Paint Schoodic

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Friday, May 25, 2018

Elegy for a house

I have no idea what the next chapter in this house’s history will be, but for many years it was a haven for New York plein air painters.
Kaaterskill Falls, by Carol L. Douglas
If the legal system creaks along as it should, an important property will pass out of the plein air world today. This is Jamie Williams Grossman’s home in Palenville, NY. Jamie is married to New York State Supreme Court Justice Victor G. Grossman. Vic is required to live in his district, which covers Westchester and four other counties. When it came time for them to downsize, it was the Catskill house that had to go.

The house is a long, open structure, originally built as a barn for the farm across the road. Its conversion was top notch—steel stairs, a large open kitchen, and pleasant, airy rooms. The foundation rested on bedrock which intruded poetically into the basement. Along one side of this lower level, Jamie built a long, sunny studio. When she was in residence, so too were her birds.

Clouds over the Catskills, by Carol L. Douglas
To get there, you turned off a local road and dropped sharply down a gravel lane that seemed to peter out in scrub. Even when you knew where you were going, it was easy to miss.

The property is dotted with waterfalls. Some are seasonal. If you felt so inclined, you could hike to one of the more remote ones. The most beautiful passed right under the driveway. Dropping rapidly down from the road, it broke and crashed on huge granite boulders before burbling away in a small stream. I once dropped a palette knife into the water. A year later, Jamie found and returned it, after inscribing it with my name so I wouldn’t lose it again.

Kaaterskill Creek, by Carol L. Douglas
A meadow sits below the house, surrounded on all sides by woods. A venerable old tree crabs Wyeth-like to the sky, skirted by an old stone wall. There was never a shortage of material, but the property itself wasn’t the reason most painters came to stay with Jamie. Her house was minutes away from some of the most storied sites of Hudson River School painting: Platte Clove, Kaaterskill Falls, North-South Lake, and the Pine Orchard, where the Catskill Mountain House once stood. Drive a few minutes more and you were at Cedar Grove, the home and studio of painter Thomas Cole, founder of the Hudson River School. Cross over the river and you were at Olana, the estate of Frederic Edwin Church.

I had the good fortune to be invited back many times. I was not alone. There are always fine artists around when I visited. Sometimes we spent as much time tweaking our gear as painting. It was on a hike up Kaaterskill Falls that Johanne Morin showed me her super-lightweight aluminum easel, which I then copied and have used ever since.

Olana overlook, by Carol L. Douglas
There were men among the painters who gathered there, of course. But the group always seemed weighted toward women. This was the first true sorority of serious, professional women painters I ever knew. I met lifelong friends in Jamie’s creek, and cemented relationships over her table.

I’ll still paint in that area, and I’ll still stop and see Jamie no matter where she is, but it’s the end of an important era in the New York plein air community. Jamie and Vic, from the bottom of my heart, thank you for your years and years of hospitality and support.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Braided rivers and other geomorphology

Stuck in traffic? Far more interesting to study a river bed than ponder the next rest stop.

The Alaska Range, by Carol L. Douglas. The Yukon River, foreground, is a classic braided river. It stretches a mile across, carrying silt... and gold.
It normally takes about 5 hours and thirty minutes to get from my house in Rockport, ME to my daughter’s house in Rensselaer County, New York. Taking the scenic route—Massachusetts Route 2—adds another half hour. There is the still-more-northerly route 9 through Vermont and New Hampshire.

There are times when even the most experienced road warrior unclenches her hands from the steering wheel and says goodbye to the interstate highway system. I moved to Maine to reduce the time I spent on Interstate 90 between Buffalo and Boston. However, with my daughter’s wedding I’ve been up and down that road too much recently. And I’ll be back on it in 9 days, heading to Rochester to teach a workshop.

Confluence, by Carol L. Douglas. The Athabasca River is another classic braided river.
We’d hung around Buffalo waiting for our youngest to finish his finals. A geology major, he finds himself buried in calculus and chemistry instead of thinking about rocks and minerals. Geomorphology is the study of why landscapes look the way they do. Why not think about that on the last leg of our trip home?

East of North Adams, Route 2 climbs into the Hoosac Range via a series of hairpin turns. The vistas into Vermont are fabulous. The road then follows the old Mohawk Trail, a trading footpath that connected the coast with the Iroquois Confederacy. Because pre-industrial commuters weren’t keen on extra climbing, their path ran along the Deerfield River and several of its tributaries. This ultimately dumps into New England’s longest river, the Connecticut.

River Rocks, Upper Jay, New York, by Carol L. Douglas. The Appalachians deposit their debris very differently from western rivers.
The drainage system of these small meandering streams, my son tells me, is typical of old folded mountains like the Appalachian Chain. It’s called a trellis drainage system. As the river flows along a valley, smaller tributaries feed into it at right angles, dropping down the steep mountain slopes.

Where the sediment load is high and the slope is low, rivers become braided. They form shifting sandbars and islands, or eyots, as our British cousins call them. There is certainly sand and rock in our small eastern rivers, but for a true braided river you have to go to the Pacific Northwest, especially Alaska and the western Canadian provinces. I’ve painted a few of them.

Upper Falls, Letchworth, by Carol L. Douglas. This deep gorge is geologically very young, and is cut through shale, limestone and sandstone.
Unfortunately, the steep valleys of the Mohawk Trail also meant that spring road work cut the pavement down to one lane. The whole trip took us just over eight hours. I’d promised Howard Gallagher of Camden Falls Gallery that I’d do something for him around noon; I finally had the chance to call him at 4:30. “It’ll keep until morning,” he said cheerfully.

Next up—a brace of workshops. The first is at Mendon Ponds in Rochester, NY, June 2-3. That’s followed almost immediately by a watercolor workshop aboard American Eagle, June 10-14. There’s still a small number of spaces available for each, along with my August workshop at Acadia National Park. Email me if you have any questions.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Where does art come from?

A new dating technique calls into question what it means to be ‘human’.

The ladder-shaped figure dates back at least 65,000 years, making it Neanderthal in origin. Courtesy P. Saura, Science.
The first recognized artists in the western canon are Bezalel and his assistant, Aholiab, who decorated the Tabernacle sometime between 1400 and 500 BCE, depending on who’s dating the book of Exodus. Polygnotus of Thasos, who worked in the mid 5th century BC, was a superstar in ancient Greece, as was his student Pheidias. But of their actual work we know nothing except copies and descriptions.

The oldest extant western art is all anonymous, the work of early Homo sapiens. Our ancestors, after all, have been scrawling on walls for at least 80,000 years. Why they did this, we don’t know, but we do know that art-making is a uniquely human activity, linked to our higher reasoning skills.

Snowbound, 1911, Charles R. Knight. This is our traditional understanding of Neanderthal culture.
Our slower-witted cousins, the Neanderthals, didn’t have those skills, and thus didn’t create and embrace culture as did Homo sapiens. For that and anatomical reasons, we call them archaic humans, implying that they weren’t quite up to Homo sapiens’ standards. In fact, Carl Linnaeus used the word sapiens because it means ‘wise’.

Or that’s what anthropologists thought until recently. A study published in Science this past February indicates that Neanderthals weren’t nearly as low-brow as we thought. They too created art.

We know that in Africa, Homo sapiens adorned their bodies with pigments and wore beads. There’s some indication that Neanderthals in Europe did the same thing, but anthropologists have always assumed this was something they borrowed from Homo sapiens as the latter arrived in Europe.

Cave art is a step up in the decorative arts, just as painting is a step up from applying makeup. We’ve always assumed that the cave art seen in Europe was the work of recently arrived Homo sapiens. Of course, that was guesswork, since the art can’t be accurately radiocarbon dated.

Skeleton and restoration model of the La Ferrassie 1 Neanderthal man, courtesy National Museum of Nature and Science, Tokyo. Looks just like a guy I saw yesterday.
Radiocarbon dating is useless for mineral-based pigments. Even when our ancestors were using something organic—like charcoal—contamination issues and sample destruction made radiocarbon dating nearly impossible.

Researchers turned to the mineral deposits that form in caves, called speleothems. Stalagmites and stalactites are the most visible examples, but deposits form in all caves. These can be dated by measuring the natural decay of trace amounts of uranium. This is called uranium-thorium dating.

Speleothems form over the surface of cave paintings just as they do everywhere else. Researchers realized that these can give us a latest-possible date without affecting the artwork itself. “In La Pasiega, in northern Spain, we showed that a red linear motif is older than 64,800 years. In Ardales, in southern Spain, various red painted stalagmite formations date to different episodes of painting, including one between 45,300 and 48,700 years ago, and another before 65,500 years ago. In Maltravieso, in western central Spain, we showed a red hand stencil is older than 66,700 years,” wrote Chris Standish and Alistair Pike.

Yet according to everything we think we currently know about human migration, there were no Homo sapiens in western Europe before 45,000 years ago.

Neanderthal tools
“[T]he types of paintings produced (red lines, dots, and hand stencils) are also found in caves elsewhere in Europe, so it would not be surprising if some of these were made by Neanderthals, too,” wrote the authors.

According to our current understanding, Neanderthals lived in Eurasia from 250,000 to 40,000 years ago, disappearing about 5000 years after the arrival of Homo sapiens. We first assumed they were made extinct by Homo sapiens’ superior culture; we now believe they were absorbed into the surviving population. That makes more sense if we consider that they had the same capacity for symbolic thinking as their African cousins. We now know that Neanderthals made tools, built structures, used fire, made art, and buried their dead. In short, they were every bit as human as Homo sapiens.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Home is where they wear you out with parties

When your car is too ratty for Buffalo, you may have a problem.
Erie Canal, by Carol L. Douglas
I woke up to the smell of lake water in the air—a uniquely Buffalo smell, and one that presages rain. It’s my last day here, and I’ll be glad to head home after eight days on the road. I can’t keep up the pace of all this partying. It’s the official sport of Buffalo, after all.

Buffalo’s always been a hard-partying kind of town. At one time the bars stayed open all night to cater to shift-workers. There are no more manufacturing jobs, and the bars now close at 4 AM. I don’t know any American city more dedicated to drinking than that.

Rock tumble at the Holley canal spillway, by Carol L. Douglas
My childhood chum Tim Wendel is in town promoting his newest book, Cancer Crossings. I’d like to catch up, but I comfort myself with the idea that he doesn’t have any more time than I do. I’d hoped to connect with another childhood friend, dancer Cynthia Cadwell Pegado. She’s one of my oldest friends, actually, since we met at our infant dedication at Delaware Baptist Church. I managed to connect with my sister-in-law and her new husband yesterday. And I had dinner in Ellicott Creek Park with my brother and his family. When your life is in your car, you meet up where you can.

It’s like this every time I go on a road trip, but never more so than when I’m in Buffalo. This is my home town, and I’m proud to be from here. However, I can’t see myself ever coming back to live. I can’t handle the pace.

Bluebells on the Erie Canal towpath. WNY has its moments of fascination, for sure.
Buffalonians are, in general, polite drivers, but I still don’t much enjoy sitting in traffic. There’s more and more of that in my old haunts. After a sixty-year hiatus, my home town is finally coming into its own. I’ve waited for this, but I can’t say that I like it much.

I followed a Lamborghini down Niagara Falls Boulevard yesterday. This was always a city of rusty cargo vans. Suddenly, I’m self-conscious about the condition of the old Mercury Monterey we’re tooling around in. I didn’t realize it was possible to drive a car that’s too ratty for Buffalo.

I drove to Grand Island to look at a replacement for my trusty Prius yesterday. At 257,000 miles, it’s grown fragile. My best option, I think, is a pickup truck. “That’s a rather extreme shift,” my daughter commented.

After 257,000 miles and 13 years, the Prius is growing fragile.
I’m spending more and more time on back roads. My Prius, while indomitable, has broken two springs. It was never designed for the dirt roads of Nova Scotia, for example. It’s too small to camp in, and I had to have the roof repainted after (inadvisably) carrying my canoe on it.

I looked at SUVs, but they all seem designed more for luxury than for off-roading. I hate scrubbing paint out of upholstery, so a truck is starting to look like my best choice. Still, $40,000 is a lot to spend on a vehicle.

I don't even remember painting this sketch of a NYSDOT tug on the Erie Canal. I wonder where it ended up.
I have one more task—to load my youngest kid’s stuff in my van—and then we can take off. By mid-afternoon, I should be tooling east on US 90 toward Massachusetts. After that, I get to work in earnest. I have a commission to finish, and a piece to write for Saranac Lake, and if I plan to make any money this summer, I’d better deliver some new work to my galleries.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Monday Morning Art School: the architecture of trees

To paint trees, you have to know trees. That doesn’t mean you need to memorize species, but you do need to be able to see the differences.
Along the Ottawa River, by Carol L. Douglas. You don't need to be able to identify species at 200 paces, but you do need to be able to recognize how trees differ.
Trees, clouds and rocks are all frequently abused in the same way: the oblivious painter never thinks about their individual characteristics but paints them interchangeably. That's a mistake.

Old Bones, by Carol L. Douglas
There is a major division in the forest world between conifers (the trees with needles) and broadleaf trees. Most, but not all, conifers are evergreens; the biggest exception being the larches (tamaracks), which turn a delicious yellow-gold in autumn. Which are dominant in your landscape? Even in the Pine Tree State, the distribution of conifers to deciduous trees is about 50-50.

Most scenes will include a variety of canopy shapes.
For broadleaf trees, the most important distinguishing characteristic is the branching pattern of the tree, which defines the shape of its canopy. Silver maples are large trees with open, vase-like canopies. Oaks have large spreading crowns; beeches have similar crowns that appear to have melted. Most broadleaf trees branch alternately but maple, ash, dogwood and horse chestnut branch in opposite pairs.

Pines have fewer branches than spruces or firs, and their branches grow in circular whorls on the trunk. As they age, they develop an open, jagged canopy. Spruce branches grow in an upturned direction; as youngsters, they look the most like ‘Christmas trees’. In their dotage, they turn a fine, weathered figure to the wind. Firs have wide lower branches and a downcast mien. Notably, their cones point upward.

Along Kiwassa Lake, by Carol L. Douglas
Conifers are most easily identified by their needles. Pine needles grow in clusters of two, (red pines), three (yellow pines), or five (white pines), held onto the stem with a tiny papery wrapper. Spruce needles are short, stiff and grow individually from twigs. Fir needles are soft and flat. Cedars have flat, scale-like leaves and stringy bark. Junipers (including, confusingly, the Eastern Red Cedar) have berrylike, bluish cones on the tips of their shoots.

Basic broadleaf leaves.
Many people can identify the common broadleaf trees by their leaves, and I’ve included a chart to help you. The important part for the painter, however, is to see the differences in color. Silver maples have a lovely grey-silver color. Sycamores are garbed in military-fatigue green. Black spruces are dark while Eastern White Pines are fair and soft in their coloring.

This is why I discourage my students from using tube greens and encourage them, instead, to mix a matrix of green colors.

Baby black spruce and pines, by Carol L. Douglas
Too often, we painters ignore young trees, something I tried to rectify (with varying success) last season. Young trees often look radically different from their aged ancestors, but they have a beauty of their own.

To be a convincing painter, you don’t need to memorize the species of trees, but you do have to learn to distinguish between them. Any plausible landscape will contain a variety of them, with different bark, branch structures, and leaf colors.

It's about time for you to consider your summer workshop plans. Join me on the American Eagle, at Acadia National Park, or at Genesee Valley this summer.