Ruthless pruning

If I had more time, I would have written a shorter essay.

Coast Guard Inspection, 6X8, oil on canvasboard.

The above witticism has been attributed to many people because it’s a universal truth. President Woodrow Wilson put it thus: “If it is a ten-minute speech it takes me all of two weeks to prepare it; if it is a half-hour speech it takes me a week; if I can talk as long as I want to it requires no preparation at all. I am ready now.”

On Wednesday, I wrote and designed an ad with exactly 24 words of new copy; it took five hours. Then I made a short promotional video. I spent 12 hours to make two minutes of finished video.

This won’t surprise anyone in the creative fields. Editing is an important skill in any creative endeavor.

Blueberry Barrens, Clary Hill, 24X36, oil on canvas.

When I started blogging experts recommended that a blog post be kept to a thousand words. Today, I try to keep it around 500-600 words. There are many things that interest me, but if they don’t support the main trunk of the narrative, they’re ruthlessly scrubbed out.

This has changed my writing style, just as ruthless editing has changed my painting style. There are things I used to be able to do with pen or brush that I can no longer do. Losing some skills is the price we pay for pursuing mastery of others.

I’d like to blame simplification on our sleek modern sensibilities, but the quote at the head of this page dates from at least 1657. It was written (more wordily) by the French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal. For centuries, writers have aimed for spare simplicity.

Main Street, Owl’s Head, 16X20, oil on gessoboard.

There are, of course, actions and reactions in public taste. Following hard on the heels of Pascal’s geometry came the French Rococo, with painters like Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Antoine Watteau and François Boucher creating absurdly exuberant paintings. But rococo had a limited run; within a few decades, tastes swung back to the neoclassical.

There’s a limit, apparently, to the frenzy the human mind can tolerate. At the same time, there are paintings that seem empty to us. Dutch Golden Age church interiors come to mind, as do most of the experiments of 20th century op art. There isn’t enough there to hold our interest. Editing is a delicate balance.

I’ve written before on the question of simplification in painting, most recently here. It’s not a question of taking things out for the sake of simplicity, but of ruthlessly paring away what doesn’t matter. That makes room for what’s important. That’s not necessarily content; it could be rhythm, texture, color or line.

The Late Bus, 8X6, oil on archival canvasboard.

“When in doubt, take it out” is another pithy aphorism that can also apply to painting. I’ve spent vast amounts of time trying to squeeze an idea into a painting or essay only to realize it was superfluous from the get-go.

In painting, the best time to do these edits is before you pick up a brush. Paper and charcoal (or pencil) are cheap and forgiving. Andrew Wyeth was a careful planner; his preparatory sketches are worth studying. Just as an outline is invaluable for the writer, a sketch is invaluable to the painter.

Paintings almost never benefit from last-minute additions or changes to the composition. These decisions need to be taken early on. Jan van Eyck may have moved feet and hands and added the little dog to the Arnolfini portrait, but he did so in the underpainting. The essential composition was worked out long before he got to the end.

Monday Morning Art School: the human face

The best portrait painters drag us into the emotional space of their sitters.

Henry VIII at 49, 1540, Hans Holbein the Younger, courtesy Gallerie Nazionali d’arte antica, Palazzo Barberini, Rome 

My students will be painting self-portraits this week. One of them asked me for a masterpiece to copy. Without hesitation, I recommended the Tennessee painter Tom Root.

My pal Eric Jacobsen calls Tom Root “a national treasure.” His Holiday (Rest on the Flight to Egypt) is one of the few paintings that carries the western tradition of religious painting successfully into the modern era. He’s technically superlative and keyed into the contemporary zeitgeist. Since I want my students to paint in the modern idiom, it’s best that she studies a modern painter.

La Monomane de l’envie (Insane Woman), 1822, Theodore Gericault, courtesy Museum of Fine Arts of Lyon

The best portrait painters drag us into the emotional space of their sitters. That is why we can look at a Renaissance painting and feel that sudden start of connection. This is an absurdly truncated list that misses many masterpieces, but it’s a start for any student who wants to study portraiture.

Albrecht Dürer’s Self-Portrait at Twenty-Eight could be subtitled, “Look at me and my glorious hair.” Dürer chose to present himself with the iconography usually reserved for Christ, but he’s not saying he’s a god. Rather, he’s telling us that all followers of Jesus are imitators of Christ, and that his own talents are God-given.

How very different is the lesson in Bronzino’s Portrait of a Young Man with a Book. Bronzino was a Medici court painter, and his portraits are all assured, stylish and reserved. This haughtiness reflects the rarified atmosphere in which he worked, but he still reveals the underlying vanity of youth in this young scholar whose name is lost to time.

The Jester Don Diego de Acedo, c. 1644, Diego Velázquez, courtesy Museo del Prado

Jan van Eyck is known to most of us for the Arnolfini Portrait, truly one of the most beautiful and enigmatic paintings ever made. Its complex iconography, perspective and rare attention to detail are absolutely clear, and yet we have no idea what the painting actually means.

In his day, he was best known for history painting, but the French romantic Theodore Gericault was a sensitive portraitist. He painted a series of ten portraits of the insane, on the encouragement of Dr. Ă‰tienne-Jean Georget, a pioneer in psychiatry. His best portraits are the inverse of Bronzino’s—humble, sensitive and honest.

Hans Holbein‘s art is superlatively realistic, and he was able to capture likenesses with rare facility. He had a penetrating understanding of character, and combined technical skill with allusion and symbolism. He must have been a skilled courtier himself, to have survived the intrigues of the English court as well as he did.

The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, 1882, John Singer Sargent, courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Sir Anthony van Dyck was a Flemish Baroque artist who became the next great English court painter. He was a favorite of Charles I, and for good reasons: his keen observation, the liveliness of his depictions, and his ability to portray that most elusive of characteristics, majesty.

No list of portrait painters would be complete without Diego Velázquez. Hired to paint popes and princes, his affinity was to the court dwarves and jesters who were kept as enslaved human pets. That doesn’t mean he didn’t understand his regal subjects; his portrait of Pope Innocent X is the penetrating gaze of an ambitious and self-satisfied man.

Rembrandt is considered the greatest painter of the Dutch Golden Age. He was prolific in many genres, but particularly as a student of the human face—especially his own, which he used as a map of the human condition. His Self-Portrait with Beret and Turned-Up Collar is a masterly disquisition on the subject of aging. With age comes wisdom—and sagging jowls.

And then there’s John Singer Sargent, whose motto had to be “Give the people what they want.” He captured the incredible wealth of the Gilded Age, but it’s never clear that he likes his models. In many cases, he reduces them to mannikins, but in The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, he makes a poignant statement about the role of women and girls in society. The girls recede into space in order of age, with the eldest (Florence, age 14) almost enveloped in the darkness of the drawing room.

Everyone needs a hobby

When your job is what most people think of as a hobby, what do you do for fun?
Lady Standing at a Virginal, 1670-72, Johannes Vermeer

My reenactor friends have an all-consuming passion that I sometimes envy. They shimmy out of their office clothes each Friday, reach for the worn cotton frock or woolen tunic, and spend the weekends trudging through mud, carrying water, marching in the heat, whittling, sewing, slopping hogs, or pursuing whatever other aspect of pre-modern life floats their boat.

I love painting and can’t imagine doing anything else. But twenty years ago when I picked up my brushes full time, I never thought for a moment about what it meant to start earning money in one’s primary avocation. Nobody can focus on one thing to the exclusion of everything else. This is embarrassing to admit, but I have no hobbies, unless you consider cleaning up after the elderly dog a hobby.
When my friend Dennis told me he is an accountant with the soul of an artist, I realized that, in some ways, I’m an artist with the soul of an accountant. So why not take up accounting for fun? I looked into the possibility of joining an investment club. That could be profitable, I thought. Of course, once it’s profitable, it’s no longer a hobby.
Music panels from the Ghent Altarpiece, 1430-32, Hubert and Jan van Eyck
When my kids were young, I took up gardening. This was easy, since I was raised on a farm and had extensive experience with shovel and rake. Gardening is a brilliant hobby for young parents. It allows them to keep a sharp eye on the youngsters without appearing to hover.
As so often happens, that hobby started to balloon. Pretty soon I was planting and maintaining sprawling gardens at the corner church, and schlepping my wheelbarrow over there three times a week.
Today my schedule involves too much time on the road during the peak gardening months. I can barely keep the weeds at bay in the small foundation beds we have.
Before children, I used to play the keyboard and guitar and sing. I wasn’t a complete moron at any of those things. I’d had instruction from well-regarded musicians. However, my first cancer treatment left me with lung problems that ruined my voice.  My piano taunts me from across the room, but after 28 years I doubted I remember much about it.
The Bagpiper, 1624, Hendrick Terbrugghen. I even have the tam!
A few days ago, I sat down and played. I was every bit as bad as I expected, but the funny thing is, in some ways playing the piano really is like riding a bicycle. The keys are all there where I left them. As for my voice, it’s a mess. But my husband doesn’t mind the caterwauling. He just puts on his headphones and turns up the volume while I run through my vocal scales. If I can just remember to never open the windows, we should be fine.

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing

What does one artist teach another, in person, that cannot be learned off the internet? Sometimes it’s about accountability.

Dish of butter, by Carol L. Douglas
Yesterday an alert reader sent me a blog post purporting to show how to draw “the top of the flower pot, the lid on a jar, the base of the barn silo,” in perspective. I don’t want to start a flame war, so I’m not going to give you the link, but the instructions were flat-out wrong. The post started off well. Then the writer tried to apply two-point perspective, not realizing that round shapes have no perspective, at least in that sense.
This is a case where knowing a little math would have helped. A column is just an extruded circle. Any point on a circle is the same as any other point. Seen in space, the top of a column is always symmetrical on the vertical and horizontal axes.
That was wild blueberries, yogurt, milk, oatmeal, cinnamon and ginger, in case you’re wondering.
I demonstrated this to my reader by sending her the photo of my breakfast drink, above. If you doubt me, walk around a glass or vase on a table and tell me if the shape changes. I have an explanation of how to draw this, here.
Not that I haven’t said some amazingly stupid things in my time. I remember once trying to explain the art concept of color temperature in relation to the physical temperature of light. My class included a person I think is terribly smart. I grew nervous. I got lost in a hopeless mishmash of misstatements before I was done. At least I hadn’t committed it to paper.
Wineglasses and opossum, by Carol L. Douglas

Sometimes people will repeat the canard that “teaching beginners is easy.” That’s only true in the sense that they don’t know if you’re right or not. Painting technology is almost unchanged since Jan van Eyck created his system for oil painting at the beginning of the fifteenth century. Watercolor and acrylic are newer, but equally methodical. There are rules for painting and drawing, and that is what a teacher should know and teach.

Unpicking bad teaching is some of the most painful work I do. This is why I like and practice the atelier model in my own studio, which I benefitted from so much at the Art Students League of New York. I don’t think in terms of levels of competence; there are just people who each bring their own experience and I try to help them move forward.
Acrylic paint jars, by Carol L. Douglas
Even old dogs can learn new tricks. I’m about to take my workshop in many, many years. I’ve painted with Poppy Balserenough to know that she’s a stellar technician. In May I’m traveling to Cornwallis Park, Nova Scotia to take a two-day watercolor workshop with her. I’m hoping to up my game in watercolor.
I’m glad it’s not this week. While the National Weather Service coyly predicts “plowable snow” for Maine, the Canadian Maritimes are looking at significant weather again.
“If it doesn’t start melting soon, I’ll have to shovel for my first class on Tuesday,” I whined to my husband. That snow pile in our driveway has consolidated to concrete. Ouch.
There is, by the way, one opening left for this session, so if you’re interested, contact me.

That Ugly Renaissance Baby thing

“The Madonna on a Crescent Moon,” artist unknown.

“The Madonna on a Crescent Moon,” artist unknown.
I spent the weekend with my grandchildren, who are both perfectly lovely but of distinct and different temperaments. I once painted my grandson. Time got away from me before I could ever paint his sister.
Whenever I spend a lot of time with them, I come back to a conundrum of pop art history: why are babies so misshapen in Byzantine and Renaissance art?

There are several academic explanations for this. The first is that naturalism wasn’t the primary goal of these paintings. Thus the Christ child was never shown crying or having his terribly stinky diaper changed. We like to assume that’s because he was the object of veneration, but we moderns wouldn’t paint babies in those situations either.
Madonna of Chancellor Rolin, Jan van Eyck, c. 1435

“Madonna of Chancellor Rolin,” Jan van Eyck, c. 1435. The infant Jesus is the world’s great high priest in this painting, as indicated by his pose and the landscape.
But we do impute childlike qualities to children, whereas the pre-modern mind was more inclined to see them as little adults-in-training. In Renaissance and Byzantine art, the infant Christ was a representation of his Incarnation—baby, but also always God. Thus he and his mother must foreshadow his agonizing fate, or depict some other characteristic of God Incarnate.
Personally, I think the answer is mainly a practical one. First, the paintings weren’t intended to be viewed up close; they were meant to be seen at a distance, above an altar, in uneven lighting. That meant heavy modeling was important, and that isn’t compatible with the beautiful delicacy of babies.
"The Ognissanti Madonna," Giotto, c. 1310

“Madonna Enthroned,” Giotto, c. 1310.
Real babies make terrible models. As they approach toddlerhood they tolerate sitting only for limited time. They squirm, they wriggle, and they will do anything to get down and play. They are not miniature adults. Their proportions are different and difficult to capture. Their heads are enormous, their eyes widely spaced, and their noses flattened. They have loose folds of fat dangling here and there.  Try getting that down on paper while your model is screaming to get loose. I suppose the artists could have drugged the little nippers, but I doubt many mothers would go along with that.
"Maria Hilf," Lucas Cranach the Elder, c. 1530

“Maria Hilf,” Lucas Cranach the Elder, c. 1530
Ever take a baby to a studio for a photo shoot? If so, you know you can’t always get a baby to smile for the camera, and if you ask a toddler to smile, you’re likely to get something very artificial. Imagine, then, trying to project a look of complex calm and suffering onto a baby face, especially when you only have minutes to work before the baby falls asleep, soils himself, or is hungry and bored. Changing the expression on a model’s face is one of the most difficult things one can do, even with all the time in the world.
My grandson is not the only baby portrait I’ve painted, but I’ve never painted a young child from life. No modern would ever try it without reference photos, me included. Kudos to those early painters who did.

Six Days of Advent: The Mystical Nativity

The Nativity, 1912, Sir Stanley Spencer. Joseph is off to the right, doing something to the chestnut tree.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with Raphael, Rubens, Tiepolo, Correggio, and the other great painters who’ve painted exquisite Nativities. But there is something arresting about the mystical nativity, where reality is somehow subsumed in spiritual fervor.
Sir Stanley Spencer painted the Nativity, top, as a student at Slade in 1912. He later explained:
The couple occupy the centre of the picture, Joseph who is to the extreme right doing something to the chestnut tree and Mary who stands by the manger…  Joseph is only related to Mary in this picture by some sacramental ordinance… This relationship has always interested me and in those early works I contemplated a lot of those unbearable relationships between men and women.  
The embracing couple represents physical love in contrast to Mary and Joseph’s spiritual connection. That goes with Spencer’s amazingly messed-up attitudes toward women and sex. Spencer’s strict separation between the spiritual and the physical is the neo-Platonic trap into which many of the mystic painters fall. The whole point of the Incarnation is that God becomes man, sharing our joys, sorrows, and, yes, the messy realities of our births and deaths.

Nativity, 1310, Giotto. Joseph seems to be sleeping.

Giotto is generally considered the first Renaissance painter, but he was firmly in touch with his medieval self. That gave him a leg up for mysticism. The pre-Renaissance world was able to see in a non-literal way that is almost completely lost to us. This allows the infant John the Baptist to sit at the bottom of the frame while Jesus is being born, and the almost-disembodied angels that arch across the top of the painting like a Byzantine architrave.

The Nativity, 1492, Domenico Ghirlandaio. You have to zoom in to see her laser-beam prayer. What is it with poor Joseph? Asleep again.

Domenico Ghirlandaio painted the Virgin Mary sending laser beams of prayer down to the infant Jesus while a heavenly choir sings above. The columns and one-point perspective point us that much farther along the Renaissance.  All that gold leaf you’re seeing in the Italian paintings of this time is supposed to remind you of the untarnished nature of the story.

The Mystical Nativity, 1500-01, Sandro Botticelli. Believe it or not, Joseph is sleeping.

Sandro Botticelli described the Nativity as the moment when heaven and earth touch. He was painting at the apogee of the Italian Renaissance, which accounts for the more concrete nature of his visionary angels—he couldn’t throttle back on the realism like Giotto or Ghirlandaio . In his later years, Botticelli fell under the influence of a fanatical Florentine preacher, Savonarola. There is something almost manic in the earthly action in this painting that points to the spiritual oppression of the time.
The Virgin and Child with Canon van der Paele, 1434-36, Jan van Eyck. Joseph doesn’t even show up for this one.
By the fifteenth century, the idea of the Virgin Mary as intercessor for the sinful had gained traction. Jan van Eyck’s The Madonna with Canon van der Paele shows the donor beseeching the Virgin Mary and Sts. Donatian and George. The intense realism and the fine architectural drawing contrast with the unreality of these four figures sharing a common space.
The Nativity, c. 1810, William Blake. At least Joseph is actually present.
William Blake painted the above panel, on copper, concurrently with his Europe, a Prophecy, from which comes his wonderful Ancient of Days painting. At about the same time, he also painted a series of watercolors illustrating Milton’s “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity”:
It was the winter wild,
While the Heav’n-born child,
All meanly wrapt in the rude manger lies…
But Blake, as usual, strayed off into his neo-Platonic world-view. Here the soul of Jesus leaps fully formed toward the soul of John the Baptist. No encumbrances such as the messy reality of childbirth or our imprisonment in our fleshly bodies gets in the way.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

Nothing lasts forever

The Descent from the Cross (c. 1435), by Rogier van der Weyden. The majority of his work was probably destroyed; we can only guess at its extent.
I recently wroteabout the destruction of Egyptian antiquities during their recent political revolutions. This is by no means the only targeting of antiquities in the current Muslim insurgency. The demolition of the Buddhas of Bamiyan by the Taliban in 2001 is the most memorable example, but Hindu sites across Asia have also been targeted.
Iconoclasm—the deliberate destruction or mutilation of religious art and symbols for politico-religious motives—has a long and broad history. Sometimes this occurs to oppress a disfavored religion or ideology, and sometimes it occurs to purify a movement from within.
English Altarpiece (c. 14th century) destroyed during the Dissolution.
The Protestant Reformation, in particular, showed marked hostility to graven images—at least until it could replace the preceding genre with its own. As a fan of Rogier van der Weyden, Jan van Eyck, Robert Campin and other Early Netherlandish Painters, I’ve often wondered about the destroyed altarpieces of northern Europe. There were certainly masterworks we will never know about; were there great painters also lost to history forever?
Bildersturm (or Beeldenstorm, if you’re Dutch) was a series of violent outbreaks against religious icons during the 16th century. In France, these took the form of unofficial attacks by Huguenots that were resisted by the Catholic majority. In Germany and England, looting was organized by the government (after forcible conversion of the population). In the Low Countries, the religious revolution was closely tied with the political revolution that was the Eighty Years War.
Relief in the Cathedral of Saint Martin, Utrecht, damaged during 16th century spasm of Reformation iconoclasm.
Protestant leaders like Huldrych Zwingli and John Calvin actively suppressed religious imagery within churches under their control. Martin Luther was less dogmatic, allowing artists like Lucas Cranach to create Protestant altarpieces to replace the Catholic ones. (These Lutheran altarpieces, in turn, were subsequently threatened by a wave of Calvinism a few decades later.)
In the Lowlands, the furor touched off on August 10, 1566, when the chapel of the Sint-Laurensklooster in Steenvoorde (now in northern France) was looted. This touched off a wave of iconoclastic destruction that rapidly spread north. Within two weeks, the attacks had spread to Antwerp, Ghent and Amsterdam.
Looting of the Churches of Lyon by the Calvinists 1562, by Antoine Caron.
In England, Henry VIII had already looted the rich monastic properties of their treasure, but it took the Civil War and the Commonwealth to finish the destruction of English medieval church art. Between the dissolution of the monasteries in 1535 and the restoration of Charles II in 1660, almost the entire treasury of pre-Reformation art in England was destroyed.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!