Before we were plein air painters

Ernie Pyle interviewed a local artist in Brown County, Indiana in the late 1930s. You might recognize a bit of yourself in him.

Sunshine and Hollyhocks, 1925, Will Vawter, courtesy Indiana Historical Society

Ernie Pylewas America’s most-famous WW2 correspondent, but before that, he already had a popular column for Scripps-Howard newspapers. Between 1935 and 1940, sick of his desk job as an editor, Pyle went out on the road to write human interest stories under the title Hoosier Vagabond. Eventually, he drove through all 48 states, the territories of Alaska and Hawaii, and several other countries.

After his death in the Pacific theater, Pyle’s American columns were assembled in a book called Home Country. It’s full of sharply-drawn small portraits, including the following, of artist Will Vawter of Brown County, Indiana.

A Sunny Day in Springville, Will Vawter, courtesy Indiana Historical Society

Vawter doesn’t call himself a ‘plein air painter,’ but it’s what we’d call him today. His lifestyle and attitude are familiar to me, and I thought you’d enjoy meeting him through the immortal prose of Ernie Pyle:

“You didn’t see artists trailing around Nashville in arty clothes. They didn’t have a favorite bar where they congregated to discuss their genius in mystic tongues. They simply worked hard and lived like normal people, and hoped to Heaven somebody would buy their stuff. And practically all of them were self-supporting through their art—which speaks for itself…

Brown County Landscape, 1920, Will Vawter, courtesy Indiana Historical Society

“Will Vawter [was] of all the artists probably the most loved by the townspeople. He was a big man, heavy, with a large head made even larger by an immense thatch of white hair. He and Schulz both looked like artists, and yet Will Vawter also looked just like somebody’s nice grandpa. Vawter illustrated one edition of Riley’s poems. He had a nice sense of sarcastic humor about himself. Somehow we got to talking about smoking. He didn’t smoke, but he chewed gum avidly and constantly, even when he was at a funeral looking at the corpse. He used to smoke cigars. He said he never could smoke halfway; he had to smoke perpetually or not at all, and it used to interfere with his art. He would load up his car of a morning with all of an artist’s necessary junk, drive out in the country and find himself a likely spot to paint, then unload everything and set it up. ‘It was like setting up a circus,’ he said. ‘I’d get out my easel and fix it just right. And then the canvas. And then get my paints and brushes all out and ready. And then my stool. And finally set up a big umbrella over the whole thing, practically like a tent. Then I’d sit down to paint, and reach in my shirt pocket for a cigar. And of course I’d have left them at home. And do you know, I couldn’t paint a stroke. So I’d jump in the car and rush back to town, taking corners too fast, killing chickens on the way, and being a general public menace. I’d lose an hour getting back to get those cigars so I could paint. So I just quit, and took up chewing gum.’

Along the Coast, Will Vawter, courtesy Indiana Historical Society

“Will Vawter talked about art the way I like to hear people talk. He said you go out and paint something the way you see it; somebody comes along to look at it, and if that scene happens to strike some memory, or cherished little scene, or a spot of appreciative beauty in whoever is looking at it, then he likes the picture, and if he’s able he buys it. That’s all there is to art. Nothing mysterious about it. When a man can talk like that, and still have no sense of time or direction whatever, and doesn’t recognize his own house half the time when he sees it, then I say he has combined the functions of artistic detachment and common horse sense to a degree that nearly reaches perfection.”

Be specific

Yes, you can paint and sell generic landscapes, but what’s the point?
Keuka Lake vineyard, by Carol L. Douglas
If you were to blindfold me and drop me somewhere in New York, Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont or, I suppose, parts of Connecticut or New Jersey, I could, after an hour or two of hiking, tell you approximately where I was. (Please let’s not try this game in winter.) I could approximate the latitude and longitude by experience.
Chugash Range, Alaska, by Carol L. Douglas
I’ve spent a lifetime observing the rocks, the trees, the understory plants, the architecture, the old businesses, and even the smells of these places. This is why I am so emphatic that Linden Frederick’s Night Stories are a portrait of Amsterdam, NY and not the Maine coast. It’s why I yammer away to my students about the cleavage in granite. There’s nothing less convincing than a shale outcropping on a supposedly-Maine coast.
Now, if you were to play the same game and drop me in the Kit Carson National Forest or somewhere in the Florida Keys, I’d be wandering around confused a week later. I don’t know the places well enough.
Parke County, Indiana, by Carol L. Douglas
Places are defined by their political boundaries. These don’t represent their geographical realities. Consider Indiana, for example. If you haven’t been there, you probably think it’s flat, ‘fly-over country,’ and post-industrial rustbelt. Those are all true, but limited, descriptions. Much of the state is rolling farmland, dotted with hardwood forests, marshes, and flood-prone, mud-banked rivers. Southern Indiana is downright hilly in places. In the north, the soil is made of glacial till left over from the last Ice Age. In the south, there’s limestone.
New England towns are topsy-turvier than New York towns because there’s nowhere flat to draw a street plan on. New England is forested until it breaks out into beaches, as at Cape Cod. I visited tiny Williamson, NY, yesterday. Its main street marches in a straight line for blocks. Large square houses line the streets, now somewhat recovered from the bad years. There are long, rolling, mowed lawns and cobblestone houses. Its orchards are filled with old, severely-pruned trees, which are characteristic of the apple-growing regions of the state.
Rachel Carson refuge, Ocean Park, ME, by Carol L. Douglas
Then there’s weather. As you head west into the Great Lakes region, you frequently hit a wall of clouds. They are often angry, sometimes morose, but never static. If you’re painting in that place at that time of year, you need to tone down the contrast, because part of the sense of place comes from the consistent low light. Conversely, if you’re from the Great Lakes region, the clear blue skies of coastal America may come as a surprise.
If you’re a landscape painter, you’d be smart to observe these differences. Mary Byrom is one of the finest painters I know. Her work is simplified to the point of abstraction, but its still immediately identifiable as the southern coast of Maine, with its rocks, surf, and marshes.
Yes, you can paint and sell generic landscapes, but what’s the point?

Have a blessed holiday! There will be no Monday Morning Art School on Christmas. Your assignment? To eat, drink and be merry.

Bits and bobs go on the block

Chrissy Pahucki has created an easy platform to experiment with online marketing this Christmas season. You might want to try it.

This rock study was painted at Upper Jay, in New York. While I might be able to pass it off as Jay, Maine, it would be better to just sell it to someone who loves the Adirondacks.
Over time, an artist’s studio gets overrun with orphan work. These are the one or two paintings from a previous body of work, field sketches that came back from trips and weren’t sold, and work left from plein air events.  The more you’re making art, the more these things tend to clog up the works. In fact, if we were to be strictly honest, we sometimes want to sell paintings mainly to make room to make more paintings.
Like most painters, I have a bin of plein air studies. This is where I drop things that I’m not going to pursue. Visitors are welcome to fish through them whenever they stop by, but they’re not orphan work. They’re my repository of ideas.
This spring lake was painted in New York. It should go home to New York.
A non-artist would be shocked by the turnaround time for selling artwork; it can take several years for a painting to find its buyer. This is why we don’t aggressively mark stuff down at the end of each season: we know its sale depends on it being seen by the right person.
I haven’t had a holiday painting sale in several years, since I moved to the edge of the continent. By the time Thanksgiving rolls around, the visitors are gone and all that’s left around here are other artists.
This is the last painting I have left of Vigo County, Indiana.
I decided it was time and that this year I should do it solely online.
Sales events always force me to try to make objective judgments about my paintings. This year, I decided I should mark down work created outside of my current location in midcoast Maine. There are some funny bits and bobs in my studio.
And one of two I have left of central Pennsylvania.
I have only one small canvas left of paintings I did in Vigo County, Indiana. I’d had the opportunity to go out there with my friend Jane while she took care of some family business. I have two small canvases left of a set I did from the top of a hillside on Route 125 in Pennsylvania. I’d had a 360° view of rolling farmland and capitalized on it by turning my easel around on the top of the hill. I got most of the way around before the light failed.
Perhaps the most difficult to add to this collection are my two remaining canvases of the Genesee River at Letchworth State Park. I spent a summer driving down to this spot, hiking my equipment into the gorge and concentrating on painting the rock walls. My goal was to learn to simplify and abstract them, and in these two canvases, I think I succeeded in that. But last year, they were knocked from the wall in my gallery and their frames were damaged. I realized then that they perfectly represent the Genesee Valley but have no place in my current inventory, so they, too, are going on the block.
These were part of a series I did from a mountain top, trying to capture 360° in one painting day. I almost succeeded.
Where am I going to do this? My friend Chrissy Pahucki has started an online plein-air store, here. By this weekend, I expect to have my work up, but that’s not why I mention it. I think other artists ought to try it, too. Chrissy is a painter and art teacher herself, and her terms are very reasonable. I haven’t pursued online selling because I didn’t want to have to add e-commerce to my website. This is an easy way for me to dip my toe into this marketplace.