Five half-finished paintings in search of a conclusion

The beautiful warmth of Wednesday was just a dream. It’s still April in Maine, and we all know April is the cruellest month.

Not done.

On Wednesday, I met Peter Yesis and Ken DeWaard at Spruce Head. In the warm spring air, it felt like we were playing hooky. The neighborhood dogs trotted over to welcome us. There was a lobster boat on the pier, and the fisherman by the docks was working on his traps. Two Canada geese gamboled in the shallows. Perfect peace, and intimations of summer at long last.

I must have disconnected my common sense in the soft air, because I got there to realize I’d left my tripod at home. There are two absolute necessities for oil painting—an easel and white paint. Your other tools are helpful, but you can usually make a workaround solution. Forget your brushes? Take up palette-knife painting. Forget a canvas? One of your friends will have a spare.

Not done.

I improvised by putting my pochade box on a chair and balancing myself in front of it on Ken’s camp stool. It was wobbly but effective. However, Sandy Quang was meeting us after she stopped for a routine COVID test. The lab is near my house. She stopped by and collected my tripod.

I didn’t feel like grinding anything down to its final solution, so what I painted were sketches—sketches that can join the others sitting on my workbench in search of conclusion. Not that any of them need too much—a flourish here, a bit of light there. The overall structure is fine.

Not done.

Sandy peeled off in early afternoon, and then Peter left. I realized that I had to make the dump before it closed at 4 PM. Ken was starting his sixth sketch, but I was happy with my three, because I had all day Thursday before the weather closed in. I got the trash to the town dump with five minutes to spare.

Except, as so often happens, Thursday didn’t work out at all way I’d planned. I got to Rockport harbor, sat down and drew a composition I quite liked. Meanwhile, the boatyard crew was lowering a sloop into the water. I took a phone call while I waited to see where the boat would end up. “As soon as I start this painting in earnest, they’ll move that boat right into this slip,” I said. That’s always the way with boat paintings—they come and go.

Not done.

It turned out to not be a problem. This time I’d managed to leave my pochade box at home. By the time I drove home to get it, the tide had risen enough that my sketch was meaningless. Not to worry; the tide hits the same point four times a day. I’ll catch it on the flip side. Maybe by then the mast will be stepped on that beautiful winter visitor from Stonington, ME.

Later, I had some explanation for my absentmindedness. In the afternoon, I was laid low by a terrific headache and low-grade fever. I doubt it’s COVID, as I’ve had all my shots. I’m more concerned about Lyme, since I found a tick in my head after being in the Hudson Valley over the weekend. Yes, I’m calling my PCP. This is, sadly, routine in the northeast.

Meanwhile, we’re back to cold, dark and irritable weather. It won’t get out of the 30s today, and there’s snow on the forecast for New England. The beautiful warmth of Wednesday was just a dream. It’s still April in Maine, and we all know April is the cruellest month.

Spring finally comes to Maine

This point, where charcoal meets paper, is where a painting’s future lies.

Spring on Beech Hill, 8×10, available. Dark skies may not give you great shadows, but they deepen color saturation.

Yesterday was the first truly lovely day of the year, with soft still air, limpid light, and a hint of color in the bare trees. I had already chained myself to the mast of updating my website so I met Ken DeWaard at Spruce Head in late afternoon. As if ordered up by some great old Hollywood director, golden light poured over the fishing shacks. It was so composed and serene that even a novice could have painted a great painting.

I, therefore, made a hash of the whole process.

My struggling composition. Ouch.

I’ve been teaching an intensive series on composition. I swear it’s scrambled my brain, since this is the third painting in a row where my composition has been utter dreck. I tell my students that my first rule is “don’t be boring,” and then I keep breaking that rule myself.

I swear, the next time I’m having one of these brain cramps, I’m going to just copy off Ken’s panel. It’d be easier on him. When Carol isn’t happy with her painting, Carol whines. After listening to me for what felt like an hour, he asked a salient and obvious question: what was my painting about?

That stopped me cold.

“Well,” I hesitated, “I think what interests me is that collection of blue bins on the dock.” That’s where I should have stopped and redrawn the whole thing, cropping in much closer, but I didn’t. I was still seduced by the grandeur all around me.

Boatyard, 12X16, oil on canvasboard, available. This painting is growing on me.

This point, where charcoal meets paper, is where a painting’s future lies. All the seagulls I could tack in there later, all the beautiful brushwork I could slather over the canvas, can’t save a teetering composition.

Everyone has a mistake they make repeatedly. Mine is always trying to cram more than one painting onto a canvas. “Respect the picture plane,” I tell my students, and then proceed to not do so myself.

Then there’s this painting of fishing shacks that I haven’t finished yet, but I think has promise.

In this case, I was trying to shove an entire world of manmade and heavenly beauty into one small rectangle. But I can tell you in words that it was sublime: ducks quacking in the distance, the tide beginning to trickle in from the far channels, the perfect still reflections in the water, even the pungent smell of saltwater soil awakening from spring. It was all dancing deliriously in front of me, and I couldn’t push it all onto canvas fast enough.

The beauty of the artist’s life is the number of redos we get. I have to go to New York today, but Spruce Head will still be there when I come home. I can take a deep breath and try again, and maybe, just maybe, I won’t be overwhelmed by the perfection of it all.

You might think I find all this failure depressing, but actually I see it as a hopeful sign. When I suddenly start regressing, it means I’m subconsciously incorporating something new in my painting. I can’t wait to see where I go.

Road with a view

A million quiet moments of beauty are in every vista. (Photo by Sandy Quang)

A million quiet moments of beauty are in every vista. (Photo by Sandy Quang)
One of the tasks of a plein air painting teacher is to locate painting sites. Not only must they have good subject matter, but they must be safe, have sufficient parking, and give access to a bathroom or a quiet stretch of shrubbery. They should be easily accessible to people coming from a wide range of places. Some of my favorites are on the St. George Peninsula.
After being surprised by the overgrowth at Glen Cove a few weeks ago, I decided I should reconnoiter more. Even that doesn’t always work. When I got to Spruce Head yesterday, a bucket truck was parked where I’d hoped to teach, doing something to the power lines. No matter. A little farther along there was ample parking and a different view.
Yesterday's view from the causeway at Spruce Head. (Photo by Sandy Quang)

Yesterday’s view from the causeway at Spruce Head. (Photo by Sandy Quang)
Back in the day, studios at the Art Students League were jammed full of students, to a degree non-New Yorkers would never accept. Needless to say, not everyone had a “good view.” We were expected to make the most of what we had. It was very good training in finding the sublime anywhere.
In general, if you can’t find something to paint, it’s your mind that need adjusting, not the view. That’s not to say that it’s not easier in Maine, where every twist in the road brings something new. But there are many levels of beauty in every scene.
Yesterday, my students all painted variations of a dinghy at rest on the mud flats. It was an easily accessible composition, and it’s what I would have painted. But sometimes when you’re sitting quietly in nature, other things begin to vie with your attention—a rock formation, the shadows formed by a dock. For me, that usually happens about halfway through a painting, when I realize I’m actually more interested in something completely different from where I started.
A heron flew in to fish in the shallows. He spent the whole morning with us.
I currently have three students painting in water-based media. For the teacher, having both oils and watercolor in your class requires turning your brain inside out repeatedly, for the basic way you see and work—light vs. dark—is reversed between them.
Sheryl Cassibry and I did this little watercolor sketch together, as a way of exploring how the medium works.

Sheryl Cassibry and I did this little watercolor sketch together, as a way of exploring how the medium works.
Sheryl Cassibry and I did a joint watercolor painting in my sketchbook last week. We took turns painting on it. It was a fun way to explore how the medium works.
My Southern readers will laugh, but even out on Spruce Head, it was just too hot to paint. My car thermometer read 79° F. as I drove back to Rockport. I’m not acclimated to any kind of heat, and standing out in the blazing sun with a strong on-shore breeze, I got a terrific headache.
It wasn’t just me, either. Renee Lammers told me later that it was too hot to paint in Stonington, too. “I think I need a cooling vest,” she said. Maybe she’ll invent one.