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:

Scouting locations

Inlet, 8X10, $652 framed, includes shipping within continental US

On Sunday I hosted a paint-out for my old friends in Greater Rochester Plein Air Painters. That should have been simple, since I taught plein air painting there for many years. I’ve been gone nearly a decade now, and things change.

Despite my knowledge, I found long-distance location scouting surprisingly difficult. Views and ownership change, as does our taste in subjects. I decided to play it safe with a boat dock along the Erie Canal. It had the advantage of being next to an Abbott’s Frozen Custard, but to be perfectly honest, it was boring.

That niggling detail is why your local plein air group insists you take turns hosting paint-outs. And it’s why plein air workshops are not as simple as workshops taught in buildings.

Quebec Brook, oil on canvasboard, 12X16, $1449 framed, includes shipping in continental US. This location was scouted by that consummate outdoorswoman, Sandra Hildreth.

When you’re responsible for choosing the locations

There’s no remote-location scouting when planning a workshop. The teacher or the monitor must visit sites, secure permission, and create a schedule.

I first conceived my Berkshires workshop in the dead of winter. That’s the worst time to scout locations in New England. Covered in snow, with the trees bare, the landscape looks nothing like it will in the ‘wall of green’ of summer. That’s assuming you can even get down some of these tracks without a dogsled.

I wasn’t flying completely blind; I know western Massachusetts. But what is suitable for an individual to paint and what is appropriate for a group are two very different things. More people magnify the problems as well as the joys. If you’re planning a plein air workshop or paint out, you need:

  • A mix of locations ranging from long views to water to architecture.
  • Ample parking.
  • Spots within a reasonable driving distance of a central location, in a manner that won’t take out the springs of cars. North Adams, as lovely as it is, is just too far from Lenox. October Mountain State Forest may be close, but even my SUV struggled on its rutted dirt tracks.
  • Park-and-paint that’s not too far from the road, but safely away from traffic.
  • A nearby outhouse is a plus.
  • A plan for a rainy day.
  • A place to buy coffee or lunch. If that’s not possible, students must be forewarned to bring food with them.
Mountain Fog, 12X9, $696 unframed, includes shipping in continental US. This is another location that was scouted by Sandra Hildreth.

When all these requirements have been met, one then crosses that stickiest of all wickets-permissions. A dozen or so painters can clog up the works on a small property. Permission can be as simple as, “let me know what day you’re planning on coming” to the labyrinthine permitting requirements of the national park system, which I negotiate every year for my Schoodic workshop.

I got up very early on Tuesday morning and collected my assistant in Albany, NY. We visited Shaker historic sites and drove up into the clouds in the Pittsfield State Forest. We looked at rail-trail sites in the city of Pittsfield and snaked around rutted tracks in forest lands.

Vineyard,” 30X40, oil on canvas, $5072 framed, includes shipping in continental US.

There were a few disappointments. Beautiful and welcoming Mass Audubon’s Pleasant Valley will be hosting kids’ camps during the week we’re there, so it’s a no-go. On the other hand, they directed me to the lovely Canoe Meadows in Pittsfield. All’s well that ends well!

My 2024 workshops:

Let’s paint some duds!

In Control (Grace and her Unicorn), 24X30, $3,478, oil on canvas includes shipping in continental US.

My husband can’t listen to the original cut of Jackie Wilson’s (Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher without pointing out that the guitar is out of tune. Still, it went to #1 on the Billboard R&B charts in 1967, and it’s one of Rolling Stone‘s The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

There are works of art that confound in the same way. Nobody can doubt the genius of Michelangelo, but his women could be strangely muscle-bound. His Moses is a work of immense sensitivity and insight, but he has horns. (That was an iconographic convention of the time, based on a translation error.)

Édouard Manet is one of history’s greatest painters, but his Fishing and The Kearsarge at Boulogne are both (technically) duds.

Ravening Wolves, oil on canvas, 24X30, $3,478.00 framed, includes shipping in continental US.

The rut that once was a groove

Duds happen when you push the limits of your skill and ideas. They’re unlikely when you stay comfortably in your rut.

In Fishing, Manet was quoting Peter Paul Rubens. That early painting may have failed but Manet is the same artist who later gave us Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe, Olympia, and three versions of Execution of Emperor Maximilian, all of which rest on the same idea. Manet had the insight and skill to paint intellectually provocative subjects at the same time as he helped to advance the painterly development of Impressionism.

Manet pushed boundaries of technique, subject matter and artistic norms. To do that meant ignoring the pernicious voice of group norming, and ignoring the possibility of failure.

The Late Bus, 8X6, oil on canvasboard, $435 framed, includes shipping in continental US.

The risk

Of course, not conforming has its risks. Ralph Albert Blakelock was a celebrated painter of his day. He often mixed bitumen and varnish for rich depth of color in his thick, uneven paint. That has proved to be a conservation disaster, so when we look at his paintings today, we aren’t seeing what he laid down. In most of them tonalism has been replaced by something grubby and dark. And that’s why he’s fundamentally unknown today.

But done intelligently, non-conformity can result in innovative breakthroughs and the development of new artistic styles, techniques, and forms. It can break down our preconceived notions of what we’re doing.

Best Buds, 11X14, oil on canvasboard, $1087 framed includes shipping in continental US.

This applies to us, too

The plein air movement has reached its maturity. It is the greatest art movement of our time, but it’s also set limits in terms of finish, the time we spend on paintings, and style. I love plein air better than any other form of painting, but those limits are becoming clearer to me.

What will its evolution and growth look like? Am I willing to paint duds to paint something new? Do I even have the smarts to figure out what that ‘new’ will look like? Am I willing to experience the rejection and discomfort that comes from pushing limits? I don’t know, but it seems to me that growth demands it.

My 2024 workshops:

Monday Morning Art School: what’s the point of a three-hour painting?

Early Spring on Beech Hill, oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas, 12X16, $1449 framed includes shipping in continental US.

Near the wonderful, loose Andrew Wyeth watercolors at the Farnsworth Art Museum is a small room dedicated to his painting practice. You are surrounded by his careful investigation of details, compositional sketches, and studies. “When I was painting Christina’s World I would sit there by the hours working on the grass, and I began to feel I was really out in the field. I got lost in the texture of the thing. I remember going down into the field and grabbing up a section of earth and setting it on the base of my easel. It wasn’t a painting I was working on. I was actually working on the ground itself,” he said.

Edward Hopper, who mined similar veins of alienation as Wyeth, was known for meticulously storyboarding his major paintings. He drew thousands of preparatory sketches. A comparison of one of his final sketches for Nighthawks with the final painting shows just how important his drawings were in cutting things down to the bone. He used drawing to shake off the burden of representational reality.

Failed attempt #1 at Chauncey Ryder trees. I’ll go back up the hill and try this again if it ever dries out. Dialing back the chroma will help.

Modern plein air painting

On the flip side, there’s contemporary plein air painting, dashed off in alla prima technique in a matter of a few hours. I love plein air painting myself, but a recent conversation with a student had me wondering about its lasting value. She is frustrated with her local painting group, which never works more than two or three hours. “What’s the point of rushing like that?” she asked me.

There are hundreds of plein air events in the United States every year, each of which has around thirty juried artists, each of whom in turn produces 5-10 works per event. That means the art market is flooded with tens of thousands of paintings from these events alone. Not all of them are good. I’ve produced more than my share of duds.

These events create a commodity that’s affordable to a middle-class audience. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that; it’s what drove the Dutch Golden Age of Painting, which gave us Vermeer, Frans Hals and Rembrandt.

Failed attempt #2 at Chauncey Ryder trees. Boring composition and I made a messed up stew of the buds on the branches.

But it’s equally true that mass movements give us our share of dreck. The paintings done at plein air events are often safe (read ‘boring’) and dashed off without a lot of thought. That’s because plein air events are a production grind.

Loose brushwork has become the norm of plein air painting. But there’s no law that says that plein air must be quick, or that loose brushwork is the apotheosis of outdoor painting. These are just tropes of our times. Leaning into them too heavily just makes you a copier of other people’s ideas.

This start I like. Luckily, it’s steps from my house, so I can revisit it the next time there’s a break in the rain.

Go outside and take your time

This spring in the northeast is miserably cold and wet. I’ve painted outdoors just twice. Out of the three things I did, the one I like is the least-finished (above). In the other two, I was tinkering, trying to feather trees like Chauncey Ryder. Everything else in my paintings suffered. I don’t care; I’ll wipe out the boards and try again.

I have my eye on another stand of trees, small spruces. I want to see if I can mimic the soft brushwork of Anders Zorn in them, since to me he’s the only person who ever painted baby evergreens convincingly.

“You’re going to confuse yourself with all this mimicry!” Eric Jacobsen chided me. Well, no, because I don’t really want to paint like Ryder or Zorn. I want to figure out how they did this specific soft-focus thing on trees. I could never do this if I was still rushing around churning out three-hour paintings at events. The cost of failure is too great.

My 2024 workshops:

Monday Morning Art School: painting plein air fast

My top five tips to finish a plein air painting in three hours.

The Rocks Remain, 16X20, oil on archival canvasboard, $1623 unframed includes shipping.

Keep your equipment organized

Eric Jacobsen improved my life when he suggested I buy a good, dedicated backpack instead of using cheap gear bags. I bought this Kelty Redwing; you must find the pack that’s sized for you.

When not in use, that pack hangs on the back of my studio easel. With a few exceptions, my plein air kit stays in it. My tubed paints are in a tough pencil pouch (more durable than a ziplock bag), and my small tools are in a zippered makeup bag. The tripod for my easel stays put. The pochade box itself is usually in my freezer in a 35-liter waterproof stuff-sack. My brush cleaning tank is attached to the pack with a carabiner and there’s always a spare canvas ready for painting.

When I get back after a day of painting, I spend a few minutes pulling it back together. Everything goes in its designated place so I can find it when I need it.

I use the same brushes for studio and field work, so they live in a brush case next to my easel when I’m not carrying them outdoors. I clean them when I come in.

When I decide to go out, I can be out the door in a matter of minutes.

Jimmy the donkey admiring my palette.

Lay out your palette in advance

Cleaning all the paint off your palette between sessions wastes time and money. Only clean the mixing area of your palette, and leave your unused paint for the next session. Or, do as I do and never clean your palette at all. I just knock off any dried paint as it annoys me.

Every palette needs attention at some point (even mine). It’s easiest to reset the colors when you finish for the afternoon, but if that doesn’t work for you, do a reset before you walk out the door the next morning.

Your palette doesn’t need to be cleaned off before you fly. When I arrive in Sedona on Monday, I can just flip open my pochade box and I’m ready to go.

A painting student from my Adirondack workshop, with her drawing at hand. (The subject was perspective.)

A sketch in time saves nine

It’s faster and easier to work out your composition with a pencil than to do it with a brush. It’s a lot easier to erase pencil errors than to scrape out bad brushwork-or worse, start again in watercolor. The ten or twenty minutes you spend with a pencil on this first step will save you hours of bad painting later.

Your sketch should lay out your basic composition. The human eye sees value first, so if that doesn’t work in your composition, the painting will fail. “I substitute off-value color and chroma for accurate value. Then, except for a couple spots of high-chroma yellow, I wonder why my paintings are flat,” a student once told me. He took that observation and ran with it, painting only in greyscale for months.

You don’t have to go that crazy, but with every painting, work out the darks to lights in your sketchbook first. Alla prima painting requires great skill in color mixing, because the goal is to nail it on the first strike. You can be off on the hue, but when you don’t have the value right, you start to paint and overpaint passages. That’s flailing, and it kills a painting.

I do not know what Eric Jacobsen or Björn Runquist were up to, but my sketchbook is right underneath my easel, as I was faithfully copying my original idea.

Stick to your value sketch

The worst error of plein air painting is chasing the light. It’s seductive. The shadows lengthen and grow heavier, and you want to capture every second of that transition. You can’t.

If you start with a good value sketch and stick with it, you’ll have a strong painting. That sketch on paper (instead of just on your canvas) gives you reference for when the light inevitably changes.

Make sure you aren’t intimidated by your neighbors, who just dive in without sketching and appear to be going much faster than you. The goal isn’t to finish first, but to paint your best.

Cypresses and shadows, 11X14, oil on archival canvasboard, $869 unframed.

Don’t fuss with the ending

A good alla prima painting has two or possibly three layers of paint:

  • Grisaille or underpainting.
  • Midlayer, where the tonal relationships are worked out.
  • Finish layer of judiciously-selected detail.

Many exciting paintings are chewed down at the end, when painters perseverate over brushwork and/or details. If you find yourself noodling, stop.

This is not to say that you can’t ever paint in detail. But the ending should be about strengthening composition, not adding last-minute tchotchkes.

I’m off this weekend to teach back-to-back workshops in Sedona and Austin. There’s still a seat or two left in each (I think), and airfare has dropped considerably since last year.

My first online painting class is up and running, here. It’s called The Perfect Palette and is about the very first step in painting-the paints you should buy.

My 2024 workshops:

Annual Painting Sale and a Peek Behind the Curtain

American Eagle in Dry Dock, 12X16, oil on canvasboard, $1159 $927.20 unframed. My favorite schooner in my favorite boatyard.

Happy Thanksgiving!

I've already driven through eight different states. Today I'll bake seven pies. Tomorrow we'll have more than twenty people at dinner.

However, don’t expect to see me out shopping on Friday. I tried it once, and… blech. However, I’m observing Black Friday with my own painting sale—20% off twenty selected paintings for five days.

It’s almost like those bad old days when department stores would advertise large-screen TVs and have only one in the store. Here I’m telling you upfront that there’s only one of each item. When the painting you love is gone, it’s really gone.

This sale lasts only until Cyber Monday (November 28th, 2022).

I asked my daughter to select the paintings, and she picked some of my absolute favorites. Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at three of them.

Quebec Brook

Quebec Brook, oil on canvasboard, 12X16, $1449 $1159.20 framed.

When Sandra Hildreth chooses a painting location, it’s always a place few others know about. This was a trailhead through the Quebec Brook primitive area, near Paul Smiths NY. It’s part of the Madawaska Flow, a large marshy primitive area includes running water, boreal bog and forest.

The beavers were just getting started on this muggy August morning. I’ve wondered ever since whether they were allowed to finish, or whether the DEC decided they were threatening the logging road and removed their dam.

To me, the beauty was in the shape and colors of the shoots they’d laid up, as well as the dull reflections below the alders. That pregnant sky is typical of the Adirondacks and the subtle warm colors will go beautifully with the warmer palette predicted by decorators for 2023—in other words, you’ll never get sick of it.

Read more about it here.

Best Buds

Best Buds, oil on canvasboard, 11X14, $1087 $869.60 framed

The Adirondack Carousel is a small gem located in Saranac Lake, NY. Coincidentally, its decorative boards were painted by Sandra Hildreth, and are little masterpieces in themselves. The carousel is beloved of local children because its seats are hand-carved and -painted animals native to the Adirondacks. (That includes a black fly, which I elected to leave out.)

I modeled the child after a little girl named Meredith Lewis back home in Maine. I see from her mom’s Facebook that she’s now more teenager than child, a transition that always leaves me wistful.

The title came from something one of the kids told me that day. The deer was her best friend, so she always chose the otter so that she and the deer could ride together.

How do you paint moving objects like a carousel or a tilt-a-whirl? You find the rhythm of the ride and look up in intervals.

This painting is in brilliant jewel tones. If you love carousels, it will give you as much joy as riding the real thing.

Read more about it here.

The Late Bus

The Late Bus, 8X6, oil on canvasboard, $435 $348 framed.

This is a painting that will probably only appeal to a person who grew up in the north and remembers the biting cold of ‘staying after’ school. I swam on my school’s swim team in Niagara County, NY. My bus dropped me at the end of the road and I walked the last quarter-mile home, my hair freezing in the bitter winter air. That walk was my transition from school to home, and it was my favorite part of the day.

There’s a clarity to the twilight of those evenings that stays with you forever. Fast forward a generation, and I was a parent of four ‘walkers,’ or kids who lived close enough to walk home. When they had to stay after, I’d collect them, as there was a busy intersection between their school and home. But how they got home is immaterial. That memory of evening changing to night, when all one’s chicks return to the nest, is one every parent cherishes.

Read more about it here.

Is that painting finished?

Drying Sails, oil on canvas, 9x12, available on my website later this morning.
Drying Sails, oil on canvas, 9x12, available on my website later this morning.

When I’m wondering, “is this painting finished?” the answer is usually yes.

Camden Harbor before the day begins, 8x10, oil on canvasboard, available on my website later this morning.

I’ve been carrying a small 8x10 around in my backpack for a few weeks, hoping to run into Ken DeWaard so I could ask him if he had a reference photo from that day. It’s of the ketch Angelique, on the left, and Lazy Jack II. I’ve got a good visual memory, but that was last summer or perhaps the summer before. Not only has the detail faded in my mind, any sense of what I wanted to ‘finish’ has disappeared as well.

I caught up with him Tuesday, when our respective painting classes ended up on the same beach. (If you haven’t seen this story from Owl’s Head, it’ll encourage you to keep your footsies out of deep water this summer.) Ken shook his head and said, “I got nothin’,” and laughed. “If it was earlier this summer, maybe.” Such a day is indistinguishable from a thousand other painting days, unless it results in a painting one loves enough to keep. (We paint a lot of dreck along the way.)

I propped it up on a bench and pondered. Is it really not finished? There’s detail I’d love to add, and the masts look chunky. But they so often do on windjammers, which were originally built not as yachts but as working boats. The color is coherent and evocative, and the brushwork is unified and expressive. What’s really left to add?

Owl's Head, Early Morning, 8X16, available.

The painting of Owl’s Head lobster boats, above, is another example of one I toted around until I realized it was done. I recently popped it into a frame and now I love it just as it is.

I’m in a boat-painting tear, and it’s not always going well. “I’m channeling George Bellows,” I told Bobbi Heath as I hacked farther and farther into the weeds on a canvas that probably ought to go in the woodstove. As always, the problem started out compositionally, but the students in my Zoom critique class suggested that I get rid of a big green dumpster on the dock. That helped, but it’s still way too busy and way too bright—without Bellows’ incisive wit and commentary. No reference photo will save this canvas. It’s overbaked and underthought.

Meanwhile, I met Björn Runquist to practice our chip shots in advance of Camden on Canvas. “There’s a nice angle of Lazy Jack from that bench over there,” I told him. Had either of us been smarter, we might have asked why I wasn’t painting that schooner myself. The answer, riding in my subconscious, is that she’s a daytripper. You can’t trust her. You get her limned in, all beautiful, and she up and leaves you. Sure enough, that’s what happened to Björn. Oops.

Coming Around Owl's Head, 6x8, is available through Cape Ann Plein Air's online sale.

It had rained, so Lazy Jack was running her sails up and down to dry them off. This is a subject that fascinates Ken DeWaard, so I try to avoid it. Occasionally, however, it’s irresistible, because it adds another compositional dimension to boats in harbor. Having learned my lesson, I finished the painting, at top, quickly, before I forgot what I was doing.

I’m absolutely horrible at taking reference photos. I get caught up in the moment and the light. By the time I remember, it’s too late. Still, it’s something I’ve resolved to do better. But taking the painting back into the studio and adding details has the potential to stomp on its beauty. When I’m wondering, “is this painting finished?” the answer is usually yes.