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Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Salvaging a fail (v. 2) and then messing up again

Rising Tide at Wadsworth Cove, 16X12, oil on canvas. Available; please contact Lakewatch Manor for details.

Saturday dawned fair and bright in lovely Castine, ME. I had a plan for my painting; I knew that low tide was at 9:21 AM; I had croissants and fresh local blueberries for breakfast. By 7:30, I was at my location and ready to roll out something brilliant.

Wadsworth Cove at low tide.

The organizers had promised me a clearing sky, and that’s where I faced my first decision: horizon above the midpoint or below it? If the sky stayed as it was, a low horizon would mean a fantastic painting; if the sky cleared, that would produce something less satisfying.

Wadsworth Cove at Low Tide, 12X16, oil on canvas. Finished, but I wasn't happy with it. It's now in a private collection, and the new owner insists she likes it better than my final painting. She might be right, since the final painting is still available.
I bet on a clear sky and put the horizon above the midpoint. The day resulted in a succession of fantastic skies. (They may not have been a focal point on my canvas, but I’ve learned to simply enjoy the beauty God plays out for me.)

When you're not happy with your composition, use all the tools at your disposal to make it better: greyscale drawings and viewfinders are both helpful.
I based my composition on the serpentine channel that cuts across Wadsworth Cove at low tide. Three hours in, I realized that the s-curve wasn’t carrying its weight and the boat was simply badly placed, being too low, too angled, and too far to the right. It was, however, too late to complete another painting of this size before the tide rose and filled the cove. It wasn’t, however, too late to do the painting in pieces.

I looked up at one point to realize my paper towel roll had unwound itself in the steady breeze.
So I flung my first sketch on the ground and reframed the composition. Having made careful sketches and taken my decisions on lighting earlier in the day, I could take my time and not race the rising tide.  I painted from the mid-point forward, ignoring the horizon and landmass to the right until I’d captured the sand itself. The result—if I may say so myself—is a successful treatment of a difficult subject: a real-time record of a moving tide.

I finished this painting when the tide was high. And, no, I didn't use a photo to do so; I worked from my prior oil sketch, here thrown on the ground. (The new owner knows to wait until it dries to take the bugs out of the paint.)
However, after nine days on the road, my poor Prius was a complete mess. I tend to melt down when my stuff is in a shambles, and I was fighting this problem all day. I couldn’t find the tools I needed. At one point, I couldn’t even find my paints.  Still, I would normally expect to be able to finish two 12X16 paintings in eight hours, and I did so, even though one of them wouldn’t be shown. I was done in ample time to deliver my selection to the Maine Maritime Academy by 4:30.

Me, buckle under pressure? Not even when my glasses fall into my palette or I lose my paints! But afterwards... oh, boy!
At which point, I started to fall apart. I sent a pilot hole through the front of the frame. Worse, I couldn’t find my generic price list (which I carry to protect myself from my own absent-mindedness) and mis-priced my work. It didn’t sell because I’d marked it way high, and that was in spite of it being a good, strong painting.

Dear Readers know I'm awfully protective of my delightful little Prius. I hated seeing it like this; worse, I couldn't find anything in it.
Oh, well; these things happen. No sense worrying about it. But while an error in pricing work is no big deal, if I made a similar error driving, it could have disastrous consequences. For this reason, I’ve decided that my next trip (in a mere two weeks!) can’t be quite such a pressure-cooker. I am not going to blog live when on the road. Journalists reprise their greatest hits when they’re traveling; that’s what I plan to do, too.

In its tailored little black frame: Rising Tide at Wadsworth Cove, 16X12, oil on canvas. Available; please contact Lakewatch Manor for details.
Join us in October, 2013 at Lakewatch Manor—which is selling out fast—or let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in 2014. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

"24 Reasons Everyone Should See Maine Before They Die" includes a lot of mid-coast Maine

Back in Rochester, I’m a bit dazed from an exceptionally long day of travel yesterday. I did find myself perking up tremendously from this: “24 Reasons Everyone Should See Maine Before They Die.” I’ve been to almost every one of these places, and they’re iconic and beautiful. Rather more surprising is how many of them are on my shortlist of places to paint on my workshop:

Owl’s Head Lighthouse

I painted this as a demo for my July workshop and framed it Monday before leaving Maine. How fine it looks in an elegant black frame:

Owl's Head Light, 8X10, oil on canvas, by little ol' me. Available.

Marshall Point Lighthouse

Every time I’m there, someone tells me about Forrest Gump, but I’m probably the last remaining American who hasn’t seen it. I’ve never painted the lighthouse, but the setting is one of my favorite spots to paint in mid-coast Maine.

Sunset at Marshall's Point, 8X6, oil on canvas, by little ol' me. Private collection.


Camden harbor is never boring, with its big fleet of wooden schooners moving in and out of the harbor. There are also gazillionaires’ yachts, which aren’t as lovely but are equally entertaining. But I probably love the old dinghies and modest dories as much as anything—certainly for painting.


Monhegan has more artists per square inch than any other place in Maine. Despite that, it’s still charming and still beautiful.

If I were in charge of this list, I’d ditch Freeport, because I’m not much of a shopper. I’d add in Eastport (with its ethereal ghostliness) and Castine (about which I’ll write tomorrow).

However, it’s pretty amazing that a sixth of the places they chose as iconic are on my Maine workshop itinerary, isn’t it?

Join us in October, 2013 at Lakewatch Manorwhich is selling out fastor let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in 2014. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

Sunday, July 28, 2013


Painting on a porch overlooking Manana Island. It's a tough life.
On the road with fruit smoothies in our bellies and egg sandwiches in hand (courtesy of the fantastic chef at Lakewatch Manor) we were queuing at the Monhegan ferry at 7 AM in a steady drizzle. Our plan was to paint from the deck of a private residence, but that plan changed when we met George, a multiple-generation islander who kindly drove down to the dock to fetch us and our painting gear.

Matt in touch with his inner pirate.
George offered the use of his porch, a roaring fire, his coffee-maker, his dining room, and a second-floor painting aerie.  How could anyone resist on a chilly, misty day?

Preparatory to painting.
It was a fantastic day, but all too soon the ferry’s inexorable schedule called us back. From Port Clyde, I was on the road to the 2013 Castine Plein Air Festival. It was hard saying goodbye to my students, but they all promise to be back next year.

George and I compared aprons.
Nancy was a veritable painting machine--three paintings in less than eight hours.
Nancy's painting of daylilies and the sea.

Nancy's painting of Manana Island.

Nancy's second painting of daylilies.

Matt's painting of Manana.

Pamela's painting of Manana.

Pamela's painting of rooftops.
We finishing up on a real high note! August and September are sold out, but there are openings in October! Check here for more information.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

How to recover from a fail

Pamela's lovely painting of Camden harbor. Yes, the sheds across the harbor are completely cockamamie.
Nobody goes to a painting workshop expecting to do brilliant work, but my students have been painting at a high level. But into each life come a few tough painting days, and today was one of them.
Pamela's sketch for the above. Her first try on canvas lost this lovely composition.
Camden is a busy harbor and one never knows where and when the boats will be moving. A commercial fishing dock, a fleet of wooden schooners, a mix of pleasure boats, and international luxury yachts all vie for space. It’s no surprise that painters find it a reach, but a reach is always better than the same old same-old.
So we used her viewfinder to grid the drawing and she was able to accurately move it to canvas.
I prefer to paint from floating piers, but that isn’t possible at Camden (or most other working harbors). Viewed from the landing, the curves of the hulls are constantly changing as the tide comes in and out. (They start out being devilishly difficult anyway, so it hardly seems fair.)
Sue painted half this dinghy before the owner moved it on her. A cell phone camera and a matching dock made for a nice save.
Each of my students came up against a difficult problem today. Pamela’s was the easiest to solve. She did a terrific drawing. In moving it to her canvas, she unconsciously changed the crop. It was a simple matter to wipe out that first draft, and then I showed her an easy way to make sure her drawing stayed in scale.

Matt's buoy was symmetrical, yes, but static, no.
Matt’s was a problem of composition. He was drawn to the reflections under a buoy, but “knew” he shouldn’t center it on his canvas. However, the buoy itself is strongly symmetrical needed to be centered on the canvas. A few sketches later, it was apparent that the floating dock and background would give the composition energy.

Sue’s problem was more exasperating. To avoid the overwhelming clutter of the harbor, she concentrated on a single dinghy. Out of dozens there, what were the chances that someone would choose that one to take out? But choose it they did, after she was half finished. Her solution was to work partly from memory and partly from a photo on her cell phone along another patch of dock.

Nancy did a lovely sketch, transcribed it faithfully to her canvas, and blocked in her color successfully. Then she took a look at Pamela’s painting and pronounced her own effort “boring”. Hours later, she was still very unhappy. I liked her treatment of the boats; she emphatically didn’t. Perhaps restating the darks with heavier paint would help, I thought, but no.

Nancy's lovely sketch.
Half an hour later, she was ready to scrape it out. She walked down the landing to scope out a different painting. “Well,” I reasoned, “if she’s going to wipe it out anyways, I might as well see if I can rescue it before she comes back.”

But Nancy didn't like where the painting went. She pronounced it boring. (I loved the little boat with the lateen sail. Very Van Gogh. But she didn't agree with me.)
Sometimes students resent their teachers painting on their canvases, but sometimes teachers paint on them because it’s the only way they can figure out what’s going wrong. The first thing I realized is that Nancy wasn’t using enough paint. I pushed some thicker paint against her boats, and immediately they were stronger and livelier—and I never changed a thing on them. (That lateen sail is my favorite part of her painting.)

Just a few things changed, and one can see the route to salvaging this painting. Still not perfect, but it is definitely doable.
When Nancy did her sketch, I imagine she saw the foreground water as having form. That didn’t transfer to her painterly version. So I lengthened the reflections of the background buildings, and built in patterns of ripples. I tied the floating dock to the water by using the same highlight color (a diffuse blue-violet). Lastly, I pointed up the buildings a bit and simplified the treeline.

I still see a lot more that could be done, but it’s well on the way to being salvaged.

When it’s all going wrong:

  • Step back and look at it from a distance;
  • When you’re nervous, you’re probably not using enough paint. That results in an anemic painting;
  • Restate your darks. It often happens that you hate your painting because you lost the overall value pattern that attracted you in the first place;
  • Take a break. Have some coffee. Flirt with the lobstermen. You will usually come back to your work in a far better frame of mind.

Tomorrow: Monhegan! We're finishing up the workshop session strong! August and September are sold out, but there are openings in October! Check here for more information.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013


Winslow Homer, The Artist's Studio in an Afternoon Fog (1894)

We set out today to discuss Winslow Homer’s use of the diagonal in his coastal paintings. Could there be a more lovely example than The Artist's Studio in an Afternoon Fog (1894), which is owned by Rochester’s own Memorial Art Gallery? And yet this painting proved even more appropriate than I anticipated, for we painted through mists all day.

Nancy hard at work on a misty bluff.

Arlene painted along the shore.

Matthew among the rocks.

Sue was in the pines.

Rocks and sea are far more energetic than meadows and flowers. To organize them, one must first consider the motive power driving the composition and harness the elements to that force. But added to the constant motion of the sea are the cyclical tides. They make a value sketch invaluable. Inevitably, the painter will lose the thread of his or her composition as the tide rushes in or out or the light suddenly changes. Being able to refer back to one's value sketch is often the only way to save a floundering painting.

A value study by Pamela... everyone did them.
And look how fantastic the results were!
Pamela's seascape.
Sue's seascape.

Nancy's seascape.

Matt's seascape.

The second of my Maine workshops is half over, and we're having a great time. August and September are sold out , but there are openings in October! Check here for more information.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Atmospheric perspective

Atmospheric enough for you?
Today was damp and drizzly—a perfect opportunity to consider atmospheric perspective. We did so at Glen Cove in Rockport, where on a clear day we can see islands in the far distance. Today was not a clear day; it became steadily less clear as we went on.

Matt's view of the above scene. Yes, those are water droplets on his canvas.
Atmospheric (or aerial) perspective is the tendency of objects far away to have less contrast and chroma than objects nearby. In painting, we create the illusion of depth by depicting more distant objects as lighter and less-detailed than closer objects.

Pamela chose a long view of a boat at anchor. By the time she finished, the scene was monochromatic.
That’s not just a painterly convention. Solar radiation approaches the Earth in a direct beam, but is then scattered around in our atmosphere. That’s what gives us blue skies, pink sunsets and atmospheric perspective. On a clear day, there’s more of it bouncing around between you and that distant hill than between you and your coffee cup, so the distant hill looks bluer.

Nancy chose the same view, and experienced the same change in conditions.
Of course, when fog comes into play, it is water droplets that obscure that distant hill. However, the effect is the same. The easiest way to execute it is to just add some of the sky color—whether that’s blue, or grey, or violet—into the greens of the distant hills. The more distant the object, the more sky color should be added to it.

Sue chose the beach view.
At about 2 PM, the atmospherics had gotten a bit too thick to see much of anything at all, so we had a cup of hot tea and proceeded to the Farnsworth.  There we saw, among many fantastic paintings, Fitz Henry Lane’s Shipping in Down East Waters (1854) which is a luminous painting of boats in fog. Nothing like seeing how a master did it!

Sue hard at work.

And if these days weren’t enough, my intrepid students went out last night and painted the full moon over Chickawaukie Lake:

Matt's view across Chickawaukie Lake.

Pamela's view across Chickawaukie Lake showed the sinuous ripples that were there.
Matt's second view across Chickawaukie Lake.
Nancy's view across Chickawaukie Lake.

Pamela's second view across Chickawaukie Lake.
The second of my Maine workshops started today. August and September are sold out , but there are openings in October! Check here for more information.