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.

Night prowlers

The greatest obstacle to painting nocturnes is convincing yourself that you want to go back out after supper.

Linda DeLorey painting a nocturne at Rockefeller Hall. (Photo courtesy of Jennifer Johnson)

I’ve been teaching at Schoodic Institute for a long time. Every year, I check the moonrise schedule and determine whether we’ll get a full moon for a nocturne. It seldom seems to work. The last time our schedule aligned, the moonrise over Arey Cove was brilliant, but the mosquitoes were ferocious. We were driven off long before our canvases were covered.

(Before I taught Sea & Sky at Schoodic, I taught it in Rockland and then Belfast. This is before we all had cell phones with flashlights. One year, Sandy Quang got lost and fell over a bluff. Luckily there was beach below.)

A late-night critique session with Rebecca Bense and Jennifer Johnson.

We’ve always done this workshop in August, when the days are long. This year, it’s in October, because Maine’s COVID-19 regulations made it impossible for out-of-staters to come in without quarantine in August. That means it’s dark by 6:30. Walking back from the Commons in the dark, we realized that Rockefeller Hall would make for smashing nocturnes, with or without moonlight. It’s a very safe location, since the offices are closed at night.

The greatest obstacle to painting nocturnes is convincing yourself that you want to go back out after supper. It sounds like a brilliant plan at breakfast. After you’ve already painted for eight hours, and maybe had a glass of wine, the idea of dragging your stuff back out in the dark sounds awful. Of course, there are more opportunities for mishaps. Brushes drop into the grass and roll silently away. Nocturnes are unfair to watercolorists, who fight the night mist that keeps their paper saturated.

My students are used to starting with value studies, so painting at night isn’t such a shock to them.

For me, it’s easier to get up at 2 AM and paint. Even so, you then have the challenge of leaving your warm bed at an unnatural hour. Either way, if you persist through your own resistance, you’re in for a treat. The air is fresh and cool; the commonplace becomes beautiful and mysterious.

I’ve given up using a headlamp for nocturnes; I find they blind me as they flicker back and forth. Instead, I brought enough rechargeable book lights to share with my students. My students have been endlessly schooled in value studies, so they took to the limited color range of nocturne paintings immediately. In general, there’s no color in the night sky except inky blackness and the color of any lights. Under a door lamp or inside a window, you will sometimes see a short burst of color, but it’s passing and brief.

Most of my intrepid band of painters, less Jennifer Johnson, who took the photo. That’s Beth Car, me, Jean Cole, Ann Clowe, Rebecca Bense, Carrie O’Brien, and Linda DeLorey.

“Prepare for the worst and hope for the best,” my monitor Jennifer Johnson says. This year all my students are from the northeast, so they know what extensive array of clothing is suitable to October. It can be sunny and beautiful one day and sleeting (or worse) the next. I’m, as usual, far less judicious, since I don’t really believe in winter. I capitulated to the point where I brought long pants, but I haven’t needed them. I’m still in capris, sandals and a linen painting smock.

Me, demoing. (Photo courtesy of Ann Clowe)

October is always the most beautiful month in the northeast and the weather has been fine. It’s foggy in the morning, because the sea is warmer than the air. “I’d love a demonstration on painting fog,” Ann Clowe told me. I love painting fog, so I enthusiastically set up to comply. Unfortunately, the fog burned off too soon, and we had another pristine autumn morning, surrounded by the myriad colors of Autumn on every side. It’s cooler here than it is in August, but most importantly, the ever-present madding crowds are mostly absent.

I’m teaching my annual Sea & Sky workshop in Acadia National Park this week. After that, there’s Find Your Authentic Voice in Plein Air in Tallahassee, Florida, in early November, and a few more plein air classes in Rockport, ME. From there on in, it’s all Zoom, Zoom, Zoom until the snow stops flying.

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.

The number one key to success as a plein air painter

It not only gets you through terrible weather, it keeps your brain supple.
Eventually, my easel fell into this manure pile. Of course.

The end of this week is dripping, sloppy and cool in the northeast. Nevertheless, there are painters trying to knock out paintings at events on Cape Ann and in the Hudson Valley. When they’ve committed to paint, they don’t have much choice but to succeed.

“100% chance of heavy rain tomorrow. more sun but much colder and windy on Friday. Cold and windy and cloudy on Saturday. Sunday there’s a reception in Middletown; that’s the day its sunny, but cold,” Elissa Gore noted on Wednesday. That’s a forecast that has the artist scrambling to pack every possible contrivance against the weather. Their only comfort is that every person in the event is facing the same lousy conditions.
Watch Her Paint! by Ed Buonvecchio. He painted this as we sheltered inside during a torrential downpour. (Private collection.)
Wind makes you wish you had five hands, because, outdoors, every item in your kit has the potential to go airborne. We can weigh down our easels, but umbrellas are useless. It’s difficult to clamp down a large canvas, so we switch gears and paint smaller. Or, we huddle in the lee of our cars, sacrificing the best view for what is possible.
Last week my class painted at a blueberry barren in Union, ME. The forecast was for fog, and when we arrived the clouds were kissing hilltops. My students’ value studies were developed accordingly. By 11 AM, the sky was clear, and the scene had changed entirely. It takes flexibility to salvage a painting in such radically shifting light. But it can be done.
Obstacles can include a garbage truck, as in here, in Manhattan.
Rain and snow are almost impossible obstacles for watercolorists. Even under cover, their paper just won’t dry. It’s almost as bad for oil painting. Once the moisture settles on your paints, any mixing creates a rigid emulsion of water and oil.
If you set up in a public place you stand the risk of something or someone getting between you and your view. It’s one thing if it’s a person. It’s another if it’s a delivery truck.
Or, a lovely boat is in harbor when you arrive and you decide to include it. You’re half-finished when you realize the lobsterman is preparing to leave. Even without people, boats move constantly on the water, and always according to their own mysterious plan.
Or the obstacles might be tourists, as here, in Camden harbor.
So how do you avoid coming home with a fistful of half-finished paintings? You learn to be flexible, to sub in other details for the ones that just vanished. You learn the cycles of places: the rotation of boats on their moorings, or when the food truck arrives and departs. You get creative about draping and bracing your easel to protect it. And, above all, you learn to paint fast.
All of those are signs of cognitive flexibility. This is the ability to switch your thinking or focus, or entertain multiple ideas or viewpoints at once. It’s an important part of learning and thinking. It’s one that declines through adulthood, sadly. The young brain is simply more plastic than the older one.
But your brain responds to exercise just like your body responds to yoga. The more you have to scramble, the better you get at it. Next time your easel falls down, remind yourself that you’re not just there making brilliant work. You’re exercising your cognitive flexibility.

Weather notes

When I arrived in Waldoboro, it was hovering around a high of 27° with a low in the single digits, and no snow.

A few weeks ago I quoted a sailing instructor:
For God’s sake, learn how to read the weather!

For home work, I made my sailing students keep a notebook chronicling the daily weather. It had to have the forecast from the newspaper with their own observations.
At the time, I said that would be a great idea for my plein air painting students, too. Rather than assign work I haven’t tried myself, I packed a small watercolor sketchbook, ruled off into six squares per page, and my trusty old Winsor & Newton pocket paint kit.
That was the pattern until the end of the week, when the temperatures moved up and the sky started building.
In Rochester my studio faces to the north and east, away from the weather front, and the southwest sides of our house—which is where the action is, weatherwise—have more limited visibility. After this week of balancing in precarious positions, I feel like I might just go out on the stoop and sit. It takes fifteen minutes for the paints to really freeze.
I was in Winter Harbor, left, when snow moved in.
What have I learned so far? It’s generally sunnier here in winter than it is in Rochester. The winter light is lemony and the shadows are purple, whereas in Rochester, the winter light tends toward peach and the shadows toward blue (perhaps because it’s never truly bright). And a blizzard is a blizzard is a blizzard, no matter where it’s blowing.
I hope to shovel out and hit the road to Pittsford today, but the plows remain obstinately quiet. Still, they needn’t come by until I’m ready to roll. Just in time is fine.
The day before the blizzard, left, was a perfectly clear Maine day.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2015 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops! Download a brochure here.

Folk wisdom says

Red sky over the Duchy says I’ll have an opportunity to catch up on my studio work today.
Red sky at morning, sailors take warning;
Red sky at night, sailors’ delight.
Dawn this morning featured a lovely rose-colored sky. Since I trust the ancient couplet, above, as much as (or more than) I trust the Weather Channel, I’ll be teaching in the studio tonight.
How old is that couplet? It’s quoted in Matthew 16:2-3, making it at least two thousand years old:
[Jesus] answered them, “When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.’ And in the morning, ‘It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times.

For those who don’t read sky signs and don’t trust their arthritis, there is NOAA’s weather page, with its hourly graphs. They include sky cover, which makes them the plein air painter’s best tool for predicting sunsets.
Joseph Mallord William Turner had a great interest in painting atmospherics. Here is his Sunrise, with a Boat between Headlands, c. 1835-40.
This wisdom works where there are strong westerlies, which happen in the middle latitudes (in which both Jerusalem and Rochester fall). Of course, I also use NOAA’s website; their hour-by-hour weather graph is the plein air painter’s best friend.

I have three openings left for my 2014 workshop in Belfast, ME. Information is available here.

Heavy Weather

The scene, on a warmer, brighter day.
“Lemme tell you something,” said Mr. Steptoe. “The moment I’ve got Duff’s dough in my jeans, this joint has seen the last of me. I’m going back to Hollywood; that’s what I’m going to do, and if you’ve a morsel of sense you’ll come with me. What you want wasting your time in this darned place beats me. Nobody but stiffs for miles around. And look what happens today. You give this lawn party, and what do you get? Cloudbursts and thunderstorms. Where’s the sense in sticking around in a climate like this? If you like being rained on come to Hollywood and stand under the shower bath.” 
(From Quick Service, by PG Wodehouse, c. 1940, Doubleday Doran)
As far as I got on an earlier day, painting with my old pal Marilyn. This is a big field painting, 20X24.
I left Maine with a hankering for painting boats. (They’re really one of my favorite things.) As I had to be in Irondequoit anyway, today seemed like a great opportunity to run up to Genesee Yacht Club to finish a painting I started a few years ago.  I don’t like to paint from photos—not because of some arbitrary rules about what constitutes plein air, but because I see better in real space. And this painting has been sitting around since Marilyn Feinberg moved to Florida and quit being my painting buddy.
The forecast was for intermittent light rain. That’s very doable with oil paints, so I packed my stuff and headed north. However, there’s a fine line between light rain and the kind of rain that works your paint into a solid emulsion. What we were getting this afternoon was on the wrong side of that line. We live in a naturally damp city that’s currently stuck in a heavy-rainfall pattern. There isn’t much one can do about it except move on to something else, like cleaning bookshelves.
Notice, however, that I’m not complaining. It may be dark, cool and rainy here too much of the time, but we don’t often have forest fires, tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, or any of the other natural phenomena that plague other parts of the country.  “Just throw your mind back to Hollywood, honey. Think of that old sun. Think of that old surf at Malibu,” said Mr. Steptoe. For my money he can keep it.
There is only one slot open for my July workshop at Lakewatch Manor in Rockland, ME, and August and September are sold out.  Join us in July or October, but please hurry! Check here for more information.