That’s one sassy ocean

The rules work, even when we don’t notice. That’s as true in life and painting as it is in Acadia National Park.
Photo courtesy of Jennifer Johnson.

I’ve been getting workshop permits for Acadia National Park since I moved my workshop up to Schoodic Institute. They mean paperwork and expense, and nobody ever asks for them. Sometimes I wonder why I bother.

Yesterday, a ranger stopped by. “Do you want to see my permit?” I asked excitedly. “Oh, please, do you really want to see my permit?”
Becky comfortable near that sassy ocean.
He already knew we were going to be there; he was just stopping to check something else. I’m glad that the park rangers know what happens in the park, and that I haven’t been wasting my time and money complying with the permitting system.
Even if we aren’t aware of it, rules continue to be in effect. That’s as true in the universe as it is in a National Park, and it’s a good thing. Nobody wants the earth potting off into a different orbit because it’s sick of the one it has. 
A demo on the rocks near the Mark Island Overlook.
It is also true of painting. Many paintings of Ralph Blakelock have darkened beyond seeing because he puttered with the chemistry. It’s a terrible pity, because he was a great painter.
The ranger and I chatted for a while about the most inscrutable (to civilians) rule of national parks, that you can’t take natural materials out. “If we have three and a half million visitors and each of them takes home a rock…” he began. In some places, it might save on dredging, but I see his point.
The Mark Island (Winter Harbor) lighthouse was built in 1856, with a keeper’s house added twenty years later. It’s a handsome assemblage of whitewashed walls and staggered rooflines, and it’s far enough away that one can’t really do a stereotypical lighthouse painting. Instead, it must be in the context of its landscape, with Cadillac Mountain rising behind it. The scale relationship is a little misleading, because Mark Island is less than a mile offshore and Cadillac Mountain is several miles away.
A lighthouse painting doesn’t have to be about the lighthouse.
Look north or south and there are sweeping diagonals of pink granite tumbling to the sea, framed by dark spruces and crashing surf. And the seas were definitely crashing. “You sassy ocean, you!” cried Becky as a great long foaming breaker blew over the rocks nearby.
A student studying mixing greens. (Photo courtesy of Donald Fischman)
A sea fog approached and retreated, finally cloaking us in soft pink cashmere around sunset. That was appropriate, because yesterday’s demo was on the color of light. This subject is like one of those drawings that flips from being a vase to two profiles. It’s easy to see once you get it, but difficult to explain.
Ravens Nest  is fine for an individual painter but not for a class.
As the afternoon ended, several students walked down to Ravens Nest. I never teach there. There’s no guardrail, only pot warp strung from tree to tree. There’s no room for a large group to paint safely. But it’s an interesting geological formation and quite pretty.

We’ll be heading to Schoodic Point this morning. As I type this, I can hear the surf crashing. The sky is fair and pink. All signs are good for another great day of painting. 

The most famous painter you never heard of

Moonlight, c. 1883-1889, Ralph Albert Blakelock, courtesy of the High Museum, Atlanta, Georgia

With the time change, the rhythms of the night are all wrong. Between that, the full moon, and the low-pressure system that is bearing down on us, I’ve spent too many hours up during the long reaches of the night.

Whenever I watch moonlight, I think of Ralph Albert Blakelock, the most famous painter you never heard of. In 1916 he managed to set a record for the highest price paid for a painting by a living American artist ($20,000). Sadly, he was in an insane asylum at the time.
Blakelock was born on Christopher Street in what is now Greenwich Village, in 1847. He was just too young to have served in the American Civil War, at that impressionable age of boyhood where war is glorious and terrifying.
He started studies at what is now City College of New York, intending to be a homoeopathist like his father. After three terms, he dropped out.
Moonlight, c. 1885-1889, Ralph Albert Blakelock, courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum
After the Civil War, many artists traveled through the American west under the auspices of the Federal government or trading companies. From 1869-72, Blakelock did a similar thing, but as a free agent. Traveling alone in the west at that time was a very dangerous matter. Blakelock lived among the Sioux for a time, traveled down the California coast to Mexico, and returned to New York via a fruit boat from Panama.
Almost completely self-taught, he began producing landscapes and scenes of Indian life based on his notes and sketches. His work was recognized and lauded, and he produced a show at the National Academy of Design. In 1877, Blakelock married; he and his wife had nine kids.
Moonlight, Indian Encampment, 1885-1889, Ralph Albert Blakelock, courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum
Blakelock may have been a great painter, but he was a financial incompetent and plagued by doubts about the worth of his work. He was simply unable to establish any kind of business to support his family. Profoundly depressed, he began to show signs of mental breakdown. Meanwhile, his wife and children lived in acute financial hardship, which was amplified by the Depression of 1893.
Blakelock suffered his first complete breakdown in 1891. For eight years he suffered from schizophrenic delusions until he was committed to the Middletown State Homeopathic Hospital in Orange County, New York. At the time, that was the backwoods. He would live there almost until his death.
And that’s where his story went from tragic to sordid. The 19th century romanticized mental illness. Rich people visited asylums for fun, watching the antics of inmates with great interest, or inviting them to be entertainment at their parties. Newspapers printed stories of the odd adventures of lunatics. Blakelock, with his quirks, his odd way of painting, and his weird behavior, was perfect fodder for this cruel mania.
Enter the swindler, in the form of one Beatrice Van Rensselaer Adams, née Sadie Filbert. Her questionable charities were outweighed by her political and social credentials. Blakelock was a perfect lamb to be led to slaughter. Adams established the Blakelock Fund to support his family, but of course, its purpose was to enrich her.
Moonlight, 1885-1889, Ralph Albert Blakelock, courtesy of the Corcoran Museum. Are you detecting a theme here?
Harrison Smith, a reporter for the New York Tribune eventually convinced Blakelock’s keepers that he was, in fact, a famous artist with work in a major retrospective in the city. When taken to New York to see the show, Blakelock confided to Smith that several of the paintings on exhibit were forgeries. Since the man was a diagnosed lunatic, however, Smith kept this information under his hat.
At the time of his death on August 9, 1919, Blakelock was hailed by the London Times as “one of the greatest of American artists.”
Blakelock painted in the style we now call tonalism. Popular between 1880 and 1915, it emphasized mood, myth and spirituality, in landscapes that were rendered in dark, neutral tones. Tonalism was in part an emotional reaction to the profound, heartbreaking damage of the Civil War. It was the perfect mĂ©tier for a fragile, broken man.

Falling apart

American Landscape with Indian Camp, by Ralph Blakelock, showing the damage that can result from tinkering with technique.
Yesterday I mentioned the deterioration in Albert Pinkham Ryder’s paintings. He was not, by any means, the only painter whose work has suffered over time.
Prior to the 19th century, painters had a limited range of materials at their disposal: vegetable oils, waxes, plant gums and resins, and eggs, milk, and animal hides. Pigments were made by either grinding minerals or extracting dyes from plants and insects.  Some of the extracted pigments turned out to be fugitive (meaning they aren’t light-fast) but generally those old paintings are in remarkably good condition.
The 19th and 20th centuries were a period of constant modification of materials. Some changes have been inarguably for the better—for example, there would have been no Impressionism had there not been an explosion of new pigments in the mid-19th century.
Holy Virgin Mary by Chris Ofili. Now, seriously, how does a conservator preserve elephant dung stuck to a canvas? (And in this case, does it really even matter?)
Whenever I visit the modern collection at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery I am struck anew by how badly some of their paintings have aged.  20th century artists had no reason not to use the tremendous variety of synthetic materials that industry was creating—synthetic media, plastics, adhesives, and drying agents. As the definition of what constituted painting broke down, artists also incorporated materials the ancients would have understood to be ephemeral or beneath their calling: dung, straw, paper, urine, blood, etc.
Woman, by Willem de Kooning, 1965. He definitely experimented with obscure additives to keep his paints open longer, but so far scientists haven’t actually found any mayonnaise in his paintings.
Willem de Kooning, for example, allegedly mixed house paint, safflower oil, water, oil and egg in with his paints. Some surfaces of his paintings remain soft and sticky fifty years later, which has to present a bit of a problem for conservators. Anselm Kiefer has used lead, sand and straw in many of his paintings.
Mildew attacking orange paint in a Clyfford Still painting.
Learning to paint in the 1960s and 1970s, I used a medium made of equal parts varnish, turpentine and linseed oil, with a few drops of cobalt drier thrown in. Having seen the ghastly cracking of fifty-year-old paintings made with this medium, I decided that medium shouldn’t be a DIY project. Better to trust the scientists who work for the reputable paint manufacturers.
Another technique I discontinued is underpainting my oil paintings in acrylics. Certainly, oil-over-acrylic won’t delaminate the way acrylic-over-oil will, but who can say how the two paint systems will interact over time? I think it’s fine to paint in oils on acrylic-primed canvas, but any part of the painting that shows through (and that includes the toning) should be done in oils.
It was trendy a few decades ago to dismiss the archival aspects of painting, to embrace the ephemeral. If, say, de Kooning is the equal of Rembrandt, why would we not want to see his works survive for the ages?

One more workshop left this year, and it starts a week from today! Join me or let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in 2014. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!