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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:

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.