Best Buds

The carousel at Saranac Lake is a community work of art, and part of the town’s renaissance.
Best Buds, 11X14, Carol L. Douglas. I tried to recapture that kaleidoscope feeling of riding on a carousel as a child.
Serendipity is a beautiful thing. If I hadn’t stopped at Saranac Lake Artworks to collect a 5×7 canvas for the silent auction, I’d have painted from Route 3 looking down on the village. Instead, I decided to stop by and see the carousel, since I was downtown anyway. I’d heard it features local animals. I thought that I might like to bring my grandkids up someday. Instead, I found inspiration for a very happy painting.
The Adirondack Carousel, courtesy of
Saranac Lake is on the upswing these days, with the newly-renovated Hotel Saranac and a $10 million economic development grant from the state. But the carousel is also part of this trend, very popular among locals and visitors. It’s a story of how art helps transform communities.

Local woodcarver Karen Loffler read about a tiny Northwestern children’s carousel fitted with four woodland animals and filed the thought away. During a visit to the Herschell Carrousel Factory Museum in North Tonawanda, it sprang back again, but this time in the form of a classic American carousel from the last century.
Sandra Hildreth has to tell me why my buddy has colored teeth.
“I just thought, why can’t we build one in Saranac Lake?” she toldthe Syracuse Post-Standard. Well, lots of people have such big ideas; few can muster others to get it done.
In 2001, Karen met with a group of local residents, who promptly formed a non-profit board to bring the idea forward. It took twelve years, countless volunteer hours, and $1.3 million in fundraising. In 2006, the Village of Saranac Lake donated land for the carousel’s home at William Morris Park. Ground was broken in 2011, and it officially opened in 2012. It’s a 3600-square foot space that includes the carousel, a gallery, workshop, store and classroom. There’s a playground outside in the park.
Raccoon and skunk are fellow banditos. The animals are often paired in delightful ways.
The result is indistinguishable in craftsmanship from the great carousels once produced in North Tonawanda. Yet it’s distinctly local, and clearly beloved by children. Many of them stopped by to see what I was doing. “Look, Mom! She’s painting John Deer!” they exclaimed.
A very red squirrel, bald eagle, and a bouncing fox.
The pavilion has 24 handcrafted wildlife animals, eighteen of which are on duty at any one time. Do I have a favorite? How could I, when they’re all so perfect? (You can see them here.) I think the black bear, decked out in the colors of the Hudson’s Bay Company point blanket, captured my attention first. Later, I read that it had been painted by my pal Sandra Hildreth. But each animal has its particular charms—except maybe the black fly.
A loon with a lily-pad saddle.
There’s a wheelchair accessible ride in the form of a Chris Craft boat. The overhead scenes of Saranac Lake were painted by local artists, as were the floral medallions. A local blacksmith made the weathervane, and a local carpenter built the ticket counter. The building was painted and stained by volunteers. The result is distinctly local, happy, and very Adirondack.
Bunny is beautiful, but Porcupineoh, my!
The ride never stops in the same place, so I was better off painting it while it turned. I’ve painted a ride in motion once before, a Tilt-a-Whirlat Seabreeze Amusement Park in Rochester, NY. There is a rhythm of looking that works for a constantly-revolving object. Of course, after several hours of this, my head was spinning.
The girl is a complete invention, vaguely reminiscent of a kid I know in Maine named Meredith Lewis. I debated on the title for quite a while, finally settling on Best Buds. Even if my girl is riding the otter, her heart belongs to John Deer.

How long did Van Gogh take to complete a painting?

The modern plein air movement is only about 30 years old. How is it changing art?
Not nearly finished…36X24.

I worked on one painting all day yesterday, carefully, methodically and in a focused manner. The Adirondacks are in an unstable weather phase, so I was forced off my dock three times by electrical storms. Still, I spent a solid six hours on this one painting. I expect it will take that much again to finish—if I get that time without another storm.

This is a new approach for me. I’m working bigger, slower, and more deliberately. Rushing to make many small works sometimes like writing postcards. The difference makes me wonder how plein air events shape the way we work.
Rocky, for Cape Elizabeth Land Trust, took me 2.5 days to finish.
It’s easy to forget how new modern plein air culture is. In 1985, painter Denise Burns formed Plein-Air Painters of America (PAPA). The next year, her group started an annual exhibition on Santa Catalina Island. The discipline has exploded in popularity with both artists and collectors. Plein air painting is accessible and comprehensible. The Art Establishment may look down on it, but the typical punter loves it.
Today there are hundreds of these events nationwide. There are also nomads whose profession is to participate in them. But these events are very different from getting together with your pals at the town park. For example, I never would have forced my work through a line of storm squalls if I were at home. I could return when the light matched my start, rather than struggling to finish in sub-optimal conditions. In fact, I could work an hour a day for a week on one painting, if I wanted to. None of these options are available for the event painter. We must work fast.
Towering Elms, for Castine Plein Air, only took me half a day.
Festival deadlines give rise to a fast landscape style as inexorably as the Internet has given rise to the 500-word blog post. 
According to the Van Gogh Museum, Vincent Van Gogh “put a great deal of preparation into The Potato Eaters, his first large figure study, working on dozens of preparatory studies. The final painting took ‘many days’ to complete, spread over a longer period of time. However, during the last two months of his life in Auvers-sur-Oise, Vincent completed a painting every day.”
Clearly, that kind of pace can drive you nuts.
Dry Wash, for Santa Fe Plein Air, took the better part of a day.
As a youth, John Constable was a dedicated rambler, sketching in the Suffolk and Essex countryside. These scenes, he said, “made me a painter, and I am grateful.” But this was a low-brow form of education for the time, and the art establishment suggested he not give up his day job. Constable always maintained a strict division between his loose field sketches and his finished paintings.
Paul Cézanne, of course, didn’t have a car to dump his gear into and go. Instead, he painted Mont Sainte-Victoire more than eighty times, from various vantage points. Most frequently, he worked from what is now known as the Terrain des Peintres. It was close to his studio. 
Tom Thomson was transformed into a landscape painter through his intimate relationship with Algonquin Park. His patron, Dr. James MacCallum, said that Thomson’s paintings “made me feel that the North had gripped Thomson as it had gripped me since I was eleven when I first sailed and paddled through its silent places.”
The modern plein airpainter doesn’t generally develop that deep relationship with a particular place. On the other hand, we are forced to paint very fast, and that often results in a different kind of energy and verve. And it’s always fresh. We, like our society, are constantly on the move. That’s making a new kind of art.

Reality show

The plein air circuit is full of intrigue and drama, but it’s with Mother Nature, not each other.
Green on green at the VIC, 12X9, Carol L. Douglas. I’m sorry about the terrible lighting in today’s photos.

Chrissy Pahuckithinks there should be a reality show about the plein air circuit. I don’t know that we could gin up enough conflict, although there’s always drama. Sure, John Slivjak is occasionally seen with a beautiful blonde, but everyone knows that’s his wife.

We do our real fighting with Mother Nature. There doesn’t seem to be much energy left for personal conflict. Even though we’re directly competing for prizes and sales, there’s no kneecappingin our sport.
According to contemporary media culture, Lisa BurgerLentz and I should not be friends. She’s liberal and gay, while I’m conservative and evangelical. However, we each have a kid in college, are suffering the same milestone birthday this year, and can’t remember where we put anything. Our inner commonality outweighs our outer differences. I think this is true for most Americans. We may argue on Facebook, but in person, we like each other. The widening gyreis assigned to us by others.
Boreal Life Trail at the VIC, 16X12, Carol L. Douglas.
Lisa and I ran into each other in the parking lot of the Paul Smith’s College VIC. The Adirondack Plein Air Festivalsets aside one day for us to concentrate on painting here, and I’m always eager. The Boreal Life Trail loops through a fen, which is a bog with a stream. It’s lined with tamarack and black spruce. There are orchids, carnivorous plants, and all manner of other strange and wonderful plants. It’s very Arctic in character, which is why it’s one of my favorite places on earth.
We were interviewed there by Todd Moe of North Country Public Radio. He initiated no reality-show skirmishes, concentrating on why we were there instead. The interview airs Friday between 8 and 9 AM, on The Eight O’Clock Hour.
“We should have talked in funny accents,” I lamented later.
“I think you did,” said Lisa. I was born in Buffalo, and you could grind glass with my flattened vowels.
One that got away. I was driving past Lake Clear when I saw this.
I intended to head over to the Wilmington Flume after lunch, but got sidetracked before I even left the fen. This part of the trail is forested, but still on a boardwalk. The earth is still very soggy, as I learned after dropping my glasses into the bog.
“Green on green, heartache on heartache,” I sang. Painting under the forest canopy can be a mess waiting to happen. There is no obvious focal point, no value changes, and no color temperature changes. Everything just glows an unearthly green.
A very unfinished nocturne by little ol’ me.
At my age, a 7:30 PM bedtime seems reasonable. Nocturnes always seem to drag for me. Lisa and I set up on opposite sides of Main Street to paint the glowing Hotel Saranac sign. Rumor around town is that they have the sign wired so they can make it appear to have bulbs out. The result reads “Hot Sara.”
It was midnight before I dragged myself up to bed. In the wee hours, an electrical storm moved across Kiwassa Lake. It was too wonderful to ignore, so I watched it. Another day dawns, and this one is starting to brighten. Keep your powder dry, fellow painters. We still have four more days to go.

No gas in the tank

Four women and a set of jumper cables. Friends helping friends.
Approaching the bridge, 12X16, Carol L. Douglas (unfinished, because I have to knock down the gold in them there trees)

At Parrsboro in June, I met my friend Crista Pisano on the beach. She was tired, in a strange environment, and having a frankly bad day. “I got nothin’,” she lamented to me. It happens to everyone, and all you can do is commiserate. (She went on to do great work, by the way. That feeling is usually fleeting.)

That shouldn’t have happened to me here in Saranac Lake. I’d had a good night’s sleep. I know this area well. And yet I wrong-footed everything yesterday. I drove fruitlessly up and down the highway east of Lake Placid, feeling as if someone had moved everything I loved.
The essence of the Adirondacks is:
  • Water
  • Mountain
  • Atmospherics
  • Boulders
  • Spruces and pines
  • Man’s footprint

My goal this week is to pile as many of them as possible into a single painting, but it certainly didn’t start off well.

I finally settled on a view from Adirondack LojRoad. The parking lot is a great jump-off point if you want to pack up Mount Marcy, but I’d need a mule for all my gear.
I painted looking down at a small bridge that crosses a tributary of the Ausable River. It was lovely but I was twitchy. Crista Pisano stopped by and I showed her the abandoned diagonal in my value sketch. “Put it back in,” she suggested, very reasonably. She pottered off to paint Avalanche Pass and I headed back to town for the Artist Reception at the Hotel Saranac. It’s quietly swank after its recent renovation.
Detouring through Lake Placid, I realized I couldn’t find any of my lovely painting spots because I was on the wrong road. The west branch of the Ausable River is lovely in its own way, but it never hits the high notes of the main stream.
I wasn’t willing to guess which one was hot.
I was chatting with old friends over prosecco and hors d’oeuvres when Crista called. “My battery’s dead,” she said. My Prius couldn’t jump a kid’s electric ride, so Chrissy Pahucki, her daughter Samantha and I headed out on a rescue mission. Chrissy’s nifty hybrid Highlander has all kinds of on-board displays, including a tire-pressure gauge, which told us that tire number two—whichever that was—was getting very low.
Still, first things first. Crista was in the dark in bear country without prosecco.
I know how to attach jumper cables, but was surprised to learn that Samantha, age 17, did as well. “My dad showed me,” she said. That’s a world-class dad.
Samantha and her intrepid mother.
Unfortunately, Christa’s battery didn’t have the poles clearly marked. Reversing the polarity is dangerous for both the cars and the people making the mistake, so, while I had an idea, I don’t like guessing. I called my husband and asked him to search for a diagram on the internet. Meanwhile, Chrissy paged logically through the owner’s manual.
“How to charge a dead battery, page 173,” she read. There was the picture we needed. We were so charged up—ahem—by our success that we stopped in Lake Placid and figured out the slow leak in Chrissy’s tire.
There is nothing so fine as an outdoor shower.
I drove back to my cabin and had a late-night outdoor shower. An unknown creature was baying and the rain hitting the roof lulled me to sleep. Who cares if I’ve forgotten how to paint? This is heaven.

Monday Morning Art School: how to be painterly

Bravura brushwork rests on a foundation of practice and skill.
Wheatfield with Crows, 1890, Vincent Van Gogh, courtesy Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
“Painterly” describes a painting that is comfortable in its own skin. It uses the paint itself to create movement and expression. It’s a quality found in every medium; even sculpture is sometimes described as painterly. Painterly works are loose and emotive, and they lead with their brushwork.
This is a sensual, rather than intellectual, quality. It comes from experiencing the paint itself. You’re there when you no longer fight the paint, but work with it. It’s the opposite of photorealism, where the artist works hard to conceal all evidence of his process. A painterly painting doesn’t fuss over the details.
Does that mean it must be impasto? No. Peter Paul Rubens, JMW Turner and Joaquín Sorolla were all painterly painters, and none of them wallowed in paint. There are many fine contemporary painters who work thin and expressively.
Cloud study, watercolor over graphite, 1830–35, John Constable, courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We don’t usually think of Constable as painterly, but he was in his plein air work.
The term “painterly” was coined in the 20th century by art historian Heinrich Wölfflin. He was trying to create an objective system for classifying styles of art in an age of raging Expressionism. The opposite of painterly, he felt, was “linear,” by which he meant paintings that relied on the illusion of three-dimensional space. To him this meant using skillful drawing, shading, and carefully-thought-out color. Linear was academic, and painterly meant impulsive.
That didn’t make the Old Masters inevitably linear, however. Rembrandt and Lucian Freud are both painterly painters. Richard Estesand Sandro Botticelliare both linear.
Today, we don’t see accurate drawing as an impediment to expression. In plein air work, acute drawing is often overlaid with expressive brushwork. The idea of painterliness—of being loose and self-assured—is treasured even as we strive for accuracy.
House in Rueil, 1882, Édouard Manet, courtesy National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
How do we develop painterliness?
First, master the fundamentals. “You can practice shooting eight hours a day, but if your technique is wrong, then all you become is very good at shooting the wrong way,” said basketball great Michael Jordan. “Get the fundamentals down and the level of everything you do will rise,” he said. That’s very true of painting, where there is a specific protocol for putting paint down.
Then practice, practice, practice. “I’m not out there sweating for three hours every day just to find out what it feels like to sweat,” said Jordan.
Expect failure. It comes with pushing your technique. “I have missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I have lost almost 300 games,” said Jordan. “On 26 occasions I have been entrusted to take the game winning shot… and missed. And I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
Beach at Valencia, 1908, Joaquín Sorolla, courtesy Christie’s
You can’t teach yourself to be relaxed; you can only get there through experience. The only way to be painterly is to paint. I can show you expressive brushwork techniques, but there are still no shortcuts. It happens automatically and naturally with experience. You stop focusing on the mechanics, and start focusing on what you see. Your eye is on the ball.
Many times, artists only realize their painterly styles in old age. That is when Titianstarted painting in blotches, in a style that came to be known as spezzatura, or fragmenting. “They cannot be looked at up close but from a distance they appear perfect,” wrotethe Renaissance art critic Giorgio Vasari. Rembrandt is another painter who started out painting precisely but ended up loose. Édouard Manet is still another. In fact, the list is inexhaustible.
Vincent Van Gogh is the personification of painterliness. He died at 37, but still managed to produce around a thousand paintings (that we know of).
Bravura brushwork simply rests on the foundation of all those paintings that went before.
I’m at Saranac Lake, prepping for Adirondack Plein Air, which starts this morning. I wrote Extreme Art: Painting inside the Blue Line just for this event. It’s not on my blog, so if you’ve ever been interested in what goes on at a plein air event, enjoy.

Schoodic puts on a show

Acadia was shouting to us: remember to come back, please.
Sunset off Schoodic Point.
One of the things I love about teaching in Acadia National Park is that the weather is generally excellent. The mean August temperature is 67.3° F., with an average 2.9 inches of rain. That’s as close to perfect as one can get for plein air painting.
I’ve come to expect one day of rain during this week in the park, and we got it yesterday. It dawned foggy and dreary with rolling thunder in the distance. I usually save my lecture on color theory for this one rainy day, so we gathered in the pavilion and did a green-mixing exercise across three media. That’s good, useful, technical information, but I’m the first to admit it’s not as much fun as scampering on the rocks next to blowing surf.
Diane Leifheit focused on the fog at Wonsqueak.
The rain cleared off after lunch. We went to tiny Wonsqueak Harbor. This is just an outlet of a brook. It used to have a single disreputable fishing boat in it, but now is just a few empty moorings collecting seaweed. It’s anything but boring. The channel is lined with rosy-pink granite rocks and deep spruces. Spruce Point and myriad ledges play peekaboo in the mist.
Trees at Frazer Point by Linda Delorey.
Across the channel, a man in wellies collected mussels for his dinner. I watched him working, musing on a small coda I might add to the story of Creation. God created the Continents using a rolling pin. As he got to the edges, the crust inevitably began to crumble, as pie crusts do. He put deep piles of top-soil on his creation, and it tapered off at the edge, as can happen with toppings in baking. The North Atlantic coast was kind of an afterthought, filled with detritus—tumbles of rock, lousy topsoil, spruce trees.
God created Man, and he put him in the most gardenlike spot on the Continent in order that Man might have a life of ease and pleasure. Instead, Man immediately wandered off to the coast.
“Why?” asked God. “I gave you everything you need in Des Moines, Iowa.”
“But it’s beautiful here on the edges!” exclaimed Man, “plus the fishing is awesome.” 
Wonsqueak rocks by Becky Bense.
Three of my students painted the exact same view of rocks across the channel. I’ve included them here, because their paintings are a lesson in how differently each person sees. We worked fast, because soon enough it was time for our lobster bake, followed by blueberry cobbler with fresh whipped cream. In August, Maine is a foodie paradise.
Wonsqueak rocks by Claudia Schellenberg.
As we left our feast, the clouds were piling in the sky to the west. We were headed for our final critique when two students disappeared. “Come to the Point, now!” they frantically texted. It took a bit of convincing, but we careened down to Schoodic Point in our cars. 
Wonsqueak rocks by Jennifer Johnson.
There, on the lee side of the storm, was the most fantastic sky ever. We stood there in awe until a last smattering of raindrops urged us on our way. Schoodic was shouting to us: remember to come back, please.
I teach this workshop every August. If you’re interested in the 2019 program, email me.

Devilishly difficult in the details

Color theory is a great place to get caught up in what you know versus what you see.
Schoodic fog-bow.
It was a splendid North Atlantic morning, looking more like November than August. The horizon was obscured in sea smoke. The rocks at Schoodic Point were covered with gulls who either felt a weather event in the offing or were sick of work. There was an onshore breeze and thunderheads building over Cadillac Mountain.
Plein air painting requires, above all, flexibility. I’d had a different plan for Wednesday, but everyone should spend one day painting the sheer magnificence of Schoodic Point, and today’s weather forecast is iffy. I swapped my plans as well as our location. Instead of teaching about believable greens, I concentrated on the color of light.
Visitors to Schoodic inevitably stop and stare. It’s stupefaction in the face of overwhelming power. 
On a day with a sea fog, all color theory goes out the window. What is the color of light when you are enveloped in a blanket of thick, peaceful, fluffy wool? It’s grey, sometimes tempered with pink, sometimes with blue, but ever-changeable. There’s a lot to leave to the imagination in such a setting. I sometimes paint the fog pale violet, because I like that color, but I don’t want it to become a gimmick.
There are three components to color: hue, saturation and value. They’re all the artist has to lead his viewer through his story, develop points of emphasis, and drive the eye.
I demo through the lunch hour at my workshops…
Value – How light or dark is the paint?
Hue – Where does the color sit on the color wheel? All colors fall into one of the following hue families: red, orange, yellow, green, blue and violet. Within those families, however, are many subdivisions.
Chroma – How much intensity, or “punch” does the color have? A red geranium flower is high-chroma, a fog bank is low-chroma.
That sounds so sensible and neat on paper, but it gets messy on the canvas. The same is true of the color of light.
When the whole visible light spectrum strikes your eye at the same time, you perceive white. In the real world, this doesn’t happen. What you see is always filtered by our atmosphere.
Which is why I was so angry at the gull who thumped me in the shoulder and stole my sandwich from my lips. Rude.
It’s easy to see the gold and peach light of sunset, or the cold light of midday, but what is the color of fog? It’s often a cool, desaturated blue-grey, but that isn’t always true. It depends on the direction you’re looking and the time of day.
Color theory is a great place to get caught up in what you know versus what you see. When that happens, try to understand why it’s not working the way you thought it would. Then paint what you see, or, better yet, paint what you feel.

That pesky style thing

Painting, at its best, is about honesty and truth-telling.

Winter Harbor lighthouse with Cadillac Mountain, by Becky Bense.

Yesterday, one of my students heaved a great sigh and told us about a girl she knew when she was in school. “She could draw these fine, detailed, curlicued things. And here I was, drawing these big, massive shapes. Of course, she was the art teacher’s pet.”
I immediately imagined this kid in my mind’s eye, her blonde hair lightened with Sun-In, parted in the middle and sweeping back like Farrah Fawcett’s. (She probably didn’t look like that, but that was the style of the girl who held the whip-hand back in the 1970s.) I laughed, because my student—who is, like most of my students, also a friend—is none of the above. She’s whip-smart, rock-solid, organized, and fiery. Her drawing reflected that even as a kid.
Mt. Desert Narrows, by Jennifer Johnson
That should be the primary stylistic goal of painters—not to paint like someone else, and certainly not to leave a workshop painting like me. Style, in my opinion, is the gap between the internal vision you have and what actually comes out of your brush. It’s a shifting thing, because your skills are (hopefully) constantly improving.
We’re all group normed in a million decisions, whether it’s how we dress, where we live, or what we choose to do for a living. That’s true of painting as well, something I wrote about here. It happens whenever you bring your work to a gallery, participate in a plein air event, or even compare work with another artist. We’re herd animals and we feel most comfortable when we fit in.
Winter Harbor lighthouse, by Claudia Schellenberg
On the other hand, we’re also products of our time. In the 20th century, that meant painting anxiety, angst, fear of the Bomb, world war. Those things radiate through the great artists of the past century. The spirit of the times in the 21st century is still open for discussion, of course; we’re barely there.
Before I do a workshop, I look up my artists online to get an idea of their skill level and where they might want to go. (I also ask about what they want to learn.) In general, plein air attracts an intrepid type of person; they can’t be too fearful and want to deal with the inconveniences of working in the woods. But beyond that, people are a constant surprise.
Rocks by Linda Delorey
It would be easy to tell them, “do it this way,” and create a miniature Carol Douglas. I don’t want to do that, however; I want to explain the process of applying paint and then give them their heads. But I can’t help them advance if I don’t know what they’re looking for. That comes back to the question of honesty in painting.
Coastline by Diane Leifheit
Another student, following up on this subject of truth-telling, asked me what I think of Pablo Picasso. I can find something to like in almost all art. However, Picasso is a closed door to me. I think it’s a question of his honesty, which reveals his character, and that I don’t seem to like very much. This is not because of his biography; I’ve never read very much about him. It’s what comes through in his paintings. That’s a sign of his power as a painter.

Schoodic, full of surprises

Like the porpoises gamboling in Frenchman Bay, we had fish for dinner. Ours was a curry.

Norris Island from Frazer Point, by Diane Leifheit

In Maine, you can see a long way. The building across the channel at Frazer Point is clear enough to count the windows, but it’s 750 feet away. The little channel to the west, which appears to be inconsequential, is more than 600 feet across. Mark Island, where the Winter Harbor light sits, is more than 3000 feet across the Mount Desert Narrows of Frenchman’s Bay. The little islands that play peek-a-boo as you drive the ring road may be nearly a mile offshore.

All this plays havoc with your sense of perspective. You know intellectually that buildings must have it, but you don’t actually see it. As I wrote last week about boats, the farther away an object is, the more horizontal our gaze is as we look at it. Our measly 5 or 6 feet in height is nothing compared to the great distances involved.
This photo of the Winter Harbor Lighthouse shows how, at long distances, the rules of two-point perspective become irrelevant. Courtesy
Just as a far boat’s waterline is completely flat, so too is a building’s roofline. It may be thirty feet above the foundation, but when the building is 3000 feet away, that’s effectively nothing. Everything is effectively at eye level at that distance. That makes the vanishing rays of two-point perspective meaningless.
I’m at Schoodic Institute teaching my annual Sea & Sky workshopand that’s lesson number one for this morning. Lesson two is going to be to stop bustling around and appreciate the deep coolness of the spruces and the ocean breeze. “What a treat to be there,” my friend Barbara told me yesterday. She’s suffering in a heat wave in upstate New York. I’m sorry about that, friend.
Just because it didn’t work is no reason to stop trying.
My last student, Diane Leifheit, arrived just as I was doing a demo in pastel. She had driven across the former Province of Lower Canadafrom Morristown Plein Air. That’s too much driving for overnight, so she stopped at the Herbert Grand Hotel in Kingfield, ME, population 970. I can’t think of a single reason to go to Kingfield, but I might do so just to see this odd, old, antique gem. The lights went out twice during Diane’s stay. I might pay extra for that.
Diane ate a sandwich, set up her easel, and knocked off a lovely little pastel that perfectly captured the mood of the place. We were at Parrsborotogether earlier this summer and will be doing Adirondack Plein Airtogether next week, but she always seems much perkier than me.
They aren’t Derwent pencils, but I think they’ll work just fine.
Still under the influence of Yupo vellum, I’ve been encouraging Becky Benseto take a walk on the wild side. Her answer was to use seaweed and snail shells as brushes. There were a few live snails in her bucket. They objected to the color and crawled off. The goal is not as frivolous as it seems; it’s to get the same controlled energy in her field painting as in her amazing studio paintings.
I sometimes use Derwent watercolor pencils for drawing under oils, a technique I cribbed from my old friend Kristin Zimmermann. Linda Delorey bought Tombow watercolor brush pens instead. After my first surprise I read the label and realized they will work just fine.
The tide came in. Off in the distance, porpoises were cutting their unique arcs toward Winter Harbor and their dinner. It was time for us to go, too, but our haddock was curried, and delicious.

Monday Morning Art School: How to critique work on the internet (and elsewhere)

Stop looking for something brilliant to say; it’s not about you.
Ogunquit, by Carol L. Douglas

My friend likes to make “medieval” artwork through her persona in the Society of Creative Anachronism. If any activity ought to be about pure fun, this is it, but she recently told me about a terribly harsh criticism she received on Facebook. She hadn’t asked for advice, but she got it anyway. The message she heard wasn’t about something she could do better. It was that this so-called expert was a cruel jerk.

In general, this is my rule for critiques over the internet: don’t. Comments are irrevocable once they’re out there in cyberspace. Your tone can’t modify or soften your words. You can’t really see the work, and while a thumbnail may tell you a lot about composition, it is silent about paint handling, mark-making, and scribing.
Historic Fort Point, by Carol L. Douglas
When I am asked for a comment, I talk about what I admire, reserving more thoughtful critiques for my classes and workshops. However, someone will occasionally press and want more specific criticism. At that point, I take the conversation to private messaging or email. It’s too easy for public internet conversations to devolve into a cruel pile-on.
We use the “sandwich rule” in our class. We begin by pointing out something the person did well. We then discuss what might have been handled differently. We finish by pointing out something else that the person did well, so that each session ends on a positive note.
Lunch break, Castine, by Carol L. Douglas
This method has been mocked as “fluffy bun—meat—fluffy bun,” but that misses the point. Most people are all too aware of their failures and not aware of their strengths. Their own self-doubt gets in the way of seeing what is successful in their painting. That needs articulation as much as the negatives do.
St. Paul was one of the most influential people of antiquity. Philippians 4:10-20 reveals a teacher who is affirming, content, flexible and confident. He exhorts, he talks freely of his own challenges, and he’s optimistic. That’s a great model on which to base teaching and criticism.
People are capable of wonderful things, but our society routinely discourages us from daring to be great. When someone disregards all the voices telling them they can’t do something, and they challenge themselves with hard work and dedication, they ought to be encouraged.
Kaaterskill Falls, by Carol L. Douglas
I’m up at Schoodic Institute teaching my Sea & Sky workshop. On Thursday evening, we’ll have a critique session. This isn’t about learning what’s wrong with our paintings. It’s also about learning to read artwork and learning to write artwork that is readable. To this end, we’ll ask some general questions, such as:
  • “What do you notice first? Second?”
  • “Why did you see those things in that order?”
  • “Does this evoke a feeling or response in you?”
  • “What is the point of this work?”

Frankly, there’s enough negativity in this world. If we err, let us err on the side of kindness.