Monday, December 1, 2014

Would this be a better painting if I put a burning phone booth in it?

    How many times have we all asked ourselves, would this be a better painting if I put a burning phone booth in it? Well in this case, yeah!
    The painting above is an example of the work of the forgotten Dutch painter of the 17th century, Dirk Van Assaerts. I have written a number of times about this tyros depressing oeuvre and if you would like to see those posts, click on "The encyclopedia of dumb design ideas" over there in my sidebar. Dirk Van Assaerts is sometimes referred to as the Nevelson master because his work was discovered behind a Louise Nevelson sculpture which was moved for cleaning. Scholars and curators agree there may be many more scattered about behind the other Nevelsons around our nation, but generally feel that the artistic merit of the paintings pales beside the inconvenience of moving one of her assemblages. They do agree the that the artist's oaken panels make excellent shims.
    Dirk received a subpoena to submit a painting to the prestigious annual exhibition at the local Organs of Compulsion treadmill. The competition was spirited for a place on their mildewed walls.  He had a painting in his studio that had lain long unsold, called "The old mill on a dreary afternoon". Below is a photoshopped recreation of what this daub must have looked like. 
     The painting had a number of problems. Mostly it was static. The two interesting areas, the tree and the windmill balanced one another too much.
    The two elements here are both about of equal strength in pulling the attention of the viewer. 
     Incidentally, objects in a painting can be balanced not only across the picture plane. but into it as well, a foreground object can be balanced by another object far into the painting.  To illustrate this I would have you recall all those diagrams and the filmstrips of Dirks's era that show the two little boys on a seesaw, they show a side view of the foppish boys, but imagine if the shot was made looking over one of the boys shoulder at the now distant other boy.That is balance into space.
     The addition of a third object turns the painting into what is sometimes called a three spot composition. Below is a remarkably lucid illustration showing just that. 
    The burning phone booth at 2 is dominant over the other two "spots". Generally it works better to design with an uneven but artistic balance of elements. The eternally burning phone booth dominates the picture for a number of reasons. It is close to the center of the design, it is brightly colored in a painting that is otherwise grave, and  is relieved by the gloomy sky behind it. The booth also breaks the  too dominant horizontal line across the painting.
    There are times such as in religious art where a static or very formal design is wanted and putting something deliberately in the middle of a painting works. But generally in landscape painting it doesn't. However there is a little trick that Dirk knew that would allow almost that. Dirk set the phone booth up against that middle line. That often works pretty well. The booth kisses that center line, but all of it is to one side of the line. Below is an extraordinary diagram of that.  
Dirk had the good sense in this failed painting to at least keep the sky simple. If a painting has a lot going on in it, it is often a good idea to keep the sky simple. You gotta cut em a break somewhere.

Dirk's painting was well received by the conniving judges at the treadmill facility. But the guards in their rusting chain mail Nehru jackets complained that the wretched women and children "treaders" marched more slowly in front of the picture. The filthy treaders in their bronzen chains moaned "Wat betenkent het? Wat betekent het? What does it mean? What does it mean? Dirk, when pressed for an answer replied.


screw em!

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The triumph of reason and your favorite Hollywood starlets supine

I will begin by announcing a show of Cape Ann art that will open this week in Gloucester, at the  North Shore Arts Association. There will be 125 examples of historic Cape Ann artists work. There are Hibbards and Gruppes and Harry Leith Ross, and a knockout Lester Stevens, a wonderful Harriet Randall Lewis, a Winslow Homer drawing, an Anthony Cirino, a Jane Peterson still life, a William Meyrowitz, and a Teresa Bernstein, and lots more. These paintings came from private collections and most are seldom seen outside their proud owners homes. If you are in the area this is something you should see.The parking lot of the art association provides one of the best views of  Gloucester harbor too.

I have been keeping a yellow legal pad handy so I can write down ideas for blog posts. I have filled a whole page so I think I will unload a few of those at you tonight. They will follow in the form of brief  one paragraph rants.

People who see me painting often come up to me and say "it must be nice to be so talented". I think they underestimate what it took to get here and imagine that had they been "lucky" like me they could do it too. I tell them
  " well, I am six foot four now, but I have been every height below that on my way here". 

I had to make some God awful crap along the way. The ability to paint is a learned skill, some learn faster than others, and few slower than me. I have known only a few natural painters and they seem able to intuitively master only one aspect of their craft. For me it has been about endurance. I pose as if I sprang like Athena, fully armored from the temple of Zeus, but what I really am is a plugger. If I had died at 30 I would be best remembered as the guy with all the hair. I have known some fine painters who weren't all that bright, but I have known none who were not incessant workers.

I had friends in high school who liked only the Beatles.They said they were the best rock and roll band. They probably were. But for these friends the fun ended there, they identified who they thought was best and looked no further. They missed Quicksilver, Spirit and Savoy Brown, Dr John and Ten Years after. The same thing happens in painting. OK, Sorolla is a fabulous painter, but there are a hundreds of other fine painters who can thrill the viewer as well. Have you seen Mancini or Shiskin? How about Rosa Bonhuer or Richard Parkes Bonington? I fell in love with Seago years ago when he was pretty much unknown in this country. I suggest you should seek out as many artist's work as you can, there are lots of voices out there. There are lots of artists to enjoy, not just two or three. Go look up Eugene Boudin, J. Enneking, and  Alfred Munnings. Do you know Anthony Thieme? How many early twentieth century Scottish etchers  can you name? I mean  other than
Muirhead Bone.

I try to be a picture maker.What you observe before you when painting is not a picture. It is nature. If you want a picture on your canvas you have to put it there. I try to make things for people to hang in their homes and enjoy, stuff to be lived with that will unfurl gradually as they observe it. Pictures are not a matter of factual transcription of nature, random and chaotic. They are designed and have emotional content. Those things are installed, not observed. That's why having your own voice is so important. Technique is grammar, picture making is about content.

  • Don't forget to put in the art!

Having your own voice, that's important. There seems to be a lack of interest in originality lately. I see artists lauded as important and new masters, whose work is simply an imitation of another more famous painter. Often they win major prizes and are written of glowingly in magazines. They look just like Richard Schmid or Scott Christensen so they have got to be good! A painters art should look as if only they could have made it. The worst thing that can be said about a painter is that he paints just like so and so. Don't play in a cover band, write your own stuff if you want to do anything really worthwhile. To be near Vermeer, is to be mere veneer. Try getting a couple of different heroes, that helps. They oughta be dead too.

Poeples art expectations. When I had a gallery of my own in Rockport ( and I might again, I will let you know) Once a guy walked in and asked if I had that picture of the old tyme sailor guy with the bell.

He wanted a zillion dollar painting and assumed that since I had an art gallery I would have it in stock. Sadly I didn't. There is only one of those. I reflected on that a long time and what I figured out told me a lot about how my customers thought. He had seen a painting he really liked and every time he walked into an art gallery he looked to see if it was there. That it was a one of a kind object never crossed his mid. He thought that every artist made a unit like that. "Nope! he doesn't make that one!" He thought it was like shoes, every shoe company makes a penny loafer, it's a unit, not an original. There was no way he would ever buy anything other than the Homer. He probably ended up with some Chi-Com ripoff of the painting. Many of my visitors could never be sold a painting because they had seen one painting that they  liked and forever would walk into galleries looking for it. Nothing I had would do. He wanted that Homer! That it was my job to make my own paintings never crossed his mind. He only liked the Beatles.

There are challenges to being a pro that many artists never imagine. I routinely see art made to compete in competitions. The artists is out to get a knockout punch. They want to make the largest damndest thing they can make. That might be the way to win prizes, but it s not (at least usually) the way to make a living in the field. In order to make a living you need to be able to produce a steady stream of salable paintings. Over a career that might mean hundreds of them. You have to be reliable and consistent. The idea is to be valued not discovered, at least in the art world I inhabit. I have seen lots of flash in the pan , this years hero artists appear like a shooting star only to disappear in the blinding light of the next greatest thing. It is usually a marathon and not a sprint.. The key might be style. Each painting must be informed by the artists unique personality more than the subject. People seem to want pictures more than manifestos. Hans Christian Anderson wrote a story called "The most incredible thing" that seems to address this idea here is a link to that.

OK that's enough for tonight! Thanks for tuning in!


I have a workshop coming up this weekend in Connecticut that is sorely undersubscribed. The weather report looks great and I intend to make it a near shattering experience for those who dare come near. It will be in Kent, Connecticut on August 23 through the 25th. and is sponsored by the Mattatuck Museum in Waterbury. Kent was one of those old impressionist art colonies from the late 19th to early 20th century. This is the southern end of the Berkshires. I teach about ten hours a day or more. We paint together and eat together all day and into the evening. You will do nothing but paint and sleep. 

Here is the link to sign up

Friday, May 23, 2014


Waiting for spring 24 by 30
Oh, Hello! This blog was to have been a one year effort that stretched to about three years. I wrote a post every day for nearly a thousand days, setting out to write down everything that I had learned over the years that I thought a painter should know. It was a specific project, and I did it as well as I could. I wrote it all out and gave the information away. Even though I seldom add to it now, I occasionally check my stats and see that there are a whole lot of people still reading it, so the blog is out there being useful. I am painting away  as always, and have volunteered to sit on the board of the Guild of  Boston Artists, which will be a new project for me. The picture above was done on one of many snow painting trips to Vermont this winter with my friend T. M. Nicholas. I fooled with it for a few days in the studio too.

Recently T.M. and I were talking about finishing pictures in the studio. That method is typical of the past New England painters we both admire. We both photograph every location, and agreed that it was a useful practice in case we lost the light or didn't get down far enough into the painting to remember if there were returns on that gable or not. But neither of us really look at the photos much, we invent a whole lot of what is on the canvas, or at least simplify it. Then he said something that made me think, he said....when I am working in the studio


What I think he meant was that when you have a photo, you have lots of information to draw on, but when you work without looking at it, you get a different result. Rather than transcribing from your photo when you look at the painting,you are asking yourself not what goes here, but what does this painting need? The idea is that in the studio you add art, not necessarily information. The answer might come from the rest of the picture. Perhaps the painting needs more weight here, or this line needs to lead this way. Sometimes it is about the pattern of shapes or the harmony of colours. Often it is the "treatment" that you are applying to the subject. When my paintings fail (I have quit painting on panels because they are too hard to throw away) it is seldom because they lack for information, but because they are matter of fact

What your painting should look like might come from your emotional intent, such as "I want this painting to be joyous" or" I want this picture to be lugubrious and sodden". You can put feeling into a painting, but it will come from within you, not from your reference photos.

But most importantly, when you are working out of your head and not from a reference the decisions you make are more individual. It will give your paintings a personal look. What you make up, eliminate or invent will be unique to you in a way that photo references are not. This will give your paintings more style. They will look more like they were done by you, rather than anyone else.

.Information is not art! The artist selects from the myriad bristling details and uses those which advance his intent and discards those which do not. That selection is called simplification, or sometimes breadth. We forget the little details and remember more about how the place made us feel. My best paintings often look remembered, rather than observed. Using photos often leads the artist to an accounting of the particulars of a scene and away from invention. Invention is personal. That which you invent in your paintings will give you your own unique style, that which you transcribe will be comparatively neutral. So most of the time I am in the studio, I don't use references at all. Now and then I will check some element in my photos but the general look, effect and handling come from me and not my references.

I should probably qualify all of this a bit by saying that this is grad-level stuff. I have taught a whole lot of workshops and spent most of my time in them drawing attention to the appearance of nature before the flailing student.The first skill that must be acquired is the ability to represent the scene before you with accurate drawing and color.You absolutely must get that DOWN, gotta have that! It is also important to make lots of outdoor studies in order to build a mental library of  what nature looks like and how different conditions and lighting effect that.

 I suggest you work on paintings in the studio out of your head as much as possible. Your paintings will be more individual and expressive. This is the key to making paintings that are uniquely your own. You want the viewer to look at your work and recognize in it your "style". That will come from putting yourself into your paintings, when they look at them, there you are!


There is only a single workshop on the docket at this time. It will be in Kent, Connecticut on August 23 through the 25th. and is sponsored by the Mattatuck Museum in Waterbury. Kent was one of those old impressionist art colonies from the late 19th to early 20th century. This is the southern end of the Berkshires, I guess, and is in what is called the Connecticut hill country I have researched the paintings that were made there and it looks to be a promising place to paint. One of my favorite Metcalfs was painted on a visit to Kent. 

Here is the link to sign up

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Copying from drawings

Ingres, portrait of Pagini

A friend was telling me recently that he wanted to make a copy of a painting. He had reproduction of a Van Gogh that he had found online and intended to use. I told him that I thought copying great art was a wonderful exercise for the learning painter. However I did offer a few caveats. Here is what I told him.

Copying used to be discouraged when I was in art school. I have no idea if it is now, but then, the argument was that it wasn't creative. They were right. However it is still a great learning tool and teaches discipline as well. You will spend a lifetime making your own original art. A short time spent building skills seems useful, even at the expense of making a few pieces that are not original or creative. Creative is not the idea with copying , the idea is to "get inside the artist's head". While there is  value in sketching versions of the masters, making a careful and accurate copy is most instructive for a student.  It requires the closest possible examination of the subject work to be copied. The nuances of handling and line, edge and color (if present) only yield to the observer after careful scrutiny.
But I think, more importantly, the discipline of crafting a reproduction of the greatest fidelity is essential. We live in  times that often value the quick or nearly instant over the carefully wrought. Too many art students like to bang out quick work that allows them to quit on a piece before really digging down into the excellencies that a more finely crafted project would exhume.  I advised my friend that if he is going to make a copy of a masterwork, to make the most accurate copy he can.

In the early 1970's, before I studied in Boston, I did a number of very careful copies.  I copied the artists that in the preceding century had been considered the great draftsmen. I copied Ingres, Rubens, Michelangelo and Holbein, Jean Clouet and Degas. I copied their drawings.

Later, I copied a few paintings in museums, but initially, I copied drawings. Here is why, I could get better reproductions of drawing than of paintings. There were inexpensive books available of the drawings of the masters AND they presented the drawings in nearly the original size.


This is important, copying a painting six feet across from a reproduction the size of a postcard will give you some information, but not the fineness of handling, edges and line. Drawings reproduced on paper are more like the original  works . I advise that you find monographs of artists drawings rather than working from a computer screen , a drawing reproduced on paper looks more like the original than the backlit version on your computer screen. After doing copies of drawings you may want to do copies of a few paintings,then I recommend you go to the museum and copy from the original.  Some of you may live in places where there are no museums. If that is the case for you, the next best thing to do is to copy from a print.  Finds a high QUALITY print that is similar if not the same size as the original. The museums and online merchandisers sell such things. The niceties I mentioned before appear better if at all in an actual sized reproduction rather than in reduction.

Tracing the image is counterproductive, Measuring a half dozen or so points and marking them on your paper or canvas does seem like a good idea though. That is easy, a particular point in your print might be six inches down from the top and four inches in from the right. Use a ruler and mark a few  points about your version to avoid distortions and heartbreaking corrections later.

Try to work the whole image, at least at first. Few things are more disappointing than discovering a carefully rendered passage is in the wrong place compared to the passage adjoining it.

Work on a quality paper, something that will stand up to erasure. Use quality pencils in a couple of appropriate hardnesses. Get  a kneaded eraser and a Pink Pearl  for ripping out your mistakes. If a line isn't right, tear it out! Do it over.

There is only one "right" there are a billion versions of wrong.

Don't walk away from the project when it is half right, hold yourself to the project as long as it takes. Put it away and return to it again. Pull a tracing of your version and lay it over the original and check your work for accuracy. Pretend you are a forger. A fine copy, finished, will be a great thing to hang on your studio wall for a reminder of the skill you have observed in your artistic hero. A weak copy will not, it will only remind you of the cursory attention  you were willing to spend on the project. You could tape an apology below it, I suppose. Begin that with the phrase,"I was just trying to...."

I think Ingres is a great draftsman to copy. His incisive, elegant and rhythmic line taught me a lot about artfulness and representation. I was able to copy from the originals years later at the Fogg Museum in Cambridge, but I am grateful for the time I spent in my early years copying Ingres drawings from books.