Paint Schoodic

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

Friday, February 24, 2017

The Artist's Way is to eat and drink

Partly finished palm tree by Carol L. Douglas
We rented our Bahamian cottage from a fellow artist from Spruce Head, Maine—Cali Veilleux. She’s a warm soul and has been very generous in sharing her time and knowledge. “I love seeing artists here,” she told us. (If you’re in the market for a Bahama rental, by the way, her place is comfortable and immaculate.)

When we first arrived, she gave us a tour. “That’s the best KFC in the world,” she announced. We all laughed because, of course, that’s setting the bar very low. We tried it last night. By gum, she was right. It was light, crunchy, and delicious; in short, not just your Colonel’s chicken.

The ice-cream colors of the cottages in our little neighborhood are lovely. We painted here in the morning while waiting for the weather to settle. I made it most of the way through my study of this palm tree and its shadow before it was time to head out to the beach.

Another one that got away. I hope to get back there today.
Alas, it was much too windy to paint on the shore, so we settled for a beachside lunch of grilled shrimp instead. When the wind refused to settle, we scouted inland. 

There aren’t natural harbors on Grand Bahama Island, so people moor their boats in a network of canals and lagoons. For boat people like Bobbi Heath and me, that’s unfortunate, since they don’t show to best advantage. Nevertheless, we were invited by the Sir Charles Hayward Yacht Club to return to watch their under-10s do their sailing class later in the afternoon.

Kitchen at Garden of the Groves, by Carol L. Douglas
In the meantime, we went to the Garden of the Groves to paint foliage. This is a large artificial environment stuffed to the gills with birds and trees. It’s a sort of tropical Garden at Giverny, with innumerable painting moments. I, naturally, gravitated to the bar. This leaned over a small lagoon. I was wrapping it up when I heard a voice drifting over the water.

“We don’t drink and drive. We drink and then drive!” Oh, boy. We'd been told that the Bahamas were relaxed about drunk-driving. That makes me nervous to drive in the evening here.  

There were turtles everywhere in the Garden of the Groves. One kept me company while painting.
The Optimist Pram class was everything you could hope for from a group of wee rascals. They were very good and managed to line up and race twice in the hour of their lesson. Nobody capsized, deliberately or otherwise. When they were done, several children came over to talk to us about our work.

Optimist Pram Class at Sir Charles Hayward Yacht Club, by Carol L. Douglas
“Do you know how old I am?” a boy demanded of Bobbi. “I’m six.” A moment later, he added, as an afterthought, “I just peed my pants.”

We made it home with barely enough time to shower and dress for an opening for the Grand Bahamas Artists Association, which included work by Eva Dehmel and Cali. A mere two days on the island and we were invited to swill plonk with the natives.

Grand Bahamas Artists Association opening.
As the designated driver, I stuck to ice water. Even so, I was nearly killed walking across the street to the opening. The car in my lane stopped to let me through. The oncoming car never even slowed down, despite my wearing white and being in a lighted crosswalk. Bobbi and Joelle Feldman screamed a warning. I jumped back just in time. I wonder how drunk that fellow was.

“I would have hated to have to call Doug and tell him you were dead,” Bobbi told me after the shock had worn off. It's nice to be loved.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Princess of flying thoughts

Princess of flying thoughts II, 2008 Acrylic on palm shaft, Eva Dehmel
As I write this the last echoes of thunder are moving off to the east, ending a night of rain and clamor. “This cold front will move through fast,” a woman named Eva confidently told us in McLean's Town. That was just after she had fried us some exquisite fresh snapper, followed with slivers of Key Lime Pie that would not have been out of place in any fine restaurant. As compensation for a no-painting day, it was sublime.

We’d optimistically packed our gear and then headed to the farthest western point we could reach by car. Although that was about 45 miles, it took us several hours, between the roads, the scenery, and our general potting around.

Where your dinner-time conch shell goes to die.
Eva and Karl Dehmel live in a mushroom house on the beach near Lucayan National Park. A retired dermatologist, Eva works in clay, acrylics, chalks, and found material. The painting above hangs in her kitchen. The figure represents a Cuban deity, a wood princess, surrounded by her birds. In Eva’s mind, those birds represent thoughts flying away, an idea I found quite charming. More of Eva’s work can be seen here.

Making a pole for a fishing boat.
We stopped at the former East End Missile Base and tromped around for a while at their abandoned quay. Tiny blue buttons drifted on the surf. Porpita porpita looks like a jellyfish but is in fact a colony of hydroids. Its intense blue-green color is a variation of the Caribbean waters.

Cold front moving in on West Grand Bahamas.
McLean’s Town is a popular place for sport bonefishing. The bonefish lives in inshore tropical waters and moves onto shallow mudflats with the incoming tide in search of its dinner. These mudflats are surrounded by mangrove swamps. “What a weird little structure this forest is,” I remarked to Bobbi Heath. Apparently, mangrove swamps are important in protecting low coastal areas from erosion and storm surges. Their massive root systems dissipate wave energy and trap sediment.

If those were 35 mph gusts, I'm glad I wasn't here for a hurricane..
I announced that I was rested and ready to take the wheel. I haven’t driven on the British side since August, and I wondered whether I retained the muscle memory. No problem, and while Bahamian drivers are erratic and ebullient, they’re also very courteous. We were home and unpacked before the skies truly opened.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

The anti-Sanibel Island

Fire in Freeport.
If you’ve ever been downwind of a forest fire, you know they smell more like burning trash than like a nice log fire. There’s one poking in a desultory way around Freeport, the Bahamas, right now. Nobody seems to be doing much about it. 

“I felt a little like Evil Knievel driving right through it,” artist CaliVeilleux told us, but she still went. Things to do, you know. She was worried that the smoke would linger in our cottage, but it was fine.

The fire is burning in a residential neighborhood.
Damage from Hurricane Matthew was less transient. All over Freeport, roofs are knocked apart and large palm trees slumber across fences or buildings. A steady rain today—and there’s one on the forecast—could make for a lot of damp stucco.

Yes, there's a fire, but a girl's got to get to school.

Life replays recurrent themes. The unfinished painting on my easel at home is of a wildfire burn near Banff, Alberta. I experienced Hurricane Matthew’s leavings during a memorable up the Great Northern Peninsula in Newfoundland during the same trip. Why this happens, I don’t know, but it does neatly connect my familiar, much-loved Canada with this new place.

I’ve absolutely no experience in the Caribbean. The last time I was in Florida was in 1968. My friends have either visited swank resorts or they have gone on mission trips to Haitian and Dominican orphanages. This neighborhood in Freeport is stubbornly normal, a place where people live, eat, work and shop.

Unfinished wildfire painting in my studio back in Maine. It all seems to work together somehow.
It’s all very modest, even by Maine standards. You disembark straight onto the tarmac when you arrive at the airport. Customs waved us through without questions. We sat on a bench and flexed our joints to release the New England cold from our bones.

A trip to a grocery store elsewhere is always a reminder of how spoiled we Americans are for price and choice. The differences are sometimes inexplicable. Here, Eggland’s Best Organic Eggs are the same price as at my local store, but a large jar of peanut butter is $11 and change. Most peculiarly for an island, there was no seafood department. “You get that at the beach,” Cali explained.

Trees lie around lazily in the sun, blaming Hurricane Matthew for their inactivity.
None of us had the energy to deal with a car last night. This morning we will immerse ourselves in the bracing business of driving in what the Duke of Windsor once referred to as “a third-class British colony.” (That man really was spoiled.) Being only sixty miles off the American coast, only half the cars have right-side steering wheels. That and the exuberant, erratic driving ought to shake off our flying lethargy in a hurry.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

How not to pack for a painting trip

I love travel but loathe packing. My clothes take me fifteen minutes or so, as one pair of paint-stained clamdiggers is interchangeable with any other. It’s the tools, paints and supplies that require thought.  I always print out my student supply list as a starting point. (You can find a copy here.)

I had unexpected company on the weekend. That meant I was even less prepared than usual. Still, with list in hand, I was unlikely to forget anything useful.

I’m on my way to Freeport in the Bahamas to paint with Joelle Feldman and Bobbi Heath. I felt good about my packing job until I saw theirs. Bobbi also works from a list, but hers is separated into “checked luggage” and “carry on.” Bobbi’s painting kit was lost en route to Brittany last year and not recovered until long after she got home. She has learned the painful lesson that some things shouldn’t be checked.

Less attention to my pedicure, more to packing would have helped.
Recently, one of my students arrived at the airport with a new 150 ml tube of paint in her carry-on bag. “Everyone knows you can’t do that,” we think. You’d be surprised at the mistakes you can make if you’re rushed or tired. Mercifully, it was just titanium white instead of a more expensive pigment.

Bearing that in mind, I carefully tucked my paints into my checked luggage. My tools and easel I kept in my carry-on. They are the priciest part of my kit and would be the hardest to replace on the road.

Joelle is a pastel painter. Her entire kit and clothing fit into a carry-on bag. That’s partly because she’s very efficient. Her clothes were vacuum-packed. Bobbi and I have the excuse of being oil painters to explain our extra luggage. We’d also been advised to bring toilet paper and paper towels with us, so our bags were fluffier than normal.

You really packed a half-empty bottle of plonk, Carol?
The first intimation that I might have done a bad job packing came last night when I realized I’d tucked my umbrella into my kit. It’s cumbersome and I never bring it on the road if I can help it. There was no going back, so it is heading to the Bahamas with me. This morning I noticed an odd shape sticking out of my suitcase. Investigating, I found a half-finished bottle of wine. It has been in my luggage since I returned from Canada in October.
Bobbi's suitcase was far more orderly than mine.
Even we couldn’t face stale red wine before 6 AM. So I rinsed my hair with it.

But my real painting advice for the day is to make sure you put your palette knives, scraper and Leatherman tool in your checked luggage, not your carry-on. The alternative—replacing them or paying for another checked bag—are both expensive, as I now know.

Looking for packing advice? You should probably ask Bobbi or Joelle.

Monday, February 20, 2017

How to avoid the #1 obstacle to being a good artist

Yes, it's a lighthouse. Wanna fight me?
Years ago, I was stymied by a large canvas of figures framed by a little house and an orchard. Following the conventional advice of the time, I took it to a well-known artist for critique. “It looks like an immature Chagall,” she said. In trying to fix that, I destroyed the work. 

My mature self knows exactly what was wrong with that painting: I was messing around way too much with glazing. A few decades of maturity have also taught me that orchards and fruit trees are important images to me. There was no cribbing from Chagall.

That critique set me back in my development because the artist looked at my work through the narrow lens of her own education and experience. She had no idea what I was striving for. Neither did I, of course, because I was a callow youth. These things require time and work to become clear.

I get lots of advice in my mailbox. I generally scan and ignore it. But this one irked me: “How to Avoid the #1 Obstacle to Becoming a Professional Artist,” it trumpeted. It went on to talk about how painters need to take classes and critiques and seek feedback from their peers to avoid what the writer calls “illusory superiority”—the idea that you think you’re better than, in fact, you are.

This painting of Beauchamp Point has few fans, but it still resonates with me. That's because it was pointing in the direction in which I was moving at the time.

In fact, the fastest way to be a mediocre painter is to seek too much advice from others.

I’m all for learning one’s craft within structured instruction—it saves a lot of time and wasted material. Beyond that, however, group thinking should be approached with a certain wariness.

Once you get out of art school, most painting groups are comprised of supportive, kind, and helpful people. But even these tend to reward those whose work looks a certain way and ignore those whose inner vision is radically different from the group’s norm.

If you don’t believe this, just imagine taking your carefully-crafted landscape to this gallery and asking for representation. The art world is all about conformity, while at the same time it paradoxically hungers for individual expression.

A lot of research has been conducted on normative social influences and conformity. Human beings are social animals. To be liked and respected within their group, they tend to moderate their own opinions. Research tells us that group norming is consistent across cultures and gender. In short, it’s everywhere where two or more of you are gathered together. The ability to get a group of people to think and work alike is useful in corporate culture, but not so good for making innovative art.

I once heard an artist I admired sneer at “lighthouse paintings.” Ever since, I’ve approached painting them with some trepidation. Yes, I understand they are overdone for the tourist trade, but they are also powerful symbols and beautiful buildings. There is nothing inherently wrong with them. It irks me that he planted this idea in my mind with a casual comment he doubtlessly doesn’t even remember.

This painting of the Raising of Lazarus was savaged in a newspaper review. It's not something I'm likely to forget in a hurry.
I can’t count how many times I’ve heard one painter say to another, “Stop! You’re done! Not one more brushstroke!” Of course one can diddle a painting to death, but that process is sometimes necessary for the next observational breakthrough. By saying that to another painter, you’re putting yourself in charge of his or her development.

When I was younger, the exposed background in my paintings often took the form of dark, heavy lines. “That’s your style!” one teacher told me. I’d had enough art-history classes to know that ‘style’ is a transitory thing, and I found those lines frustrating. Later, Joe Peller taught me how to marry edges. What a less-competent teacher took as style, Peller recognized as a technical deficiency.

This is why we should teach and critique with a light hand. Even more importantly, we should accept criticism and commentary with a healthy dose of skepticism. They are no substitute for doing our own hard thinking about our own work.