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!

The greatest draftsman of modern times

A cinematic genius who could do his finished drawings in a single take. Wow!
Storyboard with notes by Jack Kirby, provenance unknown.

I was leafing through Facebook the other day and came across the above storyboard. Not only is it brilliantly composed, but it is worked out in a single draft across the panels. That’s essentially backwards from the way most artists work. We start slowly, letting our fingers work out the ideas through multiple sketches. But nothing about this work is haphazard.

This is the work of that most brilliant American artist of the 20th century, Jack Kirby. To understand him better, I consulted Alan Spinney, who’s been reading and drawing comics forever.
Pencil panels along with final inked versions. Kirby did not ink his own work. Courtesy of Alan Spinney.
“Jack Kirby was one of the fastest comic artists in history, and was kind of driven,” Spinney told me. Kirby did not make preliminary sketches, rough work or layouts. He started work directly on his board. He rarely erased, the story having flowed from his mind fully formed.
Pencil art from Fantastic Four, courtesy of Alan Spinney, from TwoMorrow’s Publishing.
Kirby was raised in the tenements of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, the son of a garment worker. Perhaps that’s how he learned to work so fast. He taught himself to draw by tracing characters from comic strips and editorial cartoons. At age 14, he enrolled at the Pratt Institute. He lasted exactly one week.
Black Panther concept by Jack Kirby, courtesy of Alan Spinney, from TwoMorrow’s Publishing.
“I wasn’t the kind of student that Pratt was looking for. They wanted people who would work on something forever. I didn’t want to work on any project forever. I intended to get things done.” Kirby got his first professional drawing gig at the tender age of 19.
His meeting with Joe Simon resulted in the creation of Captain America and a working partnership that would last a decade and a half.
“I had a suit and Jack thought that was really nice. He’d never seen a comic book artist with a suit before. The reason I had a suit was that my father was a tailor. Jack’s father was a tailor too, but he made pants,” said Simon.
One of Jack Kirby’s fantastical machines. Courtesy of Alan Spinney.
Knowing his star artists were about to be drafted into WW2, their publisher asked them to ‘bank’ material. The pair hired writers, inkers, letterers and colorists and created a year’s worth of panels.
Kirby went on to repeat a similar performance in the 1960s, with Stan Lee.  “He would do script breakdowns for other artists to draw from, like thumbnails,” Spinney said. “They would finish the drawings and ink them, so all the books looked like Kirby drew them.”
From Jack Kirby Quarterly, published by TwoMorrow’s Publishing.
Jack Kirby was, above all, dynamic. He pushed people through his stories in a cinematic way. “I found myself competing with the movie camera. I had to compete with the camera. I felt like John Henry … I tore my characters out of the panels. I made them jump all over the page. I tried to make that cohesive so that it would be easier to read. I had to get my characters in extreme positions, and in doing so I created an extreme style, which was recognizable by everybody,” Kirby said.
“Marvel worked very loosely; Kirby and Stan Lee would chat about a story, Kirby would draw it and then Lee would write the dialogue,” said Spinney. “Kirby was famous for his machines, his character design, and high drama in his figures.”
Photocopy of page from Fantastic Four, courtesy of Alan Spinney, from TwoMorrow’s Publishing
His collaboration with Lee resulted in more abstraction, foreshortening and diagonal motion, all relentlessly driving the reader. It also resulted in a Pantheon of superheroes who have influenced all comic art since. 
Jack Kirby was the William Blake of comics and New Gods was his masterpiece, an epic cosmic war between evil gods and good gods,” wroteGrant Morrison. Comic books may seem trivial to some, but in the hands of a master, they dealt with the deepest issues of our times.

RIP, Steve Ditko

A great artist passed away last month, but I doubt you’ll read about him in art history class.
From The Avenging World, 1973, Steve Ditko, published by Bruce Hershenson.

I was introduced to the Silver Age of Comic Books by my husband when we were just teenagers. He still sends me great frames by Steve Ditko and Jack Kirbyto study. I believe I’d have been a better artist if I’d studied cartooning first, because these two artists manage to pack a world of action and insight into a canvas only a few inches across.

Steve Ditko passed away at the end of last month. True to his reclusive nature, he died so quietly that nobody is sure of the date.
Ditko was a Slovak from Pennsylvania steel country. He grew up reading Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant and Batman, idolizing the latter’s Jerry Robinson. On graduating from high school, he immediately enlisted in the US Army and served in occupied Germany.
From The Amazing Spider-Man #31–33, 1965, by Steve Ditko and Stan Lee, Marvel Comics.
After demob, Ditko enrolled in the Cartoonist and Illustrators School in New York. This had been founded three years earlier with just three teachers—one of whom was Robinson—and 35 students. Most of them, like Ditko, were there on the GI Bill. The school would grow up to become the School of Visual Arts.
Ditko began drawing professionally in 1953, working for a brief time with Jack Kirby. From there he moved to a low-budget publisher called Charlton Comics, producing science fiction, horror, and mystery stories. In 1954, he contracted tuberculosis and returned to his parents’ home in Johnstown, PA to recuperate.
From Dr. Strange, by Steve Ditko, published by Marvel Comics.
When he got back to New York in 1955, he began drawing for Atlas Comics, which would later morph to Marvel Comics. His contributions to Strange Tales  again paired him with Jack Kirby. These books were not comic at all, but the predecessors of graphic novels and intended for adult readers. They were odd, provocative, dystopian and literary, and they included masterpieces of visual art.
Marvel Comics editor-in-chief Stan Lee originally tapped Kirby, his chief artist, to draw his new superhero, Spider-Man. Lee hated Kirby’s approach. “Not that he did it badly,” said Lee. “It just wasn’t the character I wanted; it was too heroic.” Ditko got the job. Spider-Man debuted in August, 1962 and was quickly given its own series. Ditko was eventually also given writing credit.
Ditko caught the arc of American anxiety.
Ditko created the character of Doctor Strange in 1963. The art was weirdly prescient as America moved into the psychedelic era. It suggested a different time-space dimension, bizarrely spacious, often anxious. It grew increasingly more complex and abstract as the comic matured.
Ditko and Lee stopped speaking, and eventually Ditko moved on. The real reason for the rupture isn’t known, but it was almost certainly based in clashing artistic visions.
From there, Ditko drifted. “By the ’70s he was regarded as a slightly old-fashioned odd-ball; by the ’80s he was a commercial has-been, picking up wretched work-for-hire gigs,” wrote Douglas Wolk in 2008. Ditko retired from mainstream work altogether in 1998.
And my all-time favorite, from Journey into Mystery Vol 1., courtesy of Marvel Comics.

Ditko never married or had children. He didn’t have particularly close relationships with friends. All he ever cared about was his work. Even when he was done with major publishers, he continued to draw for eight hours every day, self-publishing his own Objectivist screeds. “I do those because that’s all they’ll let me do,” he grumpedat the New York Post.
It wasn’t Ditko who had changed; it was the world. The Silver Age of Comic Books was over, and there was nothing fashionable in Ditko’s worldview.