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Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Freedom from want

If you say grace tomorrow, you could do worse than thanking God for the four freedoms enumerated by Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Freedom from Want, 1943, Norman Rockwell
I had a painting teacher who hated Norman Rockwell. She was in agreement with the art establishment of her time, which derided him as ‘just an illustrator.’ They also rebelled against his view of America, but that wasn’t what she said. “He has no sense of perspective,” she told me. “He just layers objects to give the illusion of depth.”

For some of his cover art that was true. Consider The Runaway (below), painted for the September 20, 1958 cover of the Saturday Evening Post. It’s just three figures square to the picture plane, surrounded by the horizontal lines and miscellany of the soda shop counter. If that was the only Rockwell painting you ever saw, you could be forgiven for thinking as she did.

The Runaway, 1958, Norman Rockwell.
Compare that with Shiner (also below), from the May 23, 1953 cover of the same magazine. The little girl is again square to the picture plane, but there is a second focal point at the top right. They’re tied together by the linoleum. We’re seeing the subject from a kid-height viewpoint. Rockwell understood perspective quite well, thank you.

Freedom from Want was painted during World War II as part of Norman Rockwell’s Four Freedoms series. The series was meant to illustrate a passage from President Franklin Roosevelt’s State of the Union address of January 6, 1941, when Nazi Germany occupied most of Western Europe. The paintings were so idiosyncratically American, however, that they instead have come to represent American values. Freedom from Want is now irrevocably entwined with the American holiday season, which kicks off tomorrow.

Shiner, 1953, Norman Rockwell.
The foil for the whole painting is the white-on-white table, surrounded by a wreath of faces. If you’ve ever wondered about Rockwell as a painter, study that table. He’s as brilliant with the whites as Joaquín Sorolla, albeit in a much more American way.

The table is significantly foreshortened and the centerpiece—a fruit bowl—is at the very bottom of the picture. That and the truncated faces at the bottom make you wonder how much longer the table actually is.

This clever cropping make you think you’re looking at a snapshot of someone’s dinner. Of course, you’re not. He painted the figures from life, using his friends and neighbors as models. About the turkey, Rockwell said, “Our cook cooked it, I painted it and we ate it. That was one of the few times I've ever eaten the model.”

Note that there’s almost no other food on the table. Such is the magic of his realism that Rockwell makes you believe it’s an overloaded table. In fact, that was the criticism of it at the time, that it depicted indulgence while Europe was starving.

Of course, Thanksgiving is a meal of excess. (I myself plan to make seven pies today.) But if you say grace tomorrow—and I hope you do—you could do worse than thanking God for the four freedoms enumerated by President Roosevelt all those years ago:

  • Freedom of Speech
  • Freedom from Want
  • Freedom from Fear
  • Freedom of Worship

Have a very blessed holiday!

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

You don’t need $450 million to buy a painting

Original art comes in all price points. It’s not just for rich people.

Apple Orchard by Chrissy Spoor Pahucki is available at pleinair.store.
Almost everyone in America knows that a painting reputed to be by Leonardo Da Vinci sold for a record-breaking $450 million last week at Christie’s. That’s an amount I can’t even begin to comprehend. It implies that regular folks like you and me can’t afford art.

“When I was a child middle-class people didn't have original art in their homes, unless one of the family was an artist,” said painter Bobbi Heath. “Things are different now. Original artwork is available at a price point equivalent to buying a poster and having it framed. You can find it online, at art fairs and open studios, especially this time of year. And you don't need a gallery owner to tell you what you should like. Spread your wings and hang something on the wall that makes you happy.”

This little dinghy by Bobbi Heath is available at Yarmouth Frame and Gallery.
When I was a kid, our public library had an art-lending program. You could borrow a painting or print, hang it on your wall for a while and enjoy it, then return it and borrow another work. That was as profound as checking out books.

Art is a tool by which we can dream. It has the capacity to transport us out of our current situation. The hospital where my friend lay dying had beautiful floral paintings in its cancer wing. When I had to step out of her room while they did a procedure—which was often—I found myself staring into those paintings. They were my path out of a sad situation.

Our choice of paintings is one of the primary ways we express ourselves in our personal spaces. Bob Bahr used to write a column for Outdoor Painter called Artist as Collector. It told you as much about the artist’s personality as the artist’s own work did.

This little mussel by Susan Lewis Baines is available through the Kelpie Gallery.
“One thing I have learned after 20 years working with art is that the ‘price’ of a work of art has nothing to do with its value,” said conservator Lauren R. Lewis. “The value lies in how you connect with a work of art on an emotional level. I have never been able to get on board with the idea of ‘art as investment.’ The art market is fickle, so I never recommend that someone buy a painting with the intention of selling it later at a profit.”

I have clients, a married couple, who pared their lives down to almost no material possessions. They own two large oil paintings—one by Marilyn Fairman and one by me. As nomadic as their life is, they hang those paintings in a prominent place wherever they land. Art brings a language of beauty to our lives,” one of them told me. “We have contentment and constancy from looking at our beloved pieces.”

White Pines and Black Spruce by Carol L. Douglas is available at pleinair.store
“Unlike generic prints from the nearest big box store, original art comes with a story about where you found it, why you bought it, or the super cool artist you bought it from,” said painter Chrissy Pahucki.

Original art is less expensive than you might imagine. I was at a gallery last weekend where there were hand-drawn colored pencil works for less than I was considering paying for a mixer attachment for my daughter for Christmas. Less, in fact, than a coffee-table art book, but with more staying power.

Buy art because you love it,” said Lauren Lewis. “Buy art because it makes you feel good to look at it. Buy art because you need to have it in your life. That is how you tell the worth of a painting.”

Monday, November 20, 2017

Monday Morning Art School: Repeating shapes and perspective

Everyone has a door somewhere in their house, right? It’s a great subject to practice drawing.
I’m sure you have a door almost exactly like this one somewhere in your house. It's commonplace, but it's also a series of repeating shapes that can teach you a lot about perspective.

I left it slightly ajar, but it doesn't have to be. Seat yourself as far away as you can get from it. The closer you are, the more difficult it is to keep your measurements straight. I'd like you to sit at a slight angle to it so you can think about perspective.


This is intended to be a fast drawing, taking you no more than 15 or 20 minutes. The same rules apply to a careful drawing, of course; you'd just be more meticulous in your measuring and marking. But you'll learn just as much going fast.


My first task is to figure out the angles of the top and bottom of the door. (My camera distorts perspective so what’s in the photo won’t match what’s on my drawing.) I do that by holding my pencil along the bottom of the door and figuring out the angle.


I find that setting my pencil down on my paper at the appropriate angle helps me see it better.


Then I do the exact same thing on the top.


Note that the shelf at my eye level is completely horizontal. Any level surface at eye level has to be horizontal; that's a hard-and-fast rule. 

Two-point perspective, courtesy Luciano Testoni. All those lines traveling off to the vanishing points on the left and right? Let's call them rays.
The picture above is classical two-point perspective with a lot of extra bells and whistles. I don't want you to get bogged down in it; I included it so you can compare the rays in that drawing to what you see in your room. Notice that when you look at lines high in your room, the 'rays' travel downward to the sides, where the so-called 'vanishing points' are. When you look at objects near the floor, the rays travel upward to the vanishing points. That's because the vanishing points are always at the viewer's eye level. 

My measuring hashmarks
Next, I do that nifty measuring thing that involves holding my pencil in front of my eye and using it as a ruler. Since the height is already determined by my angled lines, I just need to figure out how wide the door is relative to the height. I figured the door is a little less than half as wide as it was tall. Later, I'll find out just how off I was.


This shape is called a trapezoid, and there's an easy way to find its center. Just draw an X from corner to corner as shown. That's very useful information in perspective drawing, because it helps you place windows, doors, roof peaks, etc. correctly. Make a habit of finding it.


And here’s a quick-and-dirty way to get the perspective right. Divide the two side lines into equal units—thirds, quarters, eighths, or whatever other units you can mark off by eye. Then just draw lines connecting the corresponding sides. The 1/3 point on the left gets attached to the 1/3 point on the right, etc. You’ll have the perspective rays right in one try.


I never get my measurements right on the first try, so I've learned to not fuss too much on my initial measurements. The great thing about repeating shapes is that your mistakes are easy to see. I realized the door was slightly too short and wide, so I adjusted them slightly. I also took out the free-hand curl on the right-bottom corner. Note how useful the center point is in placing the central spine of the door. I know that the moulding around the glass is the same width all around, so this is one of those repeating shapes I can use to check my work. (Of course, it's going to be ever so slightly wider on the side closer to me.)

No, I can’t draw a straight line, not without a ruler.



My finished drawing. I would have enjoyed putting in all the details, and I could always be more careful, but I still have letters to write. You can finish it or not, to your heart's content.

Next week, I’m going to have you draw a pie plate. That means you have to finish up the leftover pie before Monday. And a reminder, you can post your homework here. There are lots of people reading Monday Morning Art School; I’d love to see some drawings!

Friday, November 17, 2017

Willful ignorance

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it
Trooper Meditating Beside a Grave, 1865, Winslow Homer, Joslyn Art Museum
Tomorrow is the celebration of the consecration of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery at Gettysburg, PA, where President Abraham Lincoln delivered what is now known as the Gettysburg Address. Since that day in 1863, when Union Soldiers marched with Lincoln from the bustling town to the cemetery, people have marked the occasion with a solemn parade on the Saturday closest to November 19.

At first, it was Civil War veterans themselves who organized the remembrance. As they petered out, it became reenactors, from both north and south, coming together to make a powerful statement of unity.

Union and Confederate veterans shake hands at the Assembly Tent at Gettysburg, US Library of Congress
This year will be no exception, but participants and visitors have been told to not bring backpacks or coolers to the parade route or other scheduled events. They’ve also been warned not to engage with ‘anti-Confederate groups’ that might be in the crowds on Saturday afternoon. This is because they’ve received a ‘credible threat,’ which is now being investigated by the FBI, state police and local cops.

This is only the latest threat against Civil War reenactors. In October, a reenactment of the Battle of Cedar Creek was marred by threats and the discovery of a pipe bomb. Manassas, VA, cancelled its annual tribute to the two bloody battles fought there due to similar threats. Also canceled was a similar reenactment at McConnels, SC.

Reenactors are the dramatists of history. They tend to be fascinated with specific periods, learning about them with great accuracy. I know specialists from the French and Indian War, the Revolution, nautical history, and the domestic economy. But the most visible reenactment community is the Civil War one.

Sharpshooter, 1863, Winslow Homer, Portland Museum of Art
They are, in my experience, history buffs with a strong creative streak, well-read and meticulous. They’re not donning the blue and grey to advance any kind of political agenda. They’re harmless. For many people, seeing a Civil War reenactment is a cheap and painless history lesson.

“A 2012 ACTA survey found that less than 20 [percent] of American college graduates could accurately identify the effect of the Emancipation Proclamation, less than half could identify George Washington as the American general at Yorktown, and only 42 [percent] knew that the Battle of the Bulge occurred during World War II,” reported National Review.

If Americans weren’t so woefully ignorant of their own history, could a book entitled Did Lincoln Own Slaves even exist? It was written by a college professor in response to his students asking dumb questions. That should indicate the depth of our cultural illiteracy problem.

Organizers have played down the threats to Civil War events. They don’t want to alarm the public unnecessarily. But as citizens, we need to calmly consider why they’re happening and what we ought to do about them.

Song of the Lark, 1876, Winslow Homer, Chrysler Museum of Art
“I believe it’s part of the monument issue, about rewriting history,” one reenactor told me. The parade isn’t about reenactors strutting their stuff, she added, but about recreating the historic parade itself. 

“Truly, you can’t change history, only the story that's told,” she noted.

Intimidation always threatens free speech. “I am afraid that the threats will make it so expensive for the local governments that we will no longer be welcome to put on the events. Then they win,” another reenactor told me.

The Civil War is something we should never revise, downplay or forget. Almost one in 30 American citizens died in the fighting.

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” wrote George Santayana. I’d add a coda to that: Willful ignorance is the worst offense possible against your fellow citizens. We all end up paying for it.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Art and advertising

An amendment to the Rockland building code brings us full circle back to Pop Art.

Robert Indiana’s art sign is on the left and the commercial Strand sign on the right. Which is art? Photo courtesy of Coastal Maine Realty.
 Heading into Rockland, ME from the south, you can’t help but notice Robert Indiana’s massive Electric Eat sign on the roof of the Farnsworth Art Museum. It’s been there since 2009 and has become a fixture of the local skyline.

The piece was initially commissioned for the New York State Pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair. Fair attendees immediately queued for the non-existent restaurant. After a day of frustration for all concerned, the sign went dark. It wasn’t relit again until it moved to Maine.

In its original setting, the piece blurred the line between art and life a little too effectively.
While the piece is unequivocally good for Rockland’s cityscape, it was also the bellwether for an issue recently facing Rockland’s town board: when is a sign a sign, and when is it art?

The question facing code enforcement officer John Root was whether a sign proposed for the front of Ada’s Kitchen constitutes art or advertising. It will read, simply, “East.”

Ada’s Kitchen is owned by Jen and Rick Rockwell. “There’s no such business as EAST,” Rick Rockwell told the Pen Bay Pilot. “EAST is a concept. It’s a general direction. The object of this piece is to celebrate the past of Rockland. It speaks about our proximity as being in the eastern part of our country, in the most eastern parts of our state.”

I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold, 1928, Charles Demuth, Metropolitan Museum of Art. This is proto-pop.
The paper reported that Jen Rockwell told the City Council, “further north, toward her establishment, drivers start speeding up due to their perception that there’s nothing more to look at until the ferry terminal.” Well, now she’s talking about advertising. I’d have to disagree with her anyway, because one of my favorite signs in town is for the Rockland Café. That’s very close to their location.

But Ms. Rockwell was right that the visual concentration is weighted to the south end of town. She was, in essence, critiquing Main Street as a work of art in itself, and saying its balance is off. 

Rockland has successfully recreated itself as the northeast’s art mecca. With art sales, I suppose, comes public art. Not all of it is going to be by artists of the stature of Robert Indiana, but a Code Enforcement Officer isn’t qualified to judge aesthetics. Nor, I suppose, does he want to.

Campbell’s Tomato Juice Box, 1964, Andy Warhol. Synthetic polymer paint and silkscreen ink on wood. Museum of Modern Art. This is full-blown Pop Art
He does need to assess whether the sign is properly sized, lighted and hung, and to be sure that it won’t swing loose in a Nor’easter or fall and crush visitors. To do that, he needs a specific code addressing art signs, and now he has one.

My own definition of art is that it’s something that’s useless for any practical purpose. The Rockland City Council came close to the same conclusion when it concluded that a sign is art if it doesn’t advertise the product being sold by the business. In other words, you can hang an art lobster up if your business is selling hand-knitted scarves, but you can’t hang a lobster up if you actually sell lobsters.

Then one looks at the sign for the Strand Theatre and realizes that it’s as much an art statement as anything on Main Street, even though it advertises their specific business. That brings us full circle to Robert Indiana’s work and the whole Pop Art movement of the 1960s. Their goal was to blur the line between mass culture and fine art. And now it is done.