The sun barely appears through a gauzy layer of fog this morning. The abundant, almost relentless sunshine of the last few days makes this heavy mist feel like an alien presence. I’m slightly disappointed by this unexpected weather; yesterday I worked on a large sketch of Ray Wells’ shack and it was my plan to return today to paint it. I still can, but watercolor subjects are best when there is a lot of sunlight. I wanted to utilize the morning sun here and the way it casts longer and more interesting shadows than at mid-day. Also, when painting en plein air (in the open air), the sunshine speeds up the drying time in between layers which helps prevent colors from bleeding. I take a little longer gathering my supplies in the morning and have a second cup of coffee in hopes that the mist will burn off by the time I hike out to Ray’s Shack.
There is a romantic quality attached to painting en plein air, but the truth is that it can pose some real challenges that inhibit good painting: You have to be prepared for changing weather conditions like rain and wind, and you have to pack wisely – a hat and sunglasses for sunny days as well as mosquito repellant depending on the location. And, if you are working in a public place you must consider the potential for an audience. Robert Cardinal, one of my painting teachers, once said, “If you want to have conversations with people, then paint en plein air, if you want to get a painting done, then work in your studio.” I don’t mind when passerby ask to see what I’m working on; I understand the curiosity. Many will start a conversation about a distant relative who is also a painter, or how their artistic abilities begin and and with stick figures. On one occasion, a man was so excited to point something out in my oil painting that he inadvertently smudged it with his finger. Because the dunes are typically devoid of human beings, this shouldn't be an issue today.
As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, Ray Wells was the owner of the shack where she lived with her husband Nicholas. After Nicholas’ death Ray continued to come out to the shack every year until her death in 2011 at the age of 103. In her New York Time’s obituary, Ray was described as an artist, and fighter for social peace and justice. As I hike out to the shack with my large board and bag of painting gear, I imagine what her life was like coming out here all those years and how these primitive shacks have somehow turned their back on time.
By the time I reach my painting spot the sun is beginning to peak out. Shadows become visible and then disappear with passing clouds. I position myself in the same spot where I began the drawing yesterday. While the shack is quite a distance away, I can make out that there is someone staying in it. I assume it’s someone out here like I am – doing a writing residency or something. I can’t tell if the person is male or female or if they see me, but I hope I am not freaking them out by being here. Another challenge as an observational artist: trying to reduce one’s creep factor.
Since I completed the drawing of the shack yesterday, I immediately get to work on the painting. I begin with the sky and always use a wet-into-wet approach for this step, which means priming the area to be painted with clean water and painting onto wet surface. I mix cerulean paint with a lot of water and use a light touch starting at the horizon where the blue of the sky is at its palest. I then load the brush with more cerulean and the addition of cobalt and go heavier with the paint as I move up the sky. The difficulty here is to know when to stop adding paint and to allow the colors to bleed together and do their thing. I tilt the board so that the paint runs away from the horizon and I use a paper towel to blot any excess and create the effect of clouds. I stop and make a point to not fuss with this part of the painting until the paper is bone dry. Overworking is one of the main challenges in painting with watercolor. There is a temptation to control and model things the way you can with oil paints, but the beauty of watercolor is in the medium’s spontaneity. A good watercolor reflects moments of spontaneity and surprises -- like a party on paper.
By now the sun is out in full and I realize I’m sweating. It is virtually silent here. The dunes have a way of insulating noise and echoes the way snow banks do. I realize how happy and lucky I am, to be here alone on a Friday morning, painting this old shack. Not a moment later, I am totally surprised by the sudden sound and sight of an approaching SUV on the dune road in front of me. The vehicle comes careening by with four pre-teen girls hanging out the windows. They wave and holler to me, and I wave back calling out “Hi girls!” and then softly under my breath “Now, move along…” And then think to myself, “I’ve been talking to myself a lot this week.”
I get back to the painting and remind myself that I don’t want to spend more than 3 hours on it, even though it’s a large piece – in order to keep things fresh. The sort of crouched position I’ve taken in the sand felt more comfortable an hour and a half ago when I started working. I continue observing the light and color of the scene. Sand dunes can be challenging to draw or paint because they have such soft angles. I observe that the sand road in the foreground is a warmer and more saturated tone than the bright, sun-bleached dune peaks. This painting is a good exercise for me – I’m forced to really look at what’s before me and compare values and color in a way that would be a more autopilot-like behavior back in my studio where I’d have a photo reference to work from. It’s a fun challenge to try and capture the cold, blue-purple of the shadows and their juxtaposition against the chartreuse illumination of the dune grass plants that casts them.
I reach a point where I start going back into the painting to fuss and make unnecessary changes, and this is when I know its time to stop and pack up. I leave the painting to dry for a few minutes and take pictures of Ray’s shack so I can work on some more paintings when I get back to my studio. I realize that of all the shacks I’ve seen so far this one is by far my favorite with its positioning high up on stilts and its front wall of windows. I think about being a child and playing the ridiculous game “M.A.S.H.,” which stands for Mansion, Apartment, Shack, House and consists of naming the different lovers you might end up with, the number of kids you might have, and other future outcomes using a using a folded piece of paper as fortune teller. Back then ending up with “shack” was the ultimate embarrassment, but now I can only think about how embarrassing it would be to actually own a many-roomed mansion on the beach. How does one occupant justify all that space? And how would you not feel guilty when it goes unlived in for large parts of the year? There are so many people who have no such view, opportunity, or access. At that moment I realize how grateful I am to the people who built these shacks and were in some cases forced out of them by the government so that random people like me could inhabit them for a week and do their art.