Monday Morning Art School: paint with precision

We’re all proponents of loose-is-more, but there are times when you have to be able to hit it right.

Cremorne Pastoral, 1895, Arthur Streeton, courtesy Art Gallery of New South Wales. There are few details, but the ones that are, are very accurately painted.

Detail and precision are not in style right now. “The artist should fear to become the slave of detail,” wrote Albert Pinkham Ryder. “They should strive to express their thought and not the surface of it. What avails a storm cloud accurate in form and color if the storm is not therein?” We’re all proponents of this loose-is-more theory of painting.

However, this is a current trope, and not an artistic truth. There are contemporary figure and still life painters who focus on detail, and artists practicing modern trompe l’oeil. Even in plein air, there are fine painters who eschew looseness for careful attention to detail. Richard Sneary, Jay Brooks and Patrick McPhee come to mind.

The Girl with the Wine Glass, c. 1659, Johannes Vermeer, courtesy Herzog Anton Ulrich Museum. We’re so focused on the clarity of Vermeer’s vision that we barely notice how empty the room is.

Many people get caught up in the details before they get the big shapes right. That’s overwhelming. Before you ever get to the point of painting in blades of grass, the rhythm of light and dark must be researched and articulated properly. How do you do that? The same way as with an alla prima finish—through sketch and underpainting.

Even the exuberant Dutch Golden Ageartists left things to the imagination. We’re so busy looking at all the stuff they crammed into their canvases that we sometimes don’t notice what they’ve left out. Not every detail deserves the same attention.

Banquet of the Amsterdam Civic Guard in Celebration of the Peace of Münster, 1648, Bartholomeus van der Helst. Courtesy Amsterdam Museum

Great painters distill the visual noise, and then concentrate on the important parts. Consider the problems facing Bartholomeus van der Helst in his monumental commission, Banquet of the Amsterdam Civic Guard in Celebration of the Peace of Münster, above. It’s a portrait of 24 august gentlemen and one lady. (And wouldn’t you love to know why she was included?) None of the subjects would have been happy to be represented with a few Impressionistic brush strokes. There were symbols that needed to be included—pikestaff, drum, silver drinking horn and the paper on the side of the drum. In addition, the men were garbed in their very best frippery, and they meant to show that off.

Van der Helst pared away at the composition with ruthless efficiency. The background is muted. He let black hats and black garb sink wherever he could. Thank goodness for the fashion of ruffs and white linen collars—they allow the faces to stand out. The remaining textiles are held in a rigid pattern of gold, blue, and red. The color harmony is, in large part, holding the picture together.

It’s unlikely that an artist will ever paint a monumental commission like this again. It’s more likely that we’ll add a few details to a much looser painting. These details can fool the eye into thinking there’s more there than is actually present.

Out Back, Peter Yesis, courtesy of the artist.

Peter Yesis is the best painter of flowers I know. In my mind’s eye, I see his paintings as detailed, but they’re actually very restrained. The focal points draw our eyes, allowing our minds to fill in the other areas. This engages our imagination, which is far more potent than anything on the canvas.

I wrote last week about pareidolia, our ability to see meaningful images in ambiguous visual patterns. Humans find this much more compelling than having things spelled out for them.

We’ve been using that technique since the Impressionists to engage viewers. But to do it, you need to be able to occasionally lay down a tight, accurate line.

Painting precisely is a matter of slowing down and exerting greater direct control over your brush. Smaller brushes can help, but a light hand is most important. (Most of us are slightly tremulous, and smaller brushes can result in shakier lines.) There’s no way to get there but to practice your fine motor control.

What is essential?

That’s a question that operates on both the technical and the spiritual planes.

Beautiful Dream, oil on canvasboard, 12X16, $1449 framed.

Tom Root recently attempted to make a pithy saying about simplification. “It’s not simplification, it’s essentialization,” he wrote. While that’s unlikely to be printed on tee-shirts, it does get to the nub of the matter.

When I told him I wanted to share his quote with my students, he elaborated that he was riffing on a quote from the teacher and painter Henry Hensche: “I have never liked the word simplify, because it makes people think simplistically, there is nothing simple about what we are trying to do, I prefer ‘to eliminate all but the essential,’ and the essential is achieved by suppressing or eliminating as much detail as possible.”

Belfast Harbor, oil on canvasboard, 14X18, $1594 framed.

What is essential in painting? That’s a question that runs on two tracks, the tangible and the intuitive. In tangible terms, we need to look at the classic design elements of art:  color, tone, line, shape, space, and texture. We might call this ‘objective critique,’ since there are standards for each of those elements against which we can measure a painting’s success.

In intuitive terms, we could have asked:

“What do you notice first? Second?”

“Does this evoke a feeling or response in you?”

“What is the point of this work?”

While we might have to work harder to come up with answers to this latter set of questions, they’re equally as important. A work can be technically perfect but pointless.

Skylarking 2, 18X24, oil on linen, $2318 framed.

The idea that both are equally essential is one that comes from western philosophical thought. Traditionally, Christianity understands that there are spiritual and material matters, but it rejects any division between the two. That’s Dualism. It’s always treated as heresy, and for good reason. It inevitably elevates one side of creation and devalues its counterpart.

When art rejects meaning, or art rejects formal structure, it too elevates one side of its being and devalues the other. That’s how we end up taping bananas to walls or having to look at the impossibly-overloaded kitsch of Thomas Kinkade. What is essential, then, must be a combination of the two.

Penobscot bay overlook, 9X12, linen, unmounted, $250.

That doesn’t mean that you, the artist, have to be able to put into words what is essential about your painting. Visual art and writing operate on two separate tracks, and your ability (or lack thereof) to spin words has nothing to do with your ability to paint.

My students are going to do a 45-day watercolor challenge in the new year, but I also like my pal Peter Yesis’ New Year’s Resolution. He’s going to do a daily sketch every evening. Since drawing is the basis of all painting, he’s definitely on to a good idea.

Simplification—essentialization, as Tom Root called it—is the net result of hours and hours of practice. Perhaps in the New Year, you can commit to a discipline that will get you closer to the essentials in your painting.

Welcome back to real life

We’re just beginning to fathom the changes between the pre-COVID and post-COVID worlds.

The last time I was in the Picker Room of the Camden Public Library was for an opening for my pal Peter Yesis. That was the last opening the library had before COVID shut it down, programs coordinator Julia Pierce told me recently.

I’d recently seen my old friend Christine Long at an art opening in Rochester, NY. She’s an epidemiologist, and she muttered that she hoped she’d be able to retire “before COVID hits.” That gave me pause, because Christine is a very smart woman. Until then, I assumed COVID was going to be a flash-in-the-pan, like avian flu had been.

Termination dust, oil on canvasboard, 6×8, $435

It was, however, still a blip on the horizon on the evening of Peter’s opening. That night, Ken DeWaard introduced me to the ‘elbow bump.’ I thought it was funny, but I’ll probably never shake a stranger’s hand again. That’s only one small change between the eras we might call pre-COVID and post-COVID.

That week was the last week I spent in what I might call ‘old time.’ The next Thursday I flew to Argentina, and all hell broke loose. People have asked me why we still went when COVID was marching across the globe. The answer is, simply, that our own government said it was safe to travel. 24 hours later, they changed their minds.

Owl’s Head, 18×24, oil on linenboard, $2318

The calendar notation anno Domini (AD) tells us that something profound happened at that moment that changed the course of human history. No, COVID isn’t on the same scale as the birth of Christ, but it seems to have made lasting changes in our culture. We’re still just beginning to fathom what they are.

It’s both fitting and passing strange that I’m the first artist scheduled in what I hope will be a long, uninterrupted line of post-COVID openings at the library. My show is called Welcome back to real life and it will be up in the Picker Room for the month of November.

Belfast Harbor, oil on canvasboard, 14×18, $1594

The opening will be Friday, November 5, from 3:30 to 5:30 PM. The library asks that masks be worn, which is just one small way in which post-COVID life differs from what we knew before.

2020 was an unprecedented challenge for artists, with galleries closing and classes and workshops cancelled. It also created new opportunities. For example, I would never have taught online before. Now I actually prefer it to live classes. It’s an opportunity to work with students from all over the country, and it allows students to hear everything I say one-on-one to their classmates. That’s impossible in a large room or outdoors.

On that subject, my students reminded me yesterday that the new session starts the week of November 8. There are a few openings. My website is undergoing a redesign, which I don’t think will be finished by then, but you can get the general information here, and contact me here to register.

Welcome Back to Real Life; paintings by Carol L. Douglas
Camden Public Library Picker Room
55 Main Street, Camden Maine
Friday, November 5, 3:30-5:30 PM

The show is hanging through the month of November.

Three artists, one view

It’s not what you paint, it’s how you paint it.

Asters by Björn Runquist, 12X24. Courtesy of the artist.

Last week, I got a text from Björn Runquist that read “Asters!” and included a photo of the roadside along Maine 131 in Thomaston. I was out on American Eagle teaching, so I couldn’t rush over there. On Monday, Ken DeWaard and I went chasing after Björn’s view. Route 131 is narrow, heavily traveled, and has a wicked ditch, making parking and set-up difficult. That meant all three of us painted from the same place, at the same angle. Björn’s painting is beautifully finished; Ken’s and mine are still incomplete.

It’s common enough for us to paint in the same place, but rare that we would choose the same frame. Within that, different things attracted us. Björn concentrated on the broad sweep and the punctuation of greens. Ken was interested in the big sky. For me, the asters were right at eye-level, so I painted a forest of purple.

Ken DeWaards asters, 18×24, courtesy of the artist.

Bearing in mind that they’re at different stages of completion, are any of these paintings ‘better’ than the others? Subjected to formal analysis, they all finish strong. They’re properly drafted, have good composition, clear focal points, and use color competently. None are boring.

Therein lies the juror’s conundrum. Their ‘quality’ rests on how you, the viewer, respond emotionally to them. In that, they’re radically different. Ken, Björn and I are roughly the same age, have the same social background, and use the same alla prima technique. I’m not going to psychoanalyze my peers, let alone myself, but we each bring different sensibilities to our paintings.

My asters, 12×16.

That’s why painting matters, of course. It’s also one of the many paradoxes of art. Most consumers respond to paintings based on subject matter—for instance, they look at boat paintings because boats mean something to them. The objectivity of time renders the subject less important, and the artist’s inner life becomes paramount. Vincent van Gogh is not an Immortal because the art-loving public has an abiding love for Arles. Heck, most of us have never been there.

Last week, I told you about an exercise where my students have to paint a scene chosen by committee. (Joe Anna Arnett called me an ‘evil genius’ for this lesson, and it’s the greatest compliment I’ve ever received.) The subject matters, yes, but what you bring to it ultimately overrides content. Never worry about a peer painting the same thing as you—he simply can’t.

A footnote: please check out Peter Yesis’ wonderful flower paintings. He’s willing to take on those flowers petal-by-petal, something the rest of us never dare do.

Five half-finished paintings in search of a conclusion

The beautiful warmth of Wednesday was just a dream. It’s still April in Maine, and we all know April is the cruellest month.

Not done.

On Wednesday, I met Peter Yesis and Ken DeWaard at Spruce Head. In the warm spring air, it felt like we were playing hooky. The neighborhood dogs trotted over to welcome us. There was a lobster boat on the pier, and the fisherman by the docks was working on his traps. Two Canada geese gamboled in the shallows. Perfect peace, and intimations of summer at long last.

I must have disconnected my common sense in the soft air, because I got there to realize I’d left my tripod at home. There are two absolute necessities for oil painting—an easel and white paint. Your other tools are helpful, but you can usually make a workaround solution. Forget your brushes? Take up palette-knife painting. Forget a canvas? One of your friends will have a spare.

Not done.

I improvised by putting my pochade box on a chair and balancing myself in front of it on Ken’s camp stool. It was wobbly but effective. However, Sandy Quang was meeting us after she stopped for a routine COVID test. The lab is near my house. She stopped by and collected my tripod.

I didn’t feel like grinding anything down to its final solution, so what I painted were sketches—sketches that can join the others sitting on my workbench in search of conclusion. Not that any of them need too much—a flourish here, a bit of light there. The overall structure is fine.

Not done.

Sandy peeled off in early afternoon, and then Peter left. I realized that I had to make the dump before it closed at 4 PM. Ken was starting his sixth sketch, but I was happy with my three, because I had all day Thursday before the weather closed in. I got the trash to the town dump with five minutes to spare.

Except, as so often happens, Thursday didn’t work out at all way I’d planned. I got to Rockport harbor, sat down and drew a composition I quite liked. Meanwhile, the boatyard crew was lowering a sloop into the water. I took a phone call while I waited to see where the boat would end up. “As soon as I start this painting in earnest, they’ll move that boat right into this slip,” I said. That’s always the way with boat paintings—they come and go.

Not done.

It turned out to not be a problem. This time I’d managed to leave my pochade box at home. By the time I drove home to get it, the tide had risen enough that my sketch was meaningless. Not to worry; the tide hits the same point four times a day. I’ll catch it on the flip side. Maybe by then the mast will be stepped on that beautiful winter visitor from Stonington, ME.

Later, I had some explanation for my absentmindedness. In the afternoon, I was laid low by a terrific headache and low-grade fever. I doubt it’s COVID, as I’ve had all my shots. I’m more concerned about Lyme, since I found a tick in my head after being in the Hudson Valley over the weekend. Yes, I’m calling my PCP. This is, sadly, routine in the northeast.

Meanwhile, we’re back to cold, dark and irritable weather. It won’t get out of the 30s today, and there’s snow on the forecast for New England. The beautiful warmth of Wednesday was just a dream. It’s still April in Maine, and we all know April is the cruellest month.

Find your niche

Be nimble or perish. Find new ways to do things, or resign yourself to “go gentle into that good night.”

The Day Begins, mural by Peter Yesis, Waldo County Justice Center

Whenever I mention to my husband how fine a painter Peter Yesis is, Doug answers that it’s because Peter trained as an electrical engineer. I suspect there’s some truth in that. Engineering teaches orderly processes, and it’s dispassionate. There’s no flailing about, examining one’s soul, in circuit design.

Peter has been as thoughtful about his career as he is about painting. In recent years, he found a way to use Maine’s Percent for Artto get his work into public buildings. The kind of painting Peter (and I) do has been obsolete in public architecture for fifty years. For most of our careers, it would have been easier to sell concrete canoes for the steps of a public building than an ‘old-fashioned’ landscape painting for its lobby. I wouldn’t have tried. And yet Peter persevered, calling his paintings ‘murals’ lest anyone get the wind up.

Peter and his newest mural at the Oxford County Courthouse.

I have sat through a murder trial of someone I cared about. It’s a terrifying experience. Rochester’s antiseptic, 1970s-era-courtroom provided no distractions from the litany of evidence. Had the trial been in Waldo County, Maine, I could have occasionally studied Peter’s painting of dawn breaking over the Passagassawaukeag, above. Art’s value may be hard to quantify, but that doesn’t make it non-existent.

Since 1982, Percent for Art has put almost $8 million in artwork into Maine schools, courthouses and other public buildings. I’m not a fan of government art funding, but this is a case of government buying art, just as they buy other furnishings.

Yesterday, Peter went to Paris, ME to install three murals at the Oxford County Courthouse. As Maine’s economy teeters in these parlous times, his project put me in mind of the Federal Art Project, the WPA initiative that did so much to change America’s public buildings during the Great Depression.

One of three murals painted by Peter Yesis for the Oxford County Courthouse.

(Great bureaucracies might, like ocean liners, have momentum of their own, but they are still steered by a captain. The Federal Art Project was a success largely because of the sensitive leadership of Holger Cahill. In Maine, that captain is Julie Richard. She too steers a tight course.)

The tiny post office in Middleport, NY, has murals painted by WPA artist Marianne Appel. Neither the town nor the artist are ‘significant,’ but that post office has an abiding place in my memory because of those murals. Peter will be remembered in Maine because he has placed his art in locations that matter.  

On a practical level, he has found a niche. I’ve known him long enough to know that he got there not with a grand master plan, but by trial and error. He will continue to tinker, even though he—like me—is at an age when many of our peers are contemplating retirement.

Kim and Peter Yesis installing a mural at the Oxford County Courthouse.

For every tale of frustration in the current crisis, there’s another of opportunity. Yesterday I talked with an elementary-school art teacher. She told me about her response to sudden lockdown this past spring. Her kids had no art supplies at home, so she encouraged them to make art with recycled materials. This year, she’s made kits for them to use at home. She’s doing her best to cope with something none of us wanted. Along the way she’s discovering new ways to teach art.

The lesson of our age is: be nimble or perish. Find new ways to do things, or resign yourself to “go gentle into that good night.”

Getting out of a slump

…and the chance to benefit Children’s Beach House with your holiday shopping.

Wreck of the SS Ethie, by Carol L. Douglas

“That looks like so much fun.” It can be genuine, or it can have the hard edge that implies, “unlike my job as a claims adjuster.” Either way, it’s usually, but not always, true. There are days when we approach our easels with exhaustion, trepidation, or stiff hands.

I owe my friend Peter Yesis a great debt in reminding me to do warm-ups when this happens. I have cases of 6X8 warm ups in the corner of my studio. At one time, I painted a tree every day; at another time it was a still life. But this commitment went by the wayside as I got busier and busier, and now I usually blog in the hour I once did these exercises.
Termination Dust, by Carol L. Douglas. The only realism in this painting was the chill in my studio when I started it.
Warm ups are like scales. They’re a requisite to being in good voice when we go out and perform.
Last week I was stuck in a particularly finicky commission painting. I feared all my painterliness was being sucked down the great hole of representation. I pulled out a canvas and did a fantasy landscape. This is a favorite exercise of mine, a landscape only loosely based on reality. One starts with an abstraction and builds a realistic painting upon it.
Glade, by Carol L. Douglas. I was interested in the terrible symmetry of a circle.
The painting at top, of the shipwreck of SS Ethie off the coast of Newfoundland, is an example of such a painting. I recorded the steps of its development here.
Shoreline, by Carol L. Douglas, is based on nothing more than a black shape.
Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World—the painting that put realism back on the map—is just an abstraction that uses three realistic objects to drive us relentlessly through its spare, rigid, Color Fieldconstruction.
Wyeth aside, painting from a wisp or suggestion is a great way to blow the cobwebs out of your brushes. I find myself anxious to put the computer aside and start painting every morning. The fun is back in my brushes.
Want to support a great program?
Home Farm, by Carol L. Douglas, is featured in the 2019 Children’s Beach House calendar.
Last fall I did the 2018 Plein Air Brandywine Valley competition, which benefits Childrens Beach House. I liked the CBH staff so much I’ve been trying to get my son-in-law to move to Delaware and work with them ever since.
My painting Home Farmwon an Honorable Mention. It was done at Winterthur and I hope it captures a sense of the old farms that were assembled to make this great American estate. 
Home Farm is also showcased within the pages of the 2019 Plein Air Brandywine Valley Calendar. 
For each $100 donation to Children’s Beach House, you will receive this incredible one-of-a-kind limited production calendar created by sponsor Dennis M. Wallace of Comprehensive Wealth Management Group. It includes all of the 2018 Plein Air Brandywine Valley painting and photography award winners. You can order directly on-line at www.cbhinc.org. 
100% of your donation goes to support the programs at Children’s Beach House. They provide programs for children with communicative disabilities (speech, hearing, language and other special needs) who are further challenged by living in poverty.  This calendar makes a great holiday gift for family, friends and colleagues.