Ruthless pruning

If I had more time, I would have written a shorter essay.

Coast Guard Inspection, 6X8, oil on canvasboard.

The above witticism has been attributed to many people because it’s a universal truth. President Woodrow Wilson put it thus: “If it is a ten-minute speech it takes me all of two weeks to prepare it; if it is a half-hour speech it takes me a week; if I can talk as long as I want to it requires no preparation at all. I am ready now.”

On Wednesday, I wrote and designed an ad with exactly 24 words of new copy; it took five hours. Then I made a short promotional video. I spent 12 hours to make two minutes of finished video.

This won’t surprise anyone in the creative fields. Editing is an important skill in any creative endeavor.

Blueberry Barrens, Clary Hill, 24X36, oil on canvas.

When I started blogging experts recommended that a blog post be kept to a thousand words. Today, I try to keep it around 500-600 words. There are many things that interest me, but if they don’t support the main trunk of the narrative, they’re ruthlessly scrubbed out.

This has changed my writing style, just as ruthless editing has changed my painting style. There are things I used to be able to do with pen or brush that I can no longer do. Losing some skills is the price we pay for pursuing mastery of others.

I’d like to blame simplification on our sleek modern sensibilities, but the quote at the head of this page dates from at least 1657. It was written (more wordily) by the French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal. For centuries, writers have aimed for spare simplicity.

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

There are, of course, actions and reactions in public taste. Following hard on the heels of Pascal’s geometry came the French Rococo, with painters like Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Antoine Watteau and François Boucher creating absurdly exuberant paintings. But rococo had a limited run; within a few decades, tastes swung back to the neoclassical.

There’s a limit, apparently, to the frenzy the human mind can tolerate. At the same time, there are paintings that seem empty to us. Dutch Golden Age church interiors come to mind, as do most of the experiments of 20th century op art. There isn’t enough there to hold our interest. Editing is a delicate balance.

I’ve written before on the question of simplification in painting, most recently here. It’s not a question of taking things out for the sake of simplicity, but of ruthlessly paring away what doesn’t matter. That makes room for what’s important. That’s not necessarily content; it could be rhythm, texture, color or line.

The Late Bus, 8X6, oil on archival canvasboard.

“When in doubt, take it out” is another pithy aphorism that can also apply to painting. I’ve spent vast amounts of time trying to squeeze an idea into a painting or essay only to realize it was superfluous from the get-go.

In painting, the best time to do these edits is before you pick up a brush. Paper and charcoal (or pencil) are cheap and forgiving. Andrew Wyeth was a careful planner; his preparatory sketches are worth studying. Just as an outline is invaluable for the writer, a sketch is invaluable to the painter.

Paintings almost never benefit from last-minute additions or changes to the composition. These decisions need to be taken early on. Jan van Eyck may have moved feet and hands and added the little dog to the Arnolfini portrait, but he did so in the underpainting. The essential composition was worked out long before he got to the end.

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: painting evergreens

Your assignment this week is to paint an evergreen, using one of the great masters as your muse.
Herdsmaid, 1908, Anders Zorn. You could identify the species of trees in this painting, but it’s short on detail.

Last week, I wrotethat there are as many ways to paint water as there are moments in the day. The same is true of painting evergreens.

We can look to the painters of the great northern landscapes for guidance on evergreens. Swedes Bruno Liljefors and Anders Zorn, Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven, the Russian Peredvizhniki, and the northeastern painters from Winslow Homer to Andrew Wyeth are all worth studying.
Winter landscape at dawn, 1900, Bruno Liljefors. If the evergreens are in a supporting role, they’re often painted as a single mass.
Spend an hour searching their work on the internet along with the key words “spruce,” “pine”, or “evergreen.” You’ll notice that most of these artists handled the subject differently depending on whether they were in the studio or painting en plein air, or if the trees were the main subject or incidental.
After the bath, 1895, Anders Zorn, courtesy Nationalmuseum. The evergreens are nothing more than a few brushstrokes, but they’re perfectly realized.
Anders Zorn often used evergreens behind his pulchritudinous nudes. The contrast between his perfectly-observed trees and cookie-cutter models is striking. The Herdsmaid (1908) is probably the best evergreen painting ever executed. It’s all about the young trees, but Zorn never overstates the detail. Instead, he allows his brush to wash softly over the darker background, suggesting the softness of pine needles.
That apparent artlessness rests on a solid ground of observation. Zorn (and Wyeth) were able to be specific but loose because they drew and observed endlessly from nature. Each species of tree has a specific design. There are no shortcuts to knowing and understanding them. If you want to be able to paint trees, you must first draw them—a lot. Observe their branching structure, their needles or leaves, their bark, and where they like to grow.
Spruce Gun, watercolor, 1973, Andrew Wyeth, private collection
But trees are also forgiving; when you understand their structure, you can fearlessly mess with their form. While Wyeth’s tree in Spruce Gun looks perfectly natural to us, it’s also stylized to give a dynamic boost to the gun.
North Woods Club, Adirondacks (The Interrupted Tete-a-Tete), watercolor, 1892, Winslow Homer, courtesy Art Institute of Chicago. The trees are simple silhouettes, but they work because they’re accurate.
Either watercolor or oil are perfect for the organic character of trees; they can be schooled into great detail or allowed to wash with great softness across the canvas or paper.
It’s easy to become overwhelmed with detail in a tree, but it’s best, instead, to concentrate on overall values and colors instead. Start with the large shapes and concentrate on a few details at the end. After all, when we notice trees at all, we generally perceive them as masses, rather than as individual details. The exception is when someone is interacting with the tree, as in Mary Cassatt’s Child Picking a Fruit.
Isles of Spruce, silkscreen, c. 1943, Arthur Lismer. While the contrast between background and foreground is high, the values within individual trees are quite close.
How do we create form in trees? The same way we do with any other subject, by creating a pattern of light and dark. Our first question ought always be, “where is the light coming from?” The second question should be, “Is the light cool or warm?”
Start with a drawing. This is where you can get carried away with the gothic intricacies of the structure, and get them out of your system. Make sure that the height and width relationship is accurate. Also double-check that you have branches on all sides of the trunk, not just to the sides. Some will come directly towards you. While these are difficult to draw, they’re what anchor the tree in space.
Dusk, 1900, Isaac Levitan, courtesy State Tretyakov Gallery. Depending on the light, evergreens may be represented with no green at all.
I’ve written before about working with a green matrix; you can use it as successfully with evergreens as with deciduous trees. Let’s assume you’re drawing in early morning and the light is golden. Make the shadows cooler and darker and the highlights warm and light. It’s possible that the only true greens in your tree will be in the midtones or highlights. But avoid excessive value jumps; making the highlights too light can end in visual chaos. It’s usually what’s happened when someone complains that they’ve gotten lost in the detail.
Montreal River, c. 1920, Lawren S. Harris, courtesy McMichael Canadian Art Collection. The Group of Seven painters were interested in trees as screens.
Unless you’re painting a deciduous tree in the dead of winter, the branches and trunk are secondary to the masses of foliage. 
Your assignment this week is to paint an evergreen, either from life or a photograph. Before you start, find a masterpiece from one of the artists I’ve mentioned above, and study his paint application carefully. Try to emulate that in your painting.

Beautiful glimpses of the past

Today dories are an historical relic. When the Wyeths painted them, they were part of the saga of man and the sea.
Deep Cove Lobster Man, c 1938, N.C. Wyeth, oil, courtesy of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts
Sometimes great emails get directed to my spam folder, particularly when they contain a dollar sign in the text. Thus it was when I saw Bruce McMillan’s note about seeing N. C. Wyeth: New Perspectives, which started at Brandywine River Museum and then moved to the Portland Museum of Art. It’s on its way to the Taft Museum of Art, opening on February 8.
What Bruce said that tripped my server was that the catalogue, $45 from the museum gift store, was available for $24.50 from Amazon, including shipping. Even with his member discount, he saved $17, or 42%. I immediately ordered the same book and paid $28.49, because books aren’t always the same price on Amazon.
Untitled, 1938, watercolor, Andrew Wyeth, sold at auction in 2017
That price difference is particularly noticeable in museum catalogues and fancy art books. I recently ordered an art text for my brother-in-law that was listed at over $200; he paid $24 for it. Because of this, I’ve learned to check my phone as I exit a show. Feel free to support an institution by paying a higher price in the gift shop, just be aware that you’re doing so.
The Lobsterman (The Doryman), 1944, N.C. Wyeth, egg tempera, courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art

Bruce noted that the painting above, The Lobsterman (The Doryman), is “where people stopped and gazed longer than almost any other painting. There’s so much to see in its simplicity; it keeps people looking.”

This is one of five Maine dories I’m looking at today. All are by the first two Wyeths, père et fils, and all of the boats are occupied by people. The last image, Adrift, is almost funerary, and that points to the particular storytelling genius of the Wyeth clan. Was Andrew painting about the model or the working boat?
Adrift, 1982, Andrew Wyeth, egg tempera, private collection
“This is Walter Anderson, Andrew’s devilish friend since childhood, who his parents didn’t like Andrew associating with, who Ed Deci, former curator of the Monhegan Museum, considered a despicable crook, and who I knew when living on McGee Island, off Port Clyde for two years,” Bruce wrote.
Andrew Wyeth was a young boy when he and his family first began summering in Maine. Andrew became friends with Walter and Douglas Anderson, son of a local hotel cook. Walt and Andrew became inseparable, and spent their days in a dory, exploring the coast and islands where locals fished. The two men remained friends for life. While Walt was clamming or otherwise ramshackling around, Andrew was painting.
Dark Harbor Fishermen, 1943, N.C. Wyeth, egg tempera, courtesy Portland Museum of Art
That’s the biggest difference between contemporary dory paintings and the Wyeths’ of nearly a century ago. They knew the boats and the men and boys who used them, intimately.
Before there were decent roads, working dories were the best way to move around coastal Maine. They were easily hauled up onto the beach. They could carry a few hundred pounds of fish or freight. From early settlement until mid-century, they were used as working boats, casually rowed (often standing) by working fishermen.
The Drowning, 1936, N.C. Wyeth, oil, courtesy Brandywine River Museum. This painting is in response to the drowning death of sixteen-year-old Douglas Anderson, who disappeared while lobstering. His body was found by his father and his younger brother, Walt.
Today they’re an historical relic, whereas to the Wyeths, they were part of the story of man and the sea. Dories today are divorced from their close association with working people. We paint them at their moorings, shimmering in the light, with no sense of the thin skin they once provided between the working fisherman and the cold, cold North Atlantic.

Monday Morning Art School: paint like a fauve

When the light is bad, give yourself a jolt of color.
Hardwood, by Carol L. Douglas, 6X8, oil on canvasboard 
Driving from Boston to Philadelphia, the sky was full of light, fleecy cirrus clouds. Bobbi Heathand I watched them happily. We were due to start painting at Plein Air Brandywine Valleyat 3:30 in the afternoon. While I love the wooded, rolling hills of Brandywine country, it’s not my natural subject. But I know that a good sky drives everything, and we seemed set to have a great sky.
Unfortunately, by the time we arrived, the clouds had solidified into a solid, grumbling, low mass of grey. The site we were painting on—a sloping, treed lot—wasn’t helped by the lack of sunlight. My go-to answer in impossible situations is to think of how other, greater artists have handled the same situation. (That’s another good reason to know art history.)
It’s hard to get excited about this light.
I could have channeled Andrew Wyeth and romanced a figure into that bleakness, but that would have taken it outside the realm of observational plein air. Plus, we were limited to a 6×8 canvas. And I have no interest in luminismor tonalism, although they may be the right answer for you.
I saw Colin Page briefly at his opening last week. That sparked the question, “What Would Colin Do?” The answer—as well as I can understand another painter—would be to amp the color relationships up, systematically and logically. Of course, Colin does this fluidly and gracefully, because this is the visual space in which he lives.
Salt Marsh, by Carol L. Douglas
Last week, I posted on color harmonies. Two of my students did color harmony paintings last week, both very successfully. I might as well put my own instruction to the test, I thought. I chose a split-complement scheme of gold against green-violet-blue. In truth, the scheme flipped a bit as I went, becoming less systematic, but that was fine too.
Soft Wood, by Carol L. Douglas, oil on canvasboard. This was a rain soaked day.
This kind of painting is the reverse of adding color to a subject under dull light. Soft Wood, above, was painted in a rollicking rainstorm from a farm porch. It’s a more typical way of adding color to a dull scene, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with it. In fact, it relies on the same understanding of color harmonies.
Autumn trees in Durand Park, Carol L. Douglas, oil on canvasboard. A similar color sketch from long, long ago.
When I finished yesterday’s painting, I said it looked like a bad Van Gogh. It’s probably more Fauvist. Post-Impressionistfor sure, and that’s not a bad color space for a plein air painter to wallow for a while. Once I’ve started down this rabbit hole, I’m staying here for the nonce. It’s dawning pink and blue here in Delaware, so who knows where the light will go?
Why do I go down these paths, when I already have a style that sells? Why does any artist do that? We’re always striving to get better. Artists are driven to paint because they’re essentially thinkers. When we stop thinking, we stop really painting.

Two contemporary artists to study

When I’m traveling, people often suggest that I look at the work of an artist I don’t know. Here are two I met this summer.
The Dinner Hour, 2006, egg tempera, Tom Forrestall, courtesy Mira Godard Gallery, Toronto 

Tom Forrestallis a magical realist, a term coined in the 1920s by art critic Franz Roh. He meant visual art that explores the inner mystery of our apparently mundane lives. That was in contrast to surrealism, which imposes magic on everyday life.

“[Magic realism] employs various techniques that endow all things with a deeper meaning and reveal mysteries that always threaten the secure tranquility of simple and ingenuous things…. it is a question of representing before our eyes, in an intuitive way, the fact, the interior figure, of the exterior world,” wrote Roh.
In my opinion, Andrew Wyeth is a magical realist, because his narratives transcend mere realism. Forrestall is often called the “Canadian Wyeth” because of his similarity to Wyeth, both in content and because of his meticulous application of egg tempera.
Moon, egg tempera, c. 1971, Tom Forrestall, courtesy Atlantic Fine Art
Forrestall rejects the notion that paintings should always be rectangular, and makes them in fanciful shapes. The Dinner Hour, at top, is an homage to his late wife, Natalie. Forrestall wrote on the back: “Natalie’s little cross over her kitchen door she hung there many years ago — true to her Acadian roots, it shall hang there while I’m still around.” He and Natalie married in 1958, and she ran his art business and household. “She managed things extremely well and it never rattled her with all these six kids,” Forrestall said.
Forrestall came from Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley. He attended Saturday morning art classes at the Nova Scotia College of Art in Halifax. He was awarded a scholarship to the Fine Arts department at Mount Allison University, where he studied with Canadian greats Lawren Harris and Alex Colville. He received one of the first Canada Council grants for independent study, which allowed him to travel throughout Europe. He has been a freelance artist since 1960. He was introduced to me by Nova Scotian artists Michael Fullerand Krista Wells.
Water Filled Quarry, oil on linen, Joellyn Duesberry, courtesy Joellyn Duesberry 
Last weekend at Rye Painters on Location, an auction-goer told me that my work reminded her of the late Joellyn Toler Duesberry. Duesberry once said of her art, “I am not interested in a realist painting, I am not interested in an abstract painting. I am interested in the tension.” That’s a sentiment that rings true to me, although I don’t really see too much similarity in our work.
Duesberry was raised in rural Virginia, and had a deep connection to landscape. “All my life I think I’ve unconsciously tried to re-create the place where bliss or terror first came to me,” she said. “Both emotions seemed so strong that I had to locate them outside of myself, in the land.”
She received a BA with Distinction in art history and painting from Smith College and was awarded a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship. She then earned her master’s degree at New York University Institute of Fine Arts.
Rainy Morning in Maine II, 2009, monotype, Joellyn Duesberry, courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art
She moved to Denver in 1985, saying that the clearer air revealed more of the sharp bones of the landscape. But she also spent 40 years painting on the Maine coast. She cited John Marin and Milton Avery as the greatest influences in her art.
In 1986 she was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts grant. This enabled her to work with Richard Diebenkorn. He encouraged her to try monotype printing, and she began actively producing and exhibiting her monotypes along with her plein-air paintings.

Getting out of a slump

…and the chance to benefit Children’s Beach House with your holiday shopping.

Wreck of the SS Ethie, by Carol L. Douglas

“That looks like so much fun.” It can be genuine, or it can have the hard edge that implies, “unlike my job as a claims adjuster.” Either way, it’s usually, but not always, true. There are days when we approach our easels with exhaustion, trepidation, or stiff hands.

I owe my friend Peter Yesis a great debt in reminding me to do warm-ups when this happens. I have cases of 6X8 warm ups in the corner of my studio. At one time, I painted a tree every day; at another time it was a still life. But this commitment went by the wayside as I got busier and busier, and now I usually blog in the hour I once did these exercises.
Termination Dust, by Carol L. Douglas. The only realism in this painting was the chill in my studio when I started it.
Warm ups are like scales. They’re a requisite to being in good voice when we go out and perform.
Last week I was stuck in a particularly finicky commission painting. I feared all my painterliness was being sucked down the great hole of representation. I pulled out a canvas and did a fantasy landscape. This is a favorite exercise of mine, a landscape only loosely based on reality. One starts with an abstraction and builds a realistic painting upon it.
Glade, by Carol L. Douglas. I was interested in the terrible symmetry of a circle.
The painting at top, of the shipwreck of SS Ethie off the coast of Newfoundland, is an example of such a painting. I recorded the steps of its development here.
Shoreline, by Carol L. Douglas, is based on nothing more than a black shape.
Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World—the painting that put realism back on the map—is just an abstraction that uses three realistic objects to drive us relentlessly through its spare, rigid, Color Fieldconstruction.
Wyeth aside, painting from a wisp or suggestion is a great way to blow the cobwebs out of your brushes. I find myself anxious to put the computer aside and start painting every morning. The fun is back in my brushes.
Want to support a great program?
Home Farm, by Carol L. Douglas, is featured in the 2019 Children’s Beach House calendar.
Last fall I did the 2018 Plein Air Brandywine Valley competition, which benefits Childrens Beach House. I liked the CBH staff so much I’ve been trying to get my son-in-law to move to Delaware and work with them ever since.
My painting Home Farmwon an Honorable Mention. It was done at Winterthur and I hope it captures a sense of the old farms that were assembled to make this great American estate. 
Home Farm is also showcased within the pages of the 2019 Plein Air Brandywine Valley Calendar. 
For each $100 donation to Children’s Beach House, you will receive this incredible one-of-a-kind limited production calendar created by sponsor Dennis M. Wallace of Comprehensive Wealth Management Group. It includes all of the 2018 Plein Air Brandywine Valley painting and photography award winners. You can order directly on-line at www.cbhinc.org. 
100% of your donation goes to support the programs at Children’s Beach House. They provide programs for children with communicative disabilities (speech, hearing, language and other special needs) who are further challenged by living in poverty.  This calendar makes a great holiday gift for family, friends and colleagues.

The self-righteous art critic, he’s everywhere

Did Wyeth appropriate Christina Olson’s suffering for money? Only a really young person would ask such a question.

Christina’s World, 1948, Andrew Wyeth, courtesy Museum of Modern Art.

On his centenary year, I suppose I should join the throng and comment on Andrew Wyeth. There is little new to say. An indubitably great painter, he had the courage to embrace realism at a time when it was devalued. His body of work speaks for itself.

Then I read essays like this and think some rebuttal is necessary. Zachary Small is too young and too self-righteous by half. He understands neither the artist’s relationship to the model nor mid-century American culture.
Christina’s Worldis an abstract painting masquerading as a narrative. It could have as easily been titled Three Objects on a Yellow Field.At 31, the artist was not yet famous, but he was subject to great expectations. He had been tutored at home by his world-famous father, NC Wyeth. They rubbed elbows with other luminaries of their day.
His training and instincts pointed him to realism. Nevertheless, the art world was in open rebellion against representational painting.
Trodden Weed, 1951, Andrew Wyeth, courtesy here. Three years later, it addressed the same formal questions as Christina’s World, but is a much more self-revelatory painting.
Most of us would have melted in that kind of crucible. Wyeth, instead, created this enigmatic masterpiece. This is, of course, magical realism, not realism, a direct riff on his dad’s storytelling. Not only did he beautify Christina Olson, he radically redrew the Olson House.
In modern parlance, Zachary Small objects to Wyeth’s ‘appropriation’ of Christina’s story of courage and disability. On Wyeth’s behalf, I claim a sort of fair-use exemption. That’s what artists have always done—taken particular pathos and raised it to be a universal statement.
In 1948, the United States was on the front edge of the biggest outbreak of poliomyelitis in its history. In 1952 alone, nearly 60,000 kids were infected with the virus. Thousands were paralyzed; more than 3000 died. Wealth was no insulator. There was no vaccine and no cure. Kids went into iron lungs and parents prayed.
Historians now believe that Christine Olson didn’t have polio, but rather Charcot–Marie–Tooth disease. That’s irrelevant. It wasn’t Wyeth’s understanding, and it wasn’t the American understanding in 1948. Wyeth was painting the polio epidemic.
I like to take students to the Farnsworth Museum to see whatever Wyeth sketches and drawings they have on display. They spell out Andrew Wyeth’s meticulous method. I find him, posthumously, to be a great teacher of painting.
Lovers, 1981, Andrew Wyeth, courtesy here.
But as to his finished paintings, I’m always deeply conflicted. They’re technically perfect, but hidden, reserved, and cool. As with Edward Hopper, Andrew Wyeth painted our isolation. Surrounded by hype, activity and people, twenty-first century man still lives a solitary existence.
Hopper told this story through buildings. Wyeth told it through faces and the human form. His paintings throw up masks I can’t get past. I find that most moving, and terrifying at the same time.

What is the nature of compassion?

Triste Herencia (Sad Inheritance) by Joaquin Sorolla (1899)

In counterpoint to Joaquin Sorolla’smany light and luminous canvases of naked children playing on the beach, Triste Herencia (Sad Inheritance) is a dark painting of children in a dark sea. Examined carefully, the painting is a detailed catalogue of woes—blindness, club foot, leprosy, and above all, polio, which was just starting its reign of terror at the time this was painted.*
Sorolla’s Chicos en la Playa (1910) is more typical of his beach children.
 The monk at the center of it has been on my mind this week. In contrast to my mental image of a compassionate shepherd, this fellow, of the Orden Hospitalaria de San Juan de Dios, appears rather grim—almost intimidating, in fact. He has the stern face and bearing of a saint painted by Zurbarán, or the confessor or inquisitor of our imagination.  Yet he is with great delicacy doing a job few of us would volunteer for.
Dwarves have a long history as palace accessories to the European nobility, so it’s no surprise that they’ve been painted by many masters. Perhaps the most famous of these paintings is Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas, which includes both an achondroplasticdwarf (Maria Barbola) imported from Germany and an Italian proportionate dwarf(Nicolas Pertusato), kicking the dog.
The Jester Calabacillas, Bobo de Coria or Juan de Calabazas (1637-1639) by Diego Velázquez
Velázquez painted an entire lexicon of dwarfism, and his portraits are notable both for the respect he shows his subjects and for the honesty with which he portrays their condition. His portrait of Don Juan Calabazas is a highly sympathetic portrait of mental retardation. Calabazas was nicknamed “Calabacillas” or “Pumpkinhead,” a nickname we would find utterly objectionable today. Velázquez does not shrink from Don Juan’s disabilities, carefully documenting his subject’s symptoms, including his vacant smile, the frantic gesturing of his hands, his crouching posture. But in spite of that, Velázquez painted him with as much respect and affection as he ever did Philip IV or his family.
Compare this to the most well-known American painting of disability, Christina’s World, by Andrew Wyeth(1948). One would never crawl across a Maine hayfield naked, so Anna Christine Olson’s disability is masked to some degree by her clothing. But beyond that, the painting tells us nothing about her. It is a carefully constructed, beautiful composition focusing on the surface of the field and the elegant shapes of the buildings. (Both the buildings and the figure are substantially altered from their reality.) 
Christina’s withered limbs are an addendum to a completely separate idea. They draw us into what otherwise would be “Triangular Composition: Girl in Pink Dress on a Grass Field.” Seen in its most cynical light, they’re there to sell the painting.
Christina’s World, by Andrew Wyeth (1948) is a very American view of disability.
That’s not an indictment, of course; Wyeth is just treating disability the way the rest of America does. As the parent of four children, I know that schools offer the disability label as a ticket to purchase compassion from an otherwise inflexible system, and the pressure to buy into this system is overwhelming.  All of this is a diminution to the truly disabled, many of whose withered limbs are hidden from us.
This being the season of the Compassionate Shepherd, I am reminded of his encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well, told in John 4:4-26.
The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.”
He told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.”
 “I have no husband,” she replied.
Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband. The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.”
To our modern ears, that’s a pretty harsh exchange, but it was absolutely necessary that she acknowledge her reality before she could begin any process of renewal.
We moderns cannot be honest about the human condition because we are relativists; the only truth we understand as absolute is “don’t be judgmental.” But resolution requires honest assessment. Perhaps it is no surprise after all that Sorolla’s monk starts with the naked, brutal truth to help his poor charges. Perhaps it is no surprise that he is grim.


*I was shocked to read that polio epidemics were a 20th century scourge, although the disease itself has been known since antiquity. Before the 20th century, poor sanitation resulted in a constant exposure to the polio virus, which provided natural immunity from infancy. As sanitation improved in Europe, childhood exposure declined. The first localized epidemics occurred in Europe and the United States around 1900, the time Sorolla painted Triste Herencia.

How not to pack for outdoor painting

Two men look out through the same bars:
One sees the mud, and one the stars. 

                             (Rev. Frederick Langbridge)

Chambered Nautilus, 1956, Tempera on panel,
Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art

I spent the week in Maine, reconnoitering for my summer workshops, and generally considering how I can best shed the nautilus shell of my current life. After all, if you look at that shell, more and more compartments are… not empty, but collecting dust.

Having just visited the Farnsworth again, I’m reminded of Andrew Wyeth’s painting, “Chambered Nautilus.” (The Farnsworth has many lovely studies by Wyeth that demonstrate just how meticulously he prepared each of his paintings. Any serious painter would benefit from studying these drawings, and I strongly urge you to visit the Farnsworth and spend time with them—in particular the studies for Maidenhair.)
 “Chambered Nautilus” shows Wyeth’s mother-in-law gazing out her bedroom windows during her final illness. Initially, Wyeth considered using a conch shell. “It is believed that someone just brought the nautilus shell and he preferred it, but I like to think that it was symbolic,” Erin Monroe of the Wadsworth Atheneum toldthe Hartford Courant. “He often designated objects as stand-ins for people, and a nautilus has all these chambers. His mother-in-law was confined to a chamber and couldn’t leave.”
Wyeth himself had this to sayabout the painting: “I did the picture right there in the room…and she would talk to me about her childhood in Connecticut.  She was a great woman, one of those people who never grow old.”
But of course we all eventually do grow old, and the reality is that eventually most of us end up with our worldly goods pared down to a nursing home bed and a recliner. Still, before that happens, “…I have promises to keep/And miles to go before I sleep.” 
Most of us do a pretty good job of blooming where we’re planted, and my family has been no exception. We came to Rochester for work, and we’ve had a good run here. But I have always used it as a launching pad. In the earliest days, I traveled back to the Buffalo area to see my design clients, and after my kids were old enough, I started traveling to NYC to take classes, traveling around the East Coast to show paintings and traveling elsewhere to paint and teach.
We thought it might be a lot of fun for students, but it just trades one
 nautilus shell for another.
 By all rational standards, 2013 is a mad time to think of picking up sticks. We’re still in the throes of economic malaise, I’m definitely getting older, and we still have a kid in school. But there is an insistent refrain in my head: “It’s now or never.”
And so I debate options: move to an art town and open a gallery? Buy a small house in Deer Isle and turn out work that I in turn sell to other galleries? Do I even need a permanent home? With that last idea in mind I stopped in Amsterdam, NY and looked at trailers and motor homes. I was intrigued, but when I got back to Rochester I realized that I do like my own bed.
Where does this all end? I don’t know. As my pal Loren said last week, “The options are infinite.”
“True,” I answered, “but the parking is limited.” Which is not exactly true, but our time here on earth certainly is. And I want to spend as little of the rest of it as possible dusting the inside of my chambered nautilus shell.