Paint Schoodic

We had another successful painting workshop at the Schoodic Institute in beautiful Acadia National Park. Join us in 2018!

Friday, September 22, 2017

Why art?

Art brings you joy. It takes you to new and different worlds.

Almost finished.
Today's client is two, and she knows what she wants. “An orange cow! A barn!” Because I’m her grandmother, she’ll get them, even though I’ve never painted a mural before.

This is a limited-palette painting. I have red, yellow, blue and white latex eggshell-finish wall paints. All of them run on the warm side, and they can’t make a convincing green. It’s good that I’m painting over a green base.

This morning, I’ll extend the trees behind the barn. I’ll pop and model the foliage a little with some acrylic paint I bought at Michael's. Then it’s back to plain wall painting for me. There’s still a lot to do, and I'm keenly conscious of the ticking clock.

My son-in-law believes primer is a sufficient covering for the walls. I try to explain that wall paint is a lot like a pedicure: the color is just a bonus. What you’re really gaining is a harder, durable, more easily-cleaned surface. “What a waste of time and money!” he exclaims.

I used sidewalk chalk to make my sketch, such as it was.
Still, when I got to a hard part, he took the roller from me, and even did a credible job. Then he went back to the mysteries of connecting their electrical service to National Grid.

My daughter is a mechanical engineer. She went to a plumbing store in Albany to buy a fitting for their well pump. She had designed and installed the system herself. “If you don’t know which one you need, you should hire a contractor,” the clerk sneered. Mostly, sexism of the kind our grandmothers endured is gone in America, but once in a while, it shows back up.

My granddaughter is still very short, so all the action is at the bottom of the picture.
Thirty years ago, my husband and I also did the site work and systems for our first home, also a modular. Our children are far less excitable than we were. There's no blue cloud of swearing hanging in the air these days, even as they press against their final deadline.

I never painted a mural for my own kids. Like everyone else, I was scrambling to hold together a house, family, and job. This is one of the luxuries of grandparenting, and I’m enjoying it very much.

Last night, my granddaughter and I did a project review. She thinks her mural might need a black bear up on the hill. Her look of total absorption was the same as that of an adult contemplating a painting. It didn’t matter that my painting was done mostly with a two-inch wall brush and I don’t know what I’m doing. Her hillside farm transported her. That’s the whole point: painting should take us to new and different worlds.

Can I fob off a mere oil painting on her brother? I doubt it.
Meanwhile her three-year-old brother announced, “I want a farm, too!” I have a painting of a crane I did last spring at the boatyard; I hope I can fob him off with it.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

What is style?

Want to become a caricature of yourself? Just focus on your style rather than the content of your work.
Commissioned portrait, by Carol L. Douglas. In this instance, high-key lighting was necessary to convey the spirit of the model, and so I used it.
Art & Fear, by David Bayles and Ted Orland, is a book that every artist should read. Not only does it destroy the myth of genius, it also points out that there is no end point in art making. The working artist can never rest on his laurels. Art-making is a constantly-renewing process of discovery. This is something that can be seen in the careers of every great master from Rembrandt to Monet.

A good artist investigates knotty questions. When they are answered, he moves on, just like Omar Khayyam’s moving finger. So often, by the time we get through the cycle of making and mounting a body of work, we’re no longer that interested in it. We’ve moved on to another struggle.

Castine Lunch Break, by Carol L. Douglas. For many years, I was interested in patterning. Of course, I can only say that after the fact; I didn't realize it at the time.
Most of us (especially those who have worked as commercial artists) can mimic other painters. There’s also significant variation in how we approach painting problems. For example, I'll occasionally paint in great detail, with lots of modeling. I was initially trained to paint that way, and I know enough about how paints handle to be able to blend and layer them.

However, what truly interests me right now is not mastering representation, but something far more visceral. This is more fundamental than style. Can I put a name to the question that’s currently bedeviling me? No; I’ve learned that is a shortcut to putting myself in a box. However, not being verbalized doesn’t make it any less real.

After the Storm, pastel, by Carol L. Douglas, is a very old work. Is it stylistically that different from my current work? I don't think so.
I discourage painting students from ‘embracing their style,’ because to me that’s a trap that they may not be able to escape. Sometimes, what people call style is just technical deficiency. For example, some painters separate their color fields with narrow lines—white paper in watercolor, dark outlines in oils. I’d like to know that they embraced this voluntarily, not because they never learned how to marry edges.

Mature artists don’t generally think about style. At that point, style is the gap between what they perceive and what comes off their brush. That’s deeply revelatory, and it can be disturbing when we see it in our own work.

Wreck of the SS Ethie, by Carol L. Douglas. This was painted in 2016, but would not have worked in a looser style, since the shipwreck and rocks provided the abstraction.
Some of us try to cover that up with stylings, not realizing that those moments of revelation are what viewers hunger for. They—not the nominal subject of the piece—are the real connection between the artist and his audience.

There’s a difference between style and being stylish. I enjoy Olena Babak’s ability to describe reflections in a single, fluid brush line. I feel the same way about Kari Ganoung Ruiz’ emotive, energetic highlights. Neither of these are styles. They are, instead, self-confident skill, which results in stylish brush work.

Flood Tide, 2017, by Carol L. Douglas. Where am I going now? I'll let you know.
I do not admire painters who use the same scribing or pattern-making on the surface of every painting. It’s style for its own sake, and it often is just a ruse to cover up badly-conceived paintings.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Busman’s holiday

When buying paint, it’s all about that base.
My second-favorite kind of painting.
I’m in the western Berkshires painting the interior walls in my oldest kid’s new house. She’s 28 and it’s her first house, and she’s very excited. So am I; like many artists, my idea of a good vacation is to paint walls. (Ceilings, not so much, but you must take the good with the bad.)

In artists’ oils, I like RGH paints. This is a small company based in Albany, NY. The owner, Rolf Haerem, has been making paints since 1989, and is a painter himself. In acrylics, I prefer Golden. Today, Golden is a large national brand. However, it also started as a small New York business, the brainchild of retired paint-maker Sam Golden, in New Berlin, Chenango County. In oil painting mediums, I like Grumbacher, which was founded in New York City in 1902. It’s now owned by Chartpak, based in Northhampton, MA. In brushes, I like Robert Simmons Signet.

None of these brands are sacred in themselves. They’re just my preferences, developed over decades of painting.  They work with my technique. On Monday, I wrote that I’d used a gel medium in an emergency, and it messed with my style. Still, other painters love it. It depends on what you’re striving for.

Nevertheless, there’s a theme running through my choices. They’re professional grade materials. I, too, was once an impecunious student buying student-grade materials, so I understand economy. But at some point, artists need to buy the right stuff, or they’ll never get the right results.
The new homeowner, surrounded by her paint chips.
In wall paints, I also have strong preferences. I’ve been painting with Benjamin Moore for decades. I know I can drop a bead of color alongside wooden moldings without taping or endless massaging, and I can generally get full coverage in a single coat. As with oil paints, wall paints are made with various combinations of pigments, binder and filler. It’s important to find one you like.

Here in the wilds of the New York-Massachusetts border, it’s been a problem to find it. And my budget-masters kvetch at the sticker price. Yesterday I capitulated for expediency’s sake, and used a brand sold by a large big-box retailer. I immediately regretted it. It clumped in the roller, and it didn’t slide easily off my brush.

When I first arrived on Sunday, I drove up to see my son-in-law digging a trench, sweaty and hot in the September warmth. He and my daughter are the same age as my husband and I were when we built our own first house. It was also a modular, also on a wooded rural hillside, and we also did all the sitework and finishing ourselves.

I was happy to watch the lad dig. One of the consolations of getting old is that you never need to pound another copper ground rod into rocky soil if you don’t want to. Some jobs are best enjoyed through the rose-colored glasses of nostalgia.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

From Spain to Maine

This reclusive artist never showed his work during his lifetime. It’s worth seeing now.


Untitled, by Erik Lundin. Courtesy of the Kelpie Gallery.
On my way out of town last week, I stopped at the Kelpie Gallery in South Thomaston to see a retrospective exhibition of the works of Erik Lundin. For 45 years, Lundin shuffled between Rockland, Maine and Madrid, Spain. His work has never been shown before.

Lundin received an MA in English Literature from Ohio University and taught English Literature for ten years at Lake Superior State College in Michigan. Eventually, he relocated, spending half the year in Madrid and half in Thomaston, Maine. Lundin then spent the next 45 years painting geodynamic landscapes of Maine, the clay cliffs of Guadalaraja, the Seven Peaks of Cercedilla and the Ontigona Sea of Aranjuez. In 2000, Dr. Antonio Dominguez Rey reproduced a waxing by the artist in his magazine of poetry and poetics, Serta (volume 5). Lundin was also an accomplished pianist.

Untitled, by Erik Lundin. Courtesy of the Kelpie Gallery.
“Lundin surrounded himself with creative and academic friends while living in Spain, yet kept very much to himself while in Maine,” said the Kelpie Gallery’s Susan Lewis Baines. “A true academic and artist, his work is both cerebral and esthetically pleasing. Many of his paintings successfully show the struggle of being two persons in one, the socialite and the recluse.”

Untitled, by Erik Lundin. Courtesy of the Kelpie Gallery.
The paintings on display at The Kelpie Gallery span Lundin’s entire creative life. How he could be an extrovert in Madrid and a loner in Rockport, and why he felt the need to alternate between both existences, is a mystery now shrouded in time. But his social bifurcation is not the only dichotomy in his work.
Untitled (balistraria), by Erik Lundin. Courtesy of the Kelpie Gallery.
His paintings were strongly influenced by Spanish Cubism and Spanish subjects, including the balistraria (arrow slits) of medieval fortresses. Meanwhile, his other self was deeply engaged in painting the granite coast of Maine, particularly the rocks at Pemaquid. While most of his work studies the architecture of natural forms, the collection also includes some traditionally-rendered, sensitive portraits of friends and a lover.

Untitled, by Erik Lundin. Courtesy of the Kelpie Gallery.
Because he wasn’t interested in showing and selling his work, Lundin had the latitude to explore ideas. He did so extensively. For example, the collection includes several composite boards with postcard-sized sketches. Each board explores a single theme.

Lundin’s color sense was particularly strong. He used strong chromatic contrasts in lieu of the neutrals we typically associate with the granite coast.

Untitled, by Erik Lundin. Courtesy of the Kelpie Gallery.
Sales of Lundin’s paintings will benefit end-of-life care at the Sussman House, a seven-bed hospice in Rockport. The Sussman House provides seven-day-a-week/24-hours-a-day compassionate care, pain management, and skilled nursing for patients whose symptoms cannot be managed at home. While the show has officially closed, the works can be viewed by appointment at the Kelpie Gallery.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Let that be a lesson to you

If I’d waited and painted on the second day, I’d have flubbed the whole event.
Playland Boat House, by Carol L. Douglas. A bad photo of a good painting.
I’m bothered by procrastination. I’m not happy unless I’ve finished my work in ample time to meet my deadline. There are good reasons why Rye’s Painters on Location gives us two days to finish one painting. Still, it makes sense to me to get it done early.

I haven’t painted Playland in several years. This lovely Art-Deco amusement park is entering its 90th year. It’s carefully maintained, and no major revisions have ever been made to its buildings or grounds. It was also closed, so I was alone as I drew on my canvas. The first glaze of gold was settling on the trees, and a soft onshore breeze cooled my shady corner.

Rye Playland from an angle I could never paint, public domain.
At lunchtime, Tarryl Gabel stopped by. Her timing was fortuitous. I’d just realized I was out of painting medium. Tarryl had some with her that she’d gotten from Jamie Williams Grossman. Jamie is a natural-born fixer, always coming up with solutions for other people’s problems. Here she was fixing something for me from miles away.

Tarryl and I are very dissimilar painters. She’s atmospheric, detailed and ethereal. I’m from the slash-and-burn school. When she handed me that tube of gel medium, she also handed me a lesson in how materials matter. Gel medium is perfect for her style of painting, but it dissolves edges. That was most apparent in the water, where I couldn’t keep the color crisply separated.

Somewhere near the halfway point.
I handed my work in and headed back to Queens. On the way, my car developed a dragging rear brake. In the stop-and-go traffic of rush hour, it rapidly overheated. By the time I arrived at Rego Park, it was screaming. (This car passed its inspection three days earlier.)

I tried unsuccessfully to rustle up a mechanic in Queens. The next morning, I decamped early and headed back to Westchester to try my luck there. On the way, I stopped at Playland. I couldn’t have painted there on Saturday; the park was open and ready for business.

And then my left rear brake pad fell out. I’ve been driving for more than forty years, and I’ve never seen that happen. It’s very bad, since it exposes the caliper—and thus the brake lines—to heat and stress. I wended my way slowly up the Boston Post Road, looking for a mechanic on duty.

The brake pad in question.
The first one I found, on the Boston Post Road in Port Chester, was both knowledgeable and kind. He said he didn’t like to leave travelers stranded, and he did the repair immediately and at a good price. Meanwhile, Tarryl had just arrived in Port Chester. We went to the art store and made our opening with time to spare.

There are several lessons here: don’t procrastinate, check your kit before you leave, use materials you know, be flexible. But more importantly for me, it was a reminder that the vast majority of people in this world are kind, and I don’t need to sweat the small stuff. God’s got my back.

Friday, September 15, 2017

What about Goya?

Who really invented abstraction? Everyone.
A dog engulfed in sand, 1819-1823, Francisco Goya, courtesy of Museo del Prado
A thoughtful reader sent me this essay yesterday, which nominates the Swedish painter Hilma af Klint, rather than Wassily Kandinsky, as the first practitioner of abstract art. Like Kandinsky, she was a follower of Madame Helena Blavatsky, occultist, spirit medium, and founder of Theosophy. Like Kandinsky, she believed her abstract paintings were, in fact, representations of spiritual ideas.

When I studied art back in the last millennium, the first abstract painting was attributed to the great Spanish romantic, Francisco Goya. The painting in question, now called A Dog Engulfed in Sand, or simply El Perro, was one of Goya’s so called ‘black paintings,’ from the end of his life. These are haunted works, reflecting both Goya’s bitter disillusionment and fears.  He had lived through the terrible Napoleonic Wars and their political aftermath in Spain. He was elderly, nearly deaf, and he had survived two brushes with death.

Seascape Study with Rain Cloud (Rainstorm over the Sea), 1824-28, John Constable, courtesy Royal Academy of Arts
Goya never intended El Perro or any of the other black paintings to be shown. By the 20th century, however, El Perro was famous. Pablo Picasso certainly knew it. Antonio Saura called it "the most beautiful picture in the world". Rafael Canogar described it as the first symbolist painting of the West. The sculptor Pablo Serrano paid homage to it.

A study in pencil, ink, ink wash, brush and pen, for The Death of the Virgin, 1601-1606, Caravaggio
“The sleep of reason begets monsters,” wrote Goya about Los Caprichos. By the end of his life, the monsters were visiting him during the daytime, too.

Any meaning we ascribe to A Dog Engulfed in Sand comes from its title. That was added later, by art historians. None of the black paintings were titled. They were intensely private, painted as murals on his walls. And what a happy home that must have been.

The Monk by the Sea, c. 1808–1809, Caspar David Friedrich
At first sight, El Perro doesn’t seem to be a figurative painting at all. Two dominant blocks of color intersect. At that point a blob of grey paint, the face of a dog, represents all of Goya’s anguished humanity. We, the viewers, are being squashed between relentless forces.

“Abstraction” is a word Goya would not have understood, let alone used. But it is abstraction that gives El Perro its awful power.

Mountain market, clearing mist, Yu Jian, Song Dynasty, China
Many early artists used raw abstraction to work out ideas, or just to doodle, just as figurative painters still do today. I’ve included a few famous examples here, ranging from Caravaggio to Caspar David Friedrich. And that’s just in the western canon. In eastern art, the idea of the void meant that slavish adherence to representation was never a paramount virtue.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

A love affair that’s ended

New York City is no longer the center of the known world for me. How did that happen?
Queensboro Bridge Approach, by Carol L. Douglas
My dream job, when I was young, was to be a cabbie in New York. That had nothing to do with going fast, and everything to do with being aggressive, and in being able to squeeze myself and my car through knot-holes.

I told this to Cornelia Foss one time, as we were scooting north along Madison Avenue. She shuddered. Now I realize that’s because she was older and wiser. (I wish I could take another class from her. At 86, she continues to break new ground as a painter.)

Today I live in a state where the locals, by and large, drive the speed limit and are polite. You’ll never get anywhere here in Maine by driving aggressively. Jump the queue and there will just be another slow-moving vehicle ahead.

Under the Queensboro Bridge, by Carol L. Douglas
This was a strange concept in driving, but I learned to embrace it. Now I roll down my windows and enter that quiet state of pokiness that drives the visitors crazy.

Last time I drove to Queens to meet my pal Brad Marshall, I found myself really irritated with New York drivers. That same exuberance that once goaded me to pass on the right, to joyously sound my horn for no reason, to budge into the box at intersections—it all just annoyed me. We had somewhere to go, and Brad offered to drive. Rare for me, I happily agreed.

In my youth, I said that I would stop going to New York if the vista crossing the George Washington Bridge failed to move me. I saw it a lot in my younger days. I commuted from Rochester to take classes at the Art Students League. I had a crash pad with my friend Peter, on the Upper West Side. We would take classes all day and then I would drive home to Rochester. Rinse and repeat. If I die young, it will be with the consolation that I lived my life very fast.

Underpass, by Carol L. Douglas
I voided that test by moving east. I no longer use the GW to get into the city. Instead, I come down through Massachusetts and Connecticut. There’s no astonishment along that route.

The first sign I was growing cynical about New York came a few years ago, when I met a Southerner for a weekend. She remarked, in passing, at how filthy the city is. That’s one of those things, like your aunt’s fascinating chin hair, that everyone sees but doesn’t mention. But once she commented on it, I began to see detritus everywhere.

I used to love to paint in the city. Now I understand that was the granite calling to me. Much of New York, Washington and Chicago are built of Maine granite. Somehow, I enjoy it more in its natural state.

Staples Street, by Carol L. Douglas
This morning I’m heading back down to Westchester County for Rye’s Painters on Location. Brad’s floating around in the North Atlantic somewhere, but he loaned me his flat. I’m on my own for both painting and driving. Luckily, Painters on Location is always a blast, and I'll see lots of other friends there.

I still admire New York City, but I’ve met other art scenes that match my personality better. I’ll visit for a blockbuster show, or to see friends. But, as for it being the center of the known world, those days are, sadly, gone for me.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Empty Space

What do we really know about traditional Chinese art? It could inform our painting in exciting ways.

Lotus Flowers, After Zhang Lu, c. 1701, courtesy the British Museum.
 Until the Jesuits arrived in China at the end of the 16th century, western and eastern art traditions operated independently. Europeans prized certain of the minor arts—porcelain and silk—but had no interest in Chinese painting. In the 20th century, the influence ran mostly west-to-east. Only in the last few decades has the traffic reversed.

Chinese painting principles rest on the philosophical tradition of Taoism.  The Tao is an intuitive, experiential understanding of life. It emphasizes the weak over the strong, the feminine over the masculine, the water that wears down the rock, the space between things rather than the things themselves.

Taoism advocates “attaining the limit of empty space, retaining extreme stillness,” wrote the ancient Chinese philosopher Laozi. Space is the “fasting of the heart,” wrote Master Zhuang. Empty space is, in Taoism, “the beginning of the myriad things.” That makes it foundational.

A hanging scroll painted by Ma Lin on or before 1246. Ink and color on silk, courtesy National Palace Museum, Beijing.
Traditional Chinese painting treated empty space as solid space. “Knowing the white, retaining the black, it is the form of the world,” wrote Laozi.  White in Chinese painting signifies emptiness. Black means solidity. In Chinese calligraphy, empty space is called ‘designing the white’.

In Chinese art, empty space is expected to convey information through its very lack of imagery. The sizes and contours of the empty shapes create rhythm and unity. The solid shapes give meaning to the empty, and vice-versa.

Those empty spaces often represent cloud, mist, sky, water or smoke, depending on the cues in the solid forms surrounding them. Of course, those so-called empty spaces are full of life and action in real life as well. Chinese painting acknowledges this. That energy in the emptiness is called qi.

Loquats and Mountain Bird, Chinese painting, album leaf, colors on silk, courtesy National Palace Museum, Beijing.
Whenever I see disparate cultures reaching the same conclusion, I’m inclined to think it’s a soul tie of the deepest order. It’s interesting to ponder the relationship between qi and the Hebrew נִשְׁמַת חַיִּים (nishmat chayyim) or רוּחַ (ruach).

Without qi, empty space is the same as blank space. Qi is the principle of life in painting. If it’s not there, a painting will be lifeless. Qi comes from the artist’s soul. It is a result of the interaction between the artist and the object he or she is painting. When qi is still, a painting is tranquil; when qi moves, a painting is lively.

Making Farewells, Shen Zhou, 15th century, courtesy Shanghai Museum.
The 20th century murdered much of this tradition. Since the Chinese cultural revolution, artists have worked around Mao’s dictum that “art should serve the masses.” Traditional forms and ideas were out; artists were persecuted and suppressed. Chinese philosophies were replaced by one-size-fits-all Communism. And Chinese painting dropped its historic roots and adopted western realism.

In western art, empty space has a place in the canon of graphic design, but not in painting. “Painting the void” in 20th century western painting was about destruction, not about emptiness. We are a people of loud bangs, not silence.


One exception to this was the abstract expressionist Ad Reinhart, who took the time to study Chinese concepts in painting. I think I will join him, in my desultory way. There’s much to be learned about the power of emptiness.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Apple picking time

Old apple trees make for good painting as well as good eating.

Apple tree swing, by Carol L. Douglas. Available through the Kelpie Gallery.
Today, I’m teaching my first class in Rockport since mid-July. I wanted a special subject for my students. I’ve passed wild apple trees along the roadside. I know they’re ripe and starting to drop. But to find one that was suitable for a class has been a different matter.

The ones above Rockport Harbor are too high to paint from the parking lot. The one at the Opera House bore no fruit this season. It must be a biennial bearer, which some apple trees are. I finally found a suitable tree, with parking and permission to paint, but it took more work than it should have.

For someone from the heart of apple country, this is a paucity of resources. I know the heritage orchard people don’t think New York’s miles and miles of commercial orchards are ‘real’ apples, but they’re an important food crop there. Fruit trees are very long-lived; many of them can easily make the century mark. Old apple trees make for good painting as well as good eating.

The old orchard, by Carol L. Douglas
I know there are apple trees in Maine. I painted one in Castine this summer, and I have a plan for another one for next year. They’re just not lined up in neat rows as they are in my home state.

Long before the McIntosh apple became the champion apple in the northeast, a variety named the Baldwin was our most popular apple. It tolerated cold-storage and shipping. That meant you could keep it through the winter and send it to market.

Conventional wisdom says it was developed in Wilmington, MA, and, after the dust-up, the good citizens there were quick to put up a monument to it. But in the 19th century, several towns brawled for the title of birthplace of the Baldwin apple. One of them was Baldwin, in Cumberland County, ME. Baldwin was noted for its orchards, and it had a factory for drying apples.

Young apple trees in bloom, by Carol L. Douglas
The connection isn’t completely spurious. Baldwin, ME, was named after Col. Loammi Baldwin, who is largely credited with disseminating scions of the Baldwin apple through New England. (Apples don’t grow true from seed. The best way to get edible ones is to collect twigs from a good tree and graft them onto parent stock.)

Col. Baldwin was a Revolutionary War soldier and is considered the father of American Civil Engineering. He was also Johnny Appleseed’s cousin.

All Flesh is as Grass, by Carol L. Douglas
The harsh winter of 1933-34 wiped out the Baldwin apple orchards in New England. It was largely replaced by its Canadian cousin, the McIntosh, which is disease- and cold-resistant. However, Baldwins make for good cider, especially hard cider. In an historically dry state like Maine, that was curiously important. I’m sure there’s more than one gracing an old dooryard here.

I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a Baldwin apple on a tree, but as of today, I’m looking for one.

Monday, September 11, 2017

A #2 pencil is a pretty cheap way to find your joy

Put down your cell phone and pick up a pencil.

A quick sketch of captive models, by Carol L. Douglas
On Friday, I suggested a list of drawing books for those who want to improve their drawing skills but don’t have access to a class. Reader Michael Schaedler of Jay has the traditional Maine opinion that it’s silly to spend money on something you can find for free. He located a text online and has been faithfully doing its exercises. It’s Dorothy Furniss’ Drawing for Beginners and it runs through all the basic subjects.

Looking at old drawing texts, I’m reminded of what an unlettered generation ours is. We want the technical stuff, fast, and don’t want to waste time on rhetoric. I’m as bad as anyone; I buy art books mainly for the pictures. Still, in this week of enforced solitude, I’ve found myself reading and appreciating these older writers and their thoughts on the craft of drawing.

Teenage boy sleeping through church, , by Carol L. Douglas
A reader asked me for tips about figure drawing. That’s a separate subset of knowledge from drawing inanimate objects.

George B. Bridgman (1865–1943) was a Canadian-American artist. He taught anatomy for artists at the Art Students League of New York for 45 years. His books were the standard for 20th century instruction on the subject. They can still be purchased today. Start with his Complete Guide to Drawing from Life.

Most of the time, you'll find very boring stuff when you wait at doctors' offices. But occasionally, you'll find a skeleton. By Carol L. Douglas.
I think every studio should have a copy of Frank H. Netter’s Atlas of Human Anatomy. It’s useful to know how things work. Pressured by his family, Dr. Netter left a career in art to go to medical school. The Great Depression had the last laugh; there was more work for a medical illustrator than there was for a doctor. His anatomy book is a masterpiece, and it explains to the visual learner what parts go where.

Bailiff at Hall of Justice, by Carol L. Douglas
My reader should be practicing gesture drawings constantly—one or two-minute sketches of people done from life. Gesture drawing is very personal; it’s an impression of a form. There’s no ‘right way,’ but it should be fast. If it goes more than two minutes, it’s no longer a gesture drawing.

The only true gesture drawing I have on my laptop is of a horse. Figures. By Carol L. Douglas.
The more he draws people, the more skill he will develop. Modern life presents all kinds of opportunities to draw surreptitiously. They just require that we put down our cell phones and pick up a pencil.

Note: This week, art conservator Lauren R. Lewis shared resources for those of you dealing with hurricane clean-up, here. Since then, she found this fantastic resource. It includes hotlines as well as tips for first-phase cleaning of flood-damaged artwork. May nobody need it.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Learning to draw without a teacher

Can you learn to draw from a book? Absolutely! Here are some suggestions, and I’d love to hear about your favorites.


Occasionally, I’ll send a student home from a workshop with the advice that he or she should take a basic drawing class. I’ll see that person the following summer only to learn that there wasn’t a drawing class in his town.

Drawing is, to the outsider, the most mundane of the arts. It’s not splashy and it can seem mechanical. To the insider, it’s the guts on which everything else rests. It’s a great shortcut to work out problems of design. To paint without knowing how to draw is to practice surgery without ever having anatomized. You could have all the skill in the world in your hands, and you’d still be clueless about what you’re doing.

No pianist ever got anywhere without first playing études and scales. Think of drawing like that, and practice a little every day. It’s the single best thing you can do to improve your painting.

Drawing is easy; it can be learned from books. Realizing this, I asked Bobbi Heath, Poppy Balser and Mary Byrom for recommendations. Their ideas, along with mine, follow.


The Practice and Science of Drawing is a classic text from the early twentieth-century. Harold Speed was an English painter and renowned teacher. His book includes both practical instruction and intelligent commentary on the nature of art. It’s available on Project Gutenberg here, if you want a preview.

How to Draw What You See is the granddaddy of self-help drawing books. It is based on the premise that all objects are basic shapes, stacked and refined. It is very good, but you’ll have to substitute 21st century examples—the plates haven’t been updated since I used it in the early 1970s.

Betty Edwards’ classic Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain is a book about which I’m conflicted. I’ve had it since the first edition was published in 1979. The exercises are fine, and it’s a great starting point for the timid. However, it spends too much time on her brain theories and not enough on measuring. Still, it’s one of the top-selling how-to-draw books of all time.

Poppy recommends Andrew Loomis, author of Successful Drawing and Figure Drawing for All It’s Worth. “I haven’t ‘read’ them as they aren’t instructive texts in the true sense,” she told me. “But I do pore over them when I’m looking for help with figures or division of space.”


Drawing for the Absolute Beginner is a good basic primer on how to handle a pencil. As with all good how-to books, it includes basic exercises.

Sketching from Square One to Trafalgar Square was recommended by Bobbi, and I’m adding it to my own library. It takes you through both the mechanics and the visualization necessary for field drawing. Both are important.

Perspective Made Easy, also recommended by Bobbi, outlines the rules of perspective drawing. This is a purely mechanical subject, so it’s easily learned from a book. Perspective is deceptively simple, and it trips up more artists than any other aspect of drawing.


Art of Sketching was recommended by Mary. It is out of print now but available on the used-book market. It emphasizes dry-media mark-making, something most painters could use to focus on. It’s another book I am adding to my own library, since I’ve seen how Mary’s sketches powerfully inform her finished work.

Is there a drawing book you love? I’d like to hear about it! Please comment.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

The self-righteous art critic, he's everywhere

Did Wyeth appropriate Christina Olson's suffering for money? Only a really young person would ask such a question.

Christina’s World, 1948, Andrew Wyeth, courtesy Museum of Modern Art.
On his centenary year, I suppose I should join the throng and comment on Andrew Wyeth. There is little new to say. An indubitably great painter, he had the courage to embrace realism at a time when it was devalued. His body of work speaks for itself.

Then I read essays like this and think some rebuttal is necessary. Zachary Small is too young and too self-righteous by half. He understands neither the artist’s relationship to the model nor mid-century American culture.

Christina’s World is an abstract painting masquerading as a narrative. It could have as easily been titled Three Objects on a Yellow Field. At 31, the artist was not yet famous, but he was subject to great expectations. He had been tutored at home by his world-famous father, NC Wyeth. They rubbed elbows with other luminaries of their day.

His training and instincts pointed him to realism. Nevertheless, the art world was in open rebellion against representational painting.

Trodden Weed, 1951, Andrew Wyeth, courtesy here. Three years later, it addressed the same formal questions as Christina’s World, but is a much more self-revelatory painting.
Most of us would have melted in that kind of crucible. Wyeth, instead, created this enigmatic masterpiece. This is, of course, magical realism, not realism, a direct riff on his dad’s storytelling. Not only did he beautify Christina Olson, he radically redrew the Olson House.

In modern parlance, Zachary Small objects to Wyeth’s ‘appropriation’ of Christina’s story of courage and disability. On Wyeth's behalf, I claim a sort of fair-use exemption. That’s what artists have always done—taken particular pathos and raised it to be a universal statement.

In 1948, the United States was on the front edge of the biggest outbreak of poliomyelitis in its history. In 1952 alone, nearly 60,000 kids were infected with the virus. Thousands were paralyzed; more than 3000 died. Wealth was no insulator. There was no vaccine and no cure. Kids went into iron lungs and parents prayed.

Historians now believe that Christine Olson didn’t have polio, but rather Charcot–Marie–Tooth disease. That’s irrelevant. It wasn’t Wyeth’s understanding, and it wasn’t the American understanding in 1948. Wyeth was painting the polio epidemic.

I like to take students to the Farnsworth Museum to see whatever Wyeth sketches and drawings they have on display. They spell out Andrew Wyeth’s meticulous method. I find him, posthumously, to be a great teacher of painting.

Lovers, 1981, Andrew Wyeth, courtesy here.
But as to his finished paintings, I’m always deeply conflicted. They’re technically perfect, but hidden, reserved, and cool. As with Edward Hopper, Andrew Wyeth painted our isolation. Surrounded by hype, activity and people, twenty-first century man still lives a solitary existence.

Hopper told this story through buildings. Wyeth told it through faces and the human form. His paintings throw up masks I can’t get past. I find that most moving, and terrifying at the same time.