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.

Autumn color is hitching up its skirts and getting ready to sprint

Interested in fall foliage? This is the ultimate road trip for a leaf-looker.
Glade #1, by Carol L. Douglas. Watercolor on Yupo.

We haven’t had a frost yet, but with each day I see a bit more color. To date, it’s mostly the sumacs and undergrowth, but the top of the birches are starting to glint gold.

Someone sent me this cool interactive fall foliage map. It’s probably a good, broad sketch, but I’m skeptical about the details. I know, for example, that Penobscot Bay is unlikely to change in tandem with Fort Kent, ME. Nor will Rochester turn side-by-side with the high peaks of the Adirondacks.
Maine’s official color-spotters agree with me. “Northern Maine is at or near peak conditions the last week of September into the first week of October. Central, and western mountains of Maine are at or near peak Columbus Day week/weekend. Coastal and southern Maine generally reach peak or near peak conditions mid-to-last October.”
Glade #2, by Carol L. Douglas. Oil on canvas.
If it were up to me, I’d be heading north to Canada’s Algonquin Provincial Park today, with my canoe. It’s not a western park, but it would give me aspen, tamarack and maples, set against black spruce.
Then I’d spend a few days in Ottawa, Montreal and Quebec City for a dose of Canadian city life. I’d continue to Halifax and spend a few days knocking about Nova Scotia’s eastern shore, reveling in ancient maritime Canada. Eventually, I’d head to Digby and the ferry to St. John, NB. I’d then roll south, making sure to stop at West Quoddy Head Light and the boreal trail at Quoddy Head State Park.
Marshes along the Ottawa River, Plaisance, Quebec, by Carol L. Douglas
Stop right there, Carol. “You just skipped mysterious, moody Eastport,” I admonish myself. Well, I also skipped Lunenburgand Peggy’s Cove in Nova Scotia, and the fossil cliffs of New Brunswick. Not to mention the superlative Group of Sevencollection at the National Gallery in Ottawa. It’s impossible to list the interesting stuff you’d see on this trip, but if you can’t blow four weeks driving from Algonquin to Boston, you’re not really trying.
It’s under 3000 km. The trip of a lifetime, I tell you.
Speaking of the Group of Seven, I’m finishing up my residency at the the Joseph Fiore Art Center with a classically Go7 exercise which I periodically attempt and at which I never excel. That’s painting a glade. I don’t want a dominant tree, or to use white birches as a foil for dark foliage. I’m looking for a deeper kind of compositional integrity, and, so far, I haven’t found it.
This tiny glade first attracted me because of the glitter of the lone yellow tree against all that green. It would have been difficult enough to paint it in sunlight. In the dripping gloom and mist and rain we’ve had this week, it’s been maddening. I don’t think either painting was a success, but they’re both interesting, and that’s all I really want for today.
We’re winding down now. Clif Travers and I agree that today is the last day it’s possible to paint in oils and have work that’s dry enough to move. I may paint in watercolor Saturday, or I may coo at my brushes and clean up my kit for my next big event.

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.

The road home

How much of what we know is truth and how much is the convention of our times?

After the final cutting, Carol L. Douglas

In the 21st century, we are being driven inexorably toward higher and higher chroma (color intensity). This isn’t just happening in painting, but also in photography, home furnishings, and hair coloring. Occasionally an artist will take refuge in monochrome, but the delicately modeled colors of our predecessors are out of vogue. We live and die at 1280 x 720 pixels, and delicacy just doesn’t cut it on a computer monitor.
Yesterday, David Dewey spent a few hours with Clif Travers and me, going through a wealth of Joseph Fiore paintings. These are in storage and represent his entire career, from his studies at Black Mountain College until shortly before his death. Unlike most painters, Fiore didn’t run through clearly defined stylistic periods. He operated on parallel tracks of abstraction and realism, each informing the other.
Guardian of the Falls, 1983, Joseph Fiore, oil on canvas, 52 x 44, courtesy of the Falcon Foundation.
His folios are full of small studies in watercolor, oil, and pastel, now chemically stabilized. The majority are formal color exercises, many based on a mathematical grid of his own devising. David identified these as Bauhaus in character, which in turn takes us back to Paul Klee, Josef Albersand Wassily Kandinsky.
Klee closely connected color and music, making the connection between harmony and complementary colors, and dissidence and clashing colors (whatever they may be). Albers was a hands-on scientific colorist who taught at Black Mountain College when Fiore was there.
Field sketch forGuardian of the Falls (above), courtesy of the Falcon Foundation. It’s watercolor and about 12×16.
Fiore’s color studies are a balm to the eye starved for subtlety. There are grids of closely analogous greens and browns; grids punctuated with black. In addition to being beautiful, they fly in the face of our current color model. 
That just shows how much of what we think we know is the convention of our time, not eternal truths of painting. Take, for example, all of Kandinsky’s twaddle in Concerning the Spiritual in Art.  For much of the twentieth century, people took that seriously.
The artist’s job is to get through all that to the nut of the matter. The only way I know to do that is to paint—a lot.
David mentioned that he uses Arches 500 in his studio work, but mixes it up in the field. The accidents that ensue help him avoid staleness. This is exactly my goal in alternating between watercolor and oil in this residency, and in painting so big and fast. I am trying to shake up my oil painting.
I was able to maintain the truth of the landscape in my sketch.
Nature has a certain awkwardness. We landscape painters are taught to edit that away into a ‘better’ composition. After examining so many paintings, I wondered how much of that is also a fashion issue. I resolved to not do it in my afternoon painting, but to be completely faithful to what God and man had laid down in that field. I don’t think I succeeded. The personal impulse is just too strong to ignore.
But when I started painting, I succumbed to the urge to prettify.
With all that fizzing in our heads, Clif and I went back to the farm and returned to work. The lake was still unsettled from this week’s storm, so I painted the small private cemetery and its lane. The lake beyond made this very much a painting of the intersection between land, water and man.
Having spent the morning in study, I didn’t finish the painting to any high surface. It’s slightly easier to do that with watercolor, since it goes faster. But in either case, the pace is starting to tell on me. I’m getting tired.

Clary Hill

Stone walls are a subtle reminder of the vast human labor that has gone into these fields.
Clary Hill #2, by Carol L. Douglas. Watercolor on Yupo, full sheet.

I ran into Kevin Beers in Damariscotta, and asked him if he’d ever been to Clary Hill, site of a painting by that name by Joseph Fiore. He had, and offered directions. However, knowing where I’m going violates one of my cardinal rules of shunpiking. Instead, Clif Travers and I headed north and up until we found the hill and its blueberry barrens. We did not, however, find the scene that Fiore painted.

I dropped Clif off at Rolling Acres Farm and collected my oil-painting kit. If I hurried, there was just enough time to finish a painting in the waning light. It’s perfectly serviceable, but the composition doesn’t begin to express the skewed perspective on this hilltop.
Blueberries, by Carol L. Douglas. By late September, the red of the blueberry barrens is an impossible color.
In early September, the groundcover is orange-red and the small outcroppings of trees are green. Farther along in the season, the plants will be an impossible, deep, uniform red. There are open patches where nothing grows. In a more conventional landscape, these would be small ponds, but here they are granite, rising to the surface in long fingers.
The farther north you travel on the Atlantic seaboard, the more blueberry barrens you see. They and their close relatives, cranberries, are the only crops that we harvest from wild plants. But blueberries aren’t planted and cultivated in purpose-built bogs, as cranberries are. Instead, blueberries spread from rhizomes. You don’t plant them as much as encourage them. In the right conditions, they grow like weeds, including in my lawn. In that sense they’re more like a natural resource than a crop.
Clary Hill #1, by Carol L. Douglas. Oil on canvas, 36X24.
Wild blueberries bear little resemblance to the fat highbush blueberries that are grown commercially in milder climes. Ours are short, tough, shrubby things, with tiny berries. The wild ones like the acidic soil and abundant sunshine of the far north, and they have their counterparts in the subarctic ring worldwide.
Today rocks can be moved with heavy equipment, but the stone walls that crisscross blueberry barrens were built by unknown, long-gone hands. The berries are hand-harvested as well. That makes the stone wall an integral part of the portrait of a blueberry barren, a subtle reminder of the vast labor that has been done on this spot for generations.
Sketch for the painting at top.
On Sunday, I went back again with watercolors. As I was setting up, a birder stopped by. He’s been visiting Clary Hill for forty years, and encouraged me to cross the gate and walk to the top. There, laid out below me, was Joseph Fiore’s vista. I would have had to trespass to get his exact view, but the wishbone track peters off to the right, just as he painted it. Far in the distance is the coast—St. George, perhaps, or Owls Head.
Just like old times!
I was just settling down to work when my daughter Mary showed up. Our phones location-share, so she drove over from Augusta to find me. Mary traveled across Canadawith me, studying and reading while I painted. It was like old times. She did homework while I painted, on a barren hilltop in the middle of nowhere.

A month in the shadow of a great painter

Ghost stories, cemeteries, and the work of a great painter

Clif and I visited this old cemetery in the waning light.

If I had any talent for poetry, I’d have exercised it last night. I’m at the Joseph Fiore Art Center in Jefferson, Maine for a one-month residency. My room faces east. I watched the slow rotation of the night sky, the stars overflowing their courses. The dawn rose red and fiery, glinting through the trees off the waters of Damariscotta Lake.

I spent yesterday with the other visual artist in residence, Clif Travers of Kingfield, ME. Clif is both a writer and painter, and recently returned to his hometown after a long stint in Brooklyn. His work here will involve panels and prose, brackets and blocks. I’m curious about what the end result will be; I imagine he is, too.

Moving into a temporary studio is more daunting for a studio painter than for me; I simply had to offload my extra supports and was done.

My studio away from home.

When we’d both finished, Clif and I took a quick jaunt to Rising Tide Co-op in Damariscotta and Pemaquid Point. It’s rare that I can play tour-guide to a native Mainer, but Kingfield is way inland and north.

There is a family cemetery set within the aptly-named Rolling Acres Farm. It’s of a type I identify more with Scotland than America, a set of small ‘rooms’ separated by carefully-laid up dry walls.

Katahdin, 1975, Joseph A. Fiore, courtesy Maine Farmland Trust

I’d already retired when Clif called up that I should come down and see the waning day’s pyrotechnics. The few white stones glowed peach against the dark woods. We set off through the hayfields to photograph it, me in my bare feet.

“Maybe this place is haunted,” Clif enthused. Well, I was raised in a notorious haunted house, but it was late and I refused to tell him about it. Ghost stories need their buildup, after all.
My workspace is in an old barn, redolent of old hay. But I don’t expect to spend much time there. I’ve a goal in mind for this residency. It involves the intersection of water and land, and—mostly—painting big. Unfortunately, my monster Rosemary & Co. brushes are delayed, so I’m going to have to be flexible in my approach.

View from Bald Rock, 1971, Joseph A. Fiore, courtesy Maine Farmland Trust

Who was Joseph Fiore (1925–2008) and why is there an art center dedicated to him in Jefferson, ME? Fiore was born in Cleveland, the son of a violinist. He was musical himself, and that is very evident in his painting. He attended the experimental Black Mountain College on the GI Bill and studied with Josef Albers, Ilya Bolotowsky, and Willem DeKooning. Later, he taught there.

With those instructors, it’s no surprise that Fiore was, foremost, an abstractionist. However, his work is rooted in nature and he also painted lovely, loose, realistic landscapes. His paint is worked very thin, and his brushwork is loose and measured. Leaving that much canvas is the mark of a good draftsman, because any dithering shows.
After Black Mountain closed, Fiore settled in New York, where he taught at Parsons. In 1959 he and his wife began summering in Maine. They bought an old farmhouse in Jefferson, which they used for the rest of his life.

Clary Hill, 1970, Joseph A. Fiore, courtesy Maine Farmland Trust

Fiore and his wife Mary were avid supporters of Maine Farmland Trust. When the Trust purchased this waterfront farm, the idea of the art center was born.

My first response to being surrounded by his work was a kind of intellectual shock, where everything I thought I knew about painting was challenged. Now, nearly 24 hours later, I’m adjusting somewhat. But the opportunity to be submersed in another artist’s work is not to be sneezed at, so I’m adjusting my plans to allow time with the paintings every day.