Paint Schoodic

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

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

The greatest maritime photographer

Wallace MacAskill’s images of the Age of Sail became popular as we careened closer to world war.

A Snug Harbor, Wallace MacAskill
My father was a WW2 Army-Air Force Photographer. He kept his service-issue Speed Graphic. I had plenty of time to mess with it as a kid. As a still camera, it was great, but capturing action was hard.

The only photo I’ve found of Wallace R. MacAskill at work shows him holding an even larger reflex camera. With it he took some of the most famous photos of the Age of Sail.

MacAskill was born in 1887 at St. Peters, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. This is a watery place, perched on a narrow strip of land separating the Bras d'Or from the Atlantic. MacAskill bought his first small sailboat at age eleven. He taught himself to sail. A year later, a tourist sent him a camera. At that point, he was grounded in the two pursuits that would define his life.

MacAskill left for New York at seventeen to study photography. At that time, Alfred Stieglitz and Pictorialism dominated the New York photography scene. Pictorialism was an atmospheric, painterly style of photography. The artist strove to project emotional content with soft focus, duotone printing, and markings on the negative.

Gray Dawn (Schooner Bluenose), Wallace MacAskill, was influenced by Pictorialism.
By the time MacAskill graduated in 1907, he had thoroughly absorbed this aesthetic.

Returning to Nova Scotia, he opened a studio in his home town, then one in Glace Bay. In 1915, he moved to Halifax to work for WG MacLaughlan, the city’s official military photographer. From there he moved to a job as a printer in a commercial studio.

In 1920, he moved to the Commercial Photo Service, where he met his future wife, fellow photographer Elva Abriel.

Hand-colored prints of The Road Home were popular wedding gifts.
MacAskill was as avid a sailor as he was a photographer. He joined the Royal Nova Scotia Yacht Squadron in 1921. At the helm of his yacht Highlander (a WJ Roué design), he won the Prince of Wales Cup from 1932-34 and again in 1938. He was Vice-Commodore of the Royal Nova Scotia Yacht Squadron in 1934-35 and Commodore in 1936.

In 1929, MacAskill opened a studio under his own name in Halifax. In 1937, he published his first book, Out of Halifax, which is sadly also now out of print. This established his reputation as an art photographer.
The Bluenose stamp of 1929.
It was MacAskill’s association with Bluenose for which he is most remembered. This boat, designed by Roué and captained by Angus Walters, was a Canadian icon in the 1930s. MacAskill’s images were used on Canada’s 50-cent stamp of 1929 and the Canadian dime of 1937.

By WW2, Halifax’s shipyards were no longer turning out wooden fishing boats. Instead they were building destroyers for the Royal Canadian Navy, and repairing the thousands of ships damaged in the Battle of the Atlantic. As the world careened into world war, images of quaint fishing villages and schooner races seemed safe and reassuring. MacAskill’s popularity rose with the demise of his subjects.

Bluenose Sailing Away, by Wallace MacAskill
MacAskill died at his home in Ferguson Cove, Nova Scotia, in 1956. His widow sold his negatives and business to a Halifax photographer. His images and film reels were eventually donated to the Public Archives of Nova Scotia. They have almost 5000 of them, and they are tightly controlled. You can view them here.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

My non-existent business plan

The professional painter ought to set some commercial goals. What form should they take?
Michelle reading, by Carol L. Douglas. While I love painting and teaching figure, there's no room for it in my imaginary business plan.
One of the best things about my Ocean-Park-to-Castine week is that I get to spend it with Mary Byrom. We are good buddies but she lives in North Berwick, ME and I live in Rockport. They’re just far enough apart to make casual get-togethers impossible.

There isn’t much time for idle conversation during these plein air events but we do snatch moments. You might think we’d talk about technique or lofty ideals of art. Mostly, we talk business: are you going to [this place]? How were sales at [that place]?

Recently, Mary has been larding her conversation with the phrase “my business plan,” as in, “I’m not sure how that fits in my business plan.”

More work than they bargained for, by Carol L. Douglas. Do boatyard pictures still fit in my business plan?
After Castine, Mary, her husband, and I were enjoying some cold water in my kitchen (a delicious luxury after a week in the sun). Mary mentioned her business plan again. “Mary,” I objected, “Who has a business plan? My business plan is, um, ‘paint something.’” We guffawed, because we all know that artists are notorious for our bad planning skills.

As usual, Mary is several steps ahead of me. I mulled over what she said all afternoon. It makes sense to have a forward agenda. My problem is that I have absolutely no business experience. The whole notion of a business plan is alien to me.

Under the Queensboro Bridge, by Carol L. Douglas. I didn't stop painting urban scenes because of a business plan; I just like painting rocks better.
The distinction between an amateur and a professional is whether one does one’s work for love or money. But it goes deeper than that: it’s about the discipline of working every day, on a schedule. It means treating painting as a real job and not something one does when the mood strikes. Even with this, however, I know artists who work extremely hard and don’t make much money.

That, I think, is because being a painter is so personal. Just as modesty precludes the polite person from telling the world how great he is, it precludes the personally-invested artist from selling his own work. For all of us, a business plan is a fence we could erect to prevent our feelings from hindering our careers.

Butter, by Carol L. Douglas. Still lives were never part of my business plan; they're like practicing scales.
I looked up business plans for artists on the internet. Frankly, they’re gobbledygook to me. I don’t know, for example, how setting a five-year goal of making $200,000 a year in sales can possibly help me attain even a dollar more in sales today. If someone out there is knowledgeable about this and wants to help me understand, I’d love to hear more.

Meanwhile, I do have three simple goals for this year:
  • Add events in the South or Midwest to extend my season. The Northeast jams all our festivals in a four-month period from July to October. This is reasonable considering our climate, but it puts too much pressure on us to be seasonal workers.
  • Diversify my gallery representation into other geographical areas.
  • Paint more boats.

 Does that count as a business plan?

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.