Nobody owns technique

One can learn a lot from books, but one can’t learn everything.
This recipe doesn’t spell anything out for you; it presumes you understand how to bake. (BTW, confectioners sugar no longer weighs out at 2.5 cups to the pound. I’d guess it’s milled differently today.)
In 1954 a woman named Doris passed this cookie recipe along to my mother. Its telegraphic style always makes me smile. In the 1950s, baking technique did not need to be explained by one married woman to another. Today, those of us who learned to bake from our mothers or through 4H can follow this recipe without a problem. Those who didn’t, probably can’t. It presumes a basic understanding of baking that is no longer common today.
Once a friend was fretting about how she couldn’t find an uncomplicated muffin recipe. “But they’re all just lists of ingredients,” I said. “You always assemble them in the same order: sift the dry ingredients together, beat the wet ingredients together, and then fold the two mixtures into each other.”
I showed this recipe to Jane Bartlett, who remarked that when she teaches Shibori she frequently tells her students that nobody owns technique. This is a very apt observation for both baking and the fine arts. There is nothing one can patent about artistic technique, any more than one could patent the order of operations for baking.
Dance of the Wood Nymphs, by Albert Pinkham Ryder. It was probably a lovely painting when he finished it, but his disregard of commonly-accepted protocol meant it was an archival disaster.
Painting is so straightforward that departing from the accepted protocols is often foolish. A few years ago, some of my students attended a workshop teaching painting into thin layers of wet glaze. The tonalist Albert Pinkham Ryder did that in the 19th century, and his works have almost all darkened or totally disintegrated.
One can learn a lot from books, but one can’t learn everything.  A kid in my studio announced her intention of making an apple pie the other day. (She is an excellent cook but her food heritage is non-western.) I gave her a cookbook and the supplies and left her to it. Imagine my surprise when this was what she came up with:
Elegantly layered, but it’s not an apple pie. Not everything can be learned from books.
To make an apple pie, one needs to know what an apple pie looks and tastes like, but it also helps to have assembled an apple pie under someone else’s tutelage. The same is—of course—true of painting and drawing. Yes, one can learn something about them from books, videos, and the occasional visit to an art gallery, but a good teacher really does help.
This post was originally published on October 4, 2013. If you live in mid-coast Maine and are interested in painting classes, my next session starts January 8. Email me for more information.

Weekly painting classes in Rockport, Maine

Painting by student Marilyn Feinberg
Color, light, and composition for outdoor painters
Carol L. Douglas
394 Commercial Street, Rockport
Starting April 4, 2017
10-1 AM Tuesdays, six week session
Fee: $200
Last month two friends took me to lunch at the Waterfront restaurant in Camden. As a bitter wind piled clouds high above the islands of Penobscot Bay, they put a question to me. “When will you stop slacking and start teaching weekly classes again?”
They’re right. My trip to Canada had stretched into the holidays, which had then become a trip to the Bahamas. I’ve been working hard, but not teaching.
 They nailed me down to a commitment. Our next cycle of classes starts on Tuesday, April 4. That will be from 10-1 AM, in my studio at 394 Commercial Street, Rockport. If you’re interested, there are more details available on my website, here.
The goal is intensive, one-on-one instruction that you can take back to your studio to apply during the rest of the week. We’ll cover issues like design, composition, and paint handling. We will learn how to mix and paint with clean color, and how to get paint on the canvas with a minimum of fuss.
And, yes, we’ll talk about drawing. If you ever want to paint anything more complicated than marshes, you must know how to draw. As I’ve demonstrated before, any person of normal intelligence can draw; it’s a technique, not a talent. And it’s easy to learn, no matter what you’ve been led to believe.
Painting by student Jennifer Jones
We’ll start in my studio, but on pleasant days, we’ll paint at outdoor locations. Painting outdoors, from life, is the most challenging and instructive exercise in all of art. It teaches you about light, color and composition.
That, of course, limits the media you work in to oils, watercolor, acrylics, or pastel, since they’re what is suitable to outdoor painting.
Years ago, a friend kept asking me to give painting lessons. “I don’t know how to do that,” I’d answer. We went round and round for several years. Eventually, I caved. Three people signed up. I figured I’d teach one session and they’d realize I was clueless. My studio was on the third floor. I was the model and the instructor and I kept hitting my head on the ceiling as I moved around the room.
Turns out, I wasn’t actually that bad. From there I moved into a nicer room above the garage and enlarged my teaching practice. I started teaching workshops and concentrating on plein air instruction, since that’s what I love best. When I left Rochester, I left a large circle of students behind. You can see a small sample of their work here. One of my great joys is that they formed a group, Greater Rochester Plein Air Painters, and continue to paint together.
“You used to teach on Saturdays,” a student recently pointed out. That’s true, I realize. If you want to study with me but work during the week, let me know. If I have three people interested, I’ll offer a weekend class.

Moving on, or moving back

“Under a milky sky (Hare Bay, Newfoundland),” Carol L. Douglas

I’m happy to announce that as of today, Watch Me Paintreturns to Blogspot. I’d like to thank the Bangor Daily News for the past 17 months of hosting. It’s been a great learning experience, and there are many fine blogs on that platform that I read every day.
Astute readers may have noticed that Watch Me Paint has appeared on several platforms for the past five months. This was market research. The modern internet gives us analytic tools simple enough even for an artist to use. I know who visits my website and where they come from. That information supports what the experts say: when all else is equal, host your own blog. It gives you total control of your brand.
My students have heard me speak of group norming in terms of painting. This is when artists who work closely together influence each other’s style. This is the process by which a painting group becomes a ‘school’. It can be a powerful tool for creating new art movements, or it can be repressive.
For painters, it’s important to find working partners interested in the same questions as you are. That doesn’t mean your work will always look the same. For example, even though he was a founding member of the Group of Seven, Lawren Harris ended up being an abstract painter.
Here in Maine, we haven’t been doing much outdoor group painting recently. Meanwhile, my old friends in Rochester have been out every week. They’re having a rare, snowless winter. So I jumped when Bobbi Heath and Joëlle Feldman invited me to join them to paint in the Bahamas next month. Both of them are interested in the same fundamental questions I am: drawing, color relationships and the simplification of landscape. I expect that tropical climate has far different light than I’m used to, and am going to bring a few pigments that I don’t usually use.
I’m committed to finishing my backlog of Canada paintings before we head out. I’m making slow progress, but I’m starting with the least-finished pieces first.
“Grain Elevators, Saskatchewan,” Carol L. Douglas
Yesterday I worked on a painting started in the tiny village of Hare Bay on the northeast coast of Newfoundland. Hurricane Matthew was moving in. There was a milky sky in the deep gloom of fading light. The lighting seemed to fit the mood of this small, poor, isolated town tucked in under an enormous rocky ledge. It wasn’t until I picked it up again in my studio that I felt the oppressive emptiness of the harbor.
The other painting is of a grain elevator in Neelby, Saskatchewan. This was started in a ghost town now owned by rancher Gordon Kish. Again, the light was fading. There is something immensely silent in that hour before twilight, when the shadows are long and every detail is picked out by the searchlight sun. And yet my painting is hardly still. Who knows why?
This morning it’s 12° F in Neelby and 15° F in Hare Bay. While I love field painting more than anything, there’s a time for central heating, too. 

Levitating lobster boat, and an unsalvageable ghost ship

"Working boats, Bay of Fundy,",Carol L. Douglas.

“Working boats, Bay of Fundy,”Carol L. Douglas.
In the Canadian Maritimes, boats are sometimes left to rest on mudflats as the tide drops. Occasionally I’ll see that here in mid-coast Maine, but nowhere near as frequently. It’s something that interests me, and I’ve painted it before, in Rising Tide at Wadsworth Cove.
On the last day of my Trans-Canada adventure, I painted two working boats resting in the Bay of Fundy. This painting was, I thought, unsalvageable—the only one I did on that trip that I couldn’t redeem.  I had spent considerable time drafting, only to realize after I finished that the boat in the back appeared to be levitating.
My lobster boat appears to levitate here, too.
My lobster boat appears to levitate here, too.
Yesterday I realized that the boat seems to be levitating in my reference photo, too. I spent considerable time repainting the foreground to anchor it, only to conclude that the lobster boat is still floating. I have concluded that levitation is just a Canadian reality.
Fundy Ghost is the name of the foreground trawler, and it’s an odd choice. This nickname is sometimes applied to the most famous ghost ship of all time, the Mary Celeste. She was launched as Amazon in 1861 from a shipyard on Spencer’s Island in Nova Scotia. On her maiden voyage, her captain fell ill and died. She suffered a collision in the narrows off Eastport and rammed and sank a brig in the English Channel. In 1867, she was wrecked off Cape Breton Island and sold as salvage to an American. He went broke in the process of restoring her.
The Mary Celeste painted as the Amazon, 1861, by an unknown artist.

The Mary Celeste painted as the Amazon, 1861, by an unknown artist.
After a major refit, the Mary Celeste headed from New York to Genoa, Italy, under the command of Captain Benjamin Briggs. Briggs was an experienced sailor, an abstemious Christian, and a married man. He brought his wife and infant daughter along on the trip, leaving his school-aged son with relatives. His crew were all experienced sailors of good character.
Eight days after Mary Celeste left harbor, a Nova Scotian boat named Dei Gratiafollowed her out along the same route. Midway between the Azores and Portugal, it came upon the Mary Celeste moving erratically under partially-set sails. The ship was deserted, the binnacle damaged and the lazar and fore hatches left open. The small yawl that served as the boat’s lifeboat was missing. Everything pointed to an orderly emergency departure, but the Briggs family and crew were never heard from again.
With great difficulty, Dei Gratia brought the Mary Celeste into Gibraltar. Salvage hearings found no evidence of piracy, fraud, or foul play.
Eventually, Mary Celeste returned to New York, where her bad reputation caught up with her. After rotting on the docks until 1874, she went into the West Indies trade.  She regularly lost money. In 1879, her captain, Edgar Tuthill, fell ill and died in Saint Helena.
"Rising Tide at Wadsworth Cove," Carol L. Douglas

“Rising Tide at Wadsworth Cove,” Carol L. Douglas
In 1884, a group of Boston shippers filled the Mary Celeste with junk and heavily insured her. Her captain, Gilman C. Parker, deliberately ran her aground in Haiti. Parker made the mistake of selling the salvage rights for $500 to the American consul, who promptly reported that the cargo was, in fact, worthless. The conspirators in Boston were arrested. Parker was additionally charged with the capital crime of barratry. He died three months later, the last victim of the cursed ghost ship of the Bay of Fundy.

How to paint something that makes no sense

"Coal Seam," by Carol L. Douglas

“Coal Seam,” by Carol L. Douglas
We’ve all had the experience of loving an abstracted landscape painting, only to finally visit the site on which it was painted and realize it was much more realistic than we’d thought. Visiting Ghost Ranch with Georgia O’Keeffe in mind is an excellent example. There are iconic views that make sense no matter who paints them, like Motif Number One in Rockport, MA. On the flip side, there are things that wouldn’t be believable even in the most realistic of styles.
This was the case with the coal seam I painted along the Red Deer River in Canada’s badlands. It’s small, it’s odd, and I like it, even though I’m still not sure I’m finished.
This is what my camera saw of the coal seam. It's an excellent argument for plein air painting.

This is what my camera saw of the coal seam. It’s an excellent argument for plein air painting.
I didn’t finish the painting on-site because the vibrations from the high winds were making my easel unusable. I was shocked to look at my reference painting and see how bleached the place looks in a photo. Those seams of rock were a beautiful cross-play of color in real life.
"Goosefare Reflection," by Carol L. Douglas

“Goosefare Reflection,” by Carol L. Douglas
This summer I painted Goosefare Creek in Ocean Park, ME, which ended up being a similar abstraction. The Goosefare’s mouth changes course with every nor’easter that blows through. That means you can take any artistic liberty you want. I was interested in the sand and its reflection in the wide arc of the stream.

"Sunset off Stonington," by Carol L. Douglas

“Sunset off Stonington,” by Carol L. Douglas
Sunrises and sunsets sometimes seem artificial to me. The one above was painted from the deck of the American Eagle off Stonington, ME. I threw it down in disgust after touching up the colors last week, complaining that I had ruined it.
“What do you do with the ones you don’t like?” a friend asked.
“Swear and get back to work on them,” I answered.
In fact, after a few days not looking at it, I think the light and color are really quite accurate.
"Rain squall on Lake Huron," by Carol L. Douglas

“Rain squall on Lake Huron,” by Carol L. Douglas
I had about fifteen minutes to limb out this storm on Lake Huron before the blowing rain emulsified my paint. Finishing it was just a matter of adding some final coverage. I wouldn’t do more with it, because even though it’s just a few brushstrokes, it tells the viewer everything he needs to know.
There’s something to be said for not jumping in too fast to ‘fix’ a plein air piece. You can easily destroy what’s quirky and wonderful about it because to your tired eyes it looks just wrong.

It’s all Michael’s fault

"Berna's rocks," Carol L. Douglas

“Berna’s rocks,” Carol L. Douglas
A few years ago, I plopped down on the front lawn at my pal Berna’s house. I’d just handed in my six paintings to Castine Plein Air. These were done and framed in two and a half days, which is a brutal schedule but one which we itinerant painters are used to.
I’m not sure why I was still fired up to paint, but I picked up my brushes and started the little sketch above. It was late in the afternoon, and Berna and I each had a glass of very cold white wine and some chips. Since I was hot and sweaty and more than a little tired, it may have been more than one glass of wine.
A car pulled up, driven by my friend and fellow painter Michael Chesley Johnson, who was staying next door. Michael’s usually a pretty dapper fellow, but he was looking even dressier than usual.
“Where are you off to?” I asked him.
“Our opening,” he answered. “We’re supposed to be there right now.”
I threw my stuff down and ran to dress. I’ve never looked so bad at an opening, and I blame Michael. It’s all his fault.

What I look like after a day's painting.

What I look like after a typical day’s painting.
Castine will do its fifth plein air festival again on July 20-22. It’s one of my favorite events. It’s well-juried, and the artwork is excellent. Castine itself is an oasis of old-fashioned amiability. I’d call it Mayberry-by-the-sea, except it’s a lot smaller and doesn’t run to a traffic light. If you were thinking of visiting Maine this summer, you might want to add this festival to your itinerary.
That incomplete painting got thrown in the back of my car. “I’ll finish it when I get home,” I told Berna, but of course there was another event and more paintings, and I never got to it. That’s all Michael’s fault, too.
Painting at Castine with Poppy Balser. I don't understand why I'm always a mess.

Painting at Castine with Poppy Balser. I don’t understand why I’m always a mess.
Then a Nor’easter blew into Castine. The tree in my painting, a supple young thing that should have weathered many more storms, suddenly was no more. I had no photos of it, because I’d had to leave in such a hurry. That, of course, was Michael’s fault.
I ran across that painting last week. It’s nothing important: just the rocks in Berna’s and Harry’s yard, incised with their house number, with a now-non-existent tree in the background. Since they still have the real rocks and the real house, they hardly need this painting, but memorizing what it looks like might help get them home at night.
So I finished it and I’ll mail it to them when it dries. And Michael will get no credit for that. That I will do all on my own.

Resolving disagreement, the art history way

Seven Sacraments Altarpiece (detail), 1445 to 1450, Rogier van der Weyden.

Seven Sacraments Altarpiece (detail), 1445 to 1450, Rogier van der Weyden.
Recently one of my kids asked me why I had her baptized as an infant. I answered her from an Anglo-Catholic perspective, citing the practice among early Christians and references in Acts 16 and 1 Corinthians. I added the medieval argument that, while babies don’t consent to baptism, they hardly consent to Original Sin either.
This question of infant baptism is the reason we have Baptists in the first place. They, along with their Anabaptist brethren, believe that baptism only counts along with a confession of faith. My favorite Baptist is a self-described ‘hedge preacher,’ Pastor John Nicholson of Siloam Baptist Church in Marion, AL. Knowing him convinced this Yankee that everything I thought I knew about Southern Baptists was probably wrong.
John challenged me to show him where in Scripture infant baptism was justified. I challenged him to show me where it was prohibited. Is baptism a statement of faith (as Baptists believe) or a sign of grace (as Anglo-Catholics believe)? John pointed out that Jesus was baptized as an adult; I pointed out that baptism is “the circumcision of the heart.” He pointed out that Peter said, “Repent and be baptized…”
And then one of us mentioned pictures. We both love art. Usually I answer almost every historical question not by citing literature but by looking at the art. But on the subject of infant baptism, the visual record is strangely mum.
Baptism of Christ, first half of 3rd century, Catacomb of Callixtus, Rome.

Baptism of Christ, first half of 3rd century, Catacomb of Callixtus, Rome.
The oldest painted baptism image I know of is from the third century, from the Catacomb of Callixtus in Rome. Whatever its virtues when it was new, it’s now not much more than a smudge. The uninitiated might think that the smaller figure is a child, but it is probably Christ, as evidenced by the flying shape—most likely a dove—to the right. The figure on the left is probably a personification of the River Jordan, a charmingly pagan symbol painted into this secret Christian artwork.

Detail of Christ as the Good Shepherd (left) and the Baptism of Christ (right), Santa Maria Antiqua Sarcophagus, 3rd century, Church of Santa Maria Antiqua, Rome.

Detail of Christ as the Good Shepherd (left) and the Baptism of Christ (right), Santa Maria Antiqua Sarcophagus, 3rd century, Church of Santa Maria Antiqua, Rome.
It makes sense that Christ’s baptism would be more important for artists than the baptism of unknown people, infant or otherwise. Why baptism was associated with sarcophagi is less clear, but there are more (and better preserved) examples of third-century sarcophagi with baptism imagery than there are paintings.
It was not until the Middle Ages, when the Seven Sacraments were first enumerated, that infant baptism—or indeed the baptism of anyone but Jesus—became a subject for painting. By that point, the Church’s position on infant baptism was well established, so such paintings tell us exactly nothing.
The Baptism of St. Paul, 12th century mosaic, Palatine Chapel, Palermo, Sicily.

The Baptism of St. Paul, 12th century mosaic, Palatine Chapel, Palermo, Sicily.
John had the last word on the subject, from Augustine of Hippo: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, love.” If only all contentious discussions ended that way!

Is love really too much to ask?

Sir Stanley Spencer did not paint violence often, but when he did, as in “Crucifixion,” he focused on our response to it.

Stanley Spencer didn’t paint violence often, but when he did, as in “Crucifixion,” he focused on our response.
Years ago I belonged to an anti-polygamy activist group. I broke with them when they published a photo of a suspected child molester sleeping with his infant granddaughter on his chest. Yank the troll’s chain all you want, I said, but keep the children out of it.
My friend’s nephew is going to be sentenced for a high-profile crime on Friday. Yesterday his picture was published on a racist website, with frequent bandying of the n-word. He’s an adult and can take it, but they also published photos of his two little boys. Their only offense was the color of their skin.
I sent the link to my programmer husband in the hope that he could identify the host. My husband overcame his revulsion and looked long enough to tell me that there wasn’t an open-or-shut identity. “There is some obfuscation employed,” he said.
Spencer’s “Christ Carrying the Cross,” 1920, is an image of bystanders ogling violence. It’s a very real response that spans history.

Spencer’s “Christ Carrying the Cross,” 1920, is an image of bystanders enjoying someone else’s misfortune.
Beyond that, all I can do is to pray that God strikes the server with lightning and counsel my friends to ignore it. That’s easier said than done, I realize.
I am blessed with many friends. They are, on the whole, civilized people. “I hate that guy” is empty verbiage to us. I’m always shocked when I hear about real hateful behavior. And yet, if you believe our crime statistics, it’s not only all around us, but it’s increasing.
This week’s incident is race-based, but it isn’t always. Several years ago, my friend’s son was arrested for second-degree murder. The lad was (rightfully) acquitted, but that didn’t stop him from receiving death threats. His family—innocent in every respect—had to sell their home and moved to a different town.
“Knowing (the Beatitudes of Love),” Stanley Spencer
“Knowing (the Beatitudes of Love),” Stanley Spencer
In some cases, the dangerous places we live are physical. In others, violence is a mental climate, fed in part by media and the internet. It’s a pity that these have become vectors for lies and hatred, because they have been a boon in so many ways.
The people who published those little boys’ picture obfuscated their service provider because they have been reported before. They know what they’re doing is wrong. My friend would like them to creep back under the rock from which they crawled, but to me that is only a short-term solution. They’ll just crawl back out somewhere else.
None of this can be blamed on the election or any other outside force. People choose to hate, just as they can choose to love.
“I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven,” Jesus said.
Sir Stanley Spencer was a true naïf whose innocence was much abused. And yet his reactions to love and violence were very much along the lines of those suggested by Jesus. It’s why he is one of my favorite painters.
“Gardening,” Stanley Spencer

“Gardening,” Stanley Spencer
“I love them from within outwards and whatever that outward appearance may be it is an exquisite reminder of what is loved within, no matter what that exterior appearance may be,” Spencer said.
Is love really too much to ask?

Made in China

"Stone of Hope," 2011, Lei Yixin

“Stone of Hope,” 2011, Lei Yixin
Having spent my weekend with a 2” sash brush, I turned to my husband this morning and asked, “Now do I get a day off?” He reminded me that it’s a holiday.
Martin Luther King, Jr. deserves better than the national memorial we’ve created for him. It is simply terrible, the worst of art-by-committee.
Its master sculptor, Lei Yixin, is a communist-trained public artist from the People’s Republic of China. He has sculpted some 150 public monuments, including multiple statues of Mao Zedong. If you’ve never seen his other work, join the club. Lei hasn’t got an online persona as would a western sculptor. He churns out politi-prop and decorative art, a state-sponsored artist of no particular distinction.
"Abraham Lincoln," 1920, Daniel Chester French

“Abraham Lincoln,” 1920, Daniel Chester French
Lei’s sculpture of King is not a portrait in the western sense. Compare it to Daniel Chester French’s Abraham Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial. French was one of most acclaimed of 19th-century American sculptors. His work is across America, including the Minute Man at Concord. He was immersed in American hagiography, and it shows.
Lei’s is a colossus in the totalitarian sense, similar to busts of Lenin, Saddam Hussein and Chairman Mao. These have a long history, including the many colossi erected by various Roman emperors. They are an emblem of power and control.
"Bound slave (Atlas), 1530–34, Michelangelo

“Bound slave (Atlas), 1530–34, Michelangelo
Lei’s idea of King emerging from stone came from western artistic practice. In this case, the source is non-finito sculpture, practiced from Michelangelo to the present time. Michelangelo’s slaves have been interpreted in many ways, but they’re clearly emblematic of a struggle to freedom. For Auguste Rodin, the unfinished marble was more complex, as shown in his 1895 “La Pensée.” But for Lei, it’s simply a paralyzing device.
Why did we pay China millions of dollars, hire a Chinese artist to create an icon to an American freedom fighter, and import granite from China when all of Maine is made of the stuff?  In part, it’s because the Chinese government kicked back $25 million to make it possible. In part, this is what you get when art is done by committee.
While still an undergraduate, sculptor Maya Lin won a public design competition for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, beating 1,441 other competition submissions. Lin’s idea was simple: a wound in the earth that represented the loss of the soldiers. Her work was controversial at the time, but for different reasons—none of us had ever seen anything like it.
Lin believes that had the competition not been open and blind, she never would have won. Her ethnicity, her age, her gender, and her lack of experience all told against her. Her experience is a powerful argument for jurying.
"La Pensée," 1895, Auguste Rodin

“La Pensée,” 1895, Auguste Rodin
In contrast, Lei’s work was chosen by three guys on a committee. In 2006, Public Art St. Paul held a sculpture competition and symposium similar to the Schoodic Sculpture Symposium held here in Maine. Lei was one of the participants. (His hometown, Changsha, Hunan, is one of St. Paul’s Sister Cities.)
“They [the committee members] knew that a 30-foot sculpture of Dr. King was going to be the centerpiece of the memorial, and they’d been looking for several years for a sculptor who could work on that scale. And they had despaired,” Christine Podas-Larson, president of Public Art St. Paul told media.
“But when they saw publicity about how we had all these sculptors from around the world in St. Paul, they hopped on a plane,” she continued. “They knew they were going to find their sculptor. They didn’t know which one, but they knew they’d find their artist.”
For our next generation’s sculptors, shut out of the process before it even started, that hurts. For King’s legacy, that hurts too.

In search of an imaginary boat

"Swells," by Carol L. Douglas

“Swells,” by Carol L. Douglas
Yesterday a visitor to my studio told me about recently purchasing her first piece of artwork, a print by University of Maine’s own Karen Adrienne. My friend had sold some possessions to pay for it, trading unwanted treasures for something she really loved. The look on her face as she told me this was radiant joy.
Just the day before, my piano tuner had, coincidentally, told me about the first piece of art he’d purchased. As he described this photograph, his face was lit by the same expression of joy. Both works were, to their new owners, highly prized and personally transformative.
We all wrestle with questions of calling. Artists, in particular, can have a hard time justifying their careers to others. We seldom see the impact of our work on the people who receive it. I’m grateful for that rare glimpse.
I’d never intended to finish the painting above. It was badly drawn and the composition—two crossing boats—seemed static. I came home from the harbor and threw it on my slush pile to be ignored. Someday my kids can shingle a house with that slush pile, but in the meantime, a visitor saw this painting, liked it, and asked me to finish it.
I can’t tell you why that happens, but it happens enough for me to say with some certainty that artists are frequently the worst judges of our own work.
Now I had a badly-drawn boat and absolutely no reference photos. (It’s a lot harder to substitute boats than it is to substitute roses or trees.) After fiddling for a while, I decided to add swells. That rectified some of the twist in the hull, and I could figure out the rest.
Working without a clear drawing is a sure-fire route to muddy color. However, I do occasionally like puddling around totally in my own imagination. I don’t think I’m done, but I’m going to let it rest a few days.
Basalt below West Quoddy Light in Lubec. These are either grey rocks or weathered basalt, depending on how much attention you're paying.
Basalt below West Quoddy Light in Lubec. These are either grey rocks or weathered basalt, depending on how much attention you’re paying.
Painting landscape without paying attention to reality can strip it of its character. After all, we can be either in our heads or in the world, but seldom in both places simultaneously.
For example, Maine is a world of granite studded with occasional basalt. Granite is blue, pink, purple, orange and peach; basalt is black. The muddy result in photographs might be browns and greys, but that is not the real color of our rocks, and painting our rocks brown is a sign of not paying attention.
I was reminded of that when I ran across this old photo of the rocks under West Quoddy Head Light in Lubec. At the time, I didn’t realize that I was seeing weathered basalt columns. My painting was fine, but I think it would have been so much more dynamic had I understood the play between the basalt and granite on Quoddy Head.
My poor defunct living room.

My poor defunct living room.
I have a friend staying with me this week. She decided to strip the wallpaper in my living room. Since the plum stripes clashed with my red couch, I am very grateful. In the evenings, I’ve had the satisfaction of peeling a bit of paper myself.
In other words, it’s been a week for doing, not thinking. Inevitably, that leaves me with a lot of deferred thinking to do. That’s what I love most about my job. It’s a constant tug-of-war between my hands and my head.