Plein air painting on the cheap

If you’re trying painting for the first time, it makes sense to use less-expensive equipment and supplies. Here are corners you can cut.

Early Spring on Beech Hill, 12X16, oil on canvas, $1449 framed includes shipping to continental US.

In 2018, when I first wrote about plein air painting on the cheap, this pine tripod easel cost $7.99. It’s ‘on sale’ for $14.99 now, a whopping 53% price increase in four years. That’s precisely why, if you’re interested in trying plein air painting for the first time, you should probably think about ways to do so on the cheap.

That’s the same easel I learned on in high school. I still have it today, tucked into the corner of my studio. It’s rickety, awkward—and it works. It was a standard style field easel until the invention of pochade boxes that screw onto tripods. My father painted his whole life with a similar, home-made model.

Bridle path, 11X14, $1087 framed includes shipping to continental US.

This easel, however, requires some sort of table. My thrifty friend Catherine uses an old TV table, but there are lighter versions now available.

I wrote recently about pochade boxes for every budget. Dollar Tree’s 9X13 baking pan has only gone up to $1.25, so you can still make the cheapest possible palette for $2.50, plus duct tape. What I neglected to mention in that post was the possibility of buying a used pochade box. Some of my best art tools were purchased second-hand. But you must have the time to be patient.

If you’re handy, you can make one like I did. Or, there’s the classic cigar-box pochade.

Best Buds, 11X14, $1087 framed, includes shipping to continental US.

One of the great advantages of watercolor is that it doesn’t require any easel. Many studio oil painters sketch in watercolor in the field. A Winsor & Newton Cotman field set and a watercolor journal are a cheap, lightweight introduction to wilderness painting. That’s essentially what Thomas Moran carried on the Hayden Expedition to Yellowstone in 1871. He’s known as an oil painter, but his watercolors have an important place in art history.

In every media, the difference between professional and student grade paints and pastels is the amount of pigment and the quality of the binders. In some cases, more expensive pigments will be copied with hues. A hue mimics the color of a single-pigment paint with less-expensive materials. For example, “cerulean blue hue” is often a combination of zinc white and phthalo blue.

A better solution is to avoid pricier pigments in the first place. In earth colors, there’s almost no difference between the student brand and the professional brand. The difference shows up in paints like the cadmiums, where the pigment itself is expensive. There are modern substitutes that do the job equally well at a lower cost.

Blueberry Barrens, 24X36, $3985 includes shipping in continental US.

There are decent student-grade brands out there in all media:

Oils: Gamblin 1980 and Winsor & Newton Winton.

Acrylics: Winsor & Newton Galeria and Liquitex.

Watercolors: Winsor & Newton Cotman or Grumbacher Academy.

Pastel: Alphacolor Soft Pastels

If you decide you love plein air painting, you can replace these student-grade colors with professional-grade paints over time.

Brushes don’t have to break the bank either. Even though I have a slew of fine watercolor brushes, I still reach for my Princeton Neptunes. Oil and acrylic are trickier since cheap brushes sometimes drop bristles in your work. Princeton also makes good, inexpensive oil/acrylic brushes, especially their 5200 and 5400 series. If you want a synthetic brush, make sure it imitates hog bristles, not sable. A softer brush isn’t meant for alla prima painting.

It’s plein air season again. Check out my workshops, here.

Monday Morning Art School: it’s plein air season

How can you get the most from a workshop or class? Here are some simple suggestions.

Early Spring, Beech Hill, 12X16, oil on canvas board, $1449 framed.

I’ve been to enough beauty spots in this world that few really astonish me, but the red rocks of Sedona managed it. Brilliant cliffs and spires of sculpted sandstone soar directly above the town. After seeing a dozen or so sites, I turned to my monitor, Ed Buonvecchio, and said, “It’s all wonderful.”

I’m here to teach the first workshop of my season, and it feels great to be out of the cool damp of the northeast, although the temperature there is steadily rising. I’ll be going home to spring painting and it’s time to get prepared.

Lupines and woods, 8X10, oil on canvasboard, $522 unframed.

How can you get the most from a workshop or class? Here are some simple suggestions:

Study the supply list.

Note that I didn’t say, “run right out and buy everything on it.” Every teacher has a reason for asking for specific materials. In my case, it’s that I teach a system of paired primaries. You can’t understand color theory without the right starting pigments. Another teacher might have beautiful mark-making. If you don’t buy the brushes he suggests, how are you going to understand his technique?

A tube of cadmium green that I once bought for a workshop and never opened still rankles. I never want to do that to one of my students. When you study with me, I want you to read my supply lists. If something confuses you, or you think you already have a similar item, email and ask.

Spring Greens, 8X10, oil on canvasboard, is available through the Rye Arts Center.

Bring the right clothes.

I’d forgotten that I didn’t have enough warm-weather painting clothes to take to Arizona; I retired most at the end of last year. It was warm in Phoenix but just 50° in Sedona yesterday. That means a variety of clothing, because you’ll be chilled in the evenings but might need shorts and a tee-shirt during the day. Layer, baby, layer.

I send my students a packing list for clothes and personal belongings. If you’re going on the Age of Sail, Shary will send you a different list, meant for a boat. Follow these instructions, especially in the matter of insect repellent and sunscreen. Bugs and skin cancer are, unfortunately, eternal verities.

End of winter, Wyoming, 8X10, oil on canvasboard, $522 unframed. It will be much warmer when I teach there in September.

Know what you’re getting into.

“How can you stand this? It’s all so green!” an urban painter once said to me after a week in the Adirondacks.

There are amenities in Sedona, but not in other places I teach. If you’re dependent on your latte macchiato, you may find the wilderness uncomfortable at first. There are compensatory attractions. Last night I listened to a duet sung by a coyote and a domestic dog. It was magical.

Be prepared to get down and dirty.

I’m not talking about the outdoors here, I’m talking about change and growth. I am highly competitive myself, so it’s difficult for me to feel like I’m struggling. However, it’s in challenging ourselves that we make progress. Use your teacher’s method while you’re at the workshop, even if you feel like you’ve stepped back ten years in your development. That’s a temporary problem.

You can disregard what you learn when you go home, or incorporate only small pieces into your technique, but you traveled to be challenged, and you can’t do that if you cling to what you know.

Connect with your classmates

I know painters from all over the US. I met most of them in plein air events. There’s power in those relationships. Exchange email addresses. Keep in contact. Follow them on Instagram or Twitter.
Take good notes.

Listen for new ideas, write down concepts, and above all, ask questions. If your teacher can’t stop and answer them mid-stream, save them for after the demo.

Inside the blue line

I’ll be teaching in the Adirondacks on August 13-14. Be there or be square.

Spruces and Pines in a Boreal Bog, painted at the Paul Smith’s VIC and long since gone to a private collector.

I cut my teeth teaching workshops in the Adirondack wilderness, so it’s with great pleasure that I’ll be doing that again, August 13-14, at Paul Smiths College in the High Peaks region. (For more information see hereor contact Jane Davis.) 

My Acadiaworkshop is sold out, so this is your only opportunity to study plein airwith me here in the northeast. It’s part of the Adirondack Plein Air Festival, but you do not have to be a participant in the festival to take the workshop. 

Bracken fern, also painted at Paul Smith’s VIC. 9X12, oil on archival canvasboard, $869 in a plein air frame.

(Of course, I have other workshops that still have openings—see my websitefor the full listing.)

New Yorkers are justly proud of the Adirondack Park. It covers most of the Adirondack Mountain massif and is the largest park in the Lower 48. Unlike most state parks, about half of the land is privately-owned, with state land wrapped around towns, villages and businesses.

I’ve been visiting the Adirondacks since I was a baby, and have painted, hiked, canoed and driven countless hours within it. But nobody can know the whole park intimately. It’s just too vast.

There are 6.1 million acres with more than 10,000 lakes and 30,000 miles of rivers and streams. There are boreal bogs and old growth forests, mountain peaks and roaring rivers. I’ve visited (and painted in) many wild places, and have found none wilder or more beautiful.

The Dugs, painted in the Adirondacks near Speculator, NY. 9X12, oil on archival canvasboard, $869 in a plein air frame.

As parks go, it’s pretty old. In 1885 the state legislature designated lands there and in the Catskills to be forever wild. This would come to be called ‘inside the blue line’. Those land protections were preserved in the state constitution in 1894. In contrast, the National Park System wasn’t formed until 1916.

There are about 130,000 full-time residents within the park and another 7-10 million visitors every year. That puts tremendous pressure on the land, but the relationship between residents, visitors, wilderness and government somehow holds together.

Because the park has so much private land within its borders, there are accommodations for every budget. You can stay at the newly-restored Hotel Saranac, or you can go back-country camping at a state-owned campsite. (The popular camping sites sell out fast, so don’t dither.)

Whiteface makes its own weather, 9X12, oil on archival canvasboard, $869 in a plein air frame. Whiteface Mountain is one of the 46 High Peaks of the Adirondacks.

My workshop will be held at the Visitors Interpretive Center (VIC) at Paul Smith’s College, which is located in the hamlet of Paul Smiths, NY. Town and college are named after Apollos (Paul) Smith, who started as a humble Vermont fishing guide and ended up an entrepreneur.

The VIC is an assortment of Adirondack habitats. There’s a large pond, running streams, a boreal bog, and lots of woodlands. Mountain peaks rise in the distance. Luxurious for a backwoods workshop, there are bathrooms with running water.

This teaching gig comes with the responsibility of being juror of awards for the Adirondack Plein Air Festival. Sandra Hildreth is the grande dame of Adirondack painting and the founder of the festival. She wanted a juror who was plugged into the ethos of wilderness and plein airpainting in general. These are two things I’m passionate about.

But my intimacy with the venue is also a potential downside—I know many of the painters who participate. Could I be objective? After a point, there are just too many of my acquaintances involved for me to favor anyone. I think I’ll be fine.

Monday Morning Art School: deadlines

Sometimes it’s not fun. Sometimes it’s almost painfully stressful. What do you do then?

Home Farm, oil on canvas, 20X24, Carol L. Douglas

At my first plein air competition, I was a nervous wreck. “Come on, Carol,” my exasperated friend said. “Get a grip! You know how to do this.” At that moment, that wasn’t exactly true; I’d forgotten everything I ever knew about paint.

For some of us, commissions result in painter’s block. For others, plein air competitions are painfully stressful. Occasionally, I’ll have a student who freezes in my workshops. I used to suffer terrible performance anxiety, which is why I’m a painter and not a musician. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found ways to cope. These strategies are also applicable to life in general.

Jack Pine, 10X8, oil on archival canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas

The first of these is to have a plan. It may seem counterintuitive to go into a painting with a process mapped out, but in fact that’s what you have to do to complete any project within an allotted time. Not having a plan is the luxury of the dilletante.

When I flew to Edinburgh to paint a portrait in 2018, I had a deadline imposed by my plane tickets. I planned how long I had for the charcoal drawings, how long for the underpainting, and how long to finish the top coat. When I did Quick-Draws for plein air competitions, I knew I must finish the drawing and underpainting in the first hour in order to finish the top layers in the allotted time.

You might think that a flow plan is inhibiting, but it’s exactly the opposite. I learned this many years ago while painting a portrait commission for my late friend Dean. It was a surprise birthday gift for his wife. That meant a precise deadline, which he never let me forget. As I worked, I found the tight schedule liberating. I couldn’t perseverate and noodle endlessly on passages. That, in turn, meant freer, better brushwork.

Evening in the garden, 9X12, oil on archival canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas

Playwright Robert More was finishing a comedy when I last saw him. “I can rewrite this ending eight times, and the last one won’t necessarily be better,” he told me. “I’ll just end up with eight different versions.”

Having a set protocol is invaluable for quelling nerves. In addition to providing consistent results, it focuses your mental energy on the doing, rather than on worry.

Once you’ve established a painting process, practice it repeatedly—not concentrating on the results, but on mastering the process. Being absolutely prepared is the best cure for performance anxiety. This is the great benefit of painting-a-day schemes; they’re not about producing great artwork, but about getting a hammerlock on your process.

As you go on, stop thinking about all the ways you can screw up the painting. Instead, think only about the phase you’re in. If something goes wrong, don’t berate yourself. Above all, ignore the voices in your head that tell you you’re no good. They’re wrong. Instead, ask yourself where in your process you made a wrong turn.

Main Street, Owl’s Head, oil on linenboard, 16X20, Carol L. Douglas

In other words, develop enough self-awareness that you can monitor your own progress. When I’m nervous, I develop a tic of constantly rinsing my brush. That’s a mud-making mistake in any medium. Because I know I do it, I can stop it before it’s out of hand—and ask myself what’s gotten me upset.

Even in pressurized painting situations, take time to eat decently and get some exercise. Exercise lifts the mood and reduces anxiety.

Above all, don’t waste time worrying about whether the client will like the work, or whether you’ll make a sale or win a prize. Focusing on the results, rather than the process, can effectively kill a painting.

This is a rewrite of a post that first appeared in 2019.

All the plein air events, at your fingertips

Thinking about competitive plein air painting? Here’s a useful tool.

Beach Erosion, 8X10, oil on canvasboard, $652 framed, available through Ocean Park Association.

I met Chrissy Pahucki at a plein air event. She was standing in line with one of her children waiting to have her canvases stamped. Chrissy’s branding came naturally—she always had a kid trailing along. I once asked a show organizer how many years we’d been doing his event. “You can tell how long it’s been by how much Ben has shot up in height,” he answered.

All three Pahucki kids are grown now and Chrissy’s still doing the plein air circuit. In her spare time, she’s a full-time, award-winning middle school art teacher in Goshen, NY. About a decade ago, she created a website to direct-sell paintings called the Plein Air Store, and she still maintains it.

Quebec Brook, 12X16, oil on canvasboard, $1449 framed.

She also made this spreadsheet for applying to events. It’s a useful tool because it lays out application, notification and event dates in tabular form. That means a busy person doesn’t have to hunt through reams of material looking for a show. Unlike a magazine, it’s searchable. And it’s free. Thank you, Chrissy.

The plein air circuit is where I first met Mary Byrom, Bobbi Heath, Poppy Balser, and many other talented, hard-working and like-minded women. Like Chrissy, they’ve become valued friends. These events are much like the rodeo circuit; the same artists show up at them over and over. Artists compete with each other for prizes and sales, but at the same time, they’re supportive and friendly. That’s a good life lesson right there.

Plein air events teach you to search out beauty. There is something otherworldly about grey, soaking weather that you don’t realize if you only go out when it’s fine. The painting Sometimes It Rains, below, was painted during a complete washout at Ocean Park, ME. I tucked myself into the vestibule at the Temple and painted down Royal Street. Ed Buonvecchio set up right behind me and painted me with my little red wagon. Sometimes It Rains turned out to be one of my favorite paintings. Ed’s painting sold, although why anyone would want me on their wall remains a mystery to me.

Fog Bank off Partridge Island, 14X18, oil on canvasboard, $1594 framed.

Sometimes there’s very little to work with. I once did an event in a coastal resort comprised of boxy modern houses shoved cheek-by-jowl along a strand. We were forced to find something beautiful, and the only way forward was to search shapes for a transformative angle or trick of the light. “You can make a good painting out of anything” is a good painting lesson and an even better life lesson.

Plein air events teach us to finish work. That last bit used to be my undoing. I once perseverated for years over a commission, to the point where it became a standing joke among my students. “Is that thing still there?” they’d ask as they trooped into my studio week after week.

Sometimes It Rains, 9X12, oil on archival canvasboard, $869 framed.

But plein air events allow for no such noodling. There’s an immutable deadline. You hand in work whether you think its done or not. A buyer or judge loves it for its unrefined energy. The adage that we spend 90% of our time doing 10% of the work is true in painting. It’s also true that we sometimes spend 90% of our time overworking that 10%.

Plein air painting is, simply, the most important art movement of our time. If you’re interested in it, I encourage you to dip your toe into the competitive process. Start with a regional show near you and see how it goes. Chrissy’s table is a good way to start.

Why is plein air painting significant?

It’s immediate and visceral, in a way that incorporates the lessons of abstract-expressionism, but it’s also grounded in reality. In short, it’s painting for our times.

Spring Greens, oil on canvasboard, 8X10, $652 in a plein air frame.

Last week Mary Byrom asked me, “Why is plein air painting significant?” I was at a loss for an answer. Then she sent me this essay, What’s the Point of Painting from Life? It sets out a compelling argument for why we should paint from real objects, rather than from photos. I hope my students all read it. But it glances off Mary’s question, rather than answering it.

There’s a lot of dreck in the plein air movement. It’s hindered by its sheer volume. But that was also true in the Dutch Golden Ageand other periods in art history. Dreck is the inevitable consequence of lots of work, but that’s also what gives us brilliance. Time winnows out the worst paintings.

Belfast harbor, 14X18, oil on canvasboard, $1594 in a narrow black presentation frame.

Plein air painting is largely ignored by the contemporary Academy, by which I mean our university and museum culture. It’s a movement of the people, and it takes the artist down a few pegs, from intellectual to craftsman. Its training is done mostly in the old atelier system, by which I mean the workshops and classrooms of working artists. That’s in contrast to the university system, which teaches kids to be post-modern artists.

Our university system has no interest in teaching people to paint. Until the explosion of interest in plein air, traditional painting was perilously close to being a lost art. Yes, there are colleges in America teaching it, but they are rare and absurdly expensive.

Early Spring on Beech Hill, 12X16, oil on canvasboard, $1449 in a plein air frame.

In the twentieth century, meaning in painting took a radical turn. It stopped being about symbols and became about the artist’s own psyche. Odilon Redon, for example, wrote that he wanted to place “the logic of the visible at the service of the invisible.” Pablo Picasso famously said, “I paint objects as I think them, not as I see them.” Everything Picasso painted was autobiographical.

From there it was a short jump to the position of the later 20th century, when meaning was banished from art entirely. It became about form and color, rather than anything the artist wanted to say.

The Woodshed, 11×14, oil on birch, $869 unframed.

Stubbornly, the human mind has an insatiable desire for narrative and meaning—both in the telling and in the listening. It’s a great relief for all of us to leave the nihilism of the 20th century behind.

Plein air painting surged just as we Americans were learning that we can’t take our natural world for granted. In my lifetime the population of the United States has doubled. Fields and farms that I roamed as a child are now housing developments. Streams have been fouled, natural reserves of fish and wildlife depleted. Plein air painting is a both a record of these changes and a plea for the natural world.

The rise of plein air painting is inextricably tied to the development of internet culture, where museums and universities are no longer arbiters. There’s been an explosion of painting workshops, classes, books and videos to teach painting to the masses. And what do people want? Not abstraction, but representational painting grounded in real life.

I studied figure because I was taught that it was the most difficult genre, and the basis of the most important kinds of painting. After a lifetime of drawing and painting, I know that’s not true. Landscape is the most challenging, and therefore the most instructive, form of painting. It’s immediate and visceral, in a way that incorporates the lessons of abstract-expressionism, but it’s also grounded in reality. In short, it’s painting for our times.

There’s a change in the weather

The stark geometry of dying autumn is compelling, but I think the weather is trying to kill me.

Beauchamp Point, 12X16, oil on canvasboard, $1449 framed, is available at my show at Camden Public Library.

This is the most dangerous time of year, and the most dangerous hour is the gloaming before dawn.

Nothing bad is going to happen. The real risk is that nothing will happen at all. I’ll look out the window at the ice crystals glittering on my car and tell myself it’s too cold to go out.

To date, I’ve been able to force myself into clothes and up Beech Hill. Minutes later, my heart is pumping. My extremities warm up. I become alive to the hush in the air and the strange and wonderful colors of decaying autumn. The sun breaks the lip of the ocean, flooding the sea with light. “It’s a beautiful day,” I say. It almost always is.

Watercolor in the snow presents its own problems, because it freezes. Painting by Carol L. Douglas.

In the north, it’s easy to be cowed by winter. It’s a terrifying force. It takes time to dress for it and the cold air can be painful. If I don’t go outside every morning, I’ll stay in the house complaining bitterly until Spring.

“There’s no bad weather, only improper clothing,” we like to say. While that’s true, it takes time to adjust your habits. We painted our last plein air class of the season yesterday. It was about 40° F. I placed us on the boat ramp at Owls Head, where the sun acted like a solar collector and nearby buildings were a wind-break. We’re all northerners, born and bred, and we were togged out in the usual layers. But after three hours, we were chilled through.

Buoy, unfinished demo on my easel. It’s the stillness of plein air painting that makes it so cold.

There’s something exhausting about cold weather. In summer I can paint outdoors all morning and come home to open my gallery without a pause. Yesterday, I was done in by 3 PM.

Still, I’ll continue to go out. The stark geometry of bare trees is compelling.

My unfinished start from Beech Hill on Wednesday. It’s harder to get anything done when you’re cold.

I heartily recommend experimenting with cold weather painting. My tips are few and obvious: dedicate an old jacket to being trashed with paint, wear layers, tuck chemical hand warmers into the backs of your gloves. Some artists carry an old bit of carpet to stand on, because your feet will fail you first. Eric Jacobsen carries a small brazier as a portable campfire.

On Wednesday, I painted with Eric. We were tucked in at the foot of Beech Hill, where the prevailing westerlies couldn’t touch us. But then the sun went in behind the clouds, and it was suddenly cold. Down the hill sauntered David Dewey, looking as untouched by the frosty conditions as an Alabama camellia. He’s been painting regularly at the top of Beech Hill right after dawn, he told us. He sometimes rides his bike up the steep incline of Beech Hill Road with all his gear. That would be impressive in a kid, and David is 75 years old.

And a start from last winter, of Harness Brook, painted with Ken DeWaard. If I can find it, I’ll finish it.

I have a million things to do today before my opening at Camden Public Library this afternoon. And I have at least an equal number of unfinished, unframed plein air paintings in the racks in my studio. But that one more painting is calling me.

Making hay while the sun shines

It’s funny how often we psych ourselves into or out of failure.

Spring Break, 10X10, oil on canvasboard, $645 unframed, 25% off this week.

Memorial Day marks the start of the summer season here in Maine, when we throttle up into high gear for a short but productive summer season. For me that means getting up even earlier—at five—to hike over Beech Hill and attend to my ablutions. Getting moving that early in the morning gives me a few hours to paint en plein air before I’m back at 394 Commercial Street to tend my own gallery space (from noon to six).

Most mornings I paint with some combination of Ken DeWaardEric Jacobsen, and Björn Runquist. In March I told you how whiny we can be about choosing a subject. That indecision melted along with the snow. Now the question seems to be how fast can we paint. Yesterday we chased lilacs—Ken in Camden, Bjrn in Clark Island, and Eric and me in Rockport. I would never have painted lilacs without their prodding, and I’m glad I did.

Abandoned farmyard, 11X14, oil on birch, $869 unframed, 25% off this week.

“I haven’t a clue how to paint flowers,” I said, because complaining is an important part of starting a painting. Then I remembered that lilacs are really just small trees with purple appendages. I understand trees, so all the mystery vanished.

It’s funny how often we psych ourselves into or out of failure. When someone asks me, “how do you paint such-and-such?” I’m at a loss to explain. Objects are objects and we paint them all the same way—we look, see, and interpret. That includes people, by the way. But there are some subjects I’d rather not touch myself. I would have gone to the harbor without Ken, Bjrn and Eric prodding me to do something seasonal.

Three Chimneys, 11X14, oil on birch, $869 unframed, 25% off this week.

I’m actually an experienced plantswoman, but gardens are one of the few landscape subjects that don’t stir me. Domesticated plants are too civilized for my tastes. Syringa vulgaris—the common lilac—is different. For eleven months of the year, it’s an ungainly, overgrown shrub, with a not-too-pretty growth habit. Lilacs easily escape cultivation and can be found on hedgerows and in wasteland. There’s nothing ungainly about them when they’re in flower—they put their hearts into that heady display. I had five different varieties in my tiny yard in Rochester, and I’ve got cuttings rooting on my windowsill right now.

Neither of these lilac paintings are ‘true’ in the sense that they’re a photographic representation of place. There’s no farmyard beyond the break in Spring Break, and that shrub doesn’t grow in the field below Abandoned Farmyard. In both cases, I took significant editorial liberties in pursuit of a less-boring composition. But both are true in the sense that they represent what Maine really looks like.

Lupines, 9X12, oil on canvasboard.

As is typical for Memorial Day weekend, it was rainy and cold here in the northeast. My husband went camping near Ticonderoga, NY. I stayed home to man my outdoor gallery, which mostly meant raising and lowering the coverings depending on which way the wind was pushing the rain. It was a lousy weekend for selling paintings, so I amused myself by doing some long-overdue planting in my own yard. The temperature dropped into the 40s, and I burned the last of our firewood. But I had it easy; it snowed in the Green Mountains of Vermont, just a few miles from where my husband shivered in his tent. And, of course, as soon as the world returned to its desks, it warmed right back up.

The not-so-perfect day

A nor’easter was moving in, the light was hazy, but—oh, the colors!

Approaching Nor’easter, 12X16, oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas, $1159 unframed.

I met Eric Jacobsen and Bjorn Rundquist on Monday and Tuesday of this week, but on Wednesday, nobody was willing to paint with me. Not that I blamed them; the forecast was awful. Anyway, I wanted to try out my new backpack by hoisting my gear up Beech Hill. It’s the most expensive backpack I’ve ever bought—a Kelty Redwing—but I’ve been using a crossover bag that’s neither big enough nor good for the back.

I have an ultralight pochade box that I made myself. However, it’s fallen out of favor with me in the steady high winds along the Maine coast. It vibrates. So, instead, I took my smallest wooden box and hoped for the best.

Pretty fancy… and heavy.

It would have to be a fast painting. They were already setting snow records in Buffalo and Rochester, and the same weather disturbance was pushing its way to us.

The light was hazy and the clouds were barreling across the sky. It was ‘not a great day for painting,’ but—oh, the colors! There’s something about subdued light that makes the color of early spring just glow. There’s also something about painting something you know. The glimpse of the sod house on Beech Hill makes me happy every time I round that corner in the trail.

I’m so happy to finally be outdoors without pounds of foul-weather gear. Which means it’s time for me to talk seriously about registering for this year’s plein air workshops. Last year was a mixed bag, as my boat trips were canceled. However, I did teach in New Mexico, Florida and Maine. “It was the first time I felt normal since the start of COVID,” one painter told me.

Beach at Friendship, ME, 9X12, oil on canvasboard, $696 unframed.

This year, registrations for Sea & SkyPecos Wilderness and the September Age of Sail boat trip are all running ahead of normal. There’s still room in the June boat trip—I assume because it’s so close to Maine’s go/no go date. But Captain John says, “we’re a go for sure for 2021,” and he’s the captain, so his word is law.

I’ve added additional workshops this year, so that, no matter what landscape you love, there’s a place for you in my schedule. All of them can be accessed through this link.

And this handsome old tree… maybe I can get back there this afternoon to finish.

AGE OF SAIL, June 13-17 or September 19-23, 2021

Learn to watercolor on the magical, mystical waters of Maine’s Penobscot Bay, aboard the historic schooner American Eagle. All materials, berth, meals and instruction included. Captain John has reduced the number of guests, which puts the schooner well within the state’s COVID guidelines. Beginning May 1st, people traveling to Maine from all states will no longer be required to provide a negative test or quarantine. 

SEA & SKY AT ACADIA NATIONAL PARK, August 8-13
Five days of intensive plein air in the quiet corner of America’s oldest national park. Lodging and meals included at Schoodic Institute. All levels and media welcome. Schoodic Institute did an exceptional job of facilitating social distancing during last year’s workshop, and I am confident this one will be just as good.

AUTHENTIC WEST: CODY, WYOMING, September 5-10, 2021
Study in an authentic western ranch setting in Yellowstone Country. Five days of intensive plein air, all levels, all media welcome. I’ve reserved a block of rooms at the Hampton Inn, Cody, for guests. That’s just a short distance from the ranch, and the restaurants, museums, and resorts of Cody.

GATEWAY TO PECOS WILDERNESS, September 12-16, 2021
High plains and mountain wilderness, in historic, enchanting New Mexico. Five days of intensive plein air instruction, all media and all levels welcome. This year, I’ve reserved a block of rooms at Our Lady of Guadalupe Abbey in Pecos. Meals are included, and it’s a quick jaunt to ‘downtown’ Pecos.

RED ROCKS OF SEDONA, ARIZONA, September 26-October 1, 2021
A geological wonderland, with world-class restaurants, galleries, and accommodations. Five days of intensive plein air instruction, all media and all levels welcome. This workshop is offered through the Sedona Arts Center.

And last but certainly not least…

MOSS-DRAPED OAKS IN TALLAHASSEE, FL, January 17-21, 2022.
I’ll be returning to gracious Tallahassee for another great session of painting through Natalia Andreeva Studio. We had a great time last year!

Five half-finished paintings in search of a conclusion

The beautiful warmth of Wednesday was just a dream. It’s still April in Maine, and we all know April is the cruellest month.

Not done.

On Wednesday, I met Peter Yesis and Ken DeWaard at Spruce Head. In the warm spring air, it felt like we were playing hooky. The neighborhood dogs trotted over to welcome us. There was a lobster boat on the pier, and the fisherman by the docks was working on his traps. Two Canada geese gamboled in the shallows. Perfect peace, and intimations of summer at long last.

I must have disconnected my common sense in the soft air, because I got there to realize I’d left my tripod at home. There are two absolute necessities for oil painting—an easel and white paint. Your other tools are helpful, but you can usually make a workaround solution. Forget your brushes? Take up palette-knife painting. Forget a canvas? One of your friends will have a spare.

Not done.

I improvised by putting my pochade box on a chair and balancing myself in front of it on Ken’s camp stool. It was wobbly but effective. However, Sandy Quang was meeting us after she stopped for a routine COVID test. The lab is near my house. She stopped by and collected my tripod.

I didn’t feel like grinding anything down to its final solution, so what I painted were sketches—sketches that can join the others sitting on my workbench in search of conclusion. Not that any of them need too much—a flourish here, a bit of light there. The overall structure is fine.

Not done.

Sandy peeled off in early afternoon, and then Peter left. I realized that I had to make the dump before it closed at 4 PM. Ken was starting his sixth sketch, but I was happy with my three, because I had all day Thursday before the weather closed in. I got the trash to the town dump with five minutes to spare.

Except, as so often happens, Thursday didn’t work out at all way I’d planned. I got to Rockport harbor, sat down and drew a composition I quite liked. Meanwhile, the boatyard crew was lowering a sloop into the water. I took a phone call while I waited to see where the boat would end up. “As soon as I start this painting in earnest, they’ll move that boat right into this slip,” I said. That’s always the way with boat paintings—they come and go.

Not done.

It turned out to not be a problem. This time I’d managed to leave my pochade box at home. By the time I drove home to get it, the tide had risen enough that my sketch was meaningless. Not to worry; the tide hits the same point four times a day. I’ll catch it on the flip side. Maybe by then the mast will be stepped on that beautiful winter visitor from Stonington, ME.

Later, I had some explanation for my absentmindedness. In the afternoon, I was laid low by a terrific headache and low-grade fever. I doubt it’s COVID, as I’ve had all my shots. I’m more concerned about Lyme, since I found a tick in my head after being in the Hudson Valley over the weekend. Yes, I’m calling my PCP. This is, sadly, routine in the northeast.

Meanwhile, we’re back to cold, dark and irritable weather. It won’t get out of the 30s today, and there’s snow on the forecast for New England. The beautiful warmth of Wednesday was just a dream. It’s still April in Maine, and we all know April is the cruellest month.