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).

My fall teaching schedule

Towpath on the Erie Canal

Towpath on the Erie Canal, 30X40, oil on canvas, private collection.

My painting student from Austin is in Maine briefly. We hiked up Beech Hill together. This is a great way to socialize—the dog gets his workout, you’re outdoors, and you’ve earned a big breakfast at the end.

“Everybody,” he told me, “is jumping on the Zoom teaching bandwagon.” That’s true, but I don’t much like the dominant formula that’s being touted. It’s too much like those social sip-and-paint places, where everyone is assigned the same painting and the instructor leads you through preformatted steps.

I’m not sure what you learn from that, except that potables and paint have a long, sometimes unhappy, relationship with each other. A painting is far more than the pigments that are swished around the canvas. It is choice, composition, focus, line, and color relationships. You don’t learn any of that by having the subject of your work preselected.

I try to tailor my classes to what my students need, instead. This fall I’m teaching three sessions.

Lobster fleet at Eastport, ME, 24X36, oil on canvas, $3985 in a gold-leaf frame.

The Figure in the Landscape

Monday evenings starting September 26

The Figure in the Landscape is meant to address a problem I’ve noticed recently: many excellent painters are unsure of how to add human figures to their paintings. They either avoid them altogether or wash them in as wisps in the distance.

Adding the figure starts with some knowledge of drawing and painting the figure. Then, there’s the question of using people as part of an arresting composition, not as an afterthought.

The American Impressionist Childe Hassam used people, carriages and horses in his landscapes, and today we see a glimpse of turn-of-the-century life from his paintings. They are everyday scenes made real because there is activity in them.

This class is for intermediate and advanced alla prima painters only. To qualify, you must either have taken a class with me and gotten my OK, or you need to submit a portfolio for review. If you have questions, contact me.

Coast Guard Inspection, plein air, oil on canvasboard. 6x8, $435 framed.

Mixing interesting color

Tuesday evenings starting September 27

For those who need instruction on the fundamentals of color and paint application, I’ll be offering Mixing interesting color. It's not enough to simply reproduce what you see; your painting's color structure must invite the viewer into your world. Alla prima painting rests on the idea of getting it right on the first strike, so we’ll delve into color theory as well as the practical business of making and applying color with confidence.

This class is for early-intermediate painters who have been introduced to the process of painting but haven’t completely mastered the design/application protocol. If you have questions, contact me.

The world's best classroom.

Live in midcoast Maine: Plein air short session

Tuesday mornings starting September 27

If you can drive to Rockport, you can take this class. It meets in various beauty spots in the region on Tuesdays from 10 AM to 1 PM. This is the only class where I can handle beginning painters, so if you’re wanting to try painting, it’s a good place to start. (The schooner American Eagle is another, and I understand there’s still a berth open for my September workshop. That comes complete with a good-quality watercolor kit.)

There is simply no better way to learn painting than en plein air (with still life a close second, and figure after that). Maine in Autumn is beautiful, so if you’re still here, plan to join us.

For the details on these classes, see here.

Monday Morning Art School: quiet passages

Bracken Fern, 9x12, oil on archival canvasboard, $869.

I’m in Paul Smiths, NY, teaching for Saranac Lake ArtWorks. Yesterday, student Mark Gale asked, “What should I do about this passage,” gesturing to a dark line of spruces. He was, at the time, bookended by Beth Carr and me. She’s been my student for several years, and is a crackerjack painter with impeccable judgment.

“Nothing,” we said in unison. “It's the quiet that allows the rest of the painting to sing,” Beth added.

I spend a lot of time talking to students about patterns of darks and lights, motive lines that drive energy through the painting, and focal points. These are such difficult concepts that I never seem to move on to quiet passages, but every painting has them and needs them. They exist in counterpoint to areas of motion, and they’re equally important.

Spring Greens, oil on archival canvasboard, 9X12, $869.

A quiet passage isn’t an empty passage. It may include figures, trees, brooks and other objects. However, it’s not detailed and doesn’t have high contrast. It’s more of an invitation to imagine than a statement in full.

It needn’t be dark, either. Consider Claude Monet’s haystack paintings. There are passages of luminous color that, nonetheless, recede. They’re not high-contrast or line-driven, but they shimmer with chroma and careful mark-making. “What keeps my heart awake is colorful silence,” he said.

The quiet passage allows the mind to rest. It acts as a foil for the main object.

Quiet passages can be destroyed by excess noodling. Here plein air painters have an advantage—they’re typically worn out long before they can cover every inch of canvas with information. But not always, and the impulse to fill these empty spaces later in the studio can sometimes be overwhelming. It’s one reason I’m not a fan of excessive touch-up of plein air paintings—it can ruin a previously-wonderful design.

Fog over Whiteface Mountain, 11X14, oil on canvasboard, $1087.

Yesterday I had my students paint in the boreal bog at Paul Smiths VIC. It’s a landscape of stunted larches and spruces, pitcher plants and sundews, with a lazy river chugging through it. It’s heavy on color and light on structure, making it a challenging subject to paint. My monitor had painted trees and figures along the boardwalk, and asked me what she should do with the rest of the space. There was no way she could fill it in with every tiny tree.

“Essentially, nothing,” I said. It was already shimmering green. Had we had more time, I’d have suggested a bit more in the way of soft brushwork, but the facts were already there, and the quiet of her greens set off the figure on the boardwalk.

Lobster pound, 12X16, oil on canvas, $1594.

Silent passages are where the mind fills in what isn’t there. The human mind seems to rebel against having everything spelled out for it; it loves mystery. Even so-called photorealism uses silent passages; we aren’t even aware of the artist’s judicious editing.

I often use Johannes Vermeer’s The Girl with the Red Hat as an example of the lost-and-found edge, but it’s also a fabulous example of the power of silence. Much is not stated: the drapery in shadow, the carving on the chair, even the modeling in most of the face. These stand as powerful foils for what is stated: her sensuous lips, the feathering of her hat, and her lace collar.

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.

The value of critique

Becky Bense. Remember our post about Frixion pens? This was done with one.

Critique ought not be a question of likes and dislikes. It involves analyzing a painting in terms of formal elements of design, which include:

  • Focal point
  • Line
  • Value
  • Color
  • Balance
  • Shape and form
  • Texture
  • Rhythm and movement

I’ve expanded on these ideas here, for those of you interested in how to use formal criticism to make your own work better. It’s helpful to use these standards in any group critique session.

Cassie Sano.

The same rubric can also be applied to work that you have no direct relationship with, such as paintings you see in a gallery. They can help you understand why a painting moves you or leaves you cold.

Your gut reaction, after all, is a profoundly reliable indicator. It may be telling you that something is off-kilter long before your rational mind understands what’s wrong. It may be reacting to an idea whose only mistake is newness or audacity. Or, there may be something in the psychological makeup of the artist that grates on your own complex psychology. I have this latter response to the work of Pablo Picasso. It doesn’t make Picasso’s work good or bad; it’s just intolerable to me.

Today we finish our annual five-day Sea & Sky workshop at Schoodic Institute in Acadia National Park. “Don’t sandwich me!” one of my students remonstrated at one point. She’s referring to a well-known management technique where one ‘sandwiches’ the bad news between positive feedback. I wasn’t doing that; I really did see marked improvement in her painting.

Shelley Pillsbury

For students, every painting is a wrestling match. Not only are they attempting to master new ideas, they’re fighting their own internal demons. For me, each painting is a step on a road to mastery, and I am watching to see how things have improved. I’m less interested in whether a particular painting is good or bad than I am in whether a student has resolved whatever knot is currently bedeviling him or her.

By the way, I’m going through the same process of learning as my students; I’m just at a different point along the road. I sometimes wish I had a teacher. Since I don’t, I repeat the same lessons to myself that I tell them.

Lauren Hammond

At some point in a critique session, we inevitably come to a point of disagreement. Yesterday it was about a grey in a painting. I felt it was chromatically disjointed and pulled against the composition; several students thought it was a good foil for other colors.

Who was right? Nobody and everybody. There are degrees of objectivity. If you doubt that, just consider the various interpretations of the scientific facts we understand about COVID.

Without further ado, here are this year’s paintings, minus those by Paula Tefft, Linda Smiley, Jen Kearns, and Areti Masero-Baldwin, who couldn’t be with us last night.

Germaine Connolly


Linda DeLorey

Karen Ames

Diane Fulkerson

Jennifer Johnson

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.

Common sense isn’t that common

The Schoodic Peninsula has some wild and wooly scenery.
The Schoodic Peninsula has some wild and wooly scenery.

Jennifer Johnson has been my monitor for Sea & Sky at Acadia National Park for six years. In all matters other than painting, she knows more about the workshop than I do. I’m not impractical, but my focus is on the instruction. Plus, to be perfectly honest, I’ve never really learned how to keep a sensible calendar.

Every year, I send students a supply list and a copy of my own personal packing list. Every year, I get the same question back: “Do I really need dress clothes?”

Jennifer takes the photos while I get to paint, which is why I don't have any pictures of her.

In Maine, dress clothes can mean your best flannel shirt, not to be confused with the everyday flannel shirt in which you go fishing or change the oil. That’s not mere reverse-snobbery; a good flannel shirt can be an investment. Also, there’s no telling when it might suddenly be necessary—the most clement summer wedding can suddenly be swept by a cold wind from the north that will set your bunions aching. That, by the way, is one reason mass transit will never really catch on here—we need cars to stash our spare gear in the event of a sudden turn in the weather.

At any rate, this packing list has taken me around the world. I modify it for the places I’m heading and the situations I expect. No, I don’t wear jewelry in Yukon Territory. I’m unlikely to need my Grundens waterproofs in Delaware. Unlikely, but not impossible. I once painted an event in the dregs of a hurricane in Rye, NY with my buddy Brad Marshall, and I’ve never been wetter.

I spend a lot of time traversing rough terrain to get from painter to painter. It's a good thing I'm so dang young and fit!

Things have changed over time. For example, there’s no call now for reading material when we all carry the universe on our phones. When I first wrote this list, nobody wore watches that needed charging; you either replaced a battery or wound them up.

This is a universal list, from which the painter can pick or choose as appropriate. However, it would never have occurred to me to do something as simple as add a heading to explain that. This year, Jennifer, in exasperation, wrote her own, revised copy of the list. From now on, I’m sending both to my students.

Over the years, my monitors have had to deal with some odd problems, like broken easels, interpersonal conflict (it happens occasionally), and lost students. Jennifer is pretty unflappable, so I haven’t yet met the circumstances where she’ll lose her cool. A bear might do it, but that hasn’t happened yet.

But I like nothing more than sitting at Schoodic Point discussing watercolor with my old pal Becky, who has come back year after year for more of my malarkey.

This is an unusual workshop in that residents are supplied their meals. That’s sensible, because Schoodic is isolated; you can buy a sandwich at the local gas station, and there’s a small grocery store in Winter Harbor. However, the macadamia pancakes and freeze-dried fruit smoothie crowd is SOL, as they say. That’s the price we pay for a real wilderness experience.

But it does put food service in some ways into our hands. Left to my own devices, I’d eat Slim Jims for a week. It’s really helpful to have someone working with me who remembers to handle the lunches.

Yesterday, Jennifer pointed out to me that I have an impossible scheduling conflict at the beginning of the workshop. I’m supposed to be at the auction for Camden on Canvas on Sunday from 4-6, and welcoming students to Schoodic at the same time. They’re two hours apart.

Oops. Such is my faith in her that I can just plan to get there as soon as I can. I could never do that if I didn’t trust her absolutely. A good monitor is worth her weight in gold.

By the way, this week a humpback whale was visiting the Rockland breakwater and Camden harbor. Here’s a video off the deck of schooner American Eagle, and one from Curtis Island Light. Between that and a seal kill by a Great White Shark off Owls Head last week, it’s been an awfully exciting week for marine spotters.