If you can buy something similar at TJ Maxx/Home Goods, it’s not really art.
Spring Mountain Lake, Carol L. Douglas
Earlier this year, a young artist asked me about a gallery she was approaching. I gave her what advice I could and wished her well. This week she sent me a note telling me they’d chosen to represent another artist instead. One could accept that with equanimity, but she also sent me some images of the other artist’s work. Frankly, it’s schmaltz. It’s no more complex or insightful than the ‘art’ they sell at TJ Maxx/Home Goods. I can see why my friend was upset.
What the other artist has is breezy, light patter on Instagram, and cute graphical pictures to match. Like shoes, these are easy to market on-line, but they have no depth. That doesn’t mean all online paintings have to be shallow. In fact, I can help my young artist friend develop her online presence. First, she’s got to get past her disappointment.
Small boat harbor, Carol L. Douglas
There are roughly 19,000 galleries in 124 countries and 3533 cities worldwide, according to the Global Art Gallery Report 2016. The vast majority of them are in the US, Britain and Germany, with the US being the far-and-away leader. That means that my correspondent has lots of options, but she may have to leave her town to find them.
The gallerist’s primary job is to cover his or her nut. Generally, galleries do this very badly. They are risky revenue generators, even in good economic times. 30% of them are running at a loss. Only 18% make a healthy profit margin of over 20%. This means there’s lots of turnover. Only 7% of galleries are 35 years old or older, and almost half have opened since 2000. (These are international figures; the US has a healthier gallery scene, but it’s certainly not easy even here.)
The gallerist who rejected my young friend’s work was thinking about what he could sell, not what’s insightful or brilliant. Or perhaps he’s not thinking acutely at all—remember that almost a third of galleries are losing money.
Keuka Lake Vineyard, Carol L. Douglas, courtesy Kelpie Gallery.
Rejection itself is a sign that the relationship wouldn’t go anywhere. There's no future with a gallery you have to woo aggressively. The gallerist has to understand and appreciate your work. “I have a perspective worth sharing,” my friend said, and she’s right. But if the gallerist isn’t on board with her message, her work will languish on the walls, or, worse, in a storeroom.
One advantage of old age is that you’ve experienced rejection enough that it generally doesn’t hurt so keenly. You realize that the difference between success and failure is picking yourself back up and pounding your head against the door… again and again.
Sentinel trees, Carol L. Douglas
When I said my correspondent might have to leave her town to find better options, I was speaking of both geographically and online. The Art Gallery Report asked gallerists to rank their key competitors. They said:
Their heads are in the sand. Online selling is a far bigger threat to gallerists than artists’ occasional studio sales. It’s an area that my young friend can exploit, and I hope she does.
I have a hard time loving the work of Egon Schiele. Erotic paintings, emaciated figures, and anguished self-portraits leave me cold. I far prefer the Expressionism of Käthe Kollwitz and Gabriele Münter. They weren’t happy, either, but at least they had something real to complain about.
Then my friend Bruce McMillan introduced me to Schiele’s boat paintings. They don’t quite make up for all those tortured people, but they’re beautifully drawn and kinetic. Interestingly, the highest auction prices for Schiele’s work are not for his erotica, but for his landscapes, including the record-setting Häuser mit bunter Wäsche ‘Vorstadt’ II, which sold for $40.1 million in 2011.
Boote im Hafen von Triest, 1908, Egon Schiele, courtesy Landesmuseum Niederösterreich
There’s no question that Schiele was a prodigy. At 16, he was the youngest student ever to enroll at Vienna’s Academy of Fine Arts. After three years, he quit without graduating. In school and after, he was mentored by Gustav Klimt, who did much to advance his career.
“Klimt was an established star and Schiele a cocksure student when the two first met in 1908,” wroteLaura Cumming. “But it is immediately obvious… that their obsessions were already mutual.”
Klimt had innumerable affairs and fathered 14 children out of wedlock. But he was staid compared to his protégée, who was completely amoral in matters of sexuality. Schiele was incestuously attracted to his sister Gerti, to the great consternation of their father (who went on to die of syphilis himself). At age 16, Schiele took Gerti, then 12, by train to Trieste and spent the night with her.
At 21, he met Walburga (Wally) Neuzil, age 17, one of Klimt’s models. Aspiring to leave ‘repressive’ Vienna behind, the couple moved to a small Bohemian village. Driven out due to their lifestyle, they moved to slightly-larger Neulengbach. There, Schiele was accused of seducing a young girl and making pornographic images available to children. Although the rape charge was eventually dropped, he spent a month in jail for the pictures.
Dampfer und Segelboote im Hafen von Triest, watercolor, pencil and gouache on Japan paper, 1912, Egon Schiele
Back in Vienna, he wrote a friend, “I intend to get married, advantageously. Not to Wally.” Instead, he’d picked out Edith Harms, from a good middle-class family. As a former prostitute and artist’s model, Wally was a professional liability. Schiele proposed that he and Wally continue their relationship, vacationing together every summer without Edith. Wally indignantly refused.
Four days after the wedding, Egon Schiele was drafted into the army. He was given a job as a clerk in a POW camp. There, he drew and painted imprisoned Russian officers, nicking extra rations for himself and Edith on the side.
Die Brücke, 1913, Egon Schiele, private collection
By 1917, Schiele was back in Vienna. He was invited to participate in the Vienna Secession's 49th exhibition in 1918, with a prodigious 50 works in the show. His success was spectacular. Demand—and prices—for Schiele’s work rose rapidly.
It was, alas, a short-lived triumph. In autumn of that year, Spanish flupandemicreached Vienna. Edith and their unborn child died on October 28. Schiele lived just three days more. He was just 28.
It’s tempting to wonder what marriage, parenthood, and maturity would have done to temper the wild excesses of his youth, or how it would have changed his style. But, had he lived to ripe old age, Schiele would have also experienced the annexation of Austria by the Nazis twenty years later. It’s hard to imagine he would have prospered.
It’s not really a question of labels, but of who can work his way through the shifting sands of market change.
More work than they bargained for, by Carol L. Douglas
Recently I had the opportunity for a nice chin-wag with a friend. I don’t remember what the subject was, but she told me, “I’m just an emerging artist.”
This is a term that’s annoyed me since it was first coined. Until we’re dead, we’d better be emerging, as part of a process of constant growth. We must restlessly seek better galleries, bigger shows, and more important venues, just as we improve our skills.
But what does that mean to gallerists, who sometimes want to show ‘emerging artists’ and sometimes want to show ‘mid-career’—another meaningless term until we’re dead—or ‘established’ artists? These are terms that are hardening into acceptance, so it behooves us to think about what the people who bandy them around are trying to say.
The terms have nothing to do with age, and everything to do with experience. You may be 15 or fifty, but if you’re just starting out, you’re an emerging artist. You’re working, you’re probably selling, but you haven’t got an inventory of paintings or a settled, consistent practice.
Dinghies, Fish Beach, Monhegan, by Carol L. Douglas
The mid-career artist is someone who’s been doing art for several years, created a body of work, and shown and been recognized. He has had a significant number of solo shows at recognized venues, and been written about in publications. His following is not regional, but national or even global.
A mature artist is one who’s been commodified. His work sells in the secondary market and he has a sales record that supports rising prices. He is represented in public collections, and by excellent galleries in major metropolitan areas. In short, he is at the pinnacle of career. Sadly, this often means someone with one foot in the grave, as well.
Drying sails, by Carol L. Douglas
The problem with these descriptions is that they’re about success, rather than experience. There are factors involved in success that have nothing to do with skill. Just compare the public recognition of Alex Katz and Lois Dodd. Similar pedigrees, similar experiences, similar skills, and yet he’s far more widely recognized than she. And misogyny is justs one factor that comes to play in determining who’s going to be a star.
The art market is just too vast for anyone to categorize painters in this way. Even the greatest landscape painter on the Maine coast or in Santa Fe may mean nothing to a Manhattan dealer who hunts relentlessly for the next enfant terrible to promote. Would he, for example, have a clue who the quiet, reflective Scottish painter James Morrisonis?
Ask the Manhattanite who’s emerging and who’s established, and you’re going to get a far different answer than if you ask in, say, Houston. Meanwhile, regional landscape art—including plein air—sells like mad.
Spring, by Carol L. Douglas
Anyone who’s been selling paintings for a while also recognizes that the whole marketplace is changing rapidly. What happens in the art markets of New York and London is almost completely irrelevant in the decentralized world of painting sales elsewhere, including on the internet. It’s not really a question of who’s emerging or established, and I'd make no business decisions based on what label you think applies to you. Rather, it's a question of who can work his way through the shifting sands of the current art market.
Leonardo da Vinci painted two Madonnas set in caves. Why?
Madonna of the Rocks, Leonardo da Vinci, c. 1483-86, courtesy of the Louvre.
We moderns are very good at seeing subconscious imagery in everything. In contrast, our ancestors communicated with universally-understood symbols. These represented an idea, a person, or even a relationship. Earlier this week, I came across a quotation from Leonardo da Vinci’snotebook, in which the distinction between symbol and subconscious gets a little fuzzy:
“Having wandered some distance among gloomy rocks, I came to the mouth of a great cavern, in front of which I stood some time, astonished,” he recalled. “Bending back and forth, I tried to see whether I could discover anything inside, but the darkness within prevented that. Suddenly there arose in me two contrary emotions, fear and desire—fear of the threatening dark cave, desire to see whether there were any marvelous thing within.”
Madonna of the Rocks, c. 1503-06, Leonardo da Vinci, courtesy National Gallery
Leonardo painted two versions of The Madonna of the Rocks, twenty years apart. These are based on a legend of the time. The Holy Family, on the flight to Egypt, encounters a toddler John the Baptist, who then worships (adores) his savior cousin.
Artists before and after Leonardo regularly placed nativities in caves. This made historical sense, as Jesus’ birthplace was assumed to be the grotto under the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. (Natural caves were used as homes and barns in Bible-era Israel.)
Leonardo also painted St. Jerome in a cave, but everyone did that. Jerome translated his Bible into Latin in the cave where Jesus was born.
St Jerome, c. 1480, unfinished, Leonardo da Vinci, courtesy the Vatican
But Leonardo stepped out into new territory when he painted his adoration scene. What did he mean by painting what is essentially an idyll framed by something he found terrifying?
Back to his own narrative. Desire won out over fear, and Leonardo entered the cave. He found a great, fossilized whale. “O mighty and once living instrument of formative nature. Incapable of availing thyself of thy vast strength thou hast to abandon a life of stillness and to obey the law which God and time gave to procreative nature…
“You lashed with swift, branching fins and forked tail, creating in the sea sudden tempests that buffeted and submerged ships. Now destroyed by time thou liest patiently in this confined space with bones stripped and bare; serving as a support and prop for the superimposed mountain.”
Madonna of the Carnation, 1478, Leonardo da Vinci, courtesy Alte Pinakothek. Isn’t this just a more stylized version of the same traps and dark passages as in the cave paintings?
There are those who assume his maudlin meanderings are metaphorical, a sort of picture of what lies before us all. But Leonardo was more an earnest student of nature than a poet, and whale fossils are indeed found in Tuscany. Real or imagined, he read a lot into the experience.
Apocalyptic scenes from da Vinci’s notebooks, c. 1517-18, Royal Collection Trust
Leonardo went on to describe the end of existence as we know it. “The rivers will be deprived of their waters, the earth will no longer put forth her greenery; the fields will no more be decked with waving corn; all the animals, finding no fresh grass for pasture, will die. In this way the fertile and fruitful earth will be forced to end with the element of fire; and then its surface will be left burnt up to cinder and this will be the end of all earthly nature.” He went on to illustrate these dark, apocalyptic scenes.
Biographer Walter Isaacson described these pages as a sort of existential crisis. That’s a very modern mindset. I’d first be inclined to look for religious imagery—leviathan, Jonah and the whale, Resurrection, Revelation. Was he was setting the Adoration of the Christ Child against his own deepest fears, or those of the culture in which he lived?
Mark-making can be loose and gestural or very controlled. It’s personal, but it’s also something you can learn.
Dining Room in the Country, 1913, Pierre Bonnard, courtesy Minneapolis Institute of Art. Bonnard used small brush strokes, intense colors, and close values.
When I was a student, I often left heavy edges in my paintings. A teacher told me, “That’s your style.” Well, it wasn’t; I’d just never learned to marry edges. It was a deficiency.
Our marks are our handwriting. I’d rather see them develop naturally, so I generally avoid teaching much mark-making. But sometimes students fall into traps that severely limit their development. It’s better to understand all the ways your brush works and then settle down into something that reflects your character, rather than have to break bad brushwork down the road.
Self Portrait with Beret and Turned Up Collar, 1659, Rembrandt van Rijn, courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Pay close attention to the economy of the brushwork in the hair, and the expressive, unfinished brushwork in the face. In this way, Rembrandt was able to create a powerful focus.
Let’s first talk about how not to do it:
Unless you’re doing close detail, don’t hold your brush like a pencil. It’s a baton, and holding it to the back of the center-point gives you more lyrical motion.
Don’t dab. This means a pouncing/stabbing motion with the tip of your brush. It’s amateurish in oils, anemic in acrylics, and only possible with any elegance with a wet watercolor brush.
Don’t use brush strokes that go in all one direction. Learn to apply paint in the round.
All these rules are successfully broken by great artists. You may go on to break them yourself, but it behooves you to learn the full range of motion of your brush before you do so.
Wheatfield with Crows, 1890, Vincent van Gogh, courtesy Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam. The motion in the painting is created by his brush strokes.
Mark-making can be loose and gestural or very controlled. It’s not just pertinent to painting; it applies to any material applied to a surface, including three-dimensional and digital art. It’s purely personal, and can be where the artist expresses—or suppresses—his feelings about the subject.
Waterlilies, c. 1915, Claude Monet, courtesy Neue Pinakothek, Munich. Monet makes no attempt to hide his drawing in this painting. The brushstrokes are wet-over-dry.
Mark-making is an important aspect of abstract art, including the kind where the mark-making is not done with a brush (as with Jackson Pollack or Gerhard Richter). But tight brushwork is just as much a hallmark of modern painting—see pop art, for example.
Lady Agnew of Lochnaw, 1892, John Singer Sargent, courtesy Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh. Note that the transparent sleeves are not produced by glazing, but with direct, long brushstrokes.
I’ve included five great artworks in this assignment. Each has one or more close-ups with it. Your assignment is to try to figure out the brush used and copy the brush-strokes as accurately as you can on an old canvas. Note that I’m not asking you to make a painting; that would be too confusing. I’m just asking you to try to mimic the brushwork.
Portraits of the dead are difficult, but they’re also satisfying and meaningful to paint.
Reunited with Jesus, by Carol L. Douglas
Occasionally I have the opportunity to do a portrait of someone who has shuffled off this mortal coil. These are the most difficult portraits to paint, because there are never good reference photos available. You’re changing angles and planes, guessing their height and weight, and dealing with terrible flash or shadows. Yet these are the best photos the family has.
This infant died after birth, and all his mother had was a very blurry snapshot. It's, unfortunately, the only photo I have of the painting.
Despite the technical difficulties, these reflections on mortality are among my favorite subjects. They’re a comfort to the survivors, who struggle to find meaning in their own personal disaster. They force me to draw from my own painting and drawing experience. Can I draw a plausible hand or foot with no reference photo at all? Most importantly, they’re thought-provoking.
Death is the deepest question facing mortal man. We all will die someday. That’s absolute. What will it be like? Where will we end up? Will we see our loved ones again? Will we work, or sing endlessly? (Will singing feel like work, or will I be able to belt out a tune like Kate Smith?)
The subject of this portrait passed away last summer, much too young—my age, in fact. Her daughter-in-law sought a way of comforting her husband on the loss of his mother, of reassuring him that her final destination was, indeed, Heaven.
This is someone I knew very well: my sainted Aunt Mary, who died the day before her sixtieth birthday. It's a portrait of her servant's heart.
I’d intended to concentrate on the figures and scumble a vague background. However, I’ve been thinking about angels for months. Angels are not cute putti or disembodied beings. They’re vigorous workmen in the Kingdom of God. It seemed like a good opportunity to paint them and think about what Heaven might be like. My deep subconscious apparently thinks that it’s a bustling kind of place.
For those unfamiliar with traditional Christian imagery, here’s some explanation: Jesus has a seat at the right hand of God because, in the Biblical era, that meant an honored guest shared eminence and authority with his distinguished host. But he’s relaxed enough to come down from his throne and welcome an individual to heaven, just as he was comfortable coming to earth to share our human struggles.
Only one person in this portrait is deceased. He's dancing with his elegant and wonderful wife, in the Pennsylvania woods he loved so much.
The lamb on his seat-back is the Agnus Dei, the “lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” The figure to the right of God is the Recording Angel, mentioned by two Old Testament prophets. The orb in God’s hand is not a strictly Christian symbol. Its origin is the plain round globe held by the god Jupiter. This became a standard symbol of power in the post-Roman world. It came into Christian iconography through the Salvator Mundi. God’s outfit is quoted directly from God Inviting Christ to Sit on the Throne at His Right Hand (1645) by Pieter de Grebber. The floating cross on which the Throne of God sits is my own idea, although there’s certainly “nothing new under the sun.”
All this sounds very Catholic, and for good reason. During the time when Christian symbolism was evolving, the Catholic church was the only game in town. I was concerned that it would be too much for a modern client. It turns out that the recipient of the painting was raised as a Catholic. These will be familiar images to him. It's just another example of how “all things work together for good for those who love God.”
How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice!
Watercoloring at Schoodic Point with Rebecca Bense.
Sometimes, the people who struggle in painting class are the ones you’d least expect to have trouble. They’re accomplished in their professional life, and they’ve demonstrated the capacity to master complex subjects quickly.
That proficiency can be their undoing. When they don’t immediately understand the process, they’re flummoxed. Understand ideas helps, but it’s not everything. They have to learn another way of learning—grasping an idea from the hands, not the head.
The critic may understand all the elements that make a good painting, but it’s unlikely that he or she can paint or draw anything. The working artist may understand none of those things, but is still able to make enchanting paintings. It’s all about where they’ve concentrated their effort.
It's not all about what the teacher says; it's mostly about what you do with that information.
You’ll do better in a workshop or class if you aim to enjoy the process, rather than focus on the end result. You can’t expect perfection in a week. The more time you spend working on art, the better you’ll be.
In my classes, I concentrate on one aspect of painting each session. I’m limiting the scope of the project. Painting involves so many complex skills and techniques that if they were all thrown at us at once, we’d be overwhelmed. If you’re teaching yourself, you need to find ways to limit scope on your own. Choose one or two things that you want to improve—such as your color handling or mark-making—and concentrate on just those until you’ve made them better. Then move on to the next thing.
Painting buddies on Penobscot Bay.
A painting buddy is a great asset, as a coach, a sounding board, and for moral support. I love the interactions in my classes, because they’re uniformly positive. In most cases, people really do wish their friends the best.
Gaye Adamshas some shrewd advice about practice: “It is important to lock in the learning. Recognize that workshops shorten the learning curve, which is awesome, but they are not a substitute for easel time.”
It’s difficult to paint for a short time every day, because of the set up and clean up. However, you can always carry a sketchbook and draw. Drawing is the single best thing you can do to improve your painting, and it's fun. Save the painting for those periods when you have a few hours of uninterrupted time.
Painting aboard American Eagle last summer.
Sometimes we need more support than can be offered by practice alone. In that case, a teacher is very helpful. Check out their class size, the work being done by their students, and—above all—if they’re painting in a style that pleases you.
My own August workshop at Schoodic Institute in Acadia National Park is sold out. However, there are still a few openings in my sketch-watercolor workshop aboard the schooner American Eagle, June 9-13, 2019. This is a class to learn how to catch landscape quickly and expressively in watercolor, pen and pencil. Materials are provided. For more information, see here, or for more information.
If you’ve learned to do one thing well, you can apply that technique to anything else you want to do.
Abstraction, by Carol L. Douglas. My hair looks a lot like this.
Those who know me will be surprised to learn that I occasionally brush my hair. I like it long, but it has more than a little ‘fro in it, which makes it hard to maintain. Earlier this year I went to a new hairdresser. Kim spent a great deal of time teaching me how to shape my hair without a hairdryer. When she was done, I looked smashing—until the next day, when it was back to its usual, out-of-control, self.
My first reaction was to just let it go, even though I hate it looking like a bottle brush. “But wait,” I thought. “If Kim could make this work, it means it’s possible. She showed me how; what I have to do is practice.” And so, I practiced. And while I’m still not as good at it as she is, somedays it doesn’t look half bad.
My friend Jane, by Carol L. Douglas. She's taught me a lot of things over the years.
I see a physical therapist twice a week to work on my back. She’s very young, and she’s very tough. Every visit, she adds something new, kinky (in the pretzel sense) and too complex for me. “Now, remember to breathe,” she admonishes after she’s just given me eighteen other orders. I can’t seem to activate my back, contort my extremities, and draw air all at the same time. Every week, I leave feeling confused.
Yet I go home and try again, because I promised her that I’d practice three times a week. The first time is always awkward and messy. By the time I go back to my next appointment, though, I’ve got it more or less mastered. Three months ago, Krista told me, “Age is just a number.” I laughed; she’s my youngest daughter’s age. Now I’m starting to believe her. The improvement has been life-changing.
Listening in church, by Carol L. Douglas. Part of learning to paint is incessant drawing.
By the time we’re adults, we’ve all pretty well mastered something— Crêpes Suzette, tax preparation, Greek diacritics, Morris dancing… the list is as infinite and varied as humans ourselves. Here are some things I’ve mastered:
Numerical computations in my head;
What about you? What are you good at?
For most people, it’s easier to enumerate our shortcomings than our successes, but that’s a mistake, as I wrote here. I certainly have things I’m not good at, starting with cookery. But I’m a bad cook because I have absolutely no interest in food.
That’s the first difference between success and failure: we succeed at what we love; we fail at what we dislike. “You could do it if you just tried,” I heard as a kid, and now I know it was true. Our failures represent disinterest far more than incompetence.
Bailiff in County Court, by Carol L. Douglas. Draw, draw, everywhere, even in court.
Thinking about our masteries is not a feel-good exercise; it’s an invitation to look at our learning process and figure out how it worked. I made my first pies in 4H. I found better recipes and techniques, other bakers gave me tips, and I’m still looking for ways to up my game.
It’s exactly the same with more complex activities like art, music and higher mathematics. Your successes determine the method you’ll use to keep developing. Other masteries not only tell you that you have the intellectual tools necessary to take on the challenge, but that you have a method of learning that works.
Notice that I’ve not said a word about talent here. It’s the most overrated quality in success. Thomas Edison was entirely right when he said, “Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.” Now get to work!
Your paints will work fine; you just need to dress properly.
Deer in snow, by Carol L. Douglas. I included this because I hit one on Saturday. She bounded off, but she's gonna have a headache.
Normally, plein airstudents take it easy in the dead of winter, but not my current class. They’ve trooped faithfully to my studio through the worst weather. It’s still five days until Spring, but they’re all anxious to get outdoors.
Uninsulated spaces are pretty common in Maine, where the houses are attached to barns and sheds. One of my students has his studio in one of these outbuildings. In summer, it’s delightful, but in the dead of winter he switches to watercolor so he can work in his kitchen. Now that it’s warming up again, he wants to get back to oils, but even with a woodstove, he’s unlikely to raise the temperature much above the low forties. “Do you have any tips for me?” he asked.
Upper Reaches of the Pecos River, by Carol L. Douglas
It’s actually easier to stay warm outside, as long as the wind isn’t blowing. Even an overcast day will have some solar gain, whereas an unheated barn can get pretty damp and cold.
The most important part of your body to insulate is your feet. Standing in one place is far more taxing than walking around in the cold. A piece of carpeting on the ground or floor will help. Always wear insulated snow boots or snowmobile boats. Don’t have them? Get some oversize Wellies and several pairs of wool socks. Yes, you’ll waddle, but agility isn’t the issue here; insulation is. (This is a "do as I say, not as I do," statement. I'm always going out in the wrong boots.)
If you're working in pastel, you have no material-handling problems at all.
Will your paint work? Yes!
I regularly store my palettes outdoors in wintertime. I can pull them out of the snowdrift (assuming I can find them) and start painting immediately. Oil paints in a linseed oil binder don’t freeze until they reach -4.27° F or -20.15° C.
Even when we get below that point, oil paint seems to thaw with no problems. The oil binder doesn’t change color, viscosity or clarity, and nothing separates.
Haybales, Niagara County, by Carol L.Douglas. This was painted at -10° F., and the lumps are frozen paint. In addition, my cell-phone battery and my car battery both died from the cold. I must have been crazy.
In the summer, I move my palettes to a freezer. Most home freezers are set at about 0° F, so the paint is very chilled but not actually frozen. The cold temperatures slow down oxidation, which makes the paint stay open longer. (I had a dedicated chest freezer for my paints, but my husband insisted on filling it up with food. Now I keep my palette in a waterproof stuff sack so that it doesn’t contaminate our future dinners.)
As long as you’re above -4.27° F, your paints will work more or less normally. They may get slightly thick as you get close to 0°; just increase the amount of solvent very slightly and they’ll be fine.
Twilight on my stone wall, by Carol L. Douglas
If you use watercolor, you can add grain-alcohol, vodka or gin as antifreeze. A good rule of thumb is that you can add up to 20% booze to your paints before they get tipsy. But not all pigments can handle their liquor. Be prepared for excess paper staining, or different precipitation rates than you’re used to with plain water.
I know of no way, sadly, to keep acrylics from freezing.
With any medium, you’re unlikely to have precise control of your brushes when you’re bundled up and your hands are in gloves. Work loose and don’t sweat the details.
Mixing paints is simple if you understand how pigments work.
Tilt-a-Whirl, by Carol L. Douglas. Painted plein air.
Let’s start with some simple review of the color wheel. Red, blue and yellow are the primary colors. Across the wheel from a color is its complement—the color that completes the circle. The complement of a primary color is always a secondary color. A secondary color is one made by mixing two primary colors.
The color wheel.
In theory, you can paint with just four pigments: red, blue, yellow and white. For beginning painters this is sometimes a good idea, because it’s the fastest way to learn color management in a hurry. It simplifies the thought process so you have only one decision to make at a time, and it is easier to get a more unified color scheme.
But there is a big limiting factor, and that’s the impurity of pigments. They all have overtones that muddy them up in certain mixes. That’s why your local paint dealer uses many, many more pigments than just red, blue, and yellow.
The takeaway lesson here is that different pigments may look similar out of the tube, but they reflect light (and thus mix) very differently. From Scientific Examination of Art: Modern Techniques in Conservation and Analysis, 2003, National Academy of Sciences.
Cerulean blue hue (actually phthalo blue plus white)
Flake white replacement (or titanium white)
Both Monet’s and Gamblin’s palettes are paired primaries plus green, white and black. I use paired primaries as well, omitting the green but adding in some other earths. (Here are my supply lists for oils, acrylics, and watercolors.)
The distinction between warm and cool colors has been important in painting since the Impressionists. Warm colors are said to be hues from red through yellow and cool colors are said to be the hues from green through violet. Each hue around the color wheel also has a warm and a cool version.
There’s no factual hot or cold point because this is a poetical description that works, rather than a scientific fact. Much of what we believe about the psychology of color is hocus-pocus, but it’s true that if the light is what we call “warm,” the shadows are what we call “cool,” and vice versa.
When we say that lemon yellow is cooler than cadmium yellow deep, we mean that if you are trying to mix a greenish yellow, you’ll get a clearer shade with the lemon than you will with the cadmium. The warm-cool language is just a convenient way of saying that.
Different pigments may look the same when squeezed out of the tube, but there the similarity ends. Pigments are impure, and you have to learn and work around those impurities.
Today’s lesson is an experiment in working through those color shifts. I want you to make the above color chart, using three sets of paired primaries:
Prussian blue—Ultramarine blue
Quinacridone violet—Cadmium orange
Indian yellow—Lemon yellow
The purpose of this exercise is to understand how paired primary pigments work together, so that you can make neutrals when you want them, and avoid mud when you don’t.
Draw the chart onto a canvas, and then mix across and down for each square. The left column and the top row should be pure pigments. Fill it in, then, just like the multiplication tables of your youth. For example, the intersection of cadmium orange and ultramarine blue should be a 50-50 mix of those two colors.
Unless you're painting in watercolor, the result should be opaque.
Let me know if you have any questions. And have fun!