Travels with Poppy

I have many friends and I love them all, but painter guests are the best treat of all.
Autumn morning, by Carol L. Douglas
Poppy Balser is teaching a workshop in St. Andrews, NB, this week. My house is just a hop past the border, so she came down at the end of last week to paint.
It wasn’t the Saxby Gale, but her arrival coincided with some fierce wind. It was so high that the sensible plein air painter stayed home. But we’d waited a long time for this painting opportunity, so we put on our warm clothes and headed out.
Last week I gave you a 40-mile circuit of painting locations in midcoast Maine. That was from memory. I can now tell you that it will take you a full day to drive it and take reference photos. Stopping to paint draws it out substantially. Poppy took about a thousand pictures. I took far fewer, but I live here.
Under the Marshall Point Light, by Carol L. Douglas
Marshall Point is windy enough on a normal day, and it was brutal on Friday. The only way to paint was to haul our stuff down the rocks and hunker in the shadow of the lighthouse. It’s not so far, but it is rocky going. “How’d you get down there?” a few intrepid tourists asked. The real question was how we were going to drag our gear back up.
On Saturday, we found another protected niche behind rocks on Beauchamp Point. It was a little bowl that reflected sunlight, and it seemed almost warm. We could take our time, at least until we decided, mid-afternoon, that we needed dinner.
Sunset, by Carol L. Douglas
The sun sets here at 5:30, but Rockport harbor is set within hills. The light fails even earlier. We always think of Nova Scotia as north, but it’s in fact almost due east. Digby, where Poppy lives, is straight across the Bay of Fundyfrom Grand Manan Island, which lies off the coast south of Lubec, ME. As the bird flies, Rockport is closer to Yarmouth, NS than it is to Boston, ME.
But Nova Scotia is on Atlantic Time, which means the sun sets an hour ‘later’ for Poppy. By Christmas, we’ll be experiencing sunset at 4 PM here. This is why I support efforts to put Maine on Atlantic Time.
Poppy in her painting-during-hunting-season cap.
All too soon, it was Sunday and time for Poppy to leave. We solemnly agreed she would depart by noon in order to be over the Airline before dark and in St. Andrews by a reasonable hour. We only ran over by an hour, which has to be a record in promptness.
For our last paintings, I took her to an otherworldly, exposed, out-of-time place to paint: Clary Hill. It was blustery and 39°. Up we ambled, along the Land Trustpath, then up the lane to where three birders were silhouetted against the sky. They’re there every time I visit.
Poppy stopped and asked, “is that gun or a dump truck?”
Off Clary Hill, by Carol L. Douglas
We counted back from deer season. Yes, it is bird season right now (Maine’s and the maritime provinces being almost the same). But the shots were coming from across the valley so we carried on.
A short while later, hunters passed us on the lane. Poppy was wearing an orange hat, so we weren’t panicking. We were eventually foxed, however, by the sound of guns behind us. It was just unnerving. But when we left, the birders were still at their posts, high on the hill.

What went wrong?

Photoshop is a great tool for figuring out how to fix a painting.

Surf at Marshall Point, by Carol L. Douglas
Yesterday I painted at Marshall Point. I was with Barbara Carr, who comes to Camden just once a year. My intention wasn’t to create a masterpiece, but to spend a few hours painting with a friend.
Marshall Point has a beautiful lighthouse, which made a cameo appearance in the movie Forrest Gump. As lovely as it is, I never paint it. I’m always mesmerized by the surf and the light on the sea.
My sketch for the above.
Barbara is an experienced painter, with a BFA from Massachusetts College of Art and a lot of years of practice under her belt. Still, I must be very tired. I’m usually a fast painter, but she finished two fine paintings in the time I painted one.
Our tides may not be Bay of Fundy class, but we still have high and strong tides here in mid-coast Maine. That means the rocks are uncovered fast in an ebb tide and covered equally quickly in a flood tide. The only answer to this is to draw fast and then use other rocks to fill in the details. In general, this strategy allows a lot of latitude for design, providing the artist is fully awake.
Lightening the foreground rocks did not help.
I liked what I did well enough when we were on site, but was ambivalent when I got it home. Comparing it to my sketch, I noticed two things. I had centered the large rock slightly compared to my original composition. The foreground in my sketch was darker than I’d originally proposed.
Adobe Photoshop or a similar graphics editor can be a useful tool for pondering possible revisions. I lightened the foreground rocks to see if that would help. That left a dark rock sitting in a sea of blue—factually true, but hardly interesting.
Cropping helped a little, but not enough to redeem the painting.
Generally, plein airpainters use prepared boards in standard sizes. That means we’re at the mercy of canvas and frame makers in determining our aspect ratio.  (The alternative, customizing both frames and boards, is just too much work.) “Aspect ratio” just means the proportional relationship between the canvas’ width and height.  A 9X12 canvas, for example, has an aspect ratio of 3:4, making it exactly the same shape as a 12X16 canvas.
Of course, the sketch in my sketchbook is often a very different aspect ratio. If I’m not careful—and I wasn’t—I can relocate things to where they don’t belong when I transfer my idea to a larger board.
Common canvas shapes.
I cropped my image to see if moving the rock more to the right would help. Again, I don’t think it made much difference.
The real issues are more fundamental: the rocks and the waves are resolutely parallel to the picture frame, and all the action is below the mid-line. Another rock, middle-right, will do this painting a world of good. So will tightening up the edges of the waves. Those are easy fixes. I can do them in my sleep, and possibly will.

Saying silly things

"Evening at Marshall Point," 8X6, by Carol L. Douglas

“Evening at Marshall Point,” 8X6, by Carol L. Douglas
Forty minutes from my studio, Marshall Point Light is really too far to go for a day class. However, without the large islands that protect Penobscot Bay, bigger breakers form here. It makes for nice painting.
My off-the-cuff assessment is that tourism in mid-coast Maine is up this year. Marshall Point and Drift Inn Beach were both full of visitors yesterday. Perhaps it’s because a nice domestic vacation on the beach seems so safe in this world of dark violence. I feel some advertising slogans bubbling up. Maine: where nobody wants to cut your head off.
Fog at Marshall Point.

Fog in the morning.
My personal goal right now is to stop correcting people. I am not everyone’s mother, nor do I always have to be right. I repeat this to myself like a mantra. It’s a special challenge in a tourist town, because being out of our own milieu sometimes makes us say really silly things. I’m no exception, and—worse—I occasionally say them in print.
Marshall Point has some astonishing geological features. Basalt dikes lace into light grey granite. Around them twist wildly-contorted bands of quartzite and schist. In some places, these materials have been remelted and formed into migmatite.
I only know this because I looked it up after I told someone those light bands were probably limestone.
Part of the beautiful rock formations at Marshall Point.

Part of the beautiful rock formations at Marshall Point.
You can see the whole dazzling rock array from the ramp up to the lighthouse. I tend to stall there until someone nudges me to move on. That’s how I happened to hear a visitor ask her husband, “Is that marble?” The new me didn’t correct her.
Along the edge of the rocks are burrows of the type dug by groundhogs or ground squirrels. A group of tween girls picked their way through this area as we painted nearby. One authoritatively told her peers, “Look at the beaver holes!”
“Beaver holes,” she confidently reasserted. For about fifteen seconds, she held absolute intellectual sway. Finally, I couldn’t help myself. I snorted in laughter. One of her mates ventured diffidently, “I think beavers live in freshwater lakes,” and the spell was broken.
I discuss painting options with a student.

I discuss painting options with a student.
Last week Poppy Balser floored me with a simple, obvious point. We were painting together and she scooped up saltwater for her brush tank. I’ve always thought that was a no-no. When I asked her why it would work, she pointed out that people regularly add table salt to granulate their watercolors. Why not just start with sea water?
My wee, quick experiment in granulation.

My wee, quick experiment in painting with sea-water.
After yesterday’s class, I tried it, quickly, in a small sketch in my field-book. I have to say that it worked very well. Sorry I ever doubted you, Poppy!

“24 Reasons Everyone Should See Maine Before They Die” includes a lot of mid-coast Maine

Back in Rochester, I’m a bit dazed from an exceptionally long day of travel yesterday. I did find myself perking up tremendously from this: “24 Reasons Everyone Should See Maine Before They Die.” I’ve been to almost every one of these places, and they’re iconic and beautiful. Rather more surprising is how many of them are on my shortlist of places to paint on my workshop:

Owl’s Head Lighthouse

I painted this as a demo for my July workshop and framed it Monday before leaving Maine. How fine it looks in an elegant black frame:
Owl’s Head Light, 8X10, oil on canvas, by little ol’ me. Available.

Marshall Point Lighthouse

Every time I’m there, someone tells me about Forrest Gump, but I’m probably the last remaining American who hasn’t seen it. I’ve never painted the lighthouse, but the setting is one of my favorite spots to paint in mid-coast Maine.
Sunset at Marshall’s Point, 8X6, oil on canvas, by little ol’ me. Private collection.


Camden harbor is never boring, with its big fleet of wooden schooners moving in and out of the harbor. There are also gazillionaires’ yachts, which aren’t as lovely but are equally entertaining. But I probably love the old dinghies and modest dories as much as anything—certainly for painting.


Monhegan has more artists per square inch than any other place in Maine. Despite that, it’s still charming and still beautiful.
If I were in charge of this list, I’d ditch Freeport, because I’m not much of a shopper. I’d add in Eastport (with its ethereal ghostliness) and Castine (about which I’ll write tomorrow).
However, it’s pretty amazing that a sixth of the places they chose as iconic are on my Maine workshop itinerary, isn’t it?

Join us in October, 2013 at Lakewatch Manorwhich is selling out fastor let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in 2014. Click herefor more information on my Maine workshops!