Emotional content

What you think about and feel has a way of insinuating itself in your painting without any special effort on your part.

Wildfire, by Carol L. Douglas, oil on canvas.

I gave up deep thoughts around the time I had children. I very seldom paint topically. Although I admire the paintings of Daumier, Bastien-Lepage, Goya, and others who commented on the human condition, I don’t want to paint about current events.

I recently reviewed my plein air sketches from the past summer, consigning some to the slush pile, reserving others to be more fully developed. There is very little of it compared to prior years. I’ve been teaching a lot this year. My side-hustle threatens to engulf my main work. That seems to be the pattern for many working artists this year.

Nor do I think what I’ve done has been particularly inspired. My paint-handling is just fine, but the content seems somehow lacking. “Does the world need one more painting of a foggy morning at Owls Head?” I sighed as I pitched a study onto my slush pile.

The Dooryard, oil on canvas, by Carol L. Douglas

The answer is, of course, yes. There’s an infinite need for the peace of the natural world, whether real (as in the wilderness) or artificial (as in art). I’m just not feeling it right now.

I recently pulled out an old painting of wildfire that I started several years ago. It was based on an experience in the Yukon, in an area frequently burned out by wildfires. We were on a narrow road circling down to a lake, surrounded by burned shells of spruces. The trees swirled around us in a kaleidoscope of destruction. I took photographs, but without the movement of the car, they were just dead images. Could I capture that sense of menace in a canvas, in a way that would compel a viewer? At the time, the answer seemed to be no.

My friend Martha lives in Napa. When I went to bed last night, she was again on evacuation alert. She’s already been evacuated once this summer. Fire came very close to consuming her home. She works in a winery that was shut down last weekend by the Glass Fire. Before she left the office, she texted us an image of flames climbing the hillside opposite their building. Although northern California can be a paradise, it’s been more like Armageddon recently.

Six Bucks a Pound, oil on canvasboard, by Carol L. Douglas

Thinking of Martha, I reworked my wildfire canvas one more time. This time I have something I like, although it’s by no means a ‘beautiful’ painting. It has the circular motion of that ride, and the punch of dead trees. But mostly, it has an emotional content it lacked.

That’s true of the other paintings I’ve liked from this summer. The Dooryard speaks to my own sense of isolation—that’s my own bedroom with the light off. Six Bucks a Pound is as topical as I ever get; it’s a local lobsterman hawking his wares on Route 1. It’s more illustration than fine art, but if I didn’t paint it, who would?

Blustery, oil on canvas, by Carol L. Douglas

Then I have a moment when I just paint for the sheer joy it brings me. Blustery is one of those paintings. I’d finished my piece for Cape Elizabeth’s Paint for Preservation and set up a second canvas in the ferocious wind. The only changes I made in the studio were to repair the damage from its frequent trips airborne.

Today at 5 PM is my FREE Zoom workshop. While I’m not nervous, I must be keyed up, because I haven’t slept well for the past few days.

Join me with a glass of wine, a spritzer, or whatever else. We’re going to talk about studying painting. What should students expect to get from a workshop or class? What should teachers offer? Have you always wanted to try painting but been afraid of classes? Are you taking classes but want to get more out of them?

Join us for a free-ranging discussion, but you must pre-register.

Seasick in my studio

Athabasca Glacier, oil on linen, by Carol L. Douglas

We bought this house during a fierce February a few years ago. It hasn’t snowed like that since. Yesterday’s storm was the first blizzard I’ve worked through in this studio. It has glass on three sides. The rolling, boiling, rocketing snow was more than my stomach could take.

That’s the first time in my life I’ve ever been seasick. Tea and crackers sorted it out soon enough, though.
I visitedthe Athabasca Glacier in the Columbia Icefield in the Canadian Rockies at the end of September. It was approximately the same weather as yesterday in Maine—bitterly cold, with wind that roared like a freight train. This is why I painted it from a photo.
I freeze my palette between uses. It was a bit of work finding it in the middle of that storm.
There is no way to get a sense of scale from this vantage point, but that small footpath leading up to the toe of the glacier is about 6/10ths of a mile long and rises precipitously. It is marked with signs noting the farthest reach of the glacier at points over the last century. One seldom sees the effect of time on the landscape so graphically. Short of including a ghost glacier, however, I can’t include that information in this painting.
In a sense, this painting is a transcription, because it’s an accurate rendering of the only vantage point most tourists will ever see. The painting I started next is the opposite. It is based not on a real spot, but on a moment in time.
Underpainting of wildfire, by Carol L. Douglas
The northern Rockies are pockmarked by wildfires; they’re a natural part of that area’s life cycle. There’s something very ominous and beautiful about those still, dead forests. I painted a small portrait of one along the Alaska Highway. We passed through other, monumental ones, on the Top of the World Highway and in the Banff-Jasper park complex. These fire zones are often posted with the dates of the fires. Some forests regenerate achingly slowly. Others seem to sprout back almost overnight.
Mary and I found ourselves winding up a steep mountain grade within a very large burn area. The sky was milky in the angry way it is during a blizzard, or downwind of a forest fire. There was no sun, just a hazy light indicating where it might be.
My palette returns to the cold at the end of the day. That drift is close to my height.
What I’ve started here is based on that experience of winding and twisting in a dead forest. For the most part painting doesn’t concern itself with time or motion—we leave that to filmmakers and musicians. But both are, of course, part of the natural world.