Tuesday, June 30, 2009


What I did on my summer vacation

I can't let an entire month slip past in the fog without writing something here; old habits die hard, it seems. I just returned from a week on Bear Island - from one of my now-annual painting trips. This island is small, remote, rustic, quiet, terribly beautiful, and extrememly low-tech. As in, no running water, not much electricity (a few of the houses have some solar capabilities), outhouses, etc. No distractions, in other words, except for the tremendous natural scene which leaves me looking and looking and looking at every turn, and which serves as the ultimate distraction. Everything else falls away before it. I painted through the rain and fog which enshrouded the island for much of the week. I made use of covered porches on a few buildings, and open doorways, but mostly I was able to work outside between periods of precipitation. Here's a painting just barely sketched out - this is the harbor house, from my seat on the island dock:

I have my guerrilla painting kit there - just a palette loaded with paint, in a plastic case, and a waterproof bag with brushes and paint rags, and my raincoat to sit on. I also made some watercolors, again with a simple kit - enamel paint pan, water bottle, a favorite brush, a plastic bag to sit on or cover things up if necessary. After the relative intensity of oil painting, the watercolors are relaxing and fruitful - I love using them to feel out the contours of the land, and take note of the colors right in front of me. Pure color on white paper is a luxurious thing:

Weather aside - though I must mention that a friend asked me if I had moss growing on my north side, when I returned - I was truly happy in this environment. I sat and watched the fog come and go up and down the bay, for hours. Stunning. I mean, look at it:

By week's end I had completed thirteen oils and a handful of watercolors. I took a few books with me, also, just for some company (I was alone much of the week, both in my cabin and on the island in general). A dear 1950s British reprint of the Memoirs of the Life of John Constable continues to be a joy (thank you, Antony...), and I found reading it akin to reading a lost Jane Austen novel, what with his prolonged and beleaguered courtship, the moving love letters between himself and his betrothed, his struggles with the artistic status quo, his love of the natural landscape of his boyhood, and his determination to paint what he wanted to paint how he wanted to paint it. Much of the book is comprised of direct quotations from his letters, and letters from his friends to him. Fascinating and immediate stuff. On painting scenes he loves (p.86):

"As long as I do paint, I shall never cease to paint such places. They have always been my delight.... I should paint my own places best; painting is with me but another word for feeling..."

His feelings about nature and landscape painting ran deep at a time when the genre was practically nonexistent - other painters around him, in academic circles, were painting landscape by rote and imagination and sheer copying, not from direct observation in and of itself, as a complete subject. As a companion book to Constable, I also re-read much of Charles Hawthorne's Hawthorne on Painting (reprinted by Dover). Hawthorne conducted a plein air painting school in Provincetown for many years. This little book of instruction is a precious gem to me. Every time I revisit it, I find something relevant and new (p.19):

"Painting is a matter of impulse, it is a matter of getting out to nature and having some joy in registering it."

Which is just what I tried to do. I got out there. And the joy was surely present. I just hope it shows in my paintings, too.

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