I live on the island of Martha's Vineyard and primarily paint here and on neighboring Nantucket Island. I only paint outside, working directly from what is in front of me. I have to work quickly; the light only stays consistent for an hour and a half at most, so the way the land and sky appear are always changing. Plus on any one day it can be too hot, too cold, too windy, too something. Or there are flies and mosquitoes. In spite of all this, somehow, painting outside is easy for me. It’s like going to a cathedral, a quiet and serene place. When I set up to paint, I have entered a sacred place.
I work in one of two ways. One way is a true study, done in one or two days on a wooden panel, same light, painted at the same time of the day. There is a simple truth about these pieces. The color is correct - well, except when the light changes at the top of the painting, in the sky, which makes the bottom half of the painting look different. Still, there is a certainty to these images, no hesitation or looking back. There is no time to reconsider. I’m "in the zone” and the fairies are helping. I work to replicate the color I see while also considering the composition. I have done sketches before so I have an idea how things fit together. But things happen as I work. Maybe the view is more interesting if the painting is longer or with another inch or two of sky or more grass. I can add on another panel from the bunch I have with me, make it a diptych or a triptych. That’s easy to do with wooden panels.
I like painting on wooden panels. I like reusing my old panels and having the color from the previous painting show through. It can add a richness to the new painting. When I finish a study, I’ll decide if it’s a goodie, a keeper. I can also edit the image - it's easy with wood to cut off an inch on one side or at the top to make the image stronger.
Some places want to be rendered large, so the second way I work is to do fairly large paintings - maybe 18" x 48". I’ll do a few smaller studies to figure out the composition and the proportion and once I know that, I'll stretch a frame with linen. With linen, it's all about the smell and the feel of it. I prepare the linen using a traditional technique, covering the linen with rabbit skin glue and then a white lead ground. I love how my brush slides across the smooth surface.
The large works take weeks, months, sometimes years to complete. I go back to the same location over and over again to complete a piece. By the time I am done, I feel these places are part of me and that I kind of own them.
That can be a problem - like when the Trustees of Reservations came and mowed MY field! I had been waiting for two years to get back to paint that beautiful field in the fall again and it had totally changed. Things just happen - I’ll go back next fall to see what's there.
I’ve thought out the place and done studies, yet even with this preplanning, I have to make changes. Last summer, I had to move where I was planning to stand to paint a large painting because a new house under construction changed the view. In addition, there was the reality that standing in that road to paint was just a little scary. Lucky for me, some kind renters let me use the corner of their yard, where I found an even better view.
These bigger works are both easier and harder. The light isn’t the only thing that changes. At Squibnocket, I was standing on the beach painting and over a week the level of the sand washed out at least a foot. The perspective was different because I was standing a foot lower! Squibnocket that year was also challenging because the red seaweed was everywhere one day, and then gone and then back again. Menemsha Creek is beautiful in April but by May, it just looks like mud. By June it is beautiful again.
I give each painting the time it requires and learn to adjust. With these large paintings, I have the time to add more color, more detail, more complexity, incorporating all the different hues I see. I have the time to make it more. Because of their size, these pieces are a homage to a place, I hope showing a new truth, an essence revealed.