Pig Bladders, Drawing, and a Visit with Thomas Cole

Here's a new vine charcoal drawing I did while at the Thomas Cole  National Historic Site in Catskill, NY in June. It's titled simply Catskill. It was done from the same vista of the Catskill Mountains that Thomas Cole used for several of his paintings, including this one, View Near the Village of Catskill.

Here's my wife Alice standing in front of the same view, heavily back lit by the late afternoon sun. The particular mountains Cole and I chose to focus on are just above Alice's head in the photo.


Here I am working on my drawing on the Thomas Cole house's front porch that faces that dramatic panorama of the Catskills. One great advantage of working with vine charcoal instead of oil pigments in a sensitive location such as this is my vine charcoal medium doesn't leave a trace on any on the surrounding surfaces. A tiny gust of wind and even the tiniest charcoal particles are history.

Here's the drawing in-progress sitting on the front porch of Cole's house. The edges of the drawing are formed by a "window" of masking tape that gives the drawing the crisp outer edge I feel is critical if your drawing has lots of looser passages and subtle gradations.

I work on location these days primarily in monochrome drawing media and later use the results as the basis for large studio paintings. No doubt my drawing Catskill will inform one of my upcoming oils. Cole too worked from drawings he did out on location as a guide to help him back in the studio with his oil paintings. His was one of the last generations of oil painters who labored before the seemingly inconsequential collapsible metal paint tube revolutionized plein air painting. Cole had to grind his own paints, slowly mixing dry pigments in with linseed oil often daily before  he could begin actually working on his paintings. Many artists, including Cole, would store their fresh paint in the bladders of pigs to try to keep the paint from drying out before they used it. Also, it was a way to carry the paint about. Here's a photo of a 19th century artist's paint bladder. 

But it just didn't work very well and most artists, including landscape painters, restricted their work in oil to the studio. They relied on the drawings they made and Cole drew beautifully. Here's one of his nature studies, most likely done from life outdoors. 

Though artists of Cole's time and before did studies and compositional sketches more of necessity, I think their approach of beginning by working things out on paper was not without virtues of its own. Drawing after all is more than information gathering. It's also an exercise in where to place things, how light or dark should forms be, and most of all, what to emphasize and what to diminish. I think doing all their drawings made the 19th century painters more sensitive. I may be using my drawings to guide my own paintings, but I am convinced I gain many of the same benefits Cole and his company did from the old practice. (And no, I do not keep a secret herd of little pigs in my backyard...).

I started the previous blog post about Cole's Cedar Grove by saying we all want to be part of something greater than ourselves. Such is the deepest appeal of landscape painting. More than most contemporary painters, I seem to find more heat in the old embers  from painters like Cole and the Hudson River School. 

No one would mistake my paintings for that of an early19th century artist. My color and paint handling are fundamentally different. In their work one sees a remarkable and genuine investigation of how nature and her processes looked and felt to people in say 1840. 

Each generation sees reality slightly differently than those who have gone before. I feel a deep kinship with Cole and the Hudson River School painters as great-great grandfathers of what I am doing now. As they did in their time, my paintings are about how it feels to be alive in the world in 2013.  

Cole borrowed whatever tools and inspiration he could find from the painters who went before him. And the paintings he turned out depended on his predecessors but stood apart from them. 

Cole for example loved the 17th century landscape painter Claude (example above), yet in Cole's hands Claude's imagery and technique changed. It became something subtly different to fit the psychic needs of the early 19th century. I think Claude if he were to have looked down from Art Heaven and watched Cole working in his studio probably would have applauded. He'd think "there's a guy who's chewing on the same bone I did." And I'd like to think Cole might sit down on the heavenly cloud next to Mr. Claude and look down at me with a nod of approval.  I'm adding my personal 21st century chapter to the long chain of landscape painters. All of us have the same job, all of us have to achieve it a little differently. 

Given my fantasy about Art Heaven, it's appropriate to conclude with perhaps my all time favorite Thomas Cole, Expulsion: Moon and Firelight from around 1828. It's related to paintings by Cole and others of the story of the expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Dramatic as all hell, yet deftly painted with Cole's unmistakable sincerity and compelling visual storytelling.


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