Island Life, Island Light

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Island Life, Island Light is the way I’m characterizing my latest six paintings. You can see them for a while at the Blue Hill Congregational Church, where the Blue Hill Concert Association graciously invited me to be the featured artist for early March. On Sunday, the Calidore String Quartet was scheduled to perform, and I couldn’t wait to hear them.

One can get a little starved for classical music on Deer Isle. (But just a little.)

Island Life, Island Light

I’ve been used to making small watercolor paintings, so these are big for me: Wood panels, two feet by three feet. I bought them on sale last fall. I hadn’t decided what to do with them. Then Ron Stegall called me one day and asked if I’d be a featured artist for one of the chamber music concerts. Duh. Of course I said yes.

So I chose the March 10 concert, which gave me a few months to (a) find a studio (b) order plenty of oil paint and (c) decide what to paint. I knew I wanted to go beyond pretty landscapes, but I wasn’t sure how.

Then I remembered what Jules Maidoff once said to me in Florence, where I was painting portraits in a studio with the Art Students League. My roommate knew Jules’ daughter, and we visited them at his home. “Why paint in a studio?” Jules said. “You’re in Florence, so paint Florence.”

I’m in Deer Isle, I thought, so paint Deer Isle. It’s not quite like any other place in the world. Not by a long shot.

But actually, one of my paintings, Mail Boat, is about Monhegan Island, not Deer Isle. In the fall I’d taken a trip to Monhegan with my husband Dan and my parents. We took the first mail boat, which left very early in the morning. The light was spectacular. Liquid and golden. Almost unearthly.

So as I stared at my blank panels, I kept thinking about the light on that mail boat. Hence painting No. 1.

island-light-mail-boat
In Mail Boat, I try to capture early morning island light

Two and Three

Then I looked for other subjects, different kinds of island light. Every day on the way to the post office I walk past the green house with the pier, the shed and the lobster traps. On a gloomy January day when I felt blue I noticed how a sliver of light through the clouds gave a glow to the front of the house. Painting No. 2, Gray Day.

island-light-gray-day
Gray Day, another kind of island light.

Just past that house is the Fish Pier, where fishermen unload their lobsters and scallops. Refrigerated trucks then haul the seafood off the island. I’ve always wanted to do a nightscape, and the Fish Pier from my studio window has a lot of exciting imagery at night. So I had three ideas. I decided they were coherent enough as “Island Light, Island Life.”

island-light-fish-pier
It’s very dark on the island at night, except when there’s a full moon and down at the Fish Pier/

Glazes

I wanted rich color, but I didn’t want to do wet-into-wet painting, which reminds me of frosting a cake, something I’m not good at. I remembered I’d written a story for the New England Historical Society about Maxfield Parrish’s glazing technique. So I researched glazing, and I bought a bunch of galkyd paints and solvents and mediums to go with. Then I put on my work clothes and spent a couple of cold winter months painting all day.

I started with underpaintings, or grisailles, either of acrylic or galkyds. I chose grays for some, umber for others and cadmium red for the most muted paintings.

One evening I walked past the old sardine factory and saw it glow in the late island light. Painting No. 4. The old factory is used for parking now, as the sardines are gone and the sardine factories mostly moved to the Far East. There are people on Deer Isle who’d like those jobs back. I think of this painting as Ruin Porn.

island-light-sardine-factory
Island light at the end of the day transforms the old sardine factory.

Island Life

I also had a bunch of photos in my cell phone of LDI Lobster, the lobster shack at the end of the bridge. They have, without doubt, the best lobster rolls I’ve ever tasted. I love the look of lobster shacks, how they evoke the glories of a sunny summer day. I’m sure no one has committed suicide while waiting for a lobster roll to come up. Painting No. 5.

island-light-lobster-shack
Best lobster rolls ever.

I wrestled with what to do for painting No. 6. One day in the summer I had gone to East Point for a book club meeting. It was hard not to notice the gorgeous views (I think that’s Cadillac Mountain in the background). So I returned the next day and hung out on the bait dock for an hour or so. I took a lot of pictures of the charming ruffian in the painting. We talked about the Wyeths and about cool stuff around the bait dock – the fish bones, the hidden salt marsh at low tide, the driftwood.

His image kept haunting me. I was struck by the almost magical light and the contrast between the tender way he held the fish bones and the offputting message tattooed on his fingers: FUCK OFF!

So I took elements from all the different photos and voila! Painting No. 6.  I thought about painting in his tattos, but then I decided I preferred a G rating. Maybe I’m just a coward.

island-light-bait-dock
The amazing island light down at the Bait Dock. It does something to reds, so I had to include the bait shovel.

Anyhoo, that’s the story of my latest six paintings. I hope you like them!

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Working in the Winter Studio Toward a March Deadline

grisaille-winter-studio
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During the dead of winter in Downeast Maine I feel a bit like the farmers who plant their crops and repair their tools. It’s time to stay indoors, order supplies and paint my butt off.

I’m fortunate to have a winter studio above the Island Agency on Stonington’s Main Street (thank you, Morgan!).  With a southern exposure the light is great for eight or so hours, and the window overlooks Fish Pier. So there’s always something going on as the fishermen jet off in their skiffs or bring in loads of lobsters. Even when I’m not looking out the window, I’m soothed by the glug-glug-glug of marine engines.

winter-studio-window-view
The view from the window of my winter studio. Always something doing.

Winter Studio Work

I’m lucky to have an early deadline to work toward this year. The Blue Hill Concert Association asked me to be their feature artist for their March 10 concert. Of course I said yes. It’s a world-class chamber music concert at the Blue Hill Congregational Church, and I’m excited to be part of it. I especially like the pressed tin walls and ceilings that I’ll hang my art against.

I’ve wanted to paint bigger, so I ordered six 2′ by 3′ wooden panels. Then I struggled with what to paint. My friend Katy Allgeyer challenged me by asking, “What do you want to do? Just paint pretty pictures?” And I did want to move on from picturesque landscapes.

I decided to paint scenes of island life, emphasizing island light. Just by happenstance I gave them all two-word names: Mail Boat. Gray Day. Bait Dock. Fish Pier. Lobster Shack. Sardine Factory. 

After thinking about how I’d paint them, I decided the best way to capture island light is to paint in layers. I’ve always admired the paintings of Maxfield Parrish, and I thought his technique of glazing would work in replicating the intensity of island colors — when the sun’s out, that is. Glazing would  also create rich, warm grays, which is what we get here when the sun isn’t out.

I start off with a grisaille, a monochrome underpainting.

grisaille-winter-studio
Detail from a grisaille

Right now I have four grisailles finished, with two more to go. And on days when the wind blows and the snow falls, I comfort myself by thinking it will almost be spring when I complete all six paintings.

 

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