It’s not the brushes, kiddo

Brushes are ordinary; it’s what you can do with them that is extraordinary.

Home Port, by Carol L. Douglas, 18X24, oil on linen.
At Castine Plein Air, Ken DeWaard did a small boat painting that I thought was darn near perfect. (I don’t have an image of it, but you can see it at Camden Falls Gallery.) One of the things that struck me was the fluid brushwork. My brushes are getting frayed, so none of my flats are still flat, and many of my rounds are splayed. And, frankly, I abuse them, tossing them in my hot car and forgetting to clean them. I’ve had trouble with my last batch of Robert Simmons signets—the ferrules are loose—so I’m interested in experimenting with something else.
I asked Ken what brushes he’s using. “Some Rosemarys, and some cheap synthetics,” he answered. That made sense. In oils, the trade off with synthetic or soft animal hair is that you get better control, but they carry less paint. You can’t be rudely aggressive with them. But if you want lyrical linework or detail, or want to glaze, they’re unbeatable. I’ve been messing with a Princeton Snap! brush this month. Synthetics have come a long way.
What I was working on while painting with Ken DeWaard on Monday. Another day and I think I’ll be well on the way to finishing.
Monday, Ken and I painted together in Rockport. I took the opportunity to look at his brushes. They’re a saturated, half-hardened mess—even worse than mine. If he can paint that beautifully with those cudgels, I need to stop grumbling about my brushes.
Albrecht Dürer was arguably the most facile brush-wrangler who ever lived. Whether it was in watercolor, as in the Young Hare, or in oils, as in his many self-portraits, he could seemingly lay down every single hair on man or beast’s head. He was famous for this skill all over Europe.
He was in communication with the major Italian artists of his time, including RaphaelLeonardo da Vinci, and Giovanni Bellini. His relationship with Bellini was more than merely professional. Dürer visited Venice twice and developed a friendship with the older man. Bellini was the most famous member of a prestigious family of artists and very influential. He was no slouch with the fine brush himself.
Self-Portrait at Twenty-Eight, 1500, Albrecht Dürer, courtesy Alte Pinakothek, Munich
By Dürer’s second visit, Bellini was at the end of his long life. He extended many professional courtesies to Dürer, not the least of which was introducing the younger man to his own noble Venetian clients.
One day, after carefully examining the head of one of Dürer’s saints, Bellini asked to use the brush that had creating such lifelike hair. Dürer handed the old man the brush in question. Bellini tried it and failed to produce anything fine. Dürer took the brush back, still loaded with Bellini’s paint, and painted a lock of hair so marvelous that the older man said he wouldn’t have believed it had he not seen it with his own eyes.
Doge Leonardo Loredan, after 1501, Giovanni Bellini, National Gallery, London
This story is apocryphal, but makes a true point. Dürer’s brush was ordinary; his abilities were extraordinary. Brushes influence our mark-making, but they don’t control it. Strength, age, experience, personality and patience all play roles in how we lay down paint.
Dürer, by the way, was inordinately proud of his own hair, painting his ringlets in several wonderful self-portraits. I have the same ringlets as that cocky young man had five hundred years ago, and I’m almost as vain about them as he was. But I’ve never painted a self-portrait. Perhaps this winter I should rectify that.

Monday Morning Art School—basic protocol for oil painting

An efficient plan for fast outdoor painting in oils.
Perkins Point, by Carol L. Douglas. All the paintings in this post were done for Castine Plein Air last week.

Often people ask me how we manage to get so many paintings done during an event. We avoid what my friend Brad Marshall called “flailing around.” That means those times when you seem to lose your way. We’ve all done it, when apparently everything we know falls out of our memory. I’ve written a simple protocol to avoid this. If you always work in this order, you’re less likely to flail around. Feel free to print this and tape it inside your paint box.

Glacial erratic, by Carol L. Douglas

1. Set up your palette with all colors out, organized in a rainbow pattern; may be done before going out.

Putting your pigments in the same spots each time speeds up your process. And putting out all of them when you start ensures that you develop the painting based on what you see, rather than on what’s at hand. Be sure to replace a color when you run out, not when you think you’ll next need it.

Lil’ Toot, by Carol L. Douglas
2. Value drawing of the scene in question, in your sketchbook.
If you do this on your canvas and then paint over it, you won’t have it to refer to when the light changes or you need to restate your darks. Keeping it in your notebook means it’s always accessible.
3. Crop your drawing, and identify and strengthen big shapes and movements.
If you start by filling in a little box, you only allow yourself one way to look at the composition. Instead, draw what interests you first, and then contemplate how it might best be boxed into a painting.
Tenney cottage, by Carol L. Douglas
4. Transfer drawing to canvas with paint as a monochromatic grisaille.
This allows you to draw with a brush and check your composition’s values.
5. Underpaint big shapes making sure value, chroma and hue are correct. Thin with odorless mineral spirits (OMS), turpentine, or whatever solvent you generally use.
This underlayer should be thin, but not soupy, so it can accept top layers without making mud. You don’t want added oil or medium in this layer as it can lead to cracking in the future. How much OMS? That varies by the day, but just enough that you can drag your brush without scumbling.

Sunrise, by Carol L. Douglas
6. Second layer: divide big shapes and develop details. A slightly thicker layer.
This is the body of your painting, without a lot of detail. Use almost no OMS, and no painting medium or linseed oil. It’s still too early for impasto. For some painters, this is combined with the last layer.
Water Street, by Carol L. Douglas
7. Third and last layer: use medium and more paint, adding highlights, detail and impasto.
This is the final layer, the one with painterly flourishes. Controlled use of medium here results in an even, bright, tough final surface.

Next week: a basic protocol for watercolor painting.

The maddest, gladdest event of my year

Partying cuts into my painting time, but I’m willing to make the sacrifice.
It’s going to be called Little Toot, if I can find enough time to finish painting the boat in at the top left.
Castine Plein Air is always fun. I see my friends who live here, and many painter friends. Among them is Ben Pahucki, the son of painter Chrissy Pahucki. For years, Chrissy has been bringing her kids to events. This year, Ben took first place in his age group at Easton Plein Air. That’s a stellar accomplishment.
Of course, those of us who’ve watched him grow up are very interested in where he’ll end up. It may be gossip, but we’re talking about him when he’s not around.
Like most young people, he’ll be under strong social pressure to do something other than art—not from his parents, but from educators and his peers. There’s a pernicious lie in our culture that artists can’t make a living. I hear it often when I’m outside working. I just smile and say, “you’d be surprised.”
Laura Martinez Biancotold me a wonderful story from her teaching days. Her principal challenged her about encouraging kids to go to art school. “You were a science teacher, right?” she asked. “Tonight, we’ll each go home and draw up a list—you of people you know making a living in science, me of people I know making a living in art. We’ll see whose list is longer.” The next day, he forfeited. Even though we (properly) emphasize the STEM curriculum, very few people make a living in pure science.
Water Street, by Carol L. Douglas
Last year, I was painting on Battle Avenue when Laura stopped to talk. Her phone had been ringing incessantly while she was trying to work. Finally, she gave in and answered it. It was a call to tell her that she was going to be a grandmother. We both cried. This year, I got to see photos of her grandson, now six months old. I teared up again.
I’ve had dinner with Kirk Larsen and Kirk McBride two nights in a row. That’s because our hosts have taken it in turn to feed us. Since both hosts are good friends of mine, I’ve enjoyed myself immensely.
“Do you guys all know each other?” I was asked. In fact, that’s much true. The plein air circuit is a bit like professional rodeo. There are lots of people doing one or two events, but the core group see each other over and over every season. I’ve known some of these painters for twenty years.
My host and I were unsure whether this was the event’s sixth or seventh year. Since it marks the start of our friendship, I was keen to know. I asked organizer Don Tenney as he stamped artists’ boards on the Common on Thursday morning.
“Seven,” he answered. “You can tell how long it’s been by how much Ben Pahucki has shot up in height,” he said.
Kirk Larson, who was in line in front of me, smiled wryly. “We’ve known that kid since…” and he made a rocking motion with his arms. It’s a slight exaggeration, but most of us have watched all three Pahucki kids grow up.
All this partying cuts into my painting time, of course, but I’m sanguine about it. I don’t get to see my Castine friends that often, and one painting more or less isn’t going to break my career. In the end, friendship is infinitely more precious.

Sorry this post was late, but I had no internet this morning and had to get painting.


Your brushwork is your handwriting, and that develops with practice.
Tom Sawyer’s Fence, by Carol L. Douglas.
The idea of painterliness was developed by Swiss art historian Heinrich Wölfflin in his Principles of Art History (1915). In it, he contrasts painterliness with linearity. Wölfflin was primarily concerned with defining classic and baroque art, but the terms can be applied to any period and any media.
To Wölfflin, linearity was a focus on draftsmanship, contour, and fixed boundaries. Painterliness included tactile brushwork, non-local color in shadow, and patterns of shadow and light. The painterly artist used these things, instead of edges, to define shapes.
Best Buds, by Carol L. Douglas. Courtesy Trove on Main.
Today we have reduced his thesis to one point: a painting is painterly when there are visible, uncontrolled brushstrokes. By our lights, Lois Dodd is painterly; Rackstraw Downes is linear. That’s a gross oversimplification.
What are brushstrokes? They are so well-understood by non-artists that they’re used as metaphor (“broad brushstrokes”). Yet brushwork is highly individual and difficult to teach. Still, there are rules that painting teachers lay down about them, such as “when you’re Pierre Bonnard, you can dab; until then, it looks amateurish.”
Bracken Fern, by Carol L. Douglas
I have never liked my own brushwork. I recently decided that I’ve intentionally smoothed it over because it’s embarrassingly self-revelatory. This summer I stopped overpainting, and suddenly people have been telling me I’ve made a breakthrough.
A bad solution to brushwork insecurity is to become extremely stylized, especially in the manner of someone you admire. This is instantly appealing to uneducated audiences, so it’s a popular idea. It’s also a stifling trap. Far better to take the time to let your own brushwork emerge naturally.
Dry Wash, by Carol L. Douglas
Deborah Lazarposed an interesting idea to me a while ago. She compared brushwork to the envelopein musical sound. This has three parts. Attack is the changes occurring before the sound reaches its steady state. Sustain is the sound at its maximum intensity, and decay is how it fades to silence. Together, they create the distinctive tone color of a sound.
As painters get more experienced, they’re able to control the attack and decay better and hold the sustain longer. That, by the way, is one powerful reason to use a bigger brush. It holds more paint.
Spring thaw on the Pecos River, by Carol L. Douglas
Unlike the violinist, the painter has many brushes. Each has a different envelope. That’s why painting teachers generally don’t dictate what brushes students should use, any more than we teach the Palmer Method of Penmanshipin school today. We teach you how to make the shapes, and it’s up to you to develop fluency.
It takes most kids the better part of a decade to learn to write beautifully. The more you practice, the more fluid your brushwork will be, but if you don’t cut corners, it will be unmistakably your own.

Monday Morning Art School: mixing greens

The rookie error for summer is to paint all foliage using the same basic color. You lose more points if it’s sap green.
Hazy mountain afternoon: Keuka Lake, by Carol L. Douglas. Available.
I have a student who reacts to my pulling out black paint by making the sounds of a rattlesnake at me. She’s been fully inculcated into the idea that black should be banned.
Michael Wilcox published a famous watercolor pigment guide called Blue and Yellow Don’t Make Green. Most of what it tells you can now be found on the internet, but it’s where I first got the idea to add back the banned black.
His point was that there are many routes to the same destination, and that to really mix colors, you need to understand what pigments you’re using, not work from trade names for colors. Consider sap green, for example—a staple of many plein air painters’ toolkit. It’s really a convenience mix made of a phthalo blue and some kind of yellow. The same is true of Hooker’s Green.
Chart courtesy of Victoria Brzustowicz
The single-pigment (‘true’) greens available are chromium oxide green, viridian, and cobalt green. Chromium oxide green is a lovely, heavy, natural green. Unfortunately, it outweighs everything it’s mixed with. Viridian and cobalt green are lovely, but expensive. Beware viridian hue—it’s just another phthalo in disguise.
By now, foliage has settled into a deeper, more uniform tone. The rookie error of August is to paint all your greens using the same basic color, modulating lighter or darker for highlights and shadows. You’ll have much more life in your trees if you know all the different ways you can get to leafy green. One of the most useful greens is black plus cadmium yellow lemon (or Hansa yellow).
Mixed greens, in oils.
The best way to navigate the colors of foliage is to avoid greens out of a tube altogether. A system of paired primaries gives you more options, avoiding the acidity of phthalo, the weight of chromium oxide green, or the soul-sucking darkness of sap green.
In my experience, bad paint mixing causes paintings to go wrong faster than anything else. Constantly over-daubing to modulate the paint color distorts the original drawing and makes a grey mush. If you’re confident of the color, you can apply it fast and accurately.
I make my greens on a matrix, which I’ve shown you both mixed (at top) and on a chart (below). I’m leaving for Castine Plein Air, but if I were teaching, I’d be drilling my students on green this week.
Swatches by Jennifer Johnson
First mix greens according to the chart, and then modulate your resulting greens with tints (meaning a mix of white and a color). The specific tints are unimportant, but the most useful one for landscape is a mix of white, ultramarine and quinacridone violet, making a pale lavender. It is great for atmospheric perspective.
Note that blue/black pigments are much stronger than the yellows. You need about half the amount of blue or black as you do yellow.
Your assignment is to hit paint swatches as closely as you can. 
The second exercise involves stopping at your local hardware store for a few paint swatches. These are Benjamin Moore brand, but you should be able to find similar ones elsewhere. There are two off-whites: one cool and one warm. There’s yellow, green, and two soft blues. Your assignment is to mix until you think you’ve hit the exact color. Then put a dot of it on the card to see how close you got. (If you’re working in watercolor, the dot goes on paper instead.)
Jennifer’s neutral swatches, up close.
I also have my students make neutrals using combinations of ultramarine blue with burnt sienna and raw sienna. I use ultramarine blue and burnt sienna as my standard dark-neutral, because it can go to the warm or cool side depending on how it is mixed. Raw sienna plus ultramarine is my go-to starting point for granite and the sands of our northern beaches.

We’re going sailing again this season!

Have you wanted to take my watercolor workshop on American Eagle but the dates didn’t work out for you? We’re doing it again this autumn, September 25-29.
There’s more opportunity for sunset painting in the fall. Photo courtesy of MB Rolfe.
Captain John Foss is a true antiquarian, maintaining and sailing a lovingly-restored schooner. It’s fitting that he uses one of the last remaining flip phones in America. I was most surprised to see a message from him while I was in Nova Scotia. Would I be interested in teaching a second workshop aboard American Eagle this fall?
With him sailing up and down the coast with that ancient phone and me out of the country, it was a little difficult to work out dates, Eventually, we decided on a sail that will run from Wednesday, September 25 to Sunday, September 29.
Under sail and hard at work aboard American Eagle.
Autumn is absolutely the best time of year here on the coast of Maine. Just as large bodies of water are slow to warm up in the summer, they’re slow to cool down in the fall. Fall, with its gorgeous flaming colors and earlier sunsets, is my absolute favorite time of year to paint en plein air. It will be especially beautiful from the water, with the reds of the blueberries and trees contrasting with the dark spruces and infinite blues of the sea.
Deckhand Kevin with the lobsters.  Photo courtesy Mary Whitney.
What I’ve learned painting on American Eagle
I’ve painted on this boat in the summer and in the fall, and I will never predict what will happen; every sail is different.
Colleen Lowe drawing Paddington Bear’s secret life of debauchery. Photo courtesy Mary Whitney.
Your materials are all provided, including paints, papers, and brushes.
The trip lasts four days. Lighthouses, wildlife, and unspoiled scenery are part of every trip. The boat is a true relic of the Age of Sail, but it’s been updated so you have a comfortable berth, fresh linens, modern heads and a fresh-water shower.
And then there’s dessert.  Photo courtesy Mary Whitney.
Every meal is lovingly prepared by the cook and his messmate, my pal Sarah Collins. That includes a lobster bake, which might be at sea or on shore, depending on where we end up.
I’m providing a complete painting kit made with QoR paints, which are very high-quality, and high-end watercolor paper and sketchbooks. We’ll use waterbrushes and a waterproof pen.
Pulled up for a picnic on Russ Island. That’s the Lewis R. French in the far distance.
Is painting on a moving boat even possible?
Yes, and it’s fascinating. The water, sky and shoreline are constantly changing. In addition, we’ve scheduled this workshop for the longest days of the year so that we’ll have plenty of time to paint sunrises and sunsets while at anchor.
Who’s invited?
This workshop is aimed at watercolor or gouache painters, particularly those with an interest in the sea or sailing. No experience? You’re very welcome; we’ve got everything you need to get started.
Lobsters are the one meal that the captain cooks.
To register
The schooner trip is $745, and your tuition for the workshop is $275, for a total of $1020, all inclusive. Email me here for more information. Or email American Eagle’s offices here or call them at 1-800-648-4544 to register. If you sign their guest book, they’ll send you a copy of a DVD.
There’s a $25 discount on tuition to members of New York Plein Air Painters, Plein Air Painters of Maine or returning students from any of my workshops.

Monday Morning Art School: continuing education

We learn from studying our peers and the painters who’ve gone before us.
Victoria Street, oil on linen, 16×20, by Carol L. Douglas
Bruce McMillan emailed me last week. “Just in case you feel you’re painting a lot, in 1911, from early August to late September on Monhegan, Robert Henri painted 300 paintings, most of them on 12×15 wooden boards, his last major foray into marine art.”
I churned out fifteen largish canvases in thirteen days during my Parrsboro residency and wondered if I was sacrificing quality for quantity. But I’m familiar with Henri’s marine paintings; they’re simple, monumental and brilliant. Bruce’s reassurance came at exactly the right time.
Once we’re done with art classes, we learn mostly from observing other artists. When we see something that we admire, we want to incorporate the essence of that idea into our work. It’s not stealing; it’s how all art develops.
Miss Margaret, oil on canvasboard, 8×10, by Carol L. Douglas. Maggie was my roommate for two weeks.
Alison Hill is a painter I’ve known since before I moved to Maine. We were set up next to each other at Cape Elizabeth Paint for Preservation last month, so I had time to study her brushwork. She lays it down once and leaves it.
A writer told me recently, “you can rewrite that ending eight times and it won’t necessarily be better; you’ll just have eight different endings.” At least with the written word, they’re separate. In alla prima painting, those previous iterations lie there in the murk and muddy up the top layers.
I’d never heard of Tom Forrestall before this current trip. He’s sometimes called the Canadian Andrew Wyeth because of the precision of his egg tempera technique. But beneath that is a light, quirky vision. It’s magical realism unencumbered with social commentary. Can this kind of ruthless observation be learned? I won’t know until I try.
Clearing to the west, oil on canvas, 12×16, by Carol L. Douglas
Tara Will is a pastel painter from Maryland. She has never met a compositional rule she’s not willing to bend, break or pummel into submission. I look at everything she posts because her paintings are always colorful, light, and energetic. She keeps pastel lean and fresh.  
Marc Granboisis a plein air painter from Quebec. His snow and ice are tremendous, but his skies are what I’m interested in these days. He can pull moody, brooding, and dramatic out of a leaden northern sky. There’s tremendous energy in his linework and patterning.
Every artist needs to know art history to understand where he or she fits into the great saga of art. A number of Nova Scotians commented that my painting style looked very Tom Thomson or Group of Seven. That’s partially because they’re familiar to Canadians, but it’s also because I have studied them for many years.
Recent landslide (Cape Sharp), oil on linen, 18×24, by Carol L. Douglas. This painting is the only one that’s going to get a studio revision–in this case, a crop, I think. I removed something at the last minute and it unbalanced the composition. 
More recently, I’ve been thinking about the Scottish Colourists, particularly Francis Cadell. Both the Canadians and Scottish groups are post-impressionist, but they’re as interested in a sense of place as they are in formal order and structure.
Most of the painters I’ve mentioned are not superstars; they’re my fellows in the trenches. Who do you admire right now? What can you learn from their painting?

Your list will be different from mine, but thinking about what you like in your peers’ work gives you an idea of what you might want to change in your own. It’s a moving target. In a year, we’ll be talking about entirely different artists.

The sea giveth and taketh away

Sometimes you set out to paint one thing, only to realize it’s something else that’s caught your interest.
Landslide, oil on canvas, by Carol L. Douglas

Had you asked me on Wednesday what I planned to paint, I’d have looked at you squiggle-eyed. I was too tired to see beauty in anything. I drove out a long dirt road to Fundy Ocean Research Center for Energy (FORCE). There is a lovely view off its back deck (and a restroom) but it didn’t move me. I returned to Partridge Island and hiked up to its observation deck. There’s a flowerpot rock on the beach below, but it seemed like too much work to drag my kit back up.

I tried instead to tackle the running tide for a third time. None of them, in my opinion, captures the powerful delicacy of the tides here.
Tides manifest as horizontal as they run back and forth along the slanting sea bed. Here the shore is flat and sandy and the tides high. The streaming water runs for hundreds of feet in a six-hour cycle. It moves shockingly fast. Still, it’s gentle. There’s no white crashing surf.
Harbor Mouth, oil on canvas, by Carol L. Douglas
On the surface, the Minas Basin is placid. However, it contains vast, uncontrolled kinetic energy. For example, the Dory Rips, off Cape d’Or, are a collision of three opposed tidal currents that slam into an underwater reef, forcing the water up into house-high standing waves. You can’t capture that on canvas when you’re looking down from cliffs ranging up to 600 feet in height.
I walked the beach at Partridge Island early in the morning, as it neared high tide. There was roiling on the otherwise-placid surface. That was a rip current. Hours later, children would play and search for fossils in the same spot, oblivious to the powerful forces that had just departed.
Partridge Island is connected to the mainland by a sandbar. It was created during the infamous Saxby Gale of 1869. This October hurricane overlapped an unusually high tide to create the perfect storm along the Maine coast and Bay of Fundy. Low-lying farms were inundated, harbors were wrecked, and breakwaters washed away. It cost at least 37 lives, and created the highest tide ever recorded, 70.9 ft, at Burntcoat Head.
Salt water meadows (East Bay from Partridge Island), oil on canvas, by Carol L. Douglas
Exactly 150 years later, there are structures on the Partridge Island isthmus, including a herring weir and some cottages. It’s a popular picnic and camping spot. But that’s a blink of the eye in geological time, and it’s wise to remember that the sea giveth and taketh away.
In the afternoon, I painted in Diligent River. My instructions were to turn onto a private drive that snakes three kilometers down to the sea, running first through blueberries, then meadows, and then a spruce forest. There’s a freshwater pond of about 15 acres. It’s high because of our endless rain this spring. The dock is several feet offshore. Half of it has loosed its moorings and sailed away.
Parrsboro had a parade this week, and I could have been in it had I answered my phone. This float commemorates the forced landing of a Handley Page V/1500 named Atlantic here, on July 5, 1919. 
It was lovely, but the coastline compelled me. A break has been created in the trees by a spring mudslide. I’d intended to paint Cape Split, but the glorious tumult of rocks and upended tree trunks caught my imagination. Through it, ferns slid to a new destination unharmed. Spruce saplings grew on, unheeding.
The cliffs here are an unstable amalgam of sediment and basalt. They’re always in motion, slipping down to be milled into new sand beaches. Since these are some of the most important paleontological areas in Nova Scotia, new fossils are always being exposed. Inevitably, that interested me more than the view, and I found myself painting something I’d not intended.
I was invigorated. Three large paintings in two days when I thought there was no gas left in the tank.

The Big Empty

To survive in an uninhabited land, you need community. The next crisis may be yours.

New Puppy, by Carol L. Douglas, 8×10, oil on canvas.

There’s a vixen that sits on the shoulder of a road here, glorying in the sun. When I first saw her, I thought about calling animal control, because that’s unusual behavior for a fox. I’ve since learned that she took a wire to the muzzle. It became infected and a Good Samaritan fed her antibiotic-laced meat to save her life. Now, she’s a local pet of sorts. A certain person (whose name I won’t mention) gives her dog biscuits. Others feed her Timbits. Still others despair that she’s running with a bad crowd, and her new friends will rob her of the ability to live a normal fox life.

It’s no surprise that people feed her. She’s cute.

I’ve lived in my small town in Maine for four years, and I don’t know this much about anything that happens there. And I’m, as they say, plugged in.

Rural Canadians can talk a hind leg off a donkey (I like that). They’re outgoing compared to their New England cousins. It’s not just Nova Scotians, either. On Monday an Edmonton, Alberta man chatted with me as I loaded my car. I now know more about him than I do about either of my neighbors back in Maine.
If I took up all the invitations I’ve received, I’d never get home. A man showed me photos of his spectacular view. He’d moved here from Hamilton, Ontario. “That’s a six-million-dollar view back home,” I said. He nodded enthusiastically. He really wants artists to come paint it.
Pink sand, by Carol L. Douglas, 8×10, oil on canvas.
Almost one in four Canadians live in the so-called Golden Horseshoe that wraps around Toronto (which includes Hamilton). Four of five Canadians live in cities. The rest of Canada is essentially empty. Rural Canadians can’t afford to be stand-offish. To survive in what is essentially a wilderness, you need to cultivate community. The next disaster or crisis may be yours.
Parrsboro, with a population of 1,205, is a regional hub in Cumberland County. It has a small co-op and a Pharmasave, along with a smattering of other businesses. The town is a third the size it was a century ago, but that doesn’t mean it’s going “gentle into that good night.”
I disturbed Krista Wells at her workspace in Artlab yesterday. She was reading a consultant’s report for a proposed civic project. Her partner, Michael Fuller, wasn’t around, but I’d seen him earlier at a meeting about another project. This community built the Ship’s Company Theatre and the Parrsboro International Plein Air Festival. For them, nothing is impossible.
The Black House, by Carol L. Douglas. This was my attempt at chiller-thriller, but my boy model was so busy pounding his friend I never asked him if he found the black house scary.
On Monday I drove to Lunenburg, which is south of Halifax on Nova Scotia’s South Shore. This is the home of the Smith & Rhuland Shipyard, where Bluenose was built. My father had a pleasure craft built in Nova Scotia to a Roué design, so it was a pilgrimage for me. It’s also the home port for Bluenose II and Picton Castle, although both boats were, perversely, in Buffalo at the time.
It’s a lovely little town, with opportunities for great painting, but it reminded me powerfully of Camden. In other words, there are too many tourists milling around. I’ll be back during the shoulder season, but for now I prefer the ranginess of Parrsboro.
I’m not alone. On Saturday, I met an artist from Halifax, in Parrsboro for a workshop. “I love it here,” she said wistfully. “I could live here.” Perhaps someday, she will.

Monday Morning Art School: step out of your comfort zone

Risk-taking is not only good for art, it’s good practice for life.
Midsummer, by Carol L. Douglas. Oil on canvas, 24×36.

“I can’t remember what you told me you plan to concentrate on during this residency,” Bobbi Heath said.

That was because I had deftly avoided answering her question. A residency is a great time to set up a challenge and then answer it. The people vetting your application want to know how the opportunity is going to expand your vision or change your practice. We try to do something inventive yet considered. Of course, that sometimes means you’ve painted yourself into a corner before you’ve even started.
I’ve been thinking recently about architecture, and what gives us a sense of place, and, of course, boats. I’m sure I could have whipped up a grandiose statement with those ingredients, but my heart wasn’t in it.
Farm, by Carol L. Douglas
Nova Scotia has a vernacular building style that’s peculiar to Canada and Britain. These are steep-roofed houses with twin gables. Sometimes they have matching window bays. They may be tarted up with gingerbread, or they may be very simple. They’re always proper, like a nice old lady in her best pantsuit. It’s not a common building style in most of the United States, but there are many examples in my part of Maine.
It was thinking about them that made me spend my first several days painting buildings from above. There is, in fact, something audacious about this kind of painting: it’s based on drawing.
“You must have taken mechanical drawing or drafting in school,” an artist said after she saw my sketch for Midsummer. Rather, I learned to draw when perspective and measurement were routine. If I could get students to do one thing, it would be to spend twice as much time drawing as they ever spend painting. But I digress.
As fun as painting houses has been, they’re still well within my skill set. It was time to radically mix it up.
Her laundry and lupines, by Carol L. Douglas
I offered to demo in downtown Parrsboro. I painted the estuary two weeks ago and wasn’t keen on doing it again so soon. My other options were commercial buildings. Behind one was a laundry line. It was unfortunately surrounded by a scramble of wild roses and lupines. My least-favorite things to paint are flowers.
I drew the scene three times and realized I was getting nowhere with the scientific method. I started lashing paint on without a good underpainting, moving objects in mid-process, and doing all the things I tell students to never do. It took much longer than a well-drafted painting ever does.
Is it successful? It doesn’t really matter. It was a good way to force myself past my resistance to flowers, and to hang my painting on a tale. The laundry told a powerful story to me. It was a single woman’s working wardrobe, hanging outside a simple, concrete-block apartment. Everyone paints white sheets. I painted black leggings.
When I was done, I wanted to paint the exact same subject again, but this time I would approach it very differently. The beauty of a residency is that I can do that.
Why push yourself out of your comfort zone? It develops your tolerance for change. Human beings are wired to experience negative results more keenly than positive ones. It’s called our negativity bias, and it’s there to stop us from doing stupid things that will kill us.
This bias carries over to predicting outcomes. We tend to think things will go wrong more than they’ll go right. The fewer risks we take, the stronger that belief is. We can become immobilized by the fear of change.
There are a few ways around this, of course. Personally, I believe that an interactive God has my back. You can call that a positivity bias, if you want.
Repeatedly taking controlled risks is in itself therapeutic. It reduces our negativity bias. Our brains learn that risky ventures can succeed, and that failing is not necessarily awful.
That is not only good for art, it’s good practice for life. This week, challenge yourself.