Browsers at Pik-Nik saw their reflections and artwork on the mirrored wall. Photos by Ralph Stewart

Working the great outdoors

By Brooks Robards - September 20, 2007

Eighteen artists have brought their work together for a plein-air exhibit at three galleries in Oak Bluffs. The show runs through Friday, Sept. 21, at Dragonfly Gallery, Periwinkle Studio, and Pik-Nik Gallery.

Each gallery features work from one location that the participating artists were asked to paint. At Dragonfly, the subject is the Edgartown lighthouse, while at Periwinkle, it is Menemsha Harbor, and at Pik-Nik, the Tisbury Waterworks. None of the paintings could be larger than 12 by 16 inches in order to accommodate the available gallery space.

In addition, each artist could submit one larger painting, up to 24 by 30 inches, done at Philbin Beach, Owen Park, Lucy Vincent Beach or a location chosen by the artist. All the work had to be started after Sept. 1.

Popularized in the 19th century by the Barbizon School and Impressionist painters like Monet and Renoir, plein-air painting means working outdoors in available light rather than in a studio or from photographs. Plein-air painting continues to have a strong following, but organizing it as a planned activity culminating in a show is unusual.

The Dragonfly Gallery
The Dragonfly Gallery showed the artists' versions of Edgartown Light.

The event was started last year by artist Thaw Malin, who summers in West Tisbury, and Chilmark painter Marjory Mason. Such tight parameters offer plenty of challenges to the participating artists.

"You always have to worry about the weather," says Mr. Malin. "The light really is dramatic in the morning. You only have an hour or two. A lot of people are not used to working so fast."

"We get to see how other artists solve the problems of working outside," explains Ms. Mason. For the three assigned locations, many of the artists gathered at 6 am and worked together, enabling them to ask each other questions and share information about practicalities like where to park your car or how to avoid tourists.

"It's life-enhancing," Ms. Mason says. "That's what it's like when you're painting outside, when the light is changing from moment to moment." Components like composition and drawing need to be executed quickly so the painter can capture the light and color of the subject, work on the nuances and find the magic. She is planning to offer a class in plein-air painting later in the month.

"You must be bold," Ms. Mason says, "and at the end of two hours you will absolutely have a painting. By seeing the work together, I hope the public will have a greater appreciation for the artists. I know how hard it was."

The biggest challenge for the 18 artists may have been to paint the Edgartown lighthouse. A Vineyard icon that verges on cliché, the lighthouse easily eludes distinctive representation. Yet the paintings on display at Dragonfly Gallery show a range of compositional and color choices, as well as some interesting variations on what aspect of the scene are emphasized.

Periwinkle Studio
One artist's depiction of Menemsha, shown at Periwinkle Studio.

In her lighthouse painting Meg Mercier turns the clouds overhead a lavender tint, while Judy Williams focuses on the yellow shade of the grasses surrounding the lighthouse and the deep green shrubs nearby. Mr. Malin creates a ripple effect in his clouded sky with light angling in low on the lighthouse. Wielding a palette knife as well as a brush, Traeger di Pietro moves his lighthouse composition toward abstraction.

Bill Buckley's lighthouse portrait has two cockeyed windows and a door like an open mouth. The canvas is extra wide and narrow in Liz Taft's painting, with the lighthouse turning into the only vertical element in a mass of horizontals. Ms. Mason has placed the lighthouse in the center of her composition above a clean swath of blue-green water. More water rises up behind the structure, with a sailboat heeling over nearby. The solidity of the lighthouse is reinforced by an angled wedge of gray and white clouds in the background.

Illustrator Paul Karasik populates his watercolor with a jaunty woman who stands with her back to the viewer watching two figures flying a red kite next to the lighthouse. Her dog is stretched out facing the viewer, and the work gains perspective through the tide lines of seaweed along the sandy beach. Jackie Mendez-Diaz flattens the landscape surrounding the lighthouse as if the spectator is looking down on it, and she outlines it with deep red. Even the sky has touches of red mixed in with its blue, as does the olive foliage in the foreground.

The collection of paintings done at Menemsha and on display at Judi Drew's Periwinkle Studio show a much greater range of subject choice. Some of the artists have painted the array of boats in the harbor, while others have chosen to concentrate on the fishing shacks. In some, the same shack looms in the foreground; in others, it moves left or center. Power lines cross the sky in some of the paintings but not in others. Posts in the piers or the odd shapes of the harbor's buildings capture the eye of other artists.

At Michael Hunter's Pik-Nik Gallery, the subject is the Tisbury Waterworks, which overlooks Lake Tashmoo. Many of the artists steered away from depicting the building itself, concentrating on the water and foliage instead. Ms. Mason chose a palette of autumn colors for her rendition, where the water, full of reflections, stretches out as smooth as a pond. Ms. Mercier uses pinks and blues to compose a similar, reflection-bound scene that is strikingly different in mood.

"It was very exciting - great for both the inexperienced and the experienced artists," says Ms. Alaimo of Dragonfly. "It really opened everyone's eyes up to how painting in a group could be a wonderful experience."

Additional paintings by the 18 artists are distributed among the three galleries.

Brooks Robards is a contributing writer to The Times.