In the past year, many people have talked to me about how my paintings have changed. This week I have a visitor from near Ithaca, NY. She’s a painter, so she’s visually observant. She talked about her impressions driving up the coast.
“While the leaves are gorgeous in New York right now, the light and clouds are different here,” she mused. “And the colors are different. We don’t get the clarity of light in New York. There is too much haze.” She went on to describe the light spilling through the clouds as the sun set, the warm golds of the reeds and marshes set against the blue-purples in the shadows and the slate gray of the clouds. It was a lovely word-sketch and it got me thinking.
“Nunda Autumn Day” (pastel), was painted before I moved to Maine.
There is nothing wrong with the filtered light of the mid-Atlantic region; it’s why my skin is so flawless going into old age. But there is less contrast in the landscape. Consider the work of Cornelia Foss, with whom I studied and greatly respect as a painter. She is the person who has had the greatest influence on me in terms of thinking about color. Her landscapes are absolutely accurate for Long Island, but they would be flat here in Maine.
“Behind the schoolhouse” was painted as a storm moved in on Monhegan, but the light is still stronger than it would have been in New York (painting by Carol L. Douglas)
I’ve been vaguely aware that I’m focusing more on value in my paintings these days, but I haven’t thought much about why that is. While talking to my guest, I realized it’s just a response to the high-key light of Maine.
“Keuka Lake” is an example of a lovely milky New York sky.
I’m not really doing anything differently; I’m painting something different. It would be a sign of failure if my Maine looked like my New York, wouldn’t it?
When I was younger, my dream job was to be a New York City cabbie. At that time, there was no GPS, so cabbies had to learn the city by heart. Driving in the city was like rolling around in a giant pinball game, and it was fun. Either Maine or old age has softened me up. Coming into Queens on Friday night, I found myself taking the innumerable small rudenesses personally, instead of answering them in the spirit in which they were intended.
In Queens the traffic problem is exacerbated because there’s no way off Long Island except through New York City. There have been Long Island Sound bridges and tunnels proposed since the 1950s, but they never get built. I’m not sure a bridge would do much except allow the metropolis to slop further out of its jar. It sure would change the view.
Brad Marshall and his painting.
Long Island Sound is an estuary. That makes it an important feeding, breeding and nursery area for migratory fish and birds. It is also among the earliest and most densely settled areas in the United States. Somehow that tension between 400 years of human habitation and nature works to make it a very beautiful place.
I went to Rye intending to paint boats, which are one of my favorite subjects. The American Yacht Club has an anemometer, and on Sunday, winds were gusting up to 45 mph. My canvas would have made a nice little sail that sent my easel flying into the Sound. Instead, Brad Marshall and I hunkered down in the lee of the building, giving us a view of the beach and its riprap breakwater but, sadly, no boats. Still, we both managed to turn out credible compositions.
The American Yacht Club owns this wonderful painting of tugs by Jack L. Gray.
Between painting and the reception, artists mostly want to stay out of the way. Luckily, the yacht club has a great selection of art, including a terrific model of the America and a lovely painting of tugs by Canadian maritime painter Jack L. Gray. We pottered about peering at things and were very happy.
At the reception, a couple told me that my painting reminded them of the Group of Seven. Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven are my artistic ideal; I think and write about them frequently. It turns out that my new friends are Canadian, and know my home town of Buffalo very well. My painting went home with them and I headed back north, grateful to be driving gently once again.
Rain, I can handle. Wind—in the usual amounts—I can handle. The combination is difficult, since the wind makes an umbrella impossible. Rain makes for gloomy paintings anyway, which one can sometimes recast as moody, but not always.
The organizers of this weekend’s event had given us two days for one painting. So when Saturday was both windy and guttering rain, Brad Marshall and I decided to take pencils to the Met instead. We thought we’d look at Max Beckmann, follow him up with some lighthearted Fragonard frivolity, and then find a bit of Roman statuary to draw. But as Brad held the elevator door, a gentleman turned to him and said, “Did you see the Caravaggisti? Really excellent.”
by Brad Marshall
There really being only one Caravaggio, I’ve never been that interested in his followers. There’s a fine line between emotionalism and being just plain silly. So I was pleasantly surprised at what a fine painter Valentin de Boulogne was.
I found myself in a group of three ladies querying me about Judith and Holofernes. (Brad had neatly sidestepped.) “How do you know this stuff?” one finally asked.
by Brad Marshall
“I’m an evangelical Christian. We learn this stuff,” I answered. But regardless of faith, these stories are a powerful part of our cultural legacy, since the books of the Bible are the greatest collection of literature surviving from antiquity. There was a time when everyone learned them, and they learned them predominantly through paintings. As Brad said later, “I know them from Art History.”
Valentin also turned out innumerable morality paintings, as per his time. All those fortune-tellers-with-soldiers put me in the mood to draw armor, so we made our way to that Hall. Since there were no benches, I asked a security guard if we could sit on the floor.
by Brad Marshall
“Absolutely impermissible,” he sniffed, in the refined tones of a descendent of ten generations of Norman knights. “Not allowed… Still, if you promise to not tell my supervisor that I allowed it, go ahead.” Later, he walked by again and muttered, “Impermissible,” at me. He would have his little joke.
by Brad Marshall
So we drew horses and armor, Brad sketching away lightheartedly and me fuming and cursing and complaining that I didn’t understand how the mannequins were seated.
“Stop drawing what you know and start drawing what you see,” Brad said, and it was, of course, good advice. I was rather surprised at the stature of these warhorses. In my mind’s eye, I’d seen them towering like modern-day Friesians. Instead, if the armor is any indication, they were about the size of my old quarter horse.
Suddenly it was 7 PM and time for us to head back, since Sunday promised to be a long day. We picked up a pizza as we exited the subway. That made it a perfect New York evening.
A patch of blueberries is an amazing confection of red tones, turning the summer-green-foliage question on its head. It’s fascinating to mix those colors. Of course it is easier with a palette knife. I’d pulled mine out of my kit to see if I could do a better fix than I’d done along the road in Canada. Alas, I forgot to return it.
It is very difficult to paint without a palette knife; until yesterday, I’d have said it was darn near impossible. Mixing with a brush is inaccurate and is hard on your brushes. But there were no sticks handy to carve into a mixing knife. I used my brushes.
For those of you who don’t live near them, blueberries in their native clime are short, similar to heather in stature.
While they’ve developed highbush cultivars of the blueberry that grow in warmer places, the native blueberry species mostly grow in boreal and tundra areas. Yes, one can get blueberries from New Jersey, but they bear about as much resemblance to the Maine blueberry as plasticulture strawberries do to the ones that grow in my lawn.
I’d intended to spend an hour painting those fantastic reds, but the light was exquisite and the day was warmer than forecast. I was there closer to three. With a start, I realized I needed to be on the road to make Pittsfield before my grandchildren’s bedtime.
By the time I was done, a mackerel sky was building and the light was going fast.
The MassPike is replacing its toll/cash system with overhead gantries on October 28. This system was in place in Australia when I visited in 2008, and it’s a lot faster than toll booths. However, it does mean a higher toll and a bill in the mail for anyone without an EZ Pass.
It’s amazing how fast a drive of five hours seems after traveling across Canada. I blasted the stereo and sang along. A car of young men saw me bouncing and whirled around my car to check me out. I chortled as they realized I was old enough to be their mother.
All rocks are not the same. The same brushstrokes that suggest the sandstone and shale ledges of Kaaterskill Falls in New York are inappropriate for the Maine Coast. Nor are all rocks uniformly brown. In fact, rocks in Maine generally aren’t brown at all.
To the artist, nothing is more distinctive about Maine than the cradle of grey and pink granite in which it lies. Having meandered around fringes of the North Atlantic quite a bit this year (the Hebrides, Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick), I am struck by how similar the coastline is in all of these places. The fingers of granite cutting into the ocean at Iona reach out as if to interlace with those at Eastport.
Artists know that soil color is different in different places, but we seldom consider why. The underlying rocks, weathering, rainfall and tide play their parts. So too does organic matter, as we know from murder mysteries where the corpse is found in a shallow grave.
“Island Village, Coast of Maine,” Rockwell Kent, 1909
Maine is full of a soil formation called spodosol. This is infertile, acidic, and found mostly in boreal forests. It’s good for trees, blueberries and potatoes, and not much else. It’s part of the reason that spruces topple in winter gales here, and it’s actually pretty rare, making up less than 4% of soils worldwide. The observant artist notes the ways in which it influences the landscape: blueberry barrens, bogs, and fallen trees.
Schoodic Point in Acadia, where I teach my annual workshop, has some of the most beautiful rock formations in Maine. Black basalt dikes cut through pale pink granite in long lines running out to sea. These were formed by magma forcing its way into cracks in the older stone. Since they fracture faster than granite, they’re in control of the current pattern of erosion. The honest painter thinks about their color and fracture patterns, and doesn’t just throw in a generic rock face in the general area it’s needed.
Granite near Thunder Hole in Acadia. The rock is pink, not brown.
I’ve included examples by three Maine painters who cared more about observation than current conventions in mark-making. Their work is now universally included in the canon of masters. There’s a hint in there: to succeed in the long run, you have to be serious about seeing.
Napoleon I on his Imperial Throne (Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, 1806). Dismissed at the time, it is now considered one of the most insightful political portraits ever painted.
A-Levels are our British cousins’ version of a high-school concentration. It’s a wide and varied list, including Punjabi and Classical Greek, among many other subjects. We Americans, accustomed to readin’, writin’, and ‘rithmetic being our fundamental choices in high school, have no similar experience. Kids sit for two exams over two years in each subject. When they’re done, their proficiencies are part of the mysterious equation that gets them into college or university.
In 2018, the A-Level in Art History will be tossed on the ashcan, offered no more. This decision was, inscrutably, part of a Conservative initiative to modernize the tests. In part, the decision was blamed on a lack of qualified teachers. Clearly, there is some fundamental difference between the British educational economy and ours, because I know a plethora of adjunct professors here who would leap at the opportunity for a gig paying an actual living wage.
Art history is the visual record of the thoughts and values of our ancestors, and it ought to be taught side-by-side with political history. For example, if a class were studying the French and American Revolutions, a few weeks perusing the catalog to Citizens and Kings would be eye-opening. The radical change in social values that drove revolution is laid out in perfect clarity. These ideas are stunning and very pertinent to the Current Crisis.
Portrait of Louis-François Bertin (Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, 1832). Ingres recorded so much more than just fabric.
Art history is nuanced. It cannot be easily reduced to a Scantron exam. It requires analysis, interpretation, prodigious memorization, and excellent writing skills. You can’t learn it without accidentally learning language, theology, history, and economics. To grade such a subject, a teacher must read (and understand) complex essays. That simply isn’t feasible in the modern age of productivity and quantification, so it is being sacrificed to Progress by our British cousins. And it doesn’t get the respect it deserves here, either.
Louise de Broglie, Countess d’Haussonville. (Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, 1845). Who, actually, is this woman?
However, there’s good news in that. While companies like Pearson make billions commodifying our Three Rs, there’s no real money to be made in art history. That makes it a wide-open subject for the self-taught man. Janson’s History of Art is in its eighth edition, and will set back a college freshman several hundred dollars (for shame). However, the sixth edition can be had for less than $20. Art history really hasn’t changed a bit since it was published in 2001.
Go ahead, be a subversive: buy it and read it. Nobody really owns the right to our shared history and knowledge, no matter how hard corporations try to corner the market.
I’ve been blessedly ignorant of the American election for weeks. I would occasionally hear TV news when stuck in a waiting room, but generally I had too little personal bandwidth to take it in. When Canadians would ask my opinion, they did so lightheartedly. No surprise there; it’s not their train wreck.
At this point, I plan to vote for neither candidate; I was born and raised in New York and have followed both of them for a long time. A plague on both their houses.
Please don’t send me any links explaining why I’m wrong. All that ‘information’ is a big part of the problem.
“That’s how men are,” is one argument that has been prematurely dismissed this week. Most of us are rightfully offended on behalf of our own fathers, brothers, husbands and sons. In fact, alpha males have behaved like this for a long time, and we live in a society of extreme moral grunge, so none of this should come as a particular surprise.
Every woman at some point holds a friend’s hand while she experiences the death of her marriage. It’s devastating. The most private things become public while, at the same time, the grief is overwhelming. Sadly, there’s a common thread running through many of these stories: the wife always knew he was a jerk; she just never believed she could do better. I’m always immensely saddened when a friend comes to that realization. Of course she deserved better. As a nation, so do we.
I wonder how Lyndon Baines Johnson would have fared in today’s world of electronic eavesdropping. He was famously crude and said to have been repeatedly unfaithful to Lady Bird. I doubt I would have liked him much, but he was an undeniably effective politician.
In the Sixties, we hid facts to make our politicians more palatable. Today, we create facts to make them less palatable. I receive hundreds of emails a day and an equal number of messages via other platforms. For five weeks, I had a respite, since I simply deleted everything from my phone without reading it. Coming back, I feel like I’ve taken a load of birdshot in the face.
There is no way I can sort out the truthiness in the barrage. Add TV (which I don’t watch) to that mix, and it’s safe to say that we’re all bathing in a stew of disinformation. It is impossible to sort hard news from opinion or, worse, absolute slander.
In 2016, none of us can agree on anything. Prove something and someone will immediately prove that the opposite is actually the truth. This is the end of rationalism, the death of the Age of Reason, brought to us by an overload of information. I’m not enjoying it particularly. Are you?
“New Brunswick barn,” oil on canvas, by Carol L. Douglas.
My first painting yesterday was of a barn. The grillwork of a Model T glowed faintly in the gloom of the open door. I was interested in the apple tree, but thought fondly ofKari Ganoung Ruiz and how well she paints old cars.
The property owner eventually came over to chat. He knew exactly where I live because he visits the Owl’s Head Transportation Museum. He invited us to lunch, little knowing that for thousands of miles, Mary and I have fantasized that someone, anyone, would offer us a home-cooked meal. And this was the one day when we couldn’t accept, because we had an absolutely strict timetable.
And he had leftover pie. Geesh.
Farm owner and his market truck.
Mary’s license arrived in Rockport Tuesday, so she had a photo of it on her phone. Still, I insisted on driving the Calais-to-Rockport leg of the trip. Searsport, Belfast, Lincolnville, and Camden, each in turn glowing gently in a light rain. Then I made the last rise up Richards Hill and was home.
Would I do it again? Absolutely. I’ve learned a few things, however.
The most useless things I brought were my hiking poles. I never remembered to use them.
I packed very austerely for the trip, and still brought exactly 100 lbs. of stuff. My painting supplies and canvases were calculated just right; my clothes hardly mattered. However, I wish I’d also had:
My painting umbrella and stool;
Proper camping equipment including a tent, because that SUV really was impossible to sleep in;
A more reliable car;
An atlas of Canada. There is no substitute for a paper map.
I enjoyed everything about this trip, even when Mary was so ill. However, if I were to identify the most memorable moments, they would include:
German bike tourists laboring up and down the Al-Can. That really is a strange hobby;
One of my friends was a co-driver in the 2010 Targa Newfoundland. This is an annual rally race covering 1400 miles over a seven-day period. They were driving a Porsche; I’m driving a 16-year-old Suzuki Grand Vitari with crates on the luggage rack. Otherwise it’s starting to feel similar, albeit with the addition of painting: paint, drive, paint, drive, sleep, repeat.
If you don’t have a cabin on the overnight ferry, you sleep in your seat. The first passage was quiet, if not terribly comfortable. The return boat was full of people whose trips had been disrupted by Hurricane Matthew. We were kept aware by small irritants: the hiss and rattle of a CPAP machine, a toddler’s cries, and the oversized screens that were never turned off. In the early morning hours, there were pleas for a doctor to report to deck seven. (“Is that person OK?” I asked someone later. She shook her head sadly.)
Another “one that got away.”
By the time we disembarked both of us were stiff and bleary. We raced toward to the Cape Breton Highlands. This was the only part of Nova Scotia I hadn’t been to before. Out west, the thrill of discovery fueled my painting; here, in a race to finish, visiting an unknown place was a dumb choice.
I don’t know if it was because I was fussy from exhaustion, but I was unmoved. The Highlands were smaller, more ordinary, and less breathtaking than Gros Morne. Well, of course. They aren’t trying to be Newfoundland, and they weren’t put there merely for my amusement.
“Cobequid Bay farm,” by Carol L. Douglas
I was worn out by nature; I wanted to paint a harbor. But this part of the Cabot Trail isn’t a working coast. It is full of restaurants, tea rooms, and gift shops, and even this late in the season, tourists.
“But you live in a tourist area,” Mary reminded me. That’s not entirely true. Undergirding mid-coast Maine’s tourism is its fisheries industry. A coast without working boats is a bland dish indeed.
Mary was surprised by a cow. (Photo by Mary Perot.)
I settled on a single lobster boat at anchor, never settling into a groove, painting anxiously until I was absolutely out of time.
And then I turned around. The dropping tide had left a cobbled beach curving toward me. It had everything one needs: foreground interest, color, structure, a headland in the distance.
Too late for that, I mused, as I reloaded my kit into the SUV. Stepping slightly off the road, I plunged into a ditch full of sticky muck, sinking instantly to mid-calf. It wasn’t quicksand, though, and Mary kindly pulled me out. Now I was both cranky and filthy.
Solitary farmhouse at Cobequid Bay. (Photo by Mary Perot.)
We raced like fools toward Cobequid Bay. “I’m not going to have time to paint a second painting,” I whined. But I did, and it was a lovely sunset across a farmer’s field: gentle and sweet like Nova Scotia itself.
Meanwhile, Mary raced down to the bay to take photos before the light disappeared. Access was blocked by a sign reading “Private Lane.” She parked and walked down to the water. Where does she learn this stuff?
Last light at Cobequid Bay. (Photo by Mary Perot.)
I start this morning from Moncton. It is 5.5 hours from my home in Rockport. If all goes well, I’ll be home late tonight. Spare a passing prayer for safe and easy travels. It’s been a long trip, and I want to get home.
If you got across the bar, you still needed to beach your boat. L’Anse aux Meadows.
The last two days have helped me understand the Homeric sea (Winslow, notthat other guy). At times, the sea boils with startling ferocity against the shoreline. Winslow Homer’s art was in making us believe that the sea is always like this, and in seeing that ferocity as romantic.
When I was a child, what was referred to as Vinland in Old Norse sagas (and by medieval historians) was only imperfectly understood. Controversy still raged over whether the Norse had ever reached past Greenland into North America. Today, we assume that Vinland included Newfoundland and the Gulf of Saint Lawrence as far as New Brunswick. That’s logical but not conclusive. The only confirmed Norse site in Canada is at L’Anse aux Meadows, at the very northernmost tip of Newfoundland.
Imagine beaching a boat through those boulders. L’Anse aux Meadows.
Prior to the Norse settlement, there were various other prehistoric people in this part of Newfoundland. However, none of them stayed. The Dorset people were driven out by global warming during the Medieval Warm Period; the Mi’kmaq left because it was too cold. Archaeologists believe the Norsemen eventually left because of the weather as well: extreme cold drove their food sources south.
The sky had cleared but the wind still blew fiercely when we reached L’Anse aux Meadows. The visitor’s center, now closed for the season, was unfortunately set square in the middle of the path. I climbed around the building on its uphill side and hopped the fence to the boardwalk. Mary was aghast and followed me reluctantly.
Reconstructed longhouse at L’Anse aux Meadows.
“I’m not the first person to do this,” I said, pointing out the faint path along the slope.
“If all your friends jumped off a cliff, would you do it too?” she retorted.
I raised that kid all wrong.
The longhouses faced the cove in a gentle curve pointing at the shoreline. I don’t understand how that boulder-strewn coast was navigable by any boat. The reconstructed sod longhouse is remarkably contemporary in feel. It could be a settlement in the Dakotas; it could be a modern earth ship.
A poignant reminder that none of our work here lasts forever.
I knew we could make better time returning on a different path. Still, I have a healthy respect for quicksand and sinkholes. Former President George H.W. Bush sank into it up to his armpits in Newfoundland. So when Mary suggested an alternative route with a boardwalk, we decided to be prudent.
That is how we managed to walk in a wide sweep for 5 km trying to get back to our car. It was bracing, but it gave us quiet time to reflect on the Norsemen who were drawn here. What in this bleak and cold landscape, with its buffeting winds and lack of topsoil, seemed attractive to them?
Cow Head boats.
We set off south with time for one small painting. We were far enough north that we could see Labrador, and its peaks were dusted with snow, as were the strange worn mountains at Gros Morne National Park. I set up to paint there, but my easel was blown over before I even got started.
Small waterfalls cascaded down to the road after the storm cleared.
In the end, that was fine. We made it to the ferry terminal as cars were lining up to board. Today is calm and lovely, and I’m heading to the Cape Breton Highlands.
The wreckage of the SS Ethie is strewn across the beach at Martin’s Point.
The steamer SS Ethie set sail from Cow Head, on the Great Northern Peninsula of Newfoundland, on December 10, 1919. Although Captain Edward English knew that some kind of storm was building, it was the last trip of the season, and he was under pressure to get his passengers home for Christmas.
Within a few hours, the storm blew up into a blizzard. The Ethie was making no progress, burning almost all of her coal just staying off the rocky ledges and bars of the coastline. Captain English knew his ship was lost; his priority now was to get the 92 people on board to shore alive.
Number one thing I am thankful for tonight: I am not on that freighter.
He beached the Ethie just north of Sally’s Cove, in one of the few inlets not barred by reefs or cliffs. His crew sent out a rope, which was picked up by a local Newfoundland dog. A breeches buoy was rigged up to carry the passengers and crew ashore, including a baby girl who rode to shore in a mail sack. There were no fatalities.
The dangers of the Great White North are based in the land itself, in its impossible cold and empty vastness. On the Atlantic Coast, the sea is the force that controls lives. The remains of the Ethie are still strewn along the beach and I wanted to paint it.
Stunted trees in the Gros Morne National Forest. This is the beginning of the Appalachian mountains.
I hit the road from Botwood before dawn. The remnants of Hurricane Matthew had confounded expectations and run up the Atlantic Coast. Our ferry was canceled. We had an extra 24 hours to use as we pleased—as long as what we pleased was possible in a storm.
Studded snow tires are like an arms race. They work, but they also chew ruts into the road. The water runs into them, causing water to pool and freeze, creating more potholes and ice. The ruts have plagued me since Anchorage, as they make steering difficult.
They also fill with water in heavy rain. In the half light of a storm, they are difficult to track. After several hours, my hands were knotted around the wheel.
The shoreline ranges from ledges to cliffs.
By the time we reached the Ethie, it was clear I was going to do no painting. Needles of sleet were driven by high winds. I took reference photos and debated my next move.
My friend Annette found me a haven with one of her many relatives. Mary wanted to push farther north to see the Viking encampment at L’Anse aux Meadows. What a dilemma: eat Thanksgiving pie with nice people in warmth and comfort, or push through another 350 km to see a desolate and windswept headland in a storm?
Need you even ask?
It got steadily worse as we went north. Sleet was followed by snow. We saw our first sanders of the season. The wind blew so hard that even the potholes had little waves on them. Crosswinds blew our car sideways. And I learned that hydroplaning and cruise control were a difficult combination.
Trawlers at a boatyard in Port Saunders, Newfoundland.
We stopped in Port aux Choix for our Canadian Thanksgiving dinner: gas station hot dogs and coffee. The clerk, a very lovely woman, discouraged us from heading any farther north. “There’s a lovely B&B down the street,” she suggested.
We slid into St. Anthony behind a sander. Still, I had to put the SUV in 4WD to park it.
We arrived in St. Anthony right behind a sander. We’re drinking bottled water because of the storm, but otherwise we’re warm and cozy. Tomorrow we will head to L’Anse aux Meadows. Mary is going to tromp around and consider the Vikings. If I’m lucky, the wind will slow down and I can paint.
But I’m absolutely certain we won’t be home by Wednesday.