Paint Schoodic

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

Friday, June 30, 2017

Niggling

The things that fizz at the corners of our consciousness are distracting. That’s why I share them with you.

Historic Fort Point, by Carol L. Douglas, painted for Wet Paint on the Weskeag.

Earlier this week, I pondered why artists embrace so much hard work for so little return. This question has niggled at me. As I was careening up the twisting streets of Boothbay Harbor to this week’s destination, I decided that artists are like movie starlets. We need to be at the soda fountain if we’re going to be discovered.

I know one actual starlet, Keren Coghill. As far as I can see, Keren doesn’t spend much time sitting, at the soda fountain or anywhere else. She’s either working, working out or answering audition calls. That’s of course true of successful visual artists as well.

There are no guarantees. We apply to shows or galleries that ought to be slam-dunks, but are rejected. Others are impossibly beyond our reach; inexplicably, they accept us. This isn’t fate. It’s a numbers game. The more places you apply, the more you’ll be accepted. The more shows you do, the more you’ll be seen. The more you’re seen, the more people will buy your work.

Rachel Carson sunset, by Carol L. Douglas, painted for Ocean Park Plein Air.
My relationship with the Kelpie Gallery started with an event I decided to do at the last minute, Wet Paint on the Weskeag. I had 48 hours between the end of my Sea & Sky workshop and a flight to Scotland. Why not plug one more event into that already absurd schedule? Tired and with no expectation of success, I painted well and won the Juror’s Choice Award.

The Kelpie Gallery is holding an artist reception tonight for Summertide at The Kelpie, from 5-7 PM. If you haven’t visited this gallery, it’s a treasure. Owner Susan Baines keeps her stable of artists to a manageable number. The space is light, airy, and well-utilized. It’s at 81 Elm Street in South Thomaston, just down the road from the Owls Head Transportation Museum. Since I’m now one of Sue’s artists, I’ll be there.

Jonathan Submarining, by Carol L. Douglas, painted for Castine Plein Air.
Until then, I’ll be in my studio, trying to figure out if a painting is finished. Some artists love these last brush strokes; I do not. An engineer friend once told me that in most projects, 90% of the effort goes into 10% of the results.

Or, as Tom Cargill of Bell Labs said, “The first 90 percent of the code accounts for the first 90 percent of the development time. The remaining 10 percent of the code accounts for the other 90 percent of the development time.”

I generally like to buy self-help books and put them on my shelf unread, the idea being that I’ll get the message through my credit card statement. It’s better when someone else reads them and tells me the precis.

Boston Post Road Bridge, Mamaroneck, by Carol L. Douglas, painted for Rye Painters on Location.
Bobbi Heath is reading Growing Gills by Jessica Abel. She posits that undone creative ideas are corrosive. They sit in the back of your mind and niggle at you, making you anxious and unproductive.

That is what I think about undone housework and unpaid bills. Are unfinished paintings the same? My studio is full of them. Like most artists, I find finishing work to be the hardest part of painting.

I used to be a font of crackpot ideas, but I’ve noticed that the harder I work, the less I experience off-task mental fizzing. That’s partly because my brain isn’t bored. It’s partly because working at set times trains our minds to concentrate. Whatever the mechanism, it’s a blessed relief.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Slightly sloshy artist gets soaked

The only thing you can predict with certainty about this summer’s weather is that it will rain.

Just slightly soaked, I try again. Photo courtesy of Annette Koziel
Fishermen’s Memorial Park sits above the lobster fleet in Boothbay Harbor. It’s a sobering memorial; the list of lives lost at sea is long and a fresh wreath hangs on its bronze dory.  Behind the park rises the uncompromising white frame spire of Our Lady Queen of Peace Catholic Church, celebrating its centenary this year. Its vaulted ceiling is reminiscent of the ribs of the Ernestina-Morrisey, currently laid open in Boothbay’s shipyard. On the hour, Our Lady’s carillon peals earnest hymns across the water.

Our Lady of Peace Catholic Church.
Bobbi Heath, Ed Buonvecchio and I were meeting to demo for Windjammer Days. We’d planned to grab lunch in town and then paint at the Fire Hall, where a tent was set up for our convenience. However, we’re landscape painters. The best view of all was from the park and the church.

Clearly, everyone else thought so too. The place was mobbed. Late in the morning, one of my students, Jennifer Johnson, stopped by. We were just coming to grips with the idea that we couldn’t leave to get something to eat. Jennifer kindly volunteered to fetch our lunches. The restaurant was closed, so she brought us fresh vegetarian chili made with her own two hands. That, friends, is ‘supporting the arts.’

American Eagle, a tug, and an antique launch... clearly the best view in town.
“It’s going to be a great day,” Jennifer promised me. “No rain on the forecast.” Radar agreed with her. Large fluffy clouds marched in from the west. Our displays of work were set up, we were surrounded by interested people asking intelligent questions, and below us paraded a motley collection of fantastic winged angels, the windjammers for which the festival is named.

A young lad named Ben positioned himself next to me, trying to name the boats as they came in. “It’s just like identifying cars,” I told him. “You figure out the model from its shape and its details. Does it have a topsail? A bowsprit? A racing stripe?”

My sketch. The tide was on the turn, so the boats were swinging.
He was fascinated by the privateer Lynx. It’s an interpretation of an historic privateer built in 1812 to run British naval blockades. Its masts are severely raked, meaning they tilt. This term gives us the modern word rakish.

The boats and their adoring fans moved on. Ropy fingers of moisture started to spill down from the friendly cumulus clouds. “It’s raining there, there, and there,” I said to Ed and Bobbi. We’d barely repacked our gallery when the skies let loose.

Rain, again.
Annette Koziel, a friend and fan from Brunswick, arrived with the rain. She had a tarp in her car. We tossed it over my easel and ran for Bobbi’s car. Artists know that if Nature throws a passing shower, you use the break to find a bathroom.

At the Lobster Dock.
It stopped as quickly as it started. I mopped up and tried again. I picked up my brush and a second shower poured down. I can take a hint, I thought.

Lobster boats at Boothbay (unfinished) by Carol L. Douglas
I had an errand to run in Brunswick, so I headed south, taking me across the giant parking lot that is the Wiscasset bridge. Generally, I do sums in my head when I need to stay alert while driving, but Annette gave me a great tip. A small radio station broadcasts quirky, mid-century standards from an old tidal mill in West Bath. If you’re traveling up Route 1, try tuning your radio to 98.3.

Later, I heard from Jennifer. She was so sure it wouldn't rain that she left her windows open while she ran in the grocery store. Now, that's adventurous.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Everyone should make art

Why spend money teaching kids arts and music when we can drug them into submission?

Not only did yesterday's painting class develop their brains, they watched an osprey family on that nest on the pole.
 As a parent, I skirmished with my kids’ school about doodling. I agreed to an Individualized Education Program (IEP) for my youngest just so they would let him doodle in class. To me it was obvious that doodling helps kids who are stressed from sitting in one place for too long.

A few years ago, I wrote about a teenager arrested for doodling. Sadly, it wasn't the only time it happened.

I tell my students to carry a sketchbook at all times, mostly to help them improve their drawing chops. I draw whenever I’m waiting or listening. I’ve drawn through twenty years of church sermons, and I don’t think it’s damaged my ability to hear what my pastors have said.

Sadly, my kids’ school didn’t agree. Even with an IEP, drawing in class was eventually banned for my son. (The good news is, as an autonomous college student, his grades are great.)

Gwendolyn Linn taught a class within one of my painting classes. Her audience was rapt.
Science tells us that doodling-repression is flat-out wrong. A recently study at Drexel University used fNIRS (functional near-infrared spectroscopy) technology to measure blood flow in the so-called ‘reward pathway’ of the brain while subjects drew.

They were tested while doing three different short activities: coloring in a mandala, doodled within or around a pre-marked circle, and free drawing. All three activities caused an increase in activity in the medial prefrontal cortex.

Of course, the medial prefrontal cortex is not just the ‘happy button’ that gets turned on when you do something enjoyable or misuse drugs. It’s also involved in planning, personality, decision-making and moderating social behavior. Among its more important processes is the development of a sense of self and that Holy Grail of educators, executive function.

Nancy Woogen working on her pre-frontal cortex in my Sea & Sky Workshop a few years ago.
Doodling in or around the circle had the greatest neural impact, followed by free drawing and coloring. Mostly, the differences weren’t significant. The exception was for subjects who self-identified as artists. For them, coloring inside the lines turned out to be a negative experience.
There have been many studies with similar results. Training in drawing is associated with an increase in brain gray matter and changes in the prefrontal cortex. Making art improves the functional connectivity between cortices. Even passive engagement with art helps brain function.
Studies have shown similar positive results on the brain from making and listening to music.

Still, the arts are the orphan stepchildren of our educational system. They’re the first thing cut. But why spend money teaching our kids arts and music when we can drug them into submission?

Corinne Avery rearranging dinghies at another workshop, this time at Camden harbor.
Note: I’m demoing painting today at Windjammer Days in Boothbay Harbor from 1-4 PM. My pals Ed Buonvecchio and Bobbi Heath will also be there, along with my two favorite schooners, American Eagle and Heritage. If you’re free, come see us. You may discover a whole new way of lighting up the neural pathways in your brain.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Why do you do what you do?

It is possible to be a successful woman artist and mother, if one has an exceptional husband, good time-management skills, and an iron will.
Daddy's little helper, 2015, Carol L. Douglas
Yesterday I was reveling in the simplicity of my job. I had planned no deep thinking; it would be a day alone with my brushes.

That never works. “Why do you do what you do?” asked a regular reader.

The easy answer is that it’s the only thing I know how to do. A little honesty compels me to admit that this isn’t entirely true. I can write. I could retire if I want. Clearly, something besides necessity drives me.

In fact, my reader sensed that. “Why do you teach, travel all over the place, produce as much work as you do?” she continued. “Is working at that pace a habit, or something deeper?”

Maternité, 1890, Mary Cassatt. Cassatt, the greatest painter of the mother-child bond, had no children of her own.
Yes, I was raised to work hard, and it’s an ingrained habit. Still, I do take time off. A chance conversation with a Mennonite contractor years ago turned me into a Sabbatarian. He explained what a tremendous gift a regularly-scheduled Sabbath day was. There are a few weekends a year I can’t take off, but in general, you’ll find me working six days and resting on the seventh.

I like painting and I like being on the road. I like the challenge of sizing up new places and trying to reformat them to a 12X16 canvas.

But mostly, I work like this because I can. It’s a pleasure and a shock to be free of day-to-day responsibility for others. Yesterday, I mentioned a Tracey Emin quote about parenting. Here it is in full:

I would have been either 100% mother or 100% artist. I’m not flaky and I don’t compromise. Having children and being a mother… It would be a compromise to be an artist at the same time. I know some women can. But that’s not the kind of artist I aspire to be. There are good artists that have children. Of course there are. They are called men. It’s hard for women. It’s really difficult, they are emotionally torn. It’s hard enough for me with my cat.

When I first started painting full time, another woman artist told me much the same thing. The evidence supported her statement. Most artists (of either gender) in our circle were childless. Those with children also had wives who supported both their family and their art careers.

Mutter mit Jungen, 1933, K√§the Kollwitz. Kollwitz is an exception to rule that says mothers can’t make good artists.

That realization came close to derailing me. I was struggling to make enough time for my kids and art, but the historical reality seemed to be that women with children would always be second-rate painters.

I’m glad I didn’t learn that before the kids were irrevocable. They’re certainly the best work I’ve ever done.

Now that I’m beyond child-care, I think it’s a case where history is not necessarily destiny. Gender roles have changed tremendously in the last century. It is possible for a woman to combine competent child-rearing and any career, provided she has an exceptional husband, good time-management skills, and an iron will.

But the question my reader asked is an important one. There are many easier ways to live. Why do we do what we do?

Monday, June 26, 2017

OC, forget about the D

Neat people get a bad rap in the arts. Still, I think it’s the best way to work.

Bathtime, by Carol L. Douglas
“What my mother would love the most for her birthday,” my daughter once announced, “is for me to go to her house and throw something away.” Immediately, my in-box lit up with suggestions for help with my hoarding problem.

That wasn’t what Mary was saying. In fact, I’m ruthless about order. Buying me something would be a waste of time and money.

I came home from Nova Scotia to ants. There were three different sizes, all darting around the kitchen. “There’s no food lying out,” protested my husband when I suggested that scrubbing might help.

Still life, by Carol L. Douglas
A concatenation of events led to the breakdown of our household standards. I was traveling. Our washing machine is broken, and the new one has been on back-order for weeks. Kids flitted home for the summer. The elderly dog’s incontinence is now the norm.

My husband is also what we currently call a ‘creative’ (he writes software). He purports to be unaffected by disorder. I’m skeptical. Popular wisdom tells us that creatives are messier than average. That doesn’t mean they ought to be.

I can paint without vacuuming the pillbugs in the basement, even though I know they’re there. But if there’s unopened mail or laundry that needs to be folded; I need to deal with it immediately, before I go in my studio.

Still life, by Carol L. Douglas
I haven’t always been this way. The public rooms in my childhood home were neat; the upstairs was a mess. My mother worked full time, had a big house, and raised a slew of kids. I did the same thing, with the same results.

My siblings and I were diagnosed as ‘hyperactive’. Teachers said my kids were ADHD. Too late, I realized that they should really be tagged “children of an over-committed mother.” I started being more tyrannical about cleaning.

Tracey Emin may not be my favorite artist, but she was right when she pointed out that “there are good artists that have children. Of course there are. They are called men.” The amount of work needed to raise children and pursue a career as an artist is overwhelming. It’s even more complicated when your work and living space are jumbled together.

Still life, by Carol L. Douglas
Our ancestors had to be neater than we are. They didn’t live in a throwaway culture. Tools were treasured, so they were oiled and put back as soon as they were used. Spending on food and clothing went from consuming half the family budget in 1900 to less than a fifth in 2000. When something took so much work and effort to acquire, one didn’t treat it lightly.

Today we all wallow in stuff. Many young people have told me they think they’re OCD. That’s just something they say when experiencing the strange compulsion to clean for the first time. “No,” I reply, “you’re anxious because neat is your normal state, but you haven’t embraced it yet. Go clean your room.” Many of those kids haven’t internalized that ‘perfect is the enemy of good,’ nor have they learned how to be organized.

The downside of having a studio in your house is that you can’t just go to the office to escape your home. I struggled through last week, tired and barely meeting my obligations. Finally, on Saturday, we gave the place a thorough cleaning. Suddenly, my energy and the urge to be creative are back again. Fancy that.

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.

Friday, June 16, 2017

And we’re off

The locals were eager to share their million-dollar views and, by the way, did we need a washroom?

Ed and I did multiple value studies trying to sort out our painting sites for today.
The Canadian Maritimes shipbuilding industry dates to 1606, when two small boats were built at Port Royal. The availability of timber and proximity to the sea meant that by the nineteenth century, Nova Scotia’s shipyards were recognized worldwide.

There’s no sign of this boatbuilding industry left today, but Parrsboro built 10 barks, 2 barkentines, 11 brigs, 187 schooners, 1 full-rigged ship, and 41 brigantines. How do I know? At four in the afternoon, while I was sorting photos on my computer, Ed Buonvecchio was reading Parrsboro history.

Meanwhile, Poppy Balser was sitting on a stoop Instagramming and Mary Sheehan Winn was drafting a lobster boat. We were scattered along the harbor but linked by our cell phones.

Ed and I spent the morning doing value studies of possible locations. Because we’re in one car, we needed to agree on our final locations, without a lot of last-minute discussion. We listed the possibilities and then each listed them in order of priority. Our lists ended up being very nearly identical. In the end only one question remained: should we choose the Two Island overlook with the blue roof or the red roof?


Nova Scotians are very friendly. Several stopped to chat as we worked. Inevitably, they suggested that they, in fact, had a better view from their back deck. And, by the way, did we need a washroom?

At one point, I tossed my keys to Ed and took off with a stranger in his Ford F-150, which is the official truck of Canada. I wasn’t overly worried. He’d mentioned that he’d met his hero, George Herbert Walker Bush, several times. A man with such taste had to be trustworthy. He turned out to be charming and witty, and I returned to his property several times, to show it to Poppy and Ed in succession.

Thanks to Mary and her local connections, I’ve learned a lot about Parrsboro in two short days. In addition to her living relatives, she’s related to someone in every cemetery in town. “Aw, hello, Uncle Remus!” she would exclaim as we passed an old burying ground. “Hello, Cousin Louise!” At one point, she jumped from the car and tore crosslots looking for a grave. She caught up with me at the bottom of the hill, breathless. “That was easier than I expected,” she puffed.


That insider information made me smug. “Poppy,” I said when she arrived, “I know absolutely everything.”

“Do you know where the weir is?” she challenged. Fishing weirs are an ancient technology for catching tidal fish, dating back to prehistory. They’re dying out now, but Poppy is a master at painting them. And Parrsboro has one, just across the water from Parrsboro’s hypermodern tidal turbine, which unfortunately failed under the enormous hydraulic pressures of the Bay of Fundy and is being rebuilt this spring.

After we visited the weir, we took off at breakneck speed. I had less than three hours to show her all the sights before we were expected for the opening festivities. We were so short of time that I changed my shirt in the parking lot of the Cape D’or Lighthouse. It was so desolate that I could have had a sponge bath with nobody noticing.


We arrived back in Parrsboro with enough time to wash our faces and hands and scurry in to our appointment. By the time you read this, we’ll be out in Port Greville painting. Can you tell I’m excited?

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Reconnoitering

Research is not a luxury in a plein air event. Planning and preparation are key to success.

The back tracks of Nova Scotia can be a bit rough for an elderly Prius.
Yesterday, Mary Sheehan Winn and I spent more than ten hours tracking back and forth over the same 79 km-mile strip of land between Advocate Harbor and Five Islands. I used to consider this kind of reconnoitering a luxury, because it involved an extra day on the road. I’ve come to realize it’s a necessity. What am I looking for?

Subject: I’m interested in boats, tides, cliffs, rocks, clouds, water, and the small fishing villages that cling to the edges of the sea. That drives me to the outermost points, along the cliffs and the small dirt tracks that run along them. In this part of Nova Scotia, the waterfront is still occupied by people of modest means. Mobile homes share the coastline with old farmhouses.

I wrote earlier that we couldn’t find the fishing fleet at Parrsboro. That is because they tie up on the outside of the public landing, and the tide was down when I was here. With Mary’s help, I found them, but they’ll still be hard to paint. They’re across a wide basin from the closest vantage point.

Near Port Greville, Nova Scotia.
Weather forecast: Unfortunately, the forecast gets wetter and cooler as we approach the weekend. I’ll plan for things which need sparkle for tomorrow, and do things which can tolerate less light on Saturday.

Tide: The tide affects every seascape. This is most true here on the Bay of Fundy, which has the highest range in the world. At low tide, channels cut sinuously through the mud across Parrsboro harbour. At high tide, the town comes sharply into focus across shimmering water. Every possible painting has several permutations.

Angle of Light: Cape Blomidon curls into the Minas Basin like Big Boy’s giant lock of hair. It looms across every vantage point. Its color and clarity depend on the hour. The light can make a mediocre composition shine. For example, Five Islands are too widely spaced to make a good painting from the shoreline. But at the witching hour of dusk, they are lit up by the setting sun.

A lonely lobster boat on a rising tide.
Composition: If you’re not careful, it’s very easy to make an empty painting of the sea. I’m searching relentlessly for a composition that has foreground interest without sacrificing the sense of place.

Moon phase: We’re in a waning gibbous moon, and the sky is going to cloud over as we move forward in the week. If I’m going to do a nocturne, it will be tonight.

Character: Yesterday I was asked if I thought the Minas Basin looked just like Maine. Actually I think it looks more like the Great Lakes. Those red cliffs are the same sandstone that underlies Niagara. Because it’s soft, the scree at water’s edge is worn into flat cobblestones. Part of my examination is to put into words how I know this is the Bay of Fundy, rather than Cape Cod or Wisconsin.

Granite and basalt on much of the North Atlantic coast, but sandstone here.
Permission: I use this prep time to ask people if I can paint on their property. Yesterday, when I did so, a woman told me about a problem in their neighborhood with a rogue black bear. That’s very handy to know.


All the planning in the world won’t make a ‘great’ painting, however, and somewhere I need to build in a few hours to rest before our canvases are stamped and we’re set loose on an unsuspecting public.