Leaving the studio behind

Plein aire captures stillness through movement.


An artist wears a big hat and stands behind an empty canvas on a wooden easel. Her well-worn palate is stained with a medley of colors from past paints, reminding her of those perfect shades of greens and blues she’ll try to recreate. She looks at the light and chooses her vantage point, deciding which vista to capture today. Passersby can’t help their curiosity — there’s something timeless about a painter at work in the open air. Artist or not, it connects us all.

Plein air painting is about leaving the four corners of a studio behind, and experiencing the image or landscape as it’s being painted. Eleven Vineyard painters comprise Aire MV, an Island group devoted to plein air painting from June through September.

The group came together six seasons ago, and every week they choose a location to meet and paint for 90 minutes. This season, Aire MV could be found at Duarte’s Pond, Menemsha, Tashmoo Pond, or Bend in the Road Beach. The group’s core members are Valentine Estabrook, Marjorie Mason, Lowley Finnerty, Judith Howells, Kanta Lipsky, and Kate Taylor, with guest painters Janis Langley, Gail Rodney, June Schoppe, Anne Besse-Shepherd, and Lizzy Schule.

“It’s like having a running buddy,” guest artist and Islander Lizzy Schule said. “Being part of this group motivates me to paint every week.”

On Sunday, Sept. 3, Aire MV kicked off its annual end-of-season week of special events. An opening reception at Old Sculpin Gallery brought all the artists together for a meet and greet with refreshments and live music. On Tuesday, Sept. 5, Marjorie Mason led a demo that highlighted just how these plein air painters do what they do. On Thursday, Sept. 7, the group gathered on the Harbor View Hotel’s front lawn, and the public was invited to watch the artists work, and ask questions. Aire MV’s closing night was on Friday, Sept. 8, at the Old Sculpin Gallery, home of the Martha’s Vineyard Art Association. It was Aire MV’s second year showcasing its work at the historic Edgartown gallery.

The Times joined the artists last Thursday while they were at the Harbor View Hotel. Ms. Estabrook set up her easel to face an angle of the Harbor View’s front entrance. “I’ve painted the lighthouse so many times,” she said. “I figured I’d try something different this year.”

She used the straight edges of a ruler to precisely map out the composition of her viewpoint, outlining the angles of the building with quick paint strokes. Harbor View staff walked around with trays of mini lobster tacos, hummus with chips, water, and lemonade.

Artists Lizzy Schule and Marjorie Mason joined Ms. Estabrook on this early September evening at the golden hour. They chose to set their easels to face the Edgartown Lighthouse.

“This is a slightly different angle than I chose last year,” Ms. Mason said. “The shrubbery is also more grown out. Every time you’re here, you’re going to get something at least a little different.”

All three artists described light as a wonderful challenge. “It waits for no one,” Ms. Mason said. “You gotta be quick.” In no time she had an outline of the iconic lighthouse in the thick of hedges, brush, and marsh.

“I think a lot about the rhythm of light as it changes,” Ms. Schule said. “How to capture rustling trees, and the idea of movement, while trying to create something still.” According to Ms. Schule, working in the open air with so many natural sensations forces artists to simplify. She finds the imagery of the sun peeking through trees particularly mesmerising, and likes to capture that just right.

“The light changes every half-hour,” Ms. Estabrook said. “You have to be focused … there’s no daydreaming going on here.”

In the 90 minutes, artists created something complete, or almost complete, and they can either revisit the work by taking a photo, or returning to the location at the same time on another day. Passersby couldn’t help but stop and take a peek at these expedited works of art — a beautiful evening captured by beautiful art by Aire MV.