A Painter’s Progress?

By Bill Doying
Alexandria, VA
January 27, 2010

“. . . the oceans of twaddle and humbug which constitute the main response of the Anglo-Saxon peoples to any form of artistic expression.”  Michael Innes (John Innes Mackintosh Stewart), One Man Show p.11 (Avon ed. 1959)

I’ve introduced this epigram not only because it captures – in delightful Scottish tones – my own jaundiced view of most published art criticism, but to warn the reader what to fear from my own writing on the subject:  Intellectual rigor may be out of reach – perhaps even that sort of intuitive validity that makes one nod in recognition.  But better twaddle than humbug, in my view.

One more introductory item to get out of the way:  The art world, which we watercolorists see as run by oil painters for their own aggrandizement, tends to use “painting” and “painter” to exclude anything other than oils and (what I’ve now decided to call) oilers.  My title for this piece is a deliberate extended digit in the face of that mediumist (another new word!) usage.  (If the “?” at the end of my title seems to belie the smugness these last sentences suggest, I respond that my self-esteem as a painter is in fact very measured.)

Those few members of ‘62 (so far as I can tell, a couple of old roommates) who read my 2006 submission to the website, called “Watercolors and the Recovering Lawyer” will find this a sequel of sorts.  It includes more recent paintings and brief notes on their origins, a few more opinions about the art world, and some institutional stuff relating to the Art League here in Alexandria, Virginia, and my involvement on its Board.  I can only hope some will find this interesting – fortunately, it won’t cost you much to find out (though time itself is becoming more precious, come to think of it!).

As I said three years ago, I didn’t take up watercolor until after my 2002 retirement.  I began with drawing and portrait classes, and I’ve been enrolled with one or another member of our watercolor faculty each quarter since then.  As a generalization, these teachers have been trying for the last several years to loosen my painting up a little.  My natural tendency is toward something a little downwind from strict realism, but still probably too closely tied to it.

As an aside, it seems implicit in the evaluation of art by those who spend some time with it that work is judged largely against what the artist seems to have intended, rather than against some universal model.  Hence, the viewer’s observation “my first-grade kid could do better than that” may not sting the artist quite as badly as it ought to:  he/she may sniff that it is meant as a naïve or ironic piece.  We’ve all seen the sort of thing that Picasso doodled on a piece of scratch paper or ceramic, now cosseted by some collector.  Truly it is sometimes said:  “Art is what you can get away with.”  More precisely, I think, it is what you can persuade some critic to support by firing up his/her confabulation machine.  In this regard, the more lacking the work is in identifiable content the more scope is left for critics to inflate it with their own breath, along with their reputation for insight.  I can think of a number of wonderful illustrations of this principle from the public press hereabouts, even in recent weeks, but will omit citation to protect the guilty.

( I’ll have to think about how my skepticism relates to an online video I saw a while back of an elephant wielding a paintbrush with its trunk, and producing, without a false stroke, a rather impressive likeness of . . . an elephant.  I forwarded it to one of my teachers with the thought that it was “disturbing on so many different levels!”)

In any case – I hope you enjoy digression as much as I do, unlikely as that seems – the painting below is probably my loosest effort to date, which is to say not very.  It shows another angle of a Charleston scene I included in the 2006 piece, at 27 State Street just below Queen (or, as the Charleston saying goes, “slightly north of Broad”).  (Coincidentally, it just won an honorable mention in a show last weekend, after a series of show rejections!)

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It’s a little “loose” in the sense that I started it by stroking in the frontal colors of the houses ranging south on State, and then confining them within their details.  But as the painting went on I got fussy with such details as the gate and the porch railing of number 27 (a small B&B, incidentally), so I wasn’t ready to declare this a personal breakthrough.  And even if I had I’d admit to backsliding.  For example, “Chartres at Dusk”:

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There’s a lot I like about this painting:  the play of artificial and natural light, the cloud treatment, the winter tracery of trees (reminding me of Hemingway’s winter image of Paris in A Moveable Feast:  “The trees were sculpture without their leaves, when you were reconciled to them . . .”).  But loose and free it isn’t.

Oh well.  Of course, the trick isn’t just to paint loosely.  You could stand back and fling paint at the paper like a bush-league Jackson Pollock – put aside whether  Pollock himself merited the praise he’s received; those who love him are entitled to – but my own goal is to paint so that simple strokes evoke complex realities for the viewer.

The next painting illustrates my point in a small way.  I’m talking about the treatment of the foreground waves, which might be called reductive, or summary. (I might have called it “impressionistic,” but that term carries some pretty heavy baggage!).  That is, I tried to convey the feeling of a modest sea state (about 15 knots worth, blowing over a modest fetch).  But I certainly haven’t tried to capture the enormous number of small and large facets and accompanying value and color changes that the original photograph depicts.  By comparison, though, I spent a lot of time capturing more literally the spray of the boat’s impact on a wave.  Are the two in the right balance?  I don’t know:  In general, though, I won’t attempt to capture every part of a painting with the same degree of detail and precision.  The painting tradition in which I’ve been schooled chooses a focus for the eye and concentrates detail there.  As one of my teachers is wont to ask, “What’s the painting’s name?”  While I’m talking about this painting, incidentally, I might as well admit that the clouds, the helmsman’s posture, and the backstay-tensioning tackle all seem a little unsatisfactory to me.

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I should probably have said this up front, before I started taking shots at art critics: What I’m striving for as a painter is just competence – and maybe a reputation for competence among people I paint with.  If I can ever achieve this over a range of techniques and subjects, I’ll be free to take on whatever scene or concept interests me, and perhaps take some pride and give some pleasure.  I have absolutely no thought – or hope! – of artistic fame or fortune – no interest in pursuing the novelty that seems the threshold requirement, even if I had a notable talent – so my doubts about the “serious” art world and its received critics really don’t stem from a sense of neglect.  Rather – is this my latent antitrust lawyer speaking? – I’m appalled by what seems its inefficiency as a market.

Divide art consumers into two groups, which really represent two extremes.  The first group buy art because they want to be able to look at it for a long time.  They “know what [they] like,” or simply know what colors will look good with the living room walls and the new sofa.  (In all honesty, we bought years ago an 1850-ish oban triptych of woodblock prints from “The Tale of Genji” largely because of a color match – but it’s a satisfying image, too!)  Such buyers’ task may seem simple, but their problem is one of search costs.  There’s almost certainly something else out there that would be a far happier choice, but it’s just too hard to find!  A lot of art is viewable online these days, to be sure, but even there it’s not searchable in any way that matches our inner criteria:  a certain size, a certain subject matter, certain colors, a certain skill level and price, a certain “look.”  (Candidly, our Art League School is constantly doing its best to make the problem worse:  at any given time we have some 5,000 art students enrolled.)  The consumer is largely left to cultivate a chance meeting with the painting of his or her dreams by dropping in on local shows and shops.

The second group, at its defining extreme, is comprised of those who seek art as a store of value, a social signifier, or both.  This group will often sublet its search problem, and its taste, to critics or dealers – themselves socially signified – but as a consequence are at the mercy of ever-evolving fashions in both artists and critics/dealers.  One hopes they will like their acquisitions enough to have that pleasure to fall back on if the critical tide ebbs.  See the early work of our Yale antecedent Tom Wolfe as it deals with the pursuit of art fads.

Well, opinions are what I have in lieu of expertise, so enough about the greater art world:    back to my own problems.  One of my most consistent problems is choosing a subject matter and treatment.  By the latter, I mean an aggregate of composition, color palette, range of light and dark values, level and concentration of detail, overall size, and so on.  In general, I’m repeatedly trying to decide if I can make a painting of these elements that will give people a reason to look at it – if I can make something interesting.  (Too often, the answer turns out to be, “not especially,” but I’ve gone ahead anyway!)

Sometimes I’ve settled for a subject that promises to have at least a local interest.  For example, these two scenes from Apalachicola, Florida, which has a fairly active local art market.  In the first, I took some liberties with the setting.  The boat actually sits in rank grass, and the architecture is less Hispanic; these departures evolved without any particular rationale as the painting progressed (or regressed!).

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The second is more literal; both are familiar local scenes.  (Their actual appeal to anyone down there other than my critically generous brother-in-law has not been tested to date.  I’ll have to try to sneak them into his photo gallery.)  Incidentally, no one I’ve talked to seems to know where the vessel Venezellos came from, though there is a local family of Venezuelan restaurateurs.  As to Dolores’s Sweet Shoppe, she makes a good tuna salad sandwich, and a seductive carrot-cake cupcake.  The reference photo was taken around Christmas, which explains the strings of lights around the windows.

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Probably more reliable than locale is genre appeal, and for better or worse I’ve fallen into the habit of maritime art, both cause and effect of my membership in the American Society of Marine Artists.  I could very easily be its least skilled member, and I am not being modest, but I enjoy the company of my betters!  The Society’s 14th National Exhibition has just completed a year-and-a-half tour of five museums in as many states; many of the members are serious professionals.  (If you’re interested, see www.americansocietyofmarineartists.com.)  I took an unsuccessful shot at the show, with the painting below, which later was admitted to a statewide juried show of the Virginia Watercolor Society:

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I call it “Anchored Out Aboard Panther off Hawksbill Cay,” or whatever part of that the entry form has room for.  It was the last night of a cruise of the Exumas.  We were laying out what was left in the fridge on the cockpit table, and I noticed the sun shining through the single-layer part of the ensign on the stern.  I liked the richness of the color and value contrasts, and the reflections off the water, the rubber dinghy, and the man-overboard kit on the stern pulpit.  Honestly, it looks better as a digital image than as a paper painting, but I still like it best of what I’ve done.  Of course at some point you may like a painting too much, and feel let down if someone wants to buy – though my own risk of inadvertent sales has not become too worrisome yet.

One that did surprise me by selling was the only marsh scene I’ve done so far.  This may sound too specialized to be a one-word category, but in fact it’s a major genre in the Low Country around Charleston and Savannah, and pretty prevalent in our own Chesapeake region too.  It’s saved from over-repetitiveness – as a genre – by the range of moods and lights and seasons that it offers, as well as the range of ways artists may find to portray them.

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What was interesting to me in terms of technique, on this painting, was my first (successful) use of Aquapasto, which is just a thickener for the paint that allows you to lay down a lighter color, apply a thickened darker color on top of it, then scrape lines of various widths and shapes in the dark color that let the lighter show through, here in order to get a better marsh grass effect.  This addresses the problem of so-called transparent watercolor that paint must generally be applied dark on top of light, else the dark shows through the light.  You can paint dark background around light blades of grass, but that gets pretty tedious, and the blades may not look very bladey.  Aquapasto allows more spontaneity, and if you don’t like the first result stays wet long enough to spread it back and start over.  Reminds me a little of the fun of fingerpainting and – I hate to say it – even suggests that oil painting could have its pleasures.

I still do a few miniatures each year – 3 inches by 4 or so – and the marine influence has crept in there, too.  Here is one of an old sailing yacht that seems to be kept as a museum piece in the Cutts & Case boat shed in Oxford, Maryland.  To look at it, you’d say it’s undergoing a refit, but over a couple of years I have seen no progress.  In a way, it’s more beautiful with some of its bones revealed.  (You’ll note that this painting shows a little more roughness than some of the others – a consequence of blowing up a tiny painting to the same size as the 16 by 20s.)

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My two most recent paintings are both maritime, and both had their origin in the settings of ASMA annual meetings.  The scalloper Sancor was in New Bedford harbor, tied up alongside, when a group of us from this year’s meeting took a tour on the launch Acushnet.  I “moved” it out to sea, placing it in a light fogbank that I photographed from the Martha’s Vineyard Fast Ferry two days later.  I wanted to capture a vaguely ominous mood that suggests the risks these seamen take for the sake of their living.  (If you doubt these risks, I’ll refer you to the list of lost sailors posted in the Seamen’s Bethel up the hill from the harbor.)  Normal composition would suggest some secondary focus in the lower right of the image, probably a sea buoy, but I wanted the boat to be headed into a void, without the comfort of such aids to navigation.  In the back of my mind was an image from “The Perfect Storm,” of the Andrea Gail sailing into still-tranquil waters.

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The general appearance of the Sancor is fairly typical of the fleet:  the aft quarter or so of its topsides, and its working gear, are reduced to rust by the wear and tear of the fishery.

The last painting is actually based on an earlier ASMA-related trip – on the Cape May – Lewes Ferry.  Several sister ships ply this route, but I’ve shown the New Jersey, or rather its pilot house.  The original intent of the painting was just to do a study from a photograph with strong shadows, superimposing that pattern over some random splashes of wet-in-wet color (color applied into a wet background, which gives it soft edges).  As it developed, I decided to include more hard-edged detail, and gradually found the painting assuming a vaguely Hopperish cast:

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I promised something more about our Art League, so I’ll make it a (non-profit) commercial.  The League, which usually consists of about a thousand members in Northern Virginia, the District, and nearby Maryland, had its origins in the ‘60s, and has come to comprise a gallery with monthly juried shows, a school as already alluded to (with over a hundred faculty and nearly two hundred offerings), a supply store, and outreach programs for at-risk children.  We on the Board have had our scares in the economy of the last two years, and are still imperiled by the lapsing of government grant programs, but are surviving rather better than could be expected.  To anyone within its reach, I highly commend it.  At least come by the Torpedo Factory on the Alexandria waterfront and see our current show!

Bill’s email: cwdoying@aol.com

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  • Steve Buck February 28, 2010 at 9:23 am

    Bill. Read you article with great interest. Really like the looseness and colors of the Charleston scene.

    My wife Hala has been doing watercolors since the 70’s and had many shows at our various posts abroad. You remind us that we have never taken any digital photos of her paintings. When we do, will share some. In the meantime, keep up the good work.

    Best,

    Steve Buck

  • Al Chambers February 1, 2010 at 4:40 pm

    Bill,

    I have so enjoyed following your painting hobby on the web site and talking about it with you when we have been in the same place. I enjoyed your descriptions and explanation of hyour motivations. I see your style and sea-going interest growing and changing. Neat also that you now have found a kindred classmate in Norman Allen’s comment above.

    Al

  • Normand Allen January 27, 2010 at 9:44 pm

    Bill I also do watercolors. My paintings are in the Wayne Chambers Art Gallery at 7 York Street Savannah,Ga. I have taken lessons from Wayne for two years. Wayne has been painting for forty years and he is a good teacher. He moved to Savannah from Richmond Va. Watercolor painting has added much pleasure to my retirement. Occasionally, a painting gets sold. That is a real thrill. When i started watercolors, I never would have dreamed that I could sell a painting.