Maine Moonset at Sunrise. Plein air oil painting by Daniel Ambrose

Maine Moonset at Sunrise. Plein air oil painting by Daniel Ambrose

August 21

I’m perched on a massive 500 million year old knuckle of granite bedrock above the ocean. I just finished a plein air painting of a tranquil moonset at sunrise in Port Clyde, Maine.

I set aside my paintbox and reach for my sketchbook.

This summer in Maine, I’m drawing more than painting. Sketchbook in hand, I wander these primal shores, quietly observing the coastal rhythms, absorbing the textures of tidal life that drifts among these islands.

Bathed in their ethereal light, the swaying harmonies of sea islands serenade my soul with their ageless lullabies.

The first couple of years I came to Maine, I was overwhelmed by the plethora of interesting subjects to paint. Islands, boats, birds, rocks, water and weathered structures leaped at my senses in every direction. I bounced around with my paintbrush like a rabbit on Benzedrine.

I’m beyond that now.

This morning, I’ve been observing circles… the lobster boats circle their traps, the incoming tide encircles the rocks, birds wheel in the sky, as the Earth and Moon revolve around the Sun.

Far out in the ocean, the faint sound of a bell buoy rings.

A curious word, “ring”, encompassing various meanings… a bell rings, a ring of thieves, a ring encircles a finger. The ring of truth. Love signified as a circle.

Is there truly such a thing as a circle of love…unwavering, bound without end? Or does love ebb and flow like the tides?… Wax and wane like the moon?

The mystery of these circuitous questions is my muse.

“We dance round in a ring and suppose, but the Secret sits in the middle and knows.” Robert Frost.

A gull splashes in the water below me. It’s snow white head, soft and pristine against the wet and hard and dark rock. The water is too cold for me to swim in, but this bird is simply being a bird. It has no need to think of such things as water temperature or mysteries.


I draw this coastal landscape with confidence now. I know these trees, rocks and water. On an elemental level, they are I. Indeed this very granite rock I’m sitting on contains the same chemical elements that nourish my body.

Science tells me that my body is made of the same 6 elements as the stars. And because a star died, I live. Yet science can not tell me how a nonliving thing became a living one.

Science does not adequately explain the conflicting undercurrents that sway the human heart, or why life-giving water has covered the Earth since its beginning. In the second sentence of Genesis 1, it is written:

…and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. NIV

Scientists and theologians seem to agree about water’s timetable. I ponder these questions as my pencil pauses over the drawing on my paper.

Direct observation of nature has taught me that light alters the appearance of things, shattering my childish illusions that a particular tree, or bird appears the same at all times. If you carry preconceived images into the landscape you will find them reversed at times. The sea can be lighter than the sky, white can be darker than black.

The tide is receding and a rocky ledge suddenly appears. A reminder that danger to careless mariners resides beneath these tranquil waters.


In its simplest application, plein air painting is reactive recording. Organizing elements and painting the effects of rapidly changing colors of light. While drawing is deeper editing and detailed observation—getting down to the essence of a thing. Stripping superfluous elements from a scene, understanding structure, patterns and interactions.

If you’re a quite sensitive painter, you’ll use the power of your aesthetic faculties to scan the landscape like radar, picking up tones and subtle vibrations. Using external motifs to express your inner world of associations, emotions, imagination and memories.

Or you can just pick up a brush, enter the landscape and thoughtlessly swing away at a blank canvas. A simple exercise in fun. That is the offer of art, you can take it as shallow or deep as you want. But like many of my artist peers, I’ve found art has taken us far deeper into ourselves than we have taken art.

Rather than show me another painted postcard, I want to see heart and soul, your truth. Show me the bones of your beauty.

Art is about connection. Look at this the artist says… and you say, yes, I know this too. And look at this as well…isn’t life amazing? So fragile and precious.

Sitting on this ancient rock, beside waters present at the birth of Earth, makes me realize, in the span of geological time, my life is like the brief and tenuous flicker of candlelight.

For most of us, our names will not be emblazoned in the history of humanity. No epic deeds carved after our name. But the lives we touch matter. Hearts matter. Honest intent and commitment matter.

Maybe it’s about commitment and compassion. Like stone and water. Find and know your life purpose to be firm as granite, and let your heart yield like water.

The star is on fire, the rock is sliding into the sea, and the water is rising…

Find what you love, and make it yours.

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