Verisimilitude

Intimate knowledge is a spur to creativity, because it places facts at the disposal of your subconscious brain.

Early Spring on Beech Hill, oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas, 12X16, is available through the Camden Public Library.

I’m in Boston waiting to board a plane. Logan International Airport bears scant resemblance to the historic city it serves (except for the inexplicable popularity of Dunkin’ Donuts). I can say that because I know Boston.

I’ve never been to Houston, but I will see it from the air since I have a layover there. I know it only by reputation: it’s big, new and southern.

Beauchamp Point, oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas, 12X16, is available through the Camden Public Library.

If I were to write a novel set in a contemporary city, which of these would be the sensible choice?

“Better if the country be real, and he has walked every foot of it and knows every milestone. As he studies it, relations will appear that he had not thought upon; he will discover obvious, though unexpected, short cuts and footprints for his messengers; and even when a map is not all the plot, it will be found to be a mine of suggestion,” wrote Robert Louis Stevenson.  

We’ve shortened that to the pithy statement “write what you know,” but that loses the point of Stevenson’s pronouncement. Intimate knowledge is a spur to creativity, because it places facts at the disposal of your subconscious brain. (It also stops you from making stupid mistakes, but that’s really the lesser consideration.)

Home Port (Rockport), oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas, 24X36, is available through the Camden Public Library.

The same is true of painting. To paint well, you have to know your subject. When my show opened at the Picker Room of the Camden Public Library last Friday, my very first visitor asked me, “Are you from Maine?”

That’s a loaded question; it usually means “Were you born here, and your parents and grandparents, up to and including seven generations?” The answer, of course is, no—I’m from Buffalo and proud of it.

She was surprised. “You’ve caught the Maine of my childhood,” she said. “The real Maine.” I heard variations on that comment several times over the evening, enough that I started to consider what it meant.

Clark’s Island, oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas, 8X10, is available through the Camden Public Library.

In Maine, people talk about ‘the dooryard.’ That’s a fine old term that’s fallen into disuse in the rest of America. It means that area around the door that everyone actually uses (which is not generally the front door). Paint Maine houses enough, and that dooryard emerges as something important. It doesn’t matter if you can articulate how or why you’re thinking about it; it will become a focus of your painting in a form louder than words.

That sort of truth-telling starts with careful observation, and observation in painting means drawing. We’ve somehow dropped that from our toolbox, but learning accurate drawing is the basis of all visual communication. It’s no different (or more difficult) than learning your times tables or how to sound out letters. And it’s just as basic and useful a skill.

“When my daughter was seven years old, she asked me one day what I did at work,” wrote artist Howard Ikemoto. “I told her I worked at the college—that my job was to teach people to draw. She stared at me, incredulous, and said, ‘You mean they forget?’”

I’m on my way to Mexico for a family wedding. I’ll be back on the weekend.

What is truth?

There’s more to truth than observable facts, and it’s your job to talk about that.
Last day of golden light, by Carol L. Douglas, oil on canvasboard

On Monday, Ken DeWaardand I went out to catch the last of the autumn gold before yesterday’s drenching rain. We met at a beautiful old farm in Hope, owned by an elderly lady who gave us some hollyhock seeds in the bargain.

There were two structures that interested me—a fine old Maine cape, and a white frame building glowing violet with a young maple blazing yellow in front of it. “You choose first,” we told each other. This is often the hardest—and always the most important—part of field painting. In the end, I chose the farmhouse and he chose the maple, and I proceeded to complain for the rest of the morning.

The scene I painted.
I know that narrative is very old-fashioned, but it has its place in grounding plein air paintings. The farmyard’s story was obvious. But with the building and tree, either the tractor would need to be included to explain the log pile, or some major narrative fudging would need to happen. That was out; the scene was inherently too delicately-balanced to muck with.
I believe in truth in painting as well as in life. But what does that mean? To a scientist, truth is what can be established through the scientific method. That viewpoint (itself not objective) has permeated our culture. It is, however, a very narrow definition. It leaves out aesthetics, ethics and the associative thinking that the human brain is so good at.
Snow on the forecast, by Carol L. Douglas
Today, we all know that Galileo was right, but by the scientifically-known facts of his time, he was wrong. In fact, part of what Cardinal Bellarmineargued was that heliocentrism shouldn’t be taught unless it could be proved.  What infuriates us moderns is the idea that the Inquisition could muzzle science, and we’re right to feel that way. But that’s based on an unprovable ethical argument: the idea that science should operate independently of church or state.
If you were to walk to the post office with me this morning, you probably wouldn’t notice the power lines. You’d see the elegant houses, grand old trees, and raking light across the harbor. That’s because we see with our hearts, and we focus on some things to the exclusion of others. When we’re very young and first investigating realism, we think we should include every detail. As we get older, we’re more attracted by that emotional truth, which has little to do with the objective truth.
The scene I was riffing off.
Yesterday, I managed to sneak in a tiny painting of the building that Ken originally painted. I was demonstrating limited palette. That’s another subject where truth is too complex to be boiled down to easy inanities. In theory, you can get to any color using just red, blue, yellow and white paint. But the chroma and clarity of those mixes depends on the pigments you use and the medium you’re working in.
It’s not that the paints transmogrify, it’s that each different pigment and base has different undertones. These mix well in some directions, but cancel each other out in other mixes. If you doubt me, try to make a classic chromatic black (cadmium yellow, cadmium red, ultramarine blue) with acrylics. You’ll get something that looks like you picked it up on your shoe.

Style versus substance

I wanna go north, east, south, west
Every which way, as long as I’m movin’…

My method of packing is to start with the important stuff, like vacuuming the floor joists in the basement. That’s excitement speaking. Like Ruth Brown, I’m happy as long as I’m moving. I’ve been home in Maine since February, when I went to Pecos, NM to paint with Jane Chapin. For my mid-Atlantic friends, the plein airseason has already started in earnest, whereas we in the north are just starting to believe the snow is finally behind us.
My current adventure started with a deceptively-simple question. Could I do a portrait “in the manner of Francis Cadell?” That the inquirer differentiated between “style” and “manner” meant that he wasn’t asking me for an imitation Cadell painting. I wouldn’t know how to do that.
Iona Croft, 1920, by Francis Cadell, courtesy National Galleries of Scotland
“In the manner of” has a specific meaning in art history, which is that it was done by a follower of a particular artist, but after the artist’s death.
Style, on the other hand, is the mark-making, composition, color palette and other visible attributes (or method of working) that give the appearance of the finished work. Style ties a painting to other works by the same artist, or to a specific period, genre or movement. It’s the art historian’s principle tool in classifying artwork. I can never be a Scottish colourist, any more than I can be a Canadian Group of Sevenpainter. Each of us is tied too closely to our own time and place in history, and imitating the Dead Masters is a sure path to mediocrity. But we can think seriously about the values those painters brought to their work.
Cadell had a palpable affection for his subjects: human, still life or landscape. Even so, people and objects were always somewhat subservient to their settings, which were frequently the Georgian rooms he occupied in Ainslie Place in Edinburgh’s New Town. Ironically, I’ll be painting just down the street, in a similar Georgian townhouse.
Full stop, by Carol L. Douglas. Well, we both like purple.
Cadell chose beauty over stylishness. The difference is depth and staying power. It takes some scratching to get down to fundamental truth. It’s easier to go for pretty scenes, cheap symbols or trendy commentary. But those things are only transient.
My old friend and model Michele Long used to say that figure painting was a collaboration between the artist and the model. I think that was a profound insight, but I’d add a third player: the audience, present and future. Art is primarily communication, and that requires that the subject, artist and audience all bring something to the engagement.
Michelle reading, by Carol L. Douglas
People sometimes ask me if there are paintings I would never sell. There’s one: my grandson Jake as an infant. (It was the last time he was ever still.) Once I’ve laid down my brushes, I don’t think of a painting as mine any longer. From that, it’s easy for me to realize that it was never really mine in the first place.
Thus, it isn’t about me, my skills, my whims, or my inadequacies, but about the subject and the viewer. That takes a lot of the ego out of the process, and makes me able to relax and enjoy painting.

Wasting time, and other lies about art

The artist’s first responsibility is to tell the truth. But what does that mean?

Child prodigy Alma Elizabeth Deutscher, courtesy Askonas Holt.
“Some people have told me that I compose in a musical language of the past and that this is not allowed in the 21st century. In the past, it was possible to compose beautiful melodies and beautiful music, but today, they say, I’m not allowed to compose like this because I need to discover the complexity of the modern world, and the point of music is to show the complexity of the world.
“Well, let me tell you a huge secret: I already know that the world is complex and can be very ugly. But I think that these people have just got a little bit confused! If the world is so ugly, then what’s the point of making it even uglier with ugly music?”

That was said by 12-year-old British child prodigy Alma Elizabeth Deutscher. I didn’t understand that at 12; I don’t think I understood it at age 40.
The artist’s first responsibility is to tell the truth. But the truth is enormous, and an artist can only bite off so much. For me that has included times of serious self-questioning and times of feminist rage. Right now, the greatest truth I want to share is a command: look around and notice our blessings.
So much of modern culture is bleak, negative, and destructive. Meanwhile, we’re healthier and less stressed than any time in history. Our kids don’t die of tuberculosis and our men are not being conscripted to march off to war. So why do one in six Americans need prescription drugs to get through their days, and so many others dull their reality with opioids or booze?
I know they’re not faking their distress. But the gap between our actual condition and our perception of it is enormous. As an artist, I can’t bring myself to contribute to it by pointing out any more problems. Who needs that on their walls?
Wall hanging in Planet Coffee in Ottawa, Canada, part of series hommage Barack Obama, by Dominik Sokolowski.

A friend was recently in Ottawa and saw the picture above. “This is a large wall hanging in Planet Coffee in Ottawa, Canada. Why is President #44 on display in Canada and not the US?” she asked.
Sometimes art is propaganda. But in general, art is a personal statement that conveys the ideas and feelings of the artist. This, by the way, is not a flattering portrait of President Obama. It seems, instead, that the artist is very conflicted.
The other answer to her question is that Americans may need an escape from the relentless bad news of politics right now. More relentlessly bad news about sex crimes is not the answer. Some conversation about our blessings would be more helpful.
Here’s an idea that never went anywhere, a maquette of a painting-sculpture, by me.
Last night, a friend said that he never understood how ‘you have too much time on your hands’ came to be an insult. “It’s the rallying cry of jealous, small minded people who think that uncomfortable employment is the mark of a moral character.”
It’s a slam I’ve heard many times. In fact, I’ve had to consciously let go of my Puritan work ethic to make headway as an artist. Sometimes my visions are not brilliantly developed, and often they look suspiciously like play. But it’s in that fizzing that the artistic mind does its work, and it often happens when we’re engaged in the most boring of tasks.
Part of that work ethic is the idea that art has to make us uncomfortable, or it’s not ‘real art’. Rubbish. It’s the ability to see the world in a new, happier way that makes a child such as Alma Elizabeth Deutscher such an asset.

Why facts matter

What is an artist if not a truth teller? To tell the truth, you must understand what you are looking at.
Painted by Sandra Hildreth from Eagle Island during the ADK Plein Air Festival.

Sandra Hildrethnever wins prizes at the Adirondack Plein Air Festival. She exempts herself because she’s the organizer, but I hate seeing her work overlooked in the jurying. Part of what one registers in art is passion, and hers is very passionate work. She is the Adirondacks’ most tireless art champion, a fine painter whose skills are focused on what she loves.

“I paint what is wild,” she wrote. “It might be a moss covered glacial erratic deep in a tangled old growth Adirondack forest…”
Barnum Brook, 12X48, by Sandra Hildreth.
Full stop here: that’s the difference between Sandra and most of the rest of us. I understand rocks but could never identify a glacial spill under the mess of foliage of an Adirondack hillside.
A student at this summer’s workshopasked me why knowing what we were looking at was important. I was slightly nonplussed, since I like knowledge for its own sake. Still, understanding the natural world informs painting, and Sandra’s work demonstrates this.
Nocturne, by Sandra Hildreth.
Her painting of trees, top, has the authority and authenticity of fact. Her trees could be nothing other than Eastern White Pines clinging to a mountain rock in a cold lake in the northeastern forest. She has told us, as clearly as a photograph could, about the feathery needles, the soft color, the mature mien of the trees, and how the rock has cleaved with great age. Accuracy with drawing allows her to be loose with the paint. It also gives us a whiff of mountain air when we see the painting.
I don’t know Sandra well, but we painted together in a boreal wetlands a few years ago. She’s a friend of my pal and former student Carol Thiel. The two of them clamber around the ADK’s 46 mountain peaks together. Sometimes they bring their paints along on these hikes. Walking in the woods is a powerful learning experience.
Split Rock Falls, by Sandra Hildreth.
Sandra grew up in Wisconsin and has a BFA from Western Kentucky University. She taught high school art in northern New York for 31 years, moving to Saranac Lake after she retired. She paints full time and is a devoted grandmother.
She paints what she identifies as wilderness—not just the splashy big national parks, but the places where man has not yet tamed nature. “They just need to have some of the qualities of wilderness, such as very little evidence of humanity,” she wrote. “Places where nature is dominant, not civilization.”
Eclipse, by Sandra Hildreth.
At some point, an artist moves past what is painterly and beautiful and arrives at what is true. If you want to be a truth-teller, you must first understand your subject. We have all seen paintings of inoffensive, unremarkable trees and rocks. They tell us nothing about the terrifying majesty of nature. They have no lasting power. Sandra Hildreth’s forests are for the ages.

The Brian Williams Factbook

Brian Williams probably didn’t see dead bodies lying in the street during Hurricane Katrina, and it’s clear that he didn’t come under small arms enemy fire in a Chinook helicopter in 2003. Nor did Hillary Clinton land under sniper fire in the Balkins or Tom Harkin fly combat missions in Vietnam.

There’s the institutional blindness of Rotherham Borough in ignoringthe grooming, drugging and rape of at least 1400 mostly underage, predominantly white girls by local Pakistani Kashmiri Muslims. 

Last week on Facebook I ‘learned’ that one in five children will develop cancer from eating GMO foods, and that “every day Christians kill a transgendered person.” And then there’s our President (a graduate of Columbia and Harvard Law) drawing crude and illogical parallels between the Crusades and ISIS.

These people aren’t really lying. They’re twisting and spinning information. They sacrifice inconvenient facts to their bigger truth. In this systematic destruction of small truths lies a Great Truth about our times: facts are subservient to narrative, and it’s no longer a big deal to lie.

The drawings on this post were done by J—, who grew up in a cult which perfected the use of media in manipulating the public. No less a personage than Oprah was taken in by them. Yes, the truth ultimately came out, but at great expense to many. While the public was still sorting out what was true (mainly through the efforts of the Texas court system), more people suffered.
One of the bitter fruits of gaslighting (as that truth-twisting is called) is that it’s hard for its victims to understand what is true and what is false. Imagine that every time you pick up a pencil your past kicks in to question you. When J— asks, “What should I draw? I don’t know what to draw,” it is not that he’s not creative; it’s his history trying to shut him up.
All this public and private lying makes me feel so old. Even though my parents were bohemian by the standards of their day (no church, no scouting) we did have the advantage of a stiff whipping if we were caught bending the truth. (Oddly enough, that didn’t impair our creativity.)

Today truthiness is preferable to truth in our culture. That’s why our mass media is a cesspool of simulated sex. It’s why the coy, sexualized nude done by a middle age man gets enthusiastic exhibit space, but paintings about misogyny are closed down. That’s how we can call 50 Shades of Grey a romantic movie, instead of a glorification of abuse. We can deal with shallow illusions, but we hate hard truths. They might require us to do something.
What are we—as artists—to do about it? In a culture suffused with lies, we must continue to tell the truth, and we should demand the truth from our students. To me, this points to realism as the most radical style of art for our age. Can you really tell the story of abuse, beauty, misogyny, love, war, or peace if the details are fuzzy?

Truth is frequently controversial. Controversy, paradoxically, is often not truthful. Truth is sometimes happy, but it’s never twee. Truth is often unpopular until long after the truth-teller has left. For this reason, it makes sense to leaven the bitter with the palatable, unless you like serving coffee for a living.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me on the Schoodic Peninsula in beautiful Acadia National Park in 2015 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops! Download a brochure here.