Don’t look at the hill

My asthma is teaching me life lessons that are applicable to painting and any other heroic endeavor.

Clary Hill Blueberry Barrens, full sheet watercolor, available.

My asthma, which is usually quiet, has been kicking up since I had COVID. I find myself stopping to suck air as I climb Beech Hill in the morning.

Beech Hill is no great shakes as hills go, since its summit is only a few hundred feet higher than my house. I climb it every morning, which gives me a good base level of cardiovascular fitness (and around 6000 steps to start my day). I figure that a little cardio work each morning will give better long-term results than killing myself a few times a week at the gym.

Early Spring on Beech Hill, oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas, 12X16, $1449 framed.

Painting is like that, too. In their Art & Fear: Observations On the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking, David Bayles and Ted Orland make the point that the best art is made by people who do it over and over. A half-hour drawing every morning will yield quiet, positive results that no painting marathon can.

We’ve had a cold winter here in New England. Yesterday, it was -2°F. as we set out. Sensible people don’t go rambling in those temperatures, but rambling is a habit, and habit forces me out the door. In my professional life, I’m in a phase where I’ve spent most days ‘putting out fires’ rather than working on new material. There will always be challenges, but habit alone forces me back into my studio.

Mountain Path, 11X14, oil on canvasboard, available.

I’ve started repeating a mantra as my chest tightens: “Don’t look at the hill.” If I look at the distance I still have to climb, the tightness doubles and I have to stop. I know I’m psyching myself out, but I can’t seem to stop it. So, in the steepest parts of my climb, I concentrate assiduously on my footing. It’s better not to contemplate the enormity of what lies before me.

A few weeks ago, a student asked me how long it takes to learn to paint. Because he’s tough, I answered honestly: it takes years. But to focus on that is like looking up at the hill; it makes every step harder.

That dissuades many people from even trying. But time elapses whether or not we’re doing anything useful. It’s easy to fritter away, as all those people who were going to learn second languages during lockdown have learned to their dismay.

Christmas Eve, 6X8, oil on canvasboard, available.

I’m planning on walking the length of Hadrian’s Wall in Britain in May. It’s the wall’s 1900th anniversary and Queen Elizabeth’s Platinum Jubilee. Walking across an entire country sounds absurd to an American, but it’s a shorter distance (84 miles) than from my house to the New Hampshire border. However, it will be a series of long days in the company of friends who are all younger than me. And northern England is hilly.

I should be seriously training right now, and instead I’m unable to keep up my usual four-mile-a-day pace. I’ll regret ruining this trip for my companions, so I occasionally wonder if I should just bow out now.

However, I’m old enough to realize the truth in the adage, “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” Worrying about tomorrow is a great way to stop myself from doing anything today. That’s true of painting or any other heroic endeavor. Instead of panicking, I’ll just challenge myself again this morning. And, lest you worry, I have an appointment with my nurse-practitioner on Friday.

There’s a change in the weather

The stark geometry of dying autumn is compelling, but I think the weather is trying to kill me.

Beauchamp Point, 12X16, oil on canvasboard, $1449 framed, is available at my show at Camden Public Library.

This is the most dangerous time of year, and the most dangerous hour is the gloaming before dawn.

Nothing bad is going to happen. The real risk is that nothing will happen at all. I’ll look out the window at the ice crystals glittering on my car and tell myself it’s too cold to go out.

To date, I’ve been able to force myself into clothes and up Beech Hill. Minutes later, my heart is pumping. My extremities warm up. I become alive to the hush in the air and the strange and wonderful colors of decaying autumn. The sun breaks the lip of the ocean, flooding the sea with light. “It’s a beautiful day,” I say. It almost always is.

Watercolor in the snow presents its own problems, because it freezes. Painting by Carol L. Douglas.

In the north, it’s easy to be cowed by winter. It’s a terrifying force. It takes time to dress for it and the cold air can be painful. If I don’t go outside every morning, I’ll stay in the house complaining bitterly until Spring.

“There’s no bad weather, only improper clothing,” we like to say. While that’s true, it takes time to adjust your habits. We painted our last plein air class of the season yesterday. It was about 40° F. I placed us on the boat ramp at Owls Head, where the sun acted like a solar collector and nearby buildings were a wind-break. We’re all northerners, born and bred, and we were togged out in the usual layers. But after three hours, we were chilled through.

Buoy, unfinished demo on my easel. It’s the stillness of plein air painting that makes it so cold.

There’s something exhausting about cold weather. In summer I can paint outdoors all morning and come home to open my gallery without a pause. Yesterday, I was done in by 3 PM.

Still, I’ll continue to go out. The stark geometry of bare trees is compelling.

My unfinished start from Beech Hill on Wednesday. It’s harder to get anything done when you’re cold.

I heartily recommend experimenting with cold weather painting. My tips are few and obvious: dedicate an old jacket to being trashed with paint, wear layers, tuck chemical hand warmers into the backs of your gloves. Some artists carry an old bit of carpet to stand on, because your feet will fail you first. Eric Jacobsen carries a small brazier as a portable campfire.

On Wednesday, I painted with Eric. We were tucked in at the foot of Beech Hill, where the prevailing westerlies couldn’t touch us. But then the sun went in behind the clouds, and it was suddenly cold. Down the hill sauntered David Dewey, looking as untouched by the frosty conditions as an Alabama camellia. He’s been painting regularly at the top of Beech Hill right after dawn, he told us. He sometimes rides his bike up the steep incline of Beech Hill Road with all his gear. That would be impressive in a kid, and David is 75 years old.

And a start from last winter, of Harness Brook, painted with Ken DeWaard. If I can find it, I’ll finish it.

I have a million things to do today before my opening at Camden Public Library this afternoon. And I have at least an equal number of unfinished, unframed plein air paintings in the racks in my studio. But that one more painting is calling me.

The not-so-perfect day

A nor’easter was moving in, the light was hazy, but—oh, the colors!

Approaching Nor’easter, 12X16, oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas, $1159 unframed.

I met Eric Jacobsen and Bjorn Rundquist on Monday and Tuesday of this week, but on Wednesday, nobody was willing to paint with me. Not that I blamed them; the forecast was awful. Anyway, I wanted to try out my new backpack by hoisting my gear up Beech Hill. It’s the most expensive backpack I’ve ever bought—a Kelty Redwing—but I’ve been using a crossover bag that’s neither big enough nor good for the back.

I have an ultralight pochade box that I made myself. However, it’s fallen out of favor with me in the steady high winds along the Maine coast. It vibrates. So, instead, I took my smallest wooden box and hoped for the best.

Pretty fancy… and heavy.

It would have to be a fast painting. They were already setting snow records in Buffalo and Rochester, and the same weather disturbance was pushing its way to us.

The light was hazy and the clouds were barreling across the sky. It was ‘not a great day for painting,’ but—oh, the colors! There’s something about subdued light that makes the color of early spring just glow. There’s also something about painting something you know. The glimpse of the sod house on Beech Hill makes me happy every time I round that corner in the trail.

I’m so happy to finally be outdoors without pounds of foul-weather gear. Which means it’s time for me to talk seriously about registering for this year’s plein air workshops. Last year was a mixed bag, as my boat trips were canceled. However, I did teach in New Mexico, Florida and Maine. “It was the first time I felt normal since the start of COVID,” one painter told me.

Beach at Friendship, ME, 9X12, oil on canvasboard, $696 unframed.

This year, registrations for Sea & SkyPecos Wilderness and the September Age of Sail boat trip are all running ahead of normal. There’s still room in the June boat trip—I assume because it’s so close to Maine’s go/no go date. But Captain John says, “we’re a go for sure for 2021,” and he’s the captain, so his word is law.

I’ve added additional workshops this year, so that, no matter what landscape you love, there’s a place for you in my schedule. All of them can be accessed through this link.

And this handsome old tree… maybe I can get back there this afternoon to finish.

AGE OF SAIL, June 13-17 or September 19-23, 2021

Learn to watercolor on the magical, mystical waters of Maine’s Penobscot Bay, aboard the historic schooner American Eagle. All materials, berth, meals and instruction included. Captain John has reduced the number of guests, which puts the schooner well within the state’s COVID guidelines. Beginning May 1st, people traveling to Maine from all states will no longer be required to provide a negative test or quarantine.

Five days of intensive plein air in the quiet corner of America’s oldest national park. Lodging and meals included at Schoodic Institute. All levels and media welcome. Schoodic Institute did an exceptional job of facilitating social distancing during last year’s workshop, and I am confident this one will be just as good.

AUTHENTIC WEST: CODY, WYOMING, September 5-10, 2021
Study in an authentic western ranch setting in Yellowstone Country. Five days of intensive plein air, all levels, all media welcome. I’ve reserved a block of rooms at the Hampton Inn, Cody, for guests. That’s just a short distance from the ranch, and the restaurants, museums, and resorts of Cody.

GATEWAY TO PECOS WILDERNESS, September 12-16, 2021
High plains and mountain wilderness, in historic, enchanting New Mexico. Five days of intensive plein air instruction, all media and all levels welcome. This year, I’ve reserved a block of rooms at Our Lady of Guadalupe Abbey in Pecos. Meals are included, and it’s a quick jaunt to ‘downtown’ Pecos.

RED ROCKS OF SEDONA, ARIZONA, September 26-October 1, 2021
A geological wonderland, with world-class restaurants, galleries, and accommodations. Five days of intensive plein air instruction, all media and all levels welcome. This workshop is offered through the Sedona Arts Center.

And last but certainly not least…

I’ll be returning to gracious Tallahassee for another great session of painting through Natalia Andreeva Studio. We had a great time last year!

Don’t be a fair-weather painter

You need to get through the heavy weather in order to experience the rare and wonderful.

View from the Beech Hill summit trail.

Since the first of the year, I’ve hiked every morning up to the top of Beech Hill. This has replaced my usual lunchtime walk to the post office, which is difficult right now with the sidewalks fouled with snow and ice. Beech Hill is slightly more strenuous than the aisles at my grocery store, so it’s perfect for first thing in the morning.

I’ve been walking for exercise since cancer forced me to stop running twenty years ago. With very few exceptions, I lace up my shoes and go out six days a week. I have a perverse liking for the days when normal people stay home. The world is empty and quiet, and strange things happen.

It was hard going at first.

One of the few things that interferes with my walks is travel. It’s fine when I’m teaching, because teaching plein air involves a lot of walking anyway. But when I’m just driving and looking, I’m also sitting. It doesn’t take long for my muscles to forget how to stride. I usually spend the first three days after any trip complaining bitterly about joint pain. Yes, it gets worse as I get older.

What doesn’t usually interfere is weather. My rule is to not go out if it’s below 10° F, but this year, I’ve pushed that down to almost zero. The new dog is part of the reason, but he’s just reinforcing my tendency toward routine.

Cloud shrouding Lake Chickawaukee.

There are mornings when I question my judgment, of course. Yesterday was one of them. We had a severe-weather warning, but it didn’t appear to be coming down much. It was sleeting instead. There was a quarter-inch of ice on the windshield and more in the air.

The first part of Beech Hill’s summit trail winds through the woods, and it was, frankly, unpleasant. But the great thing about routine is that it carries you through even the parts you don’t enjoy. Half way up the hill, I turned to look back across the valley towards West Rockport. It was a stunning, low-light vista, the young birches glowing maroon against an angry sky. As I climbed, a cloud settled, shrouding Lake Chickawaukee. I realized we’d soon be up in the same cloud.

Beech Nut in its cloud.

It’s very rare to climb up into a cloud when you live at sea level. I wouldn’t recommend it as a sensual pleasure. Thousands of tiny shards of ice whipped through in the air, stinging the skin on my face, icing up my glasses. But it was also energetic, subtle, and fascinating, and I’m glad I experienced it.

I wouldn’t have done that had I not been schooled to walk daily, regardless of circumstance. That’s also true in painting. You need to get through the heavy weather in order to experience the rare and wonderful—in fact, it’s the heavy weather that produces the rare and wonderful.

It’s a simple matter of showing up regularly, so what stops people from really pushing the limits of their ability? They worry about the outcome, instead of just experiencing the process. Most of us make a lot of dreck on the way to something good. Acknowledge that, and just get back to work.

Sometimes you really do have to suffer for your art

I need to get outside or my brushwork gets too fussy.

Harkness Brook, oil on canvas with a splotch or two of snow, by Carol L. Douglas.

After I taught in Tallahassee in November, it took me a few weeks to acclimate myself to the temperature here in Maine. I expected that. I didn’t expect the same thing when I got home from Wyoming this week. It was warmer than usual there, and now the entire country has settled into the winter deep freeze.

Here in Maine, I usually spend a few hours a day outside. At dawn I hike up to the summit of Beech Hill. That gets the blood flowing for the day. At midday I go out again, either to the post office or on another off-road hike. I almost always get my 10,000 steps in without being aware that I’m ‘exercising’ or that it’s cold outside.

The wind-sculpted summit of Beech Hill.

But after I’ve been on the road, I’m always miserable the first few days back. “My everything hurts,” I complained yesterday. I’d been sitting behind the wheel of my new truck for a week, driving. At my age, I decondition far more quickly than I did at twenty.

My limit for sustained outdoor activity is 10°F. Below that, it’s just too much work to stay warm. Luckily, I live right on the coast, where extreme cold is unusual. That ocean just beyond my backyard acts like a massive heatsink, cooling us in the summer and warming us in the winter.

Snow at Highter Elevations (Downdraft Snow) by Carol L. Douglas

But I can be fooled, as I was on Monday. The nominal temperature was in the teens, but as I rounded the summit, I was hit square in the face by a bitter wind. The wind often picks up as the sun rises, and this one was fierce. By the time we were back to the car, even my little dog—seemingly impervious to the cold—was acting chilled.

Still, the snow is beautiful, hanging on every evergreen branch. “You want to paint?” I texted a few of my buddies. Only Ken DeWaard was foolish enough to agree. Dressed in my long underwear, mittens, neck gaiter, heavy jacket, and hardiest boots, I drove out to meet him. It was absolutely awful, but we both did sketches that we liked. Meanwhile, Eric Jacobsenwas painting near the top of Beech Hill, and he did a fine painting. There’s a lesson in that, I think. Sometimes you really do have to suffer for your art.

Meanwhile, it’s continued to snow, and the temperature continues to drop. I’m looking out at the gloaming wondering if I want to go out to paint again today. It all depends on the light.

Why do we do this, when we each have nice, toasty-warm studios in which we can paint? One paints differently in the studio from in the field. I need regular days of painting from life so that I remember what life looks like when I paint from photos. Without that, my brushwork gets too fussy.

Postscript: my student Yvonne Bailey posted the above photo on Facebook. She had rearranged her furniture and swapped her dogs’ crates around. Creatures of habit, they both insisted on returning to where they thought they belonged. There’s a lesson in that for us as well: it’s easy for us humans to get overly attached to our ‘places’. Habit is good, but it can become a rut.

Messing around

“The light changed,” is a ridiculous complaint anywhere, but nowhere more so than on the sea.
Somewhere in Eggemoggin Reach, as the rain cleared off. (All images by and reserved by Carol L. Douglas)
My intent in going out on the American Eaglewasn’t to paint. I planned to relax, talk to new people, listen to Captain John Foss’ hoary jokes, and read. At the last minute, I slipped my watercolors in my duffel bag and made it a busman’s holiday. Not only did I have a good time, so did several other people who tried out my paints.
An oil painting from the deck, during last summer’s venture.
Last June I painted in oils from this boat. I had fun but was an obstacle to the crew and captain. Even my small easel took up too much space along the main cabin. I was constantly grabbing it to prevent it flying into the sea. American Eagle is a highly-polished, much-loved vessel. I worried that I would accidentally stain her deck with some brilliant pigment that would forever rankle the captain.
Dinghy in Bass Harbor.
Watercolor simplified things. It meant I could work on a board on my lap, it’s a smaller kit, and it’s faster. My mistakes would wash away.
The passing ocean scene provides limited composition options. You can put the horizon high, low or in the middle. Short of the occasional porpoise, grey seal, or lobster boat, there isn’t much happening to break it. That hard, unbroken line is, in some ways, the essence of the subject. I had to learn to love it.
Browns Head Lighthouse.
I used sea-water, which is something I learned from Poppy Balser. It causes the paint to granulate slightly as it dries, similarly to sprinkling salt on select passages. I had a bucket and therefore all the salt water I needed. I did wash my brushes in fresh water at night, to preserve the ferrules.
I tend to splash things around with great abandon however I paint. These usual slovenly habits got in my way on this trip. The bright sun was deceptive. On the ocean, in the middle of October, my paper took a very long time to dry. I filled the time as best I could by messing around. Still I occasionally misjudged my surfaces.
Exiting Stonington.
The sea is ultimately a reduction to two elements: water and air. Even out of sight of land, the view is different in every direction. The sky changes and the water changes. To paint this is anything but simple. In moments the sea can go from molten silver to deepest green, and you can do nothing but follow obediently along. “The light changed,” is a ridiculous complaint anywhere, but nowhere more so than on the sea.
Looking home toward Beech Hill.
On our last day out, Captain John Foss turned over the wheel to Sam Sikkema, who captains the Picton Castle out of Lunenburg, NS, in her trans-Atlantic training trips. I was sketching Beech Hill at the time and a new friend, Lee Auchincloss of Navigator Publishing, was painting the Camden Hills.
Sam let out the old Eagle’s stays. Suddenly, the rail was low and my subject obscured. But I’m hardly complaining. It was a fleet finish to a beautiful week. Now, it’s back to work for all of us.

A neighbor tells me about Beech Hill

My students, painting the beautiful view from Camden Hills State Park.

My students, painting the beautiful view from Camden Hills State Park.
You never know what you’re going to learn at the grocery store. Sunday, we ran into a neighbor at Shaw’s. He not only pointed out a coupon we’d missed, but he also told us that his fireplace and chimney were built by Hans O. Heistad, who was the landscape architect who built Beech Nut on top of Beech Hill in Rockport. It’s one of my favorite day walks, but I’d never spared a thought about its history.
Beech Hill is a blueberry barren owned and maintained by the Coastal Mountains Land Trust. At its top, 500 feet above sea level sits a peculiar, lovely stone structure called Beech Nut. It was designed and built in 1917 by Heistad as a picnic hut for a local estate. It affords a fantastic view of Penobscot Bay and the Camden Hills.
Beech Nut at dusk.

Beech Nut at dusk.
A long carriage drive curves up the hilltop. It is designed to slowly reveal the scenic panorama as you climb. At the top, Beech Nut stands a little behind the path. A squat and sturdy stone building, it hints at Heistad’s Norwegian heritage with its sod roof and deep porch.
Heistad also designed the interior furnishings, none of which have survived. The site was rehabilitated and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2003.
Hans Heistad was born in Brevik, Norway. He studied landscape gardening and horticulture there and in Denmark and worked in Germany before immigrating to the United States in 1905. Employed by the Olmsted Brothers, he came to Maine to work at Chatwold, the Pulitzer estate in Bar Harbor.
Heistad worked on numerous private estates in Camden and Rockport . When the Depression caused private money to dry up, he began working in the public sector. He worked as staff landscape architect to develop Camden Hills State Park as a Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) project.
Camden Hills was a fortuitous meshing of Heistad’s own style and the prevailing ethos of park developers. Heistad liked working with native plants and local stone. At the same time, park services were instructing their employees to respect their sites’ natural character and use local materials and construction techniques. Heistad was primarily responsible for developing the fifty acres along the oceanfront to be accessible to the public. To this end, his CCC workers cleared brush and built roads and structures.
The next time I take someone for a walk up Beech Hill, I’ll know a little more about its history.