Paint Schoodic

We had another successful painting workshop at the Schoodic Institute in beautiful Acadia National Park. Join us in 2018!

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Maine’s state flower is not a flower

In which our heroine reveals her shocking ignorance about evergreen species of Maine, and vows to do better.

I painted it, but I have no idea what it was.
I had a visitor to my studio this week, a collector who also follows my blog. She read about my recent interest in Eastern White Pines, and mentioned that they are Maine’s state tree. I was surprised, since I don’t see them in my little corner of the state.

“What is Maine’s state flower?” I asked her, figuring it would be either the lupine or rosa rugosa, both of which grow in wild profusion here. Turns out it’s the cone of the Eastern White Pine. It was adopted as the state flower in 1895, after it was used in the National Garland of Flowers at the 1893 World’s Fair.

This may be the Pine Tree State, but its natural trees include many more broadleaf species (52) than evergreens (14). They’re the same species as grow in my native New York, but here conifers provide a much greater percentage of the forest cover.

Sentinel trees, by Carol L. Douglas. Red pines, maybe?
I don’t know evergreens as well as I know deciduous trees. This week, I’ve decided to learn about them in earnest.

We have more evergreens here because we’re closer to the taiga, the broad swaths of boreal forests that run in a ring around the North Pole. (There is no southern-hemisphere equivalent because there isn’t enough land in the proper latitudes.)

The boreal forests dip into the continental United States where it's mountainous. Here in the northeast, that means along the Appalachians from northern New York to northern Maine. But mostly, they’re in Alaska and Canada.

The Dugs, by Carol L. Douglas. That's a beaver dam in the southern Adirondacks. I can tell you the red flashes are soft maples, but I can't tell you what the dark evergreens are.
Coniferous trees are adapted to the taiga. They shed snow easily. Their needles are cold- and drought-resistant, with thick waxy coatings and very little surface area. They can turn photosynthesis on when the temperature goes above freezing on winter days. Broadleaf plants can’t exploit brief moments of warmth; they remain dormant after they shed their leaves. That limits their growing season.

The most obvious difference between spruce and pine is how the needles are arranged. The needles of spruces attach directly to the branches. Pine trees have needles in bundles called fascicles.

The needles of balsam firs also grow individually. However, while spruce tree needles are sharp and flexible, fir needles are flat and blunt. Balsams are notable for their fragrance.

Another evergreen I painted without first asking its name. How rude!
Tamaracks, or larches, are the only deciduous conifer that grows here. Their needles are three-sided and blue-green. They turn bright yellow in autumn.

I only learned recently that jack pines were a species, not a description of a weather-beaten tree. These small, drought-resistant trees have stiff, short needles in bundles of two. Their branches are long and spreading, forming an open ragged crown.  The dark brown bark is irregularly divided into small scales.

Pitch pines are coastal trees. They have long needles that come three to a fascicle. Pitch pines sprout needles from their trunks.

White pine also has long needles, but they come five to a fascicle. Mature, these are huge trees with large cones. Red pines have two needles to a fascicle, but since both species are big, counting the needles may not be practical. Red pine bark is, yes, redder than white pine.

Last are the cedars, which have flat, fanned foliage, and the junipers, which have little blue berries. Just to be annoying, the most common juniper in the northeast is called the Eastern Red Cedar.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

The way to end all wars

Hitler and Churchill were both artists. Who would have won a painting throwdown?

Mary's First Speech, by Winston Churchill (courtesy Wikiart)
The Battle of Britain was a military campaign between the Royal Air Force and the German Luftwaffe. It was brutal and bloody, with 90,000 civilian casualties, 40,000 of them fatal. It is remembered as the first major campaign fought entirely by air forces. The United States hadn’t yet weighed in against the Axis powers, and Britain and Canada went it alone against the greater strength of German air forces.

The Battle of Britain was also the only battle in history where both leaders were artists. If, in June of 1940, Britain and Germany had instead engaged their premiers in an art competition, who would have won?

“I am an artist and not a politician. Once the Polish question is settled, I want to end my life as an artist,” Adolf Hitler said. He was bitter at his failure to gain acceptance at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna, and in Mein Kampf blamed that failure on ‘the Jews’.

The Courtyard of the Old Residency in Munich, by Adolf Hitler (courtesy Wikipedia)
Hitler was rejected twice by the academy. His problem was his portfolio, which was heavy on architecture, light on portraiture and figure. One professor, noting his excellent draftsmanship, suggested that he apply to the School of Architecture. As a drop-out, he would have had to return to secondary school first, and he was unwilling.

Hitler described himself as a ‘student’ of Rudolf von Alt. However, there is no fantasy and little of the natural world in Hitler’s work. He showed a profound disinterest in the people who should have inhabited the architectural spaces he drew. If they appear at all, they are static columns. His painting style was far more conservative and pedantic than the leading lights of fin-de-siecle Vienna, such as Gustav Klimt.

Tree at a Track, 1911, by Adolf Hitler (courtesy Wikipedia)
Winston Churchill did not pick up a paintbrush until the age of 40, but he had more than four decades to practice his great avocation. “Winston found hours of pleasure and occupation in painting,” wrote his daughter, Mary Soames.

“It was a ‘love affair’ with painting – I think that is the only way to describe it. Problems of perspective and colour, light and shade gave him respite from dark worries, heavy  burdens and the clatter of political strife.” Painting enabled him “to confront storms, ride out depressions and rise above the rough passages of his political life.”

Churchill took up painting in June 1915. His sister-in-law was painting in watercolor at the family home, Chartwell. She gave him her son’s kit and urged him to try it. He was so enthusiastic he bought an oil kit the next day.

Lakeland Scene near Breccles, by Winston Churchill (courtesy Wikiart)
“The first quality that is needed is audacity. There really is no time for the deliberate approach,” he said. As a very busy man, he had no patience with the idea of traditional training. “Two years of drawing lessons, three years of copying woodcuts, five years of plaster-casts, these are for the young… We must not be too ambitious. We cannot aspire to masterpieces. We just content ourselves with a joy ride in a paintbox.”

Churchill used painting to chase off the “black dog” of depression that haunted him through his life. By 1921, he was showing his work. He would submit pieces for jurying under pseudonyms so as not to influence jurors.

Churchill loved to paint en plein air, and his paintings are full of light and color. While he was not a master painter, he worked within the style and mood of his times, unlike the reactionary Hitler. If I were the juror, I’d give the first-place ribbon to him. Then again, I know how it ended.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

We Help Grandma

A children’s book I used to love now just ticks me off.

The Country Bunny's children were remarkably adept at household chores.
Long before I had a family of my own, I loved The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes. This 1939 children’s classic, written by DuBose Heyward and illustrated by Marjorie Flack, is now regarded as a feminist and anti-racist statement. I was a child before either of these were a concept, however. I’m sure I just liked the pictures.

The book tells the story of Cottontail, who is a small, fast brown rabbit who aspires to be an Easter Bunny. She applies, only to be scorned by the elite big white Easter bunnies, who tell her to “go back to the country and eat a carrot.”

One of my helpers, vacuuming.
She goes home and, “by and by she had a husband and then one day, much to her surprise there were twenty-one Cottontail babies to take care of.” (Her husband is noticeably absent in the baby bunnies’ lives.)

She teaches them to do all the gardening and housework, thereby freeing herself to pursue the brass ring of Easter Bunny-dom once more. Then, she goes back to the big city where she surprises Grandfather with her speed, gained by mothering. She aces the test and becomes one of the greatest Easter Bunnies of all time.

We Help Mommy featured kids working with their mother. It was much more realistic.
It wasn’t until I had kids of my own that I realized how dismissive this book is of the work of mothering. It perpetuates the lie of my youth, that women can have it all. We can choose anything, but—like all mortals—are limited by time and energy.

Any mother can tell you that it’s more difficult to teach a kid to do chores than to do them yourself. Still, kids can do tasks and they can be managed. What they can’t do is run their lives unsupervised. Raising good children requires a high level of skill and talent, but also a lot of hard work.

More realistic were We Help Mommy and We Help Daddy, illustrated by Rochester, NY’s own Eloise Wilkin. First published in 1959 and 1962 respectively, they feature little Bobby and Martha helping their parents with various household chores. Kids love to help, but as Wilkin’s books make clear, they’re not able to do jobs without help.

Little Bobby and Martha also had a daddy, and he too was engaged in his kids' life.
This was the Golden Age of Little Golden Books, and Wilkin was their queen. Born in Rochester, she moved to New York City as a child, returning to attend the Rochester Athenaeum and Mechanics Institute (now Rochester Institute of Technology). In 1944, she signed a contract to produce three Golden Books per year. She illustrated 47 of these books over her long career.

I have two little helpers here this week. They’re my grandchildren. They’re reducing my productivity to zero, but I don’t mind. I’ve had a busy summer and this is my reward.

Parents (and grandparents) know that we give chores to babies not to clear our schedules, but to keep the kids busy while we do the dishes ourselves. Chores never hurt anyone, but it’s ridiculous to think that kids could manage a household themselves. Feminist and anti-racist the Country Bunny might be, but I’m never buying a copy for any grandchild of mine.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Why facts matter

What is an artist if not a truth teller? To tell the truth, you must understand what you are looking at.
Painted by Sandra Hildreth from Eagle Island during the ADK Plein Air Festival.

Sandra Hildreth never wins prizes at the Adirondack Plein Air Festival. She exempts herself because she’s the organizer, but I hate seeing her work overlooked in the jurying. Part of what one registers in art is passion, and hers is very passionate work. She is the Adirondacks’ most tireless art champion, a fine painter whose skills are focused on what she loves.

“I paint what is wild,” she wrote. “It might be a moss covered glacial erratic deep in a tangled old growth Adirondack forest…”

Barnum Brook, 12X48, by Sandra Hildreth.
Full stop here: that’s the difference between Sandra and most of the rest of us. I understand rocks but could never identify a glacial spill under the mess of foliage of an Adirondack hillside.

A student at this summer’s workshop asked me why knowing what we were looking at was important. I was slightly nonplussed, since I like knowledge for its own sake. Still, understanding the natural world informs painting, and Sandra’s work demonstrates this.

Nocturne, by Sandra Hildreth.
Her painting of trees, top, has the authority and authenticity of fact. Her trees could be nothing other than Eastern White Pines clinging to a mountain rock in a cold lake in the northeastern forest. She has told us, as clearly as a photograph could, about the feathery needles, the soft color, the mature mien of the trees, and how the rock has cleaved with great age. Accuracy with drawing allows her to be loose with the paint. It also gives us a whiff of mountain air when we see the painting.

I don’t know Sandra well, but we painted together in a boreal wetlands a few years ago. She’s a friend of my pal and former student Carol Thiel. The two of them clamber around the ADK’s 46 mountain peaks together. Sometimes they bring their paints along on these hikes. Walking in the woods is a powerful learning experience.

Split Rock Falls, by Sandra Hildreth.
Sandra grew up in Wisconsin and has a BFA from Western Kentucky University. She taught high school art in northern New York for 31 years, moving to Saranac Lake after she retired. She paints full time and is a devoted grandmother.

She paints what she identifies as wilderness—not just the splashy big national parks, but the places where man has not yet tamed nature. “They just need to have some of the qualities of wilderness, such as very little evidence of humanity,” she wrote. “Places where nature is dominant, not civilization.”

Eclipse, by Sandra Hildreth.
At some point, an artist moves past what is painterly and beautiful and arrives at what is true. If you want to be a truth-teller, you must first understand your subject. We have all seen paintings of inoffensive, unremarkable trees and rocks. They tell us nothing about the terrifying majesty of nature. They have no lasting power. Sandra Hildreth’s forests are for the ages.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Making choices

Every time you paint plein air you make choices. Frequently they turn out to be wrong. How do you deal with them?

In the belly of the whale, by Carol L. Douglas
When you are painting for fun, you have the luxury of scrubbing out bad ideas. When you’re painting in a competitive event, you have limited time. You need to find ways to fix the problems you create without starting again from scratch. Sometimes these are the most interesting paintings, if you don’t lose your nerve.

Yesterday, Bobbi Heath took her oatmeal up on the roof. While she concentrated on her painting, a seagull stuck his beak through the lid and pulled it off. Evidently he didn’t like it, so he smeared it across the hot tub cover. That’s an example of a bad choice, one that seemed relatively innocuous but ended up making a big mess.

An evil, breakfast-poaching seagull (photo courtesy of Bobbi Heath).
I usually start field paintings with a sketch and value study. I find this saves me time over the long run. Occasionally, I throw out this standard practice and start by making a big abstraction on my canvas. I did that on Wednesday in my painting of Beach Haven. I then struggled to integrate the red umbrella on the bottom left.

The problem ended up creating a more dynamic painting than a more intellectual process would have. I liked it so much that I repeated the process with In the Belly of the Whale yesterday. Again, I struggled with bits and pieces that kept sliding out of my compositional pocket. The resulting painting isn’t brilliantly drafted, but nobody could call it boring. I call that success.

A basic part of the boat-painting process is checking to see how long the captain plans to stay in harbor. I ask, but it’s not always infallible. Yesterday, I hollered down to my new deck-hand friend Brian to ask him how long F/V Captain John would be in her slip.

The ice guy was interesting but wouldn't be a good subject for a plein air painting.
They would be in for several days, he told me. I set up to paint. However, I neglected to ask him whether they would be pulling down the dredging rig. It was the subject of my painting. Oops.

We all understand that it’s never a great idea to try something completely new at a competitive event, like pulling out a new medium you’ve never used before. Ignoring that rule, Kari Ganoung Ruiz decided to try out casein for the first time at Adirondack Plein Air. “I need better brushes, but it was pretty good,” she told me. Actually, the resulting miniature was inspired.

There are ergonomic issues, like bringing a board that is too big for your easel. I painted 14X18 this week, but my little aluminum contraption maxes out at 11X14. I just tied things down with a bungee cord and hoped for the best. That’s an error I need to fix before the next big wind, by building or buying a bigger box.

Rooftop Aerie, by Carol L. Douglas (sold).
Yesterday, I learned that it is foolish for women painters of a certain age to ask young, male deckhands for lunch recommendations. Our lunches were regrettably enormous and starchy.


Bobbi didn’t have her usual car, so we packed a lot of things in a Toyota RAV4. It’s a great little vehicle, but we had to make hard choices about what to bring. We were simultaneously rooting through masses of stuff and Mcgyvering solutions for things we didn’t have.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

It all depends on where you’re coming from

The Jersey shore is hot, but I just remembered Big Boy tomatoes. Ah, bliss.

Beach Haven, by Carol L. Douglas
Yesterday was more comfortable than Tuesday. It was still in the mid-eighties, but the humidity was lower and there was a slight offshore breeze.

Bobbi and I perched in a pavilion on Pearl Avenue at Beach Haven. There’s an awesome orange water tower there, but no shade from which to paint it. We chose the beach for the pavilion.

We had considered getting a pedicure during the heat of the day, but decided that was irresponsible. Had we been working in Maine at these temperatures, we would have had ourselves declared dead and gone out for a wine spritzer. But we’re here to work, I kept reminding myself.

Periodically, guys ran down to the beach carrying a brace of brass bells. They rang them in long peals. I finally figured out that they were ice cream truck drivers, and that the bells were to advertise their wares. Business seemed slow to me.

“Usually, they rush over when I ring the bell, but it's a little chilly today,” one of them said.

View from Joan's rooftop aerie.
My favorite place to paint thus far has been on the roof of a three-story house. In the real world, this would be a two-story house, but it’s up on stilts to avoid being flooded out. The space below has a man cave, an open-air studio and two outside showers. We should have worked down there, but one glimpse of the rooftop and I was hooked.

If I started shortly after dawn, I could work up there until mid-morning. The roof deck is painted with a thick white waterproof enamel that feels like the surround of a municipal swimming pool. It’s comfortable until it heats up. After that, it’s suddenly too hot to stand. I had no shoes on, of course. When it got to that point, I hopped around trying to clean up and get off the roof as quickly as I could.

Ironically, the major furnishing of this beautiful aerie is a hot tub.

There are too many paintings up there to ignore. While I’m painting the view between two houses, Bobbi is painting a street in the opposite direction. There are entire lives to be glimpsed from the roof: furniture, cars, the beach groomers, utility guys, cleaning people. It’s quiet and aloof, considering the crowds elsewhere.

I love being up there above the trees. I am the Little King of Everything, surveying all that I see.

Commercial scallopers, by Carol L. Douglas
Our hostess is Joan Gantz, a talented abstract painter. She just finished a mammoth mosaic mural project that has taken three seasons to complete. I don’t think I’ve ever been billeted in an artist’s house before. It’s been fun to talk art with her, and her studio makes a great place to stash our incomplete paintings.

New Jersey is the Garden State in part because it’s so hot. Joan reminded me about New Jersey tomatoes. I wonder if I can find room for an eight-quart basket of Big Boys in our already-overfilled car.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Why sell your work?

Selling is not selling out. If nothing else, you can use the money to buy more paint.

Keuka Lake, by Carol L. Douglas. All that vert is beautiful, but tough on allergies.
There is a myth that the word Genesee is Seneca for “Pleasant Valley.” In fact, it means “miasma,” from the humid air that hangs over the Genesee Valley. The Seneca were the most numerous of the Haudenosaunee people. Many moved west along the Niagara River and south into Pennsylvania. This was largely to escape the heavy air in their heartland.

The Adirondacks were never permanently settled by the Iroquois and Algonquin. They hunted there and brawled with each other. The winters are too cold, the summers are rainy, and the soil is thin.

I haven’t had an asthma attack since I left New York. Rochester is a city of lovely gardens, which means heavy pollen. I loved to garden; I hated my allergies. In Maine, nobody fusses with rare plants, and the offshore breezes keep the pollen down. I replace my rescue inhaler annually but never need it.

Letchworth Middle and Upper Falls, by Carol L. Douglas.
Last week in the Adirondacks I was having twinges of breathing trouble. It was nothing that I couldn’t control by sitting quietly. When I arrived at Long Beach Island, NJ, my asthma bloomed with terrific ferocity.

“Welcome to New Jersey,” my New Jersey pal Toby texted me when I complained. I blamed the cedars and retreated to air conditioning.

With temperatures in the mid-eighties and no shade, both Bobbi Heath and I were wilting. A few passers-by expressed amazement that we were painting here instead of at home in cool, breezy Maine. Why would we do that, they asked. We’re here to sell paintings.

Bridle path, by Carol L. Douglas
Sometimes I meet people at plein air events who say they do these events just to have fun. I’m not sure if I believe them. These festivals are organized around the all-important show and sale at the end. The energy is infectious.

Selling your work is important. When people pay money for your work, they’re telling you that it’s good enough to shell out for. That’s far better validation than your grandmother’s praise.

Selling is communication, a dialogue between you and the buyer. Putting your work out with a price tag forces you to see it as transactional, as a reciprocal exchange of ideas. That, in turn, requires that you clarify your ideas enough for them to make sense to the viewer. Some people call that ‘selling out,’ but I’m not talking about producing dreck. I’m talking about the difference between omphaloskepsis and conversation.

Eastern Manitoba forest, by Carol L. Douglas. I love trees but they don't always like me.
Selling your work grows your fan base, because it puts your work out there for public consideration. And therein lies the rub. When you first start out, the work you labored over will probably be met with cruel indifference. You just need to work through that.

I first started selling paintings because the finished ones were taking up too much room. And, of course, most of us also need the money, if only to buy more paint.

According to Toby, today is going to be cooler. We’ve got paintings to make and a schedule to keep. I sure hope she’s right.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Self-defeating behavior?

Perhaps women make less money because we tend to take our careers less seriously than men do.

American Eagle in Dry Dock, by Carol L. Douglas
I’ve written about gender inequality in prices achieved by male and female artists. I’ve also written about the gender gap in the broader arts industry. Women in the arts earn 68¢ for every dollar earned by men. That’s far worse than in the overall economy, where women can expect to earn 79¢ for every male-earned dollar.

There’s gender disparity in arts prizes, too. We see it at every awards celebration. It’s somewhat puzzling because the judging for art prizes is usually ‘blind’, meaning the juror doesn’t know who the artist is. However, that’s a leaky bucket, since most of us recognize each other’s work even when the work isn’t signed.

Dinghy, Camden Harbor, by Carol L. Douglas
If work is genuinely judged without knowledge of who the artist is, what do judges see in men’s work that they don’t in women’s work? Men tend to paint bigger at plein air events; they buy into the cliché, “go big or go home” more than women do. Bigger work is flashier and more likely to catch a juror’s eye. That’s about the only qualitative gender-based difference I’ve seen, and it’s hardly absolute. I’ve strained to look for them, and differences in subject matter, competence, temperament or viewpoint are simply not there.

Lisa BurgerLentz and I were chatting last week about the idea of professionalism. She proposed that artists who define themselves as professionals tend to earn more money than those who see themselves as dedicated hobbyists or amateurs. I looked around the sales floor at Adirondack Plein Air and thought she was right. Those painters who see themselves as pros charge more money and put effort into creating a consistent package of framing, image, and product. They have developed a sales patter that works. To be a professional artist, you do a lot more than create beautiful work.

Bev's Garden, by Carol L. Douglas
Bobbi Heath and I drove to Long Island Beach, New Jersey, yesterday for Plein Air Plus. In her prior life, Bobbi was a tech project manager who worked in entrepreneurial start-ups. She brings those management skills to her art career. “No one else bestows on you the title of ‘professional.’ You decide whether you’re a professional or not. It’s not about how much you sell. It is based on your view of yourself. Being a professional is about how you approach your work. It’s an attitude that you have about yourself and your career.”

None of this has anything to do with artistic brilliance. I assume that anyone reading this is already striving to be the best painter he or she can be. In the marketplace, artistic brilliance is a chimera. It’s irrelevant to sales, because there’s a market for anything. It’s also a subjective definition.

Keuka Clearing Sky, by Carol L. Douglas
Perhaps women make less money because we tend to take our careers less seriously than men do. We shy away from the hard work of comparative pricing, marketing, and market development, partially because those aren’t areas we have any experience in. We tend to see our low income as an indictment of our worth, rather than a stage in our business development. If that’s the case, we’re shooting ourselves in the foot.

Monday, August 21, 2017

My tribe is a circus

Love more, forgive more, hug more, and say ‘I'm sorry’ more.

Along Kiwassa Lake, by Carol L. Douglas
Saturday threatened rain, so John Slivjak, Tara Will and Stacy Rogers wisely set up in a bandshell for the Adirondack Plein Air Quick-Draw. I was nearby.

It was not until I bent to fix my umbrella that I noticed a musician setting up equipment on the stage. John, Tara and Stacy just played through, like the professionals they are.

Aside from a little air guitar, John Slivjak, Tara Wills and Stacy Rogers didn't let a performance distract them. (Photo courtesy of Ann Slivjak)
Friday had been a great opening reception and sale. Still, I had been settling into a bad mood all day. Being doused as I left Town Hall didn’t help. I am not prone to the black dog of depression, but I was questioning my life choices, feeling old, washed up and hopeless. I thought I might be getting a cold. “You’re just overtired,” my husband consoled me.

Friends invited me to go out for a celebratory drink. “No thanks, I’d rather drink alone,” I groused.

Two weeks ago, my husband and I flew to Baltimore to pray with a friend. During Saturday’s Quick-Draw, I got a text from his wife telling me that he was failing. At 1:30 PM my husband called to tell me that Emerson had passed away.

We were in the whirl of an art sale. There was nothing I could do but shut down my feelings and get on with the job. In our brief conversation, my husband told me he’d felt it was coming. I realized then that I had been given the gift of grieving in advance.

Tomatoes, my Quick-Draw from the Festival.
Emerson was a wise old bird. He looked to the state of his own soul rather than fussing at others about their choices. That’s the harder road. It means facing up to our faults, repenting, and resolving to stop our sin cycles. It requires terrifying honesty.

It’s also the only way to be a light of the world. With so few of them around, I found it difficult to understand how God could call home such a powerful saint. Still, Christians get no special pass from the troubles of mankind. We’re just given a powerful tool—grace—to deal with them.

“Death eventually will come for us all,” said Emerson’s friend Mary Beth Robinson. “What we do today affects the legacy we leave. This week perhaps we should strive to love more, forgive more, hug more, say ‘I'm sorry’ more, and simply try to make a mark for good in our little part of the world.”

Part of my posse, 2017: Kari Ganoung Ruiz, me, Tarryl Gabel, Crista Pisano and Laura Martinez-Bianco. All the bling was in footwear this year.
Meanwhile, the reception ground on. A woman asked me if it was fun meeting other artists. I laughed and explained that we are a small community who know most of each other from other events. We’re like circus performers, a distinct tribe of people who labor in obscurity until the day we set up our tent show in your town. I treasure these friendships, and every event I do adds a few more.

The same posse in 2014, with the addition of Mira Fink and Marlene Wiedenbaum. We were younger and more stylin' then.
Reminded of this, I spent the rest of the afternoon talking to my friends, catching up on their news. A few minutes after we finished, I was on the road again. I pulled over twice to wipe my eyes. I think it was the spruce pollen.

Friday, August 18, 2017

I’m not able on my own

When the weather turns sour and your painting kit collapses, it helps to have friends.

Dry Bones, by Carol L. Douglas
Imagine dropping half a pint of fast-drying varnish into your tool-box and not finding it for a few hours. That is what happened yesterday, when the top of my painting medium jar came loose and dumped its contents into my backpack. I wiped off what I could, but a few items need replacing, including the fishing gloves I’ve used to paint since Alaska.

I stopped at a liquor store and begged a box. It now contains my painting tools. I’m passing through Albany on Sunday and I think I can replace both the backpack and medium there.

Yesterday we were instructed to paint within Saranac Lake to gin up interest in this weekend’s show and sale. There are fifty artists, so the town was littered with easels. This is an old mountain city with a small brick downtown and sprawling frame houses, so we were spoiled for choice. 

I found a lovely green dinghy on the shore of Lake Flower. It was planted beside a young willow, one of the almost infinite varieties of shrubby willows that grow here in the mountains.

A little dinghy, by Carol L. Douglas
Artists are asked to do a small painting to benefit the Saranac Lake Central School District’s art program. In the seven years of this show, the Adirondack Plein Air Festival has donated over $11,000 back to community arts organizations.

I painted a tiny view of hydrangeas against a shabby yellow apartment building. I’m not a flower painter but that wall of hydrangeas has been talking to me since we arrived. This is the first time in years I've painted on an untoned canvas, and I'm not used to it. The color seems flat to me.

Hydrangeas, by Carol L. Douglas
I met up with Chrissy Pahucki and her daughter Samantha at Saranac Lake Artworks. Chrissy always travels with her kids. They’ve become competent young artists. I asked Samantha if she was interested in a career as a painter. “No,” she shuddered. She’s more interested in digital design.

Chrissy told me I might be able to find some dead trees at Bartlett Carry. This is a quarter-mile portage trail that enables canoers to get from Upper Saranac Lake to Middle Saranac Lake, since the river that connects them is unnavigable. I would never have found this location without her help, since the dirt road to the tiny public access site is posted “private” and “do not enter.” However, there is a public space of a few feet for the carry. It faced an island with some superlative dead trees. There I reworked yesterday’s idea from Ray Brook with some foreground interest.

My new backpack is not weatherproof.
I was awakened by thundering rain on the roof. I need to figure out a place to frame my work that isn’t wet. It’s a day when we need friends. “Though I feel I'm just as strong as any man I know. I'm not able on my own,” sang Need to Breathe. This morning, I can relate.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Painting in symbols

Painting symbols of death and resurrection, I realized that there is no painting that can't be improved by the addition of a boat.

Overgrown, by Carol L. Douglas
The only thing my paternal grandfather left us was his surname. He took off when my dad was a little boy. It was the start of the Great Depression. My father ended up living with two maiden aunts.

I mentioned this on Facebook a few months ago. A genealogist friend offered to try to find my missing ancestor. His story ended, sadly, at the Ray Brook Sanitorium here in the Adirondacks.

TB was a terrible problem in large cities in the early twentieth century. Until the discovery of Streptomycin in 1943, cold mountain air was the only available cure. By isolating sufferers, sanitoriums also slowed down the transmission of the disease. Opened in 1904, Ray Brook was the first state-run tuberculosis sanitorium.

My father went to his grave wondering why his father abandoned him. Ninety years later, we can’t understand why TB was such a shameful secret that it couldn’t have been shared with a little boy.

Ray Brook, by Carol L. Douglas
Today the sanitorium is a state prison. The hamlet of Ray Brook itself is not picturesque. It’s home to several correctional and park department headquarters and not much else. I turned off on a local road. A small rivulet had created a marshy bog in a former forest. It was populated by the skeletons of dead trees, drowned by water flowing along their feet. The mountains are full of these ghost forests. They are part of the cycle of life. In their soft lavender and orange tones, they are eerily pretty counterparts to the lushness everywhere else.

It was a difficult painting, and I don’t know that I did the subject justice. It was time for a complete about-face. I headed north in search of a baby Eastern White Pine. “A big painting of a tiny tree,” I told myself.

“How will you know if it’s a white pine or a red pine?” someone asked me. She then told me that white pine has five needles per fascicle, while red and jack pines have two needles. I’ve stored that information in the disordered closet that is my brain.

I dropped this earlier painting in the leaf litter. I hope it dries enough to pick the debris out before Saturday.
A baby white pine, a boulder and some water ought to be easy to find in the Adirondacks. However, each patch of the mountains has its own predominant tree cover. I ended up almost back to Paul Smith’s College before I found strong stands of white pines.

I never did find exactly what I was looking for. However, rocks and water are both important Christian symbols, so when I found St. Gabriel the Archangel Catholic Church surrounded by baby white pines, I figured I had found my place.

St. Gabriel’s was completely restored for its centennial in 1996. It’s shabby now, and its foundation is surrounded with opportunistic sprouts in the little patch of sunshine the parking lot provided. I wondered how, 21 years later, it has fallen so far in its fortunes.

Headlights, by Carol L. Douglas
After two large paintings, it was time to reconsider my nocturne. I saw no easy solution for the composition problem other than scrapping the thing and starting again. It was much too literal, and the only good part of it was the car’s headlights hitting the ice cream stand.

Then I remembered that I’d parked myself next to a small runabout on a trailer. The ice-cream shop is next to Lake Flower Marina. By moving the boat into my picture, my problem was solved.

There is no painting that cannot be improved by the addition of a boat.

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.