M. Stephen Doherty

M. Stephen Doherty
The editor of Plein Air magazine at work

Monday, November 30, 2009

Landscapes as Metaphors for Our Lives

"The Carry," by Andrew Wyeth, 2003, egg tempera. Private collection.

"Road Cut," by Andrew Wyeth, 1940, egg tempera, 15 1/8 x 34 1/2. Collection the Portland Museum of Art, Portland, Maine.

"Palladian Villa in Tuscany," by M. Stephen Doherty, 2002, oil, 11 x 14.

My wife and I attended a concert by Michael Feinstein and David Hyde Pierce Saturday evening, and during one of Pierce's solo performances he sang "Your Face on My Pillow," a love song that John Kander wrote for his partner. The lyrics describe Kander's joy in waking up next to the person he loves, and it uses landscape images as metaphors for both the struggles and comforts of a daily life. At one point the song refers to the storms of the day being chased away by the proximity of his partner, and that particular image resonated with both my average workday and my landscape paintings.
The more I thought about Kander using sunlight, storms, and calm skies to identify his feelings, the more I considered that we artists use landscape forms as representations of our thoughts and feelings. For example, in his book Andrew Wyeth. Autobiography (Bullfinch Press, 1995), Mr. Wyeth mentions that one of his early egg tempera paintings captured both his personality and his ambitions for himself and his fiance, Betsey; and the wall text describing his 2003 painting The Carry (in the Philadelphia Museum of Art's 2006 exhibition, Memory & Magic), Mr. Wyeth explains that he invented this landscape scene to represent the turbulence of the 1980's when his drawings and paintings of Helga Testorf became the subject of so much gossip and controversy. He once told me that was an extremely difficult period of time for him, and we an actually read his feelings in the details of The Carry.
My painting of a Tuscan hillside is partially based on scene I observed, and partially on feelings I have about the classical order and symmetry of 18th century buildings by Palladio. To me, his buildings embody the peace, order, and discipline I would like to have in my life; and placing one of them in a real Italian landscape seemed to convey that desire.
I wonder if you ever see the elements in you landscape paintings as metaphor for the things you feel, want, or consider. Do you paint the "storms" of your life, or do you imagine a better world? I'd be interested in knowing that.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Watercolor Painting As a Live Performance

I normally paint with oils mixed with Galkyd fast-drying medium, so I assume I can make radical changes in the composition of shapes, values, and colors as I formulate the intended outcome of my pictures. But I had to exercise more thought, control, and restraint when I painted scenes of Costa Rica in watercolor during a recent vacation with my family.
It occured to me that one might compare the difference between painting with watercolors and oils as the difference between a live stage performance and a filmed presentation. With watercolor, every gesture is observed and judged by the audience of viewers as if they were watching the painting take shape; whereas with oil the performance is carefully edited so that only the best strokes are seeen. That is, each stroke of watercolor paint brushed across a sheet of paper affects the surface in a way that is permanent; so an artist has to plan the mixtures of pigments and the sequence of application in such a way that a carefully considered result is achieved. Adjustments can be made, and lots of teachers explain how to "salvage" a painting that is either timidly executed of overworked, but the best results are almost always the result of deliberate, planned, and economical actions.
After working on three paintings of the Costa Rican landscape that lacked this kind of sponteneity,freshness, and clarity, I achieved some level of success while sitting on the white sand beach in Manuel Antonio, a growing tourist city along the Pacific Ocean. I drew the key elements of the scene on a 9" x 12" block of Arches watercolor paper using a Sakura Koi Watercolor Brush, a plastic pen that holds and releases watercolor paint like a felt-tipped pen. I filled the pen with a mixture of transparent, non-staining pigments (rose madder genuine, cobalt blue, and aureolin) so the drawn lines with disappear as I brushed stronger colors over them. I started by painting the sky area, applied a dark base color to the rock formations, and gradually refined each area of the picture over a period of 90 minutes.
The finished painting isn't anything I want to brag about, but it does capture my experience of relaxing in the warm, humid atmosphere of the tropical environment. It didn't impress the white-faced monkeys and racoons that were trying to steal food from people on the beach, but it satisfied me. I took some reference photographs so that eventually I can develop a larger and more considered studio painting.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Line Between Representation & Abstraction

"Horizon Winds," by Jane Wilson, 2008, oil, 30 x 36.

"Hurricane Silence," by Jane Wilson, 2008, oil, 60 x 60.

"Storm Passing," by Jane Wilson, 2009, oil, 12 x 12.
I've spent 30 years editing magazines about representational art, and my own work is decidedly realistic, so it's not too surprising that I have trouble relating to purely abstract pictures. I agree with Jack Beal that such works are often just PART not ART in that they offer some of the elements of picture making, but not all. That is, there is color, form, space, etc., but it is art about art and not about the totality of life. That may be sufficient for others, and it may even be better for some, but to me it just isn't enough.
The division between abstraction and representation becomes more complicated when I consider work by someone like Jane Wilson, an artist who paints landscapes who has had a distinguished career as a professor, arts administrator, and painter. A collection of her recent oil paintings is currently on view at DC Moore Gallery in New York (www.dcmooregallery.com), and there is a 56-page catalog for the show that includes an essay by Stephen Westfall. Wilson taught at Columbia University, Parsons School of Design, and Cooper Union; she was president of the National Academy Museum from 1992-1994; she is a member of the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Letters; and her paintings are included in the collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Brooklyn Museum, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
In Westfall's catalog essay, he suggests that Wilson and many other artists of her generation dealt with a "tension between abstraction and representation." He goes on to say "nearly all her peers who were to ultimately comedown on the side of representation, and particularly landscape, went through an intense engagement with post-Cubist abstraction ... or Abstract Expressionism." He then identifies influences going as far back as Turner and as recent as Rothko to explain why Wilson and her peers developed a style of represtentation that has strong roots in pure abstraction or in the abstraction of observable forms. They subscribe to the idea that a picture has its own integrity apart from its ability to represent the illusion of reality.
I've considered the arguments for why painters like Wilson repeat the same formats over and over again, and why there is only the briefest reference to nature in those repetitive pictures. No matter what explanation I consider, I still wind up feeling that the artists have offered an unsatisfying response to the subject. For me, the art is too much about the painter and too little about the world around me.
This conflict struck home as I was riding the commuter train home from New York last evening. I looked out the window every few minutes and the light of dusk was performing a spectacular opera with more drama than could ever be brought to a stage. As the sun set behind the cliffs of the Palisades and reflected on the calm Hudson River, the sky turned from subtle gradations of blues to a wild display of orange and purple clouds, dark violet land forms, yellow and gold bands along the horizon, and sparkling orange highlights on the water. When I looked down at the reproductions of Jane Wilson's landscape paintings in the DC Moore catalog, I wondered why she would be satisfied with such minimal, arbitrary responses to the spectacle of nature.
The other publications in my briefcase were copies of Darren R. Rousar's (www.christianchurchart.com) two paperback books: Cast Drawing. Using the Sight-Size Approach, and Cast Painting. Using the Sight-Size Approach (Velatura Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota, www.sightsize.com). As I read through the instructions aimed at teaching artists to skillfully respond to what they observe rather than what they interpret, I thought that artists who follow his instruction would likely paint sunsets with greater understanding, skill, AND interpretation that Jane Wilson.
I don't really mean to dismiss Wilson or the other atists who want to make connections to a long tradition that extends from Turner, Bonnard, and Rothko to the present. All I want to suggest is that for me, there is more to be said about nature than the act of making paintings.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Curt Walters and the Road to Success

Curt Walters painting during the Grand Canyon Celebration of the Arts 2009 (www.grandcanyon.org). An article on his recent wokshop and the Grand Cayon event are included in the winter 2009 issue of Workshop magazine (www.artistdaily.com).

By all measures, my friend Curt Walters (www.curtwalters.com) is one of the most successful artists in the country, certainly among artists in the Western United States. He has won almost every major award given in juried competitions, including the Prix de West (organized by the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City), and he was recently the subject of a major retrospective exhibition at the Eiteljorg Museum in Indianapolis. But none of this happened overnight, and in fact Curt was rejected for 20 years in a row when he was first considered for the Prix de West exhibition.

I mentioned this because all of us can learn something from Curt's hard work, determination, and resilience. He could have given up on his dreams years ago, and no one would have blammed him considering his success was being thwarted by some very influential artists. But Curt believed in himself, trusted the opinions of people who recognized his talents, and continued to improve his paintings until he was finally called the "greatest living Grand Canyon artist" by Art of the West magazine. He works just as hard today as he did when I first met him 30 years ago and featured his paintings in the June, 1980 issue of American Artist; and he continues to share his knowledge and enthusiasm as he did in the cover story of the April, 1998 issue of the magazine.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Drawing on Toned Paper

Jamie Wyeth drawings from the book "Capturing Nureyev," published in 2002 by the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland, Maine.
I sat next to John Dowd (www.williamscottgallery.com) at a recent session of the drawing group we are part of, and he did some wonderful studies of the models on craft paper using a black and white wax-based pencils. I thought it was a shame for him to create such powerful drawings on a non-archival paper, and I mentioned that Jamie Wyeth started out using the same kind of high-acid paper but switched to using archival papers. When I got home I did a little research and sent John an e-mail with photographs of Jamie's drawings and a reference to two papermaking companies that have both standard and custom-made papers with the same deep, warm tone as the craft paper. One is the New York company Dieu Donne Papermill (www.dieudonne.org), and the other is Twinrocker Handmade Paper (www.twinrocker.com) in Indiana. Legion Paper (www.legionpaper.com) makes Stonehenge, a wonderful cream colored paper available through retail and online art-supply companies, and it is great for both wet and dry media. Unfortunately, it doesn't have quite as depth of tone that attracted John and Jamie to craft paper. There are lots of colored papers available for charcoal and pastel, but they tend to have a rough texture that makes it difficult to get really smooth lines and shade patterns.
Jamie began doing drawings and paintings of Nureyev in 1977 and completed about 35 portraits before the dancer died in January, 1993. He reworked several early studies after Nureyev did, and he and included almost all the drawings and paintings in the traveling show documented by the book. Jamie once told me that the idea of working on a tan surface and highlighting Nureyev's body with white gouache occured to him because Nureyev was always wearing makeup, usually a stark white body color that accentuated his muscles and created a glow around him. "He was always performing. But it was one thing to see him in costume on stage wearing such heavy makeup, and another thing to see him walking down the streets of New York with the same theatrical presence. He looked like a ghost or some kind of bizarre creature, and I was fascinated enough by his appearance to draw and paint him that way," Jamie told me.

Graydon Parrish Workshop on Color

Graydon Parrish lecturing on the Munsell color system during a workshop at Grand Central Academy of Art.

"The Cycle of Terror and Tragedy," by Graydon Parrish, 2002, oil, 8' x 18'. Collection the New Britain Museum of American Art, New Britain, Connecticut.

"Rose," by Graydon Parrish, 2009, oil, 16 x 12. Private collection.

I recently finished writing one of the most complicated and illuminating articles I've ever developed for Workshop magazine (www.artistdaily.com). In the winter 2009 issue that is just out, I describe a three-week workshop Graydon Parrish taught on the Munsell color system at the Grand Central Academy of Art in New York (www.grandcentralacademy.classicist.org). The system is too complicated to explain here, but suffice it to say Graydon helped a group of serious, dedicated artists gain a better understanding of color hue, value, and chroma. Graydon began studying the system in earnest when he was creating his masterpiece, "The Cycle of Terror and Tragedy," for the New Britain Museum of American Art in Connecticut in observance of the terrorist attacks of 9/11/01. Here's an excerpt from my article that may help explain the application of the Munsell system:
"When we mix colors using the Munsell system, we first determine the correct value we need, then the hue, and then the chroma," Parrish went on to say. "For example, to mix flesh color for a figure, we would first mix a neutral gray at the appropriate value level and mix the red component, such as alizarine crimson, and white to the same value. We continue adjusting the hue by adding the yellow component (burnt umber, yellow ochre, and titanium white) at the same value since flesh is in the yellow-red range. Using these red and yellow ochre mixtures establishes the correct hue -- an orange or yellow-red -- in Munsell terms. Finally, we adjust the chroma by adding the neutral gray and correcting for any unwanted hue shifts. Usually adding gray will shift the mixture toward yellow, so in that case we would add a bit more of the red mixture and check it again using Munsell as a guide.
"Finally," the artist continued, "we move the chroma of the flesh color up by adding more of the original components (yellow ochre, alizarin crimson, burnt umber, and white), and if it is still too low we choose higher-chroma pigments, such as cadmium red, cadmium yellow, or the modern organics."

Graydon maintains an informative website for artists interested in the Munsell color system: www.rationalpainting.org. He has his own personal website: www.graydonparrish.com.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Fall Landscape: Composition & Neutral Colors

Here's a attempt to use neutral colors to emphasize strong sunlight on a fall afternoon, and an effort to compose a landscape painting as my friend Jack Beal would recommend. The location is the lake at Teatown Reservation near my home in Westchester County, New York.
Jack always talks about dynamic compositions -- arrangements that move the viewer's eye around and through a picture, and ones that provide areas of energy and rest. He points out that artists used shapes, patterns, and colors to create that kind of dynamism for most of the history of art, but especially in the 16th century when the great Venetian artists Tiepolo and Tintoretto were creating dramatic paintings of biblical and mythological subjects. In this painting I made a deliberate attempt to bend the pathway from the foreground into the middle ground, and then to use the shoreline in the distance as a continuation of that motion. The tree trunks were likewise painted to emphasize that circular motion around the rectangular panel. The row boat mimics the dominant shapes and provides a place of rest for the viewer's eyes (while also suggesting the beginning of a dormant season).
You can see that in the early stages of the painting I neutralized the colors in the background so that the curving shape of the pathway (painted with bright red iron oxide) immediately became the focal area of the composition, and the space where I would paint the brightly colored leaves would first be a contrasting dull background. I added Galkyd medium to the paint so it would quickly dry and I would have no trouble applying the clean bright colors over those neutral gray shapes.
I finished the plein air sketch in about 2 - 1/2 hours, stopping occasionally to talk to the children walking along the path with their parents. As always happens, passersby assumed I was something of an information service and asked me questions about the course of the pathways, whether friends had recently passed by, and if I knew who owned the canoe. They also told me my painting was "charming," "pretty," "almost as good as what Bob Ross would have painted," "just like the actual scene," "similar to Aunt Minnie's watercolors," and "cool."

Painting Venice

What better place to begin talking about painting than Venice, Italy. It's a location that has interested artists for centuries, and there are probably more drawings, prints, and paintings of the floating city than almost any other place. During the 19th century, James A.M.Whistler and Thomas Moran may have sold more prints and paintings of Venice than the other subjects for which they are well known.
One of most popular buildings to paint in Venice is the Ca D'Oro which happened to be directly across from the hotel where I was staying in early June, 2009. A good friend, Peter Carey, took me there for my first visit, and he napped in the afternoons while I wandered through the alleys and along the Grand Canal with my pochade box, 9" x 12" panels, and oil paints.
A good friend, Sondra Freckelton, observed that I always set challenges for myself when I paint, and in Venice the challenge was to separate the drawing process from the application of local colors. That is, instead of following my usual procedure of blocking in large shapes of color and gradually breaking those down into smaller details, I decided the more appropriate method would be to draw the complicated architectural structures with a warm neutral color (red iron oxide, titanium white, and black) thinned with Galkyd fast-drying medium and then brush the colors over the drawing. That allowed me to resolve the design of the buildings before dealing with the actual colors in the scene.
Since that painting trip, I have been trying to take advantage of the power that neutrals have in bringing emphasis to the colors in a painting. That is, mixing complementary colors (red with green, purple with orange, etc.) or adding blacks and grays to color mixtures to lower the intensity (chroma) while maintaining the relative value. The benefit of this is that when I want to bring attention to an area of strong color, I "neutralize" the areas around that color. It goes back to the idea that when you want to make one thing important, you have to reduce the importance of everything around it.
Portrait painter understand this idea and will often refuse to "correct" a painting in front of a client. When the client asks for the cheeks to be more pronounced, for example, the painter knows to darken the area below the cheek bone. If the client actually saw that happening, he or she would think the artist was correcting the wrong thing. That's why I darked the shapes around the columns of the Ca D'Oro so the pink-white walls would appear brighter.
This is only a rough sketch and I intend to create a larger, more finished painting using my oil sketch and photographs to come up with something that captures the experience of Venice more completely. That should keep me busy through the cold winter months.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Why we draw & paint

The question we ask ourselves, that our friends ask us, that our parents puzzle over, and that occurs to us every time we get half-way through a painting is "What the hell am I doing?" Certainly the world doesn't need another piece of artwork, and if it did we could pull out dozens of paintings stacked in the closet. We are convinced no one will ever buy one of our paintings, and if they did express interest we would be reluctant to part with our most personal expressions. We would rather give a drawing to someone who loves it than charge them real dollars, and we look back at our old work thinking (a) we wish we could still paint like that, or (b) we should have stopped before we got worse.

In 30 years of editing American Artist magazine, I've asked artists that question; and the answer I always receive is "I don't have a choice. I have to keep making art whether anyone else understands me, supports me, honors me, or dishes me. This isn't a gym exercise I do to build up my muscles, or a nine-to-five job I put up with so I'll have food on the table. It's my life."

So the answers I get are not really answers to the question I posed. Artists can identify the fact that they have an obsession, a passion, an inner need, a driving ambition, or an insane dependence; but they have trouble saying why they willing engage in an act that is, at worst, a form of self-flagalation and, at best, a form of self-realization.

The most frequent answers are grounded in the artist's earliest experiences. Some fell over in front of a great painting hanging in a museum, and when they got back on their feet they verbalized the ambition of one day being able to paint that kind of picture. Others met an adult artist -- and aunt, a grandmother, a neighbor, or a teacher -- and thought they wanted to enjoy the same happy existence that person must be living.

But what of the people who decided to become artists when they were adults? Some walked away from a grinding profession their mother insisted they undertake because they were sure painting would lead to a greater level of satisfaction. Others didn't have the confidence to take a "real job," and a few just liked the idea of doing something that didn't depend on interacting with other human beings.

HOWEVER, I am glad to say that the vast majority of artists I've met recognized that being able to accurately record one's observations, feelings, and ideas can be the most satisfying experience a person can have. And what's even better, there is the real possibility that what an artist records can be exactly what other people saw, felt, and thought. Whether the art is completely abstract or tightly detailed, it does have the potential to communicate in a very particular and important way.

I plan to use this blog to explore that communication by describing my own drawings and paintings as well as the work of artists I admie. Perhaps we can help each other answer the question about the real reasons we need to create art.