Friday, May 23, 2014


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Here is the link to sign up

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Copying from drawings

Ingres, portrait of Pagini

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Old plaster picture frames and a couple of little tricks I know.

this years blue night scene, I think this is the 33rd year I have made one of these.

Stape, is this sort of frame of any value to use for paintings?
........................... Myrtle Durgin

Here is what I think on 19th century plaster frames. THEY SHOULD HAVE NO DAMAGE! Repair is time and skill intensive. I know you are about to ask if you can do it yourself.  It takes a gilder  to do that. It would take you months to have that skill, and years to perfect it.  I have done some gilding and been married to a gilder. I have repaired and restored several old frames and helped do some more. You can do endless scut work. There is lots of sanding and fine dust , wear your mask! and breathe through your ears! .

 To be worth investing the time  and extremely high materials cost, the frame has to be sold for serious money but it is a long way from that now,.
To repair that frame properly is a big job. You could just do the amateur  Sculpey and dab method, Everybody thinks they can do it, just like painting! Then the only market for the frame will be the flea market or  roadside cooperative antiques and collectibles hive. That's where things go that are "almost right, or pretty good!" Please don't imagine that your first foray into frame restoration will come out "finest kind". People work a long time to master this little known trade. The nice folks at the Society of Gilders will be delighted to teach you how to do this, by the way.

Badly repaired, the frame will be a white elephant. Eventually someone will put a mirror in it. Now I know you are thinking."well OK, but I could just put some stuff on there and metal leaf it, or maybe spray paint it some and it would be alright, I'll put it on one of my own paintings. It COULD be a valuable frame, but then it needs to real gold!  Probably about 500 dollars worth or more, that's just a guess. Metal leaf, you know, the stuff they put on the Chi-com frames? That won't give that look you need. Worse still, would be the gold spray paint the owner of the distressed frames you have pictured recommends, while making  spraying motions with his hand, and saying "you know".

I restored some old frames in the early eighties when quality old frames were more commonly available. I had some very excellent old frames, but they were arts and crafts style original frames not the sort you are contemplating. I wish I had them now. The Beal family kindly gave me what had been Reynolds Beal's old frame stock from their cellar, an awfully nice gift to a struggling young artist. These were wide Whistler frames with both the cap as big as your bicep and a three inch liner, with fluting in there by the rabbet. They were  in big sizes in excellent condition and most of them in gold . I suppose they were from the nineteen twenties. I used most of them myself and sold a few to a dealer.

If you had an arts and crafts era frame, of the the sort I described above, it might make more sense. Here's why, the market, at least in my experience, prefers simpler frames. They see the floral plaster frames as being fussy or too fancy ( note; this is not a matter of  they shouldn't think that way, rather an observation that they do) I have never had much luck trying to sell my paintings in decorative frames of that sort. There are some exceptions, if you are working in a Hudson River school style the floral plaster frames might be OK. Very classical figurative stuff might work in a decorated plaster frame as well. But in order for them to sell for anything more than a dorm refrigerator, again, they need to be finest kind. Artists who routinely make sales, present their work in quality frames. If the buyer has a little problem with the frame, most of the time the sale is  over.

Here is a system for making repeatable batches of color.

 Sometimes I need to make a pile of color and record how I did it. Then I can make more later if it runs out before I have finished the painting. I used this method to make the blue color that pervades most of the blue painting above. Using my ruler I make several lines on my palette. I then put one inch increments on those lines.

I squeeze out so many inches of each color along my lines, right from the tube. In this mix I have three parts of white to five parts of umber. I make a point of jotting down the ratios of the colors I am mixing. In some instances I might have three lines bearing different pigments.

Then I mix them together. If I don't get the exact note I need I will return to one of my lines and add another inch of one color or another.

Once I have made the quantity of the note that I need, I preserve it by wrapping it in saran wrap. It will last for months that way. When I need a little more  I open up the little saran wrap package and transfer some  to my palette with a CLEAN knife.

 Sometimes the ferule of my brush will glint annoyingly under certain kinds of light. I wish they made the ferules a dull gray but they don't, so I wrap a little duct tape around them as shown above. It usually comes off in a day or so, but it solves the problem for today.


This years workshop will be held January 18 through 20.  I really have a great time doing this. It has been my favorite event of the year ever since I started doing it. I have taught a lot of workshops, but with Snowcamp I feel like I broke the code. The scenery is fabulous, the inn is now adept at anticipating our needs and the food is good too. The inn keepers are now old friends and the inn feels like a second home to me now as I have been there so many times. The inn is informal and a little funky, here is a picture of the place below. How old New England is that?
 The workshop will begin Saturday morning and end Monday evening. That's three days. I charge $300.00 per person, a $150.00 down payment and $150.00 final payment to be paid at the event. If you want to sign up, Click here.
Snowcamp usually fills, so if you want to come, sign up. The class is limited to twelve. So every one gets plenty of personal attention. Each morning I do a demo and then in the afternoon the students paint and I run from easel to easel teaching each student individually. I have several painting exercises that will help build the students skills in landscape painting that I work in to the schedule. We meet for breakfast and dinner, the inn provides us with sandwiches etc. for lunch so we don't lose much time from our work day.  Before dinner is served I do a slide show lecture on design and snow painting. I am working on a new evening presentation with a history of snow painting and I will compare the methods of various snow painters. One of the important things I teach about snow painting is the opalescence color of snow. I will show you a system for creating the look of snow in light with broken color. Snow is not white, but bring a big tube you will still need it.
 The camaraderie is an important part of the workshop and we will all be good friends before the workshop is over. Snowcamp is a lot of fun, and I hope to teach you as much as I possibly can in the three days it runs. I can save you YEARS of screwing around! This is as intense an experience as I can make it and you will do little else but paint, eat and sleep while you are there.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Tonal landscape drawing

A snowy road near Rochester, Vermont

Oh, here I am!  I have been traveling, teaching workshops and always painting. I get e-mail routinely, asking as civilly as possible, "wheres the next post? That makes me feel useful. Here it is.

When last I wrote, I talked about confusing color with value. I see that a lot when I teach. Students add color instead of lowering the value of an object. The shadow side of a green tree becomes greener, not darker in value, the deepest shadows down within the tree become greener still.

I have just finished teaching half a dozen workshops in New England, Mississippi, and in North Carolina. As I taught those, I kept in mind that I wanted to find a way to make the idea easy to grasp for my students. Here is what I think might work.

Many of you have programs on your computer like Photoshop, or photo correction programs that came preloaded into your computer, or installed by your digital camera as part of its software package. There are two adjustments always offered, there are zillions more besides including one that makes your photo look like it was done by Monet, well sort of. But, the one above is important, this slider controls lightness and darkness push the slider one direction it gets darker and the other it gets lighter. This slider is controlling values.

Below is the second important control offered you, this is for saturation, or the amount of color. Like the slider above, if you push it one way the colors become more intense, push it the other way and they become less colored or grave. This slider doesn't make the colors darker or lighter, just more or less colored.