Paint Schoodic

Join Carol L. Douglas at beautiful Acadia National Park, August 6-11, 2017. More details here!

Friday, June 23, 2017

The world's friendliest people

In anticipation of Canada Day, let me tell you a story about our kind-hearted, open-handed neighbors.

Wreck of the SS Ethie (Newfoundland), by Carol L. Douglas
Newfoundland was the greatest surprise of my Trans-Canada trip. It looks like the Scottish Highlands. That isn’t too surprising, since John Cabot reportedly sailed just 1800 miles west of Ireland to discover it. In geographical terms, that’s next-door-neighborly.

It’s a massive island, and it’s empty; fewer than a half-million people call it home. Other than St. John’s, there’s not a single municipality with more than 25,000 people. Most Newfoundlanders live in small fishing villages strung along the coastlines.

About 300 KM west of St. John’s is the small town of Gander. It’s mainly notable for having gas and a Tim Hortons right on the Trans-Canada. Considering the fantastic landscape all around it, it’s not a place a painter would tarry.

Fog flowing down the mountains near Port-aux-Basques, Newfoundland
Gander exists because of the grandiosely-named Gander International Airport. This was built in 1936, when trans-Atlantic flight was first developing. It’s the easternmost flat point on the North American continent, so it became the fueling point for planes traveling to and from Europe. 

On January 11, 1938, Captain Douglas Fraser made the first recorded landing in a single-engine biplane, a de Havilland Fox Moth VO-ADE.

The town reached its peak during the Second World War, when about 10,000 Allied airmen were billeted there. It was a refueling post for the Royal Air Force’s Air Ferry, which brought American- and Canadian-built planes from North America to Britain. In 1940, it was the largest airport on the planet.

Airman and Infantrymen at RCAF Station, Gander, 1943, Courtesy of Library and Archives Canada 
Eventually jets got big enough to leave from New York or Toronto without refueling, and Gander became just another boom town gone bust.

Until September 11, 2001. Less than an hour after the planes hit the Twin Towers, North American airspace was closed. That left flights in limbo over the North Atlantic. 38 civilian and 4 military flights were ordered to land at Gander. They held more than 6,600 people—two thirds of the population of Gander—and they wouldn’t be going anywhere for a week.

There was only one Customs Officer assigned to Gander. All he knew was that planes had attacked New York and the Pentagon, and we might be at war. He had to vet all those people before letting them loose in Canada. He drafted a planeload of American soldiers to help.

Under a milky sky (Hare Bay, Newfoundland), by Carol L. Douglas
Some passengers were on their planes for 30 hours waiting to be processed. Their only source of news was cell phones. When they finally disembarked, they were not allowed to carry any personal luggage; they left with the clothes on their backs.

Gander has 500 hotel rooms. These were allotted to plane personnel, with the idea that they needed to be rested and ready. That still left more than 6,000 people with no place to go.

Newfoundland and Labrador is the poorest province in Canada, but Gander’s churches, schools, shelters and private homes took in people. The remainder were transported to surrounding towns. Local bus drivers had been on strike, but they put down their picket signs and drove passengers to their destinations.

Cape Spear Road (Newfoundland), by Carol L. Douglas
There wasn’t enough food, bedding, diapers, or formula available for purchase. Citizens opened their own pantries instead. They supplied meals, deodorant, soap, blankets, spare underwear, hot showers and washing machines. The phone company set up phone banks and temporary cable and internet. Citizens even provided entertainment, including whale-watching tours.

Six days later, when airspace was finally opened up, all 6,600 passengers were delivered to the airport on time. Not one person missed a flight.

Canada Day is July 1. This year they are celebrating their Sesquicentennial. We couldn’t ask for better neighbors.

POSTSCRIPT: Michael Fuller of Parrsboro Creative just told me there's a Broadway musical about these events, called Come from Away. New York readers should check it out!

Thursday, June 22, 2017

What went wrong?

Photoshop is a great tool for figuring out how to fix a painting.

Surf at Marshall Point, by Carol L. Douglas
Yesterday I painted at Marshall Point. I was with Barbara Carr, who comes to Camden just once a year. My intention wasn’t to create a masterpiece, but to spend a few hours painting with a friend.

Marshall Point has a beautiful lighthouse, which made a cameo appearance in the movie Forrest Gump. As lovely as it is, I never paint it. I’m always mesmerized by the surf and the light on the sea.

My sketch for the above.
Barbara is an experienced painter, with a BFA from Massachusetts College of Art and a lot of years of practice under her belt. Still, I must be very tired. I’m usually a fast painter, but she finished two fine paintings in the time I painted one.

Our tides may not be Bay of Fundy class, but we still have high and strong tides here in mid-coast Maine. That means the rocks are uncovered fast in an ebb tide and covered equally quickly in a flood tide. The only answer to this is to draw fast and then use other rocks to fill in the details. In general, this strategy allows a lot of latitude for design, providing the artist is fully awake.

Lightening the foreground rocks did not help.
I liked what I did well enough when we were on site, but was ambivalent when I got it home. Comparing it to my sketch, I noticed two things. I had centered the large rock slightly compared to my original composition. The foreground in my sketch was darker than I’d originally proposed.

Adobe Photoshop or a similar graphics editor can be a useful tool for pondering possible revisions. I lightened the foreground rocks to see if that would help. That left a dark rock sitting in a sea of blue—factually true, but hardly interesting.

Cropping helped a little, but not enough to redeem the painting.
Generally, plein air painters use prepared boards in standard sizes. That means we’re at the mercy of canvas and frame makers in determining our aspect ratio.  (The alternative, customizing both frames and boards, is just too much work.) “Aspect ratio” just means the proportional relationship between the canvas’ width and height.  A 9X12 canvas, for example, has an aspect ratio of 3:4, making it exactly the same shape as a 12X16 canvas.

Of course, the sketch in my sketchbook is often a very different aspect ratio. If I’m not careful—and I wasn’t—I can relocate things to where they don’t belong when I transfer my idea to a larger board.

Common canvas shapes.
I cropped my image to see if moving the rock more to the right would help. Again, I don’t think it made much difference.

The real issues are more fundamental: the rocks and the waves are resolutely parallel to the picture frame, and all the action is below the mid-line. Another rock, middle-right, will do this painting a world of good. So will tightening up the edges of the waves. Those are easy fixes. I can do them in my sleep, and possibly will.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Mixed-up Media

Watercolor doesn’t get the respect it deserves in the United States.

Lake of Albano and Castel Gandolfo at sunset, c. 1777, watercolor, by John Robert Cozens
This Spring has given rise to a standing joke among my students. It’s been wet all spring, but it seems like Mother Nature cries especially hard every Tuesday. Because of this, I’m loath to go too far afield, even though there are delectable painting sites all around us. When the water starts spattering from the sky, it’s hard on everyone, but most particularly the watercolorists.

I noticed more watercolor painters at the Parrsboro International Plein Air Festival than at similar shows in the US. That might be because the admissions juror, Bill Rogers, is a watercolorist himself, or it might be an extension of the British love of watercolor.

Jennifer had her watercolor sketches out to show me when the wind picked up...
Although watercolor goes back to antiquity, the English developed the western tradition of watercolor plein air painting in the eighteenth century. This was driven by the desire of the upper-class to document the Grand Tour, which was a kind of intellectual finishing school for the uber-wealthy. The sons and daughters of the nobility and wealthiest self-made men were trundled off to Italy and Greece in the company of chaperones. There, they looked at and bought beautiful art, practiced their language skills, and mingled with other people exactly like themselves.

The only major difference between then and now was that they didn’t have cell phones with which to take selfies holding up the Leaning Tower of Pisa. This sad lack created a market for travel books to be sold as souvenirs. Artists were dispatched to created what were then called ‘topographical drawings.’

...and flipped Roger's palette into her paintings.
Tourists also enjoyed sketching the landscape. A drawing master was a status symbol for families wanting to master the fashionable skill of watercolor painting.

Among those eighteenth century watercolor artists are names unknown to most Americans: Paul Sandby, Alexander Cozens, his son John Robert Cozens, Thomas Girtin, and John Sell Cotman. Anyone who thinks of watercolor as anemic and pale should study their work. Of course, John Constable and J.M.W. Turner also belong in this pantheon.

In America, John James Audubon used watercolor for his meticulous, colorful illustrations. Watercolor as an independent medium peaked here in the nineteenth century, with Winslow HomerThomas MoranThomas EakinsJohn LaFargeJohn Singer SargentChilde Hassam, and others.

Watercolor paintings have an undeserved reputation for being fragile. From a gallerist’s standpoint, however, they don’t show as well under hot lights as oil paintings do, because of the glass. There are ways to work around this problem, but they have limitations.

I use watercolor exclusively as a sketch medium, It's faster and more convenient than oils in many situations, including hiking or family vacations.
I always have a variety of media in my class, including oils, watercolor, acrylic and occasionally pastel. That isn’t a big deal conceptually, but it does lead to practical issues. The biggest of these is that oil in any form instantly ruins watercolor or pastel paper.

When I have a class made up of oil and watercolor painters, I must be meticulous in cleaning my hands between students. This was a lesson learned the hard way.

Yesterday was less rainy than predicted. By 1 PM, as we started to pack up, Clam Cove was wrapped in subtle shades of blue and green. My little band had done great work. We stood happily mesmerized by the rapid changes in the light, and the froth kicked up by the surf crossing a hidden ledge.

And then a gust of wind rose and blew an oil painter’s palette into a watercolorist’s finished work. It was a day's work undone in an instant. Luckily, she’s a very easygoing person. 

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

That vexing exchange rate question

In every important way, Canadians and Americans are indistinguishable. That artificial barrier, the border, makes our common life hard.

Poppy Balser's weir painting sold at the opening bell.
In 2012, the Canadian and US dollars were trading at close to par. Today, one Canadian dollar is worth just three bits (and a penny, but Canada no longer uses the penny). This isn’t the historical worst it’s been, but it’s close enough for discomfort.

The US dollar has also been weakening, but the Loonie has lagged even more. For both economies, this is in part because of central bank policies and in part because oil prices are down.

I benefited from the weak Canadian dollar when I crossed Canada last fall. The same dollar disparity hurt when I was trying to sell work in Canada.

Ed Buonvecchio painted the Cape D'or lighthouse. My photo doesn't do the painting justice.
We’d been told to price our work as usual by juror Bill Rogers. Even if he hadn’t said it, it’s my usual practice. It’s unfair to collectors and galleries to hop around when you price your work.

I was unsure how to apply the exchange rate. I ended up leaving the work at its American tag price. Even that was too expensive. There were five American artists in the festival. We were terrifically expensive compared to our Canadian peers.

My painting of the Parrsboro light was distinctively Nova Scotian; I wanted to sell it there. I dropped it to half its American price. It sold for $400.

From that, the venue takes 40%. This is a legitimate commission, and one every serious artist is happy to pay. That leaves me with a check for $240.

Mary Sheehan Winn painted Partridge Island.
But wait, there’s more. My bank is going to convert that and, assuming there are no additional currency fees, I will take home $181.25.

I know just enough about economics to understand that a strong American dollar hurts exports; a weak dollar helps exports. Growing up on the Niagara Frontier, I know there were years we went to Canada for gas and other years when Canadians came to the US to shop.

But I’ve never understood the exchange rate so personally.

Rockies at Canmore, Alberta. Christopher Gorey, of Ingonish, Nova Scotia, is a new painter to me. This wasn’t his festival piece, but it’s a good example of his great touch with watercolor.
There was another disparity in pricing, one that affected only Canadian artists. Artists who sell more than $30,000 per year are required to collect something called the HST, or Harmonized Sales Tax. They have to tack 15% on to the ticket price of their work.

The only time American artists collect sales tax is when we sell paintings directly to collectors. When paintings are sold through events or galleries, it’s the venue’s responsibility. The Canadian system would take some getting used to.

Marc Grandbois of L’Anse -St- Jean, Quebec City, is another painter I will keep track of. He caught the lowering sky over Two Islands beautifully.
Those of us who live along the border understand that in every important way, Canadians and Americans are indistinguishable. We have the same values, argue over the same disagreements, love the same landscape, drink the same coffee, shop at the same big-box stores, and (generally) speak the same language. NAFTA was supposed to make trading between us easier. In fact, between heightened border security and the disparity of our dollars, it’s harder than ever.

A pity, that.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Fickle Mother Nature

Style is a transitory and inconsequential factor, if one can turn it on and off at will.
Lonely Lighthouse, by Carol L. Douglas

I haven’t painted in that much rain since a memorable weekend at Rye’s Painters on Location with Brad Marshall, where we labored in the tail end of a hurricane. All the best planning won’t save you from low light and rain that blows in sideways under your umbrella. One solution is to paint from your car, but my Prius is too small for one artist, let alone two.

Sometimes, projected rain and fog fails to materialize along the coast. It gets sidetracked by the myriad cliffs, points, headlands and capes. That didn’t happen this weekend. The light was low and flat, and the lovely headlands danced and disappeared into the fog.

Ed Buonvecchio and I were up with first light on Friday to be on our way to Advocate Harbour. A mackerel sky was forming over Cape D’or. That’s a better sign of incipient rain than my arthritis.

They wrested their living from the sea (Advocate Harbour), by Carol L. Douglas
This small fishing village by the sea is characteristic of the old North Atlantic coast. We set up in the cemetery. The nearest tombstone to my easel memorialized two members of the same family, lost at sea in 1966. Going to the ocean to work is probably less dangerous today with modern navigation and communication tools, but the North Atlantic is a powerful and fickle mistress.

Later, I chatted for a few minutes with the owner of the herring weir at Partridge Island. He and his crew still tend the nets and harvest the fish with dipping nets. It’s pretty much a lost technology: there are some weirs at Grand Manan and Digby, but most of them are gone. Call me a Luddite if you want, but what value is there in automating work so that some men labor in solitude and others can’t find jobs?

Cape Blomidon makes its own cloud, by Carol L. Douglas

By mid-day Friday, we had lost our light. Poppy Balser, Ed and I trekked out to Cape D’or and did the “money shot,” but it didn’t move me. There was no sparkle in the water, and no light on the cliffs. I wish I’d painted the rhubarb growing by the lighthouse instead. Neither Poppy nor I submitted our paintings of the cliffs.

The next morning, we tried the overlook at Two Islands. I got a passible painting from it, even though my paint was emulsifying in the blowing rain. Eventually I squelched over to where Ed was set up. “I’m only here because of you,” he told me.

“That’s funny. I’m only here because of you,” I answered. Despite my rain gear, I was soaked down to my step-ins.

We removed to town and the porch of Ottawa House to finish the day. The volunteers offered us tea and cookies and the opportunity to paint indoors.

This hospitality has been true all over Parrsboro. Canadians are, in general, nice and helpful people. Since their dollar is weak compared to ours, you might think about vacationing there this summer.

Two Islands in the rain, by Carol L. Douglas
I’d had my eye on Cape Blomidon for hours, watching a standing hammer-shaped cloud forming off its tip. Volunteer Ed Gilbert told me that this cloud often forms above the cape in bad weather. “Blomiden” is a corruption of Blow-Me-Down, so named because the hot and cold air masses meet there and turn on hapless navigators.

The Quick Draw started in mist and fog, although true rain never really materialized on Sunday. I’d decided to paint with nothing smaller than an #12 round, since it was clear the juror liked that look. That paid off with a second-place ribbon.

We always feel badly if we don’t win prizes at these events, but often the awards have nothing to do with ability or insight and everything to do with style. I like “bold brush” painting as much as the next guy, but it’s not always conducive to describing the world, which is my primary objective. That I could switch it up to win a ribbon is an indication of just how transitory and inconsequential “style” is as a concept.

“I wish I could stay another day,” Ed texted me last night. The sky was clearing, and Cape Blomidon danced in the blue, shimmering light. But Maine is calling us back.