Freedom of expression

Elizabeth Whelan’s latest exhibit details the natural world.


For the past decade-plus, artist Elizabeth Whelan has focused on portraiture, skillfully capturing each subject’s likeness, as well as personality, in oil. More recently she has turned her attention to nature, creating vivid scenes based on her walks around the Island. A selection of these paintings are currently on display at the West Tisbury library, where Whelan regularly offers free drawing classes.

“I love painting portraits,” she says. “I love the challenge, but you can’t get as free with a person’s face as you can with a plant.”

That freedom of expression is evidenced in the many styles in which she has chosen to represent her subjects in the current exhibit, “This Island Home.”

Some images, such as one titled “Yellow Berries,” are almost completely abstracted, while others show the meticulous detail of photorealism. A few fall somewhere in between, with loose brushstrokes used to capture an impression.

“A lot of these paintings and the subjects I chose are partly based on the design that catches my eye,” says Whelan. “Often when I’m out walking the Island by myself, I see and take in different quantities of information.”

Whelan explains that she is primarily interested in catching impressions of details that have caught her attention, rather than just taking in an entire scene, in the way one would do with a camera.

The artist explains the reasoning behind her chosen style: “I thought, ‘What if I painted more in the way that I see things while I’m walking?’ Most are painted with that in mind. Some bits are in detail, but most of it isn’t.

“Every single one started with photography and actual experience,” she adds. “I wanted to use all of that as a way to pull out from both of those to make a painting.”

Two outstanding examples of this approach to painting can be found in an image titled “Dead or Alive” and another called “Jive Talkin’.” In the former, a group of weatherbeaten fence posts with winter-barren vines twisted around them are rendered with precise detail in the wood grain of the posts, and every twisty, spiky, denuded branch. The field beyond is seen in soft focus, making the primary subject jump out at the viewer — almost in 3D. A similar effect can be found in the second painting, where the focal point is a pair of gnarled tree trunks whose leafless branches seem to stretch right off the canvas.

These, as well as a number of others, very effectively give a sense of immediacy and draw one into the scene.

“I use photography for reference often,” says Whelan. “By using drawing, I’m able to sit down and think about a scene, and what about it made me take a particular photo. I work with that in the composition. Photos are there as part of the information, but I’m relying more on feelings and experience.”

Whelan has more than her share of left-brain instincts as well as right. Science has always held a fascination for her, and with her latest series, she is incorporating some ideas she has gleaned from a number of books she has studied on the science of vision. “I read a book called ‘How the Brain Knows Where Things Are,’ by Jennifer M. Groh,” she explains. “It got me thinking about individual interpretation — how we see color, how we see nature.”

Based on this information, she decided to start experimenting with botanical-themed drawings and paintings. This further sparked Whelan’s curiosity. “I found myself coming back to the idea of growth,” she says. “The idea that the world is constantly in motion — how does that apply to what we see in nature?”

In a statement accompanying the exhibit, Whelan writes, “I began by observing landscapes and painting their beauty, and now I am compelled to paint the natural world in rhythm with the motion of the universe, where nothing is ever truly still.

“I experiment with ways to paint that motion, keeping it alive and just discovered.”

Of the nature series, Whelan says, “If you go out walking at different times of day, the light hits something in a certain way. As the light changes, so does what we see as color. I’m interested in how the light changes color, and how we take that color into our eyes. I am fascinated by the chemical and anatomical mechanics of sight.”

The artist has always been an advocate of the art of drawing. Three years ago she launched the Martha’s Vineyard Drawing Prize, which has attracted artists from all over the country. “Drawing is key to everything I paint,” says Whelan. “The time spent sketching my ideas, or my reaction to a scene, allows me to paint with imagination and from my own point of view.”

This month she will teach a series of classes called “Drawing — a Springboard to Imagination.” She hopes to encourage photographers, as well as painters, to try their hand at a different medium.

“Photos are there as part of the information,” says Whelan. “I want to show people how to rely more on their own feelings and experiences.”

The exhibit “This Island Home,” paintings by Elizabeth Whelan, along with a series of paintings from the Ag Fair, will hang at the West Tisbury library throughout the month, with a reception on Friday, Nov. 10, from 3 to 4:30 pm. A pair of classes by the artist will take place at the library, starting Nov. 14.