Blaming the Materials

Here are a couple of sketches from my plein air workshop near Volterra. The first I’m happy with, the second is awful.

San Giusto, Volterra. 20 x 30 cm, oil on panel.

San Giusto, Volterra. 25 x 35 cm, oil on panel.

The sketch above isn’t my fault. Really. Every month I make dozens of sketches and I usually buy large quantities of the gessoed boards from Zecchi. A few months back I got a batch from them where their subcontractor had messed up the proportions of the gesso and there wasn’t enough glue. The boards are too absorbent and are utterly unusable. Somehow they got mixed up into the next batch of boards I ordered and every now and then I find I’m trying to paint on one. It is impossible for me to pull anything decent off with one of these boards. I’ve had to throw away the ten or so paintings from the times I’ve insisted on trying.

On our workshops we give the students a full painting kit. It makes it easier for those who have to travel, but the reason we do it is really that we got tired of students arriving with unusable materials. Rubens couldn’t paint with some of the set-ups these people arrived with. Often they don’t have the experience to recognize that it’s their materials that are the problem. Since we started giving out full kits, we’ve seen a marked improvement in the students paintings. They are able to focus on learning to paint.

Good quality painting materials don’t have to be expensive either. Here in Florence we find the Zecchi brand is fine for paints (for dark ultramarine we use Old Holland). In the US, Blue Ridge and M. Graham both make excellent paint for reasonable prices. Often ‘student-grade’ paints are so full of fillers that to change one color you have to add a ton of the other one. This means the cost savings is gone when you calculate how much paint you actually have to use.

Good boards are cheap. Ray Mar is a good supplier in the US, Zecchi in Europe (when they get them right), or make your own. I use a cigar-box clipped to a $50 easel for most of my sketches. Brushes are really important but they don’t have to be expensive and will last for years if looked after properly. There is no excuse to skimp on materials if you care about painting.

At the end of the day, painting is hard enough without fighting your materials.

More Benelux Sketches

March and April are usually write-offs for me as far as plein air work. I find the florescent greens of new growth combined with the browns of winter to be really unpicturesque. My own attempts at blossoms are usually miserable failures so I avoid them. I also have a lot of studio work to catch up on, mostly enlarging sketches of Italian subjects from last year to meet gallery commitments.

That said, I did get out a few times and here are the results.

Cows at Sint-Martens-Voeren (Belgium). 30 x 20 cm, oil on panel.

Luxembourg Sketch. 20 x 30 cm, oil on panel.

Canal in Maastricht. 35 x 25 cm, oil on panel.

Oud-Valkenburg Roofs. 20 x 30 cm, oil on panel.

Windmill at Ohé en Laak. 30 x 20 cm, oil on panel.

Windmill at Ohé en Laak #2. 20 x 30 cm, oil on panel.

I’m off to Italy next week so this will probably be it for my Dutch period. It’s too bad as the colors are just getting interesting again.

 

Holland: The Local Talent

My 4 month stint in Limburg is rapidly drawing to a close. I’ve painted with a couple of professional plein air painters, Hans Versfelt and (briefly) Roos Shuring, and had a few coffees with fellow ex-pat portraitist Scott Bartner.

In March, I visited the Tefaf fair in Maastricht with Urban Larsson, who showed me around and introduced me to the great Dutch painters of the 19th-century. As always, most of these artists aren’t well known abroad, but deserve greater recognition.

I had trouble finding books and images online for these artists, and I may have the titles wrong, but here goes.

(They have really long-winded names for being from such a small country).

Jacob Maris (The Anathaeum has a lot more images):

Jacob Maris. The Five Windmills (from the Centraal Museum, Utrecht)

Jacob Maris. The Ferry

Jacob Maris. The Ferry Boat.

Jacob Maris. Windmill in the Snow.

There were three Marises. Jacob’s brother Willem painted lots of animal subjects:

Willem Maris. Ducks. (From the Rijksmuseum)

Johannes Christiaan Karel Klinkenberg (More on Artmight):

Johannes Klinkenberg. River View, Sun.

Johannes Klinkenberg. View of Rotterdam.

Paul Joseph Constantin Gabriël:

Paul Gabriel. A Polder Landscape.

Paul Gabriel. Landscape with Windmill. (From the Amsterdam Historical Museum).

Willem Bastiaan Tholen:

Willem Bastiaan Tholen. ‘Gezicht Op De Nieuwe Haven’.

Johan Hendrik Weissenbruch (more at Wikipaintings):

J. H. Weissenbruch. River Landscape.

Copyright

Disclaimer: This is not legal advice, (though I did have the text checked by my lawyers).

In the ‘Blossoms’ post below I had wanted to add my favorite example, Primavera by Adolfo Tommasi in the Galleria di Arte Moderna in Florence. Unfortunately I couldn’t find a decent image online. The Italian Culture website has a small, terrible image of the painting with watermarks all over it from a private company which controls the image databases of Italian museums. It begs the question: Who is this for? The tagline on the government website is ‘a patrimony to explore’, and in the charter of most museums there is something about their job being to disseminate the works to the public. But the online images are often small, cropped, and covered with watermarks, rendering them all but useless except as ads for the database company. For important paintings, a quick Google-search produces high-resolution images in abundance, but for lesser-know paintings there is no way to get an image from an Italian museum online. I contacted the archive company representing the museum’s collection, Scala Archives, but they want €120 for a 600 pixel, 72dpi blog-ready digital image.

It got me wondering though: Who owns this image?

Adolfo Tommasi died in 1933, so the painting is in the public domain. Yet in this case, and in museum collections worldwide, archiving services such as Scala have photographed the work, and now claim a new copyright exists on the photograph of the painting.

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Blossoms and Tulips

I’ve been inside much of March and April working on larger Italian landscapes from sketches. I find this season difficult to paint well. In Florence, none of the plein air painters would work outside during these months. The acidic new greens, flowers, and blossoms are beautiful, but not necessarily picturesque. This happens often in painting. I’ve told the story in a previous post about watching dolphins jumping in sunset, and how it can be a wonderful experience, but under no circumstances should one attempt to paint dolphins jumping at sunset.

There aren’t many great blossom or tulip paintings for the same reason. Here are a few.

Claude Monet. Apple Trees in Bloom. 1873

Claude Monet. Trees in Bloom.

Claude Monet. A Field of Tulips with the Rijnsburg Windmill.

Claude Monet. Tulip Fields at Sassenheim.

(Wikipainting has an amazing online collection of Monet’s work. 1338 paintings in chronological order and in high resolution. Definitely worth a visit.)

Isaac Levitan. Spring in Italy, 1890.

George Inness. Spring Blossoms, Montclair, New Jersey

Jean-François Millet. Spring.

If anyone has any others feel free to post links. This was just from a quick perusal of Google images.

The Gronsveld Windmill

This is the windmill down the road from where I’m living in Limburg. I thought it would be fun to try one subject with a number of different points of view and weather effects. I’ll be here until June so I’ll have a couple of more seasons too. The tops of the windmills swivel, which confused me at first when I would go back for another shot on a sketch, to find it pointing in a different direction (who knew?).

The Gronsveld Windmill #1. 35 x 25, oil on panel.

Gronsveld Windmill #2. 20 x 30 cm, oil on panel.

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Art In The Open Festival in Wexford, Ireland

 

I’ll be painting and teaching a couple of short workshops in early August at the Art In The Open festival in Wexford, Ireland.

I had a very successful plein air trip to Ireland years ago, staying at the Cill Rialaig artist’s colony in southwestern Kerry, and I very much looking forward to going back.

Grey Maastricht Days

A couple of recent sketches from the grey March days we’ve been having lately.

(Always risky painting a leaning building as on this first one):

Klein Grachtje, Maastricht. 25 x 35 cm, oil on panel.

The Jeker, Maastricht. 30 x 20 cm, oil on panel.

And a couple from the countryside.

Brabant Farm. 20 x 30 cm, oil on panel.

Libeek Fields. 20 x 30 cm, oil on panel.

Only Idiots Learn from Their Mistakes

‘Only idiots learn from their mistakes, I learn from the mistakes of others’

– Otto Von Bismarck

Often while correcting students, they inform me that they would rather make their own mistakes, as a sort of learning tool. Since I’ve usually already made that exact mistake myself, I always reply with that quote.

I know sketching a small landscape painting in oils isn’t the same thing as baiting France into unifying Germany for you.  And part of the beauty of oil painting is the ability to change things at a later date.

But the truth is, plein air painting requires you to think about a lot of things studio-painters don’t have to deal with: “Am I blocking traffic?” “How many tourists am I going to have to talk to standing here?”, “Could I freeze to death in this cold?”… etc, and it is very easy to get distracted and make simple compositional errors that one normally wouldn’t make.

Here are a few of the recent snowscapes from Limburg with before and after images, showing my initial mistake, as well as the later-in-studio correction.

The Unfortunate Tangent:

Unfortunate tangents are when a line describing one element in space is tangent with a line describing an element in a completely different location. In the case below, the snow on the hedge on the left  is in front of the windmill yet it lines up precisely with the line of the hill on the right, which is behind the windmill. In the studio I raised the hedge a little to remove the tangent.

 

The Unfortunate Tangent.

Symmetry:

In the case below, the trees in the original sketch were positioned at the same distance from each side of the panel, which is generally considered poor composition. In the studio I moved the left tree slightly to the right and added one behind it, to not have them look so symmetrical. (To be honest, I’m still not convinced about the trees as they’re a bit busy for such a small panel and might take them out entirely).

Also, the path through the snow was parallel to the base of the panel, so I raised it a bit on the left.

Symmetry.

Parallel Lines:

Lastly, in the painting below, I put in too many parallel lines (also considered poor composition) to describe the plowed fields below the snow. In the studio later I removed a few, and tried to make them more randomly placed.

Parallel Lines.