Christmas Eve memories

It wasn’t Santa Claus but it was magic nevertheless.

Santa toy, oil on archival canvasboard, $435 in a narrow silver frame, available this month through Camden Public Library.

We were raised without Santa Claus, my parents believing that it was bad to lie to children. Furthermore, my mother was inept at gift-buying. It was the Swinging Sixties, and my friends were getting Barbies, slot cars and record players. We got winter gloves, long underwear, clothes and socks.

I don’t remember feeling particularly deprived about it. We were rich in playthings. We had dirt bikes, dogs, horses, chickens, cows, and a sailboat. Mom was just whimsy-impaired. There were never Barbies or Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots when we were little.

Christmas Presents, sold this month through Camden Public Library.

We were not churchgoers, so nothing set Christmas morning apart. We would open our gifts, have breakfast, and then do as we always did on weekends and holidays—go outside and scare up some fun.

Christmas Eve was the holiday that mattered. Our grandmother’s home in South Buffalo was an hour’s drive in perfect weather. The weather in Buffalo in December is often horrible. Blizzards blow in across Lake Erie in the so-called ‘lake effect’ storms of early winter. Yet we never missed a year, even when it meant inching along the Thruway in white-out conditions.

There was always a battle for a window seat, because there was no car radio or light to read by. Instead, there was frost on the windows, in which one could draw pictures, and a kaleidoscope of winter scenes.

Christmas Eve, oil on archival canvasboard, $435 in a narrow silver frame, available this month through Camden Public Library.

It’s said that my Aunt Mary once laid my infant cousin Liz down in the huge pile of coats on my grandmother’s bed and forgot her. I can no longer remember if that is true or not.

What I remember most was the noise. The tables were set down the center of my grandmother’s apartment, and we were seated in descending order of age. There was no segregation of kids from adults. My grandmother was an immigrant and a young widow. She was the head of her clan, with six kids and 25 grandkids. In a sense, we were her life’s work, and she liked seeing us all together.

There was no dishwasher, of course. After dinner, aunts and cousins retreated to the kitchen to clean up, and my grandmother’s standards were exacting. That might gall today, but we didn’t mind. I got to know my cousins standing in Grandma’s kitchen drying plates.

Christmas Angel, courtesy private collector.

If it was not storming, my parents might be persuaded to go to Midnight Mass at my grandmother’s parish church. The hush, the candles, and the strange beauty of Catholic liturgy were all alien and yet so familiar. I’d been watching it from outside for my whole short life.

And then, the long drive home through the snow. Dozing, perhaps, but never really sleeping, the squeak of tires in snow, windshield wipers flapping. Dark roads and sometimes moonlight. It wasn’t Santa Claus but it was magic nevertheless.

My sister Ann died, and then my brother John, and then my cousin Frankie. My dad pretty much fell apart after that. Grandma got too old to make the white pasta and baccalà, so the aunts took over with sheet pans of lasagna. The Christmas feast wandered, irresolute, from house to house until it finally died.

But Christmas Eve remains one of my favorite days of the year. We’ll fry fish tonight, and video-chat with our kids and grandkids, and then wait with the rest of the world, in a silent hush of anticipation. Tonight, we celebrate the Incarnation, when God sent his only son to deliver us from our own stupidity. Of all the gifts I’ve ever received, that understanding is undoubtably the greatest.

The Nativity

It would be easy to write off this off as just another greeting-card version of the familiar Bible story. But look again.

Nativity, c. 1420, Robert Campin, courtesy Musée des Beaux-Arts de Dijon

For more than a century, a body of work was identified as being by the so-called Master of Flemalle. These paintings are now generally attributed to the Belgian painter Robert Campin. These attributions are controversial because the artist didn’t sign or date his output. However, the works in question all bear the hallmarks of Campin’s workshop: keen observation, oil paint rather than egg tempera, and complex perspective.

It would be easy to write off his Nativity, 1420, as just another greeting-card version of the familiar Bible story. But look carefully at the corner post emerging from the collapsing wattle-and-daub wall of the stable. “This is an exact portrait of a specific piece of battered, reused timber,” wrote Martin Gayford. “Every knothole, insect tunnel, split, roughly carpentered joint and variation in the grain of the wood is represented with close-focus precision. Beneath, the footing of the wall has been studied with the same fascination, especially a single, knobbly flint.” From there, let your eyes travel to the perfectly realized landscape in the background.

The Annunciation, 1420-25, Robert Campin, courtesy of Museo del Prado

That wooden post, rather than the crowded cast of characters, is the centerpiece of this extraordinary painting. Why was it so important? It’s a symbol of the cross, but it’s much more than that. Renaissance painters were interested in realism because they recognized that Christianity is, ultimately, grounded in tangible reality. This Nativity was meant to teach something more than just the bare-bones Bible story.

According to Christian doctrine we humans are triune beings, made of body, soul and spirit. We’re supposed to be spirit-led, but our faith never denies the importance of our physical crust. Creation started with a physical world, and moved on to a physical man, made from the dust of the Earth. Only at the end did God breathe the spirit of life into that thing he’d made ‘in his own image.’

The two surviving wings of The Werl Altarpiece, 1438, Robert Campin, courtesy of Museo del Prado

So, ours is a physical world operating on physical laws, which is perhaps why science and industry found such fertile ground in the Christian world. But periodically the natural order of things is upset by miracles. This is not just a New Testament thing; see Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace.

For modern man, miracles are a tough idea to swallow. If you reject the possibility of miracles in general, then the Nativity makes no sense. But that’s a modern rationalist viewpoint, certainly not shared by most of mankind through history.

The Marriage of the Virgin, 1420s, Robert Campin, courtesy of Museo del Prado

Of course, God can do anything he wants to. It wasn’t ‘necessary’ for Jesus to enter the world through a virgin birth, or to be in human form at all. But there’s no reason he couldn’t, either, and Matthew and Luke both said it happened that way.

As important as his paternity is, the Bible narratives actually emphasize his mother. The fact that he was born of woman was the key to Christ’s humanity, and this—that he came down to earth and shared a literal, physical body—is what made his death and resurrection so important. He really was one of us.

Look at the angels at the top. They’re in a different scale, and they have wings. They’re truly otherworldly, because they’re not like us. But that ugly, mewling baby in the foreground? He’s just an ordinary helpless newborn. As he entered the world like mankind, so we have the promise we’ll leave the world like him. We will share the Resurrection. That is the true miracle of the Nativity, and the message of this remarkable painting.

Monday Morning Art School: holiday gift ideas

Gifts at every price point for the artist in your life (even if that’s you).

Mabef field painting easel M27: Non-artists often buy painters French easels, but please don’t do that. They’re heavy and tough to set up. Instead, choose a smaller, lighter, more efficient easel—the Mabef field painting easel M27. The pivot head makes it useful for both oils and watercolor. It comes with extension arms on which you can set a palette. I’ve had an earlier version of this for two decades. It’s my number one choice for watercolor, and I’m constantly loaning it to new painters. But a word of caution—the cheaper knock-offs of this easel don’t work well. Mabef has been making easels since 1948, and the quality is good.
Want a larger easel? Jerry’s sells a version of a Gloucester easel called the Beauport. Ken DeWaard uses one, as do I. It’s the best easel for large canvases in a stiff wind.
Testrite #500 studio easel: This is the teaching easel I use in my studio. Aluminum is light, easy to move, and easy to stow. Want a larger version? Try its big brother, the Testrite #700. I’ve had one for twenty years without trouble.
Princeton brushes:Over the years, Princeton has provided great value for money, but many professional painters eventually gravitate to something else. Sadly, I can no longer recommend Robert Simmons, because my last two orders have contained defective brushes. I’ve been given so many Princeton SNAP! in goodie bags this year that inevitably one made it into my painting kit. I was pleasantly surprised. Series 9700 is a natural bristle brush made for oil-painting. Series 9800 is a synthetic for oils. Series 9650 is made for watercolor and acrylic.
Despite having a quiver full of upscale watercolor brushes, I’m just as likely to grab my Princeton Neptunes when working in watercolor.
If you really want to surprise someone with your inside knowledge and impeccable taste, choose Rosemary & Co. brushes for watercolor or oil, or New York Central for oil painting brushes.
QoR watercolor kit:QoR (pronounced “core”) is a product of Golden Artist Colors of New Berlin, NY, so you can be assured that they’re a quality product. Golden has created a new binder for a higher-pigment paint that can rival oils and acrylics for vibrance. I use QoR myself, and for my workshops aboard schooner American Eagle, but you can easily buy ready-made sets of 6-12 pigments from any large paint dealer online. For acrylics, I’d recommend a Golden starter set hands down. For oils, buy Robert Gamblin or Winsor & Newton. It’s harder to make a one-size-fits-all recommendation for pastels, but anything sold by Dakota Art Pastelsis a good product.
If your artist has all the paints he thinks he needs, why not surprise him with some gouache? I have some Turner Design Gouache that I trot out whenever I’m thinking through ideas, but there are many fine brands.
In every case, less is more. The artist typically needs no more than a dozen colors, and it’s better to get a better brand with fewer pigments than a large assortment of bad paint.
Sketchbooks: I buy Strathmore 300 series Visual Journals and consume them like candy. They’re Bristol, so you can draw or paint on them. For fast outdoor sketching, I like the Strathmore 400 watercolor series. They’re so affordable, I have no worries about wasting paper.
Palamino Blackwing Pencil: I use mechanical pencils myself, but this was recommended to me by writer Tim Wendel. I’m dying to know what makes a pencil worth slightly more than $2, so I’m asking for it for Christmas.
A workshop: I can’t finish this without a plug for my own workshops. They allow the artist the chance to work with a group of like-minded people, without distractions, in settings of unparalleled beauty.
In 2020, we offer two all-inclusive trips aboard Schooner American Eagle, where I’ll teach the fundamentals of watercolor on the fly (and you get to sail, too). And there’s my annual intensive workshop, Sea & Sky at Schoodic Institute in Acadia National Park. Register by January 1 and get an early-bird discount on any or all of them!

What not to say at an opening

Yesterday I taught you words that will make you sound arty. Here are phrases you should avoid if you don’t want to sound like a rube.
Best Buds, by Carol L. Douglas

You can use the phrase, “that piece,” but only if it’s in the context of choosing between two or three items in the show. Never direct it at the gallerist, who is a human being with feelings, and also the person who bought the wine you’re swilling.

Piece is a loaded word; use it with care. “I’m looking for a piece of art” is about as discriminating as being on the hunt for a piece of a–.
“How much time did that take?” marks you as an art rube. Jonas Kaufmann doesn’t get paid by the note and artists don’t get paid by the brushstroke. That piece is the culmination of a lifetime’s practice. It may have taken six hours or six years. It’s not a negotiating point, sorry.
Dawn, by Carol L. Douglas, courtesy the Kelpie Gallery.
“That looks just like a photograph” grieves me terribly, since I wanted it to look like a painting. When you’re at a loss for something nice to say, go with “I love the use of color!” Everyone believes they’re a colorist.
“What is it?” With modern painting, less is more. If you have to ask, you can’t afford it.
“That’s a nice frame.” Actually, artists say this a lot to each other. It is always followed by, “Where’d you get it?” and “How much?” But the rest of you are supposed to be interested in the art.
Bracken Fern, by Carol L. Douglas
“What’s your absolute bottom line price?” Well, it’s on this little tag right here. The gallerist might do a little something for you if you buy several pieces, but you have to take it up with him or her. And it’s usually on the order of 5-10%.
“Don’t give up the day job!” That’s not even funny, since this is my day job.
“You’ve given it your best shot.” That was from my mother after a bad show twenty years ago. If she could see me now…
“In my day, we didn’t have time for self-actualizing.” Another bon mot from my mother. Believe it or not, she was worried I’d starve to death. If she could see me now, dieting through Christmas…
Beach, by Carol L. Douglas
“Is that tie-dye?” This is something Shibori artists hear a lot. I suppose in its broadest definition it’s true—if tie-dye was done with threads and stitching and compression and incredible skill. “Tell me about your process” is going to elicit the same information and not make you look silly.
“I have a really nice painting at home, by this guy named Thomas Kinkade.” De mortuis nihil nisi bonum and all that, but that’s not a marker of good taste.
“The wine is terrible but at least it’s free.” Can’t help you there.

A Christmas reverie in paint

Into Swedish Death Cleaning or KonMari? Maybe you should paint that stuff before you toss it away.

Blonde Santa is available through the Kelpie Gallery this month.

I have many friends who do not observe the same Christmas traditions as me: those who aren’t Christian and those who are very Christian. I am under no delusions about the origins of this feast, but I still don’t want to put the Io Saturnalia back in Christmas.

It’s not quite as bad as the Asherah poles and high altars the Old Testament prophets were always lecturing about. Christmas can be a simple celebration of love and joy among one’s family or a chance to ponder the miracle of the Incarnation. Or, if you want, it can be stroll through Manhattan to see the Christmas lights or a bonfire on the beach in Lincolnville, ME. I’m down with it all.
This boa-wearing reindeer is a Christmas decoration given to me by my sister-in-law. I added the double rainbow and setting for effect.
I enjoy setting out my own Christmas decorations. Here are the plaster sheep made by my brother and sister in Sunday school. This January will be the fiftieth anniversary of my sister’s death; my brother followed her into the grave only four short years later. On most days, it no longer stings, but when I unwrap those figurines, I’m reminded that I’m their remaining memory-keeper. Every one of us has such people in our hearts. For me, Christmas is a safe time to unpack and visit them.
Here are my kids’ stockings. Now that they have their own homes, I should mail them to them, but it’s nice to remember the woman who started this tradition, Jan Dunlap, and all the subsequent stocking-makers in our history. So up they go on the bannister.
My Christmas Angel, by Carol L. Douglas
Here are the beautiful crocheted ornaments my mother made for my tree. They need reblocking; the starch has yellowed over the years. By Epiphany I’ll be so sick of Christmas I’ll rewrap them and vow to do it next year. Craft projects scare me.
Here is the Santa given to me by my pal Judie. He has a lush blonde beard, making him look like he has a tobacco problem. Judie and I were a Lucy Ricardo and Ethel Mertz crafting team. We had great ideas, but they didn’t always work. Actually, they never worked.
My mother, on the other hand, was awesome at crafts. In my dining room I have a lighted porcelain tree she made back in the 1950s. It’s spray-painted gold. Recently a young person asked me where I found that amazing vintage decoration.
My only successful craft project is my 4H angel, on top of the tree. I figure she’s 48 years old this year, but I could be wrong. She’s missing her tassels and her burlap dress is fading, but she reminds me of my 4H friends, some of whom still have their own angels from the same day. My mother once bought me a lovely ceramic and lace tree-topper to replace her, but I gave that to my daughter. I prefer my ratty old angel.
Happy New Year! by Carol L. Douglas
Yesterday, I tossed a few things in packages to mail to my kids. I have more of this sorting to do, and maybe I’ll get to it this year.
My friend Kristin Zimmermann had a brilliant idea about what one should do with objects of sentimental value that one doesn’t want to store. She painted them, as here, and then passed them along.
I’ve painted many of my Christmas decorations over the years, which means I’m part of the way along to divestiture. But the heck with Swedish Death Cleaning or KonMari. Come January 6, they’ll all go back in the attic where they belong.

Happy Christmas

"Rest on the Flight into Egypt," 1879, by Luc-Olivier Merson.

“Rest on the Flight into Egypt,” 1879, by Luc-Olivier Merson.
I’m taking the week off from writing. While black bears and moose couldn’t stop me, the two tiny tots arriving tomorrow have a way of stopping all progress.
This Christmas season has been one of trial among my friends. That includes a homeless family, a dead son, and a friend with advanced cancer.
“You don’t have to look very far to count your blessings,” my mother would say.  I would in turn wonder why it is only in the face of others’ disasters that we remember to thank God for our own safe-passage. But that’s how our minds work.
I grew up in a home where joy was muffled by grief. Christmas, like no other season, was when the pain came poking through the shroud. My mother checked out by working through the holiday; my father checked out by drinking through it. Parents model a lot of things to their kids, and one of them is how to be happy.
Grief teaches us that happiness is a tissue so fine that it can crumble in our hands. Peace teaches us that this doesn’t matter, that we must learn to accept our moments of joy regardless of our fear.
It’s not enough to just enumerate one’s blessings—we must also live them. Mine are mostly going to be here this week. So rather than work, I’m going to play with babies, cook with my daughters, and even watch TV with them.
Immanuel—God with us—takes many forms. A Merry Christmas to you all.

World’s Okayest Mom

Lonely rubber ducky in Camden harbor.

Lonely rubber ducky in Camden harbor.
You might know my young friend Sandy Quang. She was my painting student for a long time, then my studio assistant, and sometimes my workshop monitor. Most recently, she worked at Camden Falls Gallery.
Sandy’s parents run a restaurant called Dac Hoa. It’s a small eatery on the edge of downtown Rochester, known for its fresh Vietnamese, Thai and Chinese food. Ha, Kahn and Nu know this range of cuisine because their families left China during the Chinese Civil War and settled in Vietnam. After the fall of Saigon they moved along again, eventually ending up in Rochester. I respect them for their courage, hard work, and integrity. Through Sandy, we’ve become friends.
"My parents’ restaurant," graphite on paper, approx. 16X18, 2008, by Sandy Quang.
“My parents’ restaurant,” graphite on paper, approx. 16X18, 2008, by Sandy Quang.
When I was a kid, I had a crush on an imaginary boy called Homer Price. I loved him because he was nice and could fix anything. Years later, I met him in the form of a gangling high school student. We’ve had four kids and grown grey together.
At the time, I didn’t know anything about Homer Price’s creator, Deer Isle’s own Robert McCloskey. I’d never seen his other children’s book classics. But I raised my own kids on a steady diet of his books. My youngest took Make Way for Ducklings very much to heart. The lad loved everything about ducks. “Well, that’s cute,” I thought. His obsession about ducks was just one of those things that were in the background of our collective family consciousness.
And then he was slightly older and we were at Dac Hoa during a Christmas season very much like this. He was restive and annoying, as little boys are wont to be. Looking to amuse him, I showed him the roasted ducks in the window. To this day, I have no idea why I thought this would be a good idea.

"Sandy’s parents’ restaurant interior," graphite, approx. 18X24, 2008, by Zeyuan Chen.

“Sandy’s parents’ restaurant interior,” graphite, approx. 18X24, 2008, by Zeyuan Chen.
He dissolved into howling, violent grief. Our dinner, obviously, was ruined. The lad cried for days.
“That boy is going to be in therapy for years,” I thought ruefully.
Last week we were in Dac Hoa celebrating the same kid’s 20th birthday. I asked him if he remembered the incident with the ducks. My husband pulled an exasperated face. Nu laughed. And my son also laughed. I’m so relieved.
I simultaneously believe that parenting is our most important job and that kids make their way somehow despite it. I guess for this youngest one, “World’s Okayist Mom” was good enough.
Christmas is the season of grace-made-manifest through the incarnation of Jesus Christ. It’s nice to know I’m forgiven.

Merry Christmas!

Winter Landscape, 1811, Caspar David Friedrich
Our celebration of Christmas is heavily Germanic in origin, marrying the gift-giving and merrymaking of Saturnalia with Yule logs, Christmas trees, greenery, mistletoe and other northern European traditions.
Fir Trees in the Snow, 1828, Caspar David Friedrich
Caspar David Friedrich seems like a fitting painter for today. Born in the last years of the Enlightenment, he was a profound romantic, a German landscape painter who saw allegory and symbolism in everything. He was anti-classical and moody—in short the polar opposite of the Age of Reason. Yet if you look at his superb drafting and paint handling, you see that he was a technician of great skill.
Passage Grave in the Snow, 1808, Caspar David Friedrich
A strict adherence to rationalism shortchanges the human capacity for thought. We have blinding intuition, we have emotional response, and we have gut reactions. To deny any of these processes is crippling. A strictly linear thinker can’t make the leaps of creativity necessary to be inventive. A strictly intuitive thinker hasn’t got enough grounding in reality to be productive. A strictly emotional thinker is, often, just plain crazy.
Christmas itself commemorates something profoundly non-rational: the idea that God would come down to share our suffering, and lift the price of sin from our shoulders.
Early Snow, undated, Caspar David Friedrich
But critics of Christianity make a mistake in thinking that it is anti-rational. From the initial question of whether the universe had a cause, to the faith’s remarkable endurance, to the stunning internal logic within its books, the Bible is a complex and coherent document. I’ve just been reading the Books of Chronicles. On the one hand, they are the historical record of a series of kings. On the other hand, they set the stage for a great restoration that augurs the concept of grace. There are too many examples of this to even list.  If the Bible was the work of obscure sheep-wranglers from a two-bit kingdom in the Middle East, as its critics say, it represents a literary accomplishment with no parallel in history.
Trees in the Snow, 1828, Caspar David Friedrich
 Five people can read the Bible, and one of them will be struck dumb by it, and the other four will think, well, they can cross that off their list. For that one person, the Word becomes the organizing principle of his life, and he admits a relationship to the Living God that will change him forever.
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!


Literature. If you look closely, you’ll find Van Reid in there.
Why listen to me talk about art when you can look at windows from Bergdorf Goodman on 5th and 58th in New York City? Their theme this year is “Inspired” and their windows revolve around the arts.
The music window is everything you want from New York–brash, bubbly, shiny.
And it wouldn’t be New York without Broadway.
“We decided to base each window on a major art form, drawing equally from the fine arts, performing arts and applied arts. For our main windows, we settled on literature, architecture, theater, painting, music, dance, sculpture and film. Each window would be designed independently from the others. Each would be made from its own set of materials. But the entire set of windows would constitute a sort of eight-lesson course in art appreciation,” the store announced on its blog.
Sir Christopher Wren presides over the architecture window.
More than 100 artists and display artisans contributed to the windows, which take the store nearly a full year to finish.
The movies…
Happy holidays!
The Rochester window. Ice and monkey and ice tongs.

I will be teaching in Acadia National Park next August. Read all about it here, or download a brochure here

Black Friday!

Dame’s Rocket, 11X14, unframed, is a great reminder of Spring.
Today is my Black Friday un-sale.  This runs from 2-9, at 410 Oakdale Drive, Rochester, NY 14618. It includes plein air and studio work, framed and unframed, along with prints and notecards—everything 25-50% off.
That is—of course—so much better than being at Wal-Mart at 0:dark:30 this morning to buy some electronic toy you won’t even want by the time Christmas rolls around.
Spring Foliage, 11X14, unframed, features Rochester’s lilacs.
Among my less-than-brilliant ides was having this event the day after having 20 people here for dinner the night before. But an angel in the form of my daughter Mary tidied and mopped the house in the wee hours of the morning, so it doesn’t look much worse than it usually does.
Plus, my tecchie kids are all home today, so they can figure out how to set up this Square credit card reader and make it work.

Durand Lake, 16X20. All these unframed works are 50% off.
Several people have asked me whether there are images online of these paintings. I’ve been kind of busy making pies, so I just got it started this morning. Here’s the album; I’ll be adding details as I can. No, it’s not set up for online commerce; you can call me or send me a text or email and we will finish the sale.
Happy shopping!

I will be teaching in Acadia National Park next August. Read all about it here, or download a brochure here.