The Stonington Public Library: Summer Home for a Whole Bunch of Paintings

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Last winter (which ended a few days ago) the Stonington Public Library trustees asked me to be the summer artist. “Sure,” I said.

Of course I said ‘sure.’ I’d be following in the footsteps of Jill Hoy and Frederica Marshall, artists whose work I’ve admired on the library’s walls.

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The view out the Stonington Public Library window.

Stonington Public Library

The Stonington Public Library is also a lovely setting for paintings, a clean, well-lighted place that overlooks Stonington Harbor. On clear days the sunlight bounces off the sea and throws a radiance into the old building. On gloomy days, of which we have had many, the Stonington Public Library is a refuge from cold and loneliness, a place where the librarian never says “Shush.”

And despite its small size, the library has access to boatloads of information through its databases and interlibrary loans. The Stonington Public Library helped me and Dan research our book, Bar Harbor Babylon, true stories about billionaires behaving badly. You can borrow it from the library, or order it here.

But it took me a long time to realize that even a small library has a lot of wall space.

Does Size Matter?

I started putting my paintings up in the spring. One librarian begged me to hang a large, colorful painting on the big bare white wall in the bathroom. (Note: It’s the brand-new, handicapped-accessible public bathroom made possible in part by donations from Stephen King).

So I hung one of my biggest paintings, Settlement Quarry, on that wall.

It didn’t look that big.

I took all my available large paintings and hung them on the library walls. I put the painting of Scotts Island – where Robert McCloskey lived – in the children’s room. Right across from the librarian’s desk I hung one of my favorite watercolors, a mother and daughter climbing the steps of the Library of Congress.

Steps to Parnassus. Watercolor on 140-lb. paper. 6″ by 9.5″.

I stuck framed watercolors and small oils on the shelves. I framed more watercolors and brought them in. For a while it seemed I was constantly schlepping paintings to the library.  I started to worry. Could I hang enough paintings by the Fourth of July, when summer really comes to Downeast Maine?

One sunny, peaceful morning I was walking to the village and a fisherman caught my eye. He was slowly driving a skiff on a sheet of cobalt blue, heading out to the lobster boats in the distance. It was a transcendent moment. Or maybe just one hell of a commute. Or both. I took a bunch of photos with my trusty cell phone and resolved to paint that image. Big.

The Skiff

So I threw myself into that painting, getting to the studio at the crack of dawn and working furiously on it. Two days before I promised to have all the paintings in the library I painted the bottom edge of the canvas with a drying medium. I left the painting upside down on the easel. The next day I got to the studio and found the paint still wet on the bottom. No worries, I said to myself. I can paint upside down. Sometimes that’s better.

Well, it wasn’t. When I hung the painting right side up (and still a little wet) in the library’s big stairwell, I realized I’d painted an anatomically incorrect fisherman and a boat that wouldn’t last long on the water.

People didn’t seem to notice. But I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I had to fix that fisherman and that boat.

So I sneaked into the library one evening (I’m on the board of trustees and I have a key) and swiped my painting. I took it to my studio, where I worked on it to the point where I could sleep at night again.

I’ll unveil The Skiff 2.0 on Friday, July 5, at the Stonington Public Library with drinks and nibbles and about 40 other paintings. Please stop in and say hello!

Update

Here’s the new and improved Skiff, probably still a little damp:

Skiff. Oil on canvas, 36″ by 36″
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Twilight on the Fish Pier

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Lobster fishing may conjure images of colorful old salts hauling wooden lobster traps into their dories. The reality, as I tried to show in Twilight on the Fish Pier, is much different. At least it is here in Stonington, Maine.

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Twilight on the Fish Pier, oil on canvas

Stonington lands more lobsters than any other place in Maine and possibly the planet. That’s quite an achievement considering only about a thousand people live here. But the question nags: How long can Stonington fishermen continue to haul a living out of the sea? As the ocean gets warmer, the lobster keep moving north. Everyone in town wonders if — and some wonder when — the lobster will migrate to Canada. In the past year, we have all heard the words, “If the lobster go away…”

So my painting also poses a visual question: Is the lobster industry in its twilight?

Lobstering

Last year, fishermen (and, increasingly, fisherwomen) landed 119,640,379 pounds of lobster in Stonington. Fishing accounts for about three-quarters of the town’s economic activity.  Fishermen sink a lot of money into their fishing businesses. Boats cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and traps — you can use 800 at a time — cost about $100 each.

Stonington, located at the southern tip of Deer Isle, juts into Penobscot Bay. It’s an inlet of the Gulf of Maine, where lobster congregate more densely than anywhere else in the world. One reason for the abundance of lobsters may be the demise of cod, which prey on lobster. The cod fisheries are pretty much exhausted, though I did hear some cod have been spotted recently.

Lobster fishermen generally use herring as bait, but federal regulators have limited the herring catch. That makes bait expensive and hard to get; “bait crisis” is another expression you might hear around here.

China

There’s a common misperception about Stonington lobsters that has become obvious lately. Ryan McCaskey, a two-star Michelin chef, is opening a seafood restaurant in our little town. The restaurant, Acadia House Provisions, has already gotten national press attention. Forbes called it ‘the summer’s hottest pop-up restaurant.’

Some reporters have written that McCaskey’s restaurant should help local lobster fishermen. They apparently assume Stonington’s  fishermen sell their lobster to local restaurants. That would mean 120 million pounds of lobster are eaten locally — or 120,000 pounds per capita.

Um, no. A lot of the lobster goes to China. Once the fishermen catch the lobster, many of them take it to the Fish Pier, where the supply chain to China begins. Big refrigerated trucks take them off the island. The sound of engines, both marine and automotive, is as familiar here as the wail of the foghorn.

When President Trump hit China with tariffs, China hit back with tariffs on lobster.  That has caused a good deal of anxiety here. China’s tariff dwarfs the Mueller report as a topic of conversation. But so far, it seems, so good. Some middlemen are selling lobsters to Canada, who sell them to China.

So it isn’t quite twilight on the fish pier. And it may never be. But there are definitely clouds on the horizon.

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When You’re In Deer Isle, Paint Deer Isle

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Since I live on Deer Isle, it only makes sense to paint Deer Isle.

A few years back I went to Florence, Italy, with the Art Students League to paint. We spent the morning in a studio painting models, then roamed the museums, restaurants and churches of Florence. I had the good fortune to meet Jules Maidoff, a well-known American artist who has lived in Florence for many years. Jules told me not to waste my time in a studio. “You’re in Florence — paint Florence,” he said.

Point taken.

To Paint Deer Isle

During Maine’s long winter, thoughts turn to spring, and so does my painting. I chose to paint Deer Isle conservation land because the Island Heritage Trust hosts an annual art show during its birding festival, Wings, Waves & Woods.

The IHT owns and manages some of the most spectacular land you’ll ever see.

Among my favorites is the Settlement Quarry, which many years ago produced the granite for the New York County Courthouse (now the New York State Supreme Court building). Granite quarrying was a boom business here back in the late 19th-early 20th century. My house, in fact, was once a boardinghouse for granite workers (There’s a former whorehouse next door, but that’s another story.)

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I can’t leave out the Settlement Quarry when I paint Deer Isle! Oil on canvas. 2″ by 40″.

Climb to the top of the Settlement Quarry and you’ll get a stunning view of Penobscot Bay and the islands. It really rivals anything you’ll see in Acadia National Park.

My New Spring Line

I also included my painting, The Marge, in the show, because it shows the beach at Scott’s Landing, another Island Heritage Trust property.  Along with several paintings of Scott’s Landing, I have quite the beach glass collection that testifies to my hours on that beach.

The Marge. Oil on Canvas.

Sometimes I paint in watercolor, and sometimes I paint in oil. Sometimes I paint both, though not at the same time. I had painted Scott’s Island, where the author Robert McCloskey lived, in watercolor last fall. Something about that painting made me go back to it, so I repainted it in oil. I’m not sure if that’s allowed in the art world, but I don’t care.

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I really didn’t paint Deer Isle here, but I painted FROM Deer Isle. View from Kezar Mountain, oil on canvas.

The Last Best Place

I also included a photo that’s IHT-ish — Marnie Reed Crowell‘s back yard. Marnie has written a book about the IHT lands called Beads and String — a Maine island pilgrimage.  One day in December Dana Durst from Inn on the Harbor and I had tea at Marnie’s house in Goose Cove.

We talked about the island, about how it’s changing and whether it will turn into Nantucket if the lobster go away. Marnie calls it ‘the last best place.’ Then the sun started going down, and we rushed outside to see the amazing light. I took a zillion pictures and then decided to paint Deer Isle from Marnie’s back yard.

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Goose Cove, Oil on canvas. 

So my new spring line of paintings will be at the the IHT barn at 420 Sunset Rd. in — where else? — Deer Isle until Friday, May 24. Stop by and see some other exquisite work by Carolyn Walton, Lorraine Lans and Frederica Marshall

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I Paint The Marge Because My Subconscious Told Me To

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I finished this painting a few weeks ago, and I decided to call it The Marge. Marge as in Margin or Marginal.

Technically, I suppose, it shows a figure (as usual, my husband Dan) walking the beach at Scott’s Landing. Scott’s is a preserve where the northern edge of Deer Isle meets the Eggemoggin Reach. Scott’s Landing used to be the ferry landing, but since 1938 the Deer Isle Bridge has carried people across the reach from the mainland.

The Marge, though, isn’t just about the margin that divides the land and the sea, it’s also about the space where light meets shadow. The liminal space, the space of transformation, of discovery, of anticipation. (Dan is anticipating finding blue beach glass.)

To me, the painting is about the subconscious meeting the conscious, something I’ve had reason to think about – a lot – lately. Because art to me has always been about reaching into the subconscious, figuring out what it’s trying to tell me. I suspect it’s exceedingly bossy.

Marge Moments

Sometimes I have marge moments where I understand how my subconscious is steering me. One day I figured out how it ordered me to pick up a ginko leaf.

When I lived in Washington, D.C., I took an abstract painting class at The Art League in Alexandria, Va., and I had to find a symbol.

I couldn’t decide. Then one rainy fall Saturday I went into the city to visit the National Gallery of Art. Afterward I walked back through the nearly empty streets to the Judiciary Square Metro stop, and I looked across the plaza at the Canadian Embassy.

Despite the Brutalist architecture I have fond feelings toward that embassy. I had a friend there, a public relations officer named Doug, who started his career as a stand-up comic in a Toronto nightclub with Howie Mandel. Then he went into the military, where I got to know him when he was with NORAD (long story, I was a reporter, he was a public relations officer). Then Doug went to the Canadian Embassy. He invited me to monthly luncheons with Canadian diplomats and military officers, along with U.S. business and government types. The food was great, the conversation interesting, and Doug always delivered a wildly funny monologue straight out of Monty Python.

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The Canadian Embassy in Washington, D.C.

So on that rainy Saturday I was walking to my Metro stop and I caught a glimpse of the red maple leaf on the Canadian flag fluttering above the embassy. Then I looked down and spied a yellow ginko leaf plastered onto the dark wet sidewalk. I knew instantly that was my symbol for my painting class. And then, moments later, I realized why: because of my pleasant thoughts about the Canadian Embassy.

Yikes, I thought. My subconscious is in charge.

Cleveland Museum of Art

Which brings me to Janet Moore.

I grew up in Shaker Heights, Ohio, and as a little girl I spent hundreds of hours in the Cleveland Museum of Art. A print from the museum, Renoir’s Mademoiselle Lacaux, gazed at me from my bedroom wall.

When I got older I’d walk to the museum and hang out with the American and European painters. I always visited J.M.W. Turner’s Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons.

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Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons. Turner captures the marge where fire meets air meets water.

I loved the Impressionists, like Monet’s The Red Cape.

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The Red Cape. Another marge: inside meets outside.

And I always found David’s Cupid and Psyche entertaining.

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Cupid and Psyche. There’s something about his expression.

There often weren’t many people in the museum, and I got in the habit of roaming around, glancing at paintings until one really grabbed me.  I was in the Marge Zone.

Fast forward a bunch of decades and I moved to Deer Isle, Maine. Definitely the Marge Zone, the place where land meets sea and urban corporate nomads meet island fishermen descended from generations of island fishermen.

Janet Moore

A few weeks ago a dear old friend from Shaker Heights came to visit. Her name is Janet, and I remembered she was named after a woman named Janet. An artist from Shaker Heights who moved to Deer Isle.

When Janet arrived I got the full story.

Janet Moore (read more about her here) was curator of children’s education at the Cleveland Museum of Art. Her father taught at Dartmouth and had a summer home on Sand Beach Road in Deer Isle. When he died, he left the house to her, and she retired there.

I realized I had seen Janet Moore many times as a school girl on field trips to the museum. She would take us around to several paintings and talk about them. I’m sure she taught me to love Turner’s Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons.  In 1968 she distilled what she’d been telling us into a book, The Many Ways of Seeing An Introduction to the Pleasures of Art.

the-marge
The Marge. Oil on Canvas.

Back to the Marge

I wonder: Did my subconscious tell me to paint Dan hunting beach glass at Scott’s Landing because I loved that cadmium red cloak Monet painted?

I also wonder: Janet Moore certainly helped me feel at home in art museums. Because I feel at home in museums, do I feel at home on Deer Isle, as she did?

Questions to ponder.

 

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ART matters 4: How a Reporter Turns Into an Artist

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One of the amazing things about Deer Isle is that 60 or 70 people show up once a month in winter to hear three artists talk about their work.  It’s remarkable because Deer Isle’s population is smaller than small, according to the government.  A couple thousand people live here, maybe, in the winter. Also, for four years, we haven’t run out of artists.

Hub White puts the discussions together at the Deer Isle Artists Association, and his wife Pat and Cindy Bourque-Simonds make cakes that can only be described as astounding. The artists yammer on for a while, then the audience asks questions, then everyone has cake and coffee and mingles.  It’s called ART matters.  (Hub likes to brand it with the typeface.)

In April, I got to get up and speak with Katy Helman and Carole Ann Fer for the ART matters 4 Altered Surfaces discussion. Katy also paints, and Carole Ann makes pots.

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Sink or Swim by Katy Helman.
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Plaid Porcelain dish by Carole Ann Fer.

ART matters

So what do I say, me, a self-proclaimed artist, to a group that includes some heavily credentialed artists? They’ve gotten art degrees, taught art in colleges, studied and worked at Haystack Mountain School of Crafts.

I decided my ART matters talk should describe how my training as a reporter influenced the way I do art.

And I used as an example my recent painting, Mail Boat.

Reporters’ minds are like radar, always searching the environment for a story. Always observing the familiar for some new spin, some new twist, that will suggest a story.

And reporters are always looking for story elements as well. Ledes, nut grafs, kickers, money quotes. One day when I was working for AP in Washington I sat through a Senate Commerce Committee hearing. Sen. Trent Lott got excited about something and said, “We’ve got to make it look like we care.” I thought, “There’s my money quote.” The editor took it out of the story.

So when I took the mail boat to Monhegan last year, I noticed the amazing morning sunlight. “There must be a painting here,” I thought, much the same way I thought that Commerce Committee hearing offered a story.

I took a whole bunch of photos, the way I’d take a whole bunch of notes in my reporter’s notebook.

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artmatters1

I didn’t realize I had a painting until well after I’d returned home and looked through the dozens of photos I’d taken.

So I decided on this guy:

artmatters4

Putting It All Together

I brought Mail Boat and a few other paintings to ART matters, and I described the painting’s elements the way a reporter would describe a story.

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Mail Boat 

I view the lede as the sunlight on the crewman’s face. The lobster boat serves as the nut graf, or the paragraph that puts everything in context. And the reflection on the door works as a kicker — a tidbit that keeps the reader going.

Every news story should have a human element, but I don’t think I have to point out where it is in Mail Boat.

So…ART matters turned out to be great fun. Katy and Carole Ann gave terrific presentations, we all got our egos stroked with kind words from the audience and the cake exceeded all expectations.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

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Island Life, Island Light

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Island Life, Island Light is the way I’m characterizing my latest six paintings. You can see them for a while at the Blue Hill Congregational Church, where the Blue Hill Concert Association graciously invited me to be the featured artist for early March. On Sunday, the Calidore String Quartet was scheduled to perform, and I couldn’t wait to hear them.

One can get a little starved for classical music on Deer Isle. (But just a little.)

Island Life, Island Light

I’ve been used to making small watercolor paintings, so these are big for me: Wood panels, two feet by three feet. I bought them on sale last fall. I hadn’t decided what to do with them. Then Ron Stegall called me one day and asked if I’d be a featured artist for one of the chamber music concerts. Duh. Of course I said yes.

So I chose the March 10 concert, which gave me a few months to (a) find a studio (b) order plenty of oil paint and (c) decide what to paint. I knew I wanted to go beyond pretty landscapes, but I wasn’t sure how.

Then I remembered what Jules Maidoff once said to me in Florence, where I was painting portraits in a studio with the Art Students League. My roommate knew Jules’ daughter, and we visited them at his home. “Why paint in a studio?” Jules said. “You’re in Florence, so paint Florence.”

I’m in Deer Isle, I thought, so paint Deer Isle. It’s not quite like any other place in the world. Not by a long shot.

But actually, one of my paintings, Mail Boat, is about Monhegan Island, not Deer Isle. In the fall I’d taken a trip to Monhegan with my husband Dan and my parents. We took the first mail boat, which left very early in the morning. The light was spectacular. Liquid and golden. Almost unearthly.

So as I stared at my blank panels, I kept thinking about the light on that mail boat. Hence painting No. 1.

island-light-mail-boat
In Mail Boat, I try to capture early morning island light

Two and Three

Then I looked for other subjects, different kinds of island light. Every day on the way to the post office I walk past the green house with the pier, the shed and the lobster traps. On a gloomy January day when I felt blue I noticed how a sliver of light through the clouds gave a glow to the front of the house. Painting No. 2, Gray Day.

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Gray Day, another kind of island light.

Just past that house is the Fish Pier, where fishermen unload their lobsters and scallops. Refrigerated trucks then haul the seafood off the island. I’ve always wanted to do a nightscape, and the Fish Pier from my studio window has a lot of exciting imagery at night. So I had three ideas. I decided they were coherent enough as “Island Light, Island Life.”

island-light-fish-pier
It’s very dark on the island at night, except when there’s a full moon and down at the Fish Pier/

Glazes

I wanted rich color, but I didn’t want to do wet-into-wet painting, which reminds me of frosting a cake, something I’m not good at. I remembered I’d written a story for the New England Historical Society about Maxfield Parrish’s glazing technique. So I researched glazing, and I bought a bunch of galkyd paints and solvents and mediums to go with. Then I put on my work clothes and spent a couple of cold winter months painting all day.

I started with underpaintings, or grisailles, either of acrylic or galkyds. I chose grays for some, umber for others and cadmium red for the most muted paintings.

One evening I walked past the old sardine factory and saw it glow in the late island light. Painting No. 4. The old factory is used for parking now, as the sardines are gone and the sardine factories mostly moved to the Far East. There are people on Deer Isle who’d like those jobs back. I think of this painting as Ruin Porn.

island-light-sardine-factory
Island light at the end of the day transforms the old sardine factory.

Island Life

I also had a bunch of photos in my cell phone of LDI Lobster, the lobster shack at the end of the bridge. They have, without doubt, the best lobster rolls I’ve ever tasted. I love the look of lobster shacks, how they evoke the glories of a sunny summer day. I’m sure no one has committed suicide while waiting for a lobster roll to come up. Painting No. 5.

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Best lobster rolls ever.

I wrestled with what to do for painting No. 6. One day in the summer I had gone to East Point for a book club meeting. It was hard not to notice the gorgeous views (I think that’s Cadillac Mountain in the background). So I returned the next day and hung out on the bait dock for an hour or so. I took a lot of pictures of the charming ruffian in the painting. We talked about the Wyeths and about cool stuff around the bait dock – the fish bones, the hidden salt marsh at low tide, the driftwood.

His image kept haunting me. I was struck by the almost magical light and the contrast between the tender way he held the fish bones and the offputting message tattooed on his fingers: FUCK OFF!

So I took elements from all the different photos and voila! Painting No. 6.  I thought about painting in his tattos, but then I decided I preferred a G rating. Maybe I’m just a coward.

island-light-bait-dock
The amazing island light down at the Bait Dock. It does something to reds, so I had to include the bait shovel.

Anyhoo, that’s the story of my latest six paintings. I hope you like them!

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Working in the Winter Studio Toward a March Deadline

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During the dead of winter in Downeast Maine I feel a bit like the farmers who plant their crops and repair their tools. It’s time to stay indoors, order supplies and paint my butt off.

I’m fortunate to have a winter studio above the Island Agency on Stonington’s Main Street (thank you, Morgan!).  With a southern exposure the light is great for eight or so hours, and the window overlooks Fish Pier. So there’s always something going on as the fishermen jet off in their skiffs or bring in loads of lobsters. Even when I’m not looking out the window, I’m soothed by the glug-glug-glug of marine engines.

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The view from the window of my winter studio. Always something doing.

Winter Studio Work

I’m lucky to have an early deadline to work toward this year. The Blue Hill Concert Association asked me to be their feature artist for their March 10 concert. Of course I said yes. It’s a world-class chamber music concert at the Blue Hill Congregational Church, and I’m excited to be part of it. I especially like the pressed tin walls and ceilings that I’ll hang my art against.

I’ve wanted to paint bigger, so I ordered six 2′ by 3′ wooden panels. Then I struggled with what to paint. My friend Katy Allgeyer challenged me by asking, “What do you want to do? Just paint pretty pictures?” And I did want to move on from picturesque landscapes.

I decided to paint scenes of island life, emphasizing island light. Just by happenstance I gave them all two-word names: Mail Boat. Gray Day. Bait Dock. Fish Pier. Lobster Shack. Sardine Factory. 

After thinking about how I’d paint them, I decided the best way to capture island light is to paint in layers. I’ve always admired the paintings of Maxfield Parrish, and I thought his technique of glazing would work in replicating the intensity of island colors — when the sun’s out, that is. Glazing would  also create rich, warm grays, which is what we get here when the sun isn’t out.

I start off with a grisaille, a monochrome underpainting.

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Detail from a grisaille

Right now I have four grisailles finished, with two more to go. And on days when the wind blows and the snow falls, I comfort myself by thinking it will almost be spring when I complete all six paintings.

 

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