Paint Schoodic

Join Carol L. Douglas at beautiful Acadia National Park, August 6-11, 2017. More details here!

Monday, July 24, 2017

What should I paint?

Getting past the iconic into the intimate means working out what you love about a place.

Apple tree with swing, by Carol L. Douglas

In 2013, I spent a few hours ambling around Castine with my friend Berna. I haven’t spent much time on foot there since. I’m always too busy.

This year, I managed to separate myself from my car keys. While I waited for my husband to drive up from Rockport, I took a quiet walk around town. I poked my nose into places I’ve never investigated.

Flood tide, by Carol L. Douglas
Things look different on foot. A marine creature broke the surface behind the Perkins House. The sweet tones of a flute drew me to a gate I’d never noticed before. The sea sparkled through the garden below.

I had time to ponder Castine’s Post Office. Established in 1794 and in the same building since 1833, it’s one of the nation’s oldest. It’s painted in the bilious yellow-and-rose-brown color scheme that was traditional before New England clapboard turned white. I’ve seen it many times, but never noticed the wooden baskets carved on each corner.

High tide, by Carol L. Douglas
Nor had I ever noted that the fine yellow Georgian on Main Street has brick side walls and a clapboard front. That’s the reverse of the usual pattern, so it’s a curiosity.

At breakfast, Harry and Berna and I pondered another question. If 40 artists each produced six paintings a year for five years, we’ve done 1200 paintings. Castine’s year-round population is 1,366. We’re close to a painting per person.

AM from Jim's deck, by Carol L. Douglas
My math, of course, is absurd. There haven’t always been 40 artists; we don’t always finish six paintings; many non-residents attend the show. But we have certainly painted Castine’s icons many times.

This presents both a problem and an opportunity. The problem can only be solved in one of two ways: either go farther abroad or dig deeper. This year, I painted two works off-the-neck, on properties overlooking the Bagaduce River.

Penobscot Early Morning, by Carol L. Douglas
Opportunity lies in going deeper. I started to notice apple trees. They were everywhere: leaning over an old stone wall, curving over a picket fence, in lawns, straggling along Battle Avenue. They are as much a part of our history as Castine’s fine old churches and houses.

The roots of plein air painting include the 18th century equivalent of picture postcards. It’s easy to fall into that trap, but it’s no longer necessary. 

Adams School, by Carol L. Douglas
Paul Cézanne famously painted Mont Sainte-Victoire over and over, using it as a template on which to work through ideas. There is much to be learned from getting past the iconic into the intimate, and working out what you truly love about a place.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Recovering from failure

What do you do when it’s all going wrong, and there’s an audience for your fiasco?

Can I finish this successfully? Gee, I hope so.
I am tossing around a theory that there’s a sweet spot in composition. On one side, you have the so-called ‘perfect composition.’ We’re always upset when these don’t win prizes, but—hint—they can be boring. On the other side is the total mess that breaks all rules, that is visually jarring and doesn’t satisfy.

Somewhere between them is where I aim to be. I have hit that at times by breaking rules (yes, the same rules I tell my students not to ignore). Not yesterday.

Carol's Bell Curve of Composition
It was a horrible day painting. Nothing I touched worked, and I couldn’t focus. Why?

It’s possible I set myself up to fail. That morning, I told watercolorist Ted Lameyer that I almost never end up flailing around these days.

It’s also possible that physical discomfort was getting in my way. My back is bothering me. And after working for several days in hot sun with insufficient fluids, I have a background dehydration headache.

It’s more likely, however, that the problem lies in the challenges I’ve set myself. I want to scale up my field painting in general. The smallest painting I want to do here is 11X14.

The subjects I mapped out for this year are also difficult. They’re things I’ve shied away from in previous years. For example, Castine’s common is a lovely patch of green ringed by venerable white clapboard buildings. It’s quintessential New England, but it’s basically a void surrounded by subject, with the added fillip of a Civic War monument smack dab in the middle of every view. My solution—a head-on view of the Adams School—may interest me, but it’s going to be a tough composition to wrestle into submission.

Maxwell the boatyard dog. His interest makes me wonder if my late dog Max peed on my backpack.
Still, I have no option but to recover. How will I do that?

There are several painters at this event whose judgment I trust; I will consult them today. Why listen to them rather than my own internal voice, which I usually trust?

In the heat of the moment we often hate what ain’t bad. Last year at this event, I painted the British Canal. I spent half my time on it and disliked the results; I would have run over it and tossed it in the ocean had that been an option. It’s in a collection here in Castine and I saw it last night. It’s actually an interesting and edgy painting but I was too frustrated at the time to realize that.

I find it helpful to remind myself that I don’t have to prove that I can paint; I wouldn’t be here if I couldn't. I try to block out what happened yesterday. Above all, I don’t perseverate over failing paintings; I move on.

And, lastly, I make sure I get enough sleep. Sometimes my worst failures are from simple exhaustion. Fix that, and I’m once again my usual chirpy self.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Swanning-around song

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,   
But I have promises to keep,   
And miles to go before I sleep,   
And miles to go before I sleep. (Robert Frost)

Full stop, by Carol L. Douglas
Route 3 from Augusta to Belfast is my least-favorite nighttime road. I love my Prius but it’s a small car. I’ve avoided any deer in its quarter of a million miles; I do not want to hit a moose. But inland and over is the quickest route from Ocean Park to Castine, ME. I struggled to see as the road wound and dipped around lakes and hills. As I approached Belfast, I saw a skunk doing his little shuffle on the shoulder of the road. He was small and it was late. Had I hit him, both of us would have been grieved.

Luckily, I only drive this way once a year, on the way from Ocean Park Art in the Park to Castine Plein Air. Since I love both shows equally, the late-night drive is a necessity.

Russel Whitten took a short break to give a painting lesson on his way into the show and sale.
I finished framing yesterday with enough time to paint the small study at the top of this post. Rarely is that last painting worthwhile. I’m tired and rushed and should be cleaning up and preparing for the next event, instead of trying to crank one more painting out. That’s particularly true when doing two events back-to-back. In this case, I was more than happy with the results.

Framing on the road.
I can frame quickly because I work in standard sizes. I keep a log on my phone of the frames I’m carrying and the ones I’ve used so far. I’ve included a small photo essay about the tools and materials for framing. It’s the unglamorous part of plein air events, but it’s very important.

A glazing-point driver is a necessity for the serious plein air painter. This one is made by Fletcher.
I used to carry a cordless drill, but this old fellah is more accurate and lighter.
All the hardware I'll ever need is in this case.
It is the collectors who make plein air events possible. In Ocean Park, Jean C. Hager-Rich has been a loyal supporter since the beginning. She tries to be the first in, makes quick decisions, and supports everyone with impartiality. A collector like Jean can set the tone for the whole event.

Equally important are our hosts, who open their homes and their lives to us for several days each summer. And then there are the volunteers, whose titles may be grand but whose tasks tend toward the humble.

After leaving Ocean Park, I zoomed around in the hills for what seemed like hours (because it was hours). I arrived at my hosts’ house shortly before 11. Harry met me at the door, concerned at my late arrival. Normally his wife is here to greet me, but she is swanning around the Eastern Seaboard. In the last three weeks, she has zoomed from Maine to New Jersey to Montreal, back to New Jersey, and then to Pennsylvania. She is returning to Maine today.

I need to recruit her as my wingman; clearly we are soul sisters.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Tank half empty, week half full

A show and sale at Ocean Park tonight, and we are then off running to Castine.

Beach time, by Carol L. Douglas
“I’m not doing a preparatory sketch, a value study, nothing!” I announced to Ed Buonvecchio as I flopped down on a bench next to him and pulled out my tripod. It’s terrible practice, and I would never recommend it to my students.

Still, I can’t help smiling at the resulting painting. A passer-by smiled and said, “Now, that’s Ocean Park!” I believe in process, but I also hope to communicate some of the joy of the beach, the fog, and the sun. That’s why I paint in the first place.

It was the last of my six paintings for Ocean Park Art in the Park. I have no idea if they’re better or worse than last year’s. Nor am I overly worried. I’m not judgmental about others’ work; why would I do that to myself?

Cupholders are for cleaning brushes, right?
I’m going to spend the morning framing and digging out my car. Then I’ll deliver my work. If there’s time, I’ll paint one more painting, just for fun. Then I’ll shower, put on my party clothes, and head over to the show and sale.

That’s from 5-7 PM at the Ocean Park Temple. This 1881 octagonal frame structure is worth seeing. It's beautiful and redolent of 19th century values and tradition. Tonight, it will have the bonus of a very good wet paint show. (You can find it by programming 46-62 Temple Ave, Old Orchard Beach, ME in your phone.) I’ll be on the stage with Mary Byrom. No, we are not singing or dancing.

Beach toys, by Carol L. Douglas
Yesterday I was in front of the Ocean Park Soda Fountain at 8 AM. This building has exercised a mesmerizing charm on me this year. I set up to paint the beach toys on the gift shop side.

I’d like to tell you how many hours I painted “in earnest.” However, there was never any seriousness about it. I’ve painted in Manhattan many times, but never spoken with as many people as I did yesterday. Since they were at the beach, they were all happy. I think it comes through in my painting.

Talking with passers-by is part of what itinerant plein air painters do. If we didn’t like people, we’d be home in our studios, harrumphing along quietly.

The roof of the historic Temple at Ocean Park
Many people told me they saw a story about us in the Journal Tribune, and felt welcomed to talk to an artist. It’s rare that I see an immediate response to a news story like that.

A number of people also mentioned seeing my painting of Fort Point Historic Site in the Bangor Daily News, as part of the publicity for Wet Paint on the Weskeag. The preview and sale will be at the Kelpie Gallery in South Thomaston on August 13 from 4-8 PM.

But before that happens, I’ve got many miles to go. Tonight, after the last paintings are packed up and the Temple lights dim, Mary Byrom, Anthony Watkins and I leave for Castine Plein Air. We will roll into that quiet village a few minutes before midnight. Tomorrow we line up bright and early on the Village Green to have our canvases stamped, and we are off and running again.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Woman about town

The joys of a beach vacation: drying towels and an old-fashioned ice cream parlor.

Drying towels, by Carol L. Douglas
Cheney Cottage, built in 1881, is now owned by the Ocean Park Association. It includes the Prophet’s Chamber, where the guest preacher stays. A shuffleboard court graces the side lawn; it’s run by a fifth generation Ocean Parker. The rambling old cottage itself is holiday housing.

Accompanied by early-morning birdsong, I strolled down Temple Avenue. I was looking for a streetscape that would capture the leafy greens, genteel architecture and relaxed summer feel of Ocean Park. Bright drying towels on the rail at Cheney Cottage caught my eye. They reminded me of summer trips to Maine when my kids were young.

As always, I did a value sketch before I started. From there I transferred my drawing to a 9X12 canvasboard. I frowned; it was too small. I decided to scale it up to 11X14.

I must have needed more coffee or something, because when I was done, the house was the same size as on the 9X12, but with more foreground showing. 

The temptation in this situation is to add an object to the foreground to fix the bad design. I experimented with a figure, but it didn’t work. Adding objects as an afterthought usually makes things worse, drawing the eye away from the primary subject. 

No matter; the house sits under great mature spruces, so the lawn was dappled with light and shadow. Having more foreground turned out to be no problem at all.

One of the great joys of plein air painting is the people you meet along the way. Cheney Cottage is currently occupied by an extended family who vacation together every year. Many of them stopped to see what I was doing. I spoke with an aunt who now stays across the street. As the family grows, there’s no longer room for them all in the old place.

The composition that was not to be.
I’m staying in the “new” part of the park, where cottages date from the 1920s and 1930s. In some ways, the character of Ocean Park—like everywhere—is inexorably changing. A long-term resident lamented the new builds in town. “Someday, all the old places will be gone,” she said. But not any time soon, thank goodness.

In the afternoon, I revisited a subject I’ve painted twice before: the Ocean Park Ice Cream Parlor. Here in southern Maine, the land is low, level and sandy. That makes wandering around with one’s gear easier, but it makes sight lines more challenging.

It helps to know perspective drawing, even when you're feeling expressive.
No matter what angle I choose, the foundation of the ice cream parlor remains resolutely parallel to my picture plane. I’d explored the possibilities of that on Sunday with my surf painting, I didn’t want to do it again. I set up about three different paintings and wiped them out. Then a couple stopped to read the outside menu board. Idly, I sketched them on my canvas. I liked them, and built the rest of the painting to support them.

Over the afternoon, my figures morphed into a father and a child, and another person materialized. By 4 PM, both the painting and I were done.

What's for lunch? by Carol L. Douglas
In the evening we had a lively reception for the artists. I went home to nap, intending to go out with Russel Whitten to do a nocturne. But when I awoke at 8:15, my eyes were nearly as red as my shirt. I went back to sleep.

This morning, the fog is not limited to my head. Fog makes for good painting, so I’m heading out in a few minutes. If you’re in southern Maine this morning, stop to see me. You can get directions at Jakeman Hall, at 14 Temple Avenue.