“Paint in verbs, not in nouns. Don’t paint it, paint it doing something.”

-Charles H. Woodbury

Charles Herbert Woodbury founded a hugely successful and innovative school for painting in the small fishing town of Ogunquit, Maine during much of the first half of the 20th century. Thousands of students learned at his elbow how to paint directly, en plein air and from life, beginning in the late 1800s and leading right up to the early 1940s.

Woodbury told his students not to just paint a thing but to “paint it doing something,” because for him painting was not about accuracy, fidelity to nature, or freezing a moment in time.  In his published teaching notes, Woodbury wrote the following:

“Nine people out of ten assume that a picture is a direct imitation and that the painter has nothing to do but copy as best he can. This is fundamentally wrong, for if it were possible to reproduce nature exactly, the result would be at best only a lifeless counterfeit.”

Evening by Charles Herbert Woodbury, 1910, oil on canvas, 20 x 27 inches

Why would it be lifeless? Because perception is tricky. Woodbury felt there’s more than one way to see a thing, and that seeing always involves not the just the eye but the mind and emotions as well. Nature “is always an indeterminate thing – it depends on us,” he wrote.

It falls on artists, he thought, not to imitate but to interpret nature, and therefore we’re free – no obligated – to make nature as interesting to others as it is to us. Don’t just paint a rocky ledge, he’d probably say, paint it like the rocks are heaving themselves right up out of the earth (as in Evening, above)

Don’t just paint a sunset, paint the sun going down. Don’t just paint the ocean, paint jewel-like waves in motion lit by the sun and whipped by the wind. What matters, he’d say, isn’t so much what you’re looking at but what you can do with it – how much feeling and life you can invest it with.

Charles H. Woodbury, The Breaker, 36 1/4 x 40in, 1899

“A picture is a thought or feeling expressed in terms of Nature,” Woodbury said. “The method is a matter of the moment….Clear sight, clear thought, clear expression; the thought should depend on the sight, and the expression on the thought.”

Woodbury with students in Ogunquit. The building is his studio; it still stands, perched on the same bluff overlooking the sea. It’s now a private home.

“The actual manipulation of the brush is a skilful matter, and yet it requires more intelligence than manual dexterity. Art is psychology, not science, and there must ever be one unknown factor, the personal equation. You must know what you see, why you see, and what is worth seeing.”

London Protestors Glue Themselves to Constable Masterpiece

Climate activists have staged protests at art museums and galleries across London and Great Britain in recent days to bring attention to Britain’s ongoing funding of new fossil fuel production. On Tuesday, July 5, two protestors glued their hands to the frame of John Constable’s 200-year-old painting The Haywain. One of the most famous landscapes of all time, The Haywain epitomizes Constable’s Romantic depiction of “simpler times” amid the rugged beauty of the unspoiled England countryside.

Constable’s The Haywain (left) and the “reimagined” version (right) to which Just Stop Oil activists glued themselves in protest of Britain’s support for new fossil fuel licensing and production.

The protestors say they are calling “for the government to end new oil and gas [extraction] and for art institutions to join them in civil resistance.”

The activists, associated with a group called Just Stop Oil, covered over the Constable with strips of paper showing a new “nightmare” version of the painting. Just Stop Oil said in a statement:

“The reimagined version carries a nightmare scene that demonstrates how oil will destroy our countryside. The river has gone, to be replaced by a road, airplanes fill the sky, pollution belches from cities on the horizon, trees are scorched by wildfires, an old car is dumped in front of the Mill and the famous Hay Wain cart carries an old washing machine.”