Monday, November 17, 2014

Fill in the Blank

The more I think about it, the more it seems to me that great art reflects a profound moment of insight into human life. I realize that , depending on your orientation, that may sound totally cliched and wooden, or far too abstract/ivory tower (or just plain too obvious to need stating), but stay with me.

I've recently had the good fortune to see three fantastic artist retrospectives in the past few months - Turner (and the Sea) at the Peabody Essex Museum, M.C. Escher at the Currier Museum in Manchester NH, and Goya at the MFA (the latter two are still up, you should go if you can, and there's a third - Calder - in place of Turner at the PEM). 

Turner, Venice, the Bridge of Sighs, exhibited 1840

They weren't billed as retrospectives but they all surveyed decades of work to trace important developments throughout the artist's career. Each experience (and they were Experiences) reinforced a growing realization: being an artist means gathering up the necessary tools and immediately turning to the work of expressing one's personal view of life. Great art conveys deeply felt ideas about being human, as discovered and embodied in authentic revelations and epiphanies that emerge directly from a life lived within devotion to an artistic practice.

Tracks, MC Escher, 1952

Note "that emerge directly" from the artist's life. This means that while it's essential to immerse oneself in the past and present history of art, one refuses to adopt a second-hand mythology. The images in the work have to come spontaneously from making the work and directly from life experience alone.

Goya, Yard with Lunatics, 1793-1794,

Unless they're prodigies and effortlessly and rapidly master the tricky business of learning to paint, very few artists ever reach the stage I'm talking about. But I think the reason has less to do with native ability than with intention. There's an awful lot to think about just trying to get something halfway decent from the paint tubes onto the canvas. The way to learn is to study the ways and means of the masters and others whose work you respond to. But to do so is necessarily to take on another's vision as well. And here I'm just talking about technique! The matter of making something meaningful is something else.

Alexander Calder, The Star, 1960

Personally, I've realized that it's admiration for the great works that inspires me to paint  - but it's attention to the craft that continues to dominate my practice. In other words, when I approach a canvas I'm often thinking about things like design, color, and value - or, a step above that, rhythm, feeling, and expression - all of which is exciting and motivating and as likely as not to result in a "keeper." But this I think is why they say one must "learn the rules and forget them" in order to do anything worthwhile - there's so much going on in the act of creation itself.

But when do we finally know enough of the rules to really begin? Naturally, some artists just go on learning and practicing the rules all their lives, producing gorgeous work that sells a ton, never feeling the need to get more than a rumor of meaning into the work. The latter is left for the gods of art. But it seems to me that not losing sight of art's true purpose (to express profound truths about humanity) can't help but make us all better and more earnest painters.

This week I'm going to challenge my weekly studio class to a "fill in the blank" exercise. They're to bring an image to class of a painting that moves them and write a short paragraph or two about it in which they complete the phrase, "this painting expresses the ___________ of life." 

To account for paradox and complexity  there need not be only one word in the blank. For example, I might say that the Calder above expresses both whimsy and the precarious balance of life - I'm seeing this in the amorphous black void on the left opposed to the golden red star on the right and the playfully organic, leaflike shapes, both living (red) and dead (black) that punctuate the spaces between and around them. That's just me, of course, and that's fine. My interpretation tells me as much or more about myself and my concerns as a painter as it does about the work I'm responding to. 

And of course I expect there will be as many visions of life as there are painters and paintings - after all, everyone sees life a little differently from everybody else, no? My theory is that it will tell each of my students a little about why they desire to paint and what might be a fruitful (because personal and thus genuine) direction worth pursuing in their art.

I invite you, given a favorite painting of your own, to try this at home. Surely at least thinking along these lines once in a while can't hurt us mortals of the brush.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Caput Mortuum

With All Hallow's Eve nigh upon us, I'm taking a minute to salute a peculiar color with semi-macabre overtones, a pigment I delight in using called "caput mortuum."

caput mortuum
(Other terms for this pigment are cardinal purple and Mars violet)

The translation of the latin caput mortuum is literally "dead head," or "death's head," a term for the symbolic drawing of a skull (hence the famous Death's Head Moth).

The Death's Head Moth. Why have you gone so silent, my Little Lamb?

(Fun fact: I used to think the word "kaput," meaning broken down or dead, came from "caput" but apparently not. Autocorrect nonetheless insists upon a link between them...)

The term caput mortuum comes from alchemy, where it was used to denote the residue at the bottom of a heating flask after the solution's "nobler" elements had "sublimated." (Alchemists thought in symbolic terms, so it's a metaphor for how the soul was thought to ascend into the Aether after death, leaving the body's material remains behind). The alchemical symbol for the discarded residuum was a death's head, a version of which remained in use by chemists through the eighteenth century.

Symbol for caput mortuum (bottom right) from a ms. by Isaac Newton.
It's made from hematite, the common name of which is "blood ore," a form of iron oxide (rust is also a form of iron oxide, and incidentally, transparent red iron oxide is another color in my box).

Hematite (Blood Ore)
Painters used a version of caput mortuum as a substitute for mummy brown. If you've ever seen a real mummy, you may have noted the intriguing ochre and other warm earth tones of the ancient wrappings; Mummy brown was a pigment made from ground-up bits of mummies, both humans and cats. Artists stopped using it once they learned what was in it! Here's a painting that uses it extensively. Color look familiar, museum goers?

Interior of a kitchen by Martin Drolling, a painting made almost entirely of the pulverized remains of dead Egyptians.
Several brands of caput mortuum can be found, but I stopped at the first one I tried: Old Holland. I love how Old Holland colors mix - they make the most sumptuous and complex grays - and caput is one of the less expensive pigments (around $10 for a regular 40 ml tube). It's so packed with pigment that a single small tube can last me about a year.

Out of the tube, the paint looks the color of dried blood. But mixed with white it becomes a beautiful, moody shade of rose-violet
Caput mortuum mixed with WN's Soft Mixing White
and mixed with almost any blue, it makes the most gorgeous violets and mauves.

Caput mortuum mixed with mixed with WN's Ultramarine Blue and Soft Mixing White
It mixes beautifully with anything, actually, but I'm especially fond of blending it into a warm white (a Titanium/Zinc plus Yellow Ochre, say, or Old Holland's Brilliant Yellow). I love the harmonious contrast between the resulting yellowish-pink in proximity to the mauves and violets you get from mixing it with blue.

Closeup of a painting of mine using various mixtures employing caput mortuum
On a related note, I stumbled upon this mixing chart some guy made using Anders Zorn's very limited (three colors!!) palette (ivory black, cadmium red deep, and yellow ochre + white used as a value-adjuster, not a hue). These can be used to make many gorgeous colors including a variety of Mars violet-like tones.

Just a fraction of what ivory black, cad red deep, and yellow ochre can do together.

Ridonculous Anders Zorn painting presumably done with just the three colors above, Sommerabend, 1894

 Incidentally, Zorn's palette forms the basis of celebrated landscapist Scott Christensen's work.

Christensen rocking the Zorn palette with the addition of ultramarine blue.
There's a lot of caput-color in this, though I don't think he uses the pigment. One of the best things about oil painting has got to be the alchemy of mixing colors.

An artist mixing colors in his studio.


Monday, October 13, 2014

Painting in the White Mountains - Field Report

View of Crawford Notch from our base at the AMC Highland Center
The White Mountains, arguably the east coast's most "sublime and picturesque" terrain, have never ceased to fascinate lovers of the outdoors. So it makes sense that some of nature's most rapt admirers - landscape painters - are coming back as they once did to explore the Whites in their art.

The AMC Highland Center at Crawford Notch.
A couple of weeks ago, six men and women joined me for a three-day beginners-welcome workshop at the AMC Highland Center, a wonderful, hotel-like lodge at the base of Crawford Notch in the White Mountain National Forest. . From Sunday till Tuesday all we did was get up in the morning, have an all-you-can-eat breakfast, and walk out the door, set up, and start painting. There were easy hikes to elevated viewpoints and a van at our disposal to take us anywhere in the Whites, but who needs them when everywhere you look there's a painting to be made? We'd break for lunch, paint until 4, and then we'd all meet at 6 for the gourmet dinners served family style complete with beer, wine, and freshly baked bread. 

Painting at the edge of Saco Lake, across the street from the Highland Center.

After dinner the first night I gave a slide talk on the history of White Mountain painting. The next day we painted from a different side of the lodge and that evening we watched Brush and Pen, Artists and Writers of the White Mountains, a documentary on White Mountain history, art, and literature.

The inaugural AMC Highland Center Crawford Notch Artist in Residency was an unqualified success. In a wonderful circularity, two of the participants in the first revival of the Crawford Notch residency - Lisa Shapliegh-Koepke and her mother Elizabeth - were actually descendants of the same Shapleigh family as was the site's original artist-in-residence Frank Henry Shapleigh. 

Frank Henry Shapleigh

Frank Henry Shapleigh's restored 19th century studio building, part of the Highland Center.

Frank Shapleigh was artist-in-residence for 16 years from 1877-1893 at the Crawford House, one of the grandest of the grand hotels, the abandoned hulk of which burned to the ground in 1977. 

Early engraving of the original Crawford House

The Crawford House in its heyday.

Crawford House in 1977, the summer before the fire.

At the age of 86, Elizabeth was an inspiration to us - despite using a walker to get around, she wasn't held back at all and painted with us in all of the locations (it's that easy to find spectacular scenery to paint within easy walking distance of the lodge).

The unstoppable Elizabeth Shapleigh (age 86).

My rendering of the gate of the Notch from Saco Lake.
On Tuesday afternoon, after the official close of the workshop, I hiked up 2,864' Mount Willard (the trailhead is right there). I invited folks from the workshop to join me and three took me up on it. I brought my paint kit so I could sketch the same view that Shapleigh famously painted.

Shapleigh's view from Mount Willard

My photo from roughly the same spot as Shapleigh's painting.

 The view was unbelievable and more than worth the effort of the hike, which wasn't all that bad actually, even with a 30-pound paint kit on my back. The sketch doesn't look like much, but it's got the information I need to build a study and then I can work from there on something larger.

My sketch of the valley of the Notch.

I was fascinated by this peak, and I still want to paint it.


This was nearby but we didn't end up painting it. Next time!
Burning Off, an 8" x 10" I painted from outside the Highland Center

I'm hoping the AMC Crawford Notch residency will become an institution of American plein air painting. The idea is to invite artists from all over the country - plein air painters, mostly - to spend a week in residence at the Highland Center. Each artist will conduct a painting workshop for a set portion of the week and is also encouraged to present an evening program, a talk or presentation, of some kind.

A White Mountain landscape, c. 2013, by contemporary painter Eric Koeppel. 

I think it's great that plein air painting is surging in popularity. The secret is out: oil painting is no longer the difficult, smelly, esoteric, highly specialized art it once seemed. With terabytes of free how-to videos and web texts online, getting started and learning the basics is the easiest it's ever been in the history of the world. It is only a matter of time before the rich history of American landscape painting again becomes common knowledge.

Who knows but a new era of White Mountain painting may even now be on its way?

THE CREW: (L-R) Volpe,  Carrie Masci, Ann Marie Corbett, Lisa Koepke, Elizabeth Shapleigh, Catherine Bickford, David Kimball

Monday, September 22, 2014

The White Mountains, Beautiful & Sublime

Early impressions of the majesty and drama of New Hampshire's White Mountains and the Catskills fired up artists' and the public's imagination and set American painting on its feet.

Thomas Doughty and Alvan Fisher were early artists to find beauty and majestic power the Whites.

Alvan Fisher, Crawford Notch, c. 1820s


Alvan Fisher, The Gate of the Notch from the House of Thomas Crawford

Alvan Fisher, Elephant's Head, Crawford Notch



Thomas Doughty, A Lake in the White Mountains

New York's Hudson River Valley was more accessible in the early 1800s, but a young Thomas Cole, a transplanted British-born landscape painter steeped in European Romanticism, was on the lookout for something more "sublime" than could be found in the picturesque Catskills. He got it in the form of a massive mudslide that wiped out the only settler family in Crawford Notch in 1826. 

Most of the nineteenth century art world thought of beauty in terms of three categories, the pastoral, the picturesque, and the sublime. The first two were about "pleasing the eye" and representing humanity in harmony with nature as a source of spiritual sustenance.

Thomas Cole, Catskill Creek, 1845

Claude Lorraine, Landscape with Merchants, c. 1650
Cole in the 1800s, as you can see from comparing the two paintings above, often repeated a European formula for landscape painting laid down by Claude Lorraine in the mid 1600s. Many of Claude's paintings are "pastoral" because they depict idealized scenes of classical rural life - shepherds, nymphs, pagan temples and benign characters from Romand and Greek literature. Cole painted "picturesquely" throughout his career. The Cole above is "picturesque" because of the bucolic, pleasing aspects of nature he presents in a harmonious way.)

The last of the three categories of natural beauty, the sublime, as articulated by English philosopher Edmund Burke, refers to the thrill and danger of confronting untamed Nature and its overwhelming forces such as thunderstorms, deep chasms, glacial rivers and voids - anything that reminds us that humanity is not in control.

The European Sublime: Salvator Rosa's 17th century depiction of a hermit in the wilderness.

The infamous landslide disaster that befell the Willey family was national news (at the time "national" meant pretty much the east coast to the Mississippi). It had spooky overtones too - although the family evacuated the homestead to shelter in a smaller structure, the thundering avalanche of rocks, trees, and tons of heavy earth hit a boulder in back of the house and split into two streams, leaving the Willey house untouched, only to flow together again and obliterate the shelter and the nine people within it. A Bible was found open at the table in the empty house, where the patriarch must have been reading aloud from Psalm 18: 

"The Lord also thundered in the heavens, and the Highest gave his voice, hail stones and coals of fire... the foundation of the earth was [laid bare] in thy rebuke, Oh God."s

As a motif of the New World Sublime it was tailor made, and Cole came up to sketch the site as soon as he could. Europe had classical ruins, abandoned medieval abbeys and other emblems of humanity's smallness in the face of time and natural law, but America was too new for that kind of mythology. What it did have though was wilderness. Cole's depictions of the White Mountains wilderness, complete with symbolic summits and dead trees dwarfing tiny emblems of humanity, were a sensation. 
Thos. Cole, Autumn Landscape, Mount Chocorua, NH, 1828
On arriving at the location, Cole wrote the following: We now entered the Notch, and felt awestruck as we passed between the bare and rifted mountains. . . . The site of the Willie [sic] House standing with a little patch of green in the midst [of] the dread wilderness of desolation called to mind the horrors of that night. . . when these mountains were deluged and rocks and trees were hurled from their high places down the steep channelled sides of the mountains. . . .

Ten years later, his famous A View of the Mountain Pass Called the Notch of the White Mountains (1839) depicts the hotel that was built on the site two years after the slide.


Thomas Cole, A View of the Mountain Pass Called the Notch of the White Mountains, 1839 
Here Cole has harmoniously married the beautiful and the terrible, the peaceful and the threatening, as evidenced most clearly in the two skies, one calm, the other stormy, and the inclusion of both hand-hewn tree stumps and naturally broken trees. 

Here's another example of White Mountain paintings that touches upon the sublime.


Jasper Cropsey, An Indian Summer Morning in the White Mountains, 1857
Blending to varying degrees the sublime and the picturesque in single paintings, Cole would become the father of the style of painting that would later be called the Hudson River School; the nation's top landscapists and many others followed to discover and sketch on many other painting sites in the Whites.


William Trost Richards, View in the White Mountains, 1866


John Frederick Kensett, A Reminiscence of the White Mountains

John Frederick Kensett, An October Day in the White Mountains, 1854

Close to 200 years later, the White Mountains still offer artists a sense of the primeval and the vast. Here in Eric Aho's 2008 "Blasted Tree" we get a contemporary painter's interpretation of the wilderness of the north, even down to the broken tree that here takes a central role.


Eric Aho, Blasted Tree, 50" x 70," oil on linen, 2008

White Mountain Workshop

I'll be teaching a three-day plein air workshop in the White Mountains, not far from the site of the Willey disaster in Crawford's Notch next week (Sunday - Wednesday, Sept 28-30). Want to come? You can register here.