Sunday, May 31, 2009

Check Out Cloquet

The Moose Lodge in Cloquet, Minnesota

Close-up of one of the paintings on the front of the Moose Lodge building.
Yesterday I found myself in Cloquet, Minnesota. Cloquet is a small town in northern Minnesota, just southwest of Duluth. It is best known for being the hometown of Jessica Lang, the home of a rather smelly paper mill and the location of the famous Frank Lloyd Wright gas station.
We usually whiz right past this town on Interstate Highway 35 on our way to the cabin in Grand Marais. No reason to stop. Yesterday, Cloquet was my destination. I needed to be there in the early afternoon to mark the death of a young cousin.
While looking for the funeral home I passed an interesting old building with a large red "Moose" sign hanging on its corner. I have heard of that fraternal organization but know nothing about it. Most often in sorts of jokes. The kind of jokes that conjure up images of the Red Green show on pubic television where men meet at Possum Lodge and celebrate the many ways to use duct-tape. But now I want to learn more. Looking at the well kept and carefully decorated building made me think that some serious work was being done by people who went there.
What caught my attention were several wonderful paintings on the front of the building. All celebrated community, families working together, camaraderie and (am I reading too much into them?) respect for the other creatures on the earth. A beautiful flowering crab blocks the view of the biggest painting but you can still see the linking of a moose antler with a human hand. I wonder what the symbolism means?
The paintings are wonderful. I suppose many would consider them folk art and dismiss them or simply see them as quaint. I see them as typical of the enthusiasm to make one's city better that you see in Minnesota. If you are near Cloquet, drive down to the main street (aptly named Cloquet Avenue) and check it out. And go two blocks west to the famous Frank Lloyd Wright gas station and fill up.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Sap Green and the Ubiquitous Shrub

A page from my journal showing drawings of buckthorn.
Here's a factoid in the category of "Who knew?" The original base for the color Sap Green is the buckthorn berry! This strange fact appeared in one of color-expert Michael Wilcox's books, The Artist's Guide to Selecting Colors.
Somehow this struck me as a rather amusing anecdote. I learned as a young watercolor painter that Sap Green was a color that was well avoided because it was fugitive. For you non-painters that means the color you painted will fade away if not disappear. Early in one's painting life the tendency is to collect lots of colors premixed in tubes in the hopes that having just the right supplies (preferably lots of them) will result in wonderful paintings. Sap Green is out there giving the siren call along with myriad other colors. Alas, it is "brush time" that gets you the results you are after. But that is a discussion for another day.
So, what is amusing about Sap Green coming from the buckthorn berry? It is because the buckthorn bush will not go away! Anyone who knows anything about buckthorn would wish it to be fugitive. Such irony.
Imported as an ornamental plant, often sold for use as hedge material, the buckthorn has become a full fledged invasive pest. The stuff is everywhere. The drawing above was done this morning right off my deck. Years of mowing, pulling, and poisoning have not kept it from our property. I have watched the beautiful oak savannah across the street from our house be invaded by buckthorn in the 25 years we have lived here. The stuff is nasty--it even has thorns. Worse, it is among the first to green up and the last to loose its leaves so you see it as a low (1 to 6 foot) green haze in the spring and fall.
According to Wilcox, Sap Green was originally made without a binder. The juice was sticky enough on its own. After it thickened it was kept in an animal bladder ready for the lucky painter. Wilcox notes that there are a few Sap Greens that are now more permanent, however he says it is, "usually a disastrous substance well worth avoiding. Such dull greens can easily be mixed from Ultramarine Blue and Cadmium Yellow Light, perhaps with a touch of violet-red." (p. 82)
I agree. Mix your own dull olive Sap Green color. And get rid of your buckthorn hedge if you have one.

Saturday, May 9, 2009


Here is a drawing I did in 2004 of a daffodil. It was back when lots of botanical drawings filled my sketchbooks.

No matter what the weather is like at this time of the year, seeing the blast of yellow made by a garden full of daffodils at least makes it seem like the sun is shinning. And today, especially after the wind came out and the clouds rolled in, the daffodils by my front door were a sunny sight.

Today dawned sunny but brisk (47 degrees Farenheit) for the annual Governor's Fishing Opener. It was a history-setting day in Minnesota because, instead of being at a northern lake, The Opener was right here, for the first time ever, in the metropolitan area of the Twin Cities. And, wonder of wonders, of all the lakes in the metro area, it was right here in my home town of White Bear Lake. What's the big deal? Fishing is big stuff in Minnesota and the walleye (our state fish!) brings in welcome tourist dollars to our fair state. Besides, it gives the Governor a chance to flee the Capitol during the end-of-the-legislative-session defugilties about the state budget.

I'm not a fisherman and will probably never be one. Instead I go along with my fly-fishing husband and paint and draw while he casts his line. The bonus for me is to go to all the gorgeous places where the fish hang out. We don't eat the trout he catches--those are carefully set back in the water. A true catch-and-release-trout man, he even kisses the first one of the season before he puts it back. True confessions here: He also fishes for my favorite fish, walleye. Those he brings home. Those we eat. (Another bonus.)

I digress from "Yellow." But the Fishing Opener reminded me that I was glad I was not on the lake today--too cold. Instead I enjoyed the daffodils.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Light on the Water

"Hungry Horse Evening," pastel, 6 1/2 " x 17 1/2."

A few weeks ago I was asked to give a talk on the subject of drawing and painting the landscape. The audience was a group of journalers who meet regularly at The Minnesota Center for Book Arts. The talk was to encourage the members who did not often (or ever) use the landscape as subject matter in their journals to give landscapes a try.

The subject of landscape painting is, appropriately, huge. But I needed to boil it down to something manageable in the time I had. After much thought about how it is that I do what I do when out plein air painting I came to the conclusion that my talk to could be summarized in one word: "Simplify."

For me it is a matter of getting down the basic masses and their values. Seems fairly simple to me now, but it wasn't always so. I think it has just taken years of looking and analyzing. And lots and lots of drawing. That said, I had to give them some other practical hints to take home.

I started to reflect on how it is that our preconceived notions sometimes get in the way of seeing. And I remembered the old problem most people have when they draw a face: the eyes are usually drawn way too high on the head resulting in a tiny forehead and a funny looking drawing that does not look like a person. We learn eventually to trust the classic diagram of a head based on actual measurements that shows the correct placement of the eyes to be smack dab in the middle of the face. The other parts of the face like the nose and mouth, distance between the eyes, placement of the ears, et cetera, really are where they are because we can measure them. Once we have measured the distance between features that usually calms down the part of our brain that is yelling at us to say "The eyes are too important. They must be higher on the face than half-way between the chin and the top of the head!"

So, I wondered, if there was an analogy that would help describe something about the landscape. Probably not since there are always some exceptions to the "rule." However there is a sort of rule-of-thumb useful for general lighting conditions from the famous artist/teacher John F. Carlson, author of Carlson's Guide to Landscape Painting. First published in 1929 it is now available from Dover Publications, In it he describes his Theory of Angles.

Carlson believes that "the prime cause of the big light-and-dark relations in a landscape is the angle which such masses present to the source of light (the sky)." In a nutshell Carlson points out that there are four basic planes in a landscape: the ground or flat-lying plane, the vertical plane of the trees, the slanting plane of the hills or mountains and the arch of the sky which is the source of light. "Our landscapes' prime elements--tree, ground, mountains, etc--receive light from the sky differing degrees of light depending on their plane...." p. 33. The result is that the sky is the lightest element, the ground the second lightest, the upright trees the darkest and the mountains/hills the lighter than the trees and darker than the ground plane. (With some exceptions, for example, when the ground is covered by snow it will be lighter than the sky except for the part of the sky near the sun.)

The audience seemed to understand that. And then one of the audience asked me a question about light on the water.

Hmmm. A good part of my life has been spent staring at water or thinking about how light hits the water. In particular the great expanse of Lake Superior. I have, for hours, stared at, drawn, painted and studied the way light changes the look of the water. When she asked me how The Theory of Angles applied to water I could only think of the number of times I had seen it darker than the sky and then of the times it was lighter than the sky--or both at the same time.

(Below is a gouache painting I did one summer while looking out over Lake Superior. Here the water is darker than the sky, but the same scene on a cloudless day might look any number of different ways. In some cases the water would be the same value as the sky to the point that it is impossible to see the horizon. The painting, Hungry Horse Evening, at the beginning of today's entry, illustrates the "rule" that the ground plane--in this case the water--is darker in value than the sky.)

Untitled, gouache, 4" x 6."

As I drove home I realized having a set rule for how light behaves on water was one of those times as Carlson says, "If the student will once recognize the general and everyday value-differences in anything, he can easily see for himself any incidental departure from this common condition. He will in time despise any 'rule' concerning painting." p. 42.

So, in the case of water, look. Then trust your eyes.