Alone but not lonely

Technique is important, but it’s emotional power that draws people to paintings.
Reading, by Carol L. Douglas.
“I see artists who paint only flowers, only still life, only barns, only open landscapes, only portraits, only pets, only kitchen utensils, only books, only sailboats,” an artist said. “Why isn’t the artist painting more subjects, and trying new things?”
I’ve been painting long enough to have been there, done that. Some things I’ve tried simply don’t move me enough to focus on them. If I painted them, it would be only for mercenary reasons, and I don’t think that ever pays in the long run.
I paint still life when I can’t get out, but my interest is limited. Still, anyone who paints professionally ought to be able to paint a credible impression of almost anything in his or her line of sight.
Beach Grass (Goosefare Brook) by Carol L. Douglas
Ocean Park is typically crowded in the high season. If we were to be perfectly honest, our paintings would be full of people. I can draw people, so I don’t have much trouble adding them to my landscapes. Still, I don’t often do it. The problem is in meaning.
Yesterday, I set up downtown, looking at a table on a side-porch at the Curtis. There was nothing especially pictorial about the scene. But it had an evocative quality, suggesting a small, convivial party, relaxing after a day on the beach.
That’s the shell of sociability, and it’s as biographical as the clothes we wear. We recognize it in many places—a lonely writing desk, the objects in the console of another person’s car. In fact, much of still life is intended to suggest character that’s just briefly stepped away. Landscape can do exactly that, too.
Beach Toys, by Carol L. Douglas, 2017. In this painting, the figure is completely neutral, neither supporting nor distracting from the composition.
And yet the composition was still not satisfying to me. A person reading could add to the sense of stillness and anticipation, I thought. He or she should not be central to the frame, so I set a figure on the rail, feet dangling, a book in her lap. That was a mistake. The dangling legs interrupted the serenity of the scene. I turned the still androgynous figure to the right, in the classical languor of a Maxfield Parrishnymph. That didn’t work, either, because it’s a silly pose for 2018. However, it gave me the general bounding box of where the figure should fall.
A note: if you’re doing this, have a friend stand in the general area just long enough to make some marks to indicate their approximate height. Even the most perfectly-drawn figure will look ridiculous if it’s too large or small for the scene.
Later, Ed Buonvecchio and I went out to paint in the fog. It seemed like a good place to use my four-way flashers.
Why did I reject dangling feet and or a figure seated in a chair?  Either would have made a good subject for a painting, but they weren’t right for this one. I was feeling the terrific stillness of morning in Maine, and action and presence would have diminished that. In fact, too often, our last-minute tchotchkes end up damaging, not helping, our paintings.
As I was finishing, a lady carefully inspected my painting. It spoke to her on the same level as it spoke to me, so she commissioned me to do another version for her. There’s a lesson there for me: it’s not all composition or technique. People ultimately react to the emotional pull of place. Unless you feel it, they won’t, either.
I’ve got one more workshop available this summer. Join me for Sea and Sky at Schoodic, August 5-10. We’re strictly limited to twelve, but there are still seats open.

Be specific

Yes, you can paint and sell generic landscapes, but what’s the point?
Keuka Lake vineyard, by Carol L. Douglas
If you were to blindfold me and drop me somewhere in New York, Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont or, I suppose, parts of Connecticut or New Jersey, I could, after an hour or two of hiking, tell you approximately where I was. (Please let’s not try this game in winter.) I could approximate the latitude and longitude by experience.
Chugash Range, Alaska, by Carol L. Douglas
I’ve spent a lifetime observing the rocks, the trees, the understory plants, the architecture, the old businesses, and even the smells of these places. This is why I am so emphatic that Linden Frederick’s Night Stories are a portrait of Amsterdam, NY and not the Maine coast. It’s why I yammer away to my students about the cleavage in granite. There’s nothing less convincing than a shale outcropping on a supposedly-Maine coast.
Now, if you were to play the same game and drop me in the Kit Carson National Forest or somewhere in the Florida Keys, I’d be wandering around confused a week later. I don’t know the places well enough.
Parke County, Indiana, by Carol L. Douglas
Places are defined by their political boundaries. These don’t represent their geographical realities. Consider Indiana, for example. If you haven’t been there, you probably think it’s flat, ‘fly-over country,’ and post-industrial rustbelt. Those are all true, but limited, descriptions. Much of the state is rolling farmland, dotted with hardwood forests, marshes, and flood-prone, mud-banked rivers. Southern Indiana is downright hilly in places. In the north, the soil is made of glacial till left over from the last Ice Age. In the south, there’s limestone.
New England towns are topsy-turvier than New York towns because there’s nowhere flat to draw a street plan on. New England is forested until it breaks out into beaches, as at Cape Cod. I visited tiny Williamson, NY, yesterday. Its main street marches in a straight line for blocks. Large square houses line the streets, now somewhat recovered from the bad years. There are long, rolling, mowed lawns and cobblestone houses. Its orchards are filled with old, severely-pruned trees, which are characteristic of the apple-growing regions of the state.
Rachel Carson refuge, Ocean Park, ME, by Carol L. Douglas
Then there’s weather. As you head west into the Great Lakes region, you frequently hit a wall of clouds. They are often angry, sometimes morose, but never static. If you’re painting in that place at that time of year, you need to tone down the contrast, because part of the sense of place comes from the consistent low light. Conversely, if you’re from the Great Lakes region, the clear blue skies of coastal America may come as a surprise.
If you’re a landscape painter, you’d be smart to observe these differences. Mary Byrom is one of the finest painters I know. Her work is simplified to the point of abstraction, but its still immediately identifiable as the southern coast of Maine, with its rocks, surf, and marshes.
Yes, you can paint and sell generic landscapes, but what’s the point?

Have a blessed holiday! There will be no Monday Morning Art School on Christmas. Your assignment? To eat, drink and be merry.

The meaning of blue: color temperature on a snowy day

"Lewis R. French raising her sails," by Carol L. Douglas

“Lewis R. French raising her sails,” by Carol L. Douglas
I’m busy finishing plein air work from last season. Some of this needs nothing more than a few brush-strokes and a signature, some of it returned home as nothing more than color notes that need to be fleshed out into a painting.
That was the case with this small painting of the Lewis R. French raising her sails at Pulpit Harbor. I started this in the early morning, knowing I had only a few minutes to finish before the American Eagle sailed out. I probably did fewer than twenty brush strokes on site, but Sue Baines of the Kelpie Gallery saw something in it and urged me to finish it.
Normally, I trust my plein air sketches for color notes. In this case what I’d recorded didn’t match my emotional memory of the day, which told me that this had happened just after sunrise. So I heated up the lighting structure and it much more closely resembles the mood of that early morning in Pulpit Harbor.
"Doe drinking in the woods," by Carol L. Douglas

“Doe drinking in the woods,” by Carol L. Douglas
Blue shadows on evening snow. (Carol L. Douglas)
I painted Doe drinking in the Woods years ago. It was a demonstration to my students on how the color of light works in practice. The setting and lighting were imaginary.
The photograph of footprints in the ice on a winter evening, above, clearly shows blue shadows across the snow. I think it also gives a sense of my frustration about the condition of the sidewalks.
The exception to the color-of-light rule happens in indirect light. There are many places where an ambient cloudy milkiness is the dominant weather condition. In it, both color temperature and contrast are muted.
Snow shovelers in a snow squall. (Carol L. Douglas)

Snow shovelers in a snow squall. (Carol L. Douglas)
A snowstorm is an exaggeration of indirect light. There are no shadows; there are merely objects in space. A snowstorm exaggerates atmospheric perspective, too, rendering even middle-distance objects indistinct and neutral.
Artists constantly check themselves against a construct called “color temperature.” There are warm and cool colors, and warm and cool variations within each color. A warm color gives us a sense of warmth and energy and tends to draw our eye, like the life preserver on my painting of the Cadet. A cool color recedes from the eye and gives us a sense of static coldness, like the underside of Rockwell Kent’s iceberg from yesterday.
I’ve written before about the color of light, and it’s one of the most important concepts in painting. The earth’s atmosphere bends light just like a prism does, so what you see is always tinted. Either the light is warm and its shadows cool, or the light is cool and its shadows warm. Which that is depends on the time of day and the season of the year.
In the wintertime, the sun barely crests the treetops here in the North. The ground is often covered with neutral white snow. That gives us textbook conditions to see light temperature in action, for the sun on the horizon always gives us warm light and cool shadows.
Blue shadows on evening snow. (Carol L. Douglas)

Merry Christmas!

Winter Landscape, 1811, Caspar David Friedrich
Our celebration of Christmas is heavily Germanic in origin, marrying the gift-giving and merrymaking of Saturnalia with Yule logs, Christmas trees, greenery, mistletoe and other northern European traditions.
Fir Trees in the Snow, 1828, Caspar David Friedrich
Caspar David Friedrich seems like a fitting painter for today. Born in the last years of the Enlightenment, he was a profound romantic, a German landscape painter who saw allegory and symbolism in everything. He was anti-classical and moody—in short the polar opposite of the Age of Reason. Yet if you look at his superb drafting and paint handling, you see that he was a technician of great skill.
Passage Grave in the Snow, 1808, Caspar David Friedrich
A strict adherence to rationalism shortchanges the human capacity for thought. We have blinding intuition, we have emotional response, and we have gut reactions. To deny any of these processes is crippling. A strictly linear thinker can’t make the leaps of creativity necessary to be inventive. A strictly intuitive thinker hasn’t got enough grounding in reality to be productive. A strictly emotional thinker is, often, just plain crazy.
Christmas itself commemorates something profoundly non-rational: the idea that God would come down to share our suffering, and lift the price of sin from our shoulders.
Early Snow, undated, Caspar David Friedrich
But critics of Christianity make a mistake in thinking that it is anti-rational. From the initial question of whether the universe had a cause, to the faith’s remarkable endurance, to the stunning internal logic within its books, the Bible is a complex and coherent document. I’ve just been reading the Books of Chronicles. On the one hand, they are the historical record of a series of kings. On the other hand, they set the stage for a great restoration that augurs the concept of grace. There are too many examples of this to even list.  If the Bible was the work of obscure sheep-wranglers from a two-bit kingdom in the Middle East, as its critics say, it represents a literary accomplishment with no parallel in history.
Trees in the Snow, 1828, Caspar David Friedrich
 Five people can read the Bible, and one of them will be struck dumb by it, and the other four will think, well, they can cross that off their list. For that one person, the Word becomes the organizing principle of his life, and he admits a relationship to the Living God that will change him forever.
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!

Requiescat in pace

Playland Beach View, Seth Nadel (done at Rye Painters on Location)
Yesterday my pal Crista Pisano texted me that a mutual acquaintance died suddenly. He is Seth Nadel, a landscape painter from Highlands, New York. He died doing something he loved—playing tennis—but that doesn’t negate the fact that a fine painter and caring teacher has been taken from the Hudson Valley art scene.

Times Square, Seth Nadel
I did not know Seth well, but we had a passing acquaintence: we did the Rye Art Center’s Painters on Location together for years. Seth had a BFA from Cooper Union and studied at the Art Students League. He taught painting at the Barrett Art Center in Poughkeepsie.
While I’m celebrating Christmas this afternoon, I will be remembering not only my loved ones who have passed away this year, but my friends who have sustained similar losses.

Hudson Valley View, Seth Nadel (done for Rye Painters on Location)
The peace of God be with you today and always. Happy Christmas.

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!

Reappraisal

Reed beds at the Irondequoit Inn didn’t thrill me that much when I painted it, but it turns out to have been predictive of where I’m going as a painter.
Recently, I was listening to some fellow painters talking about how to reuse canvas-boards on which they’d done unsuccessful paintings. I remarked that I almost never reuse boards, because I almost never throw things away. My studio and workshop are full of field sketches and paintings that aren’t going to be shown but aren’t going to be painted over, either. As long as I have the luxury of space, I’m going to continue this practice.
Hayfield in Paradise (private collection) was painted about a decade ago. Yes, it’s obviously by me, but my color sense, my brushwork, and my composition are all much different today.
I think most artists are poor judges of whether something they’re working on is a success. We usually think it works when it flows off the brush without too much pain. However, often the most important work we’re doing isn’t easy. Trailblazing involves hacking out a path with an ax, after all.
I had most of my inventory off my own walls this summer because it was in galleries. To fill the nailholes, I put up some small works from my slush pile. One of these pieces is hanging on the wall opposite my bed, where I see it when I wake up. I didn’t like it that much when I painted it, but after a week back home, I realize that it’s actually very good. It was jarring several years ago; it seems a lot more like me today.
I loathed this painting of the mouth of the Genesee River when I did it, and almost wiped it out. It has really grown on me over the years, and now I think it’s a really cool painting.
Another small painting—a sketch for a larger work—accidentally traveled with me to Maine this summer. Since it had nothing to do with the Maine works I was delivering, I used it to decorate my cabin. When I painted it, I thought it was both elegant and loose. However, the subdued palette has little in common with my work today.
Keuka Vineyard accidentally traveled to Maine with me. I realized after looking at it for several weeks that it’s not that connected with my work today. Nevertheless, I still like it.

You can’t really make these judgments if you obliterate everything you paint that makes you uncomfortable. That’s analogous to ruthlessly weeding out all new seedlings under the mistaken notion that they are weeds. You really can’t tell what’s in your garden until it has a chance to grow.

Message me if you want information about next year’s classes or workshops.

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.

You can paint anything if you can paint greens

View from Catherine’s gazebo, by Anna McDermott. (The color of these paintings is somewhat overblown because it was almost dark when I snapped these shots.)
There are places with gazebos in Rochester, but when there’s electrical activity on the horizon it helps if they’re not too far from a parking lot. Yesterday was a humid, dark day with thunderstorms forecasted for 5 PM. I went over my list of options with my student and pal, Catherine, ending up with the Fairport Library gazebo.
The actual scene she was painting. The greens of summer can be acidic and unvaried in New York.
“No, not that again!” she responded, and I had to agree. Although it overlooks the canal, it’s got boring sightlines.
View from Catherine’s gazebo, by Sandy Quang.
So we met in her gazebo, which overlooks a 10-acre pond. The trouble is, there’s a rain forest between the gazebo and the pond and no amount of chopping seems to keep the sightlines open.
The actual scene she was painting. 
All of which I knew before I got there, but I still love the view, since you’re looking across a thicket of sumacs to a far hillside. Of course, it’s all green, but greens are an excellent challenge. If you can sort out a painting from a thicket of scrubby trees, you can paint anything.
In the Forest of Fontainebleau took Camille Corot five years to complete (1860-65). I gave my students three hours.

I have three openings left for my 2014 workshop in Belfast, ME. Information is available here.

What you do when nobody’s looking

Ellwanger Berry Garden, 12X16, $650, by Carol L. Douglas.
Sure, I get to drive around and visit with fascinating people and go to interesting shows and occasionally pick up a brush and paint something, but I spend more time than I’d like on bookkeeping and that bugaboo of all sales: inventory control.
Stu Chait and I are putting the final details together for our upcoming show at RIT-NTID’s Dyer Arts Center, which opens July 11 from 4-7 PM. If you’re in town, you should really find a way to get there, since this is a sprawling show.
Manipulation in Red by Stu Chait.
Stu and I met at the Ellwanger Garden here in Rochester. We were the only painters there, so we stood at opposite ends of the garden and painted facing each other. I’ve long since sold that painting, but I painted another painting with him at the same place, which will be in this show.
It’s been years since I pulled out all my work to organize a show, but since the passage of time is part of our theme, I inventoried every piece of work I have in play right now. That is nearly a hundred pieces, which is less absurd when you consider that I have three separate bodies of work: landscape, figure, and faith-based. (Even with all those paintings, I am actually scant on work to meet specific summer commitments.)
The Servant, 36X40, $3000, oil on canvas, by Carol L. Douglas.
What surprised me even more is how many paintings are no longer in my inventory.  Next winter I’m going to go through my photo archives and sales records and try to piece together a comprehensive catalogue. I loathe that kind of task, but if I don’t do it soon, I’ll never get it done.


I have three openings left for my 2014 workshop in Belfast, ME. Information is available 
here.

Freaky coincidence or what?

Jingwei Yang’s painting from Anna’s garden.
I’ve known Anna since she was a mere slip of a girl. She’s married now and two months ago she and her husband bought a lovely home in the city. Anna has always been musical but never, to my knowledge, interested in making visual art. I was most surprised when she called me about a month ago to ask about painting lessons. Most people ease into painting gradually, but she went out to Hyatt’s and got all the necessary tools and has been practicing at home.
Sandy Quang’s painting from Anna’s garden.
Last week I took my class to Anna’s new home to paint her small backyard pocket garden. It is clearly the garden of an artist. She told us the former owner was an art teacher at Rochester’s School of the Arts and her late husband was also an artist.
Nina Koski’s painting of Anna’s garden.
After class, Anna gave me a tour of her house. About halfway through, I realized the late husband in question was Peter Berg, who was a well-known Rochester painter around the time Anna was born. I never knew him, not living here at the time, but I knew of him from my friend Sari Gaby.
I do believe houses can have a spiritual temperament, and I wonder if Anna’s house has a painter’s temperament. Perhaps those old pantiles and oak pocket doors gave her a gentle nudge toward painting.
Nate Tomlinson’s painting from a different garden day.


Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. My Belfast, ME, workshop is almost sold out. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!