Plentitude of Plein Air- The Coastal Calling-
Updated: Nov 22, 2022
Reflections on the Cape Ann Plein Air Event- Brian Keeler
A plein air event, especially the juried, well-run national gatherings are at once highly motivating, exhilarating, stressful and as one fellow painter mentioned, emotionally taxing. I recently returned from the Cape Ann Plein Air fest, which is held in the beautiful costal area of Gloucester and surrounding seaside towns of Essex, Ipswich and Rockport, Massachussets. I have been visiting the area on occasion for many years and painting there on my own, inspired by the New England ambiance, the coastal motifs, the history and the allure - where other artists of the past have found the muse in the area. Hopper of course is uppermost in my homage, but Homer, and Kensett also make for good company. Herman Melville comes to mind as well, as Gloucester is where Moby Dick begins.
Lets start with Hopper, as a serendiptious occurence punctuated one of my painting sessions there. The weather was really a mixed bag as the week started out rainy, then it got really windy for the first official day and it wasn't until the end of the week when we saw the sun. My Hopper moment came when I was painting a nocturne along Prospect Street in Gloucester during one of the misty evenings. Not exactly raining but drizzly, also atmospheric and evocative- and allowing for a kind of mystery that only night and wetness can elicit. This painting featured a wonderful old mansard-roofed house that was interestingly lit by street lights and a few windows glowed with a warm hue that suggested cozy domestic interiors.
I started this one at twilight so I could still see more details of the scene and view my canvas and palette. And I came with an easel light to help see the canvas at night- although it proved short-lived as this new gear came without a charging cable. Humph! The arrangement and composition are always my starting points and this one was no exception. I began by considering the intervals and placement of the verticals formed by the telephone poles and edges of house and the main horizontal of the eye level, which I placed low on the canvas. The passing car lights were also arranged (two cars closer and one further spaced) as the subdued double yellow road lines led back into space. Telephone wires are always tricky. I like it when painters just slash them as if in a sketch- but I had to render these and soften the edges so they would not look too stark.
There were lots of schmoozing opportunities at this event, exhibits during the week and the final show of course- and they were all great. The group exhibits were well attended in beautiful venues and the other artist's paintings on display offered even more inspiration. To view the new creations by the other particpants offered some genuine elations and admiration.
So the nocturne mentioned above was cut short as one of these exhibit events was happening. So I went back to Prospect Street the next day to finish it, still in the rain. While painting, the owner of one the houses behind me stopped by to look and told me that Hopper had painted at this very spot back in the 1920's perhaps- only he was looking the other direction. I was invited into his house where this man had a print of the painting, a wash drawing or limited palette watercolor, depicting the scene with the double-steepled Catholic Church in the background. This church looks like a duplicate of the famous church at the top of the Spanish Stairs in Rome, Santa Trinita Scalinita dei Monte.
The week started with a quick-draw paint out at the home and grounds of a famous local mural painter, Allyn Cox. It is lovely setting with a beautiful old 1863 house and barn, which Cox used as his studio starting in 1940. The wind was fierce and the flat marshy topography did nothing to curtail the gales. And I've never seen as many plein air painters as were gathered there on that blustery morning. The 36 juried artist were joined by over 200 other painters of the region. We had two hours to create a painting, get it framed and put in the barn for the first completion. I found a virtually unwindy enclave that morning, protected by the barn, and I chose a view under the barn, where four canoes were being stored.
After all of that day's activities were finished, I headed out to the next challenge- I had a night time motif already chosen. We had scoped out two amazing antique stores in Essex and were thoroughly enchanted by both. One was even open at 9 pm after we dined on Saturday night. The owner, Gus Coviello, it turned out is the husband of the event organizer, Susan Coviello. His 19th century house on Main Street, had four floors packed with a terrific assortment of antiques. Next door, was another antique store with two amazingly artful window displays, made even more dramatic with special lighting. The David Neligan Antique store is where I set up on the street to paint that night.
It was a complex subject that required lots of drawing. It included a statue of female figure, oriental in look and she appeared to be singing. Viewers of the painting, said I made her look alive, as if she were an actual person and one admirer asking if I got someone to pose. The scene included a lot of objects, with a Tibetan snow lion statue but somehow the lighting simplified the scene into clear patterns of light and dark- strong chiaroscuro in otherwords.
While I was nearing the finish, around 11 pm, and exhausted, the owner and his wife returned from his high school reunion, and they seemed suprised to find someone painting their store window. I was missing my high school reunion held this same weekend. David and his wife were both delighted with the work and they eventually purchased the painting.
As the week progressed, I managed to find the muse on each day without too much consternation. Finding the right subject is perhaps 80% of the challenge. I felt that I was drawing well during the week. I was oftern choosing subjects with architecture or boats that involved a lot perspective issues. In otherwords, these were not simplified scenes that could just be whipped out. One fellow artist, Stewart White complimented me on my first painting when I was doing a painting of City Hall. He thought that the scene might have too much detail however. I could relate to his concern, as I was getting overwhelmed with the drawing. I chose the subject however, as it presented a simplified edifice with three interesting verticals of the towers. And the old mansard-roofed house in the foreground helped too. Painting in the rain with no light direction compels one to find other engagements and for this one it was the structure and composition.
Cape Ann is really a great source of inspiration- in fact one can see beckoning motifs almost everywhere. The crashing sea, on those rainy windy days offered an encounter with the raw forces of nature for some the artists. I'll have to save this for another visit. One artist said, that he cared to focus more on what made this area unique- and the ocean views, he thought could be anywhere.
It was great to connect with the other artists too. Some, I've known from other plein air events. There impressions and concerns and worries all provided encouragement and support. They often have similar tasks and goals and we are all grappling with some of the same challenges. Anecdotes of other plein air events and our common backgrounds came up in conversation. Italy was one such commonality. I met Ken Dewaard in Venice way back in 1992 and I learned about Thomas Bucci's extensive experience in the Marche region of Italy- which is where I began my fasciantion with Italy.
Why was the event emotional you may ask? As noted earlier, one of the artist shared this impression with me. Well part of it is the exhilaration of painting at such a beautiful place. And, we are all painting our hearts out. Each painting takes quite a bit of investment, some serendiptous, some active looking- really searching for the conducive scenes. Then relaxing into it and being content with what is. There is also the excitement and anticipation of the awards ceremony. These events take a lot of planning to prepare for- getting all the canvases and frames ready and scheduling the trip too. Although I did not win an award I was pleased that major donors of the festival, the Bazels had selected one of my paintings for their collection. And two others done during the week eventually sold. And the winners selected by the juror were all great- I am a fan of the top winner, Charles Newman whose brushy approach and somewhat muted palette embodies the spirit of plein air in a zen spontaneous manner. So learning from others is part of the mix too. The Cape Ann Museum also adds to event as well with so many great works there to stimulate.
At the end of the event, I contiued the direct painting- as Sunday was a quintessential autumn day. I returened to the Mill River to paint the golden hour, and then hurried over to a beach near Rockport to paint the October moonrise. Linda and I were practically the only ones there and it was very special.
Our whirlwind tour of New England continued the next day in Bar Harbor, Maine where I had a book signing at the Argosy Gallery. Amy Sidman, the owner, had just sold two large oils and one more sold at the opening- so it was a good evening. I found some inspiring motifs near our accommodations in Cherryfield- a delightful small town about an hour north along the Narraguagus River. And then finally in Corea, Maine, a small fishing village north of Schoodic Point was a splendid source of inspiration. To complete our tour a stop in Stoinging, Maine offered the some great subjects.
As I helped form and organize our own plein air event in and near my hometown, Wyalusing, PA this summer (The Susquehanna Summer Solstice Fest) at French Azilum, PA it allows for appreciation of the amount of work that goes into making one of these a success. And by all accounts the Cape Ann event is one of the best. All well conceived with a great support staff. It takes great community support and commitment to make art events a success and with the patronage of locals to purchase the art as well.
To view the finished paintings go to my website, then to gallery and look under the New England group. www.briankeeler.com
To view some videos of the Cape Ann event- click on these links.