Monday Morning Art School: the coastal composition problem

It’s easy to throw all the weight to one side when painting on the coast. Here’s one way to fix that.
Roger Akeley’s solution to the coastal composition problem.
A few weeks ago, I got a message from student Roger Akeley. Roger had arrived at a drastic solution to the composition problem bedeviling his painting.
Squares are more static than rectangles, which is one reason I seldom paint in that format. However, that means their weightiness helps subdue out-of-balance compositions. More importantly, Roger cut off a good deal of the material that was pulling the painting to the left. That allowed the scree and seaweed at the bottom to take their proper place on the stage. It was a decisive solution.
Roger was dealing with a problem that regularly bedevils painters of ocean scenes: all the weight falls on one side. The second problem I commonly see (which he avoided) is a shoreline that’s an unbroken ellipse. It’s inelegant and unbelievable.
How can you avoid these problems?

Palm, by Carol L. Douglas
Seek out irregularity in the coastline. On the North Atlantic, this isn’t too difficult; great granite fingers reach out into the ocean. In the Bahamas, I found that significantly more difficult, as the coast was even and featureless and the surf lackluster. I used a foreground object—a palm—to create interest, above.
Historic Fort Point, by Carol L. Douglas
Still, there are places where the weight inevitably falls to one side, and there are no atmospherics to correct the scene. When this happens, I try to keep the values tight, as I did in my painting above. If the water isn’t significantly lighter than the trees, the composition will gel. The risk is in being boring, hence the high chroma.
For true mastery of this problem, we must consult that genius of coastal painting, Winslow Homer. In his watercolors from Cullercoats, he frequently used figures to break the horizon. His paintings from Maine, however, used two more elemental and powerful devices, which are ours for the looking.  

Sunshine and Shadow, Prout’s Neck, 1894, Winslow Homer (watercolor), courtesy Art Institute of Chicago
Homer was the master of the sweeping diagonal. He used this over and over to hold our visual interest, playing it off the strict horizontal of the horizon line. In the watercolor above, the whole charge of the painting lies in the interrupted diagonal silhouette and its counterpoint in the clouds and sinuous driftwood. Only after serious looking do we notice the beach roses at the bottom; they are completely subdued into the shadows.
Northeaster, 1895-1901, Winslow Homer, courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art
Northeaster, above, uses a similar diagonal, this time playing against the towering white shape of the spray. In themselves, these two elements would have made a brilliant painting. But wait—as they say on late night TV—there’s more. The dark in the wave to the far right echoes the rocks. It’s a threatening element, but it also gives us an easy order in which to ‘read’ the painting. We see rock, the shadow on the breaker, the spray, and finally that wisp of light in the distant waves. It’s not painterliness that draws us through this work; it’s masterful composition.
The Artist’s Studio in an Afternoon Fog, 1894, Winslow Homer, courtesy Memorial Art Gallery, Rochester, NY.
I seldom ask my students to copy masterworks. The Artist’s Studio in the Afternoon, also by Homer, is an exception. I don’t care if you do it in paint or pencil, but take an hour and set down a copy of this painting. It is a perfect composition—energetic, spare, lively. When you’re done, please post a comment in Monday Morning Art School on Facebook telling me what you’ve learned.

Lies, damn lies and statistics

Niagara Falls, pastel, by Carol L. Douglas

I’ve been stopped at the border by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) before. A group of us went on pilgrimage to Toronto to see Group of Sevenpaintings. On the way back, Jennifer proved to be of special interest. She cooled her heels so we all cooled our heels.

Leaving the Bahamas, I didn’t realize the banana I’d tucked in my backpack needed to be declared. While the customs official searched my carry-on bags and ticked me off about the fines for smuggling, my other bag—the one with the dangerous contraband—sailed right through.
Just kidding. I’m a very law-abiding citizen.
Detentions at the border may not be up, but news stories about them certainly are. It’s another case of journalistic innumeracy. When people talk about “fake news,” it’s because they no longer trust what media tells them, and this is because reporters frequently don’t ask the salient questions: How good are the numbers? How biased is the source? How significant is the deviation?
Not all border crossings are swank. This is the approach to Top of the World Border Crossing between Alaska and the Yukon. You need to check the hours before you show up.
When I was twenty, I could tuck a dime into my bikini and stroll across the Rainbow Bridge. (This is a real place, BTW, and not a metaphor for pet mortality.) I’ve crossed the US-Canadian border countless times since then. My body has loosened and border security has tightened in equal measure.
But my experiences are anecdotal evidence. To make a valid argument from them, they need to be supported by fact. Since 2009, we’ve needed a passport or equivalent to cross the US-Canada border. That’s a fact that supports my impressions.
All educated people know that a coin toss always has a 50% chance of coming up tails. However, after a string of bad tosses, our guts tell us that our luck has to change soon, that it’s time for the coin to fall our way.
It’s the job of our civilized, reasonable, educated minds to remind our unruly hearts that probability is immutable. However, casino gambling is a $70 billion/year industry in America. That’s a sign that we don’t do a very good job of thinking rationally.
Bahamians are tea-drinkers. My first cup of real coffee in a week, in suburban Boston.
At times, our lack of factual literacy has public-policy repercussions. For example, in 1996, we passed the Church Arson Prevention Act and created the National Church Arson Task Force in response to a wave of black church fires. But as Michael Fumento said at the time, this was a false crisis based on bad data supplied by an advocacy group.
As sentient citizens, we have a moral duty to seek truth. No tools are unbiased, so use some from either side. Better yet, use them from the other side, a trick a lobbyist friend once suggested to me. On the left, there is FiveThirtyEight, on the right, the Heritage Foundation. Read them both, and everything in between. Or, at least read something, and do it with a skeptical mind.

It’s all about the traps, man

The Blue Umbrella, by Carol L. Douglas. Even without detail, you should be able to see that there are three different species of palm in this painting.
There are 629 living species of conifer in the world. In contrast, there are 2600 known species of palm trees, with the greatest diversity being on islands. They range in shape from draping to spiky to fan-shaped to pom-pom.
Studying the differences between trees helps me get the structure right in my paintings. In Karl’s Garden, yesterday, there were three different species shading the table. It’s a challenge to paint them accurately without being pedantic.
I vary my compositional technique depending on the subject. When I’m unsure about positioning, I sketch on paper, crop my sketch, and transfer the result to my canvas. For boats and buildings, I use a watercolor pencil and a straight edge. I draw directly on the canvas, using water for erasure. 
In my studio, I often start with an abstracted grisaille. This can be risky in the field, since those sloppy wet darks can migrate up into the painting, creating mud. Being rigorous about the fat-over-lean rule helps prevent this. So does marrying the underpainting color to the final shadow color. For this reason, I often end up using a violet-blue rather than the more conventional desaturated reddish-brown.
The rare and elusive pom-pom palm, at Coral Beach in Freeport.
We couldn’t get odorless mineral spirits in the Bahamas. Our choices for solvent were conventional white spirit or turpentine. We chose turpentine. It dries very fast, making the bottom layer less squishy than it would be at home. Going directly to paint meant I could develop paintings that relied on patterning, rather than modeling.
I like complicated images (even though I usually regret them halfway through the painting). I look for angles, light, and, most importantly, the negative space created by the objects. Then I determine where on the canvas the most important elements should fall. Quite literally, I paint quick circles in those spots and then stretch and bend the other objects to fit into the space.
The branching structure varies widely, as do the evergreen, pinnate leaves.
There’s a limit to what a grisaille can tell you about composition. In addition to value structure, paintings have chromatic structure. That was where I went wrong with the painting I wiped out this week. I didn’t take into consideration the coolness of the sea and sky when I was doing my underpainting. If I had, I could have swept them through the painting.
I had a painting teacher once who liked to intone “there is no negative space.” She was trying to say that there are no areas of the painting where nothing important is happening. This is true. However, it is useful to have a term to describe the interstices between objects. In painting a complicated image, those negative spaces are critical. For trees, the silhouette is important, but the traps—that negative space where sky shows through the canopy—is paramount.
After we’d downed brushes for the last time, we took a short car ride. There a line of tankers waits to approach Grand Bahama. I didn’t want to paint it, but it was a lovely image.
My week of painting in the Bahamas is now over, and I head back to Boston this afternoon. “The real question,” I told Bobbi Heath this morning, “is, where am I heading next?”

The Decline of the Raj

Karl’s Garden, oil on canvasboard, by Carol L. Douglas

 In towns like Camden, ME or Freeport, Grand Bahamas there are year-round residents, seasonal residents, and vacationers. Because painters sit or stand like great lumps of coral for long periods of time, people forget that we’re there. That means we often overhear conversation. Anywhere Americans gather on the road, I will hear a variation on the following:

“I love this place!” the passing tourist exclaims.
“You should have been here before the hurricane/market crash/election/everything got built up,” responds the seasonal resident.
Shortly, they move on to the crux of the discussion: “The problem with these people is…”
The American Coot is a seasonal visitor to the Bahamas. Some, of course, elect to stay year-round.
I assume this conversation has been happening for as long as people have traveled for fun, and that there are variations in Chinese, Japanese, and every other language. It makes me want a gin-and-tonic on the verandah, reminding me of the sun setting on the British Empire, of Henry James and Rudyard Kipling.
Wiped out. I didn’t like the composition.
Normally, I enjoy listening to it, but I was off my game on Friday. Of course, this had nothing to do with the conversation and everything to do with composition. There is nothing inherently interesting in the shape of inlets on low-elevation, sandy cays. Without some background architecture—jetties, buildings, boats, trees—they are simply a boring ellipse that barely changes color.
On the other hand, the water itself is gorgeous. I want the opportunity to solve this dilemma, but the beach here is too hot for us pasty northerners. We take quick photos and then retreat to the shade of the palms.
Palm and sand, oil on canvasboard, by Carol L. Douglas
We’ve been warmly welcomed by Eva and Karl Dehmel, who have invited us to paint at their beachfront house twice. Here the conversation bounces along far less predictable pathways. I wrote about Eva’s artwork last week; Karl is also a retired doctor and an avid gardener. Were I not on a mission, I’d have been among the palms with him and his machetes.
Karl has a light hand with the jungle, allowing it to sprawl about in its tropical way. The sky holes and traps are very different from those created by northern deciduous trees. I have been painting much more intuitively than normal, eschewing any kind of compositional sketch or pencil drawings. The subject seems to bring out the Fauvist in me.
Boat, oil on canvasboard, by Carol L. Douglas
“It looks kind of like a Paul Gauguin,” my husband mused, when I showed him Karl’s Garden.
“I think it looks more like a Tommy Bahama shirt,” I responded.
Alas, all good things come to an end, and we said our final goodbyes to Karl and Eva on Sunday evening. As we headed back toward Freeport, I noticed that I was coming out in hives. It was too late to get to the grocery store, which closes at six, and we’d just left the company of two doctors. Talk about bad timing.
The scope of our activities.
I’m an old hand at allergies, however. I figured I could make it through the night without an antihistamine. “You don’t want to go to a Bahamian hospital if you can help it,” Cali Veilleux had told us.
By 11 PM, I was covered with bumps and my lips were swollen. I slathered myself with aloe and debated waking up Bobbi Heath to take me to the Emergency Room. Whether it was a food, bug spray, sunscreen, the sun itself, or something environmental, I’m still swollen and itchy this morning. In a few minutes, however, we can pop over to the store and get some Benadryl. That should be the end of that.

Princess of flying thoughts

Princess of flying thoughts II, 2008 Acrylic on palm shaft, Eva Dehmel
As I write this the last echoes of thunder are moving off to the east, ending a night of rain and clamor. “This cold front will move through fast,” a woman named Eva confidently told us in McLean’s Town. That was just after she had fried us some exquisite fresh snapper, followed with slivers of Key Lime Pie that would not have been out of place in any fine restaurant. As compensation for a no-painting day, it was sublime.
We’d optimistically packed our gear and then headed to the farthest western point we could reach by car. Although that was about 45 miles, it took us several hours, between the roads, the scenery, and our general potting around.
Where your dinner-time conch shell goes to die.
Eva and Karl Dehmel live in a mushroom house on the beach near Lucayan National Park. A retired dermatologist, Eva works in clay, acrylics, chalks, and found material. The painting above hangs in her kitchen. The figure represents a Cuban deity, a wood princess, surrounded by her birds. In Eva’s mind, those birds represent thoughts flying away, an idea I found quite charming. More of Eva’s work can be seen here.
Making a pole for a fishing boat.
We stopped at the former East End Missile Base and tromped around for a while at their abandoned quay. Tiny blue buttons drifted on the surf. Porpita porpita looks like a jellyfish but is in fact a colony of hydroids. Its intense blue-green color is a variation of the Caribbean waters.
Cold front moving in on West Grand Bahamas.
McLean’s Town is a popular place for sport bonefishing. The bonefish lives in inshore tropical waters and moves onto shallow mudflats with the incoming tide in search of its dinner. These mudflats are surrounded by mangrove swamps. “What a weird little structure this forest is,” I remarked to Bobbi Heath. Apparently, mangrove swamps are important in protecting low coastal areas from erosion and storm surges. Their massive root systems dissipate wave energy and trap sediment.
If those were 35 mph gusts, I’m glad I wasn’t here for a hurricane..
I announced that I was rested and ready to take the wheel. I haven’t driven on the British side since August, and I wondered whether I retained the muscle memory. No problem, and while Bahamian drivers are erratic and ebullient, they’re also very courteous. We were home and unpacked before the skies truly opened.

The anti-Sanibel Island

Fire in Freeport.
If you’ve ever been downwind of a forest fire, you know they smell more like burning trash than like a nice log fire. There’s one poking in a desultory way around Freeport, the Bahamas, right now. Nobody seems to be doing much about it. 
“I felt a little like Evil Knievel driving right through it,” artist Cali Veilleux told us, but she still went. Things to do, you know. She was worried that the smoke would linger in our cottage, but it was fine.
The fire is burning in a residential neighborhood.
Damage from Hurricane Matthew was less transient. All over Freeport, roofs are knocked apart and large palm trees slumber across fences or buildings. A steady rain today—and there’s one on the forecast—could make for a lot of damp stucco.
Yes, there’s a fire, but a girl’s got to get to school.
Life replays recurrent themes. The unfinished painting on my easel at home is of a wildfire burn near Banff, Alberta. I experienced Hurricane Matthew’s leavings during a memorable up the Great Northern Peninsula in Newfoundland during the same trip. Why this happens, I don’t know, but it does neatly connect my familiar, much-loved Canada with this new place.
I’ve absolutely no experience in the Caribbean. The last time I was in Florida was in 1968. My friends have either visited swank resorts or they have gone on mission trips to Haitian and Dominican orphanages. This neighborhood in Freeport is stubbornly normal, a place where people live, eat, work and shop.
Unfinished wildfire painting in my studio back in Maine. It all seems to work together somehow.
It’s all very modest, even by Maine standards. You disembark straight onto the tarmac when you arrive at the airport. Customs waved us through without questions. We sat on a bench and flexed our joints to release the New England cold from our bones.

A trip to a grocery store elsewhere is always a reminder of how spoiled we Americans are for price and choice. The differences are sometimes inexplicable. Here, Eggland’s Best Organic Eggs are the same price as at my local store, but a large jar of peanut butter is $11 and change. Most peculiarly for an island, there is no seafood department. “You get that at the beach,” Cali explained.
Trees lie around lazily in the sun, blaming Hurricane Matthew for their inactivity.
None of us had the energy to deal with a car last night. This morning we will immerse ourselves in the bracing business of driving in what the Duke of Windsor once referred to as “a third-class British colony.” (That man really was spoiled.) Being only sixty miles off the American coast, only half the cars have right-side steering wheels. That and the exuberant, erratic driving ought to shake off our flying lethargy in a hurry.

How not to pack for a painting trip

I love travel but loathe packing. My clothes take me fifteen minutes or so, as one pair of paint-stained clamdiggers is interchangeable with any other. It’s the tools, paints and supplies that require thought.  I always print out my student supply list as a starting point. (You can find a copy here.)
I had unexpected company on the weekend. That meant I was even less prepared than usual. Still, with list in hand, I was unlikely to forget anything useful.
I’m on my way to Freeport in the Bahamas to paint with Joelle Feldman and Bobbi Heath. I felt good about my packing job until I saw theirs. Bobbi also works from a list, but hers is separated into “checked luggage” and “carry on.” Bobbi’s painting kit was lost en route to Brittany last year and not recovered until long after she got home. She has learned the painful lesson that some things shouldn’t be checked.
Less attention to my pedicure, more to packing would have helped.
Recently, one of my students arrived at the airport with a new 150 ml tube of paint in her carry-on bag. “Everyone knows you can’t do that,” we think. You’d be surprised at the mistakes you can make if you’re rushed or tired. Mercifully, it was just titanium white instead of a more expensive pigment.
Bearing that in mind, I carefully tucked my paints into my checked luggage. My tools and easel I kept in my carry-on. They are the priciest part of my kit and would be the hardest to replace on the road.
Joelle is a pastel painter. Her entire kit and clothing fit into a carry-on bag. That’s partly because she’s very efficient. Her clothes were vacuum-packed. Bobbi and I have the excuse of being oil painters to explain our extra luggage. We’d also been advised to bring toilet paper and paper towels with us, so our bags were fluffier than normal.
You really packed a half-empty bottle of plonk, Carol?
The first intimation that I might have done a bad job packing came last night when I realized I’d tucked my umbrella into my kit. It’s cumbersome and I never bring it on the road if I can help it. There was no going back, so it is heading to the Bahamas with me. This morning I noticed an odd shape sticking out of my suitcase. Investigating, I found a half-finished bottle of wine. It has been in my luggage since I returned from Canada in October.
Bobbi’s suitcase was far more orderly than mine.
Even we couldn’t face stale red wine before 6 AM. So I rinsed my hair with it.
But my real painting advice for the day is to make sure you put your palette knives, scraper and Leatherman tool in your checked luggage, not your carry-on. The alternative—replacing them or paying for another checked bag—are both expensive, as I now know.
Looking for packing advice? You should probably ask Bobbi or Joelle.