A game of chance

Fog has color, movement, and attitude, and is a great tool to understand atmospheric perspective.

Fog Bank, 14X18, oil on canvasboard, by Carol L. Douglas, $1275 unframed. 

I appreciate the care with which the National Weather Service makes hour-by-hour graphical forecasts. They’re the plein air painter’s best friend, since they predict not only the chance of rain, but the sky cover and the wind. However, they’re often wrong for areas near deep water. Mother Nature is impulsive and unpredictable where warm air first encounters the cold sea. Yesterday I drove to Warren, which is 12 miles to the southwest of me. I traveled through a band of dense fog, a band of brilliant blue, and ended up under a dour, dull sky.

That makes planning my plein air class a game of chance. My primary goal is to teach fundamental skills, but along with that I want my students to master every possible light situation. Yesterday’s nominal subject was value-matching and patterning. However, with a fog as rich and deep as the one we encountered at Owls Head, it seemed a pity to not concentrate on the atmospherics.

Early Spring, Beech Hill, 8X10, oil on canvasboard, $522 unframed.

Few things are more beautiful than fog—or more annoying to the painter who insists on golden sunlight in every painting. Fog has color, movement, and attitude. It’s a great tool to understand atmospheric perspective—and to teach patience with the passing scene. It moves in and out, obliterating a major compositional point here, and adding one there.

The more I teach, the more I realize how much I have to learn about teaching. My student, Jennifer Johnson is in a transitional phase where nothing she paints looks good to her. That’s painful, but it’s a sign she’s about to make a giant leap forward—if she allows it. The fainthearted painter will retreat back into the shell of the familiar. The courageous will allow herself to experience the “I hate everything I’m painting” phase and wrench forward into new discovery. Jennifer is, of course, one of the courageous.

Jennifer Johnson is working her way through her period of dissatisfaction by returning to first principles. That means starting with thumbnails and gridding them onto her canvas.

If you play a musical instrument, you’ve had the experience of mastering a piece part-by-part. You get the left hand down fine. Then you try to add the right hand, and what you’d learned in the left hand falls apart. But if you persist, your brain will integrate the two tasks. Adding new ideas to painting works the same way.

To ride through this, Jennifer has sensibly returned to first principles. One of these is thumbnails and value sketches, which are then transferred to the canvas in the form of a grisaille. Her example, above, from last week’s class, is far better than any I’ve ever made.

What I realized from watching her is how frequently students can do each step well, but not integrate them as a whole. That’s something I need to focus on more. The sense of being needed put a spring in my step. It seemed like only fifteen minutes had passed and the three-hour class was done. Rats.

Frank Costantino with Ann Clowe, Nancy Lloyd and Lisa Siegrist.

Yesterday’s students had the opportunity to watch a real watercolor master at work. My buddy Frank Costantino is in town, and they looked over his shoulder as he painted the lobster boat Daphne Lee. If he can stand more fog, we’ll go out again today.

Monday Morning Art School: accurate lines in oils

It may seem like a fine brush is better, but that’s not always true in wet-on-wet painting.
Sea Fog on Main Street, by Carol L. Douglas. When painting plein air, you don’t have time to wait for the painting to dry to draw lines.

I’m working on a commission that has a lot of architectural detail. I don’t want the end result to be fussy. I’m not a clean renderer like Frank Costantino. He can drop a fine line with a rigger and it falls into the painting, cool and elegant.

Watercolor loves fine lines. Alla prima oil painting doesn’t. It tends to be looser and rougher. A fine line added with a rigger can lie on the surface looking silly, or it can melt into the bottom layers and look like mush.
Working backwards allows you to make clean edges without being overly fussy.
My solution is to paint edges and lines in reverse. I lay down the line and then back the color up to meet it.
Lines should be happening on an already-wet surface, because they aren’t important in the big-shape phase. That means you need a technique for removing excess paint before you draw. For large erasures, I take off excess paint with a palette knife. For lines, I use a wipe-out tool. I had a very old one made by Loew-Cornell that I lost this summer. I replaced it with a terrible one I picked up on the road. But Bobbi Heath assures me this is the best one currently available.
Start by getting rid of excess paint.
Getting rid of that schmearof excess paint is an important first step. You can’t draw into soup.
Lay the line in before the surrounding background. With architecture, this often means a line of light-colored paint before its dark surround. Don’t worry that you’ve broken the dark-to-light rule. Lines are usually added toward the middle or end of a painting, so you should be past that point anyway.
In oils, the side of a flat brush always works better than a tiny round for straight lines. Flats are more stable and tends to track in the right direction. Go ahead and use a ruler if you want.
The line going on with a bright.
This line should be made of fairly thin paint, with just enough medium to carry it smoothly. Too much oil and it will blend into its surround.
It’s easier to paint a line with a flat on its side than with a small round.
Next paint the surrounding area, pushing up against the line with the background color. Use enough paint and be bold. It’s best to do this edging in a single stroke, but that takes practice. However, as a general rule, the more you touch the surface, the muddier the edges will get.
Then push the background color right up against the line.
In my examples, I use two different brushes. The fine flat, made by Rosemary & Co., was a gift this summer. It is very precise, but as with all synthetic fibers, it doesn’t carry much paint. The bright is old and clunkier, but it carries enough paint for a good, finished line. It may seem like finer is better, but that’s actually not true. What’s most important is getting enough paint on the canvas, evenly, so that your line doesn’t look anemic. I find that with alla prima painting, hog bristles are almost always better.
After two flags, a chair, and a lot of white trim, I was so cramped up by precision that I had to do this fast surf exercise to wash out my mind (and loosen up my hand).
I enjoyed painting with the Rosemary & Co. flat, but it was no good for surface work. Eventually, I realized I didn’t like my painting at all. I set it aside and did a fast exercise with big brushes that got rid of the stiffness that had crept into my painting from using the wrong brush.

The mysterious perfection of watercolor

It can be either deliciously finicky, or wildly out of control. Or, in a perfect world, both.

St. Elias Mountains, Yukon Territory, by Carol L. Douglas. Think you can’t paint from a boat? This was done from the passenger seat of a car. 

Yesterday I got an e-blog that read, “Want looser watercolors? Pour your paint.” Well, I like pitching, throwing and otherwise making a mess with watercolors, so I opened it in great anticipation. What it was really talking about was drawing a meticulous cartoon, blocking off the light areas with masking fluid, and then setting the darks with a wallowing, graduated wash that gets a little bit psychedelic by virtue of watercolor’s great sedimentation qualities.
That’s a beautiful technique, but nothing that starts with masking fluid can be described as loose. We can’t use these shadowy washes in field painting, unless we’re willing to hang around all day reblocking paper and waiting for it to dry.
A field sketch of Houghton Farm (New York) by Winslow Homer.
Watercolor is a curious medium. It’s quite capable of the ultimate control, as in Albrecht Dürer’s Large Piece of Turf, 1503. It’s equally capable of insouciance, as in Maurice Prendergast’suntitled seascape, below. You can go anywhere you want with it.
Untitled seascape by Maurice Prendergast.
Frank Costantino is a painter who manages to pull off meticulous renderings in watercolor in plein air events. Frank’s drawings are spot-on and his framing is clever. On the other end of the spectrum is Elissa Gore, whose field sketches always burble in the style of Ludwig Bemelmans.
You know my pal Poppy Balser, who shares my adoration of boats, the sea, and color. Although she’s primarily an oil painter, Mary Byrom does lots of sketching in watercolor.
Large Piece of Turf, 1503, Albrecht Dürer. 
There hangs the moral of my tale. Every one of these painters works in more than one medium—in Frank’s case, watercolor and colored pencil, in the rest of them, watercolor and oils. That’s true of me, too.
I first learned to paint in watercolor. That was standard procedure in the mid-century, when no right-minded teacher was going to hand a kid a box of toxic chemicals and tell her to go to town. It’s a private possession for when I travel or when I’m thinking. I never sell my watercolors, and I don’t intend for them to be shown. Watercolor, for me, is deeply personal.
Preparatory sketch of Marshall Point, by Carol L. Douglas.
But it’s also the perfect travel medium, which is why I took it to Australia and to London and plan to bring it along to Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi in March. When it’s just you, your suitcase and a Prius, you want to travel light.
All of this has been much on my mind recently as I’ve debated the best sketchbooks to buy for my Age of Sail workshop on the American Eagle, in June. I’ve tried many myself. As with everything else, each one has its plusses and minuses. One friend suggested that I cut down sheets of paper and make my own, but I want every student to have a takeaway book with a nice binding.
I plan to have students working in both gouache and watercolor. I need to find the right paper for both. So every time a friend posts a new work in a sketchbook I query him or her relentlessly on the materials. And I’m narrowing it down, slowly but surely.

The passing parade

"A Little Bit of Everything," by Carol L. Douglas (sold).

“A Little Bit of Everything,” by Carol L. Douglas (sold).
Mary Byrom is doing something she calls chunking, which is concentrating on a single problem every day in small studies, which take her about 20 minutes. “It could be color temperature, or composition, or line, or whatever you are working on and thinking about,” she explained to me. Since the human brain takes in information best in small units, her idea makes sense to me.
I think I do something similar when I do short value studies. To me, composition—form—is the overriding question, so I’m always drawing little thumbnails to try to get better. I don’t really worry if they look like anything; they’re only to sort out the problem of dividing the canvas in an interesting way.
"End of Day," by Carol L. Douglas (sold).

“End of Day,” by Carol L. Douglas (sold).
When I arrived at Ogunquit on Saturday, I did not walk the Marginal Way with a camera or mechanical viewfinder. In fact, I only took one photo all weekend, and it was of sunbathers curled up with their Kindles.
Instead, I carried my wee little Sketch-N-Can. When a location called to me, I stopped for a moment to absorb it through my pores, and then did a value sketch or two.
It didn’t matter that I ended up using none of these sketches for my final paintings. I understood Ogunquit’s particular rock formations a lot better than when I’d arrived.
"The Path," by Carol L. Douglas (available).

“The Path,” by Carol L. Douglas (available).
This event had just five painters. These small events are my particular favorites because they allow the artists a chance to really talk to each other. (In addition to Mary Byrom, there were Kathy MorrisseyJohn Caggiano, and Frank Costantino.)
I enjoy the snippets of conversation I hear when painting, and the Marginal Way is perfect for that. There is always speculation on how much houses cost, or how people could escape their workaday lives and move to Maine. On the other hand, many people talk about work. Others talk about their kids. In a family destination, there’s always a lot of real-time child-rearing going on as well.
"Bell Buoy in the Distance (Morning Light)," by Carol L. Douglas (sold).

“Bell Buoy in the Distance (Morning Light),” by Carol L. Douglas (sold).
These young parents reminded me all too poignantly of the years when I walked the Marginal Way with my own kids, telling them to stay off the rocks, to hold my hand, to say thank you to the nice lady. At first I was uncomfortable with the depth of feeling it evoked. Eventually, it was just sweet to hear echoes of my own parenting days. In some ways, the Marginal Way is a metaphor for life: a cavalcade, a passing parade, in which our own appearance is terribly brief. Best to use it well.
And then there was the hung-over voice behind me that told his pal, “I really didn’t have an affair with her, you know.” It was a perfect short story in ten words, and I don’t need to know how it ended.