My goodness! It’s raining again!

Exciting weather means exciting skies, but it can also be a pain to paint in.
Breaking storm, pastel, Carol L. Douglas

I personally object to tornados and snowstorms on the same day. It’s like still having acne when you’re getting wrinkles. But that’s been the kind of spring we’re getting.

We had a lovely Memorial Day weekend here in mid-coast Maine. When Tuesday dawned clear, I thought we’d be fine to open our new session of painting classesdown at the harbor. Wrong. We were right back into the sub-normal temperatures we’ve had all spring.
In the Rockies, the weather has been more characteristic of late winter than late May. My youngest is on a field trip in southern Colorado. He called to tell me about ice on his tent and snowstorms. “I hope you’re sleeping in your jacket,” I said.
“I hate to break it to you, Mom, but I always sleep in my clothes,” he said. Geesh.
David Blanchard and I tough it out on an unseasonably cold day at Rockport Harbor. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Johnson.
The Rocky Mountain snowpack—which was at historic lows for the last two years—has recovered with a vengeance. Meanwhile, the southeast United States is baking, there’s flooding in the Midwest, and Tornado Alley has been on a tear. The cause, apparently, is ‘persistent big meanders’ in the polar jet stream. These waves are in a pattern across the Rockies, the Great Lakes and exiting through Maine. Weather is, by nature, always extreme somewhere.
Unfortunately, I no longer live where the future is writ on the clouds. Here, the sensible Old Salts rely on the weather forecast, not on their bones. But I do know one universal truth: the best predictor of tomorrow’s weather is what is happening today. For us, that means more rain and cool temperatures.
Deborah RoyRoberts comes up with a solution to dropping brushes on a dock. Every car has a floor mat, right?
What does this mean for the plein air painter? Foremost, it means not getting too far away from your car. Lightning strikes on both the leading and trailing edges of thunderstorms. Even if the sky directly over your head is clear, you’re at risk of a strike when you can hear thunder. Far better to record the pyrotechnics from your front seat.
Moreover, there will be changing lighting conditions. The only answer to this is a good preparatory sketch before you start painting.
This sketch of Lake Huron in a storm was done from next to my car in a parking lot. You need to allow for quick getaways in bad weather.
Watercolors and pastel are very difficult to manage in a downpour, even when they’re out of the direct rain. Paper and chalk both become saturated with moisture, making control impossible. The only solution I know is to work from inside your car. Acrylics actually benefit from higher humidity, but sideways mist and rain will make them run off the canvas too.
Remember learning that oil and water don’t mix? Instead, they form a stodge that’s impossible to paint with. The only way to paint with oils in the rain is to keep your canvas and palette dry.

How long did that take you?

Looking is at the heart of painting, and you can only trim that back so much.
Spring along the Sheepscot River, Carol L. Douglas

Every painter has been asked “how long did that take you?” There are many witty responses to the effect of “three hours and thirty years.” The heavy lifting for this particular work may have been done in the weeks, months or years before you ever lifted a brush on this project. But this is not unique; it is true as well for the machinist, doctor, and other trained professionals who charge by billable hours.

What is immediate and also uncounted is driving-around time. This is a very big part of our preparation.
Yesterday I met Bobbi Heath at Round Pound. This harbor is about 45 minutes south of me and one of my favorites. It’s a tight, small space, with several working docks, rocks and spruces and a nearby general store for lunch. But what it lacked yesterday were lobster boats. The fleet was out.
Spring cleaning, Carol L. Douglas
Bobbi had noticed a boat renovation happening at Wiscasset, about 25 minutes away. This was a replica of the Revolutionary warship Providence built for the bicentennial in 1776. It is a sloop-of-war, the smallest armed boat in the Revolutionary navy. It’s gaff-rigged except that the topsail has been replaced by one square sail. “They only used this rigging for about ten, fifteen years,” a woman working on the restoration told us.
Providence was the boat on which John Paul Jones received his captaincy. His first tour on this boat resulted in the capture of 13 prizes. But the deck of has been peeled back like a giant sardine can, and her gun carriages sit on the landing waiting to be reinstalled. We sadly concluded there was no painting to be had. Where to next?
Spring thaw on the Pecos River, Carol L. Douglas
Novelist Van Reid and his wife once told me about a little hamlet on the Sheepscot River where he’d spent his early childhood. There was once a mill and a depot for shipping hay. Today there are no businesses, post-office, or even a sign post. Its main attractions are tidal flats, and the church and half-dozen grand 19th century houses strung like beads down a side road. This road is called The Kings Highway. That’s a common-enough road name in the former British colonies, but it usually refers to a major thoroughfare. This track runs nowhere.
The Sheepscot makes a great lazy oxbow here, drifting off into several cul-de-sacs. Before we started to paint, we needed to reconnoiter, which meant haring down dead-end roads to see where the view was the best. Of course, we finished exactly where we started, which is often the way.
Spring, Carol L. Douglas
But all that time spent reconnoitering meant that in a day that started at 8, I had exactly two hours to paint before I had another obligation.
That’s so often how plein air painting goes. It helps when you’ve painted many years in the same spot or event; you spend less time looking around. But since looking is at the heart of painting, you can only trim it back so much.

Welcome, Spring!

I’m welcoming spring by having foot surgery. Honestly, sitting still might feel good!

Spring cleaning, by Carol L. Douglas

The vernal equinox is here: Today, both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres get equal amounts of daylight. For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, this is the official start of spring.  Daylight hours will lengthen until the summer solstice on June 21.

Winter days are shorter the farther north you go, until somewhere around the Arctic circle they taper off altogether. Summer days are correspondingly longer. The difference between mid-coast Maine and New York City is about a half an hour of extra daylight. Long northern summer evenings are a palpable and beautiful phenomenon. (This, by the way, is why our Age of Sail workshop is scheduled for June 10-14. Captain John Foss figured that he would give my painters the longest possible days on the water.)
Rockport harbor in early spring, by Carol L. Douglas
But back to the equinox: I arrived home a little before 1 AM on Monday, to find sizable snowdrifts lining my driveway. My studio doors are buried; if you stop by this week, you’d better ring the house bell instead. And we’re not done yet; there’s plowable snow on the forecast for tomorrow. It’s 8° F. as I write this.
Still, there are signs of spring everywhere, for those who are observant. My windows are looking grubby under the harsh spring sun, motivating me to start cleaning. As we seesaw between cold, cold nights and above-freezing days, the trees are pumping sap. My son-in-law’s maples have been tapped for the better part of a month. The willows are coloring yellow; the red osier shines against the snow. Under the bright sun, the snow is subliming back into the atmosphere without melting.
Migrating geese, by Carol L. Douglas
As I drove through Montezuma Swamp on Sunday afternoon, Canada Geese were circling in great flocks, while other migratory birds rested on the water. (These are the virtuous migratory geese, as distinguished from their urban cousins, who’ve found they can make a year-round living on mowed lawns.)
It would be a great time to go out and paint. But I’m off to have a cheilectomyon my right foot this morning. If all goes well, I’ll have the left foot operated on before the painting season starts in earnest. This is maintenance work. Arthritis of the feet is a wear-and-tear problem.
Adirondack spring, by Carol L. Douglas
That means a few weeks off my feet. This is kind of boring, but it has to be done during the off-season. After traveling 3000 miles through fifteen states over the last two weeks, I’m kind of looking forward to sitting in one spot, watching the grass slowly emerge from the snow. I might even read a book.

The Bourbon Trail

Our national identity is to be found in diners and city parks, cypress swamps and little towns, local church services, at Home Depot, on city streets and lonely country roads.

I may have the wrong footwear for Buffalo…
As much as I like overseas travel, I’ve never felt the urge to teach in another country. Landscape painting conveys a deeper shade of intimacy that I simply don’t feel when visiting other places. I enjoy them, but I don’t love them in the same way as I love the US and Canada.
I took this trip to pave the way for a workshop in the Deep South. Why didn’t I just head to the more familiar eastern seaboard states? I’m familiar enough with them that a road trip wasn’t necessary. The central south has been calling to me for a long time, although I’m still not sure what it’s saying.
I usually approach Kentucky from the north. It seems very southern compared to Ohio. This time, driving up from Mississippi, it seemed northern, its drawl flattened out to a midwestern twang. Either way, its identity is confused. This is where the great antislavery novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, was set. When Eliza struggled across the frozen Ohio River, she was literally leaping from slavery to freedom.
One-lane road, central Kentucky.
And yet, nowhere was ‘brother against brother’ truer than in Kentucky. The state tried to sit out the Civil war, but its self-declared neutrality was ignored by both sides. Eventually, it cast its lot with the Union. But southern sympathies were strong, and a group of citizens formed a shadow government that joined the Confederacy.
I came to love Kentucky when I did art festival in Louisville. Now I take every opportunity to shun-pike through this state. It has beautiful farms, lovely steep hollows and hills, and the biggest known cave system in the world. But I was being a serious driver yesterday, intending to get from Bowling Green to Buffalo, NY in one shot. That meant sticking to the Interstate system like a burr on a saddle-blanket.
Dogwood and distillery.
Maybe it was the knowledge that there was snow ahead, but I couldn’t resist veering down the Bluegrass Parkway. This runs east to Kentucky horse country. These are the most manicured farms in America, and the horses—even the ones free to graze near the road—are beasts of singular beauty. The spring grass is in, and the horses were gamboling in the sun.
Before I got that far, I saw a sign for Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail. That eventually put me on a series of one-lane roads. The blind corners, cropped hedges and small-town distilleries reminded me of the Isle of Skye.
Most of us, when we say we’ve ‘been to’ a place, mean we’ve driven through on the Interstate or we’ve flown in, gone downtown, eaten at trendy restaurants and seen a few tourist sites. You really don’t learn much about your country like that. Our common ground is to be found on the old Federal routes, at diners and city parks, in cypress swamps and little towns, at local church services, or talking to the guy at Home Depot. We should all do more of that.

Rags and bags

She’s a long, lean dash of black in the water, but up in the cradle, the schooner J. & E. Riggin had me foxed.

The J. & E. Riggin raising her sails, by Carol L. Douglas.
For someone who likes to paint to the accompaniment of birdsong, the North End Shipyard in April can be disconcerting. A general mayhem of front-loaders, trucks, hammers, power tools and a nearby radio combine into an industrial musique concrete. I enjoy it, but it’s not to everyone’s taste.
Ed Buonvecchiojoined me at the shipyard yesterday and was an instant fan. “Look at that band saw!” he exclaimed when I took him to the office to meet Shary. “We should paint that.” Well, we should, but not right now. If we get in the way during spring fit-out, they’ll probably feed us through the band saw.
The J. &. E. Riggen in the cradle, by Carol L. Douglas
The J. & E. Riggin is in the cradle right now, and she has foxed me. Her bow is spoon-shaped, and she is very long and low to the water. However, there’s an S-curve to her hull that I didn’t understand. It turns out that she has geriatric back troubles, just like me. “Hogging” is when a wooden boat gets a semi-permanent crimp in its keel.
She doesn’t seem to let it bother her too much. She was launched 90 years ago as an oyster dredger in Delaware Bay, and she’s still mighty spry for her age. She’s one of the few schooners I’ve painted under sail, when she was cavorting around Castine last summer. I don’t know what hogging means in terms of sailing function, but it makes her silhouette a long, lean dash of black. In that way, she’s decidedly not like me.
The winch house and bow of the J. &. E Riggin, by Ed Buonvecchio.
That hogging means her bow sits lower in the cradle than the smaller American Eagle’s, which you can easily see by comparing Ed’s terrific painting of the Riggin with mine of the Eagle.
Yesterday, I was having troubles. I chose a close crop of the stern and then promptly forgot it as I got sucked into the rhythm of the cradle supports. I forgot painting rags and a trash bag. I dropped my coffee into my backpack, and then I dropped my mineral spirits into the gravel. Then I dropped my painting jelly-side-down into the dirt. Mondays. Hah.
Captain Jon Finger stopped to talk to us. He’s a watercolorist. Of course, owning a schooner tends to use up all his spare time. “I do one painting a year and then I paint my boat,” he laughed. There’s such artistry involved in maintaining an elderly boat that it didn’t really surprise me to run into a captain who is also a painter.
The Riggin painted by her captain, Jon Finger.
Ed asked Captain Finger how they set the waterline when they replace large sections of planking. It turns out to be more or less a sophisticated process of estimation. Buoyancy varies based on temperature and salinity. On top of that, they are trying to draw a straight line on a curved and sinuous surface.
But waterlines are among the oldest ideas in human civilization. Systems and laws for regulating overloading of boats go back as far as Crete in 2500 BC. That’s a humbling idea on an airy, light Spring morning, when everything seems so new.

Happy Spring!

Orchard with Blossoming Apricot Trees, 1888, Vincent van Gogh.
Today marks the vernal equinox, generally considered the first day of Spring. In the eastern United States, it’s been a dismal winter (which still hasn’t released us from its clutches). We long for Spring.
Blossoming Almond Branch in a Glass, 1888, Vincent van Gogh.
Vincent van Gogh painted a series of flowering almond trees in Arles and Saint-Rémy in 1888 and 1890. When he arrived in Arles in March 1888, the orchards were about to bloom. The blossoms ensnared him. In a month he produced fourteen paintings of blossoming peach, plum and apricot trees. “I am up to my ears in work for the trees are in blossom and I want to paint a Provençal orchard of astonishing gaiety,” he wrote.
Van Gogh’s Almond Tree in Bloom, 1888, resonates with me because it is a baby tree. So often we only see the picturesque in old trees.
The most well-known of his blossom paintings, of flowering branches against a blue field, has been reproduced on everything from ipod hardcases to duvet covers to switch plate covers.
It’s a pity this painting has been so misused, because he painted it in commemoration of the birth of his namesake nephew. “How glad I was when the news came… I should have greatly preferred him to call the boy after Father, of whom I have been thinking so much these days, instead of after me; but seeing it has now been done, I started right away to make a picture for him, to hang in their bedroom, big branches of white almond blossom against a blue sky,” he wrote.
Van Gogh was already studying flowering trees before he went to Arles. His Japonaiserie Flowering Plum Tree (1887, after Hiroshige) is a study in the Japanese woodcut style he admired so much.
I love orchards at any time of the year, but particularly in spring. This year I am feeling the same stirring to be out in an orchard when the apple trees blossom.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click 
here for more information on my Maine workshops!

Spring is just around the corner

Spring plein air painting of an upstate farm, by little ol’ me.
On this last day of February, when it’s 2° F. and blowing, it’s good to recollect that spring is just a moment away. Officially, it starts in twenty days. Unofficially, here in Rochester the snow pack should be melted by the end of March, and no matter how daft Mother Nature is, we will not see any snow showers after the first week of May.
Just how cold has this winter been? The coldest since the 1970s, according to meteorologists.
Plein air painting of Jamie Grossman’s waterfall, by little ol’ me.
Those same meteorologists warn that the warm-up is going to be very, very slow. Makes sense, considering the Great Lakes are a frozen block of ice (except ours, which is very stingy with its freezing). Nevertheless, in a few weeks the bravest of us plein airpainters will be outside again, stomping our heavy boots against the hard ground, and recording the first breath of spring—the clear, china-blue skies, the rising color in the twigs, the freshets of water everywhere.
Plein air painting of Sea Breeze Amusement park, by little ol’ me.
Which means it’s time to check your brushes, order fresh paint, clean out the pochade box, repack your backpack—in short, do all those tasks you meant to do last autumn but didn’t get around to.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops

Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image

My class at Highland Park.

Saturday was an exquisite day. My plein air class went to Highland Park to paint under the cherry blossoms. As we were packing up, inevitably conversation moved to what is possible in this life of ours, and how our view of God shapes our sense of our opportunities.

“I grew up in a church where every week I said, ‘I am a poor, miserable sinner,’” said one member of our little posse.
“I believe in a benevolent creator God who loves me and wants me to be happy,” I responded.
Painting by Carol Thiel
Of course both are true, and neither is complete. Unless one takes time to get to know God, one is at the mercy of every charlatan or self-deluded fool who claims to represent him.
As an artist, I make things that some other people regard as idols, so I’ve considered the Second Commandment. Perhaps the sin of idolatry isn’t in the craftsmanship that creates a golden calf at all, but in this kind of reductio ad absurdum of the character and nature of God. After all, would the children of Israel have fallen for something as absurd as the Golden Calf if it didn’t have a grain of truth embedded in the lies?
Meanwhile, a tiny bird was twittering on a limb next to us. Barely larger than my thumb, it hopped and sang, sang and hopped. It was nothing short of a miracle in its small, perfect joy. It would be presumptuous of an artist to imagine that he or she could make anything as lovely, but it’s a noble aspiration to try to capture a whisper of it to sustain us through the cold seasons.
How can one improve upon perfection?
if you’re interested in joining us for a fantastic time in mid-Coast Maine this summer, check here for more information. There’s still room in my workshops.