Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Art of Seeing in Ogunquit, Maine

Tidal Rocks, Ogunquit
Nine students joined me for a fabulous day of painting, history, and self-exploration at my April 19 plein-air workshop last week in Maine.

We met at a coffee shop in Perkins Cove to set the tone for the day - we would use 20th century Maine seascape painter Charles Woodbury's theories on the "Art of Seeing" as a way of opening our work to greater feeling. If you wish, you can download a copy of our handout of Woodbury quotes from my website's workshops page.

Flyer for Woodbury's
Art of Seeing classes
Charles Herbert Woodbury (1864-1940) made our workshop location a famous plein-air painting spot during the first half of the 20th century. From his cliff-face studio, which has been carefully preserved and restored, Woodbury taught literally thousands of painters what was then a radical idea: don't paint it the way it looks, paint it the way it "seems." He was perhaps the first teacher to formalize a practical method of emphasizing feeling over academic skills in plain-air painting. 

As Woodbury had his students do, I demonstrated a method for painting very quickly out-of-doors: take stock of the visual field as whole, and don't just look at but feel the value-relationships you see, especially at the edges of the big things - land, sea, and sky. 

Then quickly fill your canvas with four or five flat color-values, fitting them together like a puzzle. The key was not trying to imitate this or that actual color in nature, but to relate color-values to each other on the canvas according to to our initial, spontaneous reactions to nature. 

Accomplishing that, the rest is technique - one may make the painting as detailed as one might wish, but the general rule is to only add as much detail as is necessary before it begins to detract from the big simple "great things" seen and noted at the outset.

After lunch (lobster rolls for some of us, simpler, less tentacled fare for others), everyone scouted out their own motifs and once more applied the "Woodbury method." As one of the students remarked, every single one of those paintings had it - that elusive thing without which even the most technically accomplished paintings stand or fall: real seeing and feeling.

Discussions with the Beth Ellis Gallery in Perkins Cove are continuing, with plans for a week-long "Art of Seeing" workshop in partnership with the gallery in September. Stay tuned for dates and shoot me an email if you'd like to reserve a space.

Maria A'Becket Branches Out in Florida

Monarch of the Glen by Maria A'Becket
A large painting by 19th century Maine painter Maria A'Becket has been discovered rolled up with 125-year-old blueprints, naturalist drawings, and other documents stowed in a corner of the boiler-room of a Gilded Age hotel in St. Augustine, Florida. 

As readers of this blog may be aware, I've been researching and writing about this once-forgotten painter extensively - I've written about her here as well. The Flagler Museum in Florida has posted an article by a local newspaper about the find. 

At approx. 24" x 45," the A'Becket painting, titled "Monarch of the Glen," which is on display at the Flagler Museum, is an important one if only for its size; Maria painted en plain air quite a bit, and she seems to have favored smaller-format artist board. It's a prime example of A'Becket's distinctive Americanized Barbizon-Impressionist landscape style. 

The Ponce de Leon under construction in St. Augustine
A'Becket was one of a select group of leading landscapists of the day, including Martin Johnson Heade, who were given studios in the Ponce de Leon hotel during the 1890s. On Friday evenings guests of the Gilded Age hotel would wander among the studios, where A'Becket is said to have been the center of the conversation.

About her own Diaz-inspired landscapes she wrote:

“There is a peculiar sadness about many of her pictures, where noble, old trees bear the marks of long, hard struggles with the elements; twisted and wind tossed, rugged, gnarled, burying their great muscular roots in the earth or clinging to the rocks. These are what she best likes to paint.”

As it happens, I'm in Orlando this week, so if I can, perhaps I'll slip away for a tryst with Maria.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Seeing Big in Perkins Cove

Charles H. Woodbury used to tell the students in his Ogunquit, Maine Art of Seeing class to "paint big and fast outside" not because drawing doesn't matter (it does) but to help them capture their initial felt impressions of nature first. 

I love the runaway red in this painting, one of Woodbury's more Modernist-influenced works.

At 17, while an engineering undergrad at MIT, Woodbury became the youngest artist ever elected to the prestigious Boston Art Club. Critics recognized in his first solo show (which sold out - he was 18) the hallmarks of his life's work: a sensuous love of paint, a sharp observational eye, a sense of air and light, and, above all, a feeling for the world of "things" as the interaction of forces and resistance in motion. 

Cliffs at Ogunquit

Even though he'd decided he wasn't going to become an engineer (he was already supporting himself by teaching and selling his art), Woodbury was determined to finish MIT for the sheer challenge of doing so. He fell in love with one of his art students, a southern Mainer by the name of Susan (Marcia) Oakes. He stumbled on Ogunquit while visiting "Miss Oakes," and after they married he built a studio and a house for them and set up shop. In 1898 he established his summer art school, which he operated for the next 40 years under the banner of "The Art of Seeing." 

He was one of the earliest painters to teach what has become a core tenet of contemporary plain-air painting: active seeing, or "seeing like an artist," as it's often phrased.

Woodbury's view from his studio, a painting he titled "Phlox." Though thoroughly Impressionistic in influence, it illustrates Woodbury's sense of things as forces in motion. "Paint in verbs not in nouns," he told students.

Woodbury constructed a painting very quickly out of four or five flatly painted "color values" that corresponded to his spontaneous reaction to nature. "Be deliberate," he advised. "Size up the whole day and conditions.... Then paint as though you had been sent for. You cannot afford to lose a second anywhere – not a second." After that, his procedure was to take the painting to completion with only as much detail as he felt he could add before it began to take away from the "great things" that were there at the start.

Woodbury was more practical than visionary; he chose traditional representation at a time when abstract art was breaking the new ground. He didn't ignore Modernism completely, he just took bits and pieces of it here and there as it suited his purpose. 

There's a good bit of Modernist abstraction in the muscular contortions of these Ogunquit cliffs.

Much of his work combines "Impressionism, oriental compositional motifs, and the sensuous lines and jewel-like colors of the Art Nouveau," as art historian Erica E. Hirschler correctly nailed it.

But his greatest influence came through his teaching. Before Woodbury's death in 1940, some 4,000 painters passed through his "Art of Seeing" summer program. The "colony"that sprang up around the school also drew important artists, including Edward Hopper, Robert Henri, Hamilton Easter Field, Robert Laurent, Marsden Hartley, George Bellows, and Walt Kuhn.

The "sensuous lines and jewel-like colors of the Art Nouveau."

“A picture is a thought or feeling expressed in terms of Nature," he wrote. "The method is a matter of the moment….Clear sight, clear thought, clear expression; the thought should depend on the sight, and the expression on the thought....Realism is not based on the way things are, but upon things as you see and feel them. Realism is after all only what you think the thing may be.”

What I like about Woodbury is his rejection of painting as simple imitation in favor of an expressive perceptual approach. He's rooted as much in love for the medium as in the desire to see clearly with the heightened perception of the fully present eye and mind. 

Often eliminating foreground cues, Woodbury originated a convention in marine painting in which the viewer is suspended in mid air above the waves.

Woodbury's "Thunderstorm." Before 1940, landscape painting didn't get much more direct and gestural than this.

For my students and other folks nearby: Through a series of presentations and painting workshops, I hope to help share Woodbury's work and his approach to getting "the big things" in nature with a new audience. I want to see if, by "seeing big," we can capture spontaneity and originality in paintings that work. 

I'll be giving a free presentation on Woodbury and his teaching philosophy at the Beth Ellis Cove Gallery in Perkins Cove (within sight of Woodbury's original 1898 studio) this Sunday, April 14, at 2 p.m. You can download a preview of the presentation from my website:

The presentation came about because of a one-day workshop I'm conducting in Ogunquit on the 19th in which we'll take inspiration from Woodbury's approach to seeing and painting. There's still space for a few more - let me know if you're interested in joining us.

In the planning is a week-long course in Woodury's "Art of Seeing" that I'll offer jointly with painter Todd Bonita through the Beth Ellis Cove gallery in September.

Ogunquit headlands.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Spring Favorite

Wolfgang Laib, Pollen from Hazelnut, at NYC's MoMA.

I took this picture on my iPhone a couple months ago at NY's Museum of Modern Art. An 18x21-foot installation in the building's main atrium, the shape appeared to radiate, a dense field of low vaporous light. Visitors from January through March walked around this gorgeous, luminous square on the floor - it was like being inside a Rothko painting. At first I thought it actually was light projected from above. Then I realized it was some kind of powder ... a video on the wall explained it was POLLEN, from plants.

Of course - what else could pulse with that kind of vibrant color but the stuff of life itself?

Wolfgang Laib spends quiet months among the fields around his home in southern Germany gently tapping the sides of tree branches in spring and summer, collecting the pollen that sifts down for installations like this. In tune with the natural sequence of the seasons, he harvests the pollen on each tree or flower when it's in bloom, beginning with hazelnut, moving on to dandelion and other flowers, and finally ending with pine.  

Later he will spoon the materials onto a flat surface in the form of a public work of art, the size of which is determined by the season's yield of pollen. They envelope the viewers who walk around them, often in a sort of jubilant trance. To Laib the artwork is the pollen itself, but the entire process is clearly a form of spiritual mediation.

The work has a strange simplicity (a single color and the square being such a basic geometrical figure). Laib's humble and devotional orientation to his time-consuming process and its inherent natural symbolism trumps the shock value of installations I've seen weighed down by more aggressive agendas and theoretical trappings.

There's a personal connection for the artist of course, and as he explains, it has to do with being surrounded by a great deal of death during his early years as a medical student. This work, then, is an earnest embrace and celebration of the energy of life - a fitting tribute to spring.

You can watch the short wall video and get more information about Laib on MoMA's exhibit website.