Painting in strange places

Boats, mountains, glaciers—I like painting off the beaten path.

I don’t worry about much, but setting up the coffee this morning I was stopped by the sound of running water near the sink. It was rainwater coursing down the window in great gouts. Not a domestic problem, but it’s a hard start for the inaugural Camden on Canvas, which has brought top-tier artists to paint in our little burg.

Camden on Canvas is the pet project of Colin Page, and it’s a fundraiser for the Camden Public Library. Colin’s got bigger worries this morning than where he himself will paint. Anyway, he could paint Camden harbor blindfolded and with a sling on his good arm—after all, it’s his home harbor. As for the rest of us, we’re professionals, and we have two days to finish our paintings.

I’ll be heading down to Camden a little later this morning and setting up on the docks on the harbormaster’s side. I’ll work on a harbor painting today, but tomorrow my real adventure starts. I’m climbing to the top of Bald Mountain early in the morning and painting the vista of Camden from a high peak. Any fool can drive up Mt. Battie and paint from the parking area at the summit, but it makes a mediocre picture, having no foreground. Bald Mountain is a 2.6-mile round-trip hike of moderate difficulty (although it will be slippery after all this rain).

View from Bald Mountain.

If you plan to go up there to watch me paint, bring your own chair. I’m not carrying one up for you. You don’t have to work that hard, however; last time I checked, the signal on Bald Mountain was great. I’ll live-broadcast my painting on Facebook. It’s hard to predict an exact time, but expect me to start early, while the sun is still low in the east. I’ll update times on my Facebook page.

Speaking of video, my friend and student Terri Lea Smith made this wonderful video of schooner American Eagleduring our June workshop. If you’ve ever wondered why I have a crush on this particular boat, her film should answer that question. Boats, mountains, glaciers—I like painting off the beaten path.

On that note, students interested in my Pecos workshop might be happy to learn that Our Lady of Guadalupe Abbeyhas added camping spots to their accommodations. It’s a stunning location along the Pecos River and very convenient to all our painting sites. If you’re interested, I’d call them—quickly—at 505-757-6415. And then let me know, too.

My 2020 painting for Cape Elizabeth’s Paint for Preservation.

Cape Elizabeth’s Paint for Preservation is August 13-15. We’re assigned sites to paint, and these came this week. I’ll be at Trundy Point, which is a massive rock jutting out into the ocean. It’s got surf, beach roses, scree, and beautiful rocks.

I’ll only be there on Saturday, as I’m finishing my workshop in Schoodic that Friday. That occasional problem of unavoidable schedule conflicts is another reason they give us two days to paint at these events. As you can imagine, I’m praying for no rain.

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.

Dance with the one what brung you

“I’m the worst, I’m totally garbage at scheduling” is not an excuse; it’s just a sign that you were raised by wolves.
Cape Elizabeth Cliffs, by Carol L. Douglas

Tomorrow is the wedding of the season in my former town of Rochester, NY. The sister of the bride is flying in from Scotland; the sisters of the groom from France. The gathering will include my husband, my daughter, and many of my old and treasured friends.

I’ll be thinking of them as I paint at Cape Elizabeth Paint for Preservation. No, I do not think my career is more important than my old friend, but I was accepted to this event before she announced the date.
Back in the last millennium, etiquette mavens taught that the only proper reason to break a prior commitment was an invitation to the White House. I’m liberal enough to include a personal emergency or a date in court, but the principle was that your word, once given, is inviolate.
Painting in Cape Elizabeth Paint for Preservation last June. (Photo courtesy of Karen Lybrand)
It can be difficult to maintain this policy. Last autumn, I’d signed up for Plein Air Brandywine Valley when my daughter invited me to London and Bath. I had no prior relationship with the show and my family was very persuasive. My husband went to England; I painted in Pennsylvania. I liked Children’s Beach House, the sponsoring organization, enough that I’ll be back again this year.
I think it’s no bad thing to be reliable. One of the few things I regret decades later is having flaked on someone who was really counting on me.
Modern culture has a bad reputation for flaking, or not showing up when you say you will. Having given three weddings for my daughters, I’ve experienced this first-hand. The worst offenders, by the way, have not been much-maligned millennials, but people who are old enough to know better.
“Technology makes it so much easier to flake out,” saidclinical psychologist Andrea Bonior. “It’s infinitely easier and less awkward than having to talk to someone by phone or, worse, tell them in person.”
Painting in the cold rain at Brandywine last autumn.
But showing up when you promise is as important to festival organizers as it is to the mother of the bride. Organizers invest a great deal of time and energy on a short list of painters, one they’ve carefully selected through a complex process of invitation or jurying. Your name and work have been assiduously promoted to their lists, and they encourage your fans to come to their event.
Most committees work on their event all year long, and they work indefatigably during the run-up and the week of the event. Much of the work is done by volunteers, working alongside paid staff. The work involved in putting on a successful plein air competition is staggering; it is probably equal to organizing a white tie dinner at Buckingham Palace.
Some events have runners-up to fill last minute gaps. But even these shows will have publicized your presence to their punters. Not showing up leaves them plugging a mystery “Special Guest” in the place of their headliners.
So, if you’re thinking of bailing on an event, don’t. And if you must, make sure you have an awfully good reason—your own death, for example. “I’m the worst, I’m totally garbage at scheduling” is not an excuse; it’s just a sign that you were raised by wolves.

And that’s why we can’t have nice things

Fences protect fools from the view. Unfortunately, they also separate the rest of us from it.
Rocky, by Carol L. Douglas. 

Last summer I painted a rocky outcropping at Fort Williams for Cape Elizabeth Land Trust’s Paint for Preservation. It is a long finger of granite pointing straight into the ocean, as dramatic as any point at Acadia, but only minutes from downtown Portland. And therein lies the problem. People were constantly crawling out to the end of the rock to take selfies. I watched a couple encourage their kids to do it. The drop is easily long enough to kill, and the surf below will take what the rocks don’t.

The foolishness of all these visitors was manifest in their footwear, which ranged from flip-flops to sandals. In two-and-a-half days I saw only one properly-shod climber. He had a safety mat and was practicing some kind of technical descent.
Kaaterskill Falls, by Carol L. Douglas
It reminded me of another popular tourist spot that’s also legendary among plein airpainters. That’s Kaaterskill Falls, a two-tier, 260-foot-tall waterfall in the Catskills. This was, in many ways, the heart of the Hudson River Schooland where plein air painting in America was born. When I first visited, it was easy enough to believe you were alone in the primeval wilderness. You approached the falls the same way as Thomas Cole, Frederic Edwin Church, and other great painters did, up a steep, 2.6-mile trail with very little in the way of safety improvements.
The last time I painted there was in 2014, with Jamie Williams Grossman and other friends from New York Plein Air Painters. It was shocking to see how many people crawled around the lip of the falls and its access trail wearing terrible footwear. That summer two visitors fell to their deaths.  Access was closed for 2015 while they made safety upgrades. When it reopened the following summer, there was another fatality.
The view of that rocky promontory is now obscured by a fence. (Photo courtesy of Karen Lybrand)
Inevitably, the state of Maine had to fence off the rocky point I painted before someone falls to their death.
Artist Karen Lybrand walks at Cape Elizabeth almost every day, and sent me photos of the new fence. “I’m sure the risk-takers will still find a way to take selfies on the cliff rocks,” she commented. Someone will feel the need to get past the safety restrictions, resulting in more safety restrictions.
You can see trail wear around the rocks. (Photo courtesy of Karen Lybrand.)
Maine was projected to have around 40 million visitors in 2018. They’re not necessarily from places where people understand the risks of the natural world, or are expected to take responsibility for their own safety. Their attitude toward wilderness will inevitably affect our access to wilderness.
I’ve done that painting from exactly the low angle I wanted; I couldn’t paint it again, but I don’t want to, either. And it’s perfectly paintable from over the fence; it just won’t have the same looming presence.
A 1920s postcard showing the Marginal Way approaching Perkins Cove in Ogunquit. That was before the path was so heavily traveled.
There are any number of coastal views that would be diminished with such a fence. They’re protected only by their isolation, and even that is slowly eroding as America’s population grows.
These are stunning views from places that are perfectly safe—until you stray from the path and do something stupid. But we can’t allow people to reap the consequences of their bad decisions in our litigious society, so they will be fenced off one by one.

In praise of lighthouses

Lighthouses are neither kitschy nor camp; they’re hardworking symbols of our maritime history.
Lonely Lighthouse (Parrsboro, NS), Carol L. Douglas
This morning I am painting at Fort Williams State Park as part of Cape Elizabeth Land Trust’s 11th Annual Paint for Preservation. (Our locations are assigned; you can see a maphere.) This is the location of one of Maine’s most famous lighthouses, the beautiful Portland Head Light. It was first lit in 1791.
But I’ll be looking in the other direction. The Portland Head Light is unchanged from when Edward Hopper painted it in 1927. However, it would be difficult to set up in his vantage point now, since the park road runs over it. The lighthouse has been painted many, many times, and photographed even more often. I’d be hard-pressed to find anything new to say about it.
Not a cloud in the sky (Owl’s Head Keeper’s House), Carol L. Douglas
Maine’s lighthouses have been painted so often, they have become in some ways a painting cliché. This is why critics sometimes sneer at lighthouse (along with lobster-boat) paintings. More fools they.
Our coastal history is both authentic and humble. There is evidence that people were building boats in Crete 130,000 years ago. Long before there were settled ports, people lit bonfires to guide mariners home. It didn’t take long before these were raised onto platforms. From there, the fixed tower was adopted.
Dyce Head in the early morning light, Carol L. Douglas
By the time Alexander the Greatcame along, lighthouses were an established navigational aid. Ptolemy II Philadelphus built the Pharos of Alexandriasometime around the third century BC. It was the biggest and most famous lighthouse in antiquity. It lasted through seventeen centuries and several major earthquakes. In 1480, Sultan Al-Ashraf Sayf ad-Din Qa’it Bay tore down the remains and used the rubble to build a fort on the site. The Pharos was about 350 feet tall, whereas the Portland Head Light is 101 feet.
The oldest lighthouse still standing is the Tower of Herculesin Galicia, Spain. At 187 feet, it too stands taller than the Portland Head Light. Its exact date of construction is unknown, but it was known to be standing by the 2nd century AD, either built or rebuilt under the Emperor Trajan.
Owl’s Head Light, Carol L. Douglas
Like so much ancient technology, lighthouse construction went into hiatus with the fall of the Roman empire. The modern lighthouse era began in the eighteenth century with the development of international sea trading. The more boats there were on the water, the more horrific losses were suffered from shipwreck.
Advances in structural engineering made it possible to put lighthouses on surf-scoured rocks and even underwater ledges. The Bell Rock Lighthouse, balancing on a reef off the coast of Scotland, was built with such precision that its masonry hasn’t been replaced since it was completed in 1810. It was painted beautifully by J.M.W Turner in 1819.
Cape Spear Road, Carol L. Douglas. That’s not one, but two, lighthouses.
The lighthouse keepers are long gone; their work has moved from oil lamps to remote operation by the Coast Guard. But they continue to serve a vital purpose on the seas.
Lighthouses come in a variety of shapes, from squat little caisson lights which look like sparkplugs, to tall, tapered towers, to the boxy little midcentury lighthouses of Nova Scotia. They’re often on remote, austere headlands, surrounded by pounding surf, lonely spruces, and great tumbles of rock.
How can anyone resist painting them?

You can never have too many easels

My super-lightweight pochade box has served me well, but my field paintings have grown in size. What’s next?
Still the best pochade box for intertidal zone painting. (Photo by Ed Buonvecchio)
Four years ago, I made myself a super-lightweight pochade box. The instructions are here; they’ve been viewed thousands of times and I still occasionally correspond with people interested in making a similar one.
I built this box because I had hiked down Kaaterskill Falls with a heavier, earlier kit and developed a Baker’s cyst from the tremendous pressure on my knee. I decided right there that a lighter painting kit was necessary for extreme plein air. When you hike in to your destination, a kit weighing more than a few pounds is uncomfortable and sometimes dangerous.
The box when new.
The box I made answered that problem very well. It is compact and at 18 oz., doesn’t add much to the weight of my checked baggage. Between trips, I slide it in a waterproof stuff sack and toss it in the freezer. It has traveled many, many miles with me by car and by airplane.
However, it’s no longer serving as well for my primary easel, because things have changed:
  1. The maximum size it holds without jury-rigging is 12X16, and that’s become almost the minimum size I paint these days.
  2. The incessant wind along the coast causes my box to thrum. (For this reason, I seldom use an umbrella these days, either.)
  3. Because it has no frame, it’s gotten somewhat deformed by traveling in my checked bag on airlines.
It’s gotten a little beaten-up from traveling in my checked bag.
Kirk Larsen looked at it in Parrsboro and suggested that I have it copied in carbon fiber. I talked to a boatbuilder last week. He thought that fiberglass would do just as well. He’s going to work one up for me, and then I’ll field test it and see how it works.
Meanwhile, Jennifer Johnson decided to make a box like mine, but her husband ordered the wrong binder. It was a fortuitous accident, because her box is both smaller and stronger than mine. It pairs up perfectly with her Mabef M-27 field easel without any drilling or special machining. Larger canvases might be a stretch, but a clip should hold them steady. Weights can be hung as needed.

Jennifer Johnson’s box is in some ways superior.
I’ve had an earlier version of this Mabef field easel for about twenty years. I heartily recommend it to students as best value for money. Adding the $30 paint box is an elegant solution to the problem of a palette.
Or, you can use Victoria Brzustowicz’ simple solution. She hinged two aluminum baking sheets from the Dollar Store together with a strip of duct tape. Open, it’s a paint box; closed, it goes in a plastic bag in the freezer. It cost her all of $2.
Victoria Brzustowicz’ $2 solution. (Photo courtesy of Victoria Brzustowicz.)
Meanwhile, I’m packing for Cape Elizabeth Paint for Preservation 2018. They want us to paint big, so I’m reviewing my collection of older, heavier easels to see what will suit. If you’re in Portland this weekend and want to stop by, I’ll be at Fort Williams Park.
I’ve got one more workshop available this summer. Join me for Sea and Sky at Schoodic, August 5-10. We’re strictly limited to twelve, but there are still seats open.