Roughing It for Art in Acadia National Park

OK, it doesn't look all that rough I suppose.I spent last week up in Maine in Acadia National Park. Have been going there to paint pretty much annually since I first went with Alice there to honeymoon in 1982. Seeing it for the first time back then I immediately felt a great attachment to it's almost fantastic rocky and cold topography  It reminded me of my boyhood home on the shore of Lake Ontario.  I think all artists discover certain motifs or places that just grab them. It's more important that that kind of head-over-heals romance happen than that we understand exactly why. Making a painting after all is a love affair, and I fell in love with Maine.The state is funny- she offers unparalleled landscape opportunities with one hand and dishes out some of the most challenging weather with the other. Those of us artists who insist on working from direct observation instead of relying on photography are a high risk population when we go up there.On our honeymoon we stayed in the absolutely cheapest place we could find, a run down motel in Bar Harbor that in addition to us was host to 5 million ants. We became well acquainted with that eager little species that week.It's 30 years later and thankfully our finances no longer dictate sharing quarters with all those six legged friends. This time around it rained for at least part of every day we were there, so having a comfortable place to get out of the weather loomed very large. As luck would have it a convention of bird enthusiasts had filled our usual B&B so the owner kindly referred us to their friend Mark Dresser who runs the charming The Maples Inn just down the street. Much as I like B&B's the quarters can be a little cramped if you're trying to do some art in the room when the weather is bad. Obviously a clairvoyant genius, Mark booked us into his Siver Maple Suite that had an attached sitting room (note the nice chairs). It made for a perfect little studio for me to finish up the vine charcoal drawings I had begun outdoors.Here I am the morning we left showing off the completed drawings. I did eleven pieces (only ten are pictured- one is a little camera shy and kept running behind the bureau.  What can you do?).
I've always done my best work when I can begin a piece outdoors where the unexpected contrasts and collisions of forms usually suggest more surprising compositions than we're likely to invent relying only on our imagination. But that same overabundance of possibilities can get you into trouble- it's like trying to take a sip of water from a raging fire hose. I need to bring the work back inside and study it against an empty wall to really see what I've done. Inevitably the work looks different once back inside, and freed from outdoor distractions, I can see best what I need to do to finish a piece off.

One of the other things I've learned is that if you have limited time on a painting excursion working on a modest scale makes the most sense. In my case I ended up sitting in the front seat of my rental car
for most of the drawings, often working through the rhythmic swipe of the windshield wipers. It's tight in a confined space like that. But that's the price you pay for being able to work even in driving rain. I also brought one of my French easels for when the weather decided to cooperate.

Here's one of the new drawings, a vine charcoal, 9 x 12". It's done about a third of the way up Cadillac Mountain looking due north into Frenchman's Bay. What attracted me were the wiggling patterns of smooth reflective water that appear as a subtle gold against a more leaden grey surface of the Bay. The color feel for the whole scene was a restrained yellow against a silver grey, most of it held into the lighter tones. I am very eager to try this in color, probably starting out with some small scale soft pastel drawings on artist's sandpaper. Then if all goes well I'll investigate the idea in oils.

And this is another 9 x 12" vine charcoal, this one done on the road from Bar Harbor over to Southwest  Harbor. While I was working on it my wife Alice went for a walk and surprised a wet looking otter that was skulking across the road (I was busy working so I missed it- Alice has all the fun).

Here I am working the last day we were there. It had finally cleared for the afternoon and I set up near the Cadillac Mountain summit looking southeast past the Cranberry Islands out to the sea. This was one of those times when having a portable easel made all the difference. Had I had to sit on the ground I would have ended up with an uncomfortably wet behind and with the lowered point of view I'd have had half of my subject blocked out by the foreground bushes. 

Years ago when I began landscape painting I used to sit on the ground and prop my painting up against the back of my paint box. It all worked fine most of the time. Except...

One of the mysterious cosmic principles of landscape painting is that nobody ever comes by to look when the painting is going really well. I'm convinced they wait out of sight behind thick bushes until they see by your expression that you're struggling. Somehow they know just when it is that you've become convinced that you might have been an artist once, but now you've forgotten everything and it's hopeless. Then out they come from their hiding places, all smiles,  and ask the dreaded question "Art you an artist?" at exactly the moment it's finally clear to all that that's exactly what you're not.

Once years ago I was painting sitting on the ground when a little girl came by and stood over me and watched me silently. After a minute she piped up asking "How old are you?" and I answered that I was 24. She replied "Well, I'm only eight and I'm already a much better artist than you." After the encounter with that little girl (whose neck I am glad to report I resisted the urge to strangle) I resolved to at least be able to work standing up in case more short little critics like that girl were in my future. With a nifty folding portable easel I figured I would at least look more the part of a real artist regardless of how the painting was going. So I bought an easel and funny thing, the paintings started going better. I always tell my students that good tools make you talented. Maybe it's true.


  1. Loved this whole post Philip and the drawings are just wonderful. Sounds like a productive trip!

  2. This painting made me smile...I can so relate to it after just returning from a painting trip to Monhegan Island. You "nailed it"..thanks for sharing

  3. Ah, war stories from the front... a woman standing behind me as I painted offered this observation: "I used to paint, but (atleast) I could make it look like a picture!" Nice post, Phil.

  4. Deborah , thanks. Yes it was a wonderful trip. Sometimes the best times unfold in some of the worst weather. And conversely, I've had painting trips where the weather was perfect yet the painting was all struggle. All we can do is stick to our guns...

  5. Colleen, isn't Monhegan a magical island! Although a VERY tough place to work if it decides to rain.

  6. Frank, thanks, and "ouch" at the woman's comment. I suppose if we're going to be so forward as to paint on location we're putting ourselves in the line of fire for all sorts of comments from all sorts of people. Overall people are really supportive and respectful of what we're doing, but the odd inconsiderate comment can really get under your skin. I'm sure Monet faced the same comments as we do.


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