Braided rivers and other geomorphology

Stuck in traffic? Far more interesting to study a river bed than ponder the next rest stop.

The Alaska Range, by Carol L. Douglas. The Yukon River, foreground, is a classic braided river. It stretches a mile across, carrying silt… and gold.
It normally takes about 5 hours and thirty minutes to get from my house in Rockport, ME to my daughter’s house in Rensselaer County, New York. Taking the scenic route—Massachusetts Route 2—adds another half hour. There is the still-more-northerly route 9 through Vermont and New Hampshire.
There are times when even the most experienced road warrior unclenches her hands from the steering wheel and says goodbye to the interstate highway system. I moved to Maine to reduce the time I spent on Interstate 90 between Buffalo and Boston. However, with my daughter’s wedding I’ve been up and down that road too much recently. And I’ll be back on it in 9 days, heading to Rochester to teach a workshop.
Confluence, by Carol L. Douglas. The Athabasca River is another classic braided river.
We’d hung around Buffalo waiting for our youngest to finish his finals. A geology major, he finds himself buried in calculus and chemistry instead of thinking about rocks and minerals. Geomorphology is the study of why landscapes look the way they do. Why not think about that on the last leg of our trip home?
East of North Adams, Route 2 climbs into the Hoosac Range via a series of hairpin turns. The vistas into Vermont are fabulous. The road then follows the old Mohawk Trail, a trading footpath that connected the coast with the Iroquois Confederacy. Because pre-industrial commuters weren’t keen on extra climbing, their path ran along the Deerfield River and several of its tributaries. This ultimately dumps into New England’s longest river, the Connecticut.
River Rocks, Upper Jay, New York, by Carol L. Douglas. The Appalachians deposit their debris very differently from western rivers.
The drainage system of these small meandering streams, my son tells me, is typical of old folded mountains like the Appalachian Chain. It’s called a trellis drainage system. As the river flows along a valley, smaller tributaries feed into it at right angles, dropping down the steep mountain slopes.
Where the sediment load is high and the slope is low, rivers become braided. They form shifting sandbars and islands, or eyots, as our British cousins call them. There is certainly sand and rock in our small eastern rivers, but for a true braided river you have to go to the Pacific Northwest, especially Alaska and the western Canadian provinces. I’ve painted a few of them.
Upper Falls, Letchworth, by Carol L. Douglas. This deep gorge is geologically very young, and is cut through shale, limestone and sandstone.
Unfortunately, the steep valleys of the Mohawk Trail also meant that spring road work cut the pavement down to one lane. The whole trip took us just over eight hours. I’d promised Howard Gallagher of Camden Falls Gallery that I’d do something for him around noon; I finally had the chance to call him at 4:30. “It’ll keep until morning,” he said cheerfully.
Next up—a brace of workshops. The first is at Mendon Ponds in Rochester, NY, June 2-3. That’s followed almost immediately by a watercolor workshop aboard American Eagle, June 10-14. There’s still a small number of spaces available for each, along with my August workshop at Acadia National Park. Email me if you have any questions.

Fixing mistakes

Mt. Hayes and the Alaska Range, by Carol L. Douglas
Sometimes when we rework old oil paintings, there’s a temptation to repaint the entire surface. The new paint looks lush and full; the old paint is dull and thin. That’s particularly true when you never got past thin layers in the first place. That old turpentine-thinned paint has oxidized. The drying leaves a pitted surface on the top of the paint, which appears chalky and grey.  
You can bring the color back up in these passages by varnishing, but you really shouldn’t paint into varnish or medium, no matter what you might have read elsewhere. The “fat over lean” rule applies even to old paintings.
If your painting is thoroughly dry, you can brush a light coating of turpentine or mineral spirits over the painting. That will bring up the colors of the oxidized passages long enough for you to make your corrections. It ought to stem the urge to repaint the whole thing. Of course, if large areas of your paintings are oxidizing, you’re not using medium correctly.
On Friday I shot an extremely short video of myself changing the color of the traps in a tree line. I sent this to a reader who was wondering how much paint to use in this correction phase. It doesn’t have much in the line of production values, but it might be helpful.
The painting of Mt. Hayes and the eastern Alaska Range was painted near Delta Junction, Alaska. It was early in our trans-Canada trip. Although it appeared surface dry when I wrapped it, the thicker white paint in the river and sky squished and flattened under the weight of subsequent paintings.
This was a simple resurfacing job—and that was a very good thing, since I have no reference photos. It also gave me the chance to adjust the color of the Tanana River, which looks like light chocolate milk, it’s carrying so much silt.
Lake of the Woods, by Carol L. Douglas
I’d realized after I left Lake of the Woods in western Ontario that I’d never actually finished painting in the sky. This was a very simple fix, but I used the moment to add a little warmth to the water in the foreground.
In the last painting, I corrected a lie. I’d intended to paint a house surrounded by fields and a windbreak, but couldn’t find the right combination of side road, farm and fields. In real life, my subject was fronted by a low waste area of reeds but I’d edited that out.
Windbreak, by Carol L. Douglas
When the glaciers from the last ice age receded, they left behind millions of shallow depressions. These wetlands are known as ‘prairie potholes.’ They are significant resources for plant and animal life and support millions of breeding waterfowl, whose numbers are being threatened as the potholes are drained for large-scale farming. I really shouldn’t have excised them from the one scene in which they appear, and it makes me consider whether I want to add a studio painting that does the potholes justice.
I expected that deleting the field and reinstating the reeds would take me a long time, but it was done in fifteen minutes or so. I will probably incise a little more texture into the reeds, but it’s never going to be my favorite painting.