What I saw in Castine

We humans really have no idea how tiny we are compared to nature.

Towering Elm, Carol L. Douglas, painted at Castine Plein Air
Trees are the largest living beings surrounding us, but we pay them scant attention. Until one drops a limb, we have no sense of their power or scale. Most of us can’t identify more than one or two species. Gardeners may fuss over the flowering trees, but they pay scant attention to the large masses of green just beyond their fences.
There are about 3.04 trillion trees on Earth, or around 422 for each person. It seems like we ought to pay more attention to them.
As with everything visual, my ‘knowledge’ sometimes overwrites what I see. I told you how I once repeatedly mis-corrected a student’s drawing of a lobster boat. Being able to draw something from memory is a skill. The downside is when we stop observing altogether.
I had a similar epiphany last week in Castine. I’d seen Don Tenney of the Castine Arts Associationover the winter. He told me about a survey map of elms in the town.
Photo of Delaware Avenue near Summer Street, 1939, by Wilbur H. Porterfield, courtesy Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society. 
“Elms?” I asked, disbelieving. I’m from Buffalo, where Dutch Elm Disease first appeared in 1951. By the late 1960s, almost every elm was dead. Buffalo, once known as the City of Trees, lay bare, its Cathedral Arches of about 180,000 trees gone forever. I was a small girl when the city arborists cut down the remaining trees on our block. It went from a magical green tunnel to an unremarkable, clapped-out neighborhood instantly.
I assumed the elms were gone everywhere, gone the way of the American chestnut, into the annals of history.
Dutch Elm Disease arrived in the US in 1928. Of an estimated 77 million elms in North America in 1930, over 75% were gone by 1989. But it turns out there are remaining pockets of elms, most notably in Canada’s western provinces. And there are still a lot of them in Castine.
Once I realized they were there, I couldn’t stop seeing them. They’re even taller and statelier than in my memory. They’re no longer in an unbroken line, except for a stretch of Court Street, but they still arch over Castine’s lovely streets.
In Republic of Shade: New England and the American Elm, Thomas J. Campanella documents the importance of the American elm to our American identity. Elms were planted in formation across the country. 
The Elm Tree, c. 1880, George Inness, courtesy of the Clark Museum.
Dutch Elm Disease notwithstanding, elms were hardy and long-lived. They have a dense canopy with a unique parasol shape, echoing a vase or the Gothic arch. Since they had no commercial usefulness, they were allowed to grow untouched on the edges of fields and in the forest. They came to represent the primeval forest in the American imagination.
I painted the above example of an elm at the corner of State and Court Streets as dusk fell. Next year, I’ll approach the composition differently.  But this painting was useful in setting the scale of the trees. I had to erase the house repeatedly and make it smaller to make it true to reality. We humans really have no idea how tiny we are compared to nature.
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.

SRSLY time to watch us paint

Three opportunities to watch well known plein air painters at work on Maine’s rugged coast.
Rachel Carson Sunset, Carol L. Douglas, oil on canvasboard, was painted at Ocean Park.

I had so much fun with Bobbi Heath’s Gloucester easel in Cape Elizabeth that I dragged my old one out of the garage. (It’s such junk compared to hers!) I won’t go as big as I did last week, but I do plan on doing some larger works over the next two weeks.

I’m also packing my super-lightweight pochade box because I’ll be painting on the beach as well. I can’t haul that Gloucester easel over sand. We’re entering the gladdest, maddest weeks of summer and it’s good to be prepared.
Anthony, Russ and Ed painting on the beach at Ocean Park.
Art in the Park starts on Sunday, July 15 at Ocean Park, ME. This is as much a band of happy brothers as it is a paint-out. Ed Buonvecchio, Russel Whitten, Christine Tullson Mathieu, Mary Byrom, Anthony Watkins and I have done it as an ensemble for several years now. There’s no jurying and no awards—just excellent painting in an historic seaside community.
As relaxed as Art in the Park is, I’ve painted some very good things there, because Ocean Park has sand, rocks, marshes, architecture and, above all, ice cream. There are lots of hotels, motels and B&Bs in the area, so if you’ve ever wanted to come see a plein air event in action, this would be a good one to catch.
Jonathan submarining, Carol L. Douglas, oil on canvasboard, was painted at Castine Plein Air. This remains one of my all-time favorite paintings.
Anthony and I then drive straight to Castine for the sixth annual Castine Plein Air Festival. It opens on the village green on Thursday at the absurd hour of 6 AM. I’ve done this event since its inception, and it’s attracting top-flight artists. This year my old pal Laura Martinez-Bianco of New York and my new pal Alison Menke of Maryland will be there for the first time. Alison just earned first place/artist choice at Telluride, so she’s definitely a force to reckon with. And, of course, I’ll see many of my old friends there as well.
Castine is the home of Maine Maritime Academy, which is why the Arctic schooner Bowdoin hangs out in its harbor. It’s out on a neck on the far side of Penobscot Bay, making it a kind of Brigadoon, forgotten by time. Main Street slopes down towards the sea, with just enough shops and restaurants to make it fun to visit, but not so many as to distract from its white-picket-fence charm.
The plein airfestival wraps up with an open reception on Saturday July 21, from 4 to 6 pm. Wandering around and watching the artists is a great way to get to know this postcard-perfect town. If you can’t get a room in the village, Bucksport is not far away.
Before the Eggemoggin Reach Regatta, Carol L. Douglas, oil on canvasboard, was painted at Camden harbor.
The next week, I’ll be painting in Camden Harbor during the Camden Classics Cup. This event brings about 70 sailboats into Camden Harbor to race for the weekend, right before the Eggemoggin Reach Regatta. Camden Falls Gallery is the sponsor, and the event will feature their represented artists. I can’t tell you which ones will show up, but Ken DeWaard, Dan Corey, Renee Lammers, Olena Babekand Peter Yesis are all local, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see them—and others.
Camden is accustomed to visitors, so you’ll have no trouble finding a room.
Since I live just down the road and love to paint wooden boats, I’ve blocked out my schedule from Wednesday, July 26 through the weekend. Boat lovers are welcome to walk out on the floating docks to see the boats in harbor, but if I’m lucky, I’ll have found someone to take me out to a float.

Recovering from failure

What do you do when it’s all going wrong, and there’s an audience for your fiasco?

Can I finish this successfully? Gee, I hope so.
I am tossing around a theory that there’s a sweet spot in composition. On one side, you have the so-called ‘perfect composition.’ We’re always upset when these don’t win prizes, but—hint—they can be boring. On the other side is the total mess that breaks all rules, that is visually jarring and doesn’t satisfy.
Somewhere between them is where I aim to be. I have hit that at times by breaking rules (yes, the same rules I tell my students not to ignore). Not yesterday.
Carol’s Bell Curve of Composition
It was a horrible day painting. Nothing I touched worked, and I couldn’t focus. Why?
It’s possible I set myself up to fail. That morning, I told watercolorist Ted Lameyer that I almost never end up flailing around these days.
It’s also possible that physical discomfort was getting in my way. My back is bothering me. And after working for several days in hot sun with insufficient fluids, I have a background dehydration headache.
It’s more likely, however, that the problem lies in the challenges I’ve set myself. I want to scale up my field painting in general. The smallest painting I want to do here is 11X14.
The subjects I mapped out for this year are also difficult. They’re things I’ve shied away from in previous years. For example, Castine’s common is a lovely patch of green ringed by venerable white clapboard buildings. It’s quintessential New England, but it’s basically a void surrounded by subject, with the added fillip of a Civic War monument smack dab in the middle of every view. My solution—a head-on view of the Adams School—may interest me, but it’s going to be a tough composition to wrestle into submission.
Maxwell the boatyard dog. His interest makes me wonder if my late dog Max peed on my backpack.
Still, I have no option but to recover. How will I do that?
There are several painters at this event whose judgment I trust; I will consult them today. Why listen to them rather than my own internal voice, which I usually trust?
In the heat of the moment we often hate what ain’t bad. Last year at this event, I painted the British Canal. I spent half my time on it and disliked the results; I would have run over it and tossed it in the ocean had that been an option. It’s in a collection here in Castine and I saw it last night. It’s actually an interesting and edgy painting but I was too frustrated at the time to realize that.
I find it helpful to remind myself that I don’t have to prove that I can paint; I wouldn’t be here if I couldn’t. I try to block out what happened yesterday. Above all, I don’t perseverate over failing paintings; I move on.
And, lastly, I make sure I get enough sleep. Sometimes my worst failures are from simple exhaustion. Fix that, and I’m once again my usual chirpy self.

Painting in Paradise

My painting of the Dyce Head Light from last year.
Because I can count on my fingers, I was distressed to read that artist Bobbi Heath is going to be on crutches for the next eight weeks. That brings us perilously close to Castine Plein Air, where she and 40 other fantastic artists (including me) will be painting from July 23 to 25.
This is the third annual Castine Plein Air Festival, and in that short time, it’s shot to the top of my favorites list, right up there with the Rye Art Center’s Painters on Location. It’s not just because my friends are going to be there, although that’s certainly part of it.
Me, painting at Oakum Bay (Courtesy of Castine Arts Association)
Castine sits at a commanding position at the mouth of the Penobscot River estuary. In the age of the fur trade, it controlled about 8000 square miles of prime hunting land. It was occupied by the Penobscot people, and its age of exploration opened with a visit by the Portuguese explorer Estêvão Gomes in 1524. He was followed by our old friend Samuel de Champlain in 1605. In 1669, the Mohawk raided.
Mary Byrom, painting at Wadsworth Cove. Life’s a beach. (Courtesy of Castine Arts Association) 
No town with that kind of reach was going to be allowed to sit unmolested, and at some point, the French, Dutch, English and Americans all had their hands in.
I mention this because the town is absolutely full of historic sites. The town itself is graciously old New England, with clapboard houses skirting down to the water, the Maine Maritime Academy, the Dyce Head Light, and beautiful waterfront views everywhere. There’s even a little beach.
I did this painting of a reenactor’s tent at the Castine Historical Society last year.
Very few people wander across Castine by accident. It is unspoiled, but the downside of that is that accommodations are limited. So if this paint-out in an unspoiled landscape appeals to you, you should make reservationsnow.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me on the Schoodic Peninsula in beautiful Acadia National Park in August 2015. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops! Download a brochure here.