Ernie McMullen in his class, Problems in Painting: Techniques, Skills, and Vision.Ernie McMullen in his class, Problems in Painting: Techniques, Skills, and Vision.Once, halfway through his Ceramics I course, Ernie McMullen was demonstrating how to throw a large pitcher. This is the hardest task imaginable for a beginner ceramist, as it requires raising a tall cylinder and shaping it to be both capacious and lightweight. Ernie’s apparent ease at raising and shaping the rotating vessel was met by the class with real awe. Afterwards, someone eagerly asked him what object had been most difficult to make during his career as a potter.

“Have you seen my paintings?” was Ernie’s reply. 

During his forty-two years at COA, Ernie McMullen has taught courses and tutorials in painting, life drawing, photography, two-dimensional design, calligraphy, and ceramics. As a painter, he specializes in hyper-realistic and classically composed takes on the local landscape, combining a luminist’s eye with the brush of an Italian calligrapher. He is also a piano tuner and amateur pianist, a tea enthusiast, and an occasional furniture maker. To this range of assiduously cultivated skills, Ernie brings a unity of approach that models for students invaluable transdisciplinary lessons.

His Problems in Painting course, for example, begins by familiarizing students with the raw materials they will be employing. When I took the course in winter 2008, we had a hand in the cutting, sealing, gessoing, and sanding of the panels we were to paint on. We were made aware of the precise history and qualities of the brushes and paints we were to employ—never student grade—and shown the correct way of handling them. A high sensitivity to craftsmanship permeated the entire course, and hinged together a history of pictorial composition, optical theory, and aesthetic appreciation.

Ernie McMullen assists Mackenzie Watson ’16 during one of his final classes, Problems in Painti...Ernie McMullen assists Mackenzie Watson ’16 during one of his final classes, Problems in Painting: Techniques, Skills, and Vision.In that class, as in his Life Drawing and Two-Dimensional Design courses, Ernie pushed students to depict things, places, or people in a recognizable, realistic way. He offered no formula, however, to accomplish this. As we all soon found out, nothing could have been more difficult.

Such seriousness could initially be off-putting to students expecting art courses to be downtime from the “harder” academic pursuits of marine science or climate politics, and confusing to those who only wanted to express emotion without going through the slog of attempting objectivity. Yet as the term advanced, the exhausting process of training eye and hand enabled students to better articulate their individual visions.

Alicia Hynes ’11 was an advisee, student, and teaching assistant of Ernie’s. “I saw students come to Ernie who were terrified of pencil and paper, who had enrolled simply to satisfy the registrar,” she says. “Throughout the course of ten weeks, Ernie would tenaciously transform these tentative students into artists, somehow drawing out of them talents, visual acuity, and creativity they perhaps did not know dwelled inside them.”

Of the many classes I took with Ernie, and for which I was also a teaching assistant, Life Drawing brought out the most visceral responses from students. Even on a good day, the sense of failure could be overwhelming, and Ernie would never spare a feeling, pointing out the many unconscious distortions we had just spent half an hour so carefully rendering. Yet in tackling our recurring weak spots, we developed individual, unique solutions, which were greatly encouraged. Drawing had become art-making, acquiring the significance, and the thrill, of a battle with the psyche.

“Looking back,” recalls Josh Winer ’91, now COA’s lecturer in photography, “I realize that what I learned in that 2-D course in terms of hand and eye skills was critically important for my future life. But so, too, was the confidence I gained in doing what I’d considered impossible. Yes, Ernie taught me to draw, but he also taught me so much more: he taught me to believe in my own talents, and that persistence pays off.”

The many skills Ernie has taught and cultivated offer students a direct, intuitive way of interacting with their material environment, and of finding their place within it. For some, it is in admiring the specific hue that Mount Desert Island takes on during a long summer sunset—and subsequently noting that even the best camera is never able to quite capture it. For others, it is the dribbling of mysterious glazes over earthenware mugs and being fascinated by the unreproducible results.

For me, it was Ernie’s exacting standards in painting that most shaped my understanding of the relationship between the arts and sciences. By his instruction and example I learned that drawing or painting with convincing realism demands fully conscious, subjective interpretation of the most challenging sort. His approach to art-making—always hands-on and inquisitive about the physical world itself—continues to shape my work as a painter. It is a true ethos for a lifetime of learning, dedication, and lasting joy.

Ernie McMullen retired this spring. He will now focus full-time on his painting.


Alonso Diaz Rickards ’12 is currently working on a series of paintings depicting the parks and urban life of Mexico City, where he grew up and spent part of 2014. His work can be seen at