In praise of large paintings

It’s a mistake to think of our large canvases as drugs on the market. They’re often the most important work we do.

Winter Lambing, 36X48, oil on canvas, $6231 framed.

Björn Runquist told me about the perambulations of a large work, 72” high, as we hung paintings at Bangor Savings Bank yesterday. It takes time to sell a major painting, so it’s no surprise that his canvas is more well-traveled than some of my friends. Like actors, these big works ‘rest’between gigs. They can take up almost as much house-room as a twenty-something between jobs.

My out-of-work canvases live in the closets of our guest room. That’s an improvement, because until this house, we didn’t have a guest room; we just had lots of bedrooms for our numerous children. Then, my inventory was stored behind a false wall in my room. It was the antithesis of House Beautiful, and it irritated me every time I saw it. My husband studied aesthetics as undergraduate, but it never bothered him. Go figure.

Vineyard, 30X40, oil on canvas, $5072 framed.

There are many large canvases in my storage, because I love to paint big: God + Man, which I did originally for a solo show at Roberts Wesleyan College, and a whole slew of nudes that were censored at Rochester Institute of Technology. The latter will be going to the Rye Arts Center in New York in March, for a duo show with sculptor Anne De Villemejane.

We artists love to paint big, but it’s easier to sell smaller paintings. They fit better on people’s walls, and they cost less money. Still, it’s a mistake to think of these large canvases as a drug on the market. Because they require such careful thought, they’re often the most important work we do. It makes sense to think of them as an asset that should be carefully rationed into the marketplace, rather than as large, bulky objects we trip over, that we’re only too happy to sell to the first comer.

Breaking Storm, 30X48, is available through the Camden Public Library this month.

Surplus art is our lot in life. For example, Ken DeWaard counted up the unfinished work in his studio at the end of the summer and announced he had something like 145 unfinished canvases in his studio. I haven’t counted mine, but it’s something similar; we’re like musicians in that we must constantly practice. We might finish or paint over them; we ruthlessly cull them before we show them, or we’d never have room for them all.

Between changing out the show at Camden Library and hanging paintings at the bank, I have moved a lot of paintings from place to place. It’s an excellent opportunity to bring the nudes out for an airing, as they need to be cleaned and rewrapped before they travel down to New York. “I hope you sell a lot of them!” my friend Marjean exclaimed. She’s speaking from the housewife’s standpoint here; she’d really like to see that closet better-organized.

All Flesh is as Grass, 30X48, oil on canvas, $6231 framed.

I’m just thrilled to have an opportunity to show those paintings again. The lot of women worldwide wasn’t great when I painted them, and it hasn’t gotten any better. 

Meanwhile, I’ll be at Camden Public Library tomorrow from 1 to 3, for a reception for Fantastic Places and Magical Realms. The work ranges in size from 6X8 to 30X48, so there’s something suitable for every space and budget. Stop by and I’ll give you your Christmas treat.

Monday Morning Art School: practice makes perfect

Beautiful brushwork rests on a foundation of good preparation.

Ravening Wolves, 24X30, is in my show, Fantastic Places and Magical Realms at the Camden Public Library, month of December.

I recently came across the sketch below, of two wolves. I was surprised and pleased, because it’s something I drew about a decade or so. It became the subject of a painting I finished Friday, called Ravening Wolves, above. (You can see the whole show in the video here.)

The sketch for Ravening Wolves was much older, and was based on a personal crisis.

Stop thinking of drawing as something you have to get through, and start doing your dreaming in a sketchbook. You never know when you’ll use the images thus created.

“Painterly” describes a painting that is comfortable in its own skin. The paint creates movement and expression. Painterly works are loose and emotive, and they lead with their brushwork.

This is a sensual, rather than intellectual, quality. You’re there when you no longer fight the paint, but work with it. It’s the opposite of photorealism, where the artist works hard to conceal all evidence of his process. A painterly painting doesn’t fuss over the details.

Christmas Eve, 6X8, is a memory of driving home from my grandmother’s house in deep snow.

The term “painterly” was coined in the 20th century by art historian Heinrich Wölfflin. He was trying to create an objective system for classifying styles of art in an age of raging Expressionism. The opposite of painterly, he felt, was “linear,” by which he meant paintings that relied on the illusion of three-dimensional space. To him this meant using skillful drawing, shading, and carefully-thought-out color. Linear was academic, and painterly meant impulsive.

That didn’t make the Old Masters inevitably linear, however. Rembrandt and Lucian Freud are both painterly painters. Richard Estes and Sandro Botticelli are both linear.

Today, we don’t see accurate drawing as an impediment to expression. Acute drawing is often overlaid with expressive brushwork. The idea of painterliness—of being loose and self-assured—is treasured even as we strive for accuracy.

The Hunter and the Hare started life as a demo. It ended up being a portrait of our midnight race to leave Patagonia

How do we develop painterliness?

First, master the fundamentals. “You can practice shooting eight hours a day, but if your technique is wrong, then all you become is very good at shooting the wrong way,” said basketball great Michael Jordan. “Get the fundamentals down and the level of everything you do will rise,” he said. That’s very true of painting, where there is a specific protocol for putting paint down.

Then practice, practice, practice. “I’m not out there sweating for three hours every day just to find out what it feels like to sweat,” said Jordan.

Expect failure. It comes with pushing your technique. “I have missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I have lost almost 300 games,” said Jordan. “On 26 occasions I have been entrusted to take the game winning shot… and missed. And I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

You can’t teach yourself to be relaxed; you can only get there through experience. The only way to be painterly is to paint. I can show you expressive brushwork techniques, but there are still no shortcuts. It happens automatically and naturally with experience. You stop focusing on the mechanics, and start focusing on what you see. Your eye is on the ball.

Many times, artists only realize their painterliness in old age. That is when Titian started painting in blotches, in a style that came to be known as spezzatura, or fragmenting. However, Vincent Van Gogh is the personification of painterliness, and he died at 37.

Great painters all end up doing their work in a specific way:

  • They figure out a composition based on line, form, and value masses;
  • They transfer that to their paper or canvas;
  • They paint colors in a predetermined order, established with the invention of their medium.

In oils that protocol is:

  • Fat over lean;
  • Dark to light;
  • Big shapes to smaller shapes.

In watercolor, the order of operations is:

  • Washes to detail;
  • Dark over light (not written in stone).

Practice until you get it perfect.

Fantastic Places and Magical Realms

I chose the title and theme long before I chose the paintings. Looking at them together in my studio, I thought, they’re oddly autobiographical.

The Camden Public Library will present “Fantastic Places and Magical Realms” on Saturday, December 11, from 1 to 3 PM. The public is invited.

When Julia Pierce asked me to hold my show over through December at the Camden Public Library, I thought, “what’s the fun in that? We might as well switch it up.” Four weeks is short notice to put together a show, but I have a secret stash of quirky paintings. They’re things I painted to amuse myself, or to think through an idea that was on my mind.

Many people commented that Welcome Back to Real Life—which I’m taking down tomorrow—was grounded in mid-coast Maine. They were easily-recognized scenes, with a sense of place. “It’s the Maine I grew up with,” said one visitor.

The Late Bus, oil on canvasboard, $435 framed. 

For this show, I wanted to get as far as possible from that reality. I was looking for themes that are common to all of us, no matter where we live. Some started as plein air paintings that went haywire along the way. Some are real places that could be anywhere. Some are the product of my own imagination.

I could have titled this show, “A look into the recesses of the cluttered cabinet I call my mind.” It’s less polished and more visceral than the work I showed last month.

My classes are focused on narrative painting right now—painting that tells a story that’s greater than mere pictorial prettiness. I tried to select work for this show that operates within that idea, although few of them actually contain figures.

Best Buds, oil on canvasboard, $1087 framed.

Don’t expect Disney here. I’m probably the least-whimsical person in the world. Asked to do a series on Holy Week for children twenty years ago, I produced a set of Stations of the Cross that are black-and-white, gritty, blood and gore.

I’m more influenced by Renaissance genre painting. It depicts everyday life and ordinary people. But they’re never real places or real people, just stories played out in paint. They often tell a folk tale or relate a moral precept.

Thus, a shipwreck, to me, is more than just a bunch of rusty stuff strewn along a beach. It’s a fable about the inevitable end of all earthly endeavor, including my own.

Red buds and red osier, 12X16, oil on canvasboard, $1449 framed.

But striving is built into our human character, and we have to respect that, too.

Boats often stand in for people in my painting. They’re a metaphor for our existence. They remind me of our human journey through life. They sail through all sorts of weather; they are sleek and beautiful, or stout and utilitarian. They can move effortlessly, or they can founder.

Fantastic Places and Magical Realms will open on Saturday, December 11, from 1 to 3 PM. I will be catering with candy again, and I ask—for the sake of my diet—that you eat a little more of it this time.

Verisimilitude

Intimate knowledge is a spur to creativity, because it places facts at the disposal of your subconscious brain.

Early Spring on Beech Hill, oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas, 12X16, is available through the Camden Public Library.

I’m in Boston waiting to board a plane. Logan International Airport bears scant resemblance to the historic city it serves (except for the inexplicable popularity of Dunkin’ Donuts). I can say that because I know Boston.

I’ve never been to Houston, but I will see it from the air since I have a layover there. I know it only by reputation: it’s big, new and southern.

Beauchamp Point, oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas, 12X16, is available through the Camden Public Library.

If I were to write a novel set in a contemporary city, which of these would be the sensible choice?

“Better if the country be real, and he has walked every foot of it and knows every milestone. As he studies it, relations will appear that he had not thought upon; he will discover obvious, though unexpected, short cuts and footprints for his messengers; and even when a map is not all the plot, it will be found to be a mine of suggestion,” wrote Robert Louis Stevenson.  

We’ve shortened that to the pithy statement “write what you know,” but that loses the point of Stevenson’s pronouncement. Intimate knowledge is a spur to creativity, because it places facts at the disposal of your subconscious brain. (It also stops you from making stupid mistakes, but that’s really the lesser consideration.)

Home Port (Rockport), oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas, 24X36, is available through the Camden Public Library.

The same is true of painting. To paint well, you have to know your subject. When my show opened at the Picker Room of the Camden Public Library last Friday, my very first visitor asked me, “Are you from Maine?”

That’s a loaded question; it usually means “Were you born here, and your parents and grandparents, up to and including seven generations?” The answer, of course is, no—I’m from Buffalo and proud of it.

She was surprised. “You’ve caught the Maine of my childhood,” she said. “The real Maine.” I heard variations on that comment several times over the evening, enough that I started to consider what it meant.

Clark’s Island, oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas, 8X10, is available through the Camden Public Library.

In Maine, people talk about ‘the dooryard.’ That’s a fine old term that’s fallen into disuse in the rest of America. It means that area around the door that everyone actually uses (which is not generally the front door). Paint Maine houses enough, and that dooryard emerges as something important. It doesn’t matter if you can articulate how or why you’re thinking about it; it will become a focus of your painting in a form louder than words.

That sort of truth-telling starts with careful observation, and observation in painting means drawing. We’ve somehow dropped that from our toolbox, but learning accurate drawing is the basis of all visual communication. It’s no different (or more difficult) than learning your times tables or how to sound out letters. And it’s just as basic and useful a skill.

“When my daughter was seven years old, she asked me one day what I did at work,” wrote artist Howard Ikemoto. “I told her I worked at the college—that my job was to teach people to draw. She stared at me, incredulous, and said, ‘You mean they forget?’”

I’m on my way to Mexico for a family wedding. I’ll be back on the weekend.

Welcome back to real life

We’re just beginning to fathom the changes between the pre-COVID and post-COVID worlds.

The last time I was in the Picker Room of the Camden Public Library was for an opening for my pal Peter Yesis. That was the last opening the library had before COVID shut it down, programs coordinator Julia Pierce told me recently.

I’d recently seen my old friend Christine Long at an art opening in Rochester, NY. She’s an epidemiologist, and she muttered that she hoped she’d be able to retire “before COVID hits.” That gave me pause, because Christine is a very smart woman. Until then, I assumed COVID was going to be a flash-in-the-pan, like avian flu had been.

Termination dust, oil on canvasboard, 6×8, $435

It was, however, still a blip on the horizon on the evening of Peter’s opening. That night, Ken DeWaard introduced me to the ‘elbow bump.’ I thought it was funny, but I’ll probably never shake a stranger’s hand again. That’s only one small change between the eras we might call pre-COVID and post-COVID.

That week was the last week I spent in what I might call ‘old time.’ The next Thursday I flew to Argentina, and all hell broke loose. People have asked me why we still went when COVID was marching across the globe. The answer is, simply, that our own government said it was safe to travel. 24 hours later, they changed their minds.

Owl’s Head, 18×24, oil on linenboard, $2318

The calendar notation anno Domini (AD) tells us that something profound happened at that moment that changed the course of human history. No, COVID isn’t on the same scale as the birth of Christ, but it seems to have made lasting changes in our culture. We’re still just beginning to fathom what they are.

It’s both fitting and passing strange that I’m the first artist scheduled in what I hope will be a long, uninterrupted line of post-COVID openings at the library. My show is called Welcome back to real life and it will be up in the Picker Room for the month of November.

Belfast Harbor, oil on canvasboard, 14×18, $1594

The opening will be Friday, November 5, from 3:30 to 5:30 PM. The library asks that masks be worn, which is just one small way in which post-COVID life differs from what we knew before.

2020 was an unprecedented challenge for artists, with galleries closing and classes and workshops cancelled. It also created new opportunities. For example, I would never have taught online before. Now I actually prefer it to live classes. It’s an opportunity to work with students from all over the country, and it allows students to hear everything I say one-on-one to their classmates. That’s impossible in a large room or outdoors.

On that subject, my students reminded me yesterday that the new session starts the week of November 8. There are a few openings. My website is undergoing a redesign, which I don’t think will be finished by then, but you can get the general information here, and contact me here to register.

Welcome Back to Real Life; paintings by Carol L. Douglas
Camden Public Library Picker Room
55 Main Street, Camden Maine
Friday, November 5, 3:30-5:30 PM

The show is hanging through the month of November.