Have yourself a merry little workshop

One thing I hear over and over is, “I plan to take one of your workshops someday.” K—, who started painting with me when she was sixteen and is now a fully licensed architect, used to say it every year. Finally, I pointed out to her that I’m not going to be around forever. She was shocked. I’m not planning on retiring any time soon, mind you, but I am practically middle-aged. Although my goal is to retire at age 107, I recognize that nature sets limits on us all.

K—took my Sedona workshop this year. Now, she’s engaged to be married. It’s a good thing she went while she was still footloose and fancy-free. Life inevitably gets in the way of our good intentions. So, if you’re thinking about taking one of my workshops, I must ask: if not now, when?

This might be the most-important present you’ve ever gotten, or given yourself. My teaching gets consistently high reviews. I’ve been doing it for decades, including ten years here in Maine. A workshop organizer once called me “the hardest-working painting teacher in America.” (If you can’t get by on your looks, you’d better work hard instead.)

This year I’m focusing on teaching in the northeast, although I will be back in Sedona again and possibly Austin, TX (see my addendum below) in the early spring. New England is paradise in the summer; it’s easy to get here, and once you’ve been charmed by it, you will never want to leave.

Watercolor of schooner American Eagle

Age of Sail: Workshop on the water

This has two sessions: June 20-24, 2023 and September 16-20, 2023. 2022 was the first year I sailed with American Eagle’s new captain, Tyler King. Tyler’s as thoughtful a host as he is a skilled sailor. In October, I went to Gloucester and saw the boatyard his parents run. It’s no surprise that he has saltwater in his veins.

For this workshop, I provide the supplies, including a professional-quality kit of QOR watercolors. By the time we’re done, you’ll understand how to paint water, and how to paint with watercolors. Students of all levels are welcome.

(Georgette Diamandis wrote about our fall trip here.)

The Rocks Remain, 16X20, Carol L. Douglas

Towards amazing color: Sedona, AZ—March 20-24, 2023

March is just when it seems like winter will never end here in the northeast. Meanwhile, it’s balmy in Arizona’s high desert. Sedona has beautiful red-rock massifs, great hiking trails, wildlife, and clear, constantly-changing light. It also has fabulous shops, wineries, galleries, and restaurants. It’s a fun escape at the end of winter. This workshop is sponsored by the Sedona Arts Center, which is in itself a destination.

The magnificent Schoodic Point.

Sea & Sky at Schoodic—August 6-11, 2023

I love all of Acadia National Park, but my favorite part is the Schoodic Peninsula. It has the same dramatic rock formations, windblown pines, pounding surf and stunning mountain views as Mt. Desert Island, but only a fraction of the people. I can walk home to my room at Schoodic Institute in the twilight and never see another person—this year, Cassie Sano saw a bear instead. And there are dolphins and seabirds.

This is structured so that you can either camp in the area (choose instruction only) or register for  all-inclusive accommodation, depending on your taste and budget.

Spring, Carol L. Douglas

Find your Authentic Voice in Plein Air: Berkshires—August 14-18, 2023

I fell in love with the Berkshires when my oldest daughter lived in Pittsfield, MA. They’re rolling old mountains, dotted with historic New England villages and farms. But there are also amenities and cultural institutions. We’re centered in Pittsfield, so there are ample hotels and restaurants. Yet we’re close to some of the most beautiful towns in old New England.

Pittsfield is just three hours from Boston and New York and it’s accessible by train from either city.

ADDENDUM: Here's the information on Austin:

Find your Authentic Voice in Plein Air: Austin--March 27-31, 2023

This is part three of a four-part series on Holiday Gifts for Artists. The prior two parts are Holiday gifts for the serious artist and Holiday gifts for the budding artist (including kids).

Monday Morning Art School: painting and flying

"Dome of Light," 12X9, available through Sedona Arts Center.

I’m in Sedona, AZ for the 18th annual Sedona Plein Air Festival. My friend Jennifer mocks my packing list as unnecessarily exhaustive. However, it’s meant to be a complete list from which you choose what’s appropriate. For example, I bring foul-weather gear on my schooner workshops, but not dress clothes. This week, I brought a dress but no foul-weather gear. True to form, it rained yesterday.

“That’s all just materials and tools,” I hastened to tell a woman at the airport who watched me struggle with two large suitcases and a carry-on, her lips pursed. “Do I look like a person who owns three suitcases full of clothing?”

"Crescent Moon, Dawn," 9X12, available through Sedona Arts Center.

At home I drive a full-size pickup truck and have more than 500 square feet of studio space. Here, my tools are crammed into a rental car. I don’t have the luxury of bringing everything I might want.

Travel is always a compromise between canvas size and practicality. I like to paint big, but the largest thing I can pack in a suitcase is 16/20 (in a very narrow frame). I’m carrying four sizes here in Sedona (16/20, 11/14, 9/12, and 8/16) and that’s too many. The less variation in size, the easier it is to pack.

Every art material comes with a Safety Data Sheet (SDS), an exhaustive document that is, for the most part, irrelevant to you as an artist. What matters is the flash point, which is in section nine, Physical and Chemical Properties. This tells you what you can and cannot fly with. A flash point at or below 140° F (60° C) indicates it is a flammable liquid and may not be carried in airline baggage.

"Buckboard," 11X14, Carol L. Douglas, available through Sedona Arts Center.

You’ll have to hunt, but all vendors are required to provide SDS for every product.

Not all solvents are created equal. Turpenoid has a flash point of 129° F (54° C), so it can’t fly. Gamsol’s flash point is 144°F (62°C) so it’s safe. I buy a fresh pint and wrap it in its SDS with the flash point highlighted.

My favorite painting medium (Grumbacher Quick Dry) has a flash point of 140° F, meaning it can’t fly. After buying countless bottles of it after the road that were ditched after using only a few drops, I switched to using linseed oil as a medium. That sacrifices dry time for convenience, but it hasn’t been a problem. Again, I wrap the bottle in its SDS with the flash point (500° F) highlighted.

A small tube of oil paint is 37 ml. or 1.25 oz, so is safe for your carry-on. A large tube is 150 ml., or 5 oz. It must be checked or it will be confiscated. I pack this handy label with my oil paints. Watercolor tubes are tiny and harmless, but the only trouble I’ve ever had flying with paints was with watercolors. An inspector at Heathrow dumped them back into my checked luggage without putting them in their plastic container. My clothes were stained on my return home.

A glowering sky yesterday morning.

It’s very easy to forget your brushes in the heat of travel, and dried brushes are unredeemable. If you can do nothing else, rinse them thoroughly in solvent and wipe them down until you can treat them properly.

Most accommodations don’t have utility sinks. I sometimes take my brushes into the shower, where the force of the water clears away all lingering pigments. That’s not practical in places where water is a luxury. There, I use a superfatted soap and clean all residue from the sink when I’m done.

There are a number of portable painting racks, including RayMar’s DryAngle, but when painting in a festival, I simply snap the painting into its frame. If it doesn’t sell, it can travel home like that. Unframed work gets separated with waxed paper, taped together, and packed in my checked luggage. As long as the paint isn’t too thick, it won’t be harmed.

It’s a wrap, more or less

I have to choose five paintings for jurying out of this mishmosh...

In the deep woods, the gender differences in the pipi sauvage, the business of peeing in open spaces, is reduced. Men’s clothing is designed for it; modern women’s clothes are not. (Yes, I have a SheWee; it’s more trouble than it’s worth.)

Laugh if you will, but this is a serious issue for women plein air painters. In the deep woods we can find privacy. In cities, there are coffee shops. On a 40-yard slope of open granite shelves, with the ocean on one side and luxurious homes on the other, the pipi sauvage is a man’s game.

Eventually, I found a small thicket of rose bushes. Unfortunately, I also dropped my keys without noticing.

Painting in Wednesday's rain. (Photo courtesy Mitch Baird)

“I’m so sick of painting lavender skies,” Janet Sutherland said. I laughed, because it’s also my go-to solution for making grey days interesting. Eric Jacobsen’s was to set up a dead-seagull still life. It’s a beautiful painting in the manner of Jamie Wyeth, but ‘it needs a special buyer’ as we say delicately about paintings that are unlikely to ever sell.

That’s why all of us at Cape Ann Plein Air (CAPA) were all thrilled to awaken Thursday to crystalline skies and clement air. I went to Cathedral Rocks, where I found Jonathan McPhillips, Mark Fernandez, Eric Jacobsen, and Mitch Baird. By eleven, I was regretting my long pants (which Rae O’Shea had kindly laundered for me). Now, this was October weather!

Eric Jacobsen arranging a still life at Pigeon Cove. Poor juvenile gull.

By the time I was done with two paintings, my fellows had all wandered off to find subjects elsewhere. That’s when I realized I’d lost my keys. I backtracked and searched under rocks and shrubs, praying hard. They were right where I’d dropped them.

That was the start of a day of small snafus. None of them had major consequences, but all required backtracking, searching, and recalibrating. That’s just a sign of being tired, which is to be expected after a week of very long hours. The 35 artists in this show are blessed to do this for a living, and even more blessed to be in this prestigious event, but painting is also hard work.

On Thursday evening, we painted nocturnes in downtown Gloucester. I have a hard time with night painting, as my bedtime is 7:30 PM. And I was suffering from a preconceived idea (which is seldom good in plein air). It was born of the unseasonably-cold weather and Halloween decorations around town. I wanted to paint a ghost.

Rae O’Shea kept me company. It’s not one of my most brilliant paintings (if I can be said to have ever painted a brilliant painting), but we had a great time figuring out how one paints a ghost. And if anyone says, “that’s not plein air!” I challenge them to prove that wasn’t what we saw.

Jonathan McPhillips at Cathedral Rocks.

I wish I had more days to paint, because the schooner wharf at Harbor Loop is stunning—all cross angles and swooping curves. Unfortunately, we hand in our paintings today. I think I’ll take a small (9x12) canvas and frame into town with me. If I can sneak in one more painting before the flag goes down, I’ll do it.

My ghoulie set-up.

Not that this is a practical idea. I’ve already done a dozen paintings, with one wipe-out. The last thing I need is another. However, everywhere I turn, I see something else I need to paint. The combination of limpid autumn light, crashing surf, fishing fleets, and beautiful old buildings has me in visual overload.

The paintings from CAPA will be online later today. I will post an addendum as soon as I have a link.

The game is afoot

Surf at Cape Hedge, 9X12, Carol L. Douglas, available through Cape Ann Plein Air. All of these photos were taken under incandescent light this morning, so the color may not be true.

Back when I was raising children, they used to say (jokingly, I hope) that the oldest one was an experiment. You should throw that one out and try again once you knew something about parenting. That’s not true about my kids, but it is often true about my painting. I should have remembered that in the cold and rain the first morning at Cape Ann Plein Air (CAPA).

I blame it on trawler envy. We have fishing boats in Maine, but nothing like these big factories of the sea that they have in Gloucester. I took a moment to say thanks for all the fish of the ocean that feed so many of us. Then I set to work on the Jodrey State Fish Pier with Elaine Lisle and Richard Sneary.

Surf at Bass Rocks. 8X16, Carol L. Douglas, available through Cape Ann Plein Air.

The mizzle began to solidify into something resembling rain, so Dick (a watercolorist) packed up his easel and left. Elaine stayed and finished a lovely, bright, 10X10 square of the harbor. I struggled on until 1 PM, when—cold, wet and in need of a bathroom—I folded. Looking back at that start, I wish I’d quit hours earlier. The color and brushwork are fine. The composition violates my first rule of painting: don’t be boring.

I’ve been living in Maine long enough for its sedate driving habits to wear off my New York edges. I was dithering in an intersection when my phone rang. It was Eric Jacobsen. “Where are you?” he asked.

“Trying to turn onto Bass Avenue, and about to be killed by these fast Massachusetts drivers,” I muttered. Okay, that’s a paraphrase.

“Well, don’t do that,” he said in a reasonable voice. “Charles Newman, Mitch Baird, and I are at Bass Rocks. Come over here.”

That was all I needed to escape my slough of despond. Rocks, surf, and good company. The game, as Mr. Holmes said, was afoot.

Bass Rocks, 9X12, Carol L. Douglas, available through Cape Ann Plein Air.

CAPA’s quick draw is immensely popular, drawing about a hundred non-juried artists in addition to those of us in the juried show. This year it was at the Allyn Cox Reservation in Essex, which must be a beautiful property when you can stand upright to see it. My goal was simply to survive the gale force winds. I set up next to Jonathan McPhillips as he’s big, and I thought he’d be a good windbreak. I set my easel as low to the ground as I could. As soon as I saw Jonathan’s block-in, I knew he had a winner. It was a wonderful composition.

Stone Wall, 8X16, Carol L. Douglas, available through Cape Ann Plein Air.

Winds like those mean wild surf, so Eric, Mitch and I set off for Cape Hedge. It was difficult to paint, but all that dashing, crashing water made it so worthwhile. We worked small, because anything else would have blown away.

I know that Mondays are usually an art lesson, but I haven’t got it in me this morning. I’ll leave you with this utterly prosaic truth: if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. My first painting was horrible. My second was acceptable. My third was interesting, my fourth (quick draw) made me happy, and I really like my fifth one. Today is a new morning, and I’m off to beat the sunrise.  Later, friends.

Seven things you should know about the Group of Seven

The Tangled Garden, 1916, JEH MacDonald, courtesy National Gallery of Canada

No, not the G7—that’s the forum of world’s biggest economies. They’re politically important, but nowhere near as important as the Canadian painters by that name.

The Jack Pine, 1916–17, Tom Thomson, courtesy National Gallery of Canada

  1. The death of Tom Thomson is one of art’s enduring mysteries. Although the Group of Seven didn’t formalize until after his death, he was one of the painters who gathered at the design firm Grip, Ltd. He was arguably the most famous of them all.A dedicated woodsman and fisherman, he loved heading into the wilds of Algonquin Provincial Park to paint, as he did one July afternoon. He was found drowned eight days later, a four-inch bruise on his temple. Did he capsize, did he commit suicide, or was he murdered by a jealous husband? We’ll never know.

    Red Maple, 1914, by AY Jackson, courtesy National Gallery of Canada
  2. The Group of Seven were realists in the age of abstract art.They passionately clung to plein air in defiance of a world culture that was veering off toward abstraction. They felt the spirit of Canada was best understood by painting in direct contact with nature. Instead of huddling in Toronto studios massaging their angst, they rode the rails to some of Canada’s most desolate and difficult-to-reach spots.

    Winter comes from the Arctic to the Temperate Zone, 1935, Lawren Harris
  3. They invented the idea of the Great White North.Lawren Harris believed the desolate north was the seat of Canada’s economic and spiritual power. His scenes of the cold, majestic, and empty northland defined Canada’s essential self-image. This was a land of black spruces, isolated peaks and dark water, lit by fantastic skies.This started out as nationalism, but transformed into a more universal paean to the power of nature. As much as he abstracted the landscape in later years, he always told this story.

    Gas Chamber at Seaford, 1918, by Frederick Varley, courtesy Canadian War Museum
  4. The Great War temporarily derailed them.The First World War had a profound effect on Canada. Out of an expeditionary force of 620,000, 39% were casualties. AY Jackson, Arthur Lismer and Frederick Varley enlisted as official war artists. Jackson served in France and was seriously injured. Lawren Harris enlisted in 1916 and was discharged in May 1918 after a nervous breakdown. Tom Thomson’s death in 1917 was another blow to the group.

    Lake Wabagishik, 1928, Franklin Carmichael, courtesy McMichael Canadian Art Collection
  5. In the early years, the group was supported in part by tractor money.Lawren Harris was the son of Thomas Harris of A. Harris, Sons & Company Ltd., farm machinery merchents. This merged with the Massey company and later became known as Massey Ferguson. Harris's share of his family fortune enabled him to partner with James MacCallum to build the Studio Building in Toronto, where his fellows could rent studio space cheaply. Together the two men bankrolled the Group of Seven during lean periods. Harris took them on boxcar trips to  Algomaregion north of Lake Superior and elsewhere.

    A Northern Night, 1917, Franz Johnston, courtesy National Gallery of Canada
  6. They developed a distinctive Canadian style.Group of Seven paintings are instantly recognizable by the fusion of graphic design and Impressionism. However, they were always driven by what was actually there. The screen of trees and the view down into the deep woods are recurring motifs. This is not a grand, golden view in the style of the Hudson River School painters, but a deeply honest view of what the northeastern part of North America looks like. It requires embracing chaos in a totally new kind of composition.

    RMS Olympic in dazzle at Pier 2 in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Arthur Lismer, courtesy Canadian War Museum
  7. The Group of Seven is not without controversy.They’ve been criticized for depicting northern Canada as a no-man’s-land, or terra nullius, when it’s been lived in for centuries by indigenous people. However, the goal of plein air has primarily been to capture the landscape, not human activity.Having painted across Canada myself, I can say that much of it seems empty a hundred years later. In any case, they’re among the best painters North America has produced, and that’s the real reason to study their work.

Memory and judgment

Midsummer along the Bay of Fundy, 24×36, $3188 unframed, available.

“Sometimes I just have such a wonderful, fulfilling time painting a certain place, I conclude it must be my best painting ever, because I had such a good time,” a reader wrote. “Then when nobody seems interested in it, I realize I was just getting all those good vibes from the painting but other people didn’t, because it actually wasn’t such a good painting. I have been trying to still keep my focus on making a painting a ‘good’ painting, and not just a record of my fun. Just because I had a good time doesn’t mean I produced a good painting; that still requires work.”

I have a related problem: the more a painting or situation challenges me, the better I believe the painting to be. Thus, a painting that I had to hike for, or one where the subject refused to compose itself are the ones that continue to fascinate me.

Viewers seldom agree, because I haven’t necessarily defeated the challenge; often it has defeated me.

My own experience painting with Sandra Hildreth and Nancy Brossard at Madawaska Pond bears out the idea that memory colors our critical judgment: my painting skips right over its putative focal point so the composition is awkward. The treeline is disjointed. However, it’s a recording of a lovely day, far from the madding crowd. There’s a wee little figure (Nancy) in it, so I like it. I won’t pitch it or sand it out just yet.

Fog over Whiteface Mountain, 11×14, $1087, available.

Meanwhile, Sandy’s painting of the same subject (which you can see here), was right on the money: it accurately depicted the open sky, the enormity of the watershed, and the mood of the place. The public agreed; she sold it before the evening was out.

By and large, painting is not performance art. We hope to bring a whiff of mountain air into our work, or the raking light of evening, but these are illusions and memory.

Yet I still can’t bring myself to believe that the ancillary experiences that went into a painting’s making do not somehow inform the final result. Nor do I think that we or the immediate public are always the best judges of whether a painting is good or not. Had Vincent van Gogh relied on contemporary public opinion to judge his work, he’d have been dead wrong.

Quebec Brook, 12×16, oil on canvasboard, $1449 available.

I did another painting with Sandra Hildreth years ago. This one was of Quebec Brook, on the same watershed as Madawaska Pond but many miles away by road or canoe. It was a sunny summer day and I again had a lovely time. I was relaxed enough that I didn’t worry that my focal point-the beaver dam-was at the very bottom. Being chill allowed me to take a compositional risk.

The painting at the top of this post, Midsummer, was done from the edge of a cliff in Port Greville, Nova Scotia, over two days. The soil being soft, I managed to slide over the edge with my easel, landing in a patch of alders about ten feet from the rim. Had nature not put that ledge near the top of the ridge, I’d have splatted on the road below me. Yes, that experience has changed my view of the painting, but for good or ill, I cannot say.

Monday Morning Art School: scaling up a field study

Vineyard, 30X40, oil on canvas, $5072 framed.

“I'm wondering if you would do or have done a blog post about transitioning from in-the-field studies to larger studio paintings of the same subject. Or is it better to paint larger in the field?” a reader asked.

If you have the time and stamina to do a large field painting, they’re a great experience. Everyone should try it to see if they (and their equipment) are up to the challenge. However, there are limitations. You can’t finish a large painting in less than one very long day. The light, the tide, and even the weather will change. You can break the painting into two or three morning or afternoon sessions, but you’ll often be painting in radically-different conditions.

Keuka Lake vineyard study, oil on canvas, 9X12, private collection.

My go-to field easel is an Easy-L pochade box. It can hold a canvas up to 18” high. To go larger, I switch to a Take-It easel, which can hold a very large painting. In high winds, that sometimes needs to be pegged down, or it will go sailing.

In watercolor, I work small on my lap. When I work larger, I use a Mabef swivel-head easel because it can hold a full sheet of paper and it swings absolutely flat in a second.

These are expensive options. If I were testing whether I wanted to work big outdoors, I’d lug my studio easel outside, or borrow a friend’s easel to try.

Henry Isaacs simply throws his work at his feet. “I never use an easel, whether the canvas is 8x8″, or 80x80″. I simply place the canvas on the ground, sand, or grass, and continually walk around it painting from all sides, all at once,” he said.

The Tangled Garden, JEH MacDonald, courtesy National Gallery of Canada.

Even with equipment and stamina questions answered, there are good reasons to start small and work your way up. Small studies are an excellent way of understanding the subject. They capture light and form better than a photograph. They allow you to work on the edge of abstraction, not overworking the material.

When scaling up the painting, it makes sense to grid up from your drawing instead of from a photograph. Make your grid on a bit of plexiglass or clear acrylic instead of on the original painting. I once did a study of boats in watercolor in a notebook and put crop marks over it in Sharpie. Later, I realized it was a bad crop, but it’s unrepairable. You can see that watercolor in this post about the mechanics of scaling up a painting.

Study for The Tangled Garden, JEH MacDonald, JEH MacDonald, courtesy National Gallery of Canada.

The Indigenous and Canadian collection at the National Gallery of Canada has an excellent collection of small Group of Seven field studies. Among these are JEH MacDonald’s study for his iconic The Tangled Garden. The study is small, around 8x10” and done on cardboard mounted on plywood. The finished painting is wall-sized, around 48x60”. MacDonald worked out his design, including the complementary color scheme and graceful arching sunflowers, in his field study. The large painting is remarkably faithful to his original idea.

Sometimes it makes sense to add elements to the larger painting to break up the expanses. I’ve included a field study of my own along with its larger painting, at top. The subject was a vineyard along Keuka Lake in New York’s Finger Lakes. I enlarged the tree and added the characteristic rock scree of the Finger Lakes to the foreground. I’m not sure I’d do the same thing today.

Therein lies another lesson: the way we approach painting is constantly evolving, or we become a caricature of ourself. I look at old paintings and often think, “I’d do that differently now.” That doesn’t necessarily mean better; it just means I’ve changed.

Intimations of Autumn

Autumn Farm, Evening Blues, oil on canvasboard, $1449 framed.

Here in the northeast, we’re seeing the first intimations of autumn-the earliest scarlet leaves starting to drop on the forest floor, staghorn sumac sporting red velvety fruit, goldenrod and fireweed popping up in unmowed fields.

There is a subtle difference in the color of leaves. In a dry summer, that’s exacerbated, but by the third week in August, there will always be maples sporting a halo of red, and the birches have tempered into olive-green.

Autumn farm, oil on canvasboard, $1449 framed.

Even evergreens change color with the seasons. New growth is a very different color from the dormant needles of midwinter.

I’m leaving this morning to teach in the Adirondacks. It’s even cooler in Paul Smiths, New York (41 F as I write this) then here in coastal Maine. That should kick the swamp maples into their absurd fuchsia finery. It also means I’m going to repack my suitcase with warmer clothes before I take off.

We’ll be concentrating on the shift in greens. My students are familiar with all the exercises I give them to mix greens, because doing it accurately makes all the difference to eastern landscape painting. (The inverse, the ability to mix reds, is equally important in New Mexico and Arizona.)

Even in the height of autumn in leaf-peeping country, green remains the predominant color. But it will not be the same green as in May or July. These subtle changes will ground a painting with a sense of season, as well as a sense of place.

Beaver Dam, Quebec Brook, oil on canvasboard, $1449 framed.

I take great joy in weather, even when it’s hot or bitterly cold. I love being outside, feeling air on my skin. Recently, I’ve found my enjoyment is sometimes blunted by the endless, repetitive news cycle of catastrophic or record-breaking heat waves or winter storms. (I’m from Buffalo. I’ll see your snowstorm and raise you a blizzard.)

This is not to deny that the climate is changing-it is, and that will continue. But most weather records are relatively recent things, meaning it’s not hard to get windier, colder, hotter, or wetter than what we’ve already measured.

Bunker Hill Overlook, watercolor on Yupo, approx. 24X36, $3985 framed.

Poppy Balser and I were both raised on family farms. During the last heat wave we talked about haying, as it even harder than painting in beating sun. Putting up hay the old-fashioned way, with square bales, is the essence of summer heat. It may not be particularly enjoyable to stand in a hay loft, drenched in sweat, covered by infinitely small and scratchy particles of hay dust, sneezing. But it is memorable, and I’m glad I grew up doing it. In fact, I’d do it again if they’d just make bales that weighed fifteen, rather than fifty, pounds.

Weather is far more pleasant if you experience it. It’s still hot where you live? Go get an ice-cream cone and enjoy it. Autumn is really just around the corner.

Why does anyone paint plein air?

Painting the fog at Blueberry Hill
Painting the fog at Blueberry Hill

I’m in Acadia teaching my annual Sea & Sky workshop, and yesterday was a fog-bound day. We were at Blueberry Hill. The great granite slope, the spruces, and Schoodic Island drifted in and out of their wrap of soft wool. Not only do I love painting in this atmosphere, but it is a wonderful sensory experience. Fog can be grey or greenish or blue or even pink. It’s cool on the skin, sound is deadened and distorted, and one feels a sense of peace and solitude (assuming one isn’t attempting to navigate a tricky channel without satnav or radar).

“There is no extra charge for the facial,” I told my students.

Talking color theory with my homies. All photos courtesy Jennifer Johnson.

At around 11, the fog started to burn off. The sea glowed blue against the pink rocks. Offshore, every spruce on the island was picked out in relief. A regular observer of the coast would have bet that it was clearing for the day—and would have lost the bet. In as much time as it would take to redraft a painting to reflect these new optics, the fog settled back in.

It was ebb tide when we arrived. Blueberry Hill has wonderful irregular tidal pools rimmed with seaweed. Long fingers of granite reach down into the sea, and a spit of surf-worn cobbles stretches out into East Pond Cove. They’re a design delight, but you have to work fast. By the time we finished for the day, the sea had come in, covered every rock, and was receding again.

“Why does anyone paint plein air?” asked a student in exasperation. “It’s always changing!”

The world's best classroom.

That is, of course, the point. There is dynamism in these changes, whereas reference photos are never more than a vague approximation of what happens in nature. Yes, I sometimes paint from photos—we all do—but it’s never as informative or energizing as painting outdoors.

I see Dennis during my Sea & Sky workshop. He’s accompanied his wife Paula for the past few years. While we’re painting, Dennis goes birding and hiking. “I saw a family of sharp-shinned hawks,” he told me yesterday. I was curious about how he identified them, and he told me about the app Merlin Bird ID. Last night I put it on my phone.

When you spend a lot of time standing in one spot outdoors, you hear lots of birds, and you meet a lot of birders. Hikers, bicyclists and kayakers amble through your field of vision. Our disciplines are united by a common reverence for nature, so we always have something to talk about.

Shelly paints a nocturne.

Radical changes in weather can be disconcerting. I won’t paint outdoors in a snowstorm or an electrical storm, for example. Extreme heat can be just as dangerous, but luckily, it’s not part of my everyday experience.

Last night, we met to paint a nocturne. On the way over, Cassie saw a black bear cub. That’s an experience you’d never have in your studio.

We set up at 8 PM outside Rockefeller Hall. It’s elegant and old, and we could turn on interior lights. We distributed headlamps and easel lights. I settled down in a corner, excited to spend time with my watercolors after a day teaching. Nocturnes in watercolor are challenging in their own right, and even more so in the damp of a foggy night. It can be like painting into a wet paper towel.

Forty-five minutes later, the skies dumped on us. Our gear, our paintings, and our composure were all soaked to the bone. We scrambled to pack up, laughing and chattering in the cold rain. Yes, we could have been in our rooms painting from photos, but instead we had a convivial adventure, and a new story to tell.

Alone or apart?

A painting class or group is good for your mental health.

Painting aboard American Eagle last September.

I’m puzzling out a problem, so I’ve been peppering Ken DeWaard with texts. It’s just as likely to be Bobbi HeathJane Chapin or Eric Jacobsen on the receiving end of one of these barrages, but it was Ken’s unlucky week. They’re all smart cookies whom I trust with my confidences—in short, my friends. And how do I know them? Through plein air painting.

Painting is a fundamental contradiction in work style. It’s solitary, but it’s also a form of communication. Most artists I know are sociable beings, but we’re required to spend long hours alone to achieve our goals. That push and pull can be tough on the psyche.

Main Street, Owl's Head, available, click for details. I started this painting with Eric Jacobsen.

Artists invented work-from-home, so a study that analyzed the effects of work-from-home during the pandemic should be of particular interest to us. The majority of people working remotely said they experienced adverse impacts on their mental health, including isolation, loneliness and difficulty separating from the job at the end of the day.

The workplace is a strong influence in modern culture. We no longer live in a society that’s village- or church-centered. Work takes up the biggest part of our waking lives. Often, people struggle to make and maintain friendships outside of the formal workplace, especially those who are socially-anxious or buried under family responsibilities. Work colleagues often share the same background, education, interests and values. They may not be our closest friends, but they usually understand us.

Mountain Fog, available, click for details. I painted this with Sandra Hildreth.

When one paints full time, work friendships are far harder to create. Yet there are times when only a colleague or peer gets it. Facebook is a poor substitute for that kind of conversation.

When I moved from Rochester to Maine, my former students wanted to keep painting together. They formed a group and called themselves Greater Rochester Plein Air Painters. That’s since morphed into a dynamic, active painting group with a few hundred members. It couldn’t have happened had I stayed in Rochester, because as their painting teacher I stood in the way of creating a peer group.

Quebec Brook, available, click for details. I also painted this with Sandra Hildreth.

However, people make lasting friendships in painting classes. I still have friends from my student days, and I’m blessed with students who like and support each other outside our classes and workshops.

A group or class can be healthy, but it also has the potential to be subtly overwhelming. Groupthink is the tendency of members of small, cohesive groups to value consensus over truth. That can stifle artistic development. If the ‘stars’ of your group all paint exactly the same way, you might be in a group or class where conformity is too strong a value. The answer, of course, is to find a different class or group, and luckily, that’s not too difficult—they’re everywhere!