Sunday, June 26, 2011

Quiet, Please!

I don't know about you, but I don't really need absolute isolation and quiet when I paint.  I usually have the stereo on, and my dog Champ putters about the studio while I stand and paint.  That doesn't bother me.  Heck, I've painted in front of crowds of friends and strangers.  No problem.  And it wouldn't even bother me if a marching band blasted away while they marched by my studio.  Let 'em.  But the one place I need quiet from is the space between my ears.

I don't think of myself as a "temperamental artist" sort of guy.  I like to think that my job is being a painter, not one of God's anointed ones to bring truth, enlightenment and beauty to this world.  I do take my job seriously, but all-in-all, I just try to make good paintings.  So it bothers me when I have difficulty concentrating on the task at hand because I'm preoccupied by something else.  I'm not talking about anything major, but I'll give you an example.  We've had a less than spectacular Spring and Summer here in Maine, but that hasn't kept the grass from growing.  So, when I'm working on a painting on a lovely summer day, I'm thinking about mowing the lawn, because the forecast is for rain, and it needs to be done.  But when it's been rainy and miserable, (which has been most of the time) I'm preoccupied with what I'm going to paint when it turns nice.  But then, I'll have to mow the lawn...  Now, I should say here that mowing the lawn entails a six-hour ride on the lawn tractor.  But, damn, those lawn stripes look so good.

There are other things going on in my life right now (nothing horrible, thank goodness) that have been occupying my mind.  But I can't make a good painting when my brain is chattering away with itself on things that have nothing to do with the task at hand.  Painting needs to have my undivided attention-- just like those temperamental artist types.  So I need for my brain to shut up and get back to work!

I used to inwardly snigger when I would read an account of some famous artist who needed to be insulated from life's little distractions so he could create yet another masterpiece.  But now, I kinda get it.  Would my painting be so much better if I could just lock myself in my studio and never worry about what goes on in the world around me?  I don't know.  But I do know this:

Michelangelo never had to climb down from the Sistene Chapel ceiling and mow the damn yard!


Friday, June 10, 2011


Earlier this year I had a chat with a local art critic who was kind of reviewing my work.  (I blogged about it here)  He looked at my work and said, "I see you like repoussoir."  I replied, "Well, not since High School..."

He stared at me blankly.

Thomas Fogarty,  Norman Rockwells composition teacher when he was attending the Art Students League advised, "Put something in the foreground of your pictures to make the viewer step over it and into the frame."  That is the definition of repoussoir.   (Don't ask me how to pronounce it!)

Artists are always trying to add depth to their two dimensional paintings.  Maybe using lineal perspective; you know, a road that narrows away to the vanishing point on the horizon, or atmospheric perspective; where a series of hills grow bluer as they recede into the distance.  Or maybe a combination of both.  Another device is to have something in the foreground that says, "I am close to you."  Then an object in the middle distance, and lastly, something farther off in the distance.  It's a typical tactic that can add depth to a composition, and something that I usually try to incorporate in my own paintings.  You see it all the time in landscape paintings and illustrations by the great old illustrators.

How many landscape paintings have you seen where the foreground is in shadow, and the rest of the scene is bathed in sunlight?  That's an example of repoussoir, like this painting by George Innes: 

Or how about this painting by Rockwell, Saying Grace--

You have to look past the figure on the left, and the table in front of you to see the little old lady and her grandson saying grace.  Remove him and that beautifully painted cup of coffee and the scene just flattens out with everyone the same distance away.  It would look like The Last Supper.  At the top of the page is a Tom Lovell painting where he uses the same motif. 

Speaking of the great Tom Lovell, here's another example

Same thing as with Norman-- The gentleman on the left has nothing to do with the main group in the middle.  He's only there to give a sense of space.

I did the same thing with the stool in the foreground of Diner:

I've passed up painting many a lobster boat scene, because the boat was just bobbing around in the water with nothing to identify it as being a certain distance away.  It would look like it was just floating in mid-air with nothing to ground it, as it were.  I'm way too anal to be satisfied with just portraying pretty objects with nice colors.  I have to have them occupy some kind of space.  Otherwise, to me it's not a whole scene, and I like my scenes whole.

Can a repoussoir be done wrong?  Can a match burn down a forest?  There's a fine line between invitation and barrier when it comes to foreground handling.  Like any good thing in life, if its done well, it's not noticed.  You don't want your repoussier to call attention to itself.  Having a ram-rod straight horizontal object occupy the entire bottom of you picture is a barrier.  But a few blades of grass jutting up into the bottom of a painting won't cut it, either.  It's a judgement call.

So the next time you're designing a picture, instead of saying, "what?"  Say, "Repoussoir" instead!


Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Occupational Hazards

After waiting all winter long for a spring that failed to arrive, summer came to Maine last week.  I love June.  The days are at their longest, the spring flowers are blooming, and whatever heat there is hasn't worn out it's welcome like it would in August.  A perfect month.  So to celebrate, I loaded up my paint gear and headed out of the confines of my studio to paint me a picture out doors.  My first attempt was at Wolfe's Neck Farm in Freeport, Maine for their charity auction.  I wasn't thrilled with it, so I did another painting for them on the next day.  Here are some cows for them--

A spot of glare on that one, sorry...  But it put me in the mood to keep on going.  So, yesterday I took my gear for a ride, and stumbled upon a blueberry field.

I thought this scene had potential, so I set up in a ditch along the dusty dirt road, and started in.  I could have just as easily turned around and painted this--

But I felt the other view had more interest.  I like rock walls.  I look at them in awe as a memorial to the farmers who cleared the primeval forest over two hundred years ago, then found out that Maine soil is infested with rocks.  So having no other use for them, they partitioned off their fields with these rocks.  Undoubtedly back breaking, labor intensive efforts that now are lost to the forest that grew back when the farmers gave up.  So I think it's cool when I get a chance to actually see them out in the open.

Here's my initial underpainting of the scene--

What you don't see are the spiders.  Apparently, spiders dig plein air painters.  Those guys were crawling all over me all day.  There I'd be, staring out at the field, when I'd see a spider hanging down from the bill of my cap, dangling in front of my eyes.  But I didn't mind so much.  The wind was gentle, and blowing just hard enough to keep the black flies and mosquitoes away.  So if a spider wanted to visit, so what?  The sun was shining, and the only sound was the wind in the trees and the crowing of a distant rooster.  I even had a more welcome visitor wander by--

So really, why complain?  After I packed up to leave, I decided to go into the field behind me.  In the middle of the blueberry field is a small cemetery, and I wanted to check it out.

I was so intent on seeing the graves I walked right into the bee-hives that the farmers used to pollinate the fields--

You can't see them, but trust me, they were swarming.  Now, I'm not allergic to bees, nor am I especially afraid of them.  They are just bugs, and like most creatures, they just want to be left alone.  However, to bees, it seems like walking in their midst isn't leaving them alone.  It reminded me of when I was a teenager, and my dad had me pulling stumps in the back yard.  The stumps were old and rotten, and they came up easy.  Just a couple swings from my pick-axe did the trick.  I wasn't prepared for what happened next.  I planted my pick into a stump, and instantly felt stinging pain strike me all over.  The air was filled with the sound of violent buzzing.  I had hit a nest of yellow-jackets!  I dropped my pick and ran as fast as I could to the house, half blind from insects crawling on my face.  I had about two-dozen stings on me.  And it all took place in about fifteen seconds.

Let's just leave it that I didn't go to the cemetery, shall we?  Okay, I'll admit it--- I ran away like a school girl...

I'm going to do some more work on my painting in the studio.  Finish up the rock wall, add some foliage to the foreground, tweak some colors here and there-- you know, stuff that I can do from memory.  And the best part? 

No spiders... no bees...


Saturday, June 4, 2011

Down On The Farm

Long before L.L.Bean set up shop, and the town council lost their minds and let anyone with the last name of "Outlet" take over the town, Freeport was a quiet country town on Maine's coast.  Still holding on to the remnant of what once was, Wolfe's Neck Farm operates as a working farm clinging to the thin soil along the rocky coastline.  It is a lovely site.  From the century old farm house, the ground is acres of rolling verdant meadows that slope gently down to the shoreline. 

Back in the day, coastal property wasn't worth much.  It's soil is thin with plow-breaking rock a mere inches below the topsoil, so farming wasn't very good.  It was generally the property of sea going types who had no need to grow anything.  Land on the coast could be had for half of what the same amount of acres cost farther inland. 

Then someone noticed the view. 

The same Atlantic ocean that was thought of as nothing more than a salt water desert became an object to admire and desire.  So the land was bought up, mansions were built, access to the water cut off by the new land owners, and the farms disappeared.  That's where Wolfe's Neck Farm comes in.  The town of Freeport actually had the foresight to set aside the land that this old farm occupied so that future generations could enjoy a little taste of what earlier generations took for granted.  But nothing is free, and Wolfe's Neck Farm needs cash to operate, just like any business.

The folks on the farm are using us artists as fund raisers.  This week, about a dozen or so of us are painting en plein aire around the farm, and these paintings will be auctioned off on June 18th.  I went out there to work on mine today.  Here is my start:

And here is what I'm actually looking at:

When I showed up, there were several cows standing around this scene, doing typical cow things.  As I blocked in the picture, they got bored and left.  That left me with no cows.  I have to put the cows back in, or nobody would know I was on a farm.  You may wonder as to why my painting is in black and white?  That's my standard method.  I'll block in a scene, then go back and apply color.  I knew that I would not finish a complete painting today.  I'm going back at the same time tomorrow to work on it some more.  Then I may tweak it a bit in the studio before I submit it for auction on Friday.  I'm not overly concerned that it may not be a plein aire as is commonly understood today, all I care about is that it's a good painting, and can fetch a good price.  Years from now, nobody will give a rats ass that I did this over the course of a few days.

I'll post a picture on how this comes out-- good or bad.  (Although, I'm hoping for the good.)  After all--how can I let a face like this down?