Fickle Mother Nature

Style is a transitory and inconsequential factor, if one can turn it on and off at will.
Lonely Lighthouse, by Carol L. Douglas

I haven’t painted in that much rain since a memorable weekend at Rye’s Painters on Location with Brad Marshall, where we labored in the tail end of a hurricane. All the best planning won’t save you from low light and rain that blows in sideways under your umbrella. One solution is to paint from your car, but my Prius is too small for one artist, let alone two.
Sometimes, projected rain and fog fails to materialize along the coast. It gets sidetracked by the myriad cliffs, points, headlands and capes. That didn’t happen this weekend. The light was low and flat, and the lovely headlands danced and disappeared into the fog.
Ed Buonvecchio and I were up with first light on Friday to be on our way to Advocate Harbour. A mackerel sky was forming over Cape D’or. That’s a better sign of incipient rain than my arthritis.
They wrested their living from the sea (Advocate Harbour), by Carol L. Douglas
This small fishing village by the sea is characteristic of the old North Atlantic coast. We set up in the cemetery. The nearest tombstone to my easel memorialized two members of the same family, lost at sea in 1966. Going to the ocean to work is probably less dangerous today with modern navigation and communication tools, but the North Atlantic is a powerful and fickle mistress.
Later, I chatted for a few minutes with the owner of the herring weir at Partridge Island. He and his crew still tend the nets and harvest the fish with dipping nets. It’s pretty much a lost technology: there are some weirs at Grand Manan and Digby, but most of them are gone. Call me a Luddite if you want, but what value is there in automating work so that some men labor in solitude and others can’t find jobs?
Cape Blomidon makes its own cloud, by Carol L. Douglas
By mid-day Friday, we had lost our light. Poppy Balser, Ed and I trekked out to Cape D’or and did the “money shot,” but it didn’t move me. There was no sparkle in the water, and no light on the cliffs. I wish I’d painted the rhubarb growing by the lighthouse instead. Neither Poppy nor I submitted our paintings of the cliffs.
The next morning, we tried the overlook at Two Islands. I got a passible painting from it, even though my paint was emulsifying in the blowing rain. Eventually I squelched over to where Ed was set up. “I’m only here because of you,” he told me.
“That’s funny. I’m only here because of you,” I answered. Despite my rain gear, I was soaked down to my step-ins.
We removed to town and the porch of Ottawa House to finish the day. The volunteers offered us tea and cookies and the opportunity to paint indoors.
This hospitality has been true all over Parrsboro. Canadians are, in general, nice and helpful people. Since their dollar is weak compared to ours, you might think about vacationing there this summer.
Two Islands in the rain, by Carol L. Douglas
I’d had my eye on Cape Blomidon for hours, watching a standing hammer-shaped cloud forming off its tip. Volunteer Ed Gilbert told me that this cloud often forms above the cape in bad weather. “Blomiden” is a corruption of Blow-Me-Down, so named because the hot and cold air masses meet there and turn on hapless navigators.
The Quick Draw started in mist and fog, although true rain never really materialized on Sunday. I’d decided to paint with nothing smaller than an #12 round, since it was clear the juror liked that look. That paid off with a second-place ribbon.
We always feel badly if we don’t win prizes at these events, but often the awards have nothing to do with ability or insight and everything to do with style. I like “bold brush” painting as much as the next guy, but it’s not always conducive to describing the world, which is my primary objective. That I could switch it up to win a ribbon is an indication of just how transitory and inconsequential “style” is as a concept.
“I wish I could stay another day,” Ed texted me last night. The sky was clearing, and Cape Blomidon danced in the blue, shimmering light. But Maine is calling us back.

The greatest painter of rain

The greatest landscape artist of the 19th century wasn’t a Frenchman. He was Hiroshige, or so his western contemporaries thought.

Sudden Shower Over Shin-Ohashi Bridge At Atake, 1856, Hiroshige.
As I was walking to the post office yesterday, a miniscule rain shower spattered in the woods next to me.  It lasted no more than a second. Being modern, I didn’t recognize it as an omen. Despite the forecast, by midafternoon it was misting heavily enough that no outdoor painting was possible.
We’ve had a lot of rain this spring in the northeast. The St. Lawrence River is full, so they’re holding water back in Lake Ontario, which is in turn flooding parts of Toronto and Rochester. Here in Maine the creeks and rivers patter loudly and joyfully down to the sea. And still it continues to rain; it’s on the forecast for the rest of this week.
Night Rain On Karasaki, Hiroshige
The 19th century Japanese artist Utagawa Hiroshige often used mist and rain as motifs in his compositions. He worked in a genre called ukiyo-e, which translates as “pictures of the floating world.” After Commodore Perry forced Japan opento Westerners in 1854, ukiyo-e was exported to the west. It had a profound influence on Western painting.
Hiroshige was the last master of ukiyo-e. Born in 1797 in Edo (Tokyo), he was left orphaned at the age of 12. His father was the samurai fire fighter of Edo Castle, and this responsibility passed to the son. Although he went on to study and work full time as an artist,he never shirked his duty, eventually passing it along through his family.
Two Men On A Sloping Road In The Rain, Hiroshige
Shortly after his parents’ deaths, he began studying art with the master Utagawa Toyohiroof the Utagawa school. This exposed him to western ideas of perspective, which had been imported in books carried to Japan by Dutch traders. The Utagawa school pioneered landscape painting as an independent genre.
Hiroshage worked with a sketchbook, traveling to other locations to assemble ideas and motifs for his woodcuts. Although he was prolific and famous, he was never wealthy; at one point his wife had to sell clothing and ornamental combs to support his work.
White Rain, Shono, 1833-34, Hiroshige
Hiroshage worked within the narrow genre of meisho-e, or “pictures of famous places.” In a sense, these were the predecessors of picture postcards.
Japonisme took the 19th century world by storm after the International Exposition of 1867 in Paris. Oriental bric-a-brac poured into western Europe. James Whistler reportedly discovered Japanese prints in a tea room near London Bridge. Claude Monet saw them used as wrapping paper. James Tissot and Edgar Degas collected ukiyo-e. Mary Cassatt was an open and avid admirer and imitator of the style. Vincent van Gogh famously copied two of the One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, which were among his collection of ukiyo-e prints.
And it wasn’t just the visual arts. Gilbert and Sullivan produced their comic masterpiece, The Mikado, in 1885. Japanese gardens became the rage. By the end of the century, Hiroshige was being referred to as the greatest painter of landscapes of the 19th century.
Evening Shower At Nihonbashi Bridge, 1832, Hiroshige
Hiroshige died at the age of 62 during a cholera epidemic in Edo. Just before his death, he wrote:
I leave my brush in the East
And set forth on my journey.
I shall see the famous places in the Western Land.

Sadly, the same cultural exchange that sparked so much artistic development in Europe also spelled the end of ukiyo-e. The rapid Westernization following the Meiji Restoration found photography vying with traditional woodblock printing. By the 1890s the tradition was, more or less, dead.

Soggy spring

What should you think about when setting up to paint? Tide, time of day, and the light are key, but there are other factors as well.

Ladona, (unfinished) by Carol L. Douglas

We’ve had so many dark, gloomy days recently that I was startled awake at the first gloaming. By 6 AM the sun was streaming through my bedroom windows, warming the air, promising great things.

My plan was to paint Ladona in drydock. She is the former Nathaniel Bowditch, completely rebuilt for the 2016 season. Her owners also operate the Stephen Taber, which I painted in Pulpit Harbor last summer.
Stephen Taber raising her sails, by Carol L. Douglas
Unlike most of the schooners in mid-coast Maine, Ladona was built as a private yacht, in Boothbay Harbor in 1922. She has the sleek, lean lines of a pleasure boat. After a brief stint as a patrol boat in New York Harbor during World War II, she was used for commercial fishing. In 1971, she was rebuilt as a commercial schooner.
Power-washing made a world of difference.
I know the North End Shipyard well. Yesterday, I thought, would be an excellent opportunity to make a short video talking about where to set up for a plein air painting. On the coast of Maine, we have to consider:
  • ·         Tide
  • ·         Time of day
  • ·         Angle of sun
  • ·         Ergonomics
  • ·         Courtesy
  • ·         Transience.

The Gulf of Maine has the largest tidal range on the planet. In the Bay of Fundy the tidal range is a staggering 50 feet. Here in Maine, the difference is only about half that, but that’s still imposing, considering that the average tide in most places is just a few feet.
I wasn’t the only person painting in the rain.
The best solution is to work from a floating dock, which keeps you on the same plane as your subject. When that’s not possible, you can break up your picture over several days.
If you don’t own a compass, invest in one (or an app on your phone).  You need to know where the sun is headed. That changes with the seasons. In the winter, the sun never makes it to the top of the sky, which means the light stays golden. In the summer, the light is clearer and cooler.
Many of the places we find quaint and picturesque are actually people’s workshops. As a matter of courtesy, never go on private property without asking. Stay out of the way of heavy equipment and trucks. For your own comfort, bring earplugs if there are air compressors or other equipment nearby. And avoid traps for yourself, like a painting location exposed to a brutal wind or the harsh sun.
A smarter person would have gotten this canvas under cover before it got wet. Once this happens, you have to let the painting dry naturally.
A deep understanding of the subject doesn’t just inform your paintings; it sets your schedule. I am concentrating on the boats in the cradle right now, because they’re transient. I can paint the sheds, the lobster boats, or the boats at anchor all summer.
Wooden boats require a lot of wood to keep them healthy, and that material is always stacked around the boatyard in interesting ways. (It’s also heavy, as Captain Noah Barnes noted as he dropped a timber onto a workbench with a resounding clatter.)
I wanted to focus on the foreground detritus of lumber, tools, and equipment. I experimented with a number of cute compositions, but Ladona resolutely refused to be cropped.
The sky grew steadily cloudier as the afternoon progressed. “It’s not going to rain until after 5,” Captain Doug Lee told me. That may be what the National Weather Service said, but the Maine coast is unpredictable. A quick shower around 3 PM washed me out.
Once the canvas has water droplets on it, your best bet is to let the surface dry naturally. Luckily, I live just down the road, so it’s no big deal. I’ll go back this morning and put the rigging in.

Rained out!

I love October in the High Tor wildlife management area south of Canandaigua Lake. This area is full of deep ravines with waterfalls, such as this one:

You can get some unusual fall colors there, such as these pink trees:

But it is the muckland at the bottom of the lake, with its tawny reeds, that most fascinates me, and today I painted it from above.

About a decade ago, M. and I braved a driving October rain to work down among the reeds. Perched on the footings of a collapsed bridge, we tried to ignore the driving rain and wind until our paintings were literally washed off our boards. Since then, we’ve painted in a lot of stupid settings, but that remains the epitome of cold to both of us. Even painting in deep snow in a hilltop vineyard didn’t seem as cold (although M’s paint froze; a real inconvenience).

Today, we were both prepared for cold and wet. Waterproof boots, thermal underwear, rain gear, mittens. And we still couldn’t handle the 42º F driving rain. Especially when it again threatened to wash the paint off our boards.

Tomorrow is another day. Unfortunately, there’s rain on the forecast.