Galleries : All outdoors: Plein air painting
Vineyard Haven artist Elizabeth Lockhart Taft works "en plein air" - on site outdoors - creating the soft, carefully colored landscapes that she exhibits at Dragonfly and Shaw Cramer galleries.
She stands outside painting at her easel in every season except winter. She does have one snow painting from a day when the temperature rose to 50 degrees, and there was no wind, but it's the exception in her repertoire.
"It just gets too cold," she says. "The paint [Williamsburg oils] gets too thick, and I can't make good art if I'm miserable."
Unlike many plein-air artists, Ms. Taft describes herself as a midday painter, preferring the more consistent light between 10 am and 3 pm. "Light changes pretty quickly, especially in the morning and evening," she says. "I like the brightness of the noonday sun."
Her love of painting en plein air stems from what she says is "A special thing that happens when you're standing outdoors looking at the setting for a painting. Maybe the fairies give me a hand."
While plein air painting might seem to rely on spontaneity, Ms. Taft spends time picking favorite spots that she returns to often. One favored location is near Menemsha, where she has often walked.
"It's probably sacrilege, but I don't care about the fishing shacks," she says. Instead she stands on the hill by the Coast Guard Station to find the view she wants to paint. "You have to wander around, do little sketches."
She finds it hard to say how she picks her focus, although she tends to favor long horizontals. Chappaquiddick works well for her because it's so long and flat. "I kind of look at things that way," she says, then with humor, adds, "As soon as I say that, I'll start doing square paintings."
It isn't always easy to spot a location that has the magic Ms. Taft is looking for. At the Lagoon, there is one spot she's convinced has big painting possibilities. "I just can't do it," she says. "I'm going to keep going there until I figure it out. I'm working with my gut, but sometimes the gut doesn't pan out."
Logistics can be a challenge in some cases. She hasn't figured out yet how to execute a painting in one setting she likes because she would need to stand on her tiptoes to get a high enough point of view - not a comfortable way to work.
Ms. Taft sometimes works on birch boards and makes modestly sized paintings where she captures the essence of the place. If she doesn't quite finish in one sitting, she may go out a second time, looking for the same light. Some of the small works she completes in one
sitting may include empty spaces - but if the color is right, she considers it finished.
She also creates large paintings, two by four or five feet, which can usually be completed in one sitting. She believes a painter can't have consistent light in a large painting, because the light changes so quickly. While a large work may give up some truth as a result of that, it becomes a meditation on the place.
When Ms. Taft began painting, she would start outside, and then finish in the studio during the winter. Too often when she went back out in the spring, though, she'd repaint what she'd tried to finish in the studio.
Photographs are often helpful, although she doesn't paint from them in the strict sense. If she's done a lot of studies, then she can go into the studio and work with them.
"I'm not averse to that," she says. "I kind of have rules and break them. Whatever helps you make a painting with soul - go for it." There are hazards when an artist paints outdoors, and Ms. Taft shares some of hers. One time she was attacked by so many mosquitoes she couldn't finish the painting she was working on. Another time she broke her palette in half by using it to swat flies.
She likes to paint at Long Point in West Tisbury, but at times drivers barrel by, kicking up dust that ends up on the canvas. One of the challenges of painting on Nantucket, which she likes to do occasionally, is its windiness. Keeping a steady hand can be very hard, when the wind is blowing above 20 mph. Ms. Taft once drove off from a site there with her large palette left on the roof of her car.
Still, despite any obstacles, outdoors is where Ms. Taft prefers to work. Each winter she waits anxiously for spring, when she can take her paints and easel outside and begin again.
Elizabeth Taft's paintings will be featured in a show opening next week, Saturday, Aug. 15, at Dragonfly Gallery in the Arts District in Oak Bluffs.