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.

It all depends on where you’re coming from

The Jersey shore is hot, but I just remembered Big Boy tomatoes. Ah, bliss.

Beach Haven, by Carol L. Douglas
Yesterday was more comfortable than Tuesday. It was still in the mid-eighties, but the humidity was lower and there was a slight offshore breeze.
Bobbi and I perched in a pavilion on Pearl Avenue at Beach Haven. There’s an awesome orange water tower there, but no shade from which to paint it. We chose the beach for the pavilion.
We had considered getting a pedicure during the heat of the day, but decided that was irresponsible. Had we been working in Maine at these temperatures, we would have had ourselves declared dead and gone out for a wine spritzer. But we’re here to work, I kept reminding myself.
Periodically, guys ran down to the beach carrying a brace of brass bells. They rang them in long peals. I finally figured out that they were ice cream truck drivers, and that the bells were to advertise their wares. Business seemed slow to me.
“Usually, they rush over when I ring the bell, but it’s a little chilly today,” one of them said.
View from Joan’s rooftop aerie.
My favorite place to paint thus far has been on the roof of a three-story house. In the real world, this would be a two-story house, but it’s up on stilts to avoid being flooded out. The space below has a man cave, an open-air studio and two outside showers. We should have worked down there, but one glimpse of the rooftop and I was hooked.
If I started shortly after dawn, I could work up there until mid-morning. The roof deck is painted with a thick white waterproof enamel that feels like the surround of a municipal swimming pool. It’s comfortable until it heats up. After that, it’s suddenly too hot to stand. I had no shoes on, of course. When it got to that point, I hopped around trying to clean up and get off the roof as quickly as I could.
Ironically, the major furnishing of this beautiful aerie is a hot tub.
There are too many paintings up there to ignore. While I’m painting the view between two houses, Bobbi is painting a street in the opposite direction. There are entire lives to be glimpsed from the roof: furniture, cars, the beach groomers, utility guys, cleaning people. It’s quiet and aloof, considering the crowds elsewhere.
I love being up there above the trees. I am the Little King of Everything, surveying all that I see.
Commercial scallopers, by Carol L. Douglas
Our hostess is Joan Gantz, a talented abstract painter. She just finished a mammoth mosaic mural project that has taken three seasons to complete. I don’t think I’ve ever been billeted in an artist’s house before. It’s been fun to talk art with her, and her studio makes a great place to stash our incomplete paintings.
New Jersey is the Garden State in part because it’s so hot. Joan reminded me about New Jersey tomatoes. I wonder if I can find room for an eight-quart basket of Big Boys in our already-overfilled car.

Why sell your work?

Selling is not selling out. If nothing else, you can use the money to buy more paint.

Keuka Lake, by Carol L. Douglas. All that vert is beautiful, but tough on allergies.

There is a myth that the word Genesee is Seneca for “Pleasant Valley.” In fact, it means “miasma,” from the humid air that hangs over the Genesee Valley. The Seneca were the most numerous of the Haudenosaunee people. Many moved west along the Niagara River and south into Pennsylvania. This was largely to escape the heavy air in their heartland.

The Adirondacks were never permanently settled by the Iroquois and Algonquin. They hunted there and brawled with each other. The winters are too cold, the summers are rainy, and the soil is thin.
I haven’t had an asthma attack since I left New York. Rochester is a city of lovely gardens, which means heavy pollen. I loved to garden; I hated my allergies. In Maine, nobody fusses with rare plants, and the offshore breezes keep the pollen down. I replace my rescue inhaler annually but never need it.
Letchworth Middle and Upper Falls, by Carol L. Douglas.
Last week in the Adirondacks I was having twinges of breathing trouble. It was nothing that I couldn’t control by sitting quietly. When I arrived at Long Beach Island, NJ, my asthma bloomed with terrific ferocity.

“Welcome to New Jersey,” my New Jersey pal Toby texted me when I complained. I blamed the cedars and retreated to air conditioning.

With temperatures in the mid-eighties and no shade, both Bobbi Heath and I were wilting. A few passers-by expressed amazement that we were painting here instead of at home in cool, breezy Maine. Why would we do that, they asked. We’re here to sell paintings.
Bridle path, by Carol L. Douglas
Sometimes I meet people at plein air events who say they do these events just to have fun. I’m not sure if I believe them. These festivals are organized around the all-important show and sale at the end. The energy is infectious.
Selling your work is important. When people pay money for your work, they’re telling you that it’s good enough to shell out for. That’s far better validation than your grandmother’s praise.
Selling is communication, a dialogue between you and the buyer. Putting your work out with a price tag forces you to see it as transactional, as a reciprocal exchange of ideas. That, in turn, requires that you clarify your ideas enough for them to make sense to the viewer. Some people call that ‘selling out,’ but I’m not talking about producing dreck. I’m talking about the difference between omphaloskepsis and conversation.
Eastern Manitoba forest, by Carol L. Douglas. I love trees but they don’t always like me.
Selling your work grows your fan base, because it puts your work out there for public consideration. And therein lies the rub. When you first start out, the work you labored over will probably be met with cruel indifference. You just need to work through that.
I first started selling paintings because the finished ones were taking up too much room. And, of course, most of us also need the money, if only to buy more paint.
According to Toby, today is going to be cooler. We’ve got paintings to make and a schedule to keep. I sure hope she’s right.