A sense of place

Everything that you paint should tell a real story, one that is authentic to you.
Big-boned, by Carol L. Douglas. As soon as I finish my taxes, I’ll be back at the boatyard painting schooners.

There is something about being in our favorite place that transcends detail. We know it by feeling rather than by specifics. As artists we are attempting to recreate that sense of place using only visual cues. That requires specificity and accuracy.

Artists become expert in oddly arcane matters. Marilyn Fairman can identify all the birds that sing in the understory. She told me she learned from one of those silly clocks they used to sell with a different bird call for every hour. And she paints without headphones on, so that she can hear the sounds of nature.
Sandra Hildreth of Saranac Lake is expert on the topography of the High Peaks region. She got that way because she has hiked all over the Adirondacks. Likewise, Bobbi Heath knows lobster boats because she’s spent serious time cruising and painting the waters of Maine.
Winch, by Carol L. Douglas
I can’t say I know any of those things encyclopedically, but I’m pretty strong on trees and rocks. So if you bring me a painting with brown, undefined lumps where the granite of Maine or the red sandstone of the Minas Basin should be, I’m bound to say something.
Isn’t the important thing that you create a pleasing painting? That’s true, but squidging the details is amateurish. What’s the point of painting the Canadian Rockies if they end up looking like New Mexico? Last week, I mentioned Paul Cézanne’s sixty paintings of Mont Sainte-Victoire. He experimented in all of them, but the mountain remains recognizable.
Coast Guard Inspection, by Carol L. Douglas
“Sense of place” is a phenomenon that we can’t define, but we all know when we see it. As individuals, families, and a culture, we set aside certain places as being exceptional. It’s why we have World Heritage Sites, National Parks, and National Scenic Byways.
When a place is without character, we sometimes say it is “inauthentic.” Once again, we can’t define that, but we all seem to know them when we see them: shopping malls, fast food restaurants, or new housing tracts. As Gertrude Stein once said, “There is no there there.”
More work than they bargained for, by Carol L. Douglas
How does a scene achieve a “sense of place” in our consciousness? It acquires a story, which is a finely- crafted pastiche of memory, events, and beauty. Our childhoods, in particular, shape our adult response to the physical world. Psychologists call the setting of our childhood our primal landscape. It becomes the bar against which we measure everything we see thereafter.
All of this argues against painting an anodyne landscape. And it argues for landscapes with lodestars. If you’re honest with your feelings, a lighthouse or grain elevator will not end up being clichéd.
Everything that you paint should be something that you’ve experienced. It should tell a real story, one that relates back to you. Your canvas is not just a rectangle that you fill up with generic ‘nature’. It should be a little slice of a place.
Note: my websiteis completely updated. It’s new work and a new, mobile-friendly platform, too. Won’t you take a peek?

Missing the mark

Other people say it’s good, but you think it’s awful. What do you do with it?
Spruces and pines on the Brook Trail, by Carol L. Douglas. This is more or less where my mark-making is today.
Last week I listened to a fellow artist grumble about her painting. I really couldn’t see anything wrong with it; it was quite good, and I told her so. “But it’s not what I set out to do!” she answered. The wind, the rain, and the changing light had robbed her scene of the vivacity she’d first envisioned.
That causes a funny sort of brain cramp in artists. Our vision is so deeply overlaid with the pattern of what we want to say that the gap bothers us. We can’t see the strengths in our work because we’re focused on what is missing. In this case, my friend couldn’t see her strong composition and the brooding quality of the painting because she was mourning the light that had escaped behind clouds. “I can’t even remember what attracted me to this scene in the first place,” she said sadly.
Hedgerow in Paradise is from a time when I was hiding behind fraudulent brushwork. The only thing wrong with it was that it was fundamentally dishonest.
I was curious about this phenomenon so when I got home I asked a musician if this ever happens to him. “Oh, all the time,” he laughed. He told me that he’d just finished composing and recording an album and to him it was totally rotten, because he hadn’t achieved his goals for the project. Still, he published it, and then he started something new.
A long time ago, Marilyn Fairman told me that the longer she painted, the less satisfied she was with her work. I’ve noticed the same thing. If you’ve never been blindsided by the gap between your inner vision and the results, I suspect you’re not challenging yourself enough.
Spring Allee is another painting from the same period. The marks are better, perhaps because it’s a deeply autobiographical painting.
I struggled for many years with hating my own brushwork. I visualized long, sinuous lines of paint. Instead, my finish was always short, abrupt, and energetic. Because of that, I frequently overworked the finish in an attempt to obliterate my own handwriting. That invariably muddied what had started as a strong painting.
Finally, I realized this was a kind of self-loathing. It was akin to always hating yourself in photos (which, I confess, I do). I stopped fussing and forced myself to leave my brushwork alone.
Then I spent a long time in the wilderness. I eventually threw out this painting of Letchworth Gorge because it was so muddy.
If it were someone else’s, I concluded, I would be fine with it. I might even love its jumping energy. But it told me something true about myself that I didn’t understand and found uncomfortable. I felt as if I had to hide this unexamined truth. That’s ironic, because painting is supposed to be forthright, and that was the most authentically honest thing about my work.
Middle Falls at Letchworth, by Carol L. Douglas. I spent that entire season at Letchworth Gorge and eventually came up with two paintings I thought were credible. It wasn’t until much later that I realized I’d finally cracked the problem of paint application.
What do you do with that dissatisfaction? This is where wiping out bad paintings is a bad practice. It steals the opportunity to study what has just happened. I’ve learned to leave those canvases alone, carry them home, rack them to dry, and then revisit the work at a later date. By then, my memory of my ambition has faded. I can see the new painting in its own merits. Often, I’m shocked to realize that I love the ones I once hated, and the ones that seemed to be easy successes now bore me.
Join me for Sea and Sky at Schoodic, August 5-10. We’re strictly limited to twelve, but there are still seats open.

You don’t need $450 million to buy a painting

Original art comes in all price points. It’s not just for rich people.

Apple Orchard by Chrissy Spoor Pahucki is available at pleinair.store.

Almost everyone in America knows that a painting reputed to be by Leonardo Da Vinci sold for a record-breaking $450 million last week at Christie’s. That’s an amount I can’t even begin to comprehend. It implies that regular folks like you and me can’t afford art.

“When I was a child middle-class people didn’t have original art in their homes, unless one of the family was an artist,” said painter Bobbi Heath. “Things are different now. Original artwork is available at a price point equivalent to buying a poster and having it framed. You can find it online, at art fairs and open studios, especially this time of year. And you don’t need a gallery owner to tell you what you should like. Spread your wings and hang something on the wall that makes you happy.”
This little dinghy by Bobbi Heath is available at Yarmouth Frame and Gallery.
When I was a kid, our public library had an art-lending program. You could borrow a painting or print, hang it on your wall for a while and enjoy it, then return it and borrow another work. That was as profound as checking out books.
Art is a tool by which we can dream. It has the capacity to transport us out of our current situation. The hospital where my friend lay dying had beautiful floral paintings in its cancer wing. When I had to step out of her room while they did a procedure—which was often—I found myself staring into those paintings. They were my path out of a sad situation.
Our choice of paintings is one of the primary ways we express ourselves in our personal spaces. Bob Bahr used to write a column for Outdoor Painter called Artist as Collector. It told you as much about the artist’s personality as the artist’s own work did.

This little mussel by Susan Lewis Baines is available through the Kelpie Gallery.
“One thing I have learned after 20 years working with art is that the ‘price’ of a work of art has nothing to do with its value,” said conservator Lauren R. Lewis. “The value lies in how you connect with a work of art on an emotional level. I have never been able to get on board with the idea of ‘art as investment.’ The art market is fickle, so I never recommend that someone buy a painting with the intention of selling it later at a profit.”
I have clients, a married couple, who pared their lives down to almost no material possessions. They own two large oil paintings—one by Marilyn Fairman and one by me. As nomadic as their life is, they hang those paintings in a prominent place wherever they land. Art brings a language of beauty to our lives,” one of them told me. “We have contentment and constancy from looking at our beloved pieces.”
White Pines and Black Spruce by Carol L. Douglas is available at pleinair.store
“Unlike generic prints from the nearest big box store, original art comes with a story about where you found it, why you bought it, or the super cool artist you bought it from,” said painter Chrissy Pahucki.
Original art is less expensive than you might imagine. I was at a gallery last weekend where there were hand-drawn colored pencil works for less than I was considering paying for a mixer attachment for my daughter for Christmas. Less, in fact, than a coffee-table art book, but with more staying power.
Buy art because you love it,” said Lauren Lewis. “Buy art because it makes you feel good to look at it. Buy art because you need to have it in your life. That is how you tell the worth of a painting.”

Every good idea I’ve ever had, I cribbed from someone else

I felt so craptastic by the end of the four hours that I asked Sandy to finish my painting for me. As fun as it was to watch her, that really didn’t work, since I’ve never bothered to train my students to be mini-mes. (At G and S Orchards in Walworth, NY.)
Yesterday I challenged another obstacle on the journey back to health—I painted four hours standing up. My surgeon did a fine job of running his knife along an old incision, but it was still abdominal surgery and I’m still recovering.
Drawing in watercolor pencil is something I borrowed from my pal Kristin Zimmermann. It affords better control than charcoal and is completely erasable with a wet paper towel. It’s not appropriate for every setting, but here where I wanted to study the architecture of an individual tree, it was great.
It was pretty painful to paint standing, and that’s sadly apparent in my painting. But it’s something I have to master before we’re truly into summer, because painting from a seated position is so limiting.
The shelf on my tripod was Jamie Grossman’s idea. The panel carrier was suggested by Marilyn Fairman. Using a waterproof stuff sack for my palette… well, I think I came up with that on my own.
While cleaning up, I mused on how much I’ve borrowed from the ideas of others. The pill container I keep my paints in was a gift from Jamie Grossman, who also showed me the tripod shelfthat allowed me to ditch my pochade box once and for all. The PanelPak carrier is something Marilyn Fairman showed me, and although I balked at spending the money on them, they’ve proven to be worth their weight in gold. 
Jamie Grossman also came up with this idea for carrying paints. Since I buy mine in jars, it saves me a ton of time and money on tubing, and it’s easier to manage in the field than tubes.
Using watercolor pencils to draw on my canvas allows me to make fast erasures with a wet rag, but that wasn’t my idea either—it was something my pal Kristin Zimmermann came up with. Kristin is also the person who drilled into me the importance of understanding pigments.
And here it is, another future doorstop.
Brad Marshall has recently been quoting Anders Zorn to the effect that we are not competitors, we are colleagues. So true, Brad.


Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. My Belfast, ME, workshop is almost sold out. Click 
here for more information on my Maine workshops!

Desperately seeking the Immaculata (and other things)

Summer Sky, by Marilyn Fairman, oil on linen, 9X12. It’s another entry in Rye Painters on Location’s silent auction, and a darn lovely one, too! If I had more time, I’d see Marilyn more than once a year, right?
A few weeks ago I talked with a wonderful New Hampshire-based painter who is busy raising two daughters, ages 10 and 12. He struggles to have time to advance his career. I sympathize; I have four kids myself. And yet, I told him, I would not change the choices I’d made.
I like to think it’s easier now that my kids are older, but all I need to revise that opinion is to commit myself to reaching a goal by Friday. This week’s goal is in itself parenting-related, since we’re expecting out-of-town company for my daughter’s wedding shower. My family has been outstanding at keeping the house up, but a lot of clutter and grunge accumulates when the mom is gone as much as I am.
I foolishly believed I could devote four hours a day to cleaning and four hours a day to painting. Hah. I haven’t even got the receipts from my summer travels off the dining room table, and I’ve been at it for two days.
Today I met with a gallery director at a local college to finalize plans for a show next spring. The show will be about the relationship between God and man in the natural world, and I’m very excited to have the opportunity to do something so dear to me.
The lesson in this is that I do not have the luxury of procrastination. There are so many interruptions in a busy life, one must grab the time one has. March is just around the corner.

Interested in my Where the Sea Meets the Sky Workshops? October 2013—the last session with openings in 2013—is selling out fast. Or, let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in 2014. Click here for more information, or email Lakewatch Manor!

It’s almost time for Rye Painters on Location again!

My piece for Rye POL’s Silent Auction: Gold Mountain Air, oil on canvasboard, 11X14.
Some of my Best Painting Buds (BPBs) are people I met at Rye Painters on Location: Bruce Bundock and Marilyn Fairman, for example. Another of my other BPBs—Brad Marshall—is someone I recommended to the organizers (as did Lee Haber). There are also painters I like so much but never see except at POL—Kathy Buist, Patti Mollica, Linda Richichi, Tarryl Gabyl, and others. It’s always been my favorite event, so the last few years when they tinkered with it, I was kind of bummed.
Brad Marshall’s piece for the Silent Auction: Watermelon and Cherries, oil on canvasboard, 11X14.

Linda Richichi’s piece for the Silent Auction:Wetland Pink, pastel, 9X12.
But it’s back in its old format: silent auction of prepared pieces, live auction of wet canvases. And it’s coming up soon: September 28. I will be in Maine that prior week, and plan to race down to Rye to meet Brad Marshall for some fun times “flailing around.” After that, we’ll wash our faces, have a few glasses of wine with our friends, and sit back to watch the auction.
Having done this for a lot of years, I feel like I’ve painted an awful lot of the Long Island Sound scenery. I suggested that Brad should choose our painting location and I’ll just come along to fall into the ocean and generally make a mess. He was amenable, and last week he drove up to drop off his silent auction piece and scout locations. I now know where we’ll be painting; you’ll just have to wait and see, won’t you?
If you haven’t registered for my workshops but want to, know that October 2013—last session with openings in 2013—is selling out fast. Or, let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in 2014. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

Better than working in a cube farm?

Darn it, I KNOW I took a photo of my easel in the manure pile, but I can’t find it! So you’re stuck with the rather-more-normal wet canvas. Never good when someone decides to blot it out for you, which has happened, of course.
I received an amusing text from a friend this morning that said, “Tough living, this artist stuff. But perhaps less stressful than [a Fortune 500 company at which he works].”
“You really think so?” I responded. Painting for a living has many advantages, but a stress-free life is not among them.
My pal Brad Van Auken is fond of quoting Malcolm Gladwell’s  Outliers: The Story of Success and its 10,000-Hour Rule. This posits that the key to success in any field is a matter of practicing a specific task for around 10,000 hours.
That would be about five years of full-time work, which is indeed about what a person needs to do to be a good painter. Of course, that’s also more or less equivalent to a graduate degree.
However, painting combines a high level of technical training with the brute force of physical labor. That has led to some wonderful snafus. Consider the time I dumped my easel over a wall and into a manure pile. Or the time I dropped my brushes into Braddock Bay.  Or the time my car battery died on a sub-zero day and I had to hike to a farmhouse to cadge a jump.  Or the time my car battery died in the Adirondacks and my friend Marilyn Fairman had to hike to a place in cell phone range to call for help. Or the time I sent my umbrella sailing into the Rio Grande, never to be seen again.

When people comment about how much fun painting is—and it is—they aren’t paying attention to the training, the commuting, or the back-office work. They’re reacting to the sheer physicality of it, about not being stuck in an office or a cube farm. In modern America, everyone really wants to be a manual laborer; some of us have actually figured out how to do it.

If you haven’t registered for my workshops but want to, know that October 2013—last session with openings in 2013—is selling out fast. Or, let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in 2014. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

Views and Duets

My painting for ABVI’s “Play It Forward.” I know how to defeat this painting for next time I’m asked, BTW.
When last I posted, I had just painted with my fellow NYPAP artists* at Olana, the home of Frederic Edwin Church. This event, spearheaded by Marilyn Fairman, is in honor of NYPAP’s founder, Ted Beardsley, who was the driving force who brought painters from all corners of our state together.
Last year, I left in the late afternoon, since I had to drive back to Rochester. I remember thinking, “It’s nice and I’ll come again, but I am not in love with the views.” (My feelings about grandiose historic homes are generally mildly negative; I mostly thank God I don’t have to maintain them.)

The Catskills are just so beautiful!
 This year, I was near the house as evening approached and I suddenly understood the magic of Olana: it is organized around the evening sky. The colors Church caught in his Cotopaxipaintings are really no more magnificent than those he saw many evenings from his porch. Suddenly, as so often happens, my whole view of Church has undergone a sea change and I find myself studying his pinks and reds and considering them not as fantastical but as totally realistic.
But I—wretched creature that I am—had ignored Jamie Grossman’s warning that I didn’t want to paint though the whole day, and I had nary an ounce of energy to paint that fantastic, fantastic sunset.
This year’s waterfall painting… not a success. Last year’s is here.
The next day, many of us gathered at Jamie’s to paint waterfalls. Breakfast and then a brisk walk with friends, and I climbed down to the catchpool and set up. I was cautiously optimistic about this painting, since I’d painted a similar view last year with great success. Alas, it was not to be. Sometimes the mind is willing but the body is weak. I had a hard time concentrating; it was excessively hot; I was already tired and sore from a long day painting the day before. To cap it off I slipped on wet rocks and took a tumble.
But sometimes we are called away from man’s work to God’s work. I was asked a question I never hear in art circles: what does it mean to be ‘born again’? I did my best to answer, and all the way home to Rochester I second-guessed my answers, until I finally realized I am only here to play a very small part in an eternal duet between God and another soul.
I’m never happier than when teaching…
Back to Rochester: Saturday morning promised another hot day, but we met on the canal at Schoen Place, where there was shade and a breeze. It wasn’t a brilliant painting day for any of us, but I’m never happier than surrounded by students and it was no exception.
My tiny landscape of canal path near Schoen Place. I hate wee brushes; can you tell?
But Saturday evening turned out to be one of the weirder days of my art career. I had agreed to paint live at ABVI’s “Play It Forward” event, not realizing that I was actually going to paint indoors at a cocktail party.  Well, I’m game for anything, but it was a tough challenge. I duly finished the painting and it was sold for a decent price, and we all went home happy. And when I got in, my husband told me I’d missed one of the worst electrical storms he’d ever experienced. Good thing I was indoors!
Once again, thank you so much, Jamie Grossman, for your hospitality this week. It means more than I can express.

*Remember, NYPAP painters: you have a special discount at my Maine workshops… just for being you. August and September are sold out for my workshop at Lakewatch Manor in Rockland, ME… and the other sessions are selling fast.  Join us in June, July and October, but please hurry! Check here for more information.

It’s not gonna snow forever

Spring really is just around the corner, I swear.

I think the dead of winter is God’s way of telling me it’s time to paint the figure, so I generally lay off plein air in the coldest months. The last day I painted out-of-doors was the day before Thanksgiving. But watching spring snow falling outside my studio window is a reminder that in a week or so, we can be outdoors, so it’s time to get my pack in order.
Is this the year I buy a new brush holder? Nah…
I use the same palette indoors and out, but my umbrella, my backpack, and my field easel get stashed in a corner, from whence they silently reproach me for not going outside to play. The first order of business is to pull them out and inspect them for cracks, tears and other damage, and to thoroughly vacuum out my pack.
If brush cleaner/conditioner doesn’t
salvage them, replace them.
Then it’s time to consider what condition my brushes are in. A few need replacement every year, particularly the flats and long filberts. Some need reshaping, and a few need to be rescued, but mostly I have to track down the ones that have wandered out of my brush holder into a coffee can in my studio.

 I don’t use tubes, but buy my paints in cans (from RGH Paints in Albany). I keep my paints in this segmented vitamin box, given me by my pal Jamie Williams Grossman. Generally this box of paints will get me through a week of travel without reloading, and it weighs a fraction of what the same paints in tubes do. Having used this box without cleaning it since last May, this seems like a good time to clean out any residual old paint and wipe out the reservoirs. But it’s also a sensible time to check my supplies and order new paint.
Ditching tubes cuts down on weight. Cheap, efficient, and faster.
More drawing means less struggling, so I carry them all: charcoal, watercolor pencil, graphite, greyscale markers for fast value studies, and a viewfinder/dry erase marker. I often use watercolor pencils and a straight edge when architecture is involved, and I particularly like that one can erase errors with a damp paper towel. I definitely need some new watercolor pencils this year.
Draw slow, paint fast. From left, charcoal, watercolor pencils and sharpener, grey-scale markers, graphite sticks and sketchbook, viewfinder and dry-erase marker.
Another group of supplies that’s frequently looted over the winter is personal care supplies. I note that I need replacement suntan lotion and I need to track down my lucky painting cap, apron, and water bottle. The latex gloves are primarily for warmth, not cleanliness, so I’d better order liquid gloves. (You Southerners will be surprised to learn that the hand warmers can be dropped out again after, say, July.) I always carry two ponchos—one for me, and one for my painting, because when it rains in the spring, it really rains. I put my IPod and my camera in this category, but they don’t need to be checked; they’re used every day.
Never discount the value of being comfortable. From left, insect repellent, baby wipes, poncho for my easel, hand-warmers, my poncho, latex gloves.
I have two sets of tools, so my field ones generally don’t go walkies, but they still need to be checked, because they’re the most important tools I own: my compass (because I want to know where the sun is heading), palette knifes and a scraper, bungee cords, a level, S-hooks, clips, an all-purpose tool, a straight edge/angle finder, double pots, soap.
The most important part of my kit after paints and brushes. From top left: compass, two palette knives, scraper, bungee cords, level, soap, palette cups, angle finder/straight edge, all-purpose tool, clips, S-hooks.
It’s time to order new fast-dry medium, and check my supplies of mineral spirits. Because I want to travel light, I’ll repurpose the medium container to hold mineral spirits, and carry my medium in the tiny pot in the foreground (bought as part of a cosmetic travel set from my local dollar store). A hotel shampoo bottle serves equally well for this. I always carry a few plastic grocery bags for trash, and I stash the larger containers and a funnel in my car. I’ll go out in my shop and run a few rolls of paper towel through my chop saw so they’re half size, and I’ll be good to go.
You need a big bottle of mineral spirits in your car and a little one to carry, a big bottle of medium and a little one to carry, a brush-washing tank, some boards to paint on, and a way to move the finished paintings.
I’ve been using thumbtacks, a strap and waxed paper to move wet paintings, but this year I think I’ll go all-out on a new carrier system made from cheap frames and big rubber bands, as suggested by my pal Marilyn Fairman. And it’s definitely time to check my inventory of painting boards. I like Ray-Mar boards and they always have a Memorial Day sale, so I always try to arrange my inventory to limp along until then. But this week I’ll sort my remaining inventory and count them so I know what I need to order.
That’s my routine for checking my oils. You can extrapolate the same checklist for watercolors and pastels—check your pigments, check your tools, check the stuff you need to be comfortable, reorder what’s gone, repair what’s broken. For a complete list of my recommended oil painting supplies, check here. For watercolor supplies, check here. For pastel supplies, check here.

A brief foray into indirect painting

“Adirondack autumn grove,” 12X16, oil on canvasboard, 2012
(please excuse the reflections; my camera isn’t back yet)
I had a few minutes in my studio the other day and was contemplating some “fails” from the field—plein air paintings that didn’t really work. Now, I have stacks of these, and they don’t bother me in the least… they are the pictorial record of experiences and impressions, rather than finished paintings. But occasionally I find one I want to touch up.
Just as it came from the field.
This one was done in the company of Marilyn Fairman last autumn, and while I liked the overall composition, the structure somehow got lost in the moment (it happens).
With changes marked out.
I decided to seek and restate the darks using a transparent glaze. I first learned to paint indirectly— using many thin layers of paint and medium to achieve one’s desired visual effects—and it’s a technique I generally reject in my dotage. Nevertheless, there are times when such indirect painting is the fastest way to fix a painting. This is almost always when the problem area has to go darker; although one can glaze with zinc white, it’s usually just easier to repaint the offending passages with your usual muck.

As often as I say I don’t make up my own medium, sometimes I do…
this time with a small amount of paraffin wax added to kill the gloss.

I’ve been studying the Maine seascapes of Winslow Homer, in particular his use of the dark diagonal, and it seemed it would be just the thing to fix this painting. After noting the passage I wished to make darker, I mixed a palette of three transparent pigments: Indian yellow, transparent earth red, and dioxazine purple. With these I was able to quickly make the shadows cool and the highlights warm.

Transparent glazing colors–Indian yellow, transparent red oxide, dioxazine purple .
The whole repair took less than five minutes. Now, I don’t know if this qualifies any longer as a “plein air” painting, since I adjusted the values in the studio. Nor do I care. The issue is whether it satisfies the viewer, and I’d say it is now closer than it was on that lovely autumn day.
Merry Christmas to all my dear friends!