Paint Schoodic

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Friday, June 22, 2018

Group norming

Feeling out of place, like a failure? Perhaps the problem isn't you, but your tribe.
Five Chairs, by Pamela Hetherly, courtesy of Kelpie Gallery. This painting stopped me yesterday. The color is beautifully integrated, something that’s lost in the photo.
I spent a few hours yesterday at the Kelpie Gallery in S. Thomaston. I’d meant to drop paintings off and leave, but it is a very restful place with a clean, open atmosphere. I always spend more time there than I expect to. Susan Lewis Baines, the owner, is so interesting and interested that before you know it, the day is half over.

It’s an airy, light space with grey walls, a grey tiled floor and lots of white trim. What little furniture there is, is elegant and subservient to the art. I look at Sue’s handmade desk (no, it’s not for sale) and wonder if I need one like it. Then I remember that I live in an old farmhouse and it wouldn’t match at all. As a decorator, Sue is light years ahead of me. That’s a great quality in a gallerist.

Sometimes I See, by Kay Sullivan, courtesy of the artist. Kay's works are small, active, and yet somehow peaceful.
She represents a small stable of painters. These include vibrant small pastels by Kay Sullivan, the austere abstractions of Ann Sklar, mystical landscapes of Julie Haskell and Beth London, moody interiors by Pamela Hetherly, and the idiosyncratic landscapes of the late Erik Lundin. On first glance, the work is widely disparate. but the visitor notices that they all hang together well. They are united by a common color sensibility and composition. That makes it possible for high realism to hang side-by-side with abstraction and have the combination complement both paintings.

As different as the paintings are, there’s definitely a group norm at work, and it’s bound to provoke a response from the visitor.

A crow painting by Beth London, available through the Kelpie Gallery.
I tell people I left New York because I can’t paint like a Hudson River School painter. It is a continuous tradition in New York, dating back two hundred years. In any other place, painting with that golden light and attention to detail would be an annoying affectation. But in New York, it has some wonderful modern practitioners, including Tarryl Gabel and Patrick McPhee.

Mary Byrom is at the Smithsonian American Art Museum this week. Yesterday, she commented about Abbott Handerson Thayer’s Roses, “Such a wonderful quiet stillness, from before these modern times. It makes a difference.” Tarryl and Patrick can still tap into that stillness, and they have many fans because of it.
Untitled, by Erik Lundin. Courtesy of the Kelpie Gallery. His disinterest in selling made him the most unaffected of painters.
I don’t feel things in that way. I’m thoroughly the product of my time, which means less value modeling and more color and brushwork. As long as I stayed in New York, I was subtly pushed toward painting a different way. Galleries liked it, jurors liked it. And I found it personally disheartening. I needed to seek out my own tribe. I did that by going on the road, and later by moving to Maine.*

This is where a good knowledge of art history proves useful. It allows you to see over the lip of the basket you live in, to see where you fit in the greater scheme of things. I like the basket I have moved to, but if I felt confined in it, I’d be exploring other places and other representation.

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*An exception to this is Adirondack Plein Air, which is not style-driven. In fact, I find this true of plein air events in general. They usually attract a much wider variety of painters than from the local catchment area.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Missing the mark


Other people say it’s good, but you think it’s awful. What do you do with it?
Spruces and pines on the Brook Trail, by Carol L. Douglas. This is more or less where my mark-making is today.
Last week I listened to a fellow artist grumble about her painting. I really couldn’t see anything wrong with it; it was quite good, and I told her so. “But it’s not what I set out to do!” she answered. The wind, the rain, and the changing light had robbed her scene of the vivacity she’d first envisioned.

That causes a funny sort of brain cramp in artists. Our vision is so deeply overlaid with the pattern of what we want to say that the gap bothers us. We can’t see the strengths in our work because we’re focused on what is missing. In this case, my friend couldn’t see her strong composition and the brooding quality of the painting because she was mourning the light that had escaped behind clouds. “I can’t even remember what attracted me to this scene in the first place,” she said sadly.

Hedgerow in Paradise is from a time when I was hiding behind fraudulent brushwork. The only thing wrong with it was that it was fundamentally dishonest.
I was curious about this phenomenon so when I got home I asked a musician if this ever happens to him. “Oh, all the time,” he laughed. He told me that he’d just finished composing and recording an album and to him it was totally rotten, because he hadn’t achieved his goals for the project. Still, he published it, and then he started something new.

A long time ago, Marilyn Fairman told me that the longer she painted, the less satisfied she was with her work. I’ve noticed the same thing. If you’ve never been blindsided by the gap between your inner vision and the results, I suspect you’re not challenging yourself enough.

Spring Allee is another painting from the same period. The marks are better, perhaps because it's a deeply autobiographical painting.
I struggled for many years with hating my own brushwork. I visualized long, sinuous lines of paint. Instead, my finish was always short, abrupt, and energetic. Because of that, I frequently overworked the finish in an attempt to obliterate my own handwriting. That invariably muddied what had started as a strong painting.

Finally, I realized this was a kind of self-loathing. It was akin to always hating yourself in photos (which, I confess, I do). I stopped fussing and forced myself to leave my brushwork alone.

Then I spent a long time in the wilderness. I eventually threw out this painting of Letchworth Gorge because it was so muddy.
If it were someone else’s, I concluded, I would be fine with it. I might even love its jumping energy. But it told me something true about myself that I didn’t understand and found uncomfortable. I felt as if I had to hide this unexamined truth. That’s ironic, because painting is supposed to be forthright, and that was the most authentically honest thing about my work.

Middle Falls at Letchworth, by Carol L. Douglas. I spent that entire season at Letchworth Gorge and eventually came up with two paintings I thought were credible. It wasn't until much later that I realized I'd finally cracked the problem of paint application.
What do you do with that dissatisfaction? This is where wiping out bad paintings is a bad practice. It steals the opportunity to study what has just happened. I’ve learned to leave those canvases alone, carry them home, rack them to dry, and then revisit the work at a later date. By then, my memory of my ambition has faded. I can see the new painting in its own merits. Often, I’m shocked to realize that I love the ones I once hated, and the ones that seemed to be easy successes now bore me.

Join me for Sea and Sky at Schoodic, August 5-10. We’re strictly limited to twelve, but there are still seats open.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Jet lag from crossing back home


Time to ditch Daylight Savings Time, and move Maine to the Atlantic Time Zone
Marsh with running tide, Carol L. Douglas. These are my finished paintings from Parrsboro.
Crossing into New Brunswick, the Mainer goes from the Eastern Time Zone to the Atlantic. There’s one more time zone to the east on our continent, the little-known Newfoundland Time Zone, which is staggered on the half-hour. This is followed only on Newfoundland, its offshore islands, and the most southern parts of Labrador.

As weird as that is, it’s no weirder than the sprawling Eastern time zone, which starts somewhere around Grande-Rivière, Quebec, and runs to Ontonagon, Michigan. Sunrise in Grande-Rivière was at 4:17 AM this morning. It was at 6:03 AM in Ontonagon. That’s an unwieldy span.

Headlands, Carol L. Douglas
Our pre-clock ancestors marked the time of day by measuring with a sundial, making noon whatever time the sun was directly overhead. They weren’t worried that this was slightly different down the road. After all, if you walked from Winchester to Canterbury, any difference in the time would be lost along the way.

Greenwich Mean Time was established to aid navigators to determine longitude at sea. Nobody changed their clocks to match it; they just carried on with solar time right up to the 19th century.
Breaking Dawn, Carol L. Douglas
Enter the railroads. It was a bit difficult to set a schedule when towns fifteen minutes apart by train used different time systems. By the middle of the 19th century, British rail companies were using Greenwich Mean Time and portable chronometers to standardize time keeping in Britain, although it was a tough sell in places. British clocks from this period sometimes had two minute hands, one for railroad time, and one for local time. But by 1880, Greenwich Mean Time was the standard for Great Britain.

Low tide, Carol L. Douglas
Here, time was confused in a uniquely American way. Every railroad company had its own standard time, based on where it was headquartered. Its schedules were printed in its own system, leaving the stationmaster at an important junction with the unenviable task of translating several different train lines’ timetables into local time. The solution was multiple clocks, one for each railroad.

Standardization was reached on Sunday, November 18, 1883, known as “The Day of Two Noons,” when each railroad station clock was reset as it reached the standard-time noon. The western limit of Eastern Standard Time was my home town of Buffalo, NY. That’s more than 700 miles east of the current western boundary.

Fox River School, Carol L. Douglas.
Last fall, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts issued a report recommending that their state ditch Eastern Standard Time “under certain circumstances.” Effectively, it would get rid of Daylight Savings Time—hurrah—and put Massachusetts on Atlantic Time year round.

My quick-draw of Parrsboro and its mudflats.
I’m all for ditching Daylight Savings Time nationwide. It’s a meaningless exercise that throws our internal clocks off twice a year. I’m also in favor of switching Maine to Atlantic Time. The sun rises 25 minutes earlier in Halifax than it does here. That puts our internal rhythms more in tune with the Maritime provinces than with Michigan. 

The problems of such a switch are overstated. If we can do business with Californians and Australians, we can probably figure out the time difference with New York.

A kindly carpenter made teepees for Cathy LaChance and me. Only in Canada!
It gets dark mighty early here in the winter—Boston’s earliest nightfall is just 27 minutes later than in Anchorage. Since I live 185 miles north and east of Boston, it’s even worse here. Correspondingly, it gets light awfully early in the summer as well.

Have mercy on us, legislators, and let us get some rest.

Just one more workshop this calendar year, but it's an awesome one! Sea and Sky at Schoodic, August 5-10. Be there or be square.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Not the Kardashians, but working on it


Parrsboro, NS, is working its way into being a regional arts center.

Breaking Dawn, by Carol L. Douglas. Second runner up at Parrsboro International Plein Air Festival.
This weekend there were lots of well-known faces at the Parrsboro International Plein Air Festival. Organizers snagged Richard Sneary to judge, and there were high-profile painters in the mix. It was a festival of luminaries, and the painting was first-rate. I’m hoping that translates into Parrsboro becoming an arts destination for tourists and city-slickers.

It’s not an impossible dream. Five miles down the road from my home is Rockland, ME. It started as a shipbuilding and fishing town, expanding to include canneries, grain mills, foundries, lumber mills, cooperies, tanneries, quarries, and other miscellany of coastal living. By the mid-twentieth century, its historic industries were moribund.

The Age of Sail workshop aboard American Eagle was scheduled to coincide with a gam, a rafting up of the historic vessels on Penobscot Bay.
Enter the Farnsworth Art Museum, established by Lucy Farnsworth in 1948. It’s now the nucleus of a gallery scene that now rivals any art scene anywhere, both in volume and in quality.  Roughly 36.7 million tourists visited Maine in 2017, and we’re on track to break 40 million this year or next. Art is a big part of that tourism, and an important part of Maine’s image. I wish that for Parrsboro. If anyone can do it, the folks at Parrsboro Creative can. They’re smart, focused people.

One of the nicest things about traveling is meeting new people who tell me, “I read your blog.” This weekend, many added that they subscribe to two art things, my blog and Poppy Balser’s newsletter. We’re both daughters of the Great White North and we both love boats. Poppy is a terrifically nice person, so I don’t mind at all being lumped in with her.

Hard at work about American Eagle, photo courtesy Ellen Trayer.
My blog is an example of that old maxim about genius being 99% perspiration. It works because I get up early every morning to write it, Monday to Friday. Other than holidays, the only time I don’t write is when I’m out of network range, which was the case during last week’s Age of Sail workshop.

It’s such a pity that I couldn’t share it with you because it was downright magical. American Eagle should really be called the Kindness, because the crew is so good-hearted. Any doubts as to whether a painting workshop on a boat could work were laid to rest. All participants enthusiastically said they’d do it again next year.

Ellen demonstrates a paint-throwing technique to Lynn. We waited until we were off the boat before we did this.
Michael Fuller isn’t a plein air artist but he gamely tried the Quick Draw at Parrsboro anyway. “It makes you notice the transient things,” he told me. I think that’s what the boat workshop did as well. In a sketchbook done on the move, one takes away impressions, not finished pieces. The discipline will make you put away your cell phone and change how you work.

The discipline of getting up early is equally hard to break. I found myself restively trying to ‘sleep in’ on Saturday, so at 4:30 AM (Atlantic time) I quietly dressed and headed from my host billet near Fox River to the beach below Ottawa House. I stopped for coffee and a bagel at Tim Hortons and figured I was too late for the sunrise. I was wrong; the subtle pyrotechnics went on for some time.

This piece was the second runner-up, or third prize winner. I figured Richard Sneary gave it to me as a reward for being the only person nuts enough to get up that early.

Neither Parrsboro Creative nor American Eagle have set their calendar for next year, but I have every intention of doing both again. It was a wonderful week. I’m just sorry that you couldn’t be there with me.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Monday Morning Art School: taking a reference photo

On vacation? Here are some tips for taking reference photos you can work from later.
Winter Lambing, 48X36, oil on linen, Carol L. Douglas.
My workshop aboard American Eagle included a professional filmmaker who once studied with Ansel Adams. She was taking pictures with her iPhone, a tool Adams could never have dreamed of. She used it like a ‘real’ camera, cropping, composing and controlling exposure on the fly. She wasn’t waiting for a scene to pass by her; she was making something magic happen. “You don’t take a photograph, you make it,” Adams is famous for saying, and that’s exactly what she was doing.

A great photograph does not necessarily translate into a great painting; in fact, in my experience, it’s very rare that it does. The photographer seeks to move us emotionally; the artist wants a picture that preserves information. The same spatial relationships that make a great photograph can appear contrived in a painting. High contrast blows out the details that the painter needs.

And here is the reference photo. It was a snowdrift, nothing more.
Photograph what really interests you. It’s so easy to get sucked into what we ‘should’ take pictures of that we sometimes miss the essential object that we will need later. Go ahead and take fifty photos of the jack pine on the cove, and then put them in a folder labeled “jack pine cove.” On the day that you need a lonely tree for a composition, you’ll have it on hand. After all, film is cheap these days.

Don’t over-crop your photos. Often, I’ve found that the information I needed to finish something was just to the left of the edge of my frame. “You need a camera with a zoom,” one of my students told me. Actually, I don’t. Most modern digital cameras take such high-resolution photos that a small fraction of the frame can be blown up and used for painting.

All Flesh is as Grass, 48X36, oil on linen, Carol L. Douglas.
I have a Panasonic Lumix camera with a Leica lens. It wasn’t terribly expensive. It’s excellent in low-light situations, which means I can take even interior reference shots without a flash. That’s far more important than getting the details of the main topmast right from a quarter of a mile away. I can look those up; I can’t replace the details that get lost in bad light or by using a flash.

Of course, if I were a wildlife painter, I’d need a totally different outfit. Then a massive zoom lens would be important.

Bracket your exposures. This means you should take one photo at a higher value and one at a lower value than what your camera chooses automatically. Even if you have the most basic point-and-shoot camera, you can do this by hovering on lighter and darker parts of the picture. If you’re unsure about how this works, consult your instruction manual!

The above painting relied heavily on photos I took of an apple tree being cut down across the street from me. They were wonderful pie apples, too, but the new owners wanted more conventional landscaping.
Understand the limitations of reference photos. The camera is as subjective as the human eye. It misrepresents color relationships, depth-of-field, and size relationships. It obliterates subtle differences in color temperature. Reference photos are invaluable, but they should be the slave to your sketches and field notes, not the other way around. You’re under no obligation to represent every detail.

Which comes to my last and most important point: you shouldn’t be painting from other people’s photographs. This is more than just a question of legality (although that’s a real consideration). This is a question of ideas. A well-realized photograph is a complete artistic statement in itself. You have nothing to add. Anyone who has painted a commission from someone else’s snapshot knows just how much emotional information is missing when you weren’t there at the beginning.