones, the lower parts of our faces sag. The flesh of our cheeks droops. Creases form along our noses and mouths.
A very unflattering selfie taken this morning showing the recession at the temples and delineation of the cheekbones. When I was younger, my face was nearly a perfect oval, but I’ve managed to get it all stretched out by now. (The bags under my eyes are just tiredness.)

Our noses and earlobes grow all our lives. The tip of the nose may turn downward in a person lucky enough to achieve extreme old age. The soft tissue below our jaw starts to sag. The cords of ours neck become more visible after age 60.

At around age 40, a series of furrows appear on our faces. They can be vertical between the brows and along the mouth, but are often horizontal. Most of us don’t get every possible wrinkle, but merely the ones to which we’re predisposed. Wrinkles are not lines or cracks, but folds of skin. Lines are a poor way of representing them.
Head of an Old Man, 1521, Albrecht Dürer, courtesy of the Albertina. Wrinkles are folds, not crevasses. 
Our skin becomes less luminous in middle age, but often in extreme old age it regains the translucence of childhood.
One of the most telling signs of age is the thickness of our hair. In both genders, hairlines recede and our hair thins. Again, this is an area of aging where much work is done to conceal changes but it would be odd to see a glorious mane of hair on an elderly person.

A Good Friday reflection

It turned out to be much more work than I imagined, but it has proven to be an enduring tradition.

Carrying the Cross, pastel, by Carol L. Douglas
Twenty years ago, a member of my church approached me with an apparently-simple request: could I write and illustrate a Stations of the Cross for our Sunday school students? While we used a liturgy similar to Catholics, our belief system was very much Protestant.
Catholic Stations take the form of artwork hanging in or near the nave. They are generally in the form of bas-relief. My mother’s family is Catholic (although we were not) so I’d had plenty of time to contemplate the Stations growing up.
Gambling, pastel, by Carol L. Douglas
The Stations grew from the tradition of pilgrims walking the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem. This dates from the time of Byzantium. During the late Middle Ages, Franciscans built a series of outdoor shrines across Europe so that common people could also experience this meditation. By the 17th century, stations were being built within churches. They were a popular printed devotional; Albrecht Dürer’s Great Passion and Little Passion are the Stations in book form.
Eventually, Catholic Stations evolved into the fourteen scenes that are used by Catholics today. They include scenes that aren’t Biblical; rather, they are an imagining of that bitter, difficult walk to Calvary. In my naivete, I figured I’d just ‘correct’ them to make them more Biblically accurate. That was about as feasible as making a few quick adjustments to the Book of Kells for the modern reader.
The Crucifixion, pastel, by Carol L. Douglas
No, a rewrite was in order. With the Gospels in one hand and a children’s book about the Holy Land in the other, I set out to make a new set of Stations.
And then disaster struck. I was diagnosed with a big, fat, robust bowel cancer. I spent the following year being radiated, poisoned and cut apart. Concentration was difficult. I sketched out the bones of the project, wrote the text and assembled my sketches into a first iteration. That was all I could do.
Piercing his side, pastel, by Carol L. Douglas
In all, it took two years for me to finish the Stations. The church hung the pictures in the nave during Holy Week. I moved along to an evangelical church, and ultimately to Maine.
It gives me great joy that, this many years later, they still hang the paintings every year. Each year I get tagged in a photo from one old friend or another, with a note saying, “your stations are up.” There are children in those illustrations who have now graduated from college. Many of my older models have died, but others continue to worship in that same church. I still get a kick out of looking at the pictures and remembering them.
Stations hanging in the nave of St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Rochester.
If you’re in Rochester, you can see the Stations today, at St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, 2000 Highland Avenue. If you want to read them this Good Friday, the opening pages are here. Just hit the “newer post” button at the bottom of the page to continue. And have a blessed Easter weekend!

Who is your true muse?

Mine, I’m afraid, is a 19th century religious crackpot.
The Night of Enitharmon’s Joy, 1795. William Blake’s vision of the Greek goddess Hecate, courtesy of the Tate.

It would be very easy for me to create a list of artists I adore. They’d range from Albrecht Dürer to the contemporary landscape painter James Morrison. If there’s a common thread, it’s beautiful drafting, keen observation, and a high level of skill.

It’s harder to face up to the truth of how I actually think. The closest I come, I’m afraid, is to that untidy English mystic, William Blake. That’s probably why I find his work so unsettling.
From The Song of Los, 1795, William Blake, courtesy Library of Congress
It’s not just the religious thing, although Blake was an ardent Christian of a Swedenborgianflavor. It wasn’t just his animosity to organized religion. It’s not his passionate interest in language paired with painting. Off my leash and into my own heart’s material, I end up painting souls who look like Blake’s.
Blake grew up in the Age of Liberty, and the writings of men like Thomas Paine informed his sense of state, religion, faith and man. But mostly, he was just ahead of his time. At the time when Jane Austen was writing Sense and Sensibility, he was raging like a Beat Poet:
If he had been Antichrist Creeping Jesus,
He’d have done anything to please us:
Gone sneaking into Synagogues
And not us’d the Elders & Priests like Dogs,
But humble as a Lamb or Ass,
Obey’d himself to Caiaphas…

The Whirlwind of Lovers, c. 1827, from Blake’s illustrations for the Divine Comedy, courtesy of the Tate.
Blake was a visionary in the strict sense of the word: he literally experienced visions. They were usually associated with religious themes, and they sparked his creative work.
Blake believed he was personally instructed and encouraged by archangels, who then read the work he created. For him the barrier between heaven and earth was membrane-thin. I envy that.
Albion from A Large Book of Designs, 1793-96, William Blake, courtesy of the British Museum
What do his vast mythological creations mean? Are UrizenTharmasOrc and Los a new religious mythology or some kind of brilliant Biblical fanfic along the lines of C. S. Lewis or J.R.R. Tolkien?
I have a copy of William Blake: Watercolors to the Divine Comedy. Forget David Bindman’s commentary; Blake’s observations are what’s important. He strains against Dante’s theology in furious little margin notes.  (The Divine Comedy is, of course, also religious fanfic.)
The commission for this work came to Blake in 1826 through the once-famous English painter John Linnell. Their goal was to produce a new edition of the Divine Comedy with engravings based on Blake’s watercolors. The project ended with Blake’s death in 1827, but even incomplete, they’re a fascinating work by a stirring mind.
The Simoniac Pope c. 1824–7, from William Blake’s illustrations for the Divine Comedy, courtesy of the Tate.
Tragically, his more contentious manuscripts were burned after his wife’s death by Frederick Tatham, who opposed anything that smelled of blasphemy. Would Blake have cared? I doubt it. 
He went to his death with a joy most of us can only dream about. That day, he worked assiduously on his Dante drawings. Then he turned to his wife and said, “Stay, Kate! Keep just as you are – I will draw your portrait – for you have ever been an angel to me.” On finishing, he laid down his pencil and began to sing hymns and verses until he died.
“I have been at the death, not of a man, but of a blessed angel,” said one witness.