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Wednesday, June 23, 2021

What you can and can’t change

Thought and practice moves our painting style, but it’s incremental, just like the Mary Day docking.

Winch (American Eagle), oil on canvasboard, by Carol L. Douglas, 12X16, $1449 framed.

Windjammers are slippery little devils. I should know that by now. You think you understand the rhythm of their comings and goings and you find one or two likely candidates and commit to painting them. Then you look away for a moment and you find a subject slipping away from her berth, heading out to sea.

That happened to me on Monday, when I’d stopped to paint before my dentist appointment. (‘Quickie’ has an entirely different meaning to artists than to the rest of the world.) I’d limned in the ketch Angelique, and the light and shadows were notated, but as I sadly watched her slide out of her berth, I knew she wouldn’t be back for days.

“You didn’t take a photo, did you?” asked Ken DeWaard. He knows most of my bad habits, thanks to my friend Terry spilling the beans. I could almost paint Angelique from memory, but that never ends well. I shook my head ruefully, and begged him for a picture. “I’m just enabling you,” he muttered, but he sent it to me anyway.

Lobster fleet at Eastport, oil on canvas, 24x30, $3478 framed.

There was still the fine flat transom of the Lewis R. French to paint. She celebrated her 150th birthday this year, and that’s something to celebrate. We both set to again, but not five minutes later, Mary Day hove into view. She was heading for the berth directly in front of us. Normally, that would be a good thing, but it would obliterate the rest of our view.

Mary Day doesn’t have an engine; she’s pushed into place by a tender. It’s fascinating to watch 90’ of wood and sails delicately slide into her berth, guided by a tiny gnat of a boat. Since our subjects had vanished into the rhythm of a working harbor, we had no choice but to sit back and enjoy the spectacle. We talked about color and mark-making.

Striping (Heritage), oil on canvasboard, 6X8, $435 framed.

I hold that mark-making is as personal as handwriting. Once you’ve taught someone how to form their letters, you have very little control over the finished product. I’m shocked, sometimes, to see how much my handwriting resembles my mother’s. That’s a real mystery, since I’m a lefty and she was right-handed.

As a teacher, I do influence my students’ marks. “Don’t dab!” I’m wont to say, although I’m well aware that Pierre Bonnard dabbed to great effect. He’s the exception that proves the rule. Dabbing, in the hands of beginners, looks amateurish.

Mostly, I ask them to experiment with all the different things a brush can do and then find their own ways of using them. Once they’ve found that place, it’s pointless to try to shake it up too much. (This is why I don’t encourage palette-knife painting in my classes; it short-circuits this process.)

Pleasure boats, oil on canvasboard, 12X16, $1159 unframed. Even though this is not 'my style', it's still one of my favorite paintings.

“There are things that are immutable, and it’s pointless to try to change them,” I said to Ken as we watched Mary Day’s crew work. “For example, I can’t be 6’5” and you can’t have my curly hair.”

“But there are things you can change,” said Ken. He’s right, of course. Our choices of brushes, canvas and pigments all influence our paint application, just as choosing a gel pen makes us write differently than with a pencil. Thought and practice moves our painting style, but it’s incremental, just like the Mary Day docking. Rush that by copying someone else, and you risk being a parody.

I don’t know a single serious artist who thinks he or she is painting well—even the ones who are highly successful. We’re all on a quest; our vision is constantly changing. But through all that, we have something that’s immutable. For lack of a better term, I’ll call it our styles.

Monday, June 21, 2021

Monday Morning Art School: quit wasting time

We all have dreams we’re deferring until the timing is right. We believe, in our innocent way, that we have all the time in the world to do them. But we don’t.

Belfast harbor, oil on canvasboard, by Carol L. Douglas

I had intended to write about fast, efficient color mixing, but you can read about that here, or here. This has been a weekend of wild upheaval for me. Its takeaway message has been that life is ephemeral and precious. If you’ve always wanted to do something, I suggest you start now, because none of us are promised tomorrow.

Cat is a young lady I’ve known of since she was an undergraduate art student at a small college in Alabama. Her pastor was my friend John Nicholson, and he thought we’d like each other. We became Facebook and—later—real-world friends. I knew that she and her husband were not childless by choice. I prayed for her when she underwent treatment for the disease that caused her infertility.

Spring on Beech Hill, oil on canvasboard, by Carol L. Douglas

As long year stretched into long year, I accepted that their calling was not to be parents. After all, they’re smart, caring people who will serve humanity no matter how that’s shaped. But I couldn’t help musing about all the babies who are born into neglectful homes when other people want children but remain childless.

On Saturday Cat posted that she’s pregnant. The baby’s due in January. “We serve a God of miracles- I cannot begin to tell you how He is so faithful. If you are still waiting on His timing, please don’t give up. Your miracle is coming,” she wrote. I was humbled by the faithfulness of God, who answered their prayers when I’d given up on them.

Three Chimneys, oil on canvasboard, by Carol L. Douglas

Last February, our old friend Kathy died of COVID in Buffalo. I’ve known Kathy and her husband Jim for decades. We watched their daughter Amy grow up and have a daughter of her own. If you haven’t been touched personally by COVID, let me tell you: it is an ugly beast. Kathy had it, Jim had it, Amy had it, and their granddaughter had it; everyone recovered except Kathy. She wasn’t old or morbidly obese, so why she died and they did not is another of those impossible questions.

I’ve kept in contact with Amy on Facebook since I moved from Buffalo. Last week she posted that her daughter Erika had finished the 9th grade with honors. And then suddenly, without warning, Amy died. That was Sunday morning. She was just in her early 40s. I can’t even begin to process the cataclysm that has engulfed my old friend Jim and his granddaughter Erika.

Owl's Head Fishing Dock, oil on canvasboard, by Carol L. Douglas

My faith teaches that Satan (Death) has temporary dominion over this world. That still doesn’t answer the question of why Cat has had a miracle and Amy had a disaster; that’s an answer buried deep in their own relationships with God. But I do know that life is fleeting and ephemeral, and its ours to savor or squander.

When our kids were small, our friend Jan would invite us to stay in her cottage at Ogunquit. Jan had never married and was childless, but she loved children. Those vacations sparked my love affair with Maine.

Life goes on and we drifted apart. I’d think of her as I drove up Route 95, but never picked up the phone to call her. Last year, I found myself in Ogunquit and decided to give her a ring. I was a few weeks too late; she’d just died.

We all have dreams we’re deferring until the timing is right. They may be as simple as making a phone call, or they may involve travel, writing, or even learning to paint. We believe, in our innocent way, that we have all the time in the world to start them. But we don’t. The clock is ticking.

Friday, June 18, 2021

Welcome back to real life

Sailing is a great disperser of cares.

Practicing painting aboard American Eagle. What a fabulous group of students I had this trip!

I’m back from teaching watercolor aboard the schooner American Eagle—a little tanned, a little heavier (thanks, Matthew) and a whole lot more content.

Sailing is a great disperser of cares. You’re at one with the boat; you have to be, as ignoring her swings and rolls will cause you to fall down. That puts you totally in the moment, watching the sails, the waves, the shifts in air, and the amazing complexity of 19th century transport technology. Sail power is the original renewable energy resource. American Eagle has been ‘leave no trace’ since long before the slogan was thought up.

We all start at the beginning--how to mix color, how to see color, how to lay it down on the paper.

The gam—the annual raft-up of the windjammer fleet—was modified this year, as COVID made it unwise to scramble over each other’s boats. Instead, the windjammers dropped anchor near one another off Vinelhaven. A dinghy zipped around with grog. The captains devised a scavenger hunt over the water.

I have a crush on every boat, but I especially have a crush on American Eagle. She’s terrifically elegant and clean-limbed for a boat that started life as a fishing vessel.

Captain John Foss returning from the co-op with fresh lobster for our supper. 

I was rather surprised to see her little sister joining us. That was the Agnes & Dell, proudly flying the flag of Newfoundland and Labrador. She’s a smaller version of American Eagle, with the same proud curved prow and lovely rounded transom. At around 50 feet, she was being sailed by a crew of just two. That’s a manageable dream, I thought. My affections wavered just a tiny bit. But, no, as long as I get to sail twice a year on American Eagle, I don’t need a boat of my own.

Agnes & Dell was also built as a fishing schooner. She's almost as lovely as American Eagle.

At any rate, I was out there to teach watercolor, not moon over boats. It’s always a great time, and I’m blessed to be able to do it twice a year, in June and September. None of us knew how we were going to return from COVID, but this was a heartening start to a new season.

I had eight enthusiastic students. With a few exceptions, they’re all at the beginning of their artistic journey. It was a special privilege to help them with that. We painted, ate, and laughed—a lot. If you’re interested in the September trip, or any of my other workshops, check my website here. There are still openings.

Dorothy hard at work next to the memorial to quarry workers at Stonington. Even the toughest painters get shore leave. 

On the subject of returning to reality, post-COVID, I’m having an opening at my outdoor gallery on Saturday. Somewhere in the middle of winter I started painting regularly with Ken DeWaardEric Jacobsen, and Bjὂrn Runquist. Inevitably, that’s influenced the way I think about and approach my work.

I’m looking forward to sitting down and have a glass of wine with you and talking about the past year. It’s been a sea change for us all, and I want to hear about it from your side, as much as I want to show you it from my side.

Welcome Back to Real Life opens from 2-6 PM, Saturday, June 19 at Carol L. Douglas Studio at 394 Commercial Street in Rockport, ME. The gallery hours are Tuesday-Saturday, noon to 6. Or email me if you want to make an appointment.

Friday, June 11, 2021

Gone sailing

I treasure these few days when I can’t blog, answer texts, or pay bills.

Aboard schooner American Eagle.

There is no cell phone signal over the water on Penobscot Bay. It’s not a complete blackout; you might pick up something from the mainland, but it’s very spotty.

My husband is an electrical engineer who works with radios. Like most people in his profession, he’s an inveterate fixer. When he first realized I was going to be out of contact on the water, he launched into a technical soliloquy involving buoys and repeaters. “That would be an easy problem to fix,” he mused.

I looked at him in horror. “Don’t even think about it!” I remonstrated. I treasure these few days when I can’t blog, answer texts, or pay bills.

Yes, my blog is going dark for the next week. I’ll be cutting around Penobscot Bay teaching watercolor to an avid group of new students. Many of these people have waited patiently for a year for this workshop, as their long-planned trip was canceled due to COVID.

The Gam is the season-opening raft-up of the Maine windjammer fleet. It didn't happen in 2020, thanks to COVID.

I love being on the water, and teaching on American Eagle gives me the opportunity to sail without the effort and expense involved in keeping up a 90-ft. long historic boat. That’s Captain John Foss’s problem. This is the part of windjamming the public never sees: the sheer hard graft to keep these boats in perfect nick.

I have a knack for choosing back-of-beyond places for painting workshops—places where the signal is spotty and nature is stupendous. This is what’s left on my schedule this year:


Our second trip is September 19-23, 2021.

As with this trip, you’ll learn watercolor on the fly on the magical waters of Maine’s Penobscot Bay, aboard the historic schooner American Eagle. In September, the bay is still warm from summer and autumn colors are just starting on the islands. All materials, berth, meals and instruction included.

Jack Pine, 8x10, oil on canvasboard, by Carol L. Douglas. Available through my open-air gallery, $522 unframed.


AUGUST 8-13, 2021

This trip has three openings left. It’s a perennial favorite: five days of intensive plein air in America's oldest national park. Lodging and meals included at Schoodic Institute. All levels and media welcome.

Yes, there are places in America where buffalo still roam. This one's near Cody, WY.


SEPTEMBER 5-10, 2021

Study in an authentic western ranch setting just minutes from the restaurants, museums, and resorts of Cody. We’re based on a ranch above the south fork of the Shoshone River, surrounded by mountains. Five days of intensive plein air, all levels, all media welcome.

Linda DeLorey painting an old adobe building near Pecos, NM.


SEPTEMBER 12-16, 2021

This is another favorite, and is about half-filled right now. It’s high plains and mountain wilderness above Santa Fe in historic, enchanting New Mexico. Five days of intensive plein air instruction, all media and all levels welcome.



This is a new offering, in conjunction with the Sedona Arts Center. Sedona is a geological wonderland, with world-class restaurants, galleries, and accommodations. Five days of intensive plein air instruction, all media and all levels welcome.


JANUARY 17-21-2022

I’ll be returning to gracious Tallahassee for another great session of painting through Natalia Andreeva Studio. This is a great opportunity to get away to the warmth and sun of Florida during the worst of our northern winter! Five days of intensive plein air instruction, all media and all levels welcome.

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

More time to paint

We shove our painting into narrow windows of opportunity. Maybe that isn’t such a bad thing.

Inlet, oil on canvasboard, 9X12, available at Carol L. Douglas Gallery, 394 Commercial Street, Rockport ME

I’m surrounded by land trust lands and very grateful for them. I hike in them and in some cases actively work to support them. (For example, see Cape Elizabeth’s Paint for Preservation.) In my area, the Coastal Mountains Land Trust is the big player. It owns land directly behind my house as well as the beautiful Beech Hill and Erickson Fields Preserves.

This month, someone has taken to dropping limbs and sticks onto a Beech Hill path. I have no idea why. This week, two downed saplings were hung in the trees. After joking about beavers—there aren’t any this high up—I returned to my regular musing on human folly.

The mysterious stick artist started with this. Now the path is completely blocked.

There is a human impulse to ‘decorate’ nature. We build cairns, or in the case of Erickson Fields, put up silly signs about fairies. It’s futile, and it diminishes the woodlands experience. The occasional sign keeping people from falling over a cliff is all that nature needs. It was designed by the Creator, and nothing humans can or will build will ever compare.

It goes without saying—I hope—that this includes lighting fires. We’ve had a very dry spring. The Memorial Day rains were too light to really help. My friend Sarah reports that her well ran dry this week. All it would take is one idiot to create a lot of damage, and we’ve got a lot of out-of-town visitors with more enthusiasm than sense right now.

I’ve been getting up at 5 to walk my dog because of the increase in traffic on the trails. Some mornings are like Grand Central Station up by Beech Nut, the historic folly at the top of Beech Hill.

Beaver Dam, 12X16, oil on canvasboard, available through Carol L. Douglas Gallery, 394 Commercial Street, Rockport, ME

That’s a pleasant time to be out and about, but it makes for a very long day. I write my blog and then try to fit in 2-3 hours of plein air painting. I’ve been amazed at how much I can get done in that short time. Yesterday I limned out a complicated picture of the docks at Port Clyde on a 14X18 canvas. There’s something liberating in knowing I can’t finish.

It helps to do those hours early, because it’s been hotter than a two-dollar pistol this week. We seldom get real heat in Maine. We don’t have air conditioning in our old farmhouse so we’re surrounded by the thrum of fans. It makes communication very interesting, since we can’t hear anything.

Paint pots. I'm far less efficient than a machine, but I know what colors I want in those kits.

The life of a working artist is mostly prosaic, just like any job. I come home and hoist up the walls of my open-air gallery at 394 Commercial Street. Then I concentrate on the back-room stuff involved in selling any product. Yesterday, I sat at my picnic table and filled 160 tiny pots of paint for next week’s boat workshop.

All that is like any other job. The difference is in those 2-3 hours of pure painting every morning. Every painter I know makes the same compromises in order to earn a living. Either we’re teaching or selling or working a second job (which may be homemaking or child care). We fantasize about a time when we can just paint, but I wonder if we’d paint any better if we had all the time in the world.

Monday, June 7, 2021

Monday Morning Art School: what we can learn from pointillism

Not every color that’s on your painting must be there in real life.

A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, 1884, Georges Seurat, courtesy Art Institute of Chicago

Pointillism and its twin, Divisionism* developed as painters sought to advance and understand the optical revolution that was Impressionism. Their flagship painting—and the root of the concept—is Georges Seurat's masterpiece, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. Seurat called his painting style ‘chromoluminarism,’ which hints at what he was striving for—a way to enhance the ability of canvas and paint to reflect light.

For the record, Seurat didn’t paint La Grande Jatte in one sweep. It would have been close to impossible to hold that many ideas simultaneously. In the first pass, he used conventionally-mixed pigments including earths. In the second, he dispensed with the earths and limited the number of paints on his palette. It wasn’t until his last sweep that he introduced the dots of color that we see today. Remember that next time you want to toss a canvas that isn’t working.

The Pine Tree at Saint Tropez, 1909, Paul Signac, courtesy Pushkin Museum

Seurat believed that he could get more vibrant and pure colors by letting the viewer’s eye do the mixing, instead of mixing colors on the palette. In truth, what he was striving for—an additive color scheme—is impossible with paint; it remains subtractive because it's reflecting light. What Seurat really wanted was digital painting, and it wouldn’t be invented for another 100 years.

Nevertheless, he did create an exciting new way of putting down paint. Placing contrasting colors next to each other causes an optical excitation that typical color mixing cannot achieve. In some way, every color in a Seurat painting manages to maintain its individuality while contributing to a larger whole.

Le séchage des voiles (The Drying Sails), 1905, André Derain, courtesy Pushkin Museum

To create these effects, the divisionist painter first identified the local color of objects. Then, he interspersed dots of yellow-orange in the sunlit passages, and blues, reds and purples in the shadows. Pointillists worked a little differently, thinking through the entire painting in raw color, much like modern printing creates an image in CMYK.

The impact of adjacent colors on perception is a well-known and -researched phenomenon, one that touches on the area of optical illusion. These optical sleights-of-hand are known as contrast effects. By putting dots of contrasting colors next to each other, pointillists hoped to recreate these contrast effects in their paintings.

Were the pointillists and divisionists able to make colors seem brighter than their peers who were still mixing and painting the conventional way? Perhaps slightly, because they avoided the muddiness that can happen in paint-mixing. However, that was a battle that had largely already been won by their Impressionist peers.

Portrait of Irma Sèthe, 1894, Théo van Rysselberghe, courtesy Musée du Petit Palais  

Nor were they able to entirely express shadow and light with hue; these still need some value shifts to make them intelligible.

Nevertheless, their optical experiments influenced a century of painting, ending in the experiments of op art in the 1960s. We don’t have to want to paint like them to learn from them.

The takeaway lesson of the pointillists is that not every color that’s on your painting must be there in real life. Your job as an artist is to represent the inner reality of a situation, not its photographic shell. If the trees are moving, perhaps a flash of orange will add a sense of motion. The sky may be blue, or it may be yellow; it’s hard to say.

The human eye craves interest, and as long as you have the value right, you can play fast and loose with the actual hue.

*What most of us call Pointillism is actually Divisionism but there’s really little point (ahem) in dividing them, at least for our purposes.

Friday, June 4, 2021

The photograph lies but my sketch yells the truth

Stop taking snapshots you’ll never use and start sketching instead.

Collapsing shed, 9X12, oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas, $696 unframed, 25% off this week.

“The photograph lies but my sketch yells the truth,” I told my student, and then gawped at what I’d just said. In our culture, we talk about ‘photographic proof’ as if it is an absolute. If you’re looking for evidence to nail a drug dealer or your philandering husband, photographs are great—although by now we all know they can be manipulated.

For guiding a painting, photos have their limits. They distort distance and spatial relationships. Modern point-and-shoot cameras (especially cell phones) blow contrast up, because that’s what buyers like. In exchange, subtle value shifts disappear.

“Great!” you answer. “You’re always telling me that paintings are an interplay of light and dark, warm and cool, so exaggerating the value structure will help, right?”

Unfortunately, the exaggeration of light and dark happens at the expense of warm and cool. On Wednesday, I painted a sketch of lupines in a field, above. There was a soft haze of mauve at the far edge of the field, created (I assume) by the immature seed heads of the grasses. In the foreground, rain-beaten weeds reflected a cool aquamarine. The light shining through the lupine leaves was yellow-green. I recorded those color shifts as accurately as I could.

My snapshot. Who would be interested in painting that wall of green?

Compare that to my snapshot of the scene. All those subtle shifts in color are washed away. We are left with a wall of green that would be horribly uninteresting in a painting. The subtle shifts in color that make lupines so beautiful are all washed out; in fact, they’re ugly in the photo. There’s nothing in this photo that would inspire me to paint.

Pincushion distortion from a telephoto lens.

Cameras are great at creating depth in the picture frame; excessively so, in fact. Cell phones are made with wide-angle lenses so we can all crowd into our selfies. Wide angle lenses expand space. Objects look further apart and more distant than normal. This exaggerates the size difference between the foreground and background, creating an illusion of greater depth than is really there.

That’s great for photos of the Rockies. It makes for laughable results when shooting pictures of the Bidens with the Carters. It also makes your photos of a barn in the middle-distance appear flat and uninteresting.

But let’s say you’re a keen photographer and you’ve invested in a top-end Nikon with interchangeable lenses (as I did before my Argentina trip). You can also create equally-bad distortion with a telephoto lens. They compress space, making objects appear larger and closer together than normal. That spatial compression creates great abstractions, but it also distorts perspective.

Prospettiva accidentale di una scala a tre rampe, eseguita con il metodo dei punti misuratori, 1995, Luciano Testoni, courtesy Wikipedia.

The farther away we are from an object, the flatter the perspective. In the beautiful drawn example above, the top line is the horizon. The closer we get to the it (our furthest point), the flatter the lines get. So, if you take a photo of a beautiful building on a far hill with your 300 mm telephoto lens, the perspective will be flattened out of all recognition.

Photos have their place, but for recording impressions, working from life is always better. That means sketching instead of taking snapshots. The human brain has a remarkable capacity to interpret and interpolate information. We can access that quickly, with nothing more complex than a pencil and paper. In a world filled with lies, you can usually trust your own eyes to tell you the truth.

Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Making hay while the sun shines

It’s funny how often we psych ourselves into or out of failure.

Spring Break, 10X10, oil on canvasboard, $645 unframed, 25% off this week.

Memorial Day marks the start of the summer season here in Maine, when we throttle up into high gear for a short but productive summer season. For me that means getting up even earlier—at five—to hike over Beech Hill and attend to my ablutions. Getting moving that early in the morning gives me a few hours to paint en plein air before I’m back at 394 Commercial Street to tend my own gallery space (from noon to six).

Most mornings I paint with some combination of Ken DeWaardEric Jacobsen, and Björn Runquist. In March I told you how whiny we can be about choosing a subject. That indecision melted along with the snow. Now the question seems to be how fast can we paint. Yesterday we chased lilacs—Ken in Camden, Bjrn in Clark Island, and Eric and me in Rockport. I would never have painted lilacs without their prodding, and I’m glad I did.

Abandoned farmyard, 11X14, oil on birch, $869 unframed, 25% off this week.

“I haven’t a clue how to paint flowers,” I said, because complaining is an important part of starting a painting. Then I remembered that lilacs are really just small trees with purple appendages. I understand trees, so all the mystery vanished.

It’s funny how often we psych ourselves into or out of failure. When someone asks me, “how do you paint such-and-such?” I’m at a loss to explain. Objects are objects and we paint them all the same way—we look, see, and interpret. That includes people, by the way. But there are some subjects I’d rather not touch myself. I would have gone to the harbor without Ken, Bjrn and Eric prodding me to do something seasonal.

Three Chimneys, 11X14, oil on birch, $869 unframed, 25% off this week.

I’m actually an experienced plantswoman, but gardens are one of the few landscape subjects that don’t stir me. Domesticated plants are too civilized for my tastes. Syringa vulgaris—the common lilac—is different. For eleven months of the year, it’s an ungainly, overgrown shrub, with a not-too-pretty growth habit. Lilacs easily escape cultivation and can be found on hedgerows and in wasteland. There’s nothing ungainly about them when they’re in flower—they put their hearts into that heady display. I had five different varieties in my tiny yard in Rochester, and I’ve got cuttings rooting on my windowsill right now.

Neither of these lilac paintings are ‘true’ in the sense that they’re a photographic representation of place. There’s no farmyard beyond the break in Spring Break, and that shrub doesn’t grow in the field below Abandoned Farmyard. In both cases, I took significant editorial liberties in pursuit of a less-boring composition. But both are true in the sense that they represent what Maine really looks like.

Lupines, 9X12, oil on canvasboard.

As is typical for Memorial Day weekend, it was rainy and cold here in the northeast. My husband went camping near Ticonderoga, NY. I stayed home to man my outdoor gallery, which mostly meant raising and lowering the coverings depending on which way the wind was pushing the rain. It was a lousy weekend for selling paintings, so I amused myself by doing some long-overdue planting in my own yard. The temperature dropped into the 40s, and I burned the last of our firewood. But I had it easy; it snowed in the Green Mountains of Vermont, just a few miles from where my husband shivered in his tent. And, of course, as soon as the world returned to its desks, it warmed right back up.