Reconnoitering

Before we even started, Crista plucked a dead dragonfly out of her radiator.
“How long have you been working on that” is a common question asked of all painters. Of course that doesn’t include the time spent on prep, which includes ordering supplies, setting up one’s palette, building frames and equipment, and, above all, reconnoitering painting spaces.
The Flume. Requires some hiking, but there’s great energy, and a log on which to sit.
I know the lower Adirondacks well, but I don’t know the High Peaks as well. Tarryl Gabel and I went for a drive to look at painting sites yesterday. Along the way, we discussed what makes a great composition.
Meadow view of Whiteface. A little too balanced, too static, but it has its good points.
  • Interesting light. For Tarryl, this means a raking light from the side; for me, the definition is a little vaguer, but there are sites that are appropriate for morning and sites that are appropriate for afternoon. (In the Adirondacks, it’s hard to find sites that look great at midday, because the green gets a little harsh.)
  • Naturally occurring compositions—sometimes you have to work at it, and sometimes it’s there automatically. Both have their virtues, but frankly the natural ones are easier.
  • Layers—I’m always looking for this, and in particular on long views in the mountains. I don’t want to make wide panorama paintings; they’re not my thing. So I want foreground, trees, mountains, and clouds (if I can get them).
Roadside view, gives an s-curve to the far distance, but not a lot of layers.
  • “Atmosphere, perspective, depth,” added Tarryl, and I think it’s as good a guide as anything.
  • From an ergonomic standpoint, I want shade and a level surface on which to stand for a long period of time. If I can’t stand on a level surface, I’m going to sit.
  • Some place to pee.
  • For safety’s sake, it makes sense to not choose a spot where you are totally alone.
Waterfall in Jay has energy, layers, and lots of depth.
Perhaps most interesting to me is how the same scenes that set my pulse racing didn’t do as much for Tarryl, and vice-versa. For her, it’s about inviting people in to a restful place; for me it’s about energy and pattern. That’s what’s wonderful about art; no two of us see things the same way.
I love the looming mountains and warm tones in the foreground, but am unsure about making a good composition.
Setting up my palette is all about the greens here—I want enough separation in them to make the paintings work. But there are intimations of fall in the air even now, and the soft maples are starting to go red.
Mixing greens is a priority when everything is green. That’s a matrix of black, ultramarine and Prussian on the vertical, and Hansa yellow, Indian yellow, and yellow ochre on the horizontal. Modulated with a lavender tone, that gives me 18 different greens in a hurry.
Message me if you want information about next year’s Maine workshops. Information about this year’s programs is available here.

Someone’s creeping on me.

The painting that appears in Buck Rack Lake, now in the private collection of novelist Jay Giess. By little ol’ me, of course.
Last month I was given a copy of Jay Giess’ new novel, Buck Rack Lake. It was inscribed “For Carol: see page 22, enjoy! Jay Giess.” I dutifully turned to page 22
This opening scene is set in a modern version of an Adirondack Great Camp. A guest is speaking: “‘None of us would be sitting here in this room,’ he motioned with his right hand in an arc, pointing to the bookshelves, the windows crafted out of native oak, and the landscape by Carol L. Douglas, “if we didn’t take risks. But there are good risks and there are bad risks. And this, I’m sorry to say, is a very bad risk.”
Back before Jay gave up cubicle dwelling for the writer’s life, he collected art. Among the paintings in his house are several by yours truly. So I was amused but not totally shocked to see my work mentioned. (Perhaps he wanted to prop up the value of his investment.)
Beaver dam along the road to the camp where my son went; any resemblance is strictly coincidental, of course, because they all say they are trying to make ‘real men’ out of our boys. By little ol’ me, of course.
I’ve got a fair amount of experience painting alone on rickety bridges or along lonesome trails in the Adirondack preserve and other back-of-beyond locations. Many painters won’t do it, but I figure the risk is actually almost nil. But in the back of every solitary plein air painter’s mind is the realization that it would take only one lunatic to end an otherwise pleasant career. I tell myself the possibility is remote, but it somehow all seems more plausible when one is alone in a deserted mountain camp in the dead of winter, or the light suddenly fails along a lonely trail.
View of the lake from the hostelry where I taught in the Adirondacks. Now in a private collection. By little ol’ me, of course.
I never should have taken Buck Rack Lake to the hospital; it was just a little too scary and a little too familiar for a person quaffing narcotics. A beautiful, solitary hostelry on the edge of an Adirondack lake, furnished with Stickley antiques—didn’t I just teach there a few years ago? A boys’ camp where the parents are discouraged from contacting their son while they do survivalist field trips—didn’t my kid go there for years? Gravel roads leading to clapped out summer camps that might hide neo-Nazis or other species of lunatic—I can point you to any number of them. One of the characters even has the same French surname as my son-in-law.
And then I got to the end and laughed aloud. A wealthy woman from Rye (and I paint there every year, too) is killing time in the room mentioned above. “She looked at the painting over her right shoulder. It was an image of a river flowing out of the mountains, a very pleasant blend of blues, oranges and greens. She noted the name. I’m going to have to find out more about this Douglas artist, she said to herself. Then she grabbed a copy of Adirondack Life from the coffee table and pretended to read.”
I know that painting well, and now you do too; it’s at the top of this post. Jay’s wife bought it for him for a gift years ago.
Canoes play a big part in Buck Rack Lake; here are the ones from the secluded lakeside hostelry where I taught and painted. Also now in a private collection. By little ol’ me, of course.
For the record, I swear I haven’t talked to Jay in quite a while; it’s all just coincidence. But more than that, Buck Rack Lake is a fun read: tightly plotted and lots of local color for anyone who loves the Adirondacks. My copy is no longer a pristine, signed first-edition; I found it gripping, so I gripped. I hope you enjoy it, and when you get to the end, you can tell yourself you know exactly what that painting looks like.


Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

A brief foray into indirect painting

“Adirondack autumn grove,” 12X16, oil on canvasboard, 2012
(please excuse the reflections; my camera isn’t back yet)
I had a few minutes in my studio the other day and was contemplating some “fails” from the field—plein air paintings that didn’t really work. Now, I have stacks of these, and they don’t bother me in the least… they are the pictorial record of experiences and impressions, rather than finished paintings. But occasionally I find one I want to touch up.
Just as it came from the field.
This one was done in the company of Marilyn Fairman last autumn, and while I liked the overall composition, the structure somehow got lost in the moment (it happens).
With changes marked out.
I decided to seek and restate the darks using a transparent glaze. I first learned to paint indirectly— using many thin layers of paint and medium to achieve one’s desired visual effects—and it’s a technique I generally reject in my dotage. Nevertheless, there are times when such indirect painting is the fastest way to fix a painting. This is almost always when the problem area has to go darker; although one can glaze with zinc white, it’s usually just easier to repaint the offending passages with your usual muck.

As often as I say I don’t make up my own medium, sometimes I do…
this time with a small amount of paraffin wax added to kill the gloss.

I’ve been studying the Maine seascapes of Winslow Homer, in particular his use of the dark diagonal, and it seemed it would be just the thing to fix this painting. After noting the passage I wished to make darker, I mixed a palette of three transparent pigments: Indian yellow, transparent earth red, and dioxazine purple. With these I was able to quickly make the shadows cool and the highlights warm.

Transparent glazing colors–Indian yellow, transparent red oxide, dioxazine purple .
The whole repair took less than five minutes. Now, I don’t know if this qualifies any longer as a “plein air” painting, since I adjusted the values in the studio. Nor do I care. The issue is whether it satisfies the viewer, and I’d say it is now closer than it was on that lovely autumn day.
Merry Christmas to all my dear friends!

Ten days on the road

Painting John Porter on the porch of the Irondequoit Inn. Normally, you develop a painting all over, in layers, but not if your model has temporarily disconnected his oxygen to pose. (Photo by Carol Thiel)

September and October are New York’s grandest months, when our state throws off its sartorial rectitude and arrays itself in scarlet, purple, and cloth-of-gold. And the last week in September was the best possible time to be at the Irondequoit Inn with 14 of my fellow New York Plein Air Painters (NYPAP). This organization is being wonderfully revived by painter Marilyn Fairman, who organized the event.

A tiny study of trees and reeds, by me.
However, there’s a reason Native Americans considered the Adirondacks their summer home. Its cold is brooding, often accompanied by rain and mist, and the weather is fickle.  Last autumn, the mercury was hitting 80° F, but this year it was pouting in the 40s and 50s, with rain and wind. That often corresponds to the best fall color, but it’s chilling to work in. However, we are all dedicated outdoor painters, so of course we soldiered through.

Painting at Oxbow Inlet
(Photo by Mary Beth Vought)
At one point, I trekked through a drenching downpour to find Janet Yeates turned out like the Gloucester fisherman and Ruth Crotty in knee-high Wellingtons, the hood of her rain slicker pulled tight around her face. Both, of course, were too stubborn to quit. Ruth was tarping down her easel under a pine tree, muttering, “What else could possibly happen?”

“Lightning?” I asked.

Mercifully, I was wrong.

The start of our retreat coincided with the end of a workshop given by National Geographic photographer Ralph Lee Hopkins. The end of it coincided with the start of my painting workshop. The Irondequoit Inn was a whirling parade of the visual arts, running for two weeks straight, and it would be difficult to express just how energizing it was.

Snag at Piseco Outlet, by me.
My trip started with Bruce Bundock’s opening at Locust Grove in Poughkeepsie. The show should have been called Friends in Low Places, because Bruce’s gift is finding the sublime in the pedestrian. This review features one of his finest paintings, but this painting currently is my favorite: a classic composition that might typically be used for a villa on the French Riviera, but which he translated to a raised ranch along the Hudson, with a tanker in the background. Since it’s Bruce’s day in the sun, I might as well add that he was recently profiled for his day job as a preparator at Vassar, here.

Value study by workshop participant Carol Thiel.
For several years, my goal in landscape painting has been to capture the sense of tapestry rather than the sense of distance.  I find that much more difficult than building a global scene comprised of discrete objects like buildings, islands, lakes and hills. I’ve gone past the point of liking or disliking the results; I am simply compelled to paint this way. Nothing was different this week: as my friends and then my students turned out fantastic paintings of the woods, fields and lakes, I continued to slash and burn amongst the trees.

One afternoon we finished up early and took a canoe trip in Piseco Lake and up the mouth of Fall Stream. We each brought small watercolor kits, but no painting was done (although the paper was certainly damp by the time we finished). But we did look at the mists, the black water, and the gold-drenched grasses on their earthen hummocks.

Watercolor of Piseco Outlet by workshop participant Shirley Ernst.

At 94, John Porter is the Piseco Company’s oldest living shareholder. I’ve had the good fortune to spend time with him during the last three autumns. He’s a retired woodsman, and wonderfully knowledgeable about both natural and human history. He’s getting a bit frail these days, and mostly looks at the woods from the front parlor. On the last afternoon of my workshop, we were working on architecture. I had set up a painting of the lovely old green chairs and dinner bell on the Inn’s commodious porch. The rain vanished, the sun came out, and it was suddenly warm. John joined us for a few minutes, so I put him in my painting. I’ll share it with you when it’s done, because to me it’s a wonderful memory of a precious day.

Last chance! A week of instructed wilderness painting, only $775 inclusive!

September 30-October 5 2012



Paint in the unfettered splendor of nature with celebrated artist Carol L. Douglas, in the bewitching, boundless and historic Adirondack Park—a week of unparalleled instruction at some of the wildest, most scenic painting locations the nation has to offer. Your outdoor adventure will be balanced by the comfort of an all-inclusive accommodation package at the historic Irondequoit Inn.
Eric and Liz Davis
$775.00 inclusive!
·         Basic package: includes 5 nights lodging and meals.
·         Private non-smoking room with shared bath in either lodge or cabin accommodations
·         15 meals served communally
·         Breakfast: Monday-Friday
·         Box Lunch for off-site painting sessions,
M-F
·         Dinner: Sunday-Thursday
·         Coffee and Tea Bar
·         Sunday afternoon welcome reception
·         Morning and afternoon instruction sessions,
·         Monday-Thursday
·         Group critique session, Thursday evening
·         Available on request:
·         Non-painting partner accommodations
·         Private portfolio critique
·         Private Room and Private Bath: add $125
·         Suite with Private Bath and Kitchen: add $250
To register:
Call the Irondequoit Inn at 518-548-5500
For more information:
Eric and Liz Davis

The nature of Nature

“Keuka Lake Vineyard,” oil on canvasboard, 9X12

This year I am teaching plein air painting in two venues. I believe that all aspiring painters should study plein air. Why?
Character: The strength of plein air painting lies in its relationship to reality, but that is also its greatest weakness. Slavish homage to what one sees is a dangerous trap, even more deadly than the same tendency in figure or still-life painting.
Our appreciation of place is not entirely visual: it also encompasses sound and smell and spatial awareness. There are certain experiences in nature—such as standing in the sand on an elliptical shoreline—that are tremendously appealing in real life, but which make for weak paintings. A literal rendering of them is worse than banal: it lies about the character of the place.
The challenge for the plein air painter is to portray the place in a way that gives a sense of the non-visual cues—the warmth of the wind, drumming of the waves, crickets in dry grass. Either the non-representational aspects of painting become more dominant, or you fail. This happens in ways that figure or still-life never force you to consider.
Composition: We know intellectually that paintings built upon a strong, simple schematic project more powerfully than those pieced together from innumerable details. Nature, however, is essentially an infinite layering of innumerable details. With landscape painting, there is no solution but to fall back on the basic tools of composition: thumbnails, value studies, and shape studies. Painting students who rely on their instructors’ model poses or still lives will never learn to compose the way a plein air student—picking and choosing from the environment’s complexities—will learn to compose.
Communication: Painting is pointless if it is devoid of any emotional or intellectual content. Despite that, it is surprisingly easy to “phone it in” at times, especially in the controlled environment of the studio. We’ve all done it. But everyone has an emotional relationship of some kind with nature, and it is impossible to avoid expressing that.
“Piseco Outlet,” oil on canvasboard, 9X12

Upcoming classes

The two venues I’m teaching in are convenient for both the local student who wants to study in Rochester and the out-of-town student who wants to take a single, intensive class:

  1. Weekly classes in the Rochester area, every Wednesday from 5:30-8:30 PM, meeting in some of the loveliest parts of Monroe County, from the pier at Charlotte to High Falls to Genesee Valley and more. The tuition is $100 a month. Email me herefor more information.
  2. “Adirondack Wild,” a plein air painting workshop at the Irondequoit Inn in Piseco from September 30 to October 5, 2012. The Adirondack preserve is the biggest, wildest park in the Lower 48, and at $775 all-inclusive (room and board) for five days and nights, this is the deal of the century. Download a brochure here.

There just might be something to this.

Early spring morning, Piseco Lake, oil on canvasboard, 12X16

Yesterday, I wrote about a Stillman & Birn Alpha Series sketchbook that Jamie Grossman gave me, and my first attempt to pre-sketch my paintings in it in watercolor.
This morning as I walked my appointed rounds, I carried the sketchbook and watercolors instead of my camera. The first thing I noticed—of course—is that it took rather longer to make my circuit than it usually does.
I’ve had my eye on this lovely house set on a hill for a few years, and there being a convenient bench, I sat down to sketch it. (I decided that it will be a better painting when the leaves are leafed out.) From there, I moved to a tree in the deep woods with a triple trunk, which proved to be very difficult, but which was good observationally. In both cases, I was approaching the project too much like real painting, which just irritates when all one has is one small brush.
My sketch, a bench.
This last sketch I did much more quickly, just ripping off a pencil drawing and then flooding the sheet with a color map. And it is frankly more satisfying than either of my earlier sketches (which you can’t see because I finished my day after dark and forgot to photograph them).
Transcribed directly
to canvas
Because I didn’t have a toned canvas, I decided to underpaint my finished study in alkyds. (By this point, time had ceased to be a meaningful constraint.) And it was a good day for them, too—the wind whipping off the lake dried them in no time. My alkyd painting is a simplified but direct rendition of the watercolor sketch.
In the end, this painting took me about four hours, and that is about what I’d expect for a field sketch of this size (12X16). So whatever time I spent on the watercolor sketch was saved on the final project.

Alkyd underpainting, transcribed from
watercolor sketch.

 Marilyn Fairman has joined me in the hermitage, and we spent the afternoon painting intensively. Tomorrow, we have all day to paint. What a joy that will be.