Two opportunities to hang out with me next Saturday

I have an opening in Tenants Harbor and am teaching a free modeling class in Camden. If you still miss me after that, it’s your own darn fault!

Glade, by Carol L. Douglas, watercolor on Yupo paper
There will be wine
I’m setting up right now for an opening next weekend, September 7, from 5 to 7 PM. This is a duo show with Midge Colemanat the Jackson Memorial Library in Tenants Harbor, ME. I’ll be showing work I did last September at the Joseph Fiore Art Center. These are eight sets of large paintings. One is in watercolor, its mate is in oils, and each pair is of the same subject. They address the question of how working in alternating media, back-to-back, would influence an oil painter. A year later, I have the answer, which I’ll share with you on Saturday evening.
This is the first time they’ll be shown as an integrated set, and the first time I’ve shown watercolors in a serious way. Students are sometimes surprised that I teach watercolor, but it’s a delightful medium that I’ve been painting in since I was very young. Watercolor has the advantage of being very portable and light.
Round Pond, by Carol L. Douglas, oil on canvas
That isn’t true of these paintings. The size was dictated by a watercolor full sheet, so both the oils and watercolors are 24X36” in dimension.
The Jackson Memorial Library is a gem—a perfect place to display artwork. It’s a new building set close to the school so that kids can walk a short distance through the woods for their library classes. It was tailor-made to be a great art space.
Saturday, September 7, 5-7 PM
Jackson Memorial Library
71 Main Street
Tenants Harbor, ME 04860
Michelle reading, by Carol L. Douglas, oil on canvas
You should be in the pictures!
Earlier, I’ll be teaching a free introduction to figure drawing for models and artists, offered by the Knox County Art Society at the Camden Lions Club. If you’ve ever toyed with the idea of being a figure model but are unsure about what it entails, this is for you. Artists get the free benefit of being there to draw along.
I’m an experienced figure teacher, but this is first time I’ve ever taught models how to strut their stuff. I’m working with an experienced figure model. She will demonstrate short, medium, and long poses. Prospective student models don’t have to doff their clothing for this session.
Artists interested in sampling a life drawing session are also invited to attend, to both observe the instruction and to draw.
I’ll be covering the history, practice and protocols of nude modeling; gestural/athletic poses; reclining, crouching, bending, standing poses; changing direction; considerations of negative space; torso twisting; working with the lighting; positioning of limbs; facial expressions; using props; and incorporating fabric folds.
Couple, by Carol L. Douglas, oil on canvas
If they wish, students completing the session will be considered for paid modeling assignments for Camden Life Drawing.
The session runs from 9:30 to noon and is free to all; the suggested donation for artists is $10. Advance registration is requested. Contact David Blanchard, 207-236-6468.
Saturday, September 7, 9:30 AM to noon
Camden Lions Clubhouse
10 Lions Lane
Camden, ME 04843

Intimations of mortality

You can have it all. You’d just better be prepared to work very hard.

Clouds over Teslin Lake, Yukon Territory, by Carol L. Douglas. We did some icy camping here.

I recently was rejected from a residency I really wanted, in Gates of the Arctic National Park. (Rejection is how these things roll, so don’t worry about my feelings.) I’ve spent three months doing intensive training to ensure I could backpack my gear in the mountains. While I don’t think they discriminated on the basis of age, I will always wonder if it was a factor. Sixty-year-olds, in conventional wisdom, are not fit enough to climb mountains north of the Arctic Circle.

My physical therapist saw no reason I couldn’t meet the demands of the residency, as long as I worked hard, which I have. Not being chosen changes nothing in my fitness routine. Two of the other residencies I’ve applied to are also remote and arduous. And I have plans to paint in Scotland in May and in Patagonia next March. I don’t want my body to be a barrier to success.
This is the northernmost place I’ve ever painted, just a few miles from Gates of the Arctic National Park.
Meanwhile, I watch with some stupefaction as some of my peers move to senior living, take early retirement, or capitulate to the crippling disorders of a sedentary lifestyle. I feel good and I’m not bored. Why would I not want to keep rolling?
There have been at least four times in my life when I’ve been closer to death than I am today. (If I’m wrong about that, enjoy a hearty laugh at my expense.) The first was as a teen, when I did something so monumentally stupid that I could have killed both myself and my horse. The second was when I had an undiagnosed cancer that metastasized. The third and fourth times were when I hemorrhaged after surgery.
Another friend is 52. She’s stuck working because she’s an indispensable cog in the family business. When I said I had no interest in retirement, she was gobsmacked. “But why?” she asked. “You only have two more years!” (Actually, I have almost seven more years until I can take so-called “full retirement,” but that’s irrelevant.)
Blueberry barrens, Clary Hill, oil on canvas, by Carol L. Douglas. This is at Maine Farmland Trust Gallery until May 24.
It turns out that she doesn’t really want to retire; she wants to write books instead of keeping them. That’s a career change, and it’s something I heartily endorse.

Young readers, you’ll reach not one but many forks in the road. At each juncture, you can choose between security and risk. If you’re not courageous enough to take risks at 20, 30, or 40, when are you going to develop courage?

Choices don’t end when you enter the work force. I know many fine artists and musicians who combine their work with careers and/or child-rearing. Sometimes, however, people can only make drastic changes after their pension kicks in.

I have a student right now who is a retired Army officer. She went to art school in her youth but chose a military nursing career. Since retiring, she pours her energies into being the best painter she can be. Because she’s dedicated, she’s succeeding. And I bet it keeps her young long after her peers have subsided into their final rest.

Blueberry barrens, Clary Hill, watercolor, by Carol L. Douglas. This is at Maine Farmland Trust Gallery until May 24.
I have two paintings in the Joseph A. Fiore Art Center Residents Exhibit at Maine Farmland Trust Gallery, 97 Main Street, Belfast, ME. The show runs until May 24, with artist talks on Friday, May 24 at 5 PM. I hope you have a chance to stop and see this work.

The most expensive lesson I never learned

Sometimes it’s cheaper to let the pros do it.
Clary Hill, watercolor, by Carol L. Douglas
If you ever work in watercolor or pastel, you know the framing cost for those media is much higher than for oils. That’s because they’re fussy and difficult to frame properly. I occasionally use both in the field but not for events; I can’t deal with glazing and spacers in the high-tension moments at the end of a show. The worst injury I’ve ever sustained as a painter happened when I was levering a large sheet of glass into a frame. It snapped under its own weight and sliced my hand. That kind of thing makes you cautious.
Last autumn I did a residency at the Joseph Fiore Art Center. The result was eight oils and eight watercolors, all 24X36. One of each will be on display at the Maine Farmland Trust Gallery starting next week; later this year the whole set will go to the Jackson Memorial Library. It’s difficult to find a frame that works well with both oils and watercolor, but after much searching I found it in a deep, shadow-box moulding from Omega. I ordered enough material for sixteen frames. It has been sitting in the corner of my studio for a month, waiting for me to find the time to start.
Clary Hill, oil on canvas, by Carol L. Douglas
If you’ve done a lot of framing you should be wincing by now at the cost of this venture. The moulding was $800 for the stock alone. I went out yesterday to find the proper glazing material for the watercolors. (It’s easier to find a picture framer than a chain clothing store in my neck of the woods, and that’s how life should be.) The glazing would be between $90 and $140 per picture, depending on what I chose. Each watercolor would also need foam core, mat-board and spacers.
But being professionals, they wanted the frame in hand before they started cutting into their expensive materials. I’d have to return with it this morning.
Glade, watercolor, by Carol L. Douglas
“Then what,” I asked, “would the cost be to assemble the whole thing right here?” The price they gave me was only marginally higher than the materials cost. Bam! I’m dropping off the test picture this morning and they can do the fiddly bits. If it looks as good as I expect it will, they can do all eight of the watercolors.
I can usually copy most things I’ve seen built, and I take pride in craftsmanship, but I’m always working with home tools. I don’t, for example, have a power stapler; I join corners with careful gluing and brackets. Their joiners and staplers don’t just make things faster; they result in tighter, neater work. And while making things is fun, it’s hardly what you want to do when pressed, as I am right now.
Float, oil on canvas, by Carol L. Douglas
I’m in a point in my life where my scarcest asset is time, rather than money. But it’s never occurred to me to hire out work I can do myself. Still, maybe there are times it’s better to let the pros do it.
“I need an admin,” I whined to my upcoming portrait client yesterday afternoon.
“Virtual assistants are the thing. And usually at an attractive fee, too,” she responded. How that works, I don’t know, but perhaps it’s time to find out.

When bad things happen

It’s not what you say or what you do, but how you make people feel that matters the most.
Damariscotta Overlook, by Carol L. Douglas.

Yesterday started auspiciously enough, with clearing skies and a warm sun. I was potting around in my studio when I noticed something awful. The rain on Saturday night had pounded torrentially on the roof above our heads. It also washed its way down an interior beam of my studio and across four of my watercolor landscapes. They were fixed with Krylon acrylic, and the result was a series of sticky driplines.

I reeled. The damaged work represented a quarter of my oeuvre for this residency. “I bet you feel like crying,” Clif Travers said, sympathetically. If he’d looked closer, he’d have seen tears pricking at the corners of my eyes.
Well, there was nobody to blame and nothing I could think of to do about it. My studio space at the Fiore Art Center has a spanking new roof, door and siding. Water must have migrated along a beam from elsewhere and down the wall. This was freak damage, which can happen anywhere, at any time. Furthermore, our work—as precious as it is to us personally—is still just stuff. It was a rotten experience, but by no means did it rise to the level of disaster.
Damariscotta Lake, by Carol L. Douglas. I’ve finished this residency with eight pairs of landscapes, one in oils, one in watercolor.
“It’s no use crying over spilt milk,” I told myself sternly, and set off to paint.
Paint is a perverse mistress. I’ve struggled for a month in oils (which are my primary medium) while watercolor has flowed much more smoothly from my brush. Here on this last day, in the grip of distress, the paint flowed freely from my brush. In fact, it went so smoothly that when Anna Abaldo of Maine Farmland Trust contacted me about the damaged paintings, I declined to talk. Why drag myself back to earth when my work was going so well?
Clouds over Teslin Lake, by Carol L. Douglas. This was painted in 2016, and is quite small.
When we eventually met up, she—with very few words but immense compassion—made me feel infinitely better. She has a plan to deal with the damage, which is in itself reassuring. More importantly, the experience cemented my already-high confidence in her character. “At the end of the day it’s not what you say or what you do, but how you make people feel that matters the most,” said Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos.
Point Prim, watercolor, by Carol L. Douglas. This was painted in 2017, with a pretty bad head, I’m afraid. That’s all Poppy Balser’s and Bobbi Heath’s fault.
Later that evening, Lois Dodd—who’s a personal idol and Maine’s greatest living oil painter—came for supper. I’m totally star-struck around her, and can’t think of a thing to say. However, she’s a lovely, warm, articulate lady. She critiqued one of my paintings. That’s an experience I’ll treasure.
David Deweyslipped me a small notebook before our meal. It contains a series of charts that were the basis of Joseph Fiore’s color exercises. They’re little mathematical puzzles, and they fascinate me. Today I’ll stop at a drugstore and buy some graph paper, and tomorrow—my painting finished for this residency—I’ll sit quietly and try to puzzle them out. I couldn’t ask for a better end to a lovely month.

Come see me on Sunday at Open Studio Day

Gallery, studios, music, ice cream, a beautiful lake—and it’s all free!
Clif Travers works on his great tree for long hours every day. I help him along by constantly asking, “Are you finished?”

 I’ve been at the Joseph A. Fiore Art Center at Rolling Acres Farm this month. This Sunday (September 30th) I get to show you what I’ve been doing. You, the public, are invited to Open Studio Day, from noon to 3. Stop and see what we’ve accomplished.

Our resident gardener, Rachel Alexandrou, will offer hourly tours of the Center’s garden. Rachel has odd ideas about what a Maine garden can support. She grew red cotton, cardoon, artichokes, amaranth, and tiny black grape tomatoes in a small riot of color. When Rachel isn’t gardening, drawing, or taking photographs, she’s entertaining us with mournful songs on her ukulele. However, she’s a bubbly person, so they’re frequently interrupted with peals of laughter.
Rachel Alexandrou is outstanding in her field. (Courtesy Maine Farmland Trust)
Clif Travers has made himself an enormous tree of recycled tree products. He’s now painting it in oils, a highly-detailed process. On first read, it’s stained-glass, reminiscent of hours spent in church as a child. But his tree is oddly anthropomorphic, standing protectively over creation. In a nod to Renaissance painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo, many of its parts are made of vegetables. Certain viewers, however, have insisted they’ve seen a hot dog, lamb chop, and other meat products. It is, as far as I can see, totally gluten-free.
Each morning, I’ve met Heather Lyon creeping out of the house at dawn, heading down through the fields to the lake. There, she’s shot beautiful footage of herself in various interactions with water. Wearing a $6 reflective survival poncho she bought at Renys, she was transformed into a beautiful, otherworldly creature. Heather also chilled herself and a collaborator in the very cold waters off Pemaquid Point for the sake of swift-moving footage with seaweed and a crab or two.
Heather Lyon in her studio. (Courtesy Maine Farmland Trust)
I came here with a high-minded idea of painting the confluence between man, water and the land. In reality, I ended up thrashing around between watercolor on Yupo and oil painting. I alternated media every day, painting each subject first in oils, then in watercolor. After a month of this, I can say with certainty only that my brain hurts.
The Gallery here is showing Nature Observed: The Landscapes of Joseph Fiore, with oil and pastel paintings by the late artist and environmentalist. These paintings have influenced my thinking all month. If you practice or love plein air painting, you should come by just to study them.
Damariscotta Lake, by Carol L. Douglas, watercolor on Yupo.
There will be live music on the lawn by jazz trio The Extension Chords, with Myles Kelley on piano, Katherine Bowen on bass and Owen Markowitz on drums. Coffee, tea and local ice cream will be served.
The Joseph A. Fiore Art Center at Rolling Acres Farm is a program of Maine Farmland Trust. Its mission is to actively connect the creative worlds of farming and art making. The Center’s purpose is to continue and evolve the dialogue between human and environment within the context of our current culture and time.
  
My own studio is more of a repository than a workspace. As usual, I’m working out of my Prius.
It’s located on Damariscotta Lake at 152 Punk Point Road in Jefferson. Bring a picnic and enjoy the Center’s grounds for the day.
MFT also runs MFT Gallery, at 97 Main Street, Belfast. It is open Monday through Friday from 9 to 4. On Fourth Friday Art Walks, it is open until 8pm.
Maine Farmland Trust is a statewide, member-powered nonprofit working to protect farmland, support farmers, and advance farming. Maine Farmland Trust created its gallery to celebrate agriculture through art, and to inspire and inform the public about farming in Maine.

The corrosive power of chance remarks

Words have the power to inflict or bind wounds. May we choose ours carefully.
Posted, by Carol L. Douglas. Watercolor on Yupo paper. I never did figure out a color for those water-lilies.

I was checking into an event when the canvas-stamping person said, “Oh, you paint on a red ground? I’ll have to check your work out. A lot of people do that near where I live, and I hate it.”

I have no idea what—or even if—she was thinking when she said that. But it has subtly affected me ever since. I’m finding myself less likely to leave the ground showing, more likely to lard the paint on. Neither is good technique.
I’m a confident painter. Imagine if I was less experienced, or less secure. It might have completely shaken a painter at the start of a competitive event. It’s a perfect example of how not to offer criticism.
Private Island, oil on canvas. This was interrupted by headache last week.
Compare that to my dear friend Mary Byrom, who doesn’t like that red ground either. Mary is a crackerjack painter herself. I know she has good technical reasons for her opinion. She is also a loyal, kind, supportive friend. I know her intentions are good. I can listen to her opinion and weigh it fairly, without being defensive. She’s earned the right to critique my painting.  
I’ve spent the month looking at and absorbing Joseph Fiore’s paintings, and I plan to start tinkering with some of his technical approaches, particularly his surfaces and scribing. He clearly—and successfully—paints on white canvases. He leaves areas white, scrubs the paint back, and lets the ground show through.
After checking every day this week, I decided I had to paint the reflections from my sketch, because there’s a constant breeze on Damariscotta Lake right now.
Toning, for those of you who aren’t painters, means painting the white gesso a color before you start the painting proper. I was taught to always tone my canvases, and it’s something I also teach my students. Of course, the way I learned was to lightly tone with an earth tone in sepia, yellow ochre or grey. The brilliant red was a later addition.
Toning is as old as painting itself, but its rationale is explained through the 19th century concept of simultaneous contrast. This is a fancy way of saying that a color looks lighter against black, darker against white. To see it accurately, you need to see it against something that’s a neutral value.
Toning:
  • Establishes the mid-tone values from the start;
  • Unifies the color of the composition;
  • Sets an emotional tone for the painting;
  • Stops any specks that peek through from competing with your highlights;
  • Gives you a more accurate sense of the value and size of your darks when you first set them down.
In the field, it also stops you from being blinded by brilliant white.
Working Dock is the painting I showed you yesterday, properly photographed this time. (I finished it at dusk.)
From observation, I’d say the majority of my plein air peers start on toned boards. It is something I’ll continue to recommend to my students. But should I keep doing it? That I can’t answer until I experiment on a white canvas. And that will wait until this workshop is over, because I only brought toned canvases with me.
While I’d like to say I’m thinking through this as a response to the Fiore paintings, there’s a small niggling part of me that’s still reacting to that woman’s comment. It’s a reminder that words have the power to inflict or bind wounds. Good advice is invaluable, in painting and in life. But may we all be as kind as Mary Byrom when we offer our opinions.

They like what they see

If you paint in your studio, you miss some marvelous conversations—with animals as well as people.
Working Dock, oil on canvas, by Carol L. Douglas.

I’m using this residency to explore ideas I might otherwise skip over, because they’re not particularly marketable. Yesterday, for example, I managed to channel David Hockney’speculiar perspective and flat planes onto a grey working lobster dock in Maine. I was surprised when a lobsterman asked me how much I wanted for the painting.

I don’t want to sell any of this work before I’ve shown it as a series. But I looked up my price and told him how much it will eventually be.
He repeated it back to me awestruck, and asked, “Are you famous?
A lobster pound at Tenants Harbor, by Carol L. Douglas, courtesy the Kelpie Gallery. Working docks are fascinating to paint. 
Well, not unfamous. But that’s not really the point. It’s like lobstering, I said. Both lobstermen and plein air artists have high operating costs and significant business risk. (We also work outside in all kinds of weather, but their job is far more dangerous than mine.)
“It’s a lot more than lobster,” he laughed. Well, if you price it by the pound, yeah.
My intention for this residency has been to do each locale first in oils and then in watercolor, but that’s been shaken up some by the recent rain. Today’s painting is the mate to Monday’s watercolor. I hope I get it straight before I head home at the end of next week.
Little Giant, by Carol L. Douglas, courtesy of Camden Falls Gallery.
The other day, Bobbi Heath and I were hit onvery politely, mind you. Bobbi and I are both, erm, grandmotherly, and neither of us were remotely chic. Heck, I never even combed my hair that morning. Then again, I never do.
“Are either of you ladies single?” he asked. Bobbi thought that line needed work, but we were polite in kind.
Later, he came back and asked me, “But are you happily married?”
Pilings, by Carol L. Douglas.
A couple from Pennsylvania stopped to chat. A ruckus erupted in front of us.
“A kingfisher!” the husband exclaimed. After a moment his face fell. “A chipmunk.” Chipmunks are my most steadfast painting companions. They’re always chattering at me.
I’ve seen so many turkeys this year that I’m almost inspired to them (in my studio, in the winter). I’ve also seen a lot of deer mice in unnatural poses. They like to visit the pantry at the end of summer, and they pay for it with their lives.
I’ve met a lot of surprising creatures over the years. I’m basically silent, except for the swish-swish of my brush, and animals get curious. Here in Jefferson, it’s been the usual woodland creatures. A few days ago, I had to stamp my feet at a squirrel who was coming too close. “I’ll make a brush out of your tail!” I told him.
Working Dock in its Hockney phase. There are elements of this abstraction that I’d like to recapture.
Working Dock, above, spent a long time looking as if the far wharf had erupted in flames. I wanted to maintain a separation between the trees. Passers-by avoided it when it was in that stage, particularly the guys who work on the dock. Perhaps they know something they’re not telling.
A studio painter told me that when he paints outside, he’s thrown by the public commentary. I understand how that can happen, particularly if you’re not confident in your skills. But most people are kind, even to the rawest, newest student. They genuinely like what they see: the miracle of that scene over there being translated into this picture, right here.
If you work in a studio, or you work outside with headphones on, you miss some wonderful interactions. Yes, the public can be a distraction, but they’re also a joy.

A sense of place

I can’t get a painting out of my mind. That means the artist did an unusually good job.
Lobster dock, by Carol L. Douglas, watercolor on Yupo paper.

In September, our days often start with fog, as the cooler, longer nights of autumn dance with the warm ocean. “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,” John Keats called it. It’s exquisitely cool on the skin and a delight to paint. But I was having none of that joy on Sunday. In fact, I was miserable.

As the sky cleared, the day emerged perfect. There is a limpid, golden light from now until March in this latitude. Still, it’s not cold; a warm, gentle breeze floated across Damariscotta Lake. September is the most glorious month in Maine, and the knowledgeable holiday-makers know it.
They were out in force, zipping along the water on their jet skies, in power and pontoon boats. I like boats, and don’t generally begrudge them their fun on the water, but the engine sounds were drilling neat holes in my temples. After six hours, I capitulated to my awful headache and packed up my brushes.
I’m not a crank, I have hay fever. Really.
Yesterday morning I noticed that my eyes were swollen. The penny dropped. I used to have fierce autumn allergies when I lived along the Lake Plains. Here, my bedroom overlooks a hundred-acre hayfield. I have hayfever again.
I’d planned on meeting Bobbi Heath to paint in the pickerelweed above Damariscotta Mills. When I showed her my eyes, she suggested that we go, instead, to the shore, where the ocean breezes could clear my sinuses. That is how we ended up at Round Pond, and it suited me to a T.
Private Island, definitely unfinished, by Carol L. Douglas
I’m having fun with Yupo, and doing some interesting work with it, but the medium is driving my painting, rather than being subservient to any sense of place. That’s shifting, but it’s a slow process.
“Sense of place” is difficult to define. Most geographic places have strong identities, although some (like shopping malls) are interchangeable. But sense of place isn’t merely geographical. It’s also perception, based on history and feelings.
A sense of place needn’t be positive. Charles Dickens opened Great Expectations in a miasma of graveyard, swamp, and convict hulks on the river. Charles Burchfieldhas a tremendous sense of his adopted hometown of Buffalo, and it’s threatening. But in painting, sense of place is generally a positive thing.
In the national imagination, Maine has a strong place identity. That is why gazillions of ceramic lighthouses are flogged here every year. But a sense of place is deeper than simple media coverage and souvenir shopping. Digging to its essence is one of the trickiest jobs in landscape painting.
View from Mount Pisgah, by Deborah Lazar, has a tremendous sense of place. It comes from the brushwork as much as from the forms.
I’ve thought a lot about a painting I saw last month at Adirondack Plein Air that has a stellar sense of place. It was a tiny gem, almost unnoticed in the crush, but it’s resonated with me ever since. I asked its painter, Deborah Lazar, if I could share it with you.
Deborah has captured the Adirondacks’ essential color and form in simple terms. I can practically feel the wind in the looseness of her brushwork. She couldn’t have done that had she focused on style rather than content, because her mark-making would have overridden the movement of the wind. 
Style is often what’s rewarded by jurors. But this painting has stuck with me long after the prize-winners have faded from my memory.

Equipment troubles

It’s time to make some hard choices about my two wooden easels.
The last cutting, v. 2, by Carol L. Douglas. Watercolor, same subject as yesterday, but turned the other way. This is one of those times where a square canvas would be appropriate.

 On Wednesday, I realized I’d lost my watercolor palette on Clary Hill. The palette—$14.79 at Jerry’s—is no big deal. It was, however, fully loaded with paint. That’s an expensive nick in the wallet.

I use an old Mabef tripod swing easel for watercolor. I’ve had it forever. It has been replaced by a larger version in most catalogues, but this old friend has been a reliable, versatile workmate for several decades. A few years ago, the head cracked on one side. I compressed and glued it so it worked again. The thumbscrew no longer tightens enough to hold the arm perfectly stable, so I prop it up with my knee when painting. For big boards, I’ve been taping the support to the easel’s head rather than trying to hold it mechanically. I seem to end up using this easel in preference to newer, snazzier ones.
On Tuesday in the dripping rain, that original crack opened back up again. I duct-taped it tightly and hoped for the best. Yesterday, the other side of the head cracked. Again, I taped it together. However, with no tension in the head, the arm is free to bounce around willy-nilly on its pivot. I’m afraid my old friend may be headed for the woodstove.
With both sides of the head cracked, there is nothing to keep tension on the pivot head, and the arm can swing willy-nilly.
There are many reasons to love wooden easels—they’re relatively cheap, they’re stable in high winds, and, properly cared for, they can last for years. However, they have two shortcomings. The first is that wood is heavy. Few modern-day plein air painters have donkeys or servants to carry our equipment up steep hillsides. When I was forty, this wasn’t a big issue. As I approach sixty, it has become a limiting factor. An aluminum pochade box and a lightweight tripod weigh a fraction of what a decent wood easel does.
Wood is hygroscopic. That means the moisture content changes depending on the relative humidity. That’s the killer for all unfinished wood used outdoors, and easels are no exception. My Gloucester easel—also old, purchased used many years ago—requires a rock to hammer the pins into place, because they’ve swollen over time.
Painting earlier this year with a Gloucester easel. It’s the only easel tough enough for on-shore winds. Photo courtesy of Karen Lybrand.
That’s an easel with an interesting history. It is a traditional European design that was brought to Gloucester, MA, at the turn of the last century by painter Oscar Anderson. He made and sold them to fellow artists; old ones bear his name-plate.  The Anderson easel became known generically as a “Gloucester easel.” Today there are two versions available—a beautifully milled, expensive one called the Take-It Easel, and a mass-produced one called the Beauport Easel. They work exactly the same, although I imagine the better-made one will last longer.
It’s a very stable design, and it has the great advantage of allowing work to tilt forward toward a sitting painter. Still, I don’t like to carry it any farther than I can trundle it in a wagon. Not only is it big and cumbersome, it is held in the folded position by only a canvas strap. (Mine rotted away years ago.) And it’s useless for watercolor, because the head doesn’t pivot.
Meanwhile, the unsettled Atlantic is giving us some very interesting sunrises. This was yesterday’s; this morning we were socked in with fog.
I have a spare pivot-head easel in my studio in Rockport, and I’ll collect it on Saturday. It’s a Guerilla painter head that I adapted to hold a larger board. With its tripod, it weighs a ton, but that won’t matter for this residency. After that, I’ll take apart both my wooden easels and make some hard choices. Can they be rehabbed, or must they be replaced?

Rachel’s garden

One of the great virtues of old age is knowing that small problems are transient. So is bad painting.
Rachel’s Garden, by Carol L. Douglas. Watercolor on Yupo, full sheet.
Plein air events require that you churn out paintings despite the weather. The caterers, the hall, the advertising and the auctioneer cannot be easily rescheduled. The wet, whipping show must go on. I’m not doing an event, but my goal for this residency is to paint outdoors despite the weather.
September can be the worst month for this, because it’s hurricane season along the Atlantic coast. We aren’t in as much danger here in Maine, but we often get the sloppy dregs of other people’s storms.
Neither Monday nor Tuesday were good painting days. On Monday, there were cutting winds, compensated in part by a dull pink sky that hung around all morning. Tuesday, it simply poured.
Yesterday (9/11) was a national day of mourning that I was determined to avoid. It’s also the anniversary of my mother’s death four years ago. Here at Rolling Acres Farm, I’m surrounded by young people and creative ferment. I was grateful for that.
Painting with Rachel Alexandrou in the rain. Photo courtesy Rachel Alexandrou and Maine Farmland Trust.
The barn here is built on the standard New England plan: hayloft above and animals below. My parents owned such a barn for fifty years, so I am as familiar with this model as I am with the lines in my own face. Perhaps there was a painting of gentle remembrance in the undercroft’s murky light. No luck; it is filled with the timbers from the original loft.
Rachel Alexandrou is the resident gardener here. Her garden is very different from the ordered rows of my youth. It’s beautiful and productive, but also very unstructured. It would have been easier to paint a slice of it up close, but that wasn’t possible in a pouring rain. Besides, I was in no mood to “keep it simple,” as a sensible painter would.
My childhood home, from History of Niagara County, N.Y.,1878, by Sanford & Company.
The garden is bracketed by a dead sapling and a Black Walnut. This tree is common in America’s heartland; a massive one was already middle-aged in my parents’ lawn when their house was drawn in 1878. It was still there when the house was sold three years ago. While Black Walnuts are valuable timber trees, they’re also allelopathic; meaning they kill any young plants trying to get a footing near them. The one at Rolling Acres Farm is the first I’ve seen in Maine, but I didn’t want to paint it. I find them threatening.
That same black walnut in 2010.
I set up under a porte-cochèrethat connects the house and barn. Rachel has been experimenting with making Black Walnut ink, so she joined me.
The mist and rain came close to defeating us. I was further hampered by not being able to find my palette. The Maine Farmland Trust is dedicated to environmental stewardship, so there are no plastic plates. I used a paper one for a palette, not too successfully.
Rolling Acres Farm (unfinished) by Carol L. Douglas, was painted Monday.
I quit as dusk neared. It was then that I noticed I had a very soft tire. My car just isn’t up to the rocky tracks I’ve been subjecting it to. A slow drive into Damariscotta and an air compressor, and I could head back to Clary Hill to see if I’d dropped my palette there. I scouted along the lane to no avail. Walking back, I realized I have a marker light out in my car.
My temporary palette. Ouch.
One of the great virtues of old age is knowing that small problems are transient. So is bad painting. Today or tomorrow, it will all be fine again.