There is an apocryphal story about Fairfield Porter and Wolf Kahn out painting together, a long view from the shore of Porter’s Great Spruce Head Island, looking down a wooden pier with a boat tied to it, across the water toward the mainland. After awhile, they take a break and look at each other’s work. Porter is struggling to integrate the boat and manmade structure into his composition. Kahn asks, “Why don’t you just take it out?” Porter responds in a huffy tone, “You don’t understand at all what I do.”
That story is the story of artists forever, of different perspectives on what makes a painting, especially a plein air painting. Do you put everything in? Simplify a scene into its most basic form? Move things around in service to the composition in your painting? Keep trees, water, hills, houses, whatever is there, in exactly the same places and proportions? Do you take photographs? Rework your painting in the studio? There are as many answers as there are painters.
The Porter story could easily describe Liz Taft’s aesthetic. She is committed to discovering what may at first be hidden, and often returns to the same places again and again, painting outdoor studies and large panoramas of her favorite views. “I’m a plein air painter,” she said, “What’s a plein air painter? For me, it means I only paint what’s outside in the scenes that I am painting. I’m a purist about it —- no photographs, no touching up in the studio. I paint what I see while I’m onsite. The challenge is to capture the colors in the hour or so before the light shifts. I don’t change what is there. Each of my paintings is an homage to a particular place.” She paints what is there, moving around to stand where the landscape in front of her is arranged by nature into a composition that she is pleased with. Then she will set up her easel, make sure it’s in just the right spot, lay out her materials, and begin to paint.
She brings everything all ready to start. Dollops of paint have been laid out on her palette in the order they always are laid out in, twenty colors from Cadmium Yellow Light on the left to Italian Yellow Ochre on the right: “Colors in the same place so I don’t have to think,” she said. She has used Williamsburg paint for nearly 40 years, knows what it does, and likes the hand-mixed quality of it. Brushes are bristle flats.
The study she began on our first outing, up high on the sandy beach at Long Point looking down across dune grass and water, a low bush in the distance breaking the horizon line, is a scene she never tires of. Out came an 8 x 8-inch Ampersand gessoed panel. Taft set it on her easel, angling it back a little to catch the light, and started covering the panel and marking in her composition using a thin monochromatic wash of Mars Orange, an undercolor that makes greens and blues more vibrant, and gets rid of the white primer. She said, “The monochromatic study is the beginning of every painting I do. Today everything is changing so fast that it may be all I do.” Within half an hour or so, she tells me, “I have enough reference. I know what I’m going to do.” She packs up and we’re are done for the day.
We return a few days later, the same time of day, about 3 in the afternoon. It is so different from the other day — foggy and monochromatic. She will paint what’s there this time, not the bright sky, big clouds, and sunlit greens we saw before. She is attracted by the horizontal bands of color. The sky has to be behind everything else so it goes in first, sometimes just the edge of color, knowing how quickly it will change. “I work from top to bottom,” she said. Then the darkening blue horizon line, and in front of it another treeline that darkens further. A thin strip of water, still blue but pale, then the first green, and another band of pale blue water. The wind-blown stunted bush, the darkest dark Courbet Green, sits almost in the center of the composition, surrounded by curving bands of grass and sand, a fugue of colors instead of musical notes. She is intent on getting the colors right as they go down one against the next.
As often happens, everything is moving and changing all the time. Clouds come out and disappear within 10 minutes. During that same time, the sun brightens the greens in the foreground, lighting them from behind, turning them more yellow — Cadmium Green over Courbet Green. In another 15 minutes it’s all changed again, more like the first day. The whole scene is brightening more every moment. The clouds have almost disappeared, leaving the soft blue-gray sky Taft painted about an hour ago. Everything in the distance is fading.
Besides being a talented painter, Taft has the reputation of a gifted teacher. She began teaching plein air painting classes at Featherstone five years ago. It was a conversation with a friend who had just taken her class that sparked my idea to write this story. He was enthusiastic in his praise for her generosity to her students, tailoring her teaching to their personal goals, yet sharing how she does what she does. Color and composition are her focus, but she willingly shares tips about how to keep cool when painting outside, how to set up to have proper light on your canvas, how to prepare and carry and care for your equipment. The basics and the personal combined.
Taft frequently returns to her special places again and again. The light changes depending on the time of day and the season. A field gets mowed, or grows wilder left on its own. The experience is always different. She often articulates her reverence for what is there at a particular moment in time. She also said that she can be attracted to a place, study it, paint it, but feel like it needs more, needs to be more, needs to be a bigger painting. Sometimes it just needs a bit more added to what she has already done. It’s not unusual for her to add another panel to extend what she has painted, or to cut it down to tighten her composition. I admire her flexibility.
The painting Liz Taft did on our outings is called “Hazy Summer Afternoon at Long Point.” It will be in her show, opening from 5 to 7 pm, Thursday, August 23, at the ART Gallery, 99 Dukes County Ave., in the Oak Bluffs Arts District. The show continues through August 30.
You can see more work on her website: liztaft.com. Or stop to talk if you see her out painting. She is very gracious, and will be happy to talk to you for a few moments.