Moving on, or moving back

“Under a milky sky (Hare Bay, Newfoundland),” Carol L. Douglas

I’m happy to announce that as of today, Watch Me Paintreturns to Blogspot. I’d like to thank the Bangor Daily News for the past 17 months of hosting. It’s been a great learning experience, and there are many fine blogs on that platform that I read every day.
Astute readers may have noticed that Watch Me Paint has appeared on several platforms for the past five months. This was market research. The modern internet gives us analytic tools simple enough even for an artist to use. I know who visits my website and where they come from. That information supports what the experts say: when all else is equal, host your own blog. It gives you total control of your brand.
My students have heard me speak of group norming in terms of painting. This is when artists who work closely together influence each other’s style. This is the process by which a painting group becomes a ‘school’. It can be a powerful tool for creating new art movements, or it can be repressive.
For painters, it’s important to find working partners interested in the same questions as you are. That doesn’t mean your work will always look the same. For example, even though he was a founding member of the Group of Seven, Lawren Harris ended up being an abstract painter.
Here in Maine, we haven’t been doing much outdoor group painting recently. Meanwhile, my old friends in Rochester have been out every week. They’re having a rare, snowless winter. So I jumped when Bobbi Heath and Joëlle Feldman invited me to join them to paint in the Bahamas next month. Both of them are interested in the same fundamental questions I am: drawing, color relationships and the simplification of landscape. I expect that tropical climate has far different light than I’m used to, and am going to bring a few pigments that I don’t usually use.
I’m committed to finishing my backlog of Canada paintings before we head out. I’m making slow progress, but I’m starting with the least-finished pieces first.
“Grain Elevators, Saskatchewan,” Carol L. Douglas
Yesterday I worked on a painting started in the tiny village of Hare Bay on the northeast coast of Newfoundland. Hurricane Matthew was moving in. There was a milky sky in the deep gloom of fading light. The lighting seemed to fit the mood of this small, poor, isolated town tucked in under an enormous rocky ledge. It wasn’t until I picked it up again in my studio that I felt the oppressive emptiness of the harbor.
The other painting is of a grain elevator in Neelby, Saskatchewan. This was started in a ghost town now owned by rancher Gordon Kish. Again, the light was fading. There is something immensely silent in that hour before twilight, when the shadows are long and every detail is picked out by the searchlight sun. And yet my painting is hardly still. Who knows why?
This morning it’s 12° F in Neelby and 15° F in Hare Bay. While I love field painting more than anything, there’s a time for central heating, too. 

Painting yesterday’s landscape

"Windbreak," by Carol L. Douglas.

“Windbreak,” by Carol L. Douglas.
We’ve traveled 4200 miles playing the game of “those cows are my cows.” (In our family, a herd of cows counts as one, a cemetery kills your opponent’s cows, and a church resurrects them.) Yesterday’s game was particularly cut-throat. It reminded me that I need an eye exam when I get home.
Since we can’t take it through a car wash, the SUV is looking downright geological. The arctic mud has eroded, and a fresh coating of Saskatchewan dust covers everything. A license plate bolt jarred loose and our Maine plate hangs at a rakish angle.
The only company we had while painting the windbreak.

The only company we had while painting the windbreak.
Our current path crossed last year’s at Regina, Saskatchewan. In this area, farms are still being worked, but the old prairie homesteads are abandoned. They are elegiac, and I’ve wanted to paint one since I first saw them.
I saw several on Tuesday, when the wind blew too hard to paint. Because I knew there were some in the Regina area, Mary and I dropped off the Trans-Canada Highway onto local roads.
Mr. Gordon Kish, ghost town owner.

Mr. Gordon Kish, ghost town owner.
From the place names, we realized Saskatchewan has a significant population of French-Canadians, or Fransaskois.
In 1752 Louis de La Corne led an expedition along the northern coast of Lake Superior, through Le Pas, Manitoba and to the forks of the Saskatchewan River. These lands became the most western in the French New World Empire. French fur traders roamed the territory for the following century, establishing families with native women. These people, the Métis Nation, developed a creole language called Michif, which is a complex blend of Cree and French. Later, French immigration into the area was actively encouraged by Canada.
Neelby's forgotten rail line.

Neelby’s forgotten rail line.
Stubbornly, our route refused to yield any abandoned houses. I decided to paint a windbreak instead. These stately lines of poplars seem curiously formal for the open prairie, but they are hardy and fast-growing.
I sat on a range road for several hours wrestling with the emptiness. I’m not thrilled with my solution. Thinking conventionally, I created foreground interest that’s, simply, a lie. It makes the space seem eastern and small. The painting needs editing, and I’m debating how to do it.
Unfinished painting of Neelby grain elevators.

Unfinished painting of Neelby grain elevators.
I find that as I enter new terrain, I stubbornly see it as a continuation of the prior environment, so gradual is the change. Saskatchewan is flatter and wetter than Alberta. Finally, I stopped and looked at what was actually there. Two abandoned grain elevators in the far distance caught Mary’s eye, and we lurched along a range road to get to them. There was one hour until sunset; I could do a small painting if I concentrated.
A truck pulled up. Gordon Kish, rancher and auctioneer, is the last remaining resident of the ghost town of Neelby, Saskatchewan. In fact, he owns all 220 building lots. Settled in the early 20th century, Neelby had a railroad line and a grain depot, but nearby Kipling was more visionary. It built a reservoir and piped water to the rail line. That made it more useful for steam engines. Neelby faded and died.
Thursday 1

The sun set as we left Neelby forever.
The sun faded as Mr. Kish and I chatted. I was tempted to camp in Kipling and spend another day in Neelby, but I realized I must move on. I have enough information to finish in the studio, however.

I’m not lost

"Coal seam," very unfinished. It's destined for the studio.

“Coal seam,” very unfinished. It’s destined for the studio.
“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.” (Lawren S. Harris, 1926)
I was born exactly 144 km from Lawren Harris’ birthplace, and I understand the call of the Great White North as much as Tom Thomson and the Group of Sevendid. Still, I don’t think the Great White North is the beating heart of Canada. That honor must go to its prairies. Immense, they have a deep, diverse economy: oil, natural gas, coal, beef, grain, and wind. Once you’re away from the settlements, they are a land of enormous skies and great emptiness.
Even with easel lashed to SUV, the vibrations made it impossible to paint.

Even with easel lashed to SUV, the vibrations made it impossible to paint.
There are pumping jacks everywhere in eastern Alberta, and they were, in the majority, stilled. Canadian oil is in a bust phase of its boom-bust economy. Still, I wish we would buy whatever oil we cannot produce ourselves from our democratic neighbor to the north rather than from those who wish to harm us.
Atlas #3 coal mine on the Red Deer River.

Atlas #3 coal mine on the Red Deer River.
We set off yesterday to see Canada’s Badlands, promised hoodoos and dinosaur bones by Alberta Provincial Parks. Canada’s badlands are, like its people: nice. They are incapable of raising a frisson of fear. Still, the Red Deer River Valley is particularly lovely, with its fringe of trees golden against the scoured ridges.
Once again, I was flummoxed by the wind. The enormous windmills were making one revolution every three seconds. Parked in the shadow of a cliff, I lashed my tripod to the SUV, and set about painting a small study of a coal seam in the rock. The easel jarred and rattled even with many rocks weighing its base. My medium cup kept flipping over, so I put a pebble in it.
Going about the business of the plains.

Going about the business of the plains.
I wear a ponytail so that my cap doesn’t fly off, but even with that I was wishing for a string to hold it down. An hour later, I’d made very little progress. This painting is destined to be finished in the studio.
Our detour had taken us about 70 miles west, and it was midafternoon before we set off to our second destination: the Great Sand Hills of Saskatchewan. Northwest of the Red Deer River, the land is a little drier and wilder. There is more pasturage and less wheat. The wind ruffles grass the color of a Belgian’s hair in a motion that looks just like whitecaps on Penobscot Bay.
Pronghorn antelope notice our presence.

Pronghorn antelope notice our presence.
The internet is a little vague about how to reach the sand hills themselves, but we had an idea of where they were located, and I’m an inveterate shunpiker. Twice we set out along range roads and tracks in the general direction; twice we were rebuffed when the roads petered out into farm tracks.
That was a costly error.

That was a costly error.
It was not a wasted trip. A coyote loped across the road in front of us. Innumerable waterfowl filled the sloughs. Hawks, magpies and crows perched on fenceposts, waggling as they adjusted their weight to the wind. Herds of prong-horn antelope, startled by our approach, raced away across the prairie.
Prairie cemetery.

Prairie cemetery.
As the sun dropped, we quit our search and headed southeast to Swift Current. The well-head lights shone like fairy lights against the deepening blue twilight.
Today we have vowed to stay closer to the Trans-Canada Highway. All that shunpiking, while beautiful, was unproductive.