Paint Schoodic

We had another successful painting workshop at the Schoodic Institute in beautiful Acadia National Park. Join us in 2018!

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Self-defeating behavior?

Perhaps women make less money because we tend to take our careers less seriously than men do.

American Eagle in Dry Dock, by Carol L. Douglas
I’ve written about gender inequality in prices achieved by male and female artists. I’ve also written about the gender gap in the broader arts industry. Women in the arts earn 68¢ for every dollar earned by men. That’s far worse than in the overall economy, where women can expect to earn 79¢ for every male-earned dollar.

There’s gender disparity in arts prizes, too. We see it at every awards celebration. It’s somewhat puzzling because the judging for art prizes is usually ‘blind’, meaning the juror doesn’t know who the artist is. However, that’s a leaky bucket, since most of us recognize each other’s work even when the work isn’t signed.

Dinghy, Camden Harbor, by Carol L. Douglas
If work is genuinely judged without knowledge of who the artist is, what do judges see in men’s work that they don’t in women’s work? Men tend to paint bigger at plein air events; they buy into the cliché, “go big or go home” more than women do. Bigger work is flashier and more likely to catch a juror’s eye. That’s about the only qualitative gender-based difference I’ve seen, and it’s hardly absolute. I’ve strained to look for them, and differences in subject matter, competence, temperament or viewpoint are simply not there.

Lisa BurgerLentz and I were chatting last week about the idea of professionalism. She proposed that artists who define themselves as professionals tend to earn more money than those who see themselves as dedicated hobbyists or amateurs. I looked around the sales floor at Adirondack Plein Air and thought she was right. Those painters who see themselves as pros charge more money and put effort into creating a consistent package of framing, image, and product. They have developed a sales patter that works. To be a professional artist, you do a lot more than create beautiful work.

Bev's Garden, by Carol L. Douglas
Bobbi Heath and I drove to Long Island Beach, New Jersey, yesterday for Plein Air Plus. In her prior life, Bobbi was a tech project manager who worked in entrepreneurial start-ups. She brings those management skills to her art career. “No one else bestows on you the title of ‘professional.’ You decide whether you’re a professional or not. It’s not about how much you sell. It is based on your view of yourself. Being a professional is about how you approach your work. It’s an attitude that you have about yourself and your career.”

None of this has anything to do with artistic brilliance. I assume that anyone reading this is already striving to be the best painter he or she can be. In the marketplace, artistic brilliance is a chimera. It’s irrelevant to sales, because there’s a market for anything. It’s also a subjective definition.

Keuka Clearing Sky, by Carol L. Douglas
Perhaps women make less money because we tend to take our careers less seriously than men do. We shy away from the hard work of comparative pricing, marketing, and market development, partially because those aren’t areas we have any experience in. We tend to see our low income as an indictment of our worth, rather than a stage in our business development. If that’s the case, we’re shooting ourselves in the foot.

Monday, August 21, 2017

My tribe is a circus

Love more, forgive more, hug more, and say ‘I'm sorry’ more.

Along Kiwassa Lake, by Carol L. Douglas
Saturday threatened rain, so John Slivjak, Tara Will and Stacy Rogers wisely set up in a bandshell for the Adirondack Plein Air Quick-Draw. I was nearby.

It was not until I bent to fix my umbrella that I noticed a musician setting up equipment on the stage. John, Tara and Stacy just played through, like the professionals they are.

Aside from a little air guitar, John Slivjak, Tara Wills and Stacy Rogers didn't let a performance distract them. (Photo courtesy of Ann Slivjak)
Friday had been a great opening reception and sale. Still, I had been settling into a bad mood all day. Being doused as I left Town Hall didn’t help. I am not prone to the black dog of depression, but I was questioning my life choices, feeling old, washed up and hopeless. I thought I might be getting a cold. “You’re just overtired,” my husband consoled me.

Friends invited me to go out for a celebratory drink. “No thanks, I’d rather drink alone,” I groused.

Two weeks ago, my husband and I flew to Baltimore to pray with a friend. During Saturday’s Quick-Draw, I got a text from his wife telling me that he was failing. At 1:30 PM my husband called to tell me that Emerson had passed away.

We were in the whirl of an art sale. There was nothing I could do but shut down my feelings and get on with the job. In our brief conversation, my husband told me he’d felt it was coming. I realized then that I had been given the gift of grieving in advance.

Tomatoes, my Quick-Draw from the Festival.
Emerson was a wise old bird. He looked to the state of his own soul rather than fussing at others about their choices. That’s the harder road. It means facing up to our faults, repenting, and resolving to stop our sin cycles. It requires terrifying honesty.

It’s also the only way to be a light of the world. With so few of them around, I found it difficult to understand how God could call home such a powerful saint. Still, Christians get no special pass from the troubles of mankind. We’re just given a powerful tool—grace—to deal with them.

“Death eventually will come for us all,” said Emerson’s friend Mary Beth Robinson. “What we do today affects the legacy we leave. This week perhaps we should strive to love more, forgive more, hug more, say ‘I'm sorry’ more, and simply try to make a mark for good in our little part of the world.”

Part of my posse, 2017: Kari Ganoung Ruiz, me, Tarryl Gabel, Crista Pisano and Laura Martinez-Bianco. All the bling was in footwear this year.
Meanwhile, the reception ground on. A woman asked me if it was fun meeting other artists. I laughed and explained that we are a small community who know most of each other from other events. We’re like circus performers, a distinct tribe of people who labor in obscurity until the day we set up our tent show in your town. I treasure these friendships, and every event I do adds a few more.

The same posse in 2014, with the addition of Mira Fink and Marlene Wiedenbaum. We were younger and more stylin' then.
Reminded of this, I spent the rest of the afternoon talking to my friends, catching up on their news. A few minutes after we finished, I was on the road again. I pulled over twice to wipe my eyes. I think it was the spruce pollen.

Friday, August 18, 2017

I’m not able on my own

When the weather turns sour and your painting kit collapses, it helps to have friends.

Dry Bones, by Carol L. Douglas
Imagine dropping half a pint of fast-drying varnish into your tool-box and not finding it for a few hours. That is what happened yesterday, when the top of my painting medium jar came loose and dumped its contents into my backpack. I wiped off what I could, but a few items need replacing, including the fishing gloves I’ve used to paint since Alaska.

I stopped at a liquor store and begged a box. It now contains my painting tools. I’m passing through Albany on Sunday and I think I can replace both the backpack and medium there.

Yesterday we were instructed to paint within Saranac Lake to gin up interest in this weekend’s show and sale. There are fifty artists, so the town was littered with easels. This is an old mountain city with a small brick downtown and sprawling frame houses, so we were spoiled for choice. 

I found a lovely green dinghy on the shore of Lake Flower. It was planted beside a young willow, one of the almost infinite varieties of shrubby willows that grow here in the mountains.

A little dinghy, by Carol L. Douglas
Artists are asked to do a small painting to benefit the Saranac Lake Central School District’s art program. In the seven years of this show, the Adirondack Plein Air Festival has donated over $11,000 back to community arts organizations.

I painted a tiny view of hydrangeas against a shabby yellow apartment building. I’m not a flower painter but that wall of hydrangeas has been talking to me since we arrived. This is the first time in years I've painted on an untoned canvas, and I'm not used to it. The color seems flat to me.

Hydrangeas, by Carol L. Douglas
I met up with Chrissy Pahucki and her daughter Samantha at Saranac Lake Artworks. Chrissy always travels with her kids. They’ve become competent young artists. I asked Samantha if she was interested in a career as a painter. “No,” she shuddered. She’s more interested in digital design.

Chrissy told me I might be able to find some dead trees at Bartlett Carry. This is a quarter-mile portage trail that enables canoers to get from Upper Saranac Lake to Middle Saranac Lake, since the river that connects them is unnavigable. I would never have found this location without her help, since the dirt road to the tiny public access site is posted “private” and “do not enter.” However, there is a public space of a few feet for the carry. It faced an island with some superlative dead trees. There I reworked yesterday’s idea from Ray Brook with some foreground interest.

My new backpack is not weatherproof.
I was awakened by thundering rain on the roof. I need to figure out a place to frame my work that isn’t wet. It’s a day when we need friends. “Though I feel I'm just as strong as any man I know. I'm not able on my own,” sang Need to Breathe. This morning, I can relate.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Painting in symbols

Painting symbols of death and resurrection, I realized that there is no painting that can't be improved by the addition of a boat.

Overgrown, by Carol L. Douglas
The only thing my paternal grandfather left us was his surname. He took off when my dad was a little boy. It was the start of the Great Depression. My father ended up living with two maiden aunts.

I mentioned this on Facebook a few months ago. A genealogist friend offered to try to find my missing ancestor. His story ended, sadly, at the Ray Brook Sanitorium here in the Adirondacks.

TB was a terrible problem in large cities in the early twentieth century. Until the discovery of Streptomycin in 1943, cold mountain air was the only available cure. By isolating sufferers, sanitoriums also slowed down the transmission of the disease. Opened in 1904, Ray Brook was the first state-run tuberculosis sanitorium.

My father went to his grave wondering why his father abandoned him. Ninety years later, we can’t understand why TB was such a shameful secret that it couldn’t have been shared with a little boy.

Ray Brook, by Carol L. Douglas
Today the sanitorium is a state prison. The hamlet of Ray Brook itself is not picturesque. It’s home to several correctional and park department headquarters and not much else. I turned off on a local road. A small rivulet had created a marshy bog in a former forest. It was populated by the skeletons of dead trees, drowned by water flowing along their feet. The mountains are full of these ghost forests. They are part of the cycle of life. In their soft lavender and orange tones, they are eerily pretty counterparts to the lushness everywhere else.

It was a difficult painting, and I don’t know that I did the subject justice. It was time for a complete about-face. I headed north in search of a baby Eastern White Pine. “A big painting of a tiny tree,” I told myself.

“How will you know if it’s a white pine or a red pine?” someone asked me. She then told me that white pine has five needles per fascicle, while red and jack pines have two needles. I’ve stored that information in the disordered closet that is my brain.

I dropped this earlier painting in the leaf litter. I hope it dries enough to pick the debris out before Saturday.
A baby white pine, a boulder and some water ought to be easy to find in the Adirondacks. However, each patch of the mountains has its own predominant tree cover. I ended up almost back to Paul Smith’s College before I found strong stands of white pines.

I never did find exactly what I was looking for. However, rocks and water are both important Christian symbols, so when I found St. Gabriel the Archangel Catholic Church surrounded by baby white pines, I figured I had found my place.

St. Gabriel’s was completely restored for its centennial in 1996. It’s shabby now, and its foundation is surrounded with opportunistic sprouts in the little patch of sunshine the parking lot provided. I wondered how, 21 years later, it has fallen so far in its fortunes.

Headlights, by Carol L. Douglas
After two large paintings, it was time to reconsider my nocturne. I saw no easy solution for the composition problem other than scrapping the thing and starting again. It was much too literal, and the only good part of it was the car’s headlights hitting the ice cream stand.

Then I remembered that I’d parked myself next to a small runabout on a trailer. The ice-cream shop is next to Lake Flower Marina. By moving the boat into my picture, my problem was solved.

There is no painting that cannot be improved by the addition of a boat.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

What is romanticism?

The next time I need to paint a nocturne, I’m going to a Ford dealership and painting F-150s.

Spruces and pines on the Barnum Brook Trail, by Carol L. Douglas.
Nocturnes are very popular right now, but I suspect I’m not romantic enough for them. I can’t exactly put my finger on what romance in painting means, but I think it involves thinking sensually vs. analytically. Anders Zorn is a romantic painter. Winslow Homer is not (even though he painted some brilliant nocturnes).

I’m not talking about the artistic movement of the 19th century here, but rather the response of the soul to paint. This isn’t a technical distinction or a matter of subject. It’s a question of how we see the world. My old pal Kari Ganoung Ruiz is a wonderful painter of nocturnes. She’s also a very romantic soul. I just keep thinking about how early I must get up in the morning.

Perhaps what I've been talking about, above, is sentimentality. Romanticism may be just a question of what we really love. The lonely light in the darkness is a painting of longing. It reminds me of Jay Gatsby staring at the green light at the end of Tom and Daisy's dock. I’ve read it twice, and I still hate that book.

Young trees, by Carol L. Douglas
Earlier, I’d painted with Lisa Burger-Lentz and John Slivjak at Paul Smith’s VIC. They, like many other painters here at Adirondack Plein Air, are from the greater Philadelphia area. I started a large canvas of rocks, pines and spruces along the Barnum Brook trail. This is a very popular scene, but it’s not my favorite trail in the VIC. I’m usually drawn to the Boreal Life Trail, which runs through a bog. 

Vallkulla, 1908, by Anders Zorn (courtesy Wikiart)
I’ve been drawn to baby pines and spruces ever since seeing Anders Zorn: Sweden's Master Painter in 2014. Zorn treats infant trees with the respect we usually give their towering elders. Tiny trees are everywhere in the forest. They are more than just punctuation marks. Without them, there would be no green at our eye level, because the canopy is far above our heads. Plus, baby trees are cute.

I edited reality to feature two eastern white pines in the foreground where two baby spruces were growing. It didn’t go well, so I stopped and did a small study of young trees. This helped enough that I could go back to my original painting. As in so many things, nature knows best. Spruces worked better there than the white pines, so I put them back where they belonged.

Unfinished, by Carol L. Douglas
As dusk fell, I drove to the local ice cream stand to do the small nocturne, above. This is a terrible photo of a half-finished painting, which possibly needs cropping with a radial arm saw. I hope to set up somewhere today where I have access to my car, so that I can finish it. Really, however, I’m more interested in the pines.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Travel and travail

A long drive gave me plenty of time to ponder the meaning of success and failure.

Whiteface Makes Its Own Weather, was painted last time I was here, in 2014.
Yesterday a radio host was talking about the late Dallas Cowboys football coach, Tom Landry, and his attitude toward losing. “It's got a priority, but it's not number one in my life. This creates for me a certain amount of calmness, even though I'm human enough to suffer when we lose,” Landry said.

I’d just been musing on artists’ reaction to failure. I’m as bad as anyone else about taking it personally. However, like Landry, my career isn’t my highest priority. That helps me regain my equanimity a little faster.

We sometimes think a single-minded focus on painting will make us better artists. If Landry’s career is any indication, that’s not true. In fact, it may hinder our recovery from failure. No matter what your walk in life, it’s never a question of whether you will encounter setbacks or crises. They happen to us all. The question is whether you will have the resilience to recover.

Weather Moving In At Barnum Bog, was painted last time I was here, in 2014.
I had a lot of time to think yesterday, as I was driving from Rockport, ME to Saranac Lake, NY. I had a choice of routes. I could drive cross-lots west, which was the shortest distance. Or I could head south to Manchester, which was the fastest route. The obstacle is Lake Champlain, which was in my way no matter which angle I come from. I chose the coastal route. Every town was a snarl of holiday traffic. The trip took hours longer than I anticipated. I was weary.

If New Hampshire and Vermont were starched and ironed, they’d be at least as big as Texas. They’re mountainous and beautiful and villainously difficult to drive.

At 4 PM I considered just stopping for the night and calling it quits. After all, the Green and White Mountains and the High Peaks of the Adirondacks are all Appalachian uplifts, and they all look more or less the same.

The Au Sable River at Jay, 12X9, was painted last time I was here, in 2014.
On the other hand, the stretch between Middlebury, VT and Lake Champlain is one long flash of brilliant green. Heading west from the Atlantic, it’s the first flat open farmland one sees. Those long fields, so common to the Midwest, don’t happen in the Northeast. Just beyond Lake Champlain, the  High Peaks of the Adirondacks rise again, providing a mountain backdrop to a pastoral scene. Anyone interested in living back of beyond could do worse than to land in Addison County, VT.

Although we were instructed to do a nocturne once the sun set at 8 PM, I was impossibly tired. If one is going to be done, it will be an early-morning painting. The sun rises later here than it does on the Maine Coast.

Judging by this morning, I would have until 6 AM to finish. The Eastern Time Zone is impressively wide along our northern border. It runs from Eastport, ME nearly to Chicago. The difference feels substantial every time I come to New York.  At this rate, the sun must come up around noon in Indianapolis.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Better living through chemistry

Yes, the ‘fat over lean’ rule still pertains in oil painting.

Estuary Light, by Gwen Sylvester.
Gwen Sylvester’s Estuary Light, above, won this year’s Juror’s Choice Award at Wet Paint on the ‘Weskeag. It is a perfect application of acrylic paint: luminous, fluid, but not washed out into faux watercolor. The nominal subject—egrets—are just suggested in the midfield. 

Kay Sullivan and Gwen and I sat together to watch the auction. We are the last three years’ winners of the Juror’s Choice Award. The art world is one of the last strongholds of gender bias, intentional or not. To have three women winners in a row is an anomaly, and speaks well of this event.

A student at my workshop last week asked me whether the ‘fat over lean’ rule still applies now that we’re using odorless mineral spirits (OMS) instead of turpentine. It’s a great, complicated question. Turpentine is pine-tree essential oil. OMS are petroleum distillates. But before you rush back to using turpentine because it sounds “natural,” it is linked to a host of respiratory and other illnesses.

A lobster pound at Tenant's Harbor, was my entry into Wet Paint on the 'Weskeag.
I saw conservator Lauren Lewis at the auction. She told me the answer to Maureen’s question was still yes. That was all we had time for, so the rest of this explanation comes from the internet.

Solvents like OMS or turpentine dry through simple evaporation. The binder oils in paints are more complex; they cure by something called crosslink polymerization.

A polymer is a long chain formed by many little molecules that stick together. A crosslinked polymer network is a mesh of these chains that are woven together. Just as with fabric, woven threads are stronger than individual fibers. Crosslinked polymers can be very strong.

These crosslinked polymers also resist solvents better than simple chains. To dissolve a polymer, each of the long molecules must be surrounded by the solvent and dispersed. As the polymer gets larger and larger, it becomes more difficult to dissolve the polymer molecules.

Sometimes there are enough links to connect all of the polymer molecules into a single mesh.  When this happens, you can no longer dissolve the polymer molecules—they either float away as a single lump of paint or they don’t go at all.

You can't reopen half-dry oil paints like you can half-dry acrylics. That's because of crosslinked polymer chains.
Think about the last time you let your paint dry up on your palette. You can’t ‘open’ half-set oil paint like you can with partly-set acrylics. All the pigment is drawn into the lumps. That same tendency is what makes them so tough on the canvas, and why you want that oily layer on the surface.

Humidity often damages a paint film. This happens when water molecules surround the paint components and push them around. Crosslinks limit how much water can get into the film.

Speaking of humidity, I leave in a few minutes for Saranac Lake, NY, for the Adirondack Plein Air Festival. From there I go to Plein Air Plus in Long Beach Island, NJ. As I’m writing this, cool, damp air is rushing in my window. My house sits above Rockport harbor. The ocean is my air-conditioner. Why do I ever leave in the summer?

Friday, August 11, 2017

What we’ve learned so far

I teach a painting process. Are the personal epiphanies just an extra benefit, or are they actually the heart of the matter?

Becky being mugged by a seagull.
Schoodic Point is the crown of Acadia’s Schoodic Peninsula. It is so vast that I save it for later in the week, when people have gotten the need for the broad vista out of their system. Its grandeur is best expressed in the particular: in a shelf of granite, a tidal pool, the pines, or the hammering surf.

Fay's pines. I apologize for the quality of the photos; they were taken under incandescent light.
Rocks are three-dimensional shapes with volume. In that, they’re no different from houses or a boat. Too often they’re painted as a wall, or as cut-outs. At lunch, we discussed how to draw them using wireframe shapes and perspective drawing. These are the first steps to creating depth. Without them, all the atmospherics, color and haze you lard on the canvas will only partly convince your viewer.

Jennifer's unfinished nocturne.
In the time I’ve been teaching at Schoodic, visitation has steadily risen. That means my students endure a certain amount of kibitzing from bystanders. They took it in good humor, as I expected. This is a cheerful, untroubled band of painters.

Nancy's lighthouse.
At one point, I found Becky, who lives nearby and understands the population pressure on this park, drawing a detailed map for someone.

“I thought you didn’t want to encourage more visitors,” I accused.

“But she had a cute dog!” Becky replied. What a toughie.

Becky's rocks and surf.
Every visitor to Maine needs a lobster, so we had a lobster bake in the evening. Our crustaceans had been hauled out of the sea earlier in the afternoon. “It was very tasty,” reported Jennifer. (I’ve already exceeded my quota of lobster for the season.)

Linda's lighthouse.
We critiqued paintings in the evening. I’ve tried to get a photo of work by each person, but the light wasn’t great, and my fingers were in some of the shots.

Maureen's pines.
Maureen suggested that each person talk about what they’d learned. One teaches in the hope that one’s students learn something, so I was naturally curious. Maureen was struck with the idea of drawing first and cropping afterward, so that her painting wasn’t crammed into a box. Some people said they hadn’t really understood how to work fat-over-lean. And toning the canvas was a new idea to others.

Ellen's surf.
But a lot of things mentioned had to do with attitude, things like being willing to try new things, or accepting mistakes, or the difference in how we think or see as we work.

Don's surf.
I teach a painting process. I’ve assumed that the personal discoveries were just an extra benefit from not worrying whether one is doing it “right.” Now I start to wonder whether they’re actually the heart of the matter.

Maureen making a painting carrier from a box.
After our critique, we brainstormed a box for Nancy to take on the plane today. Predictably, it was Maureen who solved the engineering question. She is never going to buy something she can make from junk. I admire a fellow frugal spirit.

Today, we go to Corea to paint lobster boats. We’ll have a final lobster roll on the wharf. Already the fog is rolling back and another pink dawn appears. We’ve been particularly blessed in people, places and weather this year.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

That’s one sassy ocean

The rules work, even when we don’t notice. That’s as true in life and painting as it is in Acadia National Park.
Photo courtesy of Jennifer Johnson.
I’ve been getting workshop permits for Acadia National Park since I moved my workshop up to Schoodic Institute. They mean paperwork and expense, and nobody ever asks for them. Sometimes I wonder why I bother.

Yesterday, a ranger stopped by. “Do you want to see my permit?” I asked excitedly. “Oh, please, do you really want to see my permit?”

Becky comfortable near that sassy ocean.
He already knew we were going to be there; he was just stopping to check something else. I’m glad that the park rangers know what happens in the park, and that I haven’t been wasting my time and money complying with the permitting system.

Even if we aren’t aware of it, rules continue to be in effect. That’s as true in the universe as it is in a National Park, and it’s a good thing. Nobody wants the earth potting off into a different orbit because it’s sick of the one it has. 

A demo on the rocks near the Mark Island Overlook.
It is also true of painting. Many paintings of Ralph Blakelock have darkened beyond seeing because he puttered with the chemistry. It’s a terrible pity, because he was a great painter.

The ranger and I chatted for a while about the most inscrutable (to civilians) rule of national parks, that you can’t take natural materials out. “If we have three and a half million visitors and each of them takes home a rock…” he began. In some places, it might save on dredging, but I see his point.

The Mark Island (Winter Harbor) lighthouse was built in 1856, with a keeper’s house added twenty years later. It’s a handsome assemblage of whitewashed walls and staggered rooflines, and it’s far enough away that one can’t really do a stereotypical lighthouse painting. Instead, it must be in the context of its landscape, with Cadillac Mountain rising behind it. The scale relationship is a little misleading, because Mark Island is less than a mile offshore and Cadillac Mountain is several miles away.

A lighthouse painting doesn't have to be about the lighthouse.
Look north or south and there are sweeping diagonals of pink granite tumbling to the sea, framed by dark spruces and crashing surf. And the seas were definitely crashing. “You sassy ocean, you!” cried Becky as a great long foaming breaker blew over the rocks nearby.

A student studying mixing greens. (Photo courtesy of Donald Fischman)
A sea fog approached and retreated, finally cloaking us in soft pink cashmere around sunset. That was appropriate, because yesterday’s demo was on the color of light. This subject is like one of those drawings that flips from being a vase to two profiles. It’s easy to see once you get it, but difficult to explain.

Ravens Nest  is fine for an individual painter but not for a class.
As the afternoon ended, several students walked down to Ravens Nest. I never teach there. There’s no guardrail, only pot warp strung from tree to tree. There's no room for a large group to paint safely. But it’s an interesting geological formation and quite pretty.


We’ll be heading to Schoodic Point this morning. As I type this, I can hear the surf crashing. The sky is fair and pink. All signs are good for another great day of painting. 

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

The Full Monty

You can learn a lot from videos, but the boring parts are edited out. It’s good to see our dithering.

It's all about that green, by Carol L. Douglas.
The weather service was spot on yesterday. It dawned cold and drizzling. We wrapped our southerners in blankets and took shelter under the Schoodic Institute picnic pavilion. Every plein air painter has a few of these protected places tucked into the back of her mind.

Usually I like to schedule the rain on my third or fourth day, so my students have a chance to get down onto the shore and collect detritus to make a still life. This hadn’t happened.

I tend to avoid full demos, instead demonstrating one key process each day during lunch. That’s more about my own hyperactivity than anything else. I never could sit through an all-day demo. Still, you can’t take away people’s processes and not give them a viable option in exchange.

My happy painting crew.
It’s hard to paint from under that picnic pavilion. Traveling around the compass from the north, there is a restroom and a trash can, a chain link fence, a helicopter landing pad, and the mown edge of a woods. I find the restroom the most visually interesting, but settled on a gash in the woods where a service road cuts down to the park’s volunteer housing.

I started with developing an idea, and how I built it from what I saw. I did a sketch, a value study in watercolor and then slowly developed a painting through all its constituent steps, focusing on how to move from thin layers to fat layers at the top.

Oil paints dry at different speeds depending on the pigment. However, the more oil in the paint, the longer it takes to oxidize, and the more flexible the paint film is. That’s great on top layers, where you want an oily binder to prevent “sinking,” where the oils in the top layer settle into lower layers. It’s not so good in the lower levels, where flexibility means instability. Ignoring this practice can result in cracked, less durable, paintings.

By mid-afternoon, the skies were clearing. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Johnson.
Knowing that is one thing, but it’s kind of like making pie crust. Until you’ve seen it done, you don’t know what kind of consistence you’re really looking for. The best way to understand is to stick your finger in the paint, which I invited my students to do.

You can learn a lot from videos, but the boring parts are edited out. It’s good for students to see how many times we dither and change our minds.

Often in peninsular Maine, the weather can be very different in two nearby places. We drove to Frazer Point feeling hopeful. Sadly, it was still dripping. The parking lot was empty. Should we wait it out?

By evening, it was beautifully clear again.
As we talked, the wind shifted. The rain stopped and suddenly the visitors were back in swarms. It was fabulous painting, and some of us stayed almost until the dinner bell rang at six.

I went back to my room and took a hot bath to scrub the paint off. Many of my students went to a talk on bats. “Why didn’t they just drive?” asked my husband. It took me a minute, but then I laughed.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

I promised them the moon

Don’t put your drawing in a box, put a box around your drawing.

Painting a nocturne.
 There may once have been blueberries in abundance on Blueberry Hill. Now, it’s a parking loop above spectacular rock shelves and worn round cobbles, reaching down to an impossibly blue sea. The landscape is punctuated by beach roses, spruces, and jack pines.

Yesterday’s was an almost painfully clear light. Schoodic Island lies about three-quarters of a mile offshore. To have painted it in muted greys would have been an abject lie. There was little atmospheric perspective. Farther out to sea, the horizon was a pale, milky gold. Later in the day, of course, the wind rose and that all changed.

Nancy's never toned a canvas red before. She looks skeptical.
I like to start my workshops by asking students to do a painting as they always do, without ‘orders’ from me. This is the only way I can see what they know. That works best with relatively experienced painters, and I’m lucky to have such a group this year.

That doesn’t mean I stay quiet. We only have a week together and I’m full of ideas. I start by making soft corrections. But I don’t yet start to dig into the matter of process.

Beach painting, Maine style.
One thing I’ve noticed recently is how many people start their sketches by drawing a box corresponding to the aspect ratio of their canvas. Then they draw a design inside of that box. To me, that’s backwards.

The drawing is the exploration process. We should start it without limitations, and let our fingers tell us what’s interesting. From there, we can crop the box shape around it, instead of the other way around.

Becky's hair tie.
At lunch, I showed my students four or five ways to do a value study, none of which I currently use. Then I relented and showed them the method I do use. Of course, how it’s done isn’t important, just that it is done.

I’m gently kicking the braces out of what has worked for them before. This is no place to leave people, so this morning I’m doing a long demo about my process. There’s nothing revolutionary about it: it’s cobbled together from teachers and painters who came before me. The goal is a fast, efficient alla prima technique that can deliver a finished painting in a few hours.

This young lad was so taken by Fay's painting, he thought she could sell it, "for maybe $85 or $90."
Meanwhile, I’d promised them the moon. A few minutes after seven we trundled down to the shore of Arey Cove. I’d guessed at three fundamental colors based on how the moon rose on Sunday night—a blue-violet shade, a clear blue shade, and a soft white tinted with yellow ochre.

A bald eagle flew along the shore just in front of us, low enough that we could see his tailfeathers. He perched nearby and stayed to watch the moon with us.

Painting in Paradise.
There was low-lying moisture on the eastern horizon. It looked for a while as if we wouldn’t have any moonrise at all. But suddenly, there she was, flickering behind the scant clouds. She rose steadily in the sky, a brilliant orange harvest moon, nothing like the pallid yellow orb of yesterday. We scrambled to adjust our color while she played peek-a-boo amid the clouds. Scratching from mosquito bites, we watched her slip behind a larger cloud. The eagle swooped into the gathering dark. It was done. We packed up.


As we walked back to our car, the sky cleared momentarily. The moon poured out a brilliant golden blessing of light to guide us home.