Sometimes sentiment overrides practicality. That’s not always a bad thing.
Arctic Mud in happier (and cleaner) days.
I believe that I’m the best person I know for picking out a good used car. I'm not talking about the late-model beauty that comes with a warranty, but the clunker your teenager buys with the money from his first job. I come by it honestly. I don’t think I ever paid more than $50 for a car before I married my husband with his big-city ways. In fact, the first time he came to call at my parents’ house, I was changing a tie-rod end.
Arctic Mud was a 2000 Suzuki Grand Vitara. It was my daughter Mary’s first car. I’d helped her sisters and her brother-in-law choose cars, but I wasn’t around to help her. Frankly, the thing was a wreck from day one. Still, she loved it.
Her dad and I helped her drive it to Alaska for college. On arrival, our first order of business was a new track bar. Most calls home started, "Mom, my car's making this noise," which would then be followed by another trip to a garage. When she decided to come back east, I strongly advised she sell it there. But she loved that old reprobate of an SUV, and I love her.
That car spent a disproportionate amount of its life being hauled. Thank goodness for AAA.
I cooked up a scheme. We’d fly back to Anchorage and fetch it and drive it back across the continent. Not the California to New York trip everyone takes, but Alaska to Newfoundland. It would be cold, and we’d be sleeping in the car, but we had warm blankets. Most of my luggage was for painting supplies. A nice pastor’s wife, Heidi Godfrey, took one look at the jacket I’d brought and gave me one more suitable for a late Alaska autumn.
It was Canada’s sesquicentennial. I’ve always loved the Great White North. What better way to honor it than to head down the Trans-Canada Highway and paint a little bit of the whole country?
We almost didn’t make it out of Anchorage. The car coughed, rattled, and died on the Glenn Highway. Pastor Godfrey and his wife rescued us again.
The catalytic converter was completely clogged. The replacement cost was irrelevant; no such part was to be had in Anchorage for a vehicle that old. That led to a miraculous intervention. A kindly stranger took the beast into his shop on his day off, opened the converter, cleaned it out and welded it back together. Catalytic converters are not supposed to be serviceable.
I did a lot of painting with my easel lashed to the bumper for stability.
It was a few days later and late afternoon, but we were finally on our way. North of Wasilla, AK, the muffler fell off. We picked it up off the road and looked for a shop. That led to our second miraculous mechanic. He welded and bolted and sent us on our way with a bill for $40 and several jars of salmon his wife had canned.
Arctic Mud behaved all the way north through the Brooks Range and back down again, where a breakdown would have been catastrophic. In fact, I had no more trouble until I tried to jump a ditch while bouncing out of a fire break. I snapped the tailpipe. But that was my fault, not the car’s.
The alternator went somewhere in the Great Plains, in a spot where we actually had cell phone reception. We were riding back to the closest town with the tow truck driver, when the airport on our right seemed to explode in flames. “Oh, it’s just firefighting practice,” he said. That was a pricey fix but the last of our repairs.
Much of our journey was on very dicey roads.
In Newfoundland, we drove north through Hurricane Matthew, which had morphed into a Thanksgiving Day blizzard. It seemed fitting that our trip was bookended by snowstorms, one in Alaska and one in Newfoundland. In all, we traveled 9,998 miles, a lot of it on rutted gravel roads.
Alaska has no state inspections, so our first order of business was to have Arctic Mud re-inspected back in Maine. Of course it failed. After all that driving, our neighborhood mechanic said it wasn’t worth fixing. Just Right Auto in Warren didn't agree, and managed to do it without bankrupting us.
It’s up for inspection again and this time it isn’t going to pass without a lot more money. The hood latch rusted away and came loose on the Masspike last month. Mary fixed it well enough to drive with a ratchet tie-down. The 4WD is making ominous sounds and it has a persistent check-engine light. So Arctic Mud, my boon companion, is off to the bone yard. It was, in many ways, the worst of cars, but it had a redoubtable spirit.
...and the chance to benefit Children's Beach House with your holiday shopping.
Wreck of the SS Ethie, by Carol L. Douglas
“That looks like so much fun.” It can be genuine, or it can have the hard edge that implies, “unlike my job as a claims adjuster.” Either way, it’s usually, but not always, true. There are days when we approach our easels with exhaustion, trepidation, or stiff hands.
I owe my friend Peter Yesis a great debt in reminding me to do warm-ups when this happens. I have cases of 6X8 warm ups in the corner of my studio. At one time, I painted a tree every day; at another time it was a still life. But this commitment went by the wayside as I got busier and busier, and now I usually blog in the hour I once did these exercises.
Termination Dust, by Carol L. Douglas. The only realism in this painting was the chill in my studio when I started it.
Warm ups are like scales. They’re a requisite to being in good voice when we go out and perform.
Last week I was stuck in a particularly finicky commission painting. I feared all my painterliness was being sucked down the great hole of representation. I pulled out a canvas and did a fantasy landscape. This is a favorite exercise of mine, a landscape only loosely based on reality. One starts with an abstraction and builds a realistic painting upon it.
Glade, by Carol L. Douglas. I was interested in the terrible symmetry of a circle.
The painting at top, of the shipwreck of SS Ethie off the coast of Newfoundland, is an example of such a painting. I recorded the steps of its development here.
Shoreline, by Carol L. Douglas, is based on nothing more than a black shape.
Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World—the painting that put realism back on the map—is just an abstraction that uses three realistic objects to drive us relentlessly through its spare, rigid, Color Fieldconstruction.
Wyeth aside, painting from a wisp or suggestion is a great way to blow the cobwebs out of your brushes. I find myself anxious to put the computer aside and start painting every morning. The fun is back in my brushes.
Want to support a great program?
Home Farm, by Carol L. Douglas, is featured in the 2019 Children's Beach House calendar.
My painting Home Farmwon an Honorable Mention. It was done at Winterthur and I hope it captures a sense of the old farms that were assembled to make this great American estate.
Home Farm is also showcased within the pages of the 2019 Plein Air Brandywine Valley Calendar.
For each $100 donation to Children's Beach House, you will receive this incredible one-of-a-kind limited production calendar created by sponsor Dennis M. Wallace of Comprehensive Wealth Management Group. It includes all of the 2018 Plein Air Brandywine Valley painting and photography award winners. You can order directly on-line at www.cbhinc.org.
100% of your donation goes to support the programs at Children’s Beach House. They provide programs for children with communicative disabilities (speech, hearing, language and other special needs) who are further challenged by living in poverty. This calendar makes a great holiday gift for family, friends and colleagues.
We all know race is an artificial construct, yet we persist in using it anyway. It’s not even skin deep. It doesn’t exist at all.
Figure Commission, by Carol L. Douglas, private collection.
Yesterday I pulled out a chart that demonstrates how to mix a full range of skin tones. (There are darker and lighter people, of course; to catch their color, just adjust the amount of white you use.) This chart is ratty and worn, so I remade it for my students and now I’m sharing it with you.
There are cool tints in the left column and warm colors across the top. Mix them together in rows, and you get a wonderful array of skin tones. The solid warms are always the base; whether you use grey or violet or blue to modulate the colors depends on the underlying tones in your model.
Painting this chart is a great exercise in mixing colors.
Natural light hitting the human skin is far more variable than we see indoors. We live (and paint) under artificial light. That narrows the color range, which is why I hate painting figure under spotlights.
There are greens, purples, and yellows in every person’s skin. The ears, face, fingers and toes all tend to pink; there’s blood closer to the surface. Some of us have visible traceries of blue veins. There are lovely greens and mauves in shadows. In fact, the only difference between my landscape palette and my studio palette is that red always makes an appearance inside.
My studio copy is pretty worn.
The colors on my chart are likenesses, of course. Our actual skin color is based on just one pigment, melanin. Lighter people just have more blue-white connective tissue and hemoglobin showing through.
We moderns talk of Asians as having ‘yellow’ skin. That’s a modern lie. In the 13th century Travels of Marco Polo, the people of China are described as white. Eighteenth century missionaries also called Japanese and other East Asians white.
The ‘yellow’ label can be laid squarely at the feet of science. The father of modern taxonomy, Carl Linnaeus, first used the label fuscus (dark) to describe the skin color of Asians. Later, he began calling them luridus instead. That translates to ‘pale yellow’, ‘wan’, ‘sallow’, ‘lurid’—with a dash of ‘horrifying’ attached.
The father of comparative anatomy, Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, used the word gilvus, which translates to ‘yellow’. (He’s also the guy who started calling Asians ‘Mongolians’.) By the nineteenth century, westerners were completely sold on the idea that Asians were yellow. Thanks, Science.
The Servant, by Carol L. Douglas
Yesterday’s class included half-Japanese and Chinese students. Both of them are as pink as I am. The student with the yellowest skin was a blue-eyed Northern European with an addiction to carrots. He has stained himself a terrific saffron color.
The farther down the Italian boot you go, the more you find genetic mixtures with Greeks, North Africans and Middle Easterners. That’s no surprise; the Mediterranean was the original melting pot. Southern Italians and Greeks are often very dark in color.
It’s no surprise that neither were considered quite white in 19th century America (although they had that designation for naturalization purposes). In fact the largest mass lynching in American history was of Italian-Americans. What’s more peculiar is that some people didn’t consider Irish-Americans white, either.
We all know race is an artificial construct, yet we persist in using it anyway. Paint-mixing shows us that the similarity in our coloration is far greater than the differences. Race isn't skin-deep; it doesn’t exist at all.
I came of age during the heyday of abstract-expressionism. I’m still half-apologizing for liking realism. That colors every brushstroke I make.
Keulka vineyard, by Carol L. Douglas. That's the studio version. Courtesy the Kelpie Gallery.
John Morrarecently wrote an excellent essay examining the nature of plein air painting. I’m assigning it to all my students; it’s that good.
Most of us have been in a competitive plein air event and seen something passed off as outdoor painting that was clearly not painted from life. How do we know this? Because we were there. The atmospherics were wrong, that person was never in that spot, or—mirabile dictu—the oil paint has already set up.
But mostly, we know because there’s a sort of static perfection to a studio painting that is never there in plein air. A painting done on site is never as balanced or stately as a studio landscape. The plein air painting expresses a longing for the natural world that just isn’t there in the studio.
Keuka Vineyard, by Carol L. Douglas. That's the plein air version. (Private collection.)
Morra makes the point that we tend to over-edit in plein air painting. We’ve had two hundred years of being told that objective observation is not painterly. Until I read this, I hadn’t considered how much I’ve been programmed to think non-objectively. I came of age during the heyday of abstract-expressionism. I’m still half-apologizing for liking realism. That colors every brushstroke I make.
Still, I constantly emphasize editing in my classes and workshops. Composition is one of the hardest skills in painting. The rules of reading a composition are the same whether the piece is done in studio or in the field. We edit because we’re working around environmental distractions.
Queensboro Bridge Approach, by Carol L. Douglas (plein air). The built environment is part of our landscape too.
But that kind of editing can easily go overboard. Consider the lowly car. Many of us delete them—frankly, because they’re hard to paint. But today’s Toyota Corolla is really no different from Childe Hassam’s hansom cabs were in 1890. His paintings would be far weaker without them.
In fact, a lot of modern plein air is excessively planed down to a conceptual idea. We can call that style or schtick, depending on how charitable we’re feeling. Either way, too much style gets in the way of the scene. The first time I see a painter employing crepuscular rays or the silhouettes of birches or a monochrome passage in a composition, I’m dazzled. The fifth time, I realize the artist is using them for a crutch. It’s no more impressive than Thomas Kinkade’s flaming cottages.
“A plein air painting should be painted quickly,” Morra stated. This is the only point on which I disagree. Fast, expressive brushwork is the trope of our age, but it’s by no means the only way to paint. Consider the great Rackstraw Downes, for example. He paints meticulous, beautifully-drafted scenes of industrial America, and he does it observationally, working outdoors. His work is no less plein air than a fast scribble is.
Another modern painter who works meticulously is Patrick McPhee. He paints in great detail without losing luminosity or freshness. He bases his style on the first American plein air painters, the Hudson River School painters. They didn’t slap it down either.
Float, by Carol L. Douglas. If you can't draw, you're going to have a hard time painting en plein air.
In fact, modern plein air painting is often so fast it sacrifices drawing. A badly drawn house or person is a rookie mistake. My own preference is for fast painting paired with meticulous drawing. Want a great contemporary example? Check out Marc Grandbois.
It may seem like a fine brush is better, but that’s not always true in wet-on-wet painting.
Sea Fog on Main Street, by Carol L. Douglas. When painting plein air, you don’t have time to wait for the painting to dry to draw lines.
I’m working on a commission that has a lot of architectural detail. I don’t want the end result to be fussy. I’m not a clean renderer like Frank Costantino. He can drop a fine line with a rigger and it falls into the painting, cool and elegant.
Watercolor loves fine lines. Alla primaoil painting doesn’t. It tends to be looser and rougher. A fine line added with a rigger can lie on the surface looking silly, or it can melt into the bottom layers and look like mush.
Working backwards allows you to make clean edges without being overly fussy.
My solution is to paint edges and lines in reverse. I lay down the line and then back the color up to meet it.
Lines should be happening on an already-wet surface, because they aren’t important in the big-shape phase. That means you need a technique for removing excess paint before you draw. For large erasures, I take off excess paint with a palette knife. For lines, I use a wipe-out tool. I had a very old one made by Loew-Cornell that I lost this summer. I replaced it with a terrible one I picked up on the road. But Bobbi Heath assures me this is the best one currently available.
Start by getting rid of excess paint.
Getting rid of that schmearof excess paint is an important first step. You can’t draw into soup.
Lay the line in before the surrounding background. With architecture, this often means a line of light-colored paint before its dark surround. Don’t worry that you’ve broken the dark-to-light rule. Lines are usually added toward the middle or end of a painting, so you should be past that point anyway.
In oils, the side of a flat brush always works better than a tiny round for straight lines. Flats are more stable and tends to track in the right direction. Go ahead and use a ruler if you want.
The line going on with a bright.
This line should be made of fairly thin paint, with just enough medium to carry it smoothly. Too much oil and it will blend into its surround.
It's easier to paint a line with a flat on its side than with a small round.
Next paint the surrounding area, pushing up against the line with the background color. Use enough paint and be bold. It’s best to do this edging in a single stroke, but that takes practice. However, as a general rule, the more you touch the surface, the muddier the edges will get.
Then push the background color right up against the line.
In my examples, I use two different brushes. The fine flat, made by Rosemary & Co., was a gift this summer. It is very precise, but as with all synthetic fibers, it doesn’t carry much paint. The bright is old and clunkier, but it carries enough paint for a good, finished line. It may seem like finer is better, but that’s actually not true. What’s most important is getting enough paint on the canvas, evenly, so that your line doesn’t look anemic. I find that with alla prima painting, hog bristles are almost always better.
After two flags, a chair, and a lot of white trim, I was so cramped up by precision that I had to do this fast surf exercise to wash out my mind (and loosen up my hand).
I enjoyed painting with the Rosemary & Co. flat, but it was no good for surface work. Eventually, I realized I didn’t like my painting at all. I set it aside and did a fast exercise with big brushes that got rid of the stiffness that had crept into my painting from using the wrong brush.
Governments seem inept at commissioning public art. They’re apparently just as bad at selling it.
Zero and One's best side is from inside the Federal Building. Courtesy Stan Dolega.
I was once commissioned to paint a panel I knew would be buried. This made the painting more performance than permanent, since anything that goes underground rapidly returns to dust. I did it on copper flashing and hoped for the best. But I was resigned to its ultimate destruction; that was understood from the beginning.
I’m reconciled to running across my work in the resale market. I hope my clients don’t send it to the library bric-a-brac sale, but one never knows. I once bought a house with a print lying in the debris on the attic floor. It was by an important 20th century lithographer. If I’d just swept as I intended, the world would have lost that print and I wouldn’t have made a few thousand dollars.
Maquette for Zero and One, Stan Dolega, wood, painted paperboard and plastic, courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum. The piece has already been cut off from its setting by the addition of a fence.
What’s in our museums and collections is only a small fraction of the artwork that’s been produced over centuries. Even among the works considered masterpieces at their creation, there’s been terrific attrition. The great Ghent Altarpiece has narrowly escaped destruction several times. Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries and the Bildersturm stripped away the greatest altarpieces of northern Europe. In fact, iconoclasm is art’s worst enemy.
Zero and One in situ. Another question is why a multimillion-dollar post office building was obsolete after only 45 years.
Artist Stan Dolega was paid $19,000 in 1981 to create Zero and One for the Federal Building in Wenatchee, Washington. (That’s $55,000 in 2018 money.) It’s an earthwork in contemporary form. Yes, it looks a little dated 37 years later, but that's part of the life-cycle of all art.
The building was eventually auctioned off and then sold to the city, which wants to raze the artwork. It’s difficult to mow, and it’s now fenced off so kids don’t wear it down skateboarding. On the other hand, it’s small enough that it’s only going to net a few parking spots at most.
Jonathan Turley was really very funny on the subject. But Dolega inevitably heard about Turley’s piece, was hurt by its tone and the scathing comments that followed.
“To my way of thinking (the article) was amazingly hostile to the piece itself and, of course, indirectly that means to me because I made it,” Dolega said. There’s a lesson in that about the power of words in the Electronic Age.
A closer streetside view, before the fence went up. Courtesy Stan Dolega.
There’s an unbridgeable gap here: Hizzoner wants the space for something else, but there’s no way to move the work.
Which leaves us in the very uncomfortable position of deciding whether to euthanize a work of public art. Unlike tyrants, democratic governments seem uniquely inept at commissioning public art. They’re apparently just as bad at unloading it.
You can use the phrase, “that piece,” but only if it’s in the context of choosing between two or three items in the show. Never address it at the gallerist, who is a human being with feelings, and also the person who bought the wine you’re swilling.
Piece is a loaded word; use it with care. “I’m looking for a piece of art” is about as discriminating as being on the hunt for a piece of a--.
“How much time did that take?” marks you as an art rube. Jonas Kaufmann doesn’t get paid by the note and artists don’t get paid by the brushstroke. That piece is the culmination of a lifetime’s practice. It may have taken six hours or six years. It’s not a negotiating point, sorry.
“That looks just like a photograph” grieves me terribly, since I wanted it to look like a painting. When you’re at a loss for something nice to say, go with “I love the use of color!” Everyone believes they’re a colorist.
“What is it?” With modern painting, less is more. If you have to ask, you can’t afford it.
“That’s a nice frame.” Actually, artists say this a lot to each other. It is always followed by, “Where’d you get it?” and “How much?” But the rest of you are supposed to be interested in the art.
Bracken Fern, by Carol L. Douglas
“What’s your absolute bottom line price?” Well, it’s on this little tag right here. The gallerist might do a little something for you if you buy several pieces, but you have to take it up with him or her. And it’s usually on the order of 5-10%.
“Don’t give up the day job!” That’s not even funny, since this is my day job.
“You’ve given it your best shot.” That was from my mother after a bad show twenty years ago. If she could see me now…
“In my day, we didn’t have time for self-actualizing.” Another bon mot from my mother. Believe it or not, she was worried I’d starve to death. If she could see me now, dieting through Christmas…
Beach, by Carol L. Douglas
“Is that tie-dye?” This is something Shibori artists hear a lot. I suppose in its broadest definition it’s true—if tie-dye was done with threads and stitching and compression and incredible skill. “Tell me about your process” is going to elicit the same information and not make you look silly.
“I have a really nice painting at home, by this guy named Thomas Kinkade.” De mortuis nihil nisi bonum and all that, but that’s not a marker of good taste.
“The wine is terrible but at least it’s free.” Can’t help you there.