And that’s why we can’t have nice things

Fences protect fools from the view. Unfortunately, they also separate the rest of us from it.
Rocky, by Carol L. Douglas. 

Last summer I painted a rocky outcropping at Fort Williams for Cape Elizabeth Land Trust’s Paint for Preservation. It is a long finger of granite pointing straight into the ocean, as dramatic as any point at Acadia, but only minutes from downtown Portland. And therein lies the problem. People were constantly crawling out to the end of the rock to take selfies. I watched a couple encourage their kids to do it. The drop is easily long enough to kill, and the surf below will take what the rocks don’t.

The foolishness of all these visitors was manifest in their footwear, which ranged from flip-flops to sandals. In two-and-a-half days I saw only one properly-shod climber. He had a safety mat and was practicing some kind of technical descent.
Kaaterskill Falls, by Carol L. Douglas
It reminded me of another popular tourist spot that’s also legendary among plein airpainters. That’s Kaaterskill Falls, a two-tier, 260-foot-tall waterfall in the Catskills. This was, in many ways, the heart of the Hudson River Schooland where plein air painting in America was born. When I first visited, it was easy enough to believe you were alone in the primeval wilderness. You approached the falls the same way as Thomas Cole, Frederic Edwin Church, and other great painters did, up a steep, 2.6-mile trail with very little in the way of safety improvements.
The last time I painted there was in 2014, with Jamie Williams Grossman and other friends from New York Plein Air Painters. It was shocking to see how many people crawled around the lip of the falls and its access trail wearing terrible footwear. That summer two visitors fell to their deaths.  Access was closed for 2015 while they made safety upgrades. When it reopened the following summer, there was another fatality.
The view of that rocky promontory is now obscured by a fence. (Photo courtesy of Karen Lybrand)
Inevitably, the state of Maine had to fence off the rocky point I painted before someone falls to their death.
Artist Karen Lybrand walks at Cape Elizabeth almost every day, and sent me photos of the new fence. “I’m sure the risk-takers will still find a way to take selfies on the cliff rocks,” she commented. Someone will feel the need to get past the safety restrictions, resulting in more safety restrictions.
You can see trail wear around the rocks. (Photo courtesy of Karen Lybrand.)
Maine was projected to have around 40 million visitors in 2018. They’re not necessarily from places where people understand the risks of the natural world, or are expected to take responsibility for their own safety. Their attitude toward wilderness will inevitably affect our access to wilderness.
I’ve done that painting from exactly the low angle I wanted; I couldn’t paint it again, but I don’t want to, either. And it’s perfectly paintable from over the fence; it just won’t have the same looming presence.
A 1920s postcard showing the Marginal Way approaching Perkins Cove in Ogunquit. That was before the path was so heavily traveled.
There are any number of coastal views that would be diminished with such a fence. They’re protected only by their isolation, and even that is slowly eroding as America’s population grows.
These are stunning views from places that are perfectly safe—until you stray from the path and do something stupid. But we can’t allow people to reap the consequences of their bad decisions in our litigious society, so they will be fenced off one by one.

Elegy for a house

I have no idea what the next chapter in this house’s history will be, but for many years it was a haven for New York plein airpainters.
Kaaterskill Falls, by Carol L. Douglas

If the legal system creaks along as it should, an important property will pass out of the plein airworld today. This is Jamie Williams Grossman’s home in Palenville, NY. Jamie is married to New York State Supreme Court Justice Victor G. Grossman. Vic is required to live in his district, which covers Westchester and four other counties. When it came time for them to downsize, it was the Catskill house that had to go.

The house is a long, open structure, originally built as a barn for the farm across the road. Its conversion was top notch—steel stairs, a large open kitchen, and pleasant, airy rooms. The foundation rested on bedrock which intruded poetically into the basement. Along one side of this lower level, Jamie built a long, sunny studio. When she was in residence, so too were her birds.
Clouds over the Catskills, by Carol L. Douglas
To get there, you turned off a local road and dropped sharply down a gravel lane that seemed to peter out in scrub. Even when you knew where you were going, it was easy to miss.
The property is dotted with waterfalls. Some are seasonal. If you felt so inclined, you could hike to one of the more remote ones. The most beautiful passed right under the driveway. Dropping rapidly down from the road, it broke and crashed on huge granite boulders before burbling away in a small stream. I once dropped a palette knife into the water. A year later, Jamie found and returned it, after inscribing it with my name so I wouldn’t lose it again.
Kaaterskill Creek, by Carol L. Douglas
A meadow sits below the house, surrounded on all sides by woods. A venerable old tree crabs Wyeth-like to the sky, skirted by an old stone wall. There was never a shortage of material, but the property itself wasn’t the reason most painters came to stay with Jamie. Her house was minutes away from some of the most storied sites of Hudson River School painting: Platte Clove, Kaaterskill Falls, North-South Lake, and the Pine Orchard, where the Catskill Mountain House once stood. Drive a few minutes more and you were at Cedar Grove, the home and studio of painter Thomas Cole, founder of the Hudson River School. Cross over the river and you were at Olana, the estate of Frederic Edwin Church.
I had the good fortune to be invited back many times. I was not alone. There are always fine artists around when I visited. Sometimes we spent as much time tweaking our gear as painting. It was on a hike up Kaaterskill Falls that Johanne Morin showed me her super-lightweight aluminum easel, which I then copied and have used ever since.
Olana overlook, by Carol L. Douglas
There were men among the painters who gathered there, of course. But the group always seemed weighted toward women. This was the first true sorority of serious, professional women painters I ever knew. I met lifelong friends in Jamie’s creek, and cemented relationships over her table.
I’ll still paint in that area, and I’ll still stop and see Jamie no matter where she is, but it’s the end of an important era in the New York plein air community. Jamie and Vic, from the bottom of my heart, thank you for your years and years of hospitality and support.

Let that be a lesson to you

If I’d waited and painted on the second day, I’d have flubbed the whole event.
Playland Boat House, by Carol L. Douglas. A bad photo of a good painting.

I’m bothered by procrastination. I’m not happy unless I’ve finished my work in ample time to meet my deadline. There are good reasons why Rye’s Painters on Location gives us two days to finish one painting. Still, it makes sense to me to get it done early.

I haven’t painted Playlandin several years. This lovely Art-Deco amusement park is entering its 90thyear. It’s carefully maintained, and no major revisions have ever been made to its buildings or grounds. It was also closed, so I was alone as I drew on my canvas. The first glaze of gold was settling on the trees, and a soft onshore breeze cooled my shady corner.
Rye Playland from an angle I could never paint, public domain.
At lunchtime, Tarryl Gabelstopped by. Her timing was fortuitous. I’d just realized I was out of painting medium. Tarryl had some with her that she’d gotten from Jamie Williams Grossman. Jamie is a natural-born fixer, always coming up with solutions for other people’s problems. Here she was fixing something for me from miles away.
Tarryl and I are very dissimilar painters. She’s atmospheric, detailed and ethereal. I’m from the slash-and-burn school. When she handed me that tube of gel medium, she also handed me a lesson in how materials matter. Gel medium is perfect for her style of painting, but it dissolves edges. That was most apparent in the water, where I couldn’t keep the color crisply separated.
Somewhere near the halfway point.
I handed my work in and headed back to Queens. On the way, my car developed a dragging rear brake. In the stop-and-go traffic of rush hour, it rapidly overheated. By the time I arrived at Rego Park, it was screaming. (This car passed its inspection three days earlier.)
I tried unsuccessfully to rustle up a mechanic in Queens. The next morning, I decamped early and headed back to Westchester to try my luck there. On the way, I stopped at Playland. I couldn’t have painted there on Saturday; the park was open and ready for business.
And then my left rear brake pad fell out. I’ve been driving for more than forty years, and I’ve never seen that happen. It’s very bad, since it exposes the caliper—and thus the brake lines—to heat and stress. I wended my way slowly up the Boston Post Road, looking for a mechanic on duty.
The brake pad in question.
The first one I found, on the Boston Post Road in Port Chester, was both knowledgeable and kind. He said he didn’t like to leave travelers stranded, and he did the repair immediately and at a good price. Meanwhile, Tarryl had just arrived in Port Chester. We went to the art store and made our opening with time to spare.
There are several lessons here: don’t procrastinate, check your kit before you leave, use materials you know, be flexible. But more importantly for me, it was a reminder that the vast majority of people in this world are kind, and I don’t need to sweat the small stuff. God’s got my back.

Olana mucks up

Is there anyone in America who doesn’t understand that white colonists were bad? How does pissing on Frederic Church’s front lawn help?

Photo courtesy of Jamie Williams Grossman.
OVERLOOK: Teresita Fernández confronts Frederic Church at Olana opened on May 17. I like the management of Olana, which is very welcoming to landscape artists, so I feel badly writing this. But Jesús Rafael Soto’s installation on the lawn violates the work of art closest to Frederic Edwin Church’s heart—Olana itself.
By 1876, Church—the most successful artist of his day—was crippled by rheumatoid arthritis. Compensating, he poured his heart into the design of the house and grounds at Olana, shaping the landscape as a frame for magnificent views of the Hudson and far Catskills. Obliterating the views with a cascade of urine-colored plastic defaces his vision.
Photo courtesy of Jamie Williams Grossman.
Olana’s grounds are a mecca for landscape painters. New York Plein Air Painters holds its annual retreat there. The historic site holds an annual plein air painting event. Many artists, including my friend Jamie Williams Grossman, who took these photos, visit there regularly to paint.
“Fernández seeks to respond to their interpretations and biases through a conversation about a deeper sense of these varied American cultures, contesting the iconic view of the ‘American Landscape’ painting tradition constructed by Church and his peers that often omitted or erased other narratives and figures,” read Olana’s press release.
Yawn. The problem with much conceptual art is that its ideas are so often stale. Is there anyone in America who doesn’t understand that white colonists ignored native cultures? How does pissing on Church’s front lawn help?
Of course, the overwriting of culture in South America wasn’t done by Church and his painterly peers. It was done by the rapacious, vicious Spanish, who were the worst of colonists. If the artists in this show want a serious talk about cultural appropriation, they could start by examining their own Hispanic surnames.
Church didn’t paint the people and cultures of South America for the same reason he didn’t paint the Inuit above the Arctic Circle or the settlers at Niagara: he was a landscape painter, interested in natural science. What human habitation exists in his structures is incidental, there to create visual interest.
Because of Church’s clever site design, Soto’s sculpture mucks up almost every great view from the lawn. Photo courtesy of Jamie Williams Grossman.
He was painting for an audience which had little opportunity to understand the New World. Science was beginning to be popularized in the nineteenth century, but it was still very much a gentleman’s pursuit. Mass media was in its infancy.
“The vastness of this continent were yet unrevealed to us,” wrote S. G. W. Benjamin in 1879. “With the enthusiasm of a Raleigh or a Balboa he [Church] has explored land and sea, combining the elements of explorer and artist… Our civilization needed exactly this form of art expression at this period, and the artist appeared who taught the people to love beauty and to find it.”
Olana overlook, approaching sunset, 12X16 oil, by little ol’ me. I’ve painted this scene many times, and it never grows old.
“This marks the first time Soto’s immensely popular interactive sculpture will be experienced by the public in a naturalistic setting, and it’s the first time it will be seen on the East Coast.”
It may have been immensely popular in Los Angeles, but it’s obscuring the view in Hudson. I won’t be painting there this season.

Traveling truths

Catskills over Athens, NY, 8X6, oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas. The grass is courtesy of a park worker who was string-trimming nearby. Not to worry; it will pick off when the painting is dry.
When Nancy Woogen and I were painting at North –South Lake on Thursday, a woman glided past us in her kayak. “Oh, you’re painters!” she exclaimed. “May I join you?”
Turns out she has been looking for her tribe. I introduced her to my pal Jamie Williams Grossman, chair of Lower Hudson Valley Plein Air Painters. We arranged to meet the following day at Site #9 on the Hudson River Art Trail, also known as Promenade Hill Park in Hudson, NY.
A tug approaching the Athens-Hudson Lighthouse in the Hudson River.
Like many upstate New York towns, Hudson went into decline after its primary industry was closed down, but its industry wasn’t the usual paper or steel mill. For a century, Hudson was notoriousfor vice. Its red-light district included 50 bars, 15 whorehouses, two major illegal horse gambling rooms and a big-stakes floating crap game—all in a community of just a few thousand people. A series of high-profile raids in 1951 put an end to that. Hudson slumped into the familiar pattern of decay.
Power lines crossing the Hudson, 8X6, oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas.
It’s been gentrified since my last visit, driven into the inexorable real-estate maw of New York City. This is great for the landowners of Columbia County, and not so good for those who need to buy or rent houses.
I talked to an artist who commutes to Manhattan and who is considering relocating to Troy, farther upriver. “Two hours on the train I can handle,” she said. “But two and a half is just too much.” Having done my time commuting from Rochester to Manhattan, I understand.
I painted a half-day at Promenade Hill, and decided to start the trek back to Rockport, ME, where my commute is, well, nothing at all.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me on the Schoodic Peninsula in beautiful Acadia National Park in August 2015. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops! Download a brochure here.


Olana Overlook, 6X8, Carol L. Douglas
Painting at a site for the first time is kind of like dating in middle school—you’re drawn to flash. It takes a while to see the quality in the quieter subjects. This is the third retreat I’ve painted at Olana. I’ve gotten the big vistas out of the way and am starting to be drawn to deeper, more intimate views.
Compared to my mid-Hudson pals, I’m still at a disadvantage. “That’s a lovely little tree,” I said to Jamie Grossman.
“I know,” she answered. “I’ve painted it three times.”
Garden Lane, Olana, 8X10, Carol L. Douglas
In July, I’ll be back at Olana for the Fourth Annual Plein Air Paint Out and Festival. In some ways, yesterday’s painting was reconnaissance.
Since I am tired and rusty, I figured that getting all my gear down to mid-Hudson and actually set up would count as success. Actually painting anything would be a bonus.  I opened the cooler in which I keep my paints—only to find that I’d brought my framing tools instead.
You can improvise a lot in painting, but paints are a necessity.
Coreopsis, 8X10, Carol L. Douglas.
Immediately several people jumped forward to offer me theirs. Turns out I had enough loose paint on my palette for the day. But it’s heartwarming to know I have such good friends.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me on the Schoodic Peninsula in beautiful Acadia National Park in August 2015. Click 
here for more information on my Maine workshops! Download a brochure here.

Sunset at Olana

Clouds over the Hudson, by little ol’ me. $795, framed.

A select group of New York plein air painters—my pals—have been in the Catskills painting this week. On Wednesday, Nancy Woogen and Johanne Morin saw a bear swimming in a lake, a rainbow, and a painted turtle laying eggs. I saw only one of those things (the turtle) and was awed by it; they must have been gobsmacked.

Sunset over the Hudson, by little ol’ me. $795, framed.
Last night, I was leaving the grounds of Frederic Church’s Olana at dusk, having painted the sunset. I was completely alone. I sometimes have an intuition that there is wildlife close by. I slowly coasted the lanes out of the historic site, hoping to glimpse a bear. No dice so I sped up to 55 MPH as I entered the road—only to narrowly miss a bounding doe.
To amuse myself, I attempted to paint just like Jamie Williams Grossman. That really didn’t work so well; we’re too different, but it was a fun experiment and I think I might show my students how to start indirectly like she does.Here are our easels, side by side.
We’ve been surrounded by crazy numbers of tourists as we’ve painted this week. Nothing unusual in that for me, except that it usually happens on the Maine coast, not in an untamed wilderness. Plein air painters have a different relationship with nature than most visitors. Tourists hike up trails, they linger on sunlit rocks, and then they head down to their cars to drive to the next vista. Nothing wrong with that—I love hiking myself. But it is unlikely that you will come face-to-face with nature that way.

Painting at Olana! Oh, my!
Meanwhile, we’re in our corner, struggling with our paint. Most of the time, that’s an introspective thing, and we’re concentrating on the canvas. But because we are essentially still, and we’re there for a long time, the woodland has a tendency to sneak up on us. Still, at the end of the day we get in our cars and drive away, the windshield separating us from the wilderness as it does everyone else.
This week’s painting has been made more difficult by heavy pollen after this cold winter. My asthma, which has been well-controlled for years, is rampaging. Yesterday, I capitulated and called a doctor, and not a moment too soon.  I’m wheezing like an ancient church organ.
Still, I have allies—a group of tremendous friends who helped move my pack today. I couldn’t have done it without them.

There are still a few openings in my 2014 workshop in Belfast, ME. Information is available 


North-South Lake, the Catskills, 9X12, oil on canvasboard, by little ol’ me.
I have been in many spectacular places around the world, but I never realized that one of them is practically in my backyard, and I’ve never seen it before. This is NYS Route 23A in Greene County.
This is most peculiar because I’ve been in Palenville (through which 23A passes) several times to hang with my buddy, painter Jamie Williams Grossman. I guess we just never turned right before.
North-South Lake, the Catskills, 9X12, oil on canvasboard, by little ol’ me (and not quite finished).
Palenville was a center of the Hudson River school. Thomas Cole, Frederic Church, and other notable painters stayed and worked there. (Palenville is also the fictional home of Rip van Winkle, although it’s surprising that he could get any sleep, between the waterfalls, the Great Horned Owls, and the frogs and peepers who sing in the night.)
Rain was on the forecast, but it was a far nicer day than anyone anticipated.
Route 23A passes several of the Catskill High Peaks before dropping into the Hudson Valley via Kaaterskill Clove.  The section I drove today runs along Kaaterskill Creek in the general area made famous by the Hudson River painters. It’s no surprise that they loved it; it’s stupendous: the narrow rock walls vary between green, grey and red, and great boulders are washed in spray as the creek bounces its way down the steep gorge.  
Beavers hard at work everywhere.
We met—a group of sixteen New York Plein Air Painters—at North-South Lake. This was a favorite subject of the Hudson River school, particularly Thomas Cole. For a long time, the prestigious resort hotels in the area made it synonymous with the Catskills.
The park includes the site of the Catskill Mountain House, built in 1823. It was one of the premiere vacation spots of the 19thcentury. Today, all that’s left is the view—miles and miles of the Hudson River at your feet—and the forest paths.
Never one to waste a canvas, Patricia McDermond painted over an unfinished nude, engendering all kinds of comments from bystanders.
Because I’ve never been to this park before, I had to spend some time poking around and looking at things before painting. It was a full day, ending much too soon, and I can’t wait to come back.
Tomorrow we will meet at the trailhead for Kaaterskill Falls, made famous by the Hudson River painters. At 260 feet, it’s impressive, even for someone raised in the shadow of Niagara Falls.

There are still a few openings in my 2014 workshop in Belfast, ME. Information is available here.

Every good idea I’ve ever had, I cribbed from someone else

I felt so craptastic by the end of the four hours that I asked Sandy to finish my painting for me. As fun as it was to watch her, that really didn’t work, since I’ve never bothered to train my students to be mini-mes. (At G and S Orchards in Walworth, NY.)
Yesterday I challenged another obstacle on the journey back to health—I painted four hours standing up. My surgeon did a fine job of running his knife along an old incision, but it was still abdominal surgery and I’m still recovering.
Drawing in watercolor pencil is something I borrowed from my pal Kristin Zimmermann. It affords better control than charcoal and is completely erasable with a wet paper towel. It’s not appropriate for every setting, but here where I wanted to study the architecture of an individual tree, it was great.
It was pretty painful to paint standing, and that’s sadly apparent in my painting. But it’s something I have to master before we’re truly into summer, because painting from a seated position is so limiting.
The shelf on my tripod was Jamie Grossman’s idea. The panel carrier was suggested by Marilyn Fairman. Using a waterproof stuff sack for my palette… well, I think I came up with that on my own.
While cleaning up, I mused on how much I’ve borrowed from the ideas of others. The pill container I keep my paints in was a gift from Jamie Grossman, who also showed me the tripod shelfthat allowed me to ditch my pochade box once and for all. The PanelPak carrier is something Marilyn Fairman showed me, and although I balked at spending the money on them, they’ve proven to be worth their weight in gold. 
Jamie Grossman also came up with this idea for carrying paints. Since I buy mine in jars, it saves me a ton of time and money on tubing, and it’s easier to manage in the field than tubes.
Using watercolor pencils to draw on my canvas allows me to make fast erasures with a wet rag, but that wasn’t my idea either—it was something my pal Kristin Zimmermann came up with. Kristin is also the person who drilled into me the importance of understanding pigments.
And here it is, another future doorstop.
Brad Marshall has recently been quoting Anders Zorn to the effect that we are not competitors, we are colleagues. So true, Brad.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. My Belfast, ME, workshop is almost sold out. Click 
here for more information on my Maine workshops!

In search of the perfect easel

I can handle the Sun-Eden storage because it’s plastic and light. I hate carrying around wooden storage space just because someone else thinks it’s necessary.

Of course, there IS no perfect easel, but I do have a perfect palette, and I want an easel deserving of it

My current easel took its last gasp at ABVI’s “Play It Forward” on Saturday. It’s ironic that, after years of being hoisted over rocks, up hillsides, through snow and withering heat, it would succumb during an air-conditioned cocktail party. (Perhaps it was shock.)
My palette on the Sun-Eden.
I have painted with a French easel (which proved to be too heavy and awkward), a Gloucester easel (which is far too big and inflexible),a Guerrilla box (which is just too heavy to carry long distances but is solid as a rock in high winds), simple tripod easels of both wood and aluminum  (which have no shelves so necessitate bringing a table), and a beechwood folding tripod easel with adjustable head. The last has always been my favorite, except it’s relatively delicate and has finally succumbed to overuse.
My palette on the Featherlight Pro.
The best possible place to explore easel options is when you’re with a bunch of other serious artists, and NYPAP’s Statewide Paintout at Olana provided a great opportunity to look at two easels—the Sun-Eden Traveling Easel and Featherlight Pro Easel. (And thanks again to Jamie Grossman and Bea Gustafson for giving me the highlights of their easels.)
Corinne Avery’s shelf solution. Very useful for watercolor, which is light. Not so good for oils.
I also came across thisand wonder if I ought to just buy it and the Plein Air Pro shelf to attach to my Slik camera tripod, which is a high-quality, underutilized piece of equipment.
In order of importance, what matters to me is:
  • Light weight (I want to be able to backpack my kit short distances when necessary);
  • Durability;
  • A stable shelf on which I can secure my palette;
  • An adjustable head that is separate from the body;
  • NO extra weight in built-in storage (that’s what Tupperware is for);
  • A hook from which I can hang my backpack to stabilize the thing;
  • Reasonable price.

 So I’m curious: what easel do you like and why?
August and September are sold out for my workshop at Lakewatch Manor in Rockland, ME… and the other sessions are selling fast.  Join us in June, July and October, but please hurry! Check here for more information.