Sunday, April 29, 2012

Landscape 911

Inaugurating The Dead Paintings Society

If you're like me, and like most other painters I know, somewhere in your studio, or the spare bedroom, or the garage, there's a group of dead paintings, huddled together, existing in precarious limbo before the final trip to the dump.

Do you remember the one from years ago---that gray, twilight painting? Can you still recall the heady feeling when you really felt you'd finally come to grips with the essential act of painting?  
You came to grips, of course, for what now seems to have been just an instant--- the instant before that horrifying, hurtling descent as it became the worst painting you'd ever painted.

I certainly remember all of mine

In every artist's studio is a corner stuffed with dead paintings. They represent too much work, and too much heartache, to be summarily dismissed to the dustbin. So they linger on. Perhaps, one day, they may be harvested for their stretcher bars. In the meantime they silently reproach us with our failure.

It doesn't have to be this way. In fact, this coming Thursday some students will bring the halt and the lame to my studio, and we'll inaugurate The Dead Paintings Society.

I happen to believe that there's almost always a painting lurking within, one waiting to be set free. We'll choose a canvas, and I'll spend the next three hours seeing if I can find the answer.

Of course I have a big advantage over the original artist. First, I have nothing invested---neither hours nor tears. Second, I'm not constrained at all by the original idea. I have only what's before me. Thus I am free to play, to change this, to keep that.

One hopes, in the end, that the artist sees gold where there seemed to be only straw.

It is a learn-able skill to be able to re-invent one's painting when it appears to have gone astray, to set aside preconceptions of what the painting was meant to be, and to find the real painting that may be deep inside.

Along the way, there are technical skills learned, too, and perhaps a bolstered confidence.

So wish us luck---and support your local blood drive.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

In the Field

No Fish Today

8:36 a.m., Wednesday  
I awaken with a start, to realize that I was to meet my fellow painters at 8:30. I have a reputation for being merciless to latecomers, and now I am the miscreant.

8:37 a.m.
Receive a text: Wow...look at this...if there's one thing Chris and I can't stand, it's tardiness.

8:37 a.m.  
Another text: We are laughing, and doing the Donald is late dance.
10:50 a.m. 
I finally make it to the painting site, having hiked about seven miles to where they are attempting to paint. 
They have walked through woods that Shiskin would have loved, and skirted a meadow that Metcalf might have called paradise. A rutted track, straight out of Levitan, was passed over. I'm glad I left my kit in the car.

11:30 a.m. 
Back at my car, to get my gear.

12:00 noon  
Todd and I go to get some food.

1:30 p.m. 
Sometime after lunch from Panera, Todd and I set up in the meadow. Chris is conducting a telephone interview with another artist. Todd is fuming at his French easel. 

1:45 p.m. 
Ominous dark sky. We consider our exposed position. The wind picks up. Our easels tremble in the blast. My paper towel tries to makes a run for it.

1:46 p.m. Todd is amused by my attempts to gather it in, and photographs it. I am not amused.

1:47 p.m. We decided to hightail it.

2:12 p.m. Safely in my studio, we remember what fun plein air painting really can be, and we marvel, yet again, at our courage and steadfastness in the face of a daunting challenge.

No fish today.
Wonder how the fishing was in France.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

In the Field

Maudslay, Twombly and Gay

We'll be hard at it, tomorrow, depicting Mother Nature in all her finery. We've chosen to go to Maudslay again----a bit of practice for the upcoming workshop. We'll scout out the likely venues for our three days of plein air painting, trying to vary the sort of motif we'll be painting.
Photo Nancy Yeomans
Best wishes to our French brethren. We hope, after two successive rain-outs, that they'll have a great day, and we look forward to Bruce's report of their success.

The red dot marks the general location of Bruce and his trusty band of artists.

Today marks the birthday of two American artists, Edward
Gay (born in Ireland, 1837--died in Mt. Vernon, NY 1928), and Cy Twombly (born in 1928, and died July 5, 2011).

Curiously, between them they represent 174 consecutive years. What a change occurred from Edward Gay's landscapes to Twombly's explorations 0f the space between drawing and painting.

Here's Edward Gay painting a landscape. This does not appear to be en plein air.

Gay moved with his parents from Ireland to Albany, New York in 1848, fleeing the potato famine.

Twombly was born in 1928, in Lexington, Virginia. Through a long career he drew and painted canvases which, though they have a devoted audience, are often a real mystery to many people. I came around to them slowly, but now I'm a fan.

When my wife and I were living in Lexington, we had dinner with Cy and some others on one of his periodic visits back to Virginia. I'd like to tell you all the illuminating things he said about making art and about having a career. Alas, the dinner table conversation never got near the subject of art, so I've nothing to report----except that I shouldn't have guessed, had I not known, that the man across from me was a giant of his time.  

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Out in the Fields

Spending the day with Metcalf

Tomorrow being Wednesday, we plein air vagabonds will be assembling, as usual, to attempt to do justice to Mother Nature, this time in her early spring raiment.

But, rather than follow Heade back into the marshes (which haven't yet begun to green up), we're looking to Willard Metcalf, who was born in Lowell, Massachusetts in 1858, and who died, in New York, in 1925.

At the height of his fame, Metcalf was called the Poet Laureate of the New England Hills, and it was justly deserved. Among his many paintings, his Spring work particularly stands out. He manages to portray beautifully the rock-strewn, shallow-soil hillsides of New England clothed in the first yellow-green blush of the re-emergent season. This fine balance between the no-nonsense aspect of this stern landscape and its brief fling with vernal tenderness, is almost always a tour-de-force.

Tomorrow we'll hope that Metty can spare the time to come help us deal with all the complexities of our location. We'll be at a site in West Newbury, Massachusetts, and will be painting a hillside and a rising road, with a high horizon. This site is but a short crow's flight from Maudslay where the May workshop will take place.


We also hope to get to some of Metcalf's actual painting sites in the near future. The Vermont Workshop will be painting in Metcalf Country, in and around Perkinsville, Vermont. Here's a signboard from Cornish, New Hampshire, another haunt of Willard.

In fact, once you've become a fan of Metcalf, it's hard not to find his sensibilities all over New England, whether he ever painted in a given place or not. It's a particular way of looking, an appreciation for the certain slant of a hill, or the gurgle of a heard, yet-unseen brook.

I don't know what Bruce and his fellow French pleinairistes are up to tomorrow. But we wish them well. As for us, let's hope we can catch some fish.

Happy Painting!

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Breaking News

Confrontation in the Netherlands

The art world is in an uproar over the news, published today in Dutch newspapers, that Johannes Vermeer's beloved landscape, View of Delft, has been removed from view at the Mauritshuis in The Hague.

Considered by many scholars, and by a host of painters, as the greatest landscape ever painted, the View of Delft (1660) was very clearly not painted outside, under the changeable sky of Holland. This glaring fault has led to the current protest in the Netherlands, evidenced by the clipping (below) from an EU press bulletin. 

Dutch Artists in Protest

The Hague - Apr.15 (KH)--- Johannes Vermeer's iconic landscape painting, View of Delft, has been removed from exhibition at the Mauritshuis, a fine arts museum in The Hague. It was taken down after almost two weeks of protests by a growing number of Dutch artists who paint exclusively out-of-doors. 

Professor van Coodenkare, Dean of the Faculty at The Hague's Plein Air School, defended the protesting artists, saying that "studio paintings are a disgrace to fine art, and the painters will redouble their efforts until not one landscape painted in a studio, or even just finished inside, remains hanging to embarrass the nation."

The painters have been massing each day in front of all the venerable museums of the Netherlands, particularly in Amsterdam, with the notable exception of the Van Gogh Museum. Van Gogh, of course, was famous for painting under the blazing sun, a practice he continued until he went out of his mind, and subsequently shot himself.

The Minister of Culture, who initially resisted the call to take down most of the 17th, 18th, and 19th century landscapes, has apparently had a change of heart. He was quoted as saying that "the day of the carefully considered painting is justifiably over. It is time to replace slow and exquisite maturation with the freshness
of a morning's work, tossed off out-of doors."

Plans are currently being made by the painters to carry their action to other museums in Europe. Speaking on condition of anonymity, because of a fear for his life, a French curator---who was not only conceived in, but also born in an actual studio in the Batignolles---has been rallying support in Paris with his cry of "Aux barricades!"

It is yet to be determined how effective this may be.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

In the Marketplace

Crying Woolf

Today Chris Quidley came by the studio to pick up paintings for the Boston gallery and, eventually, for this spring and summer on Nantucket. It was fun to seem him again and to have a good group of paintings going off to represent me.

After he left, while I was musing about the hand-off, and about what fate awaited these canvases on which I'd worked so hard, I remembered a quote from Clive Bell's biography of Virginia Woolf. When asked how she felt about sending a book off to her publisher, she replied that it was like pushing one's child out into the traffic---if it be hurt, the hurt was done also to one's self.

No matter that I have been an exhibiting artist for more than thirty years, I still experience anxiety about my "children" going out into the big world. I want them to have a friendly, appreciative reception. And I want those who view them to really engage with them. This, of course, is something over which I can have no control. They will compete for attention in a world of moving images and continual sound. They are but a small, still center in a vortex of sensation. But for real picture lovers they can be a magnet. They can offer a haven, even if for only a few moments, from all the sensory hullabaloo.

Very early in my career, I sold a painting to a prestigious law firm in New York. It was large painting of a small stream, deep in the country, and it found itself installed in a comfortable seating area within the office, many floors above a Manhattan street. When I subsequently saw one of the firm's partners, I enquired how the painting was being received. He told me that often, when he was working on a particular legal problem, he'd migrate out to the small area where the painting was hung. He said he would just sit down and "go fishing for a while." Thus re-charged, he would often be able to untie the legal knot that had been perplexing him.

Of course, paintings---and art in general---can have many functions: they may console, or amuse, confront or condemn, and many other things. But whatever the mission of each work may be, it intends to engage the viewer totally, to be, even for just an instant, the alpha and omega of experience.

That's a lot of responsibility to put on a few square feet of Belgian linen as it goes out to meet the world. It's not surprising that the artist who made it is apprehensive on its behalf. But we artists can't be there to coax each passerby to look a moment longer, to engage with the thoughts below the surface, those beyond technique which we sought to convey. We continually hope for a response that recognizes that a painting is often about a lot more than what it's a picture of.

So make a drink, settle into a comfortable chair, and lose yourself and your thoughts in a painting you really love. You'll find, even if you've never dug a worm, that this kind of fishing is open to all.

And I can stop worrying about the kids.

Friday, April 6, 2012

The Artist's Kit

Minimizing Your Plein Air Kit

It's a matter of some interest to me to discover how fixated artists can become with minimizing their plein air painting kit. It almost seems to me that some of my friends will soon be down to one brush, two colors, and panels 1" x 2". While I understand the need of backpacking artists, those traveling deep into the wilderness, to have as light and portable a kit as possible, it seems there are an awful lot of students who feel that austerity and restriction are the way to enlightenment, and even to righteousness. 

I, personally, would like to bring my entire studio out into the open, were I only able.

I often marvel that we sometimes lose sight of the goal---at least what I suppose is the goal: the making of the very best paintings we can. Sometimes it seems that the goal has become making paintings with the fewest number of brushes, using the most starved palette, in the shortest possible time.

Considering that many students never venture much farther than nine feet from their vehicles, what possible reason can there be to see just how many obstacles can be put in the way of full expression? I don't propose that you bring every brush and every color that you have in the studio. But give yourself a break! Good painting is difficult enough without tying one hand behind your back.

Of course I know that I'm not going to to convince you. Thus, I have set out to find the smallest kit available, one that you can carry deep into the woods, while still keeping your hands free for texting. 

The winner is The Ear-Cache Kit which contains everything you need to make spectacularly small paintings. The only drawback is that it utilizes space that could otherwise be occupied by an ear bud.

But perhaps this isn't all bad. There's birdsong out there. 

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

This Just In...

Spending the Day with Heade

Many will know the work of Martin Johnson Heade, who was born in Lumberville, Pennsylvania, in 1819, and died in St. Augustine, Florida, in 1904.

Although he also is known for paintings of hummingbirds and orchids, Heade's renown is primarily based upon his paintings of salt marshes. These marshes, along the Eastern seaboard of the United States, are filled during successive tides by salt water. Traditionally they were harvested for their hay which was made up into ricks, and balanced on piles throughout the marsh. It was these haystacks, diminishing toward the horizon, that became a principal motif for Heade.

He painted marshes in New Jersey, Rhode Island, and along Boston's South Shore. 

But he particularly seems to have been drawn to the marshes in Rowley, Newbury, and Newburyport, on Boston's North Shore.
Tomorrow being Wednesday, it's time for a weekly plein air painting jaunt for me and a couple of painter friends. This week we are heading out just a few miles from home, to the Newbury marshes. In particular, the site is the road approaching Kent's Island, the one-time residence of author John P. Marquand. There is a winding marsh stream, and even a haystack replica, photographed this evening by my wife.

We won't have a whole string of them to lead us into the distance, but we'll bring those famous artistic licenses with us, in case they're needed. It's both great fun, and very intimidating, to paint in the spots frequented by our predecessors. We have better quality materials, on the whole, and lots of creature comforts to bring along. The score thus being rather even, the wild card is talent. Let's hope we don't make fools of ourselves.

Below are a few more Heades, from the local area, to give you the flavor. It will certainly be a challenge tomorrow!

In the meantime, I expect that our painter friends in France will be out on Wednesday as well. Let's hope they get better weather this week. As for our New Jersey colleague, I'm not sure if he will be venturing forth. Do let us know about your adventures!

 A photograph of the marsh, taken this evening.