Paint Schoodic

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

Monday, May 22, 2017

In the absence of volcanoes, learn to paint

In the absence of a world-class volcanic event, we can expect a typical, stunning coast-of-Maine summer. What better way to spend it than painting outdoors?

There’s been only one time in American history when summer failed to show up. That was 1816, and it was caused by the eruption of Mt. Tambora in the Dutch East Indies.  It was an event that had spectacular cultural repercussions.

In the northern hemisphere, grain crops failed. There was widespread famine for man and beast alike. Horses starved. That led to the invention of the velocipide, predecessor of the modern bicycle.

Here in the United States, famine spurred the westward expansion. Starving farmers in New England left for western New York and the Midwest, hoping for better weather and richer soil. The cataclysm sparked a religious fervor that created the Burned-Over District of New York. This in turn became a flashpoint for women’s suffrage and abolition.

Mount Vesuvius In Eruption, 1817, J.M.W. Turner
Among those who went west was the family of Joseph Smith, who relocated to sleepy Palmyra, NY with rather spectacular results. Both Smith and his mother were prone to religious visions. Was that God or ergotism from eating spoiled grain?

Particulates in the air led to extravagant sunsets. These in turn influenced the Romanticism of painters like J.M.W. Turner and Caspar David Friedrich.

Incessant rainfall kept Mary Shelley, her lover Percy Bysshe Shelley and their host Lord Byron inside during their Swiss holiday. Bored, they had a contest to see who could write the scariest story. The result was Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, and the birth of science fiction.

In the absence of a world-class volcanic event, we’ll have to settle for a typical, stunning coast-of-Maine summer: fresh breezes, blue skies and the soft susurration of the surf on our great, grey granite coast.

My next session of weekly classes starts on May 30. We meet on Tuesdays from 10 AM until 1 PM, until July 11 (skipping neatly over Independence Day). There are two slots open for this session, so if you are interested in taking one, please let me know. The fee is $200 for the six-week session.

Neubrandenburg, 1816-17, Caspar David Friedrich
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.

Unless the weather is inclement, we’ll paint at outdoor locations in the Rockport-Camden-Rockland area. 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.

After that, I hit the road in earnest. My summer schedule includes events in Nova Scotia, Maine and New York. (As I tell my family, if you want to know my schedule, you can find it here.) 

For more information about my classes, see here, or email me here.

Friday, May 19, 2017

The mystery of the missing boats

There is no shortage of painting subject matter in Nova Scotia or New Brunswick.

Levitating Lobster Boats of Alma, NB, by Carol L. Douglas
Where other rural places have spare cars, here in coastal Maine you’re likely to find spare boats on jackstands. Boats are so ubiquitous that they blend into the landscape. Last winter Howard Gallagher found one wrecked along the roadside. I think he bought it.

Nova Scotia has a storied boat-building history. Parrsboro was once a port and shipbuilding region; old photos show a waterfront littered with boats. The famous ghost ship Mary Celeste was built near here, at Spencer’s Island. Bluenose was built on the Atlantic side, in the boatbuilding yards at Lunenberg.

Parrsboro harbour seems to be silted in.
I’m painting at the Parrsboro International Plein Air Festival next month. It was almost on our way home from Digby, if by “almost” you mean doubling your mileage.

In any new town, I usually start reconnoitering at the harbor. Parrsboro’s is silted in, with a sinuous rose-colored channel and mud flats, but no wharves or fishing fleet. This area is famous for its beaches, and I suppose Mother Nature gets wild when it starts flinging sand.

There are also dramatic headlands, lighthouses, and blueberry barrens. You could throw paint in any direction and create a masterpiece.

There's no shortage of painting subjects.
The plein air painter’s second favorite task is searching out new places to paint. After stopping to meet Parrsboro Creative’s Executive Director, Robert More, we started the serious business of shunpiking. Maine painter Mary Sheehan Winn summers in Parrsboro. She texted us directions.

There were no boats until we reached Advocate Harbour. This tiny hamlet is so isolated that in the clear summer light it looks and feels like Newfoundland or the Scottish Hebrides. Its small fishing fleet is cross-tied to a seawall so that the boats are grounded on their keels in the mud as the water drops. They can only come or leave at the mercy of the tide. That must make for long work days.

Since Canada’s national parks are free for their national sesquicentennial, I suggested to Bobbi that we head home through Fundy National Park. She was interested in seeing Hopewell Rocks.

The last time I was here was at high tide. Mary and I had gotten lost looking for the Cape Enrage lighthouse during our Trans-Canada Painting Adventure. Here I was, once again, trying to find my way while the tide inexorably covered the things for which I was searching. Coming across a causeway, Bobbi and I both stopped short.

“Boats!” cried Bobbi.

“I’ve painted here before!” I shouted.

The beautiful fleet at Alma, NB.
We were in Alma, NB, where I painted my last painting in Canada last fall: a terrific, tired fail of levitating lobster boats. Alma is a wonderful working harbor, the home port of North America’s first female sea-captain, Molly Kool.

We even managed to make Hopewell Rocks before they were swamped.  Alas, it was evening, time to head south to the border and home. I leave again this evening, heading west to New York. It’s summer, and that’s how we roll.

Postscript: this morning we realized that Baby Wipes take dead bugs off windshields. I wish I’d realized that last night when I was rolling sightless through moose country.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Seafood, saltwater and a Fata Morgana mirage

We round the Bay of Fundy to Parrsboro, and paint at fantastic Point Prim.

Cobequid Bay Farm, by Carol L. Douglas
Alas, there were no Digby Chicks to be had at the fish market. We consoled ourselves with an omelet of Digby scallops and locally-sourced bacon, with Poppy Balser’s own fresh-baked bread.

Poppy—who’s also a licensed pharmacist—went in to the shop, and Bobbi and I walked down to the docks. The Bay of Fundy has the highest tides in the world. They mean the dock ramp has steps, for it’s just too steep to climb at low tide. It’s treaded like a cheese grater and is four flights of stairs in height. Likewise, the marine railway seems to slope down forever.

You wouldn't forget your keys very often if faced with that climb to go back to the car.
We met back up with Poppy at Point Prim lighthouse. Our intention was to paint with genuine Bay of Fundy salt water, but at low tide that meant a perilous scramble down the rocks. Poppy found a tidal pool halfway down the slope, and we settled in to watch our paints precipitate in the salt water.

The long, long marine railway at Digby.
When I was growing up, we would occasionally see a ghost image of Toronto dancing over the open water of Lake Ontario, seemingly just a few miles off shore. Fata Morgana mirages appear over open water just as in the desert. One rose above St. John’s as we painted. It only lasted a few minutes before it vanished in the haze of the horizon.

Mirage over the Bay of Fundy.
Bobbi is studying French. Our comfort stop in the woods, she told us, is called le Pipi Rustique. It’s a necessity of life and it’s frankly more difficult for women than men. “There’s an app for that,” Poppy said, and then dissolved in laughter. To me, the solution seems worse than the problem, since you then have to clean and carry it.

Point Prim, by Carol L. Douglas
We said au revoir to Poppy and headed north along the Evangeline Trail. This traverses some peculiar geology. The Annapolis Basin itself is separated from the Bay of Fundy by a volcanic ridge that trails off into the ocean as Digby Neck. The predominant rocks are basalt. Inland, there are bright red siltstones and soils, and gypsum outcroppings.

Point Prim, by Carol L. Douglas. I do everything I'm told, including value studies.
There’s even gold. Famous Canadian prospector Edmund Horne learned his trade here, in the now-ghost town of Renfrew, Nova Scotia.

When I painted here in mid-October, I’d noticed the peculiar pink of the water, but figured it was a seasonal disturbance. It is the same color now; a lovely rose pink from sediment.

Pink waters off Parrsboro, NS.
In my hometown of Buffalo, NY, Tim Hortons coffee shops are as thick on the ground as they are in Ontario. Bobbi hadn’t had the experience, so we stopped for dinner—a chocolate-glazed doughnut for her, an apple fritter for me.

Meanwhile, Bobbi was perusing her phone. “Our hotel is 100 miles behind us, in Grand-Pré,” she said. Evidently, our booking website couldn’t distinguish between 17 miles over land and the same distance over water. But we landed in clover. The Gillespie House Inn in Parrsboro had an unexpected vacancy. It’s far more genteel than my usual road haunts, and I enjoyed every tiny luxury, including the en suite clawfoot tub.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Repeating yourself

If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing to excess.

A billion tries later, I finally had something that wasn't totally embarrassing.
This is the first workshop I’ve taken in many years, and I’m glad I came to Nova Scotia to do it. Poppy Balser knows her materials. She’s interested in process, not in having us produce something pretty to take home.

If nothing else, I’ve learned that by holding my watercolor brushes like they’re oil brushes, I’m impeding the flow of fluid from their tips. I’ve been using watercolor for six decades and Poppy is the first person who’s pointed that out to me, at least in a way that I could hear.

Yesterday she turned the traditional order of watercolor painting on its head, painting a moody mass of dark spruces and then adding a light, foggy background at the end. I wanted to compare this to painting the same subject in the traditional watercolor way (lights to darks).  I taped two pages to my board, intending to do the two value studies simultaneously.

Fail, fail, fail, fail, fail...
The problem is holding more than two concepts in my brain at the same time. I immediately jumped to color. Whoops.

There were aspects of each technique that I liked, so I drew and painted the subject again. It came out worse.  In fact, each iteration seemed inferior to the one before. Value is everything in watercolor, and mine was heading south quickly.

When you add a new idea to your repertoire, you often forget everything else you know. Mercifully, this amnesia is generally temporary. “Why are you putting water there?” Poppy asked me. Of course, the location of my pool was ridiculous; I’d just wanted an excuse to draw my luscious fat mop brush across my paper and make sparkly water. 
Bobbi repeating herself.
I did about five terrifically bad paintings before I finally took the advice I give all the time as a teacher: when everything is going wrong, go back to first principles. I did the value study I’d intended to start with and then painted the subject again. Of course it came out much better.

Meanwhile, Bobbi Heath was doing exactly the same thing with graduated washes. I looked up and she was surrounded by paper, all bearing images of the same salt marsh.

This is an important principle of workshops and classes: what you’re painting isn’t nearly as important as how you’re painting.

One of Poppy’s other students mentioned not wanting to take the time to do a value study first. Most serious painters do them routinely, either as thumbnail sketches or notans. Drawing first saves time in the end. All your serious thinking is done in the planning stages. It’s less onerous to sketch in monochrome than to wrestle with color while you make value decisions.

Poppy's color choices for her spruces.
By the end of the day, I’d used half of my watercolor block. I had one painting which I am not reluctant to show you. I didn’t realize how tired I was until I was driving home from the workshop and had trouble focusing on the road. Being a student is exhausting.  I need to remember that when I’m teaching.

Today Bobbi and I leave to drive around the Bay of Fundy in slow stages, painting our way home. Meanwhile, Poppy is teaching twice more this season. If you’re interested, you can find information here.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Three Maud Lewis houses and 17 Guy's Frenchys

After class, we went touring and saw several Maud Lewis homesteads and a slew of Frenchys.

Ben Loman Harbour, c. 1952, by Maud Lewis

Poppy Balser is doing exactly what she should be doing in this workshop, spending hours putting us through technical exercises with big fat brushes. They’re very informative but not particularly photogenic.

After class, she offered to show us the sights. This is a beautiful area of mists and moors and glowering headlands, so we jumped at the chance. We started our tour at the Point Prim lighthouse. There’s been a light at this location since 1804, but this is a spare, uncompromising iteration built in 1964. Still, it’s very beautiful. It’s located on a wild, rocky headland at the mouth of Digby Gut and is surrounded by weathered, stunted trees and massive basalt and granite shelves.

One of many exercises I painted in yesterday's class.
Around Digby, the buzz is all about a movie depicting the life and marriage of Nova Scotia folk artist Maud Lewis. It was just released in Canada and is to open in the US in a few days.

Lewis was born in Yarmouth, NS in 1903. She suffered a severe form of juvenile rheumatoid arthritis that caused her to be unusually small and almost chinless. Today, with her physical deformities, she would have been cared for by the state, but that wasn't so in 1937. She moved to Digby to live with her aunt. In 1938, she married forty-year-old bachelor fish peddler Everett Lewis.

According to her husband, Maud answered an ad he had posted for a “live-in or keep house” housekeeper. They married a few weeks later and moved into his tiny one-room cabin a few miles west of Digby.

Provincial memorial at the site, more or less, of Maud Lewis' home.
Lewis accompanied her husband on his daily rounds peddling fish, bringing Christmas cards that she had drawn. Emboldened by her success, she started to paint on beaverboard, old cookie sheets and Masonite. Her worsening arthritis meant she was unable to do housework, so Everett did the housework and Maud sold paintings for very small sums of money.

Her original house is now in the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. The province has thoughtfully erected a steel memorial model close to its original location. Driving toward Digby Neck on a parallel road, we came across a sign pointing us toward another replica of her house. We squelched down a dirt lane to find it. It was built in 1990 by retired fisherman Murray Ross, and is complete with Everett’s shop and their mailbox.

Murray Ross' iteration of Maud Lewis' home.
We’ve been baffled by signs for something called Frenchys. It turns out that a Frenchy is a used clothing store. These were pioneered by Edwin Therialult. In the 1970s, he started imported used clothing from the United States to make cleaning cloths he called “wipers.” Some of the clothes were too good to shred, so he opened an outlet to resell them. Fortunately, he didn’t trademark the name, so a “Frenchy” is now a used clothing store. They’re big business around here. Guy’s Frenchys has seventeen stores and is just one of the chains using that name.

Headlands in the gathering dusk.
According to the cognoscenti, if you buy someone a gift item at a Frenchy, you should tell them it “had tags.”

Monday, May 15, 2017

Nova Scotia is calling me

Heading to Nova Scotia to study watercolors with Poppy Balser, I found a good reference for choosing easels in my email.

Replacing a plank on the Stephen Taber, by Carol L. Douglas
I had time for a quick sketch of the Stephen Taber between returning from Northampton, MA and departing for Digby, Nova Scotia. At the shipyard, Captain John Foss suggested I look up a local specialty called a Digby Chick, which he said is a particularly potent kind of smoked herring. On the boat a Digby native told us there is no such thing. Who to believe? The Captain, of course.

We were queuing for the ferry, which crosses the Bay of Fundy to the Digby Gut and from there to the Annapolis Basin. I was driving Bobbi Heath’s new SUV, which has Massachusetts plates. That gave me carte blanche to drive very, very fast (or so I said). The open road, my paint kit, and new places along the hard, cold North Atlantic surf—this is an idyll.

The ferry dock at Digby, Nova Scotia
We’re in Digby to take a workshop from the superlative Canadian watercolorist Poppy Balser. From there, we’ll head north and around the Bay via Truro and Parrsboro. I haven’t been in this neck of the woods since my trans-Canada trip last October. It’s warmer now, and I’m rested. This area has the highest tides in the world, and I have the time and energy to paint them in each phase.

I am moderately competent at watercolor, but Poppy has a loose, lyrical style that I admire and want to understand. This is, of course, the end result of a highly accomplished technique. There are lots of things I want to learn from her, including how she paints her lively, moving water.

Angelique at the Dock, 2016, Poppy Balser. She did the sketch for this at Castine, on the day we shared a Scotch Egg on the landing. I left, and she bagged the boat. 
From the instructor side, I try to discourage buying stuff just for my class. I don’t like making people spend money. It’s been fun experiencing this from the student side, however. The impulse to have something new for the first day of school is strong.

So I invested in some beautiful, new, elegant Rosemary & Co. brushes. I justify this by telling myself that, unlike oil brushes, it’s hard to destroy watercolor brushes. Beyond that, my watercolor kit was pretty good, actually.

Everything I own for watercolor fits in a plastic laundry basket, in contrast to my oil painting supplies, which spill out of my studio into every corner of my house. At plein air events, I envy the watercolorists their efficiency. When it comes time to frame, however, they get their comeuppance, as they have to fiddle with glass, mats and tape.

We had time to race around St. John’s lovely old streets to seek out the commercial harbor. Our goal of finding a greasy takeout for the ferry, however, was foiled. “Opening maybe May 16,” the sign read.  Just like home.

As soon as Bobbi saw the commercial fleet at Digby she started wondering about property prices. It's beautiful.
We’re carrying four easels with us. One is a predecessor of the Mabef M32, and one is a Guerrilla Painter Flex Easel mounted on a Slik tripod. These are for our watercolors, because they have heads that can be set horizontal. If space had been a problem, we could have used either of them for oils as well. It was easier to just toss our regular kits in the car. In Bobbi’s case, that is an Open Box M; in mine it’s a pochade box I made.

Last week I got a note from Olivier Jennes, founder of WonderStreet. “I was doing some research on easels and I came across one of your pages, which I found informative and well-written, so I was wondering if you wanted to have a quick look at an article about easels we just published.

“After doing weeks of independent research about all available brands of easels, we published the results in a blog article. Please note: we are in no way connected to any of the brands, we are just a blog with a passion for art and design.”

I’ve read their review, and think it’s worth passing along if you’re thinking about buying a new easel. You can find the link here.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Taking up painting after retirement

Yesterday I wrote about painters who continued working into their dotage. Today, I give you an example of one who didn’t even start until after most of her peers were dead.

Hoosick Falls, New York, In Winter, 1944, Grandma Moses
“The examples you gave yesterday are of people who have painted their whole lives,” a reader wrote. “I won’t have time to learn to paint until I retire. Do you think that is also true for people who take up painting at a later age?”

Leaving aside the idea that other work makes painting impossible (it doesn’t), we have a great example in Anna Mary Robertson “Grandma” Moses. She was born in 1860 in Greenwich, New York. She died in 1961 in Hoosick Falls, which is about twenty miles south. She had given birth to ten children, five of whom survived. She and her husband subsisted as small farmers, making much of what they had and doing without. From our 21st century viewpoint, her life was hard and limited in scope.

Wash Day, 1945, Grandma Moses
Still, that band of land from Greenwich to Hoosick Falls is arguably New York’s most sublime landscape, a region of soft rolling hills, fertile fields and pretty, old farmhouses. The other place where she lived for two decades, Staunton, Virginia, is in the Shenandoah Valley. It could be described exactly the same way. Both are places where rich urbanites come to vacation and appreciate the beauties of nature, but where the locals struggle to keep the house painted.

Grandma Moses did not take up painting until she was 78, but she showed an inclination toward art for her whole life. She had rudimentary art lessons in the one-room schoolhouse she attended (now the Bennington Museum in Vermont), and access to art supplies from the family who hired her as a farm hand at the age of twelve.

Mt. Nebo On The Hill, crewel embroidery, 1940, Grandma Moses
She produced quilts, dolls, and much crewel embroidery. Her unique painting style resonates with the values of her needlework, which in turn was influenced by the Currier & Ives lithographs of her childhood. Long before she was a painter, she was embroidering landscape paintings of her own design. In fact, she only took up painting when arthritis made holding a needle too difficult.  

Moses was discovered by art collector Louis Caldor, who saw her work in the window of Thomas' Drug Store in Hoosick Falls. Three of the paintings he bought were then included in the Contemporary Unknown American Painters exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1939. Two one-woman New York shows immediately followed. This began Moses’s meteoric rise in the art world. By 1943, there was an overwhelming demand for her paintings. 

Photo is labelled on reverse: “Mrs. Thomas and Grandma Moses her paintings were displayed in Mrs. Thomas drug store Hoosick Falls, N.Y. that's how she was discovered A man came by bought all paintings at $1.00 each.” c. 1940 (Courtesy Hoosick Falls Past and Present Facebook page)
Her homespun viewpoint contrasted sharply with the abstract-expressionist Zeitgeist of post-war intellectual America. She was popular for all the same reasons her friend Norman Rockwell was popular. By the middle of the 20th century, there was a noticeable split between the cognoscenti and the middle classes in terms of values and mores. It has only become wider and deeper today.

Most of Grandma Moses's paintings were done on cardboard and are relatively small. She painted her scenes first, and then inserted figures going about the daily work of farm life. She didn’t draw from life or photographs, but from her own fertile imagination. Because of this, her paintings are reminiscent of the Labours of the Seasons from medieval Books of Hours.

Country Fair, 1950, Grandma Moses
She belongs in the pantheon of naïve painters because she was self-taught, but to say that she was in any way primitive is risible, considering what has followed in the art world.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

She's Not There (yet)

Extreme old age seems liberating for many artists, who are finally able to take risks they couldn’t contemplate when they were younger.

Drunkenness of Noah, 1515, Giovanni Bellini (then 85)
The Duke of Edinburgh recently announced that he will be retiring soon after his 96th birthday. Either he has remarkable genes or his expectations are radically different from the gaffers I know. Most people are anxious to quit working as soon as they can. 

On the other hand, artists, like royalty, are bound by noblesse oblige. In other words, we must act in a way that conforms to our position and reputation. But how long can we keep it up?

Last night I toddled over to Northampton, MA to see the final show of the 1960s British rock band, the Zombies. They played their 1968 album Odessey and Oracle from start to finish one last time, after which they’re all moving on to something else.

Toward Another Light, 1985, Marc Chagall (then 97)
This was not a PBS special reunion band, where they prop up one aging member of a long-gone band and pad him with a backing orchestra. All four surviving players were present. Of these, Rod Argent, Hugh Grundy and Colin Blunstone turn 72 this year. Chris White is 74. Jim Rodford, who plays with them now, is 76.

They continue to play to the highest standard of musicianship, a standard that most young artists will never achieve, let alone maintain.

On the day before he died at the age of 97, Marc Chagall produced his last work, a lithograph entitled Toward Another Light. A portrait of his younger self with his late wife Bella is handing him a bouquet, while the Angel of Death waits to receive him. That's what you might call a strong finish.

Cover of Jazz, 1947, by Henri Matisse, 1947. Matisse was bedridden after abdominal cancer at age 72. He turned to cutting colored paper. Jazz was completed when he was 74.
A striking number of artists have been highly productive late into old age, including Giovanni Bellini (who died at 86), Michelangelo (89), Titian (86 or 88), Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, (86), Claude Monet (86), Henri Matisse (84), Joan Miró (90), Pablo Picasso (91), and Georgia O’Keeffe (98).

Faith Ringgold, who is now 86, drew the connection between visual arts and musicianship in an ArtNews interview in 2013. “You’ve got to do just like the musicians do, you’ve got to practice every day,” she said. “I plan to do that for the rest of my life, practice every day.”

Google's 12th Birthday, 2010 Wayne Thiebaud (then 89)
Wayne Thiebaud, who will be an eye-watering 97 this year, pointed out the relationship between physical well-being and creative control.  “The plumb line in the body gives us a sense of things like grace or awkwardness or tension.”

Extreme old age seems liberating for many artists, who are finally able to take risks they couldn’t contemplate when they were younger.

“Working becomes your own little Eden,” Thiebaud said. “You make this little spot for yourself. You don’t have to succeed. You don’t have to be famous. You don’t have to be obligated to anything except that development of the self.”

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

What a difference a day makes!

The first glorious plein air painting day was our last class of the spring session.  It was grand.

Camden and Mt. Battie, by Carol L. Douglas
Nobody understands spring like a Northerner. We long for that giddy day when the temperature first climbs above 50° F., the rain stops, and the sky clears. Our joints cease their muttering, our backs straighten, and our steps grow firmer and quick. It is a privilege to watch ice and snow roll back from the tomb of winter.

I used to teach every week. I travel too much for that now, so I break my classes into six-week sessions. This one has been shut indoors too much of the time by frankly lousy weather. It’s frustrated me. I think of myself as an apostle of plein air painting. How am I going to spread the good word, caged in my studio like that? Yesterday was expected to be cool with possible showers. It ended up being wonderful.

Great clouds and a rolling river.
The Megunticook is still raging down its chute into Camden harbor. A sky of sublime beauty sailed around us. Cumulus clouds formed above Mt. Battie and to the east over Penobscot Bay. Cirrus clouds striped the high altitudes. The wooden boats for which Camden is justly famous rocked gently at their moorings, their owners hard at work preparing for the season. The deep blue of the sky reflected midnight in the harbor waters. There were great paintings everywhere, and we were present.

I like most of my students, but this group has been special. Two absolute beginners drove in every week from near Jay. That may be only a distance of sixty miles or so, but, for you flatlanders, it takes the better part of two hours. That’s commitment.

Dinghy, Camden Harbor, by Carol L. Douglas
Only one student has been with me before. The other three are pretty advanced painters. All of them have great potential.

“That froth is not white,” I pontificated. Then I suggested they use pale tints of lavender and yellow ochre to model it.

“I believe you, but I don’t see it,” Jennifer answered. That comes with time, I told her.

A spectacular pileup of clouds to the east.
They may be done with this session, but still I gave them one last homework assignment: to look at Joaquin Sorolla’s handling of white. They are a myriad of tints, but I’ve noticed no absolute white anywhere.

I think commercially-bottled water is a lousy deal, environmentally and personally. Still, my house (like yours) always seems to collect the darn stuff. I’ve been toying with a bottle in my studio recently. It’s multifaceted and infinitely reflective. That led to my students’ second assignment: to draw a water bottle, in all its whirling complexity. If the drawing conveys meaning or mood, that’s even better. These students have until the end of the month to finish. You, dear reader, can email yours to me any time you want.

Your homework assignment, should you choose to accept it. Draw this, but do it from life, not from a photo.
Alas, the morning sped by, and we parted. By teatime, Mt. Battie and Camden were again shrouded in rain. We’d had a brief window of perfect weather and we had gloried in it.

Our new session starts Tuesday, May 30 and runs for six classes, skipping merrily over Independence Day. I’ll give you more information soon, but you can read about it or register here

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

The greatest painter of rain

The greatest landscape artist of the 19th century wasn’t a Frenchman. He was Hiroshige, or so his western contemporaries thought.

Sudden Shower Over Shin-Ohashi Bridge At Atake, 1856, Hiroshige.
As I was walking to the post office yesterday, a miniscule rain shower spattered in the woods next to me.  It lasted no more than a second. Being modern, I didn’t recognize it as an omen. Despite the forecast, by midafternoon it was misting heavily enough that no outdoor painting was possible.

We’ve had a lot of rain this spring in the northeast. The St. Lawrence River is full, so they’re holding water back in Lake Ontario, which is in turn flooding parts of Toronto and Rochester. Here in Maine the creeks and rivers patter loudly and joyfully down to the sea. And still it continues to rain; it’s on the forecast for the rest of this week.

Night Rain On Karasaki, Hiroshige
The 19th century Japanese artist Utagawa Hiroshige often used mist and rain as motifs in his compositions. He worked in a genre called ukiyo-e, which translates as “pictures of the floating world.” After Commodore Perry forced Japan open to Westerners in 1854, ukiyo-e was exported to the west. It had a profound influence on Western painting.

Hiroshige was the last master of ukiyo-e. Born in 1797 in Edo (Tokyo), he was left orphaned at the age of 12. His father was the samurai fire fighter of Edo Castle, and this responsibility passed to the son. Although he went on to study and work full time as an artist,he never shirked his duty, eventually passing it along through his family.

Two Men On A Sloping Road In The Rain, Hiroshige
Shortly after his parents’ deaths, he began studying art with the master Utagawa Toyohiro of the Utagawa school. This exposed him to western ideas of perspective, which had been imported in books carried to Japan by Dutch traders. The Utagawa school pioneered landscape painting as an independent genre.

Hiroshage worked with a sketchbook, traveling to other locations to assemble ideas and motifs for his woodcuts. Although he was prolific and famous, he was never wealthy; at one point his wife had to sell clothing and ornamental combs to support his work.

White Rain, Shono, 1833-34, Hiroshige
Hiroshage worked within the narrow genre of meisho-e, or “pictures of famous places.” In a sense, these were the predecessors of picture postcards.

Japonisme took the 19th century world by storm after the International Exposition of 1867 in Paris. Oriental bric-a-brac poured into western Europe. James Whistler reportedly discovered Japanese prints in a tea room near London Bridge. Claude Monet saw them used as wrapping paper. James Tissot and Edgar Degas collected ukiyo-e. Mary Cassatt was an open and avid admirer and imitator of the style. Vincent van Gogh famously copied two of the One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, which were among his collection of ukiyo-e prints.

And it wasn’t just the visual arts. Gilbert and Sullivan produced their comic masterpiece, The Mikado, in 1885. Japanese gardens became the rage. By the end of the century, Hiroshige was being referred to as the greatest painter of landscapes of the 19th century.

Evening Shower At Nihonbashi Bridge, 1832, Hiroshige
Hiroshige died at the age of 62 during a cholera epidemic in Edo. Just before his death, he wrote:

I leave my brush in the East
And set forth on my journey.
I shall see the famous places in the Western Land.

Sadly, the same cultural exchange that sparked so much artistic development in Europe also spelled the end of ukiyo-e. The rapid Westernization following the Meiji Restoration found photography vying with traditional woodblock printing. By the 1890s the tradition was, more or less, dead.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Blast from the past

Graphic design in the Fifties and Sixties was the playbill version of Googie: exuberant, absurd, energetic, Atomic Age America.
A tab at the top or bottom was left blank so local information could be added. That's why the type looks different.
I was looking for Howard Gallagher, owner of Camden Falls Gallery. Coincidently, he was looking for me. Curiously, we were both thinking about music, not painting.

In our youth, my husband was a bass player with Buffalo bluesman, Shakin’ Smith. We drew straws to see who had to get a real job, and he lost. He still plays, and he’d like to play more. The trouble is that his contacts are few up here in midcoast Maine. There doesn't seem to be as much of a live music scene here as in Buffalo. That's odd, considering this is a tourist destination.

Buffalo’s last bar call was at 4 AM. This created a world of its own for musicians, who generally had to wait until the last drunk stumbled out before the owner would unfist his cash. Often, musicians wouldn’t even start playing until 11 PM. One fine summer morning, Doug and I returned home after a gig to find his father up painting the garage door. He seemed inexpressibly old, but he was younger then than we are now.

This schedule was a remnant of an era when the mills roared 24-7. Bars stayed open to accommodate shiftworkers. That world is documented in Verlyn Klinkenborg’s elegiac The Last Fine Time.

Neither of us want to stay up all night drinking in seedy dives, but Doug does want to play. Howard likes music, so I called to see if he had any ideas.

No, but he needed a poster designed for a series of swing shows he’s organizing in Northport this summer. Back when Doug was playing the bass, I was doing graphic design using paper, an X-Acto knife, waxer, rapidograph pens, and other obsolete tools of the trade. I quit long after the transition to computers—almost exactly twenty years ago, in fact—but I still remember the basics.

Most of those mid-century type treatments were hand-drawn with pen and ink. Nobody was particularly fettered by so-called good taste or rules about the number and kinds of display fonts that were tossed together. Graphic design was the playbill version of Googie: exuberant, absurd, energetic, Atomic Age America.

I didn’t have enough time to hand-letter a poster. I made a passable imitation using Adobe Illustrator. It was great nostalgic fun, but no, I don’t want to design your logo. I'm way too busy painting. (If you need a designer, contact Victoria Brzustowicz.)

Meanwhile, I’m off to see The Zombies in Northhampton, Massachusetts this week. Colin Blunstone is approximately at the age my father was when he died after a long, pottering retirement. Blunstone’s on tour. Even old people aren’t what they used to be. 

Friday, May 5, 2017

Mysterious stone balls

Math, engineering and art are never very far apart. They're all creative processes.

Stone balls in the Terraba Plain, the Boruca region, Costa Rica. Smithsonian Institution. Bureau of American Ethnology, 1948. (Courtesy Doris Stone) *
A petrosphere is a round stone artifact shaped by human hands. Since no practical purpose has ever been assigned to them, they should properly be considered art.

Among known examples are the stone spheres of Costa Ricapainted pebbles from Scotland, plain sandstone balls from Traprain Law in Scotland, and the Carved Stone Balls of Scotland.

There’s definitely a Scottish bias in the distribution. Clearly, our Caledonian ancestors had a thing for stone balls.

Roman dodecahedron.*
Petrospheres shouldn’t be confused with Roman dodecahedra. These have no known purpose or meaning either. They are small, hollow bronze devices with twelve flat faces and knobs at the corners.  They are beautiful artifacts, but compared to carving a stone sphere from igneous rock, casting a brass shape was easy.

There are roughly 300 known stone spheres in Costa Rica. They range from pebble-size up to two meters in diameter. They were carved from granodiorite, which is a common, coarse-grained, hard, igneous rock. Since most of them have been removed from their original locations, scientists are guessing about their age. (It’s impossible to radiocarbon-date a rock.) But they’re generally thought to be “pre-Columbian,” which means they were there when Europeans arrived.

Pre-Columbian stone balls at Palmar Sur, Costa Rica.*
There’s no easy way to measure the rotundity of a large object, especially when it’s partly sunk into the ground. Photographs tell us that the Costa Rican stones are very spherical. The mystery to me isn’t why, but how. There was metallurgy in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, but it would have been useless for carving rocks. All they had for tools were other, harder rocks. Even with that limited technology, they carved shapes that rival those we can make today. And, of course, they are pure abstractions.

Six-knob Scottish stone ball, Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow.*
The Scottish Carved Stone Balls are less abstract. They are usually knobby and sized to be comfortably carried in the hand. Many of them have six concentric circles incised on them. They are mostly made of igneous greenstone, but there are sandstone versions as well. There are almost 400 known examples. Their distribution suggests that they originated in Aberdeenshire, in the northeast corner of Scotland.

They are much older than the Costa Rican spheres, being generally ascribed to Neolithic or Bronze Age people. Their decorative, incised surfaces hint at meaning and purpose, but these hints vanish under hard scrutiny. Were they fishing weights? Ball bearings to move stones for Neolithic stone circles? The Scots are, after all, famous engineers. Weapons? Or, that last refuge of an unimaginative archaeologist, religious symbols? There isn’t enough context for us to know.

Six-knob Scottish stone ball, Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow.*
But what there is in both the Costa Rican and Scottish examples is a kind of mathematical perfection. We make modern stone spheres with machines; they did them with eye and hand, and they’ve lasted for thousands of years. They are a reminder that math, engineering and art are very closely intertwined.