Monday Morning Art School: creating depth in your paintings

Paintings with depth engage our minds more and keep us looking longer.

Sunlight on the Coast, 1890, Winslow Homer, courtesy Toledo Museum of Art

Pictorial depth in a painting, is—of course—not real. It’s an illusion, suggested by cues that help the observer translate a 2D image to a 3D space. These cues include shadows, size, and lines that dwindle into the horizon.

Since the human mind is programmed to perceive depth, the artist doesn’t have to work terribly hard to engage his viewer. We can break the tools we use into three distinct approaches, however, and then see how we can move beyond the most obvious into more challenging approaches.

The first is to create receding bands of content. Larger objects create a screen through which we see a layer of smaller objects behind them. The human eye records this as distance. Painterly marks decrease in size along with objects, the farther we travel into the painting.

Tired Salesgirl on Christmas Eve, date unknown, Norman Rockwell, courtesy Christies. This is the acme of layered planes for effect; we don’t even notice that there’s no real perspective.

I had a painting teacher who kvetched that this was all Norman Rockwell ever did, to which I responded that he did it very well for a guy who was churning out weekly magazine covers. I’ll cede the point though. This is the least difficult design concept, and it can prove static, especially when it takes the form of a lonely tree posed against a far hill.

The second method is to establish perspective with lines that move into the distance. This is sometimes simplified into the idea of “a path into the painting.” This may not be a literal path but rather a design armature. In paintings like this, we are seeing over the objects, and they recede into distance, drawing us in with them.

High Surf Along the Laguna Coast, Edgar Payne, before 1947, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

The two paintings above, by Winslow Homer and Edgar Payne, illustrate the difference. Homer has established his design with walls of water and rock, which we’re allowed to peek over. In Payne’s painting, we’re above the roiling surf, and we follow it back into the distance.

For this latter kind of painting to work, the artist must have excellent drawing chops, because the relative sizes of the objects, their placement, their angle, and—above all—the negative shapes, must be spot on. So, if you want to graduate from the first kind of perspective to the second, keep practicing your drawing.

The third kind of perspective is atmospheric. This relies on some general optics rules that are based on the interference of bouncing light and dust in the atmosphere:

  1. Far objects are lower in contrast and generally lighter in color.
  2. Far objects are generally lower in chroma than near objects, because:
  3. Warm colors drop out over distance.

First the reds drop out, next, the yellows drop out, leaving us with blue-violet. Which is how we end up with “purple mountain majesty” as we approach the Rockies, or did, before excessive growth on the Front Range polluted the skies.

Payne Lake, before 1948, Edgar Payne, courtesy Steven Stern Fine Arts

Psychologists have researched the subject of distance perception (of course) and it turns out that depth perception is linked to our higher thinking. That’s no surprise, since visual cues are very basic for survival. From that, we can construe that paintings with depth engage our minds more and keep us looking longer.

Big Rollers

I’ve been checking the weather all week, trying to decide whether my super-large canvas will go airborne.

Heavy weather, by Carol L. Douglas, oil on canvas, available.

I’m in a Big Roller mood this week. No, I’m not talking about straightening my hair, but about the long, slow waves that come in from the open ocean. Their stateliness, power, and rhythm are compelling painting subjects, and I plan to tackle them at Cape Elizabeth Paint for Preservation starting Friday.

Before that, I’m teaching my weekly plein air class. We’ll be painting rollers at the iconic Marshall Point light at Port Clyde. I’ve asked my students to study the Maine paintings of Winslow Homer beforehand. He uses strong diagonals to draw us in to his tempestuous seas. I want them to concentrate on design, nor just on the froth on the rocks.

I’ll head south to Portland after class, so I’m packing today.

Cape Elizabeth Cliffs, by Carol L. Douglas

I’ve been nervously checking my phone all week, although weather forecasts are notoriously unreliable here on the coast. Will it be clear enough for me to bring the massive 48” square canvas I made, or should I downsize to 36X40? I’m watching the wind dancing through the trees, as if I have a clue what that means. I do know that these gusts will send a large canvas airborne, even on the sturdiest of easels.

Bobbi Heath points out that days are two hours shorter this week than they are in July, when this event is normally scheduled. It’s a good point, because I’ll need every minute of daylight to finish.

This week’s unsettled weather brought much-needed rain, but it’s also meant thunderstorms and wind. If the forecast for Saturday is right, I’m going to need a rain shelter. I’m stopping in Boothbay Harbor to borrow a pop-up tent from my Sea & Sky workshop monitor Jennifer Johnson. I’ll need large rocks to hold it down. Luckily, they have an almost infinite supply in Cape Elizabeth, so I don’t have to pack my own.

Four Ducks, by Carol L. Douglas

The weather will influence my composition. I like to paint rocks and surf from a high vantage point, but that’s also the most exposed place. If I need shelter, I’ll be down on the shingle, where the tent can be anchored.

Bobbi is graciously providing me with a bed. That’s been the sticking point for most plein air events this year, and why so many have been cancelled. Normally, communities provide housing for artists, but nobody wants strangers in their homes right now. I usually stay with Bobbi anyway, so this hasn’t affected me, but other artists have scrambled.

Le Pipi Rustique is a gender-biased activity if there ever was one. Women can’t pee discreetly behind a boulder as our male counterparts do. I’ve tried not drinking much water, but that’s dangerous. Leaving our setup to drive to a restroom is risky, especially in heavy weather.

Often a neighbor will offer us the use of a powder room, but I doubt that will happen this year. My health-care provider has refused to catheterize me. So, I’m packing my porta-potty and its little tent.

Add to that a cooler and lunches, and the oversize brushes and easel I need, and I’ve got more stuff than my poor little Prius will hold. So, if you’re looking for me, I’ll be driving a black RAV4 instead. I’ll be at Zeb Cove, along with Marsha Donahue. Just set your GPS for Zeb Cove Road, Cape Elizabeth, ME.

More Winslow Homer than Clyfford Still

Mystery boxes for Cape Elizabeth provide an opportunity for a design experiment.

Surf #1, by Carol L. Douglas. 

Next weekend is Cape Elizabeth Land Trust’s 13thannual Paint for Preservation. They’re steering their course through the current crisis with a hybrid event. We will paint live in Cape Elizabeth (and you can still come watch us from a safe distance) on August 28-30. The auction will be online, ending on September 13.

This event always includes something they call mystery boxes. Painters provide up to three finished paintings that are then sealed in 10X10 inch black boxes. These are sold for $250 each. Buyers might get one by me, or by Ken DeWaard or Alison Hill or Colin Page or Jill Hoy or any of the other artists in this event.

The shapes on which it was based. Only the black shapes were transcribed, but I neglected to take photos at that point. Oops.

Since these artists generally command much higher prices, the mystery boxes are always snapped up. I like to imagine them being traded like baseball cards long after the event is over.

Surf #2, by Carol L. Douglas.

I’m an admirer of the color-field painter Clyfford Still. I grew up wandering amongst his enormous canvases at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. His work may look like torn paper strips, but to get that effect is anything but simple. Clyfford Still—like many painters of his time—is extremely rational. There’s little accidental or intuitive painting in his work, although he did layer impasto on with a palette knife. I find it difficult to read enough from his surfaces to help me insinuate myself into his decision-making. And I’d like to understand it more.

The shapes on which it was based.

Earlier this year I decided to copy passages from three of his painting onto 10×10 birch squares and sit with them for a while in my studio. A trip to the beach suggested that one of them might end up as a tidal pool. This turned out to be the most difficult painting and remains the most abstract. The other two designs became rocks and surf. In no case can I tell you how the patterns were arranged in Still’s original work, or what work they actually came from, because once they were transcribed onto the boards, I promptly forgot the originals. They became beautiful dark shapes, isolated from their original settings.

Tidal Pool, by Carol L. Douglas. All three of these paintings will be sold at Cape Elizabeth’s Paint for Preservation in the next few weeks.

One issue with painting rocks on the Maine shore is that they tend to arrange themselves in either horizontal bands or ellipses. These are essentially static figures. Neither tells the truth about how ledge works, which is to extend underwater in long grasping fingers, reaching up for the unwary mariner all the way to the Irish coast.

The shapes on which it was based. I was very sorry to lose that foreground diagonal but in practice it just ended up being irritating.

My main goal in thinking about Clyfford Still was to free myself from those coastal tropes. While I wasn’t concerned with maintaining any fidelity to him, I was mystified to see his influence diminishing and Winslow Homer’s rising. I shouldn’t have been surprised. Homer, too, is a magnificent composer, with great formal presence. His Prouts Neck studio was only a few miles from Cape Elizabeth, so the colors of his sea and sky are the same as those I see every day.

In the end, I learned some things, none of which are easy to put into words. I hope their mystery buyers like them as much as I do. What will I take from them onto the rocky shore of Zeb Cove next weekend? I’m not sure, but no experimentation is ever wasted—in painting or anywhere else.

Monday Morning Art School: painting evergreens

Your assignment this week is to paint an evergreen, using one of the great masters as your muse.
Herdsmaid, 1908, Anders Zorn. You could identify the species of trees in this painting, but it’s short on detail.

Last week, I wrotethat there are as many ways to paint water as there are moments in the day. The same is true of painting evergreens.

We can look to the painters of the great northern landscapes for guidance on evergreens. Swedes Bruno Liljefors and Anders Zorn, Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven, the Russian Peredvizhniki, and the northeastern painters from Winslow Homer to Andrew Wyeth are all worth studying.
Winter landscape at dawn, 1900, Bruno Liljefors. If the evergreens are in a supporting role, they’re often painted as a single mass.
Spend an hour searching their work on the internet along with the key words “spruce,” “pine”, or “evergreen.” You’ll notice that most of these artists handled the subject differently depending on whether they were in the studio or painting en plein air, or if the trees were the main subject or incidental.
After the bath, 1895, Anders Zorn, courtesy Nationalmuseum. The evergreens are nothing more than a few brushstrokes, but they’re perfectly realized.
Anders Zorn often used evergreens behind his pulchritudinous nudes. The contrast between his perfectly-observed trees and cookie-cutter models is striking. The Herdsmaid (1908) is probably the best evergreen painting ever executed. It’s all about the young trees, but Zorn never overstates the detail. Instead, he allows his brush to wash softly over the darker background, suggesting the softness of pine needles.
That apparent artlessness rests on a solid ground of observation. Zorn (and Wyeth) were able to be specific but loose because they drew and observed endlessly from nature. Each species of tree has a specific design. There are no shortcuts to knowing and understanding them. If you want to be able to paint trees, you must first draw them—a lot. Observe their branching structure, their needles or leaves, their bark, and where they like to grow.
Spruce Gun, watercolor, 1973, Andrew Wyeth, private collection
But trees are also forgiving; when you understand their structure, you can fearlessly mess with their form. While Wyeth’s tree in Spruce Gun looks perfectly natural to us, it’s also stylized to give a dynamic boost to the gun.
North Woods Club, Adirondacks (The Interrupted Tete-a-Tete), watercolor, 1892, Winslow Homer, courtesy Art Institute of Chicago. The trees are simple silhouettes, but they work because they’re accurate.
Either watercolor or oil are perfect for the organic character of trees; they can be schooled into great detail or allowed to wash with great softness across the canvas or paper.
It’s easy to become overwhelmed with detail in a tree, but it’s best, instead, to concentrate on overall values and colors instead. Start with the large shapes and concentrate on a few details at the end. After all, when we notice trees at all, we generally perceive them as masses, rather than as individual details. The exception is when someone is interacting with the tree, as in Mary Cassatt’s Child Picking a Fruit.
Isles of Spruce, silkscreen, c. 1943, Arthur Lismer. While the contrast between background and foreground is high, the values within individual trees are quite close.
How do we create form in trees? The same way we do with any other subject, by creating a pattern of light and dark. Our first question ought always be, “where is the light coming from?” The second question should be, “Is the light cool or warm?”
Start with a drawing. This is where you can get carried away with the gothic intricacies of the structure, and get them out of your system. Make sure that the height and width relationship is accurate. Also double-check that you have branches on all sides of the trunk, not just to the sides. Some will come directly towards you. While these are difficult to draw, they’re what anchor the tree in space.
Dusk, 1900, Isaac Levitan, courtesy State Tretyakov Gallery. Depending on the light, evergreens may be represented with no green at all.
I’ve written before about working with a green matrix; you can use it as successfully with evergreens as with deciduous trees. Let’s assume you’re drawing in early morning and the light is golden. Make the shadows cooler and darker and the highlights warm and light. It’s possible that the only true greens in your tree will be in the midtones or highlights. But avoid excessive value jumps; making the highlights too light can end in visual chaos. It’s usually what’s happened when someone complains that they’ve gotten lost in the detail.
Montreal River, c. 1920, Lawren S. Harris, courtesy McMichael Canadian Art Collection. The Group of Seven painters were interested in trees as screens.
Unless you’re painting a deciduous tree in the dead of winter, the branches and trunk are secondary to the masses of foliage. 
Your assignment this week is to paint an evergreen, either from life or a photograph. Before you start, find a masterpiece from one of the artists I’ve mentioned above, and study his paint application carefully. Try to emulate that in your painting.

Monday Morning Art School: Painting water

“Rivers are elemental and ambivalent. They are frontiers and highways, destroyers and fertilisers, fishing grounds and spiritual metaphors, power-givers and flushers of poisons.” (Derek Turner)

Port of Hamburg, Anders Zorn, watercolor, 1891, courtesy of Nationalmuseum, Sweden. Even in watercolor, Zorn goes for opacity and energy, not wispy translucency. 
It’s been said that we never stand in the same river twice. It is equally true that we never paint water the same way twice. There are as many answers to the question “how do you paint water?” as there are moments in the day. Water is as changeable as the sky. But there are still some general steps you can follow.
The purple noon’s transparent might, Arthur Streeton, 1896, courtesy National Gallery of Victoria. Streeton’s river is defined by value, and the depth of the painting by atmospheric perspective.
Start by noting the mechanics of the body of water in question. Is there a current? At what point is it in the tide cycle? What underwater obstacles are disrupting the surface? Is the surface smooth or choppy? Is the water silted or clear? What is it reflecting?
Water seeks a flat plane, but there are always light-and-dark contours.  The wind makes patterns on the surface. In watery depths are dark tones. The splash and movement of foam and surf are light and energetic. On a rocky headland, these may appear to be constantly shifting, but in fact they follow rhythmic rules. In rivers, standing waves may appear oddly immutable.  

Hudson River, Logging; Winslow Homer, watercolor, 1891-92, courtesy National Gallery of Art. The water is blocked in solid shapes of different values.
Just as you seek the contours in a still life or portrait, find them in the moving water. Mark them out, dark to light. It’s easy to get repetitive in this phase. Only by careful observation will you avoid that.
The grand canal of Venice (Blue Venice), Edouard Manet, 1875, courtesy Shelbourne Museum. It takes keen observation to paint the pattern of water without being dully repetitive.
Reflections always line up vertically with the object being reflected, but the length of reflections varies. This is liberating: if you get the widths right, you can be creative with the lengths. Generally, the valuesin reflections will be somewhat compressed; lights will be slightly darker than what’s being reflected, and the darks slightly lighter. But that doesn’t mean the chroma will be necessarily reduced—reflections can often surprise with their purity of color. And there’s no rule that says the ocean will be lightest at the horizon. The ocean does anything it wants.
San Cristoforo, San Michele, and Murano from the Fondamenta Nuove, Venice; Canaletto, 1722, courtesy Dallas Museum of Art. Even delicate Canaletto paints reflections more positively than simply dragging his brush through the verticals.
Depending on the surface of the water, a reflection can be mirror-like, or it can be in bands, or it can be almost lost in chop. But the overall scene won’t be a mirror image of what’s in the background. Mountains will appear farther away in the reflection. Observe what’s actually there, versus what you expect to see.
I usually block in reflections before I start worrying about the surface of the water. That lets me choose my markmaking at the last minute. It’s easy enough to build the reflections vertically and then drag a brush across them to give the sense of still water. But this is a party trick and can be overdone.
Falls, Montreal River, JEH MacDonald, 1920, courtesy Art Gallery of Ontario. It’s an unusual angle, looking down from the top, but we understand what we’re seeing because of the ferocity of MacDonald’s brushwork.
Instead, use brushwork to imply the vast energy of water. Long, fluent strokes can indicate ebb and flow. Short, energetic strokes will show chop. Opaque or impasto paint can indicate the dance and verve of crashing waves better than delicate transparency.
Lake Ladoga, Arkhip Kuindzhi, 1871, courtesy Russian Museum. We can see the underwater rocks along the shore.
Shallow water, where you can see to the bottom, is difficult to paint. The ground influences the color of the water, and you must balance underwater details with surface reflections. Shallow water running over rocks in a river can be very erratic; to get the sense of that requires careful, slow observation.
Your assignment this week is to paint water. If you’re lucky enough to live where you can paint outdoors without breaking your lockdown rules, please—by all means—avail yourself of that opportunity. For the rest of us (and those of you who are still locked down in winter) a photo is another option.
I can’t wait to see what you do!

Monday Morning Art School: let’s talk about line

The motive line in a painting is the most powerful design tool you have at your disposal.
Lions painted in the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave, c. 30,000-28,000 BC. This is a replica; the cave is sealed from human visitation. 
If you had to isolate the fundamental element of art, across all media and forms of expression, it would be the humble line. By definition, a line is a connection between two points. In math, that’s an ideal, but in art, the line is a visceral reality. Lines can be broken or continuous, violent or serene, implied or obvious. But if you haven’t got a line, you probably don’t have much in the way of art.
Lines are also implicit, in their abstract form, in performing arts like dance and music.
In the drawing stage of a painting, I try to isolate the major line from which my compositions hang. This is the motive line, although it could also be called the kinetic line. It’s the motive force that drives the energy of the painting. It is frequently interrupted, as in the lost-and-found edge. But:
  • It is tied to the major area of focus;
  • It divides two areas of different values, creating a high-contrast edge;
  • It’s complex and carefully-drawn.

“The only stable thing is movement,” said Jean Tinguely, the sculpture who pioneered Kinetic Art. It is true in nature, and it has been true in art history since the Greeks, for whom contrapposto (counterpoise) represented a moment in motion (as I wrote earlier this month).
We think of Impressionism as a color movement, but it was also a great shift in how paintings were composed. Motion is suggested through a lack of equilibrium. Horses and people are off-balance in a way that suggests they must move to catch their balance.
Before the Race, 1882–84, Edgar Degas, oil on panel, courtesy The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore
That extends to the very balance of the paintings themselves. Consider Before the Race, by Edgar Degas, above. The strongest line in the painting is not the horizon, but the bottom edge of the horses. The complex up-and-down eddies of the horses’ legs breaks and softens as it moves to the right. The painting wouldn’t be nearly as compelling without that amazing see-saw of action.
The Artist’s Studio in an Afternoon Fog, 1894, Winslow Homer, courtesy Memorial Art Gallery, Rochester, NY
In Winslow Homer’s The Artist’s Studio in an Afternoon Fog, a line describes structure against sky. But the real motive force is created by the strong diagonal just below it, in counterpoint to the white froth of the sea. In fact, there is nothing to this painting but line. Drawing it is a good exercise in discovering the subtlety of powerful lines. Notice the subtle convergences; they are a hallmark of Homer paintings that give his work its incredible thrust.
Man and Pool, Florida, 1917, John Singer Sargent, courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art
The motive line can be subtle as well. The value structure in John Singer Sargent’s watercolor, Man and Pool, Florida is choppy, to depict a brightly-lit ground. Still, the figure makes a diagonal leading down to the spot of light and contrasting, cool water. To support this, Sargent subtly scribed the outline of the leg in blue.
Your homework—should you choose to accept it—is to find and note the motive lines in nature, architecture, photos and paintings. They may be curved, straight, rough, smooth, intersecting, broken or complete. Each time you identify the strong linear element that holds together a scene, ask yourself what it might be like without that.

Why should my students have all the fun?

What to do when you don’t know what to do.
Underpainting. The schooner is just a placeholder. I vowed to not paint nonsense from my head anymore. That lasted about ten minutes.  
This week, my painting class worked on skies. Not the one outside, which was crabby, but the ones in their imaginations. It was a small class, which sometimes allows time for my mind to wander.
I idly swooped some bright orange lines across a large, dull canvas I’ve been noodling to death. “That helps!” Jennifer Johnson said. The lines were ridiculous, but they pointed to a solution to my problem: the night has no color.
If you look at Winslow Homer’s Sleigh Ride or Edward Hopper’s Room for Tourists, you’ll see that they get around that problem by simply lying about what can be seen in the dark. I admire that, but I haven’t figured out yet how to do it convincingly. This canvas is the battleground on which I fight with myself over it.
Dawn sail out of Camden, so unfinished and a terrible photograph.
When class ended, I left the orange lines, intending to come back later. Before I knew it, it was bedtime.
One of our kids is studying fundraising. “The antidote to fear is a plan,” she said. “One of the biggest challenges in life is deciding what to do when you don’t know what to do.” I decided to mix some colors I want to see in this painting and then figure out where to add them. I had the orange-to-red already on my palette, so I mixed some reds-to-purples and let it rip.
How can I toss these colors in a nocturne?
I spent much of the day painting dreck and then scraping it out. But I think, in the end, I figured something out. The orange is still there, in all its original places, but subdued and modulated. When I get home from Scotland, this phase will be thoroughly dry. I’ll finish the water, tighten up the edges of the sails, and add the rigging. Then it will be done, for good or ill.
Canvases that never resolve are torture, but fertile ground for self-discovery. It’s taken time to understand what isn’t working chromatically, but it’s a lesson I’ll carry with me forever.
“Spare me from painting with no reference,” I muttered. But what to do with all those garish sunrise colors on my palette? Why, underpaint something new, of course. That will be dry when I get home too, and I can start to build another fantastical schooner painting. My resolution to avoid painting from my head lasted about ten minutes.
Fuel dock, by Carol L. Douglas
I was on a roll of sorts, so I picked up the plein air piece I hated last week. A few brush strokes and I’d lightened the wall’s reflection in the water and added a fictitious highlight to the boat. Would it still qualify as plein airfor purposes of judging? I think so, but no matter; it’s not good enough. But it’s less horrible than I thought.
I’m not going to paint the island tanker Capt Ray O’Neillagain any time soon, I vowed. It’s the second time I’ve tried and come up short. That resolution is probably as good as the one about painting without reference.
Sleeping model, by Carol L. Douglas
All too soon, it was time for life drawing, where I focused on a portrait of our sleeping model. This is familiar territory for me, so it went just fine. Now I can head to Scotland feeling as if my finer drawing skills have been buffed up.

Monday Morning Art School: a simple exercise in composition

Diagonals keep us interested because they’re harder for us to “solve”.
The Artist’s Studio in an Afternoon Fog, 1894, Winslow Homer. Courtesy of Memorial Art Gallery.
Winslow Homer’s most successful compositional motif was the long diagonal. He used it with great success from the beginning of his career right through to his mature Maine seascapes. Diagonals are particularly important in the latter, since they tie rock and sea together in a monolithic whole.
But diagonals are tricky, as I found last week. The Brandywine hillsides are lovely, but they’re not what I’m used to. They kept turning out stumpier than I wanted. Today’s exercise is designed to help us see the subtlety of the diagonal line.
The basic structure of The Artist’s Studio in an Afternoon Fog, above. Use tracing paper to do this step.
Diagonals are more dramatic than vertical or horizontal lines. They draw us through the picture, tie disparate elements together, and create depth and perspective. They don’t need to be articulated; this is a good place for the lost and found edge. A diagonal can be implied by a value shift within a larger object.
Our minds like diagonals for the same reason we like space divisions like the Golden Ratio: they keep our interest because they’re harder for us to “solve”.
Experiment with different values within the painting’s structure.

Today’s exercise is one you can do with a printer and tracing paper. Unfortunately, I have neither, being still on the road, so I’ve approximated it in Photoshop. First, find a suitable Homer painting, one where the diagonal drives the composition. I’ve used an old friend: The Artist’s Studio in an Afternoon Fog, 1894. This painting is at home at the Memorial Art Gallery in Rochester, where I’ve studied it many times.
Sunlight on the Coast, 1890, Winslow Homer. Courtesy Toledo Museum of Art.
You can use this painting or another. All I require is that the broad sweep of motion be on the diagonal. I’ve included a few other possibilities as well.
Next, I want you to print a copy of the painting and trace its major shapes. When you’re done, you should have something that looks approximately like the outline above.
The Fox Hunt, 1893, Winslow Homer. Courtesy Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
The last step is to experiment with different value systems inside Homer’s basic structure. He was working from reality, but you have no such limit. When you’re finished with this, what do you observe about the values he used versus the ones you’ve tried?
If you sketched in the smaller dashes with high contrast, those passages should drive your eye as much as the big shapes do.

Monday Morning Art School: the coastal composition problem

It’s easy to throw all the weight to one side when painting on the coast. Here’s one way to fix that.
Roger Akeley’s solution to the coastal composition problem.
A few weeks ago, I got a message from student Roger Akeley. Roger had arrived at a drastic solution to the composition problem bedeviling his painting.
Squares are more static than rectangles, which is one reason I seldom paint in that format. However, that means their weightiness helps subdue out-of-balance compositions. More importantly, Roger cut off a good deal of the material that was pulling the painting to the left. That allowed the scree and seaweed at the bottom to take their proper place on the stage. It was a decisive solution.
Roger was dealing with a problem that regularly bedevils painters of ocean scenes: all the weight falls on one side. The second problem I commonly see (which he avoided) is a shoreline that’s an unbroken ellipse. It’s inelegant and unbelievable.
How can you avoid these problems?

Palm, by Carol L. Douglas
Seek out irregularity in the coastline. On the North Atlantic, this isn’t too difficult; great granite fingers reach out into the ocean. In the Bahamas, I found that significantly more difficult, as the coast was even and featureless and the surf lackluster. I used a foreground object—a palm—to create interest, above.
Historic Fort Point, by Carol L. Douglas
Still, there are places where the weight inevitably falls to one side, and there are no atmospherics to correct the scene. When this happens, I try to keep the values tight, as I did in my painting above. If the water isn’t significantly lighter than the trees, the composition will gel. The risk is in being boring, hence the high chroma.
For true mastery of this problem, we must consult that genius of coastal painting, Winslow Homer. In his watercolors from Cullercoats, he frequently used figures to break the horizon. His paintings from Maine, however, used two more elemental and powerful devices, which are ours for the looking.  

Sunshine and Shadow, Prout’s Neck, 1894, Winslow Homer (watercolor), courtesy Art Institute of Chicago
Homer was the master of the sweeping diagonal. He used this over and over to hold our visual interest, playing it off the strict horizontal of the horizon line. In the watercolor above, the whole charge of the painting lies in the interrupted diagonal silhouette and its counterpoint in the clouds and sinuous driftwood. Only after serious looking do we notice the beach roses at the bottom; they are completely subdued into the shadows.
Northeaster, 1895-1901, Winslow Homer, courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art
Northeaster, above, uses a similar diagonal, this time playing against the towering white shape of the spray. In themselves, these two elements would have made a brilliant painting. But wait—as they say on late night TV—there’s more. The dark in the wave to the far right echoes the rocks. It’s a threatening element, but it also gives us an easy order in which to ‘read’ the painting. We see rock, the shadow on the breaker, the spray, and finally that wisp of light in the distant waves. It’s not painterliness that draws us through this work; it’s masterful composition.
The Artist’s Studio in an Afternoon Fog, 1894, Winslow Homer, courtesy Memorial Art Gallery, Rochester, NY.
I seldom ask my students to copy masterworks. The Artist’s Studio in the Afternoon, also by Homer, is an exception. I don’t care if you do it in paint or pencil, but take an hour and set down a copy of this painting. It is a perfect composition—energetic, spare, lively. When you’re done, please post a comment in Monday Morning Art School on Facebook telling me what you’ve learned.

Portland Museum of Art’s new admissions policy

If you’re 21 or younger, it’s free, whether you’re from Maine or Madrid.
Redbud Tree in Bottom Land, Red River Gorge, Kentucky, April 17 1968, 1979, Eliot Porter, dye transfer print, courtesy Portland Museum of Art. All pieces in this post are part of their permanent collection.
In my youth, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery offered free admission. If it was too rainy to go to the cemetery or the park, our parents took us to the art gallery. By the time I was aware of my surroundings, it was as familiar to me as my street was. As a teenager and young adult, I continued to visit it regularly. My keen interest in art history started there.
Two Men in a Canoe, 1895, Winslow Homer, watercolor on gray laid paper, courtesy Portland Museum of Art
Beginning tomorrow, Maine’s Portland Museum of Art will be free for anyone 21 or younger. (This extends the museum’s current policy, which is free admission to kids age 14 and younger.) If they sign up for the Susie Konkel Pass, they also will be able to attend free film screenings and receive other benefits.
Mount Katahdin from Millinocket Camp, 1895, Frederic Edwin Church, courtesy Portland Museum of Art
The age of free art galleries is mostly over, which means that parents don’t take their kids to visit much on rainy Saturday afternoons. There are, of course, still hold-outs: the Smithsonian, the Scottish National Gallery, the National Gallery in London, the National Gallery of Victoria, to name a few.
Many museums offer ‘free days’ or limited kids passes. But mostly, it costs money to get in the door. That’s just one more nail in the coffin for kids’ exposure to art, which has been on a downward slide since No Child Left Behind excluded art and music from the nation’s core curriculum.
Beaver Dam Pond, Acadia National Park, 2009, Richard Estes, courtesy Portland Museum of Art.
The stiff admission charged by large museums ($25 for MoMA and the Met, for example) distorts the museum experience. Visitors by necessity rush through and see the highlights of the collection, whizzing past the tiny gems. The farcical end of this kind of experience is the reduction of culture to a selfie with the Mona Lisa.
Susie Konkel, who paid for the Portland Museum’s policy expansion, is a retired teacher from Cape Elizabeth. That’s about all I can find about her on the internet, but it’s an unusual profile for a philanthropist. “Education’s always been very important to me,” she told Maine Public Radio. “And I think every child—not just in Maine—every child around the world should have the opportunity to experience the arts. And they get about 9,000 children here each year, into the museum. And this will just make it endless!”
Castine Harbor, 1852, Fitz Henry Lane, courtesy Portland Museum of Art
As a nation, we spend a lot of time trying to puzzle out why our popular culture seems so crude and violent. Perhaps it’s because we’ve cut off access to refinement in the form of fine art and music.
Thank you, Ms. Konkel, for trying to reverse this trend. I like to imagine cliques of teenagers stopping by the Portland Museum to catch a movie. May many, many of them take advantage of your generosity.