Paint Schoodic

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

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The many virtues of value studies

They can help you fix a bad painting or avoid painting one in the first place. They can be inventive, abstract, stress-free and fun.
Value study of my pieris japonica.
I knew I would have a small class the day after the long weekend; I didn’t expect it would be just Roger. It would also have to be indoors because the weather forecast was for cool air and rain.

Private lessons don’t allow time for the student to practice what I’ve taught. Nobody can remember more than a few things at once without applying their new skills. Having an instructor hovering while you’re practicing can be overwhelming. But Roger is a good mid-level painter and this seemed like an opportunity to work one-on-one on value studies with him.

What I'd intended us to do was straight up value studies of an intentionally-boring scene, but we strayed.
I set up a monochromatic still life that I would never really paint: a wooden basket on a wooden tray, with wooden tools and blocks scattered around it. Any interest came from the pattern of shadows and light. We sat down with some umber paint and a handful of small cards and did a few studies of the scene.

Roger asked me what had gone wrong with a plein air painting he’d started in April. That was another day of changeable weather. The eastern sky had glowed pale yellow across Rockport harbor just before it dumped icy rain on us. The odd colors stuck with him.

My interpretation of the painting more or less as Roger painted it.
When a painting is failing, I ask myself some basic questions: Is my composition good? Are my paints fresh? Am I physically uncomfortable? Are my brushes hardened into sticks? Has the subject changed beyond recognition?

I thought Roger had abandoned his initial value drawing, weakening his composition. When that happens, we need to go back and restate the darks. In fact, this is a necessary step in almost every oil painting, but it’s particularly important when you can’t remember what attracted you to the scene in the first place. It helps to have your thumbnail study on hand.

How I thought he could improve the scene.
We didn’t, so I painted a quick copy of what he had on his canvas, and then a suggestion of how I might fix it. I’ve never done a value study after the fact, but it proved helpful. I need to remember that when I’m flailing around at a plein air event.

Meanwhile, the fickle sky had turned a deep cornflower blue. There was nary a hint of the promised rain. There are too many ticks right now to stand in tall grass and paint, so we moved our operation to my patio, and did studies of the light playing on the roof of my shed. That pointed out one of the great values of preliminary studies: they save you from wasting a lot of time on bad ideas. Bleech.

My shed. Boring.
My pieris japonica, on the other hand, is a leggy, ailing shrub that nonetheless looks good against the woods. Our studies of that turned out much better.

Lastly, I showed Roger my favorite game with value studies: making abstractions and then applying real objects to them. This is akin to finding faces in the steam on your shower walls. I create a loose monochrome abstraction that I like, and then mate reality to it. I’ve demonstrated the process here, with the final result here.

An abstraction that could become a figurative painting.
His assignment—and yours too, if you accept it—is to create a monochromatic abstraction and then use it as the basis for a representational painting.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Plan 2014: the law of unintended consequences

People who built on the Lake Ontario flood plain were foolish, but they were also the victims of government planning.

Flood damage at Six-Mile Creek, Niagara County, NY.
“We should just bomb the dam,” one disgruntled local told me. We haven’t been at war with Canada in 202 years. Still, this spring Lake Ontario came close to doing what foreign forces haven’t done since 1813: breaching the fortifications at Fort Niagara.

Lake Ontario is bordered by marshy ponds. That’s one indication that its natural levels are highly variable. Long escarpments indicate the limits of a much bigger body of water.  When the last ice age ended, this whole area was below sea level. It is still rebounding at a rate of about 12 inches per century. This makes the lakebed gradually tilt southward, creating worse shoreline erosion on the American side than the Canadian.

Flood damage at Six-Mile Creek, Niagara County, NY.
But people are short-sighted. None of this has stopped building on the gravel spits that lie between the ponds and the lake itself.

Plan 2014 is a new water-regulation plan approved by the Canadian and American government. It went into effect in January, 2017. That, unfortunately, aligned with an unusually soggy spring in the St. Lawrence watershed.

Flood damage at Six-Mile Creek, Niagara County, NY.
The Moses-Saunders hydropower dam is the plug that blocks the Great Lakes. It’s controlled by the International Joint Commission. In theory, Plan 2014 allowed the water level to go two inches higher than the previous maximum. In practice, what was left was an historic high water level that couldn’t be released. To do so would exacerbate flooding in Quebec.

Terry L. has a modest camp in a trailer park at Six Mile Creek in the town of Youngstown, NY. It may not seem like much, but if you’re a working-class person from Niagara Falls, it’s paradise on a hot summer day. Her family has been summering here for more than sixty years.

Flood damage at Six-Mile Creek, Niagara County, NY.
She took me to see it on Sunday. Four of the trailers were gone, moved before they washed away. Several of the others are in water up to their skirting. Decks hang askew over the water, patios are gone. Terry’s dock was thrown up on the ground near her picnic table, which in turn has been buried in a pile of cobblestones more than a foot deep. The beach, so inviting in the summertime, is underwater.

I very rarely see water I don’t want to wade in, but Lake Ontario, in her current cranky, white-capped mood, warned me off.

Flood damage at Six-Mile Creek, Niagara County, NY.
Compared to million-dollar houses elsewhere, this trailer park sustained minor damage, but this is not the French Riviera. It will be a struggle for these senior citizens to fix what’s broken.

Niagara County is running a big gas-powered pump to try to lower the pond levels. Since the barrier between lake and pond has been breached, this is a finger in a collapsing dam. Still, municipalities are doing it up and down the lakeshore.

I thought you told me this would be good for the fish.
Letting Lake Ontario ebb and flow naturally is a great idea. Naturalists say it will stabilize fish and migratory bird populations. The plan, however, ignores the real-world cost to maintain homes, streets, and water treatment facilities built after the dam was finished in 1958.

I have limited sympathy for those who build pricey homes on flood plains. However, here they’re also the victims of a rule change.

It continues to rain in the St. Lawrence watershed..
The International Joint Commission says that the high water levels have stabilized and should start to recede as the spring rains stop. Meanwhile, as I left Buffalo for points east, it was pouring yet again.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Midnight Ambler

Charles Burchfield wasn’t necessarily manic-depressive; he perfectly reflected his time and place.

Night of the Equinox, 1917-1955, watercolor, brush and ink, gouache, and charcoal on paper , Charles Burchfield (Smithsonian Museum). “One of the most exciting weather events of the whole year. What we called the spring equinoctial storm. It seemed as if terrific forces were abroad in the land,” wrote Burchfield.
At home I watch the passage of time through the night sky. On the road, that’s often confused. I’m in my hometown of Buffalo, NY for the holiday weekend. The sky glows all night long. My insomnia is in sympathy with the place. This is, after all, a city where last call is at 4 AM, a remnant of the days when the mills roared 24-7.

The only Buffalo artist to enter the pantheon of the greats was Charles Ephraim Burchfield, born in 1893 in Ashtabula Harbor, Ohio. Burchfield attended the Cleveland School of Art. In 1916, he received a scholarship to the National Academy of Design in New York. He quit after just one day.

Ice Glare, 1933, watercolor, charcoal, and graphite on paper, Charles Burchfield (Whitney Museum of American Art)
He came to Buffalo in 1921 to take a job with M. H. Birge & Sons. His painting influenced his wallpaper design work, and his work at Birge influenced his later paintings. The sinuous, twisting shapes of Burchfield’s electric trees are strongly reminiscent of the patterns of Art Nouveau home furnishings. “Design was my especial field in which I excelled,” he wrote.  He was particularly attracted to Art Nouveau illustrators and Japanese and Chinese painting styles. This prepared the way for his later career.

Birge enabled him to marry and have a family, but in turn created a financial trap. Eight years and five kids later, he was suffering from ulcers. Anxiety was a state that seemed to dog him whenever he was in a nine-to-five job, whether at Birge, in the Army or as an art teacher.

The Coming of Spring, 1917-1943, watercolor, Charles Burchfield (The Metropolitan Museum of Art). This is an allegorical painting but it bears a strong resemblance to nearby Shale Creek Preserve.
“I’d rather be poor and hungry than be a widow,” he recollected his wife Bertha telling him. Still, painting was a good economic choice. Burchfield successfully weathered the Great Depression as a full-time painter.

Burchfield created realistic work during this period, work that associated him with his friend Edward Hopper or with the American Regionalist movement of the period. However, he was, more than anything else, a visionary painter.

Dandelion Seed Heads and the Moon, 1961-1965, watercolor, gouache, charcoal, and sgraffito (Burchfield Penney Art Center).
That included painting en plein air. Ice Glare (1933) was painted at the corner of Clinton and Lord Streets. Today, that intersection is now almost completely depopulated by urban flight.

Burchfield started with preparatory sketches, gridding them onto his paper for his final painting. He worked almost exclusively in dry brush in watercolor and gouache. He believed that watercolor works on paper could be as resistant to fading as oil paintings if stored and displayed properly.

Much has been interpreted about Burchfield’s mental state from his paintings. Was he manic-depressive or did he mirror the sights, sound and stimulus of the Jazz Age?

Song of the Telegraph (1917-1952, watercolor, private collection), is a sound painting of the Jazz Age.
Burchfield lived from 1925 to his death in 1967 in the tiny hamlet of Gardenville, which has been swallowed up by the suburb of West Seneca. He’s honored there with a nature center. Maybe if it ever stops raining, I’ll go walk there this weekend.

We slept under a Hudson’s Bay blanket last night. This is a great, hairy woolen thing suited for Arctic nights. That might seem odd to people in other parts of the country, but it’s still cold here. The unknown critic who once described Burchfield as “Edward Hopper on a rainy day” didn’t know Buffalo. It wasn’t that Burchfield was a depressive; it was all about where he lived.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Basic principles of oil painting

Some painting rules are meant to be broken, but there are some absolutes that just make your painting better and easier.

Catherine Bullinger's tree. I like the delicacy of the branches and the dappled light on the grass.
Yesterday I taught a one-day class in Rochester’s Highland Park. It’s hard to distill the rules of painting into a three-hour class, but here they are:

Fat over lean: This means applying paint with more oil-to-pigment over paint with less oil-to-pigment; in other words, use turpentine or odorless mineral spirits (OMS) judiciously in the bottom layers and painting medium in the top layer.

Ann Limbeck caught a lovely curve in the bed of tree peonies.
The more oil, the longer the binder takes to oxidize. This keeps paints brighter and more flexible. However, oil also retards drying. Using too much in underpainting, will result in a cracked and crazed surface over time.

The makers of Galkyd and Liquin say their products are designed to circumvent this rule. However, we have no track record for these alkyd-based synthetic mediums, whereas we have centuries of experience layering the traditional way.

Even if we could change it, why would we want to? Underpainting with soft, sloppy medium gives soft, sloppy results. The coverage is spotty and thin. The traditional method is tremendously variable and gives great control. It just takes a little while to learn it properly.

Nicole Reddington pushed the design elements and created a myriad of greens.
Big shapes to little shapes: Work on the abstract pattern before you start focusing on the details.

The untrained eye looks at a scene and thinks about it piecemeal and in terms of objects: there’s a flower, there’s a path, there’s a tree. The trained eye sees patterns and considers the objects afterward.

Is there an interesting, coherent pattern of darks and lights? Are there color temperature shifts you can use? In the early phases of a painting, you must relentlessly sacrifice detail to the good of the whole.  This is true whether the results you want are hyper-realistic or impressionistic. Composition is the key to good painting, and the pattern of lights and darks is the primary issue in composition.

Kirt Lapham allowed me to really push him out of his comfort zone, with excellent results.
Following the fat-over-lean rule, above, allows you to think about broad shapes first. In the field an underpainting done with turpentine or OMS will be mostly dry when you start the next layer. Stop frequently to make sure you haven’t lost your darks. If you have, restate them.

Dark to light: This is only important for oil painters. Acrylic painters can proceed any way they want, as long as they’re using opaque paint. And, of course, watercolor works (generally) in the opposite direction.

In oils, it’s easy to paint into dark passages with a lighter color; the reverse is not true. This doesn’t mean oil painters don’t jump around after we set the darks; we can and do.

Cris Metcalf accepted the challenge of painting white-on-white.
Don’t choose slow-drying or high-stain pigment to make your darks. The umbers are great because the manganese in them speeds drying. However, I don’t want to carry an extra tube just for this. I use a combination of burnt sienna and ultramarine.

Draw slow, paint fast: This isn’t a classic tenet; it’s something my student Rhea Zweifler coined in my class years ago. Nevertheless, it’s a great rule.  

Kathy Mannix created a broad chromatic range with a small selection of pigments.
Taking time over your drawing allows you to be looser and more assured in your painting. Do value studies and sketches before you commit to color. Your mind needs time to think about the shapes it sees. Spend that time in the drawing phase, when ideas are easy to assess. Otherwise, you will be doing it on canvas, where your mistakes are more difficult to clean up.

Don Fischman finished this Fantasia at home.
Value studies and sketches allow you to be inventive. When you’ve only spent three minutes on a sketch, you don’t lose much by throwing it out. Drawing and value studies at the beginning actually speed you up, rather than slow you down.

Note; I'm sorry I didn't get photos of all the work, which was excellent. I can either take pictures or teach, but not both!

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Welcome back to the Flower City

I’ll be teaching at Highland Park this afternoon. A break in the rain is a fine welcome-home.

Spring at Highland Park, Carol L. Douglas
Even though I’ve taught at Highland Park in Rochester countless times, I still needed to pace through it to determine the best place for my class. It’s chock-full of specimen plants. When they bloom depends on many factors besides the calendar date, as the organizers of the Lilac Festival know. This year, they were dead to rights. The festival (which closed this weekend) and the lilacs lined up perfectly.

Lilacs, like all mauve or blue flowers, make a difficult focal point for a painting. They recede just when they’re asked to take center stage, so they need architecture to support them. This the park doesn’t offer. Its lilacs are planted en masse, in a sloping forest, designed to overwhelm the wanderer with sight and smell.

Lilacs are beautiful, but they need an architectural foil to compensate for their color. (Painting by Carol L. Douglas.)
I looped through all my favorite haunts: the pinetum, the rhododendrons and azaleas, around the reservoir. With each turn, I remembered prior classes—Gwendolyn arriving from hospital in her robe, Sam eating a huge fried turkey leg among the flowers, Teressa wailing in frustration and then nailing a perfect drawing. Highland Park was the center of my teaching practice for many years.

The park was started on a twenty-acre parcel given to the city by George Ellwanger and Patrick Barry of Mount Hope Nurseries. It came with restrictions, but also with the gift of plantings from what was then a world-class nursery. Landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted didn’t want the gig because the site didn’t include a natural water feature, but he relented when Seneca and Genesee Valley Parks were thrown in.

Highland Park Pinetum, Carol L. Douglas
What Highland Park does have is glacial topography. It sits atop Pinnacle Hill, a terminal moraine in an otherwise flat landscape. Olmsted used this to create the illusion of wilderness in this most urban of parks.

The Lake Plain on which Rochester is located is sopping wet during the best of years, and the city has been breaking rainfall records all spring. Plants are enormous and healthy. The result is a jungle-like shagginess. I was reminded that much of my gardening work in the so-called Flower City involved hacking back plants to keep them in some kind of control.

I stopped to see the gardens at St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, which I designed and planted (with much help, of course) back in the day. The gardeners-in-chief, Michael and Kathy Walczak, were hard at work replanting canna lily tubers. I then drove by my old house, and was pleased to see my plantings looking well.

Redbud blossoms, Carol L. Douglas
Gardens are cooperative art. Once you hand them over, you’ve ceded control.

There’s a break in the rain forecast for today, and Rochester’s normally heavy skies are expected to clear. I’ll be teaching this afternoon at my favorite spring spot of all, the path along the Poet’s Garden where the peonies meet the magnolias. It’s a fine welcome-home from my former town.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Olana mucks up

Is there anyone in America who doesn’t understand that white colonists were bad? How does pissing on Frederic Church’s front lawn help?

Photo courtesy of Jamie Williams Grossman.
OVERLOOK: Teresita Fernández confronts Frederic Church at Olana opened on May 17. I like the management of Olana, which is very welcoming to landscape artists, so I feel badly writing this. But Jesús Rafael Soto’s installation on the lawn violates the work of art closest to Frederic Edwin Church’s heart—Olana itself.

By 1876, Church—the most successful artist of his day—was crippled by rheumatoid arthritis. Compensating, he poured his heart into the design of the house and grounds at Olana, shaping the landscape as a frame for magnificent views of the Hudson and far Catskills. Obliterating the views with a cascade of urine-colored plastic defaces his vision.

Photo courtesy of Jamie Williams Grossman.
Olana’s grounds are a mecca for landscape painters. New York Plein Air Painters holds its annual retreat there. The historic site holds an annual plein air painting event. Many artists, including my friend Jamie Williams Grossman, who took these photos, visit there regularly to paint.

“Fernández seeks to respond to their interpretations and biases through a conversation about a deeper sense of these varied American cultures, contesting the iconic view of the ‘American Landscape’ painting tradition constructed by Church and his peers that often omitted or erased other narratives and figures,” read Olana’s press release.

Yawn. The problem with much conceptual art is that its ideas are so often stale. Is there anyone in America who doesn’t understand that white colonists ignored native cultures? How does pissing on Church’s front lawn help?

Of course, the overwriting of culture in South America wasn’t done by Church and his painterly peers. It was done by the rapacious, vicious Spanish, who were the worst of colonists. If the artists in this show want a serious talk about cultural appropriation, they could start by examining their own Hispanic surnames.

Church didn’t paint the people and cultures of South America for the same reason he didn’t paint the Inuit above the Arctic Circle or the settlers at Niagara: he was a landscape painter, interested in natural science. What human habitation exists in his structures is incidental, there to create visual interest.

Because of Church's clever site design, Soto's sculpture mucks up almost every great view from the lawn. Photo courtesy of Jamie Williams Grossman.
He was painting for an audience which had little opportunity to understand the New World. Science was beginning to be popularized in the nineteenth century, but it was still very much a gentleman’s pursuit. Mass media was in its infancy.

“The vastness of this continent were yet unrevealed to us,” wrote S. G. W. Benjamin in 1879. “With the enthusiasm of a Raleigh or a Balboa he [Church] has explored land and sea, combining the elements of explorer and artist... Our civilization needed exactly this form of art expression at this period, and the artist appeared who taught the people to love beauty and to find it.”

Olana overlook, approaching sunset, 12X16 oil, by little ol' me. I’ve painted this scene many times, and it never grows old.
“This marks the first time Soto’s immensely popular interactive sculpture will be experienced by the public in a naturalistic setting, and it’s the first time it will be seen on the East Coast.”

It may have been immensely popular in Los Angeles, but it’s obscuring the view in Hudson. I won’t be painting there this season.

Monday, May 22, 2017

In the absence of volcanoes, learn to paint

In the absence of a world-class volcanic event, we can expect a typical, stunning coast-of-Maine summer. What better way to spend it than painting outdoors?


There’s been only one time in American history when summer failed to show up. That was 1816, and it was caused by the eruption of Mt. Tambora in the Dutch East Indies.  It was an event that had spectacular cultural repercussions.

In the northern hemisphere, grain crops failed. There was widespread famine for man and beast alike. Horses starved. That led to the invention of the velocipide, predecessor of the modern bicycle.

Here in the United States, famine spurred the westward expansion. Starving farmers in New England left for western New York and the Midwest, hoping for better weather and richer soil. The cataclysm sparked a religious fervor that created the Burned-Over District of New York. This in turn became a flashpoint for women’s suffrage and abolition.

Mount Vesuvius In Eruption, 1817, J.M.W. Turner
Among those who went west was the family of Joseph Smith, who relocated to sleepy Palmyra, NY with rather spectacular results. Both Smith and his mother were prone to religious visions. Was that God or ergotism from eating spoiled grain?

Particulates in the air led to extravagant sunsets. These in turn influenced the Romanticism of painters like J.M.W. Turner and Caspar David Friedrich.

Incessant rainfall kept Mary Shelley, her lover Percy Bysshe Shelley and their host Lord Byron inside during their Swiss holiday. Bored, they had a contest to see who could write the scariest story. The result was Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, and the birth of science fiction.

In the absence of a world-class volcanic event, we’ll have to settle for a typical, stunning coast-of-Maine summer: fresh breezes, blue skies and the soft susurration of the surf on our great, grey granite coast.

My next session of weekly classes starts on May 30. We meet on Tuesdays from 10 AM until 1 PM, until July 11 (skipping neatly over Independence Day). There are two slots open for this session, so if you are interested in taking one, please let me know. The fee is $200 for the six-week session.

Neubrandenburg, 1816-17, Caspar David Friedrich
The goal is intensive, one-on-one instruction that you can take back to your studio to apply during the rest of the week. We’ll cover issues like design, composition, and paint handling. We will learn how to mix and paint with clean color, and how to get paint on the canvas with a minimum of fuss.

And, yes, we’ll talk about drawing. If you ever want to paint anything more complicated than marshes, you must know how to draw. As I’ve demonstrated before, any person of normal intelligence can draw; it’s a technique, not a talent. And it’s easy to learn, no matter what you’ve been led to believe.

Unless the weather is inclement, we’ll paint at outdoor locations in the Rockport-Camden-Rockland area. Painting outdoors, from life, is the most challenging and instructive exercise in all of art. It teaches you about light, color and composition.

That, of course, limits the media you work in to oils, watercolor, acrylics, or pastel, since they’re what is suitable to outdoor painting.

After that, I hit the road in earnest. My summer schedule includes events in Nova Scotia, Maine and New York. (As I tell my family, if you want to know my schedule, you can find it here.) 

For more information about my classes, see here, or email me here.

Friday, May 19, 2017

The mystery of the missing boats

There is no shortage of painting subject matter in Nova Scotia or New Brunswick.

Levitating Lobster Boats of Alma, NB, by Carol L. Douglas
Where other rural places have spare cars, here in coastal Maine you’re likely to find spare boats on jackstands. Boats are so ubiquitous that they blend into the landscape. Last winter Howard Gallagher found one wrecked along the roadside. I think he bought it.

Nova Scotia has a storied boat-building history. Parrsboro was once a port and shipbuilding region; old photos show a waterfront littered with boats. The famous ghost ship Mary Celeste was built near here, at Spencer’s Island. Bluenose was built on the Atlantic side, in the boatbuilding yards at Lunenberg.

Parrsboro harbour seems to be silted in.
I’m painting at the Parrsboro International Plein Air Festival next month. It was almost on our way home from Digby, if by “almost” you mean doubling your mileage.

In any new town, I usually start reconnoitering at the harbor. Parrsboro’s is silted in, with a sinuous rose-colored channel and mud flats, but no wharves or fishing fleet. This area is famous for its beaches, and I suppose Mother Nature gets wild when it starts flinging sand.

There are also dramatic headlands, lighthouses, and blueberry barrens. You could throw paint in any direction and create a masterpiece.

There's no shortage of painting subjects.
The plein air painter’s second favorite task is searching out new places to paint. After stopping to meet Parrsboro Creative’s Executive Director, Robert More, we started the serious business of shunpiking. Maine painter Mary Sheehan Winn summers in Parrsboro. She texted us directions.

There were no boats until we reached Advocate Harbour. This tiny hamlet is so isolated that in the clear summer light it looks and feels like Newfoundland or the Scottish Hebrides. Its small fishing fleet is cross-tied to a seawall so that the boats are grounded on their keels in the mud as the water drops. They can only come or leave at the mercy of the tide. That must make for long work days.

Since Canada’s national parks are free for their national sesquicentennial, I suggested to Bobbi that we head home through Fundy National Park. She was interested in seeing Hopewell Rocks.

The last time I was here was at high tide. Mary and I had gotten lost looking for the Cape Enrage lighthouse during our Trans-Canada Painting Adventure. Here I was, once again, trying to find my way while the tide inexorably covered the things for which I was searching. Coming across a causeway, Bobbi and I both stopped short.

“Boats!” cried Bobbi.

“I’ve painted here before!” I shouted.

The beautiful fleet at Alma, NB.
We were in Alma, NB, where I painted my last painting in Canada last fall: a terrific, tired fail of levitating lobster boats. Alma is a wonderful working harbor, the home port of North America’s first female sea-captain, Molly Kool.

We even managed to make Hopewell Rocks before they were swamped.  Alas, it was evening, time to head south to the border and home. I leave again this evening, heading west to New York. It’s summer, and that’s how we roll.

Postscript: this morning we realized that Baby Wipes take dead bugs off windshields. I wish I’d realized that last night when I was rolling sightless through moose country.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Seafood, saltwater and a Fata Morgana mirage

We round the Bay of Fundy to Parrsboro, and paint at fantastic Point Prim.

Cobequid Bay Farm, by Carol L. Douglas
Alas, there were no Digby Chicks to be had at the fish market. We consoled ourselves with an omelet of Digby scallops and locally-sourced bacon, with Poppy Balser’s own fresh-baked bread.

Poppy—who’s also a licensed pharmacist—went in to the shop, and Bobbi and I walked down to the docks. The Bay of Fundy has the highest tides in the world. They mean the dock ramp has steps, for it’s just too steep to climb at low tide. It’s treaded like a cheese grater and is four flights of stairs in height. Likewise, the marine railway seems to slope down forever.

You wouldn't forget your keys very often if faced with that climb to go back to the car.
We met back up with Poppy at Point Prim lighthouse. Our intention was to paint with genuine Bay of Fundy salt water, but at low tide that meant a perilous scramble down the rocks. Poppy found a tidal pool halfway down the slope, and we settled in to watch our paints precipitate in the salt water.

The long, long marine railway at Digby.
When I was growing up, we would occasionally see a ghost image of Toronto dancing over the open water of Lake Ontario, seemingly just a few miles off shore. Fata Morgana mirages appear over open water just as in the desert. One rose above St. John’s as we painted. It only lasted a few minutes before it vanished in the haze of the horizon.

Mirage over the Bay of Fundy.
Bobbi is studying French. Our comfort stop in the woods, she told us, is called le Pipi Rustique. It’s a necessity of life and it’s frankly more difficult for women than men. “There’s an app for that,” Poppy said, and then dissolved in laughter. To me, the solution seems worse than the problem, since you then have to clean and carry it.

Point Prim, by Carol L. Douglas
We said au revoir to Poppy and headed north along the Evangeline Trail. This traverses some peculiar geology. The Annapolis Basin itself is separated from the Bay of Fundy by a volcanic ridge that trails off into the ocean as Digby Neck. The predominant rocks are basalt. Inland, there are bright red siltstones and soils, and gypsum outcroppings.

Point Prim, by Carol L. Douglas. I do everything I'm told, including value studies.
There’s even gold. Famous Canadian prospector Edmund Horne learned his trade here, in the now-ghost town of Renfrew, Nova Scotia.

When I painted here in mid-October, I’d noticed the peculiar pink of the water, but figured it was a seasonal disturbance. It is the same color now; a lovely rose pink from sediment.

Pink waters off Parrsboro, NS.
In my hometown of Buffalo, NY, Tim Hortons coffee shops are as thick on the ground as they are in Ontario. Bobbi hadn’t had the experience, so we stopped for dinner—a chocolate-glazed doughnut for her, an apple fritter for me.

Meanwhile, Bobbi was perusing her phone. “Our hotel is 100 miles behind us, in Grand-Pré,” she said. Evidently, our booking website couldn’t distinguish between 17 miles over land and the same distance over water. But we landed in clover. The Gillespie House Inn in Parrsboro had an unexpected vacancy. It’s far more genteel than my usual road haunts, and I enjoyed every tiny luxury, including the en suite clawfoot tub.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Repeating yourself

If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing to excess.

A billion tries later, I finally had something that wasn't totally embarrassing.
This is the first workshop I’ve taken in many years, and I’m glad I came to Nova Scotia to do it. Poppy Balser knows her materials. She’s interested in process, not in having us produce something pretty to take home.

If nothing else, I’ve learned that by holding my watercolor brushes like they’re oil brushes, I’m impeding the flow of fluid from their tips. I’ve been using watercolor for six decades and Poppy is the first person who’s pointed that out to me, at least in a way that I could hear.

Yesterday she turned the traditional order of watercolor painting on its head, painting a moody mass of dark spruces and then adding a light, foggy background at the end. I wanted to compare this to painting the same subject in the traditional watercolor way (lights to darks).  I taped two pages to my board, intending to do the two value studies simultaneously.

Fail, fail, fail, fail, fail...
The problem is holding more than two concepts in my brain at the same time. I immediately jumped to color. Whoops.

There were aspects of each technique that I liked, so I drew and painted the subject again. It came out worse.  In fact, each iteration seemed inferior to the one before. Value is everything in watercolor, and mine was heading south quickly.

When you add a new idea to your repertoire, you often forget everything else you know. Mercifully, this amnesia is generally temporary. “Why are you putting water there?” Poppy asked me. Of course, the location of my pool was ridiculous; I’d just wanted an excuse to draw my luscious fat mop brush across my paper and make sparkly water. 
Bobbi repeating herself.
I did about five terrifically bad paintings before I finally took the advice I give all the time as a teacher: when everything is going wrong, go back to first principles. I did the value study I’d intended to start with and then painted the subject again. Of course it came out much better.

Meanwhile, Bobbi Heath was doing exactly the same thing with graduated washes. I looked up and she was surrounded by paper, all bearing images of the same salt marsh.

This is an important principle of workshops and classes: what you’re painting isn’t nearly as important as how you’re painting.

One of Poppy’s other students mentioned not wanting to take the time to do a value study first. Most serious painters do them routinely, either as thumbnail sketches or notans. Drawing first saves time in the end. All your serious thinking is done in the planning stages. It’s less onerous to sketch in monochrome than to wrestle with color while you make value decisions.

Poppy's color choices for her spruces.
By the end of the day, I’d used half of my watercolor block. I had one painting which I am not reluctant to show you. I didn’t realize how tired I was until I was driving home from the workshop and had trouble focusing on the road. Being a student is exhausting.  I need to remember that when I’m teaching.


Today Bobbi and I leave to drive around the Bay of Fundy in slow stages, painting our way home. Meanwhile, Poppy is teaching twice more this season. If you’re interested, you can find information here.