A group of artists gather to paint in plein air at Polly Hill


Longtime Vineyard artist Valentine (Estabrook) started Aire MV 10 years ago with Kanta Lipsky when the pair began painting in plein air — outdoors — using color to capture the way the light plays off and defines what you are looking at. This method of representing the light differs greatly from the academic realism of traditional studio painting.

While the Impressionist artists in the second half of the 19th century are most often associated with plein air painting, its roots go back to the Barbizon school artists painting in France during the 1830s. Portable canvases and easels, as well as the availability of oil paints in tubes instead of having to construct them from dry pigments, made it easier for artists to move around. “The Impressionist artist Monet would have several different paintings of his lily pond because every hour or hour and a half, the light would change. The whole idea is about capturing the light at a specific time,” Valentine says about plein air. “Our group doesn’t work at any given site longer than an hour and a half.”

At a recent session at Polly Hill, the artists spoke about this kind of painting experience. “It’s incredibly good to build a visual vocabulary from nature,” artist Marjorie Mason said. “Any kind of light, weather, time of year, it’s a different vocabulary every time you get out.” She adds, “There’s a certain amount of learning that happens when you don’t have the comfort of the studio. You can’t take your time. It’s all moving pretty fast, and you need to move fast with it. A lot of it becomes sort of intuitive. The brush and paint take over. Often you get results that you wouldn’t get if you were more careful and taking your time — more happy accidents.”

Valentine picks up on Mason’s comments, “It can be very interesting and exciting. And it’s a real challenge for us to paint that quickly. Plein air is a wonderful exercise to be able to see just what’s in front of you.”

For Gail Rodney, there’s another reason to paint outside that goes beyond the depiction of inanimate objects. These sessions of painting the scene directly in front of her instead of from photographs are of great importance for her. “Being outdoors is just fabulous. The colors are so different than working from photographs,” Rodney says. “Your eye sees things differently than the camera does. It’s easy to be less literal. It’s more reactive, less static. You look at something and you have an emotional attachment to it. You chose it for a reason. Somehow a photograph gets in the way of that. It’s a good record, but you have to learn how to put it away.”

But it isn’t just the great outdoors that attracts the group. There’s more that has kept it together over the past decade. Lowely Finnerty describes another impetus: “I love the comradery. There’s always an inspiration to get out there with them. If I’m left to my own devices, I can always find the dust to clean behind the refrigerator.” There’s another benefit, of course, to being out with your fellow artists. Lipsky smiles when she says, “Usually, painting is a very solo thing, and we long for community; to have someone to borrow cadmium yellow from if you run out … or completely forgot to even bring it.”

Valentine says that the exact makeup of the group can change; sometimes it’s larger and sometimes it is smaller than others. This summer, some of the members have had other commitments, as it seems to be busier than ever before. But regardless, “It’s always a great group of people. We are all extraordinarily supportive of one another’s work. A couple of us have our own shows on the Island, but this is a special thing for all of us when we paint together. It’s fascinating to be painting the same scene and to see five different versions in terms of style. Maybe someone is painting just with a palette knife [a thin steel blade with a handle], another is using thick brushes, and someone else is using tiny brushes. There are different textures using different techniques. It’s all about how they’re seeing the light and how they want to represent it.”

We’ll have a chance to “join the group” vicariously, to see the different ways they have captured the special light of the Island, at Aire MV’s exhibition, beginning August 27 at the Old Sculpin Gallery.

“Aire MV’s Plein-Air Art Show” will be at the Old Sculpin Gallery in Edgartown from August 27 through Sept. 2, with an opening reception on Sunday, August 28, 5 to 7 pm.