Tuesday, June 30, 2009

So you can tell them apart

Here's a painting of mine from a number of years ago. It was painted pretty much in its entirety on location at Owls head light, near Rockland Maine.

I wanted to talk a little about color saturation tonight. here's another one of those ploys like the one I spoke of last night. Its not the answer to all of the problems of obtaining light, but its another tactic to keep in mind, another arrow for your quiver.The ideas I have been discussing the last few posts have been about ways of differentiating your lights and your shadows.

  • I paint the lights in a high value and the shadows in a low value, so you can tell them apart.
  • sometimes I paint the lights with one pigment and the shadows with a different pigment, so you can tell them apart.
  • sometimes I paint the lights grave and the shadows highly colored, so you can tell them apart,
  • or I will paint the lights highly colored and the shadows grave, so you can tell them apart
  • sometimes I will paint the lights warm and the shadows cool, so you can tell them apart
  • sometimes I will paint the lights cool and the shadows warm, so you can tell them apart.
  • sometimes I will paint my lights opaque and my shadows transparent, so you can tell them apart.
  • sometimes I paint the lights with hard edges and the shadows with soft edges, so you can tell them apart
  • sometimes I use cool reflected light in the lights and hot reflected light in the shadow, so you can tell them apart
The point of all of that was to drive home the idea that the lights and the shadows are different worlds. You need to use what ever means you can to differentiate the two. One of the characteristics of a painting that has light is that the shadows and the lights are markedly different.

There are common mistakes that kill the effect of light, some of them are

  • forming the shadow note by using the color of the light, or the local color plus black. It is to prevent beginners from committing this ART FELONY that teachers remove black from their students palettes.
The errors below all have the same cause at their root.

  • over stating the reflected light, so they become as bright as the darkest note in the lights.
  • overstating the modeling in the lights causing an "overmodeled" look and sometimes putting a value in the lights that is as dark as the lightest note over in the shadow side.
  • too much detail in the shadow, shadow "eats" detail
  • edges poorly handled, generally, uniformly too hard.
All pf the group of sins above have as their cause an error in observation. They come from painting "piecemeal". That is what happens when you paint each section of a painting the way it looks when you look directly, and only at it. An object appears differently in the larger context of its environment than it does when you scrutinize it. The better way is to paint each area the way it looks when you observe the entire scene in front of you. That's is an enormous concept.

Seeing piecemeal is an almost universal fault in weak painting. Ives Gammell, my teacher would talk about the "big look" of nature. I have heard it described in another way also,by a portrait painter who said "paint the hands the way they look when you look at the head, paint the head the way it looks when you look at the hands".
All of that sounds pretty simple, but actually doing it can take a fair amount of practice.

A painting that is "seen" piecemeal is a collection of small pictures placed one next to the other rather than a single large unit. This absolutely, and totally kills unity of effect.


If you are thinking about getting a neck tattoo, you just couldn't do better than that.

A painting should be one single image on the canvas, rather than a number of smaller images all clamoring for our attention.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Obtaining light in your paintings

John Singer Sargent, image from art renewal .org

Last night I talked about using your values to get light in your painting. Values are the most important driver of light in a painting . The next way to get more light is with color. The trick is to paint your lights a different color than your shadows. I know what you are thinking, you already knew that. But you didn't. Here's what I mean.

Its going to take a larger palette than the three color palettes that are popular in some circles today. You will need a warm and a cool of each color, as I outlined the other day and elsewhere in this blog. Like here.

Imagine if you are painting a red barn on a sunlit day. One side is in the light and the other is in the shadow. If you paint the light side with cadmium red and white, don't paint the shadow side with cadmium red, and ultramarine, use a different color, like alizirin or indian red and ultramarine. See what I mean? It sounds simple when I say paint the lights and shadows a different color, but I mean that you should actually use a different pigment.

Imagine painting a yellow house this time. Say, you painted the light side with cadmium yellow, if you paint the shadow side with cadmium yellow plus a violet, you have included the color cadmium yellow in both the light and the shadow. Instead you might use ------------ yellow ochre plus your violet. That's using a different color in the shadow than the light.

Now it isn't always possible to use this ploy, however sometimes it works very well. But you can't do it on a three color palette. That is one of the reasons why I have a broader palette.

Look for a moment at the Sargent above. The lights are painted in a high key, almost white to get glare. Where there is color though, there is an orange- yellow ocher color. The shadows are painted that powerful blue. Blue is the compliment of the color of the lights. You can usually expect the color of the shadow to be rooted in the compliment of the light. In the studio you might have a cool blue light and hot orange shadows.

Sargent has kept his shadows a lot lower in value than his lights. This huge spread in the values from the light to the shadow gives a very bright look. We judge everything within a painting by the way it looks compared to everything else. If we were to lighten those blue shadows, reducing the contrast between them and the lights, the sunlit look would lessen.

Here's another Sargent, this time its a watercolor. Take a look at that statue over on the right. the light hits it from the right and it is a white glare, like our first example above. The shadow edge is blue as the form turns out of the light. The reflected light is hot, and it is as bright as it can be made without destroying the illusion of the form. Notice also the super darks in that railing at 4 o'clock. That deep accent propels the illusion of light even more. There's that comparison thing going on again. The lights won't look light unless the shadows are deep. Both this picture and the one at the t0p of the page are painted to give the most extreme possible light.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

More about light in paintings

John Singer Sargent, Miss Dorothy Vickers All images this page from Artrenewal.org, Americas largest online museum.

I have acquired a new laptop and I am downloading my old pictures from Carbonite and I will install photoshop and be healed . I will soon have the scanner up and working and I will be able to do all sorts of useful things

This little head is a great example of getting light in a painting. Sargent was a master at getting light.The only thing a painter can represent is the effect of light on an object. Even those painters working from an approach based on the explanation of form, still use the science of representing light to make that work. The ability to represent light is essential to representational painting.

Let me point out some things about the Sargent above. As you saw in the post called the bedbug line here.Ta-Da! and another on drawing light and shade here zoog! there is an ordered progression of the light as it travels across a form. Values are the most important tool for presenting light . A black and white picture can still have light, without color or color temperature. The secret to getting light in your paintings is sorting, this is in the light, this is in the shadow.


There is no other place. Its easy to see this "sorting on the columns above. here's a cool move by Sargent:


That's what is going on in that column in the middle of the painting. Sargent has a lot of little "tricks" like this in his work. Every once in a while one will jump out at you. Finesse.

There's another thing going on in the shadows on that column as well. Notice that the turning edge of the shadow (which is the vertical ) is softened. However the shadow that is cast on the column is much harder as there is less reflected light bouncing into it to soften it up.
Sargent has placed his light source high and to the left and it rakes across the church dividing it unequally into the two worlds of light and shade. No value can occur in both the light and the shadow or instantly the illusion is lost. Even though there are several values in the shadow, each of them is darker than anything in the light.

A common mistake is to overstate the reflected light, making in effect a high light in the shadow. Look at the shadow on the right side of Miss Vickers face, see how subtle the reflected light is. If when you use a reflected light you always think of the delicacy of this little girls head, perhaps you won't overstate them. Sometimes an artist will use only a temperature change to represent the reflected lights. There is a school of thought that suggests always turning a form by color temperature rather than value when you can to obtain greater CONSERVATION OF VALUES.

Note that even the lightest stone in the shadow on the facade is as light as the most colored areas of the lights, like the deeper colored part of the wall at 10 o'clock. Just below that point notice how the window and the shadow of the column meld into one. One of the qualities that makes for effective shadows is mystery. That is the tendency for detail and definition of forms to disappear in the shadow.Try to keep the level of detail in your shadows to a minimum.

Part of the difficulty of painting out doors is that the shadows are always moving. It is important to learn to put them down and leave them alone, The best way to do this is to use an optical violet or a gray note to transparently plot your shadows as a way of planning your painting. Once you have them established, leave then alone, don't chase them every time the sun moves.

The other way to deal with the moving shadows is to draw out the painting transparently and when you have a real handle on how the thing is laid out, use the shadows the way they are midway through your painting session.Try to work the rest of the session without altering them too much. Most of the time that is how I work. Here's how my painting session is divided up;

  • The first hour or so I am drawing the forms transparently, looking to find the outlines of things and staying transparent. The moment you touch the white you are locked down. Stay out of the white until....
  • The second hour , this is when you commit yourself, about the end of this period you should have the whole painting down, you will use the way nature looks now for your painting.
  • In the third hour I refine the painting but try not to change the location of the shadows. What was in the shadows won't change that much, even though they grow.The important thing in this method , and this is really important, is to decide how your painting is going to look, rather than just copying what is before you., because that will be constantly changing. So you must observe nature, but develop your own plan for what the painting is going to look like. Doing that also makes it possible to work on the painting a second or third day.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

A few words about three color palettes and then about light

Anders Zorn, 1869-1920 image artrenewal. org

I intend to spend some time writing about getting light in paintings. I posted an Anders Zorn yesterday and it prompted the question of what I thought of Zorn and the Zorn palette. Zorn used a limited palette and that is often described as a vermilion, ocher and black. I know that a lot of blue paint along with the equivalent of several million dollars in cash was found in his studio upon his death. Notice how in the painting above Zorn uses his darks to contrast with and activate his lights. Without those dark pilings this painting wouldn't light up the way it does. He has scattered dark accents about to make the lights go.

I am someone who uses reduced palettes and large palettes both. I think a Zorn palette is great for figures I think it is pretty narrow for painting sunlit landscape, particularly if that landscape has much green in it. I think if you want a reduced palette in the summer Ultramarine is a better choice than the black.

The limited palette has gotten to be sort of an artistic fad in recent years. I have seen shows that have a whole roomful of paintings that are in the same color scheme. If you work in a three color palette you have to watch out for that. I am going to show some reasons over the next few days that having a broader palette can come in handy in the depiction of light.

I would suggest for most painters that a palette with a warm and a cool version of each of the three primaries plus white is a better choice. I have a larger palette that that but as I have pointed out it has a smaller three color palette within it. And a smaller earth color palette with black as the blue also. I am quite capable of using only part of my palette . Here is a story of my time painting with a restricted palette. I went back into the blog and grabbed this and painted it here ,so if you have read it before, bear with me.

There are limited palettes that theoretically will make any color. You get a red, a yellow and a blue. I suppose in theory that is true. However in practice you can get a whole lot more colors with a broader palette .This is the downside of a limited palette, you can approximate a lot of colors but you cant get as close as you can with more. The narrow palette does give you nice color harmony though. There are degrees of "matching" a color. If something in the landscape is redder for instance than your red, there is nothing on your palette that you can add to make your painting red enough. Here's a story to illustrate that.

It must have been close to 20 years ago I was living in Maine. It was late autumn and that was a beautiful time to paint outside there. My wife, the keeper of schedules told me that if I was going to have a piece to put before the National Academies' biennial jury for that year, I would have to make it now as the deadline was approaching.

I had been in that show once several years before and made a point of going down to New York to see it. Walking around I realized that the only way I was going to get another painting in the show was to do again what I had unwittingly done the first time. That was to make something truly weird. The jury was mostly modern guys and it looked to me that they would accept a traditional painting, but only if it had a bit of the outrageous to it. I became really sure of that as I stood before a giant painting of a dead bride. If you want to put traditional painting by a "modern" jury, ain't nothin like a dead bride.

My old friend and painting buddy Stefan Pastuhov and I knew exactly where to find strange landscape in autumn in Maine. We set up in the blueberry barrens. The blueberry barrens are about as odd a place as you could imagine. The scrubby plants cover the ground about a foot high and in the fall they turn a bright crimson color. There are a few tufts of grass and the occasional white birch but otherwise there is nothing but the red barrens, rocks and the sky. These barrens are on the tops of bare windswept hills and often cover enormous areas. Scattered about are strangely shaped rocks from the size of refrigerators to the size of small houses that were left there by retreating glaciers. It is like going painting on the moon. Unless you have actually been in a blueberry barren in the fall its hard to believe such a place really exists when you see a painting of one.

So I am set up and working away. I am using a three color palette that I fooled with for about a year. It was cadmium yellow light, cobalt blue and genuine rose madder. It cost a fortune to paint with, but I got a cool look as the cadmium and the cobalt were such clear and clean colors and rose madder has that warm glow and is transparent. Either way I just could not get the color of those bushes. I muttered and fought with it until finally Stefan came over and added alizirin and some cadmium red to my palette. I was immediately able to hit the color. Stefan explained to me that I was an idiot and he may have been right. He explained that he had worked as a carpenter and would never have tried to do a job without the proper tools .

I was able to finish the painting and it was just as weird as could be. It had a pretty good design and to make it even a little stranger it was a 26x29. Not quite square, but almost.The painting did go by the jury . It may have been the oddest painting I ever made. Although it had nothing on the dead bride.

Enough of that, I came here tonight to begin a discussion of light and I intend to start that now. A painting that has light in it will almost always look professional. People love effects based on light.If you want to make a living painting, you need to learn to get light in your paintings. There is nothing that makes a painting deader than no light. There are really two major kinds of light in a painting. The first is when the light is inside the canvas, that's what happens in luminism and in many tonalist paintings. Putting the source of the light within then canvas backlights the landscape and makes the light seem to emanate from within the canvas. Here's one now.

The other kind of light is of course from outside of the canvas. This is a more common "effect" in
landscape painting today. Most luminist and tonalist painting is done in the studio.

Above is a Sargent which is illuminated from above and to the left. That tends to throw one side of objects into the light and one side into the shade. That gives a strong feeling of sunlight. In the next few posts it is this sort of lighting I will explore.

Friday, June 26, 2009

What if it doesn't rain?

Anders Zorn, Nude under a fir image; artrenewal.org

I have just returned from Vinalhaven., That is an island about an hour off of Rockland, Maine. It is a very beautiful place and I think it looks more like the way Maine is supposed to look than anywhere else I know of, except maybe, Beals Island. I was out there for only about three days.
Although I got some paintings started, I lost one whole day to rain, so I worked inside on a seascape project. The days that I did get to work outside were very dark. So I wrote the posts on painting in the rain, on a painting trip after spending the day painting in the rain on a painting trip.The sun came out today and I thought it might be good to write the opposite post on painting on a sunny day, as a sort of pendant to the last.

As you choose your subject it is nice to know which way the sun is going to move, That will give you some idea of what might happen to the light in your painting. You will also need a hat with a wide brim or a baseball cap to keep the sun from blinding you. Here is a link to a post describing choosing your place to set up. ta-da!

Sunny days are usually going to give you more exciting and appealing paintings. I no longer mind gray days if they aren't too dark. But give me a choice and I want a sunny day every time. All of that contrast and the shadows give definition to the painting.

When you set up your easel, see if you can point the back leg at the sun, that will put your canvas in the shade.


If you have your canvas in the light you will misjudge your notes and be disappointed when you get it inside. It will also tire your eyes looking at its glaring surface and the glinting light on the edges of your brushstrokes. You may want to use an umbrella to do this. The reason painters use umbrellas is not to keep the sun off of themselves but off of their canvases. I don't carry an umbrella as I have enough equipment already. I just turn my easel so my canvas is not in the light. Sometimes that means the subject I am painting is not in the same direction I am facing but usually I can live with that. People who see me out there when I am doing that will ask, "what are you painting" because the way my easel is facing gives them no clue as to my subject.

William Merritt Chase, Prospect park, Brooklyn, image from artrenewalcenter.org
There's a lot of glowing light in that painting. I like the way he kept the foreground shadows up in key yet low enough to separate from the lights. That is a matter of great delicacy.

It is important to understand how the parts of the light work and I have written a post on the parts of the light . See it here. You need to know, always, whether the place you are putting your brush is in the light or the shadow.

Keeping a good gap between your lights and your shadows will help you get more light. Even if the example above has the lights and shadows in the foreground very close together, the dark accents scattered around give enough contrast to make it go. Gray days are about close values and subtle and often silvery grays. Sunny paintings are about contrast between the lights and the shadows.

Those contrasts are of value, color, saturation, pigment, temperature, and sometimes opacity.

I am going to dig deeply into each of these ideas in the following posts. I have been looking forward to this series of posts for a while. The concepts I will begin to present I have taught in workshops and developed a systematic means of presenting.

Here's another William Merritt Chase

I recommend a larger palette for working on sunny days. I think you will need.
  • cadmium yellow
  • cadmium red light
  • perhaps another cadmium or two, your choice which maybe a cad. red deep or a cad yellow lemon
  • ultramarine blue
  • viridian or permanent green
  • Thalo or Prussian blue
  • Alizirin permanant or Quinacridone
  • Titanium white
That is a basic chromatic palette, if you wanted to, you could lose the greens and possibly the Thalo, but I would recommend against that. You may want to add an earth color or two like burnt sienna and yellow ocher, I would miss those colors terribly if I left them at home.

I will return tomorrow and begin the explanation of the highlighted points above.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Painting outside on rainy days

Corot, Canal in Picardi, image from artrenewal.org

Boy, am I tired of rain. It seems to never end. Maybe tomorrow we will get a day with some light. But if not, here are some things I do to deal with the gray.

You can paint in oil in some mist, or even very light rain, particularly if you have an umbrella. There even used to be an artist who painted underwater, he did pictures of tropical fish.
In practice though, when the rain begins you usually have a short window of time to finish and clear out.

When I am at home, I work in the studio on rainy days. However if I am on a painting trip I generally will try to work outside. Here's some things I do to make that work.

  • I try to find somewhere to get out of the rain, a covered picnic shelter, under a shops' awning, in a barn looking out the open door, in a gazebo in a town common (that's New England) etc. Sometimes you get lucky and there is something good to paint there.Those covered picnic shelters are often good as they are in parks.
  • If I can, I like to choose a colorful subject, like a brightly painted house or any thing else I can find to get a little more color in my painting. Bright white houses can be good too. Gardens are nice.
  • Bring an umbrella to affix to your easel, over your painting and palette.
  • Often pure nature is not so good. Woods and closed in places can be DARKER THAN THE INSIDE OF A COW.
  • Take the black off your palette unless you can be certain to use it sparingly. Make the grays you see out of mixtures of various compliments and try to vary the warms and cools of your notes. Look to extract every bit of color you can. State those subtle colors in your grays a little more intensely than you see them, if you can do that with out getting an artificial look.
  • Try to keep the key up.That is, paint a little lighter than what you see . Keep the light warm or blue or what ever but not gray. The picture will have plenty of gray in it without making the light gray.
  • Use a wholly chromatic palette to make your grays and keep them colorful. Or sometimes I do just the opposite and...
  • switch to earth colors on gray days. It works for me sometimes, here is one of those.
I painted this in a light rain in Vermont last spring. I used no blue, only a few earth colors. No cadmium's no alizirin. I was under some big trees and they keep the rain off of my palette. The river reflecting the sky doubles the amount of light area you have in the painting. Inventing puddles in your foreground will bring more high key areas in.
  • try to stay optimistic and think about painting the subtleties in front of you.
  • Think in terms of layers of silhouettes.
  • try to avoid making grays with black and white or ultramarine and burnt sienna. Make luminous grays even if what is in front of you looks "deader" than that.
  • look for abstract patterns in nature, you may not have a lot of color or depth to work with but you will often have pattern.
  • Put butter in your shoes.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The second ten

George Durrie, Winter scene in New Haven from artrenewal.com

The first ten were pretty easy, here's where the going gets tough. The second ten in my opinion are:

!) William Merrit Chase

2) James McNeil Whistler

3) Sanford Gifford

4) Childe Hassam

5) Norman Rockwell

6) George Caleb Bingham

7) Frank Benson

8) Thomas Moran

9) Celia Beaux

10) Aldro T. Hibbard ( that might be crazy, but I think he is Americas most underrated artist, indulge me, I've got the conch)

This is a lot harder, and it is much more about individual preferences, but give it a shot. Who is on your list from 10 to 20? I will however set this rule, for fairness sake. If you haven't already weighed in on a top 10 , but want to play, please begin with your top 10 before going on to 11 to 20.

This is obviously a matter of opinion and a game besides so there is no wrong answer. I had about ten revisions before I settled on my second 20 and I didn't use George Durrie only because you would have heckled me. I love his stuff. I also felt like the following artists might have looked good on the list, Jasper Cropsey, John Kensett, Thomas Cole, John Singleton Copley, Reginald Marsh, and Albert Bierstadt.

No one asked about Otis Spann?

This is I think going to be a more varied list than the last, and I am looking forward to see who you will choose, after having been influenced by others choices for the top 10 list.

I get my new laptop at the end of the week, and I will change gears and do more art tutorial stuff, although art history is real important. You need to know what good art looks like in order to make it.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The 10 greatest American painters

I don't know if I have ever posted this one before. It is moving from one show to another and I had a photo of it in the computer I am using tonight.This was painted an autumn or two ago above Johnson, Vermont with my friend Eric Tobin. This is about a half mile from his home. This was an unbelievably beautiful place to stand and paint on a warm afternoon. I wanted a picture to head this post with. I in no way meant to imply that I belonged anywhere near a list of the 10 greatest American painters. Please...........

I have narrowed my search for a new laptop down to several choices and soon I will no longer be blogging on 19th century computers with wooden cases and rock crystal screens and run on steam. When I do get that new lap top up and happening I can get into some posts that I am holding off on doing.

I think it would be amusing tonight to invite some reader participation. I am going to propose a list of Americas 10 finest painters I invite you to submit yours in the compliments. My nominees are, in no particular order

1) John Singer Sargent

2) George Inness

3) Winslow Homer

4) Willard Metcalf

5) Gilbert Stuart

6) Andrew Wyeth

7) Fredrick Church

8) Edward Hopper

9) Fredrick Remington

10) George Bellows

I chose these painters based of their work itself and not by their influence, which might for instance have put Thomas Cole on the list . If it were a list of the artists who I have studied the most it would include Hibbard, and if I had to choose a "modern" it would be Jacksson Pollack. To make the list each of these painters is responsible not for just one great iconic picture,or Grant Wood would make the cut, but a body of work that is both undeniably great and could only have been made by an American.

There were a whole lot of painters who were close,that might make a top 20 list, like Sanford Gifford, George Caleb Bingham, John Copley, Otis Spann, Jasper Cropsey Fitz H. Lane, Childe Hassam. Maybe one of thedse guys should be on your list. What about James WcNeil Whistler, Thomas Eakins or William Merrittt Chase. I could have used George Durrie as he was so quintessentially American, but too many of you would have asked who?
Who is on your list? Go to comments and leave your list.

Monday, June 22, 2009

The last of the John Carlsons

I have narrowed my search for a new laptop down to several choices and soon I will no longer be blogging on 19th century computers with wooden cases and rock crystal screens and run on steam. When I do get that new lap top up and happening I can get into some posts that I am holding off on doing.

As this is the end of the collection I am showing the oddballs tonight, This one looks more like Thieme or a Gruppe. I think it must be early. I like the color, but oddly, since it is a Carlson, I don't think much of the design. This painting would be better if there was something else to look at to the left of that big tree I think. Even a walrus would do. It seems a little short on subject matter. I also don't like the way that branch "kisses" the frame on the left.

Here is another in a restricted palette. I think this is a pretty good one. I really like the shadows that are spandexed onto the trees to break up their edges. It is surprising to me sometimes how much an artist can get away with. There are no branches on these trees at all. I have painted similar situations and had to leave them out myself, but not quite like this! A major horizontal branch would stop that nice upward flow the painting has. Notice also all of the shadows on the trees and almost none on the ground. There is a whole lot of invention going on here. Remember Carlson made these in the studio from sketches done outside.

This is only an average Carlson but there is an interesting thing about it. Notice all of the concave humps in the foreground. In his book Carlson talks about the convexity's of nature at length. Here he is doing it himself.

That stick in the foreground seems to have the purpose of stopping the eye from first perceiving the major trees and then sliding down the line of the foreground bank and out the bottom. I am guessing he got well into the painting and added that as a problem solver.

This one is very strange indeed.It must be from the Colorado period. I think some kind of animal lives in there. An unpleasant animal. It is a good example of his ability to design unique shapes, and from that standpoint it is instructional, but it is a novelty act.
Below is a real dark one I guess its a twilight painting. It has a mysterious quality.

There's an interesting story I ran into about Carlson. He taught at the Art Students Leagues' auxiliary school in Woodstock New York and then left to teach in Colorado for several years. He then returned . The Woodstock art colony was then dividing into the modernists and the traditionalists. Carlson was very much in the traditional camp. Two women teachers described in the text I have found, as lesbians ( which was probably controversial enough to bear noting then, and hardly worth an aside now) started an outdoor painting group called the blue dome fraternity. These womens' fraternity (?) was called the blue dome because they hung a blue gauze "dome" above the model that they were posing out doors . I suspect it may have been to soften the light and prevent the harshest shadow from cutting up the forms.

Evidently this outdoor figure class really caught on and Carlson was pushed by the directors of the school to teach a blue dome class too. He felt that his students hardly knew what they were doing with a landscape and that teaching them to do the figure in the fast changing natural light of the out doors was a ridiculous idea. Ultimately he resigned his teaching position over it.

As I have studied the history of various great teachers from Eakins to Paxton I have constantly found stories of their being fired from their teaching positions and replaced with others who are totally forgotten today, we have to scratch our heads and ask "what were they thinking" firing John Carlson from a position teaching landscape?

Only twice in my life have I seen a collection of large Carlson paintings. Both were about twenty years ago. Once was in a gallery that used to be downstairs from the old Grand Central Gallery in New York. It had, I think, antiques and other things also. The Carlsons were "skied" around the tops of the walls and were very large. I think some might have been from the book.
Another time my wife and I drove over to Woodstock New York and visited the Cox gallery there, that had the estate, I believe. They also had a handful of very large and very good examples. I have never seen one in a museum and I think they must all be out in private hands. That is really too bad, its the same with Hibbard, Mulhaupt, Pleisner, Waugh and others of that generation who will ultimately be in the museums. It effectively prevents any scholarship on these artists and prevents aspiring painters from learning from their art. The museums are deliberately ignoring this whole generation of painters because they are only interested in those artists from that period that they deem modern. The odd thing is that they all do. You would think there would be a breadth of opinion, and some museums would do this, and that others would do that. But they seem to march together in lockstep. How that level of conformity serves the art world that is supposed to be dynamic and creative is beyond me. Its a good thing I am only a guest in this world, because a lot of the time I cannot fathom what the hell is going on here.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

But wait! Theres more!

I absolutely love this Carlson painting. The gray and slightly umber tonality is really beautiful. Its unusual in that so many are built around a Prussian blue chord and this one is not.The color in this painting reminds me of Mulhaupt. I guess I need to do a Mulhaupt post too, don't I. There is so much to write!

A lot of pictures I see today are just too happy. I go into galleries and there are all of these happy, happy paintings. Its like a five year olds birthday party! Are we painting for crows, who snap only at shiny bits of tinsel and bright scraps of discarded candy wrappers? There is a strength and dignity in a picture like this, that gives expression to an emotion much deeper than the painted bon-bons we throw as chum before the decorating housewives. I think when this was made, people were far more accepting of a broader range of possible moods in a painting. If I took a painting like this to a dealer today, they might ask me to put some children playing with balloons in it.

Take a second a look at this one. Its an example of a different sort of Carlson painting. If you give it a minute, I think it will grow on you. It has his characteristic unique shapes. I have painted subjects like this and they are hard to do. he has dealt with the gray day and the industrial subject by pushing his key up and presenting it in that yellow and silver color scheme. Maybe this is not as fine a Carlson as some we have seen, but he has successfully dealt with a very difficult painting problem.

Here is one from Jefforsonville, Vermont. It was painted in a place called, fittingly enough, Pleasant Valley. I know where this location is and I have painted very near it. That is Mount Mansfield in the background. On the other side of Mansfield is the ski area, Stowe. There are lots of paintings from this valley by Hibbard and Gruppe. It is still a great place to paint, however like so many other places, I don't think it will stay unspoiled for long. The dairy industry is dying and the farms will eventually be broken up and sold as lots . I have written before about the passing of historic New England here.

Notice how forcefully Carlson drives the viewer back into his painting. The log in the foreground points you to the snow dusted, and furrowed fields that take you up onto the side of the mountain. Then there is an S curve switchback that takes you the rest of the way up, until you hit that lighted area at the top as a reward for all of that following. It is perhaps a little heavy handed, but I think that forgivable because of how stylish this painting is. Running that mountain so far up towards the top of the canvas to make it look huge is reminiscent of Edgar Payne. You said you were reading his book didn't you?

This one is all full of funky shapes and bracketed by forms shoved up against the sides of the canvas. If you squint at it you will see that Carlson has connected all of his darks. remember I wrote about that here. This blog, like Topsey, just growed, and some of you are new to it. Unlike a book, where the author can assume the reader picks it up and begins at the beginning, you readers are parachuting in anywhere you damn well please. So I am going to make an effort to link back to posts that relate to what I am discussing.
I think this one is nice, it has a real rhythmic design that almost seems to wiggle as you watch it. That kind of rhythm imparts a cheerful air to a painting. The grays and the russets in the background also form a major key color chord. This painting reminds me of an excited puppy that runs up to you wagging its tail so frantically that its whole body is in motion. This is not a terribly naturalistic painting though. If you are looking for high realism, this ain't your dog.

This one is in the Carlson book, but of course in black and white. Notice how each of the apertures between the trees is of a totally different area and shape. No two are even slightly alike. That is an excellent and difficult piece of design. Might I add:


I still have enough Carlson images left to do one more post.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Yet more John Carlson paintings.

Here's another Carlson. This one is getting pretty stylized. I did a little research tonight on Carlson in order to have some useful things to say and I ran across some information on him related by one of his students at Woodstock, Carl Peters. Peters became a well known Rockport painter and lived until 1980. At 16 Peters declared he was an artist and reputedly painted every day of his life thereafter.

Carl Peters once was explaining Carlsons palette saying "see that Prussian blue? That's Carlsons color, Carlson said if you make a green with it its green, if you make a purple with it its purple"
In later years Gruppe and a lot of other painters who had used Prussian traded it for Thalo blue. I wonder if Carlson would have, if he had lived into the 50's or 60's?

Carlson moved to Colorado and taught there for several years. Here is a picture I assume is from that period. Like the example above this one is highly stylized. I think both of these pictures are not the equal of those we looked at last night. I feel as if the are TOO designy looking, as the 20's slid into the 30's there was a period of painting sometimes called American scene painting that was often guilty of designing too much of the nature, ( in my opinion), out of their art. In part this was an attempt to reconcile the modernism that was storming American art with their wanting to still paint real things, all filtered through a desire to be as American as possible. A strange brew. A lot of the art done for the WPA was of this sort . So much in fact that it is sometimes called Post office art.

I think a lot of very weak art has been done in recent years by artists who can't decide whether they want to be modern or traditional. Years from now I believe we will look back on this as a transitional time as a resurgent realism reclaims its place beside the "modern " painting that has been the official art of the 20th century. There are some artists who have done this well, but they are very few. My friend Charles Movalli comes to mind.

Question? How much polka can you add to rock and roll before you wreck it? Not much. The two are not complimentary. I grew up in Minnesota, so I don't just hate polka, but it really ruins good rock when added in even the tiniest amount. The opposite is also true, How much rock and roll can you add to a polka before you ruin it? again, not much! Hendrix wisely avoided playing a shodish.

Now there's a particularly fine example of Carlson at his very best. Its not a winter image either. Notice the "envelope", that is the enveloping color note that runs like a drone throughout all of the painting. It is that spring green that is up in the tree trunks and in the branches against the sky, and on the ground. There are grays in the trees and the sky and a few patches of a rust color to relieve and compliment the greens. Carlson studied with Birge Harrison, a tonalist. This painting shows a lot of tonalist influence. When I look at this picture the middle aperture between the trees seems like a Gothic arch to me.. I think maybe this was a deliberate device to give a holy, or cathedral like feeling to the painting. Notice the upside down repetition of the same shape just to the left of the upright arch. All of these trees are tied together with great rhythmic, concave and convex springing arches that operate as a geometric substructure behind the randomness of nature. Carlson has hung nature on his scaffold of abstract design. He has also painted the trees with great delicacy. His values are a whole grade lighter than I would expect them to be. This also gives a quietude or reserved hush to the picture. I think this particular picturee is magical.

Here is another forest interior, but it is a new design and different from anything we have seen so far. I always enjoy seeing an artist try to find every single different way he can handle the same subject. Fredrick Waugh is an example of this. He painted the sea in every conceivable manner. Incidentally, you think I have rolled out a lot of obscure Carlsons? I could do this for a month with Waugh, none of which are from books. Ok, one more, and I am going to bed.

Now that' cool. Look at the way he has used the snow patches to break up the trees so the picture isn't too geometric and liney. Notice how they are all different but they all have a rhythmic relationship to each other. The way he has broken these up reminds me of Abbott Thayers designs for dazzle painting dreadnoughts in WW l

Friday, June 19, 2009

More John Carlson images

There's a spring painting by John Carlson.

I will begin the blog tonight by acknowledging the passing of a great American artist and teacher, Frank Mason 1921- June 16th 2009. Frank Mason was a legendary teacher at the Art Students League in New York city and was the primary exponent of the Frank Riley- Frank Vincent Dumond school of painting. He taught the use of a prepared palette and the use of Marogers medium. I never met Frank Mason, but I have known many of his students. Mason was one of those places that real artists came from, like Hensche and Gammell and a few others, he had the ability to give young men and women the information and the guidance necessary for them to grow into professional artists. Few men in American history have taught more people to paint than Frank Mason. He began teaching at the League a year before I was born, in 1951 and retired last year.

I have known many artists of that generation because of my time in Rockport including several students of Frank Vincent Dumond. I have watched all of them pass away, save one. I wrote a post sometime back about that called some things I have seen. When I was young I did value the old guys and was always delighted when I was allowed to tag along. Painting is a multi generational affair and there are a lot of times I have been painting with an artist in his 20's on one side, and an artist in his 70's or even 80's on the other.

I am going to paste a succession of Carlson paintings up. For some of you they will seem a little repetitive, but for those of us who have studied Carlson they will be fascinating. I beg your indulgence. Even among artists who have loved Carlson for years, very few have every seen this many, they are hard to find and rarely seen. I am proud to be able to present them here. I would again, like to thank their anonymous donor, who for the sake of continuity I shall refer to as.......Linda.

I think these paintings are strongly effected by the Prussian blue that Carlson used. That's what artists used before Thalo blue. It is a greenish blue with a lot of pigmenting strength. Put it in a a painting and you get that 1920"s look. The sky in the painting below has the Prussian blue color and I think it is laced through all his shadows. Depending on its' quality, Prussian is impermanent. These pictures look OK to me though.

One of you asked what Carlson did in the summer as there are so many snow paintings? Carlson made small sketches outside and turned those into finished large paintings in the studio. So this picture could conceivably have been made in August. We are so used to the idea of plein air one shot paintings today. Most of the impressionist painters I idolize were not "premier coup" painters. Some made one shot studies but there are very few one shot paintings in the museums.

There are "green Carlsons, as you saw at the top of the page . There are also nocturnes and city scenes which I like. There is a particularly good one in the book. It has a bridge in the background. A number of years ago I saw a study for that for sale, it was more than I could afford, but by fine art standards it was reasonable.

In the 20's to the present, artists have traveled to paint in Jefforsonville Vermont. It is a place I have painted many times and I have always day dreamed of moving there. Its a real good place to paint. You will be welcomed by the Mary and Alden Bryan memorial gallery there. That is a small museum that has, as part of its purpose showing the paintings of the artists who go there to work.
In the 20's and the 30's the group that regularly met in the winter at Jefforsonville contained John Carlson, Emile Gruppe, Aldro Hibbard, Tom Curtin, Chauncy Rider, Alden Bryan , Loring Coleman and others .

Of all those painters, only one is alive today. Loring Coleman. I saw Loring last year in a gallery in Acton, Massachusetts and knowing this bit of history i asked him to tell me about it. What he told me was this, He would ship his equipment to Jefforsonville on the train and then drive his big Indian motorcycle up. He must heve been a lot younger than the others. He related that in the evening at the inn there wasn't much to do after eating dinner. There was no television then, so they would talk late into the night and entertain one another. One thing they would do was listen to John Carlson sing. He evidently had a beautiful voice. That all seems so different than today.

Above is a picture of Gloucester harbor. Carlson and Emile Gruppe ran a painting school there together for several years and I think this picture may date from that era. I used to paint that building on the right. This was painted next to the present location of the Gloucester House restaurant. The old wharf burned about 10 years ago and all of those wooden draggers are gone. Pretty much all of the old Gloucester waterfront is now gone. The last of the Eastern rig draggers was the Vincie N. I painted it the last time with C.W. Mundy. The Vincie N. looked just like the ones in this picture except it was 120 feet long. It was built in the 1920's

I wanted to stress something you have heard me say before, if you have routinely been following this blog.


Carlson did not carefully copy nature in front of him and end up with all of those lovely and unique shapes. He had to invent them. He would observe, think and then decide what the painting should look like. If you want to make original paintings of artistic value, you will need to do more than just copy that which is before you.

There are enough Carlson paintings for another night, maybe two. Then I will be on to something else. I have a series of posts that I want to do that are more" how- to", about separating the light and the shadow in different ways. However doing those posts will require me to make some little demo illustrations and I am working to get a 30 by 40 out of the studio for a gallery that needs it.
This is getting to be the busy half of my year. Before the current recession I used to say," the first half of the year I can't give them away, The second half, can't keep up".

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Some John Carlson paintings

I have been provided with a massive collection of digital images by an artist friend. There are a lot of fun and obscure things on it and I am going to be able to use them in the blog. One of the artists whose images I now have to share with you is John Carlson. Its very difficult to find images of his work so I am going to throw some at you tonight. John Carlsons name has passed through this blog many times. his book John Carlsons guide to landscape painting is the one book I recommend the most. John Carlson 1874-1945, was a Swedish immigrant and well known teacher who lived in Woodstock, New York. He was a student of Birge Harrison.

Carlson invented wonderful patterns of unique and individual shapes. One of the skills that fine designers have is knowing how to restate what they see in a way that each shape within the painting is different from every other shape in the painting. This gives an enormous amount of visual interest.

Look in this example how every one of these trees is a different width and each is broken up either by the play of light and cast shadow or by patches of snow. Here's another.

The same thing goes on here too. Look at the way that Carlson displays the fine tracery of the twigs and small branches fanning out transparently between us and the light of the sky. Carlson has painted in the sky note and then softly laid the branches in a tracery over that. Then he has gone back in with the sky note and cut the brilliantly designed holes through to the sky again. Stop and look at the shapes he gets in that veil of fine branches.

Look up at the top of the painting and notice how he cuts the sky down into the spaces between the larger branches. The negative shapes he designs there give the junctions and divergences of the limbs a lively look. This also sets up a system of their perspecting up away from the viewer at differing angles, as the rise into the sky above our heads.

If you look at the top 1/8 of the painting there are a lot of branches, but no two have the same weight or thrust. But the rightmost branch exactly counters the leftmost branch. The branches up there are softened with notes of gray and the sky color and have all sorts of little value shifts operating within them. They almost look like the are treated with military camouflage. That is of course the point, just like camouflage the idea is to break up the regularity of the forms and edges and keep them from being too visible. A passage like this is very difficult to paint because of the insistent and overly assertive contrast between the dark branches and the bright sky. It wants to look like a jailhouse window.

Here is a snowscape using what is called a steelyard or a balance beam type of composition. The left hand tree and the foreground are in the shadow and the right hand side and the other group of trees are in the light. The painting balances not only from left to right but from the back group of trees forward to the left hand shadowed tree. The same effects I spoke about above are going on here too, the delicate tracery of unique shapes of the branches against the sky. and also the careful patterning of the shapes in the foreground snow. Look at the bottom 1/3 of the painting. All of those wedge shaped snow elements are broken up with little bits of grass or spots of dark that make every single shape in that foreground unique.

Here's another Carlson of a similar subject but with a different mood. Notice how all of the weeds and trees and other vertically thrusting elements are counter balanced by the horizontal lines of the snow across the middle. Another sort of balance is in the color. The russet color of the dry leaves still clinging to the branches is a compliment to the cool green gray, blue tones that make up much of the rest of the picture. These pictures are all very carefully arranged and designed. Because of that they lose a little bit of that random naturalistic appearance that some very carefully observed paintings have, but they gain sophisticated rhythmic almost oriental print quality that I think makes them beautiful and compelling.

If absolute naturalism was the most beautiful thing, those large photomurals of forests they used to put up in the dentists office would have been more satisfying. These are perhaps less "real"but they are far more evocative and interesting.
More Carlson pictures tomorrow.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

A little about classicism and romanticism

Raphael, La Belle Jardiniere

Yesterday one of the comments said that Ingres seemed souless next to Holbein or Clouet. I didn't really spend any time on that, and I was again asked the same thing. I love it when readers pose questions as it gives me a springboard for another post. They asked:
Not to beat a dead horse (well, okay, to beat a dead horse) but Ingres IS cold, and what I was hoping you'd speak to is, why? Why is Holbein warm and Ingres cold? What is the difference in the drawing? I think Ingres is great because he is cold, the passion is suppressed, but there, shimmering in the line (or in the silk in his painting).

Okay, I guess I will address that. In painting or most anything else in life there seem to be opposing schools of thought or method. Yesterday we discussed the linear and the mass approaches to drawing. There is another deeper aspect to this . Each of these approaches to drawing are actually manifestations of a larger philosophical divide in the history of painting. That is the between classicism and romanticism.

Classicism is a little foreign to us today. In the late 19th century there was a triumph over classicism by romanticism. Romanticism is so dominant today as to have pretty much eclipsed classicism. To most people today the ideals of romanticism are seen as the goals of all art and they are pretty much unaware of the other philosophical pole.

The Raphael at the top of the page is an example of classicism here is another;

This is an Ingres, La Source. Below is a romantic painting by Delacroix.

Romanticism is about expression. It is full of feeling, naturalistic and often exciting. Its designs are dynamic and it attempts to arouse and stir the emotions. Many of you are thinking,"so what? doesn't ALL art attempt to do that?"

No, classicism is exactly the opposite in its intentions. Classicism was deliberately non emotional, it was formal and balanced. Its designs were measured and often symmetrical. The idea was that it appealed at the highest possible level of intellect rather than sentiment. It was not "sentimental" but deliberately "cool". Classical art often has a stillness or eternal look, as opposed to the romantic which has an instant long glance at a scene that is transpiring in passing time.

Classical restraint marks the art of Raphael and has its roots in the art of ancient Greece. Today we don't pay a lot of attention to the Greeks, but the renaissance was driven by the rediscovery of that marvelous art, particularly the sculpture of the ancient world.

Much of the classical art of our culture was made for the church or for emperors or at least for the state. These patrons have pretty much disappeared and been replaced by private individuals who prefer the warmth and emotion of romantic art. Here is another example of that by Gustave Moreau;

Here is another seriously romantic piece;

This is a Turner of course. Strictly speaking all landscape painting is romantic, but I guess some is less so, here is an example of a more classical landscape, by Claude Lorrain.

One of the few places where we do have a degree of classicism in our modern world is oddly enough in the"international" style of architecture. Particularly at its most minimal in the 1950's and 60's, the stripped down, simplified and spare office towers and glass and steel boxes built as expensive homes during that era are classical more than they are romantic. ( now all of the architects reading this are going to be sniping at me).

I have wondered many times if the default setting of our art will always remain the romantic as that is the only mode of which most people are aware, or whether this is a cycle or fashion and there will be a resurgence of the classical. I think it would be nice to have both the classical and the romantic. Some of today's young realist painters might move in that direction.

There is a wonderful book explaining classicism by the American mural painter Kenyon Cox. It is an excellent read. however like most of the books I recommend it is not a quick easy read. It will however open your eyes to an entirely different way of thinking about painting. Cox has had an influence on my thinking. If you want to fill in what is probably a major hole in your understanding of our cultures historic art, this book will do that.

Incidentally Cox lived in Essex, Massachusetts and his estate on the marshes there is open to the public. I have painted it many times, and I posted a painting of an apple tree done there this spring. His son Allyn Cox was also a mural painter and did murals in the halls of the capitol building in Washington, D.C. He lived until 1982, here is of all things, a mural of Americas first moon landing from our National Capitol building, painted in1969. How strange is that?

Soon I intend to begin a series of real "how-to" pasts on the different ways of "sorting" light and shadow. That's real root level stuff.

Images on this posts kindly provided by artrenewal.org, The worlds
largest online museum. Here is a link to Amazon for the book.