“All this he saw, for one moment breathless and intense, vivid on the morning sky; and still, as he looked, he lived; and still, as he lived, he wondered.” —Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows
Long Cove, Oil on Panel. Painting by Daniel Ambrose
Last Friday I delivered several paintings to friends who own True North Gallery in Kennebunkport, Maine. Fortunately they winter in Flagler Beach just up the coast from me making it a twenty minute trip instead of a two day journey.
Long Cove is one of the paintings on its way back to Maine. I say back because this painting began its life from the view point overlooking the purple loosestrife flowers.
When I look at this image of the painting, I’m transported back to the morning Mary and I first saw the scene. Always drawn to the water and the vanishing ways of making a living from it, I sought vantage points to capture this unique lifestyle.
I made a rough charcoal sketch of it to work out composition ideas and discern features that excited me. It didn’t take long and I knew I had a great painting idea. Tossing the pad in the car trunk I grabbed a new gessoed panel and eagerly went to work with oil paint.
A quiet stillness pervaded the air while I painted. Bees hovered among the flowers, sailboats moved along the distant horizon and suddenly a red fox dashed across the road disappearing in the grasses under my easel.
More details on Long Cove, Maine painting available here.
“Belties” Belted Galloway oil painting
In the early years of my art career, I focused strictly on wildlife and natural landscapes. Only wild, tough animals like cougars and grizzly bears were proper painting subjects, and not mushy zoo animals either. I had to observe the real thing in the wild. And the grizzly bears I encountered in Alaska were definitely wild and awe inspiring.
Plein air painting in Alaska with John Seerey-Lester, 1992
Fast forward a couple of decades.
I knew cows existed, as a little cracker kid, I rode them around Florida pastures on brief, bumpy rides. Mostly, when I looked at them, I thought steak or milk—not painting motifs. My mind was pretty rigid on some things.
Well these past seven years my mind has been expanded in amazing and enlightening ways by a fascinating girl—dietary and creatively. I no longer have filters on judging whether something is paint worthy. Other forms of mind expansion I tried as a younger, less wiser me often concluded in unpredictable results. But the natural way of this one person has opened the flood gates of beautiful possibilities.
One day I find myself on a gravel road in North Carolina painting an old homestead. Some cows are lying in the field around it. A few of them get up and straggle towards me. Before I knew it a whole herd of them are lined up in front of me inches from my easel. I couldn’t even see the house anymore.
Studying their faces, I grew interested in the forms. So I took out my sketchbook and started drawing. Drawing always gives me ideas. My advice to artists; carry a sketchbook with you and draw everything.
A few days later, my navigator and I, were headed to town and we saw white cows dotting a pasture. Eventually one became the subject of this egg tempera painting of a Charolais cow.
Last August we were in Maine and more aware of cows now, I wanted to see the Belted Galloway’s. So we went on a cow hunt. When we finally caught up to some I was surprised to see that they were smaller than the Charolais in Carolina. They look like big shaggy dogs.
I painted this small oil painting of these Belted Galloway’s on site and just added some finishing touches. It’s destined for the Northlight Gallery in Maine next month.
First Blush, plein air oil painting
The beach just a skip down the road from the house we rented in Port Clyde offered endless opportunities for plein air paintings in the early morning hours.
This morning I planned to paint a dramatic sunrise piece.
Arriving at the waters edge around 5:30, I placed my easel facing east in the gray light, intent on capturing the first rays of dawn.
In the distance the throaty rumble of a lobster boat rounding traps reverberates across the quiet cove while I set out my colors. I compose the painting in my mind, wondering how the sunrise will appear this morning.
The first faint blush of color tints the horizon. Brush in hand poised for the first stroke — the piercing cry of a gull makes me swing my head to the right.
Oh my! The scene is enveloped in a rosy luminous tonal light. Woo doggie!
Okay, have a plan but remain open to possibilities. Turn the easel, quick!
With a sensitive eye and a sure hand I search for subtle color temperature and texture changes. Here it is warm, but cool compared to this area. Here it is firm and undulating and there it is soft and quiet.
Its all there, all the art instruction a nature painter needs laid out before us. Trust in your eyes, let them be your guide. Supplement your training with museum visits. If you can, paint from the masters. Learn the fundamentals of your craft. Deepen and broaden your knowledge of your subjects. Know what you are painting and why you are painting it. Seek a moment, fix it in your mind and hold that course throughout your painting. There will be other days, other moments to paint all the beauty that fills your senses.
There will be days of scrapers and savers, but each plein air painting is a visual information deposit in your memory bank. In time you will come to value the withdrawals you make in future studio sessions.
So paint on, my brother and sister painters. The world needs more healers and makers of beauty.
Driftwood Beach, plein air painting
We’ve been in Maine for a week and an a half and I’m finally getting up to speed with my plein air painting. I painted this foggy morning scene the other day. There is always color in a gray day, ochers, pinks and greens abound in the atmosphere. I love discovering and painting the subtle warm and cool tonal notes on gray days.
It rained the first few days as we headed up to East Machias for a boat trip out to Seal Island to see nesting Puffins. Then down to Bar Harbor for a whale watch tour. Both trips were canceled due to rough seas. Today we saw puffins and seals out among the islands off Port Clyde, so all was not lost.
The sun finally shone when we were exploring Acadia Park, so we went down to Sand Beach and I set up my easel. I started a painting of the cliffs but the beach was soon crowded with international sun seekers. Bright colored umbrellas began popping up in the foreground obscuring my view, so I decided to go with the flow and began to paint a woman reading under a canary yellow umbrella. I’d been watching her for awhile and she appeared content, so I made her the focal point. A third of the way into the painting, I looked up from mixing a color and she was getting up to leave and taking the umbrella with her. Hindered again! But now the waves were breaking close to the beach with a beautiful celadon green back light. I went for it.
Now we are in Port Clyde sharing a house with some artist friends. Yesterday I was on a mission to find and paint Belted Galloway cows and was delighted to see them in a pasture below Camden, and painted a late afternoon oil study.
I’m all about the light and the luminous colors and many moods of Maine are incredibly inspiring. I’ve been painting 12 hour days and will try to post more art this week.
Belted Galloways, plein air painting
The Light Keepers House. Egg Tempera. 20 x 24 in.
Last August, I traveled to Maine to attend a workshop given by my friend Don Demers. It was my first time there and immediately I was captivated by the light, that particular quality of light that I associate with islands. Though in a much colder clime, Maine light reminded me of Antigua, each enveloped in brilliant, clear color, influenced by sunlight reflecting off the ocean. It was easy to why Maine has attracted artists like Hopper, Homer and Wyeth over the years.
This egg tempera painting, The Light keepers House, is based on a plein air study that I painted in Port Clyde at Marshall Point Lighthouse. The lighthouse has been featured in many paintings and photographs over the years and I painted a study of the lighthouse on a very foggy morning.
The morning I first visited it, I got out of the car and bypassing the lighthouse walked down to the shore. I have always been drawn to water, especially the sea. I suppose its ingrained or inherited. Below is a photo of my mom and I when I was 2 months old. In fifty-six years I’ve never lived more than a few miles from the ocean.
Where it all began
On the rocky shore of Maine, inhaling familiar sea air, I could feel my body merging with the salty environment . . . ahh, home. Absorbing the feeling of the place with all of my senses, I slowly turned to face the light keepers house. My first impression was the light, a timeless kind of light, soon followed by a feeling of dignity, of respect for a wooden structure that has managed to remain on this rocky, storm battered knoll since 1895.
I set up my easel among the rocks and painted a plein study of the house while treasure seeking tourists clambered over the stones, among the sound of crying gulls and gentle water lapping the shore. Under my breath and through my brush, I gave thanks to the Maker for the gift of this morning.
I’m looking forward to returning to Maine again this coming August, this time with Mary, exploring and painting many new places of this inspiring coast.
Next post, I’ll cover more about light and a new painting that has undergone many iterations as I continue circling subject matter and meaning.
Here is a larger image of The Light Keepers House