Coming Together

10 April 2010

Apparently the east coast of North America is a global hot spot for the natural abundance of salt marshes. The U.S. MidAtlantic is also one of the most overdeveloped parcels of Earth’s real estate. Can the “Land of Pleasant Living” be such for both humans and herons?
With this thought, I’ve played with my sketches from Farm Creek and Blackwater Refuge, fitting together spartina grass plains and trees, the sky and the channels of water with pencil, ink wash, and intuition. As for any good work of art, the composition has to be pleasing, the value patterns sensible in the visual language of painting. What I’m feeling is that there’s a sense of mystery and timelessness to the salt marsh. From a low perspective, as if I were a fox on a sandy path, or a heron hunting silently along a tidal creek, this place would feel very much wilder and more expansive. I want my painting to express this, so my pencil pushes the foreground grasses over my horizon line. To express the expanse of grassy plain, weaving among the ranks of scrubby pines, I bring in a bit of atmospheric perspective with some light humid mist. Then I have a rather daring idea: why not a nocturne?
It is mostly by day that we humans enjoy the bay: fishing, crabbing, boating, hiking and birdwatching. We are diurnal creatures. By night the marshes belong to the wildlife. If I were a heron I would appreciate not only the nocturnal peace and quiet, but perhaps also a full moon. Not only a source of beautiful, mystical light, the moon is also the queen of the tides and, thus, the life cycles of the salt marsh ecosystem. A marsh under a rising full moon- – it is perfect!
It is, also, of course, a challenge. A night motif is as much emotional expression as it is visual reality. It is impossible to paint en plein air at night away from city lights. Still, this painting is, in many ways, more about expressing a sense of wonder and wildness than a reproduction of exact observation. . . and I enjoy a challenge.

In the Marshes

28 February 2010

Painting on site, en plein air, is a wonderful way to become artistically intimate with the landscape. Sometimes, however, the sense of a place is larger and more complex than the size of a single canvas. Sometimes it is more illuminating to pay attention to what, during the process of painting at the easel, would be considered distractions. A teasing gust of wind, rattling in the tawny grasses; a harrier circling low over the tussocks; the tantalizing mystery of an unidentified bird call; the tracks of an unidentified mammal. I love to paint the woods, but I am also fascinated by each and every tree. Who lives here? How does this ecosystem work? What mysteries are hidden from my view?

I am out in the salt marshes of Blackwater Refuge, and in the area of Farm Creek, a nearby Chesapeake Audubon Sanctuary, shivering in the chilling wind, awake and alive. I’ve brought my dependable, paint-spattered aluminum easel and paints, but it is my binoculars and sketchbook that are getting the best workout. When my fingers get stiff, my digicam comes out to pinch hit. When I cannot feel even the camera buttons, I walk to warm up. There are few refuges from the wind, but I crouch and sit on the path, to get the perspective of a fox, a deer, a muskrat, or goose. If I press my cheek to the sandy soil I can imagine that this is how the tiny, rare bird called the black rail sees its world.

Eventually I have several pages of sketches, notes on what I’ve seen and heard, and a few words that try to convey my feelings and impressions to the me that will be reading them in a warm house tomorrow. The challenge that awaits is to bring all of these together into one painting. . .

« Previous PageNext Page »