Monday, March 14, 2011

New Work

I stayed home over my school's Spring Break. No trip to Florida, no trip home to see family. Just one sweet week to work in the studio without monitoring time. I managed to wrap up some larger studio paintings (I won't say "finish") that I've been tripping over since last Spring. A few smaller pieces are included as well.

The Ohio River from Athens County, Ohio, Winter, oil on canvas, 36" x 96"


 Frozen River - The Scioto Near Delaware, Ohio, oil on panel, 24" x 48" 

Silo and Rails, Delaware, Ohio, oil on canvas, 48" x 36"

Bridge Over the Ohio, Spring, oil on canvas, 36" x 48"

Mill Silos, Prospect, Ohio, oil on canvas, 20" x 16"

Cylinders and Cubes - South Columbus, oil on canvas, 20" x 16"

Farmers Co-Operative, Marion, Ohio, oil on canvas, 20" x 16"

Excavation for New Building, Delaware, Ohio, 16" x 20"

The Kanawha River in Charleston, West Virginia, oil on panel, 16" x 24"

Flooded Fields in Eastern Ohio, Spring, oil on canvas, 14" x 36"

Monday, March 7, 2011


Camouflage is about making things disappear. How things appear, and disappear, is the game of the artist so it isn't surprising that it was an artist who invented the camouflage that military forces use to disguise soldiers and equipment. Abbott Thayer was born in 1849 in Boston but spent much of his childhood in rural New Hampshire. At 18 he studied at the National Academy of Design in New York and later in Paris at the Ecole des Beaux-Artes with Leon Gerome. In addition to being a painter, he was also a naturalist who took a keen interest in how color and patterning in nature disguised the contour of animals, insects, and plants. He wrote an important book called Concealing Coloration in the Animal Kingdom: An Exposition of the Laws of Disguise Through Color and Pattern (1909) and carried on a correspondence with then President, Theodore Roosevelt, who took issue with many of Thayer's assertions.

In this watercolor of Thayer's, a Copperhead snake is concealed against its background by means of shapes and colors that visually link with elements in the surrounding space, interrupting the continuity of the snake's contour. The ability to distinguish "figure" from "ground," a key mechanism of perception, is defeated by nature's manipulation of visual elements.

Here are some early photographs showing military experiments with Thayer's theories:

One of Roosevelt's bones of contention with Thayer was the seeming contradiction presented by the strident coloration in certain animals such as pink flamingos. Thayer's arguments were based on his observation that at certain times of day, particularly sunset and sunrise when the Flamingos' mating or feeding were active, their color would conceal them against the pink skies of their habitat.

The main principle of camouflage is to break down the object's contrast with its surroundings by relating it visually to its context. Who but an artist, who makes his life out of the phenomena of vision, would notice the many subtle ways that nature achieves this magic trick?

So, what does camouflage have to do with painting? Anyone who attempts to paint a slice of "nature" from observation will soon notice the peculiar way that the visible edges of objects can break down and become lost in their surrounding environment. The lighted planes of a bottle may "connect" with a similar adjacent area of the background, breaking the continuity of the outline and creating a new, aggregate shape. A dark shadow plane of an object may dissolve into a larger shape of related tones. In the photo below, on the right side of the still-life the dark bottles and pitcher visually link to their dark surroundings and lose their edges. The dark shoe atop the terra cotta pot is clearly silhouetted dark against light, except where the toe penetrates the shadow of the pitcher.

Painting from observation is a meditation on appearances, and appearances are provisional, not absolute. These composite color shapes, the progeny of light, are ephemeral, unique, and without precedent. They are formed out of relationships, not things. We carry no stored memory of these  shapes, no symbol for representing them, no name to call them. They exist in the moment's looking and disappear again when the light has changed. Learning to paint from observation we begin to notice such phenomena and, dare I say it, "imitate" these elisions, or joinings of one thing to another in the painting. The payoff for the painter is that elusive quality, Light.

Although Abbott Thayer is better known for his portraits and his paintings of angels, for which his children posed, the landscapes that he painted around Mount Monadnock in New Hampshire, where he lived, are among Thayer's most stirring and evocative works. Like their ancestors, the paintings of the Hudson River school, Thayer's paintings embody that sense of awe at the raw American landscape, but there is a feeling of the new century, a new energy that expresses itself in the vigorous brushwork and palette knife work. In these works you can sense the same rapt attention of Abbott Thayer, the Painter, and Abbott Thayer, the Naturalist. Both depend on visual attention to the particular ways in which form and space reveal, and conceal, themselves.

Links to Abbott Thayer's work:
Abbott Handerson Thayer

Monadnock Art: Friends of the Dublin Art Colony

Friday, March 4, 2011

A Relationship with Maine II

Some paintings from the Summer of 2004:


 60" x 84"

A Relationship with Maine

Waterville, Maine was my home from the summer of 2006 to that of 2007, while teaching at Colby College as Visiting Artist. There are a lot of Hobbses in the state of Maine.  I didn't know that until I lived in Maine.  Perhaps that's another reason why I have felt such a pull to this state for so long.

The other reason is art. My first trip to Maine was a pilgrimage in 1981. At the end of college, realizing that my education as a painter was now in my own hands, I decided to see for myself what had drawn so many of my favorite American artists to Maine: Edward Hopper, Winslow Homer, George Bellows, Fairfield Porter... I left Lynchburg, VA, my home, in September armed with a brand new Canon AE-1 that I was able to purchase after working all summer at Mead Paper Mill.  It was both a glorious and frustrating trip. I took my easel and paint but found that I was too excited by the beauty of the place, and too restless to move on and see what lay around the next bend. The small towns along U.S. 1 were too inviting.

I didn't return to Maine until 1992. These are some of the small on-site studies I did then, in Arcadia National Park. They were painted on gessoed cardboard that I had stockpiled in great quantity from the dumpster at the paper mill - acidic as hell but essentially the same stuff used by Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec and Vuillard. I can only hope that I shall be so deserving as they, and have conservators looking after my youthful indiscretions after I'm gone. To paint these I used my first home-made pochade box, a heavy plywood job with a bent coat hanger as a lid stay, an idea purloined from Jack Boul at American U. They were done in oils, the dimensions about 7" x 9."

In 2000, I taught a week-long painting workshop on Bailey Island for the Beverley Street Studio School, the school that I started in 1992 with Ron Boehmer, Dan Dempsey, Rosalie White and Ryan Russell, in Staunton, VA. These paintings are oil on gessoed Luan plywood, about 12" x 15."


Returning to Bailey Island in 2003, I joined up with Roanoke, VA, painter and friend Eric Fitzpatrick. We ferried out to Monhegan Island, my first time there, and spent two days hiking with easels and painting from the heights of the island. While walking, our paths crossed with a guy Eric thinks was Jamie Wyeth, long time resident of the island. Monhegan has been a magnet for so many artists, from Homer, to Hopper to Henri. Most of the artists I saw who live and paint images of the place today remind me of the street artists in Rome or Florence who just reproduce the same subject matter over and over for tourists to buy. But,  away from the village the elemental power of the land is as strong as it ever was.

Some of the paintings from 2003, oil on panels, 16" x 16," and 15" x 12":

More to come...