The built environment

My personal instinct is anti-social, to look at nature rather than the man-made environment. But that’s a mistake.

Pasturage, by Carol L. Douglas

The Mohawk River forces a separation between the Catskill and Adirondack Mountains, making it one of the only natural passages across the Appalachians. This is the heartland of Linden Frederick’s Night Stories. The Mohawk Valley has fallen on hard times. It’s dotted with small, moldering cities of great charm.

Canajoharie is on the southern bank of the Mohawk River. In a sense it’s prehistoric, since it was one of the two main Mohawk settlements before white settlers arrived. The little town has a few 18thcentury remnants from the heyday of the Haudenosaunee, but most of it is 19thcentury.
Genesee Valley Farm, pastel, by Carol L. Douglas
Driving past yesterday, I was struck by how high above the water these historic buildings are. They stretch along a ridge overlooking the town, which in turn overlooks the river. In fact, that’s true of much of the Mohawk Valley as it winds through the hills and mountains. Nothing old or historic is built on or near the alluvial plains. Only in the 20thcentury has humankind been foolish enough to build on the river bottoms—most notably the Governor Thomas Dewey Thruway. Our ancestors could just wait for the Mohawk to fall. Now we need extensive flood control systems. Even with them, the Mohawk is known to rise and inundate communities downstream.
Nunda farm in autumn, pastel, by Carol L. Douglas
Today if you build your own home, your contractor will build from a set of architectural plans. In the 19th century, architects designed very grand buildings, but most homes were designed and constructed by local carpenters, and they did a fine job of it, too. There are certain universal designs, and there were trends in house styles, just as there are today. For example, you’ll find T-shaped farmhouses all over North America. That big cube, with a little kitchen addition off to one side, is practical to build and live in. But the proportions of these buildings, their curliques and furbelows, and even the way their outbuildings are placed are unique to every location.
Home port, by Carol L. Douglas
In the South, kitchens were often separated from the main house. In Maine, farmsteads were built as connected farms. The house is connected to a shed, then to a carriage house, and finally a livestock barn. A characteristic Maine home is a story-and-a-half cape with Greek Revival details. Where most American cellars were built from fieldstone, old homes here often have granite block foundations. I pointed that out to a visiting architectural historian, who was more interested in the bargeboards. “They’re waves!” she exclaimed.
In western Massachusetts and New York, a different kind of 19thcentury structure is common—square houses with hipped roofs and a cupola centered on the roof. They are frosted with Carpenter Gothic excess. However, the essential form is not Victorian, but rather something new. This basic shape would blossom in the next century as American Foursquare, our first truly-American architectural form. I grew up in one of these houses. It’s as much of a pastiche as any mini-mansion from the 1980s—Federal-style windows, elaborate Carpenter Gothic brackets, and an Italianate cupola, all pasted on that resolute squareness.
Field in Paradise, by Carol L. Douglas
These architectural anomalies are as much a part of the landscape as the hills, rocks, trees and meadows that surround them. My personal instinct is antisocial, to pull back from people to look at nature. However, that’s a painting error, one I fight against. Most of the paintings I love are not of nature alone, but the built environment—Corot’s The Bridge at Narni (1826) being an excellent example.
I know the Mohawk Valley intimately, and yet there’s always something new to see. These can be teaching moments in our paintings, if only we can slow down enough to see before we paint.

You can paint anything if you can paint greens

View from Catherine’s gazebo, by Anna McDermott. (The color of these paintings is somewhat overblown because it was almost dark when I snapped these shots.)
There are places with gazebos in Rochester, but when there’s electrical activity on the horizon it helps if they’re not too far from a parking lot. Yesterday was a humid, dark day with thunderstorms forecasted for 5 PM. I went over my list of options with my student and pal, Catherine, ending up with the Fairport Library gazebo.
The actual scene she was painting. The greens of summer can be acidic and unvaried in New York.
“No, not that again!” she responded, and I had to agree. Although it overlooks the canal, it’s got boring sightlines.
View from Catherine’s gazebo, by Sandy Quang.
So we met in her gazebo, which overlooks a 10-acre pond. The trouble is, there’s a rain forest between the gazebo and the pond and no amount of chopping seems to keep the sightlines open.
The actual scene she was painting. 
All of which I knew before I got there, but I still love the view, since you’re looking across a thicket of sumacs to a far hillside. Of course, it’s all green, but greens are an excellent challenge. If you can sort out a painting from a thicket of scrubby trees, you can paint anything.
In the Forest of Fontainebleau took Camille Corot five years to complete (1860-65). I gave my students three hours.

I have three openings left for my 2014 workshop in Belfast, ME. Information is available here.

Seven days of wood smoke and crackling leaves— Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot

A Road in the Countryside, Near Lake Leman, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, 1845-55
I’m in Maine for my last 2013 painting workshop! The frost isn’t quite on the pumpkin (at least not in Rockland or Rochester) but autumn is in the air. I’m leaving some wonderful fall landscapes for you.
Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot was so repressive in his color sensibility that sometimes it’s hard to know what season he was painting in. In a way, that’s no surprise; he had a narrower range of pigments available to him than the Impressionists who followed him. When he was doing his early plein air travels in Italy, there weren’t even paint tubes. (They were invented by an American painter, John Goffe Rand, in 1841.)
Nevertheless, Corot managed to anticipate the major theme which plein air painting continues to mine almost 200 years later—a fresh, vigorous painting style that describes the landscape without getting unduly hung up on the details.
The Bridge at Narni, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, 1845-55

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