Painting at the Lilac Festival with my young friends

Lilac Festival, Highland Park, 11X14, oil on canvas, by little ol’ me.

My Jewish neighbors are celebrating Shavuot, which commemorates the day God gave the Torah to the nation of Israel. We Christians will observe Pentecostthis coming Sunday, when we will commemorate the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Church. The two holidays are closely related, and they are both based on the idea of gifts from God.

We are often so quick to throw away God’s blessings. A friend told me that she was advised to stop eating tomatoes for health reasons. “But Galicia has the best tomatoes in the world,” she said. “I can’t not eat them. It would be a sin.”
Sam spent most of his time talking to curious passers-by.
For some unfathomable reason, the human animal loves making rules by which he denies himself pleasure. The first and deepest of these revolve around food. Whether we are talking about the dietary restrictions of religion or the modern rules guiding the “worried well,” the end result is the same: self-denial that purports to make us better on physical, moral, or spiritual planes.
One of the “delicacies” of the Lilac Festival is deep-fried turkey legs. I will not embarrass the young person who actually attempted to eat one. I hope he survives.
Last Saturday, I made a tentative date to paint at the Lilac Festival today with Bella, Sam, and Jake. Today dawned with that delicate, airy beauty that is unique to spring in the Northeast. But I have a lot of non-painting work to do, and I felt torn—should I be “responsible,” or should I go paint with my young friends. But I realized that I couldn’t knowingly toss out this gift of a beautiful day, given me to enjoy by a God who loves me. And it was wonderful, and it was a joy, and an old geezer stopped by and told me a great joke:
 “What is difference between a professional artist and a Domino’s pizza?
“The pizza can feed a family of four.”
Bella struggling to keep her easel upright.
There are still spots open in our mid-coast Maine plein air workshops! Check here for more information.

Take off your clothes for fun and profit

A post-manifesto painting, and it ended up being my favorite of Michelle ever.

“There are pictures of nude women everywhere, and nobody seems to care,” my son-in-law once said of my home. He’s right. I’m passionate about the subject of subjugation, so there  are paintings of women leaning on every available space: women commodified, bent, begging, enslaved, wrapped in plastic, suspended, dancing, resting, exhausted… and then a few recent post-manifesto ones where I stopped thinking and caught something delicate, introspective and sweet.
For the vast majority of these paintings, my model has been Michelle Long. I want something more from my model than simple presence. “If the situation calls for it, I register some emotion, but by default I am being myself. I try to be neutral but not by wiping myself as a totally clean slate,” Michelle told me.

Why would anyone—especially a very smart and capable young woman—decide on a career of stripping off her clothing and sitting utterly still in front of others? While I was starting to work out my feminist manifesto, Michelle was (unbeknownst to me) on a parallel track. “When I was in my mid-twenties, I was thinking about how society has become so sexualized. My naked body had to be about sex. I wanted to take control of this by physically doing something about it. My life isn’t defined solely by my sexuality. It isn’t the whole of who I am.” But that, she says, is not relevant anymore; she’s worked it out.

Some days it’s a ukulele, some days it’s dancing. That’s why it’s called “a break.”
Given a choice, Michelle prefers working one-on-one with professional artists, or in small groups. For her the most stressful situation is “when artists don’t treat me professionally, or don’t take themselves professionally.” She likes to be able to collaborate with artists, rather than present a tabula rasa on which artists record their own impressions.
The model’s eye view.
That is probably a reflection of her keen and restless mind. She’s been a serious and dedicated swing dancer for 15 years and sings with Gregory Kunde Chorale. She manages two bands: Gorden Webster in New York and Roc City Stompers in Rochester. 
In her spare time, she loves listening to live music and playing Eurogames, whatever the heck they are. “They’re very social and there are multiple ways to win,” chimed in her partner, Tyler Gagnon. She’s learning to play the ukulele, and added, “I love drinking gin.”
Want to join us for figure painting? Contact me here. And I’d be hard-pressed to figure out how to include a figure model in this summer’s Maine workshops, but if you’re interested in joining us for a fantastic time in mid-Coast Maine, check here for more information.

Painting by Numbers

That’s not a lighthouse, but the Summerville Coast Guard Station in Rochester. And it sold fast, so maybe they know what they’re talking about with this blue.

Maine lighthouses are among the most iconic of images. Does that mean that painting them is a good idea?

It depends on what you’re after and how you execute your work. Thomas Kinkade made a fortune painting lighthouses. Still, he died unhappy, and he’s unlikely to be remembered as a seminal figure in American art.
The problem with Thomas Kinkade isn’t that he couldn’t paint, and it isn’t that he spent too much time reading Komar and Melamid… it’s that all his buildings look like they are on fire. (Split Rock Light by Thomas Kinkade.)
Nevertheless, it’s perfectly possible to paint a sensitive, honest lighthouse or lobster boat. They are iconic for a reason: they speak to us of labor, of man’s relationship to nature, and of the sea.
Surf in Maine. Not iconic at all, and the size of a paperback novel. Oops. Oh, well… I still like it.
In Painting by Numbers: Komar and Melamid’s Scientific Guide to Art, the authors—who are themselves artists—set out to determine what were the “most wanted” and “least wanted” paintings in various countries. Most of the book describes, laboriously, the methodology of their polling process. It’s so absurd it’s funny.

America’s least-favorite painting is:

·         Paperback book size;
·         Thick, textured surfaces;
·         Geometric patterns;
·         Darker shades;
·         Sharp angles and bold stark designs;
·         Colors kept distinctly separate;
·         Gold, orange, peach and/or teal.
America’s most-favorite painting is:

·         Dishwasher-size;
·         “Realistic-looking;”
·         Outdoor scenes;
·         More vibrant shades;
·         Wild animals in their natural settings;
·         Persons in group, fully clothed and at leisure;
·         Fall scene;
·         Soft curves and playful, whimsical designs;
·         Colors blended;
·         Visible brush strokes;
·         Blue.
OK, that’s a lighthouse, and I personally like it. Well, I painted it, so I ought to. Whole lotta blue.
It turns out that lots of people like landscapes, and they also like blue. If that’s true, and if they’re also satisfying to paint, why turn our noses up at them?
Whether you want to paint an iconic view of Maine or something more individual, there’s still room in this summer’s Maine painting workshops. Check here for more information.

Playing it safe

As-yet-untitled landscape of New Mexico by Cindy Zaglin, acrylic on canvas. Light, bright, abstract, and ultimately it looks like the place felt.

The working art world—as much as any clique—tends to be insular. Art markets are provincial communities that are inclined to distrust outsiders or new impulses. To really break out of the corner into which one has painted oneself, to violate the community’s intellectual, technical or social standards, can be tremendously difficult.
Because paintings are tangible objects, the culture of painting is less subject to mass media than are other art forms, and there are distinct regional differences.  Painting clubs and classes can be terribly restrictive. They draw their leadership and jurors from a constricted pool, so members tend to conform to a narrow style to be juried into shows or awarded prizes. That can be either conscious or unconscious, but it inevitably leads to derivative or dated technique. When I first went to Manhattan to study with her, Cornelia Fosslooked at my first exercise and said, “If this were 1950, I’d say, ‘Brava, Carol,’ but it isn’t.” That’s what came of learning to paint in Buffalo.
Of course in its own way Manhattan can be as provincial as anywhere else. Cindy Zaglin studied at the Art Students League in New York. She has never been one to tie herself blithely to someone else’s muse. “I was very unhappy. I was in class and would look at everyone’s realistic paintings and I could make mine look like theirs but it didn’t express me. I don’t care about the small details. I wanted to paint large swatches of color, use negative space, leave things out, replace things with color, and I was scared to do that.”
The problem with abandoning community is that one needs new ideas, and Zaglin struggles with how to maintain a healthy distance while still learning from others. “I still sometimes think what I’m doing isn’t ‘valid’.  Sometimes I know when it’s working; sometimes I don’t. I do want to learn from others including realist painters. Painting freely or abstractly isn’t just throwing colors or shapes on a canvas; you still need to know how to draw.”
Then there’s the marketplace. Mid-level art buyers are a curiously reticent bunch, embracing new things only after they have the imprimatur of other collectors. Too many painters temper their inner vision to the marketplace. We have all seen insipid artists sell while brilliant ones struggle in the trenches.
Spring Trees, oil on board, by Jean K. Stephens (image courtesy Oxford Gallery)
A decade ago, Jean K. Stephens was a respected Rochester landscape painter, with impeccable technique born of a very disciplined mind and a passionate love of the land. I’d heard she’d been through a painterly rite of passage; a mutual friend showed me some abstractions she’d done that I found painfully honest. When I came across a small nest painting of hers at Shop One² at Global Village recently, I wondered what made this seemingly established painter give up what she knew, and perhaps more importantly, what she knew would sell.
“I couldn’t not do them,” she said of those early abstractions. She had undergone a process of deep-tissue massage that, she said, brought her back to her birth experience. “I woke up in the middle of the night and did something I never do: I just started flinging paint. It was certainly not planned. It just spilled out that first night,” she said. “The next morning I went in the studio and said, ‘What just happened here?’”
What happened was more complex than a spiritual or psychological discovery, since Stephens had recently moved, had entered menopause, and had sold the rural property that had made her ‘big vista’ landscapes possible. Even as she’s moved past this work, she says it was and is a “true expression of my feminine self.”
Stephens’ current work embraces both that feminine expression and her capacity for realism. “I was in Maine with a bunch of friends. We had rented a house and I was doing the typical plein air. On the last day I looked down at my feet and said, ‘There’s the Great Mother!’ In our trips to Maine, I had always loved the rocks, but I felt like this work was the culmination of everything I had done to that point.”
So what happens when a painter known for her delicate, luminous landscapes suddenly starts exhibiting rock paintings that look like vaginas? “There’s always a risk in putting something different on the wall,” acknowledges Stephens. “I can take that risk. I do the work for me, but if people connect with it, that’s even better.”
In and Out, oil on panel, by Jean K. Stephens (image courtesy of Oxford Gallery). The complete series can be seen here.
Zaglin expressed a similar sentiment. “While I want others to be connected with my paintings I’m most interested in me being connected to my paintings. This year I started caring less about what others thought and started trusting that I did have a point of view.”
Last year was a time of personal crisis for Zaglin, and she thinks the upheaval changed her work. “Afterward, I decided I was wasting time not painting how and what I want,” she said. Which is, of course, true for all of us.

There’s still room in this summer’s Maine painting workshops! Check here for more information.

How not to pack for outdoor painting

Two men look out through the same bars:
One sees the mud, and one the stars. 

                             (Rev. Frederick Langbridge)

Chambered Nautilus, 1956, Tempera on panel,
Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art

I spent the week in Maine, reconnoitering for my summer workshops, and generally considering how I can best shed the nautilus shell of my current life. After all, if you look at that shell, more and more compartments are… not empty, but collecting dust.

Having just visited the Farnsworth again, I’m reminded of Andrew Wyeth’s painting, “Chambered Nautilus.” (The Farnsworth has many lovely studies by Wyeth that demonstrate just how meticulously he prepared each of his paintings. Any serious painter would benefit from studying these drawings, and I strongly urge you to visit the Farnsworth and spend time with them—in particular the studies for Maidenhair.)
 “Chambered Nautilus” shows Wyeth’s mother-in-law gazing out her bedroom windows during her final illness. Initially, Wyeth considered using a conch shell. “It is believed that someone just brought the nautilus shell and he preferred it, but I like to think that it was symbolic,” Erin Monroe of the Wadsworth Atheneum toldthe Hartford Courant. “He often designated objects as stand-ins for people, and a nautilus has all these chambers. His mother-in-law was confined to a chamber and couldn’t leave.”
Wyeth himself had this to sayabout the painting: “I did the picture right there in the room…and she would talk to me about her childhood in Connecticut.  She was a great woman, one of those people who never grow old.”
But of course we all eventually do grow old, and the reality is that eventually most of us end up with our worldly goods pared down to a nursing home bed and a recliner. Still, before that happens, “…I have promises to keep/And miles to go before I sleep.” 
Most of us do a pretty good job of blooming where we’re planted, and my family has been no exception. We came to Rochester for work, and we’ve had a good run here. But I have always used it as a launching pad. In the earliest days, I traveled back to the Buffalo area to see my design clients, and after my kids were old enough, I started traveling to NYC to take classes, traveling around the East Coast to show paintings and traveling elsewhere to paint and teach.
We thought it might be a lot of fun for students, but it just trades one
 nautilus shell for another.
 By all rational standards, 2013 is a mad time to think of picking up sticks. We’re still in the throes of economic malaise, I’m definitely getting older, and we still have a kid in school. But there is an insistent refrain in my head: “It’s now or never.”
And so I debate options: move to an art town and open a gallery? Buy a small house in Deer Isle and turn out work that I in turn sell to other galleries? Do I even need a permanent home? With that last idea in mind I stopped in Amsterdam, NY and looked at trailers and motor homes. I was intrigued, but when I got back to Rochester I realized that I do like my own bed.
Where does this all end? I don’t know. As my pal Loren said last week, “The options are infinite.”
“True,” I answered, “but the parking is limited.” Which is not exactly true, but our time here on earth certainly is. And I want to spend as little of the rest of it as possible dusting the inside of my chambered nautilus shell.

Memories of Maine…

When I was in Maine I was interviewed by a reported from the PenBay Pilot… and here is the story. I’ll be teaching workshops in this area next summer; I can’t wait to get back!

One Morning in Maine

With apologies to Robert McCloskey

“Sunset at Marshall Point,” 8X6, oil on canvasboard, private collection
People say, “Paint what you know,” but I’m more for knowing what I paint. That said, my knowledge of Maine has until now been surface deep. I’ve painted in Eastport and Lubec and the mid-coast region, but not in the last few years, and never with the kind of intense concentration that you get from being in the same place day after day.  I freely admit that I don’t understand the Maine landscape with the same intensity that I understand Keuka, but that doesn’t mean I can’t learn.
Sunset over Penobscot Bay.
I’ve been invited to teach plein air in mid-coast Maine next summer. The only way from here to there is to pull out my brushes and paint there, intensively, day after day. Most sane people do NOT do that in November, but I believe in striking while the iron is, er, stone cold.
Cold it is during the two weeks leading up to Thanksgiving, no matter where in the Northeast you’re painting. One morning I was painting on a commercial wharf and thought it was warming up enough to doff the gloves, until I reached for a baby wipe and found it frozen solid to the ground. (An aside: the good news about painting all day in that kind of cold is that you sleep like a baby.)
“Pine trees at sunset near Owl’s Head, ME,” 8X6, oil on canvasboard, private collection.

Maine is iconic, and there are subjects which are almost verboten because they are clichés—lighthouses, lobster boats, surf, lobster traps, and buoys. Yet those things are also integral to what Maine is, and in the hands of good painters, are both transformed and transformative. Maine resonates with many of us precisely because it is a place whose hard work is on display. We Americans revere and respect work. To ignore that would be almost as clichéd as the worst lighthouse painting.
“Surf,” 8X6, oil on canvasboard, available.
I frequently fall into two compositional traps when painting the ocean, something I never worked out satisfactorily before this trip. The first is getting caught in the perfect ellipse of the shore, and the second is the triangle formed by ocean silhouetted by land. After ten days or so of fighting this, I drove two hours to see a wonderful show, “Weatherbeaten: Winslow Homer and Maine,” at the Portland Museum of Art. As one entered, one first saw “The Artist’s Studio in an Afternoon Fog,” which is owned by Rochester’s own Memorial Art Gallery. This painting is an old friend, and one I frequently use to teach composition.

Homer used two devices to organize his Maine paintings: a strong dark diagonal, and vast simplification. I use that diagonal in figure-painting all the time; why did it never occur to me as a solution here?

Maine in November bears little resemblance to the traffic jam that is US 1 in July. The plein air painter has to know two things—how to get off the beaten path, and where to find toilets and coffee. I spent much of my two weeks figuring out these details. Much of my painting was, therefore, less about painting than about planning to paint. But then I would see seals gamboling in the ocean, and it was about the joy of God’s creation and my grateful heart.
My wee little paint kit on a cold day in Belfast, ME.
The Farnsworth in Rockland has to be flat-out the best museum in a city of its size (7,297 people, I kid you not), anywhere. When I visited, they were simultaneously featuring Louise Nevelson and Frank Benson, which was a stretch for my limited brain. I was most moved and surprised by the Jamie Wyeth-Rockwell Kent show. I am a big fan of surrealism in literature, but in painting it generally leaves me cold. Wyeth has an iteration of this painting (in oil) which is simply the best surrealist painting I have ever seen. I was also quite taken by his The Seven Deadly Sins as expressed through seagulls.
Near Port Clyde, ME.
I am about the same age as Jamie Wyeth and like him was taught to paint by my father. (There, obviously, the similarity ends.) I was rather surprised to find in his mature work such a strong resonance with his grandfather, the great narrative painter NC Wyeth. All those Wyeths are story-tellers, but there’s a romanticism that skips from grandfather to grandson.
In my wanderings, I met Robin Seymour, gallery manager for Eric Hopkins, who is a joyful, lyrical and yet very intellectual painter. Robin is a true art historian, worlds away from the typical gallerista, and I got a tremendous kick out of talking to her. I also met Hopkins himself, who demonstrated looking at things upside down by lying on his back on his credenza; it’s a sign of the Mainer’s resilience that he was able to get back up. Robin introduced me to her neighbor, Yvette Torres, who in turn introduced me to the fantastic work of Winslow Myers. Later that week, painter Alison Hillof Monhegan took me along to her weekly figure session, which was in Yvette Torres’ gallery. When life moves in circles like this, it’s simply wonderful.
“Marshall’s Point,” 12X16, oil on canvasboard, available.
To say I’m looking forward to teaching there next year is to vastly understate the case. Watch this spot.

Paint Way Down East July 11-18, 2009

Following up on last year’s highly successful workshop, I am offering a painting adventure next summer to the moody, rock-bound coast of Down East, Maine.
This workshop will be based at the lovely and historic West Quoddy Coast Guard Station in Lubec, ME. This early 20th century station is located on the edge of Quoddy Head State Park. The station was recently renovated and opened as a guesthouse by Bill Clark, who developed Randall’s Ordinary Inn in North Stonington, CT.
Your fee of $1150 includes instruction, all meals and seven days of double accommodations. (Other packages are available from $1050.) Non-participating spouses are always welcome; please contact us here for more information and pricing.

See a brochure here.
Book by Feb. 1, 2009 and save $100 off the cost of your workshop!

Among the attractions to paint are:

West Quoddy Head Light (c. 1858)
Passamaquoddy Bay
Historic Lubec waterfront and harbor
Grand Manan Channel
West Quoddy Peat Bog
Sail Rock
Carrying Place Cove
Mulholland Light
Lubec Channel Light

Area attractions include:

St. Andrews, NB, and the Bay of Fundy
Historic whaling community of Eastport, ME
FDR historic site at Campobello Island

For more information, email me here, or call Carol L. Douglas Studios at 585-201-1558.

Looking forward to seeing you in Maine!

Painting in Maine

This is my favorite painting from my recent Maine trip. It’s quite small—6X8—and was done during a downpour on a shingle beach in Penobscot Bay. I like the color and the energy. It comes close to my sense of what the ocean is about.

(I plan to teach in Maine next July so if you’re interested, please let me know.)

After painting in Maine, I saw All Things Bright and Beautiful: California Impressionists at the Katonah Museum of Art. What a different world they were painting! It’s an excellent show, and runs until October 5, 2008.