Big Rollers

I’ve been checking the weather all week, trying to decide whether my super-large canvas will go airborne.

Heavy weather, by Carol L. Douglas, oil on canvas, available.

I’m in a Big Roller mood this week. No, I’m not talking about straightening my hair, but about the long, slow waves that come in from the open ocean. Their stateliness, power, and rhythm are compelling painting subjects, and I plan to tackle them at Cape Elizabeth Paint for Preservation starting Friday.

Before that, I’m teaching my weekly plein air class. We’ll be painting rollers at the iconic Marshall Point light at Port Clyde. I’ve asked my students to study the Maine paintings of Winslow Homer beforehand. He uses strong diagonals to draw us in to his tempestuous seas. I want them to concentrate on design, nor just on the froth on the rocks.

I’ll head south to Portland after class, so I’m packing today.

Cape Elizabeth Cliffs, by Carol L. Douglas

I’ve been nervously checking my phone all week, although weather forecasts are notoriously unreliable here on the coast. Will it be clear enough for me to bring the massive 48” square canvas I made, or should I downsize to 36X40? I’m watching the wind dancing through the trees, as if I have a clue what that means. I do know that these gusts will send a large canvas airborne, even on the sturdiest of easels.

Bobbi Heath points out that days are two hours shorter this week than they are in July, when this event is normally scheduled. It’s a good point, because I’ll need every minute of daylight to finish.

This week’s unsettled weather brought much-needed rain, but it’s also meant thunderstorms and wind. If the forecast for Saturday is right, I’m going to need a rain shelter. I’m stopping in Boothbay Harbor to borrow a pop-up tent from my Sea & Sky workshop monitor Jennifer Johnson. I’ll need large rocks to hold it down. Luckily, they have an almost infinite supply in Cape Elizabeth, so I don’t have to pack my own.

Four Ducks, by Carol L. Douglas

The weather will influence my composition. I like to paint rocks and surf from a high vantage point, but that’s also the most exposed place. If I need shelter, I’ll be down on the shingle, where the tent can be anchored.

Bobbi is graciously providing me with a bed. That’s been the sticking point for most plein air events this year, and why so many have been cancelled. Normally, communities provide housing for artists, but nobody wants strangers in their homes right now. I usually stay with Bobbi anyway, so this hasn’t affected me, but other artists have scrambled.

Le Pipi Rustique is a gender-biased activity if there ever was one. Women can’t pee discreetly behind a boulder as our male counterparts do. I’ve tried not drinking much water, but that’s dangerous. Leaving our setup to drive to a restroom is risky, especially in heavy weather.

Often a neighbor will offer us the use of a powder room, but I doubt that will happen this year. My health-care provider has refused to catheterize me. So, I’m packing my porta-potty and its little tent.

Add to that a cooler and lunches, and the oversize brushes and easel I need, and I’ve got more stuff than my poor little Prius will hold. So, if you’re looking for me, I’ll be driving a black RAV4 instead. I’ll be at Zeb Cove, along with Marsha Donahue. Just set your GPS for Zeb Cove Road, Cape Elizabeth, ME.

The more you give, the more you get

Try giving it away for free. You might be pleasantly surprised.

Jonathan Submarining, by Carol L. Douglas. I painted this plein air with my pal Poppy Balser.

On Wednesday, I published a quick-and-dirty guide to teaching painting online. It was in response to a question by my friend Mira Fink; I expected she would read it and nobody else would be interested. Instead, it’s gotten responses from teachers from all over the country*. “I have been making my outline for my first online class this fall. This makes it seem so possible,” wrote Cat Pope from Mobile, Alabama.

Last month I askedwhether I was intrepid enough to move to online teaching. I think many painting teachers have been asking themselves the same thing. The current crisis may weed out many veteran teachers. At first, that seem like good news to younger artists.

Fish Beach, by Carol L. Douglas. I painted this with my pals Mary Sheehan Winn and Bobbi Heath.

But the discipline of painting is just beginning to recover from the bad teaching of the later 20th century, when technique became subservient to theory. There’s a vast repository of technical knowledge in those grey heads, and they’re part of a renaissance in American painting. This is no time to winnow the ranks.

At any rate, Mary Byromtalked me through my crisis. She did it without wanting compensation, as she so often does. So, when I wrote that blog post, I was, to use a tired old trope, just “paying it forward.”

Mary and I talked briefly about the current crisis. We got on the subject of generosity, where we’re in absolute agreement: it’s more important now than ever. “Cast your bread upon the waters, for you will find it after many days,” wrote King Solomon. “Give a portion to seven, or even to eight, for you know not what disaster may happen on earth.” You don’t have to be religious to see the wisdom there.

More work than they bargained for, by Carol L. Douglas. I painted this alone; I don’t always travel in a pack.

On Tuesday, I told my students that they could actually learn everything they need to know about painting from reading this blog. There’s no need to take my workshop or my classes, although I’m really grateful when people do.

I earn about $200 a year in advertising sales from this blog. That’s pathetic for a blog with this one’s readership. Google is always telling me how I can improve monetization, but I can’t be bothered. I barely have time to paint as it is.

Why give it away for free? I can think of lots of reasons. First, while teachers deserve their wages, knowledge is an entity in its own right and nobody owns it—despite Pearson Education Publishing. Free content is a form of indirect marketing, of course. But most importantly, what you give away freely, you get back multiplied. That’s true everywhere in life. Try it; you might be pleasantly surprised.

*I did get one negative response: “How is this not an advertisement?” wrote one arts administrator before yanking the post. I should have clarified that I was just enumerating the features that matter to painting teachers. I have no stake in Zoom, of course, and I don’t do paid product placements.

Is the plein air festival losing its punch?

To be a successful artist, you have to catch the currents, not be driven by them.
Downdraft snow in the Pecos, by Carol L. Douglas
I still plan to travel, but the guts of my summer work moving forward will not be plein air events. Rather, I’m going to capitalize on my location and run a gallery from my studio. It’s a great location. If you’re in the art mecca of Rockland, ME and you want to head up the coast to Camden, you travel right past me.
Bobbi Heath taught me that it’s wise to know where my revenue comes from—paintings vs. teaching, for example. That helps the small businesswoman make smarter decisions about where to put her effort. Of course, there are limits to how you should deploy this information. It’s easier to grow a teaching practice than to sell more paintings, but that doesn’t mean the painter should stop painting. We’re self-employed so we have the freedom to be self-directed. That means catching currents, not being driven by them.
Parrsboro dawn, by Carol L. Douglas
It didn’t take an analyst to see what’s been staring me in the face for the past several seasons, a reality I didn’t want to face. My revenues from overall painting sales are up. At the same time, my revenues from plein air events are down.
I like doing these events, and I have great loyalty to the communities and organizers, but it no longer pays to constantly hare off over the horizon. To understand what had changed, I asked myself if I was doing something wrong, or had the market itself changed?
The answer is yes to both. My price point has risen over the years (a good thing). At the same time, these events have been flooded with new artists (good for the art world as a whole). I’m finding myself in the position of an established brand being undercut by start-ups. I can respond by cutting prices or by defending my brand. I’d rather do the latter.
Beach erosion, by Carol L. Douglas
To check my own experiences against those of my peers, I collected anecdotal information from fellow painters all summer. (You should see my bar tab.) Many, although not all, have experienced the same thing. The air seems to be out of many of the events that have long been the staple of our summer income.
Nobody collects hard data about plein air festivals. But anecdotal information is famously unreliable. If you’ve done a lot of festival events, you know that while five artists are sitting on their hands, the sixth is selling out. And artists don’t like talking about sales. It’s impossible to get a big picture of what’s happening.
Tricky Mary in a Pea-Soup Fog, by Carol L. Douglas
Last week, I corresponded with the founder of an event I’ve done since its inception. “One third of our artists sold no art this year,” he wrote. “That’s unacceptable.” They’re suspending their program for 2020 and reconsidering it for the future.
Then there was a public announcement that the Bucks County Plein Air Festival is being discontinued. Two data points do not a trend line make, but in the face of my own personal experience, it looks ominous.
“Hey, life ebbs and flows,” Bruce McMillan commented. The plein air movement has been an astonishing force over the past thirty years. I’m fortunate to have played in it for twenty. And none of this means I will stop painting outside, or even totally stop doing plein airevents; it is just a sign that it’s time to widen my net. What does it mean for you?

Busman’s holiday

What does a gallerist do on a snow-day? Hang my show, of course.
Dancing Santa, by Carol L. Douglas
Maine Gallery Guide ran this feature about my upcoming studio Open House yesterday. If you like the Maine scene (especially if you live away), you really should subscribe to their newsletter. It’s the single best resource for our state’s art scene. Here’s a link to the sign-up page.
Meanwhile, my husband is fretting about the boxes and bags of stuff littering our house. “You’ve bought at least three times what you need,” he frets. Parties are where my inner Italian, usually tamped firmly down, comes into play. What’s worth doing, is worth doing to excess, I tell myself—and I buy more.
Part of the mess in my dining room.
No shindig is complete without the last-minute household disaster, and ours came in the form of a cracked chimney tile. This created the opportunity to move our woodstove from the kitchen to the dining room, where it has some chance of actually heating the house. We got the bad news two weeks ago and worked fast. Our mason opened the dining room wall last Monday, only to find a copper water line. All work stopped while we looked for a heating specialist to move the pipe.
Luckily, a young friend is coming to do the job on Sunday. Meanwhile, we have a hole in the dining room wall, and the rest of the room is a shambles. Whatever you do, don’t use our back stairs. The contents of our china cabinet are lined up on its treads. That staircase’s primary function is as a laundry chute, so we’re on pins and needles. If we forget, we’ll shatter a lifetime of useless collecting in a single moment.
And more mess. I bought the wine totally for its name.
Yesterday the storm that’s plagued the northeast this week finally showed up in mid-coast Maine. With so few people out, Sandy Quang left work early and stopped here to collect her mail. The poor young gallerist was about to enjoy a busman’s holiday. She spent the afternoon and evening helping me hang my work. She’s much better at it than me, and she has the additional advantage of a fresh eye. By the time we finished, the snow had stopped. It was a beautiful night, the moon shining dimly through the clearing clouds.
Even though the studio is a mess, I took a video of it for Bobbi Heath. “Are you posting that on Instagram?” she asked. No; it’s a mess, and I’m not very good at video. “People love to see the sausage being made,” she countered. She’s right; the two small videos I posted are being watched. Here’s a link and a link if you are also an avid sausage viewer.
Happy New Year! by Carol L. Douglas

Which brings me to my two resolutions for the new year. First, I’m going to learn to take a decent video. Second, I’m going to master my email list. But I’m always conflicted about email.

Yesterday I timed how many emails I was deleting. It was about 15 an hour, all asking me to donate money or to shop. That didn’t include the ones that ended up in my spam folder, which I watch carefully—Bruce McMillan’s very fine Postcard of the Daywas landing there for a while.
You can meet the original of my 4-H Christmas Angel on Saturday. She’s presiding over my tree, as she does every year.
That overload makes me hate the medium. But it’s a necessary evil, I’m afraid, at least until something better comes along.
Meanwhile, I hope to see you—in person—at my studio on Saturday. Here are the details, as if you could possibly forget them:
Carol L. Douglas Studio Open House
Saturday, December 7, 2019
Noon to Five
394 Commercial Street, Rockport

Monday Morning Art School: losing your drawing

You do a lovely underpainting and you lose it in the top layers. Why does that happen?
Home Farm, by Carol L. Douglas. Painted at Winterthur in Delaware.

The human mind loves complex, irrational space divisions. The same mind perversely regularizes what it paints and draws. A split-rail fence, where the gaps between posts diminish haphazardly into infinity, attracts us when we see it. However, unless we’re mindful, when we paint it, we regularize the spacing. The same thing happens with trees, flowers and clouds. In nature, they’re artfully erratic. We too often space them in neat lines. Bobbi Heath calls this anti-entropy. It’s a good description of the brain’s powerful impulse to push ideas, images and tones into patterns.

We’re best at drawing when we’re fresh. The challenge is to keep that freshness throughout the finished layers of a painting.
Visan Vineyard underpainting, by Bobbi Heath
Bobbi graciously allowed me to share an example for this post. She painted the underpainting above last year in France and finished the work this month in her own studio. That in itself is a challenge. No matter how good your visual memory is, it diminishes over time. You’ll always be most accurate if you finish work quickly.
Visan Vineyard, by Bobbi Heath
Bobbi made significant changes between the drawing and the final work. The far hill doesn’t rear up as energetically. The ends of the rows are lower on the canvas, and thus less important. More critically, she reduced the contrast, softened the perspective lines, and the ends are less incisive. She also changed the value of the midfield. In my opinion, the painting was weakened by these changes (although it’s still beautiful).
I stress drawing on paper before painting, instead of going straight to the canvas. It’s important to work out the compositional questions before you pick up a brush. It’s just as important to have reference to consult when the light changes or your painting gets distorted. A photo on your phone will just tell you what was there, not how you drew it.
Avoid too much solvent in the bottom layers. In alla prima painting, the bottom layer should have enough OMS in it to move fluidly, but not enough to run. You cannot keep a tight drawing if you’re painting over mush, nor can you keep the colors separated and bright.
Detail from Home Farm, at top.
It’s a fallacy to think that you draw first and paint second. Painting is continuous drawing, and the initial drawing must be restated constantly. I leave important lines showing until I’m certain I have finished the passage, and sometimes (as in the detail above, from the painting at the top) I don’t obliterate them at all. You can’t cover your drawing and expect to reiterate the freshness of the original line. That early drawing will always be your most delightful.
I prefer to work large in general. It’s easier to be accurate and poetic with a large sweeping line. The smaller the canvas, the more jarring small errors of measurement become. For most brushwork, I recommend holding the brush at a point more than halfway back from the ferrule. That gives your brushwork bounce and grace. But for accurate fine drawing, hold it like a pencil.
Kudos to Bobbi for offering to let me critique her painting publicly. “I wish I’d showed it to you earlier so you could have told me to restate the drawing,” she said. That’s a pal.

Should you keep your painting locations secret?

It’s not the location; it’s what you bring to it.
Fallow field, by Carol L. Douglas

I’m at Plein Air Brandywine Valley (PABV) this week. Torrential rain was forecasted starting at midday, so I took the unusual step of leaving to paint before dawn. I intended to blog in the afternoon. Of course, I didn’t get back to my billet until 7 PM, which is why you’re reading this so late.

I had the opportunity to test a favorite hypothesis of mine: that location doesn’t matter as much as subject and style. I know painters who jealously guard their ‘special’ painting locations. I’ve always done the opposite. No two painters look at things the same way, and various paintings of the same site will all come out radically different.
Same subject, by Lisa BurgerLentz. Note the raindrops; we were chased away around noon.
PABV provides us with choices of venues at which to paint every day, but we’re required to do the bulk of our work at one of these assigned venues. That allows us to visit properties we’d otherwise not have access to. Equally important, it lets them bring us lunch every day.
Today, we were spoiled for choice, with five options. Only a few painters joined us at Kirkwood Preserve. It’s a lovely, rugged patch of fallow fields and old trees, but fearing an imminent washout, most of us stayed close to our cars. That meant that four of us chose to paint along the same sightline: Nancy Granda, Lisa BurgerLentz, Bobbi Heath, and me.
Same subject, by Nancy Granda
Nancy, Lisa and Bobbi all agreed to let me share their paintings to demonstrate my point. Four paintings could not be more similar in subject outside a sip-and-paint, and yet they are very different. Even thought they’re all roughly the same composition, they each have their own tonal range, level of abstraction, and brush or knife work.
I was once next to Alison Hill at an auction preview when a client stopped to look at our work. She was conflicted. “I love her style, but I prefer your subject matter,” she told me. I asked her which was more important to her. “Both,” she responded. I think she’s very typical of the knowledgeable art connoisseur, who responds both with the head and the heart.
Same subject, by Bobbi Heath
I’d painted rocks and surf, which are a passion of mine. But she didn’t know exactly where those rocks were, nor did she care. It was the interplay of water and stone that attracted her. I know how to get to Raven’s Nest in Schoodic, a spot that is intentionally somewhat concealed. It isn’t promoted by the National Park Service because it’s dangerous. But I’m happy to tell you, unless I think there’s a chance you’ll slip and kill yourself. Raven’s Nest is stunning, but a painting of it isn’t going to be any better than any other well-composed painting of rocks and surf.
With the exception of Paris, no other site is more closely associated with the birth of impressionism than Argenteuil, wrote art historian Paul Hayes Tucker in Impressionists at Argenteuil. Claude Monet (who lived there for a time) was joined by other avant-garde painters, including Eugene Boudin, Gustave Caillebotte, Edouard Manet, Auguste Renoir, and Alfred Sisley. These painters were working in roughly the same style, painting the same subjects, and overlapping in the same time period. Yet nobody finds their work redundant today.

Monday Morning Art School: step out of your comfort zone

Risk-taking is not only good for art, it’s good practice for life.
Midsummer, by Carol L. Douglas. Oil on canvas, 24×36.

“I can’t remember what you told me you plan to concentrate on during this residency,” Bobbi Heath said.

That was because I had deftly avoided answering her question. A residency is a great time to set up a challenge and then answer it. The people vetting your application want to know how the opportunity is going to expand your vision or change your practice. We try to do something inventive yet considered. Of course, that sometimes means you’ve painted yourself into a corner before you’ve even started.
I’ve been thinking recently about architecture, and what gives us a sense of place, and, of course, boats. I’m sure I could have whipped up a grandiose statement with those ingredients, but my heart wasn’t in it.
Farm, by Carol L. Douglas
Nova Scotia has a vernacular building style that’s peculiar to Canada and Britain. These are steep-roofed houses with twin gables. Sometimes they have matching window bays. They may be tarted up with gingerbread, or they may be very simple. They’re always proper, like a nice old lady in her best pantsuit. It’s not a common building style in most of the United States, but there are many examples in my part of Maine.
It was thinking about them that made me spend my first several days painting buildings from above. There is, in fact, something audacious about this kind of painting: it’s based on drawing.
“You must have taken mechanical drawing or drafting in school,” an artist said after she saw my sketch for Midsummer. Rather, I learned to draw when perspective and measurement were routine. If I could get students to do one thing, it would be to spend twice as much time drawing as they ever spend painting. But I digress.
As fun as painting houses has been, they’re still well within my skill set. It was time to radically mix it up.
Her laundry and lupines, by Carol L. Douglas
I offered to demo in downtown Parrsboro. I painted the estuary two weeks ago and wasn’t keen on doing it again so soon. My other options were commercial buildings. Behind one was a laundry line. It was unfortunately surrounded by a scramble of wild roses and lupines. My least-favorite things to paint are flowers.
I drew the scene three times and realized I was getting nowhere with the scientific method. I started lashing paint on without a good underpainting, moving objects in mid-process, and doing all the things I tell students to never do. It took much longer than a well-drafted painting ever does.
Is it successful? It doesn’t really matter. It was a good way to force myself past my resistance to flowers, and to hang my painting on a tale. The laundry told a powerful story to me. It was a single woman’s working wardrobe, hanging outside a simple, concrete-block apartment. Everyone paints white sheets. I painted black leggings.
When I was done, I wanted to paint the exact same subject again, but this time I would approach it very differently. The beauty of a residency is that I can do that.
Why push yourself out of your comfort zone? It develops your tolerance for change. Human beings are wired to experience negative results more keenly than positive ones. It’s called our negativity bias, and it’s there to stop us from doing stupid things that will kill us.
This bias carries over to predicting outcomes. We tend to think 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.
There are a few ways around this, of course. Personally, I believe that an interactive God has my back. You can call that a positivity bias, if you want.
Repeatedly taking controlled risks is in itself therapeutic. It reduces our negativity bias. Our brains learn that risky ventures can succeed, and that failing is not necessarily awful.
That is not only good for art, it’s good practice for life. This week, challenge yourself. 

The working artist survives through cooperation

Perhaps a little less plumage and a little more truth might build more cooperation in the workplace. You first.
Parrsboro marshes, by Carol L. Douglas
I wish I could get the timing right on Parrsboro International Plein Air Festival. Last year, I was a day late because I was teaching watercolor aboard American Eagle. This year I’m not quite so behind, but my husband has a medical procedure this morning. I’ll miss the opening reception where they stamp our boards.
I asked painter Stephan Giannini if he’d bring my boards up to Nova Scotia with him. He’ll hand them off to Poppy Balser, who’ll take them to the cottage we’re staying in. Neither Poppy nor Stephan hesitated when asked. “I’m going right by your house anyway,” said Stephan. I left my studio open so he could collect them while I was teaching elsewhere.
Parrsboro low tide, by Carol L. Douglas
I find myself asking for or offering help all the time. Bobbi Heath and I have shared driving, and I’ll be staying with her at Cape Elizabeth’s Paint for Preservation next week. Poppy will stay at my house while I’m at my residency in July. Meanwhile, she finished a birch panel for me to use this week. Then there was the memorable and fun night Chrissy Pahuckiand I headed out into the mountains to rescue Crista Pisano, and then ended up with an almost-flat tire ourselves.
Cooperation among artists is born of necessity. Most circuit-riding plein air painters operate on very slim margins. The amenities found in other industries—hotels, travel upgrades, couriers, etc.—would eat away at our profitability. We’ve learned to travel austerely and rely on each other when we can.
Parrsboro below Ottawa House, by Carol L. Douglas
I’m always impressed that the same artists who are in direct competition with each other for prizes and sales can remain so collegial. Kvetching about the judging is a time-honored sport, but the artists who win prizes are usually people you know and like.
I see cooperation in my classes, too. Yesterday, I had my students paint lupines, which range from white to pink to blue-violet. I’d decided against bringing dioxazine purple to amp up their mixes. As I walked from easel to easel, I noticed that pigment appearing on more and more palettes. Those who had it were sharing it around, just as they shared different insect repellants in a vain attempt to keep the mosquitoes at bay.
Yesterday’s painting class on Beauchamp Point.
Long-term cooperation is not possible without trust. Trust is fragile, and to be “trusting” and “trustworthy” are not the same thing at all. As most parents eventually figure out, the best way to get others to be trustworthy is to trust them in the first place. We have a deeply-engrained need to reciprocate good for good and bad for bad—in short, to act like friends.
But we live in a society that is—frankly—wealthy enough to dispense with trust. We’re socialized into being great liars, hiding behind images of beauty, affluence, success, and invincibility. We have been told that this is what sells our product and, indeed, our very selves.
The working artist doesn’t have that luxury, at least not on the road. We’ve all seen each other in our old, paint-spattered cars, wearing our paint-spattered jeans. (“We’re taking up a collection to buy you some new clothes,” Captain John Foss told me last week.)
Perhaps a little less plumage and a little more truth might build more cooperation in the workplace. You first.

How long did that take you?

Looking is at the heart of painting, and you can only trim that back so much.
Spring along the Sheepscot River, Carol L. Douglas

Every painter has been asked “how long did that take you?” There are many witty responses to the effect of “three hours and thirty years.” The heavy lifting for this particular work may have been done in the weeks, months or years before you ever lifted a brush on this project. But this is not unique; it is true as well for the machinist, doctor, and other trained professionals who charge by billable hours.

What is immediate and also uncounted is driving-around time. This is a very big part of our preparation.
Yesterday I met Bobbi Heath at Round Pound. This harbor is about 45 minutes south of me and one of my favorites. It’s a tight, small space, with several working docks, rocks and spruces and a nearby general store for lunch. But what it lacked yesterday were lobster boats. The fleet was out.
Spring cleaning, Carol L. Douglas
Bobbi had noticed a boat renovation happening at Wiscasset, about 25 minutes away. This was a replica of the Revolutionary warship Providence built for the bicentennial in 1776. It is a sloop-of-war, the smallest armed boat in the Revolutionary navy. It’s gaff-rigged except that the topsail has been replaced by one square sail. “They only used this rigging for about ten, fifteen years,” a woman working on the restoration told us.
Providence was the boat on which John Paul Jones received his captaincy. His first tour on this boat resulted in the capture of 13 prizes. But the deck of has been peeled back like a giant sardine can, and her gun carriages sit on the landing waiting to be reinstalled. We sadly concluded there was no painting to be had. Where to next?
Spring thaw on the Pecos River, Carol L. Douglas
Novelist Van Reid and his wife once told me about a little hamlet on the Sheepscot River where he’d spent his early childhood. There was once a mill and a depot for shipping hay. Today there are no businesses, post-office, or even a sign post. Its main attractions are tidal flats, and the church and half-dozen grand 19th century houses strung like beads down a side road. This road is called The Kings Highway. That’s a common-enough road name in the former British colonies, but it usually refers to a major thoroughfare. This track runs nowhere.
The Sheepscot makes a great lazy oxbow here, drifting off into several cul-de-sacs. Before we started to paint, we needed to reconnoiter, which meant haring down dead-end roads to see where the view was the best. Of course, we finished exactly where we started, which is often the way.
Spring, Carol L. Douglas
But all that time spent reconnoitering meant that in a day that started at 8, I had exactly two hours to paint before I had another obligation.
That’s so often how plein air painting goes. It helps when you’ve painted many years in the same spot or event; you spend less time looking around. But since looking is at the heart of painting, you can only trim it back so much.

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.
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