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Sometimes it’s about what you don’t say.
Girl with the Red Hat, c. 1665-66, Johannes Vermeer, courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.
Earlier this month, I mentioned I once had a painting teacher who told me that heavy edges were “my style.” Like many younger artists, I just hadn’t learned how to marry edges in my painting. Beginning painters tend to give all edges equal weight—they are borders to be colored in. Part of the learning process is learning when to keep the edge and when to lose it.

Vermeer’s Girl with the Red Hat, above, perfectly illustrates the lost-and-found edge. The smooth transitions between the hair and the hat on the left, within her gown, and the lack of contrast in the shadow side of the model’s face drive our eye to the highlighted passages. Squint and concentrate on just the shape of the highlighted passage for a moment. It’s just one long, beautiful abstract shape in a sea of darkness.
In Church at Old Lyme, 1905, Childe Hassam softened the edges between leaves and sky by making them the same value. Courtesy Albright-Knox Art Gallery.
Losing the edges helps link visual masses into a coherent whole. It deemphasizes things that aren’t important. It’s a way to create rhythm in a painting.

The human mind is adept at filling in blank spots in visual scenes (and seeing things that aren’t there). If you doubt this, squint while looking around your room. In any collection of similar-value objects, you don’t see edges, but you understand what you’re looking at. Your mind sorts it out just fine.

A careful drawing is different from a value study. Both are important, and the wise artist does them both. But a drawing explores the shapes and contours of an object. It’s a fact-finding mission. A value study concentrates on the links between objects and the final composition.

The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, 1882, John Singer Sargent, courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. 
In the oil painting The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, John Singer Sargentuses the great dark entryway as a framing device, a compositional accent, and a poignant social statement. Only a hint of light in the shape of a window implies what is behind. The girls recede into space in order of age, with the eldest (Florence, age 14) almost enveloped in the darkness of the drawing room. Florence and Jane have no accents in their hair; their dresses and stockings disappear into the murk.

The Bridge of Sighs, c. 1903-04, John Singer Sargent.
Sargent painted at least two versions of this study of the Bridge of Sighs; a mirror-imageis in the Brooklyn Museum. In this version, Sargent placed a hard edge at the top of the arch where sky meets stone. The shadows on the left bleed without any attempt at architectural precision. This creates the same kind of murky dark passage as in The Daughters of Boit. (A note for watercolor purists—the whites of the gondoliers’ clothes were done with white paint.)

In Two Women on a Hillside, 1906, Franz Marc tied the women to the background by repeating greens in their skin and garb. Courtesy Franz Marc Museum.
To lose an edge in painting, start by making both sides of the line the same value, even when they’re different hues. Conversely, the highest contrast will give you the sharpest edge. You can add to either effect by softening or sharpening the paintwork with your brush. Introducing the color of the adjacent object will also soften the contrast between an object and its background, as in the Franz Marc painting above.

Detail from John Singer Sargent’s Lady Eden, 1906, courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Remember that the sharpest, most contrasting edges draw our eye. The trick is to find a balance that supports the composition. Sometimes only a small flick of paint is necessary, as with Sargent’s sequins in the detail from Lady Eden, above. These support the dynamics and direction of the composition. If they didn’t, they’d undermine all his careful compositional work.
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Maine has a distinctive, venerable, and broad art culture. You’d best plan on a nice long trip.
Teach Me Web by Reuban Tam, courtesy of Monhegan Museum.
Yesterday I invited you up to Maine to watch some great plein air in the making. While you’re here, you ought to stop and see some other art as well.

I don’t know how many commercial art galleries there are in Maine, but you can’t walk down a Main Street here without tripping over one or several—they’re everywhere, and of very high quality. This state’s an absolute must-visit destination for serious fans and collectors. But if you’re interested in 19th and 20th century masters, there are also nine good reasons to come to Maine: our art museums.
City Point, Vinalhaven,Marsden Hartley, courtesy Colby College Museum of Art.
The Maine Art Museum Trail Guide will take you to the major museum galleries in the state. I can’t predict how long it would take to tour all nine museums, because they’re also located in some outstanding places. There are wonderful attractions near each museum that might make you tarry. For example, could you visit Bar Harbor’s Abbe Museum without also spending time at Acadia, America’s first national park? And to get to the Monhegan Museum of Art and History, you need to take a ferry. There’s simply no better fun than that ferry ride on a fine summer day. While you’re there, you should tromp around the island and get a feel for its unique character. Then, there are the state's food and the breweries and boats and… you get the picture.

Fancy basket by Sarah Sockbeson, Penobscot, courtesy of the Abbe Museum.
Maine has had a distinctive painting culture for almost two hundred years. Its story starts with the Hudson River Schoolpainters. The nineteenth century was a period of rapid industrialization and urbanization. That brought many great things, but it also brought smog, noise, disease and overcrowding. People began to long for an untouched Eden. Thomas Cole, Frederic Church, Thomas Doughtyand other Hudson River School artists quickly tapped Maine for subject matter. It was as iconic as the American West and a heckuva lot closer to New York.

That unleashed a flood, and generations of American artists have been inspired here. Luminist Fitz Henry Lane painted the harbors and ships of the Maine coast. George Bellows, Winslow Homer, Edward Hopper, three generations of Wyeths, and many, many others have painted here. Many of those paintings remain in (or have been returned to) Maine.

Her Room, by Andrew Wyeth, courtesy of the Farnsworth Art Museum.
Because it’s close to my house, I am most familiar with the Farnsworth Art Museum. When I taught workshops out of Rockland, I took my students there. A person could reverse-engineer the process of painting by carefully studying Andrew Wyeth’s drawings.

Colby College Museum of Art is one of the best academic museums in the country. Bowdoin College Museum of Art is one of the oldest, having been founded in 1811. The Abbe Museum showcases Wabanaki art (and is a Smithsonian affiliate). The Ogunquit Museum not only exclusively deals with American art, it has a great seaside location. So, good luck choosing.
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Watch Me Paint by Carol Douglas - 4d ago

Three opportunities to watch well known plein air painters at work on Maine’s rugged coast.
Rachel Carson Sunset, Carol L. Douglas, oil on canvasboard, was painted at Ocean Park.
I had so much fun with Bobbi Heath’s Gloucester easel in Cape Elizabeth that I dragged my old one out of the garage. (It's such junk compared to hers!) I won’t go as big as I did last week, but I do plan on doing some larger works over the next two weeks.

I’m also packing my super-lightweight pochade box because I’ll be painting on the beach as well. I can’t haul that Gloucester easel over sand. We’re entering the gladdest, maddest weeks of summer and it’s good to be prepared.

Anthony, Russ and Ed painting on the beach at Ocean Park.
Art in the Park starts on Sunday, July 15 at Ocean Park, ME. This is as much a band of happy brothers as it is a paint-out. Ed Buonvecchio, Russel Whitten, Christine Tullson Mathieu, Mary Byrom, Anthony Watkins and I have done it as an ensemble for several years now. There’s no jurying and no awards—just excellent painting in an historic seaside community.

As relaxed as Art in the Park is, I’ve painted some very good things there, because Ocean Park has sand, rocks, marshes, architecture and, above all, ice cream. There are lots of hotels, motels and B&Bs in the area, so if you’ve ever wanted to come see a plein air event in action, this would be a good one to catch.
Jonathan submarining, Carol L. Douglas, oil on canvasboard, was painted at Castine Plein Air. This remains one of my all-time favorite paintings.
Anthony and I then drive straight to Castine for the sixth annual Castine Plein Air Festival. It opens on the village green on Thursday at the absurd hour of 6 AM. I’ve done this event since its inception, and it’s attracting top-flight artists. This year my old pal Laura Martinez-Bianco of New York and my new pal Alison Menke of Maryland will be there for the first time. Alison just earned first place/artist choice at Telluride, so she’s definitely a force to reckon with. And, of course, I’ll see many of my old friends there as well.

Castine is the home of Maine Maritime Academy, which is why the Arctic schooner Bowdoin hangs out in its harbor. It’s out on a neck on the far side of Penobscot Bay, making it a kind of Brigadoon, forgotten by time. Main Street slopes down towards the sea, with just enough shops and restaurants to make it fun to visit, but not so many as to distract from its white-picket-fence charm.

The plein airfestival wraps up with an open reception on Saturday July 21, from 4 to 6 pm. Wandering around and watching the artists is a great way to get to know this postcard-perfect town. If you can’t get a room in the village, Bucksport is not far away.

Before the Eggemoggin Reach Regatta, Carol L. Douglas, oil on canvasboard, was painted at Camden harbor.
The next week, I’ll be painting in Camden Harbor during the Camden Classics Cup. This event brings about 70 sailboats into Camden Harbor to race for the weekend, right before the Eggemoggin Reach Regatta. Camden Falls Gallery is the sponsor, and the event will feature their represented artists. I can’t tell you which ones will show up, but Ken DeWaard, Dan Corey, Renee Lammers, Olena Babekand Peter Yesis are all local, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see them—and others.

Camden is accustomed to visitors, so you’ll have no trouble finding a room.

Since I live just down the road and love to paint wooden boats, I’ve blocked out my schedule from Wednesday, July 26 through the weekend. Boat lovers are welcome to walk out on the floating docks to see the boats in harbor, but if I’m lucky, I’ll have found someone to take me out to a float.
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Watch Me Paint by Carol Douglas - 5d ago

In life, as in painting, which brush is going to give you the results you crave?

By Sheryl Cassibry, in gouache. Occasionally, I like to brag on my students. These are all from yesterday's class.
Yesterday my class painted on the public landing at South Thomaston, watching the Weskeag River burble its short, strapping way to Penobscot Bay. I was, as I often do, coaxing a student to use a bigger brush. My students accept the reasoning behind this, but they often revert back to smaller brushes by the time I visit their easels again. It feels safer.

“What a metaphor for life!” exclaimed Roger Akeley. “You want to paint bold, but you run back to the tiny brush!”
 By Roger Akeley
He is right. In life as well as in painting, there is a time for measured, patient, diligent action, but there’s also a time for bold deeds. The trouble is, by the time we’ve reached our mid-twenties, the bold has been trained right out of us.

Bold carries a more obvious risk of failure. This is illusory. Bold alone carries the potential for greatness Safe is a one-way ticket to mediocrity.

My youngest nephew joined our class yesterday. He's going into the eighth grade.
I’ve been pondering the lyrics of Needtobreath’s Slumber this month:

All these victims
Stand in line for
The crumbs that fall from the table
Just enough to get by…

It’s a sadly-apt vision of most of our lives. We hang on from paycheck to paycheck, with no real plan for the future. We want a better job, the opportunity to live somewhere else, satisfying relationships and real community. Yet we stay rooted in our spots, unwilling to make the hard choices that make real, significant change.

By Rebecca Gorrell, in acrylic.
When should you reach for the bigger brush? Assuming you’re not a miniaturist, the answer is: nearly all the time. Most of the struggle in painting is getting the big relationships right. The rest is just detail. If modern painting has taught us anything, it’s that excessive detail is extraneous and often intrusive. It can interfere with the viewer’s ability to understand emotional truth. Detail, in painting, should be saved for where it really matters.

By Jennifer Johnson, in oil. Sorry about the glare.
I’m an artist with the soul of an accountant, myself. I like order; I actually enjoy math, spring cleaning and vacuuming. There are no fuzzy edges in any of these tasks. When I’m done with them, I have a sense of simple satisfaction. But they aren’t central to my life.

By Jen Van Horne, in oil.
The Pareto Principle implies that 80% of our results come from 20% of our work. This doesn’t mean that fussing isn’t necessary, but that it should come at the end, when the work has assumed its overall shape and statement.

By Sandy Quang, in oil.
Using a bigger brush isn’t necessarily more emotional or less rational. In fact, it’s usually the other way around. When I have my monster size 24 flat in my hand, I’m very thoughtful about where I set it down. Flailing around is much easier with a size six filbert. Extend that metaphor to life. It’s much easier to complain about your home town than it is to clean the basement out, sell up and move. In fact, we all complain a lot. But which is going to net you the real results you crave?

I’ve got one more workshop available this summer. Join me for Sea and Sky at Schoodic, August 5-10. We’re strictly limited to twelve, but there are still seats open.

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Watch Me Paint by Carol Douglas - 6d ago

A great artist passed away last month, but I doubt you’ll read about him in art history class.
From The Avenging World, 1973, Steve Ditko, published by Bruce Hershenson.
I was introduced to the Silver Age of Comic Books by my husband when we were just teenagers. He still sends me great frames by Steve Ditko and Jack Kirbyto study. I believe I’d have been a better artist if I’d studied cartooning first, because these two artists manage to pack a world of action and insight into a canvas only a few inches across.

Steve Ditko passed away at the end of last month. True to his reclusive nature, he died so quietly that nobody is sure of the date.

Ditko was a Slovak from Pennsylvania steel country. He grew up reading Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant and Batman, idolizing the latter’s Jerry Robinson. On graduating from high school, he immediately enlisted in the US Army and served in occupied Germany.

From The Amazing Spider-Man #31–33, 1965, by Steve Ditko and Stan Lee, Marvel Comics.
After demob, Ditko enrolled in the Cartoonist and Illustrators School in New York. This had been founded three years earlier with just three teachers—one of whom was Robinson—and 35 students. Most of them, like Ditko, were there on the GI Bill. The school would grow up to become the School of Visual Arts.

Ditko began drawing professionally in 1953, working for a brief time with Jack Kirby. From there he moved to a low-budget publisher called Charlton Comics, producing science fiction, horror, and mystery stories. In 1954, he contracted tuberculosis and returned to his parents’ home in Johnstown, PA to recuperate.

From Dr. Strange, by Steve Ditko, published by Marvel Comics.
When he got back to New York in 1955, he began drawing for Atlas Comics, which would later morph to Marvel Comics. His contributions to Strange Tales  again paired him with Jack Kirby. These books were not comic at all, but the predecessors of graphic novels and intended for adult readers. They were odd, provocative, dystopian and literary, and they included masterpieces of visual art.

Marvel Comics editor-in-chief Stan Lee originally tapped Kirby, his chief artist, to draw his new superhero, Spider-Man. Lee hated Kirby’s approach. “Not that he did it badly,” said Lee. “It just wasn't the character I wanted; it was too heroic.” Ditko got the job. Spider-Man debuted in August, 1962 and was quickly given its own series. Ditko was eventually also given writing credit.
Ditko caught the arc of American anxiety.
Ditko created the character of Doctor Strange in 1963. The art was weirdly prescient as America moved into the psychedelic era. It suggested a different time-space dimension, bizarrely spacious, often anxious. It grew increasingly more complex and abstract as the comic matured.

Ditko and Lee stopped speaking, and eventually Ditko moved on. The real reason for the rupture isn’t known, but it was almost certainly based in clashing artistic visions.

From there, Ditko drifted. “By the '70s he was regarded as a slightly old-fashioned odd-ball; by the '80s he was a commercial has-been, picking up wretched work-for-hire gigs,” wrote Douglas Wolk in 2008. Ditko retired from mainstream work altogether in 1998.

And my all-time favorite, from Journey into Mystery Vol 1., courtesy of Marvel Comics.
Ditko never married or had children. He didn’t have particularly close relationships with friends. All he ever cared about was his work. Even when he was done with major publishers, he continued to draw for eight hours every day, self-publishing his own Objectivist screeds. “I do those because that’s all they’ll let me do,” he grumpedat the New York Post.

It wasn’t Ditko who had changed; it was the world. The Silver Age of Comic Books was over, and there was nothing fashionable in Ditko’s worldview.
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Having trouble finding time to get anything done? We all are.

Commit to working with others, either in a class, a group, or a workshop. It will jumpstart your process.
These days, I’m turning over my guest room as fast as the Starlight Motel down the street is turning over rooms. Not well, I might add; my brother tells me I’m in danger of losing my five-star rating. Even though I strongly discourage guests in the high season, there are still people whom I want to see.

Not having enough time to make art isn’t a unique problem. It’s something I hear from other artists in every station of life. Jobs, children, parents, spouses or homes aren’t time-killers; they’re the very fabric of our lives. Still, too often we go to bed realizing we’ve done no actual artwork that day.

Schedule studio time. If you work at the same time every day, you spend less mental energy waiting for inspiration to kick in—you just dive in and do it. That’s more than a mental trick. Your body and mind crave routine. Working on art at the same time every day makes it easier to transition into the flow zone.

Take a class. They’re fun, social, advance your skills, and—just like joining the gym—you have money riding on your involvement.

Keep the set-up to a minimum. I keep my palettes in the freezer so I can paint in small increments. I sometimes work in watercolor when I don’t have time to set up in oils. I draw when I can’t do either.

I've been recording the passing scene in sketchbooks forever. I wasn't always kind.
Put down your cell phone and pick up your sketchbook. Draw in meetings, classes and church—it won't lower your comprehension much. I’ve written about the importance of sketching many times; it separates good artists from mediocre ones.

Make work a habit. Set aside a half hour a day and use it to make some kind of art. You really can cement a habit by doing it for a month.
A small amount of time with a sketchbook can yield wonderful results.

Cut out the screen time. Even with the decline in TV watching, Americans average about eleven hours a day in front of some kind of screen. You might find that all the time you need to make art can be found just by deleting the Facebook app. (Just be sure to subscribe to this blog before you do it! The sign up box is at the top right.)

Make a studio. If you don’t have a room to dedicate to art, make a studio in a corner of your bedroom or some other underutilized space. Having a dedicated, organized work space cuts down on the set-up time each time you want to work.

Find a corner somewhere where you can leave your project up.
Make art a social activity. Join a figure-drawing or plein air group. There’s accountability in committing to work with someone else.

Run away from home.Apply for a residency somewhere. Even a week of focused work, sans family, can be great for your development. I’ll be doing one at the Joseph Fiore Art Center this September.

The dreaded deadline. I hesitate to recommend this, even though the best way I know to chain myself to my easel is to commit work for a show. Yes, deadlines make you finish things. However, they’re corrosive to body and soul. Better to just develop good work practices.

Be patient with yourself
I had cancer at age 40. Since then health issues have played a much larger role in my life. I’m always infuriated by being sick, because I like to keep busy. But if you’ve just had a baby or are recovering from pneumonia, you’re not going be efficient. Be patient. Just as you have to walk a little farther every day to regain fitness, you need to slowly reform your work schedule.

I’ve got one more workshop available this summer. Join me for Sea and Sky at Schoodic, August 5-10. We’re strictly limited to twelve, but there are still seats open.
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Some have a germ of truth; some are out and out wrong.
Île d’Orléans waterfront farm, by Carol L. Douglas. ‘Immediate’ shouldn’t mean half-baked.
Don’t overwork it:This is the most common bromide I hear. I hate it. It encourages painters to stop prematurely, and to not work out the latent potential or problems in the work.

It’s far better to go too far and need to fix your mistakes than never understand your limits or see where you might end up. “Don’t overwork it” is a great way to permanently stunt your growth as a painter.

Replace it with this: “If you can paint it once, you can paint it 1000 times.” It liberates you to scrape out, redraw, paint over, scribe across your surface and otherwise really explore your medium. And it’s actually true.

Cirrus clouds at Olana, by Carol L. Douglas. I couldn't have painted this had I not learned how to marry edges.
That’s your style: When I was a painting student, I had a teacher tell me that heavy lines were my ‘style’. They weren’t; I just hadn’t learned how to marry, blur or emphasize edges. Those are technical skills, and to master them I had to move on to the Art Students League and teachers who understood the difference between technique and style.

Ultimately, we all end up with identifiable styles, but they should be un-self-conscious, the result of putting paint down many, many times. Anything that we do to avoid learning proper technique is not a style, it’s a failure.

Blues player Shakin Smith once told me that his style was the gap between his inner vision and his capacity to render it. That made me stop worrying about style at all.

Vineyard, by Carol L. Douglas, courtesy of Kelpie Gallery. The dominant greens in this painting are based on ivory black.
Don’t use black: “Monet didn’t use black, and you shouldn’t, either!” That’s apparently true, but only after 1886, when Monet (apparently) adopted a limited palette. On the other hand, his palette included emerald green, which was copper-acetoarsenite, the killer pigment of the 19th century. There are limits to aping the masters of the past.

Monet made chromatic blacks, which are mixtures of hues that approximate black. Every artist should learn how to make neutrals, and not rely on buying Gamblin’s premix. But there are places where black is useful. One is in mixing greens. Another is in mixing skin tones. Contemporary painting is all about the tints (mixing with white) but ignores shades (mixing with black) and tones (mixing with black and white).

Back in the day, art students learned not just tints, but shades and tones.
Pros use more paint:Beginning artists generally don’t use enough paint, so it’s useful to tell them to increase the amount of paint. However, there are some great painters out there who work very thin—Colin Pageis an excellent example. The problem is in getting to that point. It’s a mastery born of years of experience. To get there you need—annoyingly—to start with more paint.
Fish Beach, by Carol L. Douglas.
If it’s not beautiful, you’re doing something wrong: Seeking beauty instead of truth is a great way to make static paintings. Paintings go through many ugly phases before they’re finished, and sublimating their ragged edges is a great way to drain all the juice out of your painting.


I’ve got one more workshop available this summer. Join me for Sea and Sky at Schoodic, August 5-10. We’re strictly limited to twelve, but there are still seats open.
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Is Draken Harald Hårfagre a realistic transatlantic Viking vessel?

Wreck of the SS Ethie, by Carol L. Douglas. This wreck was in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, not far from L'Anse aux Meadows.
Draken Harald Hårfagre, the enormous Viking ship that crossed the Atlantic in 2016, is stopping to visit Rockland on July 22-25. I’ll go look at it, of course, since I’m interested in the Vikings and their excursions to the New World. However, there’s never been any evidence that such a large ship ever crossed the North Atlantic. It’s the wrong type of boat.

Like modern mariners, the Vikings had different boats specialized for different tasks. The knarr was the cargo boat routinely used for long sea voyages. It was wider, deeper and shorter than a longship. Knarrs averaged about 50 feet in length with a beam of about 15 feet.

Knarrs are sturdier than longboats, and depended on sail-power, using oars for auxiliary power. They were capable of making 75 miles a day and worked the northern reaches of the North Atlantic carrying trade goods and livestock. For that reason, it was probably a knarrthat brought settlers to L'Anse aux Meadowsin Newfoundland.

The Bayeux Tapestry (c. 1070) depicts English and Norman ships in traditional Viking style.
Draken is not a replica of any real vessel. Her hull was built with materials and techniques similar to those used for medieval longships. Draken’s of a class of warship known as a skeid.She is 115 feet long, 26 feet on the beam, draws 8.5 feet, and has a crew of 32 people (chosen from a pool of a thousand applicants). She’s both bigger than the average skeid and carries fewer people.

Archaeologists discovered the remains of several ships in Roskilde, Denmark. The largest was built at Dublin around 1025 AD, near the end of the Viking Age. At 121 feet, it is the longest Viking ship ever discovered. Another was around 98 feet long and carried a crew of 70-80 people.

I’m reminded of this because I regularly drive by a sign in Waldoboro with the town’s motto: “Home of the five-masted schooner.” This is referring to the first such boat built, the Governor Ames. She was the world’s largest cargo vessel at the time she was built, in 1888. The first six-masted schooner, George W. Wells, was built in Camden, Maine in 1900. These boats generally moved lumber and coal. They were built as a cost-cutting measure at the end of the age of sail, but ultimately could not compete with steel ships and railroads.

Lumber Schooners at Evening on Penobscot Bay, 1863, Fitz Henry Lane. (Courtesy of National Gallery).
Of the eleven six-masted schooners built in the United States, nine came from Maine, and seven from the Percy & Small yard in Bath. The Wyoming, built by Percy and Small in 1909, was the largest wooden sailing craft to operate in commercial service, at 450 feet long.

These boats often had short careers. An exception was the lumber schooner Malahat, which enjoyed a good long interlude running rum to San Francisco during Prohibition.

“Schooner ‘Wyoming’ of New York, the largest schooner in the World at the L & H Docks, Pensacola. 93 days from Africa with mahogany. Will now load lumber and turpentine, etc. for France.”
Extremely large wooden boats had a tendency to flex in heavy seas, which caused their long planks to twist and buckle. This in turn let seawater into the hold. A number of them foundered just a few years after launching, with the loss of all hands.

The Vikings—the greatest sailors ever—kept the size of the knarr down to what was seaworthy in the North Atlantic.

Draken Harald Hårfagre crossed the Atlantic with a support ship (to film the trip). But I spoke with a former hand after the trip. “Every day, I feared for my life,” she said. I’m not surprised.
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How to paint in direct sun without your painting getting too dark.
Painting in the direct sun at Fort Williams. Not only did I need gallons of water, but I have the most ridiculous tan. (Photo courtesy of Karen Lybrand)
Yesterday, Cat Popesaw the above photo and asked me, “How do you work in the sun and not make your values too dark to compensate?” This is a common-enough problem. Experience has taught me how to compensate, but I used to do it too.

Yes, I could have chosen a shaded location from which to paint, but not at the edge of a cliff looking down into the water. I wanted that view and was willing to broil to catch it.

I have an excellent field umbrella: the EasyL by Artwork Essentials. However, the onshore wind in Maine often sends it flying. It’s gotten to the point where I don’t even bother. I wouldn’t have used an umbrella in the above situation anyway, because my canvas was already the size of a kite.
Painting with Brad Marshall along Long Island Sound, where the sea breezes are light enough to permit an umbrella. (Photo courtesy of Rye Art Center)
I started this painting with the early morning light hitting from the side. By the time the light was overhead, I had the value structure laid out. That’s important because a raking side light isn’t as strong as direct overhead light.

My red canvas is part of the solution. I aim for a value-neutral, high-chroma color. Not only is a very light canvas a liar when it comes to value, it causes eye strain.

Painting on a pale or white canvas makes you lay down those first strokes too dark. To understand why, we need to go back to the master of color mixing, Josef Albers. Albers understood that the same optics rules that played tricks in color also did so in monochrome. He did many greyscale exercises along with his more famous color work.

We perceive the dark square differently in a field of red than in a field of white.
To apply his insights to field painting in bright light, a dark square in an expanse of white reads differently than the same square in a field of mid-value color. That’s why white space is such an important concept in graphic design. In painting, we subconsciously use that white space as part of our design, and when it goes away, we’re left with something that’s dark and drab. It’s worse when the white board is shimmering in the sun. Our pupils contract terribly, altering our perception of color and light.

I mix my colors before I start painting. I have the darkest dark and lightest light set out before I put a stroke on the canvas. This limits my value range and defines my color temperature intellectually, rather than intuitively. I block in my large shapes, shooting for an average hue and value for each large mass. Then I stand back and look at the painting critically, to see if the composition laces together. If it doesn’t, back to the proverbial drawing board.

Historic Fort George, by Carol L. Douglas. This was painted without an umbrella, because I didn't want to hike the Fort Point Trail carrying extra gear.
It helps to paint in the sky last. The tendency is to paint the sky too dark. This pulls the light level of the whole painting down to match.

I complicate matters by painting in my sunglasses. This isn’t a problem as long as I remove them and check my painting from time to time. The polarizing lenses cut the glare from both the water and the paint, so it’s not really that difficult to match colors accurately. And if the sea is a little bluer than in life, is that really so bad?
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Changing light, comfort and safety, and keeping your materials workable are big challenges for bad weather
Rocky, by Carol L. Douglas, Cape Elizabeth Paint for Preservation
I’ve had great luck with weather this year, but that isn’t always the case. Last year I did an event in a cold rain that lasted from the opening bell until the jurying was complete, at which time the sun came back out. Mother Nature may forego the rain and sulk instead. Fog is beautiful but the flat dull light of an overcast sky is a challenge to love. Organizers may sympathize, but they can’t magically change the parameters of a plein air event. The show must go on.

Outside of events, painters have the luxury of staying home when they aren’t inspired. I don’t recommend it. There are exciting atmospheric effects that take place in bad weather, and if you aren’t there, you won’t see them. Nor will you know how to cope if you suddenly find yourself in a downpour when it really matters.
Storm Clouds (pastel), by Carol L. Douglas
There are three issues involved in painting in lousy weather.
  • Changing lighting conditions.
  • Your material’s stability;
  • Your personal comfort and safety;

Changing and imperfect light is one of the principle arguments for doing preparatory sketches. This weekend, I painted a dramatically back-lit rock for Cape Elizabeth Land Trust’s Paint for Preservation. I only had about four hours a day when these lighting conditions were true, and they weren’t true on the second day at all, because it was overcast. At the same time, I needed to include the tide, which advances almost an hour a day.

I’d done a fairly careful sketch in advance and was able to refer to it when in doubt. I repeated that process on the canvas when I started painting. Some people think underpainting is a substitute for an initial value sketch on paper. The problem, however, is that you cover up the evidence when you paint. Without my sketch as my guide, I doubt I would have retained the rigor of my initial idea.

Painting in the residue of a hurricane with Brad Marshall. (Courtesy Rye Art Center)
Watercolors and pastel are very difficult to manage in a downpour, even when they’re out of the direct rain. Paper and chalk both become saturated with moisture, making control impossible. The only solution I know is to work from inside your car. Acrylics actually benefit from higher humidity, but sideways mist and rain will make them run off the canvas too.

Remember learning that oil and water don’t mix? Instead, they form a sludgy emulsion that’s impossible to paint with. Oil paint won’t stick on a damp surface. Since the pigment is in suspension in the linseed oil, it can bleed off with water droplets. Shake loose water off and pour off any that ends up on your palette. Don't blot.

Oil paint doesn’t freeze, however, making it great for winter painting.
Storm Clouds over Lake Huron was painted in the direct rain in a terrific downpour. The paint emulsified, but sometimes you just have to capture the scene.
With any media, you should avoid letting your canvas get wet from the back. Gesso expands and contracts with moisture changes. Copious rain will destabilize canvas and warp boards.

This spring, Ellen Joyce Trayer brought a bag full of knitted cowls along to my Age of Sailworkshop. She handed them out to anyone on the boat who wanted one. I was an immediate convert. They warm your neck without adding bulk. A general rule of dress: you are coldest when standing or sitting still, so bring more clothes.

Massed thunderheads are beautiful and transient but put away your lightning rod (easel) and get off your mountain long before the storm hits. Lightning strikes on both the leading and trailing edges of thunderstorms. Even if the sky directly over your head is clear, you’re at risk of a strike when you can hear thunder. Far better to get inside your car and record the pyrotechnics with gouache.

I’ve got one more workshop available this summer. Join me for Sea and Sky at Schoodic, August 5-10. We’re strictly limited to twelve, but there are still seats open.
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