A sense of place

Everything that you paint should tell a real story, one that is authentic to you.
Big-boned, by Carol L. Douglas. As soon as I finish my taxes, I’ll be back at the boatyard painting schooners.

There is something about being in our favorite place that transcends detail. We know it by feeling rather than by specifics. As artists we are attempting to recreate that sense of place using only visual cues. That requires specificity and accuracy.

Artists become expert in oddly arcane matters. Marilyn Fairman can identify all the birds that sing in the understory. She told me she learned from one of those silly clocks they used to sell with a different bird call for every hour. And she paints without headphones on, so that she can hear the sounds of nature.
Sandra Hildreth of Saranac Lake is expert on the topography of the High Peaks region. She got that way because she has hiked all over the Adirondacks. Likewise, Bobbi Heath knows lobster boats because she’s spent serious time cruising and painting the waters of Maine.
Winch, by Carol L. Douglas
I can’t say I know any of those things encyclopedically, but I’m pretty strong on trees and rocks. So if you bring me a painting with brown, undefined lumps where the granite of Maine or the red sandstone of the Minas Basin should be, I’m bound to say something.
Isn’t the important thing that you create a pleasing painting? That’s true, but squidging the details is amateurish. What’s the point of painting the Canadian Rockies if they end up looking like New Mexico? Last week, I mentioned Paul Cézanne’s sixty paintings of Mont Sainte-Victoire. He experimented in all of them, but the mountain remains recognizable.
Coast Guard Inspection, by Carol L. Douglas
“Sense of place” is a phenomenon that we can’t define, but we all know when we see it. As individuals, families, and a culture, we set aside certain places as being exceptional. It’s why we have World Heritage Sites, National Parks, and National Scenic Byways.
When a place is without character, we sometimes say it is “inauthentic.” Once again, we can’t define that, but we all seem to know them when we see them: shopping malls, fast food restaurants, or new housing tracts. As Gertrude Stein once said, “There is no there there.”
More work than they bargained for, by Carol L. Douglas
How does a scene achieve a “sense of place” in our consciousness? It acquires a story, which is a finely- crafted pastiche of memory, events, and beauty. Our childhoods, in particular, shape our adult response to the physical world. Psychologists call the setting of our childhood our primal landscape. It becomes the bar against which we measure everything we see thereafter.
All of this argues against painting an anodyne landscape. And it argues for landscapes with lodestars. If you’re honest with your feelings, a lighthouse or grain elevator will not end up being clichéd.
Everything that you paint should be something that you’ve experienced. It should tell a real story, one that relates back to you. Your canvas is not just a rectangle that you fill up with generic ‘nature’. It should be a little slice of a place.
Note: my websiteis completely updated. It’s new work and a new, mobile-friendly platform, too. Won’t you take a peek?

Prairie madness

Little Giant (North End Ship Yard), 16X12, oil on canvas, Carol L. Douglas

 As I write this, the temperature is 9° F. That’s not exactly balmy, end-of-March weather. The wind blew steadily yesterday and into the night. It was a cutting wind, and it roared and thrummed in the woods behind my house. “It’s driving me nuts,” I told my husband.

“An alarming amount of insanity occurs in the new prairie States among farmers and their wives,” wrote EV Smalley in 1893. He blamed the isolation.
An unexpected snow squall cut visibility in the morning, Photo courtesy of Sarah Wardman.
Novelist Willa Cather blamed the wind. “Insanity and suicide are very common things on the Divide,” she wrote. “They come on like an epidemic in the hot wind season. Those scorching dusty winds that blow up over the bluffs from Kansas seem to dry up the blood in men’s veins as they do the sap in the corn leaves… It causes no great sensation there when a Dane is found swinging to his own windmill tower, and most of the Poles when they have become too careless and discouraged to shave themselves keep their razors to cut their throats with.”
This phenomenon, called “prairie fever” or “prairie madness” lasted throughout the late 19th century. Bitter cold winters combined with short hot summers to make life exceedingly difficult on the northern Plains. Sociologists say prairie madness vanished when settlements became more populous and the barriers of language no longer divided immigrants. But since more than one in ten Americans take anti-depressants, methinks prairie madness just moved indoors.
American writers often used the ocean as a metaphor to describe the prairies. Both are enormous, seemingly empty, and yet bountiful. Having painted both, I see and feel the similarities.
Winch (American Eagle), Carol L. Douglas. Same site, warmer day.
In either place, wind—on a practical level—makes my work difficult. That’s why I jumped at the opportunity to paint from the shipyard office. I’ve never done that before; it seems unsporting, somehow, to be warm and comfortable while painting snow.
Schooners attract a kind of romantic, well-read crew, and their patter is unlike most shop talk. It is larded with history and geography, and firmly grounded in sailing.
There were frequent references to The Shipping News, which I first took to mean Annie Proulx’ Pulitzer-winning novel. Soon I realized that they were talking about the literal shipping news: the 1907 lists of boats with their hauls of pineapples, animal hides and other perishable crops, moving up and down the Americas.
Little Giant, on a sunnier day.
An unpredicted snow squall rose, scuppering the captains’ plansto work on the marine railroad. The schooners themselves are still shrouded in their winter framework of plastic and plywood. For the romantic fancier of boats, a crane might seem a strange subject. However, this painting does record a true relationship, that between cranes and boats with masts. At any rate, my two-year-old grandson will think it’s the best thing I’ve ever painted.