The servant stairs

My diet is in tatters but I’m on schedule with the portrait.
I spent most of my time yesterday moving the coffee table from place to place trying to make an interesting geometry of that bottom left corner.

Mary Killen tells the story of Antony Armstrong-Jones (Lord Snowdon) and his lifelong enmity to Colin Tennant. It began when Armstrong-Jones was told to go to the tradesmen’s entrance while photographing Tennant’s wedding to Lady Anne Coke. The two men had been at Eton together.

I’d assumed it was a story of injured amour-propre. This week I’ve spent some time on the servants’ stairs of a Georgian townhouse, and my sympathy for Lord Snowdon has increased (albeit marginally). I would not have enjoyed hefting the absurdly-heavy photography equipment of 1956 up and down those narrow stairs, skirting past the maids and footmen I ignored in everyday life.
I’ve rearranged the furniture, set up my easel, and otherwise made a terrible mess of the drawing room. That’s a James Morrison landscape overlooking my shoulder there; a happy omen, if you ask me.
The house in which I’m working has had many iterations since its construction. The main staircase, very grand, rises in a beautiful spiral from a first-floor vestibule. There is a modern staircase, added after the building served a stint as offices after World War 1, when the house was converted to flats. This staircase connects the first floor with the basement floors into a three-story unit. But in its original form, the public rooms of this house—the first floor, the piano nobile above it, and the bedrooms above that—were effectively sealed off from the tradesmen’s entrance by this lack of public staircase.
The only staircase which ran the height of the house was a stone one, intended for servants. Despite my familiarity with historical English novels, I didn’t fully grasp what this meant until I’d trotted up and down them a dozen times.
It’s easy to feel how intimidated a homeowner would be at the idea of running down those service stairs to check on the operation of his own home (if such an outlandish idea had even occurred to him). The stone steps are set as far back as is possible without actually being in the garden, and they’re not easy on the feet. They are narrow and turn fast in their circular shaft. The humble historical housemaid must have had legs of steel.
I captured my subject briefly for a quick drawing and managed to make her look all of fifteen years old. The bones are right, however, and I’ll try again today.
The modern Scots who live in these terraced houses are more fit than their American cousins, with our easy, lazy two-story homes. The stone stairs are now the main stairs between the garden-level kitchen and the main rooms of the house. Our host, a man in his fifties, regularly trots up and down them. I’m working in a drawing room, and I’m not as strong as a Regency lady’s maid, so I recruited my husband to carry my easel and kit up for me.
This room is a symphony of indirect light and beautiful paneling. The setting is very lovely, but I don’t want to allow it to dwarf my subject. I spent the day carefully measuring and plotting my composition.
I’ve also managed, occasionally, to sit my subject down for some preliminary drawings. I’m afraid I’ll need a butterfly net and some duct tape to fully capture her. She’s a very energetic woman.
Then there is the city itself, which is hilly and congested. It was a foggy, rainy evening, and our hosts graciously took us to dinner. We took a cab there and walked home; the trips took the same length of time, and walking was frankly more pleasant.
I had Shetland scallops, served very differently from the bay scallops at home, with a dry white wine along the lines of a vinho verde. This was followed by a nightcap of a private cask single-malt whisky. My diet is in tatters but I’m feeling less guilty than you might think.

Who is your true muse?

Mine, I’m afraid, is a 19th century religious crackpot.
The Night of Enitharmon’s Joy, 1795. William Blake’s vision of the Greek goddess Hecate, courtesy of the Tate.

It would be very easy for me to create a list of artists I adore. They’d range from Albrecht Dürer to the contemporary landscape painter James Morrison. If there’s a common thread, it’s beautiful drafting, keen observation, and a high level of skill.

It’s harder to face up to the truth of how I actually think. The closest I come, I’m afraid, is to that untidy English mystic, William Blake. That’s probably why I find his work so unsettling.
From The Song of Los, 1795, William Blake, courtesy Library of Congress
It’s not just the religious thing, although Blake was an ardent Christian of a Swedenborgianflavor. It wasn’t just his animosity to organized religion. It’s not his passionate interest in language paired with painting. Off my leash and into my own heart’s material, I end up painting souls who look like Blake’s.
Blake grew up in the Age of Liberty, and the writings of men like Thomas Paine informed his sense of state, religion, faith and man. But mostly, he was just ahead of his time. At the time when Jane Austen was writing Sense and Sensibility, he was raging like a Beat Poet:
If he had been Antichrist Creeping Jesus,
He’d have done anything to please us:
Gone sneaking into Synagogues
And not us’d the Elders & Priests like Dogs,
But humble as a Lamb or Ass,
Obey’d himself to Caiaphas…

The Whirlwind of Lovers, c. 1827, from Blake’s illustrations for the Divine Comedy, courtesy of the Tate.
Blake was a visionary in the strict sense of the word: he literally experienced visions. They were usually associated with religious themes, and they sparked his creative work.
Blake believed he was personally instructed and encouraged by archangels, who then read the work he created. For him the barrier between heaven and earth was membrane-thin. I envy that.
Albion from A Large Book of Designs, 1793-96, William Blake, courtesy of the British Museum
What do his vast mythological creations mean? Are UrizenTharmasOrc and Los a new religious mythology or some kind of brilliant Biblical fanfic along the lines of C. S. Lewis or J.R.R. Tolkien?
I have a copy of William Blake: Watercolors to the Divine Comedy. Forget David Bindman’s commentary; Blake’s observations are what’s important. He strains against Dante’s theology in furious little margin notes.  (The Divine Comedy is, of course, also religious fanfic.)
The commission for this work came to Blake in 1826 through the once-famous English painter John Linnell. Their goal was to produce a new edition of the Divine Comedy with engravings based on Blake’s watercolors. The project ended with Blake’s death in 1827, but even incomplete, they’re a fascinating work by a stirring mind.
The Simoniac Pope c. 1824–7, from William Blake’s illustrations for the Divine Comedy, courtesy of the Tate.
Tragically, his more contentious manuscripts were burned after his wife’s death by Frederick Tatham, who opposed anything that smelled of blasphemy. Would Blake have cared? I doubt it. 
He went to his death with a joy most of us can only dream about. That day, he worked assiduously on his Dante drawings. Then he turned to his wife and said, “Stay, Kate! Keep just as you are – I will draw your portrait – for you have ever been an angel to me.” On finishing, he laid down his pencil and began to sing hymns and verses until he died.
“I have been at the death, not of a man, but of a blessed angel,” said one witness.

Masters of the northern skies

On a bitter spring day, a painter’s thoughts turn to clouds and how to paint them. It beats going outside.
Rainstorm over the Sea,  c.1824-28, John Constable
Yesterday, I asked Shary Cobb Fellows whether the Mary Day had hauled last year. “I think so,” she mused, “because these boats need their bottoms done every year.”
“Then how did I miss her?” I wondered. A few hours in the blistering, paint-peeling wind answered that question. It was probably too miserable to paint that week.
I wrapped myself in the blizzard blanket that’s still in my car. However, I could barely squeeze the paint out of my tubes. My easel was thrumming in the wind. I’ve got a good start and if the weather cooperates before the Mary Day moves out, I’ll be able to finish.
Easter Morning, 1835, Caspar David Friedrich
Most of the schooner fleet were originally coastal cargo or fishing boats, saved from ignominious decay in some shaded inlet by their conversion to the tourist trade. Mary Dayis different; she was purpose-built in the 1960s as a tourist boat. I chose a high angle, painting off an access road that leads down into the shipyard. It’s a pretty view, but it magnified the wind, and the sky was terribly gloomy.
Gloom has its purposes. Caspar David Friedrich used it to convey a world in mourning in his Easter Morning, above. 
The Thames above Waterloo Bridge, c. 1830-5 Joseph Mallord William Turner
Fog, too, can convey emotional moods as varied as that in Claude Monet’s Waterloo Bridge, Sunlight Effect to J. M. W. Turner’s The Thames above Waterloo Bridge. They were both painting the dangerous industrial pea soupers that plagued London until the Clean Air Act of 1956, and they handled the subject in very different ways.
The Maas at Dordrecht, c. 1650, Aelbert Cuyp
When the land is flat and low or the subject is the sea, clouds assume monumental importance. It is no surprise that the Dutch Golden Age Painters had a particular mastery of the sky in all its phases and seasons.
The Danish painter Christen Købke had a special affinity for the flat, low light of the far north, in those times when clouds barely permeate the overall gloom. A nationalist and a Romantic, he was determined to paint his nation’s delicate beauty on its own terms.
Roof Ridge Of Frederiksborg Castle, Christen Købke
John Constable did many field studies of clouds, which are startling in their modernity. “Skies must and always shall with me make an effectual part of the composition,” he wrote. “It will be difficult to name a class of landscape in which the sky is not the key note, the standard of scale and the chief organ of sentiment.”
The example I’ve shown is close to a modern gesture drawing, a quick capture of that moment when the clouds start dumping their load of water as they move in from the sea. It is not just a rainstorm, it is “an extraordinary force of emotion,” as critic Andrew Shirley observed.
An Teallach between Bristol and Mullagragh, James Morrison, University of Sterling Art Collection
The finest cloud painter working today is Scotland’s James Morrison. Born in Glasgow in 1932, he studied at the Glasgow School of Art and is an Academician of the Royal Scottish Academy. His paintings of the landscapes around his home in Angus and of Assynt in Sutherland are, in truth, mostly sky studies. He is a meticulous observer of the movement and development of clouds.
I have written about how to paint clouds here, using examples from my own work. It’s important to know the different types of clouds and how they move across space. Yes, you can paint clouds without being able to draw, but they’re not going to be as convincing as those that are carefully observed. As with everything, practice makes perfect. 

Painting clouds

"Whiteface makes its own weather," by Carol L. Douglas. High contrast clouds and a flat brush imply rain.

“Whiteface makes its own weather,” by Carol L. Douglas. High contrast clouds and a flat brush imply rain.
Clouds are a terrific, rampaging part of the landscape, and often the best part of a composition. I love painting them. They seem so easy that I never figured there was much secret gnosis to painting them, any more than there is some magic trick to painting water. However, last week a reader wrote asking for tips about painting clouds, and she got me thinking about how I manage them.
Clouds have perspective, but it is upside-down from earth-bound objects. That’s because the vanishing point is the horizon, putting the farthest clouds at the bottom of the sky. While we mostly look at the tops of earthbound objects, we mostly look at the bottoms of clouds. That makes the shadow color predominant.
Altocumulus clouds over the Hudson River, by Carol L. Douglas

Altocumulus clouds over the Hudson River, by Carol L. Douglas
As with earthbound objects, there is also atmospheric perspective: clouds are generally lighter and duller at the horizon. This, however, is subject to circumstances. At dawn and dusk the horizon may be the most colorful part of the sky. A good storm turns everything on its head.

Figuring out the color of clouds is easy: there’s a color for the highlights, and a color for the shadows, and these are more or less opposite each other in color temperature. On a peaceful day, the values of shadow and highlight are almost the same. When there’s a real range in value in the clouds, you have an ominous sky.
Surf study by Carol L. Douglas

Surf study by Carol L. Douglas
Note and use the patterns of clouds, rather than randomly placing one or two clouds in the canvas. The pattern should be part of your design. White, puffy cumulus clouds often appear in repetitive patterns across the sky. Cumulonimbus clouds are towering portents of rain or worse. These are the clouds that often have dark shadows and odd coloring, for they are livid.

A mackerel sky, high in the atmosphere, is a sky knitting itself together in advance of a change in the weather. “Mares’ tails and mackerel scales make lofty ships to carry low sails,” is an acknowledgement of this phenomenon. High-atmosphere clouds have no volume. They are merely regular patterns of white against a blue sky.

Higher cirrus clouds at Olana, by Carol L. Douglas

Higher cirrus clouds (above) and cumulus clouds (horizon) at Olana, by Carol L. Douglas
I used to live in the Great Lakes region. If I looked north, I would almost always see a band of cumulus clouds low on the horizon, racing down the center of Lake Ontario. Such local weather patterns exist all over the country. They are part of the ‘sense of place’ where you live. You can’t paint them until you observe them.
How do I translate those observations onto my canvas? In practice, I mix a puddle of the shadow color of the cloud and a puddle of the light color. I race around, first with the shadow color and then with the highlight color, to create a pattern. When that is established, I used particular clouds as reference to finish the details. Since clouds constantly morph, there is no danger of repetitiveness. This is the only time I ever use straight white from the tube, for it sometimes acts as my mid-tone in clouds.
"Clouds over Hudson, NY," by Carol L. Douglas

“Clouds over Hudson, NY,” by Carol L. Douglas
What brush? As with everything else, it depends on what you are trying to say with your mark-making. A flat will convey energy. A filbert or round will allow you to be more lyrical. It’s up to you.
Dr. Albert C. Barnes, founder of the Barnes Collection, was very particular in how his paintings were hung. He believed that he could improve individual paintings’ compositions by juxtaposing paintings and furnishings in the greater space of a room. That’s pretty cheeky considering the Impressionist masterpieces he collected, but in his defense, nobody knew they were masterpieces yet.
You can use clouds in your painting to redirect the viewer in the same way. Although—like water—clouds’ patterns are usually wavelike and horizontal, there is no reason to be hidebound about that. Within the reality of their structure, you can find ways to lift and lead the viewers’ eyes.
The greatest painter of clouds alive today is the Glasgow-trained landscape artist,James Morrison. I strongly encourage you to study his paintings, to see how his clouds have volume, character and energy. They are never an afterthought in the landscape; they are a potent force within it.

Getting it right

Landscape Remembered, 2010, James Morrison, oil on board
James Morrison, at age 82, seems to break most of the conventional rules for plein airpainting. His work is huge, painted on paper boards, and the paint is so thin that I had to check to be certain it was, indeed, painted in oil.
Having never been to Scotland, I am no judge of whether he is true to the landscape, but his work is romantic and monumental and it speaks to me. In some passages it soars with almost negligent disregard for the paint, in others, the detail is overwhelming. It reminds me most of calligraphy in that the open space is as important as the line itself. And of course his draftsmanship and perspective in the glowering clouds is superb.
Half Demolished Tenements, 1964, James Morrison, oil on canvas
My friend Martha Vail recently sent me a book of his work, Land and Landscape: the Painting of James Morrison. I find his perambulations through the decades of his career to be most heartening. He did monochromatic studies of a blackened Glasgow; he did exquisite studies of beeches in the style of Andrew Wyeth; he experimented with op-art and abstract-expressionism.
Perhaps if I live to 82, I’ll get it right, too.
“For any serious artist it is the next work which is the most important and complacency is the negation of creativity,” wrote Guy Peploe, the Scottish Gallery’s director. “So it is for Jim Morrison at eighty. He is lucky, even blessed, with the energy, vitality and curiosity that are creativity’s handmaidens and in this new body of work we can see new departures as he looks again at his favourite landscapes in all seasons and moods.”
Summer Fields, Balgove, 1987, James Morrison, oil on gesso board
Born in Glasgow in 1932, James Morrison studied at the Glasgow School of Art. In 1957, he founded the Glasgow Group of artists with Anda Paterson and James Spence. He is an Academician of the Royal Scottish Academy and a member of the Royal Scottish Society of Painters in Watercolour. He taught at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art in Dundee for 22 years before retiring in 1987 to paint full-time.
I have two openings left for my 2014 workshop in Belfast, ME. Information is available here.