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Friday, January 8, 2021

Some days I hate learning experiences

Painting boats is a great metaphor for life. The wind in your sails is the easy part. It's the rigging that's ticklish.

Breaking storm, 48X30, oil on canvas, available through Folly Cove Fine Art.


There are 47,000 photos on this laptop, another 41,000 on our server, and thousands more on my phone. (There is, of course, significant overlap). They’re in folders titled by seasons or events—except for images of paintings, which I store by the year they were completed. The problem is that I’m more likely to remember the curve of a taffrail than where or when I saw it.

Last autumn I did a watercolor sketch for a boat painting. I got as far as laying it out on canvas and then got derailed. I just got back to it this week and I had no recollection of what reference photo (if any) I’d used. There’s a low-res collage called Boats on my thumb drive. That’s a terrible name, since I have almost 400 other pictures with similar names. I looked at them all. No luck.

Sunset Sail, oil on canvas, available through Folly Cove Fine Art.

The shore in my sketch looks like the Camden Hills. Did I use a photo from the Camden Classics Cup regatta? Howard Gallagher and the late Lee Boynton and I once watched the start from Howard’s boat, but if I have any photos I no longer know where they are.

Let this be a lesson to me and everyone else—when you decide to paint from a photo, put it somewhere you can find it later.

I searched online and found a delightful Cornish sloop and a couple of beautiful Camden Class daysailors. I roughed them in and sat back to look. I’d just realized the scale was all wrong when Ann Trainor Domingue stopped by.

“Does it matter?” she asked. If you know Annie’s work (which is terrific) you’ll understand why she questioned that. But to me it mattered.

I can paint the sails of most fore-and-aft rigged vessels in my sleep. They feel as natural as the wind to me. But when it comes to attaching them to a hull, I must be careful. Placing the cabins, the masts, and the sheets properly is ticklish.

It’s a great metaphor for life. The wind is the easy part.

The trouble with combining reference photos of boats is that the wind, the light, the angle and the scale all must be roughly the same. For my painting to work, the different boats’ sails can’t exactly mimic each other. However, boats running in the same wind tend to be trimmed the same way. I debated how much license I wanted to take.

I ran this past my pal Bobbi Heath, who not only paints boats, but also sails. She, in turn, ran it past her husband. He thought my gaff-rigged cutter might plausibly be jibing at the same time as the sloop was running downwind.

“We may be overthinking this,” Bobbi added. I wasn’t worried; Bobbi and I do some of our best work while overthinking things. Still, I was unhappy. My painting had developed a patina of historical drama, and that wasn’t what I wanted at all. I was trying to paint sheer larkiness.

Rising Tide at Wadsworth Cove, 12x16, oil on canvasboard by Carol L. Douglas. Stimulus sale price, $675 (regularly $895 unframed)

Last February, Ann Domingue and I planned a workshop called Uncovering Your Mark, which was a guided exercise to help artists get to the heart of their own work. She planned to teach it in my studio here in Maine in June. With the pandemic, she offered it online as a Zoom class.

I had expected to learn something about how I might change my work. Instead, I realized I was painting exactly what I’m supposed to be painting right now. She couldn't have given me a greater gift.

Stormy Weather, 16X20, oil on canvas by Carol L. Douglas. Stimulus sale price $1000 (regularly $1400 unframed)

The brilliant thing about art is that neither Ann’s approach nor mine is ‘right’. We’re each saying different things in our paintings, speaking to different audiences. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Thinking about that, something clicked and I remembered where the photo that inspired my sketch was filed—under Eggemoggin Reach Regatta. The human mind is inscrutable, isn't it?

If I don’t have the exact boats, I certainly have the right wind. Today I can scrape out my flailings and paint it properly. At times, art can be a cruel taskmaster, but if you're patient you will get there.

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