Alien Mango Tree Progression

The first rule of composition is, “don’t be boring.”

Step one of Maggie Daigles Alien Mango Tree Progression, as she called this exercise. She drew 90° from this, and flipped it because she liked this view better.

Composition is an enormous subject, rather like the Chinese language, and it is hard to shoehorn into a single class or blog post.

The first step is to unlearn what we think we know. We’ve all been corrected and criticized with petty compositional ‘rules’. Heck, I preach petty rules myself. But most of them are, to some degree, questions of fashion. All are breakable—once you understand why they were formulated in the first place.

Step two of Maggie’s process; she saw the large shape at left as a rock but didn’t like it.

Consider the rule that tells students to not center their subject, or to follow the Golden Ratio or the rule of thirds in space division. The point is to be interesting, but it would be far more sensible to ask yourself: “What’s the best way to include everything that needs to be in my painting, and nothing more?”

The mathematical approach is dogmatic, rigid and boring; asking yourself the compositional question provokes thought. In freeing ourselves from those rules, we might just realize that symmetry can be visually powerful, especially in an age that rejects it.

Maggie’s finished painting. Since I have no idea what a mango tree looks like, I can’t judge its realism, but I can say it’s much more interesting than your typical painting of a beach.

I teach realistic painting, but that’s no reason to disregard abstraction. I’ve written before about my admiration for the color-field painter Clyfford Still. I learn a lot from his paintings because they’re all about composition, with no pesky details thrown in.

In class this week, I resurrected an old exercise I haven’t used in at least a decade (and never on Zoom). I asked my students to create monochrome abstractions and then turn them into realistic paintings. The details of that realistic framework didn’t matter, but I chose the beach as our subject. That’s because the beach is an amorphous concept. It can be anything you want it to be. The clouds, the surf, the dunes, the rocks, and even the sun are all manipulable. Put them anywhere you want.

Paula Tefft did the same exercise in watercolor.

If you doubt that’s true, look at the mature work of Winslow Homer through a very blurry lens. He’s nominally painting the coast of Maine but what he’s really doing is experimenting with the play and placement of light and dark, particularly the relationship between diagonals.

Reality should not be the artist’s guiding light. Nor should another painter. What separates you from the masses of other aspiring painters is what comes from within—the entirety of your experience and learning up to the point at which you pick up a brush.

Paula’s finished beach scene.

“Students of painting should devote more energy to educating themselves about their own idiosyncrasies and less energy on trying to find that perfect paintbrush, brand of paint, canvas etc. that will make them be able to paint like ‘so and so’,” Kyle Buckland wrote recently. “You can paint a compelling design with mud on a stick if you know what you want to do.”

The only absolute compositional rule I believe in is, “don’t be boring” (although heaven knows I break it enough). Of course, I can make some practical suggestions to help you avoid lack of excitement, but if your design isn’t thrilling to you, it won’t be to anyone else, either. That requires digging in, and that’s best done in the design phase, not when you’re being bothered by the pesky details of reality.

What comes after art classes?

Painting is a lifelong exercise in self-guided learning.

Clary Hill Blueberry Barrens, watercolor on Yupo, available through Maine Farmland Trust Gallery, by Carol L. Douglas

A student asked me why I teach all levels in my classes. Indeed, adding a brand-new painter to the group can sometimes be difficult, as I need to spend a little more time with that person at the start. I’ve found, however, that almost everyone needs the same lessons repeatedly. Painters make the same errors at almost every level—of value, color-mixing, contrast, line, and focal points. It takes a surprisingly amount of time to convince students of the value of process, including value sketches and drawing.

My own experience in taking master classes hasn’t been good; they’ve been less about mastery and more about marketing. That’s not to indict all painting teachers, but unless the teacher knows you in advance, they know very little about your painting level before you start the class, even with portfolio review.

Clary Hill Blueberry Barrens, oil on canvas, available through Maine Farmland Trust Gallery, by Carol L. Douglas

With twelve or fewer students in a class, I have time to meet each person where they are and encourage them a little farther along the road. This is very intensive, and I blow it more than I like. Yesterday I had a painter whom I should have pushed harder on establishing a focal point, but I didn’t realize that until dinnertime.

I still occasionally take classes myself, although it’s not common. It happens when I run across a painter who’s doing something I want to master. I took Poppy Balser’s watercolor workshop a few years ago, because Poppy can make a line of dark spruces shimmer against the sea. I wanted to know how she made that value jump in watercolor.

There are other painters I would like to learn from. Dick Sneary and Dave Dewey are both consummate watercolorists, and I admire their drafting and composition skills tremendously. Likewise, I admire Lois Dodd’s ability to drive to the emotional nut of a scene by removing all extraneous matter. And I often return to Clyfford Stillto think about composition.

Part of my class on Clary Hill, photo courtesy of Jennifer Johnson.

An old and reliable way to learn is to copy master works. I recently started drawing frames from Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko comic books. This led to copying images from the first great cartoonist, Peter Paul Rubens.

But, in general, I’m done studying with others. “How do you know when that happens?” my student asked me. In my case, I realized that the time I was spending traveling to the Art Students League of New York from Rochester would be better spent in my own studio working.

“What comes after I’m done studying with you?” she asked. Go out and paint (which students should be doing anyway). If you like the social side of classes, find a painting buddy or join a painting group. We make the most progress when we’re picking up our brushes several times a week.

Jean Cole’s painting on Clary Hill. She just came back from my Pecos workshop. The goal ought never to be to make ‘mini-me’ painters, but to develop each person’s own style.

I’m doing a FREE Zoom workshop on Friday, October 2 at 5 PM. Consider it Happy Hour, and join me with a glass of wine, a spritzer, or whatever else. We’re going to talk about studying painting. What should students expect to get from a workshop or class? What should teachers offer? Have you always wanted to try painting but been afraid of classes? Are you taking classes but want to get more out of them? Join us for a free-ranging discussion.

While this is in advance of my Find your Authentic Voice in Plein Air workshop in November in Tallahassee, everyone is welcome. There’s absolutely no charge or obligation. Signups are already brisk, so register soon!

More Winslow Homer than Clyfford Still

Mystery boxes for Cape Elizabeth provide an opportunity for a design experiment.

Surf #1, by Carol L. Douglas. 

Next weekend is Cape Elizabeth Land Trust’s 13thannual Paint for Preservation. They’re steering their course through the current crisis with a hybrid event. We will paint live in Cape Elizabeth (and you can still come watch us from a safe distance) on August 28-30. The auction will be online, ending on September 13.

This event always includes something they call mystery boxes. Painters provide up to three finished paintings that are then sealed in 10X10 inch black boxes. These are sold for $250 each. Buyers might get one by me, or by Ken DeWaard or Alison Hill or Colin Page or Jill Hoy or any of the other artists in this event.

The shapes on which it was based. Only the black shapes were transcribed, but I neglected to take photos at that point. Oops.

Since these artists generally command much higher prices, the mystery boxes are always snapped up. I like to imagine them being traded like baseball cards long after the event is over.

Surf #2, by Carol L. Douglas.

I’m an admirer of the color-field painter Clyfford Still. I grew up wandering amongst his enormous canvases at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. His work may look like torn paper strips, but to get that effect is anything but simple. Clyfford Still—like many painters of his time—is extremely rational. There’s little accidental or intuitive painting in his work, although he did layer impasto on with a palette knife. I find it difficult to read enough from his surfaces to help me insinuate myself into his decision-making. And I’d like to understand it more.

The shapes on which it was based.

Earlier this year I decided to copy passages from three of his painting onto 10×10 birch squares and sit with them for a while in my studio. A trip to the beach suggested that one of them might end up as a tidal pool. This turned out to be the most difficult painting and remains the most abstract. The other two designs became rocks and surf. In no case can I tell you how the patterns were arranged in Still’s original work, or what work they actually came from, because once they were transcribed onto the boards, I promptly forgot the originals. They became beautiful dark shapes, isolated from their original settings.

Tidal Pool, by Carol L. Douglas. All three of these paintings will be sold at Cape Elizabeth’s Paint for Preservation in the next few weeks.

One issue with painting rocks on the Maine shore is that they tend to arrange themselves in either horizontal bands or ellipses. These are essentially static figures. Neither tells the truth about how ledge works, which is to extend underwater in long grasping fingers, reaching up for the unwary mariner all the way to the Irish coast.

The shapes on which it was based. I was very sorry to lose that foreground diagonal but in practice it just ended up being irritating.

My main goal in thinking about Clyfford Still was to free myself from those coastal tropes. While I wasn’t concerned with maintaining any fidelity to him, I was mystified to see his influence diminishing and Winslow Homer’s rising. I shouldn’t have been surprised. Homer, too, is a magnificent composer, with great formal presence. His Prouts Neck studio was only a few miles from Cape Elizabeth, so the colors of his sea and sky are the same as those I see every day.

In the end, I learned some things, none of which are easy to put into words. I hope their mystery buyers like them as much as I do. What will I take from them onto the rocky shore of Zeb Cove next weekend? I’m not sure, but no experimentation is ever wasted—in painting or anywhere else.

Falling apart

A plea to use traditional materials and practices in painting, whenever you can.
American Landscape with Indian Camp, by Ralph Blakelock, showing the damage that can result from tinkering with technique.

Yesterday I mentioned the deterioration in Albert Pinkham Ryder’s paintings. He was not, by any means, the only painter whose work has suffered over time.
Prior to the 19th century, painters had a limited range of materials at their disposal: vegetable oils, waxes, plant gums and resins, and eggs, milk, and animal hides. Pigments were made by either grinding minerals or extracting dyes from plants and insects.  Some of the extracted pigments turned out to be fugitive (meaning they aren’t light-fast) but generally those old paintings are in remarkably good condition.
Holy Virgin Mary by Chris Ofili. Now, seriously, how does a conservator preserve elephant dung stuck to a canvas?
The 19th and 20th centuries were a period of constant modification of materials. Some changes have been inarguably for the better—for example, there would have been no Impressionism had there not been an explosion of new pigments in the mid-19th century.
Whenever I visit the modern collection at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery I am struck anew by how badly some of their paintings have aged.  20th century artists had no reason not to use the tremendous variety of synthetic materials that industry was creating—synthetic media, plastics, adhesives, and drying agents. As the definition of what constituted painting broke down, artists also incorporated materials the ancients would have understood to be ephemeral or beneath their calling: dung, straw, paper, urine, blood, etc.
Woman, by Willem de Kooning, 1965. He definitely experimented with obscure additives to keep his paints open longer, but so far scientists haven’t actually found any mayonnaise in his paintings.
Willem de Kooning, for example, allegedly mixed house paint, safflower oil, water, oil and egg in with his paints. Some surfaces of his paintings remain soft and sticky fifty years later, which has to present a bit of a problem for conservators. Anselm Kiefer has used lead, sand and straw in many of his paintings.
Learning to paint in the 1960s and 1970s, I used a medium made of equal parts varnish, turpentine and linseed oil, with a few drops of cobalt drier thrown in. Having seen the ghastly cracking of fifty-year-old paintings made with this medium, I decided that medium shouldn’t be a DIY project. Better to trust the scientists who work for the reputable paint manufacturers.
Mildew attacking orange paint in a Clyfford Still painting. Courtesy Clyfford Still Museum.
Another technique I discontinued is underpainting my oil paintings in acrylics. Certainly, oil-over-acrylic won’t delaminate the way acrylic-over-oil will, but who can say how the two paint systems will interact over time? I think it’s fine to paint in oils on acrylic-primed canvas, but any part of the painting that shows through (and that includes the toning) should be done in oils.
It was trendy a few decades ago to dismiss the archival aspects of painting, to embrace the ephemeral. If de Kooning is the equal of Rembrandt, why would we not want to see his works survive for the ages?
This post first appeared on October 6, 2013. I realize my use of Yupo is inconsistent with this viewpoint, but I believe it to be chemically compatible with watercolor. 

In looking for this, I came across posts about the 2013 government shutdown. The more things change…

Growing pain

The Yellow Christ, Paul Gauguin, 1889, is no longer the “art of the present” but it’s one of my favorites at the Albright-Knox. 
The Albright-Knox Art Gallery has announcedthat it plans an addition to its venerable space on Elmwood Avenue in the city of Buffalo. While it’s true that the current 19,000 square feet of floor space is crammed, one wonders—of course—who is going to pay for the addition.
The museum’s collection contains about 6,740 works, of which it can only exhibit about 200 at a time, according to Thomas R. Hyde, president of the museum’s board. “Campus development is no longer an option; it is a necessity,” he added. “We are, in many ways, a middleweight museum with a heavyweight collection.” And then he mentioned the cracks in the marble floors of the gallery’s original building.
(Veterans of capital campaigns will recognize that last gambit: throw in some deferred maintenance and people are supposed to stop kvetching about major changes.)
Side of Beef, Chaim Soutine, c. 1925, is another of my favorite Albright-Knox pieces.
Meanwhile, gallery director Janne Siren insists that plans are still in the ‘conversation’ phase. Having said that, the board has been rattling the can for expansion since publication of their 2001 strategic plan.  “Siren took over the directorship of the Buffalo gallery shortly after city fathers in Helsinki, Finland rejected a plan he had spearheaded to build a large Guggenheim museum there using public funding,” reported WGRZradio.
In 2007 the Albright-Knox Art Gallery deaccessioned a Roman bronze sculpture that subsequently netted $28.6 million at Sotheby’s. It was part of a larger deaccessioning of works that fell outside the ‘core mission’ of the gallery, which then-director Louis Grachos defined as “acquiring and exhibiting art of the present.” Alert Buffalonians immediately wondered what that meant for their own favorite works.
The deaccession vote was approved only on the contingency that the funds raised would be used to buy additional artwork. That meant that the money from the sale would be added to the paltry $22 million acquisitions endowment. (The overall endowment of the museum was then about $58 million.)
Being from Buffalo, I first visited the Albright-Knox while in diapers. Deaccessioning the Roman sculpture and clearing that exhibition space for other work was the right thing to do. But I share the Buffalo cynical mind, and I have my doubts about the viability of this project.
Buffalo is now half the size it was the year I was born, and there’s no sign that the population drain will abate any time soon. Clearly the board is counting on tourists to make up their numbers, and with the elegant expansion of the Burchfield-Penney Art Centeracross the street, an argument can be made that an arts corridor is possible on Elmwood Avenue.

La Maison de la Crau (The Old Mill), Vincent van Gogh, 1888, is another Albright-Knox piece that can no longer be termed ‘of the present.’ 

But that doesn’t address the question of how it will be paid for, or where the expansion will go. The Albright-Knox is landlocked, with Delaware Park at its front and Elmwood Avenue by its back door. Any kind of significant expansion would infringe on its parking lot, its neighbors, or the park.
1957-D No. 1, Clyfford Still, 1957. The Albright-Knox has a large collection of Still’s paintings. Last time I was there, I noticed how many 20th century paintings needed conservation. It’s not as sexy as expansion but still necessary. 
I await future developments with great interest.

Message me if you want information about next year’s classes and workshops.

Abstract-Expressionism bails me out

Underpainting of a hailstorm. That’s painting #6 underpainted; one more to go.

When I had a composition problem on this underpainting of a hailstorm, I reached back to an old friend: the color field painter Clyfford Still.

Living on the Lake Plains as I do, I know that a level field is perfect for growing crops, but not so attractive for painting. It resolves into bands—a border of green at the bottom, an expanse of gold, a distant, straight hedgerow of green, and then the sky. (This is the same problem with painting Lake Ontario, with its regular shoreline.)
1956-D, 1956, by Clyfford Still
Clyfford Still’s compositions—while emphatically non-representational—still carry the whiff of the natural world about them. In part, this comes from their texture: they may be of color fields, but they are gloriously impasto. But in part it comes from the shapes themselves, which are evocative of the real world.
One of Still’s devices was to lay a contrasting band right along the edge of his canvas, which is then elegantly and perfectly balanced against the other shapes in his canvas. So when I find myself at a loss about how to deal with that edge band of grass that always shows up in a flat landscape, I go and potter among Still’s paintings for a while.
1952-A, 1952, by Clyfford Still
Perhaps it is because I grew up with them. Buffalo’s Albright-Knox Art Gallery owns 33 paintings dated between 1937 and 1963, and they are as familiar to me as my own skin.
That’s small potatoes compared to his oeuvre. The majority of his paintings were never sold in his lifetime and are now on display at the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver.

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!