Arbitrary distinctions

What is art? What is illustration? Does it matter?
Trick-or-Treat! From my brief period illustrating; prints available (DM me).
“I am trying to understand the difference between a painter and an illustrator,” writes a reader.
Paint is a just a medium. You can use it to illustrate, or you can hurl it in meaningless patterns. Conversely, you can illustrate with any two-dimensional medium, including pencils, ink, photography or cut paper. The difference is in intent.
An illustration is usually a visual accompaniment to a text. However, that’s not always true. There are illustrated books (Albrecht Dürer’s Passions, for example) that do not need words at all. There are many children’s books with no words. In fact, one could argue that all of western religious art is illustration. The text (the Bible) was just not written down. Either the intended audience was illiterate or they all knew the story anyway.
Gas Station, by Carol L. Douglas. From my brief period illustrating; prints available, DM me.
Illustrators are usually hired by writers or publishers. The work is limited in scope and concrete in character. Fine artists have no middleman between them and the market. They can be as obscure as they wish. But fine artists certainly work on commission, and illustrators often work on spec, so even that distinction is hazy.
There was a time when this question mattered to me. I was trying to make the jump between graphic design and painting full time. I did it by writing and illustrating two books. We are all born with an innate ability to imagine pictures, but I’d disciplined my artistic sensibilities to be subservient to the client. It took these stories for me to loosen up and find my focus. It’s never been a problem since.
Girl in Closet, by Carol L. Douglas. From my brief period illustrating; prints available, DM me.
But there’s an insidious way in which this question is sometimes asked. What’s implied is that fine art is somehow better than other forms of artistic expression.
Yes, illustration is a fine craft rather than a fine art. Like tapestry, jewelry, carving, etc., illustration has a practical purpose aside from beauty. Paintings have none, unless you’re using them to plug holes in the wall. If you want to know if you’re an artist or craftsman, ask yourself if your finished product has any tangible purpose. If it’s useless, you’ll know you’re an artist.
The problem lies in assuming that either one is more important than the other. Our modern viewpoint comes from the 19th century Cult of Genius, which mistakenly put fine artists in the category of intellectuals instead of tradesmen.
Kitchen Table, by Carol L. Douglas. From my brief period illustrating; prints available, DM me.
This is why plein air painting gets so little respect, by the way. It rejects the idea that fine art is primarily an intellectual activity. Instead of making great statements, plein air painting has a lowly and practical view of the world. It seeks to make pictures that make people happy.
There’s never been any distinction between fine art and illustration in terms of quality. If there ever was a gap, it was bridged long ago, starting with the unknown monks who illuminated books before the printing press was invented.
With the advent of industrialization, individuality and beauty was stripped from the objects we use every day. Brilliant craftsmen-artists like William MorrisCharles Rennie MackintoshMargaret Macdonald, and the Roycroft Movementclosed the gap between art and function once again. And who in this world would argue that N.C. Wyeth  and his peers of the Golden Age of Illustration are not among the world’s greatest artists?

Beautiful glimpses of the past

Today dories are an historical relic. When the Wyeths painted them, they were part of the saga of man and the sea.
Deep Cove Lobster Man, c 1938, N.C. Wyeth, oil, courtesy of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts
Sometimes great emails get directed to my spam folder, particularly when they contain a dollar sign in the text. Thus it was when I saw Bruce McMillan’s note about seeing N. C. Wyeth: New Perspectives, which started at Brandywine River Museum and then moved to the Portland Museum of Art. It’s on its way to the Taft Museum of Art, opening on February 8.
What Bruce said that tripped my server was that the catalogue, $45 from the museum gift store, was available for $24.50 from Amazon, including shipping. Even with his member discount, he saved $17, or 42%. I immediately ordered the same book and paid $28.49, because books aren’t always the same price on Amazon.
Untitled, 1938, watercolor, Andrew Wyeth, sold at auction in 2017
That price difference is particularly noticeable in museum catalogues and fancy art books. I recently ordered an art text for my brother-in-law that was listed at over $200; he paid $24 for it. Because of this, I’ve learned to check my phone as I exit a show. Feel free to support an institution by paying a higher price in the gift shop, just be aware that you’re doing so.
The Lobsterman (The Doryman), 1944, N.C. Wyeth, egg tempera, courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art

Bruce noted that the painting above, The Lobsterman (The Doryman), is “where people stopped and gazed longer than almost any other painting. There’s so much to see in its simplicity; it keeps people looking.”


This is one of five Maine dories I’m looking at today. All are by the first two Wyeths, père et fils, and all of the boats are occupied by people. The last image, Adrift, is almost funerary, and that points to the particular storytelling genius of the Wyeth clan. Was Andrew painting about the model or the working boat?
Adrift, 1982, Andrew Wyeth, egg tempera, private collection
“This is Walter Anderson, Andrew’s devilish friend since childhood, who his parents didn’t like Andrew associating with, who Ed Deci, former curator of the Monhegan Museum, considered a despicable crook, and who I knew when living on McGee Island, off Port Clyde for two years,” Bruce wrote.
Andrew Wyeth was a young boy when he and his family first began summering in Maine. Andrew became friends with Walter and Douglas Anderson, son of a local hotel cook. Walt and Andrew became inseparable, and spent their days in a dory, exploring the coast and islands where locals fished. The two men remained friends for life. While Walt was clamming or otherwise ramshackling around, Andrew was painting.
Dark Harbor Fishermen, 1943, N.C. Wyeth, egg tempera, courtesy Portland Museum of Art
That’s the biggest difference between contemporary dory paintings and the Wyeths’ of nearly a century ago. They knew the boats and the men and boys who used them, intimately.
Before there were decent roads, working dories were the best way to move around coastal Maine. They were easily hauled up onto the beach. They could carry a few hundred pounds of fish or freight. From early settlement until mid-century, they were used as working boats, casually rowed (often standing) by working fishermen.
The Drowning, 1936, N.C. Wyeth, oil, courtesy Brandywine River Museum. This painting is in response to the drowning death of sixteen-year-old Douglas Anderson, who disappeared while lobstering. His body was found by his father and his younger brother, Walt.
Today they’re an historical relic, whereas to the Wyeths, they were part of the story of man and the sea. Dories today are divorced from their close association with working people. We paint them at their moorings, shimmering in the light, with no sense of the thin skin they once provided between the working fisherman and the cold, cold North Atlantic.

Gone to a private collection!

The Halve Maen Passing Hudson Highlands, by little old me.
If you want to see The Halve Maen Passing Hudson Highlands, above, you’ll need to get out to RIT-Dyer this month, because the painting is sold and will be shipped after Intersections of Form, Color, Time and Space closes.
I painted this for the 400th anniversary of Hudson’s voyage of exploration. From the native perspective, the boat is a black spot of melanoma, or the first eruption of the plague—something seemingly insignificant that will forever change the world. The brilliant colors are those of a dying day, a flaming sunset, the end of a season.
I love history but generally shy away from historical paintings. They have great potential to be pedantic. You must study the dress, weaponry, housing, jewelry, and landscape of the period, and then you must edit the regalia down to the point where it no longer drives the painting. The Lenape people, fortunately, are well-documented anthropologically and artistically, including in N.C. Wyeth’s The Hunter (1906).
Stu Chait and me at the opening of Intersections of Form, Color, Time and Space

My Dying Boudicca is on the left; his Atemito is on the right.
I have another historical painting in this show, Dying Boudicca (on the left, above). Boudicca was queen of the Icenis, and led the most successful uprising ever against the Roman Empire. She was married to a client king of the Romans. He was deeply in debt to Roman lenders at the time of his death. He left his kingdom jointly to his daughters and the Emperor, but on his death his kingdom was annexed as if conquered.
The Hunter, by N.C. Wyeth, accurately depicts pre-contact Lenape work togs. Wyeth trod the narrow line between historical accuracy and gripping painting with unerring taste.
Boudicca was beaten, her daughters were raped, and Roman financiers collected the swag. Boudicca rallied her people and the neighboring Trinovantes. They destroyed Colchester, London and St. Albans. Casualties among the Romans were estimated to be between 70,000 and 80,000 people. Of course the Britons were destined to eventually fail against such superior numbers. Rather than submit to capture and humiliation, Boudicca poisoned herself.

In my painting, Boudicca’s pomp and circumstance, represented by her purple robe, is discarded. At the moment of her death, she is a woman alone.

I’m leaving for Maine next week. Come join me! I’m down to one opening in my 2014 workshop in Belfast, ME. Information is available here.

Stretching our limits

Although the weather forecast was for rain, we were able to paint until 2 PM, at which time we quit and went to the Farnsworth Art Museum to see “Every Picture Tells a Story: N.C. Wyeth Illustrations from the Brandywine River Museum.” It started to rain just when we entered the museum.

I believe in a God who loves me and wants me to be happy. I do appreciate how obliging He has been with His weather.

My class has done such good work this week. Today, I gave each person an assignment designed to stretch their own particular skill set, and each one rose to the challenge.


A student practiced measurement and angles, using the rock formations and trees as his subject matter. A tough place to have to sit and draw, wasn’t it? (Tomorrow, I promise you, will be just as spectacular.)
Another student did a value sketch using monochrome pastel. She then followed this up with a color temperature study.
After giving a little drawing lesson, I set my sketchbook on a fence while doing my rounds. Came back to find it covered in sawdust. Apparently, some carpenter aunts were busy deconstructing the fence. 
This student did a greyscale marker value study before starting a painting of the birches. It helped her composition tremendously.


August and September are sold out for my workshop at Lakewatch Manor in Rockland, ME… and the other sessions are selling fast.  Join us in July and October, but please hurry! Check here for more information.