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Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Unhappy in your art career?


Envy, covetousness, and false expectations are all ways to guarantee a rotten time as an artist.
Dyce Head in the early morning light, Carol L. Douglas
I haven’t been able to paint for weeks. It seems as if my peers have made fantastic strides in that time. I look at their work on Instagram and Facebook and it’s downright depressing to see the clarity, color, and compositions they’ve achieved while I’m lying on the couch with my feet elevated.

I’m competitive; I’ll admit it. It’s not a good trait. I have a dear friend who is capable of shrugging off the worst jurying news. She isn’t focused on the competition, but on her own development as an artist. If I ever grow up, I’d like to be just like her.

As Ecclesiastes reminds us, “all toil and all skill in work come from a man's envy of his neighbor. This also is vanity and a striving after wind.” Envy leads to anger and covetousness, but it also burns up the envier. Being competitive is a rush when it’s all going our way, but more often, it just makes us miserable.
Lonely Lighthouse (Parrsboro, NS), Carol L. Douglas
Another great way to kill your joy in painting is to tailor your work too closely to a niche a gallerist has identified for you. Yes, lighthouses sell on the coast of Maine, and they’re fascinating to paint. Do you want to spend all your days churning out pictures of them?

Fitting work to the marketplace is wise. Fitting it to anyone else’s expectations is very foolish. What will sell is not just a matter of content; it’s a combination of that and your approach to the content.

If you’re a young person, you probably seek advice from your parents. Neither of mine were entrepreneurs. Their advice, while grounded in love, was the product of their own experiences.

Cape Spear Road (Newfoundland), Carol L. Douglas. That's not one, but two, lighthouses.
Even though my father taught me to paint, my parents were hardly enthusiastic about an art career for one of their children. I remember my first complete bust of a show. I’d sold nothing and a pastel fell off the wall, damaging the frame. “Well, you gave it a good try,” my mom sighed, thinking I’d get over the idea of a career in the arts.

This isn’t because families are not supportive; it’s because they believe the lie that it is impossible to prosper in the arts. To a degree, they’re right; it’s a lot easier to make a living as a computer programmer. But the arts are not a one-way ticket to poverty, either.
Owls Head Light, Carol L. Douglas
Still, once you decide to follow a career in the arts, you’ve made the decision that money isn’t your paramount value. Why, then, would you let money dictate every small decision you make thereafter? The marketplace is too intelligent to reward this, anyway. Trying to produce work that looks just like someone else’s is a guaranteed path to insignificance.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

End of the trail


You can still buy some pretty horrible unauthorized copies of James Fraser’s work, but few people remember the artist.
End of the Trail, cast 1918, by James Earle Frazer, courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We had the smaller version in our house when I was growing up
 When I visit a city, I try to seek out its famous artists. Minneapolis-Saint Paul gave us Prince, Leroy Neiman, and A Prairie Home Companion. However, visual artists are thin on the ground. That’s surprising, because it’s a robust city of great beauty. Moreover, the prairie has given us so much great art, ranging from the novels of Willa Cather to the paintings of Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton, and so many others.

1913 Indian Head Nickel, courtesy US Mint (coin), National Numismatic Collection (photograph by Jaclyn Nash)
James Earle Fraser came from tiny Winona in the southeast corner of the state. His name is pretty well forgotten today, but two of his works are iconic 20th century pieces. The Indian Head nickel was struck from 1913 to 1938 as part of the US government’s first attempt to make beautiful currency. “I felt I wanted to do something totally American—a coin that could not be mistaken for any other country's coin. It occurred to me that the buffalo, as part of our western background, was 100% American, and that our North American Indian fitted into the picture perfectly,” Fraser said about his design.

End of the Trail was intended to be cast in bronze, but wartime shortages prevented that. The original  slowly deteriorated until 1968, when it was obtained by the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum  and restored.
Fraser sculpted a monumental plaster version of a Native brave dropping in exhaustion for the 1915 Panama–Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. End of the Trail was based on his experiences growing up in Dakota Territory. “As a boy, I remembered an old Dakota trapper saying, ‘The Indians will someday be pushed into the Pacific Ocean.’”

“The idea occurred to me,” he later wrote, “of making an Indian which represented his race reaching the end of the trail, at the edge of the Pacific.”

End of the Trail was copied on the cover of The Beach Boys 1971 album Surf's Up.
The sculpture earned a Gold Medal at the fair. Within a few months, thousands of photographic prints had been sold. In 1918, Fraser began producing bronze miniatures of the statue. They caught the troubled spirit of the times. They were everywhere, including in my father’s study when I was growing up.

You can still buy horrible copies of it, both in bronze and in less permanent forms, like this t-shirt.
Fraser had great sympathy for the plight of the Native Americans, who were being pushed west or restrained on reservations. His father, Thomas Fraser, was a railroad engineer helping to push the great rail lines across the country. A few months prior to James’ birth, Thomas was among a group sent to recover the remains of the 7th Cavalry Regiment after the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

End of the Trail was meant to illustrate the Native American plight. Instead, it became an early piece of pop-art, copied endlessly not only in bronze but in prints, posters, t-shirts, pins, bags, belt buckles, and bookends. It was featured (badly) on the cover of The Beach Boys 1971 album Surf's Up.

The same is true of the Indian Head Nickel. This is an insulated Whataburger Coffee Mug.
Fraser learned to carve by scavenging limestone from a nearby quarry. He attended the Art Institute of Chicago, the École des Beaux Arts and the Académie Julian. He worked as an assistant to America’s foremost sculptor,  Augustus Saint-Gaudens. Starting in 1906, he taught at the Art Students League in New York, eventually becoming its director.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Monday Morning Art School: How to develop an oil field sketch


A fast, simple way to do a quick, finished field study.

Megunticook River, Camden, by Carol L. Douglas
 A few weeks ago I mentioned that I use Inktense pencils to mark out my paintings on canvas. This is a technique borrowed from my pal Kristin Zimmermann.

Value study in charcoal.
My first step is always a value study. Whether I do this with charcoal, greyscale markers, or pencil is immaterial—if the value structure doesn’t work, the painting won’t work. After writing my post about value studies with Inktense pencils, I realized I could just as easily use the Inktense pencils and water to do my value study on paper as well as the transfer. That removes one more extraneous item from my backpack.

Inktense pencil transfer.
Next, I draw the picture on my canvas with the watercolor pencil. This is never simply a question of transferring my rough value sketch, nor is it a finished drawing into which I paint. What I do is a carefully-measured map of the future painting. I find this particularly useful when painting architecture, where measurement matters a great deal.

Using a watercolor pencil allows me to erase to my heart’s content with water, but when I finally start painting in oil the drawing is locked into the bottom layer.

Big shapes, blocked in.
From this point, I block in the big shapes, paying attention to preserving the values of my sketch, and working (generally) from dark to light. This is especially important if you plan to take more than a few hours to do a painting, because it allows you to paint through significant changes in lighting.

I say “big shapes,” but while I focus on these, I do not obliterate all the drawing I did earlier.

I’d originally set this painting up without the framing walls on either side of the river. It was on reaching this degree of blocking that I realized that I wanted the wall on the left back in. Putting it in over wet paint (without a drawing) resulted in it being somewhat vague compared to the rest of the painting, but I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing.

Ironically, looking back at it five years later, I think the composition was better without the tight framing. That just points to how subjective these decisions are.

It's about time for you to consider your summer workshop plans. Join me on the American Eagle, at Acadia National Park, at Rye Art Center, or at Genesee Valley this summer.

Friday, April 20, 2018

How dare you speak to me like that?


Criticism is tough to take. Sometimes, that’s because the criticism itself is lousy.

The Raising of Lazarus, by Carol L. Douglas. Really, was it so bad?
I don’t remember the exact words of my first printed review, but they are burned in my memory as, “I can’t believe the curator included this dreck,” and “absolutely amateurish use of color.” My stalwart friend Toby, also an artist, listened to me whine and cry for about an hour. She stoutly agreed that the critic was an ass. That's a pal.

It was a national show, but the critic and I knew each other slightly and had mutual friends. Knowing me didn’t make him more kindly-disposed. That’s a good lesson in general, by the way: never assume that connections will carry you in the art world. They are just as often a handicap.

I’ve critiqued a lot of paintings myself since then. The older I get, the more I understand that there are few absolutes in art. It’s always childish and supercilious to rip on another artist. There’s almost always something that you can learn from another’s work if you take the time to try to understand his processes or point of view.

Well, heck, you may as well see the whole series. This is Submission. Later, it would be in a show closed for obscenity.
That was an unsolicited review. What is far more common is criticism that we ask for.

The worst mistake we can make is to ask for an opinion when we really want a pat on the back. We sometimes hear home truths we aren’t prepared for. Always ask yourself why you’re asking that particular person for a critique. If it’s because you crave his or her approval, quietly move on.

Even if you are genuinely interested in an objective opinion, what do you intend to do with the information? I, like everyone else, am plagued by self-doubts. I tend to immediately grab on to a criticism and act on it, without thinking it through.

I once paid another artist to critique a large work that had me flummoxed. “It kind of reminds me of an immature Chagall,” she said. She felt I needed to loosen up, abstract more, and conceptualize less. I went home and wrecked the painting entirely. I’ve carried it around for twenty years now as a bitter reminder. Under all that schmaltz lies a beautiful idea that died from an overdose of opinion.

A third painting from the same series. I can't even remember what it was called, but I have certainly gotten less political in my old age.
Sometimes it’s easy to see what your critic means: darken that sail, raise that cloud cover. But sometimes, he or she is making a subtle but very real point that will take you months and years and many more paintings to understand.

Very few people have earned the right to critique my work. They earned it by being trustworthy, not having an ax to grind, and understanding my goals and motivations. I can count those people on one hand. Ours are relationships of long standing. I trust that they understand my goals in painting, even when those goals are radically different from theirs.

Scrotum man, also from the same series.
“When you ask another painter—unless they’re an experienced painting teacher—they’ll often just tell you how they would have painted it,” Bobbi Heath said. Listen for this and guard against it. The questions the critic should be addressing are broad ones of value, composition and technique.

Even with an experienced teacher, an opinion may still be flat-out wrong. Poppy Balser once asked me what paintings she should submit for an award. I’m glad she ignored me, because the one I didn’t choose won Best Watercolor. The jurors were focusing on different things. In retrospect, I saw their point.

By the time you read this, I’ll be flying to Minneapolis for a weekend of dancing on crutches. Meanwhile, it's about time for you to consider your summer workshop plans. Join me on the American Eagle, at Acadia National Park, at Rye Art Center, or at Genesee Valley this summer. I plan to be able to walk by then. Really.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

The art of rocket science


Space Age art had an important patron: the Federal government.

Toroidal Colonies, pop. 10,000. Cutaway view, exposing the interior, c 1970 by Rick Guidice, courtesy NASA 
We have no shortage of plutocrats today, but Gates, Zuckerberg, et al seem disinterested in public art. Modern American art patronage is largely a group activity. There’s been no greater player than our Federal government, in all its many guises.

The NASA Art Program was responsible for much of our mid-century thinking about Outer Space and its potential. It was launched in 1962, just four years after President Eisenhower established NASA itself. It started prosaically but grew to be an important propaganda arm for the agency. With a huge budget and little practical application to the average voter, NASA needed dreams to justify its existence.
First Steps, 1963, Mitchell Jamieson, Courtesy of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum
In 1962, artist Bruce Stevenson brought a portrait of space pioneer Alan Shepard to NASA headquarters. Administrator James E. Webb promptly commissioned him to do a group portrait, one that would capture “the team effort and the togetherness that has characterized the first group of astronauts to be trained by this nation.”

Webb was a visionary when it came to art. He proposed, for example, “a nighttime scene showing the great amount of activity involved in the preparation of and countdown for launching,” as well as paintings of life in space. But as an administrator he wanted this program developed systematically. “The important thing is to develop a policy on how we intend to treat this matter now and in the next several years and then to get down to the specifics of how we intend to implement this policy…”

From the Earth to the Moon, 1969, Norman Rockwell, courtesy Look Magazine
The NASA art program would not just record events, it would capture the visceral side of missions, “in a way in which history could look back and fully appreciate all that the agency had achieved.”

In 1963, eight artists were chosen to depict the final Mercury flight. They were paid $800 ($6,567.21 today). The chosen artists ranged from traditional to avant garde.

Meteor and Mars Series 2, c. 1970s, Ren Wicks, courtesy Artnet
“When a launch takes place at Cape Canaveral, Fla., more than 200 cameras record every split second of the activity. Every nut, bolt, miniaturized electronic device is photographed from every angle. The artist can add very little to this in the way of factual record… It is the emotional impact, interpretation and hidden significance of these events which lie within the scope of the artist’s vision. An artist may depict exactly what he thinks he sees, but the image has still gone through the catalyst of his imagination and has been transformed in the process,” National Gallery curator Hereward Lester Cooke wrote in his invitation to these artists.

NASA’s stable included Annie Leibovitz, Robert Rauschenberg and Norman Rockwell, among others. It commissioned original music as well. In 2002, NASA commissioned  Way Up There, which memorialized lives lost in the Challenger disaster. A version by Patti LaBelle was nominated for a Grammy Award.

Toroidal Colonies, pop. 10,000. Interior view, c 1970 by Don Davies, courtesy NASA
Rick Guidice painted for NASA for 15 years. His paintings helped develop a public fantasy of what space colonization might look like. He and some of the other great NASA artists went on to illustrate The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space, by Princeton Physicist and Professor Dr. Gerard K. O’Neill, which has become a space colonization classic.

From the Seeds of Change… a Discovery, 1984, Robert A. M. Stephens, courtesy NASA
Then came Sen. William Proxmire’s Golden Fleece Award and its chilling effect on the more fantastical elements of government spending. NASA earned one, not for its art program but for its search for extra-terrestrial life. The age of exuberance in government spending was over. Government agencies may have continued spending as madly as before, but they did it more furtively.

It's about time for you to consider your summer workshop plans. Join me on the American Eagle, at Acadia National Park, at Rye Art Center, or at Genesee Valley this summer.