Plein Air

Marjorie Mason at Duarte Pond.

Out of the studio and into the light.


Kanta Lipsky had set a table out in her garden for herself, Valentine Estabrook, Anna Finnerty, and me. It was a spring afternoon, finally warm enough to be outside in shirtsleeves, and we had agreed to meet to talk about their plein air painting group, their plans for the upcoming summer, their work, and whatever else we might ramble along onto in the course of our conversation. 


“Duarte Pond” —Judith Howells

Arranged on a lavender patterned tablecloth was Pellegrino in blue glasses and slices of watermelon on a plate of a different pattern. It looked like a painting. Had we all been wearing  white dresses, we could have been placed there as models by Bonnard. All we would have needed was a dachshund or Labrador retriever poking its head up over a corner of the table. It felt remote and special, as though we were in a secret garden.


The group of artists that came to be called the French Impressionists led the move out of the studio and into the plein air. Oil paint in tin tubes allowed them the freedom to carry already-mixed paint, to unscrew a cap, squeeze out some paint onto a palette, then screw the cap back on to keep it from drying out. The portable paint tube was invented by an American portrait painter, John Goffe Rand, in 1841, but it was the French painters who gave it fame and purpose. It also allowed painters access to the bright, new chemical colors that had been invented by scientists in the 19th century. Sadly, some of these colors weren’t permanent or stable. There are lots of articles online about this; a particularly good one is by Allison Meier, Hyperallergic, Feb. 21, 2014, “Chemistry of the Canvas: Return the Red to Renoir.”


“Mermaid Farm” —Anna Finnerty

For a plein air painter, there’s not a better way to spend a few hours than to be outside painting in some interesting spot on a beautiful day. If you are lucky, you won’t be too hot, too cold, too windy, or plagued by bugs. It won’t have started to rain. You won’t have forgotten your favorite brush or the exact tube of paint you need. No one will arrive when you are in the middle of your painting, park their car right in front of your view, and walk away without a care. Your painting will turn out pretty well and you won’t drop it face down on your way back to your car. Trust me, these things happen, but on most days painting out in the air is a glorious pursuit.


If you are lucky enough to share the experience with a companionable friend or group of like-minded artists, so much the better. AIRE MV is a such a group of painters. Their core membership has been together for eight years and includes founders Valentine Estabrook and Kanta Lipsky, Marjorie Mason, Anna Finnerty, Judith Howells, June Schoppe, and Kate Taylor. They invite others to join them seasonally. “It has ebbed and flowed and morphed. The personality has changed with the group,” Anna Finnerty told me. It also brings different energy and a different point of view. All good.


This year they have invited Lizzie Schule and Linda Thompson to join them. They will meet in early June to choose six locations around the Island, some with structures, some with water, different types of landscapes. Although they try to paint together once every week, the group does leave things loose to accommodate people’s schedules and the desire to capture the effects of weather and light at different times of day.


They have already committed to one place; on Wednesday, August 7 (rain date August 8), from 9:30 to 11 they will set up their easels around the Chilmark Community Center, where a summer camper art group will arrange their easels close enough to allow conversation and observation between them while painting. Executive director of the Chilmark Community Center Alexandra London-Thompson collaborated with AIRE MV to plan this event. 


They don’t seem to mind having people around, even alerting the newspapers as to where they will be every week. Marjorie Mason, “a natural teacher,” as Valentine Estabrook described her, gives a demo for anyone who wants to watch. People do, and learn from the experience. After all, how often would most people have that opportunity?


Judith Howells at Long Point

Every year the group has a show at the Old Sculpin Gallery in Edgartown beginning Labor Day weekend and running through the beginning of September. For the past two years at the end of August, the week before the opening, they have gathered for a painting session at the Harbor View Hotel. The public is invited and the hotel has made rather an event of it. The hotel staff even brought lobster rolls and mint tea out for the working artists.


I have always found the process of painting endlessly fascinating. Painting with a group would add another layer of decision-making to the enterprise. How to choose the site? What time of day to be out there? How long? Do you bring everything in your studio or carry a compact set of colors, brushes, a box easel or a tripod? Even at the same basic location, every artist will see something different, one’s eye attracted to a different set of shapes, a different pattern, a different design, a different combination of colors. One will focus on a cloud-filled sky while someone else explores the shadows within a stand of trees at the end of a meadow. That is the singularity of making art, that each artist creates his/her own reality.


Valentine Estabrook began by describing how she prepares her canvases with a wash of blue “to get rid of the white.” She carries six colors plus titanium white: cerulean blue, indigo, light Naples yellow, alizarin crimson, Prussian blue, and raw umber. “I was taught to mix my own colors, so no green,” she said. She uses palette knives rather than brushes, which allows a thicker building up of paint in a short time, usually two to three hours before the light changes too much to continue. Amazing, as she uses a rather large canvas for a plein air painter; 14 x 28 inches is her preferred size. Her work is the most abstract, often following a sliver of land along the water’s edge, or a composition of grasses growing low to the ground.


For Kanta Lipsky, her outdoor paintings tend to be small, maybe 10 x 12, or 12 x 18 inches. She carries “under twenty colors, divided into warm and cool,” and “maybe ten brushes, although I won’t use them all.” Everything fits neatly into a French box easel. Her canvases are toned with burnt umber and she uses burnt umber to draw in her composition.


“Long Point” —Valentine Estabrook

As I am writing this, Kanta had just opened a show at the West Tisbury library. All of the paintings are of West Tisbury trees, distinctive and recognizable. “When I paint a tree, I really love to get the signature of that tree, how the branches attach to the trunk, so that anyone can recognize the exact tree.” Most of the paintings are in her typical small sizes, but she bought bigger brushes to try something new for her, 4 x 2-foot canvases. 


All the artists of AIRE MV are oil or acrylic painters, except Anna Finnerty, who uses pastels. She is currently engrossed by the study of trees, back-lit, making their volume and the contrast of dark and light the subject of her newest work. 


Her medium being different, her outdoor kit is too. What she described as her ever-smaller box with fewer colors translates to approximately one hundred twenty pastel sticks. The box attaches to a tripod and she sets her matrix, a gritty archival-quality sandpaper mounted on rigid foam board, in an upright position. She uses hard pastels for her underpainting and to establish the values and design. Then begins the building up of layers of color, warm and cool, light and dark, the complement laid on to contrast with what will come over it. She relishes the “sparkle of color” she can achieve with pastels.


We talked into the afternoon, leaving reluctantly as we all had other things to do. Put artists together and talking about our materials, our preferences for brands of paint or types of brushes, our favorite places to paint, our favorite artists and paintings, art exhibitions and art books recently seen, it can easily continue for longer than expected. I wonder where the group will decide to paint this summer and I wonder what their paintings will look like. I was sorry that all seven artists weren’t there. I look forward to seeing their summer’s work at the AIRE MV show this September.


AIRE MV 2019 will open at the Old Sculpin Gallery on Sunday, Sept. 1, 5 to 7 pm. 

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