Paint­ing Maine’s Majesty

Passage Maker - - Contents - Jean Mackay

The rum­ble of lob­ster boats, oc­ca­sion­ally punc­tu­ated by the sharp cry of gulls, echoes across the wa­ter at the break of day. The tide, too, is head­ing out, slowly ex­pos­ing more and more of the rocky shore glint­ing in the morn­ing light. Here, a heron stalks silently in shal­low pools; there, a dory and its re­flec­tion rest be­fore a day of work. In the dis­tance, is­lands fade from green to blue, then merge with sky on the far hori­zon.

Equipped with pen, paint, and deep cu­rios­ity, I have been drawn to Maine’s rocky coast each sum­mer for nearly 15 years. As a nat­u­ral­ist and wa­ter­color artist, I have filled many sketch­books while ex­plor­ing quiet coves, spruce forests, an­cient rocks, and tide pools. Sketch­ing is the best way I know to ob­serve more closely, learn about what I see, and cap­ture my ex­pe­ri­ences.

Get­ting Ori­ented

Maps and charts are es­sen­tial to the trav­eler and sketch­ing one makes a per­fect start­ing point for cap­tur­ing a jour­ney. I of­ten look at both on­line and hard copy maps, as well as his­tor­i­cal maps, to de­velop a sense of con­text, and then jump from there to cre­ate a map on pa­per. While a map may be a strict rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the land­scape, I of­ten per­son­al­ize mine by adding snip­pets of in­for­ma­tion about my trav­els. Some­times the map re­mains sim­ple, like this one of Har­bor Is­land in Mus­congus Bay, but it also can be fun to record a scrawl of de­tail about events and places vis­ited, so that the re­sult is an il­lus­trated jour­nal of dayto-day ex­pe­ri­ences.

News Eng­land Lights

The New Eng­land coast is fa­mous for its light­houses, and Maine boasts nearly 60 of them. Many— like those at Port­land Head, Pemiq­uid Point, and Mon­hegan Is­land—are well rec­og­nized. Oth­ers, es­pe­cially those on outer is­lands, are bet­ter known only to those nav­i­gat­ing nearby.

First es­tab­lished in 1805, and re­placed with the cur­rent struc­ture in 1855, Franklin Is­land Light does its job with­out glam­our or fan­fare. Still, this clas­sic light­house makes a fine sub­ject, es­pe­cially when set off by dra­matic coastal skies.

Tools of the Trade

The coast of Maine has at­tracted gen­er­a­tions of painters and so­lid­i­fied many of them as the best artists of their time. In the foot­steps of Winslow Homer, Fred­er­ick Church, Childe Has­sam, and the Wyeth fam­ily, to­day’s artists use similar tools and tech­niques to cap­ture the al­lure of the coast’s mag­i­cal, ir­re­sistible light.

For travel sketch­ing, I like to pare down to a few sim­ple sup­plies: a small set of wa­ter­col­ors, pen, a few brushes, and a 5-inch x 8-inch jour­nal with heavy wa­ter­color pa­per. The kit comes with me on boat trips, hikes, and shore­line ram­bles, as well as to mu­se­ums and cafes, where a few meals have gone cold while I painted them.

Watch­ing for Wildlife

An amaz­ing di­ver­sity of marine life thrives among the rocks and sea­weed be­tween the high and low tide lines. These crea­tures are uniquely adapted to live un­der wa­ter and high-and-dry for hours each day as the tide ebbs and flows. Only the most hardy and adapt­able sur­vive—and they do it with re­mark­able tenac­ity.

Con­di­tions for ex­plor­ing and sketch­ing tide pools are slick, wet, and rocky, but the re­sults are re­ward­ing. It’s im­por­tant to head out when the tide is ebbing and nearly at its low­est point. That’s be­cause the most di­verse pools are near­est the out­er­most mar­gins of land and sea. Here, marine life is ex­posed to dry con­di­tions for the least amount of time each day. I draw quickly and keep an eye on the tide to avoid be­ing caught by waves or sur­rounded by ris­ing wa­ter.


Wher­ever you go, you’ll be sure to see her­ring gulls, black­backed gulls, and laugh­ing gulls jostling for an easy meal at the stern of lob­ster boats.

The Sentinels

Har­bor seals are com­mon along the coast, where they prey on a wide va­ri­ety of fish and squid. Males weigh up to 250 pounds; fe­males are trim­mer at 150 to 200 pounds. Af­ter nine months of ges­ta­tion, fe­males give birth to a sin­gle pup, usu­ally born be­tween mid-May and June.

Amidst an ever-chang­ing sea, sky, and shore, Maine’s rocky coast is time­less. Ex­pe­ri­enc­ing it first-hand, whether on wa­ter or on land, with pen and paint in hand, it is fit for fu­el­ing many years of mem­ory and fas­ci­na­tion—or sim­ply fill­ing a life­time of sketch­books.

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