Nancy Purnell purifies Vineyard landscapes

See Nancy Purnell's paintings, such as "West Tisbury Junipers," at the Vineyard Haven Library through August 2. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

“I never go anywhere without my sketch pad,” painter Nancy Purnell told The Times. Her favorite Island spots are Long Point, Stonewall Beach, Zack’s Cliffs, and Moshup’s Trail, and they are all represented in her current exhibit, The Preservation of the Island on Canvas, on display at the Vineyard Haven Library through July.

This artist has been coming to the Vineyard since 1970, summering or living year-round at her home in Vineyard Haven from 1978 to 2003. Her attachment to the Island is deep, and while she is now based in New York City and her visits are less frequent, she makes a point of seeking out her favorite Island painting spots when she visits.

“My source of inspiration has always been nature,” explained Ms. Purnell, who started painting at age eight. The light, color, inner forms, and spirituality found in the natural world engage the artist. In the past, she has also collaborated three times with this reviewer, a long-time friend, to illustrate three books of Vineyard poetry, and wrote her own, “I Love You So.” The latter consists of the painter’s love poetry and nude paintings, in which she envisions the nude as landscape.

Over the years, her palette has varied from darker tones to vibrant, saturated blues, oranges, and yellows that celebrate the fecundity of land and water. The current group of paintings reflects a new direction, in which she has moved toward paler, more purified forms, working with yellow ochre, burnt umber, raw sienna, and Delft blue, mixing them with whites and moving toward paler, more purified effects.

“I try to simplify everything so it’s almost spiritual,” the artist commented. In paintings like “Stonewall Beach” and “Long Point Fog,” she concentrated on subtler tones to establish a sense of nostalgia.

Two of her more powerful paintings are “Ocean Up-Island I,” and “Ocean Up-Island II.” The ocean holds a particular fascination for Ms. Purnell, who spends days trying to understand the action of waves and get the forms right. “I want you to feel the movement of the water,” she said.

Ms. Purnell enjoys plein air painting — doing small paintings on site, then bringing them back into the studio to expand her ideas onto larger canvases. “Everything comes from drawing or painting on the spot,” she asserted. “West Tisbury Junipers,” however, is one painting that harks back to her earlier work, using darker shades in a typically confident composition, where the windblown evergreens march left to right like sentinels behind rows of red and green grasses.

Studying at the Chicago Art Institute and earning a BFA from the University of Hartford Art School, Ms. Purnell was influenced by painters from the Josef Albers school. She belongs to the Society of Illustrators, and she draws at their Sketch Nights on a regular basis. She teaches at Cooper Union in a program for inner-city students, and one for senior citizens run by Health Outreach at New York Presbyterian Hospital.

“It’s fascinating to follow what they’re thinking when they are facing a two-dimension space for the first time,” she said of her students. Like their teacher, they have begun to carry sketch pads with them for drawing.

Ms. Purnell also hand colors photographs of Vineyard houses for clients. “It’s a lot of fun,” she says. It’s very different from painting nudes or landscapes.”

The Preservation of the Island on Canvas: Oil Paintings by Nancy Purnell, Vineyard Haven Library. Show runs through August 2. For information, call 508-696-4211 or visit