Monday Morning Art School: Precision

A good painting requires a good plan. What does that mean? 

This last weekend I was painting in the 14thannual Paint for Preservation for the Cape Elizabeth Land Trust. This always involves a big canvas, and this year was no exception: I painted 30×40.

I always start with a drawing in my sketchbook; when I’m working this large, the drawing becomes paramount. To look at my canvas from a distance meant climbing down into a small ravine and back up the next finger of rock, so I didn’t do it often. Accuracy in that situation requires planning. I transfer the drawing faithfully to my canvas, gridding if necessary. Then the sketchbook lies at my feet so I can consult it for values if necessary.

Foghorn Symphony, 36×40, by Carol L. Douglas, will be available through the Cape Elizabeth Land Trust in late August.

“You write numbers on it?” said Ken DeWaard, who’d stopped by with his morning coffee.

“Numbers and colors,” I said. That’s not my idea; it’s one I stole from an old guy named Vincent van Gogh, who often wrote the colors alongside his sketches. The sun at dawn on Saturday was a lemony yellow, and it would have been easy to remember it as richer and deeper. That would have overridden the sense of a transient sea-fog in the distance, which was causing the five lighthouses of greater Portland to play a fog-horn symphony.

Plein air events like Paint for Preservation have no do-overs. We’re required to put out a good painting. There are two options. You can paint more than one, and choose the best. That seldom works for me, since I’m no judge of my own work in the thrust-and-flow of an event. It’s also a lot of work.

Zeb Cove, 40×40, was my 2020 painting for CELT’s Paint for Preservation.

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I go with the second, which is to paint one good one from the start, using all the tools at my disposal. Since a painting always goes wrong in the planning stages, I make sure my plan is solid, and then I stick with it.

What makes a good plan?

Precision of drawing

This means proper perspective and measurement. You might think this is irrelevant when the subject is rocks and the sea, but it’s as important there as with architecture. Drawing is the only clue about the distances involved. There’s a contemporary Maine style, which involves fast, loose brushwork, but it rests on a foundation of perfect drafting. In fact, bad initial drawing is a great way to end up with a tight painting, since you’ll constantly have to redraw with your brush.

Four Ducks, 30×40, was my 2019 painting for CELT’s Paint for Preservation.

Precision of composition

This means understanding the motive line, energy, and value structure of your painting from the beginning. A 30×40 painting will take from 8-12 hours to finish. The tide will have gone through one full cycle, and the sun will beat its way across the sky as you’re painting. In order to retain the light structure you started with, you must lay it out in advance—and then you must stick with it.

Precision of color

Nothing makes for a muddier painting than constantly restating colors because you didn’t get them right on the first try. Make a grisaille, and check your mixed colors against it.

Rocky, 36×36, was my 2018 painting for CELT’s Paint for Preservation. I’m detecting a theme here.

To mix color properly, you must be absolutely conversant with the pigments on your own palette. This requires practice. The goal is au premier coup, or to nail it on the first strike. That goes not just the for darks, but every color in the picture. Even a painting with wonderful shadows and lights will have many middle tones, often closely related in value. These are actually the most difficult colors to mix accurately. If you have a painting that isn’t working, ask yourself if it has a full tonal range, or is it simply hitting the highs and lows. 

Joy and tragedy are two sides of the same coin

In some ways, 2020 has been a very good year for me. But that is set against loss, both my own and others’.

Happy New Year! by Carol L. Douglas

If I had a bucket list, Tierra del Fuego would certainly be on it. So, when, in March, I had the opportunity to paint there and in Patagonia with my pal Jane Chapin, I jumped. COVID-19 was still just a rumble from China, albeit moving closer. Within 48 hours of our arrival, the Argentines quarantined us in the mountainous region near the Chilean border. As the first snows of the year hit the higher elevations, we painted glaciers and meted out our remaining canvases.

My uncle Bob, from whom I inherited the travel bug, had been in Patagonia a few years back. He was following our exploits by text. He never learned that we made it home, because on March 29, he became an early casualty of the pandemic. It is the worst grief I’ve sustained since the loss of my parents.

Glaciar Cagliero from Rio Electrico, oil on canvasboard, by Carol L. Douglas

I came home feeling very deflated. Painting events were cancelled; my own gallery in Rockport couldn’t open. I asked our local police chief if the new regulations would allow plein air classes; he thought no. The windjammer American Eagle, on which I was scheduled to teach two workshops, cancelled its season. My workshop at Schoodic was rescheduled for October, but it hardly mattered. Nobody was signing up for anything, anyways. By June, my revenues to date were down $10,000 from 2019, and that didn’t include the cost of getting back from Argentina. If I’ve ever been inclined to quit, it was then.

There are two important lessons you can take from your Christian neighbors. The first is to live in faith rather than in fear. That doesn’t mean being foolish. I follow the quarantine and testing regulations of the states to which I travel; I use hand sanitizer and a mask; I avoid unnecessary public exposure. I do not, however, let COVID paralyze me. I recognize that the ultimate disposition of my life isn’t in my hands.

The Dooryard, oil on canvasboard, by Carol L. Douglas, was painted for an event that had to go online; the results were decidedly mixed.

That’s true regardless of your beliefs, by the way. You can do nothing to insulate yourself from the ultimate reality of death. So many Americans (including my uncle) followed the rules punctiliously, but the virus still found them.

The second is that humans need to be flexible to survive tough times. Mature Christians listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit, even when it asks them to do odd things. Non-believers may call this ‘listening to their gut,’ but the basic requirement is the same—one has to be open to new ideas. That’s not so easy at my age, when system and structure have had decades to accrete.

On the other hand, Cape Elizabeth’s Paint for Preservation was a hit, even online.

I was extremely resistant to teaching online. I didn’t think it would be a good experience for my students. However, my friend Mary Byrom encouraged and coached me, and today I think it’s at least as good as live classes. It has forced me to be more proactive in designing lessons. That, in turn, has given me the nucleus of the book I’ve always intended to write.

In the end, much happened that was lovely. I suspended minimum enrollment requirements and ended up teaching three successful workshops—at Schoodic, in New Mexico, and in Florida—despite concerns about travel. I learned a new technology, and even made some pretty terrible painting videos. Learning is growth; in that regard, 2020 has been a very good year for me. But that is set against loss, both my own and others’. So much of life is like that, a mix of sorrow and joy.

Are you bored?

I can’t tell you the last time I was bored.

Sometimes it rains, by Carol L. Douglas, oil on canvasboard, available through Ocean Park Association.

Bobbi Heathblogged about boredomearlier this week. I didn’t read it until this morning because I’ve been so busy. Apparently, boredom is a big problem for people stuck at home during the pandemic. I have certainly noticed a lassitude among some of my friends that could be a symptom of either boredom or depression from the long isolation.

Personally, I don’t understand boredom. In part, this is protective. As kids, if we whined “I’m bored!” our mother would just give us more chores. That’s a parenting technique I grew to admire, and I’ve passed it on to my children.

Channel Marker, oil on canvasboard, by Carol L. Douglas, available.

Mainers have perfected the art of making hay while the sun shines—working like banshees for 120 days a year so that the larder is full for the winter. Plein air painters do a variation on the same dance, of course. This year has set that on its head, as I’m reminded when I see our beautiful old wooden schooners in their winter coverings in August.

However, I’m working harder than ever. I believe in the Sabbath—rest is a gift, after all. But it gets harder and harder to find the time as I dive deeper into this busy season.

I’m writing this in Yarmouth, where I’m staying for Cape Elizabeth Land Trust’s Paint for Preservation. This ought to be the easiest of events, because we have three days to do one painting, but they want us to paint big.

Fog Bank, oil on linen, by Carol L. Douglas. This is one of those paintings that I didn’t know what to make of when I did it, but that’s growing on me.

On Wednesday I wrotethat I was debating whether to bring the oil-primed 48X48 canvas I built for this event. The winds only got worse, and when I attempted to lift the canvas onto my roof rack, it slammed back down to earth. On the way down, it put a nasty scratch in the rear panel of the car, reminding me of Jane Chapin mangling the side of her pickup and insisting “that’ll buff out.”

It did buff out, more or less, but it was a sign that I shouldn’t try to paint that large in unsettled weather. Bobbi ran to Artist & Craftsman in Portland and got me a 40X40. I’m now carrying that, a 40X30, and three ‘smaller’ canvases.

They wrest their living from the sea, oil on canvasboard, by Carol L. Douglas. Available.

I told this to Ken DeWaard, who’s also in this event. He called me crazy, and then told me he’s packed a 30X40 and several smaller canvases in his car. He drives a Honda Fit—and he’s 6’5”.

Why do we bring so many canvases? We can guess, but we can’t predict what the best size and shape will be for the scene that presents itself. Even when we know the location (and I don’t, this year), the light and atmospherics are constantly changing.

I’d intended to take Wednesday off, but all that packing and planning ran right through my day of rest. That doesn’t include the work I never got to, like writing my Zoom lessons for next week. Listening to someone else’s to-do list is boring, I know, but I’m just demonstrating why I’m never bored.

Bobbi’s husband took exception to the idea that one could go through life never getting bored. “What about boring tasks?” he asked. We all have them, of course, but these days we just listen to music or a podcast. And I have a secret weapon: a sketchbook I deploy in meetings or anywhere else I’m expected to sit quietly for long periods.

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.

More Winslow Homer than Clyfford Still

Mystery boxes for Cape Elizabeth provide an opportunity for a design experiment.

Surf #1, by Carol L. Douglas. 

Next weekend is Cape Elizabeth Land Trust’s 13thannual Paint for Preservation. They’re steering their course through the current crisis with a hybrid event. We will paint live in Cape Elizabeth (and you can still come watch us from a safe distance) on August 28-30. The auction will be online, ending on September 13.

This event always includes something they call mystery boxes. Painters provide up to three finished paintings that are then sealed in 10X10 inch black boxes. These are sold for $250 each. Buyers might get one by me, or by Ken DeWaard or Alison Hill or Colin Page or Jill Hoy or any of the other artists in this event.

The shapes on which it was based. Only the black shapes were transcribed, but I neglected to take photos at that point. Oops.

Since these artists generally command much higher prices, the mystery boxes are always snapped up. I like to imagine them being traded like baseball cards long after the event is over.

Surf #2, by Carol L. Douglas.

I’m an admirer of the color-field painter Clyfford Still. I grew up wandering amongst his enormous canvases at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. His work may look like torn paper strips, but to get that effect is anything but simple. Clyfford Still—like many painters of his time—is extremely rational. There’s little accidental or intuitive painting in his work, although he did layer impasto on with a palette knife. I find it difficult to read enough from his surfaces to help me insinuate myself into his decision-making. And I’d like to understand it more.

The shapes on which it was based.

Earlier this year I decided to copy passages from three of his painting onto 10×10 birch squares and sit with them for a while in my studio. A trip to the beach suggested that one of them might end up as a tidal pool. This turned out to be the most difficult painting and remains the most abstract. The other two designs became rocks and surf. In no case can I tell you how the patterns were arranged in Still’s original work, or what work they actually came from, because once they were transcribed onto the boards, I promptly forgot the originals. They became beautiful dark shapes, isolated from their original settings.

Tidal Pool, by Carol L. Douglas. All three of these paintings will be sold at Cape Elizabeth’s Paint for Preservation in the next few weeks.

One issue with painting rocks on the Maine shore is that they tend to arrange themselves in either horizontal bands or ellipses. These are essentially static figures. Neither tells the truth about how ledge works, which is to extend underwater in long grasping fingers, reaching up for the unwary mariner all the way to the Irish coast.

The shapes on which it was based. I was very sorry to lose that foreground diagonal but in practice it just ended up being irritating.

My main goal in thinking about Clyfford Still was to free myself from those coastal tropes. While I wasn’t concerned with maintaining any fidelity to him, I was mystified to see his influence diminishing and Winslow Homer’s rising. I shouldn’t have been surprised. Homer, too, is a magnificent composer, with great formal presence. His Prouts Neck studio was only a few miles from Cape Elizabeth, so the colors of his sea and sky are the same as those I see every day.

In the end, I learned some things, none of which are easy to put into words. I hope their mystery buyers like them as much as I do. What will I take from them onto the rocky shore of Zeb Cove next weekend? I’m not sure, but no experimentation is ever wasted—in painting or anywhere else.

Painting better, at last

What causes the droughts in our creative life, when we’ve apparently forgotten everything we ever knew about painting?
Ottawa House, oil on canvas, Carol L. Douglas, available.

I’m back in Nova Scotia for a two-week residency at Parrsboro Creative. A few years ago, they decided their little community at the top of the Bay of Fundy ought to be a major art center. A series of artist residencies is part of their master plan.

One of my goals is to paint some of the scenes I haven’t gotten to during three years at Parrsboro International Plein Air Festival (PIPAF). The first of these is historic Ottawa House. Built around 1770, it became the summer home of Sir Charles Tupper in 1871. Tupper was a well-known politician who once served as Prime Minister of Canada for 69 days.
The only way to paint the scene is to set up along a hairpin turn. The right side of the road is a blind spot for drivers whipping around the bend, so I faced oncoming traffic.
My home-away-from-home for the next two weeks.
A local stopped. “Two weeks ago, two girls lost control on this corner and plowed into the guardrail there.” He pointed to a spot about thirty feet away. “If it weren’t for these cables, they’d have gone over the embankment. Took two posts clean out.”
I began to think about Grant Wood’s Death on the Ridge Road. “Those cables have been there since the Second World War,” said the man, patting a post fondly. They certainly have the whiff of age about them, and are battered and twisted from impacts across the years.
I’m starting to know people in Parrsboro, and one of them stopped to chat as I worked. “You’ve chosen a dangerous spot,” he started.
That was my clue to move along. The affair was starting to remind me of that joke that ends with God saying, “First I sent you a canoe, then a boat, and then a helicopter. What more did you want?”
Four Ducks, oil on canvas, Carol L. Douglas, sold.
Sandwiched between my visits to Nova Scotia was Cape Elizabeth Land Trust’s 12thAnnual Paint for Preservation. I wrote last week about the disparity in pricing and awards for women artists, and how Parrsboro Creative was turning the tide. That trend continued at Cape Elizabeth, where the top price was earned by Jill Hoy
Still, all except two of the top 20% were men. I was the other woman. While I’m pleased, I also want to see my paint-spattered sisters consistently getting their due.
I’ve spent the better part of a week pondering why I painted so well at Cape Elizabeth and so badly at PIPAF the prior week. Robert More reminded me that the creative space is elusive, showing up where and when it wants. I was certainly tired and rushed when I arrived in Parrsboro.
Despite my workmanlike approach to painting, there are times when it all goes bad. The advantage to being older is that you’ve gone through this many times before, and you know it’s a transient problem. “You can’t create when the well runs dry,” my friend Jane Bartlett says. Prayerful reflection, sleep, reading and recreation all refill the well. I’ve done those things, and I’m back on track. Let’s hope it continues.