Go outdoors and enjoy the weather

“’The trick,’ said I, turning on my stool with coffee cup in hand, ‘is not to adopt a siege mentality.’”


All flesh is as Grass, 30X40, oil on linen

The above quote is from novelist Van Reid. He was musing on the winter. I copied his essay here and I hope you will read it over your morning coffee.

The other day, I posted a night photo on Facebook. “An evening walk to church through a snowy wood? Norman Rockwell merely painted such idyllic moments; you live them,” commented my friend Roger.

The great irony is that such moments are easily accessible to us all. They surround us all the time. But if we’re inside, or inside our cars, or on Facebook, or watching television, they pass by unnoticed.

Lonely Cabin, 8X10, oil on archival canvasboard.

I’m a habitual rambler, as the British call people who walk for fun. Walking is one of the most popular outdoor recreational activities in the United Kingdom, but it has no traction here. Part of that is because we’re too spread out. Part is that we don’t have the network of rights of way and footpaths that give access to the countryside.

But you can always find places to wander: the Erie Canal towpath in New York, or rail-to-trail access in other places, or land trust and park trails, to cite some examples. My friend Mary and I spent many happy hours rambling through the suburbs, speculating on the people behind those facades.

Rambling shows you the world through a macro lens. I see all kinds of things that are hidden from the person who zips by in a car—the fat, lazy porcupine looking for his winter billet, a hare coursing through the barrens, red winterberries after the shrub has shed its leaves.

Nighttime at Clam Cove, 9X12, oil on archival canvasboard.

It’s taken me six years to understand the weather here, and that understanding came from being outdoors in all kinds of weather. If I walk over Ben Paul Lane and through the old farm road into Erickson Fields, I can avoid the prevailing westerlies in the bitterest weather. But in a Nor’easter, that’s inverted. It will, paradoxically, be warmest on the exposed path to the summit of Beech Hill—that is, until you make the final turn, at which point, the wind will blast the blood cells clear out of your body.

In summer, my usual treks here are filled with the noise of too many people. Americans are very gregarious people, so they share their thoughts with strangers. Petty irritations are inevitable. In winter, the same trails are empty. If we run across anyone at all, it’s likely to be someone we know.

The Late Bus, 6X8, oil on archival canvasboard.

I observed the winter solstice in part by discussing with my intrepid daughter Mary (with whom I’ve been north of the Arctic Circle) how we might get to Svalbard. That’s the northernmost inhabited island in the world. There are times, I speculated, that the sea ice might be solid enough for us to drive. “Yeah, but it’s dark then,” she pointed out.

My family are all bred-in-the-bone northerners, going back now several generations. “It does not mean that we have more character than anyone else, only that winter is an integral part of our character,” Van wrote.

There’s a change in the weather

The stark geometry of dying autumn is compelling, but I think the weather is trying to kill me.

Beauchamp Point, 12X16, oil on canvasboard, $1449 framed, is available at my show at Camden Public Library.

This is the most dangerous time of year, and the most dangerous hour is the gloaming before dawn.

Nothing bad is going to happen. The real risk is that nothing will happen at all. I’ll look out the window at the ice crystals glittering on my car and tell myself it’s too cold to go out.

To date, I’ve been able to force myself into clothes and up Beech Hill. Minutes later, my heart is pumping. My extremities warm up. I become alive to the hush in the air and the strange and wonderful colors of decaying autumn. The sun breaks the lip of the ocean, flooding the sea with light. “It’s a beautiful day,” I say. It almost always is.

Watercolor in the snow presents its own problems, because it freezes. Painting by Carol L. Douglas.

In the north, it’s easy to be cowed by winter. It’s a terrifying force. It takes time to dress for it and the cold air can be painful. If I don’t go outside every morning, I’ll stay in the house complaining bitterly until Spring.

“There’s no bad weather, only improper clothing,” we like to say. While that’s true, it takes time to adjust your habits. We painted our last plein air class of the season yesterday. It was about 40° F. I placed us on the boat ramp at Owls Head, where the sun acted like a solar collector and nearby buildings were a wind-break. We’re all northerners, born and bred, and we were togged out in the usual layers. But after three hours, we were chilled through.

Buoy, unfinished demo on my easel. It’s the stillness of plein air painting that makes it so cold.

There’s something exhausting about cold weather. In summer I can paint outdoors all morning and come home to open my gallery without a pause. Yesterday, I was done in by 3 PM.

Still, I’ll continue to go out. The stark geometry of bare trees is compelling.

My unfinished start from Beech Hill on Wednesday. It’s harder to get anything done when you’re cold.

I heartily recommend experimenting with cold weather painting. My tips are few and obvious: dedicate an old jacket to being trashed with paint, wear layers, tuck chemical hand warmers into the backs of your gloves. Some artists carry an old bit of carpet to stand on, because your feet will fail you first. Eric Jacobsen carries a small brazier as a portable campfire.

On Wednesday, I painted with Eric. We were tucked in at the foot of Beech Hill, where the prevailing westerlies couldn’t touch us. But then the sun went in behind the clouds, and it was suddenly cold. Down the hill sauntered David Dewey, looking as untouched by the frosty conditions as an Alabama camellia. He’s been painting regularly at the top of Beech Hill right after dawn, he told us. He sometimes rides his bike up the steep incline of Beech Hill Road with all his gear. That would be impressive in a kid, and David is 75 years old.

And a start from last winter, of Harness Brook, painted with Ken DeWaard. If I can find it, I’ll finish it.

I have a million things to do today before my opening at Camden Public Library this afternoon. And I have at least an equal number of unfinished, unframed plein air paintings in the racks in my studio. But that one more painting is calling me.

The winter doldrums

All painters should occasionally go somewhere else to paint, even if it’s just the next town over.
Snow squall at Twelve Corners, by Carol L. Douglas

It’s 3° F at my house. That’s positively balmy compared to other places in the north. It’s -13° in the Dakotas, -11° in Detroit, and so cold in Saranac Lake, NY that the National Weather Service refuses to speculate. This is what newscasters are breathlessly calling a polar vortex. It’s just our old friend winter, rebranded.

I was born and raised in Buffalo, NY. I have antifreeze in my veins. The coldest weather I’ve ever painted in was -10°F. That was about twenty years ago, when I made the commitment that I’d paint outdoors six days a week for a whole year through. Sub-zero weather is a fact of life in Western New York, as are blizzards and wind-swept deluges in the warmer months. I painted through it all.
Path, by Carol L. Douglas
I came away from that year realizing two things. The first was that if you paint that much, you have to sell your work, if only to be able to afford more paint and canvases. That was the start of my consistent business practice.
More importantly, I didn’t need to do it again. Now I paint outdoors in the winter because I want to, not because I’ve got something to prove. That means I can set limits: no subzero weather, no gloomy days, and no howling winds. Snow paintings are best with sunlight.
One more thing I’ve only recently concluded: you can’t skimp on winter clothes. I’ve spent way too much time being cold because I was underdressed. That’s foolish.
Hayfield, Niagara County, NY, by Carol L. Douglas. The lumpiness in the paint is because it was so cold even my oils froze.
The painting above was done in a hayfield in Niagara County, NY. When I packed up to leave, I realized my van had a dead battery from the cold. Twenty years ago, I didn’t have a cell phone, so I trudged down the road to call my brother. “I was wondering what on earth you were doing there,” said the kind lady who answered the door. My brother just called me an idiot.
What do plein airartists do in the winter? Mostly, we paint indoors. All of us have ideas for studio paintings, commissions, etc., that need to be executed sometime. If we have any sense, we also rest. I haven’t done a good job of that this year; I’m scrambling to finish work before the season starts again.
Rock wall, by Carol L. Douglas. Winter means a lot of twilight in the north.
If we’re lucky, we sneak in a short trip South to paint, as I did last winter. This year, I’m being contrarian and flying west instead, to New Mexico (where it’s a balmy 25° and sunny today). Jane Chapin and I plan to paint some winter mountain scenes high above Santa Fe. Yes, we have mountains in the Northeast, but they’re a very different character.
All painters should occasionally go somewhere else to paint. It doesn’t have to be an expensive, extensive trip. If you live on the coastal plains, go to the hills. If you live in a town, go to the countryside. Even the smallest shift of viewpoint profits us. The land has a different shape, different focal points, different light, different masses. We stretch when we paint what’s outside our norm.
Suburban snowstorm, by Carol L. Douglas. Wherever there are trees and snow together, you can paint a landscape.
I leave Monday, weather permitting. I’m starting to pack my winter gear. But first, I must clear the driveway and bring in more wood. Ah, winter! You may be beautiful, but you’re also a lot of work.

When you’re a terrific failure

I’ve got an image in my mind and I can’t get it out on paper. Have I lost it?
Winter Lambing, by Carol L. Douglas
If you visit my studio this morning, you’ll find a massive pile of failed sketches on my work table. So many, in fact, that I’m now out of watercolor paper and have to buy more.
A few weeks ago, Facebook friends posted the photo, below, of their house in Sanborn, NY. There was a narrative quality to the simple frame house and the windswept snow, and I asked them if I could use it for reference. It was evocative of all the many winter evenings I’d driven along Route 31 in New York. Those drives were empty, flat and dark, broken by occasional holiday lights. At the town of Barre, you could count on a cross-wind to pick up the snow and throw it into the road, making the driving especially treacherous. My painting Winter Lambing, above, was based on a photograph I took on that stretch of road.
If my mind had left it there, I’d have been fine. The photo is beautifully composed as it stands. I am not averse to open space on the canvas, because it’s often a different sort of information. But then another thought crept in and started thrumming in the background. It’s terribly familiar and it starts like this:
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;  
He will not see me stopping here  
To watch his woods fill up with snow…
Robert Frost’s little horse was nosing his way into my painting—not literally, of course, but the sense of waiting in the deep woods. Now I wanted both the little house with its lights and the road and woods. That would be a truly autobiographical painting. The problem is compositional. I haven’t worked out how to do it yet.
One of a gazillion fails.
The two images are fighting a titanic battle. I’ve lined spruces up in the foreground, with the little house twinkling in the back. I’ve put one goofy tree in front, which was a dismal solution (and the one that happened to be on my phone this morning). I’ve tried everything I can think of, in my sketchbook and with paint, and gotten absolutely nowhere. The trouble is, there’s no depth to this painting as I’m currently envisioning it, merely a series of planes stacked up one in front of the other. And as soon as the woods enter, the stillness exits.
So, I did what every (honest) artist does in this situation. I beat myself up about all kinds of other, unrelated disappointments. I had a wee dram—nay, two—and emailed my friend Martha about a cookbook she’d recommended. I watched some footage of old Rockport with my husband. And, of course, I asked myself whether I was over the hill, washed up, done. Had I suddenly forgotten how to draw and paint?
Years ago, I broke my thumb with a table saw. That was, in fact, a miracle accident, because the kickback caught me in my hand and not in my gut. I’d just had a groin-to-breastbone surgery, and the incision was still stapled. I scared myself witless, and didn’t go back to using the saw right away. To this day, I can’t touch one.
Just as with riding, the problem isn’t the fall, although that often hurts like hell. The problem is picking yourself up and getting back to work. Happily, I’ve found that these horrible dry periods are often a gloss over some serious work going on in the background, which in turn lead to important discoveries. I’ll be back at it again tomorrow.

Painting the Great White North

“Hayfields, Niagara County,” Carol L. Douglas

“Hayfields, Niagara County,” Carol L. Douglas
My bedroom is unheated. On a -3F morning like this I am not anxious to jump out of bed. Yes, I’ve painted outdoors on days like this and, no, I’m not not in any hurry to repeat the experience.
Among my painting fraternity, the two people out there painting last week are both watercolorists: Poppy Balser, who’s up in Nova Scotia using vodka in her wash cup to keep the paints moving, and Russel Whitten in Ocean Park, who just worked fast until his paint crystallized.
Oil paint will eventually stop moving in this weather as well, although it takes this kind of extreme cold to get there. The painting of hayfields, above, was done on a similarly frigid morning. It was so cold that my car battery died while I was painting. I trekked to a farmhouse to call for help. “I couldn’t figure out what you were doing out there on a day like this,” the woman answering the door said. “I thought you were watching coyotes.”
That year, I had committed to a plein air painting every day, six days a week, regardless of the weather, which in Rochester, NY can be wicked. I painted in gales along the Lake Ontario shore, blasting snow in a vineyard, lashing rain, and occasional electrical storms. That year made me into a painter, and it is also how I finally moved from being an amateur to a professional. I had so many paintings lying around, I had to sell them. It also proved to me that I could paint in any conditions, and that I didn’t need to ever again—unless I wanted to.
“Iceberg: Sledge Dogs, Greenland,” 1935-7 and 1952, Rockwell Kent

“Iceberg: Sledge Dogs, Greenland,” 1935-7 and 1952, Rockwell Kent
Rockwell Kent first visited Greenland in 1929, saying the visit “had filled me with a longing to spend a winter there, to see and experience the far north at its spectacular worst; to know the people and share their way of life.”  In 1931, Kent built himself a hut in in the tiny settlement of Illorsuit (then called “Igdlorssuit”), a village north of the Arctic Circle. He wintered and painted there. As a socialist, Kent was enamored of Inuit society, considering their little village a kind of utopia.
Kent later said that his year in Illorsuit was the happiest and most productive time of his life. Among his other pursuits, he acquired a sled and team so that he could make even more remote painting and camping expeditions. In a witty aside, Kent painted himself painting this iceberg, surrounded by his sled dogs, here.
“The Sea of Ice,” 1823–24, Casper David Freidrich
“The Sea of Ice,” 1823–24, Caspar David Friedrich
As a German Romantic, Caspar David Friedrich could, I suppose, be described as a utopianist of a different stripe. His goal was to portray that sublime moment when the contemplation of nature causes a reawakening of our spiritual self.
Friedrich set out a manifesto for painters that still rings true: “The artist should paint not only what he sees before him, but also what he sees within him. If, however, he sees nothing within him, then he should also refrain from painting that which he sees before him. Otherwise, his pictures will be like those folding screens behind which one expects to find only the sick or the dead.”
“The Hunters in the Snow,” 1565, Pieter Bruegel the Elder

“The Hunters in the Snow,” 1565, Pieter Bruegel the Elder
Friedrich recognized winter as a still and dead time, and the only hint of human activity in The Sea of Ice, above, is the subtle, moralizing shipwreck. This is very different from Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s ““The Hunters in the Snow,” which is a panoply of everything we do in the wintertime. While the overwhelming sense is one of order and human industry, there are precursors of Friedrich’s wrecked ship in this painting: the hunters and their dogs are exhausted, and their bag is one measly red fox.
This painting was done during the Little Ice Age, when the threat of famine was real. It is both a medieval Labours of the Month painting and a Renaissance narrative painting.
“Winter Comes From The Arctic To The Temperate Zone,” 1935, Lawren Harris

“Winter Comes From The Arctic To The Temperate Zone,” 1935, Lawren Harris
Lawren Harris was one of the driving forces behind the Canadian Group of Seven, and the most plastic of those painters. He went from impressionism to art nouveau realism to complete abstraction in a matter of two decades. His break with realism occurred in the early 1930s, after he visited and painted in the Arctic.
Harris believed in the arctic as a living force: “”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.”

Frozen beauty

Thin sheet ice at the harbor in Baltimore, MD. (Photo courtesy of Emerson Champion.)
The Great Lakes are a continuous channel of fat parts (the lakes) and straits (the Niagara, St. Lawrence and St. Mary’s Rivers and the Straits of Mackinac). A sort of inland sea, they contain 21% of the world’s surface fresh water by volume. Because they are huge and deep, they never fully freeze, and they even have small tides.
We all know that lake water starts to freeze at 32° F. The salty ocean’s freezing point is more like 28° F., but of course the ocean is vast (even vaster than Lake Ontario) so at our latitude it only freezes around the edges.
Orange peel ice developing on the Patapsco River shipping channel in Baltimore, MD. This is brackish water in a shallow cove. (Photo courtesy of Emerson Champion)
Still, the Great Lakes form some features usually associated with sea ice. Ice hummocks and pressure ridges, pancake ice, grease ice (which is basically ice soup), and ice stuck fast along the shores with open channels, or leads, are all features of both sea and Great Lakes ice. As long as the lakes don’t freeze, they also have the same drift ice that one sees on the ocean.
Ice balls on the shore of Lake Michigan. These are caused by rolling surf.
Ice coverage on the Great Lakes reached 85.4% on Feb. 18, making this the second winter in a row that it has exceeded 80%. That’s the first time that’s happened since the 1970s. As usual, Lake Ontario is the slowest to freeze; as of yesterday, it was at near-record levels, being 82.6% covered.
Pancake ice looks like blood platelets and is a common enough formation on Lake Ontario. Sometimes the edges build up enough that the pieces look like kettles.
This much ice is highly unusual. But this is the second cold winter in a row, and the lake never fully warmed up last summer.
Flow ice near Brooksville, ME.
In terms of comfort, it’s difficult: Buffalo is recording its coldest February in the 145 years in which records have been kept, and the whole northeast has been buried in snow. Ice is, of course, beautiful, but we’re all starting to look forward to the grey, rotten ice that heralds Spring.
Fast ice is ice that’s stuck on the edges of open water.
Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me on the Schoodic Peninsula in beautiful Acadia National Park in 2015 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops! Download a brochure here. 

In the bleak midwinter

Deer in snow, oil on canvas, by Carol L. Douglas. This was not painted en plein air and it shows. Not just in the deer, but in the heightened shadows, which are next to impossible here in mid-winter.
These days I will go outside to paint in the winter, but only if one of my pals really wants to. I think I’ve done my penance freezing in the bleak midwinter.
Highland Park snow squall, pastel, by Carol L. Douglas
About 15 years ago, I decided that I would paint outdoors every day (which for me meant six days a week).  I did this for one calendar year. Of course it seemed like that was the coldest winter we’d ever had, but in truth every winter is the coldest we’ve ever had.
Vineyard in snow, pastel, by Carol L. Douglas
Rochester doesn’t get the body-numbing cold of other northern areas because we have the tempering effect of Lake Ontario. However, we get an almost constant deep cloud cover from moisture picked up over that same lake. A damp 20° F. with no sun feels colder than 10° F. on a bright day. Add a snow squall raging in from the lake and you have a situation of indescribable unpleasantness.
Snowy road in Rush, pastel, by Carol L. Douglas
That heavy overcast also makes for grey, indirect lighting without shadows. It’s just not that exciting to paint, and one reason I quit painting in winter was that most of what I painted bored me. But my brief foray in Maine last month reminded me of how beautiful winter can be when the sun actually comes out.
Skating rink, oil on canvas, by Carol L. Douglas
A few years ago, I did another painting-a-day cycle with small still lives. When you insist on finishing a painting every day, you develop a specific working rhythm. You take work to a certain point and no further. Both times I finished doing them, I was happy to start working on more intentional, longer works. But my painting style has changed a lot in fifteen years, and I’m thinking that another cycle of painting-a-day might be in my immediate future.
Just not this week. It’s too cold out there.
Painting in Piseco, New York in February.
Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me on the Schoodic Peninsula in beautiful Acadia National Park in 2015 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops! Download a brochure here.

Winter evening at Twelve Corners

Winter evening at Twelve Corners, sketch, 12X16 or thereabouts, oil on canvas

I was waiting for my son at Brighton High School and amusing myself by taking photos of the streetlights with a handheld camera. Never thought of the photos as a painting until it was suggested by my friend Pilan. Here it is in an expanded sketch.