Paint Schoodic

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Tuesday, December 18, 2018

And that's why we can't have nice things

Fences protect fools from the view. Unfortunately, they also separate the rest of us from it.
Rocky, by Carol L. Douglas. 
Last summer I painted a rocky outcropping at Fort Williams for Cape Elizabeth Land Trust’s Paint for Preservation. It is a long finger of granite pointing straight into the ocean, as dramatic as any point at Acadia, but only minutes from downtown Portland. And therein lies the problem. People were constantly crawling out to the end of the rock to take selfies. I watched a couple encourage their kids to do it. The drop is easily long enough to kill, and the surf below will take what the rocks don’t.

The foolishness of all these visitors was manifest in their footwear, which ranged from flip-flops to sandals. In two-and-a-half days I saw only one properly-shod climber. He had a safety mat and was practicing some kind of technical descent.
Kaaterskill Falls, by Carol L. Douglas
It reminded me of another popular tourist spot that’s also legendary among plein air painters. That’s Kaaterskill Falls, a two-tier, 260-foot-tall waterfall in the Catskills. This was, in many ways, the heart of the Hudson River School and where plein air painting in America was born. When I first visited, it was easy enough to believe you were alone in the primeval wilderness. You approached the falls the same way as Thomas Cole, Frederic Edwin Church, and other great painters did, up a steep, 2.6-mile trail with very little in the way of safety improvements.

The last time I painted there was in 2014, with Jamie Williams Grossman and other friends from New York Plein Air Painters. It was shocking to see how many people crawled around the lip of the falls and its access trail wearing terrible footwear. That summer two visitors fell to their deaths.  Access was closed for 2015 while they made safety upgrades. When it reopened the following summer, there was another fatality.
The view of that rocky promontory is now obscured by a fence. (Photo courtesy of Karen Lybrand)
Inevitably, the state of Maine had to fence off the rocky point I painted before someone falls to their death.

Artist Karen Lybrand  walks at Cape Elizabeth almost every day, and sent me photos of the new fence. “I'm sure the risk-takers will still find a way to take selfies on the cliff rocks,” she commented. Someone will feel the need to get past the safety restrictions, resulting in more safety restrictions.

You can see trail wear around the rocks. (Photo courtesy of Karen Lybrand.)
Maine was projected to have around 40 million visitors in 2018. They’re not necessarily from places where people understand the risks of the natural world, or are expected to take responsibility for their own safety. Their attitude toward wilderness will inevitably affect our access to wilderness.

I’ve done that painting from exactly the low angle I wanted; I couldn’t paint it again, but I don’t want to, either. And it’s perfectly paintable from over the fence; it just won’t have the same looming presence.
A 1920s postcard showing the Marginal Way approaching Perkins Cove in Ogunquit. That was before the path was so heavily traveled.
There are any number of coastal views that would be diminished with such a fence. They’re protected only by their isolation, and even that is slowly eroding as America’s population grows.

These are stunning views from places that are perfectly safe—until you stray from the path and do something stupid. But we can’t allow people to reap the consequences of their bad decisions in our litigious society, so they will be fenced off one by one.

Monday, December 17, 2018

Monday Morning Art School: cleaning your brushes

Don’t expect brushes to last forever. But cleaning them regularly means they will last a good long time.
A constant, revolving mess.
A few weeks ago I wrote about what different shaped oil painting and watercolor brushes were used for. A reader asked me to follow up on the care of brushes.

That’s rich, I thought, because I’m the worst abuser of my own brushes, especially when I’m on the road. There's never a utility sink available, and it’s not nice to repay your hosts by washing brushes in their kitchen sink. I have been known to shower with them and clean them with shampoo, since they’re usually no dirtier than I am. Mostly I wrap them in plastic and hope for the best. And the best, after a week in a hot car, often isn’t very good.

Wrapped in plastic, hoping for the best.
The cardinal rule of brush care is to not let them stand in any kind of solvent—mineral spirits or water. That includes during painting, which is why a small, swinging solvent holder is such a great idea—it’s impossible to leave a brush in it.

Image result for "Carol L. Douglas" watercolor
If you paint out of a moving car, as I did here, you have to wait to clean your brushes.
Let’s start with watercolor brushes. In general, they need to be rinsed when you’re done, shaped back into their proper form, then allowed to dry flat. This is where a brush roll comes in handy. Pay particular attention to rinsing them if you paint with saltwater or use alcohol to prevent freezing.

Fine hair brushes can be washed with mild soap. However, the only situation where that would be necessary is if you’re committing the faux pas of using your watercolor brushes to paint in acrylics. If that’s the case, on your own head be it, as the Psalmist wrote.

Soap is not detergent.

Both are emulsifiers known as surfactants. These allow oil to be lifted out with water. That’s why they are both capable of cleaning your hair, although we generally use a different kind of surfactant—shampoo—for that.

Soaps are made from natural ingredients like plant oils or animal fats. Detergents use synthetic bases, and they have additional surfactants added to increase the oil-stripping. This is why we don’t generally use detergent to wash our hair—it’s too good at removing oils. The same is true for our brushes.

Soap, by the way, dates back to 2800 BC, whereas detergent was formulated during a World War I soap shortage.
Soaking them in coconut oil can sometimes loosen up dried paint.
If you left your brushes standing and they’ve started to harden up, detergent won’t work any better than soap at softening the mess. I sometimes pre-treat them with coconut oil when I can't get the paint out. Masters Brush Cleaner also manages to soften up dried paint without using dangerous chemicals.

A few years ago, a friend sent me a sample of a product she likes for brush cleaning: War Horse Saddle Soap. This is a glycerin-based soap and is now my preferred brush soap, not least because they’re a family-based business using safe and sustainable materials.

However, I think any saddle-soap or brown soap like Fels-Naptha works. For that matter, I’ve washed a lot of brushes with the sample soaps available in hotel rooms. One product that doesn’t clean brushes well is Dr. Bronners Organic Pure Castile Soap. It’s a pity, because it smells good.

The only secret of brush-cleaning is to get to them fast. Get as many solids as you can out with mineral spirits; that will prevent clogging your sink. Thoroughly coat them with soap, inside and out, and wash them with a rag, not your bare hand. (Even the least-toxic of pigments shouldn’t be ground into your skin.) The brush is clean when the water runs clear, and not before.

Don’t expect heavily-used brushes to last forever. They’re made of hair and they wear out. In fact, most of my filberts started life as flats. But by cleaning your brushes regularly, you’ll ensure that they will last as long as is possible.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Goodbye, Old Paint

Sometimes sentiment overrides practicality. That’s not always a bad thing.
Arctic Mud in happier (and cleaner) days.
I believe that I’m the best person I know for picking out a good used car. I'm not talking about the late-model beauty that comes with a warranty, but the clunker your teenager buys with the money from his first job. I come by it honestly. I don’t think I ever paid more than $50 for a car before I married my husband with his big-city ways. In fact, the first time he came to call at my parents’ house, I was changing a tie-rod end.

Arctic Mud was a 2000 Suzuki Grand Vitara. It was my daughter Mary’s first car. I’d helped her sisters and her brother-in-law choose cars, but I wasn’t around to help her. Frankly, the thing was a wreck from day one. Still, she loved it.

Her dad and I helped her drive it to Alaska for college. On arrival, our first order of business was a new track bar. Most calls home started, "Mom, my car's making this noise," which would then be followed by another trip to a garage. When she decided to come back east, I strongly advised she sell it there. But she loved that old reprobate of an SUV, and I love her.

That car spent a disproportionate amount of its life being hauled. Thank goodness for AAA.
I cooked up a scheme. We’d fly back to Anchorage and fetch it and drive it back across the continent. Not the California to New York trip everyone takes, but Alaska to Newfoundland. It would be cold, and we’d be sleeping in the car, but we had warm blankets. Most of my luggage was for painting supplies. A nice pastor’s wife, Heidi Godfrey, took one look at the jacket I’d brought and gave me one more suitable for a late Alaska autumn.

It was Canada’s sesquicentennial. I’ve always loved the Great White North. What better way to honor it than to head down the Trans-Canada Highway and paint a little bit of the whole country?

We almost didn’t make it out of Anchorage. The car coughed, rattled, and died on the Glenn Highway. Pastor Godfrey and his wife rescued us again.

The catalytic converter was completely clogged. The replacement cost was irrelevant; no such part was to be had in Anchorage for a vehicle that old. That led to a miraculous intervention. A kindly stranger took the beast into his shop on his day off, opened the converter, cleaned it out and welded it back together. Catalytic converters are not supposed to be serviceable.

I did a lot of painting with my easel lashed to the bumper for stability.
It was a few days later and late afternoon, but we were finally on our way. North of Wasilla, AK, the muffler fell off. We picked it up off the road and looked for a shop. That led to our second miraculous mechanic. He welded and bolted and sent us on our way with a bill for $40 and several jars of salmon his wife had canned.

Arctic Mud behaved all the way north through the Brooks Range and back down again, where a breakdown would have been catastrophic. In fact, I had no more trouble until I tried to jump a ditch while bouncing out of a fire break. I snapped the tailpipe. But that was my fault, not the car’s.

The alternator went somewhere in the Great Plains, in a spot where we actually had cell phone reception. We were riding back to the closest town with the tow truck driver, when the airport on our right seemed to explode in flames. “Oh, it’s just firefighting practice,” he said. That was a pricey fix but the last of our repairs.
Much of our journey was on very dicey roads.
In Newfoundland, we drove north through Hurricane Matthew, which had morphed into a Thanksgiving Day blizzard. It seemed fitting that our trip was bookended by snowstorms, one in Alaska and one in Newfoundland. In all, we traveled 9,998 miles, a lot of it on rutted gravel roads.

Alaska has no state inspections, so our first order of business was to have Arctic Mud re-inspected back in Maine. Of course it failed. After all that driving, our neighborhood mechanic said it wasn’t worth fixing. Just Right Auto in Warren didn't agree, and managed to do it without bankrupting us.

It’s up for inspection again and this time it isn’t going to pass without a lot more money. The hood latch rusted away and came loose on the Masspike last month. Mary fixed it well enough to drive with a ratchet tie-down. The 4WD is making ominous sounds and it has a persistent check-engine light. So Arctic Mud, my boon companion, is off to the bone yard. It was, in many ways, the worst of cars, but it had a redoubtable spirit.

Goodbye, Old Paint. We’ll miss you.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Getting out of a slump

...and the chance to benefit Children's Beach House with your holiday shopping.

Wreck of the SS Ethie, by Carol L. Douglas
“That looks like so much fun.” It can be genuine, or it can have the hard edge that implies, “unlike my job as a claims adjuster.” Either way, it’s usually, but not always, true. There are days when we approach our easels with exhaustion, trepidation, or stiff hands.

I owe my friend Peter Yesis a great debt in reminding me to do warm-ups when this happens. I have cases of 6X8 warm ups in the corner of my studio. At one time, I painted a tree every day; at another time it was a still life. But this commitment went by the wayside as I got busier and busier, and now I usually blog in the hour I once did these exercises.

Termination Dust, by Carol L. Douglas. The only realism in this painting was the chill in my studio when I started it.
Warm ups are like scales. They’re a requisite to being in good voice when we go out and perform.

Last week I was stuck in a particularly finicky commission painting. I feared all my painterliness was being sucked down the great hole of representation. I pulled out a canvas and did a fantasy landscape. This is a favorite exercise of mine, a landscape only loosely based on reality. One starts with an abstraction and builds a realistic painting upon it.

Glade, by Carol L. Douglas. I was interested in the terrible symmetry of a circle.
The painting at top, of the shipwreck of SS Ethie off the coast of Newfoundland, is an example of such a painting. I recorded the steps of its development here.

Shoreline, by Carol L. Douglas, is based on nothing more than a black shape.
Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World—the painting that put realism back on the map—is just an abstraction that uses three realistic objects to drive us relentlessly through its spare, rigid, Color Field construction.

Wyeth aside, painting from a wisp or suggestion is a great way to blow the cobwebs out of your brushes. I find myself anxious to put the computer aside and start painting every morning. The fun is back in my brushes.

Want to support a great program?
Home Farm, by Carol L. Douglas, is featured in the 2019 Children's Beach House calendar.
Last fall I did the 2018 Plein Air Brandywine Valley competition, which benefits Childrens Beach House. I liked the CBH staff so much I’ve been trying to get my son-in-law to move to Delaware and work with them ever since.

My painting Home Farm won an Honorable Mention. It was done at Winterthur and I hope it captures a sense of the old farms that were assembled to make this great American estate. 

Home Farm is also showcased within the pages of the 2019 Plein Air Brandywine Valley Calendar. 

For each $100 donation to Children's Beach House, you will receive this incredible one-of-a-kind limited production calendar created by sponsor Dennis M. Wallace of Comprehensive Wealth Management Group. It includes all of the 2018 Plein Air Brandywine Valley painting and photography award winners. You can order directly on-line at 

100% of your donation goes to support the programs at Children’s Beach House. They provide programs for children with communicative disabilities (speech, hearing, language and other special needs) who are further challenged by living in poverty.  This calendar makes a great holiday gift for family, friends and colleagues.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Pigment and race

We all know race is an artificial construct, yet we persist in using it anyway. It’s not even skin deep. It doesn’t exist at all.
Figure Commission, by Carol L. Douglas, private collection.
Yesterday I pulled out a chart that demonstrates how to mix a full range of skin tones. (There are darker and lighter people, of course; to catch their color, just adjust the amount of white you use.) This chart is ratty and worn, so I remade it for my students and now I’m sharing it with you.

There are cool tints in the left column and warm colors across the top. Mix them together in rows, and you get a wonderful array of skin tones. The solid warms are always the base; whether you use grey or violet or blue to modulate the colors depends on the underlying tones in your model.
Painting this chart is a great exercise in mixing colors.
Natural light hitting the human skin is far more variable than we see indoors. We live (and paint) under artificial light. That narrows the color range, which is why I hate painting figure under spotlights.

There are greens, purples, and yellows in every person’s skin. The ears, face, fingers and toes all tend to pink; there’s blood closer to the surface. Some of us have visible traceries of blue veins. There are lovely greens and mauves in shadows. In fact, the only difference between my landscape palette and my studio palette is that red always makes an appearance inside.
My studio copy is pretty worn.
The colors on my chart are likenesses, of course. Our actual skin color is based on just one pigment, melanin. Lighter people just have more blue-white connective tissue and hemoglobin showing through.

We moderns talk of Asians as having ‘yellow’ skin. That’s a modern lie. In the 13th century Travels of Marco Polo, the people of China are described as white. Eighteenth century missionaries also called Japanese and other East Asians white.

The ‘yellow’ label can be laid squarely at the feet of science. The father of modern taxonomy, Carl Linnaeus, first used the label fuscus (dark) to describe the skin color of Asians. Later, he began calling them luridus instead. That translates to ‘pale yellow’, ‘wan’, ‘sallow’, ‘lurid’—with a dash of ‘horrifying’ attached.

The father of comparative anatomy, Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, used the word gilvus, which translates to ‘yellow’. (He’s also the guy who started calling Asians ‘Mongolians’.) By the nineteenth century, westerners were completely sold on the idea that Asians were yellow. Thanks, Science.
The Servant, by Carol L. Douglas
Yesterday’s class included half-Japanese and Chinese students. Both of them are as pink as I am. The student with the yellowest skin was a blue-eyed Northern European with an addiction to carrots. He has stained himself a terrific saffron color.

The farther down the Italian boot you go, the more you find genetic mixtures with Greeks, North Africans and Middle Easterners. That’s no surprise; the Mediterranean was the original melting pot. Southern Italians and Greeks are often very dark in color. 

It’s no surprise that neither were considered quite white in 19th century America (although they had that designation for naturalization purposes). In fact the largest mass lynching in American history was of Italian-Americans. What’s more peculiar is that some people didn’t consider Irish-Americans white, either.

We all know race is an artificial construct, yet we persist in using it anyway. Paint-mixing shows us that the similarity in our coloration is far greater than the differences. Race isn't skin-deep; it doesn’t exist at all.