Living and painting close to nature

Marty Heagney painting at Hancock Shaker Village.

“It’s going to rain in ten minutes,” I told my workshop students.

“How can you tell?”

“I feel it in my corns.”

Lynda Mussen painting under a changeable sky at Canoe Meadows.

I don’t even know what corns are, but it seemed like a nice old-timey term for a skill that’s largely lost today. In truth, I was feeling and smelling the shift in air temperature and humidity that precedes a rainstorm. Sure enough, within ten minutes, it was coming down in sheets.

It’s been a continuation of the damp weather that has wrapped the northeast in flannel all summer. My students have been remarkably good-natured despite the mizzle and occasional downpour. That’s especially true of Cassie Sano, who’s had to dry out her tent more than once.

Yves Roblin painting at Hancock Shaker Village.

“We could paint here all week!” several people said of Hancock Shaker Village. I’d heard the same thing at Undermountain Farm. We were rained out of Wahconah Falls, but I believe it would have earned similar plaudits. Instead, we were rescued by the good people of Berkshire First Church of the Nazarene, who let us use their social hall for the day. Work continued uninterrupted.

“When the leaves turn over, and the silver undersides are showing, that’s a front change, usually not good,” I told a student from California. It’s a little like what happens when you part your hair on the wrong side; the leaves are ruffled out of their usual position. I was almost right; the weather did change. However, it wasn’t another drenching, but a clearing sky.

In the US and Canada, our weather almost always comes from the southwest. You can often tell what’s coming just by looking in that direction.

Then there’s ‘red sky at morning, sailors take warning.’ It means that a high-pressure weather system has moved east. Good weather has passed, making way for a stormy low-pressure system. The first half of that couplet, ‘red sky at night, sailors delight,’ means exactly the opposite. There’s stable air coming in from the west.

This delightfully fat sow is named ‘Stormy’. Appropriate for this week.

We used to have an old-fashioned ‘storm glass’ style barometer in our living room. It told us the same thing as the rhyming couplet with slightly more accuracy: falling pressure means unsettled weather is coming.

These signs were how people predicted the weather before the National Weather Service deployed legions of meteorologists and supercomputers to do it for us. For a detailed read, I find the air’s feel and smell just as reliable as my phone. That’s particularly true in coastal Maine, where the crazy-quilt coastline tosses weather patterns around like pinballs.

I spend several hours a day outdoors, in all seasons. People who live and work in climate-controlled environments never get a chance to develop that almost-intuitive sense of weather that our ancestors took for granted. They also never get a chance to see the subtle interplay of light and color that makes nature so magical.

This little donkey didn’t find me particularly endearing. Pity, that.

In addition to rain, we’ve seen a lot of animals this week. At Undermountain Farm, there were horses, sheep and goats. At Hancock Shaker Village, there were cattle and a great fat pig smiling as she wallowed in mud. I patted a donkey and asked him if he knew why he had a cross on his withers; he trotted away. On Thursday, we watched a family of mallard ducks dabbling in a shallow pond at Canoe Meadows Wildlife Sanctuary, with their fat tails and feet sticking straight up in the air. We couldn’t help but laugh.

And all too soon, it’s over. Today’s our last day, and then we’re gone for another year. But we’ll be back; the Berkshires are magical.

My 2024 workshops:

Painting Massachusetts’ wilderness

Cassie Sano’s painting of Undermountain Farm’s Victorian barns.

My father was from the west side of Buffalo and my mother was born in the first ward of Lackawanna, NY. Although they were both thoroughly urban, they bought a farm in Niagara County, NY in 1965. We had cattle, horses, ducks, and a hundred feeder chickens every spring. It was a well-ordered farm when it was established in 1861, and it’s maintained its good bones right up until the present.

Although I couldn’t wait to get away, I realize now that the countryside was a great place to grow up. Most of my practical skills came from growing up on a farm.

Yes, that’s a sheep keeping my painters company.

On Monday, I taught at Undermountain Farm in Lenox, MA. It’s got 23 horses, two sheep and two goats. The sights, the smells, and even the clatter of my shoes on the wooden barn floors were a powerful nostalgic kick.

Undermountain Farm’s horse barn has restrooms, a real step up from my childhood, where we had an external well with a pump that froze every winter. There are two horses at Undermountain Farm who are free to wander. As horses will, they really just want to scarf food the easy way. They found a broken bale directly under the hay chute, which happened to be directly in front of the restroom doors.

What? You want us to move?

Their need was not greater than my need, but they outweighed me. I pushed their noses; they pushed back. Docile they might be, but they were blocking my way. Finally, I thought, ‘just move the hay.’ Problem solved.

One of the students in this workshop is the wonderful painter Cassie Sano, who hails from Augusta, ME. That’s not nearly as sophisticated as you might think; really, she lives in the woods. She’s camping here in western Massachusetts and on the first day, she was dragging.

“I was up all night worrying about bears,” she told me.

“But you live in bear country!” I remonstrated.

“But at home I’m sleeping in my house!”

I told her all the comforting bear facts I could think of. When I got back to my daughter’s house in nearby Rensselaer County, NY, my son-in-law was cleaning up trash from a bear visit. We know they’re there; earlier this year we saw a sow and three cubs on the trail cam just behind the house.

Beth Carr’s lovely painting of Waconah Falls.

My daughter inadvertently acquired a rooster this year. Besides chasing pullets around the yard, he starts crowing just before first light. That’s another sound with a powerful nostalgic kick, as is the outraged ‘no thanks!’ from a disinterested hen.

If you’ve been to Boston and New York, you know something about the northeast. Yes, it’s urban and industrialized. However, get out of the major cities and our region is rural. In many places, it’s wilderness. If you really want to know New England and the Mid-Atlantic states, you have to get out of town.


If you got an email from me yesterday, you know I’m doing an immersive workshop in Rockport in October. I wasn’t prepared for it to be so popular; as of this moment, more than half the seats are gone. I’m looking forward to sharing my beautiful town with you.

Michael Anne Lynn perfectly demonstrated the successful phases of a good watercolor: value sketch, grisaille, color tests, and a finished painting. Now that you’ve seen this, you don’t need me.

Artists, housing and one of my students.

Creative types sometimes struggle with affordable housing just like many others. A student of mine in Austin (Mark Gale) along with a colleague of his in St. Louis, are involved in finding and supporting solutions.

They are developing a panel discussion for the 2024 South by Southwest Conference (SXSW) that showcases three success. (SXSW gets national attention.) To bring this discussion to the public, though, they need votes via a simple thumbs up on the SXSW panel picker.

Here’s a bit more info.

Or follow a direct link to vote.

The Austin program where Mark volunteers and one of those highlighted on the panel is Art from the Streets

Voting closes 8/20, so please do it now.

My 2024 workshops: