The sea giveth and taketh away

Sometimes you set out to paint one thing, only to realize it’s something else that’s caught your interest.
Landslide, oil on canvas, by Carol L. Douglas

Had you asked me on Wednesday what I planned to paint, I’d have looked at you squiggle-eyed. I was too tired to see beauty in anything. I drove out a long dirt road to Fundy Ocean Research Center for Energy (FORCE). There is a lovely view off its back deck (and a restroom) but it didn’t move me. I returned to Partridge Island and hiked up to its observation deck. There’s a flowerpot rock on the beach below, but it seemed like too much work to drag my kit back up.

I tried instead to tackle the running tide for a third time. None of them, in my opinion, captures the powerful delicacy of the tides here.
Tides manifest as horizontal as they run back and forth along the slanting sea bed. Here the shore is flat and sandy and the tides high. The streaming water runs for hundreds of feet in a six-hour cycle. It moves shockingly fast. Still, it’s gentle. There’s no white crashing surf.
Harbor Mouth, oil on canvas, by Carol L. Douglas
On the surface, the Minas Basin is placid. However, it contains vast, uncontrolled kinetic energy. For example, the Dory Rips, off Cape d’Or, are a collision of three opposed tidal currents that slam into an underwater reef, forcing the water up into house-high standing waves. You can’t capture that on canvas when you’re looking down from cliffs ranging up to 600 feet in height.
I walked the beach at Partridge Island early in the morning, as it neared high tide. There was roiling on the otherwise-placid surface. That was a rip current. Hours later, children would play and search for fossils in the same spot, oblivious to the powerful forces that had just departed.
Partridge Island is connected to the mainland by a sandbar. It was created during the infamous Saxby Gale of 1869. This October hurricane overlapped an unusually high tide to create the perfect storm along the Maine coast and Bay of Fundy. Low-lying farms were inundated, harbors were wrecked, and breakwaters washed away. It cost at least 37 lives, and created the highest tide ever recorded, 70.9 ft, at Burntcoat Head.
Salt water meadows (East Bay from Partridge Island), oil on canvas, by Carol L. Douglas
Exactly 150 years later, there are structures on the Partridge Island isthmus, including a herring weir and some cottages. It’s a popular picnic and camping spot. But that’s a blink of the eye in geological time, and it’s wise to remember that the sea giveth and taketh away.
In the afternoon, I painted in Diligent River. My instructions were to turn onto a private drive that snakes three kilometers down to the sea, running first through blueberries, then meadows, and then a spruce forest. There’s a freshwater pond of about 15 acres. It’s high because of our endless rain this spring. The dock is several feet offshore. Half of it has loosed its moorings and sailed away.
Parrsboro had a parade this week, and I could have been in it had I answered my phone. This float commemorates the forced landing of a Handley Page V/1500 named Atlantic here, on July 5, 1919. 
It was lovely, but the coastline compelled me. A break has been created in the trees by a spring mudslide. I’d intended to paint Cape Split, but the glorious tumult of rocks and upended tree trunks caught my imagination. Through it, ferns slid to a new destination unharmed. Spruce saplings grew on, unheeding.
The cliffs here are an unstable amalgam of sediment and basalt. They’re always in motion, slipping down to be milled into new sand beaches. Since these are some of the most important paleontological areas in Nova Scotia, new fossils are always being exposed. Inevitably, that interested me more than the view, and I found myself painting something I’d not intended.
I was invigorated. Three large paintings in two days when I thought there was no gas left in the tank.

A sense of place

Everything that you paint should tell a real story, one that is authentic to you.
Big-boned, by Carol L. Douglas. As soon as I finish my taxes, I’ll be back at the boatyard painting schooners.

There is something about being in our favorite place that transcends detail. We know it by feeling rather than by specifics. As artists we are attempting to recreate that sense of place using only visual cues. That requires specificity and accuracy.

Artists become expert in oddly arcane matters. Marilyn Fairman can identify all the birds that sing in the understory. She told me she learned from one of those silly clocks they used to sell with a different bird call for every hour. And she paints without headphones on, so that she can hear the sounds of nature.
Sandra Hildreth of Saranac Lake is expert on the topography of the High Peaks region. She got that way because she has hiked all over the Adirondacks. Likewise, Bobbi Heath knows lobster boats because she’s spent serious time cruising and painting the waters of Maine.
Winch, by Carol L. Douglas
I can’t say I know any of those things encyclopedically, but I’m pretty strong on trees and rocks. So if you bring me a painting with brown, undefined lumps where the granite of Maine or the red sandstone of the Minas Basin should be, I’m bound to say something.
Isn’t the important thing that you create a pleasing painting? That’s true, but squidging the details is amateurish. What’s the point of painting the Canadian Rockies if they end up looking like New Mexico? Last week, I mentioned Paul Cézanne’s sixty paintings of Mont Sainte-Victoire. He experimented in all of them, but the mountain remains recognizable.
Coast Guard Inspection, by Carol L. Douglas
“Sense of place” is a phenomenon that we can’t define, but we all know when we see it. As individuals, families, and a culture, we set aside certain places as being exceptional. It’s why we have World Heritage Sites, National Parks, and National Scenic Byways.
When a place is without character, we sometimes say it is “inauthentic.” Once again, we can’t define that, but we all seem to know them when we see them: shopping malls, fast food restaurants, or new housing tracts. As Gertrude Stein once said, “There is no there there.”
More work than they bargained for, by Carol L. Douglas
How does a scene achieve a “sense of place” in our consciousness? It acquires a story, which is a finely- crafted pastiche of memory, events, and beauty. Our childhoods, in particular, shape our adult response to the physical world. Psychologists call the setting of our childhood our primal landscape. It becomes the bar against which we measure everything we see thereafter.
All of this argues against painting an anodyne landscape. And it argues for landscapes with lodestars. If you’re honest with your feelings, a lighthouse or grain elevator will not end up being clichéd.
Everything that you paint should be something that you’ve experienced. It should tell a real story, one that relates back to you. Your canvas is not just a rectangle that you fill up with generic ‘nature’. It should be a little slice of a place.
Note: my websiteis completely updated. It’s new work and a new, mobile-friendly platform, too. Won’t you take a peek?

I’m working, and other falsifications

In which our heroine blows off painting for a walk in the Maine woods.

Breaking Storm, by Carol L. Douglas, 48X30. It’s finished, so perhaps I deserved a day off.

I had every intention of working on the Fourth of July. It’s one of the best business days at Camden harbor. At such times plein air painting becomes performance art. It drives some painters mad to be interrupted constantly. I don’t mind.

Still, something Poppy Balser told me has been resonating. She’s taken the summer off from events to spend time with her kids. My youngest is twenty and has a summer job. However, this may be the last summer he comes home from college.
Rock hound with his dad.
This child is a rock hound. He loves picking the stuff up and turning it in his hands, puzzling out its story. He goes to school in the Genesee Valley of New York. Its red Medina sandstone is great for building gloomy Gothic insane asylums, but not so good for mineral or gem inclusions.
Mt. Apatite pit mine.
Van Reid is the author of a series of witty historical novels about coastal Maine. Last winter he told me about an abandoned feldspar quarry near his house. On Saturday, we hiked up to see it. It sits alone and silent in a vast empty wood, rimmed with ancient rock.
Yesterday was simply too glorious to work. Instead, I asked my son if he was interested in driving west to Mt. Apatite, near Auburn, ME. This public park contains a series of abandoned pit mines. Mined until the 1930s, they continue to attract rock hounds today.
Pegmatites are igneous rocks with exceptionally large crystals. They often contain minerals. In Maine that means beryl, tourmaline, zircon, garnet, mica and quartz, not that I’d recognize most of those things. But pegmatites are beautiful in themselves. One can trace the folding and cooling of the earth’s crust in them.
On Mt. Apatite.
There are rock hounds who search old mines for marketable gemstones. We were just interested in looking.
Mica may have little economic value, but it made the woods seem as if it had been sprinkled with fairy dust. It glinted on the path and between the blueberry bushes. There were enough garnets in the rocks that even I could find them. But don’t bother going there to find your fortune in gemstone; these garnets won’t survive being pried loose from their stony prisons.
Mica in the wild.
Minerals are apparently endlessly mutable. There are over 5,300 known mineral species. Their chemical composition is often very complex. For the human mind, with its desire to classify and categorize things, they are irresistible. Plus, they’re often beautiful.
We were poking around along a cliff when an older gentleman loped easily down the rock face toward us. He introduced himself as Dan. He was clearly knowledgeable about minerals and the history of the place. He told my son how to tap the Cleavelanditeto split it, and gave him some hints about proper gear, locations, and the history of the mines in the region.
“It’s gotten really busy here ever since Mindat,” he lamented (referring to a massive online database of minerals). It’s all relative, I guess: on this busiest holiday of the summer, there was nobody there but the four of us.

Saying silly things

"Evening at Marshall Point," 8X6, by Carol L. Douglas

“Evening at Marshall Point,” 8X6, by Carol L. Douglas
Forty minutes from my studio, Marshall Point Light is really too far to go for a day class. However, without the large islands that protect Penobscot Bay, bigger breakers form here. It makes for nice painting.
My off-the-cuff assessment is that tourism in mid-coast Maine is up this year. Marshall Point and Drift Inn Beach were both full of visitors yesterday. Perhaps it’s because a nice domestic vacation on the beach seems so safe in this world of dark violence. I feel some advertising slogans bubbling up. Maine: where nobody wants to cut your head off.
Fog at Marshall Point.

Fog in the morning.
My personal goal right now is to stop correcting people. I am not everyone’s mother, nor do I always have to be right. I repeat this to myself like a mantra. It’s a special challenge in a tourist town, because being out of our own milieu sometimes makes us say really silly things. I’m no exception, and—worse—I occasionally say them in print.
Marshall Point has some astonishing geological features. Basalt dikes lace into light grey granite. Around them twist wildly-contorted bands of quartzite and schist. In some places, these materials have been remelted and formed into migmatite.
I only know this because I looked it up after I told someone those light bands were probably limestone.
Part of the beautiful rock formations at Marshall Point.

Part of the beautiful rock formations at Marshall Point.
You can see the whole dazzling rock array from the ramp up to the lighthouse. I tend to stall there until someone nudges me to move on. That’s how I happened to hear a visitor ask her husband, “Is that marble?” The new me didn’t correct her.
Along the edge of the rocks are burrows of the type dug by groundhogs or ground squirrels. A group of tween girls picked their way through this area as we painted nearby. One authoritatively told her peers, “Look at the beaver holes!”
“Beaver holes,” she confidently reasserted. For about fifteen seconds, she held absolute intellectual sway. Finally, I couldn’t help myself. I snorted in laughter. One of her mates ventured diffidently, “I think beavers live in freshwater lakes,” and the spell was broken.
I discuss painting options with a student.

I discuss painting options with a student.
Last week Poppy Balser floored me with a simple, obvious point. We were painting together and she scooped up saltwater for her brush tank. I’ve always thought that was a no-no. When I asked her why it would work, she pointed out that people regularly add table salt to granulate their watercolors. Why not just start with sea water?
My wee, quick experiment in granulation.

My wee, quick experiment in painting with sea-water.
After yesterday’s class, I tried it, quickly, in a small sketch in my field-book. I have to say that it worked very well. Sorry I ever doubted you, Poppy!