From hard times, great art

Two artists whose paintings in adversity remind us that we don’t always have to paint from our happy place.

Forgotten Man, 1944, Maynard Dixon, courtesy Wikiart

Maynard Dixon

Maynard Dixon is less remembered than his second wife, photojournalist Dorothea Lange, but they shared the same social justice concerns. Dixon had just finished a mural for the Biltmore Hotel in Phoenix and was scheduled to start its mate when the stock market crashed in October of 1929. The Great Depression defined life in the 1930s, for artists as much as anyone.

Dixon finished 282 pieces from 1930 to 1935. He sold just five. That wouldn’t have even covered the cost of the paint.

Dixon, Lange, and their children lived from 1929 to 1931 in a borrowed adobe building in Taos. “Well, if we can drag it out here until Christmas I may show something myself—though it will be hell trying to out it.  Other than financially we are going fine and wish you the same,” he wrote a friend in 1931.

Abandoned Ranch, Maynard Dixon, 1935, courtesy Wikiart

Today we remember Lange as the voice of the downtrodden, but Dixon was equally passionate about their plight. Although he was a well-known painter of the southwest, he began to paint his fellow sufferers, particularly those encamped near his California studio.

 “The most interesting thing in this country for me is a sense of dark tragedy, imminent, and just beneath the light surface: the unchangeable Indians, always facing toward death, the starving Mexicans, already half dead, and the garrulous gringos oppressed by a vague feeling of impending doom,” he wrote.

During the summer of 1933 Dixon and his family camped through southern Utah. They stopped at Boulder Dam to observe its construction. Six months later, Dixon returned with a Public Works of Art project grant to document the project. This combined Utah work was exhibited in San Francisco the following year. Not one of the forty paintings sold.

Algernon Newton

The Surrey Canal, Camberwell, 1935, Algernon Newman, courtesy of the Tate

Algernon Newton had a wonderful pedigree as a painter; he was the grandson of one of the founders of Winsor & Newton. However, he learned to paint in an atypical way, avoiding the straight route through the Academy. That allowed his own interests to blossom. While his peers were immersed in abstract-expressionism, he was studying Canaletto.

Invalided out of service at the end of the Great War, he was reduced to selling pictures on the street. It was a horrible time, when his fellow veterans were begging. And then there was a new, unseen enemy, the Spanish flu.

The Regent’s Canal, Twilight, 1925, Algernon Newton

Newton’s sympathies were very much with the common man and his environment. “There is beauty to be found in everything, you only have to search for it; a gasometer can make as beautiful a picture as a palace on the Grand Canal, Venice. It simply depends on the artist’s vision,” he wrote.

In America, he would have been following in the footsteps of the Ashcan School. In London, he chose a middle way, creating empty, eerie portraits of somewhat-dilapidated Regency and Victorian terraces, preferably fronting bodies of water. Unlike Canaletto’s compositions, his are curiously uninhabited, which gives them a strange modernity. As Martin Gayford wrotethis week, “Especially now, in this odd era of daily walks in semi-deserted towns, he often comes to mind.”

Monday Morning Art School: Painting water

“Rivers are elemental and ambivalent. They are frontiers and highways, destroyers and fertilisers, fishing grounds and spiritual metaphors, power-givers and flushers of poisons.” (Derek Turner)

Port of Hamburg, Anders Zorn, watercolor, 1891, courtesy of Nationalmuseum, Sweden. Even in watercolor, Zorn goes for opacity and energy, not wispy translucency. 
It’s been said that we never stand in the same river twice. It is equally true that we never paint water the same way twice. There are as many answers to the question “how do you paint water?” as there are moments in the day. Water is as changeable as the sky. But there are still some general steps you can follow.
The purple noon’s transparent might, Arthur Streeton, 1896, courtesy National Gallery of Victoria. Streeton’s river is defined by value, and the depth of the painting by atmospheric perspective.
Start by noting the mechanics of the body of water in question. Is there a current? At what point is it in the tide cycle? What underwater obstacles are disrupting the surface? Is the surface smooth or choppy? Is the water silted or clear? What is it reflecting?
Water seeks a flat plane, but there are always light-and-dark contours.  The wind makes patterns on the surface. In watery depths are dark tones. The splash and movement of foam and surf are light and energetic. On a rocky headland, these may appear to be constantly shifting, but in fact they follow rhythmic rules. In rivers, standing waves may appear oddly immutable.  

Hudson River, Logging; Winslow Homer, watercolor, 1891-92, courtesy National Gallery of Art. The water is blocked in solid shapes of different values.
Just as you seek the contours in a still life or portrait, find them in the moving water. Mark them out, dark to light. It’s easy to get repetitive in this phase. Only by careful observation will you avoid that.
The grand canal of Venice (Blue Venice), Edouard Manet, 1875, courtesy Shelbourne Museum. It takes keen observation to paint the pattern of water without being dully repetitive.
Reflections always line up vertically with the object being reflected, but the length of reflections varies. This is liberating: if you get the widths right, you can be creative with the lengths. Generally, the valuesin reflections will be somewhat compressed; lights will be slightly darker than what’s being reflected, and the darks slightly lighter. But that doesn’t mean the chroma will be necessarily reduced—reflections can often surprise with their purity of color. And there’s no rule that says the ocean will be lightest at the horizon. The ocean does anything it wants.
San Cristoforo, San Michele, and Murano from the Fondamenta Nuove, Venice; Canaletto, 1722, courtesy Dallas Museum of Art. Even delicate Canaletto paints reflections more positively than simply dragging his brush through the verticals.
Depending on the surface of the water, a reflection can be mirror-like, or it can be in bands, or it can be almost lost in chop. But the overall scene won’t be a mirror image of what’s in the background. Mountains will appear farther away in the reflection. Observe what’s actually there, versus what you expect to see.
I usually block in reflections before I start worrying about the surface of the water. That lets me choose my markmaking at the last minute. It’s easy enough to build the reflections vertically and then drag a brush across them to give the sense of still water. But this is a party trick and can be overdone.
Falls, Montreal River, JEH MacDonald, 1920, courtesy Art Gallery of Ontario. It’s an unusual angle, looking down from the top, but we understand what we’re seeing because of the ferocity of MacDonald’s brushwork.
Instead, use brushwork to imply the vast energy of water. Long, fluent strokes can indicate ebb and flow. Short, energetic strokes will show chop. Opaque or impasto paint can indicate the dance and verve of crashing waves better than delicate transparency.
Lake Ladoga, Arkhip Kuindzhi, 1871, courtesy Russian Museum. We can see the underwater rocks along the shore.
Shallow water, where you can see to the bottom, is difficult to paint. The ground influences the color of the water, and you must balance underwater details with surface reflections. Shallow water running over rocks in a river can be very erratic; to get the sense of that requires careful, slow observation.
Your assignment this week is to paint water. If you’re lucky enough to live where you can paint outdoors without breaking your lockdown rules, please—by all means—avail yourself of that opportunity. For the rest of us (and those of you who are still locked down in winter) a photo is another option.
I can’t wait to see what you do!

Slow looking

Don’t blame people’s short attention spans. Blame your overstuffed museums.
Above the Eternal Tranquility, 1894, Isaac Levitan, courtesy State Tretyakov Gallery
A landmark study conducted at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2001 found that the mean amount of time visitors spent looking at great works of art was 27.2 seconds. However, the mode—the number seen most often—was just 10 seconds. In 2017, the study was repeated at the Art Institute of Chicago, with almost exactly the same results.
There was one striking difference, however; the later study found those times included people taking selfies with the work. This was common across genders, race and age. It meant that the already scant time that museum-goers were spending looking at paintings was being deflected into the act of making self-referential photos.
Westminster Abbey with a procession of Knights of the Bath, 1749, Canaletto
Recently, Tate Modern cited a study saying their average viewer spends eight seconds looking at a piece of art. Another study declared that gallery goers spend two seconds looking at the painting and eight seconds reading the label, a trend that depresses me more than the selfies. The illustration for the latter story was of a couple reading the label for a large solid-grey canvas. Perhaps two seconds was actually too long.
Clearly, people don’t spend much time looking at paintings when they visit museums. But for some reason, museums are very popular with tourists. Among the world’s leaders are the Louvre, with 8.1 million visitors; the Met, 7 million; the Vatican Museum, 6.4 million; Tate Modern, 5.6 million; and the (US) National Gallery, with 5.2 million. That’s a lot of people milling through buildings stuffed with things nobody wants to look at.
To combat this, Tate Modern is pitching something called slow looking. They want you to look at paintings for ten minutes, but saythat five minutes or half an hour are okay, too. “To keep track of time, set a quiet timer on your phone or try simply counting a number of breaths.”
Portrait of a Lady, c. 1460. Rogier van der Weyden, courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
Please, no. Painting and sculpture are unique in that they don’t impose obligations on our time. Once we open a book or take a seat at a movie, we’ve obligated ourselves to sit through a narrative whose duration is laid out for us. With painting, we’re free to walk right past or to take a bench and sit for an hour.
Obviously, nobody metered the time spent looking at all the works in any of these major galleries. The Metropolitan owns 2 million pieces; the Art Institute of Chicago has about 300,000. (Of course, only a fraction of them are on display.)
What works were they measuring? There’s more content in a Roger van der Weydenaltarpiece than a stripe painting by Kenneth Noland. There’s the architecture, the starched linen coifs, a blood vessel throbbing below a monk’s tonsure, the oddly-plucked hairline of a lady, and angels with wings that match their gowns.
The Harvesters, c. 1565, Pieter Brueghel the Elder, courtesy the Metropolitan Museum
One of the powerful attributes of visual art is how it can disengage you from time and place. Stand in front of a Canaletto and you’re suddenly in Venice. But that isn’t going to happen with someone at your elbow, silently pushing you along.
Of course, paintings were never intended to be hung in a crowded museum. They were originally in churches, dining rooms, drawing rooms, and public halls, as part of the experience of that place. People looked at them over many years. Perhaps the problem is not our digital age, but the massive warehouses of art we’ve created and called museums.

Consider the source.

Canaletto did not use a camera obscura. People repeat that because they’re uncomfortable with the fact that they can’t draw.
Westminster Abbey with a procession of Knights of the Bath, 1749, Canaletto
It has long been held that Canaletto achieved the amazing accuracy in his vedute through the use of the camera obscura. This is not a modern thesis, although it is widely repeated as fact. It came down to us from Canaletto’s earliest biography, written in 1771, but it’s convenient for our modern sensibilities. After all, Canaletto’s landscapes are so perfect, they could not have been rendered from life—could they?
The Royal Collection Trust has released a report that seems to prove, conclusively, that this theory is wrong. While infrared technology is often used to examine what’s under the surface in oil paintings, it’s not commonly used on drawings. The Trust applied this technique to their collection of Canaletto’s works on paper. This is significant; they own a third of known Canaletto drawings.
They discovered the ruler edges, pencil markings and other traces of the drawing process under the finished surfaces. It was enough for the curators to state “categorically” that the stories of Canaletto’s use of the camera obscura were mythical.
Architectural Capriccio, drawing, Canaletto. “Capriccio” means it’s a fantasy landscape.
There is nothing inherently wrong with the camera obscura or any other mechanical aid to drawing. Nor was David Hockney revolutionizing the art world when he proposed that our ancestors used it. Leonardo da Vincidescribed its workings in 1502, and a similar pinhole drawing device was illustrated in Albrecht Dürer’s Four Books on Measurement. For Canaletto, born simultaneously with the Age of Reason, the temptation to try the camera obscura would have been overwhelming. But he would have quit for the same reason many mature artists stop working directly from photos:
The results are boring.
The Stonemason’s Yard, 1726–29, is considered Canaletto’s early masterpiece.
What is seen by the human eye, with its pronounced center pole, is so much more interesting than the flattened line of ‘real’ optics. That is why our photographs so often disappoint us, and why photography really is a lot more complicated that simply pointing a camera and firing away.
The popularity of the Hockney thesis lies in an uncomfortable fact: by and large, moderns don’t draw well. We haven’t put in the hours with ruler, pencil and paper. We rely on viewfinders, photographs, and other devices for our underpaintings. Rather than face up to that deficiency, it’s easier to imagine that drawing is impossible.
Of course, it’s not, and nobody can really paint until they master the elements of drawing. Too often, modern landscape painting is about fragment and impression. Is that because fragments are so interesting, or because we’ve given up on drawing?

The genius isn’t inside the camera

An artist drawing a seated man onto a plane of glass through a sight-vane, from the fourth book of Albrecht Dürer’s Four Books on Measurement.
Last month, a number of people sent me Vanity Fair’s pieceon engineer Tim Jenison’s painstakingly-complex recreation of Johannes Vermeer’s The Music Lesson. Jenison faithfully built the room and objects depicted in the painting, and then repainted the scene using a version of a camera obscura. In the end, he discovered what any freshman art history student could have told him: yes, it’s possible that Vermeer used a camera obscura. He’d have hardly been alone.
Sir Robert Hooke’s portable drawing machine should be familiar (in concept) to any of my plein air painting students. There is nothing new under the sun.
The peculiar properties of the pinhole camera were known and described in antiquity from Greece to China. In the west, the principles behind it were analyzed and described by the eleventh century Arab scientist, Ibn al-Haytham. In the 13th century, Roger Bacon described the use of a camera obscura to watch solar eclipses. Leonardo da Vinci puttered with one, and even came up with a proto-telescope based on it:
…in order to observe the nature of the planets, open the roof and bring the image of a single planet onto the base of a concave mirror. The image of the planet reflected by the base will show the surface of the planet much magnified.
Above, A man drawing a can, and below, A man drawing a recumbent woman, in foreshortening through a frame with a network of squares on to a paper also with squares, in order to be able to reduce or enlarge proportionally, both from the fourth book of Albrecht Dürer’s Four Books on Measurement.
Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446), sculptor, architect, artist and engineer, is generally (and perhaps falsely) credited with the invention of linear perspective in art. He also created a device to demonstrate that perspective, which we call Brunelleschi’s peepshow, but which is in fact a version of a camera obscura:
“[He] had made a hole in the panel on which there was this painting; … which hole was as small as a lentil on the painting side of the panel, and on the back it opened pyramidally, like a woman’s straw hat, to the size of a ducat or a little more. And he wished the eye to be placed at the back, where it was large, by whoever had it to see, with the one hand bringing it close to the eye, and with the other holding a mirror opposite, so that there the painting came to be reflected back; … which on being seen, … it seemed as if the real thing was seen: I have had the painting in my hand and have seen it many times in these days, so I can give testimony. (Antonio di Tuccio Manetti)
A Man Drawing a Lute, from the fourth book of Albrecht Dürer’s Four Books on Measurement. 
Albrecht Dürer was not a visionary in the manner of Leonardo, but he was peerless in investigating and recording his experiments. Several woodcuts of drawing aids come down to us from him, so we know he used them. Nevertheless, using a camera obscurawas not the only thing he could do; the man could draw brilliantly. Very few living artists today could duplicate his Young Hare or Large Piece of Turf, neither of which relied on optical tools.
Courtyard of the Former Castle in Innsbruck without Clouds, 1494, Albrecht Durer. Was it done with a drawing device? Perhaps. Does that make it less brilliant? I don’t think so.
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether Vermeer used an optical device. That’s the one thing Tim Jenison’s experiment proves. It’s ultimately nothing more than a fair copy of a masterpiece, such as art students churn out every day. Vermeer’s incalculable genius is safely his own.
Artists used the camera obscura until the development of photography made it obsolete. Here are four camera obscura drawings by Canaletto from the early 18th century.


Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!