Sitting with the Muses

Arthur B. Davies, oil, The Goatherd, c, 1913, Midwest Museum of American Art

If you look up "museum" in the dictionary it will tell you the word comes to us from the Latin for "the seat of the Muses." I like that. Maybe that's why I have two inviting rocking chairs in my studio. Perhaps I'll put a neatly lettered sign on the door where passing muses may see it reading "Please Come In."

We need such visitors, artists to help us with our work, and the everyone else as well just to lend our lives extra meaning and some fun. Above is a painting from the Midwest Museum of American Art's Permanent Collection by a painter I think is absolutely wacky but sometimes very good. Arthur B. Davies is usually considered part of the Ash Can School of American painters early in the 20th century.

But you'll have to look long and hard to find ash cans in his paintings, unlike other members of that group like John Sloan and Robert Henri. Davies started out more of a landscape painter but evolved into a more personal and romantic vision. The paintings often feature nudes out in the landscape and seem to flirt with mixing classical mythology and a dash of dreamy reverie. Whatever the case, I always get the feeling looking at his work Davies was determined to have a good time. MMAA's Davies oil is no exception. Davies and I both studied at the venerable Art Students League of New York (though Davies made it to class a little earlier than I did).

Here's another of MMAA's Collection, Massachusetts Beach, an oil by Pauline Palmer (1884-1938), a Chicago artist who maintained a studio in Provincetown, MA for many years. It's broadly painted and shows a skillful shift from warmer to slightly cooler in the highlights as one moves from the immediate foreground to the middle ground shore. I also like the way Palmer tones down the blues in the sky, preferring to concentrate her brilliant color in the rocks and sands up close to us. Winslow Homer, a fellow student of the light along the New England coast advised painters to "never paint a blue sky," advice he himself usually but not always followed. Here Palmer shows us how to do it well with the color blue, giving it a whole wide range of intensities.

Here's a few more paintings from MMAA's current exhibition of my own work, Unbroken Thread. Picking up the thread I started when discussing the blue sky in the Pauline Palmer painting Massachusetts Shore, I'd like to comment on my skies. The large painting above is my Otter Cove. It was done out of my imagination, based on some memories of the many drawings I've done in the Otter Cove area of Mt. Desert Island in Acadia National Park in Maine. The famous Hudson River School painters Frederick Church and Sanford Gifford did wonderful paintings of the spot.

My own thinking for Otter Cove's sky was that I wanted to have a large gradation across its expanse of a cool low intensity blue violet grey. I kept it at a low intensity so I could make the oranges and yellows right above the horizon really strong. These are complementary colors after all, and it's almost always a good idea to make one complement stronger than the other complementary color if they're adjacent in a painting. Especially so if you're aiming for a deep believable space.

Above at the left is West from Monhegan, also an oil based on a vine charcoal drawning I did in 2006 on Monhegan Island in Maine looking back toward the mainland at the mountains in Camden, ME. The color choices are entirely out of my head. I do remember the day I did the original drawing the sky was, dare I say it, sky blue, and I didn't want to just repeat that. Instead I conceived of the sky as a broad gradation of yellow oranges ready to hold a network of darker burnt sienna clouds.

At the right above is my painting Inland. It does have some straight faced blues in the sky, just to show one can use that tricky color up in the top of a landscape painting. Never say never. I did contrast it against some noticeably orange clouds that in nature would have been varieties of pearl greys and whites.

Finally, in the distance at the left is my oil Ascension. As the title implies, it's about the feeling of rising up as much as receding into an infinite distance. And here I do put quite a lot of blue in the sky at the left. Then that color gradually moves into a warmer grey and finally a yellow gold at the right hand sky. One of the things I feel is critical to make my skies work well is to purposely keep the brushwork loose and visible. Especially on larger works when the sky is too smoothed down, it tends to go dead.

Always the lighter colors have to be applied over the darker colors when one paints a sky. It just works better. When one does it the other way around, the darker strokes look like they want to fall off and land on the floor. On a large painting, this means my palatte has to have many many puddles of colors mixed up ahead of time, ready to go. Generally I find the more colors one mixes up and has ready to go, the better one's decisions for the sky tend to be. The British painter John Constable, a fellow I learned a lot from when I was starting out painting landscapes in graduate school, claimed the sky was "the chief organ of sentiment" in the landscape. I have to smile at his 19th century style of exposition, but the guy had it right. I find if you can get the right mood coming out of your sky, the rest of the painting can be made to happen.


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