Exercises are so much more fun in the abstract

Goes right into the slush pile…

 Last week, I wrote about my troubles painting lobster traps. Bob Baines, a lobsterman from S. Thomaston, ME, kindly lent me a trap to study. As a teacher, I know the only answer to confusion is close examination of the troubling object. As a student, I don’t like hard work any more than anyone else. Exercises are good for us, but so much more exciting when they’re still in the planning stages.

Bob’s trap weighs as much as a fresh bale of hay or a kindergartener. Now imagine shifting 800 of the things. My respect for lobstermen—already high—rose another notch.
The trap is four feet long, a generous foot deep, and almost two feet wide. It has two “parlors”—the space where lobsters wait for their fishermen visitors—and one “kitchen”—the space where the bait is hung.
The real deal weighs as much as your kid.
Speaking of language, you may have heard that the expression “the bitter end” is a nautical term, referring to the inboard end of a chain, rope or cable—in other words, the part that gets wound around a bitt or bollard. There’s also a part of a lobster trap called the “ghost panel.” It allows lobsters to escape if a trap is lost. According to Maine’s state regulations regarding lobstering, buoys should be attached to their lines with so-called “weak links” to protect whales from entanglements.
Who knew lobstering was such a poetic exercise? Mankind has been getting its food from the sea almost as long as we’ve been talking, so I suppose language is deeply entwined with fishing.
Axonometric projection grids were a cheat for draftsmen back in the days when they drew by hand. You laid them on a light table and drew above them. I still have a set. I could have made this easier on myself by using them to draw the wire mesh, but I chose to do it freehand instead. Estimating perspective is always good for the mind.
My real goal was to try to figure out a way to represent the color interference of different layers of mesh without drawing every gridline separately. I drew the trap freehand—by which I mean I used a straight edge and no measurements—on a very cheap bit of canvas from Ocean State Job Lots.
My erasures with water pulled the gesso right off this very cheap canvas.
I keep those canvases for students who forget their own, but now I’m not sure they’re good even for that. Erasing, I rapidly peeled the gesso off the boards. They handled paint just as badly.
My trap was squatter and shorter than the real thing, but no matter. I wanted to paint it using the #6 or #8 filberts I was using on my actual work. Obviously, this is no way to get any detail, but I haven’t been after detail, just an impression.
And the brush I painted with…
Had I been working in either watercolor or acrylics, I’d have approached this by painting the background and contents of the trap and applying the grids on top of these. But oil paint doesn’t work that way. I settled for painting in a dark pattern for the grids, plugging the holes with color and then restating the darks by incising back to my initial darks.

It’s never going to win me a scholarship to art school, but I’ve learned what I needed to know. Thanks, Bob, for the loan of your trap.

Bamboozled by lobster traps

Detail from my current unfinished painting.
When I go silent about my own work, that means I’m involved in a big mess. My process, as it were, is that I show up in my studio every day at the same time expecting a miracle. More often than not, they happen. But at times nothing works. My painting looks and feels mechanical and rusty. 
This is not to say that I don’t know what I’m doing—I haven’t forgotten how to paint. But between the technical and the transcendent, there is slippage that nobody can define. That’s not unique to painting; it’s true of music and (I suspect) a host of other creative endeavors. We sometimes call these things ‘happy accidents,’ but they are more than that. They’re as if the whole universe suddenly slides into place, right there in that tiny rectangle in front of you.
Occasionally, the opposite happens. Nothing comes together. I tap, tap, tap on the frozen parts while nothing moves and I get more aggravated. Those are the weeks I wish I’d taken up something fun, like dentistry.
Monhegan lobster traps, waiting to trip up the unwary painter.
What’s got me flummoxed this week is an old nemesis: the lobster trap.  A modern lobster trap looks like a plastic-coated Havahart (®) trap, for you inland dwellers. It operates on the same principle: a lobster unthinkingly (because that’s how lobsters do) crawls up a funnel and gets stuck in the main room. I know how big lobster traps are, what colors they come in, what’s inside them, and how they reflect light. But I don’t seem to be able to paint them convincingly. What’s heartening is that I don’t much like how anyone else paints them, either.
If only Maine lobstermen would use creel-style pots like they do in Scotland! These are rounded, more solid and poetical. But I’m an American, and my paintings ought to be grounded in what is real for my time and place. Darn it.
I never finished this sketch of lobster traps at Port Clyde, but it’s on my schedule.
When I’m stuck on something, I revert to first principles. Get closer, look more carefully, and draw, draw, draw. I’ve asked for the loan of a trap, and I’m going to set it up in my studio and study it. (I’d rather not do that in the blowing snow, thanks.) I hope that I have some sort of epiphany that informs my work going into next summer.
This is the lad who really owned that lobster boat, but I never took a photo of him while I was painting him.
I’m finishing a painting I started years ago, of Eastport’s lobster fleet. I worked on this for days on the public landing, but it wasn’t finished before I had to leave. The tooth on the canvas is much rougher than I use today. It’s kind of nice, but the adjustment is hard.
Because I took very few photos, I’m forced to make a lot of stuff up. Part of me is certain that a someone will look at this painting and say, “that boat would never have that standing shelter!”
Sadly, I had to lose the figure of the young man who owned the closest boat. He was just too large in my plein air rendering. Since I had no photos of him on his boat, he’s been replaced by a Gloucester fisherman. I’m not sure if that should even be legal.

Meanwhile, I’ll be back tomorrow to tap, tap, tap some more. Eventually it will all fall together. It always does.