Even failures are not a waste of time

Can’t quite cope with that diagonal bisecting the picture, but I’ll try again.
When I do a drawing like this, I try to remind myself that even failures are not a waste of time, because one needs to pass through the problem to arrive at the solution.
How I managed to convert the lovely diagonal arrow in my sketch into the overwhelming bisecting diagonal in my drawing, I don’t know. But this is the most difficult of the sketches on my list, and I will repeat it tomorrow and wrestle it into submission.
It worked so much better in the sketch.
Midcoast Maine is full of limestone deposits, probably laid down as seashells. When limestone is burned, the carbon-dioxide burns off and quicklime is left. This is an enormously useful material, used to make plaster, paper, mortar, concrete, fertilizer, leather, glue, paint, and glass.
By 1828, there were 60 lime kilns in Midcoast Maine. By the Civil War, the region was producing more than a million casks of lime a year. It helped that Midcoast Maine is heavily forested, fueling the kilns and building the casks used to move the lime to market.
Quicklime had one big problem for the age of wooden ships: if it gets wet it catches on fire.
The master needed a keen sense of smell. The odor of lime being slaked by water was an ominous danger signal… Every crack and crevice through which air might get into the hold and the doors, ports, and smokestack were quickly sealed with plaster made from the lime. Then the craft was headed for the nearest harbor and anchored some distance from the shore and away from other vessels. For at any time she might burst into flames. The schooner was stripped of all movables and the captain and crew sat down to await developments. Sometimes three months would go by before their patience was rewarded and the vessel saved. If, however, the fire could not be smothered, the vessel was towed to some secluded place and scuttled.(W.H. Rowe, The Maritime History of Maine)

Lime tailings on the Goose River at Rockport, ME
A devastating fire in 1907 put the final spoke in Rockport’s lime industry, but the ruined lime kilns are still there. More than a hundred years later, great piles of lime tailings are still visible along the banks of the Goose River. Nature slowly attempts to cover this wound, but it is a slow process.
Uninterested as I was in wading across the Goose River or trespassing on private property, I was unable to photograph the lime tailings at an easy angle for drawing. But I think adjusting that diagonal will suffice to fix compositional problem, and the painting will work just fine.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

Last chance! A week of instructed wilderness painting, only $775 inclusive!

September 30-October 5 2012

Paint in the unfettered splendor of nature with celebrated artist Carol L. Douglas, in the bewitching, boundless and historic Adirondack Park—a week of unparalleled instruction at some of the wildest, most scenic painting locations the nation has to offer. Your outdoor adventure will be balanced by the comfort of an all-inclusive accommodation package at the historic Irondequoit Inn.
Eric and Liz Davis
$775.00 inclusive!
·         Basic package: includes 5 nights lodging and meals.
·         Private non-smoking room with shared bath in either lodge or cabin accommodations
·         15 meals served communally
·         Breakfast: Monday-Friday
·         Box Lunch for off-site painting sessions,
·         Dinner: Sunday-Thursday
·         Coffee and Tea Bar
·         Sunday afternoon welcome reception
·         Morning and afternoon instruction sessions,
·         Monday-Thursday
·         Group critique session, Thursday evening
·         Available on request:
·         Non-painting partner accommodations
·         Private portfolio critique
·         Private Room and Private Bath: add $125
·         Suite with Private Bath and Kitchen: add $250
To register:
Call the Irondequoit Inn at 518-548-5500
For more information:
Eric and Liz Davis

Some Days, You Just Can’t Get Rid of a Bomb

“Loren’s farm,” oil on canvasboard, 12X16

 At our last painting session, Marilyn whipped out her grayscale markers (making me instantly regret that I hadn’t brought mine along). The forest was remarkably dark and moody this week, and the spring foliage far less advanced than down on the lake plains, and I was finding it difficult to find a range of values.

Marilyn Fairman sketching in grayscale markers.
A tonal drawing immediately reveals the strengths and weaknesses of one’s composition—if it doesn’t work in the simplified view, it isn’t going to work after you’ve invested hours painting, either. In fact, the painting I did in that last session ended up mired in a compositional issue that would have been immediately apparent had I done some fundamental drawing before starting, but I was tired and cutting corners. 
“Canoes at Irondequoit Inn,” oil sketch
To me, the difference between an adequate painter and an excellent painter is the amount of time said artist spends drawing. I wrote earlier this week about watercolor sketching, and have written frequently about drawing with a plain, ordinary graphite pencil.
“Breakwater at Irondequoit Bay,” oil sketch
In the field, however, I most often sketch with oils on small canvases. Here is a sketch I did of the canoes at the Irondequoit Inn, and another of the breakwater at Irondequoit Bay.* They took about as long as a graphite or watercolor sketch would have, but their purpose is somewhat different: they are simplified and monumental in the same way as the tonal grayscale marker (which is by far the fastest way of sketching). 

And the painters home from the hill…
I did three other paintings in the Adirondacks. One was a complete bomb (despite having spent a long time drawing and an equally long time painting).  I followed that up by inadvertently discharging the battery of my car outside of cell-phone range, leaving me stranded with a dead car with its keys stuck in the ignition. Marilyn set off on foot to get help while I dug out the battery—not as obvious as you might think, since it’s stowed in the side of the trunk. But a bad painting and a dead battery did nothing to dampen my high good spirits.

I’m struggling with something, which is by no means uncomfortable when you’re not fixated on the results. I have been working for the past few years on patterning my paint-handling in a more abstract way, but in the process I’ve lost some of the depth that a more traditional landscape approach gives. Now that has to be reintroduced.

“Mountain meadow,” oil on canvasboard, 12X16
But my hermitage (which became less hermit-like as the week went on) is over and I’m happy to be back in Rochester, in my studio, surrounded by my family, friends, and students.
*An alert reader will note that the Irondequoit Inn and Irondequoit Bay are about 200 miles apart. I leave that mystery to you to decipher.

There just might be something to this.

Early spring morning, Piseco Lake, oil on canvasboard, 12X16

Yesterday, I wrote about a Stillman & Birn Alpha Series sketchbook that Jamie Grossman gave me, and my first attempt to pre-sketch my paintings in it in watercolor.
This morning as I walked my appointed rounds, I carried the sketchbook and watercolors instead of my camera. The first thing I noticed—of course—is that it took rather longer to make my circuit than it usually does.
I’ve had my eye on this lovely house set on a hill for a few years, and there being a convenient bench, I sat down to sketch it. (I decided that it will be a better painting when the leaves are leafed out.) From there, I moved to a tree in the deep woods with a triple trunk, which proved to be very difficult, but which was good observationally. In both cases, I was approaching the project too much like real painting, which just irritates when all one has is one small brush.
My sketch, a bench.
This last sketch I did much more quickly, just ripping off a pencil drawing and then flooding the sheet with a color map. And it is frankly more satisfying than either of my earlier sketches (which you can’t see because I finished my day after dark and forgot to photograph them).
Transcribed directly
to canvas
Because I didn’t have a toned canvas, I decided to underpaint my finished study in alkyds. (By this point, time had ceased to be a meaningful constraint.) And it was a good day for them, too—the wind whipping off the lake dried them in no time. My alkyd painting is a simplified but direct rendition of the watercolor sketch.
In the end, this painting took me about four hours, and that is about what I’d expect for a field sketch of this size (12X16). So whatever time I spent on the watercolor sketch was saved on the final project.

Alkyd underpainting, transcribed from
watercolor sketch.

 Marilyn Fairman has joined me in the hermitage, and we spent the afternoon painting intensively. Tomorrow, we have all day to paint. What a joy that will be.


In church

This is the second year I’ve bought into the Sketchbook Project and then felt my muse desert me as soon as the package arrived in the mail. It’s ironic, because I carry a sketchbook everywhere I go, a habit that started in elementary school.

My school notekeeping was a total fail from an academic standpoint—full of drawings, with notes occupying a very minor role. My current sketchbooks look exactly the same.

I now realize that drawing in school allowed me to cope with undiagnosed ADHD at a time when school was extremely regimented and bad behaviour still punishable with a ruler to the knuckles. And I received my share of thwacks for drawing in class, believe me. But as a parent and painting teacher, I encourage both my children and students to do the same thing. Unfortunately, most teachers are still opposed to it.

I know it works (as long as the information being presented is verbal and not visual). For some reason, it’s perfectly possible for the mind to listen, learn and retain a lecture while drawing something entirely unrelated.

For me, drawing takes the place of the anxious fidgeting that is part of ADHD. Educators have begun to recognize that allowing such kids to move paradoxically makes concentration easier. But they don’t generally recognize that drawing can achieve the same goal.

I bring my sketchbook to church, to appointments, on errands—in short, anywhere there’s a possibility I will cool my heels. I make no pretence to style, and don’t think about content or composition. (To do otherwise would interfere with my listening.) My goal is simply to record what I see. It’s totally process-based; I never think of the sketches as anything other than practice strokes or visual notes. Which may be why the Sketchbook Project never works for me: it can’t help but turn process into product.

(L-R) In a pinch, you can always draw your own jacket thrown over a chair; couple in church; gesture drawing of horse at Walnut Hill.

(L-R) Or, you can draw your non-dominant hand; people almost always have a few ears hanging around; patient at the neurologist’s office.

(L-R) Quick value study of a path (I could paint it from this); man in church; my son’s big foot, at the pediatrician’s office.

(L-R) I’ve pretty much mined my dentist’s office for subject matter, but there’s always the woodwork; poofy gown from a shopping excursion; man in church.

Skelly in love (bloom where you are planted)

If I could get painting students to do one thing, it would be to draw every day. It’s cheap—$5 will buy you a sketchbook, graphite pencil and eraser—convenient, and portable, and the fastest way to see progress. But so few people take me up on that suggestion.

This hasn’t been a productive year, art-wise. I’ve spent the better part of it loitering in waiting rooms. Tough on the schedule, but with an elderly mom, four bio kids and a few spares, I’m used to waiting.

One can either read bad magazines or use the time for something useful. This skeleton is at the office of physical therapist Joanne Panzarella. I started off drawing detailed studies of the bones—the vertebra (very tough to understand), pelvis, skull, the fascinating details of toe bones and how they attach to two different heel bones.

One day Skelly showed up in a blonde wig and pirate scarf and I knew I ‘knew’ him. It was simple to draw him in all his bony splendor without worrying overmuch about how many ribs he has or where his vertebra attach to his pelvis.

Today he was cuddling with his Easter Bunny. A quick sketch—perhaps 25 minutes—but it gets to the heart of Skelly. Who says that a man without soft tissue is without feelings?