In search of an imaginary boat

"Swells," by Carol L. Douglas

“Swells,” by Carol L. Douglas

Yesterday a visitor to my studio told me about recently purchasing her first piece of artwork, a print by University of Maine’s own Karen Adrienne. My friend had sold some possessions to pay for it, trading unwanted treasures for something she really loved. The look on her face as she told me this was radiant joy.

Just the day before, my piano tuner had, coincidentally, told me about the first piece of art he’d purchased. As he described this photograph, his face was lit by the same expression of joy. Both works were, to their new owners, highly prized and personally transformative.

We all wrestle with questions of calling. Artists, in particular, can have a hard time justifying their careers to others. We seldom see the impact of our work on the people who receive it. I’m grateful for that rare glimpse.

I’d never intended to finish the painting above. It was badly drawn and the composition—two crossing boats—seemed static. I came home from the harbor and threw it on my slush pile to be ignored. Someday my kids can shingle a house with that slush pile, but in the meantime, a visitor saw this painting, liked it, and asked me to finish it.

I can’t tell you why that happens, but it happens enough for me to say with some certainty that artists are frequently the worst judges of our own work.

Now I had a badly-drawn boat and absolutely no reference photos. (It’s a lot harder to substitute boats than it is to substitute roses or trees.) After fiddling for a while, I decided to add swells. That rectified some of the twist in the hull, and I could figure out the rest.

Working without a clear drawing is a sure-fire route to muddy color. However, I do occasionally like puddling around totally in my own imagination. I don’t think I’m done, but I’m going to let it rest a few days.

Basalt below West Quoddy Light in Lubec. These are either grey rocks or weathered basalt, depending on how much attention you're paying.

Basalt below West Quoddy Light in Lubec. These are either grey rocks or weathered basalt, depending on how much attention you’re paying.

Painting landscape without paying attention to reality can strip it of its character. After all, we can be either in our heads or in the world, but seldom in both places simultaneously.

For example, Maine is a world of granite studded with occasional basalt. Granite is blue, pink, purple, orange and peach; basalt is black. The muddy result in photographs might be browns and greys, but that is not the real color of our rocks, and painting our rocks brown is a sign of not paying attention.

I was reminded of that when I ran across this old photo of the rocks under West Quoddy Head Light in Lubec. At the time, I didn’t realize that I was seeing weathered basalt columns. My painting was fine, but I think it would have been so much more dynamic had I understood the play between the basalt and granite on Quoddy Head.

My poor defunct living room.

My poor defunct living room.

I have a friend staying with me this week. She decided to strip the wallpaper in my living room. Since the plum stripes clashed with my red couch, I am very grateful. In the evenings, I’ve had the satisfaction of peeling a bit of paper myself.

In other words, it’s been a week for doing, not thinking. Inevitably, that leaves me with a lot of deferred thinking to do. That’s what I love most about my job. It’s a constant tug-of-war between my hands and my head.

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.