Paint Schoodic

Join Carol L. Douglas at beautiful Acadia National Park, August 6-11, 2017. More details here!

Friday, March 24, 2017

Fixing what is broke

More Work than They Bargained For (Isaac H. Evans), by Carol L. Douglas. A working schooner is the antithesis of our throwaway culture.

“My other piece of advice, Copperfield,” said Mr. Micawber, “you know. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.” (Charles Dickens)

One of the easiest ways to get richer is to never spend every penny you earn. This dictum is apparently shared among my peers. Contrary to what the popular press would have you believe, more Americans are saving for retirement today than in the past; retirement plan contributions are rising, and retirement assets are at record levels, even accounting for inflation.

At times my household has been very, very poor. I’ve suffered catastrophic illness and been wiped out financially. I’ve had towering debt. The principle for recovery is always the same. As our parents said, you “pay yourself first” by putting a little money aside every week.

Detail from The Beggar of St. Paul, by Carol L. Douglas. I'm trying to adapt and reuse old stuff here.
Not only does this help you sleep better, it allows you to take risks. You can’t, for example, quit your job and become a missionary if you’re locked down by credit card debt, a mortgage, and student loans.

Our parents did this by never throwing anything away. That's basically impossible in our modern throwaway culture. However, living on the coast of Maine helps; there are no shopping malls out here.  We try to buy less stuff and keep it as long as we can. For example, I drive a 2005 Prius with 241,000 miles on it. I've adopted the Maine habit of buying my clothes at Bean because they really do last forever.

My laptop travels with me so that you can travel with me. My former model, a Toshiba, has been a fantastic workhorse. Nevertheless, it was time for it to take its honestly-earned retirement. It has parts rattling around in the case and it is prone to shut off at inopportune moments.

I didn’t notice that its replacement had a manufacturing defect in the screen until after I’d spent two days installing software. I should have returned it immediately, but like everyone else, I dread entering the terrible maw of bad customer service that we, as a nation, suffer. There is a price to pay for the convenience of mass markets, and we pay it when anything goes wrong.

Illustration from Even from Far Away, by Carol L. Douglas. If you don't throw old things out, you won't have to replace them.
Then the SD card reader quit. I use it every day, and there’s no easy workaround. It had to be fixed. I spent all day yesterday allowing a technician from the Philippines to remotely-operate my computer as I watched in abject boredom. Eventually he reset the operating system, which essentially wiped the hard drive clean. Nothing doing; it was—of course—a  hardware problem all along. I now have an expensive, useless brick awaiting a long trip to a service center in Texas.

All of this is long way of saying that all my work for the last two months is buried in the treasure chest of a system backup. If we’ve been communicating about projects, workshops or classes, you need to take the whip hand, because I'm not sure I can find the information. 

Meanwhile, the ancient Toshiba has been recalled from retirement. I just know my Prius is out there in the driveway, grinning slyly to itself. It knows I will never replace it.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Prairie madness

Little Giant (North End Ship Yard), 16X12, oil on canvas, Carol L. Douglas
 As I write this, the temperature is 9° F. That’s not exactly balmy, end-of-March weather. The wind blew steadily yesterday and into the night. It was a cutting wind, and it roared and thrummed in the woods behind my house. “It’s driving me nuts,” I told my husband.

“An alarming amount of insanity occurs in the new prairie States among farmers and their wives,” wrote EV Smalley in 1893. He blamed the isolation.

An unexpected snow squall cut visibility in the morning, Photo courtesy of Sarah Wardman.
Novelist Willa Cather blamed the wind. “Insanity and suicide are very common things on the Divide,” she wrote. “They come on like an epidemic in the hot wind season. Those scorching dusty winds that blow up over the bluffs from Kansas seem to dry up the blood in men’s veins as they do the sap in the corn leaves… It causes no great sensation there when a Dane is found swinging to his own windmill tower, and most of the Poles when they have become too careless and discouraged to shave themselves keep their razors to cut their throats with.”

This phenomenon, called “prairie fever” or “prairie madness” lasted throughout the late 19th century. Bitter cold winters combined with short hot summers to make life exceedingly difficult on the northern Plains. Sociologists say prairie madness vanished when settlements became more populous and the barriers of language no longer divided immigrants. But since more than one in ten Americans take anti-depressants, methinks prairie madness just moved indoors.

American writers often used the ocean as a metaphor to describe the prairies. Both are enormous, seemingly empty, and yet bountiful. Having painted both, I see and feel the similarities.

Winch (American Eagle), Carol L. Douglas. Same site, warmer day.
In either place, wind—on a practical level—makes my work difficult. That’s why I jumped at the opportunity to paint from the shipyard office. I’ve never done that before; it seems unsporting, somehow, to be warm and comfortable while painting snow.

Schooners attract a kind of romantic, well-read crew, and their patter is unlike most shop talk. It is larded with history and geography, and firmly grounded in sailing.

There were frequent references to The Shipping News, which I first took to mean Annie Proulx’ Pulitzer-winning novel. Soon I realized that they were talking about the literal shipping news: the 1907 lists of boats with their hauls of pineapples, animal hides and other perishable crops, moving up and down the Americas.

Little Giant, on a sunnier day.
An unpredicted snow squall rose, scuppering the captains’ plans to work on the marine railroad. The schooners themselves are still shrouded in their winter framework of plastic and plywood. For the romantic fancier of boats, a crane might seem a strange subject. However, this painting does record a true relationship, that between cranes and boats with masts. At any rate, my two-year-old grandson will think it’s the best thing I’ve ever painted.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

If you’re looking for me, I’ll be down at the boatyard

That's as far as I can go without some better weather.
The fit-out of the Maine schooner fleet begins in earnest on April 1. That doesn’t mean that their crews haven’t been busy. There’s a lot of dockside work to keep them out of mischief, including mending and refinishing the boats and the shipyard itself. American Eagle and Heritage are immaculate because their crews labor tirelessly to keep the old girls moving. If you’ve ever owned an old house, you understand the necessity.

Occasionally, the weather keeps them busy, too. That happened during March 14’s blizzard. A schooner at Lermond Cove snapped a bowline and threatened boats downwind. The harbormaster, three Coast Guardsmen, and several sailors battled gale-force winds to haul her in. Kudos to Victory Chimes’ Chris Collins for reacting so quickly.

Jacob Pike from another angle.
I’ve been watching the Jacob Pike all winter, waiting for the right combination of warm weather and good light in which to paint her. The best week, of course, was when I was in the Bahamas. Yesterday, on a whim, I asked Shary Cobb Fellows how much longer the old lobster smack was going to be in drydock. “It has to vanish by the first of April,” she told me. The American Eagle needs the spot. “The captains are working on the crane,” she added. That really caught my attention, because their Little Giant crane is a focal point of the painting I’d envisioned.

I’ve painted in snow many times. I don’t like it. Even when the day is warm, the cold climbs up your legs. “Snow paintings are something artists like and the public doesn't,” Brad Marshall said, and it’s true. Most people have enough winter without wanting more of it on their walls.

What sailors do during their down time.
We still have six inches of slush on the ground. The light was dismal and dark. Nevertheless, the tide was exactly where I wanted it. I decided to block in the painting anyway. I ought to get at least one day next week during which I can finish it.

This is a big work: 18X24. That’s the largest I’ve painted in the field in a long time. I switched easels because that’s far too large for my tiny aluminum pochade box.

Too much snow for the likes of me.
Later I walked to the office to say hello. Captains Doug and Linda Lee were there, as was Captain John Foss. They had just finished working on the crane, which has been an all-winter project requiring special-order new parts. Tomorrow they will use it to start putting the railway rollers back in the water.

As I was chatting with Captain Doug, I noticed the view behind him. It was spectacular—the stern of the Jacob Pike, the Little Giant crane front and center, and the bow of the Heritage. Let’s hope I can do it justice. If you’re looking for me, I’ll be down at the boatyard.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

American history through British eyes

Death on the Ridge Road, 1935 by Grant Wood. Williams College Museum of Art
Occasionally a painting gets stuck in my head. Such is the case with Death on the Ridge Road, by Grant Wood, above. Viewers in 1935 understood this painting as something painfully probable in rural driving: innocent passengers careening happily toward their imminent deaths. One could see it as a metaphor for life, since we’re all in that state of happy ignorance. We are, however, in a new era, and current conventional wisdom is that it is a metaphor for Woods’ own privately tortured sexuality.

That’s a contemporary American viewpoint, however, and it’s unlikely to hold up. Death on the Ridge Road is currently in London, in America after the Fall: Paintings in the 1930s, at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. If I find any spare change, I’m going to see it before it closes. It’s not that I can’t or haven’t seen these paintings here in their native home. I’d like to see them interpreted through British eyes.

Erosion No. 2 – Mother Earth Laid Bare, 1936, Alexandre Hogue, Philbrook Museum
The Telegraph called this show “a pungent mix of American horror stories,” but there’s more than a bit of Schadenfreude there. We Americans don’t necessarily think of urbanization, industrialization, or any of the other themes of the Great Depression as horror stories. They are the stories of our parents and grandparents, repeated down through the generations.

Nor were they the end of an idyllic past, as the title implies. We had been riven by Civil War two generations earlier; we had suffered through rocketing financial depressions before. Ours was a society that was constantly in flux.

It was, however, a “decade like no other,” as the Royal Academy describes it. The impulses in art were varied and many. Painting wandered down many different by-ways, from the regionalism of Wood to the Symbolism of Philip Evergood, the Precisionism of Charles Demuth and Charles Sheeler, the folk expressionism of William H. Johnson and the modernism of Georgia O’Keeffe. It was a ferment that we can only begin to sort out in retrospect, and it happened in literature and music along with painting.

Gas, 1940, Edward Hopper, MoMa
“He’s putting the pump back, he’s staring into the dial, he’s falling apart: who knows? The garage stands empty, its light sinister as the dusk descending over the woods, presaging a thousand movies. The rural past meets the industrial future in this vision of a lone American lost out there in the spreading vastness,” wrote the Guardian about Edward Hopper’s Gas.

I, through my American eyes, see the homely Northeast in that painting. It’s the Maine of my childhood, moving from Mom-and-Pop gas bars to whatever it is today. 

Meanwhile, in 1940, when Hopper painted it, Britain was enduring the Blitz. It seemed as if defeat at the hands of Luftwaffe was inevitable. A British public has to see the night sky in Gas as intensely personal. It’s more about them than us.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Weekly painting classes in Rockport, Maine

Painting by student Marilyn Feinberg
Color, light, and composition for outdoor painters
Carol L. Douglas
394 Commercial Street, Rockport
Starting April 4, 2017
10-1 AM Tuesdays, six week session
Fee: $200

Last month two friends took me to lunch at the Waterfront restaurant in Camden. As a bitter wind piled clouds high above the islands of Penobscot Bay, they put a question to me. “When will you stop slacking and start teaching weekly classes again?”

They’re right. My trip to Canada had stretched into the holidays, which had then become a trip to the Bahamas. I’ve been working hard, but not teaching.


 They nailed me down to a commitment. Our next cycle of classes starts on Tuesday, April 4. That will be from 10-1 AM, in my studio at 394 Commercial Street, Rockport. If you’re interested, there are more details available on my website, here.

The goal is intensive, one-on-one instruction that you can take back to your studio to apply during the rest of the week. We’ll cover issues like design, composition, and paint handling. We will learn how to mix and paint with clean color, and how to get paint on the canvas with a minimum of fuss.

And, yes, we’ll talk about drawing. If you ever want to paint anything more complicated than marshes, you must know how to draw. As I’ve demonstrated before, any person of normal intelligence can draw; it’s a technique, not a talent. And it’s easy to learn, no matter what you’ve been led to believe.

Painting by student Jennifer Jones
We’ll start in my studio, but on pleasant days, we’ll paint at outdoor locations. Painting outdoors, from life, is the most challenging and instructive exercise in all of art. It teaches you about light, color and composition.

That, of course, limits the media you work in to oils, watercolor, acrylics, or pastel, since they’re what is suitable to outdoor painting.


Years ago, a friend kept asking me to give painting lessons. “I don’t know how to do that,” I’d answer. We went round and round for several years. Eventually, I caved. Three people signed up. I figured I’d teach one session and they’d realize I was clueless. My studio was on the third floor. I was the model and the instructor and I kept hitting my head on the ceiling as I moved around the room.

Turns out, I wasn’t actually that bad. From there I moved into a nicer room above the garage and enlarged my teaching practice. I started teaching workshops and concentrating on plein air instruction, since that’s what I love best. When I left Rochester, I left a large circle of students behind. You can see a small sample of their work here. One of my great joys is that they formed a group, Greater Rochester Plein Air Painters, and continue to paint together.

“You used to teach on Saturdays,” a student recently pointed out. That’s true, I realize. If you want to study with me but work during the week, let me know. If I have three people interested, I’ll offer a weekend class.