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A walk in an English woods

A walk in an English woods, oil on linen, 16X20, private collection.

I’ve never starred in one of my own paintings before, and if I were to choose my pose, I probably wouldn’t choose to paint my backside, but there was something magical about this moment. My husband posted a photo of this scene on Facebook, from our hike along Hadrian’s Wall in 2022.

“I should paint that,” I mused.

“Do it,” my friend Kenny said, and a commission was born.

There are some painters who’ve specialized in painting the deep woods: the Barbizon painters and John Carlson come immediately to mind. The trouble is in sorting the screen of trees into a coherent pattern. One can vignette the subject into the deep woods, as Colin Page did in this lovely painting of his daughters. One can use the trees as a vertical screen, as Gustav Klimt did in his birch forest paintings. Or one can group them in masses, as Carlson did here.

Stiles have gone the way of the dodo in the US, but in Britain they’re very common. They’re steps or gates that allow people to pass a fence or wall while keeping the sheep or cows neatly in their enclosures. Some are nothing more than flat stone footholds; nicer ones have a swing gate within a frame box, as here. I think we crossed about 20,000 of these on our 84-mile hike.

Wooden stiles have all the visual charm of a hayrack. They’re of unfinished dimensional lumber and squared off to the path. While the stile is the subject of this painting, it couldn’t be the main focus. Nor should I be; even if I am the largest figure in the painting. Instead, it’s the couple in the distance with their little dog, Poppy.

A walk in the woods

It was a moment I remembered well, because I was sure that Kenny and Martha had chosen the wrong path. I was certain that we should veer to the right. Part of my goal in the painting was to portray that sense of Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Sometimes it isn’t by choice.

The challenge in this painting was finding the right color temperature and brushwork without overriding the peace and solitude of these ancient woods. I’m quite happy with the results, and I don’t often say that.

I’m in Britain on another lovely, long, blister-inducing hike. I’ve turned my phone off and while I’m gone, Laura will be running the office. Just email me as usual if you have questions or problems registering for a class or workshop. (Who am I kidding? She fixes all that stuff anyway.)

My 2024 workshops:

Dreaming of spring green

I can’t speak for people who live in the rest of the country, but in the northeast, March is ill-tempered. “Comes in like a lion and out like a lamb?” Hah. March comes in like a psychopath and goes out like a moody teenager, and only dreaming of spring green helps us endure it.

Spring Greens, 8X10, oil on archival canvasboard, $652 framed includes shipping and handling in continental US.

This week, we’ve been getting four seasons per day-snow, blustery winds, just enough warm sun to fool us into shedding our winter coats, then whipping rain and more wind.

It blew so hard yesterday morning that our windows creaked with the stress. And starting tonight, we’ll get more snow. In fact, if you look at the map below, you’ll see that the whole northern tier of the country is having tempestuous weather.

We all need a dollop of spring green, and fast.

Painters are naturally attracted to towering spruces, mountains, rivers, and other iconic structures; for one thing, they make composition easy. However, most days in most places aren’t like that. The abstraction of the everyday makes for fascinating paintings, because the artist has to let go of the crutch of those classic symbols. That forces us to focus on colors, shapes and brushwork.

When the world looks like this, you’ll be glad of a painting that looks like that.

I hope this painting evokes the smell of warming earth, green shoots sticking up through old grass, and black willows opening along a tree line.  To me, that’s a perfect day. The simplicity of this painting is misleading; you’ll be looking at it a lot longer than a painting with a more obvious subject.

My 2024 workshops:

Naughty trickster cinnamon fern

This is a painting of a large cinnamon fern in the woods. Cinnamon Fern, 9X12, oil on archival canvasboard, $869 framed includes shipping and handling in continental US.
Cinnamon Fern, 9X12, oil on archival canvasboard, $869 framed includes shipping and handling in continental US.

Cinnamon Fern was painted along the Boreal Life Trail at the Paul Smiths’ VIC in the High Peaks of the Adirondacks. It used to be called Bracken Fern, because there was a signposted stand of said ferns along the walk there. However, my friend Steve Johnson told me, “That’s either interrupted fern or cinnamon fern, but it’s not bracken fern.” Then my friend Heather’s father took me on a fern walk on the Round the Mountain Trail in Camden, ME. By the time we were done I could identify a half-dozen or more types of ferns, and I had to grudgingly agree with Steve. Bracken fronds branch out from a single stem. Here in the northeast, where ferns die back in winter, bracken doesn’t have the height or deep sweep of their Scottish kin. Either these were cinnamon ferns, or I can’t draw. The latter is simply ridiculous so I’ve renamed the painting.

Some of my little fronds along the Round the Mountain Trail.

I walk and paint the Boreal Life Trail every time I’m in the ADK. It combines many things I love: a distant mountain peak, balsam firs, tamaracks, and carnivorous plants. This stand of ferns waxes and wanes, but takes up at least a quarter acre, just where the bog touches the woods.

In the fall, ferns are clothed in a wide variety of colors.

While it’s always cool and green at that point, I felt the need to introduce some hot colors. It’s amazing how many colors you can throw at a monochromatic subject and still not lose the gist of it. Obviously, even cinnamon ferns are uniformly green, but I’ve made them an abstract riot of greens and peaches and pinks and teals. By raising the key and dropping the chroma in the background, I have tried to convey the steamy air of a bog in midsummer.

Ferns reproduce asexually, which seems like a really bad idea to me.

The only other thing I know about ferns is that a fiddlehead is just a furled young fern of any type. There are fiddleheads you can eat, and then there are fiddleheads you ought not, because they can be toxic. Cinnamon ferns are edible, bracken ferns are not… unless I have that backwards. As I’ve demonstrated my inability to tell ferns apart, I think I’ll stick with salad mix from Hannaford. Anyways, ferns are perennials; they need their frond-noses more than I do.

My 2024 workshops:

Midsummer

Midsummer, 24X36, oil on canvas, $3,188 includes shipping and handling in continental US.

“I really like that painting you did of the flat houses.”

What flat houses?” I asked, perplexed. I was envisioning the architectural equivalent of Flat Stanley, the children’s book series.

It turned out that she meant Midsummer, above, and she was referring to the paint handling, not the drafting.

I painted this during a residency through Parrsboro Creative. The view overlooks the general store at Port Greville, Nova Scotia. To access it, I drove up a side road and painted from the edge of the escarpment, just past a very nice lady’s lawn.

This escarpment roughly parallels the shore of the Bay of Fundy. In places it’s gradual, and in other places it’s a steep, raw scarp.

In Maine, our cliff edges are made of granite, so I was totally unprepared for the edge of crumbly red sand to drop out from under me. My fall was stopped by a thicket of alders growing on a ledge about ten feet down.

I landed upside down but unhurt. After I turned myself around, I gathered my tools and threw them back up over the brink. Then I figured out how to climb back up to my easel.

It’s all in the drawing, even in plein air.

Cumberland County, Nova Scota is full of this crumbly soft red sandstone-and-soil mixture. It’s unstable, which makes rock-climbing risky. At Cap d’Or, the cliffs are a few hundred feet tall, but you wouldn’t be long for this world even if you miraculously survived the fall; there’s a wicked riptide. Every major storm causes erosion, so it’s a constantly-shifting shoreline. That in turn reveals a new cache of fossils, minerals and gemstones after every weather event; the area is world-famous for fossils.

These are also the highest tides in the world. I visited Joggins Fossil Cliffs to walk on the beach and perhaps paint. I’d arrived at the wrong hour. There’s a narrow window of time where you can be at sea-level; the tide rises so fast that it will cut off your escape.

These double-bay houses, so typical in Britain and the Canadian Maritimes, are not common here in the US; however, there are some here in Maine. We also have old-fashioned general stores like Dad’s Country Market, towards the left in my painting.

This painting took two full days to complete. The first was spent in drawing out the architecture.

“Draw slow, paint fast,” a student once told me. It’s an excellent motto, because the more time one spends on the drawing, the less floundering one does in the painting.

My 2024 workshops:

All Flesh is as Grass

All Flesh is as Grass, oil on linen, 30X40, $5072 framed, includes shipping and handling in continental US.

Of all the paintings I have hanging in my home, the one that gets the most comments is All Flesh is as Grass, above. It was part of a solo show called God + Man: Paintings by Carol L. Douglas at the Davison Gallery at Roberts Wesleyan College, and reprised at Aviva Gallery in Rochester, NY.

Harry Rogachefsky was an elderly man who lived across the street from us. He had a lovely apple tree curling over his driveway. He told us we were welcome to all the apples we wanted. They were not sprayed and thus organic, and they made great pies.

Mr. Rogachefsky’s house in happier times (2007) with his apple tree in flower.

The house was built in 1948, and the tree was planted around the same time. I thought of painting it many times, as I’m fascinated by the twisting branches of old apple trees. Alas, I never did it.

Mr. Rogachefsky eventually died at the venerable age of 95. His house sat vacant until Christmas, 2014, when a flurry of contractors descended. It had been purchased by house flippers. They yanked the mature foundation plantings and cut down that beautiful old tree.

I found its remains while walking with my dear friend Mary. Its trunk was shattered and its branches sawn into logs. Its fruit was crushed and frozen.

What Mary and I saw as we rounded the corner.

There must be a standard landscaping plan for house flippers. When they were done with Mr. Rogachefsky’s house, five little popsicle shrubs marched along the sidewalk. Luckily, I didn’t live there much longer. Although I’m now hundreds of miles away, when pie season starts, I think fondly of Mr. Rogachefsky and his apple tree.

All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass.
The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord remains forever.
(1 Peter 1:24-25)

We know that intellectually, but it’s still a shock when the chainsaw comes out.

No more pies, ever, from this tree.

A little while before the new owners moved in, I saw a boy knocking down icicles from the porch.

My next-door neighbor Aviva (may her memory be a blessing) had been seriously injured by a falling icicle a few years earlier. Icicles can weigh up to a thousand pounds and have a perilous pointy end. They’re especially lethal when they drop from any great height.

“Hey, kid, stop that!” I yelled from my stoop. “It’s dangerous!”

“Don’t worry!” he called back, and pulled off his hood to show me he was wearing a helmet underneath. It was Mary’s son Xoan, who was always prepared for any eventuality.

One knows it’s inevitable, but it’s still painful to see.

In the painting, I changed the setting to be an orchard of young trees; a chainsaw is in their unthinkably-distant future. The light is filtered and indirect; that’s the usual state of affairs along Lake Ontario in winter. There are warm lights and cool shadows, but they’re not as brilliant as in Maine. All Flesh is as Grass is a big painting, 36X48, but its delicate color structure means it’s not overwhelming. It’s in my own diminutive living room (about 14X12 feet) and looks lovely.

I recently pointed out to Naomi Aho that most painters’ paintings drop in price/square inch as they get larger. That makes a large painting like this a great deal, since it has the presence to compel as much or more than several smaller ones. Until the first of the year, you can use the discount code THANKYOUPAINTING10 to get 10% off it or any other painting on my website. And shipping and handling are always included within the continental US.

My 2024 workshops:

Does the world need one more landscape painting?

Seafoam, 9X12, oil on archival canvasboard, $869 framed includes shipping in continental US.

“While standing dumbstruck (again), gazing at the Tetons, I was wondering how one could ever paint them and do them justice,” a student emailed me. “Values and composition could be perfect and not capture the clouds swirling around the peaks or the fleeting rays of sun highlighting the face of a cliff.

“Day after day, I see mundane paintings of places like this. I see painters resorting to garish colors or blocky shapes. They don’t seem driven by the quest to capture the magical essence of these places. They just want to do something ‘different’.”

The Hudson River School painters, Thomas Moran, and even the Group of Seven were partly explorers, partly documentary painters, and partly evangelists for national identity. Today, exploration and documentation are dead pursuits. As for forging a national ethos, that seems hopeless in an age of ever-fracturing social values.

Larky Morning at Rockport Harbor, 11X14, on birch board, unframed, $869 includes shipping in continental US.

What, then, is the role of landscape painting?

There are times when I ask myself, “does the world need one more landscape painting?” Landscape painting is the unloved child of the contemporary art world, looked down on by its mandarins. It’s so traditional, and so beloved by middle-class people, that it just can’t be good, right?

Sea Fog, 9X12, oil on archival canvasboard, $696 unframed includes shipping in continental US.

Looking in vs. looking outward

We live in an age of omphaloskepsis. Our ancestors would never have imagined that our solutions, our meaning, or indeed even our troubles originated within ourselves. That’s what gave us expressionism, an art movement that presents ideas subjectively, distorting them based on our emotional state. That could never have flown prior to the 20th century (although the term is sometimes erroneously used for earlier passion/mystical painting).

Abstraction and expressionism have greatly influenced landscape painting, with painters interpreting the outside world through their internal lens, such as with distorted color or extreme simplification. The first people to do this, such as Georgia O’Keeffe or Charles E. Burchfield, were very innovative indeed. However, it’s been done to death. It is only applauded today because artists and art critics are-despite what you think-very much herd animals. They’re no more courageous than any other discipline.

So, do we all have to paint like Albert Bierstadt?

Albert Bierstadt was a great painter, but he was born nearly two hundred years ago. Even the Group of Seven were painting a century ago. Their realities are not our reality, their concerns are not our concerns.

Landscape painting became significantly less important after World War I.  Many of its major practitioners, including O’Keeffe and Burchfield, along with Alex KatzMilton Avery, and David Hockney, were chiefly concerned with applying abstraction and/or expressionism to landscape. That meant that great landscape painters like Edgar Payne were never marquee names.

That’s both a problem and an opportunity. Landscape painters have the same kind of academic barriers to break through that their Impressionist ancestors did. But we also have an opportunity to develop a whole new vocabulary of landscape painting without tradition tying us down.

Stone Wall, Salt Marshes, 14×18, $1594 framed includes shipping in continental US.

Does anyone ever need to paint another wave?

I’m glad nobody ever asked Frederick Judd Waugh or Winslow Homer that question, for the art world would be immensely poorer without their surf paintings. The same can be said of Frederic Remington‘s nocturnes, John Carlson’s snow paintings, or all those haystacks Claude Monet painted. None of them painted those subjects as a schtick; they were working their tootsies off to develop as painters. And the legacy they’ve left us is priceless.

My 2024 workshops:

Monday Morning Art School: the four steps of landscape painting

Being technically accurate frees up your subconscious mind to analyze and interpret what you see.

Main Street, Owls Head16X20, oil on gessoboard, $1623 unframed.

Observation

I once took an artist on a long loop to see all my favorite painting sites here in midcoast Maine. “But there’s nothing to paint,” she wailed. She was suffering an extreme case of sensory overload. We all experience this to some degree when we’re forced to buckle down to work. We’re asking ourselves to choose one subject among an infinite number of possibilities. And the obvious and iconic may not make the best (or most interesting) painting.

We all want to jump quickly into painting, but the better path is to spend some time relaxing and looking. I prefer to do this with a sketchbook and a lawn chair. If you’ve spent 10 minutes just drinking in the beauty, and then do four thumbnails of different scenes, you haven’t ‘wasted time.’ You’ve saved yourself immeasurable amounts of work on mediocre paintings, by answering the following questions:

  • Where does the visual strength in this composition lie?
  • How can the picture plane be broken into light and dark passages?
  • How can I crop my drawing to strengthen the composition?
Belfast Harbor, 14X18, $1594 framed.

Measurement

At some point, you need to get precise. Fast, loose painting rests on a base of good drawing. If you haven’t been taught to measure with a pencil, start herehere and here.

People tell me all the time, “I can’t draw a stick figure.” It depresses me, because drawing is a technical exercise, and anyone can learn it, just as they learn to write or do arithmetic.

I recommend the book Sketching from Square One to Trafalgar Square, by Richard E. Scott. It’s a comprehensive introduction to drawing from observation. Books and classes that focus on the interpretive side of drawing are not useful for the artist who needs to get things right, so before you sign up, make sure that teacher, video, or book is actually teaching drawing, not some form of self-analysis with a pencil.

Beach erosion, 8X10, oil on canvasboard, $522 unframed.

Interpretation

Being technically accurate, oddly enough, frees up your subconscious mind to analyze and interpret what you see. We all paint through the filter of our own experience, values and aspirations. That’s why one artist will edit out the power lines and trash cans on a street scene, and another will focus on them.

But there’s a deeper level at which this happens, and that’s in the colors, forms and shapes themselves. They’re tied to your subconscious. Within the rubric of ‘good composition’ or ‘good taste’ are infinite variations. What you perceive is highly individual, so your interpretation will also be individual.

Marshall Point12X9, oil on canvasboard, $696 unframed.

Reiteration

The first three phases are all essentially input-identifying, measuring, and analyzing the subject you’re painting. The final business of producing a work of art is collecting all that input and restating it on your canvas or paper. If you’ve done the first three steps conscientiously, this last step should be relatively relaxed and free. It should also go quickly. Your own ‘handwriting’, in the form of brush or pencil work, will be unfettered and loose.

This post was originally published in August, 2021, but I thought it was worth restating.

Monday Morning Art School: fat over lean, what does it mean?

Mastering fat-over-lean will remove the need for varnishing and ensure a long life for your paintings.

Ottawa House, oil on canvas, available, is going in my gallery this summer.

There are three fundamental truths of oil painting, which are:

  • Big shapes to small shapes
  • Darks to lights
  • Fat over lean

The first one is more about how to think than about the technical aspects of oil paint. The second is a response to white paint’s infinite ability to dilute darker shades. The third is really the most difficult one to master, and the one that has long-term archival implications.

Belfast Harbor, oil on canvas, available, is also going in my gallery this summer.

The business of laying down paint is a craft, one that’s been developed over millennia. It’s possible to take this craft to new places, but only on a firm foundation of technique. That doesn’t mean that things don’t change; if they didn’t, we’d all be still painting encaustic funerary portraits a la the Romans. But there is still broad consensus on how oil paint is applied.

Fat-over-lean developed to prevent two problems: sinking color and cracking paint emulsion. The first is that dullish grey film that develops over paint that’s overthinned with solvent. Cracking paint doesn’t usually appear until after the artist is dead but is a major issue in some masterpieces.

Some manufacturers of alkyd mediums argue that the fat-over-lean rule no longer applies. I take this with a grain of salt. It’s a familiar argument to conservators now trying to fix 20th century masterpieces that were painted with zinc oxide, once considered a great substitute for lead white. It takes time for problems to appear in paintings, time that’s measured in decades, not years.

Owl's Head, 11X14, oil on canvas, available.

Fat over lean sounds simple, but the application is tricky. By ‘fat’ we mean the medium—either commercially-mixed mediums or drying oils like linseed, poppy or walnut. Remember that the paint itself contains some of this medium as a binder, usually in the form of linseed oil. By ‘lean’ we mean the pigment and a solvent, usually odorless mineral spirits (OMS), or, if there are unreconstructed traditionalists out there, turpentine.

The usual way to achieve this is by cutting the initial underpainting layer with OMS. Since it evaporates, it leaves a thin layer of paint on the surface. As you develop additional layers, increase the amount of paint and, ultimately, medium.

Drying oils don’t evaporate, they oxidize. That means they stay there, bonded with oxygen, creating a new chemical structure on the surface of the paint. This can be extremely durable, when done on a proper lean base.

In plein air, this process is usually cut back to two or three steps: an underpainting cut with OMS, a layer that’s pure paint, and then possibly a detail layer cut with medium on the top. However, in more complex paintings with more layers, the shift from lean to fat can be more gradual.

Vineyard, 30X40, oil on canvas, available. In larger works, the shift from lean to fat is more gradual.

Either way, you want the bottom layers to have more OMS and less oil and the top layers to have more oil and, hopefully, no OMS at all.

Another way to get there—less accepted—is to use only painting medium, starting with almost none in the bottom layers and building more and more oil into the layers as you develop the painting. However, the vast majority of painters start with thin underpainting as a means of sorting out their ideas. For them, there’s little advantage to this method.

Many painters never use medium at all. I use very little myself. I like Grumbacher’s traditional oil painting mediums (labeled I, II, and III), but the looser my method has become, the less I use at all. It’s almost always just refined linseed oil, since I can fly with it.