Nothing lasts forever

Wildfire is threatening an area I know and love. It’s a reminder that nothing lasts forever, even the trees and hills.

Hermit’s Peak from El Porvenir, Carol L. Douglas, oil on archival canvasboard, available.

I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time recently watching the wildfire at Hermit’s Peak in New Mexico. “Much of the fire’s growth is in thick, heavy timber and steep, rugged terrain,” writes officialdom. That is, if anything, an understatement. I’ve painted in El Porvenir with my buddy Jane Chapin. The area is desolate.

As sad as the current fire destruction is, it’s where the fire is heading that concerns me. It’s been burning slowly toward the villages of Upper and Lower Colonias and county road B44A. The Pecos River basin is just a few miles from the fire’s edge.

Upper Reaches of the Pecos River, Carol L. Douglas, oil on archival canvasboard, available.

This is where my Gateway to the Pecos Wilderness workshop is centered, and I’ve come to know and love this tiny slice of Creation. It’s deeply wooded, high, fresh and mountainous.

Of course, I’m worried about Jane, who is in the evacuation ‘set’ zone. However, Jane’s the person who extracted us all from Patagonia after lockdown. There’s nobody I’d rather be in a crisis with.

Old farmhouse in Pecos, NM, Carol L. Douglas, oil on archival canvasboard, available. This is one of the historic structures in the evacuation ‘set’ area.

The fire started as a prescribed burn lit on a windy April day. It’s now burned out of control for five weeks and shows no sign of imminent containment.

The terrain is extremely inaccessible. “It has more roads on the east side of the ridge but the Pecos Wilderness side is forest roads. They’re often a challenge even for a 4-wheel-drive truck,” Jane told me. “They are steep, full of big rocks, tight switchbacks and big drop-offs, and there’s no turning around.” 

Dry Wash, Carol L. Douglas, oil on archival canvasboard, available.

It was the area beyond Lower Colonias where Jane and I scratched the tar out of her truck trying to back away from a steep drop. There’s no need to go off-roading for adventure; the roads themselves are terrifying.

“We now have over 1900 firefighters on this fire, most of whom are unfamiliar with the area and are sleeping on the ground in tents in fire camps,” Jane said. That’s hard work, complicated by the natural fauna of the area: bears, bobcats and mountain lions will be on the move, along with whatever horses, dogs and cattle may be caught within the fire line. Lest you think that’s an exaggerated risk, a soldier was killed at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage, AK on Tuesday by a grizzly sow protecting her cubs. Where civilization and nature collide, stressed animals sometimes behave erratically.

Snow at Higher Elevations (downdraft), Carol L. Douglas, oil on archival canvasboard, available.

This week, we’re reading about mansions burning in Southern California, but those people have the resources to rebuild. In contrast, San Miguel County, NM, is poor. A quarter of the population live below the poverty line. That makes them voiceless in modern society. They’re unlikely to be able to challenge the Forest Service about the wisdom of ‘controlled’ burns, and this is the second time in seven years where a prescribed burn has gotten loose in this area.

Log barns, Carol L. Douglas, oil on archival canvasboard, available. This historic farmyard is in the evacuation ‘set’ area.

But that’s all politics. What saddens me, deeply, is the potential destruction of a place I love. As Jane said, it seems somehow wrong to pray that the wind shifts and takes the fire to the east. If her home is saved, someone else’s will be destroyed. Instead, I pray for rain.

Nothing lasts forever, even the seemingly immortal forests and hills. That makes it even more imperative to get out and look at them—and paint them if you will—while you can.

Afraid of the darks

It’s only when you’re no longer struggling to manage the technical problems that you can start telling a story with your brush.

Northern  New Mexico, 8X10, oil on Ray-Mar board, $522 unframed.

When teaching, I usually find myself sounding out little ditties with my brush rather than playing through the whole score. Nobody can absorb all the nuances of painting in one marathon demonstration; if that’s what they want, they’re better off buying a video and watching it repeatedly. I prefer to paint a passage that shows a solution to whatever problem is bedeviling my class at the moment. Rarely does that result in a fully-realized painting, but I feel that it’s the best way to teach.

Students setting up to paint in a quiet hamlet. What a paradise New Mexico is!

I was doing that yesterday, demonstrating how to hit a dense, rich color on the first strike. Watercolor students are often afraid of the darks, because they know there’s no going back from an incorrectly-placed deep passage. With few exceptions, watercolor doesn’t take correction well.

“That’s the bitch of watercolor,” I said, sadly.

“Ohhh, the Bitch of Watercolor!” someone riposted. “What a great title!”

My students. I love them.

“Enough of that stupid horse!” said Jimmy the Donkey. “Look at my beautiful Roamin’ Nose!” That was the end of that painting.

The diffident watercolorist tries to circumvent their fear of darks by substituting a series of glazes. Glazing has its place, but you can’t use it in lieu of courage. Excessive glazing makes for muddy color and indistinct edges. The end result is lifeless. Paradoxically, that struggle against the darks sucks all the light out of the painting.

Just as watercolorists have problems with darks, some oil painters have an equal and opposite problem with light. They understand intellectually that they work from darks to lights, but they’re somehow unable to make the jump. Sometimes that’s caused by working in bright sunlight, which lies about the true values in our paintings. Or the painter thinks they should lay down a bunch of dark color and then lighten things by adding white into them. That’s a misunderstanding of indirect painting.

White, incorrectly used, makes for chalky color.

New Mexico can sure put on a show with her skies.

The problem may also be that they have too much solvent in the bottom layers. If those layers are too wet, nothing above them stays separated and clean. A good rule of thumb is that solvent gets used in the bottom layer only (and sparingly), paint in the middle layer, and paint and medium in the top layer. The fat-over-lean rule is not only archivally sound, it’s easier to manage.

Confident color is integral to alla prima painting. There is only one way to achieve this:

  • Draw well enough that you have confidence in where you’re placing your color, and,
  • Mix and test your color so you’re sure of it before it hits your finished painting.
My dog buddies came out to visit me, as they do every year. It’s painful to see the grey in their muzzles and the hitch in their gitalong.

“Why this emphasis on process?” a student once asked me. “Shouldn’t art be about freedom of expression?” Well, yes and no. All expression rests on a firm foundation of technique. It’s only when you’re no longer struggling to manage the technical problems that you can start telling a story with your brush.

I’m teaching in Pecos, NM this week. Yee-hah!

Let down your defenses

I understand and empathize with defensiveness very well, but I also know that it is paralyzing.

Annett Sauve lets me demonstrate on her canvas. (Photo courtesy of Jane Chapin)

Thomas Edison is credited with saying that “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.” He ought to have added persistence in that equation. It’s a kind of intelligence, one that isn’t measured on tests and used as a predictor of success—but it ought to be.

Of the six students in this workshop, two are returning students. They share that trait of persistence. For both of them, the process of painting has really clicked on this trip. I refine my teaching method with every class, which I think makes it clearer, but the difference is mostly in them.

Mary Whitney’s painting in paradise.

Painting is not simple. Learning it takes time, and is a two-way dialogue. The student must be open to what’s being taught in order to make any real progress. Likewise, the teacher must be listening constantly for cues from the student.

For a long time, I was a very defensive painting (and everything else) student. I knew what I thought I knew and wasn’t willing to let others change that, even as I understood I needed help. It was a pity, because it blunted any possibility of becoming a better painter.

What were the symptoms of this self-defeating viewpoint? Whenever a teacher suggested I try something a different way, I responded with a rationalization. “I know, but…” saved me from having to try and fail. I was unnecessarily critical of others’ work, and there was a very limited range of paintings I understood enough to love.

Karla King and me, working at Pecos National Historic Park. (Photo courtesy of Jane Chapin)

What cured that? My broken self-image was repaired. To explain how I was broken would require delving into a maelstrom, so I will skip it. But the cure was a combination of my developing faith (I was made in God’s image, so I can’t be fatally flawed) and the slow development of real competence. This was not just as a painter, but as a parent, a spouse, and a functioning adult.

I understand and empathize with defensiveness very well, but I also know that it is paralyzing. I can’t fix it by simply saying, “let down your defenses.” That insecurity is the very nut the student is trying so hard to protect.

Instead, I sidestep the whole question by insisting that, for one week, workshop students try it my way. It’s not arrogance on my part, but rather the desire that students get value for the money they’re shelling out.

Historic New Mexico.

Of course, the process I use is not the only way to paint alla prima, nor is it in any way my own invention. Painting—like most other human endeavors—has been developed incrementally by thousands of practitioners. Our best practices are a synthesis of their ideas. Before a student rejects the basic rules of painting, he or she should not only understand why they are used, but have thoroughly mastered them.

I’m thinking about this because I’m going to do a free cocktail-hour webinar on October 2, where I’ll talk about objectives in studying painting. Everyone is welcome, and I hope you bring lots of questions.

“The first time I felt normal in a long time.”

If you’re depressed or anxious right now, for heaven’s sake, turn off your laptop and TV.

Jane Chapin with my new dog, Guillo (short for Guillermo and pronounced Gee-zho).

There’s a small hamlet here that’s a New Mexican Brigadoon, a tiny community that time forgot. It’s otherworldly, like a set from a movie. Modest adobe houses are set on a bluff overlooking a verdant valley. The dogs and the people are generous and friendly.

This is one of my favorite places, where I could paint the rest of my life in contentment. That’s a fairly high bar, since I’ve painted in many of the world’s beauty spots.

Yesterday I shared this place with the six students in my Pecos workshop. It’s a well-earned reward, because I’m working them harder than I’ve ever worked students before. On Monday, we did a day-long joint project where I demoed step-by-step in watercolor and oils. They followed along, duplicating my processes exactly. On Tuesday, we threw color theory into that mix. All six of them draw well, so they’re able to keep up.

Mary Silver working on values. It’s all about that base.

Yesterday, they were spread out along a dusty track running from the road back to the morada, which is the meeting house of New Mexican penitentes. As is my usual technique, I spent much of the day going from person to person, working one-on-one. This creates the opportunity for intimate conversation (and is why so many of my students have become lifelong friends).

“This is the first time I’ve felt normal in a long time,” two of them told me independently of each other. Those within earshot heartily agreed with them. We’re in a place that’s anything but normal. Our group is disparate, with students from students from Texas, Missouri, New Mexico, New Hampshire and Maine. I had to ask them what made them feel normal.

Jean Cole with our ride. And here I thought I had overdone it by getting a full-size truck.

It’s being in a group and not wearing masks, they thought. I suspect they’re right. Human beings are primarily social animals. We read each other through body language and facial expressions as much—or more—than with our words. Here we can talk and laugh, and we needn’t worry overmuch about whether we’re maintaining a proper two-meter separation (as if there was any science behind that rather arbitrary number).

But there’s more to it than that. We’re also in a media blackout. One thing I like about painting here (and in Acadia, and Alaska and Patagonia and other remote places) is that I don’t have cell-phone reception. I’m not seeing the news or looking at Facebook. Here I can’t even take a phone call. If you want me, text me and I may see your message by the end of the day.

Linda DeLorey and Jean Cole painting in Paradise.

That means we haven’t talked or thought about COVID-19 all week. And there’s a lesson in that—if you’re depressed or anxious right now, for heaven’s sake, turn off your laptop and TV. Go for a walk in this crystalline September air. Play with a puppy. Do anything that involves your real community and doesn’t involve the whole generalized human condition. It’s what’s around you that’s real, not what the talking heads keep telling you.

A student asked me whether we are going to have safe-distancing accommodations at Sea & Sky this year. The answer is yes. For this year only, everyone gets their own apartment. However, if you’re coming from Massachusetts or any other supposedly high-risk state, you will need a negative COVID test to stay at Schoodic Institute. (Of course, that too may change by October.)

Last but certainly not least, I’m going to do a free cocktail-hour webinar on October 2, where I’ll talk about objectives in studying painting. Everyone is welcome, and I hope you bring lots of questions.

Dare to dream!

And don’t worry; if my workshops are cancelled for coronavirus, I’m giving a full refund.

The lovely American Eagle at rest in Penobscot Bay.

We held out as long as possible, but we’ve been forced to cancel my first summer workshop, our June 7 Age of Sail adventure aboard the schooner American Eagle. Students have been invited to transfer their reservations to the September 20 trip, or they can get a full refund.

These workshops sparkle because of the floating venue, an historic schooner meticulously maintained by Captain John Foss. I saw him yesterday. He was wrestling a snowplow either on or off his truck—it was hard to tell, given the cold. Messmate Sarah Collins was bundled in layers and lying prone in the wind to varnish along the gunwales. This is the part of windjamming the public never sees: the sheer hard graft to keep these boats in perfect nick. Captain John is older now than he’s ever been. He’s making noises about retirement. When he goes, the Age of Sail workshop almost certainly goes too. I can’t imagine anyone else hosting it so well.
Painting aboard the American Eagle. There’s always plenty of time for sailing, too.
If there’s any lesson to be learned from the current crisis, it’s that nothing lasts forever. If you’re interested in that September 20 trip, contact me now and let me know.
We work so hard. Photo courtesy Ellen Trayer.
That still leaves two other workshops for the season, both of which are still very much on. Both concentrate on the same material, but the settings are very different. We work on:
  • Plein air composition
  • Color theory
  • Accurate drawing
  • Mixing colors
  • Finding your own voice
  • Authentic brushwork
Schoodic Point. Photo courtesy Claudia Schellenberg.

Sea & Sky in Acadia National Park is a perennial favorite for good reason. This is the part of Acadia most visitors never visit. Schoodic Peninsula has the same dramatic rock formations, windblown pines, pounding surf and stunning mountain views that draw visitors to the Mount Desert Side. But Schoodic doesn’t suffer the crowds that the main part of the park does. Still, it’s just a 90-minute drive from Bangor International Airport (or a pleasant meander up the coast from Portland or Boston).

A group exercise at Acadia National Park.
Because of the wonderful isolation, we offer this week-long workshop with lodging and meals included. All you have to do is concentrate on painting. Last year it sold out; I don’t expect that in these uncertain times, but you never know. Contact me if you’re interested.
Pecos, NM. Photo courtesy of Jane Chapin.
Last, but certainly not least is my newest offering, Gateway to the Pecos Wilderness, in the high mountain community of Pecos, New Mexico. The Pecos River, Santa Fe National Forest, Pecos National Historical Park, Glorieta Pass, and Pecos Benedictine Monastery are all nearby. All provide superb mountain views. Ranches and small adobe settlements seem to grow organically out of the landscape. This is a place of colorful skies, hoodoos, dry washes, pine wildernesses, horses, and pickup trucks. Yet it’s within commuting distance of Santa Fe, so accommodations, necessities and world-class galleries are just a short drive away. This workshop is five full days long and there is ample accommodation in the area. Read more about it here, or contact me.
Pecos National Historic Park. Photo courtesy Jane Chapin.
Refunds aren’t something I have much experience with, so I’m learning about them now. It turns out they’re a little more complicated than just reversing the sale on a credit card. But don’t worry; if your workshop is cancelled because of coronavirus, I’ll be giving you a full refund. You can make plans without worrying that you’ll lose your deposit.

Paint in beautiful Pecos, New Mexico, September 13-18, 2020

New Mexico’s a vastly different landscape, yet has the same long views and limpid light that so captivate me about Maine.

Dry Wash, by Carol L. Douglas

It takes a lot to get me to teach anywhere but Maine these days. But there’s another place I love to paint. I haven’t taught in New Mexico in more than a decade, and it’s time to go back.

The village of Pecos, NM lies along the Pecos River, which flows out of the Santa Fe National Forest. Nearby, Pecos National Historical ParkGlorieta Pass, and Pecos Benedictine Monastery provide superb mountain views. Ranches and small adobe settlements dot the landscape. This is a landscape of colorful skies, hoodoos, dry washes, pine wildernesses, horses, and pickup trucks. Yet it’s within commuting distance of Santa Fe, so accommodations, necessities and world-class galleries are just a short drive away.
Horses at a ranch in Pecos, NM. Photo courtesy Jane Chapin.
I first painted in the Pecos area during a plein airevent in 2018. I was supposed to range all over the state, but I loved Pecos so much I stayed right there. Then I came back the following winter. I’ve explored the ridges and canyons, the river valley, horse pastures, fallow bottomlands, and I think I have a great itinerary planned for you.

Old farmyard, Pecos, NM, by Carol L. Douglas. If I were going to buy a second home, this would be it.

I’m delighted to offer this opportunity in conjunction with the brand-new Pecos Art Center (about which I’ll be telling you more soon). This organization was founded to bring arts and culture to the local community. Each workshop instructor is asked to present a program for local school students before or after their workshop. This augments local art education and gives back to the local community. “In Pecos, we believe we live in a unique and authentic place and want to give something back to the community who has welcomed us to paint there,” said organizer Jane Chapin. “We want to preserve its character while leaving a footprint of opportunities for the next generation.”

Adobe and beautiful mountains. Photo courtesy Jane Chapin.
This workshop is aimed at helping painters refine their personal technique in plein air. All media are welcome: watercolor, pastel, oils and acrylics. This is an intensive class, with morning and afternoon on-site painting sessions and lunch-time demos. Classes are kept small so every student gets the attention they deserve.
My friend Jimmy Stewart critiquing my painting along the river bottom. Photo courtesy Jane Chapin.
Opportunities for accommodations are varied. There are seasonal rentals in the area, or commute up from Santa Fe if you want a more urban setting.
The workshop fee is $600. That includes five days of highly-personalized instruction and a social gathering on Sunday evening, where you’ll meet your classmates. Email me here for more information.
Snow at higher elevations (downdraft), by Carol L. Douglas
Carol Douglas has 20 years’ experience teaching students of all levels in watercolor, oils, acrylics and pastels. “Some teachers are good artists, and some artists are good teachers, but it is rare to find a good artist who is also a good teacher. Carol is one of them. She will teach you the fundamentals you need to know, which a lot of teachers gloss over without explanation, but she also takes you to the next level, wherever you are on the learning curve.” (David Blanchard)

Fugue State

I may be the only plein air painter in the world who comes home and says, “I wish I’d simplified less.” 
Late winter along the Pecos River, by Carol L. Douglas
I know the rules of good design. In my studio, an informal formal analysis always runs in the back of my mind. I have goals for each painting, and my work is a challenge to meet those goals.
Get me in the field, however, and I enter a sort of fugue state. I paint almost unconsciously. The more difficult the physical challenges, the truer that is.
Horno in the snow, by Carol L. Douglas
Fugue state is an old-fashioned term for a rare kind of a dissociative disorder where the patient forgets who and where they are. I don’t mean to deprecate the sufferings of people with dissociative disorders, which are exceedingly serious. But if the American Psychiatric Association wants to abandon the term, I’m going to adopt it. It perfectly fits my mental state when I’m plein air painting.
Having painted alongside many, many artists who flail around in anxiety, I think I’m very blessed. I can just cut out the world and think about nothing at all.
Below the Ridge, by Carol L. Douglas
A fugue state often involves putting on a whole different identity. That seems to be what happens to me, because my plein air and studio work have very different characters. I may be the only plein air painter in the world who comes home and says, “I wish I’d simplified less.” Everything is mosaic with very little form, and less and less detail as the years go by.
Snow along the Pecos River, by Carol L. Douglas
My husband obliquely challenged that while we were in New Mexico. To challenge myself, I spent one morning in New Mexico staring at pictures of Peredvizhnikipaintings of log cabins. Then I went out to paint log barns. I think some of that Russian technique permeated the deepest parts of my brain, because I was able to do the log walls with enough detail, without getting fussy. But overall, the painting was pretty similar to everything else I painted that week.
Upper Reaches of the Pecos River, by Carol L. Douglas
I can set out to consciously paint a certain way, and it makes no difference. Get me in the woods with my brushes and instinct crowds out all my thinking. Whether that’s good or bad, I don’t know, but it does reflect that I’m happiest outdoors.
Occasionally, readers ask me why I travel to paint—after all, I live in America’s Vacationland. It’s not the studio that’s the problem, it’s my desk. Sometimes I just want to go away and let the paperwork pile up somewhere I’m not. 
Snow at higher elevations, by Carol L. Douglas
It’s like a vacation for the brain, except it’s not restful. I work very hard on the road, but mercifully none of it involves marketing. That’s exactly why you should consider a workshop, as well. Mine are here, if you’re interested.
I got home from New Mexico a week ago today. Yesterday was the first day in which I managed to unpack and photograph my work. Because it has been cold and my paint was thick, most of them were still wet when I left. That necessitated building a more stable carrier system, which I did with an old box, tape and slender strips cut from an old Coroplast political sign. (Jane Chapin throws away nothing, bless her heart.)
Snow below the summit, by Carol L. Douglas
Interesting, the only one which sustained any damage in transit was in a PanelPak carrier. A drop of thick white paint migrated on its surface. That had nothing to do with the carrier, and everything to do with how fat the paint was.

Places we shouldn’t have tried to go

As long as we have three wheels on the ground, we’re fine, she insisted.

Below the Ridge, by Carol L. Douglas.

If you’ve worked with me in the last few years, you know that I can no longer stand to paint. My back has given me fits since I had radiation twenty years ago. I’ve seen three different surgeons since then. The consensus was that I wasn’t a good candidate for spinal surgery.

Last summer, a fellow painter gave me a prescription pain patch for my lower back. With that, codeine, and a brace I stood long enough to do a (bad) Quick Draw. I could barely sit to drive home to Maine.

Doctors are thin on the ground where we live, so we see a nurse practitioner. He suggested I try physical therapy for my back. I’ve been at it for a bit more than a month now, twice a week when I’m home. I try very hard to do my assigned exercises no matter where I am.
Snow sublimates rapidly at this altitude, even in sub-freezing temperatures.

After Jimmy the Donkey came to help me paint on Tuesday, I decided I’d best try to stand for a while. I trust him, but he shares his pasture with two horses. It felt great—better by far than sitting. I’ve now stood to paint for the past three days. It hasn’t been perfect, but if I have a nearby fence or branch to stabilize myself with, I’m fine. Miracles come in many forms, and one of them is my physical therapist.

The snow here is lighter and finer than what’s back east, and the sun so intense that it rapidly burns off of south-facing exposures. Jane Chapin and I drove to a nearby hamlet to paint log barns in the snow. It was in the teens and low twenties when we started, with a stiff wind. Even as we shivered, the local dogs basked comfortably at our feet.
The beautiful dogs that kept me company while I painted. Don’t they look like lions in the dry grass?
I doubt these dogs have a breed name; I’ve heard them called ‘Mexican dogs’. They’re often brindle- or golden-coated, with strong terrier bodies and lots of smarts. These two kept me company during Santa Fe Plein Air Fiesta, and they were back again as if no time at all had passed. They’re such fine animals that if the opportunity to buy a puppy presented itself, I’d seriously consider it.
There are roads here that are no more than lanes. Slipping down one with difficulty, our canine pals trotting at our side, we came to a point where we couldn’t see over the drop. It was time to back our way out. Piñon and white pine branches that had moved grudgingly when we were heading forward, steadfastly refused to budge as we backed out. “That’ll buff out,” Jane said optimistically. I hope so; it’s her truck.
By the time we were done painting, my hands were so cold I could no longer even draw accurately.
We tried the high road. “I think there’s a turnaround right past the overlook,” Jane said. Possibly, but the road was drifted in. There was a thousand-foot drop to our left. Still, Jane managed to do a 37-point turn to get us out of there. “As long as we have three wheels on the ground, we’re fine,” she said as I gingerly opened one eye.
Jane is very petite, and that truck is very large, but she handled it like a pro. She’d be a great one to paint in the Arctic with, but at that point, a warm lunch by the stove sounded like a more prudent plan.

Why the details matter

Super-simplified paintings may intrigue at first, but do they have enough information to satisfy over time?
Snow at higher elevations, by Carol L. Douglas

Yesterday we let the software engineer out of his cage. He traveled down to Pecos National Historical Park with us. He could get a signal enabling him to work. Meanwhile, we painted a snow squall approaching across the Sangre de Cristo mountains. (We’re limited to satellite here on the ranch and a tethered hotspot is faster.)

As is true on the ocean, the sight-lines in the west are extended. You have hours to watch weather unfold. It made for great painting for us, and a nice work setting for him.
A friend once told me, “I’d never date an engineer; they’re too boring.” I’ve found exactly the opposite to be true. This one has an undergraduate arts degree and is a serious musician as well as being a programmer. When he talks about aesthetics, I listen.
An abandoned farmstead in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
We took him for a brief walk through a small, abandoned farmstead with log and stone barns. It was where I’d spent most of my time during Santa Fe Plein Air Fiesta last April. The difficulty, I’d found, was in the surfaces, which are textured and edgy and needed more definition than my usual painting style. How could I paint them convincingly without being too detailed?
Alla primapainting applies a low-pass filter over everything,” he told me. “You need a way to convey high-frequency information in some places.” Huh?
Think about the sound of clapping. It’s impulsive and unexpected. If you were to look at a graph of it, you would see a spike. That’s what they call a high-frequency sound, and it’s exactly the same as a line, a dot, or an edge in your painting—in other words, it’s a big, sudden, value shift, packed with information. It gets your attention. It’s the opposite of low-frequency sounds, which are more like the hum of your dishwasher in the background.
Our office on the road. My trusty Prius is not up to this terrain. (Photo courtesy of Douglas Perot)
There are low-frequency passages in painting, too. A grey sky is an extreme example. Nothing much changes there. When you save a photo at too low a resolution and it gets blurry, it’s essentially been subjected to a low-pass filter.
When your teacher tells you, “focus on big shapes,” or “ignore the detail,” he or she is telling you to apply a low-pass filter to your painting. In general, that’s good advice—within limits.
And then there was snow, and a gravel road up a mountain ridge. (Photo courtesy of Douglas Perot)
In photography, those blurry, low-resolution photos may intrigue at first glance, but they aren’t that satisfying over time. In the long run, that may be true of paintings as well.
The trick, I think, is to vary high information passages with super-simplified ones. It’s a good goal but it’s not always possible in plein air painting, where you often have to quit before you think you’re finished.
Horno in the snow, by Carol L. Douglas. I haven’t looked out yet to see how much stuck.
And that was exactly what happened to us. One minute, it was dark and cold, and the next, snow was swirling everywhere, obscuring our view.  We slipped up the road back to the ranch. I’m hoping for snow-cover to last through today. If it doesn’t, I’m sure we’ll find something to paint.

There’s no law west of the Pecos

Suffering from over-the-next-hill-itis? Over the next hill it is, then.

Snow along the Pecos River, by Carol L. Douglas.

I’m in New Mexico with painter Jane Chapin. She’s prepping for surgery on her painting hand; I’m doing physical therapy for my back. Some people might think we ought to be in a retirement home. Instead, we’re ducking under four-strand fences, stomping over icy trails, and generally making a nuisance of ourselves far beyond cell-phone range.

The mountains along the headwaters of the Pecos River are some of the most beautiful country in the world. I painted them while on crutches last spring and did about as well as could be expected. Now my arms are truly free, and I have more mobility.
There wasn’t snow on the desert floor yesterday, but it still filled washes in the higher elevations. It has the granularized texture of old snow; they got a lot of it earlier this winter and it’s lingering. More is predicted. That’s good news in this arid landscape.
The critic is an ass. Photo courtesy of Jane Chapin.
What joy is to be found in painting in snow? It’s hard to struggle in and out of your snowsuit. Painters with circulatory deficits may find their hands hurt, and warm boots are a must. But if you can do it, there’s simply no experience like it.
Snow reflects colors and form like no other surface (other than the sea). It throws pure light back at you, perfectly reflecting the peaches, blues and purples of the western sky. It sets light relations on their heads, putting the lightest colors at the bottom of the canvas and the highest chromas in the sky.
But there’s no point in trying to do it from photos. They simply don’t capture the range of color and texture in real snow. There’s no sculptural form. Everything is flattened to a uniform, dull, white. “It is hard to get the feeling of winter without feeling the winter,” Stapleton Kearns once said.
Upper reaches of the Pecos River, by Carol L. Douglas
Jane’s horses are in their winter pasturage down by the Pecos River. We chose a corner of their space to paint in. Scout and Lucy were uninterested, but Jimmy the donkey had no compunctions about expressing his opinion. It took several minutes of ear-twitching before he gave me the full ears-up.  “The critic is an ass,” mused Jane.
From there we drove up to Cowles Lake, hoping to get a good painting view of snow-covered Pecos Baldy. This is 4WD country. Our Toyota Tundra 4X4 didn’t look like too much truck at all as we fishtailed through slush and ice.
The Cabana Trail is closed for the season, and there were no safe overlooks on the switchbacks. Photos would have to do. The great risk of plein air painting is the temptation to drive around looking for a better view. “I suffer from over-the-hill-itis as much as the next person, but we have to settle down somewhere,” said Jane.
Barbed wire is tough on horses, but it does make a handy sketch-holder.
We stopped and did one more small painting, of the Pecos winding below a wildfire-swept ridge. I love mountains that have suffered forest fires. In the short decades before new growth covers them, their bones are open to examination. It was dark by the time we returned to the ranch, happy, cold and tired. This is the best of plein air painting.