The Big Empty

"North of Scranton, PA," by Carol L. Douglas

“North of Scranton, PA,” by Carol L. Douglas

The only rule to a good Sunday nap is to not start it while the pastor is still preaching. Other than that, naps are one of those simple-but-good ideas on which to ground your lives. I don’t care that scientists tell us we can’t ‘bank’ sleep; I feel better all week when I nap on the weekend.

As central as napping is, I can’t really describe it. I can tell you about the edges: what I was reading when I fell asleep, or how I woke, disoriented, listening to the wind outside my window. But while I know I slept, the experience itself is a big empty to me. Since I don’t understand it, I can’t describe it to you, either in paint or words.

"Lake Ontario surf," by Carol L. Douglas

“Lake Ontario surf,” by Carol L. Douglas

Earlier this month I wrote about a painting that I scraped out because it didn’t have a focal point. A reader wrote and told me she’d liked this painting, and then asked me if a focal point is actually necessary.

We are taught in art school that paintings should be constructed so that viewers can ‘read’ them. The entry point is the main focal point, and we continue through areas of interest. This isn’t necessarily a manipulative thing, since we painters generally set them up this way unconsciously.

"Heart of Darkness 2," by Carol L. Douglas. (monoprint)

“Heart of Darkness 2,” by Carol L. Douglas. (monoprint)

Non-representational art has challenged the focal-point rule, but representational art—and particularly landscape—generally follows it. The natural world is so detailed that some organizing principle is necessary.

Often, however, what we crave in real life is the absence of focus. We climb to the top of mountains to experience the airy void. We are fascinated by the Great Plains for its endless horizon. And we are drawn to the ocean not for its boats or distant islands, but for its great, heaving emptiness.

Consider the standard vacation photo, where you shot the ocean fringed on either side by palm trees. The big hole in the middle attracted you in real life, but it is strangely dissatisfying in two dimensions. Why is that?

"Lake Ontario shoreline at Pultneyville," by Carol L. Douglas (pastel)

“Lake Ontario shoreline at Pultneyville,” by Carol L. Douglas (pastel)

I spent a lot of time 15 years ago exploring the idea of the big empty. The results, which I’m showing you today, never satisfied me, although several of them sold. Today I plan to head up to Port Clyde to paint. Although the battering wind may drive me inland, I’m inclined to at least try to paint the big empty once more.

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.