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Friday, November 17, 2017

Willful ignorance

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it
Trooper Meditating Beside a Grave, 1865, Winslow Homer, Joslyn Art Museum
Tomorrow is the celebration of the consecration of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery at Gettysburg, PA, where President Abraham Lincoln delivered what is now known as the Gettysburg Address. Since that day in 1863, when Union Soldiers marched with Lincoln from the bustling town to the cemetery, people have marked the occasion with a solemn parade on the Saturday closest to November 19.

At first, it was Civil War veterans themselves who organized the remembrance. As they petered out, it became reenactors, from both north and south, coming together to make a powerful statement of unity.

Union and Confederate veterans shake hands at the Assembly Tent at Gettysburg, US Library of Congress
This year will be no exception, but participants and visitors have been told to not bring backpacks or coolers to the parade route or other scheduled events. They’ve also been warned not to engage with ‘anti-Confederate groups’ that might be in the crowds on Saturday afternoon. This is because they’ve received a ‘credible threat,’ which is now being investigated by the FBI, state police and local cops.

This is only the latest threat against Civil War reenactors. In October, a reenactment of the Battle of Cedar Creek was marred by threats and the discovery of a pipe bomb. Manassas, VA, cancelled its annual tribute to the two bloody battles fought there due to similar threats. Also canceled was a similar reenactment at McConnels, SC.

Reenactors are the dramatists of history. They tend to be fascinated with specific periods, learning about them with great accuracy. I know specialists from the French and Indian War, the Revolution, nautical history, and the domestic economy. But the most visible reenactment community is the Civil War one.

Sharpshooter, 1863, Winslow Homer, Portland Museum of Art
They are, in my experience, history buffs with a strong creative streak, well-read and meticulous. They’re not donning the blue and grey to advance any kind of political agenda. They’re harmless. For many people, seeing a Civil War reenactment is a cheap and painless history lesson.

“A 2012 ACTA survey found that less than 20 [percent] of American college graduates could accurately identify the effect of the Emancipation Proclamation, less than half could identify George Washington as the American general at Yorktown, and only 42 [percent] knew that the Battle of the Bulge occurred during World War II,” reported National Review.

If Americans weren’t so woefully ignorant of their own history, could a book entitled Did Lincoln Own Slaves even exist? It was written by a college professor in response to his students asking dumb questions. That should indicate the depth of our cultural illiteracy problem.

Organizers have played down the threats to Civil War events. They don’t want to alarm the public unnecessarily. But as citizens, we need to calmly consider why they’re happening and what we ought to do about them.

Song of the Lark, 1876, Winslow Homer, Chrysler Museum of Art
“I believe it’s part of the monument issue, about rewriting history,” one reenactor told me. The parade isn’t about reenactors strutting their stuff, she added, but about recreating the historic parade itself. 

“Truly, you can’t change history, only the story that's told,” she noted.

Intimidation always threatens free speech. “I am afraid that the threats will make it so expensive for the local governments that we will no longer be welcome to put on the events. Then they win,” another reenactor told me.

The Civil War is something we should never revise, downplay or forget. Almost one in 30 American citizens died in the fighting.

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” wrote George Santayana. I’d add a coda to that: Willful ignorance is the worst offense possible against your fellow citizens. We all end up paying for it.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Art and advertising

An amendment to the Rockland building code brings us full circle back to Pop Art.

Robert Indiana’s art sign is on the left and the commercial Strand sign on the right. Which is art? Photo courtesy of Coastal Maine Realty.
 Heading into Rockland, ME from the south, you can’t help but notice Robert Indiana’s massive Electric Eat sign on the roof of the Farnsworth Art Museum. It’s been there since 2009 and has become a fixture of the local skyline.

The piece was initially commissioned for the New York State Pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair. Fair attendees immediately queued for the non-existent restaurant. After a day of frustration for all concerned, the sign went dark. It wasn’t relit again until it moved to Maine.

In its original setting, the piece blurred the line between art and life a little too effectively.
While the piece is unequivocally good for Rockland’s cityscape, it was also the bellwether for an issue recently facing Rockland’s town board: when is a sign a sign, and when is it art?

The question facing code enforcement officer John Root was whether a sign proposed for the front of Ada’s Kitchen constitutes art or advertising. It will read, simply, “East.”

Ada’s Kitchen is owned by Jen and Rick Rockwell. “There’s no such business as EAST,” Rick Rockwell told the Pen Bay Pilot. “EAST is a concept. It’s a general direction. The object of this piece is to celebrate the past of Rockland. It speaks about our proximity as being in the eastern part of our country, in the most eastern parts of our state.”

I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold, 1928, Charles Demuth, Metropolitan Museum of Art. This is proto-pop.
The paper reported that Jen Rockwell told the City Council, “further north, toward her establishment, drivers start speeding up due to their perception that there’s nothing more to look at until the ferry terminal.” Well, now she’s talking about advertising. I’d have to disagree with her anyway, because one of my favorite signs in town is for the Rockland CafĂ©. That’s very close to their location.

But Ms. Rockwell was right that the visual concentration is weighted to the south end of town. She was, in essence, critiquing Main Street as a work of art in itself, and saying its balance is off. 

Rockland has successfully recreated itself as the northeast’s art mecca. With art sales, I suppose, comes public art. Not all of it is going to be by artists of the stature of Robert Indiana, but a Code Enforcement Officer isn’t qualified to judge aesthetics. Nor, I suppose, does he want to.

Campbell’s Tomato Juice Box, 1964, Andy Warhol. Synthetic polymer paint and silkscreen ink on wood. Museum of Modern Art. This is full-blown Pop Art
He does need to assess whether the sign is properly sized, lighted and hung, and to be sure that it won’t swing loose in a Nor’easter or fall and crush visitors. To do that, he needs a specific code addressing art signs, and now he has one.

My own definition of art is that it’s something that’s useless for any practical purpose. The Rockland City Council came close to the same conclusion when it concluded that a sign is art if it doesn’t advertise the product being sold by the business. In other words, you can hang an art lobster up if your business is selling hand-knitted scarves, but you can’t hang a lobster up if you actually sell lobsters.

Then one looks at the sign for the Strand Theatre and realizes that it’s as much an art statement as anything on Main Street, even though it advertises their specific business. That brings us full circle to Robert Indiana’s work and the whole Pop Art movement of the 1960s. Their goal was to blur the line between mass culture and fine art. And now it is done.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Cult and color

Our ideas of the psychology of color come from a 19th century occultist, Madame Blavatsky.

From Concerning the Spiritual in Art, by Wassily Kandinsky. He believed both shapes and colors had specific meanings.
My student used to love to read aloud to me while I was painting. This is how I ‘read’ Wassily Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art.

Kandinsky was a student of the great occultist of his day, Madame Helena Blavatsky. She has the distinction of being one of the few women to successfully found a cult in modern western society, Theosophy.

Two Helens (Helena Hahn and Helena Blavatsky), artist unknown, is a portrait of the teenage Helena and her late mother.
Born into the Russian nobility, Madame Blavatsky’s nomadic youth exposed her, in turn, to Tibetan Buddhism, Freemasonry and the meandering byways of esotericism. Her mother died when she was 14. Shortly after, she began to experience astral projection and visions involving a spirit guide, a “mysterious Indian” named Master Morya. He would become the first Master of Ancient Wisdom in Theosophy. Blavatsky claimed to have traveled the world with him.

At age 17, she married a much older man because, she said, he was interested in magic. The marriage was a disaster. She fled, escaping to Constantinople. According to biographer Peter Washington, at this point “myth and reality begin to merge seamlessly in Blavatsky's biography.” She claimed to visit Asia, the Americas, and Tibet, where she learned a secret language, Senzar, from which she translated the texts of Theosophy. She developed clairvoyance, telepathy, the ability to control another person’s consciousness, to dematerialize and rematerialize physical objects, and to project her astral body. “Hardly a word of this appears to be true,” wrote her biographer.

Madame Blavatsky as a medium in New York. Courtesy New York Public Library.
With Colonel Henry Steel Olcott and Irish Spiritualist William Quan Judge, she founded the Theosophical Society in 1875. Shortly thereafter, Blavatsky penned the first ‘bible’ of her new religion, Isis Unveiled: A Master-Key to the Mysteries of Ancient and Modern Science and Theology.

Olcott and Blavatsky continued her peripatetic lifestyle, moving first to India, and then to Europe. Meanwhile, Theosophy was a growing concern. By 1885, there were 121 Theosophical Society lodges worldwide. The movement had attracted such luminaries as W. B. Yeats, Thomas EdisonAbner Doubleday and the social reformer social Annie Besant.

Among them were many successful artists, including Wassily Kandinsky. Concerning the Spiritual in Art was written after Madame Blavatsky’s death, but it is heavily influenced by her theories.

Kandinsky was an avid student of occult and mystical teachings, especially Theosophy. Madame Blavatsky taught that creation is a geometrical progression, beginning with a single point. The creative aspect of the form is expressed by a descending series of circles, triangles and squares. Kandinsky adopted this. He based his color teachings on Blavatsky’s writings about the correlation between vibrations, color, and sound. While the framework of his color theory was based on that of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the content was pure Theosophy.

Madame Blavatsky and Colonel Olcott in their later years.
We think of Kandinsky as the first abstract painter, but he was in fact attempting to create a visible representation of the astral world as described by Blavatsky.

Kandinsky believed:
  • Yellow is “warm,” “cheeky and exciting,” “disturbing.” This is the color of madness.
  • Green represents passivity and peace. Good for tired people, it can become boring.
  • Blue is a supernatural “typical heavenly color.” The lighter it is, the more calming it is.
  • Red is the color of “manly maturity.” It is restless, glowing, and alive.
  • Light Red means joy, energy and triumph.
  • Middle Red expresses stability and passion.
  • Dark Red is a “deep” color.
  • Brown is inhibited, dull, and inflexible.
  • Orange is a healthy radiant mix of red and yellow. 
  • Violet  is “morbid, extinguished, sad.”
  • White is the harmony of silence.
  • Black  is “Not without possibilities […] like an eternal silence, without future and hope.”
  • Grey is soundless and motionless, but different from green because it expresses a hopeless stillness.
These ideas still kick around today and influence our beliefs about color.


Tuesday, November 14, 2017

The truth about red

Why does red pop out at you? The first question to answer is whether that’s actually true.

Tilt-a-Whirl, by Carol L. Douglas
“Your color temperature reference seems to be something other than degrees Kelvin of a black-body radiator. Can you explain?” an engineer wrote me yesterday. The simple answer is that, to the painter, color is not a property of electromagnetic radiation, but a sensory perception question.

During the past few weeks, I’ve told you that much of what we accept as truth about color perception is just social convention. Today I’d like to talk about what (we currently think) is true. Science is constantly discovering new things, and in a hundred years, this understanding might be as obsolete as phrenology.

There are two basic theories of how we perceive color. The Young-Helmholtz Theory tells us that the retina’s three types of cones are sensitive to either red, green or blue. Ewald Hering proposed that we interpret color antagonistically. In other words, it’s either red or green, blue or yellow, black or white. Both theories appear to be true.
Deflatable, by Carol L. Douglas. The orange life jackets stand out because they're the complement to the blue water.
The range of color (the “gamut”) that normal people can see is limited by this antagonism. We can see yellowish-green easily enough. We can’t see reddish-green because the cones in our eyes can’t perceive red and green simultaneously. Furthermore, we can’t see colors that are outside the limits of our receptors. Of course, the brain is always outsmarting us, so there are times the brain thinks it can see these so-called impossible colors.

Color perception doesn’t just happen on the retina; the visual cortex is involved, too. Some parts of the spectrum get a bigger response in the visual cortex than others, but that depends on what light conditions the visual system is adapting to.

Palm shadow, by Carol L. Douglas.
We’ve all noticed this in practice. On a clear day, a red dinghy bobbing on the turquoise waves stands out. In gloom it is hardly noticeable. Our perception of reds falls off fast in low light conditions. This is why one can’t fall back on truisms like “the retina perceives red first.” The human brain is far too wily for that.

Our mind practices something called color constancy. It’s how we understand that an apple is green whether we see it in the blue light of dawn, the true light of midday, or in the golden light of the setting sun. If we use a viewfinder to isolate the color of the apple, we often realize that what we’re seeing is anything but green. Still, our mind stubbornly processes the object as green.

This is an adaptive process that probably helps keep us alive, but it often mucks painters up. It’s hard to render unusual lighting effects when your brain is trying so hard to normalize them for you.

The same thing happens with lighting levels. That’s why it’s so important to check values against neighboring objects as we go. Our brain constantly adjusts our perception to normalize lights and darks.

Castine lunch break, by Carol L. Douglas
So why does red stand out? The answer is complex. In certain situations, such as a leafy green tunnel of a road, a red stop sign does, indeed, stand out. It’s the complementary color to its environment. But much of our reaction to color is a learned response. We notice red stop signs because we’ve trained ourselves to notice them. We believe red is an energetic color because society tells us so.

I use red to prime my canvases not because I believe it has special properties, but because it's the complement of the dominant color in my environment, which is green.

Tomorrow, I’m going to introduce you to the 19th century cult leader who, more than anyone else, gave us our modern ideas about color. 

Monday, November 13, 2017

Monday Morning Art School: Add back the banned black

A color exercise that can be done with anything from a dime-store watercolor kit to a professional palette.

Back before black was banned from the palette, we had shades and tints. Shades are made by adding black to a pure color. Tints are an admixture of white to a pure color. Shades aren’t an effective way to make something darker, but they often make nice new hues.

What we consider acceptable in color-mixing is style-driven, just like everything else. For example, see the Permanent Pigments Practical Color Mixing Guide of 1954, below. It’s all about making shades and tints. That’s a hint about why mid-century paintings looked so grey. A little shading goes a long way.

A mid-century guide to mixing colors.
Today’s exercise is to make a paint chart playing the warm tones on your palette against the cool tones. Both of these examples were done in class by students. My definition of warm vs. cool has shifted over time. Ten years ago, I included quinacridone violet among the cools; last month I had my student stick it in among the warms. That’s because warm-vs.-cool is an arbitrary designation.

The chart in watercolors.
The instructions are a little different for solid-media students than for watercolorists. In either case, start by marking off your paper or canvas with 1” squares, allowing enough room for the cool colors on the left and the warm colors across the top.

Watercolorists (and users of fluid acrylics) just need to mix the colors. Oil painters need to tint their colors with a little bit of white. I’ll get to that below.

In watercolor, the column on the far left should be pure pigments straight from the tube: blues, greens, black, and violets if you want to call them cool. The row across the very top should also be pure pigments, but in the warm tones: reds, oranges and yellows.

The boxes in the middle of the chart are all mixtures. For example, the second-row-second-column box on Sheryl’s chart is black+raw umber. The third-row-second-column box is ultramarine blue+raw umber. The bottom right box is sap green+quinacridone violet, and so on.

The greatest difficulty for watercolor painters is to try and keep the color balance equal. Pigments differ in density, and it’s hard to control dilution. Still, try to use the same amount of each in your mixtures.

Sheryl was doing something my friend Poppy Balser calls “licking the paper.” (That’s partly because she was using a very cheap paper.) That means she was fussing after she put the first brushstroke down. That gave her final chart a mottled appearance. Try to get the mixture down in one brushstroke and leave it.

The chart in oils.
Solid media (oil, gouache, and acrylic) painters have a slightly different assignment. They need to add white to their mixtures. I always add it on the cool side of the chart, by mixing a large clump of the cool-plus-white colors and using that to work across, modulating the warm colors. Working this way, your second-row-second-column box will be (black+white)+raw umber. The third-row-second-column box will be (ultramarine blue+white)+raw umber, and so on.

Note that there is one three-way mixture on the left column. I do not typically paint with a tubed violet, so row five started with a mixed violet to which I added white. If you use a dioxazine purple, it belongs here.

The chart above was designed for figure painting, but applies everywhere. It easily adapts for differences in skin color. Figure commission by Carol L. Douglas
Your last task for this week is to use color temperature, rather than value (lightness or darkness) to define the volume of a sphere, as in Sheryl’s example, below. Her shadows are warm, and her light is cool. Experiment with reversing that as well.

The shape of this sphere isn't defined with value (lightness or darkness) but with a shift in color temperature. Try it!