It’s not the subject that makes the picture

It’s what you bring to it. That’s true in life as much as in painting.

A wee little demo I did of water tumbling over rocks. I’m using the same watercolor kit as my students will use next week aboard American Eagle.

This week I’m on a ranch high above Pecos, NM. The owners and the cloud of dogs who usually trail after them are elsewhere. It’s just me, three horses and a donkey. “Aren’t you worried about being alone out there?” one of my workshop students asked me. No.

I had horses when I was young but it’s been a long time since I’ve handled them closely. They set a rhythm to my day. I block out time in the morning and evening to attend to them. Among the pinon and dust of a New Mexico September, I have long stretches of absolute silence. That’s a rarity in the modern world.

Donna finds serenity in the Pecos River.

We don’t form as tight a bond with horses as we do with our dogs, but the potential is there. In 1910 there were about 20 million domestic horses in North America, or around one for every six people. They lived and worked side-by-side with their humans with an intimacy we can’t imagine today.

The owner of Scout, Lucy, Duke and Jimmy (the donkey) is a tiny woman, but she bosses them with impunity. She’s their alpha human. I’m a stranger. Inevitably, like children, they had to test me.

The monkey business started on Tuesday evening, when I came out of the tackroom with an armful of hay to be mugged by the two geldings and a donkey. I’m half a foot taller and sixty pounds heavier than Jane, and I could not push those knuckleheads out of my way. They leaned on me, inevitably getting me to drop their supper. After I’d retrieved and separated it, they started fussing at each other.

Yves painting in the historic barrio of Santa Fe.

Duke bit Jimmy, and Jimmy kicked out at anyone who was nearby. I yelled. Jimmy laid back his ears, stuck out his lip, and brayed. He looked so much like an angry toddler that I started laughing. “I don’t know which one of you started it,” I yelled, “but you’re all grounded!” At that moment they reminded me powerfully of my own children back in the day.

The horses outweigh me, but I have an advantage: my opposable thumbs. On Wednesday, I scarpered out the back and around to the other side of their corral, where I distributed their hay before they realized where I was. Peace has reigned ever since in the Horse Kingdom.

I’ll horse-sit these darlings any time!

I love this place, but that doesn’t lessen my appreciation for my own home in Maine, or my workshop aboard American Eagle, which starts Sunday. Would I be this happy in a flat in a rust-belt city? It’s been almost forty years since I’ve lived that life, but I hope so.

I do an exercise with my workshop students where I ask them to paint a scene chosen by committee. It’s not the subject that makes the painting, it’s what they bring to it. That’s true of life as well. Obviously, crisis and grief are exceptions; we all go through seasons of loss, and we’re not expected to be happy in them. But in the general run of events, we are designed for happiness. If it eludes us, it behooves us to figure out why—and to fix it.

No blog next week, because there’s no internet on Penobscot Bay. Please, techies, never fix that!

Paint in beautiful Pecos, New Mexico, September 13-18, 2020

New Mexico’s a vastly different landscape, yet has the same long views and limpid light that so captivate me about Maine.

Dry Wash, by Carol L. Douglas

It takes a lot to get me to teach anywhere but Maine these days. But there’s another place I love to paint. I haven’t taught in New Mexico in more than a decade, and it’s time to go back.

The village of Pecos, NM lies along the Pecos River, which flows out of the Santa Fe National Forest. Nearby, Pecos National Historical ParkGlorieta Pass, and Pecos Benedictine Monastery provide superb mountain views. Ranches and small adobe settlements dot the landscape. This is a landscape of colorful skies, hoodoos, dry washes, pine wildernesses, horses, and pickup trucks. Yet it’s within commuting distance of Santa Fe, so accommodations, necessities and world-class galleries are just a short drive away.
Horses at a ranch in Pecos, NM. Photo courtesy Jane Chapin.
I first painted in the Pecos area during a plein airevent in 2018. I was supposed to range all over the state, but I loved Pecos so much I stayed right there. Then I came back the following winter. I’ve explored the ridges and canyons, the river valley, horse pastures, fallow bottomlands, and I think I have a great itinerary planned for you.

Old farmyard, Pecos, NM, by Carol L. Douglas. If I were going to buy a second home, this would be it.

I’m delighted to offer this opportunity in conjunction with the brand-new Pecos Art Center (about which I’ll be telling you more soon). This organization was founded to bring arts and culture to the local community. Each workshop instructor is asked to present a program for local school students before or after their workshop. This augments local art education and gives back to the local community. “In Pecos, we believe we live in a unique and authentic place and want to give something back to the community who has welcomed us to paint there,” said organizer Jane Chapin. “We want to preserve its character while leaving a footprint of opportunities for the next generation.”

Adobe and beautiful mountains. Photo courtesy Jane Chapin.
This workshop is aimed at helping painters refine their personal technique in plein air. All media are welcome: watercolor, pastel, oils and acrylics. This is an intensive class, with morning and afternoon on-site painting sessions and lunch-time demos. Classes are kept small so every student gets the attention they deserve.
My friend Jimmy Stewart critiquing my painting along the river bottom. Photo courtesy Jane Chapin.
Opportunities for accommodations are varied. There are seasonal rentals in the area, or commute up from Santa Fe if you want a more urban setting.
The workshop fee is $600. That includes five days of highly-personalized instruction and a social gathering on Sunday evening, where you’ll meet your classmates. Email me here for more information.
Snow at higher elevations (downdraft), by Carol L. Douglas
Carol Douglas has 20 years’ experience teaching students of all levels in watercolor, oils, acrylics and pastels. “Some teachers are good artists, and some artists are good teachers, but it is rare to find a good artist who is also a good teacher. Carol is one of them. She will teach you the fundamentals you need to know, which a lot of teachers gloss over without explanation, but she also takes you to the next level, wherever you are on the learning curve.” (David Blanchard)

George Stubbs, hipster

Whistlejacket, 1762, George Stubbs. (National Gallery, London)

“Why did George Stubbs not paint in a background in Whistlejacket?” is one of the most commonly-asked questions of art history. The short answer is, because he was such a good draftsman, he didn’t have to.

Stubbs himself related that he had placed the unfinished painting against a stable wall when Whistlejacket saw it. Thinking he was seeing another stallion rising to attack, the horse began “to stare and look wildly at the picture, endeavouring to get at it, to fight and kick it,” raising his handler off the ground. At that moment, Stubbs decided the painting was done.
That’s a great story, but it glosses over the fact that oil paintings are not usually developed as discrete subjects floating in empty space. The medium isn’t amenable to this kind of treatment. Oil paintings are generally developed as whole pieces, from the bottom layer up. Disregarding this requires the highest mastery of drawing, because there is no way to hide pentimentoon a plain background.
Mares and Foals Without a Background, 1762, George Stubbs
Whistlejacket was one of several equine portraits Stubbs painted in 1762 during a stay at Wentworth Woodhouse in South Yorkshire. He was there on the invitation of Charles Watson Wentworth, Marquess of Rockingham. A leading grandee of the Whig party, Rockingham had been educated on the Continent. In short, he was a rarified British peer, separated from the rest of us by money, education and breeding. According to his wife, his primary interests were gambling and horses.
Stubbs painted at least three paintings without backgrounds while at Wentworth Woodhouse. Mares and Foals Without a Background and ‘Whistlejacket’ and Two Other Stallions with Simon Cobb, the Groom are both arranged carefully on long empty canvases. Whistlejacketcontinues that formality, rising in a classical dressage air. Since Whistlejacket himself was a notoriously temperamental racing stallion, the pose is almost certainly a fiction.
Pangloss (“Rufus”), c. 1762, George Stubbs. (Indianapolis Museum of Art)
What strikes us as so modern about Stubbs’ horse silhouettes was probably a nod to classicism on his part, homage to the architectural friezes of Greece and Rome. This would have appealed to men of letters during the Age of Enlightenment. Stubbs went on to use the device in later animal and human portraits.
George Stubbs was born in Liverpool in 1724, the son of a currier. He worked with his father until the latter’s death in 1741, whereupon he was briefly apprenticed to a minor artist named Hamlet Winstanley. From then on, he was self-taught.
Stubbs was fascinated by anatomy, both equine and human. He spent six years studying anatomy at York County Hospital. Among his early works is a set of illustrations for a text on midwifery, from 1751.
Plate from The Anatomy of the Horse, 1766, George Stubbs.
In 1756, Stubbs embarked on a quixotic quest for equal knowledge about horse anatomy. Hanging a series of horse carcasses from the rafters of a barn in the village of Horkstow, over the course of 18 months he flayed and sketched layer after layer of equine tissue.
Stubbs created a set of frontal, lateral, and posterior views that would become the basis of his book, The Anatomy of the Horse: including a particular description of the bones, cartilages, muscles, fascias, ligaments, nerves, arteries, veins, and glands. This treatise was hailed as a groundbreaking work of artistic and scientific merit and was the foundation of his future career.
Stubbs was curious about anatomy to the end. His last unfinished project, begun in 1795, was A comparative anatomical exposition of the structure of the human body with that of a tiger and a common fowl. It was unfinished at the time of Stubbs’ death at the age of 81.

The un-peaceful plein air paintings of Sir Alfred Munnings

Charge of Flowerdew’s Squadron, 1918, Sir Alfred Munnings, Canadian War Museum
“I love it when a painter shows a little more than I had credited him or her with,” Victoria Brzustowicz wrote me earlier this month. “I had always dismissed Alfred Munnings as a facile society painter of horses and the beautiful people who owned them. Then I saw some more energetic pieces and I was impressed. These have the vitality and energy of Sorolla, I think.”
If I thought of Sir Alfred at all, I’ve only done so in passing, because his early twentieth-century horses are too twee for me. Then I came across the stupendous canvas, above, the Charge of Flowerdew’s Squadron, from the Canadian War Museum, and realized I had to reassess him.
Study of Lady Munnings Riding with Her Dogs on Exmoor, 1924, Sir Alfred Munnings, Munnings Art Museum
Raised in the English countryside, Munnings was apprenticed to a printer at the age of 14. He attended art school in his spare time. The loss of sight in his right eye in 1898, when he was twenty, did not affect either his drawing and painting skills or his ability to ride. He was married twice, both times to avid horsewomen. His second wife, Violet McBride, encouraged his career as a society painter, which resulted in his knighthood in 1944.
Munnings is famous for an inebriated defense of traditional painting, delivered to millions of listeners over the BBC. “Alfred, if you met Picasso coming down the street would you join with me in kicking his … something something?” he recalled Winston Churchill asking him.
Munnings volunteered for the Great War, but in his mid-thirties and blind in one eye, was deemed unfit. Instead, he processed tens of thousands of Canadian horses en route to the battlefields of France.
Major-General the Right Hon. JEB Seely on Warrior, 1918, Sir Alfred Munnings, Canadian War Museum
Eventually, he was moved forward to a horse depot on the Western Front. There he painted a field portrait of General Jack Seely astride his horse Warrior, above. During this painting, artist and models came under enemy fire.
Warrior participated in one of the last great cavalry charges in modern warfare, during the Battle of Moreuil Wood in 1918. Charge of Flowerdew’s Squadron (1918) is a scene from that engagement. Canadian Lieutenant Gordon Flowerdew led a charge against two lines of enemy, each about sixty strong, heavily armed with machine guns. Although about 70% of Flowerdew’s squadron were casualties, they managed to ride over the enemy lines twice, forcing them to withdraw. Flowerdew himself was fatally wounded. Though Moreuil Wood was taken and the German advance checked, a quarter of the men and half of the horses were lost.
Draft horses, lumber mill in the Forest of Dreux, 1918, Sir Alfred Munnings, Canadian War Museum
WWI was the last war in which horses played a critical part, but it was a crucial one. It has been estimated that some eight million horses, mules and donkeys died on both sides. For an artist who loved the beasts, sending them off to battle and painting them while they worked must have been terrible responsibilities.