Atmosphere and style

If you take anything from travel, it should be new and different color harmonies based on different light.

Beach Erosion, by Carol L. Douglas. Oil on canvasboard. Available through Ocean Park Association.

The best plein air locations do not necessarily have one grand vista demanding attention. Instead, they are made of many tiny, riveting details. Raven’s Nest in Schoodic is beautiful, but it can only make one painting.

Thomaston is an unsung gem on the Maine coast. Northbound visitors know they can shave time by cutting along the Camden Road, avoiding Thomaston altogether. Those who drive through seldom turn off Route 1. That’s a pity. Streets of stately old homes march down to the St. George estuary, each one a small masterpiece of local carpentry.

Fish Beach, by Carol L. Douglas, oil on canvasboard.

I scouted locations as an evening mist coalesced into drizzle. It was pleasant but made for lousy painting. We’ve had a string of overcast days recently, and they’re cutting into my plein air time.

Artists have historically prized indirect light, but mostly for their studios. North-facing windows give you reflected light, which has a very even, cool temperament. Vermeer’s interiors epitomize this. The light rakes in low from the left, soft but intense, picking out the richness of details. This is also the perfect lighting for hyperrealismbecause every detail can have the same intensity.

It’s not great lighting for contemporary plein air, however. Flat lighting is currently out of style. That hasn’t always been the case. The Dutch Golden Age painters excelled at it. Their landscapes are small cities, harbors or boats under great billowing clouds. That put man in his proper place in their worldview.

Beach saplings, by Carol L. Douglas. Available.

Lighting is the difference between Northern European and Italian painting. The Low Countries and England sit under delicate filtered light. Northerners could never have invented chiaroscuro, with all its explosive drama. They never saw that hard, flat light.

Although the Great Lakes are a vast inland sea, they do not have the same temperament as the ocean. This is not about the kind of mischief they can get up to, because they’re in fact quite tricky. Rather, it’s about their skies. The eastern lakes tend to collect clouds, giving them a filtered, delicate light. Their skies never have the pitiless clarity of ocean light.

I grew up along the Great Lakes, and that’s where I first learned to paint. It’s taken me years to realize how this influenced my own development. In fact, flat light is an impediment to most contemporary painters.

We moderns are all, more or less, beholden to the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists. The main strut that holds Impressionism together—color temperature—is more or less non-existent in flat light, where everything is cool. That’s why so many Impressionist painters flocked to the south of France. 

White Sands of Iona, by Carol L. Douglas. Four beaches, four different lighting situations.

I was reminded of that as I invented a color harmony in an early morning overcast. It takes time to learn how color temperature works in the real world, and the color relationships of the Great Lakes or Adirondacks do not translate automatically to Maine. If you gain anything by traveling to paint, it should be new and different color harmonies based on the light.

On that note, Sea & Sky has moved to October. I’ve always taught it in August so that art teachers could join us, but October is the height of New England autumn color. The ocean is still warm, meaning the weather is usually stellar.

As with all my workshops, we’ve got a COVID-19 refund policy in place—if we have to cancel, we’re sending your money back to you. Information on my Acadia, Tallahassee, Pecos and 2021 sailing workshops can all be found on my website.