A difference of intention

There’s a difference between painting fast and phoning it in.

Main Street, Owls Head, 16X20, oil on gessoboard, $1,623 unframed

The hiker makes constant adjustments to his course, although he does most of them automatically. When sailing, the helmsman trims frequently to follow changes in the wind. On a zip line, a person makes one decision (to jump) and then hangs on for dear life. As our speed increases, our control decreases.

That’s as true for painting as anything else in modern life. It’s one reason why so much modern art has been about expression of a single idea or feeling, rather than craft. It’s a true representation, in tangible form, of the chaotic speed at which we hurtle through life.

Apple Blossom Time, 9×12, oil on canvasboard, $696 unframed

If that’s your schtick, there’s not much a traditional painting teacher can offer you. We’re no substitute for the creative genius that will motivate you to vomit pigment onto a canvas. What we teach is rather shopworn: a process by which you can transfer ideas onto canvas, using technique that’s more than a thousand years old. It’s not for the easily-bored, because it takes time to master. And even when it’s mastered, it takes time to execute properly.

That doesn’t mean that good paintings are necessarily slow paintings (or vice versa). “How can you finish a painting that fast?” is a question every plein air painter has heard many times. We’ve learned an efficient way of approaching the problem. If we deviate too far from it we get bogged down in the process of painting, at the expense of our personal vision.

Autumn blues, 12X16, oil on canvasboard, $1449 framed

When my advanced watercolor students have finished a long project, I’ll sometimes tell them, “Now, paint it again in ten minutes.” They’re often surprised that the second, fast painting is better than the one they spent so much time on. But that second painting didn’t take them ten minutes—it took them that plus all the time they spent on the first one. It’s just a second iteration of the same work.

There’s a difference between painting fast and phoning it in. It’s a difference of intention. I was dissing a well-known artist with an avid collector at a reception last week. “His new work has become…” He paused, unable to think of how to finish his sentence.

“A schtick?” I suggested.

His eyes widened. “I own one of his paintings from the ‘90s,” he protested, “and it’s really good.”

“That’s because he wasn’t copying himself yet,” I said.

Fallow field, 12X16, oil on canvasboard, $1449 framed

It happens to many excellent painters—they figure out a motif that sells, and produce a lot of it, and then suddenly, it’s ‘what they do.’ They’re no longer engaged on a deep level; they’re phoning it in, either out of laziness or fear of losing their audience.

Galleries don’t help, because they want painters to produce shows that are unified and coherent. There’s visual impact to twenty almost-identical paintings, especially if they lean heavily on graphic design. But that’s only true in the showroom; take one home and it loses that impact. Then it must stand or fall on its own merit.

That doesn’t mean that we artists don’t have one finger raised to the wind of painting fashion. Obviously we do, or we would still be painting like Mannerists. But within our time and place, we have great scope for personal creativity, exploration, and deep thinking. The artists with long-term staying power are those who never forget that.

Monday Morning Art School: saving a so-so painting

You like it, but there’s something just not exactly right. Or you’re not sure you like it at all.

Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando, 1879, Edgar Degas National Gallery, London. How does pattern and repetition hold this painting together?
Last week I went through a collection of paintings belonging to another artist. “Pull out the ones that I should burn,” she said. There were almost none in that category. In fact, most of them were quite lovely.
Of the ones that weren’t, most were promising starts that either fizzled or were never finished. “You can fix this very easily,” I kept saying. Of about 75 small paintings she brought, only a very few were consigned to the burn pile. Most of them needed a simple fix: a passage lightened, an edge softened, or a focal point developed. All she needed was to have those pointed out.
The next day, my student Dave went through my slush pile during a break. It’s huge; it has hundreds of paintings in it. “I love this,” he kept saying. “Why don’t you like this?”
Crucifixion of St. Peter, 1600, Caravaggio, Cerasi Chapel, Church of Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome. In chiaroscuro, value creates volume. How did Caravaggio drive us back through space in this painting?
I don’t not like them, I told him; I just don’t feel like selling them. I almost never wipe out work that’s not finished or not what I’d envisioned. They go on shelves in my studio. Occasionally, I will sell these paintings for rock-bottom prices, but mostly they’re there for my edification. Occasionally, I’ll notice something I really like and pull it out and study it, both for what’s working and what isn’t working.
Everyone has problem paintings. Often, I discover a year or two later that what I thought was a problem was actually a roadmap. It was a precursor to where I was headed as a painter. In some cases, all these paintings need is varnish to bring up the color and they sing. Or, they may need revision.
Michael tramples Satan, 1636, Guido Reni, Santa Maria della Concezione church, Rome. How does line drive you through this painting?
Last week, I wrote about the five basic elements of painting design. The best way to rescue a so-so painting is to subject it to formal analysis. That doesn’t mean you have to write a dissertation about it. It means you consider your painting in terms of each of these design elements. Are you using line, shape, space, color and texture to guide the viewer through the space you’ve created? Have you emphasized important passages and subordinated others? Is there repetition, pattern and rhythm in the piece?
A painting that doesn’t work almost always fails in several of these areas. You are as qualified as anyone to analyze your paintings based on these objective standards. There’s a great advantage in learning to do this: you will never be led astray be a stupid critique again. (I once ruined a wonderful painting by following bad advice, made worse because I’d paid for it.)
Le Wagon de troisième classe (The third-class carriage), 1864, Honoré Daumier, Metropolitan Museum of Art. This has nothing to do with the subject of this post; it’s just how I feel when flying.
We recently did this exercise in my Rockport painting class. In my experience, amateurs fixate on mark-making to the exclusion of far more important qualities in painting. They’re so worried about their handwriting that they fail to see the bigger picture. My students walked away from this exercise with the objective knowledge that they were doing better than they thought. I think you will, too.
I would have illustrated this with some of my flubs, but I’m traveling today without access to my server. I’m off to Pecos, NM, to paint snow.

It takes time

The Harvest is Plenty, 36X48, by Carol L. Douglas
On Friday I had the opportunity of hearing Dr. James Romaine give a gallery talk at Roberts Wesleyan. He described a piece of art as working in three spheres. There is the material—your technical approach to the work. There is the subject. The meaning comes from the marriage of technique and subject. A painting is successful if its subject and technique are integrated so that it has meaning.
Yard,11×44″, 2009 by Joel Sheesley. I’d have missed the references to Thomas Cole and romanticism entirely had Dr. Romaine not pointed them out in his talk.
Gustave Flaubert is reputed to have said, “The art of writing is the art of discovering what you believe.” I think this is also true of painting. The artist starts out with a subject and materials and the meaning appears as he or she goes along. The mind is a mysterious and mighty tool. Allowed to work in the background, it comes up with some powerful stuff.
Dr. Romaine analyzed my painting The Harvest is Plenty. He started by pointing out things that came from the conscious side of my mind, even if they weren’t conscious decisions. I believe in a Providential God, for example, and  I know my Dutch Golden Age painters, which he saw in the low, flat horizon and the rainbow. The bottom two-thirds of the painting, he said, was fairly standard in its composition.
Dr. Romaine talked about Luvon Sheppard’s marriage of the mystical with a real sense of place. To me, it’s awfully important that the place is Rochester, because it tells me what my mission field is.
Then he talked about the storm cloud. It takes up half the canvas; it rises out of the frame over the head of the viewer. When I painted The Harvest is Plenty, I was recovering from a cancer treatment in which I hemorrhaged. Chaos seemed very close to enveloping me. I recollect that I had a terrible time drawing the storm cloud to match my sketch; it chose its ultimate shape, not me. But until he talked about it, I had no idea how autobiographical that storm cloud was.
Much of what is wrong with contemporary art is that the cart has been put before the horse. We are bludgeoned over the head with artificial meaning by artists who can’t or won’t concentrate on their materials. Artists pursue meaning—even when the meaning is explicitly the lack of meaning—instead of concentrating on the material and subject and allowing the meaning to grow up organically from that.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me on the Schoodic Peninsula in beautiful Acadia National Park in 2015 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops! Download a brochure here.

Libeling the dead

Southern Justice (Murder in Mississippi), 1965, Norman Rockwell
In America, the dead can’t sue for defamation, so a writer who makes outrageous statements about the deceased can’t be touched in a court of law. In the past, we were protected by an unspoken code of decency: a publishing house like Farrar, Straus and Giroux would not have taken a biography like American Mirror, and it wouldn’t be nominatedfor a PEN award.
Saying Grace, 1951, Norman Rockwell
“The thrill of [Norman Rockwell’s] work is that he was able to use a commercial form to thrash out his private obsessions,” writes author Deborah Solomon. And what, according to Solomon, were those obsessions? That he was a repressed homosexual with pedophilic impulses.
Rosie the Riveter, 1943, Norman Rockwell
Rockwell’s granddaughter Abigail did a great job debunking Solomon’s book in this column, and it’s worth reading in its entirety.
I once made the mistake of mentioning to an instructor in Manhattan that I love Norman Rockwell’s work. That was the first experience I had of the animus some intellectuals direct toward Rockwell, who—as a ‘mere’ illustrator—achieved fame and fortune most of us can only dream about.
The Scoutmaster, 1956, Norman Rockwell
Why is it that men who paint children are suspect? A decade ago, we saw the samephenomenon with Caravaggio. It’s now received wisdom that he was a bisexual pederast—a theory that totally ignores the painterly and social conventions of his time, and is almost purely speculative (since there is very little historical record of his life). This desire to tear down icons reflects less on the artists in question than on the art world’s deeply rooted sexism and its own twisted desires.
Freedom from Fear (one of the Four Freedoms series), 1943, Norman Rockwell
Norman Rockwell is being accused of pedophilia at the same time as other intellectuals attempt to destigmatizethat perversion. This is part of the vast value-leveling going on in our society today, an insistence that no ideals or values deserve to be elevated above others. By making Rockwell look tawdry, we can dismiss all those hokey mid-century values he painted: family, patriotism, courage, equality, freedom, faith.


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