Be careful what you wish for

One in five houses in Maine is someone’s vacation home. The potential implications of COVID-19 are terrible.

Four Ducks, Cape Elizabeth Paint for Preservation, by Carol L. Douglas

One thing I’ve dreaded doing was striking out upcoming events on my website. As I’ve written before, I think the plein air festival has lost its punch. Because of this, I deleted all but a few key events in 2020. The ones I kept had strong revenues or provided unusual opportunities for painting. Then cancellations started flooding in from organizers rightly worried about promoting events they can’t deliver. Now I’m left with what I’d thought I wanted: a summer where I can concentrate on painting here at home, and where I can run my studio-gallery without interruption.

Of course, I don’t know whether anyone will be able to come. Like everyone else, I have no idea what shape the summer will take. The state of Maine is on lockdown. That’s not irrational: one in five houses in this state is someone’s vacation home, the highest percentage in the nation. That makes us very vulnerable to visiting pathogens.
Ottawa House, Parrsboro International Plein Air Festival, by Carol L. Douglas
But tourism is one of our top economic drivers. In 2018, over 37 million people visited Maine, spending $6.2 billion and supporting 110,000 jobs. The cost of this lockdown, if it continues through the summer months, is incalculable. The cultural costs are being felt already. Our bicentennial was March 15, but the state had to postpone a host of celebrations that have been years in the making.
In the near future, I’ll be teaching painting via Zoom. Teaching via the internet is going to be radically different from teaching in person. I need to figure out new ways to prepare, since we won’t all be looking at the same scene, carefully curated to address a specific issue in painting. The issue isn’t technology; it’s creating projects that are doable in students’ homes.
Ocean Park Beach, Art in the Park, by Carol L. Douglas
I’m kicking myself for not paying more attention to Katie Dobson Cundiff while we were in Argentina. She teaches at Ringling College of Art and Design. Her students were all sent home while they were on spring break. While the rest of us were larking around the glaciers, she was creating a template for remote teaching.
The only analogy in my lifetime was the economic collapse of 2008. My income fell by 2/3 in one horrible year. Both painting sales and classes were way down. My strategy was to stop showing and selling until the market had time to recover. Even my teaching practice was reduced. Instead, I used that time to focus on my own development.
I don’t think the current crisis will have the same shape as the 2008 crash, but I’ll probably do something similar. I’m retracting, watching, and trying to be nimble. And I’m really curious about your ideas.

But first I have to feel better. I’m entering week four of being ill. This morning, I’m breaking my quarantine to drive to my PCP’s office for further testing. If I get arrested, you can send me a file in a cake.

Is the plein air festival losing its punch?

To be a successful artist, you have to catch the currents, not be driven by them.
Downdraft snow in the Pecos, by Carol L. Douglas
I still plan to travel, but the guts of my summer work moving forward will not be plein air events. Rather, I’m going to capitalize on my location and run a gallery from my studio. It’s a great location. If you’re in the art mecca of Rockland, ME and you want to head up the coast to Camden, you travel right past me.
Bobbi Heath taught me that it’s wise to know where my revenue comes from—paintings vs. teaching, for example. That helps the small businesswoman make smarter decisions about where to put her effort. Of course, there are limits to how you should deploy this information. It’s easier to grow a teaching practice than to sell more paintings, but that doesn’t mean the painter should stop painting. We’re self-employed so we have the freedom to be self-directed. That means catching currents, not being driven by them.
Parrsboro dawn, by Carol L. Douglas
It didn’t take an analyst to see what’s been staring me in the face for the past several seasons, a reality I didn’t want to face. My revenues from overall painting sales are up. At the same time, my revenues from plein air events are down.
I like doing these events, and I have great loyalty to the communities and organizers, but it no longer pays to constantly hare off over the horizon. To understand what had changed, I asked myself if I was doing something wrong, or had the market itself changed?
The answer is yes to both. My price point has risen over the years (a good thing). At the same time, these events have been flooded with new artists (good for the art world as a whole). I’m finding myself in the position of an established brand being undercut by start-ups. I can respond by cutting prices or by defending my brand. I’d rather do the latter.
Beach erosion, by Carol L. Douglas
To check my own experiences against those of my peers, I collected anecdotal information from fellow painters all summer. (You should see my bar tab.) Many, although not all, have experienced the same thing. The air seems to be out of many of the events that have long been the staple of our summer income.
Nobody collects hard data about plein air festivals. But anecdotal information is famously unreliable. If you’ve done a lot of festival events, you know that while five artists are sitting on their hands, the sixth is selling out. And artists don’t like talking about sales. It’s impossible to get a big picture of what’s happening.
Tricky Mary in a Pea-Soup Fog, by Carol L. Douglas
Last week, I corresponded with the founder of an event I’ve done since its inception. “One third of our artists sold no art this year,” he wrote. “That’s unacceptable.” They’re suspending their program for 2020 and reconsidering it for the future.
Then there was a public announcement that the Bucks County Plein Air Festival is being discontinued. Two data points do not a trend line make, but in the face of my own personal experience, it looks ominous.
“Hey, life ebbs and flows,” Bruce McMillan commented. The plein air movement has been an astonishing force over the past thirty years. I’m fortunate to have played in it for twenty. And none of this means I will stop painting outside, or even totally stop doing plein airevents; it is just a sign that it’s time to widen my net. What does it mean for you?

Dance with the one what brung you

“I’m the worst, I’m totally garbage at scheduling” is not an excuse; it’s just a sign that you were raised by wolves.
Cape Elizabeth Cliffs, by Carol L. Douglas

Tomorrow is the wedding of the season in my former town of Rochester, NY. The sister of the bride is flying in from Scotland; the sisters of the groom from France. The gathering will include my husband, my daughter, and many of my old and treasured friends.

I’ll be thinking of them as I paint at Cape Elizabeth Paint for Preservation. No, I do not think my career is more important than my old friend, but I was accepted to this event before she announced the date.
Back in the last millennium, etiquette mavens taught that the only proper reason to break a prior commitment was an invitation to the White House. I’m liberal enough to include a personal emergency or a date in court, but the principle was that your word, once given, is inviolate.
Painting in Cape Elizabeth Paint for Preservation last June. (Photo courtesy of Karen Lybrand)
It can be difficult to maintain this policy. Last autumn, I’d signed up for Plein Air Brandywine Valley when my daughter invited me to London and Bath. I had no prior relationship with the show and my family was very persuasive. My husband went to England; I painted in Pennsylvania. I liked Children’s Beach House, the sponsoring organization, enough that I’ll be back again this year.
I think it’s no bad thing to be reliable. One of the few things I regret decades later is having flaked on someone who was really counting on me.
Modern culture has a bad reputation for flaking, or not showing up when you say you will. Having given three weddings for my daughters, I’ve experienced this first-hand. The worst offenders, by the way, have not been much-maligned millennials, but people who are old enough to know better.
“Technology makes it so much easier to flake out,” saidclinical psychologist Andrea Bonior. “It’s infinitely easier and less awkward than having to talk to someone by phone or, worse, tell them in person.”
Painting in the cold rain at Brandywine last autumn.
But showing up when you promise is as important to festival organizers as it is to the mother of the bride. Organizers invest a great deal of time and energy on a short list of painters, one they’ve carefully selected through a complex process of invitation or jurying. Your name and work have been assiduously promoted to their lists, and they encourage your fans to come to their event.
Most committees work on their event all year long, and they work indefatigably during the run-up and the week of the event. Much of the work is done by volunteers, working alongside paid staff. The work involved in putting on a successful plein air competition is staggering; it is probably equal to organizing a white tie dinner at Buckingham Palace.
Some events have runners-up to fill last minute gaps. But even these shows will have publicized your presence to their punters. Not showing up leaves them plugging a mystery “Special Guest” in the place of their headliners.
So, if you’re thinking of bailing on an event, don’t. And if you must, make sure you have an awfully good reason—your own death, for example. “I’m the worst, I’m totally garbage at scheduling” is not an excuse; it’s just a sign that you were raised by wolves.

Road warrior living, by the numbers

Do all plein air artists work in this frenzied way? Only if they want to make a living.

Full stop, by Carol L. Douglas (sold).
I received a number of reader responses to my recent post, How long did Van Gogh take to complete a painting? They came by email, because Blogger’s comment feature is a little wonky right now. Some comments are going through, but if you have trouble, just email me here.
“Are these events increasing the market for art?” wrote S, who is a statistician in real life. That’s a question I can’t answer, because it’s too small a market niche for the government to monitor. The Bureau of Labor Statistics identifies only 11,000 people in the category of Individual Fine Artist. (I’m not sure it’s true, since I know at least 11,000 artists personally.)
Headlamps, by Carol L. Douglas (available, and a favorite painting of the artist).
That compares to a global art market in the $60 billion range, depending on whom you ask. This is concentrated in the US, and 70% are paintings, almost all by dead people. Researchers are understandably more interested in that lucrative aftermarket than in the art that is being created now.
I can only note that there are more plein air events every year, which is a sign that they work.
Lobster pound at Tenant’s Harbor, by Carol L. Douglas (available through the Kelpie Gallery).
“You lump all plein air painters into this frenzied bunch,” wrote C. “Perhaps your view is informed by the competitive way you’ve decided to paint. I find it hard to believe that everyone works this way. Or is it only the non-professionals like me who take it slow?”
Professional plein air painters work in this circuit, and I’m typical, I think. None of the other 49 painters at Adirondack Plein Air, for example, had any problems completing a finished, lovely work in the two hours allotted for our Quick-Draw. I’ve observed that artists tend to produce around one-two paintings a day at these events, depending on the size. That puts them square in the 3-5 hour range per painting.
They cost so much because there’s a lot of other work and expense involved, and because the longer the artist’s sales record, the more his or her work is worth. In comparison, nobody ever asks how long their Nike Lebron Xsneakers took to make. It was probably just a few minutes.
Bahama Palm, by Carol L. Douglas (available). So far I haven’t been able to successfully monetize my southern journeys. That would extend the season.
“Do you like being able to do a mix of plein air and studio work?” asked S. “How many months in a year are dedicated to plein air events? Or is this the wrong metric?”
In fact, it’s an important question, one we ask ourselves at the end of every season. What is a sustainable level for plein air events?
Studio painting is the normal place to finish commissions or larger, more involved work. Currently, I’m doing events only from June through September, but I hope to spread them out more across the year. However, the farther I travel, the higher my expenses become.
The answer is highly individual, and it changes over time. In fact, I was planning to have coffee with Stephan Giannini this morning to discuss this exact question, but I forgot I’m supposed to be in Buffalo. We’ll take it up again in October, which is the next time we’ll both be home.

The car cures itself

Summer for a professional plein air painter can involve as much driving as painting.

Cape Blomiden makes its own cloud, by Carol L. Douglas, was painted during a rainstorm in the first annual Parrsboro International Plein Air Festival.
One of my students missed last weekend’s workshop due to a painful flareup of plantar fasciitis. Another student, himself a doctor, told me about taking the disease into his own hands. He simply stretched the offending tissue until it audibly tore. “The relief was instantaneous,” he told me as I stared at him aghast.
My little Prius has done something similar. It has, over the last year, developed a loud scream at high speeds. Turning up the radio was useless. I had the tires rotated to see if that helped. No luck. A front wheel bearing was replaced in March; I replaced its mate two weeks ago. The right rear brake locked up while my car was in Logan Airport long-term parking in April. That wasn’t the root of the noise either. Meanwhile, every month I’ve been spending more money on this car than the payment on a Ford F-150.

I appreciate AAA’s tow service, but I’ve seen too much of it recently.
But even the money hasn’t been the real problem. “It’s no longer reliable,” I lamented to my husband. Next week I drive alone to Parrsboro, NS, where I’m painting in the second annual Parrsboro International Plein Air Festival. There are some lonely stretches up that way, and I don’t like the idea of getting stranded. I’ve started car shopping, but I don’t have the time to do proper research.
Meanwhile, I’ve had a busy spring. On the night of my daughter’s wedding rehearsal, I stopped for a light at a busy intersection. I woke up seconds later to find that I’d rolled right into the line of oncoming cars.
I have more than a million miles of accident-free driving under my belt and I’d like to keep it that way.  Yesterday when I found myself blinking away sleep on the New York State Thruway, I did something I never do: I relinquished the wheel to my co-pilot. Thus, it was he, not me, who was driving when a tire burst on the interstate.
Two Islands in the Rain, Carol L. Douglas, also from Parrsboro International Plein Air Festival
In the end, this turned out to be the Prius healing itself. A few hours later, we were back on the road. The sound that’s been plaguing me for months was gone. It was a defective tire after all.
We rolled into Rockport around the time that the fishermen are up rubbing the sleep from their eyes and checking the weather. The thermostat in my car read 43° F. and it was foggy and pouring.
I have a short tight week here in Maine. I leave to teach watercolor on the schooner American Eagle on Sunday evening. After we dock, I leave directly for Parrsboro, NS.
Teaching watercolor aboard American Eagle mercifully involves no driving. The dock is just minutes from my home.
I’ll be missing the opening reception for the latter, but Poppy Balser kindly stopped by on her way to Paint Annapolisto collect my boards for me. She’ll get them stamped so I don’t have to spend half of my first day there trying to find someone to stamp them for me. I’ll just have to find Poppy.
And the eco-warrior is back on the road, all healed.
This is nothing unusual; it’s the life of many of my friends each summer. We sort events into boxes. Sometimes we can stop at home, swap the boxes, and do our laundry. But often we stack our calendars up in the back of our vehicles: frames and supports for the different events share trunk space. If we’re crossing the border, we take a deep breath as we approach Customs. We’re not breaking the law, but a search of our cars will result in an awful mishmash of our supplies.

Homeland insecurity

I’m not a very good liar, and the US-Canada border crossing is no place to hone my skills.
Ed Buonvecchio is looking forward to seeing the uniquely Fundy method of ditching boats.
Several years ago, I was crossing back to the US from Ontario with several of my painting students. One of them caught the eye of Homeland Security. The rest of us cooled our heels in a badly-lighted waiting room while Jennifer convinced two border officers that she is an utterly blameless citizen.
Jennifer is chirpy about most things, even an unscheduled brush with law enforcement. “Those young men were cute!” she twanged in her Virginia accent. “Ah didn’t mind spending half the night with them at all.”
Yesterday, I traveled to Canada with Ed Buonvecchio. Ed and I make up 2/3s of the Maine contingent to the Parrsboro International Plein Air Festival. He’s just come back from another long road trip. He’s tired.
Pink seas at Parrsboro, earlier this year.
Perhaps it’s my grandmotherly good looks, but I usually have no problems crossing borders. However, I’ve been mindful about it ever since Poppy Balser was stopped coming into the US for Castine Plein Air in 2016.  The question that tripped her up was, “Are you going to be selling any work?”
The accurate answer yesterday was that we are not going to sell work directly, but the festival’s organizers, Parrsboro Creative, would be doing so.
I’m not a very good liar. That doesn’t mean I’m honest; it just means that I don’t do it well. I don’t volunteer information, but it’s pointless for me to try to dissemble. A child would know I was telling a fib. Ed is, if anything, even worse.
It turns out that Ed, like my friend Jennifer, was flagged on the background check. We cooled our heels in a beautiful, airy, tiled building. Ed answered questions and fretted. I paced, trying to catch up with my husband on our Fitbit challenge.
Cobequid Bay farm, by Carol L. Douglas. I last painted up here, oh, about three weeks ago.
In the end, I’m like my pal Jennifer, always looking for the silver lining. I learned something important: it’s OK for American artists to work in Canada as long as our tools are worth less than a certain dollar amount. We can also bring in materials and supplies, as long as they’re worth less than a certain dollar amount. I haven’t found the magic numbers, but I figured our easels and brushes were probably worth less than $150 each, and our supplies under $100 each. (Those numbers may seem low, but these are pretty well-used items.)
I’m looking forward to painting with Poppy Balser again.
I’m relieved. That means we don’t have to try to pass ourselves off as amateurs when we cross over with our paints, brushes and canvases. That’s just easier on everyone, artists and customs inspectors alike.
“Ed,” I said in my biting Western New York accent, “That young man was cute! I didn’t mind spending time with him at all.”
Ed just rolled his eyes.
Addendum: I have no internet here, so my posts may be erratic for the rest of the week.