The photograph lies but my sketch yells the truth

Stop taking snapshots you’ll never use and start sketching instead.

Collapsing shed, 9X12, oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas, $696 unframed, 25% off this week.

“The photograph lies but my sketch yells the truth,” I told my student, and then gawped at what I’d just said. In our culture, we talk about ‘photographic proof’ as if it is an absolute. If you’re looking for evidence to nail a drug dealer or your philandering husband, photographs are great—although by now we all know they can be manipulated.

For guiding a painting, photos have their limits. They distort distance and spatial relationships. Modern point-and-shoot cameras (especially cell phones) blow contrast up, because that’s what buyers like. In exchange, subtle value shifts disappear.

“Great!” you answer. “You’re always telling me that paintings are an interplay of light and dark, warm and cool, so exaggerating the value structure will help, right?”

Unfortunately, the exaggeration of light and dark happens at the expense of warm and cool. On Wednesday, I painted a sketch of lupines in a field, above. There was a soft haze of mauve at the far edge of the field, created (I assume) by the immature seed heads of the grasses. In the foreground, rain-beaten weeds reflected a cool aquamarine. The light shining through the lupine leaves was yellow-green. I recorded those color shifts as accurately as I could.

My snapshot. Who would be interested in painting that wall of green?

Compare that to my snapshot of the scene. All those subtle shifts in color are washed away. We are left with a wall of green that would be horribly uninteresting in a painting. The subtle shifts in color that make lupines so beautiful are all washed out; in fact, they’re ugly in the photo. There’s nothing in this photo that would inspire me to paint.

Pincushion distortion from a telephoto lens.

Cameras are great at creating depth in the picture frame; excessively so, in fact. Cell phones are made with wide-angle lenses so we can all crowd into our selfies. Wide angle lenses expand space. Objects look further apart and more distant than normal. This exaggerates the size difference between the foreground and background, creating an illusion of greater depth than is really there.

That’s great for photos of the Rockies. It makes for laughable results when shooting pictures of the Bidens with the Carters. It also makes your photos of a barn in the middle-distance appear flat and uninteresting.

But let’s say you’re a keen photographer and you’ve invested in a top-end Nikon with interchangeable lenses (as I did before my Argentina trip). You can also create equally-bad distortion with a telephoto lens. They compress space, making objects appear larger and closer together than normal. That spatial compression creates great abstractions, but it also distorts perspective.

Prospettiva accidentale di una scala a tre rampe, eseguita con il metodo dei punti misuratori, 1995, Luciano Testoni, courtesy Wikipedia.

The farther away we are from an object, the flatter the perspective. In the beautiful drawn example above, the top line is the horizon. The closer we get to the it (our furthest point), the flatter the lines get. So, if you take a photo of a beautiful building on a far hill with your 300 mm telephoto lens, the perspective will be flattened out of all recognition.

Photos have their place, but for recording impressions, working from life is always better. That means sketching instead of taking snapshots. The human brain has a remarkable capacity to interpret and interpolate information. We can access that quickly, with nothing more complex than a pencil and paper. In a world filled with lies, you can usually trust your own eyes to tell you the truth.

Go ahead, Senators. Doodle.

If you’re fidgety, it will help you hear better.

Church sketch by Carol L. Douglas
“I just heard on the news that Rand Paul has been sketching during the impeachment trial. One of the reporters added that Paul was really good at drawing,” my pal texted me last week.
Paul has been good at keeping his drawing on the low-down, however. Neither my friend nor I could find any examples online. (Perhaps that’s because there was a mid-century advertising art director named Paul Rand, whom Google likes better for art.)
Drawing is much better than a fidget-spinner, I said to a friend. He strongly disagreed. “They should be paying attention!”
Church sketch by Carol L. Douglas
As a former hyperactive student (they hadn’t invented ADHD back then), I know that not all of us are wired to sit still and listen. I’m married to a church musician, which means that occasionally I sit through two services. I can do it because I also draw in church. I’m paying enough attention that I could tell you—in some detail—how the pastor changed up his sermon between the two services.
That’s a little different from Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), who read a book during the trial. “Busy mamas are the best at multi-tasking. Try it,” she tweeted.
She’s flat-out wrong. You can’t hear and read words at the same time and process them both. They’re using parallel channels in the brain. To some degree, multitasking is a myth. Yes, you watch TV while folding laundry, but when you try to do two high-end brain tasks at once, you’re overflowing your working memory, inhibiting creative thinking, and reducing productivity.
Church sketch by Carol L. Douglas
Occasionally, my students will mention that they see things differently once they start to draw or paint. That’s because drawing changes how the brain works, as surely as studying music or language does. This is neuroplasticity in action.
Before the invention of the camera, all educated people were expected to know how to draw. Being able to depict something was almost as important as writing. Nobody had the luxury of saying, “I can’t draw a straight line.”
Church sketch by Carol L. Douglas
That’s why I still love this old news from Scientific American. Dr. Jennifer Landin of North Carolina State University expects and gets beautiful drawings from her biology students. “Drawing is merely making lines and dots on paper. If you can write your name, you can draw,” she wrote. “But we all take shortcuts when we see; often our brains fool us, and we skip over most visual details.”
Kids draw all the way through childhood until they reach adolescence. Why they stop is not well-studied, but cultural factors surely play a part. Not only do we devalue the arts in our culture, but we believe that only people with talent (whatever that is) can do them. As Dr. Landin so wonderfully demonstrated, talent is mostly about doing the work.
Church sketch by Carol L. Douglas
I sketch in church because I process words better when my hands are in motion. I’m not alone in that; it’s why so many people knit. But try applying that principle to school or some workplaces, and rationality breaks down. The modern answer to restlessness and anxiety is drugs. That’s criminal.
Dr. Landin knows that drawing an object cements it in the mind in a way that simple observation cannot do. My experiences drawing in church tell me that the same thing is true about abstract concepts like grace or community.
“Real life isn’t neatly divided by subject,” wrote Dr. Landin. Society would do well to remember that.

Monday Morning Art School: How to make time to make art

Having trouble finding time to get anything done? We all are.

Commit to working with others, either in a class, a group, or a workshop. It will jumpstart your process.

These days, I’m turning over my guest room as fast as the Starlight Motel down the street is turning over theirs. Not well, I might add; my brother tells me I’m in danger of losing my five-star rating. Even though I strongly discourage guests in the high season, there are still people whom I want to see.

Not having enough time to make art isn’t a unique problem. It’s something I hear from other artists in every station of life. Jobs, children, parents, spouses or homes aren’t time-killers; they’re the very fabric of our lives. Still, too often we go to bed realizing we’ve done no actual artwork that day.
Schedule studio time. If you work at the same time every day, you spend less mental energy waiting for inspiration to kick in—you just dive in and do it. That’s more than a mental trick. Your body and mind crave routine. Working on art at the same time every day makes it easier to transition into the flow zone.
Take a class. They’re fun, social, advance your skills, and—just like joining the gym—you have money riding on your involvement.
Keep the set-up to a minimum. I keep my palettes in the freezer so I can paint in small increments. I sometimes work in watercolor when I don’t have time to set up in oils. I draw when I can’t do either.
I’ve been recording the passing scene in sketchbooks forever. I wasn’t always kind.
Put down your cell phone and pick up your sketchbook. Draw in meetings, classes and church—it won’t lower your comprehension much. I’ve written about the importance of sketching many times; it separates good artists from mediocre ones.
Make work a habit. Set aside a half hour a day and use it to make some kind of art. You really can cement a habit by doing it for a month.
A small amount of time with a sketchbook can yield wonderful results.

Cut out the screen time. Even with the decline in TV watching, Americans average about eleven hours a day in front of some kind of screen. You might find that all the time you need to make art can be found just by deleting the Facebook app. (Just be sure to subscribe to this blog before you do it! The sign up box is at the top right.)
Make a studio. If you don’t have a room to dedicate to art, make a studio in a corner of your bedroom or some other underutilized space. Having a dedicated, organized work space cuts down on the set-up time each time you want to work.
Find a corner somewhere where you can leave your project up.
Make art a social activity. Join a figure-drawing or plein air group. There’s accountability in committing to work with someone else.
Run away from home.Apply for a residency somewhere. Even a week of focused work, sans family, can be great for your development. I’ll be doing one at the Joseph Fiore Art Center this September.
The dreaded deadline. I hesitate to recommend this, even though the best way I know to chain myself to my easel is to commit work for a show. Yes, deadlines make you finish things. However, they’re corrosive to body and soul. Better to just develop good work practices.
Be patient with yourself
I had cancer at age 40. Since then health issues have played a much larger role in my life. I’m always infuriated by being sick, because I like to keep busy. But if you’ve just had a baby or are recovering from pneumonia, you’re not going be efficient. Be patient. Just as you have to walk a little farther every day to regain fitness, you need to slowly reform your work schedule.
I’ve got one more workshop available this summer. Join me for Sea and Sky at Schoodic, August 5-10. We’re strictly limited to twelve, but there are still seats open.

Monday Morning Art School: Gel Pen and a Water Brush

Everything you need for pen-and-wash will balance comfortably on your lap, thanks to modern technology.
A fifteen-minute pen-and-wash sketch.

I slipped my sketchbook in my purse before church, only to find when I got there that my pencil had apparently been eaten by a bear. It was useless. That left me scraping around the bottom of my backpack, where I found a Uni-Ball gel pen and a tiny sample card from Turner Watercolours.

Recently, pen manufacturers have started offering fraud protection technology. This is because of a new form of crime called ‘check washing.’ That’s a kind of identity theft where ink is removed from a check and the check is reused. In response, pen makers have created waterproof and acetone-proof pens. Good luck getting the ink out of your clothes, but it’s a boon for artists looking for inexpensive, waterproof pens for pen-and-wash drawings.
Initial drawing.
There’s a tiny, unremarkable, ranch-style house across the road from our church. It’s best to practice drawing everyday objects. If you can get the composition and pattern of lights and darks right on a prosaic little house, you stand a much better chance of getting them right at Niagara Falls or some other equally-grand place. In painting, the composition should always come first.
Without a pencil, I couldn’t even put hashmarks on my paper. Sometimes flying without a net is a good thing, though. You’re stuck with your decisions. I laid out a simple line drawing, and then massed my dark shapes in with the pen.
More darks.
Pen drawing is supposed to be fast, and eyeing up proportions is a learned skill, just like reading. If you’re an absolute beginner, you might want to do a measured drawing of the building on another page first, in pencil. Then close that page and work fast on another page. Your mind’s eye will remember the proportions. If you have no idea where to start with that, do this exercise first.
My pal Mary Byromteaches a wildly successful weekly class in southern Maine called The Traveling Sketchbook.  We occasionally compare materials for our classes. It was Mary who reminded me of the versatility of the lowly waterbrush pen. The genius of these brushes is that they eliminate the need to carry water separately. 
I watched Richard Sneary, who is one of America’s top watercolorists, using the same waterbrush pen with watercolor pencils to do a value sketch at Parrsboro. That’s a technique I use and teach. If that kind of value study is important for him, it’s doubly important for the rest of us.
As far as I want to go with the pen. Now to find some color.
There are many makers of waterbrush pens. They’re cheap and I have a few tucked here and there, including at the bottom of my backpack.
My ‘watercolor kit’ for this project. You can do better.
I didn’t have a watercolor kit handy, but I could still mix paint on the sample card and fill in the big shapes with color. I really recommend that you carry a small watercolor kit instead, but it doesn’t have to be complicated. Everything you need for this exercise will balance comfortably on your lap. That’s a big improvement over pen-and-wash of the past. We used to need a pen holder, nibs, a bottle of ink, watercolors, a brush, a water bottle and a cup.
Voila! You’ve just done your first pen-and-wash drawing. This is another simple way to make a sketch without dragging around a ton of supplies, and it’s a good way to work in advance of a bigger painting.

Of course, the other—probably more common—way to do pen-and-wash is to start with the watercolor painting and enhance it at the end with the pen. That’s a technique for creating more finished work, often used in illustration. It’s usually done on a hard paper like Bristol board or hot-press watercolor paper.
I’ve got one more workshop available this summer. Join me for Sea and Sky at Schoodic, August 5-10. We’re strictly limited to twelve, but there are still seats open.

Monday Morning Art School: How to paint from a moving vehicle

If you have room for a cup of coffee, you have room to paint.

I finished this sketch as the sun finally set.

I painted across Canada (the first time) in a corner of an overloaded Suzuki Grand Vitara containing four people and all my daughter’s earthly belongings. Compared to that, the passenger seat of my Prius is downright spacious.

You will need a plastic cup, water, a small watercolor kit and a watercolor sketchbook. That will all fit in a roomy pocket or a purse.
You should be carrying water when you drive. The plastic cup is just a refinement.
“But the scene is constantly changing!” you say, and you’re right. You’re going to generalize rather than draw a specific moment on the road. This teaches us about composition and reducing our paintings to their essentials.
You can’t paint while driving, any more than you can text. (I would think this goes without saying, but apparently there is no idea so bad that someone won’t try it.) This is why I ended up doing this painting on I-495 instead of on scenic Route 1. It was my turn to drive during the interesting parts.
This was the road I chose to demonstrate this technique. Not a Scenic Byway.
I-495 is a contender for America’s most boring road, except when traffic stops and it becomes one of our most irritating roads. Yesterday, its monotony was compounded by a gloomy sky, the tail end of last week’s Nor’easter. There’s a lesson in that: you can find beauty anywhere, if you look for it.
I start car paintings by studying the passing scene. What is the line or motif that is most commonly repeated?  In some cases, it’s the pitch and roll of the hills. In others, it’s the way farm buildings sprawl down hillsides. 
A generalization of the passing scene.
Usually, I look out the side window, at about the point where old cars used to have vent windows with little cranks. That gives you a view of something other than the road, while still being comfortable.
However, in eastern Massachusetts the trees grow right up to the verge. You must look forward, straight down the road. The dominant motif is the stands of trees, and the question is how they interrupt the skyline. There are occasional hills in the distance, and there are other cars.
This was the point when I realized I left my pencil on my dining room table. It’s easily replaced, but not on a freeway on a Sunday evening. Miraculously, we stopped at a rest stop and parked next to a pencil stuck in the mud. Cleaned up, it was perfectly serviceable.
Some light washes in place. I would normally use a different brush, but I want to demonstrate that this can all be done with a kit that fits in a pocket.
I needed that pencil, because I always start with a line drawing incorporating those iconic features of the landscape. A light wash established the drear of the sky and the hill in the distance. I used the tiny brush from my field kit to make the point that you don’t need a lot of tools for this. This brush is great for fine lines, but it doesn’t make good washes. I laid it on its side and scumbled the grey sky in instead. If I were using a juicier brush, I’d have run the sky below the tree line.

My pocket paint kit. You can make one out of an Altoids tin but unless you already have the paint, buying the pre-made one is actually cheaper.
Every watercolor painting needs a test sheet, because watercolor is all about density control. Luckily, you can test on the reverse of a prior page. It won’t hurt the painting on the other side. Or, if you want to conserve paper, stick a loose sheet in there and move it around as you need it.
You always need a test sheet, even when you’re messing around.
When it comes to observing details, the repetitiveness of the freeway helps. When I need a stand of spruces, there is always one more just up the road. There are dormant, deciduous trees everywhere, and Massachusetts has no shortage of rocks.
Of course, you’re not going to paint fine lines unless you’re stopped in a traffic jam. The roads in the northeast are too jarring for that. Thus, my taillights are just a suggestion, dripped onto the paper at the last minute. I finished just as the last light faded from the sky.
St. Elias Mountain Range, Yukon Territory, painted from a car in 2015.
This is a technique you can use to amuse yourself anywhere you have at least 40 minutes to kill—in a car, a train, on a plane. It’s the basis of our sketchbook technique for our Age of Sail workshop, except we’ll be concentrating on water instead of pavement. Of course, Penobscot Bay is also much prettier than a Massachusetts turnpike.
I’m on the road to Alabama and points west this week. Tonight’s destination is the lovely Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Stay tuned to this spot to follow my travels. (Or subscribe above; it’s probably easier.)

Oh the places you’ll go

Cheap, plentiful, environmentally-friendly, and you can create a masterpiece with it. We should all use more charcoal.
Portrait of my friend Jane in charcoal, by Carol L. Douglas.

 Art supplies tend to be expensive, especially at the rarified corners of the business. Mother Nature, however, has given us a drawing material that is plentiful, dirt cheap, and environmentally friendly. A package of 12 sticks of Winsor & Newton vine charcoal costs just ten bucks, and a tablet of newsprintis about the same. For the cost of a pizza, you can go to the far corners of self-expression.

Charcoal is a great way to work out difficult drawing problems before you commit the problem to paint. Feet by Carol L. Douglas.

I use charcoal extensively in my studio: to work out new ideas, for gesture drawings, or to contemplate composition. It’s an excellent medium for experimentation. As a student yesterday remarked, “it’s not all about lines, like pencil work is.” When blended and lifted with an eraser, charcoal handles much like paint, making it the perfect preparatory medium for oil and acrylic painting. That’s why I start every new class with charcoal drawing exercises. It’s far better to learn the fundamentals of drawing and composition with something that’s not precious.

This was a preparatory sketch for a painting. By Carol L. Douglas.

I particularly like to have watercolor students do value exercises with charcoal. Value separation is a major challenge in watercolor. It helps to do it up front.

Charcoal is the cheapest medium in which one can create a masterpiece with staying power. For example, there are many works on paper by Edgar Degas done in charcoal and white pastel. He and other great masters used charcoal extensively.
Charcoal allows us to work out compositional questions. By Carol L. Douglas.
Choose a paper with a dull finish so that the charcoal can bite into the surface. Charcoal doesn’t stick well to hot-pressed, smooth papers like Bristol. It’s best on a fine-toothed, dull paper, but a rough tooth is also appropriate at times, although it raises more dust. My solution is to buy Canson’s Mi-Tientes, which has a different surface on either side, but there are many fine papers for charcoal work, including Canson Ingres, Strathmore 500 Series and Fabriano Tiziano. You shouldn’t need to use fixative to get the charcoal to adhere; if you do, try a different paper.
Compressed charcoal is powdered charcoal bound with gum or wax. It’s harder than vine or willow charcoal, meaning it can be sharpened to do very fine work. However, it’s not appropriate for using under paintings, because the binding can bleed. It doesn’t blend or erase as well. I never use it.
Seated figure, by Carol L. Douglas
Willow and vine charcoals are made of burnt grape vines or willow branches. They have no added binders, making them easier to erase. This charcoal can be used to sketch on canvas before painting in oils or acrylics; it will just vanish into the bottom layers of your work. It’s very light and makes soft, powdery lines.
“It takes a steady, careful, and patient hand to use charcoal,” an online student remarked yesterday. Only sometimes! Charcoal is an infinitely varied medium, in which one can make smooth graduations of value as well as slashing, dark strokes.

Rain day

by Carol L. Douglas

by Carol L. Douglas
Rain, I can handle. Wind—in the usual amounts—I can handle. The combination is difficult, since the wind makes an umbrella impossible. Rain makes for gloomy paintings anyway, which one can sometimes recast as moody, but not always.
The organizers of this weekend’s event had given us two days for one painting. So when Saturday was both windy and guttering rain, Brad Marshall and I decided to take pencils to the Met instead. We thought we’d look at Max Beckmann, follow him up with some lighthearted Fragonard frivolity, and then find a bit of Roman statuary to draw. But as Brad held the elevator door, a gentleman turned to him and said, “Did you see the Caravaggisti? Really excellent.”
by Brad Marshall

by Brad Marshall
There really being only one Caravaggio, I’ve never been that interested in his followers. There’s a fine line between emotionalism and being just plain silly. So I was pleasantly surprised at what a fine painter Valentin de Boulogne was.
I found myself in a group of three ladies querying me about Judith and Holofernes. (Brad had neatly sidestepped.) “How do you know this stuff?” one finally asked.
by Brad Marshall

by Brad Marshall
“I’m an evangelical Christian. We learn this stuff,” I answered. But regardless of faith, these stories are a powerful part of our cultural legacy, since the books of the Bible are the greatest collection of literature surviving from antiquity. There was a time when everyone learned them, and they learned them predominantly through paintings. As Brad said later, “I know them from Art History.”
Valentin also turned out innumerable morality paintings, as per his time. All those fortune-tellers-with-soldiers put me in the mood to draw armor, so we made our way to that Hall. Since there were no benches, I asked a security guard if we could sit on the floor.
by Brad Marshall

by Brad Marshall
“Absolutely impermissible,” he sniffed, in the refined tones of a descendent of ten generations of Norman knights. “Not allowed… Still, if you promise to not tell my supervisor that I allowed it, go ahead.” Later, he walked by again and muttered, “Impermissible,” at me. He would have his little joke.
by Brad Marshall

by Brad Marshall
So we drew horses and armor, Brad sketching away lightheartedly and me fuming and cursing and complaining that I didn’t understand how the mannequins were seated.
“Stop drawing what you know and start drawing what you see,” Brad said, and it was, of course, good advice. I was rather surprised at the stature of these warhorses. In my mind’s eye, I’d seen them towering like modern-day Friesians. Instead, if the armor is any indication, they were about the size of my old quarter horse.
Suddenly it was 7 PM and time for us to head back, since Sunday promised to be a long day. We picked up a pizza as we exited the subway. That made it a perfect New York evening.

Be prepared!

With a sketchbook, even the Emergency Room is tolerably interesting. This, from last month’s visit.
Yesterday morning I struggled up out of sleep to the sound of my phone ringing. My second oldest child was taking her turn with the collywobbles-sans-merci and needed a doctor. Without thinking much about it, I threw my clothes on my back, my backpack in my car, and slipped down the Thruway to Buffalo.
Any place people are sitting, there’s a drawing waiting to happen.
I drill into my kids that they should carry a scraper, candle, matches,  chocolate or energy bar, small folding shovel, and an extra jacket or blanket in their car. The deaths in Buffalo last month should be a reminder that this is not just motherly paranoia, but a reality for America’s snow belt.
You will never be bored, or at least not impossibly bored.
I’m going to add one thing to my own list: a sketchbook. Even though I’m an old pro at hospitals, the before-dawn phone call rattled me, and I didn’t check to be sure it was in my backpack. I spent nine hours in waiting rooms, and all I could find to draw on was my own eyeglasses prescription.
Neither waiting room had magazines, which were, in my day, the last refuge of the terminally-bored person. They’ve apparently been replaced by large television sets. Daytime TV is shockingly bad. I might have already known this except that when I’m in waiting rooms, my practice is to burrow in with my pencil, drawing the passing parade.
And occasionally, waiting rooms contain delightful surprises, like this elegant skeleton.
Let that be a lesson to me. Be prepared. Make sure my sketchbook is always in my backpack where it belongs.
Oh, and my daughter is doing fine, thanks.

Remember, you’ve got until December 31 to get an early-bird discount for next year’s Acadia workshop. Read all about it 
here, or download a brochure here

Do as I say, not as I do

Winter coats thrown over chairs are the sketch artist’s dream.
I advocate drawing anywhere you’re required to sit quietly: the subway, doctors’ offices, and especially in church. (‘Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.’) I have stacks of sketchbooks filled with drawings of unsuspecting people, but I’ve noticed recently that my drawing is falling off both in quality and quantity.
Part of this, I’m afraid, is because I got a smart phone at the beginning of summer. It’s too easy to pick it up when I have a few idle moments. But as dissolute as I am, I would never hang out on Facebook in church.
I’ve been letting my kids choose where we sit. Their inner WASP leads them unerringly to the back row. When church is lightly attended that’s not a problem; I can still see well enough to draw. But when it’s crowded (as it usually is) all I see is the hair in front of me. Unless the wearer has spectacular cornrows, that’s of limited appeal.
Even I get tired of always drawing people from the back.

But this week I was saved by the season. It was 40° F. when we left for church and our fellow worshippers were bundled up in coats. Our church being humble, there is no narthex, so winter clothing ends up thrown over chairs. And fabric tossed willy-nilly is the sketch artist’s dream.
Message me if you want information about next year’s classes and workshops.

Aurora Borealis

Aurora Borealis, 1865, Frederic Edwin Church
Strange, fiery forms uprise
On the wide arch, and take the throngful shape
Of warriors gathering to the strife on high,—
A dreadful marching of infernal shapes,
Beings of fire with plumes of bloody red,
With banners flapping o’er their crowded ranks,
And long swords quivering up against the sky!
(John Greenleaf Whittier)
The Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis, are caused by the collision of charged solar plasma with Earth’s magnetic field. The arc of darkness in Church’s painting, above, is not something I’ve ever seen here along Lake Ontario, but Church was painting from a a sketch and description from Arctic explorer Isaac Hayes. Apparently, the arc is caused by alignment to magnetic north.

You can tell the information was secondhand, because the color shifts in the Northern Lights are in reality layered one on top of another like rainbow jello. Church—a keen observer of nature—would not have made such an elemental error. 

The wormy shapes in Church’s painting appear in no photograph I’ve ever seen of the Northern Lights, but they somehow convey the dancing motion better than any still photo does.
By the time Church painted his Aurora Borealis, scientists understood the displays to be connected to solar activity. However, that was new knowledge at the time of the American Civiil War. On September 1-2, 1859, the largest solar flare ever recorded caused visible Northern Lights as far south as the Caribbean. Another large solar flare, visible into Virginia, occurred on December 23, 1864. Even a rational people could be forgiven for seeing portents in these events.

Our Banner in the Sky, 1861, Frederic Edwin Church
Linking the Aurora Borealis and war and destruction is as old as the written word. Pliny the Elder wrote of it as a “flame of bloody appearance… which falls down upon the earth.” A spectacular Aurora Borealis that appeared in London in 1716 was linked to Jacobite rebellion in Scotland.
My sketch of the northern lights in Maine.
Today I sketched the Aurora Borealis over Owl’s Head Lighthouse. Although I have seen the Aurora Borealis many times, I must rely on photo reference for the lights themselves, for I now live in a city where light pollution obscures the Northern Lights. I’m taking artistic license in pointing my scene to the north, but only a native will realize that.

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!