The intensity of color

Travel always reminds me of regional differences in color. 
Reed beds, by Carol L. Douglas, 9×12, oil on canvasboard

There were five Maine painters at Plein Air Brandywine Valley this year. One thing that was obvious was that our work was, overall, higher in chroma than that of the mid-Atlantic painters around us. Generalizations always lie, of course. For example, pastellist Tara Will is from down thataway, and she’s nothing if not eye-popping brilliant.

But a brief survey of well-known painters of the Maine coast—people like Henry Isaacs, Connie Hayes, Colin Page, Jill HoyEric Hopkins, etc.—show a painting culture interested more in color and light than in fidelity to fact. Compare that to the paintings recently completed for the Hudson Valley Plein Air Festival. With the exception of Maine’s own Olena Babek, these painters are from eastern New York and Pennsylvania. Their work is less saturated and generally warmer in tone than the work here in Maine.
Fog over mountain, by Carol L. Douglas, oil on canvasboard (available)
We Mainers have no hammerlock on high chroma. Go out to Santa Fe and paint with the folks from Plein Air Painters of New Mexico. They’re working in their own palette. It’s as intense as ours, but pushes the reds, ochres and blue-violets.
To a large degree, geography shapes our color choices. The light in Maine and New Mexico is harsher than that of the mid-Atlantic states, where skies often have high, filtered clouds. These create softer light.
A little (8×10) fantasia I finished in my studio on Tuesday (available)
Maine has more artists than you can shake a stick at, and many of us are ‘from away.’ Yesterday I was at a meeting and couldn’t help but notice the Long Island accent of one of my fellow artists. “Where are you from?” I asked. It turned out that all but one of us in the room were expatriated New Yorkers. Some have been here a very long time; others, like me, are recent transplants.
When I first moved to Maine, I was asked whether I’d moved because of the light. That’s certainly part of it. The Great Lakes regions of New York are actually temperate rainforests, they get so much precipitation. That means dark winters and many cloudy days. But that was only part of my decision. Maine art has a culture of color, and it appealed to me.
Midsummer, by Carol L. Douglas, 24×30, oil on canvas, available
Regional schools develop through example and imitation, and that’s a natural, healthy human interaction. But what should you do when you find yourself painting at cross-purposes to the people around you? I did that for a long time, and it was difficult. The misfit artist is under subtle pressure to change his style to match prevailing fashion. He doesn’t get the sales or the gallery space, and he starts to wonder what’s wrong with him.
The answer, of course, is that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with someone following his internal muse. The internet is a wonderful tool for getting out and finding one’s own tribe, but it doesn’t hold a candle to traveling in person. Go, take workshops, make friends in other communities, and validate your vision.

One Morning in Maine

With apologies to Robert McCloskey

“Sunset at Marshall Point,” 8X6, oil on canvasboard, private collection
People say, “Paint what you know,” but I’m more for knowing what I paint. That said, my knowledge of Maine has until now been surface deep. I’ve painted in Eastport and Lubec and the mid-coast region, but not in the last few years, and never with the kind of intense concentration that you get from being in the same place day after day.  I freely admit that I don’t understand the Maine landscape with the same intensity that I understand Keuka, but that doesn’t mean I can’t learn.
Sunset over Penobscot Bay.
I’ve been invited to teach plein air in mid-coast Maine next summer. The only way from here to there is to pull out my brushes and paint there, intensively, day after day. Most sane people do NOT do that in November, but I believe in striking while the iron is, er, stone cold.
Cold it is during the two weeks leading up to Thanksgiving, no matter where in the Northeast you’re painting. One morning I was painting on a commercial wharf and thought it was warming up enough to doff the gloves, until I reached for a baby wipe and found it frozen solid to the ground. (An aside: the good news about painting all day in that kind of cold is that you sleep like a baby.)
“Pine trees at sunset near Owl’s Head, ME,” 8X6, oil on canvasboard, private collection.

Maine is iconic, and there are subjects which are almost verboten because they are clichés—lighthouses, lobster boats, surf, lobster traps, and buoys. Yet those things are also integral to what Maine is, and in the hands of good painters, are both transformed and transformative. Maine resonates with many of us precisely because it is a place whose hard work is on display. We Americans revere and respect work. To ignore that would be almost as clichéd as the worst lighthouse painting.
“Surf,” 8X6, oil on canvasboard, available.
I frequently fall into two compositional traps when painting the ocean, something I never worked out satisfactorily before this trip. The first is getting caught in the perfect ellipse of the shore, and the second is the triangle formed by ocean silhouetted by land. After ten days or so of fighting this, I drove two hours to see a wonderful show, “Weatherbeaten: Winslow Homer and Maine,” at the Portland Museum of Art. As one entered, one first saw “The Artist’s Studio in an Afternoon Fog,” which is owned by Rochester’s own Memorial Art Gallery. This painting is an old friend, and one I frequently use to teach composition.

Homer used two devices to organize his Maine paintings: a strong dark diagonal, and vast simplification. I use that diagonal in figure-painting all the time; why did it never occur to me as a solution here?

Maine in November bears little resemblance to the traffic jam that is US 1 in July. The plein air painter has to know two things—how to get off the beaten path, and where to find toilets and coffee. I spent much of my two weeks figuring out these details. Much of my painting was, therefore, less about painting than about planning to paint. But then I would see seals gamboling in the ocean, and it was about the joy of God’s creation and my grateful heart.
My wee little paint kit on a cold day in Belfast, ME.
The Farnsworth in Rockland has to be flat-out the best museum in a city of its size (7,297 people, I kid you not), anywhere. When I visited, they were simultaneously featuring Louise Nevelson and Frank Benson, which was a stretch for my limited brain. I was most moved and surprised by the Jamie Wyeth-Rockwell Kent show. I am a big fan of surrealism in literature, but in painting it generally leaves me cold. Wyeth has an iteration of this painting (in oil) which is simply the best surrealist painting I have ever seen. I was also quite taken by his The Seven Deadly Sins as expressed through seagulls.
Near Port Clyde, ME.
I am about the same age as Jamie Wyeth and like him was taught to paint by my father. (There, obviously, the similarity ends.) I was rather surprised to find in his mature work such a strong resonance with his grandfather, the great narrative painter NC Wyeth. All those Wyeths are story-tellers, but there’s a romanticism that skips from grandfather to grandson.
In my wanderings, I met Robin Seymour, gallery manager for Eric Hopkins, who is a joyful, lyrical and yet very intellectual painter. Robin is a true art historian, worlds away from the typical gallerista, and I got a tremendous kick out of talking to her. I also met Hopkins himself, who demonstrated looking at things upside down by lying on his back on his credenza; it’s a sign of the Mainer’s resilience that he was able to get back up. Robin introduced me to her neighbor, Yvette Torres, who in turn introduced me to the fantastic work of Winslow Myers. Later that week, painter Alison Hillof Monhegan took me along to her weekly figure session, which was in Yvette Torres’ gallery. When life moves in circles like this, it’s simply wonderful.
“Marshall’s Point,” 12X16, oil on canvasboard, available.
To say I’m looking forward to teaching there next year is to vastly understate the case. Watch this spot.