Paint Schoodic

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Friday, March 31, 2017

Mammas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Craftsmen

Craftsmanship, passed down from artist to artist, keeps modern painting alive. That’s because painting is a craft, not an intellectual pursuit.

Rowboats on Dock, oil on board, by Robert McCloskey 
The other day I overheard an Old Salt telling a Young Salt that connecting links in marine chains are as strong as coil chain once the rivets are peened in. That kind of knowledge is passed from person to person in a trade. It can hardly be measured or tested.

My husband recently remarked that tradespeople get more respect in Maine than they did back in New York. I think he’s right. New York is heavy on colleges and universities. That’s a good thing, but it does result in some disregard for the highly-skilled people who hold our physical world together.

Any flat-pack project can be rendered infinitely more complicated with the addition of glue and clamps.
That’s ironic, since we live in a society where few people can do much of anything. A 2012 survey found that 44% of British adults were unable to assemble flat-pack furniture. Another quarter of them needed a whole day. Only 42% of Americans are confident they can change a flat tire, and 26% believe they can change the oil in their car. We need the trades.

There was a time when artists considered themselves craftsmen rather than intellectuals. That shifted with the Age of Enlightenment and the Cult of Genius. We’re in the final stages of this thinking, where implied talent and intent trump discipline and skill.

One artist who thought of himself primarily as a craftsman was the brilliant and revered Maine illustrator, Robert McCloskey.  A show of his work runs at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts until June 18. I’d hoped to go down to see it with Bobbi Heath, but—I’m embarrassed to admit—I was home with my ailing dog. I had to be content with the photo she sent me of his Rowboats on Dock, above.

McCloskey has been in the news recently because his family recently donated Outer Scott Island, the setting for One Morning in Maine, to the Nature Conservancy.

From Robert McCloskey: A Private Life in Words and Pictures by Jane McCloskey.
 McCloskey thought of himself as an illustrator, not an artist. “He never sold anything [of his paintings], and never really tried,” his daughter Jane said. “It was all about the books.”

“His puppets and paintings,” she wrote, “which never won any awards, were worth as much to him as the books which won the praise of the world.” 

“Don't talk about it; do it,” was McCloskey’s credo.

Dynamic symmetry is a system of rectangular design invented by Jay Hambidge.  It’s easier to visualize than explain, since it is based on square roots. McCloskey was a fan of dynamic symmetry. 

I also learned this system and sometimes still use and teach it. I got it from an ‘Old Salt’ of an artist, the figure painter Steven Assael. It’s that kind of knowledge, passed along from artist to artist, which keeps modern painting alive. In this way, we have more in common with tradespeople than we do with intellectuals. There's nothing to be ashamed of in that.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Pulled in two directions

If you doubt the adage “time and tide wait for no man,” take up painting boats.

Late Winter at the Shipyard, unfinished, by Carol L. Douglas
Yesterday I was in Home Depot picking up a cabinet when I noticed a bin of ClosetMaidTie and Belt Racks. I ran to my car, got a few painting panels, and fitted them in the hooks. Voila! An easy, fast, and available panel drying system that takes up a fraction of the space of the system I’m currently using. They’re $7.98 each, and my local store had lots of them. One rack holds a dozen paintings. I’m stopping for more today.

Easily available, small, light and cheap. Each one holds a dozen paintings.
I paint everything smaller than 20X24 on canvas panels. They are stable, easy to transport, and less prone to go airborne than stretched canvas. The professional needs to ask whether they are made to archival standards and whether they will warp in extreme conditions. After that, it’s just a question of how much tooth (texture and absorbency) you like.  Any good board costs an arm and a leg. If you’re making work to sell, you should be prepared to pay. Art buyers should ask what substrate work is painted on. Think of it as a warranty question. (I use Raymar, which is just one of several good brands.)

There is no way I could have done my Canada trip using stretched canvas. The newest paintings were in PanelPak carriers. When they reached the tacky phase, I moved them to pizza boxes. When they were surface-dry, I bound them together with waxed-paper spacers and put them in a plastic tub. In this way, more than forty paintings made it back to Rockport with almost no surface damage.

There are more than 50 paintings in the dry phase in my studio right now. They take up a lot of room.
Here, however, they needed to dry thoroughly, and once dry, get their final matte varnish coating. That means they’ve been taking up a lot of space in my studio. Since my classes start Tuesday, I don’t have time to order a set of drying rails, as nice a product as they are. The tie racks were perfect.

It’s finally dawning clear this morning. That figures, since my day is bookended with meetings.  I need to finish my painting of the Jacob Pike before she floats out on the tide on Friday or Saturday. If you doubt the adage “time and tide wait for no man,” take up painting boats. The tide is an inexorable mistress, as is the fitting out schedule in the boatyard. On the other hand, there’s the equal and opposing need to finish preparing my studio for classes.

Here's another angle I'd love to paint, but I'd be in the way.
I’ve got the boat pretty accurately limned out. It’s the boatyard that’s not finished. Of course, the star of this painting is the Little Giant crane in the background.  It was moved since I started this painting last week. Captain Doug Lee offered to put it back where it was, but I kind of like the hook dangling over the boat. I asked him to leave it.

I might get to sneak an hour or so over there today. If I don’t, I can finish the background without the boat. These things have a way of working themselves out.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing

What does one artist teach another, in person, that cannot be learned off the internet? Sometimes it's about accountability.

Dish of butter, by Carol L. Douglas
Yesterday an alert reader sent me a blog post purporting to show how to draw “the top of the flower pot, the lid on a jar, the base of the barn silo,” in perspective. I don’t want to start a flame war, so I’m not going to give you the link, but the instructions were flat-out wrong. The post started off well. Then the writer tried to apply two-point perspective, not realizing that round shapes have no perspective, at least in that sense.

This is a case where knowing a little math would have helped. A column is just an extruded circle. Any point on a circle is the same as any other point. Seen in space, the top of a column is always symmetrical on the vertical and horizontal axes.

That was wild blueberries, yogurt, milk, oatmeal, cinnamon and ginger, in case you're wondering.
I demonstrated this to my reader by sending her the photo of my breakfast drink, above. If you doubt me, walk around a glass or vase on a table and tell me if the shape changes. I have an explanation of how to draw this, here.

Not that I haven’t said some amazingly stupid things in my time. I remember once trying to explain the art concept of color temperature in relation to the physical temperature of light. My class included a person I think is terribly smart. I grew nervous. I got lost in a hopeless mishmash of misstatements before I was done. At least I hadn’t committed it to paper.

Wineglasses and opossum, by Carol L. Douglas
Sometimes people will repeat the canard that “teaching beginners is easy.” That’s only true in the sense that they don’t know if you’re right or not. Painting technology is almost unchanged since Jan van Eyck created his system for oil painting at the beginning of the fifteenth century. Watercolor and acrylic are newer, but equally methodical. There are rules for painting and drawing, and that is what a teacher should know and teach.

Unpicking bad teaching is some of the most painful work I do. This is why I like and practice the atelier model in my own studio, which I benefitted from so much at the Art Students League of New York. I don’t think in terms of levels of competence; there are just people who each bring their own experience and I try to help them move forward.

Acrylic paint jars, by Carol L. Douglas
Even old dogs can learn new tricks. I’m about to take my workshop in many, many years. I’ve painted with Poppy Balser enough to know that she’s a stellar technician. In May I’m traveling to Cornwallis Park, Nova Scotia to take a two-day watercolor workshop with her. I’m hoping to up my game in watercolor.

I’m glad it’s not this week. While the National Weather Service coyly predicts “plowable snow” for Maine, the Canadian Maritimes are looking at significant weather again.

“If it doesn’t start melting soon, I’ll have to shovel for my first class on Tuesday,” I whined to my husband. That snow pile in our driveway has consolidated to concrete. Ouch.

There is, by the way, one opening left for this session, so if you’re interested, contact me.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

The client hates the painting

A grateful nation wanted to honor Sir Winston Churchill for his remarkable service. The painting they commissioned was regrettably unsympathetic.
Sir Winston Churchill, by Graham Sutherland
In 1954, Sir Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill was winding up his second term of office as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. He was one of the most brilliant men of any age: a leader, a soldier, an historian, a writer, and along with all that, a skilled painter. Where he could have gone with an art career had he not been busy saving Western Civilization is anyone’s guess.

Mary's first speech, by Winston Churchill
Wishing to honor him, the joint Houses of Parliament commissioned a portrait painting by another polymath, Graham Vivian Sutherland. Sutherland was a printmaker, a textile designer, a wartime artist, and a portraitist of some note. He was also known as a modernist, which ought to have struck a warning bell. For all his complexity and brilliance, Churchill was deeply orthodox.

Sutherland was paid 1000 guineas. This needs explaining. The guinea had been officially removed from circulation more than a hundred years earlier. However, luxury goods like art, couturier clothing, horses, and fine furniture were quoted in guineas right through the late 20th century. A guinea was 21 shillings, and that equaled about $35,000 in today’s money. The fee was paid entirely by donations from members of the joint Houses.

W. Somerset Maugham, by Graham Sutherland

To date, Sutherland’s most famous portrait commission had been of the writer W. Somerset Maugham. Sutherland’s fans thought him honest; others considering him cold. In retrospect, his portraits seem almost to be caricatures.

Churchill wanted to be shown in the chivalric robes of the Order of the Garter. However, the commission specified that he be shown in his usual parliamentary dress.

Abraham Lincoln, by Daniel Chester French
Sutherland was methodical in his preparation. He traveled to the Churchill home, Chartwell, to make charcoal and oil studies, doing the final work in his studio. The pose was meant to quote Daniel Chester French’s monumental portrait of Abraham Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial. However, in its odd miasma of dreary monochrome, Sutherland’s painting was oddly unheroic. It was just an old man, struggling out of his chair.

That was a bad note to strike, even if it did resonate with the nation’s own sense of exhaustion. Unknown to the public, Churchill had recently had a stroke. He was feeling sensitive about his health.

Clementine Churchill brought a photograph of the completed portrait back to her husband ten days before the public ceremony at Westminster. Churchill hated it, calling it “filthy” and “malignant”. His fellow Conservative Charles Doughty convinced him that he had to accept it, since rejecting it would offend the donors.

In his speech, Churchill, ever the wit, described the likeness as “a remarkable example of modern art.” Although it was intended to hang in Parliament, Churchill immediately took it back to Chartwell with him, where it was stashed away.

Lord Goodman, by Graham Sutherland
In 1978, it was revealed that Lady Churchill had asked her secretary to destroy the painting. Grace Hamblin was the Churchill’s loyal private secretary for more than 40 years. She and her brother burned the painting on a large bonfire in the back garden of his house.

Biographer Sonia Purnell has described Lady Churchill as “ruthless” in protecting her late husband’s legacy. Because the painting didn’t represent her own image of her husband, “it had to go.” That disregards the fact that he hated it as much as she.

Sutherland later described the disposal of the portrait as an “act of vandalism.” Certainly no artist wants to see their work destroyed, but in the end a painting is an object, a possession, and the owner has the right to destroy it.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Go Barons!

Everyone on this planet is separated by only six other people, but you have to find the right six people to make the connection.


On Saturday, I drove to Tenants Harbor to drop off paintings at the Jackson Memorial Library for Plein Air Painters of Maine’s annual show. I knew, vaguely, that the library had moved, but I didn’t anticipate any trouble finding the new one. Tenants Harbor is tiny.

Luise van Keuren gave me a tour of the new library building. It is spacious, contemporary, light-filled and painted in soft, restful tones. The Town of St. George numbered 2,591 people at the last census. They’ve built a library that any swank New York suburb would be proud of.

St. George is comprised of five villages: Spruce Head, Clark Island, Tenants Harbor, Martinsville, and Port Clyde. It has a consolidated K-8 school in Tenants Harbor, attended by about 200 kids. After they finish grade eight, kids can choose to go to one of five regional high schools. This is the Maine way.

Anchor, by Carol L. Douglas
Media studies are pushing libraries out of public schools everywhere in the country. In Tenants Harbor, the public library is picking up the slack. Kids walk down a snow-filled forest path that connects their school with the Jackson Library. They get their library periods and after-school programs there.

In foreign aid, local, fast and nimble aid projects have been popular for several decades, via things like small-scale aid projects and micro-credit. In our own country, we gravitate toward one-size-fits-all solutions. Luckily, libraries are still, by and large, locally controlled and funded. If we apportioned them using the same, vicious cost/benefit approach we take for most things, Tenants Harbor wouldn’t even have a library. But for now, Maine loves her libraries and it shows.

It was time to leave, but my husband was deep in conversation with the library’s director, Deb Armer. Turns out she once lived around the corner from us in Brighton, NY, where her husband had also gone to high school. Go Barons!

I also included this palm tree, because I'm sick of the snow. Well, I was visiting Cali Veilleux, and she's from Spruce Head, so there is a Maine theme, right?
“There are three people at this library with some connection to Brighton,” she told us. In New York terms, Brighton is a tiny pin prick on the map, with a population of 37,000. It is well-represented here in our little corner of Maine.

Alene Kennedy at the library created a lovely poster for the show, which I’ve reproduced above. I plan to be at the opening. I can’t wait to see what my painter friends have been up to. We only paint together some of the time, after all.

The opening is Friday, April 7, from 6-8 PM. Just go down Route 131 past the General Store, the Post Office, and the Town Hall, and it will be on your right. If you cross the creek, you’ve gone too far. See you there!

Friday, March 24, 2017

Fixing what is broke

More Work than They Bargained For (Isaac H. Evans), by Carol L. Douglas. A working schooner is the antithesis of our throwaway culture.

“My other piece of advice, Copperfield,” said Mr. Micawber, “you know. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.” (Charles Dickens)

One of the easiest ways to get richer is to never spend every penny you earn. This dictum is apparently shared among my peers. Contrary to what the popular press would have you believe, more Americans are saving for retirement today than in the past; retirement plan contributions are rising, and retirement assets are at record levels, even accounting for inflation.

At times my household has been very, very poor. I’ve suffered catastrophic illness and been wiped out financially. I’ve had towering debt. The principle for recovery is always the same. As our parents said, you “pay yourself first” by putting a little money aside every week.

Detail from The Beggar of St. Paul, by Carol L. Douglas. I'm trying to adapt and reuse old stuff here.
Not only does this help you sleep better, it allows you to take risks. You can’t, for example, quit your job and become a missionary if you’re locked down by credit card debt, a mortgage, and student loans.

Our parents did this by never throwing anything away. That's basically impossible in our modern throwaway culture. However, living on the coast of Maine helps; there are no shopping malls out here.  We try to buy less stuff and keep it as long as we can. For example, I drive a 2005 Prius with 241,000 miles on it. I've adopted the Maine habit of buying my clothes at Bean because they really do last forever.

My laptop travels with me so that you can travel with me. My former model, a Toshiba, has been a fantastic workhorse. Nevertheless, it was time for it to take its honestly-earned retirement. It has parts rattling around in the case and it is prone to shut off at inopportune moments.

I didn’t notice that its replacement had a manufacturing defect in the screen until after I’d spent two days installing software. I should have returned it immediately, but like everyone else, I dread entering the terrible maw of bad customer service that we, as a nation, suffer. There is a price to pay for the convenience of mass markets, and we pay it when anything goes wrong.

Illustration from Even from Far Away, by Carol L. Douglas. If you don't throw old things out, you won't have to replace them.
Then the SD card reader quit. I use it every day, and there’s no easy workaround. It had to be fixed. I spent all day yesterday allowing a technician from the Philippines to remotely-operate my computer as I watched in abject boredom. Eventually he reset the operating system, which essentially wiped the hard drive clean. Nothing doing; it was—of course—a  hardware problem all along. I now have an expensive, useless brick awaiting a long trip to a service center in Texas.

All of this is long way of saying that all my work for the last two months is buried in the treasure chest of a system backup. If we’ve been communicating about projects, workshops or classes, you need to take the whip hand, because I'm not sure I can find the information. 

Meanwhile, the ancient Toshiba has been recalled from retirement. I just know my Prius is out there in the driveway, grinning slyly to itself. It knows I will never replace it.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Prairie madness

Little Giant (North End Ship Yard), 16X12, oil on canvas, Carol L. Douglas
 As I write this, the temperature is 9° F. That’s not exactly balmy, end-of-March weather. The wind blew steadily yesterday and into the night. It was a cutting wind, and it roared and thrummed in the woods behind my house. “It’s driving me nuts,” I told my husband.

“An alarming amount of insanity occurs in the new prairie States among farmers and their wives,” wrote EV Smalley in 1893. He blamed the isolation.

An unexpected snow squall cut visibility in the morning, Photo courtesy of Sarah Wardman.
Novelist Willa Cather blamed the wind. “Insanity and suicide are very common things on the Divide,” she wrote. “They come on like an epidemic in the hot wind season. Those scorching dusty winds that blow up over the bluffs from Kansas seem to dry up the blood in men’s veins as they do the sap in the corn leaves… It causes no great sensation there when a Dane is found swinging to his own windmill tower, and most of the Poles when they have become too careless and discouraged to shave themselves keep their razors to cut their throats with.”

This phenomenon, called “prairie fever” or “prairie madness” lasted throughout the late 19th century. Bitter cold winters combined with short hot summers to make life exceedingly difficult on the northern Plains. Sociologists say prairie madness vanished when settlements became more populous and the barriers of language no longer divided immigrants. But since more than one in ten Americans take anti-depressants, methinks prairie madness just moved indoors.

American writers often used the ocean as a metaphor to describe the prairies. Both are enormous, seemingly empty, and yet bountiful. Having painted both, I see and feel the similarities.

Winch (American Eagle), Carol L. Douglas. Same site, warmer day.
In either place, wind—on a practical level—makes my work difficult. That’s why I jumped at the opportunity to paint from the shipyard office. I’ve never done that before; it seems unsporting, somehow, to be warm and comfortable while painting snow.

Schooners attract a kind of romantic, well-read crew, and their patter is unlike most shop talk. It is larded with history and geography, and firmly grounded in sailing.

There were frequent references to The Shipping News, which I first took to mean Annie Proulx’ Pulitzer-winning novel. Soon I realized that they were talking about the literal shipping news: the 1907 lists of boats with their hauls of pineapples, animal hides and other perishable crops, moving up and down the Americas.

Little Giant, on a sunnier day.
An unpredicted snow squall rose, scuppering the captains’ plans to work on the marine railroad. The schooners themselves are still shrouded in their winter framework of plastic and plywood. For the romantic fancier of boats, a crane might seem a strange subject. However, this painting does record a true relationship, that between cranes and boats with masts. At any rate, my two-year-old grandson will think it’s the best thing I’ve ever painted.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

If you’re looking for me, I’ll be down at the boatyard

That's as far as I can go without some better weather.
The fit-out of the Maine schooner fleet begins in earnest on April 1. That doesn’t mean that their crews haven’t been busy. There’s a lot of dockside work to keep them out of mischief, including mending and refinishing the boats and the shipyard itself. American Eagle and Heritage are immaculate because their crews labor tirelessly to keep the old girls moving. If you’ve ever owned an old house, you understand the necessity.

Occasionally, the weather keeps them busy, too. That happened during March 14’s blizzard. A schooner at Lermond Cove snapped a bowline and threatened boats downwind. The harbormaster, three Coast Guardsmen, and several sailors battled gale-force winds to haul her in. Kudos to Victory Chimes’ Chris Collins for reacting so quickly.

Jacob Pike from another angle.
I’ve been watching the Jacob Pike all winter, waiting for the right combination of warm weather and good light in which to paint her. The best week, of course, was when I was in the Bahamas. Yesterday, on a whim, I asked Shary Cobb Fellows how much longer the old lobster smack was going to be in drydock. “It has to vanish by the first of April,” she told me. The American Eagle needs the spot. “The captains are working on the crane,” she added. That really caught my attention, because their Little Giant crane is a focal point of the painting I’d envisioned.

I’ve painted in snow many times. I don’t like it. Even when the day is warm, the cold climbs up your legs. “Snow paintings are something artists like and the public doesn't,” Brad Marshall said, and it’s true. Most people have enough winter without wanting more of it on their walls.

What sailors do during their down time.
We still have six inches of slush on the ground. The light was dismal and dark. Nevertheless, the tide was exactly where I wanted it. I decided to block in the painting anyway. I ought to get at least one day next week during which I can finish it.

This is a big work: 18X24. That’s the largest I’ve painted in the field in a long time. I switched easels because that’s far too large for my tiny aluminum pochade box.

Too much snow for the likes of me.
Later I walked to the office to say hello. Captains Doug and Linda Lee were there, as was Captain John Foss. They had just finished working on the crane, which has been an all-winter project requiring special-order new parts. Tomorrow they will use it to start putting the railway rollers back in the water.

As I was chatting with Captain Doug, I noticed the view behind him. It was spectacular—the stern of the Jacob Pike, the Little Giant crane front and center, and the bow of the Heritage. Let’s hope I can do it justice. If you’re looking for me, I’ll be down at the boatyard.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

American history through British eyes

Death on the Ridge Road, 1935 by Grant Wood. Williams College Museum of Art
Occasionally a painting gets stuck in my head. Such is the case with Death on the Ridge Road, by Grant Wood, above. Viewers in 1935 understood this painting as something painfully probable in rural driving: innocent passengers careening happily toward their imminent deaths. One could see it as a metaphor for life, since we’re all in that state of happy ignorance. We are, however, in a new era, and current conventional wisdom is that it is a metaphor for Woods’ own privately tortured sexuality.

That’s a contemporary American viewpoint, however, and it’s unlikely to hold up. Death on the Ridge Road is currently in London, in America after the Fall: Paintings in the 1930s, at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. If I find any spare change, I’m going to see it before it closes. It’s not that I can’t or haven’t seen these paintings here in their native home. I’d like to see them interpreted through British eyes.

Erosion No. 2 – Mother Earth Laid Bare, 1936, Alexandre Hogue, Philbrook Museum
The Telegraph called this show “a pungent mix of American horror stories,” but there’s more than a bit of Schadenfreude there. We Americans don’t necessarily think of urbanization, industrialization, or any of the other themes of the Great Depression as horror stories. They are the stories of our parents and grandparents, repeated down through the generations.

Nor were they the end of an idyllic past, as the title implies. We had been riven by Civil War two generations earlier; we had suffered through rocketing financial depressions before. Ours was a society that was constantly in flux.

It was, however, a “decade like no other,” as the Royal Academy describes it. The impulses in art were varied and many. Painting wandered down many different by-ways, from the regionalism of Wood to the Symbolism of Philip Evergood, the Precisionism of Charles Demuth and Charles Sheeler, the folk expressionism of William H. Johnson and the modernism of Georgia O’Keeffe. It was a ferment that we can only begin to sort out in retrospect, and it happened in literature and music along with painting.

Gas, 1940, Edward Hopper, MoMa
“He’s putting the pump back, he’s staring into the dial, he’s falling apart: who knows? The garage stands empty, its light sinister as the dusk descending over the woods, presaging a thousand movies. The rural past meets the industrial future in this vision of a lone American lost out there in the spreading vastness,” wrote the Guardian about Edward Hopper’s Gas.

I, through my American eyes, see the homely Northeast in that painting. It’s the Maine of my childhood, moving from Mom-and-Pop gas bars to whatever it is today. 

Meanwhile, in 1940, when Hopper painted it, Britain was enduring the Blitz. It seemed as if defeat at the hands of Luftwaffe was inevitable. A British public has to see the night sky in Gas as intensely personal. It’s more about them than us.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Weekly painting classes in Rockport, Maine

Painting by student Marilyn Feinberg
Color, light, and composition for outdoor painters
Carol L. Douglas
394 Commercial Street, Rockport
Starting April 4, 2017
10-1 AM Tuesdays, six week session
Fee: $200

Last month two friends took me to lunch at the Waterfront restaurant in Camden. As a bitter wind piled clouds high above the islands of Penobscot Bay, they put a question to me. “When will you stop slacking and start teaching weekly classes again?”

They’re right. My trip to Canada had stretched into the holidays, which had then become a trip to the Bahamas. I’ve been working hard, but not teaching.


 They nailed me down to a commitment. Our next cycle of classes starts on Tuesday, April 4. That will be from 10-1 AM, in my studio at 394 Commercial Street, Rockport. If you’re interested, there are more details available on my website, here.

The goal is intensive, one-on-one instruction that you can take back to your studio to apply during the rest of the week. We’ll cover issues like design, composition, and paint handling. We will learn how to mix and paint with clean color, and how to get paint on the canvas with a minimum of fuss.

And, yes, we’ll talk about drawing. If you ever want to paint anything more complicated than marshes, you must know how to draw. As I’ve demonstrated before, any person of normal intelligence can draw; it’s a technique, not a talent. And it’s easy to learn, no matter what you’ve been led to believe.

Painting by student Jennifer Jones
We’ll start in my studio, but on pleasant days, we’ll paint at outdoor locations. Painting outdoors, from life, is the most challenging and instructive exercise in all of art. It teaches you about light, color and composition.

That, of course, limits the media you work in to oils, watercolor, acrylics, or pastel, since they’re what is suitable to outdoor painting.


Years ago, a friend kept asking me to give painting lessons. “I don’t know how to do that,” I’d answer. We went round and round for several years. Eventually, I caved. Three people signed up. I figured I’d teach one session and they’d realize I was clueless. My studio was on the third floor. I was the model and the instructor and I kept hitting my head on the ceiling as I moved around the room.

Turns out, I wasn’t actually that bad. From there I moved into a nicer room above the garage and enlarged my teaching practice. I started teaching workshops and concentrating on plein air instruction, since that’s what I love best. When I left Rochester, I left a large circle of students behind. You can see a small sample of their work here. One of my great joys is that they formed a group, Greater Rochester Plein Air Painters, and continue to paint together.

“You used to teach on Saturdays,” a student recently pointed out. That’s true, I realize. If you want to study with me but work during the week, let me know. If I have three people interested, I’ll offer a weekend class.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Full moon over Frenchman Bay


Nocturne by Matthew Menzies, from Sea & Sky 2013.
There’s something magical about painting a nocturne over water. It’s even better when there’s a full moon. My calendar tells me we’ll have that opportunity during our third annual Sea & Sky Workshop. Think of magnificent granite slopes at Schoodic Point, silhouettes of Jack Pines against the midsummer night sky, and moonlight shimmering on the ocean.

Yes, there are still openings for the workshop, because (as usual) I got interested in other things and forgot to do any advertising after Christmas. That’s one of the curses of being a one-woman shop. However, Bobbi Heath just showed me a nice system for keeping all the balls in the air. It pointed out to me that I juggle a lot of things—possibly too many things.



This is the fifth year I will be teaching in midcoast Maine, and my third season at Schoodic Institute. It’s the best place for raw, natural beauty without crowds on the whole Maine coast, and the Institute itself is set up for learning. The campus was created when a former Navy base was returned to the National Park Service. It is one of 19 National Park Service Research Learning Centers in the United States. They do all our meals and snacks, so we can concentrate entirely on painting. And you can bring non-painting guests, who will enjoy fishing, hiking, birdwatching, and more. 

We’ll study composition, color, drawing, and paint mixing in morning and afternoon sessions. By now I have a pretty intimate knowledge of Schoodic and the surrounding area. That means you get access to the best painting locations.


Even though we’re on an uninhabited peninsula, it’s still easy to get to painting locations. There’s a ring road with frequent pull-offs. And Schoodic itself is only 90 minutes from Bangor International Airport, for those of you who fly to Maine.

I’ve worked with people from raw beginners to those who already hold MFAs. I have more than fifteen years of experience teaching in watercolor, oils, acrylics and pastels. I’m a former chairperson of New York Plein Air Painters and my work is in public and private collections worldwide. I studied at the Art Students League in New York with Cornelia Foss, Nicki Orbach, Joseph Peller and others.

Dinghy, Camden Harbor, by Carol L. Douglas
“This was the best painting instruction I have ever had. Carol’s advice in color mixing was particularly eye-opening. Her explanations are clear and easy to understand. She is very approachable and supportive. I would take this course again in a heartbeat,” student Carol Thiel once said about me. (By the way, some of my lessons can be read here.)

The one-week workshop is just $1600, including five days’ accommodation in a private room with shared bath, meals, snacks, and instruction. Accommodations for non-painting partners and guests are also available. Your deposit of $300 holds your space. Complete registration forms should be returned by mail to Carol L. Douglas, PO Box 414, Rockport, ME 04856-0414 with your $300 deposit.



Or email the form here and make a credit card payment by phone to 585-201-1558. Refunds are available up to 60 days prior to start, less a $50 administration fee. Final payment is due 60 days prior to the start of the workshop.

A discount of $50 is available to members of New York Plein Air Painters, Plein Air Painters of Maine or returning students.


And bring a night lamp! Even better, remind me to add night lamp to the supply list.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Working from home: the pros and cons


My last studio was neater than my current one. I wonder why.
I’ve had studios in my home and in a commercial space. Neither is inherently better. It’s just a question of what works best for you. 

Sometimes the decision requires no thought. If there’s no room in your house, a rented studio space is probably cheaper than moving. I started painting professionally in a corner of my kitchen. In some ways that was the most pleasant workspace I ever had, since it was light and bright and I could easily keep an eye on the kids. But it didn’t take long to outgrow.

The Hungerford Building in Rochester is a mixed-use building that is home to more than a hundred working artists. I had a studio there long before it had a First Friday event, but it was still open to the public. My workspace was large, with high ceilings, ample north-facing windows and good parking. I met many fine artists there. There were, of course, all the usual amenities.

On the other hand, some residents were careless with the security codes. That meant that the building was never truly secure. It was in a marginal neighborhood. I soon realized that it wasn’t safe after dark.  At the time, working at night was a necessity. I had young children who shortened my daylight work options considerably.

There was also the question of access. I was doing art festivals and fairs. My studio was on the fourth floor. This was accessible by freight elevator, but there was still a lot of trundling before I got my work, my booth and my tent down to the commercial loading dock. That freight elevator was the only option for visitors, too. It was cumbersome and hard to use.

There was also the rent, which added about $6000 a year to my fixed costs.

One of the downsides of a home studio is that you will end up storing paintings everywhere. This is the bedroom in our former home.
We bought our current house for the studio. This is my fourth home-based workspace. My husband works from home too, so in some ways you could describe this house as a large atelier with attached living quarters. It’s on Route 1, which is Maine’s commercial drag, and it has a small parking lot.

Owning my workspace is a financial advantage in the same way as home ownership. It also gives me greater flexibility in how I use the space. I can work whenever I want. There’s a nice kitchen. There’s a backup server and a good computer network. I can bring the elderly Jack Russell terrier to work with me. And of course, there’s no commute.

There is, of course, a downside: distraction.

“After each big painting I usually clean my studio before starting another painting. I got as far as dumping the dirty water,” Christine Waara wrote yesterday. “While dumping water in the laundry room I started doing laundry. While gathering laundry, I came across some letters I've been meaning to answer. Went to find some note cards to answer the letters and saw that the dehumidifier was full. Dumped the dehumidifier and… squirrel!”

Your kids will wander in and out of your home-based workspace. That's usually a good thing.
I have a few tricks to manage my transition from hausfrau to artist. I leave my next piece on my easel, to remember where I’m going and what I was thinking about. I work regular hours whenever I can. Human beings are programmed for routine. Our brains settle down faster when we use them the same way at the same time every day.

Home-based workers end up being the gophers for our families, because our schedules are flexible. People stop by because they think we’re ‘free.’ But, overall, I think there is less of this than in a communal workspace, which sometimes suffer from excessive conviviality. And I never have meetings. The dog can’t talk.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

We have a lot to answer for

The Young Schoolmistress, 1740, Jean-Baptiste Siméon Chardin. Chardin painted children concentrating. That is only possible when children aren't worrying.
I spent two decades in a town where, as Garrison Keillor quipped, “all the children are above average.” It’s fringed by the University of Rochester and Rochester Institute of Technology,  and provides those professors a green, leafy suburb in which to hang their hats.

Jennifer and I taught Sunday school together years ago. She’s got a PhD and is a professor of optics. Another friend once lamented that with “only” an MA in Spanish literature, she was the least-educated person she knew. (Since my education was largely cobbled together, I found this funny.)

As you can imagine, the children of such parents never go to bed intellectually starved.

Jennifer met Helen, a former gang-banger from Braddock, PA, several years ago. She coached her in writing skills, among other things. Helen is a Resident Advisor for the mentally ill in an enclosed program. She suffers from sarcoidosis, recently came through a bout of homelessness and is the legal custodian of her two-year-old granddaughter. She is mixed-race and 52 years old.

Young Beggars, 1890, by William-Adolphe Bouguereau. They have more to worry about than their book learning.
Helen and I have become good friends. Recently, Helen decided to quit swearing. She was putting quarters into a swear-jar when I realized she couldn’t divide by four. We started to probe the limits of her education.

She has read no classic literature or poetry. She does not know basic computation. She writes easily and breezily, but her vocabulary is on an elementary-school level. All of this might be understandable if Helen were a recent immigrant from the third world, but she’s a middle-aged graduate of an American high school.

Helen was born in 1964 to an interracial couple. Her physically-disabled mother was four months pregnant when her parents were married. Her father was a drug-dealer who did time. Helen was told in school that she was learning-disabled. I see no evidence to support that. To me, it seems more likely that she was unable to concentrate.

Buffalo Newsboy, 1853, by Thomas Le Clear, courtesy Albright-Knox Art Gallery. Expectations for the working poor were very different in the 19th century.
Right now, Helen is working on learning her times tables, and is reading the speeches of Malcolm X, the Book of Acts and Dickens’ Great Expectations. I assign her four vocabulary words every day, emphasizing what part of speech they are. We’ve discussed remainders, thesis statements, and how to outline.

“Aleara is learning her multiplication tables. My six-year-old granddaughter and I are learning at the same time,” she marveled.

One of the subjects we’re talking about is budgeting. That’s not trivial; that’s how the middle classes get ahead. But you can’t budget if you can’t do basic computations.

Pauvre Fauvette, 1881, by Jules Bastien-Lepage. The 19th century French poor were less socially-mobile than our own poor of the time. This little warbler was stuck where she was born
Next door to my old community is the Rochester City School District. It earned a public hiding a few years ago, for turning in the lowest black male graduation rate in the nation: 9%.  At the same time, it had one of the highest costs-per-student in the country: $20,333 per kid in 2013. But if you think I’m going to criticize the teachers, you’re wrong. I know many city school teachers. To a man or woman, they’re dedicated, serious, and optimistic.

We can argue about politics, money, motivation, broken households, family support, etc. but it would help by starting with an admission that something is seriously broken. For forty years, Helen believed the lie that this is the best she was capable of doing. We owe her grandchildren a better start than this.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The most famous painter you never heard of

Moonlight, c. 1883-1889, Ralph Albert Blakelock, courtesy of the High Museum, Atlanta, Georgia
With the time change, the rhythms of the night are all wrong. Between that, the full moon, and the low-pressure system that is bearing down on us, I’ve spent too many hours up during the long reaches of the night.

Whenever I watch moonlight, I think of Ralph Albert Blakelock, the most famous painter you never heard of. In 1916 he managed to set a record for the highest price paid for a painting by a living American artist ($20,000). Sadly, he was in an insane asylum at the time.

Blakelock was born on Christopher Street in what is now Greenwich Village, in 1847. He was just too young to have served in the American Civil War, at that impressionable age of boyhood where war is glorious and terrifying.

He started studies at what is now City College of New York, intending to be a homoeopathist like his father. After three terms, he dropped out.

Moonlight, c. 1885-1889, Ralph Albert Blakelock, courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum
After the Civil War, many artists traveled through the American west under the auspices of the Federal government or trading companies. From 1869-72, Blakelock did a similar thing, but as a free agent. Traveling alone in the west at that time was a very dangerous matter. Blakelock lived among the Sioux for a time, traveled down the California coast to Mexico, and returned to New York via a fruit boat from Panama.

Almost completely self-taught, he began producing landscapes and scenes of Indian life based on his notes and sketches. His work was recognized and lauded, and he produced a show at the National Academy of Design. In 1877, Blakelock married; he and his wife had nine kids.

Moonlight, Indian Encampment, 1885-1889, Ralph Albert Blakelock, courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum

Blakelock may have been a great painter, but he was a financial incompetent and plagued by doubts about the worth of his work. He was simply unable to establish any kind of business to support his family. Profoundly depressed, he began to show signs of mental breakdown. Meanwhile, his wife and children lived in acute financial hardship, which was amplified by the Depression of 1893.

Blakelock suffered his first complete breakdown in 1891. For eight years he suffered from schizophrenic delusions until he was committed to the Middletown State Homeopathic Hospital in Orange County, New York. At the time, that was the backwoods. He would live there almost until his death.

And that’s where his story went from tragic to sordid. The 19th century romanticized mental illness. Rich people visited asylums for fun, watching the antics of inmates with great interest, or inviting them to be entertainment at their parties. Newspapers printed stories of the odd adventures of lunatics. Blakelock, with his quirks, his odd way of painting, and his weird behavior, was perfect fodder for this cruel mania.

Enter the swindler, in the form of one Beatrice Van Rensselaer Adams, née Sadie Filbert. Her questionable charities were outweighed by her political and social credentials. Blakelock was a perfect lamb to be led to slaughter. Adams established the Blakelock Fund to support his family, but of course, its purpose was to enrich her.

Moonlight, 1885-1889, Ralph Albert Blakelock, courtesy of the Corcoran Museum. Are you detecting a theme here?
Harrison Smith, a reporter for the New York Tribune eventually convinced Blakelock’s keepers that he was, in fact, a famous artist with work in a major retrospective in the city. When taken to New York to see the show, Blakelock confided to Smith that several of the paintings on exhibit were forgeries. Since the man was a diagnosed lunatic, however, Smith kept this information under his hat.

At the time of his death on August 9, 1919, Blakelock was hailed by the London Times as “one of the greatest of American artists.”

Blakelock painted in the style we now call tonalism. Popular between 1880 and 1915, it emphasized mood, myth and spirituality, in landscapes that were rendered in dark, neutral tones. Tonalism was in part an emotional reaction to the profound, heartbreaking damage of the Civil War. It was the perfect métier for a fragile, broken man.