Monday Morning Art School: more interesting greens

We take a snapshot of a dancing, glowing landscape and what we end up with is a wall of dull green. We need to insinuate that original energy back into our picture.

Bracken Fern, 9X12, oil on canvasboard, available, Carol L. Douglas

Michael Wilcox published a watercolor pigment guide called Blue and Yellow Don’t Make Green. (Don’t buy it unless you can get it for a few dollars; its information is widely available on the internet, including here.)

Of course blue and yellow make green, but there are many routes to the same destination. I ask my students to avoid greens out of the tube, because they’re a sure-fired way of ending up with a monochromatic ‘wall of green’.

Apple Tree with Swing, 16X20, oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas

Instead, I ask them to mix their greens using a matrix. I’ve written about this many times, so I’m not going to repeat the concept, except to say that it’s critically important to avoid the soul-sucking deadness of greens out of a tube.

Impressionism changed the way we look at and mix color. From the beginning of painting, artists understood that to warm a color up, you add a warmer tone, and to cool a color down, you add a cooler tone. If that neutralizes the color, so be it. That’s in fact what happens in real life with real light.

The Impressionists started to treat color as a wheel. If you wanted a warmer, lighter green, you mixed it not with Naples yellow* but with its cadmium yellow neighbor. If you wanted a cooler, darker green, you mixed it with it not with black but with its Prussian blue neighbor.

Better yet, you didn’t mix them at all, but laid gold next to green to warm it up, and laid blue next to green to cool it down. These tiny, discrete spots of color are averaged by the human eye into a coherent image. A blizzard of brushstrokes and color resolves into a discernable truth.

Spring Greens, 8X10, oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas

If you look carefully at human skin, you realize it’s not ‘skin-tone’ but is quite varied. There are areas tinged with blue, yellow, purple, and red. Without that, a person would look dead. The same is true of foliage. There are moments in which the color leans toward khaki, yellow, teal, violet and orange. They are what give life to greens.

Unfortunately, these color shifts are subtle and almost never caught in the snapshots we use as reference photos. We talk about ‘photographic proof’ as if it is an absolute, although by now we all know that photos are terrible liars.

For guiding a painting, photos have their limits. They distort distance and spatial relationships. Modern point-and-shoot cameras (especially cell phones) blow contrast and chroma up, because that’s what buyers like. In exchange, subtle value and hue shifts disappear.

We take a snapshot of a dancing, glowing landscape and what we end up with is a wall of dull green. Does that mean we can’t ever paint from photos? Of course not (although you’ll never really master the intricacies of natural color if you don’t go outside). It means we have to insinuate that energy back into the picture, and the tool we have to do that with is color.

The Impressionists taught us that we can do that by extending the range of color in an object. I can give you many examples of artists who did that, starting with Claude Monet and Vincent van Gogh. Spend a few hours analyzing their paintings in terms of color range.

I made a series of four photoshopped trees, above, to illustrate the concept. The first one is the normal way we might paint trees. With each step, I’ve added color range to the tree, until the final version has every position in the color wheel.

The guiding principle is the color of light. I’ve kept (for the most part) cool colors in the shadows and warm colors in the highlights. When you first try this, it will seem artificial and possibly absurd, but persevere. It’s the key to dynamic greens.

*Today’s Naples yellow is a mix and almost as deadening to a painting as sap green.

Monday Morning Art School: Narrative painting

The public’s embrace of plein air painting tells us that our audience, too, is hungry for a good story.

The Veteran in a New Field, 1865, by Winslow Homer, courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art. Painted at the end of the Civil War, it’s a poignant metaphor for the coming demilitarization.  

The human mind is hardwired for narrative. Long before the written word was developed, our paleolithic ancestors were telling stories on cave walls. Imagination is fundamental to human life.

“Narrative painting” simply means that the painting tells a story. During most of art history, that was the norm. A narrative painting can illustrate a cycle of ideas, as did Egyptian tomb frescoes or Michelangelo’s ceilings in the Sistine Chapel. Or, a narrative painting can illustrate a single moment, as does Sandro Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus.

While narrative painting is well suited for mythology and religion, it was also used to transmit historical ideas. The Death of General Wolfe, for example, is a 1770 painting by Benjamin West that commemorates the deciding affray in the struggle between Britain and France for control of the New World. It could also be propaganda, as with IngresNapoleon I on his Imperial Throne. And it was used to convey moral truths ranging from early Renaissance genre paintings to the great French Social Realist art.

Haymaking (Les Foins), 1877, Jules Bastien-Lepage, courtesy Musée d’Orsay

And then came the Cult of Genius, when artists shifted from being craftsmen to being intellectuals. That was a product of the Age of Enlightenment, and among other ideas, it gave us the concept of the enfant terrible, offensive, rebellious artist. In fact, this individualism was so popular that it earned a label: Bohemianism.

The phrase “Art for art’s sake!” meant that all ‘true’ art should be divorced from moralizing, instructive, political, or utilitarian functions. In short, it was art only when it was useless, practically speaking.

“Art should be independent of all claptrap — should stand alone… and appeal to the artistic sense of eye or ear, without confounding this with emotions entirely foreign to it, as devotion, pity, love, patriotism and the like,” wrote James Abbott McNeill Whistler.

Cromwell and the corpse of Charles I, 1831, Paul Delaroche courtesy Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nîmes

Pure art would be art that resonated with all people, regardless of their language, histories, or creeds. That idea marks the beginning of modern art. Since it allowed for the development of Impressionism and other forms of modern painting, it was extremely useful. But like all good ideas elevated to the point of religion, it eventually became an impediment to creativity. Much of human understanding lies in culturally-derived images. The cognoscenti may understand the meaning of a pile of bricks on the floor, but the average viewer doesn’t, and doesn’t want to.

(And of course, the cognoscenti was just replacing one set of images with another, with the added insult of being exclusionary. Either you pretended to understand, or you marked yourself out as uncouth.)

Paintings which told a story were either from the dustbin of history, or the province of those odd American realists, the Wyeths. This was the world in which I came of age as a painter. I’m a natural-born storyteller, so it’s no surprise that I didn’t know what the heck I was doing, or where I belonged.

Then came the post-modern era, which we could call “meaning without art.” Extracting a scroll from one’s vagina, vomiting paint, or defacing a First Folio of Goya’s Disasters of War may have seemed witty, but hardly required skill or craftsmanship.

In the post-post-modern era, plein air painting—an exercise in realism—is one of the most significant art movements, despite being largely ignored by art institutions. Most plein air painters are didactic by nature. We are speaking about our love of nature, the fragility of our world, and more. The public’s embrace of plein air painting tells us that our audience, too, is hungry for a good story.

Monday Morning Art School: a brief history of color

Most of us use a mixture of modern and antique colors. We stand on the shoulders of giants, after all.

Best Buds, by Carol L. Douglas. Available. Like most modern artists, my palette is a combination of historic and modern colors.

Minerals have been used as pigments since prehistory. What our ancestors did with color is largely a mystery, but pigments and paint-grinding equipment dating between 350,000 and 400,000 years old have been found in a cave in Zambia.

Most of these earliest colors are warm, and most are named after cities where they were mined and milled. Thus we have the siennas, from Siena, Italy, and the umbers, from Umbria. Siennas are warmer and lighter than umbers; the difference comes from the introduction of manganese to the umbers, either naturally or in the milling process.

Vineyard, by Carol L. Douglas. Available. This painting could have been executed in purely mineral pigments, but it was not.

This ancient family of pigments also includes red and yellow ochre. What they all have in common is the presence of iron oxide. In its most common form, that’s plain old rust.

The last pigment our prehistoric ancestors used was charcoal, which they discovered along with fire. That comes down to us as modern ‘carbon black.’

There is one cool pigment that was available to the ancients: the semi-precious stone lapis lazuli. This comes down to us as the pigment ultramarine blue, so named because it came from ‘beyond the sea’. Needless to say, when you were grinding up the family jewels for color, you used it sparingly.

Striping, by Carol L. Douglas. Available. The search for blue drove pigment synthesis.

That limited palette frustrated our intrepid ancestors as much as it would frustrate us today. They experimented with synthesizing pigments as early as 2000 BC. The earliest of these synthetic pigments were Egyptian Blue, which we still only imperfectly understand, and lead white. By the time of the Renaissance, vermilionverdigris, and lead-tin-yellow had been added to the paint box. These were made from mercury, copper and lead, and were all deadly.

Indian yellow is another pre-modern pigment. Legend had it being produced from the urine of cattle on the Indian sub-continent. Its actual source remains a mystery. Unlike its modern analog, it was fugitive (meaning it faded).

The expense and rarity of lapis lazuli drove the discovery of modern blue pigments. Prussian blue was discovered by accident in 1704, and ultramarine was being synthesized by the turn of the 19th century. Cobalt (cobalt and aluminum) and cerulean (cobalt and copper) blues are about the same vintage. I’m vastly oversimplifying here, but scientists were tinkering with the whole notion of chemistry, mixing up minerals to see what happened. And a lot of what happened were new pigments.

Marshall Point rocks, by Carol L. Douglas. Available. Impressionism would not have been possible without modern chemistry.

In 1856, William Henry Perkin was attempting to make a cure for malaria when he accidentally created the first aniline dye, mauveine. This was the forerunner of hundreds of synthetic dyes and pigments, and the basis of modern organic chemistry.

It is no coincidence that Impressionism was invented simultaneously with organic chemistry. It would not have been possible without the new colors being synthesized in the laboratory.

The last explosion of color happened with mass industrialization in the 20th century, as science searched for coatings for steel. While cadmiumhas been known as a pigment since the 1840s, it was rare. It wasn’t until industrial chemistry found a way to isolate the metal in the 1930s that cadmium became cheap enough to use as a pigment. Phthalo blue is another pigment that is a by-product of industrial science.

Everything I know about color history comes from Philip Ball’s Bright Earth: Art and the Invention of Color, and Victoria Finlay’s Color: a Natural History of the Palette. Of the two, I prefer the former, but both are good reads.

Gamblin publishes an excellent chart of colors, classified as either mineral (Impressionist and Classical) and organic (20th century). Your assignment is to look through your paint box and list where your paints came from. Are they:

  • Classical
  • Impressionist
  • 20th Century

If you’re using a classical palette, it will probably be made of modern pigments, because most of the toxic or rare older colors have been replaced. But these analogs have been designed to mimic the historic colors as closely as possible.

If you’re trying to paint like Rembrandt, but are using Van Gogh’s palette, you’re going to fail. Rembrandt painted indirectly, in transparent layers, and Van Gogh painted alla prima. You need to match your paints to your desired outcome.

That doesn’t mean that every pigment you use has to slavishly match some historic period. Most of us use a mixture of mineral and organic colors. We stand on the shoulders of giants, after all.

Monday Morning Art School: softly, softly

The edge is where everything is happening. There are many ways to control it.
Brad Marshall’s painting of coral in Maui (unfinished).

Edges are where one shape ends and another starts. This might mean a border between two things, or it might be a fold or shadow within an object. Either way, there are many ways to approach edges. One way to control the line is the lost and found edge.  Softness is another.

My friend Brad Marshall is working on a painting of a coral reef right now, and it’s a stellar example of keeping it soft. He graciously allowed me to use his work here.
Brad Marshall’s color block-in. He’s soft right from the start.
We’ve talked a lot about the importance of line in painting. Sharp edges with high contrast draw your attention. But to be effective, they require other passages where edges aren’t as crisp. In the case of this reef, Brad was seeking a special optical effect of being underwater, where things are blurry and greenish-blue.  
Looking at the screen on which you’re reading this, you’ll note items in the periphery of your vision. The screen is in focus, but the items on the edges are blurred. This is how our eyes work—we have a highly developed cone of vision, and some peripheral vision to keep us oriented. You can take that same principle into your painting, to direct the eye into looking at what you want it to notice.
“Painted midground coral (except for that little one in the crevice. Keeping edges on soft. A little lighter and darker to push it forward from the background,” said Brad.
Brad started his painting softly because of the subject. But it’s also important because the coral at the bottom of the canvas has the potential to be the strongest draw. It’s lighter in color, and it’s closer to the viewer. But Brad, being a pro, isn’t going to be suckered into that rookie mistake. By keeping the painting very soft at the beginning, he is able to control where and what he concentrates on.
This is a studio painting being built in layers. That gives Brad ample time to work with thin paint handled wet-on-wet. In addition to his brushwork, he developed softness by carefully controlling value and hue shifts. Even in his central motifs he started with an underlying natural blur.
“Here is a close-up detail. I wanted to give it a soft-focus look.”
In oil painting, soft edges can be made by dragging a brush from one color to another, or painting directly into another color. Oil paints are absolute champs at blending and softening. So too is watercolor: washes and wet paper will assure you that edges stay soft until you want them to be defined.
Gouache and acrylic (correctly applied and not just mimicking watercolor) are not nearly as useful for blending. However, you can achieve the same effect of softened edges by employing optical blending.
In fact, since the 19th century, many oil painters (myself included) have generally eschewed the broad range of blending that oil paints offer. We’ve been influenced by Impressionism. We use flat blocks of closely analogous color to get the effect of blending without the brushwork.
Cliff Rock, Appledore, 1903, Childe Hassam, courtesy Indianapolis Museum of Art
Consider the Childe Hassam painting, above. He used optical blending to create the effect of blurriness that Brad is getting with brushwork. Note that the top of the rock outcrop is the same value as the sea. Your eye doesn’t notice the edge any more than it would have had he blended the edges with a brush.
Hassam used a staggering array of brushwork in his painting to create a variety of edges. However, none of it was done with traditional blending. Looked at closely, each color is distinct from its fellows.

Drawing as prayer, play and thought

“Drawing is prayer,” Delacroix famously said. He could have added that it’s play as well. And thinking.
The Giaour on Horseback, by Eugène Delacroix, c. 1824–26, by Eugène Delacroix, pen and iron gall ink with wash over graphite, courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art
Shelving books this week, I came across a small volume of drawings by Eugène Delacroix. I flipped it open and the better part of an hour was lost.
Delacroix was a Romantic painter. He is considered the last of the Old Masters and the link between Romanticism and the Impressionists. He rejected the more-structured romanticism of Géricaultand the classical coolness of Ingresin favor of frenzied brushwork and explosions of color. But there is nothing modern in his painting; it is far too topical for us to dive right in. Delacroix was a man of his times—perhaps the illegitimate son of the great diplomat Tallyrand—and it’s hard for us to skim past the allusions to Shakespeare and Greek myth and find the passion within. But it’s there, a kind of fervor we usually associate with Spanish visionaries.
Louis of Orléans Unveiling his Mistress, by Eugène Delacroix, c. 1825–26, courtesy Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection
Still, he’s a cool observer of the human condition. Consider his portrait of the 14th century Duke of Orléans, above. The historic figure was a young, debauched, power-hungry prince. Delacroix portrays him considering a young woman as if she were a side of beef. It’s both a well-realized portrait of female powerlessness and a devastating attack on the French nobility. Delacroix was both politically incisive and technically proficient, a combination that is largely lost today.
Evolution of an idea: the following illustrations take us through Delacroix’ thinking process. Study for The Sultan of Morocco and His Entourage, by Eugène Delacroix, c. 1832–33, brush and brown ink, courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art
But it was his drawings I was interested in. Immediately before his death in 1863, he wrote a will ordering the contents of his studio to be sold. At the sale the following year, an amazing 9140 works were attributed to him: 853 paintings, 1525 pastels and watercolors, 6629 drawings, 109 lithographs, and over 60 sketch books. “Color always occupies me, but drawing preoccupies me,” he frequently said.
Study for The Sultan of Morocco and His Entourage, by Eugène Delacroix, 1845, graphite, squared in white chalk, courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art
Delacroix’s drawings and sketchbooks outline a classical artistic training and developing career. They include academic nude figure drawings, écorchés and compositional studies for his paintings and murals. They included drawings from life and nature, and the many, many drawings he created from his imagination.
The Sultan of Morocco and his Entourage, by Eugène Delacroix, 1845, courtesy
Musée des Augustins de Toulouse. By this time, the French and Moroccans had been at war.
They weren’t, by any means, all graphite pencil drawings. Many are in ink or wash and demonstrate a calligraphic assurance. Others are in watercolor. “Drawing is prayer,” Delacroix famously said. He could have added that it’s play as well. And thinking.
He couldn’t leave the idea alone. Study for The Sultan of Morocco and His Entourage, by Eugène Delacroix, c. 1855–56, graphite, courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art.
If you’re serious about painting, you ought to take him as an example and draw every day. Yes, it’s important to learn to lay down paint, but drawing is the foundation from which painting rises.

Monday Morning Art School: let’s talk about line

The motive line in a painting is the most powerful design tool you have at your disposal.
Lions painted in the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave, c. 30,000-28,000 BC. This is a replica; the cave is sealed from human visitation. 
If you had to isolate the fundamental element of art, across all media and forms of expression, it would be the humble line. By definition, a line is a connection between two points. In math, that’s an ideal, but in art, the line is a visceral reality. Lines can be broken or continuous, violent or serene, implied or obvious. But if you haven’t got a line, you probably don’t have much in the way of art.
Lines are also implicit, in their abstract form, in performing arts like dance and music.
In the drawing stage of a painting, I try to isolate the major line from which my compositions hang. This is the motive line, although it could also be called the kinetic line. It’s the motive force that drives the energy of the painting. It is frequently interrupted, as in the lost-and-found edge. But:
  • It is tied to the major area of focus;
  • It divides two areas of different values, creating a high-contrast edge;
  • It’s complex and carefully-drawn.

“The only stable thing is movement,” said Jean Tinguely, the sculpture who pioneered Kinetic Art. It is true in nature, and it has been true in art history since the Greeks, for whom contrapposto (counterpoise) represented a moment in motion (as I wrote earlier this month).
We think of Impressionism as a color movement, but it was also a great shift in how paintings were composed. Motion is suggested through a lack of equilibrium. Horses and people are off-balance in a way that suggests they must move to catch their balance.
Before the Race, 1882–84, Edgar Degas, oil on panel, courtesy The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore
That extends to the very balance of the paintings themselves. Consider Before the Race, by Edgar Degas, above. The strongest line in the painting is not the horizon, but the bottom edge of the horses. The complex up-and-down eddies of the horses’ legs breaks and softens as it moves to the right. The painting wouldn’t be nearly as compelling without that amazing see-saw of action.
The Artist’s Studio in an Afternoon Fog, 1894, Winslow Homer, courtesy Memorial Art Gallery, Rochester, NY
In Winslow Homer’s The Artist’s Studio in an Afternoon Fog, a line describes structure against sky. But the real motive force is created by the strong diagonal just below it, in counterpoint to the white froth of the sea. In fact, there is nothing to this painting but line. Drawing it is a good exercise in discovering the subtlety of powerful lines. Notice the subtle convergences; they are a hallmark of Homer paintings that give his work its incredible thrust.
Man and Pool, Florida, 1917, John Singer Sargent, courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art
The motive line can be subtle as well. The value structure in John Singer Sargent’s watercolor, Man and Pool, Florida is choppy, to depict a brightly-lit ground. Still, the figure makes a diagonal leading down to the spot of light and contrasting, cool water. To support this, Sargent subtly scribed the outline of the leg in blue.
Your homework—should you choose to accept it—is to find and note the motive lines in nature, architecture, photos and paintings. They may be curved, straight, rough, smooth, intersecting, broken or complete. Each time you identify the strong linear element that holds together a scene, ask yourself what it might be like without that.

Les trois grandes dames of Impressionism

Three great women painters who navigated tricky social rules before there was modern feminism.
The Boating Party, 1893-94, Mary Cassatt, courtesy National Gallery

Today we look at the intimate mother-child paintings of Mary Cassatt and pigeonhole her as a woman artist, or, worse, ‘sentimental’. She would have disliked either description. She thought of herself as a New Woman, and her paintings were depictions of that ideal. Although she never married or had children, she viewed motherhood as a high calling.

Cassatt was riding a wave of feminism that swept America during the 1840s, when universities began opening their doors to women and all-women schools, most notably the Seven Sisterscolleges, were formed.
Reading Le Figaro, 1878, Mary Cassatt, private collection. The model is the artist’s mother, an educated and well-read woman who had a profound influence on the artist.
The New Woman was popularized by the heroines of Henry James. She controlled her own life, purse and thoughts. Mary Cassatt was not stridently political in the 20th century sense, but she depicted women and their work in a whole new way. There would be none of the bathtub voyeurism painted by her close friend and sometimes-collaborator, Edgar Degas. In short, she was a feminist and most of her fellow Impressionists were not.
Cassatt was described by critic and art historian Gustave Geffroy  as one of “les trois grandes dames” of Impressionism. The other two were Marie Bracquemond and Berthe Morisot. Each chose to negotiate the difficult territory of career and family in different ways.
Under the Lamp, 1877, Marie Bracquemond, courtesy Galleries Maurice Sternberg, Chicago
Marie Bracquemond was the daughter of an unhappy, arranged marriage. Her sea-captain father died shortly after her birth, and her widowed mother and stepfather were ramblers, giving her an unsettled childhood. Yet she was a prodigy. As a teenager, she began studying in a local atelier. A painting of hers was accepted into the Salon when she was just 17. She studied for a time under Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, who didn’t think much of women painters.
At 29, she married fellow artist Félix Bracquemond. They’d had a passionate two-year affair, but Marie should have listened to her mother, who hated the fellow.
According to their son, Félix was resentful and critical of his wife’s painting, particularly when she began to explore Impressionism. By 1890, she was so discouraged that she gave up professional painting altogether. Despite her fragile health, she lived to 76, only outlasting her husband by two years.
The Mother and Sister of the Artist, 1869-70, Berthe Morisot, courtesy National Gallery
Just as Cassatt had a deep friendship with Degas, Berthe Morisot was an intimate of painter Édouard Manet; in fact, she married his brother. Eugène Manet could not have been more different from Félix Bracquemond. Also a painter, Eugène never achieved much of a reputation, instead devoting himself to promoting his wife’s career.
Berthe Morisot was the granddaughter of Jean-Honoré Fragonard and was born into an affluent bourgeois family. Because she was very self-critical, it is difficult to trace her development and training with any certainty. She met Édouard Manet, in 1868, and married Eugène in 1874.
She first showed with her fellow Impressionists in 1874. Le Figaro critic Albert Wolff wrote that the Impressionists consisted of “five or six lunatics — among them a woman — a group of unfortunate creatures.” Morisot, he added, had a “feminine grace [that] is maintained amid the outpourings of a delirious mind.”
By the time her daughter was born in 1878, Morisot was a mature artist who was showing and selling regularly. Morisot died when Julie was just 16. She had contracted pneumonia while nursing her precious child back to health.

How to hold a paintbrush

Technique is one thing; the zeitgeist is another.
Dry Wash, painted earlier this year, is most indicative of where I’m going right now, but I didn’t even include it at the event where I painted it. Oops.

 Last week I showed Roger the proper way to hold a paintbrush. “At its end, like a baton,” I said. “Not like a pencil.” I demonstrated how much more swing you get when you hold it like that.

Of course, there’s no one right way to hold a paintbrush. It’s just that every new painter thinks of it as an extension of their pencil and clutches it up near the ferrule in a three-finger choke hold, as if they’re about to work on their Palmer Method of Penmanship. That was adopted because it was hyper-regimented and would improve discipline and character. It was even believed it could reform delinquents.
Holding a brush like a pencil gives you a lot of precision but very little range. Holding it like a baton at the end gives a lot of lyrical movement and less precision. You can do both, but you’ll have much more energetic brushwork if you start off with it held farther back.
Roger’s a thoughtful guy. “This is all part of the idea of working in big, broad, patterns, rather than focusing on the details,” he mused.
I don’t remember where or when I painted this, but I like it today. It’s almost impossible to judge change in real time.
Yesterday I wrote about alkyd media and glazing. I got an interesting response from Bruce Bundock, a fine acrylic painter who works as a preparator at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center at Vassar College. “Seems to me painting is the one discipline where there is no ‘last word.’ It’s what works for each individual,” he wrote.
Technique is one thing, the zeitgeist is another. The majority of painters since the mid-19th century have worked alla prima, directly and expressively. Glazing has no place in that system.
Painting movements are pushed along by both culture and technology. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was born in Victorian Britain. Queen Victoria’s early reign was marked by rapid industrialism and social and political upheaval. The nostalgia of its painters was reactionary, an effort to cope with overwhelming change.
Ruth, by Carol L. Douglas. Yes, I can glaze; no, I don’t like doing it.
The Impressionists were firmly grounded in technology. The vivid synthetic pigments that characterize their work were developed in the 19thcentury. They were able to paint outside extensively because of the invention of the paint tube in 1841. Emerging color theory shaped their thought.
Our own times have been rapid and anxious, which is reflected in our direct technique and in Expressionism. However, a young person would be a fool to tie himself to the last century. Nobody can predict where the spirit of the times is heading; we can only swim like mad and chart an uncertain course between fickle fashion and the past. And that is, as Bruce said, highly individual.
Alkyds may be the technological advance that ushers in a new period of indirect painting. After all, the Pre-Raphaelites were living in tumultuous times, and they glazed like mad. If you’re painting glowing, detailed interiors like William Holman Hunt’sThe Lady of Shalott, you’re definitely going to hold your fine brush like a pencil.
Wildfire, western Canada, painted during my 2016 road trip. Change isn’t always pretty.
But that’s not where we are today, and all I can do is teach my students the best technique rooted in our times. “Why didn’t you ever tell me this before?” Roger asked.
“I really thought I had,” I said apologetically. Painting instruction is so individualized that you can easily miss something like that. “But I’m still not refunding your tuition,” I added.
That was my last local (Rockport, ME) class of the summer. We start back up in October, on Tuesdays from 10-1. If you want a place in that session, email me.


I love violet, but there was a time when the critics thought it meant you were defective.
Headwaters of the Hudson, by Carol L. Douglas.
Richard Liebreich was a distinguished 19th century German ophthalmologist and an admirer of the earlier works of J. M. W. Turner. While visiting London, he called at the National Gallery. He was shocked by the artist’s later works, which were so much looser and hazier than the pieces he knew. “Was the great change… caused by an ocular or cerebral disturbance?” he asked, and then answered his own question with an exploration of how illness might have affected Turner’s painting. “To be physiologically normal is not at all a fundamental condition in art,” he wrote.
He was not the only 19th century scientist to wonder if contemporary artists had lost their collective minds, vision, or both. “Liebreich’s Sign” came to mean color-blindness as seen in painting. 
Italian ophthalmologist Arnaldo Angelucci assembled a large collection of paintings which purported to show color-blindness. He identified five characteristics we could look for in painting to determine that the artist had vision problems. They were:
  1. Exaggerated reds in the highlights;
  2. Too much green in the shadows;
  3. The abuse of violet;
  4. Exaggerating the yellows in highlights and blues in shadows in the color green;
  5. Excessive mixing up of hues in a single object’s color.

 He had just described Impressionism in a nutshell.
Flood tide, by Carol L. Douglas
“I have finally discovered the true color of the atmosphere,” Claude Monet once declared. “It’s violet. Fresh air is violet.”
Whether he was saying that to annoy his critics, or whether the criticism just naturally followed, is hard to say. He and his fellow Impressionists were gleefully using new pigments churned out by the nascent chemical industry. They were brilliant and they sometimes clashed, but who could know that without trying them out in their raw, pure states?
The first true purple was cobalt violet, synthesized in 1859. That was replaced with manganese violet, first made in 1868, and also called Permanent Violet, Nuremberg Violet or Mineral Violet.
High tide, by Carol L. Douglas
Manganese violet was cleaner, more opaque and less toxic than cobalt violet, and worlds better than the historical violets (capet mortuum and Tyrian purple).
The Impressionists—especially Monet—adored their new violet hues. They used them so much that critics accused them of suffering from “violettomania” or “seeing blue.” The establishment was deeply offended by this reliance on violet, so much so that a critic described the third Impressionist exhibition in 1877 as having the overall effect of a worm-eaten Roquefort cheese.
Whatever the disease of “violettomania” was, it was apparently catching. Eventually, scientists were seeing Liebreich’s Sign in establishment painters like Alfred Munnings.
Mohawk Valley nocturne, oil pastel, by Carol L. Douglas.
The Impressionists were justified in their excitement over this new pigment (and with the greens, pinks, and other shades suddenly available to them). It was impossible to mix a true violet with the pigments available to their predecessors. Today we have cleaner blues and quinacridone red tones (first synthesized as a pigment in 1935). It’s not necessary to carry manganese violet in our painting kit. But modern painters—myself included—still love violet.

Monday Morning Art School: Mixing color

Mixing paint colors is easy, but practice makes perfect.

Balmoral Castle from the Approach (Abergeldie Side), 1852, Watercolor, by Queen Victoria.
If you think you’re too busy to paint, consider the above watercolor. It was painted by a mother of nine with a demanding full-time job: Queen Victoria. Note the fine, restrained greens in it and the cool autumn sky. If a queen can do it, so can you.
Green is a so-called secondary color, meaning it is made from a combination of two primary colors (yellow and blue). A secondary color is always across the color wheel from a primary color. It’s handy to remember that. If you want to neutralize a color in a hurry, a fast way to do it is to mix it with whatever’s across the color wheel. That’s its complement.
The conventional color wheel.
There are no pure paint pigments. They all have overtones that muddy them up in certain mixes. That’s why your local paint dealer uses many, many more pigments than just red, blue, and yellow. Most artist palettes also have duplicates. I use paired primaries, meaning I have a warm and cool blue, warm and cool red, and warm and cool yellow. (Here are my supply lists for oilsacrylics, and watercolors.)
The distinction between warm and cool colors has been important since the Impressionists, who emphasized the color of light in their paintings. Warm colors are said to be hues from red through yellow and cool colors are said to be the hues from green through violet. There is no ‘right’ answer to which colors are the anchors, but convention says the peaks are red-orange and blue-green.
Paired primaries.
I should stress that this is a convention, not a fact. In reality, the hottest stars radiate blue light, and cooler ones are red. Much of what we believe about the psychology of color is hocus pocus.
The only part of this that concerns the painter are the attributes of each individual pigment. We say that Hansa yellow is cooler than cadmium yellow deep, even though they’re both ‘warm’ colors. We mean that if you are trying to mix a greenish yellow, you’ll get a clearer shade with the Hansa than you will with the cadmium. If you’re trying to go more orange, start with the cadmium. The warm-cool language is just a convenient way of saying that.
I lay my paints out in hue-order, and encourage my students to do so, too. Not only does this eliminate the “hunt and peck” method of mixing, it makes it easier for you to compare pigments.
The business of mixing color is simple, but it needs to be practiced. First, find the pigment that’s closest to where you want to end up. Then, determine if it needs to be warmer or cooler and modulate it with the appropriate neighbor. If it’s too intense (too high in chroma), you can cut that by adding some of its complement. That’s the color across the color wheel from the original. In oils and acrylics, you lighten the color with white; in watercolor, you dilute it.
In some cases, you might start with a color that’s too dull. For example, chromium oxide green (PG17) is a good, opaque, solid, non-fading green, but it’s relatively low in chroma (intensity). It can only be made even more dull, not tarted up to greater brilliance. If you use that green on your palette, you may need to back up and mix a green with blue (or black) and yellow to get to the appropriate starting point.
A good way to look at this is to imagine the neutral colors as occupying the middle space of the color wheel. You can easily get to neutral by mixing paints across the wheel, but you can never get more intense than your starting point.
Today’s exercise involves stopping at your local hardware store for a few paint swatches. These are Benjamin Moore brand, but you should be able to find similar ones anywhere. There are two off-whites: one cool and one warm. There’s yellow, green, and two soft blues. Your assignment is to mix until you think you’ve hit the exact color. Then put a dot of it on the card to see how close you got. (If you’re working in watercolor, the dot goes on paper instead.)
I also ask my students to make neutrals using combinations of ultramarine blue with burnt sienna and raw sienna. I use the combination of ultramarine blue and burnt sienna as my standard dark neutral, because it can go to the warm or cool side depending on how it is mixed.
These combinations are my starting point for rocks and sands. They’re a variation on the complement set of blue-orange. But you can make good neutrals with other complement sets. Try purple and yellow or red and green. Each has its own character.