Seeing and re-seeing

Painting what you know, vs. what’s actually there.

Spruces and pines on the Barnum Brook Trail, by Carol L. Douglas

Yesterday I was visited by a filmmaker from Wisconsin. Patrick Walters is in Rockport for a workshop at Maine Media Workshops being taught by my pal Terri Lea Smith. I didn’t catch his name when he texted, so I didn’t look him up beforehand. That meant I had no preconceptions and did no prep.
I thought he was looking for background shots for a film, “b-roll” as he called it. He would photograph a few things in my studio, ask me some cursory questions and move on. Instead, we talked for nearly an hour.  What seems to fascinate him is the question of seeing, or re-seeing, the familiar, as he termed it.
The first thing that ought to go out the window in plein air is slavish fidelity to reality. Painters can aggressively edit subjects on the fly in a way that traditional photography (in contrast to Photoshop) can’t. Walters asked me how we do that.
Sunset near Clark Island, by Carol L. Douglas
The easiest way is through the discipline of drawing. It’s where you can experiment without wasting hours on a painting that won’t work. Drawing saves time, and it helps you narrow your focus. All of the important design work in a painting is contained in the drawing. The better you know your subject, the better you’ll paint it.
We spoke about seeing what you know, rather than what is actually there. Art students are told early on to stop drawing “an eye” or “a hand” and actually try to draw what’s in front of them, but that’s an easy lesson to forget. Walters told me about painter Bo Bartlett’s experiences with vision, chronicled in the movie SEE. As Bartlett’s vision ebbed temporarily, he substituted what he expected for what was actually there.
A lobster pound at Tenants Harbor, by Carol L. Douglas
For years, Rockport harbor was home to a red lobster boat called Becca & Meagan. Many artists have painted or photographed it over the years, including me. One summer, I held my class at the harbor. A new watercolor student chose our red lobster boat as her subject. “You’ve got the hull wrong,” I told her, and corrected it. She, in her own turn, drew it back the way she saw it. We seesawed back and forth through most of the class, both of us getting frustrated. Finally, she interrupted me and insisted that I look again. I realized Becca & Meagan had been hauled and replaced by Kenny Dodge’s new red lobster boat, Hemingway. What I ‘knew’ had overwritten what I was seeing.
Familiarity helps us telegraph our drawing, but it does have pitfalls. Still, I think it nets the best pictures. The value of my road trips is not necessarily in the high finish of the work, because it isn’t finished at all. Rather it’s in learning new ways to see, to represent atmospherics, and to measure distances.
Anticipation, by Carol L. Douglas
Paul Cézanne painted Mont Sainte-Victoire more than 60 times. His familiarity with the mountain meant he didn’t have to waste time exploring its contours. He was free to experiment with mark-making and composition instead.
His Mont Sainte-Victoire paintings also demonstrate the flexibility artists have to manipulate their subject. From his vantage point on Les Lauves, he could see the Croix de Provence, which stands 19 meters tall on the highest visible ridge. It’s been there for a long time and is a notable landmark in the region. Cézanne edited it out. Doing so allowed him to focus on the mass of the mountain itself.

Why plein air

If you can paint en plein air, you can paint anything else you can draw.
Teddi-Jann Covell, me, and Truth Hawk model appropriate gear for winter painting. Photo courtesy Jennifer Johnson.
In some of our coastal harbors, plein air painting approaches performance art. We spend more time answering questions than we do painting. For new painters, that can be unnerving. But Rockport is the least-visited, most-beautiful harbor on our section of coast. In Rockport in March, our only visitors are people eating sandwiches in their trucks, or the occasional dog-walker. That makes Rockport the perfect place to start the new painting season.
Finished paintings by students Mary Whitney and Teddi-Jann Covell. Photo courtesy Jennifer Johnson.
This post revolves around the photos; I wrote it largely for the amusement of my southern readers, who perhaps can’t conceive of painting in freezing weather. And yet it’s done regularly, not just here but in Vermontand upstate New York. My friends in Greater Rochester Plein Air Painters are already out testing the ice at Mendon Ponds. And they’re probably already out in Indiana and the Cascades and, for all I know, in Anchorage, AK, too. Plein airpainters merely tolerate indoor painting; our brush hands are happiest outdoors. It’s all about the right clothing and materials.
(By the way, while being physically fit makes plein air painting easier, physical disability is not an absolute barrier. I’ve had students with walkers in both my weekly classes and my annual workshop. We just select more accessible painting locations.)
Ed Buonvecchio with two pro tips: insulated LL Bean boots and his cap over his toque. You need a warm head and a sun visor in late winter. Photo courtesy Jennifer Johnson.
Like most art students, my painting education was skewed toward figure drawing and painting. I grew up thinking the human form was the apotheosis of painting. Since the Renaissance, the western art canon had a hierarchy of genres, which rated the importance of pictures as follows:
  1. History, including all that allegorical stuff;
  2. Portrait;
  3. Genre painting, or scenes of everyday life;
  4. Landscape;
  5. Animals;
  6. Still life.
Robert Lichtman doubled his hat too, but was able to paint bare-handed. Photo courtesy Jennifer Johnson.
If we were to draw up a modern hierarchy it would probably read:

  1. Abstraction (a big label including a lot of categories)
  2. Symbolism
  3. Surrealism
  4. Outsider art
  5. Representational art
  6. Plein air

Finished work by Colleen Lowe, Ed Buonvecchio and David Blanchard. Photo courtesy Jennifer Johnson.
And yet, having worked in most of the traditional categories, I think plein air is in fact the hardest form of painting. It requires the painter to pull one big concept out of a vast landscape, and stick with it. It teaches you to simplify, simplify, to focus your view, and narrow your goals.
Mary Whitney painting harbor ice. Photo courtesy Jennifer Johnson.
I have a current student who didn’t realize this would be primarily a plein air class when she signed up. I have no problems encouraging her to stay. When you master en plein air, you can then paint anything else that you can draw. The reverse is decidedly not true.
A note: For those of you who have been following the fortunes of the waterlogged dinghy in Rockport harbor, it was off its mooring yesterday. It may have dropped below the surface, but since the harbormaster is resetting the buoys for spring, I think she probably brought it in.

Travels with Poppy

I have many friends and I love them all, but painter guests are the best treat of all.
Autumn morning, by Carol L. Douglas
Poppy Balser is teaching a workshop in St. Andrews, NB, this week. My house is just a hop past the border, so she came down at the end of last week to paint.
It wasn’t the Saxby Gale, but her arrival coincided with some fierce wind. It was so high that the sensible plein air painter stayed home. But we’d waited a long time for this painting opportunity, so we put on our warm clothes and headed out.
Last week I gave you a 40-mile circuit of painting locations in midcoast Maine. That was from memory. I can now tell you that it will take you a full day to drive it and take reference photos. Stopping to paint draws it out substantially. Poppy took about a thousand pictures. I took far fewer, but I live here.
Under the Marshall Point Light, by Carol L. Douglas
Marshall Point is windy enough on a normal day, and it was brutal on Friday. The only way to paint was to haul our stuff down the rocks and hunker in the shadow of the lighthouse. It’s not so far, but it is rocky going. “How’d you get down there?” a few intrepid tourists asked. The real question was how we were going to drag our gear back up.
On Saturday, we found another protected niche behind rocks on Beauchamp Point. It was a little bowl that reflected sunlight, and it seemed almost warm. We could take our time, at least until we decided, mid-afternoon, that we needed dinner.
Sunset, by Carol L. Douglas
The sun sets here at 5:30, but Rockport harbor is set within hills. The light fails even earlier. We always think of Nova Scotia as north, but it’s in fact almost due east. Digby, where Poppy lives, is straight across the Bay of Fundyfrom Grand Manan Island, which lies off the coast south of Lubec, ME. As the bird flies, Rockport is closer to Yarmouth, NS than it is to Boston, ME.
But Nova Scotia is on Atlantic Time, which means the sun sets an hour ‘later’ for Poppy. By Christmas, we’ll be experiencing sunset at 4 PM here. This is why I support efforts to put Maine on Atlantic Time.
Poppy in her painting-during-hunting-season cap.
All too soon, it was Sunday and time for Poppy to leave. We solemnly agreed she would depart by noon in order to be over the Airline before dark and in St. Andrews by a reasonable hour. We only ran over by an hour, which has to be a record in promptness.
For our last paintings, I took her to an otherworldly, exposed, out-of-time place to paint: Clary Hill. It was blustery and 39°. Up we ambled, along the Land Trustpath, then up the lane to where three birders were silhouetted against the sky. They’re there every time I visit.
Poppy stopped and asked, “is that gun or a dump truck?”
Off Clary Hill, by Carol L. Douglas
We counted back from deer season. Yes, it is bird season right now (Maine’s and the maritime provinces being almost the same). But the shots were coming from across the valley so we carried on.
A short while later, hunters passed us on the lane. Poppy was wearing an orange hat, so we weren’t panicking. We were eventually foxed, however, by the sound of guns behind us. It was just unnerving. But when we left, the birders were still at their posts, high on the hill.

Seeing the wrong boat

I missed the obvious, but my student was more observant.
Becca & Meagan iced in at Rockport Harbor in 2015.

My class was drawing at Rockport Harbor yesterday. A red lobster boat was pulled up along the dock near Rockport Marine. There’s been a red lobster boat in Rockport harbor for as long as I can remember. I paid it little mind, even when a student said she didn’t like the red hull paired with a green waterline, which is not how I remember it being painted.

Since that boat has a mooring in the harbor, I figured it was only at the dock for a few moments. I cautioned my students not choose it as their subject, but, instead, to focus on the dinghies at their feet.
Of course, the dinghy they chose left not half an hour after they started drawing. The red lobster boat stayed in place all morning. It wasn’t until I got home that I realized that it isn’t the boat I assumed. That was the Becca & Meagan. This is its replacement, the Hemingway, and it was built by Rockport fisherman Kenny Dodge. If you like boats, you should read this wonderful piece from the PenBay Pilot. It’s Dodge’s own design, built of wood from his home and blending features from Nova Scotia and Maine lobster boats. It’s a behemoth: 47 feet long, almost 15 feet in the beam.
Hemingway at the dock.
Which is why I should have looked closer when my student was having trouble drawing it. She had already pointed out the waterline was different, and she was telling me it was like nothing she’d seen before. I was looking right at it, and still I didn’t notice that it wasn’t, in fact, Becca & Meagan.
This is her second summer with me and she’s made good, resolute progress. Yesterday, something clicked with her.
Carefully measured drawing by my student.
Boats, in general, are hard to draw, which is why so many artists avoid them. You can’t get away with a general swirl of activity, as you can with a farm field or a marsh. You must measure, measure, measure, and when you’re done, you end up adjusting all those measurements another time.
Yesterday, S. measured like a pro, and observed better than a pro. She corrected herself and me repeatedly. By doing that, she got a good representation of the dinghy at her feet and of the lobster boat in the distance. They’re not refined, nuanced, shaded drawings, but they have the most important principle down: the parts line up according to their real-world counterparts. A lot of experienced painters can’t seem to do that.
Carefully measured drawing by my student.
Becca & Meaganis a beautiful boat of traditional Maine design. I’ve seen it so often I’ve stopped really looking. Shame on me. I missed the obvious, but my student was more observant.