What comes after art classes?

Painting is a lifelong exercise in self-guided learning.

Clary Hill Blueberry Barrens, watercolor on Yupo, available through Maine Farmland Trust Gallery, by Carol L. Douglas

A student asked me why I teach all levels in my classes. Indeed, adding a brand-new painter to the group can sometimes be difficult, as I need to spend a little more time with that person at the start. I’ve found, however, that almost everyone needs the same lessons repeatedly. Painters make the same errors at almost every level—of value, color-mixing, contrast, line, and focal points. It takes a surprisingly amount of time to convince students of the value of process, including value sketches and drawing.

My own experience in taking master classes hasn’t been good; they’ve been less about mastery and more about marketing. That’s not to indict all painting teachers, but unless the teacher knows you in advance, they know very little about your painting level before you start the class, even with portfolio review.

Clary Hill Blueberry Barrens, oil on canvas, available through Maine Farmland Trust Gallery, by Carol L. Douglas

With twelve or fewer students in a class, I have time to meet each person where they are and encourage them a little farther along the road. This is very intensive, and I blow it more than I like. Yesterday I had a painter whom I should have pushed harder on establishing a focal point, but I didn’t realize that until dinnertime.

I still occasionally take classes myself, although it’s not common. It happens when I run across a painter who’s doing something I want to master. I took Poppy Balser’s watercolor workshop a few years ago, because Poppy can make a line of dark spruces shimmer against the sea. I wanted to know how she made that value jump in watercolor.

There are other painters I would like to learn from. Dick Sneary and Dave Dewey are both consummate watercolorists, and I admire their drafting and composition skills tremendously. Likewise, I admire Lois Dodd’s ability to drive to the emotional nut of a scene by removing all extraneous matter. And I often return to Clyfford Stillto think about composition.

Part of my class on Clary Hill, photo courtesy of Jennifer Johnson.

An old and reliable way to learn is to copy master works. I recently started drawing frames from Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko comic books. This led to copying images from the first great cartoonist, Peter Paul Rubens.

But, in general, I’m done studying with others. “How do you know when that happens?” my student asked me. In my case, I realized that the time I was spending traveling to the Art Students League of New York from Rochester would be better spent in my own studio working.

“What comes after I’m done studying with you?” she asked. Go out and paint (which students should be doing anyway). If you like the social side of classes, find a painting buddy or join a painting group. We make the most progress when we’re picking up our brushes several times a week.

Jean Cole’s painting on Clary Hill. She just came back from my Pecos workshop. The goal ought never to be to make ‘mini-me’ painters, but to develop each person’s own style.

I’m doing a FREE Zoom workshop on Friday, October 2 at 5 PM. Consider it Happy Hour, and join me with a glass of wine, a spritzer, or whatever else. We’re going to talk about studying painting. What should students expect to get from a workshop or class? What should teachers offer? Have you always wanted to try painting but been afraid of classes? Are you taking classes but want to get more out of them? Join us for a free-ranging discussion.

While this is in advance of my Find your Authentic Voice in Plein Air workshop in November in Tallahassee, everyone is welcome. There’s absolutely no charge or obligation. Signups are already brisk, so register soon!

The first great comic book artist

Voluptuous women, muscle-bound men… Rubens was just ahead of his time.
The Triumph of Henry IV, c. 1630, Peter Paul Rubens, courtesy the Met

The first great comic book artist was the great Flemish baroque painter, Peter Paul Rubens. Long before The Glasgow Looking Glass printed the first modern comics, Rubens was shoving dynamic action stories into oil sketches.

Rubens was the most important artist of the Flemish Baroque. But it was in his oil sketches that he was able to kick over convention and go for complete, riotous action. Rubens made these sketches because he was first and foremost an “idea man.” His busy workshop designed decorative schemes, tapestries, and altarpieces while churning out portraits, landscapes and history paintings. Since much of the finish work was done by someone else, it’s in his oil sketches that we find the ‘true’ Rubens.
Mercury and a Sleeping Herdsman, 1625-28, Peter Paul Rubens, courtesy Dulwich Picture Gallery
These sketches were usually (but not always) in color. They were studies for works in oil or other media. “Nothing reveals more clearly the ways in which his muscular and agile mind worked than the study of his more intimately scaled drawings and oil sketches,” wrote Peter Sutton. “It is the work of art that comes closest to recording the moment of conception.”
The Virgin as the Woman of the Apocalypse, 1623-24, Peter Paul Rubens, courtesy of the Getty Museum
The Virgin as the Woman of the Apocalypse was a sketch for the main altarpiece at FreisingCathedral. It’s a riot of action. The Virgin Mary holds the Christ Child while trampling the serpent, who in turn curls around the moon at her feet. To the left the Archangel Michael and his supporting cast drive out Satan and other ghoulish demons. Above, God the Father instructs an angel to place a pair of wings on the Virgin’s shoulders. All of this is incredibly complex and would be tough to fit into a vast altarpiece. It approaches the impossible when you realize the sketch is only about 20 by 25 inches.
Head of a Negro, 1618-20, Peter Paul Rubens, courtesy the Hyde Collection. Rubens often painted stock heads that he could later insert into his vast history canvases.
Rubens was the son of a Calvinist attorney from Antwerp. Religious turmoil caused the family to flee Antwerp for Cologne. There, the elder Rubens met Anna of Saxony, wife of William of Orange, and was hired to reclaim her confiscated fortune from the Duke of Alba. If you think that sounds like the plot for a novel, it gets worse: Rubens, senior either had an affair with the princess or he was set up to take the fall. She was divorced, imprisoned, and died; he did a stretch in chokey himself.
Returned to Antwerp, the younger Rubens was educated as a gentleman, which served him in his role as diplomat and courtier. He apprenticed at age 14, and followed that with the requisite tour of Italy. TitianVeronese, Tintoretto, and that recent phenomenon, Caravaggio, all profoundly influenced his later style. 
The Defenders of the Eucharist from The Triumph of the Eucharist tapestry series, ca. 1628, Woven by Jan Raes, Jacob Fobert, and Hans Vervoert, after Peter Paul Rubens, wool and silk. Courtesy Convent of the Descalzas Reales, Madrid 
Tapestry cartoons provided a large part of his workshop’s business. Triumph of the Eucharist was ordered by Rubens’ friend, the Archduchess Isabella, for the Convent of the Descalzas Reales in Madrid. It included 16 tapestries that covered the walls of the Convent’s chapel on feast days.
Rubens wasn’t shy about his own talent. Angling for the job of designing the ceilings for Inigo Jones’ Banqueting House in Whitehall Palace, he wrote, “my talent is such that no undertaking, no matter how large in size, how varied in subject, has ever exceeded my confidence.”

My favorite painter?

I admire too many artists to have a ‘favorite’. Here are some I profoundly admire.
The Procession to Calvary, 1564, Pieter Bruegel the Elder

“Who are your favorite painters?” a reader asked. That’s an impossible question. Instead, here are some painters who’ve influenced me.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder was the most significant of the Dutch/Flemish Renaissance painters. Among the first generation to paint other than religious scenes, he was a great landscape artist. His paintings, especially genre paintings, are a whirl of human activity. But what I admire the most is his ability to hide the focal point, or multiple focal points, in insignificant corners of his paintings. His figures are as fresh and realistic as when they were painted.
Knight, Death and the Devil, 1513, Albrecht Dürer.
Albrecht Dürer was a great painter, but I admire his engravings, woodcuts and drawings most. He was a superlative draftsman, particularly in perspective. It’s his simple, profound understanding of the Passion that moves me most. He did at least three versions, and they’re the visual equivalent of J.S. Bach’s St Matthew Passion.
The Fall of the Damned, c. 1620, Peter Paul Rubens

Peter Paul Rubens may have been intellectual, classically trained, and the favorite painter of the Counter-Reformation, but to me, he’s the progenitor of comic-book art. I draw a direct line between his dynamic canvases and the work of the late Steve Ditko. Both dealt with cosmic issues in a restless, complex way.
Weymouth Bay, c. 1816, John Constable
John Constable is best known for his great set-pieces like The Hay Wain, but he is also the (largely uncredited) inventor of modern plein air painting. In place of a classical education, he spent his youth wandering the fields of his native Essex. This “made me a painter, and I am grateful,” he said. By the time he convinced his father to let him study art, the damage was done—he was a fresh, observational painter in an age when classicism was king.
The Railway Station, 1873, Édouard Manet

Édouard Manet is known as a pivotal painter in the transition between Realism to Impressionism., but his importance to me is his surface treatment. He was the first painter to eschew sparking bright lights and a superlative finish in favor of his own, raw, handwriting. He is, in this sense, the father of Modernism.
The Red Vineyard, 1888, Vincent van Gogh
Vincent van Gogh hardly needs any introduction, being one of the most influential painters in art history. His importance to landscape painters can’t be overstated. He was the precursor to Fauvism, and that, far more than Impressionism, is what speaks to our own times.
Algoma Sketch 48, 1919-20, by Lawren Harris (member of the Group of Seven)
Tom Thomson and the Group of Sevencame into being across Lake Ontario from my hometown of Buffalo, but I didn’t really learn about them until adulthood, since realism was so out of favor in my youth. Still, these painters did more than any others to apply the principles of Impressionism to the North American landscape. They vary greatly in style, but they were united by their love of the Great White North and the wilderness. They were intrepid extreme plein air painters.
Resurrection Bay, Alaska, 1965, by Rockwell Kent
Rockwell Kent was eulogized as “a thoughtful, troublesome, profoundly independent, odd and kind man” by the New York Times. That’s all true, but he was also terrific painter, aggressively simplifying his subjects to their essence. His subjects—concentrating on the Adirondacks, Alaska and Monhegan—are all about the ever-changing light of the north.
Red Shirt and Window,2013, Lois Dodd (courtesy Alexandre Galley, New York.
Lois Doddcould be admired just for her tenacious success in the male-dominated New York art scene. Her credentials are as sterling as any of her male peers, but she had her first career museum retrospective in 2013, when she was already in her eighties. That would mean nothing if she weren’t also a superlative, self-directed painter. She ignored Abstract-Expressionism and Pop Art to forge her own, realistic way.

Power of women

“Jael and Sisera,” by Artemisia Gentileschi, 1620.

“Jael and Sisera,” by Artemisia Gentileschi, 1620.
Since the Bible is a compilation of 66 books by 40 authors, it is a lot of things, including an historical record. It includes rather ugly facts about the condition of women in the ancient world. That doesn’t make it misogynistic; it makes it history. It’s also replete with women heroes.
For some reason, the history of Renaissance art includes a great love for the two warrior women, Judith and Jael. I’ve been thinking a lot about these paintings since my visit to the Met last weekend. Why is it that the predominantly male art world was so fascinated by the hammer of retribution being wielded by the feminine hand?
The story of Jael comes from the Book of Judges. Deborah, the only named female prophet and judge in the Bible, advised Barak to mobilize troops to meet a Canaanite threat. Barak whined. Deborah agreed to go with him, but told him that the honor of victory will go to a woman because he was being such a wimp. A downpour mired the Canaanite chariots and they were defeated. Their general, Sisera, fled on foot to the tent of Jael, wife of Heber the Kenite. She gave him a jug of milk and a blanket and he fell asleep. While he was sleeping, Jael drove a tent peg through his skull.
“Judith Slaying Holofernes,” by Artemisia Gentileschi, 1614–20.

“Judith Slaying Holofernes,” by Artemisia Gentileschi, 1614–20.
The story of the beheading of Holofernes by Judith comes from a book we now consider deuterocanonical, although it was part of the Catholic Bible during the Renaissance. Judith visited the tent of the Assyrian general Holofernes, who was about to trash Judith’s hometown. Drunk, he passed out. Judith sawed his head off, and it was carried away in a basket.
“Susanna and the Elders,” by Artemisia Gentileschi, 1610.

“Susanna and the Elders,” by Artemisia Gentileschi, 1610.
The story of Susanna and the Elders is considered doctrinal by Catholics and Orthodox Christians and apocryphal by Protestants. As Susanna bathed in her garden, she was watched by two voyeurs, who, as elders, were powerful. They threatened to accuse her of meeting her lover in the garden unless she agreed to sleep with them. Refusing to be blackmailed, she was about to be put to death when young Daniel insisted on a proper investigation. The elders’ stories didn’t match, and Susanna’s virtue escapes unscathed.
These subjects are considered part of a medieval and Renaissance art genre which inverts the typical power relationship between men and women. They included myriad secular stories and classical myths as well as the Bible stories I’ve mentioned. What they reflect are the gender politics of the late middle ages, not those of the Biblical era.
I’ve used paintings of these subjects by Artemisia Gentileschi. She was almost alone in being a successful woman Renaissance painter. She has a unique view of the Power of Women discussion.
“The Meeting of David and Abigail,” by Peter Paul Rubens, 1630.

“The Meeting of David and Abigail,” by Peter Paul Rubens, 1630.
There is another hero woman mentioned in Samuel who didn’t get much traction with painters. Abigail overrode her loutish ingrate husband to intervene with an irate King David. She has been painted at her meeting with David, when she prophesizes his greatness and begs him to spare her people, saying that in his moment of greatness, “ my lord will not have on his conscience the staggering burden of needless bloodshed or of having avenged himself.”
The part I would like to paint, however, is when she went home to Nabal and told him off for being such an ass. He had a hangover, and then he had a stroke, and then he died. A fine ending, that.

Dark days

Descent from the Cross, 1616-17, Peter Paul Rubens.

Today and tomorrow, you may notice that your devout Christian friends seem weary and drawn as they deal with the most difficult two days in the Liturgical Year. Yeah, they’re grocery shopping.

That and pondering the stark reality of what Good Friday and Holy Saturday represent—that moment when Jesus was dead and it appeared that his final gambit failed. It doesn’t take much for the honest Christian to stand in the disciples’ shoes, for we have all doubted our faith.
The first comic book artist was Peter Paul Rubens, who could invest even death with great motion and drama. He painted several Depositions, and they would be difficult for a modern artist to mimic, since most of us have never seen a dead body that hasn’t been propped up with embalming and makeup.
Note the beautiful juxtapositions in the top painting: John the Baptist’s face pressed against Jesus’ wounds, a limp, bloody hand in that of a swarthy and lively young man; the other blue hand being held against the fair pink cheek of Mary Magdelene, the dead Christ’s face next to his grieving mother’s face.
Descent from the Cross, 1612-14, Peter Paul Rubens.
Rubens based this painting closely on an earlier version, above, reversing the composition and changing up some figures. But something radical also changed. The earlier painting is pure Baroque religious styling: Christ is idealized, and his handlers touch him with the reverence due the Eucharist. In the later painting, he is a dead man being brought down from the cross by his friends.
The Deposition, 1545, Daniele da Volterra.
A very different treatment is Daniele da Volterra’s fresco of the deposition. Yes, he was working from drawings by Michelangelo and, yes, he’s a Mannerist, but there’s still something very compelling about that dead Christ jutting out in space toward us.
Daniele suffered from his association with Michelangelo: after the master’s death, he was the poor unfortunate assigned the job of adding loincloths to The Last Judgment. Henceforth he would be nicknamed Il Braghettone, or the breeches-maker.

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!