Monday Morning Art School: using angles for measurement

Measurement and angles are the basis of drawing. Learn how to use them, and you can draw anything.
Geraniums, by Carol L. Douglas, pastel. Available, but has to be collected in person as it’s glazed in non-reflective glass.

Last week’s lesson on the pencil and thumb method was easy to teach in person, but difficult to write out in steps. Today’s lesson, on using angles, is easier to write, but will be a little trickier to master.

This has to do with how our brains are wired, not how ‘talented’ you may or may not be—that’s mostly, as Mr. Edison pointed out, a matter of persistence anyway. But the human mind simply doesn’t ‘read’ angles and negative space when it’s not focusing on them. This is why we use our pencil as a visual aid. It forces our brains to pay attention.

The good news is that you can rapidly teach your brain to notice angles and negative space.

Two pieces of silverware and a coffee cup: a surprisingly tricky thing to draw. But when you’re done, you’ll have the basic tools to draw anything.

Once again, close one eye and focus on the pencil, not the object you’re measuring. Hold the pencil along an imaginary plate glass window in front of you, and tilt it to match the angle you’re measuring. Then reproduce the line on your paper.

If at first you screw up, it’s probably that you’ve canted one end of the pencil away from you. Straighten it up and try again.

Once you’ve mastered measuring with the pencil and thumb method and learned to see and copy angles on to your paper, you can draw anything from portraits to animals to landscapes to figure.

Start by measuring the basic shapes using the pencil and thumb method we learned last week. Mark off the  heights and widths of all the basic shapes.


Use your pencil to determine the angles at which the silverware, the sides of the cup, and the handle are traveling. Draw them in as straight lines. This takes a little practice, so be patient and take your time looking at each one.


Use your measuring and angle hash marks to block in the major shapes.


Often, you can see distortions, objects that are too close together, etc. more easily in the negative space than you can in your drawing of the positive objects. It’s best to check this before you go on to finish your drawing.

You can use angles to check your work. Here I checked the angle from the right tine of the fork to the handle of the cup, and the angle across the top of the two pieces of silverware.

Note: last week I wrote about the difficulty of decision-making in the age of coronavirus. My workshop in Pecos is now on, thanks to the Herculean efforts of Jane Chapin. The statewide 14-day-quarantine is expected to be lifted on September 1, but that doesn’t do travelers or hoteliers much good for trips immediately after that, which must be booked now. Jane figured out a great solution. We won’t be breaking quarantine, and we will be able to paint out in the field.

Jane cleaned her studio so we have a backup location in case of rain. Isn’t that gorgeous?
San Miguel County, where the workshop will be held, remains one of the safest places in America, with zero deaths from coronavirus. We’re going, using all the safety methods we can employ—masks and hand sanitizer in the airport, frequent handwashing, etc. And we expect to have a lovely, lovely time, paint in some gorgeous spots, and learn lots.

Ironically, airfares are so low right now that the total cost of the workshop has plummeted, at least for me, coming from the northeast.

At this point, the limiting factor isn’t the number of people I can teach, but the number of beds I can rustle up. Jane still has a few up her sleeve. So if you’re bold* and love the western landscape, you’re welcome to join us. Email me to initiate a conversation.

On the road again. I can barely contain my excitement!

*Jane and I have a history, and it always seems to include adventure… and lots of laughter.

Fear of Failure

People do not become brave in a vacuum—they get that way by taking risks.

Along the Pecos River in Winter, by Carol L. Douglas. Available.

The newest diversion for small businessmen in America is to sit up nights and think about what they should cancel. I had my most recent conversation about this with Jane Chapinon Saturday, as we try to figure out whether my New Mexico workshop is on or not. The problem in New Mexico is the same one we faced here in Maine earlier in the year: the same advisories that are appropriate for places like Albuquerque are overkill for small mountain towns. Even though painters will be safe in Pecos, we still must abide by state law.

It may seem like tempting fate, but I don’t worry overmuch about coronavirus. It’s wise to be cautious about it, just as it’s wise to be prudent when camping in bear country. But I’m in good health for my age, and my chances of recovery are vastly greater (better than a hundred to one) than dying if I contract the disease. I’d like to live to a great old age, but, as Lucy Angkatell chirpily notes in Agatha Christie’s The Hollow, we’re all going to die of something anyway.

Downdraft snow, by Carol L. Douglas

The Hollow was written in 1946, and Lady Angkatell’s attitude toward death is as obsolete as the novel’s melodrama. Modern society is constructed around a fierce desire to minimize risk. We worry about lawsuits; we worry about perceived threats that may have little basis in reality. We’ve been conditioning ourselves out of risk-taking for most of my adult life.

When I was a kid, we routinely walked to school without adult supervision, played games without adult supervision, rode horses without adult supervision, and used tools and equipment with only the loosest adult supervision. Today, kids are barred from doing these things, yet the child mortality rate has never been lower in America (largely because of vaccines).

New Mexico Farmstead, by Carol L. Douglas.

When my kids were babies, the bogeyman in the room was child abduction, which kept a whole generation under the watchful eyes of their mothers. It turned out to be largely illusory, but it effectively ended childhood freedom.

Yesterday I was talking with a Zoom student from Tennessee. He mentioned that he learned to drive a tractor at age 8. Today, he’s a pilot. I was about the same age when I learned to drive our Ford 9N. By age 14, I was moving hay from fields in one town to our home farm in the next. Had I been injured in a farm accident then, it would have been a tragedy. Today, it would be a reason to pass a new set of laws barring kids from farm work.

Pecos hillside, by Carol L. Douglas. No, our workshop isn’t scheduled for snow season; I just have a perverse liking for winter.

But being raised as ‘free range’ children was formative to creating intrepid adults. A child who learns how to manage risk will grow into a confident adult. That’s key, as I wrote recently, to success in the arts. People do not become brave in a vacuum—they get that way by taking risks and accepting defeat.

I occasionally have a super-achiever in painting class, a person who has always been the best at whatever he or she attempts. That’s a terrible handicap in art. The inability to accept failure means they can’t accept the risk that is inherent in all art-making. Their fear of failure consigns them to fail.

Art, after all, could be defined as a series of failures on the way to an impossible objective. For that, risk-taking is a great teacher.

By the way, if you wonder why comments must be moderated on this blog, it’s because of mornings like this, where I start my day by deleting dozens of bot-spam comments before I can actually write anything.

There’s no law west of the Pecos

Suffering from over-the-next-hill-itis? Over the next hill it is, then.

Snow along the Pecos River, by Carol L. Douglas.

I’m in New Mexico with painter Jane Chapin. She’s prepping for surgery on her painting hand; I’m doing physical therapy for my back. Some people might think we ought to be in a retirement home. Instead, we’re ducking under four-strand fences, stomping over icy trails, and generally making a nuisance of ourselves far beyond cell-phone range.

The mountains along the headwaters of the Pecos River are some of the most beautiful country in the world. I painted them while on crutches last spring and did about as well as could be expected. Now my arms are truly free, and I have more mobility.
There wasn’t snow on the desert floor yesterday, but it still filled washes in the higher elevations. It has the granularized texture of old snow; they got a lot of it earlier this winter and it’s lingering. More is predicted. That’s good news in this arid landscape.
The critic is an ass. Photo courtesy of Jane Chapin.
What joy is to be found in painting in snow? It’s hard to struggle in and out of your snowsuit. Painters with circulatory deficits may find their hands hurt, and warm boots are a must. But if you can do it, there’s simply no experience like it.
Snow reflects colors and form like no other surface (other than the sea). It throws pure light back at you, perfectly reflecting the peaches, blues and purples of the western sky. It sets light relations on their heads, putting the lightest colors at the bottom of the canvas and the highest chromas in the sky.
But there’s no point in trying to do it from photos. They simply don’t capture the range of color and texture in real snow. There’s no sculptural form. Everything is flattened to a uniform, dull, white. “It is hard to get the feeling of winter without feeling the winter,” Stapleton Kearns once said.
Upper reaches of the Pecos River, by Carol L. Douglas
Jane’s horses are in their winter pasturage down by the Pecos River. We chose a corner of their space to paint in. Scout and Lucy were uninterested, but Jimmy the donkey had no compunctions about expressing his opinion. It took several minutes of ear-twitching before he gave me the full ears-up.  “The critic is an ass,” mused Jane.
From there we drove up to Cowles Lake, hoping to get a good painting view of snow-covered Pecos Baldy. This is 4WD country. Our Toyota Tundra 4X4 didn’t look like too much truck at all as we fishtailed through slush and ice.
The Cabana Trail is closed for the season, and there were no safe overlooks on the switchbacks. Photos would have to do. The great risk of plein air painting is the temptation to drive around looking for a better view. “I suffer from over-the-hill-itis as much as the next person, but we have to settle down somewhere,” said Jane.
Barbed wire is tough on horses, but it does make a handy sketch-holder.
We stopped and did one more small painting, of the Pecos winding below a wildfire-swept ridge. I love mountains that have suffered forest fires. In the short decades before new growth covers them, their bones are open to examination. It was dark by the time we returned to the ranch, happy, cold and tired. This is the best of plein air painting.