Paint Schoodic

Join Carol L. Douglas at beautiful Acadia National Park, August 6-11, 2017. More details here!

Friday, May 26, 2017

Midnight Ambler

Charles Burchfield wasn’t necessarily manic-depressive; he perfectly reflected his time and place.

Night of the Equinox, 1917-1955, watercolor, brush and ink, gouache, and charcoal on paper , Charles Burchfield (Smithsonian Museum). “One of the most exciting weather events of the whole year. What we called the spring equinoctial storm. It seemed as if terrific forces were abroad in the land,” wrote Burchfield.
At home I watch the passage of time through the night sky. On the road, that’s often confused. I’m in my hometown of Buffalo, NY for the holiday weekend. The sky glows all night long. My insomnia is in sympathy with the place. This is, after all, a city where last call is at 4 AM, a remnant of the days when the mills roared 24-7.

The only Buffalo artist to enter the pantheon of the greats was Charles Ephraim Burchfield, born in 1893 in Ashtabula Harbor, Ohio. Burchfield attended the Cleveland School of Art. In 1916, he received a scholarship to the National Academy of Design in New York. He quit after just one day.

Ice Glare, 1933, watercolor, charcoal, and graphite on paper, Charles Burchfield (Whitney Museum of American Art)
He came to Buffalo in 1921 to take a job with M. H. Birge & Sons. His painting influenced his wallpaper design work, and his work at Birge influenced his later paintings. The sinuous, twisting shapes of Burchfield’s electric trees are strongly reminiscent of the patterns of Art Nouveau home furnishings. “Design was my especial field in which I excelled,” he wrote.  He was particularly attracted to Art Nouveau illustrators and Japanese and Chinese painting styles. This prepared the way for his later career.

Birge enabled him to marry and have a family, but in turn created a financial trap. Eight years and five kids later, he was suffering from ulcers. Anxiety was a state that seemed to dog him whenever he was in a nine-to-five job, whether at Birge, in the Army or as an art teacher.

The Coming of Spring, 1917-1943, watercolor, Charles Burchfield (The Metropolitan Museum of Art). This is an allegorical painting but it bears a strong resemblance to nearby Shale Creek Preserve.
“I’d rather be poor and hungry than be a widow,” he recollected his wife Bertha telling him. Still, painting was a good economic choice. Burchfield successfully weathered the Great Depression as a full-time painter.

Burchfield created realistic work during this period, work that associated him with his friend Edward Hopper or with the American Regionalist movement of the period. However, he was, more than anything else, a visionary painter.

Dandelion Seed Heads and the Moon, 1961-1965, watercolor, gouache, charcoal, and sgraffito (Burchfield Penney Art Center).
That included painting en plein air. Ice Glare (1933) was painted at the corner of Clinton and Lord Streets. Today, that intersection is now almost completely depopulated by urban flight.

Burchfield started with preparatory sketches, gridding them onto his paper for his final painting. He worked almost exclusively in dry brush in watercolor and gouache. He believed that watercolor works on paper could be as resistant to fading as oil paintings if stored and displayed properly.

Much has been interpreted about Burchfield’s mental state from his paintings. Was he manic-depressive or did he mirror the sights, sound and stimulus of the Jazz Age?

Song of the Telegraph (1917-1952, watercolor, private collection), is a sound painting of the Jazz Age.
Burchfield lived from 1925 to his death in 1967 in the tiny hamlet of Gardenville, which has been swallowed up by the suburb of West Seneca. He’s honored there with a nature center. Maybe if it ever stops raining, I’ll go walk there this weekend.

We slept under a Hudson’s Bay blanket last night. This is a great, hairy woolen thing suited for Arctic nights. That might seem odd to people in other parts of the country, but it’s still cold here. The unknown critic who once described Burchfield as “Edward Hopper on a rainy day” didn’t know Buffalo. It wasn’t that Burchfield was a depressive; it was all about where he lived.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Basic principles of oil painting

Some painting rules are meant to be broken, but there are some absolutes that just make your painting better and easier.

Catherine Bullinger's tree. I like the delicacy of the branches and the dappled light on the grass.
Yesterday I taught a one-day class in Rochester’s Highland Park. It’s hard to distill the rules of painting into a three-hour class, but here they are:

Fat over lean: This means applying paint with more oil-to-pigment over paint with less oil-to-pigment; in other words, use turpentine or odorless mineral spirits (OMS) judiciously in the bottom layers and painting medium in the top layer.

Ann Limbeck caught a lovely curve in the bed of tree peonies.
The more oil, the longer the binder takes to oxidize. This keeps paints brighter and more flexible. However, oil also retards drying. Using too much in underpainting, will result in a cracked and crazed surface over time.

The makers of Galkyd and Liquin say their products are designed to circumvent this rule. However, we have no track record for these alkyd-based synthetic mediums, whereas we have centuries of experience layering the traditional way.

Even if we could change it, why would we want to? Underpainting with soft, sloppy medium gives soft, sloppy results. The coverage is spotty and thin. The traditional method is tremendously variable and gives great control. It just takes a little while to learn it properly.

Nicole Reddington pushed the design elements and created a myriad of greens.
Big shapes to little shapes: Work on the abstract pattern before you start focusing on the details.

The untrained eye looks at a scene and thinks about it piecemeal and in terms of objects: there’s a flower, there’s a path, there’s a tree. The trained eye sees patterns and considers the objects afterward.

Is there an interesting, coherent pattern of darks and lights? Are there color temperature shifts you can use? In the early phases of a painting, you must relentlessly sacrifice detail to the good of the whole.  This is true whether the results you want are hyper-realistic or impressionistic. Composition is the key to good painting, and the pattern of lights and darks is the primary issue in composition.

Kirt Lapham allowed me to really push him out of his comfort zone, with excellent results.
Following the fat-over-lean rule, above, allows you to think about broad shapes first. In the field an underpainting done with turpentine or OMS will be mostly dry when you start the next layer. Stop frequently to make sure you haven’t lost your darks. If you have, restate them.

Dark to light: This is only important for oil painters. Acrylic painters can proceed any way they want, as long as they’re using opaque paint. And, of course, watercolor works (generally) in the opposite direction.

In oils, it’s easy to paint into dark passages with a lighter color; the reverse is not true. This doesn’t mean oil painters don’t jump around after we set the darks; we can and do.

Cris Metcalf accepted the challenge of painting white-on-white.
Don’t choose slow-drying or high-stain pigment to make your darks. The umbers are great because the manganese in them speeds drying. However, I don’t want to carry an extra tube just for this. I use a combination of burnt sienna and ultramarine.

Draw slow, paint fast: This isn’t a classic tenet; it’s something my student Rhea Zweifler coined in my class years ago. Nevertheless, it’s a great rule.  

Kathy Mannix created a broad chromatic range with a small selection of pigments.
Taking time over your drawing allows you to be looser and more assured in your painting. Do value studies and sketches before you commit to color. Your mind needs time to think about the shapes it sees. Spend that time in the drawing phase, when ideas are easy to assess. Otherwise, you will be doing it on canvas, where your mistakes are more difficult to clean up.

Don Fischman finished this Fantasia at home.
Value studies and sketches allow you to be inventive. When you’ve only spent three minutes on a sketch, you don’t lose much by throwing it out. Drawing and value studies at the beginning actually speed you up, rather than slow you down.

Note; I'm sorry I didn't get photos of all the work, which was excellent. I can either take pictures or teach, but not both!

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Welcome back to the Flower City

I’ll be teaching at Highland Park this afternoon. A break in the rain is a fine welcome-home.

Spring at Highland Park, Carol L. Douglas
Even though I’ve taught at Highland Park in Rochester countless times, I still needed to pace through it to determine the best place for my class. It’s chock-full of specimen plants. When they bloom depends on many factors besides the calendar date, as the organizers of the Lilac Festival know. This year, they were dead to rights. The festival (which closed this weekend) and the lilacs lined up perfectly.

Lilacs, like all mauve or blue flowers, make a difficult focal point for a painting. They recede just when they’re asked to take center stage, so they need architecture to support them. This the park doesn’t offer. Its lilacs are planted en masse, in a sloping forest, designed to overwhelm the wanderer with sight and smell.

Lilacs are beautiful, but they need an architectural foil to compensate for their color. (Painting by Carol L. Douglas.)
I looped through all my favorite haunts: the pinetum, the rhododendrons and azaleas, around the reservoir. With each turn, I remembered prior classes—Gwendolyn arriving from hospital in her robe, Sam eating a huge fried turkey leg among the flowers, Teressa wailing in frustration and then nailing a perfect drawing. Highland Park was the center of my teaching practice for many years.

The park was started on a twenty-acre parcel given to the city by George Ellwanger and Patrick Barry of Mount Hope Nurseries. It came with restrictions, but also with the gift of plantings from what was then a world-class nursery. Landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted didn’t want the gig because the site didn’t include a natural water feature, but he relented when Seneca and Genesee Valley Parks were thrown in.

Highland Park Pinetum, Carol L. Douglas
What Highland Park does have is glacial topography. It sits atop Pinnacle Hill, a terminal moraine in an otherwise flat landscape. Olmsted used this to create the illusion of wilderness in this most urban of parks.

The Lake Plain on which Rochester is located is sopping wet during the best of years, and the city has been breaking rainfall records all spring. Plants are enormous and healthy. The result is a jungle-like shagginess. I was reminded that much of my gardening work in the so-called Flower City involved hacking back plants to keep them in some kind of control.

I stopped to see the gardens at St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, which I designed and planted (with much help, of course) back in the day. The gardeners-in-chief, Michael and Kathy Walczak, were hard at work replanting canna lily tubers. I then drove by my old house, and was pleased to see my plantings looking well.

Redbud blossoms, Carol L. Douglas
Gardens are cooperative art. Once you hand them over, you’ve ceded control.

There’s a break in the rain forecast for today, and Rochester’s normally heavy skies are expected to clear. I’ll be teaching this afternoon at my favorite spring spot of all, the path along the Poet’s Garden where the peonies meet the magnolias. It’s a fine welcome-home from my former town.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Olana mucks up

Is there anyone in America who doesn’t understand that white colonists were bad? How does pissing on Frederic Church’s front lawn help?

Photo courtesy of Jamie Williams Grossman.
OVERLOOK: Teresita Fernández confronts Frederic Church at Olana opened on May 17. I like the management of Olana, which is very welcoming to landscape artists, so I feel badly writing this. But Jesús Rafael Soto’s installation on the lawn violates the work of art closest to Frederic Edwin Church’s heart—Olana itself.

By 1876, Church—the most successful artist of his day—was crippled by rheumatoid arthritis. Compensating, he poured his heart into the design of the house and grounds at Olana, shaping the landscape as a frame for magnificent views of the Hudson and far Catskills. Obliterating the views with a cascade of urine-colored plastic defaces his vision.

Photo courtesy of Jamie Williams Grossman.
Olana’s grounds are a mecca for landscape painters. New York Plein Air Painters holds its annual retreat there. The historic site holds an annual plein air painting event. Many artists, including my friend Jamie Williams Grossman, who took these photos, visit there regularly to paint.

“Fernández seeks to respond to their interpretations and biases through a conversation about a deeper sense of these varied American cultures, contesting the iconic view of the ‘American Landscape’ painting tradition constructed by Church and his peers that often omitted or erased other narratives and figures,” read Olana’s press release.

Yawn. The problem with much conceptual art is that its ideas are so often stale. Is there anyone in America who doesn’t understand that white colonists ignored native cultures? How does pissing on Church’s front lawn help?

Of course, the overwriting of culture in South America wasn’t done by Church and his painterly peers. It was done by the rapacious, vicious Spanish, who were the worst of colonists. If the artists in this show want a serious talk about cultural appropriation, they could start by examining their own Hispanic surnames.

Church didn’t paint the people and cultures of South America for the same reason he didn’t paint the Inuit above the Arctic Circle or the settlers at Niagara: he was a landscape painter, interested in natural science. What human habitation exists in his structures is incidental, there to create visual interest.

Because of Church's clever site design, Soto's sculpture mucks up almost every great view from the lawn. Photo courtesy of Jamie Williams Grossman.
He was painting for an audience which had little opportunity to understand the New World. Science was beginning to be popularized in the nineteenth century, but it was still very much a gentleman’s pursuit. Mass media was in its infancy.

“The vastness of this continent were yet unrevealed to us,” wrote S. G. W. Benjamin in 1879. “With the enthusiasm of a Raleigh or a Balboa he [Church] has explored land and sea, combining the elements of explorer and artist... Our civilization needed exactly this form of art expression at this period, and the artist appeared who taught the people to love beauty and to find it.”

Olana overlook, approaching sunset, 12X16 oil, by little ol' me. I’ve painted this scene many times, and it never grows old.
“This marks the first time Soto’s immensely popular interactive sculpture will be experienced by the public in a naturalistic setting, and it’s the first time it will be seen on the East Coast.”

It may have been immensely popular in Los Angeles, but it’s obscuring the view in Hudson. I won’t be painting there this season.

Monday, May 22, 2017

In the absence of volcanoes, learn to paint

In the absence of a world-class volcanic event, we can expect a typical, stunning coast-of-Maine summer. What better way to spend it than painting outdoors?


There’s been only one time in American history when summer failed to show up. That was 1816, and it was caused by the eruption of Mt. Tambora in the Dutch East Indies.  It was an event that had spectacular cultural repercussions.

In the northern hemisphere, grain crops failed. There was widespread famine for man and beast alike. Horses starved. That led to the invention of the velocipide, predecessor of the modern bicycle.

Here in the United States, famine spurred the westward expansion. Starving farmers in New England left for western New York and the Midwest, hoping for better weather and richer soil. The cataclysm sparked a religious fervor that created the Burned-Over District of New York. This in turn became a flashpoint for women’s suffrage and abolition.

Mount Vesuvius In Eruption, 1817, J.M.W. Turner
Among those who went west was the family of Joseph Smith, who relocated to sleepy Palmyra, NY with rather spectacular results. Both Smith and his mother were prone to religious visions. Was that God or ergotism from eating spoiled grain?

Particulates in the air led to extravagant sunsets. These in turn influenced the Romanticism of painters like J.M.W. Turner and Caspar David Friedrich.

Incessant rainfall kept Mary Shelley, her lover Percy Bysshe Shelley and their host Lord Byron inside during their Swiss holiday. Bored, they had a contest to see who could write the scariest story. The result was Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, and the birth of science fiction.

In the absence of a world-class volcanic event, we’ll have to settle for a typical, stunning coast-of-Maine summer: fresh breezes, blue skies and the soft susurration of the surf on our great, grey granite coast.

My next session of weekly classes starts on May 30. We meet on Tuesdays from 10 AM until 1 PM, until July 11 (skipping neatly over Independence Day). There are two slots open for this session, so if you are interested in taking one, please let me know. The fee is $200 for the six-week session.

Neubrandenburg, 1816-17, Caspar David Friedrich
The goal is intensive, one-on-one instruction that you can take back to your studio to apply during the rest of the week. We’ll cover issues like design, composition, and paint handling. We will learn how to mix and paint with clean color, and how to get paint on the canvas with a minimum of fuss.

And, yes, we’ll talk about drawing. If you ever want to paint anything more complicated than marshes, you must know how to draw. As I’ve demonstrated before, any person of normal intelligence can draw; it’s a technique, not a talent. And it’s easy to learn, no matter what you’ve been led to believe.

Unless the weather is inclement, we’ll paint at outdoor locations in the Rockport-Camden-Rockland area. Painting outdoors, from life, is the most challenging and instructive exercise in all of art. It teaches you about light, color and composition.

That, of course, limits the media you work in to oils, watercolor, acrylics, or pastel, since they’re what is suitable to outdoor painting.

After that, I hit the road in earnest. My summer schedule includes events in Nova Scotia, Maine and New York. (As I tell my family, if you want to know my schedule, you can find it here.) 

For more information about my classes, see here, or email me here.