Paint Schoodic

We're offering one more workshop in 2020, Find Your Authentic Voice in Plein Air, in Tallahassee, Florida.

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

How do you teach effectively with Zoom?


What techniques have you devised to make online learning more effective?
Sometimes it rains, by Carol L. Douglas
Yesterday, I taught my second class by Zoom. I found a format which I thought would work better than my usual one-on-one teaching model. This was a variation on the paint-and-sip model (minus the wine; it was morning) where the teacher leads the class through a painting and everyone ends up with more or less the same result.

I’m no fan of paint-and-sip, it’s entertainment, not painting class. (Here’s a tale of what happens when you let a real artist loose at one.) I didn’t ask my students to use the same reference photo. Instead, my instructions were relaxed—everyone had to paint evergreens of some sort.

Bunker Hill Overlook, watercolor on Yupo, by Carol L. Douglas
I completed each step of a painting and my students followed. Then I looked, round-robin, at their work, to see if they’d completed that step satisfactorily. In terms of class dynamics, it was fine; technically, it had shortcomings.

The first is that I had to choose one medium or the other. Without a cameraman, I couldn’t easily flip between watercolor and oil setups. That’s not great in an all-media class.

The Dugs in Autumn, by Carol L. Douglas
The biggest issue we faced is the size of the screen. If people have iPads or laptops handy, I think they’ll work better than their phones. I’m using my phone because it can be mounted on a tripod. But that means that most paintings I’m looking at are only a few inches across. We can talk about issues like composition at that scale, but not about brushwork, marrying edges, or paint application. The lighting is bad in most home studios. That means I can’t see color accurately.

I felt like I was touching on only about half the subjects I normally do. Color theory and composition are important parts of painting, but they aren’t the whole picture.

Rising Tide at Wadsworth Cove, by Carol L. Douglas
I’ll tinker this week to figure out if I can monitor the Zoom session from my laptop while broadcasting from my phone. Or if I can feed the video from a separate camera. Luckily, my son has finally made it home from his long exodus back from university. At that age, technology is in their sinews.

I have figured out that bigger props are better. I replaced my sketchbook with charcoal and newsprint for the composition phase. I painted a 12X16 demo; that’s a huge 3-hour painting but it wasn’t large enough. Next week, I’ll drag in a 24X30 canvas. That will help students see better. And I’ve learned that any props I need must be assembled in advance.

And here was my demo painting. I was most surprised when a Maine painter friend immediately identified it as Barnum Brook Trail at Paul Smith's College Visitor Information Center. She then showed me a painting she'd done of it!
Having students mute their mikes when not speaking turns out to be a two-edged sword. It keeps the screen focused on the speaker. At the same time, it quells the commentary and criticism that’s so important in a small painting class. I think my students usually learn as much from each other as from me, and I’m sorry to see our interchanges become so formal.

One advantage of this online class was that I was able to invite two teacher-painter friends to join us: David Broerman from Fort Wayne, Indiana, and Chrissy Spoor Pahucki, from Goshen, NY. Usually, at this time of year they’re cracking the whip on teenagers with spring fever. It was a special treat to have them with us. That’s something to build on.

I’m interested in how you’re teaching and learning long-distance. That goes not only for workshop teachers and students, but for public school teachers, university professors, students, and those of you taking frequent online meetings. What techniques have you devised or mastered to make this easier or more effective?

Monday, April 27, 2020

Monday Morning Art School: painting evergreens


Your assignment this week is to paint an evergreen, using one of the great masters as your muse.
Herdsmaid, 1908, Anders Zorn. You could identify the species of trees in this painting, but it's short on detail.
Last week, I wrote that there are as many ways to paint water as there are moments in the day. The same is true of painting evergreens.

We can look to the painters of the great northern landscapes for guidance on evergreens. Swedes Bruno Liljefors and Anders Zorn, Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven, the Russian Peredvizhniki, and the northeastern painters from Winslow Homer to Andrew Wyeth are all worth studying.
Winter landscape at dawn, 1900, Bruno Liljefors. If the evergreens are in a supporting role, they’re often painted as a single mass.
Spend an hour searching their work on the internet along with the key words “spruce,” “pine”, or “evergreen.” You’ll notice that most of these artists handled the subject differently depending on whether they were in the studio or painting en plein air, or if the trees were the main subject or incidental.

After the bath, 1895, Anders Zorn, courtesy Nationalmuseum. The evergreens are nothing more than a few brushstrokes, but they’re perfectly realized.
Anders Zorn often used evergreens behind his pulchritudinous nudes. The contrast between his perfectly-observed trees and cookie-cutter models is striking. The Herdsmaid (1908) is probably the best evergreen painting ever executed. It’s all about the young trees, but Zorn never overstates the detail. Instead, he allows his brush to wash softly over the darker background, suggesting the softness of pine needles.

That apparent artlessness rests on a solid ground of observation. Zorn (and Wyeth) were able to be specific but loose because they drew and observed endlessly from nature. Each species of tree has a specific design. There are no shortcuts to knowing and understanding them. If you want to be able to paint trees, you must first draw them—a lot. Observe their branching structure, their needles or leaves, their bark, and where they like to grow.

Spruce Gun, watercolor, 1973, Andrew Wyeth, private collection

But trees are also forgiving; when you understand their structure, you can fearlessly mess with their form. While Wyeth’s tree in Spruce Gun looks perfectly natural to us, it’s also stylized to give a dynamic boost to the gun.

North Woods Club, Adirondacks (The Interrupted Tete-a-Tete), watercolor, 1892, Winslow Homer, courtesy Art Institute of Chicago. The trees are simple silhouettes, but they work because they’re accurate.
Either watercolor or oil are perfect for the organic character of trees; they can be schooled into great detail or allowed to wash with great softness across the canvas or paper.

It’s easy to become overwhelmed with detail in a tree, but it’s best, instead, to concentrate on overall values and colors instead. Start with the large shapes and concentrate on a few details at the end. After all, when we notice trees at all, we generally perceive them as masses, rather than as individual details. The exception is when someone is interacting with the tree, as in Mary Cassatt’s Child Picking a Fruit.
Isles of Spruce, silkscreen, c. 1943, Arthur Lismer. While the contrast between background and foreground is high, the values within individual trees are quite close.
How do we create form in trees? The same way we do with any other subject, by creating a pattern of light and dark. Our first question ought always be, “where is the light coming from?” The second question should be, “Is the light cool or warm?”

Start with a drawing. This is where you can get carried away with the gothic intricacies of the structure, and get them out of your system. Make sure that the height and width relationship is accurate. Also double-check that you have branches on all sides of the trunk, not just to the sides. Some will come directly towards you. While these are difficult to draw, they’re what anchor the tree in space.
Dusk, 1900, Isaac Levitan, courtesy State Tretyakov Gallery. Depending on the light, evergreens may be represented with no green at all.
I’ve written before about working with a green matrix; you can use it as successfully with evergreens as with deciduous trees. Let’s assume you’re drawing in early morning and the light is golden. Make the shadows cooler and darker and the highlights warm and light. It’s possible that the only true greens in your tree will be in the midtones or highlights. But avoid excessive value jumps; making the highlights too light can end in visual chaos. It’s usually what’s happened when someone complains that they’ve gotten lost in the detail.

Montreal River, c. 1920, Lawren S. Harris, courtesy McMichael Canadian Art Collection. The Group of Seven painters were interested in trees as screens.
Unless you’re painting a deciduous tree in the dead of winter, the branches and trunk are secondary to the masses of foliage. 

Your assignment this week is to paint an evergreen, either from life or a photograph. Before you start, find a masterpiece from one of the artists I’ve mentioned above, and study his paint application carefully. Try to emulate that in your painting.

Friday, April 24, 2020

Dare to dream!

And don't worry; if my workshops are cancelled for coronavirus, I’m giving a full refund.
The lovely American Eagle at rest in Penobscot Bay.
We held out as long as possible, but we’ve been forced to cancel my first summer workshop, our June 7 Age of Sail adventure aboard the schooner American Eagle. Students have been invited to transfer their reservations to the September 20 trip, or they can get a full refund.

These workshops sparkle because of the floating venue, an historic schooner meticulously maintained by Captain John Foss. I saw him yesterday. He was wrestling a snowplow either on or off his truck—it was hard to tell, given the cold. Messmate Sarah Collins was bundled in layers and lying prone in the wind to varnish along the gunwales. This is the part of windjamming the public never sees: the sheer hard graft to keep these boats in perfect nick. Captain John is older now than he’s ever been. He’s making noises about retirement. When he goes, the Age of Sail workshop almost certainly goes too. I can’t imagine anyone else hosting it so well.
Painting aboard the American Eagle. There's always plenty of time for sailing, too.
If there’s any lesson to be learned from the current crisis, it’s that nothing lasts forever. If you’re interested in that September 20 trip, contact me now and let me know.

We work so hard. Photo courtesy Ellen Trayer.
That still leaves two other workshops for the season, both of which are still very much on. Both concentrate on the same material, but the settings are very different. We work on:
  • Plein air composition
  • Color theory
  • Accurate drawing
  • Mixing colors
  • Finding your own voice
  • Authentic brushwork
Schoodic Point. Photo courtesy Claudia Schellenberg.
Sea & Sky in Acadia National Park is a perennial favorite for good reason. This is the part of Acadia most visitors never visit. Schoodic Peninsula has the same dramatic rock formations, windblown pines, pounding surf and stunning mountain views that draw visitors to the Mount Desert Side. But Schoodic doesn’t suffer the crowds that the main part of the park does. Still, it’s just a 90-minute drive from Bangor International Airport (or a pleasant meander up the coast from Portland or Boston).
A group exercise at Acadia National Park.
Because of the wonderful isolation, we offer this week-long workshop with lodging and meals included. All you have to do is concentrate on painting. Last year it sold out; I don’t expect that in these uncertain times, but you never know. Contact me if you’re interested.

Pecos, NM. Photo courtesy of Jane Chapin.
Last, but certainly not least is my newest offering, Gateway to the Pecos Wilderness, in the high mountain community of Pecos, New Mexico. The Pecos River, Santa Fe National Forest, Pecos National Historical Park, Glorieta Pass, and Pecos Benedictine Monastery are all nearby. All provide superb mountain views. Ranches and small adobe settlements seem to grow organically out of the landscape. This is a place of colorful skies, hoodoos, dry washes, pine wildernesses, horses, and pickup trucks. Yet it’s within commuting distance of Santa Fe, so accommodations, necessities and world-class galleries are just a short drive away. This workshop is five full days long and there is ample accommodation in the area. Read more about it here, or contact me.

Pecos National Historic Park. Photo courtesy Jane Chapin.
Refunds aren’t something I have much experience with, so I’m learning about them now. It turns out they’re a little more complicated than just reversing the sale on a credit card. But don’t worry; if your workshop is cancelled because of coronavirus, I’ll be giving you a full refund. You can make plans without worrying that you’ll lose your deposit.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Winnowing time

A visit to a virtual middle-school classroom is the perfect antidote to latent depression.
Hiking boots and toilet paper, by Carol L. Douglas. This still life could be my current self-portrait.
After a Zoom conversation that mentioned birding, my Facebook feed was filled with birding suggestions. Several people insisted that I was experiencing confirmation bias, the tendency we all have to interpret situations in a way that confirms our own beliefs, experiences, and ideas. In other words, I was just noticing ads that had been there all the time.

One area in which we all suffer confirmation bias is the area of stress and grief. A recently-bereaved person feels other, smaller shocks acutely. A depressed person is hypersensitive to the ‘heartache, and the thousand natural shocks/That flesh is heir to.
Tin foil hat, by Carol L. Douglas. Or perhaps this is my current self-portrait.
Right now, western culture is in a state of heightened stress and grief. Much has been lost, even by those who have not directly experienced illness or death in the current pandemic. Our jobs, our activities, and our economic and social freedom are curtailed. We’re all keenly feeling the 'slings and arrow of outrageous fortune.' Is this just confirmation bias, or are there in fact a lot of things going wrong right now?

As a natural introvert, I’m not finding the isolation difficult. Instead, I’m cycling through my own problem: the as-yet-undiagnosed gastric ailment I brought home from Argentina. It incapacitates me for periods of about 48 hours and then disappears for several days. When I’m in its grip, I’m reminded of the black dog that lurks just outside my tent. My father and his mother both died of depression, and my mother attempted suicide at the end of her life. I escape depression, in part, by keeping myself frenetically busy.
This is a real self-portrait, drawn twenty years ago when I was in the midst of my cancer treatment.
That's learned behavior. Hard work was how my parents kept depression at bay until they were too old to outrun it. However, we all get tired eventually, and I’ll be no exception. Addressing this question has been on my to-do list for a number of years, but it's only when illness knocks me down that I remember it. The problem is, of course, that there’s no easy answer. Nor does faith provide insulation against pain and decline. As Hebrews 9:27 cheerfully notes, we’re all appointed once to die.

Meanwhile and more immediately, there’s the question of how to revitalize my current business practice. Yesterday I taught my first Zoom class. My usual practice is to move from student to student, contemplate each painting, talk with the artist about what he’s doing, and then make suggestions. This is difficult on video, because people can either look at their phones or have them pointed at their canvases, but not both.
Buffalo Grain Mills, by Carol L. Douglas. Like my home town, I'm worn.
On the other hand, in the classroom, the dialogue is mainly between me and each individual student. Because my Zoom students had to turn their work to the screen to show it to me, it made class more of a streaming critique session. That was surprisingly more helpful than a ten-minute critique at the end of each class. It gives me something to build on for next week.

I made a guest appearance in Chrissy Pahucki’s virtual middle school art class at Goshen Central School in New York. Initially, I had trouble finding my way around Google Meet, but kids are not only naturally adept at technology, they’re courteous in guiding adults.

But kids can always make me smile. Photo courtesy of Chrissy Spoor Pahucki.
Chrissy expected they would ask questions for twenty minutes. It went on for twice that long, and I’m not sure they were finished when we finally pulled the plug. Pre-teens and teenagers are among my favorite people on the planet: they’re cheerful, innocent, inquisitive—the perfect antidote to creeping nihilism.

Monday, April 20, 2020

Monday Morning Art School: Painting water

“Rivers are elemental and ambivalent. They are frontiers and highways, destroyers and fertilisers, fishing grounds and spiritual metaphors, power-givers and flushers of poisons.” (Derek Turner)
Port of Hamburg, Anders Zorn, watercolor, 1891, courtesy of Nationalmuseum, Sweden. Even in watercolor, Zorn goes for opacity and energy, not wispy translucency. 
It’s been said that we never stand in the same river twice. It is equally true that we never paint water the same way twice. There are as many answers to the question “how do you paint water?” as there are moments in the day. Water is as changeable as the sky. But there are still some general steps you can follow.
The purple noon's transparent might, Arthur Streeton, 1896, courtesy National Gallery of Victoria. Streeton's river is defined by value, and the depth of the painting by atmospheric perspective.
Start by noting the mechanics of the body of water in question. Is there a current? At what point is it in the tide cycle? What underwater obstacles are disrupting the surface? Is the surface smooth or choppy? Is the water silted or clear? What is it reflecting?

Water seeks a flat plane, but there are always light-and-dark contours.  The wind makes patterns on the surface. In watery depths are dark tones. The splash and movement of foam and surf are light and energetic. On a rocky headland, these may appear to be constantly shifting, but in fact they follow rhythmic rules. In rivers, standing waves may appear oddly immutable.  

Hudson River, Logging; Winslow Homer, watercolor, 1891-92, courtesy National Gallery of Art. The water is blocked in solid shapes of different values.
Just as you seek the contours in a still life or portrait, find them in the moving water. Mark them out, dark to light. It’s easy to get repetitive in this phase. Only by careful observation will you avoid that.

The grand canal of Venice (Blue Venice), Edouard Manet, 1875, courtesy Shelbourne Museum. It takes keen observation to paint the pattern of water without being dully repetitive.
Reflections always line up vertically with the object being reflected, but the length of reflections varies. This is liberating: if you get the widths right, you can be creative with the lengths. Generally, the values in reflections will be somewhat compressed; lights will be slightly darker than what’s being reflected, and the darks slightly lighter. But that doesn’t mean the chroma will be necessarily reduced—reflections can often surprise with their purity of color. And there’s no rule that says the ocean will be lightest at the horizon. The ocean does anything it wants.
San Cristoforo, San Michele, and Murano from the Fondamenta Nuove, Venice; Canaletto, 1722, courtesy Dallas Museum of Art. Even delicate Canaletto paints reflections more positively than simply dragging his brush through the verticals.
Depending on the surface of the water, a reflection can be mirror-like, or it can be in bands, or it can be almost lost in chop. But the overall scene won’t be a mirror image of what’s in the background. Mountains will appear farther away in the reflection. Observe what’s actually there, versus what you expect to see.

I usually block in reflections before I start worrying about the surface of the water. That lets me choose my markmaking at the last minute. It’s easy enough to build the reflections vertically and then drag a brush across them to give the sense of still water. But this is a party trick and can be overdone.

Falls, Montreal River, JEH MacDonald, 1920, courtesy Art Gallery of Ontario. It’s an unusual angle, looking down from the top, but we understand what we’re seeing because of the ferocity of MacDonald’s brushwork.
Instead, use brushwork to imply the vast energy of water. Long, fluent strokes can indicate ebb and flow. Short, energetic strokes will show chop. Opaque or impasto paint can indicate the dance and verve of crashing waves better than delicate transparency.
Lake Ladoga, Arkhip Kuindzhi, 1871, courtesy Russian Museum. We can see the underwater rocks along the shore.
Shallow water, where you can see to the bottom, is difficult to paint. The ground influences the color of the water, and you must balance underwater details with surface reflections. Shallow water running over rocks in a river can be very erratic; to get the sense of that requires careful, slow observation.

Your assignment this week is to paint water. If you’re lucky enough to live where you can paint outdoors without breaking your lockdown rules, please—by all means—avail yourself of that opportunity. For the rest of us (and those of you who are still locked down in winter) a photo is another option.

I can’t wait to see what you do!

Friday, April 17, 2020

Let the good times roll


If you don't rejoice in the good times, you'll have no resilience when the bad times come.
Breaking Storm, by Carol L. Douglas. I missed painting American Eagle's fitout this year because I'm quarantined.
People ask me how I know when a painting is done. “When I’m sick of working on it,” I answer. All creative work is a compromise between our vision and capabilities. This means not just skill but environmental factors. If you doubt that, try singing through a headache.

Our current crisis involves more compromise than usual. Our supply chain is broken in odd ways; that includes some scarcity of art supplies. Carol at Salt Bay Art Supply in Damariscotta told me she runs low on white and black paint first. The white I understand; black, however, is a mystery to me.

Hammond Lumber has been great about accommodating my quarantine, but they can’t send me what they don’t have. That includes color charts. Each time I climb on a ladder to work on my current project, I wince at the state of the crown moulding. It needs paint, but I can’t match the other white in the room without a color chart. It’s difficult, but I’m deferring the trim to some future time.
Cadet, by Carol L. Douglas
I commiserated with two well-known artist friends yesterday. “This has me working twice as hard to look for ways to continue to make a living,” said one. The other has taken a night job to feed his family. “I can still paint during the day,” he said. They both have school-age kids and are making compromises to survive.

We live in a pandemic mindset. In some ways, that’s liberating. There has been blessed silence about some of our previously-consuming passions. Food allergies, the upcoming elections and gender identity are three things I’m happily not hearing about right now.

The bleak, short days of winter seems halcyon in retrospect, even if I didn’t have the Christmas I thought I wanted. It’s a pity that we so often ruin the present with our anxieties. Seizing the day is not just a recipe for overall happiness; it gives us the strength to roll through the bad times when they (inevitably) come.
Flood tide, by Carol L. Douglas
When a mother takes a newborn home from the hospital, she is overwhelmed with physical and mental fatigue. Years later, that isn’t what we remember first; we remember our joy. I’m not sure why the human mind is wired this way, but it’s something we have to work to overcome.

The Black Death was the most devastating pandemic in human history. It killed a third of Europe’s population and around 20% of people worldwide. If you lived through it, it was an unmitigated horror. Yet it ultimately broke the caste economy of the Middle Ages. Serfs could leave the manor and find work, which freed most people from a life no better than slavery. Land prices dropped. Meat consumption rose, because you can raise cattle with fewer hands than you can raise corn. In fact, the plague set the conditions that eventually led to the creation of the middle class.

All of which is to say that not every disaster is an unmitigated disaster. Sometimes, trouble is a way for society to kick off its stays and try something new. What if these turn out to be our Good Old Days?

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Be careful what you wish for

One in five houses in Maine is someone’s vacation home. The potential implications of COVID-19 are terrible.
Four Ducks, Cape Elizabeth Paint for Preservation, by Carol L. Douglas
One thing I’ve dreaded doing was striking out upcoming events on my website. As I’ve written before, I think the plein air festival has lost its punch. Because of this, I deleted all but a few key events in 2020. The ones I kept had strong revenues or provided unusual opportunities for painting. Then cancellations started flooding in from organizers rightly worried about promoting events they can’t deliver. Now I’m left with what I’d thought I wanted: a summer where I can concentrate on painting here at home, and where I can run my studio-gallery without interruption.

Of course, I don’t know whether anyone will be able to come. Like everyone else, I have no idea what shape the summer will take. The state of Maine is on lockdown. That’s not irrational: one in five houses in this state is someone’s vacation home, the highest percentage in the nation. That makes us very vulnerable to visiting pathogens.

Ottawa House, Parrsboro International Plein Air Festival, by Carol L. Douglas
But tourism is one of our top economic drivers. In 2018, over 37 million people visited Maine, spending $6.2 billion and supporting 110,000 jobs. The cost of this lockdown, if it continues through the summer months, is incalculable. The cultural costs are being felt already. Our bicentennial was March 15, but the state had to postpone a host of celebrations that have been years in the making.

In the near future, I’ll be teaching painting via Zoom. Teaching via the internet is going to be radically different from teaching in person. I need to figure out new ways to prepare, since we won’t all be looking at the same scene, carefully curated to address a specific issue in painting. The issue isn’t technology; it’s creating projects that are doable in students’ homes.

Ocean Park Beach, Art in the Park, by Carol L. Douglas
I’m kicking myself for not paying more attention to Katie Dobson Cundiff while we were in Argentina. She teaches at Ringling College of Art and Design. Her students were all sent home while they were on spring break. While the rest of us were larking around the glaciers, she was creating a template for remote teaching.

The only analogy in my lifetime was the economic collapse of 2008. My income fell by 2/3 in one horrible year. Both painting sales and classes were way down. My strategy was to stop showing and selling until the market had time to recover. Even my teaching practice was reduced. Instead, I used that time to focus on my own development.

I don’t think the current crisis will have the same shape as the 2008 crash, but I’ll probably do something similar. I’m retracting, watching, and trying to be nimble. And I’m really curious about your ideas.

But first I have to feel better. I’m entering week four of being ill. This morning, I’m breaking my quarantine to drive to my PCP’s office for further testing. If I get arrested, you can send me a file in a cake.

Monday, April 13, 2020

Monday Morning Art School: working from your imagination


Lockdown is a good time to work from your inner landscape.
Heart of Darkness #1, monotype and pastel, by Carol L. Douglas
Today’s exercise is in converting words to images, and the text I’m giving you is the opening paragraphs of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

For your convenience, I’ve made a text file of these opening paragraphs, or you can read the whole novel on Project Gutenberg. This is a complex novel; it’s about madness and sanity, at once a condemnation of colonialism and yet conventional for its time in its racial views.

Conrad was a sailor in the French and British merchant navies, starting at the bottom and working his way up to Captain. He spent three years with a Belgian trading company running the steamer Le Roi des Belges on the Congo River, experiences which formed the basis of Heart of Darkness. Le Roi des Belges was, of course, King Leopold II of Belgium, then operating his infamous Congo Free State. Conrad met and befriended the humanitarian Roger Casement in the Congo. Both men initially thought that colonialism would be good for the Congo; both soon realized their error.
Heart of Darkness #2, monotype and pastel, by Carol L. Douglas
The opening scene of Heart of Darkness is serene, contrasting with the choking, awful mystery of the main story. “And this also,” says the narrator, “has been one of the dark places of the earth.”

A few years ago, I was experimenting with monotyping. I did three iterations of the opening passages of Heart of Darkness. In the end, none of them fully reflected what I thought I felt about sitting in the cockpit of a boat as darkness falls. I was imagining I'd make something more along the lines of James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s Nocturne: Blue and Silver - Cremorne Lights (1872). Yet I trust my subconscious, and Whistler's nocturne doesn’t have the undercurrent of destruction that rides at anchor even at the beginning of the book.

How do you paint from a text without training as an illustrator? Read it and follow your feelings, not your rational mind. What about the text fascinates you? Twenty years ago, I was interested in the water and the blue light of dusk; today, I’d probably be more interested in the cast of characters assembled on deck.
Heart of Darkness #3, monotype and pastel, by Carol L. Douglas
Once you’ve read the text, without looking at anything else, start to sketch. Make a drawing from your own internal source material: your mind. Don’t worry whether you’re doing a good likeness or not; that can come later. Worry more that you have caught the sensation that the words invoke. Think about the interplay of imagery on the page, and the abstract arrangement of lights and darks. Facts are the least-important part of the process at this point.

When you have a sketch that feels right, you can then assemble some reference material online. Go lightly here. I could not, for example, draw the cockpit of a cruising yawl without looking at pictures of a cruising yawl. But don’t get too dependent on that reference material. Look at it, perhaps sketch it out to memorize it, and then put it away. Be subservient to your original idea, not to photos.

I chose this bit of literature because I like its watery imagery, but you can do this with any written text that strikes your fancy. I did a similar thing with Jerusalem while in quarantine in Argentina. The important thing is to find something that resonates with you now, and see where it leads you. I’m interested in seeing the results.

Friday, April 10, 2020

Painting through the dark places


Art has allowed me to look at pain, grief and dislocation obliquely, instead of confronting them head-on.
Carrying the cross, by Carol L. Douglas, courtesy St. Thomas' Episcopal Church, Rochester, NY.
You may have noticed that I haven’t done much this week. I finally collapsed from the ailment we dragged back from South America. Despite a slew of tests, no pathogen has yet been identified. However, our nurse-practitioner treated the symptoms. I’m almost back in fighting form, albeit very tired. Hopefully, my fellow travelers will recover as quickly.

Yesterday I attended a virtual meeting. One of my fellows, normally a very cheerful woman, was awash with anxiety. “I can’t paint!” she confessed. “I go in my studio and start, and then I go back and turn on CNN.” Later, I asked her if there was anything I could do to help. She elaborated. Her daughter has had COVID-19; she knows a young person currently on a vent and has lost another friend from it. She—like me—is from New York, the epicenter of this disease. That’s where our kids, friends and family are, and there’s nothing we can do to help them.

My heart goes out to her. It’s an awful thing to feel helpless in the face of disaster.
The Curtain of the Temple was Rent, by Carol L. Douglas, courtesy St. Thomas' Episcopal Church, Rochester, NY.
When we were waiting out our confinement in Buenos Aires, I was thoroughly disinterested in the non-existent landscape. It was not until the end that I decided to start painting what I felt instead of what I saw. That’s not necessarily easy for a realist to do directly (although we’re all doing it indirectly). That’s why I started with the idea of home, and then moved to Blake’s Jerusalem for inspiration. I could look at my feelings of grief and dislocation obliquely, instead of confronting them head-on.

Twenty years ago, I was asked to do a set of Stations of the Cross for St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church in Rochester, NY. The request was made in the summer; by September I’d been diagnosed with a colon cancer that had perfed the bowel wall and spread to nearby lymph nodes. I had four kids, ages 11 to 3. My primary goal was to stay alive long enough to see them raised.

Finishing an art project seemed almost frivolous in the circumstances. I was especially disinterested in one that dealt with the horrific events leading up to the Crucifixion. That year was a late Easter, too, so by the time Holy Week arrived, I had a rough version finished, which I delivered in book form. (In some ways, I prefer it to the final Stations, for its very rawness.)

Veronica, by Carol L. Douglas, courtesy St. Thomas' Episcopal Church, Rochester, NY. And before you correct me, I'm perfectly aware that Veronica is medieval fan-fic, but I think it points to a very human need to ameliorate suffering.
I drew in my hospital bed, from my couch, during the hours of chemotherapy. I wouldn’t have told you I was engaged or enthused in the least. When I was well enough, I arranged a massive photoshoot and took reference photos. The final drawings were finished the following year. They weren’t my best work, I thought, but at least they were done.

And yet, and yet… they’ve been in use for two decades since. And every Holy Week, I get a note from a parishioner telling me how much they appreciate them. I’ve certainly gotten more meaningful mail about them than about any other work of art I’ve ever done.

This year, St. Thomas’—like the rest of Christendom—is shuttered, its people observing the rites from afar. I’m not sure how I’m going to approach Good Friday in a season already penitential in the extreme, but there’s something to be said for routine, ritual, habit and movement. That goes for painting as much as for faith. 

May God bless you this weekend with a radical new way of seeing things, in Jesus’ name, amen.

Monday, April 6, 2020

The final lap home


Yes, we should be more self-reliant, save more, have deep pantries and buy local, but don’t underestimate the greatness of the economic system we have created in this country.
Photo courtesy of Kellee Mayfield.
I’m writing this from my own home. That’s a wonderful statement, but there’s also a certain irony in admitting that I’m still confined to a bedroom. We had the downstairs floors refinished while we were gone. They’re not yet ready to accept furniture. All our necessities are crammed into one room, much as they’ve been for the past three weeks.

Paying Charles for the floors brought home some of the difficulties in maintaining proper quarantine. This being Maine, I can’t just wire him the money. I scrubbed down and wrote a check, and then asked my husband to scrub down and put it outside. He automatically picked up the check with his unwashed hands. We wiped the check with sanitizer and started again.

They checked us in with laptops and cellphones, not on the airport's own terminals.
On Friday, we’d waited for five hours to board while Argentina and Eastern Airlines LLC engaged in a final tussle over our departure. The plane looked spiffy from the terminal, but inside it was an unadulterated antique—a genuine, wide-body Boeing 767 with no updates. The last time Americans flew on a plane like this, real meals were being served from the galley.

This time, passengers were served prepackaged sandwiches, also apparently from the 1980s. I mention this because the cost of this one-way ticket was 1.5 times what it costs to fly round trip from Boston to Australia, and three times the cost of our original return flight. I’m curious how this tiny airline got the relief contracts from the US State Department when so many planes are sitting on the ground worldwide.
I wrote my blog on my phone while we waited. Photo courtesy of Douglas Perot.
The sandwich was of no matter to me. I’d sworn off eating to get to Miami with my clothing intact. It didn’t work. I was in the midst of another wracking bout of dysentery. I realized I was a floating olfactory disaster when I lifted my bags into an overhead bin. The couple seated there began to wave their hands in distress, their eyes watering.

We arrived in Miami at 1 AM. There to meet us was Jane Chapin’s husband, Roger Gatewood. He had rented a ten-passenger van and driven it from Tampa to Miami to collect us. We wandered across the southern half of the state, dropping two of our wanderers in Fort Myers to catch an early flight. Katie Cundiff got curbside service to her home in Bradenton. The rest of us slept at Jane’s house for a few hours before rising to catch our last flights home.

Our jet was the only thing moving from Ministro Pistarini International Airport.
Once we were in the United States, our travel was unremarkable. We tend to take American efficiency for granted, but we really shouldn’t. Yes, we should be more self-reliant; yes, Americans should save more and have deep pantries and buy local. Those are all important lessons from this pandemic, but don’t for a moment underestimate the brilliance and greatness of the economic system we have created in this country.

At last I could press the ‘home’ button on my navigation app and head north. As with so many big concepts, ‘home’ is perhaps best understood through those tiny moments, like the relief I felt as my phone plotted a course.

Now we begin quarantine for the third and last time. We have sufficient supplies (laid in by my goddaughter) and enough work to keep us busy. But I also need a cure for this dysentery. No problem; this is Maine, where things are still local and personal. Our nurse-practitioner will drop off a test kit this morning. Very soon, this nasty bug will be just a memory.

Friday, April 3, 2020

And we're off... We hope.

An angel helps me out.

Jerusalem, by Carol L. Douglas. Yesterday I decided to illustrate Blake's poem. I got exactly this far.
I'm writing this on my phone in line in the airport, where we and many other Americans have met up to take the last scheduled flight from Argentina.

We left our hotel at 7 AM for an 11:30 flight, expecting to be detained at roadblocks. The inbound traffic lanes proceeded slowly but, outbound, police waved us through. They're no doubt happy to send us on our way. Nonetheless, our flight is already delayed an hour.

From my fourth-floor aerie I peered into many cars over the past few days. They typically had papers on their dashboard. Before this trip I wouldn't have understood that these were documents that must be produced on demand. Even though I don't want to see America as a police state, I understand the impulse to crack down. This is a very large, tightly-packed city, and the pandemic could do terrific damage.
Casa Rosada. That's as close as we ever got to tourism.
We drove past the Casa Rosada, the Argentine White House, on our way out of town. That's as close as we have been to seeing the sights. From there to the airport, Buenos Aires is much like any other city in the world: pricey high-rises tapering to smaller, less-lovely structures, to an industrial beltway and then, finally, suburbs and towns. Our national identity may come from places like the Casa Rosada and White House, but the truth is that for most of us, the places we call home are interchangeable.

With the exception of a few cities, Americans don't have a taste for living in tower blocks. That makes us odd compared to most nations. Even Canadians seem to like living in high-rises, judging from cities like Toronto and Ottawa. But we Americans are suburban in the same way our British and Australian cousins are. For us, "home" is optimally two stories and includes a small patch of green.
Empty airport
Thinking about home, I decided to make my last painting a line from that great British hymn, Jerusalem. It is sort of an unofficial British anthem, and is based on a poem by the visionary artist William Blake. Each line could yield a painting or three.

The cost of this pandemic is borne by all of us. We have incurred some terrific expenses in the form of flights we cannot take and accommodations. The Hilton Buenos Aires was our only option and it did not come cheap. But I was shocked to learn that an individual donor covered the entire bill for all ten of us.

I know who this person is, and that he doesn't want his name shared. I mention it because it's common in our culture to vilify people for not giving, or not caring. And yet so many people do wonderful things in very private ways, not so they can be publicly lauded, but simply because they see a need. Remember that next time you want to castigate a political opponent as selfish or uncaring.

"[W]hen you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you," says the Gospel of Matthew. There are a lot of people who live that creed.