Monday Morning Art School: continuing education

We learn from studying our peers and the painters who’ve gone before us.
Victoria Street, oil on linen, 16×20, by Carol L. Douglas
Bruce McMillan emailed me last week. “Just in case you feel you’re painting a lot, in 1911, from early August to late September on Monhegan, Robert Henri painted 300 paintings, most of them on 12×15 wooden boards, his last major foray into marine art.”
I churned out fifteen largish canvases in thirteen days during my Parrsboro residency and wondered if I was sacrificing quality for quantity. But I’m familiar with Henri’s marine paintings; they’re simple, monumental and brilliant. Bruce’s reassurance came at exactly the right time.
Once we’re done with art classes, we learn mostly from observing other artists. When we see something that we admire, we want to incorporate the essence of that idea into our work. It’s not stealing; it’s how all art develops.
Miss Margaret, oil on canvasboard, 8×10, by Carol L. Douglas. Maggie was my roommate for two weeks.
Alison Hill is a painter I’ve known since before I moved to Maine. We were set up next to each other at Cape Elizabeth Paint for Preservation last month, so I had time to study her brushwork. She lays it down once and leaves it.
A writer told me recently, “you can rewrite that ending eight times and it won’t necessarily be better; you’ll just have eight different endings.” At least with the written word, they’re separate. In alla prima painting, those previous iterations lie there in the murk and muddy up the top layers.
I’d never heard of Tom Forrestall before this current trip. He’s sometimes called the Canadian Andrew Wyeth because of the precision of his egg tempera technique. But beneath that is a light, quirky vision. It’s magical realism unencumbered with social commentary. Can this kind of ruthless observation be learned? I won’t know until I try.
Clearing to the west, oil on canvas, 12×16, by Carol L. Douglas
Tara Will is a pastel painter from Maryland. She has never met a compositional rule she’s not willing to bend, break or pummel into submission. I look at everything she posts because her paintings are always colorful, light, and energetic. She keeps pastel lean and fresh.  
Marc Granboisis a plein air painter from Quebec. His snow and ice are tremendous, but his skies are what I’m interested in these days. He can pull moody, brooding, and dramatic out of a leaden northern sky. There’s tremendous energy in his linework and patterning.
Every artist needs to know art history to understand where he or she fits into the great saga of art. A number of Nova Scotians commented that my painting style looked very Tom Thomson or Group of Seven. That’s partially because they’re familiar to Canadians, but it’s also because I have studied them for many years.
Recent landslide (Cape Sharp), oil on linen, 18×24, by Carol L. Douglas. This painting is the only one that’s going to get a studio revision–in this case, a crop, I think. I removed something at the last minute and it unbalanced the composition. 
More recently, I’ve been thinking about the Scottish Colourists, particularly Francis Cadell. Both the Canadians and Scottish groups are post-impressionist, but they’re as interested in a sense of place as they are in formal order and structure.
Most of the painters I’ve mentioned are not superstars; they’re my fellows in the trenches. Who do you admire right now? What can you learn from their painting?

Your list will be different from mine, but thinking about what you like in your peers’ work gives you an idea of what you might want to change in your own. It’s a moving target. In a year, we’ll be talking about entirely different artists.

What is plein air painting?

I came of age during the heyday of abstract-expressionism. I’m still half-apologizing for liking realism. That colors every brushstroke I make.
Keulka vineyard, by Carol L. Douglas. That’s the studio version. Courtesy the Kelpie Gallery.
John Morrarecently wrote an excellent essay examining the nature of plein air painting. I’m assigning it to all my students; it’s that good.
Most of us have been in a competitive plein air event and seen something passed off as outdoor painting that was clearly not painted from life. How do we know this? Because we were there. The atmospherics were wrong, that person was never in that spot, or—mirabile dictu—the oil paint has already set up.
But mostly, we know because there’s a sort of static perfection to a studio painting that is never there in plein air. A painting done on site is never as balanced or stately as a studio landscape. The plein air painting expresses a longing for the natural world that just isn’t there in the studio.
Keuka Vineyard, by Carol L. Douglas. That’s the plein air version. (Private collection.)
Morra makes the point that we tend to over-edit in plein air painting. We’ve had two hundred years of being told that objective observation is not painterly. Until I read this, I hadn’t considered how much I’ve been programmed to think non-objectively. I came of age during the heyday of abstract-expressionism. I’m still half-apologizing for liking realism. That colors every brushstroke I make.
Still, I constantly emphasize editing in my classes and workshops. Composition is one of the hardest skills in painting. The rules of reading a composition are the same whether the piece is done in studio or in the field. We edit because we’re working around environmental distractions.
Queensboro Bridge Approach, by Carol L. Douglas (plein air). The built environment is part of our landscape too.
But that kind of editing can easily go overboard. Consider the lowly car. Many of us delete them—frankly, because they’re hard to paint. But today’s Toyota Corolla is really no different from Childe Hassam’s hansom cabs were in 1890. His paintings would be far weaker without them.
In fact, a lot of modern plein air is excessively planed down to a conceptual idea. We can call that style or schtick, depending on how charitable we’re feeling. Either way, too much style gets in the way of the scene. The first time I see a painter employing crepuscular rays or the silhouettes of birches or a monochrome passage in a composition, I’m dazzled. The fifth time, I realize the artist is using them for a crutch. It’s no more impressive than Thomas Kinkade’s flaming cottages.
“A plein air painting should be painted quickly,” Morra stated. This is the only point on which I disagree. Fast, expressive brushwork is the trope of our age, but it’s by no means the only way to paint. Consider the great Rackstraw Downes, for example. He paints meticulous, beautifully-drafted scenes of industrial America, and he does it observationally, working outdoors. His work is no less plein air than a fast scribble is.
Another modern painter who works meticulously is Patrick McPhee. He paints in great detail without losing luminosity or freshness. He bases his style on the first American plein air painters, the Hudson River School painters. They didn’t slap it down either.

Float, by Carol L. Douglas. If you can’t draw, you’re going to have a hard time painting en plein air.
In fact, modern plein air painting is often so fast it sacrifices drawing. A badly drawn house or person is a rookie mistake. My own preference is for fast painting paired with meticulous drawing. Want a great contemporary example? Check out Marc Grand Bois.

That vexing exchange rate question

In every important way, Canadians and Americans are indistinguishable. That artificial barrier, the border, makes our common life hard.

Poppy Balser’s weir painting sold at the opening bell.
In 2012, the Canadian and US dollars were trading at close to par. Today, one Canadian dollar is worth just three bits (and a penny, but Canada no longer uses the penny). This isn’t the historical worst it’s been, but it’s close enough for discomfort.
The US dollar has also been weakening, but the Loonie has lagged even more. For both economies, this is in part because of central bank policies and in part because oil prices are down.
I benefited from the weak Canadian dollar when I crossed Canada last fall. The same dollar disparity hurt when I was trying to sell work in Canada.
Ed Buonvecchio painted the Cape D’or lighthouse. My photo doesn’t do the painting justice.
We’d been told to price our work as usual by juror Bill Rogers. Even if he hadn’t said it, it’s my usual practice. It’s unfair to collectors and galleries to hop around when you price your work.
I was unsure how to apply the exchange rate. I ended up leaving the work at its American tag price. Even that was too expensive. There were five American artists in the festival. We were terrifically expensive compared to our Canadian peers.
My painting of the Parrsboro light was distinctively Nova Scotian; I wanted to sell it there. I dropped it to half its American price. It sold for $400.
From that, the venue takes 40%. This is a legitimate commission, and one every serious artist is happy to pay. That leaves me with a check for $240.
Mary Sheehan Winn painted Partridge Island.
But wait, there’s more. My bank is going to convert that and, assuming there are no additional currency fees, I will take home $181.25.
I know just enough about economics to understand that a strong American dollar hurts exports; a weak dollar helps exports. Growing up on the Niagara Frontier, I know there were years we went to Canada for gas and other years when Canadians came to the US to shop.
But I’ve never understood the exchange rate so personally.
Rockies at Canmore, Alberta. Christopher Gorey, of Ingonish, Nova Scotia, is a new painter to me. This wasn’t his festival piece, but it’s a good example of his great touch with watercolor.
There was another disparity in pricing, one that affected only Canadian artists. Artists who sell more than $30,000 per year are required to collect something called the HST, or Harmonized Sales Tax. They have to tack 15% on to the ticket price of their work.
The only time American artists collect sales tax is when we sell paintings directly to collectors. When paintings are sold through events or galleries, it’s the venue’s responsibility. The Canadian system would take some getting used to.
Marc Grandbois of L’Anse -St- Jean, Quebec City, is another painter I will keep track of. He caught the lowering sky over Two Islands beautifully.
Those of us who live along the border understand that in every important way, Canadians and Americans are indistinguishable. We have the same values, argue over the same disagreements, love the same landscape, drink the same coffee, shop at the same big-box stores, and (generally) speak the same language. NAFTA was supposed to make trading between us easier. In fact, between heightened border security and the disparity of our dollars, it’s harder than ever.

A pity, that.