Paint Schoodic

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

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

What is romanticism?

The next time I need to paint a nocturne, I’m going to a Ford dealership and painting F-150s.

Spruces and pines on the Barnum Brook Trail, by Carol L. Douglas.
Nocturnes are very popular right now, but I suspect I’m not romantic enough for them. I can’t exactly put my finger on what romance in painting means, but I think it involves thinking sensually vs. analytically. Anders Zorn is a romantic painter. Winslow Homer is not (even though he painted some brilliant nocturnes).

I’m not talking about the artistic movement of the 19th century here, but rather the response of the soul to paint. This isn’t a technical distinction or a matter of subject. It’s a question of how we see the world. My old pal Kari Ganoung Ruiz is a wonderful painter of nocturnes. She’s also a very romantic soul. I just keep thinking about how early I must get up in the morning.

Perhaps what I've been talking about, above, is sentimentality. Romanticism may be just a question of what we really love. The lonely light in the darkness is a painting of longing. It reminds me of Jay Gatsby staring at the green light at the end of Tom and Daisy's dock. I’ve read it twice, and I still hate that book.

Young trees, by Carol L. Douglas
Earlier, I’d painted with Lisa Burger-Lentz and John Slivjak at Paul Smith’s VIC. They, like many other painters here at Adirondack Plein Air, are from the greater Philadelphia area. I started a large canvas of rocks, pines and spruces along the Barnum Brook trail. This is a very popular scene, but it’s not my favorite trail in the VIC. I’m usually drawn to the Boreal Life Trail, which runs through a bog. 

Vallkulla, 1908, by Anders Zorn (courtesy Wikiart)
I’ve been drawn to baby pines and spruces ever since seeing Anders Zorn: Sweden's Master Painter in 2014. Zorn treats infant trees with the respect we usually give their towering elders. Tiny trees are everywhere in the forest. They are more than just punctuation marks. Without them, there would be no green at our eye level, because the canopy is far above our heads. Plus, baby trees are cute.

I edited reality to feature two eastern white pines in the foreground where two baby spruces were growing. It didn’t go well, so I stopped and did a small study of young trees. This helped enough that I could go back to my original painting. As in so many things, nature knows best. Spruces worked better there than the white pines, so I put them back where they belonged.

Unfinished, by Carol L. Douglas
As dusk fell, I drove to the local ice cream stand to do the small nocturne, above. This is a terrible photo of a half-finished painting, which possibly needs cropping with a radial arm saw. I hope to set up somewhere today where I have access to my car, so that I can finish it. Really, however, I’m more interested in the pines.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Travel and travail

A long drive gave me plenty of time to ponder the meaning of success and failure.

Whiteface Makes Its Own Weather, was painted last time I was here, in 2014.
Yesterday a radio host was talking about the late Dallas Cowboys football coach, Tom Landry, and his attitude toward losing. “It's got a priority, but it's not number one in my life. This creates for me a certain amount of calmness, even though I'm human enough to suffer when we lose,” Landry said.

I’d just been musing on artists’ reaction to failure. I’m as bad as anyone else about taking it personally. However, like Landry, my career isn’t my highest priority. That helps me regain my equanimity a little faster.

We sometimes think a single-minded focus on painting will make us better artists. If Landry’s career is any indication, that’s not true. In fact, it may hinder our recovery from failure. No matter what your walk in life, it’s never a question of whether you will encounter setbacks or crises. They happen to us all. The question is whether you will have the resilience to recover.

Weather Moving In At Barnum Bog, was painted last time I was here, in 2014.
I had a lot of time to think yesterday, as I was driving from Rockport, ME to Saranac Lake, NY. I had a choice of routes. I could drive cross-lots west, which was the shortest distance. Or I could head south to Manchester, which was the fastest route. The obstacle is Lake Champlain, which was in my way no matter which angle I come from. I chose the coastal route. Every town was a snarl of holiday traffic. The trip took hours longer than I anticipated. I was weary.

If New Hampshire and Vermont were starched and ironed, they’d be at least as big as Texas. They’re mountainous and beautiful and villainously difficult to drive.

At 4 PM I considered just stopping for the night and calling it quits. After all, the Green and White Mountains and the High Peaks of the Adirondacks are all Appalachian uplifts, and they all look more or less the same.

The Au Sable River at Jay, 12X9, was painted last time I was here, in 2014.
On the other hand, the stretch between Middlebury, VT and Lake Champlain is one long flash of brilliant green. Heading west from the Atlantic, it’s the first flat open farmland one sees. Those long fields, so common to the Midwest, don’t happen in the Northeast. Just beyond Lake Champlain, the  High Peaks of the Adirondacks rise again, providing a mountain backdrop to a pastoral scene. Anyone interested in living back of beyond could do worse than to land in Addison County, VT.

Although we were instructed to do a nocturne once the sun set at 8 PM, I was impossibly tired. If one is going to be done, it will be an early-morning painting. The sun rises later here than it does on the Maine Coast.

Judging by this morning, I would have until 6 AM to finish. The Eastern Time Zone is impressively wide along our northern border. It runs from Eastport, ME nearly to Chicago. The difference feels substantial every time I come to New York.  At this rate, the sun must come up around noon in Indianapolis.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Better living through chemistry

Yes, the ‘fat over lean’ rule still pertains in oil painting.

Estuary Light, by Gwen Sylvester.
Gwen Sylvester’s Estuary Light, above, won this year’s Juror’s Choice Award at Wet Paint on the ‘Weskeag. It is a perfect application of acrylic paint: luminous, fluid, but not washed out into faux watercolor. The nominal subject—egrets—are just suggested in the midfield. 

Kay Sullivan and Gwen and I sat together to watch the auction. We are the last three years’ winners of the Juror’s Choice Award. The art world is one of the last strongholds of gender bias, intentional or not. To have three women winners in a row is an anomaly, and speaks well of this event.

A student at my workshop last week asked me whether the ‘fat over lean’ rule still applies now that we’re using odorless mineral spirits (OMS) instead of turpentine. It’s a great, complicated question. Turpentine is pine-tree essential oil. OMS are petroleum distillates. But before you rush back to using turpentine because it sounds “natural,” it is linked to a host of respiratory and other illnesses.

A lobster pound at Tenant's Harbor, was my entry into Wet Paint on the 'Weskeag.
I saw conservator Lauren Lewis at the auction. She told me the answer to Maureen’s question was still yes. That was all we had time for, so the rest of this explanation comes from the internet.

Solvents like OMS or turpentine dry through simple evaporation. The binder oils in paints are more complex; they cure by something called crosslink polymerization.

A polymer is a long chain formed by many little molecules that stick together. A crosslinked polymer network is a mesh of these chains that are woven together. Just as with fabric, woven threads are stronger than individual fibers. Crosslinked polymers can be very strong.

These crosslinked polymers also resist solvents better than simple chains. To dissolve a polymer, each of the long molecules must be surrounded by the solvent and dispersed. As the polymer gets larger and larger, it becomes more difficult to dissolve the polymer molecules.

Sometimes there are enough links to connect all of the polymer molecules into a single mesh.  When this happens, you can no longer dissolve the polymer molecules—they either float away as a single lump of paint or they don’t go at all.

You can't reopen half-dry oil paints like you can half-dry acrylics. That's because of crosslinked polymer chains.
Think about the last time you let your paint dry up on your palette. You can’t ‘open’ half-set oil paint like you can with partly-set acrylics. All the pigment is drawn into the lumps. That same tendency is what makes them so tough on the canvas, and why you want that oily layer on the surface.

Humidity often damages a paint film. This happens when water molecules surround the paint components and push them around. Crosslinks limit how much water can get into the film.

Speaking of humidity, I leave in a few minutes for Saranac Lake, NY, for the Adirondack Plein Air Festival. From there I go to Plein Air Plus in Long Beach Island, NJ. As I’m writing this, cool, damp air is rushing in my window. My house sits above Rockport harbor. The ocean is my air-conditioner. Why do I ever leave in the summer?

Friday, August 11, 2017

What we’ve learned so far

I teach a painting process. Are the personal epiphanies just an extra benefit, or are they actually the heart of the matter?

Becky being mugged by a seagull.
Schoodic Point is the crown of Acadia’s Schoodic Peninsula. It is so vast that I save it for later in the week, when people have gotten the need for the broad vista out of their system. Its grandeur is best expressed in the particular: in a shelf of granite, a tidal pool, the pines, or the hammering surf.

Fay's pines. I apologize for the quality of the photos; they were taken under incandescent light.
Rocks are three-dimensional shapes with volume. In that, they’re no different from houses or a boat. Too often they’re painted as a wall, or as cut-outs. At lunch, we discussed how to draw them using wireframe shapes and perspective drawing. These are the first steps to creating depth. Without them, all the atmospherics, color and haze you lard on the canvas will only partly convince your viewer.

Jennifer's unfinished nocturne.
In the time I’ve been teaching at Schoodic, visitation has steadily risen. That means my students endure a certain amount of kibitzing from bystanders. They took it in good humor, as I expected. This is a cheerful, untroubled band of painters.

Nancy's lighthouse.
At one point, I found Becky, who lives nearby and understands the population pressure on this park, drawing a detailed map for someone.

“I thought you didn’t want to encourage more visitors,” I accused.

“But she had a cute dog!” Becky replied. What a toughie.

Becky's rocks and surf.
Every visitor to Maine needs a lobster, so we had a lobster bake in the evening. Our crustaceans had been hauled out of the sea earlier in the afternoon. “It was very tasty,” reported Jennifer. (I’ve already exceeded my quota of lobster for the season.)

Linda's lighthouse.
We critiqued paintings in the evening. I’ve tried to get a photo of work by each person, but the light wasn’t great, and my fingers were in some of the shots.

Maureen's pines.
Maureen suggested that each person talk about what they’d learned. One teaches in the hope that one’s students learn something, so I was naturally curious. Maureen was struck with the idea of drawing first and cropping afterward, so that her painting wasn’t crammed into a box. Some people said they hadn’t really understood how to work fat-over-lean. And toning the canvas was a new idea to others.

Ellen's surf.
But a lot of things mentioned had to do with attitude, things like being willing to try new things, or accepting mistakes, or the difference in how we think or see as we work.

Don's surf.
I teach a painting process. I’ve assumed that the personal discoveries were just an extra benefit from not worrying whether one is doing it “right.” Now I start to wonder whether they’re actually the heart of the matter.

Maureen making a painting carrier from a box.
After our critique, we brainstormed a box for Nancy to take on the plane today. Predictably, it was Maureen who solved the engineering question. She is never going to buy something she can make from junk. I admire a fellow frugal spirit.

Today, we go to Corea to paint lobster boats. We’ll have a final lobster roll on the wharf. Already the fog is rolling back and another pink dawn appears. We’ve been particularly blessed in people, places and weather this year.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

That’s one sassy ocean

The rules work, even when we don’t notice. That’s as true in life and painting as it is in Acadia National Park.
Photo courtesy of Jennifer Johnson.
I’ve been getting workshop permits for Acadia National Park since I moved my workshop up to Schoodic Institute. They mean paperwork and expense, and nobody ever asks for them. Sometimes I wonder why I bother.

Yesterday, a ranger stopped by. “Do you want to see my permit?” I asked excitedly. “Oh, please, do you really want to see my permit?”

Becky comfortable near that sassy ocean.
He already knew we were going to be there; he was just stopping to check something else. I’m glad that the park rangers know what happens in the park, and that I haven’t been wasting my time and money complying with the permitting system.

Even if we aren’t aware of it, rules continue to be in effect. That’s as true in the universe as it is in a National Park, and it’s a good thing. Nobody wants the earth potting off into a different orbit because it’s sick of the one it has. 

A demo on the rocks near the Mark Island Overlook.
It is also true of painting. Many paintings of Ralph Blakelock have darkened beyond seeing because he puttered with the chemistry. It’s a terrible pity, because he was a great painter.

The ranger and I chatted for a while about the most inscrutable (to civilians) rule of national parks, that you can’t take natural materials out. “If we have three and a half million visitors and each of them takes home a rock…” he began. In some places, it might save on dredging, but I see his point.

The Mark Island (Winter Harbor) lighthouse was built in 1856, with a keeper’s house added twenty years later. It’s a handsome assemblage of whitewashed walls and staggered rooflines, and it’s far enough away that one can’t really do a stereotypical lighthouse painting. Instead, it must be in the context of its landscape, with Cadillac Mountain rising behind it. The scale relationship is a little misleading, because Mark Island is less than a mile offshore and Cadillac Mountain is several miles away.

A lighthouse painting doesn't have to be about the lighthouse.
Look north or south and there are sweeping diagonals of pink granite tumbling to the sea, framed by dark spruces and crashing surf. And the seas were definitely crashing. “You sassy ocean, you!” cried Becky as a great long foaming breaker blew over the rocks nearby.

A student studying mixing greens. (Photo courtesy of Donald Fischman)
A sea fog approached and retreated, finally cloaking us in soft pink cashmere around sunset. That was appropriate, because yesterday’s demo was on the color of light. This subject is like one of those drawings that flips from being a vase to two profiles. It’s easy to see once you get it, but difficult to explain.

Ravens Nest  is fine for an individual painter but not for a class.
As the afternoon ended, several students walked down to Ravens Nest. I never teach there. There’s no guardrail, only pot warp strung from tree to tree. There's no room for a large group to paint safely. But it’s an interesting geological formation and quite pretty.


We’ll be heading to Schoodic Point this morning. As I type this, I can hear the surf crashing. The sky is fair and pink. All signs are good for another great day of painting.