The Perils of Painting

Catskills over Athens, NY, 8X6, oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas. This is a heavy Lyme area, but we were working from a public park.

Catskills over Athens, NY, 8X6, oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas. This is a heavy Lyme area, but we were working from a public park.

Since it entered the public consciousness, Connecticut and the Hudson Valley have been Ground Zero for Lyme disease. Despite working in tick areas, I’ve been pretty negligent about insect control overall. My tests for it have always come up negative. Even though several of my painter friends have intractable forms of the disease, I coasted on my luck.

Last summer, a friend contracted it while working very long days in an offshore kitchen. I was amazed that she managed to come in contact with an infected tick in those conditions and resolved to be better about tick control.

Ticks are not only vectors for Lyme disease, but for several other pathogens as well. And then there are mosquitoes. While West Nile Disease is more common west of the Mississippi, it is still transmitted seasonally in all the contiguous states, including Maine.

2014 distribution of Lyme cases nationwide (from the CDC).

(Courtesy of the Center for Disease Control)

We know to wear long pants tucked into our socks, long sleeves, and light-colored clothing. That helps, but if you spend long hours in the woods, ticks will make their way through clothing barriers.

DEET, picaridin and permethrin (which you may recognize as the active ingredient in head-lice shampoo) are the most reliable chemical tick repellents. None of these are without risks to you and the environment. So bundle up, as above, and spray your clothing. Avoid spraying open sores or under your clothes.

These chemicals should be washed off as soon as you get home, which ties in nicely with the fact that a hot shower will help prevent ticks from attaching.

Avoid standing on leaf litter or in undergrowth. This latter will, coincidentally, save you from getting too close to poison ivy. In Maine, we’re blessed with a multitude of granite outcroppings on which you can stand. Elsewhere, try to stay on the path or the gravel shoulder of a road.

Do regular tick-checks. Since you can’t check behind your own ears, have a buddy help you. If you really like your buddy, he or she can check the rest of your body, but try to stay on task because ticks are small.

Rock outcroppings on the Maine coast keep your feet out of shrubby undergrowth and it's always cooler and breezier than inland.

Rock outcroppings on the Maine coast keep your feet out of shrubby undergrowth and it’s always cooler and breezier than inland.

Heat exhaustion and sunstroke

The perfect outfit for plein air painting is a long, flowing white shirt, loose linen trousers, and a large straw hat. Unfortunately, linen requires ironing to realize its full romantic potential. If you can stand that, however, you will stay cooler in the hot sun.

Certain medications, including diuretics and blood pressure medications, make you more vulnerable to heat exhaustion. Diabetes and kidney disease also increase your risk.

For me the first symptom of dehydration is muscle cramping, but other symptoms include dark-colored urine, dizziness, fatigue, headache, abdominal cramps, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, pallor, sweating and rapid pulse. The first order of business is to get the sufferer into an air-conditioned car or building, apply a cool cloth to the skin, and insist he drink some cool water. If this doesn’t help within a few minutes, seek medical attention.

Sometimes water isn’t enough. Last year I shared a recipe for a drink called switchel. This was as an electrolyte replacement used by farm workers for centuries. If it doesn’t appeal, there is always Gatorade.

Painting in the Adirondacks in February 2012.

Painting in the Adirondacks in February 2012.

Just say no

Whiteface Mountain reportedly achieved a wind-chill of -114° F last weekend. When conditions are absurdly bad, your first line of defense is to stay home. My personal rule is to not paint in a wind-chill lower than 20° F. But even then, cold feels very different to someone shoveling than it does to someone painting, which is essentially a stationary pursuit.

The first requirement, of course, is good winter clothing—good boots, layered jackets, wool cap and thermal underwear. Many painters carry a scrap of carpeting to insulate their feet from the cold seeping up from the ground.

I like painting in a pair of latex gloves with a pair of thin, cheap knitted dollar store gloves over them. I slide a disposable hand warmer inside my glove against the back of my hand.

The smart person chooses a painting spot out of the wind. If that’s impossible, I try to use my car as a shield. I drive a very small car, so painting from inside it is almost impossible, but I know many fine painters who do so very successfully.

Carol Douglas

About Carol Douglas

Carol L. Douglas is a painter who lives, works and teaches in Rockport, ME. Her annual workshop will again be held on the Schoodic Peninsula in beautiful Acadia National Park, from August 6-11, 2017. Visit for more information.