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.

And that’s why we can’t have nice things

Fences protect fools from the view. Unfortunately, they also separate the rest of us from it.
Rocky, by Carol L. Douglas. 

Last summer I painted a rocky outcropping at Fort Williams for Cape Elizabeth Land Trust’s Paint for Preservation. It is a long finger of granite pointing straight into the ocean, as dramatic as any point at Acadia, but only minutes from downtown Portland. And therein lies the problem. People were constantly crawling out to the end of the rock to take selfies. I watched a couple encourage their kids to do it. The drop is easily long enough to kill, and the surf below will take what the rocks don’t.

The foolishness of all these visitors was manifest in their footwear, which ranged from flip-flops to sandals. In two-and-a-half days I saw only one properly-shod climber. He had a safety mat and was practicing some kind of technical descent.
Kaaterskill Falls, by Carol L. Douglas
It reminded me of another popular tourist spot that’s also legendary among plein airpainters. That’s Kaaterskill Falls, a two-tier, 260-foot-tall waterfall in the Catskills. This was, in many ways, the heart of the Hudson River Schooland where plein air painting in America was born. When I first visited, it was easy enough to believe you were alone in the primeval wilderness. You approached the falls the same way as Thomas Cole, Frederic Edwin Church, and other great painters did, up a steep, 2.6-mile trail with very little in the way of safety improvements.
The last time I painted there was in 2014, with Jamie Williams Grossman and other friends from New York Plein Air Painters. It was shocking to see how many people crawled around the lip of the falls and its access trail wearing terrible footwear. That summer two visitors fell to their deaths.  Access was closed for 2015 while they made safety upgrades. When it reopened the following summer, there was another fatality.
The view of that rocky promontory is now obscured by a fence. (Photo courtesy of Karen Lybrand)
Inevitably, the state of Maine had to fence off the rocky point I painted before someone falls to their death.
Artist Karen Lybrand walks at Cape Elizabeth almost every day, and sent me photos of the new fence. “I’m sure the risk-takers will still find a way to take selfies on the cliff rocks,” she commented. Someone will feel the need to get past the safety restrictions, resulting in more safety restrictions.
You can see trail wear around the rocks. (Photo courtesy of Karen Lybrand.)
Maine was projected to have around 40 million visitors in 2018. They’re not necessarily from places where people understand the risks of the natural world, or are expected to take responsibility for their own safety. Their attitude toward wilderness will inevitably affect our access to wilderness.
I’ve done that painting from exactly the low angle I wanted; I couldn’t paint it again, but I don’t want to, either. And it’s perfectly paintable from over the fence; it just won’t have the same looming presence.
A 1920s postcard showing the Marginal Way approaching Perkins Cove in Ogunquit. That was before the path was so heavily traveled.
There are any number of coastal views that would be diminished with such a fence. They’re protected only by their isolation, and even that is slowly eroding as America’s population grows.
These are stunning views from places that are perfectly safe—until you stray from the path and do something stupid. But we can’t allow people to reap the consequences of their bad decisions in our litigious society, so they will be fenced off one by one.

Elegy for a house

I have no idea what the next chapter in this house’s history will be, but for many years it was a haven for New York plein airpainters.
Kaaterskill Falls, by Carol L. Douglas

If the legal system creaks along as it should, an important property will pass out of the plein airworld today. This is Jamie Williams Grossman’s home in Palenville, NY. Jamie is married to New York State Supreme Court Justice Victor G. Grossman. Vic is required to live in his district, which covers Westchester and four other counties. When it came time for them to downsize, it was the Catskill house that had to go.

The house is a long, open structure, originally built as a barn for the farm across the road. Its conversion was top notch—steel stairs, a large open kitchen, and pleasant, airy rooms. The foundation rested on bedrock which intruded poetically into the basement. Along one side of this lower level, Jamie built a long, sunny studio. When she was in residence, so too were her birds.
Clouds over the Catskills, by Carol L. Douglas
To get there, you turned off a local road and dropped sharply down a gravel lane that seemed to peter out in scrub. Even when you knew where you were going, it was easy to miss.
The property is dotted with waterfalls. Some are seasonal. If you felt so inclined, you could hike to one of the more remote ones. The most beautiful passed right under the driveway. Dropping rapidly down from the road, it broke and crashed on huge granite boulders before burbling away in a small stream. I once dropped a palette knife into the water. A year later, Jamie found and returned it, after inscribing it with my name so I wouldn’t lose it again.
Kaaterskill Creek, by Carol L. Douglas
A meadow sits below the house, surrounded on all sides by woods. A venerable old tree crabs Wyeth-like to the sky, skirted by an old stone wall. There was never a shortage of material, but the property itself wasn’t the reason most painters came to stay with Jamie. Her house was minutes away from some of the most storied sites of Hudson River School painting: Platte Clove, Kaaterskill Falls, North-South Lake, and the Pine Orchard, where the Catskill Mountain House once stood. Drive a few minutes more and you were at Cedar Grove, the home and studio of painter Thomas Cole, founder of the Hudson River School. Cross over the river and you were at Olana, the estate of Frederic Edwin Church.
I had the good fortune to be invited back many times. I was not alone. There are always fine artists around when I visited. Sometimes we spent as much time tweaking our gear as painting. It was on a hike up Kaaterskill Falls that Johanne Morin showed me her super-lightweight aluminum easel, which I then copied and have used ever since.
Olana overlook, by Carol L. Douglas
There were men among the painters who gathered there, of course. But the group always seemed weighted toward women. This was the first true sorority of serious, professional women painters I ever knew. I met lifelong friends in Jamie’s creek, and cemented relationships over her table.
I’ll still paint in that area, and I’ll still stop and see Jamie no matter where she is, but it’s the end of an important era in the New York plein air community. Jamie and Vic, from the bottom of my heart, thank you for your years and years of hospitality and support.

What drew them to Maine?

It’s all about the light…
In the mid-19th century working in natural settings and capturing natural light became particularly important to painters. The popularity of plein air painting increased with the introduction of pre-mixed paints in tubes and the rapid development of new, color-fast pigments.
And the granite outcroppings…
This movement arose more or less simultaneously around the world, including the Barbizon and Impressionist schools in France, the Newlyn painters in England, the Group of Seven painters in Canada, the Heidelberg School in Australia, and the Hudson River School in New York.
And the untouched wilderness…
A national awareness of Maine’s striking landscape was raised in large part by the Hudson River School artists. Thomas Cole, Frederic Church and Thomas Doughty were among the first nationally-known painters to capture Maine’s natural beauty.
At the time, New York was the unrivaled center of art in America, and the Hudson River painters were celebrities. Their paintings were travelogues for a nation hungry to learn about the vast, untamed wildernesses in their own country. It is no coincidence that they painted concurrently with our westward expansion and the first movements toward a national park system.
And the ocean breezes…
They established a tradition of urban artists finding inspiration in Maine. Born in Boston, trained and established in New York, Winslow Homer reached his artistic maturity in Maine. Many other painters have followed his lead, including George Bellows, Rockwell Kent, Edward Hopper, and Rackstraw Downes.
And the power and motion of the sea.

What impulse drove them to Maine? In part it was a desire to escape market-driven and competitive New York. It was also a response to the clear bright light, the bracing breezes, the constant motion of the sea, the sighing winds and the bending pines.
A storm sky forming over Mt. Desert Narrows.
Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me on the Schoodic Peninsula in beautiful Acadia National Park in 2015 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops! Download a brochure here.

Untouched Eden

Rocks at Kaaterskill Falls, 10X8, oil, by little ol’ me.
I am going to leave it to my friends to argue about whether Kaaterskill Falls—at 260 feet—is the highest waterfall in New York, but it’s certainly a contender. And no busloads of tourists are going to roar by and disgorge occupants for 15-minutes visits, either, since you have to bushwack up the side of a mountain to get to the cascade’s base.
The trail is typical for New York parks. Not developed, but safe enough.
Nevertheless, it’s a pilgrimage site for anyone interested in the Hudson River painters, for it is an iconic image for them, defining wilderness to the romantic 19th century mind. And not just painters got in on the act. William Cullen Bryant wrote an ode to the waterfall that ends in youthful death.

MIDST greens and shades the Catterskill leaps,
From cliffs where the wood-flower clings;
All summer he moistens his verdant steeps
With the sweet light spray of the mountain springs;
And he shakes the woods on the mountain side,
When they drip with the rains of autumn tide…

Not the smartest footwear.
The last time I hiked in sports sandals (on the T Lake Trail in Piseco, NY) I sprained my ankle, so I was loathe to climb without proper footwear. Jamie Williams Grossman loaned me a hiking pole, however, and  I gingerly set out after my fellow painters.
Kaaterskill Falls, 10X8, oil, by little ol’ me.
My pack is still too heavy, but the climb itself proved to be no problem. I made two sketches before it was time to leave. There are at least a hundred more there, awaiting a return visit.
There are still a few openings in my 2014 workshop in Belfast, ME. Information is available here.


North-South Lake, the Catskills, 9X12, oil on canvasboard, by little ol’ me.
I have been in many spectacular places around the world, but I never realized that one of them is practically in my backyard, and I’ve never seen it before. This is NYS Route 23A in Greene County.
This is most peculiar because I’ve been in Palenville (through which 23A passes) several times to hang with my buddy, painter Jamie Williams Grossman. I guess we just never turned right before.
North-South Lake, the Catskills, 9X12, oil on canvasboard, by little ol’ me (and not quite finished).
Palenville was a center of the Hudson River school. Thomas Cole, Frederic Church, and other notable painters stayed and worked there. (Palenville is also the fictional home of Rip van Winkle, although it’s surprising that he could get any sleep, between the waterfalls, the Great Horned Owls, and the frogs and peepers who sing in the night.)
Rain was on the forecast, but it was a far nicer day than anyone anticipated.
Route 23A passes several of the Catskill High Peaks before dropping into the Hudson Valley via Kaaterskill Clove.  The section I drove today runs along Kaaterskill Creek in the general area made famous by the Hudson River painters. It’s no surprise that they loved it; it’s stupendous: the narrow rock walls vary between green, grey and red, and great boulders are washed in spray as the creek bounces its way down the steep gorge.  
Beavers hard at work everywhere.
We met—a group of sixteen New York Plein Air Painters—at North-South Lake. This was a favorite subject of the Hudson River school, particularly Thomas Cole. For a long time, the prestigious resort hotels in the area made it synonymous with the Catskills.
The park includes the site of the Catskill Mountain House, built in 1823. It was one of the premiere vacation spots of the 19thcentury. Today, all that’s left is the view—miles and miles of the Hudson River at your feet—and the forest paths.
Never one to waste a canvas, Patricia McDermond painted over an unfinished nude, engendering all kinds of comments from bystanders.
Because I’ve never been to this park before, I had to spend some time poking around and looking at things before painting. It was a full day, ending much too soon, and I can’t wait to come back.
Tomorrow we will meet at the trailhead for Kaaterskill Falls, made famous by the Hudson River painters. At 260 feet, it’s impressive, even for someone raised in the shadow of Niagara Falls.

There are still a few openings in my 2014 workshop in Belfast, ME. Information is available here.