On the road with COVID-19

What does the word quarantinemean? It changes every day.

Glaciar Cagliero from Rio Electrico, by Carol L. Douglas, 11X14, available.
Yesterday I outlined the problems we will have if we break quarantine to head back to the airport. These were reinforced by an email from the US State Department, which told us to comply with local authorities. However, just as the United States is suffering a lack of toilet paper, rural Argentina has a lack of information.
When we left, I asked Jane Chapin what the word quarantine meant. I wasn’t trying to be a jerk; I just wanted to know what was expected of us. It turns out to have been a prescient question, because the meaning of our quarantine has shifted over time. In the beginning it was enough that we traveled in a self-contained group. Now it means we stay in place, and strictly so.
Our host Cristina managed to talk with someone at the US embassy in Buenos Aires. Later, Guillermo suggested that we fill our cars against a possible gas shortage. (They happen here, coronavirus or not.) We duly drove the washed-out, rutted gravel road to El Chaltén’s single gas pump to top up. Although short in mileage, the trip took two hours.

When we returned, Cristina sadly informed us that—by the newest rules—we had broken quarantine. We were required to file documents and copies of our passports and are now confined to the immediate area of the hosteria. From now on, only Guillermo can go to town for supplies.

Painting with Lynn Mehtain front of Cerro Fitz Roy.

Yesterday, the town of El Calafate announced its first confirmed case of coronavirus, in a French tourist. We wince; it was not our intention to bring plague to the Southern Hemisphere. But we Americans in El Chaltén remain resolutely symptom-free. We have sufficient toilet paper, although this is a cash-based economy and we will certainly run out of greenbacks before we’re allowed to leave.

Meanwhile, the Argentines, having no work or school to go to, have decided to use this time for vacation. Despite quarantine, the streets of El Chaltén are full of young people skateboarding, trekkers huffing dutifully towards the mountains, and bicyclists. To counter this, the government is closing down all internal flights as of tomorrow.

Natalia Andreevadrew this wonderful portrait of me in front of the fire. You’d almost think I talk a lot.

This is a relief. Gone are the endless discussions of what we should do. There is nothing we can do except paint. This morning I shall gather up some hiking poles and head toward the mountains with some of the others. Apparently, there is a point along the river where we can get close to a glacier face. My husband, who is less enamored of glaciers than me, will try to do a few hours of paid work.

No man’s land

May we all treat coronavirus as a chance to serve, rather than be served.
El Calafate, by Carol L. Douglas, 8X10, oil on canvas, available, if I can get it to you.
On arrival at Buenos Aires last week, the flight attendant announced a twenty-minute delay in disembarking. Nevertheless, people moved up the aisle, preferring to stand impatiently with their gear rather than wait quietly in their seats. If you fly frequently, you see this at the end of every flight. These people create traffic jams by attempting to jump the queue.
I am reminded of this by the current logjams at American airports, where thousands of citizens are penned up waiting to clear customs. Rather than add ourselves to the scrum, we’re waiting out our quarantine in El Chaltén. We check our temperatures daily, but otherwise we don’t panic.
Cerro Fitz Roy and Cerro Electrico, by Carol L. Douglas, 12X16, available.
Argentina has internal checkpoints. These allow them to control the movement of their citizens in a way Americans would never tolerate. (Remember this when you’re complaining about our government’s response.) There is a city gate outside El Calafate where police stop and inspect traffic. Right now, Americans who haven’t completed quarantine are not permitted into the town. That means us.
Cerro Marconi, by Carol L. Douglas, 11X14, available.
We are north of El Chaltén, on the edge of Los GlaciaresNational Park. Like everything else in the world, the park is closed. Tellingly, the ranger who told us we cannot go into the park asked us to do nothing that would get them in trouble. That, Jane Chapin tells me, is a mark of how much Argentinians need jobs. We are, of course, respecting their request.
There are ten Americans in our party. While they will permit us to leave this district, we won’t be allowed back in. There’s a no-man’s land of about 215 km between El Calafate and El Chaltén, with no houses and no services. There are herds of wild vicuña, the occasional string of ranch horses, and spectacular views.The airport is outside the city gates of El Calafate, putting it in this no-man’s-land. When we decide it’s prudent to leave, we will present ourselves at this airport. If there’s no flight, we are effectively banished; we will not be allowed to return to either El Calafate or El Chaltén until the 26th of March.
Powerhouse, Rio Blanco, by Carol L. Douglas, 9X12, available.
Needless to say, the only airplane tickets we have are useless. We had planned to fly to Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego and then to Buenos Aires and then home. However, we can’t fly between provinces, and we don’t have tickets from El Calafate. Our international flight was cancelled days ago. We have—obviously—no idea how we’re going to get home.
This does not rise to any state of emergency. I have twenty painting boards left and I’m surrounded by glaciers and a lovely, peculiar kind of beech tree, nothofagus pumilio. The proprietors here have figured out a way to give us limited connectivity. My kids are fine, so I’m content.
Glaciar Cagliero by Carol L. Douglas, 11X14, available.
El Chaltén is a village of about 1700 people. Hosteria el Pilar,where we are staying, is isolated along a high river, ringed by glaciers. It is a center for mountain climbing and trekking and a place to withdraw from the world. The village doctor has said that we should consider ourselves in quarantine here.
Innkeepers Guillermo and Cristina have been resilient and accommodating to their potentially plague-ridden guests. We are outstaying our welcome and they are figuring out a way to accommodate us, even though they were obviously not anticipating this. As we’re in an area which produces no crops, all supplies must be brought in. Guillermo has a rifle and it may get to the point where we’re potting rabbits for dinner. I can skin a rabbit.
Meanwhile, rumor runs rampant. Our own State Department has told us to listen to local authorities, and we’re doing our best. But I have internet and another twenty painting boards. I’m perfectly content.
You have heard the expression, “God is my co-pilot.” To me, that’s absurd. God is the pilot, and I’m just along for the ride. In John 9:1-3, Jesus is asked by his disciples why a man was blind. “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.” Adversity is an opportunity to panic, or it’s an opportunity to rise above oneself. May I have the strength to be a good witness. May we all treat coronavirus as a chance to serve, rather than be served.

Sleepless in Buenos Aires

Coronavirus has the traveling public aware, alert, and concerned… but nobody’s panicking.
Athabasca Glacier, by Carol L. Douglas. This is a Canadian glacier, but I’m looking for its Southern Hemisphere mates.
As of this moment, I have been traveling for 28 hours and am still eight hours short of tonight’s destination. It took me about the same amount of time to get around the world to Australia, but that was just two flights. I’m enjoying the airport hopping, since each one has its own character. But at the end of this, I have to get into a car and drive. Here’s praying for a short nap during my next flight.
The Aerolíneas Argentinas (AA) and Virgin Airlines (VA) counters were side-by-side at Miami. “Try not to mention the war,” my husband whispered. It’s been 38 years since the Falklands conflict, and Fawlty Towers jokes have a scarce and shrinking audience. While my sympathies were with Margaret Thatcher in 1982, they were with the Argentines yesterday. Above their ticket counter, VA advertised an upscale business-class called Upper Class, which offended my inner prole.
Meanwhile, AA did everything right, including a free upgrade to an exit row and two real meals in Turista class. Dinner—served with an Argentinian Malbec—was quite good. Meanwhile, on American carriers, the norm is now seven pretzels and a small glass of soda.
So far, the pandemic precautions have been sensible both in the US and here. At Logan, they were dousing surfaces with isopropyl alcohol. The only point at which I was concerned was in the people-mover at Miami; it was as crowded as a Manhattan subway at rush hour. Both American Airlines and AA had large cleaning crews waiting at the gate. The Argentines collected a health dossier and itinerary for each passenger while we were still in the air. They staged us through customs so we weren’t mixed with planes from Madrid and Rome. Some passengers were pulled aside for extra surveillance. And of course everyone, employees and travelers alike, is dousing themselves with hand sanitizer.
The Argentinians are concerned but calm. I asked an agent whether she was worried. “Yes,” she answered with resignation, “but what can I do?”
The Argentinian soldiers patrolling the terminal are wearing white polo shirts, black trousers and a rakishly-angled beret, cut to flatter. I mentioned to Jane Chapin that they look quite dashing compared to American soldiers. “They don’t get paid anything so they have to look good,” she answered.
Beaver Dam at Quebec Brook, by Carol L. Douglas. You won’t be seeing this painting at an opening on April 2, because of the pandemic. Consider it just another tiny data point in the immense scope of our current disruption.
I’d intended to use this post to announce a show opening in Portland on April 2. Yesterday I received an apologetic note saying the revelry would be delayed due to the pandemic. I’m flattered; Maine Farmland Trust must have expected a large crowd. However, the work is up and ready for viewing at 509 Ocean Avenue in Portland. But in this brave new world, I suggest you call before you go. The number is 207-338-6575.
People keep telling me they’re registering for Ann Trainor Domingue’s June 6 workshop, Uncovering Your Mark. If you’re one of them, I suggest you do it soon, because more people have expressed interest than there are seats remaining. Although the flyer says you can mail a check to me, I suggest you pay Ann directly. If you have questions, you can email Ann hereor me here, although I don’t know when I’ll be in cell-service range. The workshop is strictly limited to twelve, and there will be no exceptions; there’s no more room in my studio.
Before the first juried show KCAS will have an instructor’s show at Studio 9, formerly known as the Art Loft.
Consider applying to Spring Renewal, April 30-June 1. This is the first juried show of the Knox County Arts Society (of which I am the treasurer). You must be a member, but if you summer or live full-time in mid-coast Maine, you should join anyway. Your membership entitles you to a host of benefits including discounted classes, juried show invitations, lectures, get-togethers, and more. Plus, you’re helping to revitalize Rockland’s Art Loft, now known as Studio 9. Contact Karin Strong, membership coordinator, or David Blanchard, president, for more information.
Then go right to the prospectus for Spring Renewal, here, and enter. It’s in the Art Loft, which means you’ll be showing on Main Street in Rockland, one of the hottest art markets in New England. What are you waiting for?

Travel in the age of coronavirus

We live in an age of instant global connection, without filters. That means we’re about to experience pandemic differently than ever before.
Athabasca Glacier, by Carol L. Douglas

Turpenoid, made by Weber, and Gamsol, made by Gamblin, are both odorless mineral spirits (OMS), modern substitutes for turpentine in the oil-painter’s kit. A chance conversation with Kevin Beers last night made me realize that Turpenoid has a flash point of 110-130° F. while Gamsol has a flash point of 144° F. That small difference makes Gamsol safe to fly with, but Turpenoid not.

I received a message from Jane Chapin last night that read, “The office in El Calafate says that our solvent has not arrived, but they will help us. Bring Gamsol.” We and a few other intrepid artists are heading to Argentina tomorrow to paint in Patagoniaand Tierra del Fuegoand a few other places heavy on glaciers, light on trees.
Light snow above the Arctic Circle, by Carol L. Douglas.
Travel always comes with last minute snafus. First among these now is coronavirus. I’ll be through four airports in the next 24 hours. I can’t find hand sanitizer or disinfectant wipes anywhere in mid-coast Maine. Luckily, my friend and monitor, Jennifer Johnson, just flew home from Australia. She gave me her stash. It will suffice through to Miami, when Jane can augment my supplies.
Coronavirus is unlikely to be in Tierra del Fuego, but it’s still making me edgy. Will my son be sent home to finish his last college semester through online classes? If so, how will he get here? Will I be locked out of the country or quarantined on my return? The scope of the problem was borne home to me last weekend, when my niece rescheduled her May wedding to September. She’s marrying a Canadian of Asian descent and nobody knows what international travel will look like in two months.
Me, talking to KCAS members, in case you’ve forgotten what I look like. Photo courtesy Jennifer Johnson.
Pandemic is as old as the human race, but today we have decentralized news and powerful social media. As I write this, the death toll from coronavirus in the US is 31—or about 40% as many as have been murdered to date this year in Chicago. But we are intimately aware of each of COVID-19’s victims, because we’ve read about them all. That changes our perception of our own risk.
Still, you can’t live in the fear zone. Human beings are wired to experience negative results more keenly than positive ones, to stop us from doing stupid things that will kill us. This is called our negativity bias, and it results in our thinking that 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. The intrepid artist has to work to overcome that, by substituting a positivity bias. I have a simple one: faith in God.
Last night, I spoke to the Knox County Art Society (KCAS) about how negativity bias makes some of us fear outdoor painting excessively. But if I—at age 61—can still go outside and paint in the wild, so can you. “If it doesn’t kill you, get back up and do it again,” I said.
KCAS is the brainchild of David Blanchard of Camden, and it’s grown to eighty members in a year. It’s offering classes, speakers, exhibitions and more. If you’re an artist in Knox County, Maine, you should be a member.
In addition to being the home of one of America’s newest art societies, Maine is home to America’s oldest continuous art society, the Bangor Art Society. It’s time to apply for their 145th anniversary juried show, which will open on May 1. It’s a fun show with a fun reception. Register here.

Monday Morning Art School: why this subject?

Create clear priorities and a compelling reason for people to engage with your painting.

Lobster fleet at Rockport Harbor, by Carol L. Douglas

With modern cameras, you can snap a view and think through why you liked it later, cropping and manipulating the photo to enhance the subject. When drawing, you have to set pencil to paper somewhere. Pause at that point, because it’s usually what interests you most about the subject or idea. Why have you chosen it? What first attracted your eye? It’s bound to be one of the following:
  • The subject matter;
  • Patterns of lights and darks;
  • Abstract shape(s);
  • Atmosphere, tonal values or lighting effects;
  • Beautiful line;
  • Color;
  • Symbolism.
Bracken Fern, by Carol L. Douglas.

By purposefully noting what you notice, you create clear priorities for your painting. This makes you less likely to include every detail. Not slavishly recording everything is one secret to becoming looser as a painter.

This is where a habit of sketching comes in. Imagine you’ve just stumbled down to Camden Harbor for the first time. It’s beautiful—and overwhelming. There are swank yachts and luxury cruisers cheek-by-jowl with old wooden schooners and family sailboats. How do you sort this into a pattern?
Tricky Mary in a Pea-Soup Fog, by Carol L. Douglas
You could take your camera and shoot a thousand images, intending to assemble them into a painting in the studio. That’s not likely to produce a great painting. Instead, sit down at a bench and sketch what interests you—not one drawing, but a series of quickies. Usually, you have more time than you realize, and it behooves you to do this in gentle stages. Getting the subject and composition right is the most important part of painting.
After you’ve had time to think with your fingers, you can return to the subject that most interested you, and reduce and reframe the subject into its basic elements.
What you’re looking for is a compelling reason for someone to want to engage with your painting. That is as varied as there are people, but certain things ought to be present:
  • Energy;
  • A pleasing pattern of light and dark;
  • A strong focal point, supported by line and contrast.

If they’re not, then go back to the drawing board before you touch paint to canvas. A weak composition is one thing that you can’t fix along the way.

Sea Fog, by Carol L. Douglas is available through Folly Cove Fine Art, Rockport, MA.

Sometimes, things happen in nature that are too quick to allow for this careful set-up. I occasionally chase them, and doing so has about a 50-50 chance of succeeding. Atmospheric effects are the easiest, because they cover the canvas. People are the most difficult.

When I’m smart, I do the chasing with pencil and paper and transfer my drawing to canvas. A few weeks ago I was down in the North End Shipyard with Ed Buonvecchio. The crew of the Stephen Taber took a break in the spring sunshine, seated on the spruce planks that line the shipyard. Beautiful and poetic, they’d have made my painting. But instead of drawing them, I went right to paint. The result was terrible. At my age, I should have known better.

Sustainable art

An artist, an engineer, and a paint company are working together to repair acid mine damage in southeast Ohio. 
Photo of acid mine runoff at Truetown by John Sabraw.
Environmentally-ethical choices can be very difficult for the artist. The toxicity of paint rests not in its binders, but in its pigments. Copper, cobalt, cadmium, and lead are the worst. It’s impossible to avoid them completely, but the danger isn’t really to you, it’s to the poor schmoe who has to mine or make them. Most pigments are no longer milled in the US, even when your paint is made here. It’s one of the hidden costs of globalization—we’re better at not polluting America because we just do it elsewhere.
Despite our better environmental record of late, we have some dreadful pollution pits remaining in America. Southeastern Ohio has a long history of coal mining, and it’s unfortunately still visible today, in iron-rich, contaminated runoff from abandoned mines. These coal mines contain the mineral pyrite, which reacts with water and air to form sulfuric acid and iron. This makes the water highly acidic and orange. Of course, this waste doesn’t just stay in downstream creeks and rivers, smothering plant life and animals. It contaminates drinking water as well.
Iron hydroxide precipitate in a Missouri stream receiving acid drainage from surface coal mining, photo courtesy D. Hardesty, USGS Columbia Environmental Research Center.
Lower-volume acidic runoff is remediated with a limestone leach bed. Metals are separated and trapped in the bed, and clean water returns to the stream. But there are some sites that are just too massive for this; some release 800 to 1,000 gallons of contaminated water per minute, according to Sunday Creek watershed coordinator Michelle Shively.
From Chroma, by John Sabraw, photo courtesy of the artist.
Enter two professors from Ohio University: Guy Reifler, civil engineering professor, and John Sabraw, art professor. Instead of trapping and disposing of the iron oxide, they thought, why not dry it and make paint pigment out of it? In 2018, they created a Kickstartercampaign to fund a test program. It raised $33,138. Now they’re proposing to build a full-scale plant that would treat the entire million-gallon-a-day acid runoff from the mine at Truetown in Athens County, Ohio.
It makes perfect sense to reclaim iron oxide that’s been left around by miners; iron oxide was the first pigment; it’s lightfast, safe, cheap and plentiful.
But to process that much water presupposes a market for 5000 pounds of iron-oxide pigment a day. The initial pigment experiments were done by Professor Sabraw; the professors then approached paint-maker Gamblin. It was a good choice; Gamblin has a lengthy interest in environmental sustainability. Among other things, each year they take the pigment powder trapped by the factory’s air cleaner and makes a special batch of paint called Torrit Grey, which they distribute free to their customers.
Gamblin took some of Truetown’s pigment and created three colors with it. They’re shortly going to introduce these in a kit called the Reclaimed Earth Colors set, which will retail at $39.99. They will donate 20% of these revenues back to the Truetown project.
Unfortunately, acid water doesn’t just leach iron out of old mines; it can also bring manganese, cadmium, zinc, copper, arsenic and aluminum along with it. I did wonder how well these less-salubrious minerals have been sorted out of the new pigment. And then I stopped and asked myself whether any mined pigment is pure. Probably not.
It’s a good idea, and one I’m happy to support. However, while Carol Jaeger at Salt Bay Art Supplyin Damariscotta is the source of this information, I haven’t seen these paints on any shelves yet. As soon as they are, I hope they sell.

Figurative does not mean figure

Where do you fall on the continuum from representation to abstraction?

I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold, 1928, Charles Demuth, courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art

English (my daughter never tires of telling me) is a descriptive, rather than proscriptive, language. Words mean whatever most people agree that they mean. That’s why English is so endlessly adaptable—why, for example, we can suddenly accept the ungrammatical ‘their’ as a replacement for ‘his’ or ‘her’ without making a Federal case of it. English sees a need and answers it, and its users follow along.

There is one neologism I resist, however, and that’s the substitution of the word figurative for figure. As descriptions of art, they are not equivalent. Figure painting means painting the human form. Figurative paintingmeans realism.

Rider, Attic red-figured cup, middle of 5th century BC, courtesy of Luynes Collection

Figurative is an old word in English, and comes to us from French. It has always had overtones of metaphor and meaning. It’s slightly different from figure, which has multiple meanings in English. Figurecan mean a shape, the human body; a number, or a symbol. Think of the term figure eight and you begin to understand the complexity of the word.

Figurative art, or figurativism, however, is simple: it means representational art. The term was coined when abstraction came along, to describe abstraction’s opposite number. A painting of your car is as figurative as a painting of your spouse.

Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket, 1874, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, courtesy Detroit Institute of Arts 

What is the difference between figurative and abstract art? It’s not easy to draw a line. There have always been elements of abstraction in figurative art. This is why ancient art often surprises us with its modernity.

Even hyperrealism is a form of abstraction. It’s seemingly impossible for humans to represent nature exactly as it appears. Imperfect beings, we insist on putting our own spin on everything.
Likewise, there are often figures in abstract art, and much abstraction derives from observed figures in nature. The abstract geometry of Piet Mondrian, for example, resonates with us because we’ve observed such geometry in nature.

Premier Disque, c. 1912-13, Robert Delaunay, private collection

The ‘figure’ in Charles Demuth’s I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold is both a number and a symbol. And it’s both abstract and realistic. It was painted in homage to his friend William Carlos Williams’ poem, The Great Figure:

Among the rain
and lights
I saw the figure 5
in gold
on a red
firetruck
moving
tense
unheeded
to gong clangs
siren howls
and wheels rumbling
through the dark city.

Monday Morning Art School: the color of Spring (part 1)

It’s time to assemble the proper pigments to paint beautiful greens this spring.
Fog over Whiteface Mountain, by Carol L. Douglas.
If March didn’t exactly come in like a lamb this year, it at least came in like a sheep. Don’t be fooled. Some of our most brutal winter storms have been known to happen in March. Walking to church, I pondered the depleted state of our woodpile. I wasn’t the only person thinking on these lines. My pal Naomi told me she was going home to move wood “while the ground is still frozen.”
That doesn’t mean that color is not peeping through here and there. The days are growing longer. We may see snowdrops and winter aconite appearing along granite foundations this week. Back in western New York, two witch hazels ought to be blooming, planted by me.
Spring arrives in a host of rich colors, and we’ll discuss that next week. But we must start with the predominant color, which is green. In my own yard, the green moss on the stone wall and my shed roof are the only visible cues that the season is changing. They tell me that growth and warmth are happening under the surface.
Beaver Dam on Quebec Brook, by Carol L. Douglas
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.
Mixed greens, in oils.
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. Any other greens you buy in a tube are just variations of those pigments, or convenience mixes.
To make a whole range of beautiful greens, make sure you have the following pigments in your toolkit. Since they’re all-around useful colors, they make a lot more sense than carrying several greens.

  • Black
  • Ultramarine blue
  • Prussian (or phthalo) blue
  • Hansa (or Cadmium lemon) yellow light
  • Diarylide (“Indian”) yellow
  • Yellow ochre

The rookie error of landscape painting is to make 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. 

Chart courtesy of Victoria Brzustowicz
In fact, 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.
Green modulation swatches by student Jennifer Johnson.
I make my greens on a matrix, which I’ve shown you both mixed and on a chart. After mixing greens according to the chart, you can then experiment with modulating 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.