There’s a change in the weather

The stark geometry of dying autumn is compelling, but I think the weather is trying to kill me.

Beauchamp Point, 12X16, oil on canvasboard, $1449 framed, is available at my show at Camden Public Library.

This is the most dangerous time of year, and the most dangerous hour is the gloaming before dawn.

Nothing bad is going to happen. The real risk is that nothing will happen at all. I’ll look out the window at the ice crystals glittering on my car and tell myself it’s too cold to go out.

To date, I’ve been able to force myself into clothes and up Beech Hill. Minutes later, my heart is pumping. My extremities warm up. I become alive to the hush in the air and the strange and wonderful colors of decaying autumn. The sun breaks the lip of the ocean, flooding the sea with light. “It’s a beautiful day,” I say. It almost always is.

Watercolor in the snow presents its own problems, because it freezes. Painting by Carol L. Douglas.

In the north, it’s easy to be cowed by winter. It’s a terrifying force. It takes time to dress for it and the cold air can be painful. If I don’t go outside every morning, I’ll stay in the house complaining bitterly until Spring.

“There’s no bad weather, only improper clothing,” we like to say. While that’s true, it takes time to adjust your habits. We painted our last plein air class of the season yesterday. It was about 40° F. I placed us on the boat ramp at Owls Head, where the sun acted like a solar collector and nearby buildings were a wind-break. We’re all northerners, born and bred, and we were togged out in the usual layers. But after three hours, we were chilled through.

Buoy, unfinished demo on my easel. It’s the stillness of plein air painting that makes it so cold.

There’s something exhausting about cold weather. In summer I can paint outdoors all morning and come home to open my gallery without a pause. Yesterday, I was done in by 3 PM.

Still, I’ll continue to go out. The stark geometry of bare trees is compelling.

My unfinished start from Beech Hill on Wednesday. It’s harder to get anything done when you’re cold.

I heartily recommend experimenting with cold weather painting. My tips are few and obvious: dedicate an old jacket to being trashed with paint, wear layers, tuck chemical hand warmers into the backs of your gloves. Some artists carry an old bit of carpet to stand on, because your feet will fail you first. Eric Jacobsen carries a small brazier as a portable campfire.

On Wednesday, I painted with Eric. We were tucked in at the foot of Beech Hill, where the prevailing westerlies couldn’t touch us. But then the sun went in behind the clouds, and it was suddenly cold. Down the hill sauntered David Dewey, looking as untouched by the frosty conditions as an Alabama camellia. He’s been painting regularly at the top of Beech Hill right after dawn, he told us. He sometimes rides his bike up the steep incline of Beech Hill Road with all his gear. That would be impressive in a kid, and David is 75 years old.

And a start from last winter, of Harness Brook, painted with Ken DeWaard. If I can find it, I’ll finish it.

I have a million things to do today before my opening at Camden Public Library this afternoon. And I have at least an equal number of unfinished, unframed plein air paintings in the racks in my studio. But that one more painting is calling me.

What comes after art classes?

Painting is a lifelong exercise in self-guided learning.

Clary Hill Blueberry Barrens, watercolor on Yupo, available through Maine Farmland Trust Gallery, by Carol L. Douglas

A student asked me why I teach all levels in my classes. Indeed, adding a brand-new painter to the group can sometimes be difficult, as I need to spend a little more time with that person at the start. I’ve found, however, that almost everyone needs the same lessons repeatedly. Painters make the same errors at almost every level—of value, color-mixing, contrast, line, and focal points. It takes a surprisingly amount of time to convince students of the value of process, including value sketches and drawing.

My own experience in taking master classes hasn’t been good; they’ve been less about mastery and more about marketing. That’s not to indict all painting teachers, but unless the teacher knows you in advance, they know very little about your painting level before you start the class, even with portfolio review.

Clary Hill Blueberry Barrens, oil on canvas, available through Maine Farmland Trust Gallery, by Carol L. Douglas

With twelve or fewer students in a class, I have time to meet each person where they are and encourage them a little farther along the road. This is very intensive, and I blow it more than I like. Yesterday I had a painter whom I should have pushed harder on establishing a focal point, but I didn’t realize that until dinnertime.

I still occasionally take classes myself, although it’s not common. It happens when I run across a painter who’s doing something I want to master. I took Poppy Balser’s watercolor workshop a few years ago, because Poppy can make a line of dark spruces shimmer against the sea. I wanted to know how she made that value jump in watercolor.

There are other painters I would like to learn from. Dick Sneary and Dave Dewey are both consummate watercolorists, and I admire their drafting and composition skills tremendously. Likewise, I admire Lois Dodd’s ability to drive to the emotional nut of a scene by removing all extraneous matter. And I often return to Clyfford Stillto think about composition.

Part of my class on Clary Hill, photo courtesy of Jennifer Johnson.

An old and reliable way to learn is to copy master works. I recently started drawing frames from Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko comic books. This led to copying images from the first great cartoonist, Peter Paul Rubens.

But, in general, I’m done studying with others. “How do you know when that happens?” my student asked me. In my case, I realized that the time I was spending traveling to the Art Students League of New York from Rochester would be better spent in my own studio working.

“What comes after I’m done studying with you?” she asked. Go out and paint (which students should be doing anyway). If you like the social side of classes, find a painting buddy or join a painting group. We make the most progress when we’re picking up our brushes several times a week.

Jean Cole’s painting on Clary Hill. She just came back from my Pecos workshop. The goal ought never to be to make ‘mini-me’ painters, but to develop each person’s own style.

I’m doing a FREE Zoom workshop on Friday, October 2 at 5 PM. Consider it Happy Hour, and join me with a glass of wine, a spritzer, or whatever else. We’re going to talk about studying painting. What should students expect to get from a workshop or class? What should teachers offer? Have you always wanted to try painting but been afraid of classes? Are you taking classes but want to get more out of them? Join us for a free-ranging discussion.

While this is in advance of my Find your Authentic Voice in Plein Air workshop in November in Tallahassee, everyone is welcome. There’s absolutely no charge or obligation. Signups are already brisk, so register soon!

When bad things happen

It’s not what you say or what you do, but how you make people feel that matters the most.
Damariscotta Overlook, by Carol L. Douglas.

Yesterday started auspiciously enough, with clearing skies and a warm sun. I was potting around in my studio when I noticed something awful. The rain on Saturday night had pounded torrentially on the roof above our heads. It also washed its way down an interior beam of my studio and across four of my watercolor landscapes. They were fixed with Krylon acrylic, and the result was a series of sticky driplines.

I reeled. The damaged work represented a quarter of my oeuvre for this residency. “I bet you feel like crying,” Clif Travers said, sympathetically. If he’d looked closer, he’d have seen tears pricking at the corners of my eyes.
Well, there was nobody to blame and nothing I could think of to do about it. My studio space at the Fiore Art Center has a spanking new roof, door and siding. Water must have migrated along a beam from elsewhere and down the wall. This was freak damage, which can happen anywhere, at any time. Furthermore, our work—as precious as it is to us personally—is still just stuff. It was a rotten experience, but by no means did it rise to the level of disaster.
Damariscotta Lake, by Carol L. Douglas. I’ve finished this residency with eight pairs of landscapes, one in oils, one in watercolor.
“It’s no use crying over spilt milk,” I told myself sternly, and set off to paint.
Paint is a perverse mistress. I’ve struggled for a month in oils (which are my primary medium) while watercolor has flowed much more smoothly from my brush. Here on this last day, in the grip of distress, the paint flowed freely from my brush. In fact, it went so smoothly that when Anna Abaldo of Maine Farmland Trust contacted me about the damaged paintings, I declined to talk. Why drag myself back to earth when my work was going so well?
Clouds over Teslin Lake, by Carol L. Douglas. This was painted in 2016, and is quite small.
When we eventually met up, she—with very few words but immense compassion—made me feel infinitely better. She has a plan to deal with the damage, which is in itself reassuring. More importantly, the experience cemented my already-high confidence in her character. “At the end of the day it’s not what you say or what you do, but how you make people feel that matters the most,” said Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos.
Point Prim, watercolor, by Carol L. Douglas. This was painted in 2017, with a pretty bad head, I’m afraid. That’s all Poppy Balser’s and Bobbi Heath’s fault.
Later that evening, Lois Dodd—who’s a personal idol and Maine’s greatest living oil painter—came for supper. I’m totally star-struck around her, and can’t think of a thing to say. However, she’s a lovely, warm, articulate lady. She critiqued one of my paintings. That’s an experience I’ll treasure.
David Deweyslipped me a small notebook before our meal. It contains a series of charts that were the basis of Joseph Fiore’s color exercises. They’re little mathematical puzzles, and they fascinate me. Today I’ll stop at a drugstore and buy some graph paper, and tomorrow—my painting finished for this residency—I’ll sit quietly and try to puzzle them out. I couldn’t ask for a better end to a lovely month.

The road home

How much of what we know is truth and how much is the convention of our times?

After the final cutting, Carol L. Douglas

In the 21st century, we are being driven inexorably toward higher and higher chroma (color intensity). This isn’t just happening in painting, but also in photography, home furnishings, and hair coloring. Occasionally an artist will take refuge in monochrome, but the delicately modeled colors of our predecessors are out of vogue. We live and die at 1280 x 720 pixels, and delicacy just doesn’t cut it on a computer monitor.
Yesterday, David Dewey spent a few hours with Clif Travers and me, going through a wealth of Joseph Fiore paintings. These are in storage and represent his entire career, from his studies at Black Mountain College until shortly before his death. Unlike most painters, Fiore didn’t run through clearly defined stylistic periods. He operated on parallel tracks of abstraction and realism, each informing the other.
Guardian of the Falls, 1983, Joseph Fiore, oil on canvas, 52 x 44, courtesy of the Falcon Foundation.
His folios are full of small studies in watercolor, oil, and pastel, now chemically stabilized. The majority are formal color exercises, many based on a mathematical grid of his own devising. David identified these as Bauhaus in character, which in turn takes us back to Paul Klee, Josef Albersand Wassily Kandinsky.
Klee closely connected color and music, making the connection between harmony and complementary colors, and dissidence and clashing colors (whatever they may be). Albers was a hands-on scientific colorist who taught at Black Mountain College when Fiore was there.
Field sketch forGuardian of the Falls (above), courtesy of the Falcon Foundation. It’s watercolor and about 12×16.
Fiore’s color studies are a balm to the eye starved for subtlety. There are grids of closely analogous greens and browns; grids punctuated with black. In addition to being beautiful, they fly in the face of our current color model. 
That just shows how much of what we think we know is the convention of our time, not eternal truths of painting. Take, for example, all of Kandinsky’s twaddle in Concerning the Spiritual in Art.  For much of the twentieth century, people took that seriously.
The artist’s job is to get through all that to the nut of the matter. The only way I know to do that is to paint—a lot.
David mentioned that he uses Arches 500 in his studio work, but mixes it up in the field. The accidents that ensue help him avoid staleness. This is exactly my goal in alternating between watercolor and oil in this residency, and in painting so big and fast. I am trying to shake up my oil painting.
I was able to maintain the truth of the landscape in my sketch.
Nature has a certain awkwardness. We landscape painters are taught to edit that away into a ‘better’ composition. After examining so many paintings, I wondered how much of that is also a fashion issue. I resolved to not do it in my afternoon painting, but to be completely faithful to what God and man had laid down in that field. I don’t think I succeeded. The personal impulse is just too strong to ignore.
But when I started painting, I succumbed to the urge to prettify.
With all that fizzing in our heads, Clif and I went back to the farm and returned to work. The lake was still unsettled from this week’s storm, so I painted the small private cemetery and its lane. The lake beyond made this very much a painting of the intersection between land, water and man.
Having spent the morning in study, I didn’t finish the painting to any high surface. It’s slightly easier to do that with watercolor, since it goes faster. But in either case, the pace is starting to tell on me. I’m getting tired.