Standing on the small track that passes for Main Street in Baile Mòr on Iona, a local man named Davy gave me a brief precis of local art history. (The similarities of his inflection to that of Canada meant I was able to easily follow him.)
Iona is associated with two Scottish Colourist painters, Francis Cadell and Samuel Peploe. “They liked to paint from Traigh Ban Nam Monach, or the White Strand of the Monks,” Davy told me. Peploe and Cadell first painted on Iona in 1920, returning there most summers.
“Iona Landscape: Rocks,” by Samuel Peploe, was painted from Traigh Ban Nam Monach.
“Iona, Looking North,” by Francis Cadell, was painted from Traigh Ban Nam Monach looking back toward Mull.
I also felt the pull of the magically flat, cool light of Iona. However, I was booked to go to Staffa in a wooden tour boat. This unlovely but fast thing was custom-built for the tourist trade in 1990 using no plans, and it’s tight and sea-worthy.
Scotland is sometimes described as a nanny state, but in many ways it’s content to let people make their own choices in ways that we Americans have lost. For example, I stood along the forward deck of the ship, instead of packed in the hold with the other visitors. There was no mandatory lifejacket lecture and no particular safety devices on Staffa itself. This was a pattern we were to see over and over. Your safety is your responsibility, an attitude we litigious Americans seem to have lost to our great disadvantage.
Young seals off Mull.
On the boat trip back to Fionnphort, we were all rather pensive. Very seldom do I feel a strong urge to return to a place, and usually that isn’t shared by my fellow passengers, but the pull of Iona is very strong. Each of us plotted, in our own way, a plan to return. For me, that means a trip with my painting kit.
The painting Russ bought at an antique shop in Southern Maine,
Today I present a mystery. I wish I could solve it myself, but it’s out of my area of expertise. I hope that one of you knows someone who knows someone who can speak definitively on the subject.
Russel Whitten is a talented young watercolor painter. In the short time I’ve known him, he’s become one of my favorite artists in the Maine plein air scene. At this year’s Art in the Park, we took a break together outside the Ocean Park Soda Fountain. He showed me a photo of a picture he acquired at an antique shop several years ago.
Russ believes it’s an Edward Hopper watercolor. He has studied Hopper’s watercolors extensively and is convinced he’s right. Since Russ is a watercolorist himself, he thinks deeply about painting technique and style within his own medium.
“Trawlers,” Edward Hopper (Gloucester, MA)
Although he was best known as an oil painter, Hopper first achieved success as a watercolorist, a medium he never abandoned. He produced many, many watercolor paintings, including studies of working boats such as trawlers, freighters and tugboats.
“Rocks and House,” Edward Hopper, undated
When art historians determine who painted something, it’s called “attribution,” and it’s by no means an exact science. How certain they can be depends on style, documentary evidence and scientific experimentation.
I did a quick perusal of Hopper’s Gloucester and Maine watercolors. Sometimes he signed them; sometimes he didn’t. Sometimes his drawing was exceptionally accurate; at other times it was whimsical. (Hopper had a great capacity for narrative and whimsy.) I’m not an art historian, and the image Russ sent me is very low resolution, but the color palette and the brushwork seem appropriate for the time, and possible for the artist.
“Back Street, Gloucester,” Edward Hopper, 1928.
I’m writing this from the airport at Toronto, Ontario. In this noise and chaos, it’s almost impossible to research anything intelligently, so I’m leaving it up to you.
So while I’m hiking around Iona tomorrow, you can scratch your head over this. If you know anyone whose specialty is Hopper, forward this to them and see what they say. Even better, look up some Hoppers yourself and try to make an informed guess. After all, art history is for everyone.
While it was fresh in my workshop students’ minds, I shot pictures showing the step-by-step progression of a painting. I took these while participating in the Third Annual Wet Paint on the Weskeag this past weekend.
The site I chose was the ruins of Fort St. George, overlooking Thomaston. Not much remains but a raised berm, but it is peaceful, pretty, and shadowed by oaks. I parked by Wiley’s Corner Spring and eyeballed the stream. It looked perfectly wonderful, but I have been fooled by drinking-water sources before. Putting caution before curiosity, I resisted and turned to hike the half-mile to the fort site. It was an easy trail, but I was glad I had my super-light pochade box.
I settled down on a rock outcropping, bracing my tripod below me on the uneven boulders.
The problem with rocky outcroppings along water is that they can create unbalanced compositions. All the weight is on the land side. On a grey day, there’s little sky action to counterbalance that.
I never use viewfinders of any kind. To me the most exciting part of painting is figuring out how to transfer all that grandeur into an arresting composition. The rest is just details.
First draft of a drawing.
After I had a composition I liked, I transferred it to my canvas. I generally copy my sketch rather than drawing again from the view. After I have the major pieces in place, I go back and redraw to conform to reality.
I always mix my green matrix and tints of my pigments before I start painting. It keeps my color clean. And, yes, I use a palette knife.
For more information on how I chose this palette, see the pigment and color theory posts here.
Next, I map in the colors.
I’m mostly concerned with drawing accuracy and color when I do my underpainting. This is a color map made with thin layers of paint and a minimal amount of solvent. I want it as dry as is possible when I do the next layer. Odorless mineral spirits or turpentine dry faster than linseed, walnut or poppy oil.
If anyone suggests using medium or oil at this phase of your painting, back away slowly. One of the first mantras of painting is “fat over lean.” That means applying oily paint over less-oily paint to create a stable, elastic paint film that doesn’t oxidize. Paintings made this way last for centuries.
I am familiar with some teachers who encourage their students to coat the surface with medium and paint into it to create a sort of faux luminism. These paintings are drowning in oil and varnish, which will darken and crack over time. It’s terrible technique and should not be encouraged.
This is more or less the point at which I start using larger amounts of paint and add medium.
Start adding medium when you start adding paint volume. Go light on the stuff. It can makes an unmanageable soup very quickly. I use a larger brush than you would expect. In the painting above I used a #8 filbert throughout, only pulling out a larger flat to smooth down some surfaces.
As I headed back to the Kelpie Gallery to turn in my finished painting, I took one more long look at Wiley’s Corner Spring. Oh, heck, I thought. Why not live dangerously? The water was smooth and sweet, and created no aftershocks.
The finished piece won the Juror’s Choice award. If I’d expected that, I’d have pressed my blouse.
That was important, because by the time you read this, I should be most of the way to Montreal, from whence I am flying to Edinburgh. I plan to do some simple watercolor sketches along the way, but until I return, keep on painting… and go light on the medium, for heaven’s sake!
In the week of a workshop, I form intense bonds with new people and see old friends again. I have learned to not take the future for granted. We will never have this exact experience again. The mix of people, the experience, the weather and our goals will be different next year. It will be beautiful, yes, but it won’t be the same.
Hence, I always cry when I say goodbye.
Looking back on the week, there were three important lessons:
There is an order of operations for painting. Learn that, and you will make life infinitely easier on yourself. (More on that tomorrow.)
To paint boldly, you need to stop mixing with your brush. That is what your palette knife is for.
Eventually everyone needs to pee in the woods.
That last item is usually a shock for city dwellers, but most of America’s beauty spots don’t have Starbucks on the corner. And it really isn’t that hard to miss your shoes.
All last week I pondered whether I wanted to bring my workshop back to Schoodic Institute for an unprecedented third year. In the end I realized a simple fact: I love to teach there, my students love to paint there, and their families love to go there with them.
A fogbow over Frenchman Bay
Schoodic has some of the best vistas in all of Maine, which is saying a mouthful. Unlike the Mt. Desert part of Acadia National Park, there are no crowds. There are fishing, biking, hiking, and innumerable touristy things to entertain the non-painting fellow travelers.
In 1935, the Navy opened a radio listening post at Schoodic Point to replace the old Otter Cliffs station. Acadia was the best spot along the Atlantic for this because of its isolation and its unobstructed ocean path from Europe. Those same factors make for brilliant painting. Long, long breakers roll in from the open sea and crash on high rock bluffs.
Since the station was closed in 2002, the US government has transformed the site into a research and training center for the National Park Service. You can’t just drop by and stay the night. The only people who can stay there are participants in an educational program and their traveling parties.
They provide our meals so we don’t have to worry about preparing food when we’d rather be painting. At $1600 a week including room, board, access to the park and instruction, it’s a great deal.
Schoodic Institute waits among the pines and spruces for us to return next year.
So I finally wised up and did the contract part of my 2017 workshop before I left on Friday. It’s scheduled for August 6-11, 2017. Why should you care now? Because you’ll get an early bird discount of $100 if you sign up before January 1 (or a $50 returning-student discount if you’ve taken another of my workshops). That means you can ask for the workshop for Christmas.
Fog at Birch Harbor. The weather was generally fantastic all week.
Now the boilerplate: the 5-day workshop is just $1600, including your private room with shared bath, meals, snacks, and instruction. Accommodations for non-painting partners and guests are also available. Your deposit of $900 holds your space. Refunds are available up to 60 days prior to start, less a $50 administration fee.
Email me to let me know you’re interested, or for more information. I look forward to seeing you!
Perched on the back of her painting kit, feet propped on a pine snag, Cecilia Chang sat eating a sandwich. “I bet I’m the oldest student you’ve ever had,” she said.
I thought about it. “I bet you’re probably right,” I answered.
Cecilia is 72. Her husband, Tamin, is also with us. He is 75. Both are retired research scientists from Rochester, NY. Whether exercising your brain makes you age more slowly, I cannot say, but they are both exceptionally strong and limber. It has been impossible for me to stop them from climbing up and down the steep rocks on the Schoodic Peninsula. I’ve been worried.
Mark Island Overlook, by Lynne Vokatis.
Finally, I resorted to out-and-out lying. “I don’t mean to insult you, Grandfather,” I told Tamin, “but you cannot go down on those rocks in open-toed sandals. They are very dangerous. You will fall between the rocks and drown and I will never be allowed to teach in a National Park again.”
“We must respect Teacher and do as she says,” said Cecilia, equally straight-faced. Tamin, being a very courtly gentleman, acquiesced.
Pines in fog, by Corinne Kelly Avery.
I’ve been contemplating the miracle of long marriages recently. Occasionally I’ll see an older couple together, walking with obvious solicitude toward each other. That devotion and mutual support seems to me to be as precious as a newborn baby. Young love is, in a way, simple. It’s out of our control. Old love is a different kind of simple. The raw edges have been scraped away, leaving only the essence of affection. It’s a pity that so few people these days make it that far.
Cecilia took up painting when she retired. “I walk every day,” she told me. “Maybe if I painted every day, I’d be a better artist. But exercise is the reason I look 27 instead of 72.”
Winter Harbor lighthouse on Mark Island, by Lynne Vokatis.
Some years I have more enrollees than I can handle. This year we have a very small group. I take a long view about these things. Instead of struggling to fix the problem, I wait to see why it happened. (That’s one of the joys of self-employment.) One of the reasons, I now know, is that I’ve gotten to know the participants this year in a way that’s not usually possible.
The amazingly youthful Cecilia Chang attributes her good looks to daily exercise. That’s Corinne Kelly Avery at the right.
As we took our break, Cecilia started talking about her childhood in Taiwan. She told us how she visited a cathedral and felt a great sense of peace. The Holy Spirit drew her back, over and over, even when her father forbade her to be baptized.
There was someone in our group who needed to hear that powerful testimony, and some of us who were meant to be witnesses to the event. From the time I put together this year’s workshop last fall, heavenly wheels have turned within wheels. They brought this particular group of people together for a few galvanizing minutes on the rocks above Frenchman Bay.
My wee little rock demo took on a life of its own.
Dinner was on the deck of the Schoodic Institute Commons. I was fidgeting because I needed another 2000 steps to stay on track to defeat my son-in-law in this week’s Fitbit challenge. The youngsters in our group wanted to check messages or go shower. Only Cecilia and Tamin were willing to walk with me. We set off down a trail that dropped back down to Frenchman Bay. A pale peach sun hung low in a milky sky above the gentle lapping of the waves.
Now, seriously, how can you not be in awe of this life?
The last time I was certain that I had my phone on Tuesday was when I launched Dark Sky to check the weather. A few minutes later, it was missing. I checked with the Schoodic Institute staff, other guests, and my students. I retraced my steps for the prior two hours. No phone.
I’m a pro at losing things, so my searches have become methodical. I don’t panic, since most of the time I eventually find the missing item. Nor do I tear things apart in a frenzy. I clean and straighten until I find what I was looking for. After all, one might as well get some benefit out of the experience.
Cecelia’s lovely painting of the mouth of Frazer Creek at low tide.
Although I was certain I’d had my phone at supper, I returned to my suite and carefully stripped and remade my bed. I tidied the kitchen. No phone.
Each morning I collect a giant cooler with our lunches and snacks in it. On Wednesday, I resolved to clean and reorganize my car before putting the cooler in. I was halfway through when someone asked me a question. I walked about twenty feet away to answer it.
I gave Lynne six pastels of my choosing and told her to do a painting with them. She did an awesome job.
When I returned I was stunned to see my phone sitting on my car roof. It was covered with dew. If there was anyone else in the area, they were pretty nippy on their feet.
“Manna from heaven!” exclaimed Ken Avery. “It returned with the dew!” Answered prayer can be big or small but it always leaves you chuffed.
As Lynne did her limited-palette pastel drawing, I painted alongside with a similar palette. Very unfinished.
We began our work at Frazer Point. This area was named after Thomas Frazer, an African-American who established a salt works near the mouth of Frazer Creek sometime before 1790. Our view looked across Mosquito Harbor to Norris Island and the bridge across Frazer Creek.
Yes, it got cold.
By 1 PM a light mist was developing and the air smelled of rain. Lynne collected a mess of still life material from the beach before we returned to the Schoodic Institute Pavilion. There we did color temperature exercises in what eventually developed into a downpour.
Corinne was captivated by the reflections from Norris Island.
By 5 PM, all we wanted were hot showers and dry clothes. We met for dinner at 6, where we were joined by a late arrival to our group, Matt Avery.
I got back to my suite at 7:30, thrilled to be in early on such a cool, rainy night. I changed into my nightclothes and settled down with my laptop. There I found a message from two of my dearest friends in the world: “We are at Schoodic for the night. Have to leave by 8:30 AM.” After a brief war with my lazier self, I got dressed again and headed back out. We had a nice but all-too-brief visit.
The still life materials on a beach are limitless.
A fog swirled through the dark woods as I walked back. Yes, there are black bears and moose in Maine. I don’t like surprising wild animals in their native habitat, so I sang the first song that popped into my mind. “A Mighty Fortress is our God” seemed oddly appropriate.
Schoodic Point breakers by Lynne Vokatis (finished).
A visitor mentioned that Acadia’s Schoodic Peninsula seems much busier than it has in other years. I’d been thinking much the same thing. If so, that means the National Park Service’s investment in the Schoodic Woods campground has paid off handsomely.
My class was so gung-ho that they started 45 minutes early. Since I’m a morning person, that was fine with me, but I warned them they must get adequate rest. They wanted to finish paintings they’d started on Monday before we moved on. To that end, we returned to Schoodic Point.
Schoodic Institute provides bag lunches and snacks so we can stay out all day. At 11 AM we had fresh zucchini bread and grapes and moved to a far corner of the Point, where stunted Jack Pines break up the rock slopes.
A student asked me what a Jack Pine is. “Something Tom Thomson and theGroup of Seven painted,” I answered. I didn’t think it was a real species, just a term for a windblown boreal tree. Turns out I was wrong. Pinus banksiana is a tree of Canada that breaks out into a few boreal forests in the northernmost United States, including at Schoodic Point.
Lynne and her Jack Pines.
I think it’s helpful to know something about the rocks and trees one is painting. Schoodic is famous for basalt dikes running through older pink granite. Granite tends to fracture horizontally; basalt fractures vertically. Both fracture in cubes that then wear down with glacial slowness. Knowing this makes our drawings more accurate.
I gave Lynne a difficult assignment: to draw the Jack Pines using color in the place of value, like the Impressionists did. She was then to integrate local color into her work without doing any blending at all. The result was pure Tom Thomson.
Our new location among the pines was about as popular as Times Square. A stream of people continuously stopped to talk to my painters. I was debating what to do about that when my pal Renee Lammers stopped by with a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken for us. The party was on!
“Schoodic Point,” by Corinne Avery (finished).
While Renee sold paintings and Sketch-n-Cans to the constant stream of visitors, my class painted, sketched and laughed. And then, at about 4:15, it was suddenly lights out for all of us. I tried to demo about color temperature and found myself hopelessly confused. My students felt the same way. We packed up and headed in for a rest before dinner.
Discussing drawing rocks with my students. (Photo courtesy of Susan Renee Lammers)
One only gets a certain number of clear-headed work hours in a day. We like to believe we can push past that, and we can, for a limited time. But the quality and assurance of our work declines.
At six, we had a lobster feast in the cool, fresh air, and by 7:30, we were all tucked up in our rooms. All that fresh air, sunlight and exercise had taken its toll. We hope to catch the Perseid Meteor Shower later this week, so we can’t wear ourselves out now.
“Rockbound coast of Maine,” 8X6 demonstration painting, oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas
One of my workshop students was seriously injured in a car accident last year. Because of this, I’m trying to limit our rock climbing. Plein air painting is hard enough without physical or spatial problems.
With this in mind I encouraged her to paint from just below the parking lot at Schoodic Point. She set up her pastels, did a quick value sketch and immediately moved to color. She’s an excellent composer and her start was fantastic.
Cecilia Chang’s painting of Schoodic Point.
The air was perfectly still when we started painting. Unfortunately, neither she nor I thought to weigh down her Heilman pastel box. The wind rose imperceptibly. Whitecaps began to form and bigger breakers crashed along the rocks.
Lynne’s entire kit flew over onto the rocks with a terrible crash.
If you’ve worked in pastels, you know that the tinkle of broken chalks is the saddest sound known to mankind. An open-stock pastel stick can range from $3.50 to $7.00, and a good pastel artist can carry more than a hundred of them, accumulated over decades and treasured. The proper response to a fallen easel is either copious swearing or copious tears, depending on your personality.
The scene of the crime.
Instead, we squared our shoulders and set to work cleaning up the mess. Miraculously, the box itself wasn’t damaged by the crash. Neither were the Terry Ludwig soft pastels she was carrying. While some of the other brands came from dust and to dust returned, these chalks were unfazed. A soft pastel that can survive the granite of Maine is not to be sneezed at.
On the first day of a workshop my students are usually so gung-ho that I have to drag them away for breaks. This year was no exception. By 1 PM, I was begging them to pack up their easels and eat their lunches. Our situation was untenable. The wind, at around 20 MPH, made the easels vibrate and the work snap around like tacking sails.
Lynne Vokatis’ unfinished pastel of Schoodic Point.
We moved to Arey Cove, which gave us a little protection. There I did a demo while my students ate their lunch.
At 5:30 I told everyone to pack up, as we had half an hour before dinner was served. Lynne was covered in pastel dust. “I think I’d better shower,” she said, and rushed through her packing. Unfortunately, the back door of her SUV wasn’t secured. As she sped around the corner, her art supplies flew out of the back, including her Heilman pastel box on its tripod.
Again, we squared our shoulders. Again we picked up the mess. Again, that box was completely unscathed.
So consider this an endorsement of the Heilman pastel box. Apparently it is indestructible. The same might be said of Lynne. Lesser women (like me) would have cried and quit for the day. But she didn’t let disaster derail her. She told me that her neurologist says to think of such moments as clouds that will shortly move along. Sounds like brilliant advice to me.
Corinne Avery’s unfinished painting of Schoodic Point.
I am participating in two events this coming weekend:
Thirty juried artists will paint along the Weskeag River and Marsh and St. Georges River. The party starts on Sunday with an elegant cocktail reception at 4pm. At 5 PM dueling auctioneers Bruce Gamage and Kaja Veilleux will sell the work
Tickets are $40 in advance for GRLT members/$50 for non-members and day of auction. For more information, call 207-594-5166.
“Parker dinghy,” by Carol L. Douglas. 8X10, oil on canvasboard.
On Friday, Brad Marshall and I had only a short time to paint before he had to head back south. We decided small watercolor sketches were all we could pull together in the time we had. Sandy Quang is my former studio assistant and is now working at Camden Falls Gallery this summer. She joined us with her sketchbook before work. Since we weren’t using easels, the simplest thing was to dangle our feet in the water and draw the lobster boat on the next dock.
Sandy, me and Brad hard at work at Camden harbor, with our feet in the water. (Photo courtesy of Kathy Jalbert)
Across the harbor, another painter was working away at his easel. It was George Van Hook. I called him on my cell phone to say hi, since my voice would never carry that far over open water. He was ready for a short break so he came over and joined us on our dock.
I never know who I’ll see at Camden’s Public Landing, but there’s always someone I know—a sailor, another painter, or a Camden or Rockport friend just enjoying the sun. And I’m always meeting new people, too. For me, plein airpainting is often about balancing the party with the need to do serious work.
We didn’t have time to paint anything polished, so we each did little watercolor sketches before saying goodbye. This was mine.
Later that day, my husband and I joined painter Bobbi Heath and her husband aboard their lobster boat for dinner. Moored in Tenants Harbor, we were surrounded by wildlife. An osprey took up residence on the mast of a neighboring boat, chirruping to his mate who flew nearby. Suddenly he dropped into the sea like a rock, and rose with a fish in his beak—and then he was gone, bringing home the bacon. A seal poked his dappled nose out of the water nearby. Black Guillemots—a kind of puffin—potted around us as we ate. The light dropped and the evening breeze picked up, and we glided back to shore under a sliver of new moon.
Lobster dinner on a lobster boat. (Photo courtesy of Douglas J. Perot)
Today I start a series of wild perambulations, which include Acadia National Park, Scotland, and an Alaska-to-Nova-Scotia painting trip (plus three more events in Maine). I expect to be home for good in mid-September. On Saturday I finished the painting above, which is of a Parker dinghy built on Deer Island, NB. That allowed me just enough time to pack and get to the Schoodic Institute, where I met up with this year’s workshop students.
After dinner at the Commons, Ken and Corinne Avery and I spent some time looking at aurora borealis predictions. Turns out these can’t be made very far in advance, but there was some possibility of solar-wind activity last night. The partly-cloudy sky was predicted to clear by 11 PM.
My first realization is that I need an app for this. My second is that they exist. Since I’ll be spending much of the next month traversing prime Northern Lights territory, I need to figure one out.
Alas, the aurora borealis didn’t show up. It’s a whole new week, however, and thePerseid meteor shower is expected to peak on Thursday and Friday. Who needs sleep? I do, of course. But I feel the likelihood of a spectacular night-sky event in my bones.