From Sept. 8 - 15, I had the privilege to spend a week at Wooster Farm, at the former summer home of American Impressionist Frank Weston Benson (some images of his paintings, many done at Wooster Farm). Last autumn, I saw a report from Plein Air magazine, about a workshop that had been held at this site last September. What caught my eye was the name of the farm. I won't go into that story here; you can see the back story over on my other blog. The workshop was conducted by Tom Dunlay, a painter in the tradition of the Boston School of Painters and a student of Ives Gamell. Benson helped establish the Guild of Boston Painters, Gamell was, and Tom is, a member of this organization. That makes for a nice lineage.
I have wanted to learn more about plein air landscape painting for some time. I have tried a bit, but felt like I struggled with how to approach painting outdoors, with how to get down the information of the landscape with the shifting light, and how to paint trees. Trees have been a particular challenge. And I love trees. So I traced down Tom, emailed him that I would be interested if he were to do the workshop again, and signed up right away when he set a 2014 date. He sent a link to an article about the first workshop, which has an excellent description of the place and workshop in 2013.
The workshop took place on the island of North Haven, off the coast of Maine, so it took a bit of planning to get there. Planes, trains and automobiles, only planes, cars and ferries. Fortunately, all went well, and I got there and back, no luggage lost. The island itself is lovely, quiet, and like a small version of Salt Spring Island on the west coast. Far fewer people live there though, and lobsters play a big part in the activities there. And the trees are shorter. The air, though, so clean and clear.
We arrived at the house, which is a lovely old farmhouse, which is being cared for by the present owner. It is full of light, and in the sitting room, is a mural painted by Benson.
There were 12 workshop participants, as well as Tom and his wife Katy, plus their son Jim and daughter-in-law-to-be Lisa. Lisa, along with Jim, provided us with great meals for the week. We stayed in the house, and I had a lovely week with my roommate, Ellen (our room was the one in the upper left corner, which had windows to the south too, looking toward the water.
Ellen and me, under the sign - she has Benson family connections and I have Wooster family connections, so this was great.
We started painting the first afternoon we arrived, so Tom could get an idea of where we all were. Then each day we were out and painting in different areas around the property. Tom started us out with a demonstration of the Boston School landscape techiques, which we all went on to work with over the days we were there.
Some of the things he said:
- paint what you see, not the whole panorama, but the specific objects in the landscape
- take advantage of what nature is offering; this was particularly useful for working with shadows, which move constantly when painting outdoors
- paint for about 1 1/2 - 2 hours; after this the light will have changed too much, so don't chase the light, come back the next day
- values over colour
- during the initial lay in, put in the big shapes, always asking yourself what value and kind of colour is there in front of you, but focus on value
- always have your painting surface in shade
- cleanliness is next to godliness; keep your brushes and paints clean
- cover the canvas for the initial lay in; let it 'cook' or dry before going on to the next stage
- when going back to make corrections of the initial lay in, start first with what is most wrong, then the next etc.
- use a palette knife to scrape down any ridges on the initial lay-in; this will eliminate any ghostly edges if corrections are made in the composition
- keep making corrections in subsequent layers until you reach the limit of your ability to fix things
- you can use the palette knife to smooth the paint in these layer, to make added texture
- for the initial lay in, use straight paint with a little bit of turpentine (the good kind), and no media.
- the limited pallete we used: cadmium yellow pale, cadmium lemon, yellow ochre, alizarin crimson, cadmium red scarlet, cerulean blue, french ultramarine, cobalt blue (optional) and lead white.
- when painting trees, use a round brush, and make large marks to suggest the tree shapes; later come back with the lighter colours and the sky colour to work in and out to refine the tree shapes.
Tom quoted Monet, to sum up what he was endeavouring to teach us: "When you go out to paint try to forget what object you have before you - a tree, a house, a field or whatever. Merely think, here is a little square of blue, here an oblong of pink, here a streak of yellow, and paint it just as it looks to you, the exact colour and shape, until it emerges as your own naive impression of the scene before you."
It took me a day or so to get used to mixing with these colours; once I got going though, they worked just fine to make just about any colour needed. Nice not to have to cart around tons of paint tubes. It took me a few days to start getting the hang of the trees. By the end, I think I was getting it.
Tom is a generous instructor and kept encouraging me to make bolder marks instead of the little dots I had started out with.
Tom with the initial demonstration, using the house and moving shadows to show how to capture the best composition.
Here is my one of my efforts, starting to get the hang of the trees. Over the winter, I'll continue to work on the several paintings I started and maybe do some new ones too. Winter is long here, so it will be good to have some new subjects to work on. Tom gave me a nice compliment, in getting the sky colour. He had recommended getting true cerulean and lead white paints, which I did and I think they helped. Getting the best paints and brushes really is worth it. I must say, as an aside, I love my new Rosemary and Co. brushes. I got a few to try and really like the Ivories. I also have some sables as well. I now want to get some rounds, and some very small sizes.
'Baking' layer 2 in the sun.
Me, painting the barn, with Wooster Cove in the background (thanks for the photo Paul N). Trying to keep sun off the working surface.
It has been a long time since I had been on a workshop like this, and it reminded me just how enjoyable an experience it is, for learning new things, meeting new people, and experiencing a new place. Thanks to Tom again, for such a great workshop, to the other workshoppers, for the conversations and exchange of knowledge, to those who have preserved Benson's summer house, and to Wooster Farm, for the peaceful place to enjoy the whole experience.