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The Fogs of February

“The fog comes on little cat feet…” wrote American poet Carl Sandburg.

Fog can silently envelope a landscape. It can shroud it in mystery. It can lend a touch of fantasy to any subject. If it's thick enough, fog communicates danger, yet it can also become a veil of beauty.

My friends who live on Cranberry Island off the coast of Maine face fog as an almost daily occurrence. They often deal with “sea smoke” as they go about their daily routines, motoring off to work in their lobster boats or to the grocery store via the mailboat. It's not actually smoke, but steam fog, which is common in coastal areas.

But it's not always steam fog along the coast. One sunny morning I stood on the walkway at the very top of Cape May lighthouse, studying an oncoming storm, a cold front filled with fog and rain. Charging in from the northwest, it bore down on cars, people, sand, and buildings! One moment I could see figures running below. In the next second, the storm enveloped the top of the lighthouse in Wagnerian force! Inside the safety and calm of the tower, I watched the onslaught of rain beat against the glass. In less than 5 minutes, only the fog, which had NOT come on little cat feet, remained. It was a perfect example of what meteorologists label frontal fog which, unlike most other types of fog, can be as high as the clouds.

Our most common type of fog is radiation fog, the fog that reduces driving visibility. Never as high as the overhead clouds, it’s also called ground fog or valley fog. Formed in damp conditions created by rain, snow, or humidity, valley fog InSide the Back Mountain is trapped by our hills and mountains. It often burns off with the morning sun, but until then, it mutes sound in a foggy blanket of soft silence.

Fog machines used in theatrical performances create mood, and the same may be said of fog created by nature. My three paintings of valley fog were all based on phone photos taken by my dear friend Ann Sweeney who lives in Chase. Ann and I, who met through this magazine, share a love of light, weather, and atmosphere! She is always on the hunt for unique photos with her artist’s eye, and I am blessed that she shares them with me! 

Over the decades, a recurring question from my art students is “how do you paint fog?” The process differs with each painting medium. For the past few years I have painted more oils than watercolors but since I believe fog or mist looks most magical in watercolor, that's the medium I used to create these paintings. First, I often maintain the element of fantasy or mystery by eliminating anything that will distract from the story of the fog, like homes and cars. I kept the image of the old barn which seems to have settled into the landscape and bonded with it.

After I drew each composition on Arches cold-pressed paper with an HB pencil, I flooded what were to become the foggy areas with a large brush filled with clear water. Working wet into wet, I began to add various pigments, allowing the color to drift into the fog. How much water? How much pigment? Answers to those questions require a lot of trial and error and failed paintings! The darkest trees with the sharpest edges are painted last, after the paper has dried. The only rule in watercolor is if you want a soft edge, keep paper damp or wet. If you want a clean, sharp edge, the paper must be dry. Sometimes I add figures playing in the snow. I wish I had painted my good friend Bill Runner, a Back Mountain resident, skiing down one of those hills!

As tricky as radiation fog is to paint or drive through, it's certainly artistic! A fabulous by-product is soft rime, the feathery crystals which form on trees and grasses when it's really cold and foggy. Soft rime differs from hoar frost  which requires calm, clear nights. One morning I stood mesmerized, gazing at the soft rime that had developed on a foggy neighboring hillside. When the rising sun’s rays began to dissipate the fog and melt the rime crystals, it resembled tiny explosions of light across the forest!

Driving in fog requires caution, but have you ever really studied it with an artist's eye? Not only is fog fascinating, but it's said that the humidity of fog hydrates the skin and hides wrinkles! Three cheers for fog!!


This article originally appeared in the February 2024 publication of InSide the Back Mountain.

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