A conspicuous part of the Vineyard landscape during the spring through autumn season is the sight of artists at their easels. They troll the Island, hoping to discover the most enticing places – water views, rolling fields, stone walls, boats and beaches – and capture them en plein air.
“En plein air” is a French expression which means “in the open air,” the literal description of an artist’s process of bringing his canvas and materials to the landscape, setting up a work area, and creating a painting on the site.
In the late 1800s, with the introduction of tube paints – rather than having to ground dry pigments and mix them with linseed oil – the popularity of painting plein air gained mass popularity. It was supported by the invention of the box easel, portable and collapsible with telescopic legs with attached paint boxes. Impressionist artists, including Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir, preferred to paint under changing skies in natural light – a benefit of plein air.
Plein air artists not only record the scenes that surround them, they also absorb the feel and essential experience of the time and site, and then have the challenge of translating those elements to their images.
Dragonfly owner and painter Don McKillop describes the process saying, “It’s the absolute best. There’s no other feeling like it. I go out in early morning or late afternoon to catch the light and the long shadows that at Lucy Vincent Beach stretch from here to eternity.”
Dragonfly Fine Arts Gallery will host a Plein Air Invitational Painting Derby for three weeks, from Thursday, Sept. 1 through Sunday, Sept. 25.
The Plein Air Derby will be loosely patterned after the Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby that also takes place in September: The close to 20 on- and off-Island artists who have been invited to participate by Dragonfly Fine Arts Gallery will bring in their “daily catches” for display and sale.
Participating Island artists, who include Marjorie Mason, Thaw Malin, Nancy Furino, Don McKillop, Traeger diPietro, Ellen McClusky, will have the three weeks to create their paintings — bringing pieces in one at a time, or three or four at once. Each artist is limited to one “catch” a day.
To capture the spirit and light of September on the Vineyard, artists are being asked to include a painting from the Menemsha dock and the surrounding area, a lighthouse site, the Allen Farm overlook, Sengekontacket Pond, and an Island beach along with their own favorite spots. Paintings must be framed for exhibit, and can be done in oils, watercolors, acrylics, or pastels. Like the weighing-in process, the artwork will be hung as soon as it is delivered, and offered for sale, making the scene at the gallery constantly changing.
One of the Painting Derby artists, Kyle Stevenson, an art professor at Mercer County College in New Jersey, is a regular Vineyard visitor who comes two or three times a year and does a painting intensive, creating more than a dozen images from his plein air studies.
“It’s completely different from painting in a studio,” he says of the plein air process. “The nicest thing is that it is so immediate. When you work in a studio you’re responding to reference materials. When you’re outside, you’re responding to something that is more true to the subject. It’s four-dimensional because of the element of time that becomes part of the painting.”
Mr. Stevenson explains: “The last mark is made two or three hours after the first, and in that time it’s possible to ascertain the essence of the subject. Many fleeting moments are put together, and the essentials are laid bare.”
Asked when he likes to set up his easel, he says, “I’m a romantic. I love sunset. There’s something about that time; the oranges bounce around, the air feels heavier, and things are more atmospheric.
The Plein Air Painting Derby runs from Thursday, Sept. 1 through Sunday, Sept. 25. There will be an artists reception on Saturday, Sept. 10. Artists’ entry fees as well as a portion of the sale proceeds will be donated to Featherstone Center for the Arts. Dragonfly Fine Arts Gallery, 91 Dukes County Avenue in the Oak Bluffs Arts District. 508-693-8877.