The intensity of color

Travel always reminds me of regional differences in color. 
Reed beds, by Carol L. Douglas, 9×12, oil on canvasboard

There were five Maine painters at Plein Air Brandywine Valley this year. One thing that was obvious was that our work was, overall, higher in chroma than that of the mid-Atlantic painters around us. Generalizations always lie, of course. For example, pastellist Tara Will is from down thataway, and she’s nothing if not eye-popping brilliant.

But a brief survey of well-known painters of the Maine coast—people like Henry Isaacs, Connie Hayes, Colin Page, Jill HoyEric Hopkins, etc.—show a painting culture interested more in color and light than in fidelity to fact. Compare that to the paintings recently completed for the Hudson Valley Plein Air Festival. With the exception of Maine’s own Olena Babek, these painters are from eastern New York and Pennsylvania. Their work is less saturated and generally warmer in tone than the work here in Maine.
Fog over mountain, by Carol L. Douglas, oil on canvasboard (available)
We Mainers have no hammerlock on high chroma. Go out to Santa Fe and paint with the folks from Plein Air Painters of New Mexico. They’re working in their own palette. It’s as intense as ours, but pushes the reds, ochres and blue-violets.
To a large degree, geography shapes our color choices. The light in Maine and New Mexico is harsher than that of the mid-Atlantic states, where skies often have high, filtered clouds. These create softer light.
A little (8×10) fantasia I finished in my studio on Tuesday (available)
Maine has more artists than you can shake a stick at, and many of us are ‘from away.’ Yesterday I was at a meeting and couldn’t help but notice the Long Island accent of one of my fellow artists. “Where are you from?” I asked. It turned out that all but one of us in the room were expatriated New Yorkers. Some have been here a very long time; others, like me, are recent transplants.
When I first moved to Maine, I was asked whether I’d moved because of the light. That’s certainly part of it. The Great Lakes regions of New York are actually temperate rainforests, they get so much precipitation. That means dark winters and many cloudy days. But that was only part of my decision. Maine art has a culture of color, and it appealed to me.
Midsummer, by Carol L. Douglas, 24×30, oil on canvas, available
Regional schools develop through example and imitation, and that’s a natural, healthy human interaction. But what should you do when you find yourself painting at cross-purposes to the people around you? I did that for a long time, and it was difficult. The misfit artist is under subtle pressure to change his style to match prevailing fashion. He doesn’t get the sales or the gallery space, and he starts to wonder what’s wrong with him.
The answer, of course, is that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with someone following his internal muse. The internet is a wonderful tool for getting out and finding one’s own tribe, but it doesn’t hold a candle to traveling in person. Go, take workshops, make friends in other communities, and validate your vision.

Fashions in frames

Your frame can’t be all things to everyone, but it’s helpful to know where it stands in the currents of fickle fashion.
Me, with the usual assortment of plein air event frames.

I keep an inventory of frames in my garage in the common sizes in which I paint en plein air, ranging from 6X8 up to 18X24. This takes up considerable space and represents an even more considerable investment. Inevitably, despite careful management, there are some losses—damaged frames, sizes I no longer work in, or—the worst—frames that have gone out of style.

Some go back twenty years. These are black and gold with corner medallions and carving, and I only use them in a pinch. Still, I keep them. The moment I get rid of them, they’ll be back in style.
Picture frames aren’t usually considered a fashion item, but like everything else in the home, they are tied to décor trends. There were elaborate Baroque frames, simple mid-century frames, and modern, minimalist frames—and many subtle shifts within each of these periods.
Apple blossom swing, by Carol L. Douglas. Courtesy Camden Falls Gallery. This is a favorite frame style, but it must be built in two sections.
The current plein airframe is usually a gold, silver or dark wood slab frame with minimal ornamentation. It’s widely available and easy to use. But does it actually reflect modern tastes in decorating? Well, yes and no. Look through Elle Décor’s pages at the frames and artwork. While metal finishes are making something of a comeback, farmhouse chic (which means barnwood) is still pretty popular. There are more ‘frameless’ and all-white frames than there are metallics.
The question isn’t what we like, but what our buyers want. My age cohort still loves gold frames, but we’re a shrinking market. Millennials say they want minimalism, low-maintenance and modern, with wood and stone surfaces. Mid-century modern and rustic may be fading overall, but they remain strong influences in this group.
Breaking dawn, by Carol L. Douglas. This is a frame syle popular in the Canadian Maritimes.
There are regional differences. My Canadian friend Poppy Balser and I navigate the shoals of cross-border framing every year. Nova Scotians prefer a simpler style with a plain white liner and thin fillet. To our American eyes it looks cheap (it’s not). Our heavy gold plein air frames look tacky to them. I’ve come to love the Canadian frame, but it’s hard to get here.
There are limits to how trendy one can be at plein air events. Oil and acrylic painters generally work on boards, so mass-produced floater frames don’t fit. Even if we were to switch back to canvas, they must be carefully positioned and then screwed down. That’s too hard to do on the back deck of a hatchback. Metallic paint is fine because it can be patched, but gilt and fine wood surfaces are too fragile to move around in a car over bad roads. In most shows, frameless isn’t an option.
Drying sails, by Carol L. Douglas. This frame was an old standby for many years. It clashes with nothing, but clients sometimes complain that it’s too dark.
I’ve been coveting Taos by King of Frames for over a year now, ever since I saw it at Jane Chapin’s house. It’s simple, elegant, and too pricey for a plein air event frame. For the second year in a row, I’ve reluctantly passed on it.
Frames are as subjective as the paintings they contain, but they send strong signals to buyers. You can’t be all things to everyone, but it’s helpful to know where you stand in the bigger currents of fashion.

Sensible Maine

Not all regional differences are about the landscape, the accents and the buildings. There are also differences in character.
Erie Canal Sketch by Carol L. Douglas. You’re pretty, New York, but don’t let it go to your head.

Last year, Bobbi Heathand I stopped on the road and bought boxes, bubble wrap and tape. We left these, carefully marked, for our work to be returned after a show in New Jersey. Mine were mailed back unsecured and unwrapped. Mercifully, nothing was damaged, but had that $3000 of inventory been ruined, the Postal Service would have been justified in not paying the claim. Our host at that event was gracious and kind, but the slipshod mailing left me thinking poorly of the event.

Compare that to my experience at Santa Fe Plein Air Fiesta earlier this month. When my frames arrived broken, co-chair Jane Chapin loaned me three of hers. That flexible, kind attitude was visible in small and large ways throughout the event. They held three receptions for the artists. They cooked for us and cared for us. Their attitude makes me want to hurry back.
There are invisible differences from place to place in America, and sometimes they’re more important than what you see.
Erie Canal Bridge Sketch, by Carol L. Douglas.
I engage with government in very limited ways—the department of motor vehicles, the town clerk, the planning office, and the post office. In my small town of Rockport, ME (pop. 3,330), I’m accustomed to public officials being accommodating and thoughtful. The other day I visited the clerk’s office to ask what my excise tax would be on a new car I’m considering. It was a few minutes before closing time. The deputy clerk calculated it, commiserated, and made a friendly joke as we left.
In New York, it’s a high crime and misdemeanor if every dot and tittle is not in place. Its clerks guard their prerogatives assiduously. I should have remembered that, but I’ve gotten soft.
Catskill Farm, by Carol L. Douglas
So I was a little blindsided when my daughter ran into trouble at the local town hall. She and her fiancé need a marriage license by the weekend. They had followed the instructions on the New York State website. Of course, like everyone else, they followed them wrong. She was carrying the wrong identification.
Still, the town she is getting married in is very close to the town where she was born. She’s carrying the highest-and-greatest form of identification—her United States Passport. It ought to have been no big deal to just get a new birth certificate.
No way, no how. They won’t give it to her without her Social Security card, one of the most loosely-controlled documents Americans carry. “Homeland Security visits us, you know!” the clerk told her.
The Dugs, by Carol L. Douglas
“This is New York, right?” a friend quipped. “Try bribing them.” I won’t do that, but if it doesn’t get straightened out today, I’m going to try sending a little muscle along. And there’s always ‘the touch’, putting the word out to friends and family to see who knows someone who knows someone. Because in New York, that’s how things get done.
But back to sensible Maine for the answer. I called Camden Falls Gallery and got Howard Gallagher on the phone. “Sure!” he said, and he sent Sandy Quang over to my house to get the requisite documents from my safe. Then she got into her car and left for New York a few hours earlier than she had planned. If all goes well, Mary’s birth certificate and social security card should be in her hand by midday and the wedding will proceed as planned.