Travel in the age of coronavirus

We live in an age of instant global connection, without filters. That means we’re about to experience pandemic differently than ever before.
Athabasca Glacier, by Carol L. Douglas

Turpenoid, made by Weber, and Gamsol, made by Gamblin, are both odorless mineral spirits (OMS), modern substitutes for turpentine in the oil-painter’s kit. A chance conversation with Kevin Beers last night made me realize that Turpenoid has a flash point of 110-130° F. while Gamsol has a flash point of 144° F. That small difference makes Gamsol safe to fly with, but Turpenoid not.

I received a message from Jane Chapin last night that read, “The office in El Calafate says that our solvent has not arrived, but they will help us. Bring Gamsol.” We and a few other intrepid artists are heading to Argentina tomorrow to paint in Patagoniaand Tierra del Fuegoand a few other places heavy on glaciers, light on trees.
Light snow above the Arctic Circle, by Carol L. Douglas.
Travel always comes with last minute snafus. First among these now is coronavirus. I’ll be through four airports in the next 24 hours. I can’t find hand sanitizer or disinfectant wipes anywhere in mid-coast Maine. Luckily, my friend and monitor, Jennifer Johnson, just flew home from Australia. She gave me her stash. It will suffice through to Miami, when Jane can augment my supplies.
Coronavirus is unlikely to be in Tierra del Fuego, but it’s still making me edgy. Will my son be sent home to finish his last college semester through online classes? If so, how will he get here? Will I be locked out of the country or quarantined on my return? The scope of the problem was borne home to me last weekend, when my niece rescheduled her May wedding to September. She’s marrying a Canadian of Asian descent and nobody knows what international travel will look like in two months.
Me, talking to KCAS members, in case you’ve forgotten what I look like. Photo courtesy Jennifer Johnson.
Pandemic is as old as the human race, but today we have decentralized news and powerful social media. As I write this, the death toll from coronavirus in the US is 31—or about 40% as many as have been murdered to date this year in Chicago. But we are intimately aware of each of COVID-19’s victims, because we’ve read about them all. That changes our perception of our own risk.
Still, you can’t live in the fear zone. Human beings are wired to experience negative results more keenly than positive ones, to stop us from doing stupid things that will kill us. This is called our negativity bias, and it results in our thinking that things will go wrong more than they’ll go right. The fewer risks we take, the stronger that belief is. We can become immobilized by the fear of change. The intrepid artist has to work to overcome that, by substituting a positivity bias. I have a simple one: faith in God.
Last night, I spoke to the Knox County Art Society (KCAS) about how negativity bias makes some of us fear outdoor painting excessively. But if I—at age 61—can still go outside and paint in the wild, so can you. “If it doesn’t kill you, get back up and do it again,” I said.
KCAS is the brainchild of David Blanchard of Camden, and it’s grown to eighty members in a year. It’s offering classes, speakers, exhibitions and more. If you’re an artist in Knox County, Maine, you should be a member.
In addition to being the home of one of America’s newest art societies, Maine is home to America’s oldest continuous art society, the Bangor Art Society. It’s time to apply for their 145th anniversary juried show, which will open on May 1. It’s a fun show with a fun reception. Register here.

A new arts group starts with flair

If you’re an artist in Knox County, ME, you may want to join the Knox County Art Society.

Portland #1, by Bob Richardson, at Boynton-McKay in Camden right now.
The Bangor Art Society is the oldest continuously-operated art society in the US; nearby Knox County Art Society (KCAS) may be the youngest. It holds its first meeting on June 15. The last I heard, it had 23 members, which is a great start. (The whole county’s population is less than 40,000.)
David Blanchard, its founder, is a friend and student of mine. He’s doing everything right. What better way to gin up interest than by having a show? Yesterday I mentioned that I helped hang one for KCAS at Boynton-McCay. That’s an old-fashioned storefront eatery at 30 Main Street in Camden.
This show will be up for the summer months, meaning it will get lots of foot traffic. Dave requested enough work that he can change the inventory monthly, and the labeling and signage are extremely professional.
Resting, Carol L. Douglas, done at Camden Life Drawing earlier this year.
KCAS grew out of Camden Life Drawing. This group gets together at the Lions Club every Wednesday evening to draw from a model. I go when I can, but most of the time it’s sold out, subscription only, on a first-come, first-serve basis. This month, however, sign-ups are light, so if you want to brush up on your figure-drawing skills, it would be a good time to start. No, there are no membership requirements and no secret codes. Just email Dave and give him your information. As always, the earliest bird gets the worm.
Bob Richardsonwill be teaching Introduction to Life Drawing for KCAS on June 15, at 9:30 AM. Bob has a BFA from Tufts and the School of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and a MAE from Hartford Art School. He was department head at Berkshire School, Phillips Exeter Academy, Simon’s Rock College, Ethel Walker School, and Kingswood Oxford School.
This garden is available to KCAS members to paint on Saturdays. Not too shabby.
He will cover gesture drawing, volume, foreshortening, and perspective. There will be a critique at the end. The fee is $29 for KCAS members registering in advance. Non-members are $36, space permitting.

On Saturdays, KCAS Members gather to paint in the Blanchard garden on Pearl Street in Camden. This double-lot garden features mature perennials and shrubs and is bounded by a woods and weathered-shingle buildings. It’s pleasant and cool.
That’s an awfully good start for a group that—as yet—has no officers, no calendar, and hasn’t had an official meeting yet. I gave Dave my $60 membership fee, along with my best wishes for much success. If you live and work (or summer) in Knox County, Maine, you might want to, too.

Monday Morning Art School: landscape from abstraction

Create a drop-dead painting from a so-so scene.
Wreck of the SS Ethie, by Carol L. Douglas
Certain places are fascinating for something other than their pictorial value. The angle, the light, and the setting aren’t conducive to a great composition. An example of this was the wreckage of the SS Ethie in Gros Morne National Park in Newfoundland. This is a lovely shipwreck story featuring a dog and a baby, but I’ve told it before.
I’d driven up the Great Northern Peninsula specifically to paint this wreck (and to visit the Viking site L’Anse aux Meadows.) When I arrived, I realized it was nothing more than a beautiful cove with a debris field spreading for thousands of feet along a rocky shore. There was no hulking wreck to paint, merely broken things lying around—much like my parents’ barnyard, in fact.
The actual debris field looks like this.
Hurricane Matthew was bearing down on us in the form of a blizzard, so I took photos and completed the painting elsewhere. However, I’ve used this technique successfully in plein air painting as well.
The cove itself is beautiful, and I could have painted a nice anodyne scene of it—lovely, but saying nothing about the wreck. I could have done a close up of one bit of machinery. Instead, I created an abstraction and fitted the details in to it. I do this whenever I’m feeling blocked, either because the subject matter isn’t fitting naturally, or because I’m too anxious.
Initial abstraction for Ethie, based on the word Maelstrom.
To do this, I improvise a series of shapes on a large canvas, much as if I were going to paint a non-representational painting. The only guidance I give myself is a word. In the case of the wreck, the word was maelstrom. When I demonstrated this technique last week for the Bangor Art Society, the word was mourning. Another painting I did recently started with a phrase, Dwight’s school bus. It was nonsensical; my son walked to school. That word is generally inspired by place or events, and it’s surprising how often the painting ends up reflecting the word I started with.
After the Bangor Art Society decided this was a tree, I turned it that way and started making it into one. Photo courtesy of Teddi-Jann Covell.
I start this process with a line. In the Bangor painting, it was a flat, thick line that crossed the canvas. In the Ethie painting it was rounded and rollicking. I never start this with a sense of up or down, and I often rotate the canvas while I work. This process can be the longest part of a painting. I’m searching for the composition from my subconscious, rather than from reality. Sometimes it’s based on my initial line and sometimes the line gets subsumed into something else entirely.
When the abstraction is done, I rotate the canvas to see how it might represent something real. At the demo, I asked participants to identify things they saw in my abstraction. Suggestions came fast and furious. I’d had them draw alongside me, so I then asked them to identify things they saw in their abstractions. Total silence. I asked them to trade with their neighbors and again the room was full of suggestions.
There’s a lesson here. We’re born with the capacity to recognize objects in abstract shapes; it’s part of what makes us intelligent and aware, and keeps us safe. A half-seen shape tells us, almost instinctively, when we belong on high alert. But we moderns tamp that down. We allow subliminal shapes to appear in our drawing, but then resolutely refuse to recognize them. That’s where turning the canvas is so helpful. The mind no longer sees it as ours, but as something new.
My demo painting for the Bangor Art Society. It’s not finished to a level I aspire to, but I was getting tired.
Once I find the objects in my abstraction, I hew to them fairly tightly, converting them into figurative art. But I don’t always solve all the corners of my paintings at the first run. After I’ve drawn in one thing, another suggests itself. And sometimes I change up passages on the fly.
“I feel like I had to understand a lot about light/shadow, perspective, and value before I could do an invented landscape with any authenticity,” a painter commented. This is true, but we all know more than we think we know. And painting from memory is a great way to expand one’s visual memory.
Furthermore, it’s not necessary to do this totally from memory. Try it outdoors, subbing in that rock over there or that tidal pool over there. You’ll end up with a sense of the place, rather than a literal transcription of the place. If you use photo reference, don’t start adding details until you’re well along in the design process. Remember that reality should always be subservient to design.
This reaching down inside yourself is difficult business. But it’s worth experimenting with. I hope you’ll try it and let me see your results.