Paint Schoodic

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

Monday, July 24, 2017

What should I paint?

Getting past the iconic into the intimate means working out what you love about a place.

Apple tree with swing, by Carol L. Douglas

In 2013, I spent a few hours ambling around Castine with my friend Berna. I haven’t spent much time on foot there since. I’m always too busy.

This year, I managed to separate myself from my car keys. While I waited for my husband to drive up from Rockport, I took a quiet walk around town. I poked my nose into places I’ve never investigated.

Flood tide, by Carol L. Douglas
Things look different on foot. A marine creature broke the surface behind the Perkins House. The sweet tones of a flute drew me to a gate I’d never noticed before. The sea sparkled through the garden below.

I had time to ponder Castine’s Post Office. Established in 1794 and in the same building since 1833, it’s one of the nation’s oldest. It’s painted in the bilious yellow-and-rose-brown color scheme that was traditional before New England clapboard turned white. I’ve seen it many times, but never noticed the wooden baskets carved on each corner.

High tide, by Carol L. Douglas
Nor had I ever noted that the fine yellow Georgian on Main Street has brick side walls and a clapboard front. That’s the reverse of the usual pattern, so it’s a curiosity.

At breakfast, Harry and Berna and I pondered another question. If 40 artists each produced six paintings a year for five years, we’ve done 1200 paintings. Castine’s year-round population is 1,366. We’re close to a painting per person.

AM from Jim's deck, by Carol L. Douglas
My math, of course, is absurd. There haven’t always been 40 artists; we don’t always finish six paintings; many non-residents attend the show. But we have certainly painted Castine’s icons many times.

This presents both a problem and an opportunity. The problem can only be solved in one of two ways: either go farther abroad or dig deeper. This year, I painted two works off-the-neck, on properties overlooking the Bagaduce River.

Penobscot Early Morning, by Carol L. Douglas
Opportunity lies in going deeper. I started to notice apple trees. They were everywhere: leaning over an old stone wall, curving over a picket fence, in lawns, straggling along Battle Avenue. They are as much a part of our history as Castine’s fine old churches and houses.

The roots of plein air painting include the 18th century equivalent of picture postcards. It’s easy to fall into that trap, but it’s no longer necessary. 

Adams School, by Carol L. Douglas
Paul Cézanne famously painted Mont Sainte-Victoire over and over, using it as a template on which to work through ideas. There is much to be learned from getting past the iconic into the intimate, and working out what you truly love about a place.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Recovering from failure

What do you do when it’s all going wrong, and there’s an audience for your fiasco?

Can I finish this successfully? Gee, I hope so.
I am tossing around a theory that there’s a sweet spot in composition. On one side, you have the so-called ‘perfect composition.’ We’re always upset when these don’t win prizes, but—hint—they can be boring. On the other side is the total mess that breaks all rules, that is visually jarring and doesn’t satisfy.

Somewhere between them is where I aim to be. I have hit that at times by breaking rules (yes, the same rules I tell my students not to ignore). Not yesterday.

Carol's Bell Curve of Composition
It was a horrible day painting. Nothing I touched worked, and I couldn’t focus. Why?

It’s possible I set myself up to fail. That morning, I told watercolorist Ted Lameyer that I almost never end up flailing around these days.

It’s also possible that physical discomfort was getting in my way. My back is bothering me. And after working for several days in hot sun with insufficient fluids, I have a background dehydration headache.

It’s more likely, however, that the problem lies in the challenges I’ve set myself. I want to scale up my field painting in general. The smallest painting I want to do here is 11X14.

The subjects I mapped out for this year are also difficult. They’re things I’ve shied away from in previous years. For example, Castine’s common is a lovely patch of green ringed by venerable white clapboard buildings. It’s quintessential New England, but it’s basically a void surrounded by subject, with the added fillip of a Civic War monument smack dab in the middle of every view. My solution—a head-on view of the Adams School—may interest me, but it’s going to be a tough composition to wrestle into submission.

Maxwell the boatyard dog. His interest makes me wonder if my late dog Max peed on my backpack.
Still, I have no option but to recover. How will I do that?

There are several painters at this event whose judgment I trust; I will consult them today. Why listen to them rather than my own internal voice, which I usually trust?

In the heat of the moment we often hate what ain’t bad. Last year at this event, I painted the British Canal. I spent half my time on it and disliked the results; I would have run over it and tossed it in the ocean had that been an option. It’s in a collection here in Castine and I saw it last night. It’s actually an interesting and edgy painting but I was too frustrated at the time to realize that.

I find it helpful to remind myself that I don’t have to prove that I can paint; I wouldn’t be here if I couldn't. I try to block out what happened yesterday. Above all, I don’t perseverate over failing paintings; I move on.

And, lastly, I make sure I get enough sleep. Sometimes my worst failures are from simple exhaustion. Fix that, and I’m once again my usual chirpy self.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Swanning-around song

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,   
But I have promises to keep,   
And miles to go before I sleep,   
And miles to go before I sleep. (Robert Frost)

Full stop, by Carol L. Douglas
Route 3 from Augusta to Belfast is my least-favorite nighttime road. I love my Prius but it’s a small car. I’ve avoided any deer in its quarter of a million miles; I do not want to hit a moose. But inland and over is the quickest route from Ocean Park to Castine, ME. I struggled to see as the road wound and dipped around lakes and hills. As I approached Belfast, I saw a skunk doing his little shuffle on the shoulder of the road. He was small and it was late. Had I hit him, both of us would have been grieved.

Luckily, I only drive this way once a year, on the way from Ocean Park Art in the Park to Castine Plein Air. Since I love both shows equally, the late-night drive is a necessity.

Russel Whitten took a short break to give a painting lesson on his way into the show and sale.
I finished framing yesterday with enough time to paint the small study at the top of this post. Rarely is that last painting worthwhile. I’m tired and rushed and should be cleaning up and preparing for the next event, instead of trying to crank one more painting out. That’s particularly true when doing two events back-to-back. In this case, I was more than happy with the results.

Framing on the road.
I can frame quickly because I work in standard sizes. I keep a log on my phone of the frames I’m carrying and the ones I’ve used so far. I’ve included a small photo essay about the tools and materials for framing. It’s the unglamorous part of plein air events, but it’s very important.

A glazing-point driver is a necessity for the serious plein air painter. This one is made by Fletcher.
I used to carry a cordless drill, but this old fellah is more accurate and lighter.
All the hardware I'll ever need is in this case.
It is the collectors who make plein air events possible. In Ocean Park, Jean C. Hager-Rich has been a loyal supporter since the beginning. She tries to be the first in, makes quick decisions, and supports everyone with impartiality. A collector like Jean can set the tone for the whole event.

Equally important are our hosts, who open their homes and their lives to us for several days each summer. And then there are the volunteers, whose titles may be grand but whose tasks tend toward the humble.

After leaving Ocean Park, I zoomed around in the hills for what seemed like hours (because it was hours). I arrived at my hosts’ house shortly before 11. Harry met me at the door, concerned at my late arrival. Normally his wife is here to greet me, but she is swanning around the Eastern Seaboard. In the last three weeks, she has zoomed from Maine to New Jersey to Montreal, back to New Jersey, and then to Pennsylvania. She is returning to Maine today.

I need to recruit her as my wingman; clearly we are soul sisters.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Tank half empty, week half full

A show and sale at Ocean Park tonight, and we are then off running to Castine.

Beach time, by Carol L. Douglas
“I’m not doing a preparatory sketch, a value study, nothing!” I announced to Ed Buonvecchio as I flopped down on a bench next to him and pulled out my tripod. It’s terrible practice, and I would never recommend it to my students.

Still, I can’t help smiling at the resulting painting. A passer-by smiled and said, “Now, that’s Ocean Park!” I believe in process, but I also hope to communicate some of the joy of the beach, the fog, and the sun. That’s why I paint in the first place.

It was the last of my six paintings for Ocean Park Art in the Park. I have no idea if they’re better or worse than last year’s. Nor am I overly worried. I’m not judgmental about others’ work; why would I do that to myself?

Cupholders are for cleaning brushes, right?
I’m going to spend the morning framing and digging out my car. Then I’ll deliver my work. If there’s time, I’ll paint one more painting, just for fun. Then I’ll shower, put on my party clothes, and head over to the show and sale.

That’s from 5-7 PM at the Ocean Park Temple. This 1881 octagonal frame structure is worth seeing. It's beautiful and redolent of 19th century values and tradition. Tonight, it will have the bonus of a very good wet paint show. (You can find it by programming 46-62 Temple Ave, Old Orchard Beach, ME in your phone.) I’ll be on the stage with Mary Byrom. No, we are not singing or dancing.

Beach toys, by Carol L. Douglas
Yesterday I was in front of the Ocean Park Soda Fountain at 8 AM. This building has exercised a mesmerizing charm on me this year. I set up to paint the beach toys on the gift shop side.

I’d like to tell you how many hours I painted “in earnest.” However, there was never any seriousness about it. I’ve painted in Manhattan many times, but never spoken with as many people as I did yesterday. Since they were at the beach, they were all happy. I think it comes through in my painting.

Talking with passers-by is part of what itinerant plein air painters do. If we didn’t like people, we’d be home in our studios, harrumphing along quietly.

The roof of the historic Temple at Ocean Park
Many people told me they saw a story about us in the Journal Tribune, and felt welcomed to talk to an artist. It’s rare that I see an immediate response to a news story like that.

A number of people also mentioned seeing my painting of Fort Point Historic Site in the Bangor Daily News, as part of the publicity for Wet Paint on the Weskeag. The preview and sale will be at the Kelpie Gallery in South Thomaston on August 13 from 4-8 PM.

But before that happens, I’ve got many miles to go. Tonight, after the last paintings are packed up and the Temple lights dim, Mary Byrom, Anthony Watkins and I leave for Castine Plein Air. We will roll into that quiet village a few minutes before midnight. Tomorrow we line up bright and early on the Village Green to have our canvases stamped, and we are off and running again.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Woman about town

The joys of a beach vacation: drying towels and an old-fashioned ice cream parlor.

Drying towels, by Carol L. Douglas
Cheney Cottage, built in 1881, is now owned by the Ocean Park Association. It includes the Prophet’s Chamber, where the guest preacher stays. A shuffleboard court graces the side lawn; it’s run by a fifth generation Ocean Parker. The rambling old cottage itself is holiday housing.

Accompanied by early-morning birdsong, I strolled down Temple Avenue. I was looking for a streetscape that would capture the leafy greens, genteel architecture and relaxed summer feel of Ocean Park. Bright drying towels on the rail at Cheney Cottage caught my eye. They reminded me of summer trips to Maine when my kids were young.

As always, I did a value sketch before I started. From there I transferred my drawing to a 9X12 canvasboard. I frowned; it was too small. I decided to scale it up to 11X14.

I must have needed more coffee or something, because when I was done, the house was the same size as on the 9X12, but with more foreground showing. 

The temptation in this situation is to add an object to the foreground to fix the bad design. I experimented with a figure, but it didn’t work. Adding objects as an afterthought usually makes things worse, drawing the eye away from the primary subject. 

No matter; the house sits under great mature spruces, so the lawn was dappled with light and shadow. Having more foreground turned out to be no problem at all.

One of the great joys of plein air painting is the people you meet along the way. Cheney Cottage is currently occupied by an extended family who vacation together every year. Many of them stopped to see what I was doing. I spoke with an aunt who now stays across the street. As the family grows, there’s no longer room for them all in the old place.

The composition that was not to be.
I’m staying in the “new” part of the park, where cottages date from the 1920s and 1930s. In some ways, the character of Ocean Park—like everywhere—is inexorably changing. A long-term resident lamented the new builds in town. “Someday, all the old places will be gone,” she said. But not any time soon, thank goodness.

In the afternoon, I revisited a subject I’ve painted twice before: the Ocean Park Ice Cream Parlor. Here in southern Maine, the land is low, level and sandy. That makes wandering around with one’s gear easier, but it makes sight lines more challenging.

It helps to know perspective drawing, even when you're feeling expressive.
No matter what angle I choose, the foundation of the ice cream parlor remains resolutely parallel to my picture plane. I’d explored the possibilities of that on Sunday with my surf painting, I didn’t want to do it again. I set up about three different paintings and wiped them out. Then a couple stopped to read the outside menu board. Idly, I sketched them on my canvas. I liked them, and built the rest of the painting to support them.

Over the afternoon, my figures morphed into a father and a child, and another person materialized. By 4 PM, both the painting and I were done.

What's for lunch? by Carol L. Douglas
In the evening we had a lively reception for the artists. I went home to nap, intending to go out with Russel Whitten to do a nocturne. But when I awoke at 8:15, my eyes were nearly as red as my shirt. I went back to sleep.

This morning, the fog is not limited to my head. Fog makes for good painting, so I’m heading out in a few minutes. If you’re in southern Maine this morning, stop to see me. You can get directions at Jakeman Hall, at 14 Temple Avenue.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Reunion

The aurora borealis didn’t show up, but my friends did. Our plein air event at Ocean Park is off to a great start.
The new sandbar, 10X8, oil on canvas, by Carol L. Douglas

I arrived in Ocean Park in a flurry of excitement. The sun has been kicking up an electro-magnetic storm and it was possible the Aurora Borealis would be visible as far south as Boston. While Ocean Park is two hours south of my house, I thought there was a good chance we might get a glimpse of them.

I’ve seen the Northern Lights many times, but never with paints in hand. I’ve painted them in my studio but I long to paint them en plein air.

Goosefare Brook oxbow, 8X6, painted last year. It's gone now.
To that end, Frank Gwalthney and I drove down to Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge. This 50-mile-long Federal preserve touches Ocean Park. In addition to sheltering sea birds, it also provides an oasis of dark sky in Vacationland. But, alas, there was no shimmering green light, merely beautiful stars.

I spent five weeks painting in Canada and Alaska last year and never saw them there, either. They are fickle and shy.

Still, it’s not what you don’t have; it’s what you do have, and what I have is a happy band of painters whom I treasure as friends. Anthony Watkins set up to paint the Ocean Park Ice Cream Fountain. The rest of us headed off to the mouth of Goosefare Brook.

The Heavens Declare, 48X36, oil on linen, by Carol L. Douglas. Once again, I miss the chance to paint Aurora Borealis in the wild.
We’d heard that the tides had scoured out a new channel for the brook, but I was unmoved. Goosefare Brook wiggles around in its basin annually. My skepticism was misplaced. The oxbow is entirely gone. Its hundreds of tons of sand now sit out in the ocean as a new sandbar off the creek’s mouth. This has created a tidal pool of still water, suitable for young kids and anyone else who doesn’t want to fight breakers.

We understand that the ocean is unfathomably powerful, but that tangible proof is more convincing than any number of warnings.

Straight-on breakers, 10X8, by Carol L. Douglas
Despite our slow start and happy chatter, we all managed to turn out credible first paintings. In a few minutes, I’m heading downtown to start my first painting of the day. I think it will be a streetscape. If you’re in southern Maine this morning, stop to see me. You can get directions at Jakeman Hall, at 14 Temple Avenue. (If you’re new to Ocean Park, you may need to set your GPS for Old Orchard Beach.)


See you soon!

Friday, July 14, 2017

Friday flotsam and jetsam

What’s a studio visit all about? And how do you prep for it while prepping to go on the road?
Outrunning the Storm, 30X48, is finished and awaiting delivery to Camden Falls Gallery.

Bobbi Heath is co-hosting Leslie Saeta’s Artists Helping Artists this month. They discussed this blog yesterday in the segment called What We Can Learn From the Top Rated Artist’s Blogs.

Thank you! Artists Helping Artists is the top-rated art show on blogtalk radio.

Bobbi will be recording the next one during the middle of Castine Plein Air. That will be a tough balancing act, since she’s also a participating artist.

My host for Castine texted me yesterday. She’s in New Jersey and wanted me to know that it was 95° F. there and 59° in Castine. That’s perfect painting weather.

We don’t have or need air conditioning here in coastal Maine. The air off the North Atlantic keeps us comfortable. The average high temperature here is 76° in July and 75° in August. Bear that in mind if you’re thinking about my workshop in August.

I’m packing for next week’s events. Yesterday, I got a text from another painter. “I’m bringing 14 frames to Castine,” she told me. “I have four that are a different molding than the others. I want to try them out. And most of them are already wired so they aren't extra work. And I have seven sizes, mostly in pairs. Am I nuts?”

This is what's on my easel. It's based on a pre-dawn sail out of Camden last summer.
That’s a lot of frame for the six paintings she’s limited to, but her car is big enough. I always carry a variety of frames, so I can choose finishes and sizes depending on what I end up finishing.

I’m expecting a studio visit when I get home next weekend. Before I leave, my studio needs to be prepped. I keep regular open hours so it’s always presentable, but there are special considerations for a gallerist’s visit.

Although my studio isn’t vast, it is first and foremost a workshop. What I’m working on right now is part of my story. I don’t clear it away unless it’s unusually fragile.

There are many reasons for a gallerist or collector to visit us: to select work for a show, to see new work, or just to get to know us better. The same rules of hospitality that you apply in your house are appropriate in your studio. Turn off the stereo, ignore your phone and offer your guests refreshment.

Spring at the Boatyard will be going soon as well, en route to the Rye Art Center in Rye, NY.
Some experts recommend preparing a presentation on your work and its evolution. I have a strong internet presence, so I think that’s overkill. If I didn’t, a binder with earlier work, postcards and clippings would be appropriate.

If a person is interested in earlier work, I can pull out representative samples from storage. But most people are not interested in my past, but what I’m painting now.

Ready for visitors: neat, clean but not stripped of my work.
My studio functions as a gallery during the summer months, so there’s already a small selection of work hanging. However, the studio visit isn’t primarily to ‘sell’ art; it’s really to get to know the artist better. Think of it as a professional visit between two peers.

What do we talk about? The work, mostly: where it was done, what it means to me, and where I’m going with the ideas. Artists tend to be shy about this kind of interaction, especially when nervous. It helps me to remember that I don’t need to “sell” myself; the visit itself indicates a genuine interest in my work.

However, you don’t need to fill dead air space either. Give your visitor a chance to really look at your art.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

A pigment that’s older than modern man himself

In life and in death, our ancestors covered themselves with iron oxide.
Image of a horse colored with yellow ochre from Lascaux cave, France, c 17,300 BC
“What is the oldest pigment?” a reader asked me this week. That’s one of the few questions that archeology can answer definitively.

It’s ochre, one of the iron-oxide pigments. These minerals are common and easy to manipulate. Primitive man needed only to find suitable rocks and scratch or grind them. Adding water, he had paint. Adding milk, he had paint with a protein binder.

Ochre’s history is far older than modern man. A quartzite hammerstone found near the Danube shows a 500,000-year-old partial handprint of ochre. The earliest known cache of milled ochre comes from a Homo erectus site that’s about 285,000 years old. By 250,000 years ago, Neanderthals were using ochre at the Maastricht Belvédère site in The Netherlands. By 40,000 years ago, ochre was being manufactured in an ongoing process in an Ethiopian cave. That workshop lasted 4500 years.

Image of a human hand created with red ochre in Pech Merle cave, France, c.  25,000 BC
All that makes the Upper Paleolithic cave art at Lascaux seem downright modern.

Sienna, umber and red oxide are other iron-oxide pigments from antiquity, but none are as venerable as ochre. In ancient practice, different hues might have come from different rocks, or they could have been ochre that was heated or treated to change its structure.

The easiest way to manipulate ochre was to toss it in the fire. Burned, it turns red. Evidence of this dates from 100,000 to 70,000 years ago in deposits in Blombos Cave in South Africa.

Ochre filled a large niche in the prehistoric world. In addition to its obvious uses as a paint, it was a medicine, cosmetic, tanning agent and mastic.

Paintings in the Tomb of Nakht in ancient Egypt, c. 15th century BC
“[It] is not unusual to find a layer of the cave floor impregnated with a purplish red to a depth of eight inches. The size of these ochre deposits raises a problem not yet solved. The colouring is so intense that practically all the loose ground seems to consist of ochre,” wrote archeologist André Leroi-Gourhan of prehistoric Europeans. “One can imagine that the Aurignacians regularly painted their bodies red, dyed their animal skins, coated their weapons, and sprinkled the ground of their dwellings, and that a paste of ochre was used for decorative purposes in every phase of their domestic life. We must assume no less, if we are to account for the veritable mines of ochre on which some of them lived.”

Red ochre is closely associated with prehistoric burial rites. The so-called Red Lady of Paviland was a male skeleton dyed with red ochre about 33,000 years ago. 

Remains of the Red Lady of Paviland, Wales, c. 35,000 BC
“I found the skeleton enveloped by a coating of a kind of ruddle ... which stained the earth, and in some parts extended itself to the distance of about half an inch around the surface of the bones ... Close to that part of the thigh bone where the pocket is usually worn surrounded also by ruddle [were] about two handfuls of the Nerita littoralis. At another part of the skeleton, viz in contact with the ribs [were] forty or fifty fragments of ivory rods [also] some small fragments of rings made of the same ivory and found with the rods ... Both rods and rings, as well as the Nerite shells, were stained superficially with red, and lay in the same red substance that enveloped the bones,” wrote its discoverer, the Rev. William Buckland.

Some prehistoric graves used cinnabar in place of ochre. That would have been a costly trade item. Even in death, society has always been divided between the haves and have-nots. Ironically, what they had in this instance was toxic.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Historic New England, two towns apart

Looking for me? I’ll be in Ocean Park and Castine next week.

Wadsworth Cove garden, 12X9, oil on canvas board, Carol L. Douglas
For plein air painters this is haying season, the time we are working flat-out. However, I’ve had company this week. My nephews are in school, so they can’t visit during the off-season. We shoehorned this visit in between my trips. I hit the road again on Sunday.

My first stop is historic Ocean Park, ME. This invitational event is small, featuring Russel Whitten, Ed Buonvecchio, Anthony Watkins, and Christine Mathieu—and me, of course. This year the lineup is augmented by the return of Mary Byrom. She’s a fixture in southern Maine painting.

Last year, Russ, Ed, Anthony and I ended up painting as an ensemble, larking about together as friends rather than competitors. It was an entertaining, productive plein air experience, and I can’t imagine how it could be better.

Curve on Goosefare Brook, 8X6, oil on canvas board, Carol L. Douglas
Ocean Park is one of about a dozen remaining daughter Chautauquas in the US. It’s the only remaining one in Maine. Another camp meeting site, the Northport Wesleyan Grove Camp Meeting, exists today as the Bayside Historic District in the town of Northport. If there are others in this state, I haven’t run across them yet.

This movement started in 1874 with the New York Chautauqua Assembly, initially to train Sunday school teachers, but eventually dedicated to adult self-improvement. Chautauquas were usually set up in the woods, on lake or ocean shores, within day-travel distance of cities. They provided a potent combination of preaching, teaching, and recreation, and they became a craze. Among my few family photos are pictures of my grandmother and her sisters at Chautauqua, NY, around 1910.

Ocean Park ice cream parlor, 12X16, oil on canvas board, Carol L. Douglas
Ocean Park was founded by the Free Will Baptists in 1881. Except for internet and electricity, its Temple, meeting halls, and library remain unchanged. Historic, pretty cottages line its streets.

The sale of work will be at the Temple on Wednesday at 5 PM, but the exciting part of the week is earlier, when the artists are at work. Our whereabouts are posted on a sign outside Jakeman Hall; come see us!

After we pack our tents on Wednesday evening, Mary, Anthony and I will be trundling north for the fifth annual Castine Plein Air. Castine is historically significant for entirely different reasons, but it’s an equally beautiful town.

Wadsworth Cove spruce, 6X8, oil on canvas board, Carol L. Douglas
Located at the mouth of the Penobscot River estuary, Castine predates Plymouth Colony by seven years. Much of the town is 19th century New England clapboard and whitewash. Established in 1794 and in the same building since 1833, the post office is one of the United States's oldest. Set far off the beaten track, Castine retains its small-town feeling even during summer tourism season. In fact, my only recommendation is that, if you want to stay over for the show, you reserve lodging now.

Castine has two excellent museums and a fine library that usually features an historical display, so it’s worth visiting on its own merits.


Castine Plein Air is juried and highly selective. With 39 artists painting within the confines of the town, you don’t need to check with the organizers to find us. We meet at the village green early on Thursday, and then paint until Saturday. The reception will be held from 4 to 6pm on Saturday, July 22.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

How to critique work (and still have friends)

Imagine if we visited the Sistine Chapel looking for things to criticize instead of enjoying it for what it is.

Kaaterskill Falls, by Carol L. Douglas
Anyone who has ever taught teenagers knows they are simultaneously hypercritical and thin-skinned. They must be taught to be constructive and humble. A few years ago, there was a flash-in-the-pan video of an art student destroying her own work during a critique. She was mocked for being oversensitive, but listen to the girl criticizing the work. She is larding her critique with personal comments. That’s what happens in an unstructured critique class.

For that reason, we routinely used the “sandwich rule” in our class. We began by pointing out something the person did well. We then discussed the problems of the painting. We finished by pointing out something else that the person did well, so that each session ended on a positive note.

This method has been mocked as “fluffy bun—meat—fluffy bun,” but that misses the point. Often, people have no idea what they’re doing well. Their own self-doubt gets in the way of seeing what is successful in their painting. That needs articulation as much as the negatives do.

Camden in the fog, by Carol L. Douglas
We are taught from a young age that education is about correction, but it is as much about encouraging what is successful.

One problem with formal critique is that we sit there wondering what brilliant insight we can come up with about the work, rather than spending time absorbing it for what it is. Imagine if we approached the Sistine Chapel like that.

I once ruined a painting because of muddled criticism. It especially rankles that I’d paid a high-profile artist to deliver it. “It looks like a crude Chagall,” she said. Dismayed, I painted over the whole thing. Years later, I realized she was flat-out wrong. Criticism is, after all, just an opinion. Today, I’m confident enough to trust my own judgment, but I wasn’t at the time.

Lunch Break, by Carol L. Douglas
It’s easy to misconstrue a student’s intention. For this reason, it’s best to listen first, before offering commentary.

A critique session isn’t just about learning what’s wrong with your painting. It’s also about learning to read artwork, and learning to write artwork that is readable. To this end, I ask some general questions of the class, such as:

“What do you notice first? Second?”
“Why did you see those things in that order?”
“Does this evoke a feeling or response in you?”
“What is the point of this work?”

I am often asked to critique work over the internet. This is difficult. Our cameras and displays are not very accurate. I may not know the person in real life. Since we’re not having a personal conversation, I am guarded in my comments.

Piseco Outlet, by Carol L. Douglas
There is a very small coterie of artists I trust enough to ask for criticism via text or email. They’ve demonstrated that they’re knowledgeable and sympathetic to my painting goals.

Today, for my last class of this session, we’ll be critiquing work. Frankly, there’s enough negativity in this world. If we err, let us err on the side of kindness.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Those darn kids

Kids usually stop drawing when they hit puberty. That might be preventable.

12-year-old Cora Pahucki and her painting from Ellicott City Plein Air.
It’s the season when plein air painters hit the road. I expect to see Chrissy Pahucki twice this summer, first at Castine Plein Air next week, and then at Adirondack Plein Air in August.

Chrissy has three kids. Usually, she has one or more of them with her. As they’ve gotten older they’ve started painting alongside her, sometimes even entering open-to-the-public quickdraw events with her. “Ben calls dibs on Castine every year,” she told me. “Cora will be at Morristown, NY, with me. Samantha will do the Adirondacks.”

During the off-season (meaning the other ten months of the year), Chrissy teaches art at CJ Hooker Middle School in Goshen, NY. She’s an award-winning teacher as well as painter, and she must have nerves of steel, since she has been known to take her class plein air painting.

One of Chrissy Pahucki's paintings (unfinished) from Ellicott City Plein Air
This weekend, she was at the Ellicott City (MD) Plein Air Festival. Her daughter Cora, age 12, was with her. Kids painting in these events are so unusual that Cora scored a mention in the Baltimore Sun, here.

Each time I see their work, I wonder what kind of adult artists Ben, Samantha and Cora will end up being.

Meanwhile, I have houseguests. My three nephews range in age from 17 to 11. All of them carry sketchbooks with them when they travel, but Gabriel, who’s going into the 11th grade, is a marked man. He has that book in his hand everywhere he goes, and he uses it.

People often tell us artists about kids or grandkids who love art and show great promise at it. Sadly, most of them will stop drawing when they hit adolescence. Only a few will continue to express themselves with pencil or brush.

Another painting of Cora's from Ellicott City Plein Air.
Cartoonist Lynda Barry has speculated that paper ceases to be the same thing for adults that it was for kids: “[W]ith kids, a piece of paper is a place for something to happen. And for adults, it's a thing.”

Very little study has been done on the question of why kids stop drawing. What we know suggests that at puberty kids suddenly realize their efforts are unsatisfactory. Young children don’t care about proportion and perspective; they are working expressively. Older school-age kids want realistic results. If they can’t solve drafting problems to their satisfaction, they give up.

Another painting by Chrissy Pahucki from Ellicott City Plein Air.
Of course, drafting skills aren’t intuitive; they must be taught. Our western tradition has by and large abandoned teaching the discipline of drawing in favor of fostering genius and self-expression. It’s the rare child who perseveres through that, or has an art teacher who understands the importance of drawing.

In every class, there are one or two kids who’ve reasoned out how to draw. The rest of their class believe that these kids are blessed with some mysterious “talent” that sets them apart, but what they really had was the opportunity to see how drawing is supposed to work. 

I’ll bring Gabriel along with me for my last regular class of this session. “Hey!” said his younger brother when I announced this. “I like to draw, too!” But I know that lad. He’ll be off collecting seashells and I’ll be thinking up ways to stop him from slipping into the ocean, rather than concentrating on my class. Unlike Chrissy Pahucki, I can’t do two things at once.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Goodbye, Old Paint

Max cheated Death so many times that when it finally came for him, I was unprepared.
In his element (water), as he would like to be remembered.
Max, my ancient, wheezy Jack Russell Terrier, finally passed away yesterday. Requiescat in pace, you old reprobate. I hate to admit it, but I’ll miss you.

Max was atrociously old—balding, bedsores, few working teeth, and unable to fully control either bladder or bowels. I said I would never be a nursemaid to a dog, but he was saved by his good humor. He’s not unhappy, we would tell ourselves, and we’d get out the mop and bucket and clean up after him again.

Max was the Great Houdini at escaping death. At nineteen, he was frail but not sick. I thought that he might outlive me. Or, since he frequently caused me to trip over him, we might die together. His very kind vet, Dr. Carissa A. Bielamowicz, told me that this is true of the breed. They tend to die of simple old age, not illness.

It wasn't until his late teens that he started to act like a normal dog.
He was never a good dog. We ended up with him because he wouldn’t stay home. He would trot off to ginger up the neighbor’s dairy cows, or swim across the Erie Canal to chase cars on the state highway. “That dog’s going to get killed,” my mother said, and arranged for him to move to our house. We had him for more than sixteen years.

He was constitutionally unable to walk on a leash. People were just too slow and incurious for him. He was an inappropriate hunter. His victims included several cats and an African Grey Parrot. He could catch songbirds in mid-flight. And, of course, he chased cars whenever he could slip out. He was fractious with the mailman and with other dogs, but his worst ire was for a neighbor’s Jack Russell Terrier. He and Lucy snapped and feinted at each other whenever they met, which was often. “Just like they’re married,” we said.

In his killing days, when he still had teeth.
Like many small dogs, he was fearless. He loved to pester Canada Geese and gulls, swimming out and snapping at them, unaware that he wasn’t a water dog. Once he tried that with a Mute Swan. It didn’t go well, but he was undeterred.

His fearlessness made him a great plein air buddy. Many times I camped and painted with him as my only companion. He would have died defending me. His last painting trip with me was last fall. “Don’t fall in,” I kept telling him, as he tore up and down the rock cliff chasing the tide. “I’m not coming in after you.”

My studio will seem empty without his muddleheaded presence.
I’ve had dogs all my life, but he will be the last. There are fewer places where dogs and people can roam unfettered. Dogs are great instructors when they can snuffle and burrow and show you the world through their eyes. I’ve learned much about natural history from them. But leashed and fenced, they become a management issue.

Dog and boy, much younger then.
Max started failing again on Wednesday. On Thursday morning, he could no longer stand. His boy—my youngest child—sat with him for most of the day, quietly chattering with him. I took refuge in housework. “Cleanliness is next to dogginess,” I told Max. He was in too much pain to laugh.

As he relaxed into his final rest, I realized just how much effort he had been putting into merely surviving. But he was a dog, and dogs never complain.