The power of the Great White North

In the solitary splendor of Canada, these painters found energy, possibility, and a national identity.

Byng Inlet, Georgian Bay, 1914–1915, Tom Thomson, courtesy McMichael Collection

Here in Maine, we import our weather from Canada. In fact, we share a lot with our Canadian neighbors, including black spruces, granite, and the spodosol soils that are good for growing potatoes, blueberries, evergreens, and not much else.

Maine has a contemporary painting style that’s driven by this sense of place. It’s curiously unrelated to our most famous summer painter, Andrew Wyeth. Instead, it derives from an earlier generation of painters, including Rockwell Kent and Edward Hopper.  Maine is just too sunny and wild to sustain Wyeth’s quiet melancholy.

Mt. Lefroy, 1930, Lawren S. Harris, courtesy McMichael Collection

This combination of influences and landscape gives us some curious parallels to our Canadian neighbors, the Group of Sevenpainters. This group consisted of Franklin CarmichaelLawren Harris, AY Jackson, Frank Johnston, Arthur Lismer, JEH MacDonald, and Frederick Varley. Later, AJ Casson, Edwin Holgate and LeMoine FitzGerald joined them.

Bright Land, 1938, Arthur Lismer, courtesy McMichael Collection

Although he died before the official formation of the group, Tom Thomson was a profound influence on them. Emily Carrwas never an official member as she lived in Vancouver, but she was influenced by them. Lawren Harris, in particular, was a support. “You are one of us,” he told her.

Shoreline, 1936, Emily Carr, courtesy McMichael Collection

Harris was one of the driving forces behind the Group of Seven, and the most able to articulate their mission. He was a very malleable painter. He went from impressionism to art nouveau realism to complete abstraction in a matter of two decades. His break with realism occurred in the early 1930s, after he visited and painted in the Arctic.

Harris believed in the arctic as a living force: “We are on the fringe of the great North and its living whiteness, its loneliness and replenishment, its resignations and release, tis call and answer, its cleansing rhythms. It seems that the top of the continent is a source of spiritual flow that will ever shed clarity into the growing race of America.”

First Snow, Algoma, 1919/1920, AY Jackson, courtesy McMichael Collection

The Group of Seven painted this ethos. In the solitary splendor of Canada, they found energy, possibility, and a national identity. That’s an idea that has become politicized in recent years. Indigenous people have argued that these areas were always inhabited. The depiction of emptiness was a de facto endorsement of the pernicious policy of terra nullius.

But for artists trained in Europe, many of whom saw duty in WWI, Canada was desolate. As AY Jackson wrote, “After painting in Europe where everything was mellowed by time and human associations, I found it a problem to paint a country in outward appearance pretty much as it had been when Champlain passed through its thousands of rock islands three hundred years before.”

Goat Range, Rocky Mountains, 1932, JEH MacDonald, courtesy McMichael Collection

I’ve painted through every Canadian province and Yukon Territory. (Nunavut and Northwest Territories remain on my bucket list.) To my American eyes, Canada is empty, and that’s its attraction. Canada is unique in having so much wilderness, untouched, in the modern world. That Great White North, which reaches down and embraces the country in an iron grip every winter, is wilderness’ fierce protector.

Everything the Group of Seven painted derives from that unique understanding of wilderness and its value. Maine artists work from the same wellspring of inspiration, so it’s no wonder that our paintings look similar to our Canadian neighbors’.

Awe-inspiring snow

At times, the Great White North reaches down and touches us with its living whiteness and its freakish cold.

Winter Comes From The Arctic To The Temperate Zone, 1935, Lawren Harris, courtesy McMichael Collection of Canadian Art. He is describing exactly what we’re experiencing today, where arctic airmasses have flowed into the northern US.

We got more snow than expected; there’s something like 15” of it in my driveway. That’s nothing compared to the Newark Valley of New York; my friend Marjean trenched a path to her barn through 45” of new powder. Animals must be tended regardless of the weather.

Long before there were cell phones, I routinely painted outside in winter. One year, I committed to plein air painting six days a week regardless of weather. In western New York that can be wicked indeed. That year made me into a painter. It is also how I moved from being an amateur to a professional. I had so many paintings lying around, I was forced to sell them.

The Artist in Greenland, 1935, Rockwell Kent, courtesy Baltimore Museum of Art

Rockwell Kent first visited Greenland in 1929, saying the visit “had filled me with a longing to spend a winter there, to see and experience the far north at its spectacular worst; to know the people and share their way of life.”  In 1931, Kent built himself a hut in in the tiny settlement of Illorsuit, a village north of the Arctic Circle. He wintered and painted there. As a socialist, Kent was enamored of Inuit society, considering their little village a kind of utopia.

Kent later said that his year in Illorsuit was the happiest and most productive time of his life. Among his other pursuits, he acquired a sled and team so that he could make even more remote painting and camping expeditions. In a witty aside, Kent painted himself painting an iceberg, above.

 The Sea of Ice, 1823–24, Caspar David Friedrich, courtesy Hamburger Kunsthalle. The only sign of human activity is the shipwreck.

As a German Romantic, Caspar David Friedrich could be described as a utopianist of a different stripe. His goal was to portray that sublime moment when the contemplation of nature causes a reawakening of our spiritual self. (Friedrich was a city-dweller; otherwise he’d have felt differently.)

Friedrich set out a manifesto for painters that still rings true: “The artist should paint not only what he sees before him, but also what he sees within him. If, however, he sees nothing within him, then he should also refrain from painting that which he sees before him. Otherwise, his pictures will be like those folding screens behind which one expects to find only the sick or the dead.”

The only hint of human activity in The Sea of Ice, above, is the subtle, moralizing shipwreck. This is very different from Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s The Hunters in the Snow, which is a parade of everything medieval man did in the wintertime.

The Hunters in the Snow, 1565, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, courtesy Kunsthistorisches Museum

While the overwhelming sense is one of order and industry, the hunters and their dogs are exhausted, and they’ve bagged only one measly red fox. This painting was done during the Little Ice Age, when the threat of famine was real.

Lawren Harris was one of the driving forces behind the Canadian Group of Seven, and the most elastic of them. He went from impressionism to art nouveau realism to complete abstraction in two decades. His final break with realism occurred in the early 1930s, after he visited and painted in the Arctic.

Harris believed in the arctic as a living force: “We are on the fringe of the great North and its living whiteness, its loneliness and replenishment, its resignations and release, its call and answer, its cleansing rhythms. It seems that the top of the continent is a source of spiritual flow that will ever shed clarity into the growing race of America.” His painting at top is a narration of what happens when that power spills into the northern US and Canada.

Four different painters from different places and times, but they’re all telling stories of winter in very inventive ways. Could we do half as well?

Reading (and writing) a painting

A good artist, like a good writer, controls how his painting is read.

Early November: North Greenland, 1932, oil on canvas, Rockwell Kent, courtesy the Hermitage

People are sometimes under the mistaken notion that I’m intellectual. In fact, my taste in books is decidedly low-brow. Luckily, there are as many different books out there as there are readers. The same is true of paintings.

Reading a painting is similar to reading a book. First, there’s an introduction. We enter every painting at some point, although the artist need not create a literal visual path in for us. It’s just as likely that there are a series of focal points that the reader notices and absorbs in order. These are supported by incidental matter that contributes tone and information. A good artist, like a good writer, doesn’t leave this to chance. It’s organized in the composition phase and then supported in the painting phase.
Whalers, c. 1845, oil on canvas, JMW Turner, courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art. There are only three intelligible passages in this painting—the whale, the whalers in their dories, and the ship. The water might as well be a wheatfield for all the information we’re given.
That requires that you, the artist, understands the basics of composition. You control the motive line of your painting. You know how to use contrast and color to encourage the viewer to read your work in a specific order. You know how to make some passages subservient to these main themes.
You must understand the focal points of your painting, either overtly or subconsciously. These are not necessarily the subject. In Rockwell Kent’s Early November: North Greenland, 1932, our eyes go first to the iceberg in the foreground. Kent has made it the most luminous, warmest part of the scene, and set it off against the briny depths. Next we look at the hillside behind, which is almost as bright as the iceberg. Only after that does our eye travel to the human activity at the bottom. Here we’re arrested by an ageless story: man wrestling against the vast power of nature for his very survival. We spend a long time looking at these tiny fishermen, which we wouldn’t have done had they been what we noticed first.
The Census at Bethlehem, 1566, oil on wood panel, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, courtesy Royal Museums of Fine Arts. As with the gospels, all the action is in the most inconspicuous corner.
Kent has borrowed a technique first used by Pieter Bruegel the Elder four hundred years earlier. In his Census at Bethlehem, all the bustle and contrast of the midfield drive our eyes down to the least important part of the painting, the corner. There the scene is laid for the birth of Christ. Just as in the Bible story, this great event happens in an unimportant place.
We know that because we’re bringing our own understanding to the painting. In both literature and painting, prior knowledge plays a profound role in how we read the work. There are symbols we must decode, and experiences we relate to. The thematic thread tying together the three paintings above is the insignificance of man. Every one of us has felt that some time. That feeling transcends the specific narrative.
The Charioteer of Delphi, 478 or 474 BC, courtesy Delphi Museum. We may know nothing of this young man, but his beauty and concentration speak through the ages.
Some of the great art of the past has lost its narrative power today. We don’t know enough Greek mythology or Bible to fully decode them. But the greatest still have the power to transport us. They touch a common chord of experience and emotion.
In our digital culture, we don’t often take time to read artwork quietly. But that’s in the shopping phase. In the end, paintings will go home with someone, to be seen over long periods of time. To survive, they must have some story to tell, some depth of meaning, or they will be relegated to the attic. The work that compels the most on Instagram may be, sadly, the least successful in real life.

An ugly chapter in American history

If President Trump wants to buy something, he should buy back Rockwell Kent’s paintings from Russia.
Cloverfields, 1939-40, Rockwell Kent, courtesy Mead Art Museum at Amherst College.
In his mid-40s, Rockwell Kent moved to a working Adirondack dairy farm that he called Asgaard. He lived and painted there until his death in 1971. The name came from Nordic mythology. It roughly corresponds to Old Norse for “Garden of the Gods,” and is an apt description of the place. Ringed by the High Peaks of the Adirondacks, with fast-moving rivers and streams, this area has been a draw for outdoorsmen and artists for nearly two hundred years.
Asgaard is located in the small town of Au Sable Forks, New York. “And there, westward and heavenward, to the high ridge of Whiteface northward to the northern limit of the mountains, southward to their highest peaks, was spread the full half-circle panorama of the Adirondacks. It was as if we had never seen the mountains before,” wrote Kent.
Au Sable River, Winter: Adirondacks, 1960, Rockwell Kent, courtesy the Hermitage.
In addition to being Kent’s home, Asgaard was also a working dairy farm.  It was acquired by David Brunner and Rhonda Butler in 1988 and brought back into production in 2003. Here in the Northeast, fallow land rapidly reverts to forest, so not only were Brunner and Butler saving an historic farm, they were saving a view.
Rockwell Kent’s reputation as a painter languished in the later 20th century. “Kent, if not a towering talent in American art, was a prolific man who made a good living not only as a painter but also as a commercial artist; muralist; designer of fabric, pottery and jewelry; architect, and Adirondack dairy farmer,” wrote Judith H. Dobrzynski in the New York Times in 1999.
Summer Day, Asgaard, 1950, Rockwell Kent, courtesy the Hermitage.
His politics didn’t help. He was an outspoken socialist and Communist sympathizer. Called to testify before Senator Joseph McCarthy’s subcommittee in 1953, Kent stubbornly pleaded the Fifth Amendment. He later said he’d never been a member of the Communist Party, but he’d effectively ruined his career. Suddenly, he was anathema to galleries and museums.
Kent had donated 80 paintings and 800 prints and drawings to the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland, ME. They backtracked and rejected the work. Stung, Kent donated the entire collection to the Soviet Union. Many of his works from the Adirondacks were in this gift, which made them unknown to two generations of American art critics.  It took the fall of the Soviet Union and the internet to make them visible again.
Road to Asgaard: Adirondacks, 1960, Rockwell Kent, courtesy the Hermitage.
Kent was out of step artistically, too. He was a stubborn realist in the age when abstract expressionism was all the rage. He was an indefatigable plein air painter, traveling to remote places like Greenland, Tierra del Fuego, Alaska and Maine.  “Go before nature, use your eyes, and then paint what you see,” was his credo.
His work is ultimately spiritual. “His painting is a proclamation of the rights of man, of the dignity of man, of the dignity of creation. It is his belief in God,” wrote Robert Henri.

Painting the Great White North

“Hayfields, Niagara County,” Carol L. Douglas

“Hayfields, Niagara County,” Carol L. Douglas
My bedroom is unheated. On a -3F morning like this I am not anxious to jump out of bed. Yes, I’ve painted outdoors on days like this and, no, I’m not not in any hurry to repeat the experience.
Among my painting fraternity, the two people out there painting last week are both watercolorists: Poppy Balser, who’s up in Nova Scotia using vodka in her wash cup to keep the paints moving, and Russel Whitten in Ocean Park, who just worked fast until his paint crystallized.
Oil paint will eventually stop moving in this weather as well, although it takes this kind of extreme cold to get there. The painting of hayfields, above, was done on a similarly frigid morning. It was so cold that my car battery died while I was painting. I trekked to a farmhouse to call for help. “I couldn’t figure out what you were doing out there on a day like this,” the woman answering the door said. “I thought you were watching coyotes.”
That year, I had committed to a plein air painting every day, six days a week, regardless of the weather, which in Rochester, NY can be wicked. I painted in gales along the Lake Ontario shore, blasting snow in a vineyard, lashing rain, and occasional electrical storms. That year made me into a painter, and it is also how I finally moved from being an amateur to a professional. I had so many paintings lying around, I had to sell them. It also proved to me that I could paint in any conditions, and that I didn’t need to ever again—unless I wanted to.
“Iceberg: Sledge Dogs, Greenland,” 1935-7 and 1952, Rockwell Kent

“Iceberg: Sledge Dogs, Greenland,” 1935-7 and 1952, Rockwell Kent
Rockwell Kent first visited Greenland in 1929, saying the visit “had filled me with a longing to spend a winter there, to see and experience the far north at its spectacular worst; to know the people and share their way of life.”  In 1931, Kent built himself a hut in in the tiny settlement of Illorsuit (then called “Igdlorssuit”), a village north of the Arctic Circle. He wintered and painted there. As a socialist, Kent was enamored of Inuit society, considering their little village a kind of utopia.
Kent later said that his year in Illorsuit was the happiest and most productive time of his life. Among his other pursuits, he acquired a sled and team so that he could make even more remote painting and camping expeditions. In a witty aside, Kent painted himself painting this iceberg, surrounded by his sled dogs, here.
“The Sea of Ice,” 1823–24, Casper David Freidrich
“The Sea of Ice,” 1823–24, Caspar David Friedrich
As a German Romantic, Caspar David Friedrich could, I suppose, be described as a utopianist of a different stripe. His goal was to portray that sublime moment when the contemplation of nature causes a reawakening of our spiritual self.
Friedrich set out a manifesto for painters that still rings true: “The artist should paint not only what he sees before him, but also what he sees within him. If, however, he sees nothing within him, then he should also refrain from painting that which he sees before him. Otherwise, his pictures will be like those folding screens behind which one expects to find only the sick or the dead.”
“The Hunters in the Snow,” 1565, Pieter Bruegel the Elder

“The Hunters in the Snow,” 1565, Pieter Bruegel the Elder
Friedrich recognized winter as a still and dead time, and the only hint of human activity in The Sea of Ice, above, is the subtle, moralizing shipwreck. This is very different from Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s ““The Hunters in the Snow,” which is a panoply of everything we do in the wintertime. While the overwhelming sense is one of order and human industry, there are precursors of Friedrich’s wrecked ship in this painting: the hunters and their dogs are exhausted, and their bag is one measly red fox.
This painting was done during the Little Ice Age, when the threat of famine was real. It is both a medieval Labours of the Month painting and a Renaissance narrative painting.
“Winter Comes From The Arctic To The Temperate Zone,” 1935, Lawren Harris

“Winter Comes From The Arctic To The Temperate Zone,” 1935, Lawren Harris
Lawren Harris was one of the driving forces behind the Canadian Group of Seven, and the most plastic of those painters. He went from impressionism to art nouveau realism to complete abstraction in a matter of two decades. His break with realism occurred in the early 1930s, after he visited and painted in the Arctic.
Harris believed in the arctic as a living force: “”We are on the fringe of the great North and its living whiteness, its loneliness and replenishment, its resignations and release, tis call and answer, its cleansing rhythms. It seems that the top of the continent is a source of spiritual flow that will ever shed clarity into the growing race of America.”

Please don’t just phone it in

“Midday Barren,” 1983, by Neil Welliver

“Midday Barren,” 1983, by Neil Welliver
All rocks are not the same. The same brushstrokes that suggest the sandstone and shale ledges of Kaaterskill Falls in New York are inappropriate for the Maine Coast. Nor are all rocks uniformly brown. In fact, rocks in Maine generally aren’t brown at all.

To the artist, nothing is more distinctive about Maine than the cradle of grey and pink granite in which it lies. Having meandered around fringes of the North Atlantic quite a bit this year (the Hebrides, Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick), I am struck by how similar the coastline is in all of these places. The fingers of granite cutting into the ocean at Iona reach out as if to interlace with those at Eastport.
“Road in Maine,” 1914, by Edward Hopper

“Road in Maine,” 1914, by Edward Hopper
As part of the ongoing celebration of the National Park System’s centenary,Munsell has released a series of publications showcasing the soil colors of the national parks. It’s cute, and it includes Acadia.
Artists know that soil color is different in different places, but we seldom consider why. The underlying rocks, weathering, rainfall and tide play their parts. So too does organic matter, as we know from murder mysteries where the corpse is found in a shallow grave.
“Island Village, Coast of Maine,” Rockwell Kent, 1909

“Island Village, Coast of Maine,” Rockwell Kent, 1909
Maine is full of a soil formation called spodosol. This is infertile, acidic, and found mostly in boreal forests. It’s good for trees, blueberries and potatoes, and not much else. It’s part of the reason that spruces topple in winter gales here, and it’s actually pretty rare, making up less than 4% of soils worldwide. The observant artist notes the ways in which it influences the landscape: blueberry barrens, bogs, and fallen trees.
Schoodic Point in Acadia, where I teach my annual workshop, has some of the most beautiful rock formations in Maine. Black basalt dikes cut through pale pink granite in long lines running out to sea. These were formed by magma forcing its way into cracks in the older stone. Since they fracture faster than granite, they’re in control of the current pattern of erosion. The honest painter thinks about their color and fracture patterns, and doesn’t just throw in a generic rock face in the general area it’s needed.
Granite near Thunder Hole in Acadia. The rock is pink, not brown.

Granite near Thunder Hole in Acadia. The rock is pink, not brown.
I’ve included examples by three Maine painters who cared more about observation than current conventions in mark-making. Their work is now universally included in the canon of masters. There’s a hint in there: to succeed in the long run, you have to be serious about seeing.

Looking forward to next weekend in mid-coast Maine

Rockwell Kent, Late Afternoon, Monhegan Island, collection of Jamie and Phyllis Wyeth
It is a warm, sluggish summer day. My thoughts are already jumping ahead to this month’s Maine workshop. Our day trip to Monhegan Island was cancelled in June because of weather, so I’m doubly excited.
A chance word by a FB friend got me thinking about Rockwell Kent’s smashing paintings of Mañana from Monhegan—a view which we’ll be painting, exactly, since our site is next door to Kent’s former home. Looking at them is more bracing than a gin-and-tonic, sweeter than an ice cream cone!
Rockwell Kent,  Winter, Monhegan Island, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Rockwell Kent, Monhegan (c.1948) 12″ x 16″ oil on board, Tom Veilleux Gallery
Rockwell Kent, Blackhead, Monhegan Island, Maine, private collection
Rockwell Kent, Toilers of the Sea, 1907, New Britain Museum of American Art
And one Hopper painting, for contrast:
Edward Hopper, Blackhead, Monhegan, Whitney Museum of American Art
If you’re signed up for my July workshop in mid-coast Maine, you can find the supply lists here. There’s one more residential slot left; I’m dying to know who is going to fill it. August and September are sold out , but there are openings in October! Check here for more information.

Where the Sea Meets the Sky: Painting Maine in the footsteps of Winslow Homer, George Bellows, Rockwell Kent, and the Wyeths

See here for more information.

See a brochure here.

“Sunset at Marshall’s Point” oil on canvas, 8X6

“This was the best painting instruction I have ever had. Carol’s advice in color mixing was particularly eye-opening. Her explanations are clear and easy to understand. She is very approachable and supportive. I would take this course again in a heartbeat.” (Carol T., prior workshop participant)

Mañana Island view from Monhegan (courtesy of Carolyn Mrazek)

 Last fall I was invited to go to Maine to scout out painting locations for a series of workshops this summer. (The managers had observed me teaching at another workshop and liked what they saw.)

I’ve painted on two different trips in the Rockland-Rockport area, once by myself and once with my pal Kristin. However, painting for—and by—oneself is different from planning a painting program for others.
One of the many lovely places we’ll be painting.
Painting is a process of exploration; guiding other painters is largely a process of elucidation. When planning a workshop, I endlessly crisscross the region, painting and reconnoitering. (My old atlases have now been replaced by GPS, but the principle of look, paint, and take notes remains the same.) There are practical considerations as well; to me, the most important is to locate comfort stations and coffee.
A good plein air teacher is more than just a decent painter. She has to be a bushwacker, with a decent sense of direction and common sense. She has to meet each of her students at the level at which they’re working.  And above all, she must resist the temptation to create a bunch of mini-mes, but rather watch for and nurture each individual “voice” in her class.
Countless fantastic views.
A good venue makes teaching that much easier. There should be room for rainy-day painting and a place to clean brushes. There should be comfortable public space to chat and drink wine after a day of hard work. There should be other activities available—hiking, shopping, dining, etc. Lakewatch Manor meets all those criteria.
Plus they are offering a fantastic added attraction: a day painting on Monhegan Island. Twelve miles offshore, Monhegan is a Maine treasure, dotted with hiking trails and artists’ studios. We’ll have painting time and lunch at a private property which adjoins Rockwell Kent’s home—now owned by Jamie Wyeth. From it, we can paint Mañana Island, or we can move off elsewhere on the island for its other iconic views.
One other detail: if you haven’t visited the Farnsworth in Rockland, or the very high-end galleries that have sprung up around it, you’re in for a treat. It’s an extraordinary art scene, and I’m a fairly jaded customer in that respect, having regular access to Manhattan.
Sun, Mañana, Monhegan by Rockwell Kent, 1907. Lousy image of a great painting,
and we will get to paint this exact view.