Monday Morning Art School: the power of light

In a world obsessed with rawness, you could do worse than studying the Luminists.

Lumber Schooners at Evening on Penobscot Bay, 1863, Fitz Henry Lane, courtesy National Gallery of Art. The setting for this painting is, quite literally, out my back door.

Luminism is a distinctly American painting movement of the middle of the 19th century. It was chiefly concerned with the effects of light on the landscape. Significant painters of the movement included Fitz Henry LaneMartin Johnson HeadeSanford Gifford, and John F. Kensett. The latter two you might recognize as Hudson River School painters. In fact Luminism was closely related to the Hudson River School and painters like Frederic Edwin Church and Albert Bierstadt sailed very close to the wind of Luminism.

A fascination with light is something Luminism shares with Impressionism, but the path there is exactly opposite. Impressionism is what art historians call painterly—there are visible brushstrokes in the top layer. Luminism is what is called linear—modeling and distance are created with skilled drawing and brushstrokes are suppressed.

View of the Shrewsbury River, New Jersey, 1859, John Frederick Kensett, courtesy Rutgers University

In the Luminist world, light is generally hard. The soft, ambiguous atmospherics of Claude Monetor James Abbott McNeill Whistler were inconceivable to these painters. Attention is paid to detail, which is often picked out by some larger-than-life weather event. Atmospheric perspective is exaggerated for effect.

For this reason, scenes of mountain vistas and the ocean were especially popular. They allow us to see light playing itself out in all its variations. Fitz Henry Lane was a popular painter of the Maine and Massachusetts coasts, and his work is a compendium of Luminism’s themes. There’s extensive detail, an expanse of interesting sky, and careful attention to value.

There’s often an elevated viewpoint, where we are looking down on the scene in a very personal way. It’s a viewpoint that’s not quite possible in reality. It seats us right next to God, in effect.

The Artist Sketching at Mount Desert, Maine, 1864-1865, Sanford Robinson Gifford, courtesy National Gallery of Art. 

Luminism has no meaning divorced from its themes, which were intimately related to those of the Hudson River School painters: discovery, exploration and settlement. In their telling, America is a peaceful Eden where nature and human beings coexist peacefully. The schooner rests quietly at anchor; tilled fields nestle undisturbed below the mountains; There are no blizzards, tornadoes, or wolves to disturb the balance. There is only that sublime light from the heavens.

Hudson River School artists believed that the American landscape was a reflection of God. Luminism, in particular, is connected with Transcendentalism, which saw a close link between the spiritual and physical worlds.

This has to be set against the times in which these paintings were created. It was a period of fast settlement and rapid industrialization, particularly in the east coast where these painters sold their work. Luminism was painting an America that—if it existed at all—was short-lived and vanishing.

Cotopaxi, 1862, Frederic Edwin Church, courtesy Detroit Institute of Arts. Church showed Americans the whole New World through a Luminist lens.

At the same time, there was an intense curiosity about parts of the country that most people had never seen. That’s why tens of thousands of people were willing to pay 25¢ each to see Church’s Niagaraon exhibit. The massive, glowing canvas was a proxy trip to the Niagara Frontier. And Church could, with a flick of his brush, conveniently excise all the people who lived and worked in Niagara at the time.

The tags Hudson River School and Luminist came long after both movements had ended. They were initially dismissive. Impressionism, Post-Impressionism and Abstraction had taken the western art world by storm. Careful brushwork and drawing were filed in the back of our consciousness. The cognoscenti considered them quaint. But they’ve always had their fans in Middle America.

Much can be learned from these painters in regards to light. And it hurts nobody to know how to use the brush carefully and discreetly at times, to feather, brush and model with delicacy and intention. In a world obsessed with rawness, you could do worse than studying the Luminists.

Portland Museum of Art’s new admissions policy

If you’re 21 or younger, it’s free, whether you’re from Maine or Madrid.
Redbud Tree in Bottom Land, Red River Gorge, Kentucky, April 17 1968, 1979, Eliot Porter, dye transfer print, courtesy Portland Museum of Art. All pieces in this post are part of their permanent collection.
In my youth, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery offered free admission. If it was too rainy to go to the cemetery or the park, our parents took us to the art gallery. By the time I was aware of my surroundings, it was as familiar to me as my street was. As a teenager and young adult, I continued to visit it regularly. My keen interest in art history started there.
Two Men in a Canoe, 1895, Winslow Homer, watercolor on gray laid paper, courtesy Portland Museum of Art
Beginning tomorrow, Maine’s Portland Museum of Art will be free for anyone 21 or younger. (This extends the museum’s current policy, which is free admission to kids age 14 and younger.) If they sign up for the Susie Konkel Pass, they also will be able to attend free film screenings and receive other benefits.
Mount Katahdin from Millinocket Camp, 1895, Frederic Edwin Church, courtesy Portland Museum of Art
The age of free art galleries is mostly over, which means that parents don’t take their kids to visit much on rainy Saturday afternoons. There are, of course, still hold-outs: the Smithsonian, the Scottish National Gallery, the National Gallery in London, the National Gallery of Victoria, to name a few.
Many museums offer ‘free days’ or limited kids passes. But mostly, it costs money to get in the door. That’s just one more nail in the coffin for kids’ exposure to art, which has been on a downward slide since No Child Left Behind excluded art and music from the nation’s core curriculum.
Beaver Dam Pond, Acadia National Park, 2009, Richard Estes, courtesy Portland Museum of Art.
The stiff admission charged by large museums ($25 for MoMA and the Met, for example) distorts the museum experience. Visitors by necessity rush through and see the highlights of the collection, whizzing past the tiny gems. The farcical end of this kind of experience is the reduction of culture to a selfie with the Mona Lisa.
Susie Konkel, who paid for the Portland Museum’s policy expansion, is a retired teacher from Cape Elizabeth. That’s about all I can find about her on the internet, but it’s an unusual profile for a philanthropist. “Education’s always been very important to me,” she told Maine Public Radio. “And I think every child—not just in Maine—every child around the world should have the opportunity to experience the arts. And they get about 9,000 children here each year, into the museum. And this will just make it endless!”
Castine Harbor, 1852, Fitz Henry Lane, courtesy Portland Museum of Art
As a nation, we spend a lot of time trying to puzzle out why our popular culture seems so crude and violent. Perhaps it’s because we’ve cut off access to refinement in the form of fine art and music.
Thank you, Ms. Konkel, for trying to reverse this trend. I like to imagine cliques of teenagers stopping by the Portland Museum to catch a movie. May many, many of them take advantage of your generosity.

Images of Maine’s past

A new acquisition which you can’t see until next summer, and thousands of historic photos you can browse at any time.

The Lumber Schooner, Fitz Henry Lane, 1850, Penobscot Marine Museum

This summer an important painting by Fitz Henry Lane was donated to the Penobscot Marine Museumin Searsport. The Lumber Schooner has close ties to the local community. It’s been in the same family from the time it was painted in 1850 until it was left to the museum by the late Ellen Guild Moot.

Edward Dyer Peters was born in Blue Hill, ME in 1785. He and his brother John entered the lumber business in Ellsworth before he was fifteen years old. Ellsworth, located on the Union River, was a major lumber port. For example, in 1859, when the town’s population was 4,009, Ellsworth had nine sawmills, eight box-makers, thirteen shipbuilders, eight brickyards, five pail factories, two gristmills, one tannery, one carding machine, one pottery maker, two edge tool factories, and a carriage manufacturer.
Ship in Fog, Gloucester Harbor, ca. 1860, Fitz Henry Lane, Princeton University Art Museum
At that time, the lumber trade in Maine was speculative. Lumber was cut here and shipped to Massachusetts, where it fetched whatever ship captains could get for it. In 1811, Peters founded the Davenport, Peters Co. and moved to Boston to act as a wholesale lumber agent. He maintained an inventory and sent orders back to Maine, thus establishing a stable price structure for Maine wood products. When he died in 1856, he was a very wealthy man.
By 1850, when this painting was made, Fitz Henry Lane was Boston’s most popular maritime painter. Born in Gloucester, he was steeped in saltwater. He likely would have followed his father into the sail-making trade had he not been paralyzed as a toddler from ingesting jimsonweed. After an abortive apprenticeship as a shoemaker, he returned to his first calling, art. He was largely self-taught, refining his skills while working at a lithography shop in Boston.
Clipper Ship ‘Southern Cross’ Leaving Boston Harbor, 1851, Fitz Henry Lane
In addition to his views of Boston, Gloucester and the Maine coast, Lane did commissioned portraits of sailing vessels for Boston merchants. This painting, one of three bought by Peters, was probably such a commission, since it’s one of the modest lumber schooners of Maine upon which Peters built his fortune.
Lane often painted boats in close proximity. Whether this was artistic license or reflected the activity of the coastal shipping scene, I can’t say. Coastal waters were very busy in the 19th century. Penobscot Bay often saw more than 10,000 sailing vessels in a season. Shipping by water was (and remains) the cheapest way to move cargo long distances. 
Salem Harbor, 1853. Fitz Henry Lane, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Here, the lowly lumber schooner is seen off Gloucester’s Eastern Point Light, Boston-bound. There’s another coastal schooner, a fishing schooner, and a lone boat out fishing, all in a small patch of flurried water. Imagine creating such a scene of trucks on Interstate 90, and you begin to see the genius of Fitz Henry Lane.
You’ll have to wait until May to see this painting, but Penobscot Marine Museum has a great collection of maritime photographs that are perfect for curling up in front of the fire. The National Fisherman Collection is a collection of pre-digital images of the commercial fishing industry. In 2012, Diversified Communications of Portland, ME, donated the magazine’s entire pre-digital archive to the Museum. Curators have already digitized, catalogued and released thousands of images. If you can’t find something there to amuse yourself, you’re not even trying.

Old subject, new technology

Yesterday I went all digital on a schooner. Allowing for the learning curve, this has potential.

Underpainting of American Eagle passing Owl’s Head, by Carol L Douglas
I’ve toyed for a while with the idea of doing a large, Fitz Henry Lane-influenced scene of the American Eagle under sail. A large canvas of a boat in motion is not something you do en plein air, but the studies I’ve done in harbor certainly influence it.
A student recently asked me if I like painting ‘just water.’ I do, indeed, because to me there’s no such thing as ‘just water.’ There’s light, reflection, movement, the skipping of the wind, clouds, and promise. I showed him the wave study I did while cruising on the American Eagle last spring. That is the closest I get to a purely personal painting, one that has meaning for me and nobody else.
This field study of waves from last summer was the genesis of the painting above.
It was also the genesis of this larger idea. What better landform to use as a background than Owl’s Head, which sits just outside Rockland harbor, and where I paint many times every season?
When enlarging a sketch to a final composition, I generally use gridding, which I’ve explained here.  It’s laborious and time consuming. It’s also extremely accurate and allows you to execute a pretty decent grisaille on the fly, depending on how much time you want to spend.
The horizon has to be straight on a nautical painting, or else the oceans will run dry.
My daughter gave us a cast-off video projector last year. Yesterday I decided to experiment with it. I haven’t used projection to enlarge a sketch since the demise of 35mm slides. 
These projectors are designed to shoot an image high on a wall, so they are set up to correct for the keystone effect, which is the distortion you get when you project an image at an angle. Once I managed to undo that correction, squaring the image was relatively easy. Making it exactly the size of my canvas was harder.
Level and square relentlessly.
I started with relentless leveling and squaring. The easel was perpendicular to the floor, the canvas leveled, the two lower corners the exact same distance to the projector. Even with all those preparations, the image was slightly canted. Fixing that took a lot of fussing.
From there, it was just a question of tracing the lines in the original sketch. However, my ability to see differences in value was vastly reduced.
I couldn’t see values but it was a neat optical effect.
Lest you think tracing is the answer to all your drawing problems, it’s still possible to make drafting errors. Note the slight sag in the bowsprit. I’ll fix that in the next iteration.
With all my fussing, I was able to finish underpainting this 30X48 canvas in a single day. There’s promise there.
It’s anemic compared to my usual gridding, but I still think it has potential.
I tell my students to use a combination of ultramarine and burnt sienna for their initial drawing, but in practice I generally use leftover paint for this step. The exact color isn’t nearly as important as the value. Yesterday, I chose an old tube of Williamsburg Brown Pink. I don’t use this brand because I find the pigment load in the blues to be too low for my style. 
That wasn’t true with this color. This morning my whole studio is swimming in a butternut-colored haze. There is brown stain everywhere—creeping along the canvas, in my brushes, on my hands, possibly in my hair.

Hand over fist

Unfinished, by Carol L Douglas, 16X20, oil on canvas. (The color is distorted because it was dark when I shot this.)
Over the past three years, I have become enamored of the luminist paintings of Fitz Henry Lane. That doesn’t mean I want to paint like him, but I love the space and light in his paintings. I started this boat painting with him in mind, but I did not look at his work. I wanted his technique to suffuse my understanding, rather than push me toward painting like him.
If I’m unsure about the composition, I compare it to this grid I learned in a workshop taught by Steven Assael. 
Sailboats are elegant, and they glide like living creature across the sea. I generally paint them at dock because it is extremely difficult to paint them en plein airin motion, (although I did give it a try at Rye in 2013).
My underpainting. The sky is a complete fabrication. I need to recapture some of the bluntness of this when I finish the painting.
 Last summer, Howard Gallagher of Camden Falls Gallery took Lee Boyntonand me out to see the start of the Eggemoggin Reach Regatta . (It’s a great gallery owner who cares that much for his painters.) It made me passionately want to paint boats in motion.
My reference photo, taken at the start of the Eggemoggin Reach Regatta.
On Monday, I wrote about consistencyand how your style is ultimately your brand. A reader asked how one can experiment, grow and change while still being consistent. Artists know that the creative process never ends; you wrestle through one technical problem only to be faced by another.
Ironically, that was the precise problem I found myself facing. I went back to first principles. I drew and drew the boat until I was confident about its proportions. Since I was unsure of how to divide the space, I used a grid taught by Steven Assael.
Boston Harbor was painted by Fitz Henry Lane around 1850. 
The end result taps into Lane’s luminism, but is by no means a slavish copy. It is both consistent with my work and yet it explores new material. It’s not finished, but it is a good start.

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