Painting bombogenesis

We went from idealizing the arctic to seeing it as a metaphor for mortality. What changed?

Bombogenesis, by Carol L. Douglas
Cameras lie about blizzards. It’s hard to shoot a picture of falling snow through glass, because the glass is usually covered with snow. Even when one goes outdoors, the freeze-frame nature of photography tends to lighten the apparent fury of the storm. What the person sees is a dimly lit maelstrom. What the camera records is lighter, higher in contrast, and less ferocious.
Yesterday I tried several times in vain to photograph the storm. Finally, I decided to paint a quick study out my studio window. It’s a lie, as much as my camera was telling lies. There isn’t as much contrast in the trees. They’re really a hazy shape in uniform grey, the only difference being that the spruces read cool and the maple trunks slightly warmer. But I think I caught the blurriness.
Same view, sunnier day, by Carol L. Douglas
It’s still dark as I write this, but what I imagine I’ll find after bombogenesis has ended is a series of snow ridges between my house and garage. That is in some ways a better image of the raw power of wind-driven snow. Poke them with a shovel and you’ll find they are not soft and fluffy at all. That’s why I used them for Winter Lambing. I’ve shown you the painting many times; below is the reference photograph, taken at the intersection of Routes 31 and 98 in Orleans County, New York.
Reference photo for Winter Lambing.
The French Impressionists painted hundreds of images of snow, or effets de neige. They may have been influenced by a series of cold winters in France. Among the best are Claude Monet’s The Magpie and Van Gogh’s The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in the Snow. The Canadian Group of Sevenbelieved the Great White North was the seat of Canada’s power, so they frequently painted snow. Lawren Harris’ early Winter Woods, is an example of their idealism.
The art world of the 19th and 20th centuries was fascinated by light in all its forms. There’s no better reflector than snow. But even before that, going right back to Pieter Bruegel the Elder, snow was a powerful symbol in western art. Caspar David Friedrich, for example, used it to represent mortality.
Doe drinking in the woods, by Carol L. Douglas
As arctic exploration increased with settlement in the Americas, the arctic became the focus of our obsession with snow. The search for the Northwest Passage drove American exploration for several hundred years. It is a treacherous and inaccessible region, and thus a spark to the imagination. Painters like Frederic Edwin Church and William Bradford went shipboard to create a visual image of the arctic. Writers like Mary Shelley, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Edgar Allen Poe memorialized it in fiction.
“There are no tales of risk and enterprise in which we English, men, women, and children, old and young, rich and poor, become interested so completely, as in the tales that come from the North Pole,” opined journalist Henry Morley in 1853.
Light snow above the Arctic Circle, by Carol L. Douglas.
But this was a fiction of a vast, empty, benign, landscape. The loss of the Franklin Expeditionsobered artists and writers alike. Sir John Franklin and his 129 men left England aboard two ships in May of 1845, intending to traverse the Northwest Passage. When they weren’t heard from by 1848, search parties (a total of twenty altogether) were sent out after them. Over the following three decades of searching, a morbid, sordid tale emerged. Both ships had been trapped and ground up by sea ice. The crew was poisoned from the lead solder in their ration tins. Sick, lost and cold, they ultimately resorted to cannibalism. All 129 men were lost. After that, representations of the arctic began to acknowledge the danger of bitter cold and ice.

Seasick in my studio

Athabasca Glacier, oil on linen, by Carol L. Douglas

We bought this house during a fierce February a few years ago. It hasn’t snowed like that since. Yesterday’s storm was the first blizzard I’ve worked through in this studio. It has glass on three sides. The rolling, boiling, rocketing snow was more than my stomach could take.

That’s the first time in my life I’ve ever been seasick. Tea and crackers sorted it out soon enough, though.
I visitedthe Athabasca Glacier in the Columbia Icefield in the Canadian Rockies at the end of September. It was approximately the same weather as yesterday in Maine—bitterly cold, with wind that roared like a freight train. This is why I painted it from a photo.
I freeze my palette between uses. It was a bit of work finding it in the middle of that storm.
There is no way to get a sense of scale from this vantage point, but that small footpath leading up to the toe of the glacier is about 6/10ths of a mile long and rises precipitously. It is marked with signs noting the farthest reach of the glacier at points over the last century. One seldom sees the effect of time on the landscape so graphically. Short of including a ghost glacier, however, I can’t include that information in this painting.
In a sense, this painting is a transcription, because it’s an accurate rendering of the only vantage point most tourists will ever see. The painting I started next is the opposite. It is based not on a real spot, but on a moment in time.
Underpainting of wildfire, by Carol L. Douglas
The northern Rockies are pockmarked by wildfires; they’re a natural part of that area’s life cycle. There’s something very ominous and beautiful about those still, dead forests. I painted a small portrait of one along the Alaska Highway. We passed through other, monumental ones, on the Top of the World Highway and in the Banff-Jasper park complex. These fire zones are often posted with the dates of the fires. Some forests regenerate achingly slowly. Others seem to sprout back almost overnight.
Mary and I found ourselves winding up a steep mountain grade within a very large burn area. The sky was milky in the angry way it is during a blizzard, or downwind of a forest fire. There was no sun, just a hazy light indicating where it might be.
My palette returns to the cold at the end of the day. That drift is close to my height.
What I’ve started here is based on that experience of winding and twisting in a dead forest. For the most part painting doesn’t concern itself with time or motion—we leave that to filmmakers and musicians. But both are, of course, part of the natural world. 

Driving, me crazy!

Rainy Day on Penobscot Bay, oil on canvas, 10X8.
Yesterday morning was so cold that the electronics in my Prius failed. My husband, a computer programmer, held down the power button for fifteen seconds and it rebooted. What motivates a person to be in Maine in these conditions?
I am in search of real estate. I have delightful friends who have hosted me when I’ve taught and worked here, but the time has come to acquire my painting studio in Maine.
That same scene this morning. No way am I walking down to the water.
Most people start at the kitchen when touring a property. I start with the outbuildings, because the studio is what’s important. I’ve found a great agent here who understands this—Jackie Wheelwright of Legacy Properties Sotheby’s International Realty in Camden.
Together we’ve floundered around in a lot of snow. February is a tough time to buy property in the northeast, and this February has been particularly bad. I can’t see the roofs and I can’t get to the outbuildings without my ski poles and a good deal of swearing.
I may not care about cooking but I’m always a sucker for a good little woodstove.
Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me on the Schoodic Peninsula in beautiful Acadia National Park in 2015 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops! Download a brochure here.

Just this

The Sea of Ice (Das Eismeer), 1823-24, Casper David Friedrich. Imagine that’s the MassPike, and my wee little Prius on the right…
This weekend I drove to Maine in a blizzard. No, it wasn’t the Snowpocalypse that had been predicted by breathless news readers, but it was a nice New England ripper of a snowstorm.
I love the fantastical twisted ice of springs along the road in winter. If I can ever get a good photo, I will paint them.
After the snow stopped falling, my trusty Prius was raked by cross winds that carved and winnowed the snow into fantastical shapes. It reminded me strongly of Casper David Friedrich’s The Sea of Ice.
Note to self: it’s never a good sign when you’re traveling in the same direction as the convoys of power trucks.
Almost unbelievably, I made it to Damariscotta in time for my appointment Sunday afternoon. When I parked for the night, the temperature was 5° with 40 mph gusts. But, Mother Nature, you are a crank indeed! That was warmer than it was at home in Rochester.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me on the Schoodic Peninsula in beautiful Acadia National Park in 2015 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops! Download a brochure here.

Weather notes

When I arrived in Waldoboro, it was hovering around a high of 27° with a low in the single digits, and no snow.

A few weeks ago I quoted a sailing instructor:
For God’s sake, learn how to read the weather!

For home work, I made my sailing students keep a notebook chronicling the daily weather. It had to have the forecast from the newspaper with their own observations.
At the time, I said that would be a great idea for my plein air painting students, too. Rather than assign work I haven’t tried myself, I packed a small watercolor sketchbook, ruled off into six squares per page, and my trusty old Winsor & Newton pocket paint kit.
That was the pattern until the end of the week, when the temperatures moved up and the sky started building.
In Rochester my studio faces to the north and east, away from the weather front, and the southwest sides of our house—which is where the action is, weatherwise—have more limited visibility. After this week of balancing in precarious positions, I feel like I might just go out on the stoop and sit. It takes fifteen minutes for the paints to really freeze.
I was in Winter Harbor, left, when snow moved in.
What have I learned so far? It’s generally sunnier here in winter than it is in Rochester. The winter light is lemony and the shadows are purple, whereas in Rochester, the winter light tends toward peach and the shadows toward blue (perhaps because it’s never truly bright). And a blizzard is a blizzard is a blizzard, no matter where it’s blowing.
I hope to shovel out and hit the road to Pittsford today, but the plows remain obstinately quiet. Still, they needn’t come by until I’m ready to roll. Just in time is fine.
The day before the blizzard, left, was a perfectly clear Maine day.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2015 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops! Download a brochure here.


Whose woods these are I think I know.  
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here  
To watch his woods fill up with snow. 
I knew weather was coming, but I had no choice but to stay; yesterday I had appointments all day in mid-coast Maine. When I finished at dusk, there was little choice but to hunker down and ride it out.
I think of blizzards as time-out-of-time: they’re an extra Sunday in the week, unannounced holidays. Trouble is, I don’t want a holiday; I want to get home and continue on the groove I’ve made for myself.
I’m an old hand at blizzards, but this is my first experience with one off-the-grid. Like many Maine houses, this one has knee walls on the second floor. My little bed is tucked up under the rafters. We’re heating with wood, which makes my bed the warmest place in the house. My window is single-pane, and it’s allowing gouts of cold air to blow in. But it’s not on the west wall, and the wind is from the west. As I write this, it is increasing in ferocity. There are wind chimes somewhere outside , and their frantic atonal melodies rise in counterpoint to the clunk of the tie-downs on the wood pile and the whistle of the wind.
Thank you to my daughter for the texting gloves. They’re making this bearable. Later I’ll see if they work as watercoloring gloves.
Mainers are accustomed to bad weather and they seem inclined to keep deep pantries. There was none of that rush for bread, milk and eggs at the local Hannaford when I stopped. However, there was a line of trucks waiting for gas; seems like everyone has a generator here.
Since I took this photo, the far tree line has vanished in the snow.
My family has blown all over the map in this storm—some in Rochester, one in Washington, DC, some in Albany. The governor of New York has suggested that everyone stay home; one wag responded, “He’s probably not self-employed, then.” (Mr. Cuomo is left-footed on the subject of snow, which is no surprise seeing as he hails from Queens. But his advice is usually greeted with derision up in the Snow Belt.)
Blowing, drifting snow…
Six inches of snow in Rochester overnight so it’s business as usual. Doesn’t matter, though; the Mass Pike is closed, and the New York State Thruway is kinda-sorta closed. I’m stuck here for the duration.
The wood pile.
We have water, we have firewood, we have food. There’s no chance of the power being knocked out, because there isn’t power anyway. So my Prius slumbers by the side of a dirt road that won’t be plowed for hours if at all. I think I will curl up and spend the day reading.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,  
But I have promises to keep,  
And miles to go before I sleep,  
And miles to go before I sleep.
(from Robert Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening)

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2015 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops! Download a brochure here.