Paint Schoodic

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Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Thinking about teaching?

You might be an excellent painter, but make sure you understand your own process thoroughly. 

Me,teaching at Acadia National Park
I started writing Monday Morning Art School back in October. This was in response to my students’ need for continuing education while I was elsewhere. It was also a way to put my scattershot “how to” posts in some kind of framework.

It takes longer than the posts I write the rest of the week, and it’s more complicated. It does funny things to my readership stats as well: Monday Morning Art School gets fewer hits than any other day of the week, but I get more mail about it than about anything else.

The difficult thing about writing a “how to” is slicing and dicing your process. That’s true of teaching in general. It’s one thing to know how to do something, and another to be able to stand outside your work and explain it step-by-step to a beginner. In a classroom, you read your students’ reactions and adjust your method accordingly. Writing (or video) is a one-way street.

Painting by student Catherine Bullinger in a one-day workshop last summer.
A friend took drawing classes at a prestigious art school. I’ve wondered how a person with her mind could manage to not learn to draw in such a setting, but she did. She’s a brilliant woman. Drawing should have been a snap for her.

As I was writing about measuring curves as a series of straight line segments, I asked her if she’d ever been taught this simple skill. “The teacher was a wonderful botanical illustrator herself, but really in retrospect her teaching method was: ‘look at it and sketch it,’” she told me.

I’ve taken a few classes and workshops with great artists who couldn’t teach. At times the instructor thought that watching him paint was enough. No questions were allowed during the demo. That’s a real misunderstanding of the teacher’s role. His focus should be on describing and examining his process, not protecting it.

Students painting at Owls Head.
Anyway, if I wanted to watch someone paint, I’d have just bought the video.

Almost all artists get the idea somewhere along the way that they can teach, especially after their accountants tut-tut over their books. Many artists teach wonderfully, of course, and the world needs more people like them.

Others may be excellent painters, but haven’t analyzed their process thoroughly. Or, worse, they don’t have the communication skills to interact with strangers.

Yes, I demo, but there's a lot more to teaching than that.
Before you decide to run that class, run a check on yourself as you start and finish a painting. Can you clearly describe all aspects of your process, or is some of it automatic and mysterious even to you? If the latter, do yourself and your students a favor and hold off on teaching until you’ve got it straight in your mind.

This, by the way, is a lesson I learned the hard way.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Monday Morning Art School: drawing draperies

Whether you want to make a drawing as detailed as Prud’hon’s or as simplified as Gauguin’s, the process is the same.

My precious linen drape.
If you’re lucky enough to own a worn mid-century linen tablecloth, don’t get rid of it. It can stand in as a drape under a still life, or as a sheet in a figure drawing. You can even iron it and put it over the deal table in your garret when company comes. If you don’t have one, you need a cotton sheet for today’s exercise. Throw it over something and let’s get going.

In the late eighteenth century, Neoclassicism brought drapery studies back to the forefront of art training. Their challenge and appeal were the same as in antiquity. Drapery plays peek-a-boo with the human form, exaggerating and pointing up the body’s activities. That artfulness is lost on modern viewers, and so is the skill of draping.

Same linen cloth, appearing as a sheet in The Laborer Resting, by Carol L. Douglas
Modern man wanders around in jeans and t-shirts. We don’t tend to draw people in them; most figure classes are done with nude models. We don’t learn much about rendering fabric, or about rendering people in clothes.

Free form curves are measured as straight line segments, as on the right, and then smoothed into their final shape.
We’ve talked about ellipses, but free-form curves appear often in the natural world, and especially in drapery. They’re wild and sinuous, and they can be very confusing. It helps to visualize them as straight-line segments that are joined up and smoothed, as in the above illustration. For a refresher on how to use your pencil to measure, click here.

This is done the same way; there are just more line segments.
In my first pass, I have drawn all the curves of the drapes as straight-line segments. Pay no attention to value at this point. As always, measurement comes first. The most complicated shapes and shadows are still just a collection of angles, proportions and alignments.

With practice, you’ll be able to measure the curves as you draw them. You’ll still be measuring; you’ll just be doing it automatically.

Place the shadows. You get white or dark and that's it. No shades of grey.
In your second pass, define the large areas of shadow. There is no detailed modeling done in this step, just placement of the large shapes. (If you’re nearsighted, you can take off your glasses for this step.) Don’t use value steps as we did two weeks ago: you get white and dark, and that’s it. Don’t refine your shapes, either.

Now you can start focusing on the details.
In your third pass, you can begin to explore the subtlety of the shapes and the relative values of each fold. Erase if you want, be more careful with your linework. If you love detailed drawing, start big and revel in this phase; it’s fun. Because you set the value relationships up front, you can’t really go wrong focusing on the details.

Drapery study, 1813, Pierre Paul Prud'hon, black and white chalk with stumping on blue paper, some squaring in black chalk (courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Why do I never finish these Monday Morning Art School drawings to the level of Pierre Paul Prud’hon’s wonderful drapery study at the Met, above? That kind of high finish is actually the easiest part of drawing, requiring just loads of time (and interest) to finish. It’s not where most people need help. They need help knowing how to fit all the puzzle pieces together at the beginning.

Whether you want to make a drawing as detailed as Prud’hon’s or as simplified as Gauguin’s, the process is the same—start by figuring out the shapes, then work out the shadow structure and then—and only then—worry about detailed modeling and mark-making.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Frumpy in the extreme

We build lousy modern churches because we don’t believe in the power of art.

The Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche in Berlin (Courtesy Wikipedia)
One of the joys of being an intellectual mynah bird is that people lob the most interesting ideas my way. Yesterday someone said, “You know what makes me sad? The lack of passion in modern church design.” She is right. Modern American church design is frumpy in the extreme.

Consider Canterbury Cathedral, consecrated in 1070 AD. It’s meant to reach up to the heavens, while at the same time impressing and humbling the pilgrim. It is a good visual analogy of our longing for and relationship with God. It is the product of the highest and best gifts of eight centuries of artists. The relationship between God and man, our yearning, is palpable.

Lakewood Church in Houston, TX (Courtesy Wikipedia)
Compare that with the largest megachurch in the United States, Lakewood Church in Houston. Its congregation is 40,000 people. It’s housed in a building with all the charm of a basketball stadium. That’s no surprise; it’s the former home of the Houston Rockets. It has altar calls, but no altar. Its preachers work on a large stage.

Outside the city walls of Canterbury is the Church of St Martin, the oldest Christian house of worship in England. It was the private chapel of Queen Bertha of Kent in the 6th century, before Augustine arrived from Rome and officially established Christianity in Britain. It’s austere and slightly larger than my living room, but there is no doubt it is a sacred space.

The quire at Canterbury Cathedral (Courtesy Wikipedia)
Not all modern churches are terrible, of course. The original Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche was nearly destroyed in a bombing raid in 1943. It was rebuilt from 1959 to 1963, when Germany was recovering from the devastation of WWII. It’s a masterpiece of beautifully-crafted, controlled religious fervor.

Congregationalism may descend from the Puritans, but their austere churches were nonetheless beautiful, testimonies to the clear light of faith.

Old South Meeting House, Boston, MA (Courtesy Wikipedia)
Why, then, are modern American churches often so ugly? It’s not that we’re a post-Christian society; there are new congregations being formed and new churches being built here every day. And it’s not that we’re all poor; ours is the richest nation in the richest period in world history.

By and large, American Protestants subscribe to a practical theology of dualism. We believe that our physical space is separate from and less important than our spiritual life. We’re also transients at heart; we move around and take our churches with us. Like our Big Box stores, they’re built to be temporary. In part that comes from our premillennialist leanings. If Jesus is coming back soon, why waste money on the building?

The monumental choir screen at Chartres Cathedral (Courtesy Wikipedia)
We also feel guilty about art. Who among us hasn’t heard the canard that the Vatican should sell its treasures and use the money to feed the poor? That denies any connection to the transcendent, or any worship role for the architect and artist. It repudiates the purpose of the art.

Bernini did not build his amazing St. Peter’s Baldachin so it could be sold to grace some wealthy man’s office; he built it for the greater glory of God. And that’s a Biblical position. Bezalel was named the chief artisan of the Tabernacle by God himself, who said, “I have endowed him with a divine spirit of skill, ability, and knowledge in every kind of craft,” and then let him loose.

Of course, our culture as a whole is fashionable, rationalist, pragmatic, and consumerist. In church we want contemporary music, good production values and an entertaining preacher. They mean a stage and an audience, not an altar and congregation.

Churches see themselves as vendors of Christ, competing with vendors of other cultural properties, up and down the road. That doesn’t leave us much time or space to offer beauty up to the Lord.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Lois Dodd in New York

It’s not often you get to see the work of a living master, so go see this show while there’s still time.


Two Red Drapes and Part of White Sheet, 1981, Lois Dodd
If you like reading phrases like, “sets up a dialectic between an implication of distance and the optical immediacy of design,” by all means buy Lois Dodd, by Faye Hirsch. I don’t, but I like picture books. And I appreciate any attention paid to Lois Dodd. She is one of the masters of 20th century art, but has been overshadowed by her male brethren.

The 90-year-old painter has summered in Cushing, ME for six decades. She was part of a wave of New York modernists who came to Maine at the end of World War II. They were following an historic line of painters, starting with the Hudson River School artists. All of them found freedom and inspiration here. For Dodd and her peers, Maine was where they could break away from the strictures of Abstract Expressionism and explore representational painting.

Dodd never achieved the fame of the men who joined her on this trek to Maine: Fairfield PorterRackstraw DownesAlex Katz, Charles DuBack, and Neil Welliver. This was despite her sterling pedigree as a painter.

Globe Thistle, 1996, Lois Dodd
She was educated at Cooper Union, and one of five founding members of the Tanager Gallery. This was one of New York’s first artist cooperatives and central to the avant-garde scene of the time. Dodd taught at Brooklyn College and at Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. She is an elected member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters and of the National Academy of Design.

Dodd didn’t receive her first solo museum show until 2013, and it wasn’t in New York, but at the Portland Museum of Art. “Artists who have experience in both New York and Maine will tell you that Maine is much friendlier to women artists,” wrote Edgar Allen Beam at the time. “Indeed, Caldbeck Gallery in Rockland, Dodd’s Maine gallery, can boast of gender equity with 51% of the artists it represents being women.

“I suppose the fact that Dodd mostly paints interiors, landscapes, gardens, flowers and female nudes in a very matter-of-fact modernist style of realism might explain why New York area museums – in love as they are with flash and fads – have failed her,” Beam continued.

View Through Elliot's Shack Looking South, 1971, Lois Dodd
Well, yeah. She’s not agonizing over sex, and she has an affection for the things she observes. What room does the art establishment have for that?

Meanwhile, the Alexandre Gallery, her New York representative, is finishing up its thirteenth show of Dodd’s work. Lois​ ​Dodd:​ ​Selected Paintings​, runs for one more week, until January 27, 2018.

Two Trees, Afternoon Light, 2014, Lois Dodd
At 90, Dodd continues to paint, although she doesn’t get out like she used to. Mortality is staring her in the face, as it does with us all. She is one of the greatest living American masters, and this might be your last chance to see her work before she is frozen in time. If you’re in the metro New York area this week, you really should go.

Addendum:

Rewriting Painting
A panel discussion chaired by Barry Schwabsky, featuring painters Lois Dodd, Thomas Nozkowski and Philip Taaffe, and art critics Faye Hirsch and John Yau

Thursday, April 19, 2018, 6:30pm – 8pm

Join Barry Schwabsky and a panel of leading painters and critics for a lively debate on the state and shape of contemporary painting and its critical reception. How far have artists extended the boundaries of the medium in the 21st century, and what does it mean to be identified as a painter today? Is the word ‘painting’ still adequate to describe a practice which no longer necessarily involves paint or flat surfaces? And to what extent do the ways in which we write about painting influence both the public’s reception of the work and contemporary practice itself?

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Open source art history

An easy, interesting, free site for learning art history, available to everyone.

All art survey courses start with the Venus of Willendorf (courtesy of Naturhistorisches Museum)…
A reader asked how she could learn more about art history. My normal answer would be to go to the library and take out a copy of Janson’s History of Art. But she can’t do that.

A while ago, another reader sent me this listing of free art-history courses online. Most of them are narrowly-focused, making them more interesting to the enthusiast than to the beginner. But the list led me to SmartHistory. It has a detailed set of syllabuses that takes you through the development of western art, from the Venus of Willendorf to Pop Art. (Those of you looking for an analysis of the last fifty years will have to wait.)

And go to this (Chartres cathedral c. 1220)…
These are:


A syllabus is an outline for a course, a description of where you’ll go and how you’ll get there. You get them the first day of class, put them in the front of your binder and refer back to them when you’ve forgotten something. SmartHistory’s are interactive, so they end up driving your learning. You walk through them step-by-step, just as you’d go to lectures at university. I sampled several lessons and found them complete, interesting, and thorough. And there are graded quizzes.
And then to this study of a horse by Leonardo da Vinci (courtesy of ‌Royal Library, Windsor Castle)…
Smarthistory started in 2005 as an audio guide series for use at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art, and as a resource for college students. It has now published 1500 videos and essays on art and cultural history. While these include the art of Africa, the Americas, Asia, and Oceania, they’ve not yet written syllabuses for non-western art.

“Publishers are adding multimedia to their textbooks, but unfortunately they are doing so in proprietary, password-protected adjunct websites. These are weak because they maintain an old model of closed and protected content,” they wrote on their webpage.

And then to Impressionism, represented here by Monet’s Impression, soleil levant, 1872 (Musée Marmottan Monet)…
That, to me, gets to the heart of the matter. Individuals and institutions may own individual paintings, but nobody owns our history or our heritage. Doling it out at $25 for a ticket to the Met or $100 for an access code to a textbook is contrary to our goal of building an educated, thinking society with common values. A person who follows these syllabuses meticulously is going to learn everything they’d study in a college survey course in art history.

And end up somewhere around Roy Lichtenstein’s Drowning Girl, 1963 (Museum of Modern Art, New York).
Smarthistory launched its first custom-designed website in 2007. Between 2011-2015, it was supported by Khan Academy and remains its official partner for art history. And this is the first I’ve heard of it. Somedays I feel like the last one to the party.