Sunday, December 11, 2011

Reworking a failed passage

Sisyphus, by Titian

As those of you who read my blog already know, I fight like hell to get my paintings to work. The more you learn about painting, the harder it gets. Eventually it will become too hard for me to do at all.


Sometimes a passage (or area) of a painting just doesn't work. Here is one of those. Its time to give this One a second chance! This is a group of rocks in the middle of a seascape. After struggling for days with it, finally I decided to rip the whole thing out and have another go at it. It was time for a fresh start. Because I worked a long time trying to get these rocks right, I built up a lot more paint than I wanted. Above is the failed passage, that has been sand papered down. I wanted to get the surface back to flat and level so I could start over and not have pentimenti (ridges from the previous brushstrokes) visible under my newly applied paint.

First I scraped the surface with the side of my offset, leaf shaped palette knife to get as much of the paint off as I could. Then I sanded it until it was flat with 80 grit sandpaper. I wet sanded it by dipping my sandpaper in mineral spirits. Then I finished it off with the 150 (sand paper with a higher number is finer). I think I get better results wet sanding, but also I don't want all the dust from my pigments flying up into the air for me to breathe, if I wet sand the painting that doesn't happen. I wear nitrile gloves when I paint so I didn't get the resultant toxic slurry all over my hands and abdomen.

I had been trying to just " invent" the rocks, something I am sometimes able to do. It wasn't working for me this time so I needed to hire a model. Above is my "model". Those are two pieces of anthracite coal picked up from an old railroad bed in Vermont. I have a box of about twenty of these and I use them for just this purpose. I have sprayed them with krylon to give them a little more reflective surface. Anthracite coal looks a lot like ocean rocks, it has facets and unusual shapes. I can look at it and use those shapes to create rocks in a seascape that don't look too "man made". It is necessary to simplify them or only use some parts of them, but it really helps to imagine the forms and the different planes turning against the light.

I have a clamp light with a 40 watt "daylight colored" bulb in it at the same angle I want my light to be hitting the rocks that I intend to paint. This little tableau is on a wooden shelf cantilevered out from the wall right next to my easel at just below my eye level ( I am 32 feet tall, and weigh over 1600 pounds).

Below are the rocks, redux. I have elongated the rock on the left, I needed it to fit into a particular area of the painting. I have also thrown some color in there, sometimes the coal looks great painted it's actual color, but in this case I wanted a red-orange Cape Ann granite.

Perhaps if I ever get this painting finished I will post it so you can see how it comes out. I still have a fair amount of refinement to do on this area, but you can see what I am up to.


There is still room in Snowcamp. The first session is filled but the second still has a few spaces. If you would like to come you can sign up here. Snowcamp happens at a big old wooden inn high on a ridge in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. The inn overlooks the Cannon Mountain and the Presidential range. We paint outside just out the back door of the inn so if you get cold you can run inside and warm up by the fire. The Sunset Hill Inn takes good care of us and everything we need is right there. I park my car and forget it while I am there. Snowcamp is a three day total immersion experience that runs from breakfast until well after dinner. It is a great way to meet other painters and learn how to work outside in the winter. Snow painting is my favorite thing, and I will show you some of the tricks I have picked up in my about 30 years of painting it.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The surface of an Edward Seago, examined

© The Estate of Edward Seago, courtesy of Portland Gallery

Above is a painting by Edward Seago that is full of bold impasto. What a fine One it is! As you probably know Seago is one of my heroes ( the others are Aldro Hibbard, Willard Metcalf, and Jeff Beck) If you click on it you will be able to see some of the different textures and thicknesses of paint he used. I will unpack what, in my opinion, he did in various parts of this picture.

Seago texture his canvasses before he painted on them. Here is a link to a post about that. In the passage above, Seago has dragged the branches across his sky, already textured by his ground. It looks to me like he did this with a knife. The rough ground grabbed the paint unevenly from his knife. This had to be done ONCE! This method doesn't admit for much correcting or alteration.
He added the larger branches with a brush, a sable rigger ( sometimes called a scriptliner) would do that nicely. Notice how he allows interuptions in those lines of the branches made with a brush. That makes them look of a piece with the rest of the dragged looking passage. Had he drawn those too carefully and consistently they would have looked too different from the knife work around them and pointed out the paucity of the means used to produce the spotted foliage and twigs against the sky.

Above is a passage from the middle of the painting. I wish I could get better details to show you but this is what I have to work with. The house there is heavily loaded paint, mostly white with a little ocher added to it. Notice how loose and barely suggested everything in this passage is. Seago has made a point of putting a dark contrasting value in the line of trees behind the buildings. the contrast makes the passage pop and draws our eye there. Seago wanted to be sure we didn't miss the buildings down at the bottom of the field. He also dragged his brush strokes across the rough ground in the warm red tree that is just above the white gable of the house. This softens his edges in a different way than a painter would do on a smooth surface by pulling colliding edges together with a soft touch of the brush. Although the mechanics of arriving at that demephasized edge are different than more common methods, the result is about the same.

Here is a passage from the foreground I believe it was mostly painted with a large stiff bristle brush. You can see the marks of the individual hairs in the strokes. That gives it a striated grass-like appearance. Seago varies his paint application in order to best describe the particular texture of the elements of the landscape. He was a very fast and fluent painter and the ability to do this was developed over many years. He spent his early career painting society portraits and horses so his draftsmanship was impeccable. Usually loose painters that are good, have started out painting tightly.


Say, that might make a dandy neck tattoo!

Here is the sky, here Seago is pulling strokes from a large bristle brush over his textured ground again. See the darker clouds soften because they are dragged across the sky beneath them. Seagos ground, besides being rough was absorbent, He added gesso ( real gesso not the contemporary acrylic counterfeit) to the lead mixture that he used as a priming so that his thirsty ground sucked in the wet paint and allowed for rapid overpainting in a way that a normal ground would not. The rough canvas aided him in his ability to work rapidly.

Here is a bit of the distance from the left hand side or the tableau. This is thinly painted, see how the ground shows so clearly through it? Seago is varying his paint thickness for two reasons. Firstly to give the illusion of distance and less resolution, thinner passages tend to drop back from a roughly handled fore ground. But the other and perhaps more important reason, is to provide contrast to his roughly painted passages. In order for some passages to look rough it is most effective to have them share the canvas with thinly painted passages. The thinly painted passages heighten the effect of the thick ones by contrast, just as a spot of dark near a light passage will draw attention to the brightness of that area.

Above is the immediate foreground. It is very thickly painted. See the rough crudeness of the paint? this was probably troweled on with his knife and gives the illusion of texture to the field's freshly turned earth . Seago has thrown some directional signals in there too, the furrows encourage us to follow them deeper into the middle ground of the painting.



A view from the back yard of the Sunset Hill Inn

As many of you know, each year I teach a series of workshops called Snowcamp at a historic inn up in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. The first session is filled but I do have spaces left in the other. This is a course in winter painting skills and open to all levels of expertise from beginner to self important semi professional.

The Sunset Hill House, a charming old wooden hotel from the days before automobiles, takes care of all our needs including meals served in our own private dining room. Because we eat together, the workshop is a total immersion experience from breakfast until evening. We get a lot done on that schedule. We also get the opportunity to meet and befriend fellow painters.

I teach the workshop right outside the enormous back veranda of the inn, or under that if it is actually snowing. There is no need to carry equipment any distance and if you get cold you can run inside and warm yourself by the fire. If you would like to be there this year here is the link to sign up!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Surface and impasto

Images courtesy of They have become a login site. For 14 dollars you get access to a lot of hi-res images. I have downsized these and cut details from them, those on the site are much larger. I believe the library of images they offer is worth the small investment and would encourage you to join. I receive no kickback, funding etc from them or anyone else who I recommend over there in the side bar, well, except for RGH paint who gave me a quart of white once.

I want to talk about surface in this post. There are two main sorts of surface, enameled (as it is sometimes called) ie. very smoothly painted without ridges or areas of deliberately roughened paint, and an impastoed, or 3D surface where the artist has intentionally allowed the paint to project from the surface to carry his illusion. Great painters have fallen into both camps.

The head at the top of the page is a detail of a Raeburn. He has used the thickness of his brush strokes which follow the forms of the sitters face to express the structure there. Until the early twentieth century painters worked with lead white. Lead white comes in a variety of handling qualities from ropey or stringy, to liquid and flowing, to crumbly and dry. The most common was an unguent and easily manipulated version such as you see in the painting above. One of the few drawbacks of flake lead (other than its toxicity) is that it becomes more transparent as it ages. Knowing this, artists would often load their whites ( paint them thickly) to make sure they retained opacity over time. However this gave an added benefit, these thick lights contrasted with the thinly painted shadows and a heightened dimensionality appeared. The artist gained another means to express the illusion of volume and dimensionality on his flat surface that an enameled surface didn't give him.

Painters who work over canvases with carefully transferred drawings on them tend to work very smoothly. Often they are coloring in or glazing these drawings in transparent veils to make their paintings. This is an academic approach. Painters who use impasto tend to paint directly from nature. They drag paint here, load it there, or use a palette knife to create the illusion of texture and form by various kinds of manipulative paint handling.

Below is an example of Rembrandt painting a sleeve. He was perhaps the greatest manipulator of impasto. The globs and striations in the paint surface appear at a distance to be the brocaded details of the material. In the upper left of the detail is a good place to see that. Incidentally, this is some of that crumbly look I spoke about earlier as opposed to the more liquid handling in the Raeburn above.

Art is what the artist brings with him to a painting. It is not found in nature itself. Art is man made and the result of an artists decision making process. It is not resultant from observation or accident, but is deliberately installed through intention.

The use of impasto requires the artist to make decisions about the nature of his paint application and its the varied effects he wishes to obtain. It cannot be more than inspired by nature in front of him, it must be invented. The same sort of passage can be painted absolutely smoothly to great effect as well.

Above is a sleeve and hand painted by Ingres. It has great complexity like the Rembrandt yet it is smoothly painted. In the hands of a master either approach can result in triumphant verisimilitude. I don't mean to say that one approach is better than another, however the use of impasto does require an additional set of decisions for the painter to make about how his surface will look.

Here is a detail of Rembrandt's' Hendrickje bathing. The impasto emphasises the simplified and broad planes with which Rembrandt has described the forms of his subject. The use of impasto and the expression of form are entwined and work together to further the artists purpose. More on this in my next post.


I also received this e-mail:
"I, of course, noticed that you've ceased your superhuman habit of daily posting. I've grown so fond of spending evenings scouring your archives. Your blog is the art instruction I didn't receive back in the sixties/seventies, and your views and wonderful humor have become a comforting light in my search to improve my paintings. I've looked for a post that might explain your absence, but haven't found anything. I hope you are well, and that you'll be back soon. Thank you, for all your generosity and the effort you've put into what you have produced for us".

I have backed off to posting about once a week for now. I may return to greater frequency but I need to do this for a number of reasons which are:
  • Unspecified and serious difficulties in my private life.
  • A need to concentrate on my painting, I have to get my inventory up, which is off partly due to the unspecified difficulties opaquely alluded to above, but also because I have been making such difficult studio paintings, seascapes and such that take forever. I am much faster out on location than in the studio.
  • The blog was intended to be a one year project and instead extended to a thousand posts, which are archived and available should anyone want to read them. It is an encyclopedic "book" of what I have learned over the years I have painted. It should be useful to many who are looking for that information ( or perhaps slant is the better word ) which is hard to find in the mainstream art world.
  • I have written most of what I set out to write. The technical and design posts most importantly. I don't want to become repetitive. The low hanging fruit has been picked. There are lots more posts I can write and will, but they are more time consuming and difficult. The Encyclopedia of Dumb Design Ideas are a great example of that. I will do more of those but each one takes about 20 hours. They are worth the time and a lot of fun to do, providing I have the time to use doing them.
  • The blog will continue, but as I said above, I will have to keep to a reduced schedule for now. I do want to be useful. Thank you all who have continued to follow along.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Some rambling thoughts on inexpensive art

Carl Faberge 1846-1920 The head of a famed Russian jewelry workshop, Faberge produced thousands of fine objects but the best known are the Faberge eggs. Often their creation was the work of thousands of hours of highly skilled craftsmanship. Most were made for the Tzar as gifts for his mother and wife. The jewelry firm was destroyed by the revolution and Faberge escaped to Switzerland.

Here's a question I received the other day:

"I have a problem selling paintings to friends and/or family. I feel they expect a discount, a hefty discount, and somehow I feel guilty if I don't give them a REALLY good deal... I get this knot in the pit of my stomach every time a good friend or family asks about buying a painting because I know I'm going to have to practically give it to them. I recently sold one that way, and gave the person about 75% off gallery price, and they still haggled with me about paying the shipping. sheesh!!! I was hoping they wouldn't buy it....but they liked it.So, do you have a standard "friends and family discount" or do you just tell them the price, and that's it....? "

That' a difficult question to answer for everybody, but here is how I have handled that. My most recent, favorite, or most likely to sell paintings are never gifted to anyone. I must make a living, first and foremost, before I give anything away. I cannot feed my children snowballs all winter. However I make a lot of art and sometimes things come back from the galleries unsold, even though they might be paintings that I am proud to have made. Sometimes I will give these to people. I have friends who will never be able to afford my paintings and, I try to make sure that my close friends in this category have one of my paintings.Often they get a painting that while well made, is a field sketch or not something that would be as appealing to the general public . That is what is sometimes called an "artists picture"

Anyone who I know that can afford to buy one of my paintings, has to buy them. If I know them quite well I will negotiate a lower price for them. Usually it is a generous but not ridiculous discount. I would rather just give the painting away than take obscenely short money for them. Again my art is expensive. If you are making paintings that sell at workingmans prices, say 300 dollars, I suggest you never give any of them away or discount them at all, except to the most impoverished of your close friends.I think their is a lot to lose by not valuing your own paintings .If you want others to value them, you should begin that yourself.

I often hear an artist who has just been praised on his art make excuses for its quality. I always tell students in workshops to never disparage their own art. Don't make excuses for it like"its not done" or point out a defect you believe it has. In fact, recommend you never make excuses for your art at all. I don't explain em much either, I present them and if you like them, fine. If you don't, I wont try to talk you into it or waste much time wishing that you did. Their are lots of other people and if the picture is any good someone else might. There is a saying in the art gallery world that "there is a buyer for every painting". I am not sure that is true of weak paintings, but it might be true of paintings at or above a certain level of quality. It can sometimes take a long time to get that painting in front of that buyer though.

If someone praises one of your paintings, even if they are totally uninformed and you know they are, smile and graciously accept the complement, don't tell them they are wrong.Even weak paintings are fiendishly hard to make, and it takes years of work and study to make a middling quality painting. If you can do it even a little, be proud of yourself and claim what laurels are offered. It is so hard to make a decent painting that it is a wonder that anyone ever does it! Take credit for your efforts, it will be more than a reward for the time spent it will also be a comfort and encouragement to you as you work towards making even better paintings.

I have noticed a funny disconnect in peoples thinking about art. They want it to be cheap when they buy it and valuable when they own it. I suppose that's just human nature, and everybody loves a bargain. When I had my gallery I had some small reputation for knowing my way around old paintings. Often people would bring me paintings that they had bought at auction. They would invariably tell me that they "knew" the painting was by Corot or some other master. I knew at a glance that it was not. These treasure hunters were always going to find some expert who would certify their find as being a real Corot,although unsigned, and they would resell it for a fortune.

Usually the works they lovingly presented me were amateurish and worth very little. Their owners were treasure hunting, and they didn't know enough about painting to know a good old painting from a weak one. There are LOTS of old paintings out there for sale and many of them are inexpensive. In the 19th century just like today there were plenty of amateur painters and also a "production" art industry making art much like the imported motel paintings of today.

I suppose that it makes sense that antique dealers and resellers of auction finds who have no idea what old paintings that are valuable might look like would have trouble pricing them. I have noticed many times that they usually price worthless, damaged, or old production paintings ridiculously high. The same folks sold me many etchings for ridiculously low prices, often marked as being "ink drawings". I built a nice little collection of old prints that way, they are not particularly valuable, but they are good art and original. These etchings have provided me with much pleasure and instruction.. I suppose the dealers are hipper than that now, that was a while ago, but I always check the price of etchings in the antique shops when I see them. I guess because they are black and white, dealers and perhaps their customers don't particularly value them. If bargains are to be had, that seems to be where I, at least, have found them.

I was once invited to visit the home of an old man ( now long deceased)who had spent a lifetime buying cheap paintings at auction. His limit was about 25 dollars. He had paintings stacked everywhere, on the stairs against the walls of every room and even in his kitchen cabinets. I grew bored pulling through them looking for anything that I though was fine or of any particular value. I am not sure he thought he had any masterpieces, he probably was satisfied just to get his 25 dollars worth. He was an interesting guy and had taken a number of photographs as he accompanied his mother who was working for the WPA documenting life in the impoverished depression era south. I bought one of his photographs of sorghum harvesting behind horse drawn wagons and met him when I sought him out to sign it for me. He placed no particular value on his photographs and I think I paid about 25 dollars for it.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Several new books

An autumn painting of mine 24 by 30 from 2006. Painted near Jackson, New Hampshire

I am proud to have been invited to sit on a panel of speakers at the Boston International Fine Arts Show. If you are in the Boston area come out and say hello.
Saturday afternoon, November 19, 2011

Boston International Fine Art Show (BIFAS) at the Cyclorama

3-4 pm

Shaping the Present: Realist Art Then and Now

For years, people have been saying realist art is coming back. Judging from its growing visibility and the mushrooming of realist art schools nationwide, it’s more accurate to say it’s here. How are top contemporary realist artists inspired or informed by their historical counterparts? Is it wise to collect today's realist artists when many museums and critics are reluctant to highlight them? Join us for this intriguing panel, moderated by two national magazine editors and popular BIFAS presenters: Joshua Rose of American Art Collector and Peter Trippi of Fine Art Connoisseur.


Julie Bangert, Gallery Director, Tree’s Place Gallery, Orleans, Massachusetts

Elizabeth Ives Hunter, Executive Director, Cape Cod Museum of Art
Stapleton Kearns, Artist, New Hampshire

Dana Levin, Artist, Massachusetts
I am going to do a couple of book reviews today;I buy a lot of art books and recently two of them seemed good enough to recommend. The first is the new book "The Landscapes" by Richard Schmid. Schmid has long been a hero of mine since I found one of his books in the graduate stacks at the University if Minnesota about nearly forty years ago. I thought that no one could paint like that anymore having been led to believe that Philip Pearlstein was the figurative artist of that era. Years later I saw a show of his work at the old Grand Central galleries in New York. I thought it was amazing. I have his book Alla Prima and perhaps I have already recommended that, I think, it is excellent. But being a landscape painter I was excited when I found out that Schmid was putting out a book of just his landscapes. I have always liked his landscapes the best of all of his art. A lot of focus has been placed on his still lives and figures and I am glad that his landscapes will now get their due.
This book costs around a hundred dollars so it is not a cheap thrill, but it is printed on good paper and is entirely filled with full page reproductions of the art. I think it is well worth it and I will study it closely. Is Schmid Americas best landscape painter? maybe so.....

The other book I have been studying is a giant new volume on tonalist painting. "A History of American Tonalism byDavid Cleveland. Tonalism hasn't received the scholarship it has so long deserved. It was the dominant art movement in America for around the end of the 19th century. Tonalism was an art movement that valued aesthetics and achieving a mood in the picture far more than the representation of any specific identifiable place. They tended to paint ordinary places and not grand views. In a way tonalism was a reaction to the literalism of the Hudson River School on one hand and the often scientific matter of factness of the impressionists on the other. There has been so little written about tonalism and I have always wanted to see a lot more of it. Clevelands near encyclopedic work has filled in that hole. I hope other writers will follow with monographs on the individual artists of the movement. There is almost nothing in print on any of them except for the handful who are best known and then often in other contexts than as tonalists.

This is a monstrous 600 page long book that weighs as much as a four cylinder engine. Its a fat One! And it is full of pictures of paintings you will find nowhere else. I am still reading mine a little bit at a time. It is text heavy and the pictures could in my opinion have been given more prominence. The author seems to be overly enamored with Charles Warren Eaton, a lesser known American tonalist painter. There are many others I would have given greater prominence. Cleveland also lumps a lot of painters into his tonalist camp that might or not be in there depending on how big a stadium you need to fill. So the book is idiosyncratic and labyrinthine. Still its eccentricity is a benefit as there is so much information in here. Pathfinders, visionaries and world changers are often eccentric. After they have blazed the trails the more sober but less adventurous follow their leads.

Cleveland does a nice job of examining Whistlers enormous influence on the painting of that era. Whistler is best known today as a footnote,everyone seems to know Whistlers mother and not the man himself. But he was revered in his day and influenced a whole generation of artists who became more concerned with mood and evocation and the idea of beauty as a value apart from that represented. It is not what it is a picture of....but HOW it is a picture of that is important!
The book is priced well considering its size the wonderful paintings in this book are now available for study and have been impossible to see until now.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Fooling with other peoples art

Above is a painting that was sent to me to critique. I have never been to the place where this was painted so I have no idea what was really there. I also have no idea of the artists original intentions. So I have put my "spin' on it. There are a lot of different takes that could be applied to a painting but this one will point out some problems in the original image and their possible solutions. You may have different solutions of your own. I want to be careful to point out that I have used some of my means of dealing with the problems in a landscape, but not necessarily the only ones.

I fooled with it in Photoshop. I am not an expert in Photoshop so I just go at it with the brush tool. It always feels like I am painting with gummi-worms. However it does allow me to rework a painting without ruining it. So it is a pretty good teaching tool. Below is my version. Below that is a bulleted list of what I did to it and why.

The original was all in a few middle tones. I spread out the values, clearly defining what is in the light and what is in the shadow. No value exists in both!


The lights in the original are scattered about in repetitive sizes and shapes and not sufficiently different than the shadow value to "light up". There are gray days that have no dappled light at all but that is a different painting problem. You might look at the work of Richard Schmid for that, he handles gray days so beautifully.

  • Here's a detail from the middle left of the original showing a repeated group of V shaped forms. Repeated forms are visually boring and "manmade" looking. I made them into a single tree, but of course there are lots of different way to break up a passage like this. The important thing is variety of shapes and intervals. A painting should contain a great variety of shapes that are different from one another. yet interlaced or rhythmic.
  • Here is another problem, called a tangent. A number of unrelated lines all meet,for no good reason at a single point. This seizes the viewers attention, all of those lines draw the eye and then short out against the tree limb. Also the upper line of the mountain and the line of the hill below it are opposites, that is they echo one another in reverse. This is overly geometric looking, and makes the distant mountain into a teardrop shape. Below is my fix. The lines of the mountain and the hill now operate independently of one another and pass BEHIND the tree rather than butting up against it.
  • I reworked the trees varying their widths, again to get a more natural look, and to get more variety of shape. Repeated dimensions and intervals are boring. Those in the original were too straight, like phone poles. I put some twists into them as they writhe towards the light, and broke up their lines with some flecks of sunlight, emphasizing their twisting shapes and deemphasizing their repetitive perimeter lines. Rather than all being bounded by a dark edge their edges now are broken by patches of light. The trees are now made of three values. A highlight, a half tone value and a dark shadow. These three are woven together up the trunks to give more variation there.
  • There is a mechanical looking diamond shape in the sky right in the middle of the painting. I reworked this again to get greater variety of shape. If you look at my version above you will see I have added some sky holes into the trees and some branches hanging down in to the "diamond" area. This weaves the sky and the branches together more, rather than the sky being HERE! and the ranches being over HERE! I have worked to get a greater variety of shapes and intervals into the sky holes. Remember that sky holes must be a little darker than the open sky outside of the foliage mass. Because a sky hole is a narrow aperture, diffraction "steals" some of the light. If you make the sky holes as bright as the open sky areas they will appear overstated. John Carlson said they would appear like lights hung in your trees, rather than as holes through them.
  • The edges of the road needed to be softened up as they were too assertive and mechanical looking. Below is a detail from Willard Metcalf handling this sort of passage nicely. See how the boundaries of the road are downplayed and melded into the ground around them. This keeps the road from looking like it is pasted over the landscape. A minimal amount of definition is fine to suggest a road in the landscape, and avoid a primitive look.
  • I lightened up the sky too, although sometimes it works well to "fake" a dark sky into a painting, particularly behind autumn color, generally the sky should be as bright or brighter than anything else in the light. It looks unconvincing for an object receiving light to be brighter than the sky, its source of illumination.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Two questions answered followed by some unattractive snarling

Franz Bishoff (1864-1929)

I received this question the other day;

"What is retouching varnish for? What happens if you just paint over what ever it is that you wanted to fix or change? Is it to make the surface slippery to blend things in better?"
...................................Floozette Snorkle

Dearest Floozette:

Oil paintings lose their shine and appear dulled as the oil on their surface sinks into the layers below them or dries.The matte surface this causes returns less light to the viewers eye and makes the painting appear less brilliant. Retouch varnish restores the surface sheen making the picture look the same as when you painted it. Retouch varnish is fine to paint over and that is commonly done. Often artists start their work day by spraying a little retouch varnish on a painting in order to more accurately assess the colors that they must match or complement.

Retouch varnish should "flash" dry and is not intended to impart a particular sort of handling besides its making the surface a little glossier. Easy on the retouch too. It is best to use it sparingly. I have always been suspicious of too many alternating layers of paint and varnish.

Retouch varnish is also used when a painting must be exhibited and look its best, but is not old enough to receive a final varnishing.


"I want to paint more freely, more expressively, more deliberately all from the get-go. I've tried small still life paintings not allowing myself to move the paint but only repainting what I want to change. This works okay. However, when I want to do a full size painting, whether still life, portrait or landscape, and I slip into the "mode" the pushing and glazing returns.
My question is - can you give me a suggestion for changing my bad habits? This is very important to me and I'm really frustrated with my disappointing efforts to change. "
........................Ms. Mia Fecula-Spooner

Ms. Fecula-Spooner ;

Painters generally develop the ability to paint loosely after learning to paint "tight" so you are on the right track. I suggest you do the following.
  • Use big brushes only, no niggling with small ones
  • Make broad simplified marks, not lots of little ones
  • Limit the time you have to work on a piece, try to get it right in one go, if you can. This doesn't mean wild and inaccurate, but deliberate and simple.Good drawing skills are essential to doing this. Loose doesn't conceal weak draftsmanship. Don't think you can choose to be loose to avoid learning to draw.
  • Try to see things simply and express them simply, ignore detail and the inessential, try to keep your masses big rather than cutting them up with unimportant interruptions.
  • Study painters who did this well, there are many from Velaquez to Sargent to Seago, or someone else that you find intriguing..
  • Don't work from photographs. They are full of bristling detail and will lead you to destruction.
  • Squinting will help you see things more simply
  • Remember, as Richard Schmid famously said " Loose is how a painting looks, not how it was made".
  • Try putting butter in your shoes
Now for the hard truth feature of tonight s blog:
I had someone tell me on Facebook that it was too bad I didn't like older painters. I like em fine, and well enough not to jive em about what their chances are of achieving mastery and competing with those who have done nothing else all their lives. Now I am going to upset the plumbers and craftspeople.Here is the traditional "take" on the difference between art and craft. It is, like so many traditional ideas from our culture, politically incorrect and perceived as unkind or offensive. But I believe it to be true.

A plumber is not an artist even if he may do exemplary work. An art object exists only to be beautiful. It is not useful. A craftsman makes useful things, and although they may be may be wonderfully made, they are not art. This is not being judgmental, it is simply what the words mean. There are two words "art" and "craft", each word signifies something different, that is why there are two words and not one.

Joe Bagadonuts thinks that if something is very well done, it is art, he means it as a compliment, but he is mistaken. A painting may be very poorly done, but it is still art, conversely a sink may be very splendidly plumbed, but that doesn't make it art. Sorry Joe, but your high school art teacher lied to you, he should have been teaching drivers training instead or been a guidance counselor (like the one who told me I wasn't college material). He lied to you about other things too, he meant well, maybe, and he wanted to be nice, so he let you down.

Art exists only to be aesthetic, its only use is the pleasure or feeling it gives to its viewer.
Craft items have a use or purpose.

This means if I put a quilt on the bed, it is a craft object.
If I hang it on the wall it is an art object.

I suppose I will have to post another baby animal tomorrow.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Henry Hensche speaks

Henry Hensche (1901-1992) a demonstration portrait done outside in direct sunlight

I get a lot of interesting stuff sent to me because of the blog. This is one of the most interesting. A former student of Henry Henshe sent me a transcript of a video made showing Hensche teaching. Henry Hensche was a revered Provincetown, Massachusetts teacher who was himself a student of the legendary Charles Hawthorne. Hawthornes book is a classic and is one of the texts that impressionist painters read.

Hawthorne died relatively young and Hensche took over "the Cape School" and ran it every summer for many years. Over that time hundreds (if not thousands) of students passed through his hands. Hensches influence was enormous. He was one of those few men who had a proven reputation for producing painters.

I never studied with Hensche but I knew many people who did. I spent part of a summer in Provincetown studying with Robert Douglas Hunter, who had been a student of both R.H.Ives Gammell and Henry Hensche,. That would have been about 1975, I think. Hunters studio-home in the summer was in an old barn in Provincetown that he had been lent by Gammell. It had been Gammells summer digs for many years, but Ives had recently built a summer compound in the Berkshires near Williamstown, Massachusetts. Half of the ancient and enormous barn was Hunters and the other half was Hensches school. He held classes in a sunny patio behind the barn so I was able to observe his students at work.

Hensche taught a doctrine of color and required his students to work with a palette knife. They carefully mixed the colors of blocks and simple objects in dazzling sunlight being sure to represent each of their planes with a different hue. I wasn't interested much in this method at the time as I was
totally enamored with Dutch 17th century painting.

I was invited to witness Hensche do a demo painting
one afternoon in the yard of his home. I watched him paint a head like the one at the top of the page. It was an amazing performance. I tried to "be there" and remember as much as I could.

I also saw a show of charcoal portraits by Hensche at the Guild of Boston Artists, in the mid 70's,
his drawings were superb, the structure of the heads was so solid. I never particularly liked the color thing Hensche was into, but his drawing was solid and that is what impressed me, because I had received a Boston school training that focused more on direct visual draftsmanship rather than the expression of planar form. I wish now I had studied with Hensche for a summer to learn more about the expression of form through planar construction. I have worked for years to get as much of that as I could into my work, remember;


The following is from Phillip St. John who has allowed me to share it with you. At the bottom of the page is his information so you can get a copy of the video if you want to learn more about Hensches methods. I must add a disclaimer here, I am not a devotee of Henrys approach and do not necessarily agree with all that follows, but Henry was an enormous influence on a whole school of painters today and anyone who wants to paint outside in sunlight would be well advised to listen when Henry speaks. A lot can be learned from listening to the "Old Ones"

Script for portions of Hensche video

This is a copy of the words of Henry Hensche in the film “A Look At The Way We See and Paint.” If you’d like to know more about the dvd of the film, click here.It isn’t a book with a logical flow, but a compilation of random thoughts and teachings Henry promoted, and this is just the tip of the iceberg. I’ve added some parenthetical inserts for clarity.

You may have difficulty hearing Henry’s voice on the video. This video isn’t a professional production, more like a labor of love.. This script was originally produced back in the day when VHS players had counters on them. I’m including the counter markers, partly for whimsy, partly because many may still have the players.The video/dvd was originally on 16mm film, then transferred to VHS, then to dvd, now it is going to be offered over the web, at a reduced cost, as soon as I can figure out how to do it. I still encourage you to turn it up. I’m in the process of re-editing the show which is easier due to modern technology.

I have also copied Henry’s voice, word for word, so that you could get a feeling for the way he spoke. It isn’t the prettiest reading, but it does carry the flavor of his speech better than cleaning up the syntax would, in my opinion. I’m putting his words in color and possibly make comments on what he said.

0007 “We are seeking today the reasons for why we are living and what the purposes of life are.”

[From here to 0201 is better audio, myself as narrator.]

0201 “Well, if you are interested in the art of painting, it’s not very difficult to comprehend, it is the art of seeing. And the way you see things is the way the painter creates the illusion of reality. What a painter does is simply make it his business to see more accurately and (0211) more precisely than the layman.”

“Then you are dealing with the human being, wherever there is human affection, there portraiture will last. Because everyone that lives wants images of those they love. That’s why portraiture is done, and for that reason you can buy pictures, you can buy paintings. You want (0220) them around because a painter has taught himself to see more beautifully or truly, which is the same thing, and through the painter, through the painting, people begin to see nature.”

“Seeing is a process of having an image come on the retina. Then the mind analyses what comes out of the retina. It is the mind’s analysis, and the quality of that analysis (0233) that makes the difference between a good painting and a bad painting, or an erratic one. Now the art of translating that, that is, what you see visually, you have to learn. And that’s what they call the physical aspect of it, but the real thing, the learning about seeing and understanding what you’re looking at, and that is the analytical process.”

0246 “Hawthorne (Charles W, was Henry’s beloved teacher) was the greatest painting teacher in the world. He made a technique of teaching, first himself, and then through the method, teaching others to do what the Impressionist movement had done, that is, Money, especially. What had Monet done? Well, he revolutionized the art of seeing. (0279) When Monet came along with the new colors that were added by modern chemistry, around 1860 and 70, then so-called Impressionism was born. Monet now had the pigments to express many more color combinations and especially the bright ones. And he simply applied the use of these colors to expressing (0289) the greater variety of color effects that everybody had seen but nobody had been able to create the illusion of. And this is the core of why Impressionism has come into existence. Monet couldn’t have happened until the time when modern chemistry added the new pigments. The ancients couldn’t of, if the had wanted to.”

0300 “New students should keep studying the units until they are so accurate that they tell the onlooker, the layman, or anyone who looks at it, at the study, what the light effect is. In other words, we’re trying to get a morning sunlight effect here. And that’s done by the units of the color being reasonably accurate. Once you understand this, you’ll realize that units are the more important thing. It’s the (0314) beginning and the end of things. As Hawthorne said, “in the beginning as a student, you make the units crudely because you don’t know anything else. Then you get more knowing, you spend (0319) a lifetime elaborating the variations and drawing and concepts of ideas, and composition ideas”. But in the end, when it’s all said and done, lie he, Hawthorne said “you don’t look at a picture unless, from a distance, it stops you through its main masses.” So....if you lose the central theme of an idea, and lose yourself in the details and lose the sight of the ….......of the big concept, whatever it may be, in painting it is the big color note.”

0334 “The finer painter simply raises his or her visual perceptual sense to a very much higher order that the ordinary one. So this gives you a clue too, to the function of a painter in society. His main function is first of all, to teach people how to see the visual beauty or truth of the visual world, that’s his basic function. And it’s done through colors, through color combinations of different (0346) intensities and depths in a certain color scheme that creates the illusions of reality. When it’s on a high level, and above their experience, then man uses these descriptive words like beauty, aesthetic, quality, and so forth. There is no great painting, no fine painting, that hasn’t got a great color quality.”

“Here is the idea that Hawthorne taught, see, that the sum total of the masses, should, in color, should express the light key in which the things are seen. (0361) He solved the problem of how to develop color sensations from crude sensations to one of great refinement. Hawthorne respected anyone that wanted to study the truth and the beauty of life and things. And he thought it was the most wonderful thing to pursue, to add to the sum total of beauty for the world. So, what you do, you start at the beginning of your life with the crude masses, and make endless studies until those masses express the fundamental truth. (0378) He not only made you feel that you were just as important as anybody else, but you hd to earn it, you had to study. And he was also very kind about the understanding of things. He didn’t judge you by your immediate studies, he judged you by the rate of (0386) growth you made. You learned something about, as Hawthorne said, the glory of the visual world (woman interrupts: “You will learn something!”) Yes, The reason for that is, the theory, the teaching principle is right. So, in other words, he was a true American. If you believe this is not the age for the few rich, for the few endowed with money, this is the royalist and feudalistic concept, that only a few are chosen to be the great painters of the world.”

0398 “He felt that everybody should be endowed with possibilities of growth and each one that want to pay the price should have the right to that development to the fullest of their being, and everybody could and can. He drew through class lines, he didn’t think it was just for the few, it was for the many, for everyone who wanted it. And who is there to restrict anybody in saying that they don’t want what is beautiful and good? Who doesn’t want a good picture? Who doesn’t want to understand the use of it? Who doesn’t want to practice some art form? It’s (0412) the development of their senses that makes the difference between animals and human beings. This is another quality the man (Hawthorne) had and he felt it, and believe me, they loved him for it, so see, because he opened up vistas.”

“Hawthorne, my teacher, put that up in a teaching form, what Monet did in practice, so that everybody could learn to grow, to appreciate the quantity and quality of color sensations.”

Then he, the artist, had a function. (0426) You see, he gives the people looking at it a visual experience that they wouldn’t get without the help of the painter. And then through looking at the painting they’ll transfer that experience into visual observation. And then they’ll learn to see nature more attractively and more truly and that gives you everyday life greater pleasure which you wouldn’t have because you hadn’t developed that faculty without exercising it through observation of good paintings.”

0445 “The art’s deal with the eternal things, with the universal things that man never gets beyond. Each generation should grow in appreciation of what the Greeks contributed to the world. We start from abysmal ignorance as children to the enlightenment of the greatest thinkers of the age. So it is a greater truth. So in a real sense, it is very odd, most painting has been practiced for centuries on the earth. It wasn’t until the last hundred years that (0458) the dominant descriptive power reached its fullest understanding, and also in practice. Now we have a very rich language, in color.”

“Impressionists used it to express visual phenomena, in the landscape painting, were the ones that really did it. And now it has effected not only indoor painting and landscape, but all painting; indoors, the figure, as well as out.”

0470 “What is the purpose of art in society? When you have an answer to that, and that’s a philosophical one, then you know what techniques to teach. But they’ve turned it around, they’ve turning techniques, like a written language and they’ve got nothing to say with them, and this is the dilemma that they are in.”

0478 “And the first thing that realistic painting should tell the story of, is the light scheme in which these things are seen. which all objects are seen, which holds true indoors as well as outdoors.”

“That is modern art, that is modern expression, this which deals with reality, you see? When the sun is out, the indoor color is entirely different than on a gray day, when the sun is in. It’s the dominating thing in visual observation. The third thing man did was start with a line and then fill it in with a color. Now we start with a color, then make the shape. And the edge is the last thing we worry about.”

“Painting is simply arresting some effect of nature, holding it before man so there it is for eternity, as long as the (0449) painting lasts, I mean, to share the delight of the visual experience the painter had.”

“Let’s call it philosophy, but a belief that the goodness of man, his love for each other, his love for the earth that he lives upon, from which we come, to which we go. As Hawthorne said, “Let’s add something to the sum total of beauty to the world.” I’m not going to add to the bankruptcy of things. I believe (0551) in America being full of wonderful people with great goals, but they don’t have a voice in things. Real America isn’t heard. These boys and girls that are here (at the Cape School), they are the cream, they are what I consider....the better. They’re the cream on which, if they, if my little effort, my puny effort, if I can’t instill in the the love of what I believe so much, if I can’t instill in them the willingness to fight for it, that is in (0524) producing beautiful work, and having the fortitude to stand up against all the idiocies, then I’ve failed. But so have they. I’d like to believe that, this is the horizon, these are the horizons that American youth is looking for the leadership of great ideas. What are they? Who are they? Who are these? I challenge anybody to a debate on these matters.”

0535 “Painting should deal with the universal things that everybody can understand. The thing that distinguishes a civilized man from a savage or an animal is exactly what which the arts deal with. And the arts deal with human souls communication with each other and understanding what the past believed in and actually the arts deal with the very essence of human faith and love.”

0546 “Through the painter’s eye he gets educate, through the painting, which he has done, that’s the way it works. That’s the function of a painter. To teach people to see that truth, and then you arrest it. A painting is nothing but a still picture of some phenomena of nature (0556) that thrilled, something that they got a kick about, that’s what a painting is. Someone has such enthusiasm about a view they saw, that they felt it so deeply, that they wanted to register it, first of all for themselves and because the had the great enthusiasm, it becomes a landmark of human visual experience, if it’s on a higher order of perception.”

0565 “That sort of thing that children have, they really get excited about something, about what they are doing, and this same thing should be developed in grown people. When that’s not there anymore, that excitement, or growth of discovery, then we’ve become set in our ways. We develop formulas in which there is no life in them.”

0576 “Most education today squelches that creative desire, creative art, if you want to put it that way. Creation is a matter of being fresh in your vision, and not the manner of putting down things that follows see? The desire of loving the truth more and getting excitement in painting the visual beauty of the world.”

0585 “When the arts don’t serve the purpose of making people, man, a part of the rhythm of the visual world, if a painting doesn’t play its proper purpose, when human beings don’t love, what we call by love means understand reality, the visual world the good Lord gave us, as the Christians say, the paradise, which is a Persian word for garden. If you don’t love this garden, how the hell do you expect (0595) to go into paradise after we’re dead? God is not going to give any Christian a chance of the entrance into a paradise if he doesn’t appreciate the one he has got right under his nose. The painter is the vehicle, and the priest through which he learns to see. He’s the teacher of mankind to see this wonder. Maybe for some people this doesn’t mean anything (0607) but the best way to find that out is to blind yourself, and you find often in newspaper clippings, when people have suddenly gotten sight back, how wonderful it is whatever they look upon, there’s nothing unimportant. Hawthorne put it so beautiful, “Everything under light is beautiful.” Cause it’s true, the charm, the enchantment of human vision, this is what poetry deals with, through color and shape and then, line. (0617) [Applause]

0621 “It (art) deals with eternal things of human relationships. From now until doomsday, as long a man lives on the earth. God help us if he doesn’t love the beauty of a spring day, and enjoys being in it.”

0627 “The thing that makes visual art entrancing is the constant change from one light scheme to another, sometimes it’s very dramatic. When it’s dramatic you can see it; you can see the importance of it, furthermore. If you wake up early in the morning and could sit in the same window and watch it and (0634) remember every change and have a camera click it at every so many intervals and then look at them after you’ve got the print of it , you’d be surprised at not having changed the pattern, how the color scheme would be entirely different. Well, that’s the core of visual art, and that’s the core with what painters should deal with primarily and first (0643) of all.”

0655 “The enchanting visual aspect of nature, in a foggy morning, if you’ve ever been here in New England in the fall, you see the veil of fog laying in the valleys, you hardly see a tree (0661) you hardly see a thing, but it’s enchanting. Even the Chinese noticed that. In their art centuries ago when a mountain suddenly appears out of some clouds. When you see it here, if you’re too dumb to see it, and if you don’t think that’s of any value, God help you. If he doesn’t love the richness of the summer with its fruit and the peace of the fall after the (0671) vegetables and things are stored and you have a celebration, and glorify this event. And one of the loveliest things of that kind was when a draftsman by the name of Stephen Crane in England, and he made a frieze celebrating the fall, when girls, women, and men, in the frieze dancing, you know, like people, peasants do, there’s a health of people in the field. I know we did in Illinois (0684) when we got the corn in and the wheat all in the barns, they threw a party and we had a lot of fun. We had some beer and we drank, women cooked wonderful meals. We sat around and boasted and kidded each other and had really fun together. And then this was celebrated by Stephen Crane in a kind of a frieze. That’s (0694) the kind of thing to celebrate. Those are the eternal things. We all shared it together.”

“In order to do this you have to get busy and study, now to see. And do it on a much higher level. Otherwise, it is foolish, and you are foolish if you think you should (0701) get response from people. But that depends on what level your goal is. The great people, the people that are really interested in living, what they try to do is to grow and to keep growing throughout, to the end of their lives.”

0710 “Painting, the study of nature’s visual phenomena, has kept me sane I think. Given me a lot of delight, selfish delight in a way, but it’s a delight that other people share and want.”

I hope you’ve enjoyed this and felt a little of the inspiration that Henry exuded. It’s available as a dvd, here’s a link to read more about it, along with ordering instructions.

Phillip St. John 606 436-8785 email

Below is a link to a website devoted to Henry and his teaching.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

A note found in an old John Carlson book

John Carlson (1875-1947)

I receive a number of interesting things from readers of the blog. Below is a copy of a letter that was found in an old copy of John Carlsons Guide to Landscape painting.

If you haven't read this book, you really should. It is the bible for anyone studying landscape painting. If you read only one book explaining landscape painting, this should be it.

a John Carlson painting of Gloucester

Carlson ran a summer workshop program in Gloucester, Massachusetts, for awhile with Emile Gruppe. He was later to establish his own workshop and teaching programs in Woodstock, New York, a place with which he is more commonly associated.

Here are a couple of older editions of Carlsons book from my library. The 1939 edition on the left contains a fair amount of text that was edited out of later editions and is interesting for that reason. It is not a first edition, that would be from 1929, which I don't own. The later somewhat edited versions are renamed Carlsons guide to landscape painting instead of elementary principles of landscape painting.

The book on the right is a 1972 hardcover edition that is otherwise nearly identical to the soft cover version in print today. None of these editions provide a selection of colored reproductions of Carlsons paintings. This blog however does here and here and here too I also have a few more over here.

Here is what I got in my old copy of Carlson. This is a clipping from the New York times dated March 13th, 1936. It explains that John won the Altman prize from the National Academy of Design. The article says that the prize was for an American born artist and included an award of 750 dollars. Carlson was born in Sweden. I will bet there were some artists who didn't win complaining about that!

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

A tip on paint handling in seascape painting

Above is a corner of my palette with five premixed values of a blue-gray tone. When I showed it last someone asked how it was mixed. I simply made a big pile of the darkest version using ultramarine, a little ivory black and a smidgen of titanium white. Each of the other piles was produced by diluting that "mother" color with gradually increasing amounts of white. I could of course do this with any "mother" color I wanted and sometimes I have several of these "strings" of color on my palette when I paint seascape, but seldom when painting anything else.

Below is an example painted on my palette of the use of a double loaded brush. I dipped one side (corner) of my flat brush into a dark pile and the other side into a light pile. Now I have two different values (or if I want, two different colors) on my brush. Over on the right I pulled a stroke to show you the kind of mark such a double loaded brush will make. I then painted the little wave study using a double loaded brush. I reloaded the brush after every few stokes.

I have worked at getting this effect to work for a long time and really only figured out how to do it reliably quite recently. It takes some practice and experimentation to control it. I found a reference to Frederick Waugh using this effect. The observer noted that Waugh twisted ( twirled) his brush between his fingers as he worked. That puts the dark on top sometimes and then the light note at others. It will also cause a striation of values within a plane of the water. If you look at the sketch above you can clearly see that. It is important to have the right white when doing this, Waugh used Permalba, but I painted this sketch using RGH (link in my sidebar) titanium white, the Lefranc is good too, and Winsor Newton is slippery, but stay out of the student gradee paints or anything too stiff or crumbly..The important thing for this is that the white is slippery and and somewhat soft, be sure you get the right ONE. Sometimes I add a little stand or linseed oil to get it to move better.

When I am doing this I am thinking about how the various planes of the water are facing. I also pull the shadow strokes downward and the lights up from below. There are all sorts of little niceties of handling, brush pressure and edge control that can be explored with a double loaded brush.