What is style?

Want to become a caricature of yourself? Just focus on your style rather than the content of your work.

Commissioned portrait, by Carol L. Douglas. In this instance, high-key lighting was necessary to convey the spirit of the model, and so I used it.
Art & Fear, by David Bayles and Ted Orland, is a book that every artist should read. Not only does it destroy the myth of genius, it also points out that there is no end point in art making. The working artist can never rest on his laurels. Art-making is a constantly-renewing process of discovery. This is something that can be seen in the careers of every great master from Rembrandt to Monet.
A good artist investigates knotty questions. When they are answered, he moves on, just like Omar Khayyam’s moving finger. So often, by the time we get through the cycle of making and mounting a body of work, we’re no longer that interested in it. We’ve moved on to another struggle.

Castine Lunch Break, by Carol L. Douglas. For many years, I was interested in patterning. Of course, I can only say that after the fact; I didn’t realize it at the time.

Most of us (especially those who have worked as commercial artists) can mimic other painters. There’s also significant variation in how we approach painting problems. For example, I’ll occasionally paint in great detail, with lots of modeling. I was initially trained to paint that way, and I know enough about how paints handle to be able to blend and layer them.

However, what truly interests me right now is not mastering representation, but something far more visceral. This is more fundamental than style. Can I put a name to the question that’s currently bedeviling me? No; I’ve learned that is a shortcut to putting myself in a box. However, not being verbalized doesn’t make it any less real.

After the Storm, pastel, by Carol L. Douglas, is a very old work. Is it stylistically that different from my current work? I don’t think so.

I discourage painting students from ‘embracing their style,’ because to me that’s a trap that they may not be able to escape. Sometimes, what people call style is just technical deficiency. For example, some painters separate their color fields with narrow lines—white paper in watercolor, dark outlines in oils. I’d like to know that they embraced this voluntarily, not because they never learned how to marry edges.

Mature artists don’t generally think about style. At that point, style is the gap between what they perceive and what comes off their brush. That’s deeply revelatory, and it can be disturbing when we see it in our own work.

Wreck of the SS Ethie, by Carol L. Douglas. This was painted in 2016, but would not have worked in a looser style, since the shipwreck and rocks provided the abstraction.

Some of us try to cover that up with stylings, not realizing that those moments of revelation are what viewers hunger for. They—not the nominal subject of the piece—are the real connection between the artist and his audience.

There’s a difference between style and being stylish. I enjoy Olena Babak’s ability to describe reflections in a single, fluid brush line. I feel the same way about Kari Ganoung Ruiz’ emotive, energetic highlights. Neither of these are styles. They are, instead, self-confident skill, which results in stylish brush work.

Flood Tide, 2017, by Carol L. Douglas. Where am I going now? I’ll let you know.

I do not admire painters who use the same scribing or pattern-making on the surface of every painting. It’s style for its own sake, and it often is just a ruse to cover up badly-conceived paintings.

Making choices

Every time you paint plein air you make choices. Frequently they turn out to be wrong. How do you deal with them?

In the belly of the whale, by Carol L. Douglas

When you are painting for fun, you have the luxury of scrubbing out bad ideas. When you’re painting in a competitive event, you have limited time. You need to find ways to fix the problems you create without starting again from scratch. Sometimes these are the most interesting paintings, if you don’t lose your nerve.

Yesterday, Bobbi Heathtook her oatmeal up on the roof. While she concentrated on her painting, a seagull stuck his beak through the lid and pulled it off. Evidently he didn’t like it, so he smeared it across the hot tub cover. That’s an example of a bad choice, one that seemed relatively innocuous but ended up making a big mess.
An evil, breakfast-poaching seagull (photo courtesy of Bobbi Heath).
I usually start field paintings with a sketch and value study. I find this saves me time over the long run. Occasionally, I throw out this standard practice and start by making a big abstraction on my canvas. I did that on Wednesday in my painting of Beach Haven. I then struggled to integrate the red umbrella on the bottom left.
The problem ended up creating a more dynamic painting than a more intellectual process would have. I liked it so much that I repeated the process with In the Belly of the Whaleyesterday. Again, I struggled with bits and pieces that kept sliding out of my compositional pocket. The resulting painting isn’t brilliantly drafted, but nobody could call it boring. I call that success.
A basic part of the boat-painting process is checking to see how long the captain plans to stay in harbor. I ask, but it’s not always infallible. Yesterday, I hollered down to my new deck-hand friend Brian to ask him how long F/V Captain John would be in her slip.
The ice guy was interesting but wouldn’t be a good subject for a plein air painting.
They would be in for several days, he told me. I set up to paint. However, I neglected to ask him whether they would be pulling down the dredging rig. It was the subject of my painting. Oops.
We all understand that it’s never a great idea to try something completely new at a competitive event, like pulling out a new medium you’ve never used before. Ignoring that rule, Kari Ganoung Ruiz decided to try out casein for the first time at Adirondack Plein Air. “I need better brushes, but it was pretty good,” she told me. Actually, the resulting miniature was inspired.
There are ergonomic issues, like bringing a board that is too big for your easel. I painted 14X18 this week, but my little aluminum contraption maxes out at 11X14. I just tied things down with a bungee cord and hoped for the best. That’s an error I need to fix before the next big wind, by building or buying a bigger box.
Rooftop Aerie, by Carol L. Douglas (sold).
Yesterday, I learned that it is foolish for women painters of a certain age to ask young, male deckhands for lunch recommendations. Our lunches were regrettably enormous and starchy.

Bobbi didn’t have her usual car, so we packed a lot of things in a Toyota RAV4. It’s a great little vehicle, but we had to make hard choices about what to bring. We were simultaneously rooting through masses of stuff and Mcgyveringsolutions for things we didn’t have.

My tribe is a circus

Love more, forgive more, hug more, and say ‘I’m sorry’ more.

Along Kiwassa Lake, by Carol L. Douglas

Saturday threatened rain, so John Slivjak, Tara Will and Stacy Rogers wisely set up in a bandshell for the Adirondack Plein Air Quick-Draw. I was nearby.

It was not until I bent to fix my umbrella that I noticed a musician setting up equipment on the stage. John, Tara and Stacy just played through, like the professionals they are.
Aside from a little air guitar, John Slivjak, Tara Wills and Stacy Rogers didn’t let a performance distract them. (Photo courtesy of Ann Slivjak)
Friday had been a great opening reception and sale. Still, I had been settling into a bad mood all day. Being doused as I left Town Hall didn’t help. I am not prone to the black dog of depression, but I was questioning my life choices, feeling old, washed up and hopeless. I thought I might be getting a cold. “You’re just overtired,” my husband consoled me.
Friends invited me to go out for a celebratory drink. “No thanks, I’d rather drink alone,” I groused.
Two weeks ago, my husband and I flew to Baltimore to pray with a friend. During Saturday’s Quick-Draw, I got a text from his wife telling me that he was failing. At 1:30 PM my husband called to tell me that Emerson had passed away.
We were in the whirl of an art sale. There was nothing I could do but shut down my feelings and get on with the job. In our brief conversation, my husband told me he’d felt it was coming. I realized then that I had been given the gift of grieving in advance.
Tomatoes, my Quick-Draw from the Festival.
Emerson was a wise old bird. He looked to the state of his own soul rather than fussing at others about their choices. That’s the harder road. It means facing up to our faults, repenting, and resolving to stop our sin cycles. It requires terrifying honesty.
It’s also the only way to be a light of the world. With so few of them around, I found it difficult to understand how God could call home such a powerful saint. Still, Christians get no special pass from the troubles of mankind. We’re just given a powerful tool—grace—to deal with them.
“Death eventually will come for us all,” said Emerson’s friend Mary Beth Robinson. “What we do today affects the legacy we leave. This week perhaps we should strive to love more, forgive more, hug more, say ‘I’m sorry’ more, and simply try to make a mark for good in our little part of the world.”
Part of my posse, 2017: Kari Ganoung Ruiz, me, Tarryl Gabel, Crista Pisano and Laura Martinez-Bianco. All the bling was in footwear this year.
Meanwhile, the reception ground on. A woman asked me if it was fun meeting other artists. I laughed and explained that we are a small community who know most of each other from other events. We’re like circus performers, a distinct tribe of people who labor in obscurity until the day we set up our tent show in your town. I treasure these friendships, and every event I do adds a few more.
The same posse in 2014, with the addition of Mira Fink and Marlene Wiedenbaum. We were younger and more stylin’ then.
Reminded of this, I spent the rest of the afternoon talking to my friends, catching up on their news. A few minutes after we finished, I was on the road again. I pulled over twice to wipe my eyes. I think it was the spruce pollen.

What is romanticism?

The next time I need to paint a nocturne, I’m going to a Ford dealership and painting F-150s.

Spruces and pines on the Barnum Brook Trail, by Carol L. Douglas.

Nocturnes are very popular right now, but I suspect I’m not romantic enough for them. I can’t exactly put my finger on what romance in painting means, but I think it involves thinking sensually vs. analytically. Anders Zorn is a romantic painter. Winslow Homeris not (even though he painted some brilliant nocturnes).

I’m not talking about the artistic movement of the 19thcentury here, but rather the response of the soul to paint. This isn’t a technical distinction or a matter of subject. It’s a question of how we see the world. My old pal Kari Ganoung Ruiz is a wonderful painter of nocturnes. She’s also a very romantic soul. I just keep thinking about how early I must get up in the morning.
Perhaps what I’ve been talking about, above, is sentimentality. Romanticism may be just a question of what we really love. The lonely light in the darkness is a painting of longing. It reminds me of Jay Gatsby staring at the green light at the end of Tom and Daisy’s dock. I’ve read it twice, and I still hate that book.
Young trees, by Carol L. Douglas
Earlier, I’d painted with Lisa Burger-Lentz and John Slivjakat Paul Smith’s VIC. They, like many other painters here at Adirondack Plein Air, are from the greater Philadelphia area. I started a large canvas of rocks, pines and spruces along the Barnum Brook trail. This is a very popular scene, but it’s not my favorite trail in the VIC. I’m usually drawn to the Boreal Life Trail, which runs through a bog. 
Vallkulla, 1908, by Anders Zorn (courtesy Wikiart)
I’ve been drawn to baby pines and spruces ever since seeing Anders Zorn: Sweden’s Master Painter in 2014. Zorn treats infant trees with the respect we usually give their towering elders. Tiny trees are everywhere in the forest. They are more than just punctuation marks. Without them, there would be no green at our eye level, because the canopy is far above our heads. Plus, baby trees are cute.
I edited reality to feature two eastern white pines in the foreground where two baby spruces were growing. It didn’t go well, so I stopped and did a small study of young trees. This helped enough that I could go back to my original painting. As in so many things, nature knows best. Spruces worked better there than the white pines, so I put them back where they belonged.
Unfinished, by Carol L. Douglas
As dusk fell, I drove to the local ice cream stand to do the small nocturne, above. This is a terrible photo of a half-finished painting, which possibly needs cropping with a radial arm saw. I hope to set up somewhere today where I have access to my car, so that I can finish it. Really, however, I’m more interested in the pines.

You call this working?

For me, serious illness was a  corrective to the impulse to tiptoe around my calling. It reminded me that time is precious and fleeting. 

As I tried to figure out how my carefully-planned day went so haywire, a friend pointed out, “you hate packing and you love boats.” That is the only explanation for giving up what I absolutely had to do in order to join Howard Gallagher and Ken DeWaard on the Dirty Dory.
Camden is full of beautiful boats. It’s easy enough to find opportunities to paint them at rest. It’s much more difficult to see them under sail. I have a few photos from last year’s trip on American Eagle. Two years ago, Howard took the late Lee Boynton and me out to see the start of the Eggemoggin Reach Regatta. We shot pictures of modern boats. But opportunities to shoot the massive old schooners under way are limited, and I should grab them when I can.
Mercantile raising her sails.
It takes a skilled navigator to get in position while not annoying the schooner crew, and Howard is that. Here’s the video he shot while we were out:
One of the boats we followed out was the ketch Angelique. She is distinctive for her brown-rose tan-barked sails. In 2016, Poppy Balser and I sketched her as she stood off Castine in a harbor that already hosted Bowdoinand J&E Riggin. It was a magical morning but eventually I finished and left. Poppy stayed; Angelique docked; Poppy scored. Timing, as they say, is everything.
Angelique at the Dock, watercolor, by Poppy Balser.
The same was true yesterday. I returned to my studio to frame and photograph paintings and clean and pack my car. Ed Buonvecchio called; we chatted about the recent Finger Lakes Plein Air Festival. Kari Ganoung Ruiz, who won Best in Show, is a friend and a fellow member of Greater Rochester Plein Air Painters. She was my monitor for my 2015 Sea and Sky workshop. Kudos to a fine, fine painter.
Ed and I are heading to Nova Scotia this afternoon to paint in the Parrsboro International Plein Air Festival. I was there earlier this year with Bobbi Heath. The landscape is spectacular and I’m expecting great things to happen.
Angelique leaving Camden harbor.
This three-day event is full of meet-and-greet events, more than this old recluse is accustomed to. The culmination is a Collector’s Gala on Saturday night. I’m a little anxious at its posh description. Oh, well. One bright side to owning only one dress is that one doesn’t need to dither about what to wear. No, I’m not packed, but in the end, will anyone remember what I wore?
My husband says that after my first bout with cancer, I quit doing things I didn’t want to do. That’s not entirely true; every life is full of mundane and humdrum chores like packing. What has changed is that I try to not let obligation stand in the way of opportunity. Serious illness is a great corrective to the human impulse to tiptoe around our true calling. It reminds us that time is precious and fleeting.

But wait, there’s more!

Packing for a road trip is my most hated job. Perhaps a list will help me stay more organized.

To me, a successful job of packing means I come home with one clean pair of panties. I’d rather waste space on painting tools and supplies than on my personal gear. My last trip, however, ran a little longer than I’d expected. Washing clothes on the road was no big deal, but I didn’t have sufficient meds. It was a lesson that one can, in fact, cut it too fine.
I leave for Nova Scotia tomorrow. The forecast is for temperatures ranging from 9° to 24° C, which is 50°-75° in real money. That means double packing, because I must must be prepared for any weather.
Packing is my least-loved part of my job. I’ve decided to make a list, in the hope that it makes me a little more efficient. This is in addition to my list of painting supplies, which you can find here for oils, for watercolor, and for acrylics.
Feel free to comment with additional suggestions.
Rain happens, especially in the Northeast. In a plein air event, that’s no excuse for not getting your painting done.
One week of clothing for the traveling artist

Fleece or cotton hoodie
Fleece or wool sweater
Cardigan or shawl for evening
Hiking boots
Hiking socks
Totally paint-spattered shirts—number of days +1
Totally paint-spattered capris—number of days divided by 2
One pair of long pants
Painting hat
Underpants—number of days +2
My bathing suit—not that I ever use it, but I can dream
A swim towel—ditto
Raingear—a jacket AND waterproof pants
One moderately dressy outfit for casual events
One actual dress or skirt for reception
Nobody does the painting hat quite as elegantly as Marjean Coghill.
Cosmetics—especially for you guys. You look downright unkempt at times
Sunglasses, glasses cleaner and cleaning cloth
Insect repellent
SPF lip balm
Aloe vera lotion for when you forget the sunscreen
Hairbrush and/or comb
Hair ties and bobby pins
Nail clipper
Shampoo and conditioner
Body wash
Prescription medications and vitamins. I sort mine prior to leaving into daily med containers
Toothbrush—I can get five weeks out of my electric toothbrush without a charge. I’ve tested this.
Monthly feminine supplies
(You’ll need a clear plastic bag if you’re flying for some of these things)
Downloaded media will be your best friend when you’re stuck on the road back of beyond.
First aid:
A small first aid kit in your trunk
Over-the-counter allergy meds
Aspirin and/or your favorite NSAID

Odd equipment for when I am traveling overland and have space to burn:
Bandana—I can soak this in water and stay cool on a hot day.
Foldable wagon
Headlamp for nighttime painting
Small secateur clipper
Extra plastic poncho to cover easel in case of monsoon
Folding chair
Water bottle and a larger jug to refill
Nutritional bars and trail mix—no chocolate, unless you like cleaning up melted food
Brush soap
Baby wipes

Camera and charger
Cell phone and charger
Laptop and charger, if applicable
GPS if applicable
Fitbit charger
Spare charged external battery—this is a lifesaver when traveling
For every show, there will be an opening, and you’re supposed to dress for it. Try to look as good as this posse, please: Mira Fink, Crista Pisano, me, Marlene Wiedenbaum, Laura Bianco, Kari Ganoung Ruiz (who just took Best in Show at Finger Lakes) and Tarryl Gabel.

Credit cards
Remember to turn on foreign cell service, if necessary
Download any media to phone or Kindle before leaving your wifi behind.

Beat the winter blues with a shot of color

“Spring,” by Carol L. Douglas

“Spring,” by Carol L. Douglas
Wind is whipping around the corner of the house this morning. Our bedroom is unheated, so until one of us runs downstairs and stirs up the woodstove, we’re huddling here under a warm woolen blanket.
I’m going to do some on-line shopping until then. Paintings are a popular Christmas gift. On winter days when the sun barely rises and the wind is shrilling outside, it’s easy to see why. Here are a few painters whose work is broad and graphical and who work in bright, warm palettes. All of them have work in every price point, and they’ve made shopping easy by having good, clear websites.
“York River, Maine,” by Mary Byrom

“York River, Maine,” by Mary Byrom
Mary Byrom lives in North Berwick, Maine, and mostly paints the southern Maine coast. She is a great simplifier of complex scenes. That’s possible because she’s outside braving the weather at every possible moment. Her available work is marked on her website. There’s a contact form here if you see something you like.
“Monhegan Memories,” by Renee Lammers

“Monhegan Memories,” by Renee Lammers
Renee Lammers lives in Bucksport, Maine, and her work is centered in Stonington, Acadia, and the northern end of Penobscot Bay. She works on copper. Her work is priced on her website, which is set up for online sales.
“Sparkle,” by Bobbi Heath

“Sparkle,” by Bobbi Heath
Bobbi Heath splits her time between Yarmouth, Maine and Westford, Massachusetts. Right now, she’s donating a percentage of her sale proceeds to the American Cancer Society, so you can not only score a good painting, but do a good deed at the same time. Her website is set up for online sales.
“Point Look-out Barn,” by Elissa Gore

“Point Look-out Barn,” by Elissa Gore
Elissa Gore lives in New York City but often paints in the lower Hudson Valley. Her work is simple and exuberant. Her website is exhaustive, and you can contact her for information about a painting that interests you.
“Sidelot off Pike Street,” by Kari Ganoung Ruiz

“Sidelot off Pike Street,” by Kari Ganoung Ruiz
Kari Ganoung Ruiz was my monitor for my 2014 workshop at Schoodic in Acadia National Park. She lives and works in the Finger Lakes Region of New York, and her color palette is the softer, warmer tones of that area. She is passionate about painting old cars and other vehicles. Her website has prices, and you can contact her about buying work.
And, of course, there’s me. My website isn’t set up for e-commerce, but if you see something you like, let me know, and I’ll put you in contact with the gallery currently showing it. And of course, you can always get yourself or someone else my summer workshop for Christmas. Do so before the first of the year, and you can have $100 off.

Home, sweet home

"New Brunswick barn," oil on canvas, by Carol L. Douglas.

“New Brunswick barn,” oil on canvas, by Carol L. Douglas.
My first painting yesterday was of a barn. The grillwork of a Model T glowed faintly in the gloom of the open door. I was interested in the apple tree, but thought fondly ofKari Ganoung Ruiz and how well she paints old cars.
The property owner eventually came over to chat. He knew exactly where I live because he visits the Owl’s Head Transportation Museum. He invited us to lunch, little knowing that for thousands of miles, Mary and I have fantasized that someone, anyone, would offer us a home-cooked meal. And this was the one day when we  couldn’t accept, because we had an absolutely strict timetable.
And he had leftover pie. Geesh.
Farm owner and his market truck.

Farm owner and his market truck.
Mary’s license arrived in Rockport Tuesday, so she had a photo of it on her phone. Still, I insisted on driving the Calais-to-Rockport leg of the trip. Searsport, Belfast, Lincolnville, and Camden, each in turn glowing gently in a light rain. Then I made the last rise up Richards Hill and was home.
9887.9 miles.
Would I do it again? Absolutely. I’ve learned a few things, however.
The most useless things I brought were my hiking poles. I never remembered to use them.
I packed very austerely for the trip, and still brought exactly 100 lbs. of stuff. My painting supplies and canvases were calculated just right; my clothes hardly mattered. However, I wish I’d also had:
  • My painting umbrella and stool;
  • Proper camping equipment including a tent, because that SUV really was impossible to sleep in;
  • A more reliable car;
  • An atlas of Canada. There is no substitute for a paper map.
I enjoyed everything about this trip, even when Mary was so ill. However, if I were to identify the most memorable moments, they would include:
We followed autumn as it moved from Anchorage to St. John’s. That meant getting snowed on occasionally, but there were many more lovely days.
Standoff between Craftsman Perpendicular Gothic and Craftsman Romanesque Gothic in St. Mary's Point, NB. Theology to match, I suppose.

Standoff between Craftsman Perpendicular Gothic and Craftsman Romanesque in St. Mary’s Point, NB.
The parts we omitted and regret:
  • The Al-Can’s lower leg, through Destruction Bay. It was an either-or choice, but I wish it could have been both;
  • Northern Manitoba and its myriad lakes;
  • Northwest Territories and Nunavut. That would require a seaplane, however;
  • Prince Edward Island;
I never painted a mine, waterfall, lighthouse (up close) or iceberg. And in five weeks on the continent’s northernmost through road, some of it sleeping rough, I never saw the Northern Lights.
I’m taking the rest of today off, by the way.