The Fox and the Grapes

Fox and grapes

What Aesop did not say – fallen grapes are quite tasty.

The back story:

When Clayton designed our house, he wanted a lot of light, which of course meant a lot of window space.  At the same time, he didn’t want to waste energy cooling a house that was being heated by the summer sun.

Having an engineering type of mind, Clayton measured the angle of the sun in the summer, and decided to plant grapes which could be trained up a pergola which would be constructed on the south and west sides of large plate glass windows.  This way, the fully grown summer grape leaves would provide shade from the top of (and spilling over the edge of) the pergola.  In winter, the grapes leaves have died back and the sun pleasantly warms the room.

What Clayton didn’t anticipate was all the animals which would appreciate the sweet grapes: birds, especially catbirds, raccoons and possums (which have climbed up the grapevines, sometimes with their babies in tow) and now, apparently, teenage foxes.

Why is creating a painting like going to the grocery store?

There are options on how to shop for food, just as there are on how to create a painting. When shopping   A) One can just go grocery shopping and buy what strikes one’s interest once there. B) One can write a shopping list before going shopping, and then zoom all over the store looking for those items. C) One can write the list according to the layout of the store and pick up the listed items in an orderly fashion. D) One can make the list knowing the store layout, and still deviate from the list as inspiration strikes.

In painting, as in grocery shopping, planning and inspiration combined can produce the most interesting results.

First Poppy of the Year

A solitary bit of red. This reminds me of the rivalry between John Constable and J.M.W. Turner in the early 1800’s.  The rivalry broke into very public view at the Summer Exposition of the Royal Academy in 1832.  Their entries to the show were hung next to each other (in this post, Constable’s Opening of the Waterloo Bridge is above Turner’s Helvoetsluys), setting up a direct comparison in style and technique.  At the last minute (on Varnishing Day, when artists are allowed to make adjustments to their already hung work), Turner took it one step further; he added the red buoy to his seascape, thus overwhelming all the red on Constable’s canvas.

I have always though the single red buoy greatly improved Turner’s painting, even if it was done to needle Constable.

A Camellia in the Artist’s Garden

Camellia japonica

We teeter on the edge of how far north Camellia japonica can be a successful indulgence. The best possible location we have for growing camellias is in the micro-environment of our walled-in Japanese garden.  Nature, however, was not so sure.  For a number of years we battled back, nurturing the camellia along, pruning out the winter kill, hoping for a better result next year. Then this spring – zap! I turned the corner in the garden one day and there it was – in full bloom. The camellia seemed to think it had been sojourning in Georgia or at least North Carolina for all its boastfulness. My thought was, nice try, but I am sure the mild winter deserves the credit. It is similar to the color in a painting trying to claim the glory, whereas tonal value is really doing the heavy lifting.

Turner at the Mystic Seaport Museum

Venice: San Giorgio Maggiore – Early Morning,” 1819

At the Mystic Seaport Museum are some 90 of Turner’s watercolors from the Tate in London. Chronologically, the paintings run from the mid 1790’s to the 1840’s. Given the chronological span of the show, it seemed a great opportunity to see how his style evolved over the years.

While I didn’t see what I expected, I found this a rare chance to study Turner’s technique. The show starts in the mid 1790’s with very realistic watercolors which would be instantly recognizable as British, from the late 1700’s. Turner soon evolved into a looser style, painting mostly landscapes or seascapes. Once he hit his stride, he really didn’t change very much. In fact there two paintings 30 years apart which are virtually identical, except for their size. Throughout, he used only three colors – blue, red, yellow – and did not mix them, relying on tonality for strength.

Compositionally, he stuck with a limited number of formulas.  Landscapes were mostly composed of tonal wedges used to create a sense of depth. A sprinkling of vertical masses, as in canyons or alleys, appeared occasionally. A sweeping half circle reminiscent of the letter C or its mirror image was used compositionally in both land and seascapes. *(See below.) Seascapes also made use of a horizontal composition. Whatever the composition, tonality was always a touch stone.

I should mention here an under-appreciated aspect of Turner – he derived a steady income as an illustrator. Only a few of his watercolor illustrations made the show. They have a strong connection compositionally and tonally with the larger paintings in the show. The difference in the illustrations is their size (book sized) and having some real, linear detail worked in. I was left wondering whether his work as an illustrator gave him such a commanding sense of tonality. Remember the adage – color gets the credit but tone does that work. Engraved illustrations were printed with the same black ink as the type in the book, so tonality was of the utmost importance.

Although I did not find the stylist progression I had expected, this extensive selection brought home both Turner’s mastery of tone and his limited, but strong use of color. The connection between the watercolors shown and the great canvases that spring to mind when we think of Turner is threefold – tonality, limited, but clear color, and thin washes of those colors.


A Hound’s Feet


A comment on a recent Facebook post reminded Clayton about the sculpture he did of Ben Hardaway. Happy Thought was Ben’s favorite horse at the time, however, Ben thought that he looked a little big for her. Instead, Ben chose to be on Rhythm for the sculpture Clayton did with five of his favorite hounds.

While Clayton was working on the hound part of the sculpture he had a conversation with Ben about hounds’ feet. Clayton commented on my preference for a hound with a foot more like that of a fox or greyhound. He felt their longer foot seemed better suited to loping and running, than the more cat-footed hound preferred by so many huntsmen.  Ben, who must have had north of 60 couples at the time, pulled from the kennel a hound which was very nondescript in every way except its feet. He declared the hound had the best feet in the pack.  A fox or a greyhound would have been proud.


Animals’ Encounters with Sculptures

Clayton installed his bronze sculpture, Great Blue, in October.  Within two weeks the family spotted another heron nearby.  The live heron seems to like its new friend – no threat – just another presence at the pond.

We are intrigued by how live animals of the same species respond to Clayton’s sculptures.  Dogs sniffing the rear ends of  A Couple of Hounds, horses stopping stock still when they realize the Equestrienne is in front of them and not moving, and the list goes on.  Herons aren’t particularly social until mating season, and by now the live heron would have recognized this sculpture wasn’t moving, but seems to be happy to have an inert friend.

A group show of mutual admirers

Four outstanding artists who have been friends for years and who have deep respect for each other decide to get together.  What could be a better show than that!  Clayton and Doug have collaborated on furniture numerous times.  Clayton gave his wife Starr a set of Pat’s ceramic bowls for Christmas one year and they have been in constant use since then.  Starr has purchased numerous pieces of Courtney’s jewelry over time and often citing, “It’s not just a bird; it’s a Carolina Wren!”

This will be a show for all people of various tastes.  We hope to see you at Kinloch Woodworking on the evening of Friday the 18th or Saturday the 19th.


Jamie Wyeth’s paintings of Phyllis –A Review

    Phyllis Mills Wyeth: A Celebration at the Brandywine River Museum is a personal memorial to a long and close relationship. The paintings in this show demonstrate Jamie Wyeth’s command of portraiture, be it human, canine, equine or fowl, as well as his dexterity with paint.

What I find most intriguing about Jamie’s paintings is the amount of information that he can leave out without harming the purpose of the painting. At times he can be so parsimonious with his paint you would think he was a chef holding back on the salt, allowing the ingredients to speak for themselves. However, as Stealing Holly from the Irénées proves, if he needs the paint he is not afraid to use it.

Editing to clarify is not just the preserve of the publishing industry. It has a long history in the visual arts as well – Chinese sumi-e paintings and more recent Japanese wood block prints are good examples.  I have always believed their visual editing was the reason for these Asian arts popularity in the West during the late 19th century. They were a refreshment for the senses compared to that period’s academic glitter.

Back to Jamie’s portraits; spend some with them. Thirty minutes to an hour out of your year won’t be missed but the gain will be lasting. Don’t just look at them, look into them.

Stealing Holly from the Irénées


Turner and Constable: The Inhabited Landscape at The Clark Art Institute


I never know what part of a show is going to resonate with me. In this case it was not really the show itself but a comparison between Turner’s painting, Rockets and Blue Lights, which is in the show and several Winslow Homer paintings in the museum’s permanent collection. The paintings are all ocean scenes with waves crashing on a beach.

As an artist who has always appreciated Homer, I was surprised how flat and stylized his waves are when compared with Turner’s energy packed monsters. Turner’s personalized painting style, despite looking very chaotic at first glance, really does convey the strength of nature. The more I investigated the Turner painting, the more powerful it became. Turner really gets to the soul of nature, whereas Homer is showing us what it looks like.

The show itself had quite a few Constable oil studies as well as drawings, all of which were worth seeing. Turner was not as well represented. Most numerous were his small, tight, watercolors done as illustrations for various publications – not at all what one thinks of in connection with Turner, but I always appreciate being reminded of all someone’s facets. Rockets and Blue Lights was Turner’s only large canvas.

There were two other, smaller, oil paintings. One was a beach scene in Turner’s exuberant style, while the other, a bridge, was in his tight illustration style. These two show the advantage of learning a skill and then applying it where one wants. The show included numerous watercolors that were not in his tight, illustration style, but none that gave off much in the way of energy.

Rockets and Blue Lights rewarded me for taking the time to stand in front of it. No ocean ever looked like what Turner painted, however, it did feel like nature displaying all its might. In the painting Turner’s figures are, both literally and figuratively, almost engulfed by the raging sea. The primary function of figures in a landscape painting is to give scale and Turner’s figures are a prime example of this.

What Do Farmers & Artists Have in Common?


What do a farmer and an artist have in common?

Despite the appearance of an idyllic life, we both put in long and strange hours. Yesterday at 4:30 a.m., I left for The Clark Art Institute in Massachusetts to catch their show Turner and Constable: The Inhabited Landscape. (More on that in another post.) This morning, our neighbor, Jamie, started out at the same hour to spread chicken manure on our hay field.

Jamie grows organic grain for an organic chicken farm from which he collects the manure for spreading on the fields to keep them productive. The spreading had to be finished before the field started to thaw in morning sun and we were expecting the first of a number of warm days. Once the field starts to thaw, the hillsides become too slippery for the tractor.

The hay from the field goes to mushroom growers who compost it into growing medium for mushrooms. We use spent mushroom soil to mulch our gardens, both flower and vegetable.

Such are the products of our neighborhood and the cycle of their production. Lucky are we who do what we enjoy, despite the sometimes strange hours.