Sunday, January 31, 2016

Arthur Wesley Dow, and a disjointed ramble through late Victorian design fads.

The above illustration is from a book "Composition; Line, Notan, and Color by Arthur Wesley Dow (1857-1922)  who lived in Ipswich, Massachusetts. He studied in the 1880's in France at the Academie Julian and with Gustave Boulanger and Jules-Joseph Lefebvre. He trained alongside both Edmund Tarbell and Willard Metcalf  .Upon his return to Boston, he began studying the Boston Museum's great collection of Asian art, particularly Japanese prints. For a time he was actually the assistant curator of those. Dow opened a teaching studio in Ipswich, the surroundings must have made it a great place to study, Ipswich has more standing architecture from the 1600's than any other town in America. Here is a photo of what it looked like then.

Here is a photo of Dows home, where he taught summer workshops.

Dow as a teacher was concerned about the emphasis on realistic description that dominated the art instruction of the day. He, like Whistler, supported a more artistic approach based on the parts of painting apart from actual representation. Color was one of those, not transcribing color as it sat before the artist in nature, but building inventive and deliberate arrangements of color. But his greatest concern was with composition.Dow spent a lot of time studying not only Japanese prints but oriental rugs, Arabic script, and decorative arts from around the world. He became an exponent of the Arts and Crafts movement.

To place Dow in context I am going to show some Arts and Crafts history real quick.This was a late 19th century to early 20th century return to simpler handmade , (or handmade looking) decorative objects which often made a point of showing their construction. Below is an example of an arts and crafts interior. 

Along with this style came a great surge of interest in design, and particularly pattern design as might be found in fabrics and wallpaper. William Morris (1834-1896) was a Scottish designer who was a leader in the Arts and Crafts movement. Below is an example of several of his influential wallpaper designs.

Many of the ideas underpinning this style came from James McNeil Whistler (1834-1903) who advocated "art for arts sake" That is, art was to be beautiful because of what it looked like, rather than having a purpose, like advancing a political or sociological agenda. Its whole purpose was its appearance, not a moral to be taught or a narrative. The earliest phase of these ideas were mostly manifested in the decorative arts and architecture. Owen Jones (1809-1874) published in 1856 "A Grammar of Ornament". This was a profusely illustrated catalogue of ornamental designs from all cultures and periods. Artists and designers plundered the book for the rest of the century, mixing and matching styles and patterns to create the Victorian styles, of which the aesthetic period was a late variation, This style was only popular for the 1880's.  Below is an example of aesthetic movement design, Whistler's Peacock Room, from 1877. Below that is an example of aesthetic period furniture.

There were also enormous amounts of Japanese influenced pottery produced in Staffordshire, England that was modestly priced, mass produced, and ubiquitous for that short period. Below is an example of that. If you are looking for something to collect, e-bay is full of affordable examples today.

There was also a fad for designing "tiles". The artists of the day were very interested in decorative design and made and exchanged small square painted tiles of geometric and naturalistic abstract design. There were clubs started where artists would do these designs together and often present them to one another. This became a fad, but was seen as a good way to build design skills. Here is an example of that from Dow's book.

 See? we are back with Arthur Dow! The book is a lesson plan for teaching design and is full of suggested exercises. He leads his readers through increasingly complex design ideas. The earliest lessons are about linear design, but as he continues, he leads into Notan. Notan is an idea that Dow borrowed from the Japanese that means designing images in several flat values in a tonal manner. It is rather like thumbnailing as a means of arriving at the arrangement of a picture. This is a purely art for arts sake system, as it is not about transcribing nature, although it may incorporate natural forms. The idea is to create an arrangement of shapes that is beautiful in and of itself, rather than because of its skillful reproduction of a scene before the artist.

Above is an example of the simplified Notan sketches that Dow advocated. As you can see he is pushing a single picture idea through various treatments of value and arrangement, looking for an artistic presentation of his subject. They are all of the same house and tree but with different value arrangements and different "treatments" had by varying his interest in different parts of the image. Some emphasize the tree for instance and others the architecture. In some he switches the values about at will using a dark tree in one and a high value tree in another.

His values and drawing are slaved to his design!

Here is an example of Edgar Payne,in his book "composition of outdoor painting" a generation later espousing the same ideas.

Dow's book is available still, reprinted by Dover. Here is a link to that. It can also be read online at archive. org  here is a link to that.


Displaying 20160131_101721.jpg

Displaying 20160131_101721.jpg
The annual dreaded Snowcamp workshop returns to the Inn on Sunset Hill, above Franconia, New Hampshire. I will be teaching on Saturday the 5th through Monday the 7th of March 2016. This is my favorite thing I do every year. You can join the group for an intense ( to say the very least) workshop overlooking the White Mountains. The views are enormous and we will paint from the grounds of the hotel itself. That means no caravanning around in cars. I teach all the aspects of landscape painting besides just snow painting and in the evenings I do a power point presentation on designing paintings and the history of landscape painting. This is a breakfast till bedtime workshop. We do nothing else for three days. I will work you like a borrowed mule.

The 150 year old inn is as New England as can be, it is under new ownership and is the ideal place to do a workshop. We will take our meals there. I generally park my car in the lot and leave it there until the workshop is over.

 If it is actually snowing there is an enormous covered back porch that overlooks the mountains on which we can paint . The camaraderie is wonderful and many students repeat year after year. I limit the class to about a dozen, so if you want to come, sign up using the button below. I is required that you stay in the inn to participate in the workshop. Before you sign up you probably want to call them first and book your room. Their phone number is 603-823-7244, they have a special package rate for my students.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Dearest Blog readers. I am doing a book for Pequod books. As part of that project, I have been labeling old posts and working on the back end of the system. Because of that some old blogs have popped to the front page here. Some posts may now be out of order. But they are all still here in their enormity. I am glad you have come to read them and please bear with any glitches that may have newly formed,

Tuesday, December 8, 2015



Another find from the Nevelson master this painting is a fine example of a design flaw. Painted on the lid of a White Owl box, ( the artists white is suspected to be the ground up plastic mouthpieces from those same smokes ) this small painting contains a design problem called potation. What is that, you might well ask?


If you again look at the painting above, or in your pamphlets, you will notice that the trees and the clouds are all of the same potato shape. Everyone who begins to paint makes this mistake. The ability to make interesting and varied shapes is developed and not instinctive. Like everything else in painting it must be learned, no one gets much for free.

When you see granny's paintings sold by her disgusted heirs at a yard sale, this is one of the most common faults. E-bay is full of modestly priced paintings by retired executives that are full of potato shapes. Someone once remarked that all amateur painting looks the same, and much of it does, because they all contain the same things unlearned.

So don't POTATE! as you paint, and when you study your work, police your shapes. Look for repletion of the same elements and intervals between them. The more different your shapes are from one another the longer you will hold the viewer.

Scholars researching the Nevelson master may have discovered his identity, one Dirk Van Assaerts from East Delft. Letters and civil records have come to light showing that he was a successful teacher and arts administrator too, winning numerous grants and subsidies. Van Assaerts left volumes of correspondence, opening to scholars a unique view into the life of a 17th century tyro. In coming posts I will reveal what contemporary scholarship has to say about this remarkable man.

safety studio post

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

My little studio and a line of tape on the floor.

My studio measures eleven by twenty feet. That's big enough for me. If I were doing portraits or  figures I would need more space, but for what I do it works just fine. I start all of my paintings outside, the studio is where I operate on them when they come home.

My  studio is a miniature version of one I had in the seventies in the historic Fenway Studios building in Boston. The studio is the former garage next to my house that I have reworked. I removed a roll up door on steel tracks and closed up the hole where it had been. The garage had a cement floor and bare wooden studs for  walls.There was a low ceilinged second floor above. I removed half of that and kept the back half as a loft area for my stretchers and failed paintings. The front half of the room where the easel is has a 14 foot "cathedral" and dormered ceiling. There is another set of small french windows set into a dog house dormer above the window in the photo, so I have lots of light. The studio is wainscoted in dark wood, extra high, and has oak floors. The floors take a real beating because this is a workshop. The windows are true divided lights and also stained dark walnut like the rest of the woodwork.  The walls are  linen white. The walls go up so high that all that white  counterbalances the dark wood and keeps the studio from being darker than the inside of a cow.

For me, a north light studio is essential. The studio is a big light box, like a camera, there are no other windows on the sides of the studio so the light only comes from one direction. North light is unvarying over the course of a workday, any other direction and the sun will strike into your studio. That would mean that if you painted a still life, the shadows on the objects would move over the course of the day. Under north light they do not. I don't paint still life, but the glare of full sunlight streaming through  a studio window makes it hard to work. I want soft, cool, and even natural light. Late in the day I do get a little direct sun beaming in, and I take a break as the bright  parallelograms cross the walls behind me.

My easel has a simple homemade rack sitting on it that has a 1"by4" extension six feet long. I can place two 24" by 30"s next to one another, The rack takes the level of the tray of the easel up about 2 feet, I like that because I am tall. Also sitting on the tray of the easel is a three by four piece of plywood to which I can tape photos of paintings that I find inspiring, or references.  Above the easel on arms of carefully selected #3 pine hang several fluorescent fixtures. I prefer not to  paint under artificial light. Sometimes I have to work at night to get things done, so I have them.  Studio lighting can be set up much better, but I get by with this. I don't want to mount any light fixtures on my window wall, it wouldn't look pretty.

Here is a closeup of my taboret, the table on which a painter sets his palette when he works. Mine is a very heavy homemade cabinet full of drawers, upon which a key grinding machine once lived in a Maine hardware store. Steel casters allow it to be shoved about as needed. I want it to be heavy so it is stable. On one side of the taboret is a hook where I hang the backpack I use outside, so whatever I keep in that bag is close at hand.

My open paint box is on the sideboard behind me. I have only one palette and paintbox. When I come in from outside, I take the palette out of the box, and set it one the taboret. The dozen or so drawers on the right hand ( not visible) side of the taboret hold paint that I buy in quantity and tube myself. That adds weight too. The top of the taboret is heavy oak and will withstand great abuse. I use it like the bench in a woodworkers shop when the palette is removed.

On the floor is a cheap rug from Home Depot which I replace every few years when it gets too splattered with paint to be presentable. On that rug about five feet away from the easel is a piece of masking tape.

 I paint from two different points in my studio. 

If I am doing small or tightly detailed work I stand right at the easel. I almost always work standing. But when I am finishing full sized paintings that I have started outside I stand back from the easel on the taped line. I observe the painting from this point, I mix the note on the palette beside me, and then I walk up to the easel and make my brushstroke(s). Then I return to my distant observation point again. Doing this causes the paintings ideal focus to be out about five feet from the canvas. That makes a big difference in the way a painting looks and helps me keep a more impressionist look in my pictures.

I have found I get better results if I stand back from my easel. I get a broader looking picture if I work from this distance. It also seems quicker to me, I do try to use the largest brush I can and at that distance working in bigger marks is easier. It really does make a big difference in the way a painting looks. The distant viewing station gives a more impressionist and looser look than standing right at the canvas.