Inside the blue line

I’ll be teaching in the Adirondacks on August 13-14. Be there or be square.

Spruces and Pines in a Boreal Bog, painted at the Paul Smith’s VIC and long since gone to a private collector.

I cut my teeth teaching workshops in the Adirondack wilderness, so it’s with great pleasure that I’ll be doing that again, August 13-14, at Paul Smiths College in the High Peaks region. (For more information see hereor contact Jane Davis.) 

My Acadiaworkshop is sold out, so this is your only opportunity to study plein airwith me here in the northeast. It’s part of the Adirondack Plein Air Festival, but you do not have to be a participant in the festival to take the workshop. 

Bracken fern, also painted at Paul Smith’s VIC. 9X12, oil on archival canvasboard, $869 in a plein air frame.

(Of course, I have other workshops that still have openings—see my websitefor the full listing.)

New Yorkers are justly proud of the Adirondack Park. It covers most of the Adirondack Mountain massif and is the largest park in the Lower 48. Unlike most state parks, about half of the land is privately-owned, with state land wrapped around towns, villages and businesses.

I’ve been visiting the Adirondacks since I was a baby, and have painted, hiked, canoed and driven countless hours within it. But nobody can know the whole park intimately. It’s just too vast.

There are 6.1 million acres with more than 10,000 lakes and 30,000 miles of rivers and streams. There are boreal bogs and old growth forests, mountain peaks and roaring rivers. I’ve visited (and painted in) many wild places, and have found none wilder or more beautiful.

The Dugs, painted in the Adirondacks near Speculator, NY. 9X12, oil on archival canvasboard, $869 in a plein air frame.

As parks go, it’s pretty old. In 1885 the state legislature designated lands there and in the Catskills to be forever wild. This would come to be called ‘inside the blue line’. Those land protections were preserved in the state constitution in 1894. In contrast, the National Park System wasn’t formed until 1916.

There are about 130,000 full-time residents within the park and another 7-10 million visitors every year. That puts tremendous pressure on the land, but the relationship between residents, visitors, wilderness and government somehow holds together.

Because the park has so much private land within its borders, there are accommodations for every budget. You can stay at the newly-restored Hotel Saranac, or you can go back-country camping at a state-owned campsite. (The popular camping sites sell out fast, so don’t dither.)

Whiteface makes its own weather, 9X12, oil on archival canvasboard, $869 in a plein air frame. Whiteface Mountain is one of the 46 High Peaks of the Adirondacks.

My workshop will be held at the Visitors Interpretive Center (VIC) at Paul Smith’s College, which is located in the hamlet of Paul Smiths, NY. Town and college are named after Apollos (Paul) Smith, who started as a humble Vermont fishing guide and ended up an entrepreneur.

The VIC is an assortment of Adirondack habitats. There’s a large pond, running streams, a boreal bog, and lots of woodlands. Mountain peaks rise in the distance. Luxurious for a backwoods workshop, there are bathrooms with running water.

This teaching gig comes with the responsibility of being juror of awards for the Adirondack Plein Air Festival. Sandra Hildreth is the grande dame of Adirondack painting and the founder of the festival. She wanted a juror who was plugged into the ethos of wilderness and plein airpainting in general. These are two things I’m passionate about.

But my intimacy with the venue is also a potential downside—I know many of the painters who participate. Could I be objective? After a point, there are just too many of my acquaintances involved for me to favor anyone. I think I’ll be fine.

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.

Why facts matter

What is an artist if not a truth teller? To tell the truth, you must understand what you are looking at.
Painted by Sandra Hildreth from Eagle Island during the ADK Plein Air Festival.

Sandra Hildrethnever wins prizes at the Adirondack Plein Air Festival. She exempts herself because she’s the organizer, but I hate seeing her work overlooked in the jurying. Part of what one registers in art is passion, and hers is very passionate work. She is the Adirondacks’ most tireless art champion, a fine painter whose skills are focused on what she loves.

“I paint what is wild,” she wrote. “It might be a moss covered glacial erratic deep in a tangled old growth Adirondack forest…”
Barnum Brook, 12X48, by Sandra Hildreth.
Full stop here: that’s the difference between Sandra and most of the rest of us. I understand rocks but could never identify a glacial spill under the mess of foliage of an Adirondack hillside.
A student at this summer’s workshopasked me why knowing what we were looking at was important. I was slightly nonplussed, since I like knowledge for its own sake. Still, understanding the natural world informs painting, and Sandra’s work demonstrates this.
Nocturne, by Sandra Hildreth.
Her painting of trees, top, has the authority and authenticity of fact. Her trees could be nothing other than Eastern White Pines clinging to a mountain rock in a cold lake in the northeastern forest. She has told us, as clearly as a photograph could, about the feathery needles, the soft color, the mature mien of the trees, and how the rock has cleaved with great age. Accuracy with drawing allows her to be loose with the paint. It also gives us a whiff of mountain air when we see the painting.
I don’t know Sandra well, but we painted together in a boreal wetlands a few years ago. She’s a friend of my pal and former student Carol Thiel. The two of them clamber around the ADK’s 46 mountain peaks together. Sometimes they bring their paints along on these hikes. Walking in the woods is a powerful learning experience.
Split Rock Falls, by Sandra Hildreth.
Sandra grew up in Wisconsin and has a BFA from Western Kentucky University. She taught high school art in northern New York for 31 years, moving to Saranac Lake after she retired. She paints full time and is a devoted grandmother.
She paints what she identifies as wilderness—not just the splashy big national parks, but the places where man has not yet tamed nature. “They just need to have some of the qualities of wilderness, such as very little evidence of humanity,” she wrote. “Places where nature is dominant, not civilization.”
Eclipse, by Sandra Hildreth.
At some point, an artist moves past what is painterly and beautiful and arrives at what is true. If you want to be a truth-teller, you must first understand your subject. We have all seen paintings of inoffensive, unremarkable trees and rocks. They tell us nothing about the terrifying majesty of nature. They have no lasting power. Sandra Hildreth’s forests are for the ages.

It’s a wrap

Weather Moving In At Barnum Bog, 12X9, oil on canvasboard.
I’m home, finally, after a very tiring five and a half weeks on the road. Much of the time, I was working so many hours that blogging was an afterthought. That is why I posted only a few of the paintings I did last week. Today I thought I’d share the rest from Saranac Lake with you.
Whiteface Makes Its Own Weather, 16X12, oil on canvasboard.
I painted nine works in three days. (Three of which I’ve already posted.) That’s unusually prolific for me, and I blame it in part on my housemates, who worked so diligently that I constantly felt like a piker.

The Au Sable River at Jay, 12X9, oil on canvasboard.
Not only was I prolific, however, but I felt that I was painting very well. I’ve been in a style shift over the last year, and this work reflects where I’m going more than where I’ve been. To me, that’s important, because in some ways the Adirondacks are closely tied to my past, so that I’m able to paint them without intimations of the past is a healthy sign for future progress.

Whiteface and Marsh, 16X12, oil on canvasboard.
If I am ever complacent in my painting, just take me out and shoot me. Painting is exploration. It should always be a challenge, a personal battle, a jousting match.
Town Hall, Saranac Lake, 10X8, oil on canvasboard.
Message me if you want information about next year’s workshops. Information about this year’s programs is available here.

Special Trout Fishing Area, 12X9, oil on canvasboard.

Me and my big mouth

Front Porch View, 5X7, oil on canvasboard.
The residents of the asylum all got up at 6 AM yesterday to paint our 5X7 donation paintings. Four of us painted from the same location—our porch, because it was raining. My painting was finished and handed in by 8 AM. Sadly, that was the high point of my day.
Marlene Wiedenbaum painting from the front porch.
I’ve said before that rain is the great equalizer; it falls on the just and the unjust alike. That was true yesterday, and it slowed us all down. I abandoned my painting of Main Street after 2 hours, intending to return to it after lunch. Instead, I went out to paint Whiteface Mountain—a scene I said was idiot proof. Whoops. As soon as I had my painting composed and blocked in, a cloud rolled down the mountain, obscuring it.
Unfinished painting of Whiteface Mountain. I’ll finish the mountain when it stops having a hissy fit and hiding behind the clouds.
Not only did it bring rain, it also brought No-See-Ums out. And three visitors, one of whom spent almost an hour with us asking questions about what we were doing.
Whiteface hiding behind its clouds.
There was no finishing this composition without the top of Whiteface showing, since all the weight would then fall to the bottom of the page. Still, both are salvageable. I’ll finish them tomorrow.
Painting along Route 86 (photo courtesy of Laura Bianco).

Message me if you want information about next year’s Maine workshops. Information about this year’s programs is available here.

Buckling down to do some work

Mountain Farm in Evening, 8X6, oil on canvas
Yesterday, I spent several hours hiking at the 3,000-acre Paul Smith’s College Visitor Interpretive Center (VIC). We’re expected to paint there tomorrow, and I’ve never been there. Toting up the various trails I followed, I figure I hiked about five miles, which is my normal daily walk at home. Hiking trails, however, are different from paved urban sidewalks, particularly in a mountainous area.
Mira Fink working on her watercolor at the VIC.
There is an iconic view of a rock outcropping in the VIC’s Heron Marsh which is lovely, but it is perhaps too perfect for my taste. Brian McDonnell, VIC facilities manager, warned me that it would be swarming with artists on Friday. A lovely view on the far end of the marsh caught my eye, but it’s a mile and a half from the parking lot. There is a spruce swamp that is simply magical, but I’m not sure how I’ll convert that to something intelligible. I won’t choose now; I think it would be better to let the views percolate in my mind’s eye before committing them to canvas.
Approaching the spruce swamp at the VIC.
I also went back to two sites that I visited on Tuesday, because I wasn’t certain they would make good compositions. I did greyscale drawings to satisfy myself that painting them would work.
A panoramic view of the High Peaks can only work if there’s foreground interest. I’ll tidy up the trees and I think it will work.
At about 5 PM, I went to town to have my boards stamped. From there, Crista Pisano, Laura Bianco and I went to Gabriels, NY to paint farms in the waning evening light. It was the first time I’ve actually flexed my brush hand in a week, and it felt good.
I’m still not convinced about these river rocks at Jay, but painting should be all about taking risks, right?
Message me if you want information about next year’s Maine workshops. Information about this year’s programs is available here.

Dépaysement, redux

Still life composed by Tarryl for my amusement. My fellow painters here are all down-staters.
A few weeks ago I wrote about dépaysement, the sense of disorientation one has on arriving in a strange place. I have to confess I’m feeling that again. I’m in Saranac Lake, NY, for the Sixth Annual Adirondack Plein Air Festival, and it’s 38° F. this morning. Yes, you read that right. I’m staying with a group of artists led by Tarryl Gabel, who is a veteran of painting up here in August. As I’m writing this, she’s sliding jeans over her leggings, preparing to hie off to Paul Smiths. 

My bedroom is an old-fashioned sleeping porch.
Coming from the Maine coast as I did, I have sleeveless shirts, capris, and sandals with me. “But you’re a northern girl,” Tarryl protested, implying that I should have known better. This is true, but Rochester and Buffalo have warm autumns, courtesy of the Great Lakes, which act as massive heat exchangers. Having said that, 38° F. on an August morning is cold for anywhere in New York State.
Crista cooks like I do, meaning she put herself in charge of snack food.
I’ve known Tarryl for a long time but not that well. She and Crista Pisano and I have done Rye’s Painters on Location together for many years. They’re the only people I expect to know in this temporary artists’ commune.
The essence of the Adirondacks: a porch overlooking the lake.
Our home-away-from-home is a ramshackle turn-of-the-century pile along Flower Lake. The view is lovely and the furniture is vintage. After the solitude of my off-the-grid cabin and the luxury of the Fireside Inn, this is a third kind of living: it has the character of a family camp in the mountains, complete with deferred maintenance. But as I keep saying, “I don’t have to fix it.”
Tarryl’s painting hat. It’s iconic.
Message me if you want information about next year’s Maine workshops. Information about this year’s programs is available here.

Back of beyond

Like it or not, we’re all in this web together. This particular web was at Wahconah Falls in the Berkshires, where I plan to stop to paint on my way to Maine in two weeks.
Non-New Yorkers always seem skeptical when we tell them there are vast tracts of our state that are uninhabited. Hamilton County, for example, sprawls over more than 1800 square miles of land, but its population is fewer than 5,000. That gives it a population density equal to North Dakota.
Since I leave—shortly—for the duration of the summer, I took a short trip this past weekend. I’ll be off-grid for much of the time I’m in Maine. I needed a better sense of what was negotiable with these old bones and what I can’t live without. I haven’t done any back-of-beyond camping in more than a decade.
My 2005 Prius–which went over 200,000 miles on Friday–has a perfect smartphone holder in the door. Amazing, since there were no smartphones when it was built.
Yes, I can still sleep in a tent and get up the next morning and be (relatively) limber, providing I have some kind of air mattress. Yes, it’s still a lot of work to camp, what with pitching a tent, hauling water and food and rolling and rerolling bedding. And although I used to like to cook over a campfire, I find it a pain these days.
Since I almost never paint from photos anyway, there is a declining advantage in hauling around my Panasonic DMC-LX5. If I’m just testing viewpoints for a painting–as here–I might as well use my pocket-sized computing device, a/k/a ‘phone’.
What has changed since I last went back of beyond is the nation’s cell phone network. I was on the top of a hill with no running water, no electricity, no septic, no artificial lighting of any kind—and an absolutely stellar 4G signal.
I’m thinking that will change how I interact with you while I’m on the road. Daily blogging without wi-fi or electricity may be difficult (although there are open wi-fi networks everywhere) but Instagram and Facebook are available everywhere. Does that mean my camera, with its beautiful, fast Leica lens, is obsolete in favor of my cell phone? Perhaps.
Of course, going off-the-grid with a party of youngsters is a little different from going with a party of painters. Mainly, the toys are noisier. (What we have here is a convoy.)

I have two openings left for my 2014 workshop in Belfast, ME. Information is available here.

The best fan mail

Three watercolors done by Shirley last October. I can’t wait to see what she does in Maine this October! 
The greatest compliment to an instructor is to have a student sign up again for another year. While I was in Camden last week, I learned that Shirley, a student from last October’s Irondequoit Inn program, will be joining me in Maine this October.
Shirley is darn intrepid. She let us put her in the bottom of a canoe and paddle through a choppy lake and a maze of streams until we reached a beaver dam and had to back our way out. I promise right here and now we won’t be doing that again.
Shirley letting us take her for a canoe ride…
But I also promise that the food—of such high caliber at last year’s workshop—is at least as good this year in Maine.
Shirley has a BFA from Syracuse University and was a prizewinner at the second annual Chautauqua National Exhibition. (In the spirit of things coming full circle, I participated in two Chautauqua National shows myself, a few decades later.)
To balance her out there are three novice painters signed up for the October session—and a couple of additional openings, one of which probably has your name on it. She’s a lovely person, and you’d enjoy being in class with her.
If you haven’t registered but want to, know that October 2013—last session with openings in 2013—is selling out fast. Or, let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in 2014. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

Some Days, You Just Can’t Get Rid of a Bomb

“Loren’s farm,” oil on canvasboard, 12X16

 At our last painting session, Marilyn whipped out her grayscale markers (making me instantly regret that I hadn’t brought mine along). The forest was remarkably dark and moody this week, and the spring foliage far less advanced than down on the lake plains, and I was finding it difficult to find a range of values.

Marilyn Fairman sketching in grayscale markers.
A tonal drawing immediately reveals the strengths and weaknesses of one’s composition—if it doesn’t work in the simplified view, it isn’t going to work after you’ve invested hours painting, either. In fact, the painting I did in that last session ended up mired in a compositional issue that would have been immediately apparent had I done some fundamental drawing before starting, but I was tired and cutting corners. 
“Canoes at Irondequoit Inn,” oil sketch
To me, the difference between an adequate painter and an excellent painter is the amount of time said artist spends drawing. I wrote earlier this week about watercolor sketching, and have written frequently about drawing with a plain, ordinary graphite pencil.
“Breakwater at Irondequoit Bay,” oil sketch
In the field, however, I most often sketch with oils on small canvases. Here is a sketch I did of the canoes at the Irondequoit Inn, and another of the breakwater at Irondequoit Bay.* They took about as long as a graphite or watercolor sketch would have, but their purpose is somewhat different: they are simplified and monumental in the same way as the tonal grayscale marker (which is by far the fastest way of sketching). 

And the painters home from the hill…
I did three other paintings in the Adirondacks. One was a complete bomb (despite having spent a long time drawing and an equally long time painting).  I followed that up by inadvertently discharging the battery of my car outside of cell-phone range, leaving me stranded with a dead car with its keys stuck in the ignition. Marilyn set off on foot to get help while I dug out the battery—not as obvious as you might think, since it’s stowed in the side of the trunk. But a bad painting and a dead battery did nothing to dampen my high good spirits.

I’m struggling with something, which is by no means uncomfortable when you’re not fixated on the results. I have been working for the past few years on patterning my paint-handling in a more abstract way, but in the process I’ve lost some of the depth that a more traditional landscape approach gives. Now that has to be reintroduced.

“Mountain meadow,” oil on canvasboard, 12X16
But my hermitage (which became less hermit-like as the week went on) is over and I’m happy to be back in Rochester, in my studio, surrounded by my family, friends, and students.
*An alert reader will note that the Irondequoit Inn and Irondequoit Bay are about 200 miles apart. I leave that mystery to you to decipher.