You may have seen them standing at the corner of Washington and Main streets a couple Fridays ago at the busiest intersection downtown, easels pitched in different directions, and wondered who they were and what they were doing exactly, but as you motored or ambled along, that pressing errand claimed your thoughts.
Just as your attention flitted to them for a moment, theirs lingered on you — five professional plein-air oil painters out for the first time this year, drawn here by the excitement and vitality of a bustling city on the banks of the Connecticut River.
Bobbie Maiser, Jim Magner, William Hanson, Terry Oakes Bourret and Robert Noreika — all elected artists of the Lyme Art Association — first staked out the area as a possible spot, many of them are marine artists, after all, but with the slightly overcast sky agreed this street corner — with vehicles rumbling, pedestrians crossing, bicyclists whirring by and the occasional screech of brakes — the perfect place to set up.
Oakes Bourret, of Durham, says the 100-year-old neighborhood grocery store reminds her of another, much larger, city.
“I’ve been doing a lot of things with the lately,” she says. “I like to be in New York City, so this is the second-best thing. Oakes Bourret, well-known in this area for her prolific work on landscapes and animal portraits, started off as a registered nurse, so it’s not surprising she likens Middletown’s Main Street to another swift-moving, densely populated locale.
“We just like to paint on the street,” she says of her fellow artists. “It’s very exciting, it’s sort of like doing emergency room work, very intense. It’s a challenge because everything is moving.”
Maiser, of East Lyme, is a core painter for the Mystic Seaport. “We all have paintings all over, many of us, including myself, are members of the [prestigious] Salmagundi Club in New York City.”
Natural light is her artistic preference, says Maiser, who studied at the Lyme Academy of Fine Arts. “I just always like looking at things I was going to paint in person. It just wouldn’t do to try and paint from a photograph. It’s just not reliable.”
What may seem to some traffic congestion is to this artist a living, continually changing, subject matter.
“It’s certainly very active,” Maiser says. “I love how the cars are coming off this street and crossing and the people. I get out my camera and I take pictures whenever the people pass by so that I can add people later,” into her paintings.
Magner is a member of the American Society of Marine Art, the Copley Society, the Hearle Gallery in Chatham, Mass., and Mystic Maritime Gallery.
He’s out here today, "painting on the ground," facing west, toward the river, creating an under painting of the buildings flanking Washington Street.
“We just wanted to kick the season into gear,” Magner, of Glastonbury, says. “We’ve been doing a lot of studio work and it’s fun to get out here and get started.”
He is intrigued by the scenery. “I like the basic shape, the silhouette of the buildings, and then in the background, you have the hills, so it gives a little depth, so it’s not quite as flat,” Magner says.
Watering down his oils to create a wash of color, Magner is laying down color “very thin, just to get the proportions right. Then later on, I’ll put on the thicker paint so it gives it more color. Right now, it’s just a value study [or sketch], so to speak.”
He wipes off a bit of paint with a well-used rag. “Right now, you can go in and you can correct it. Later, you put the brighter values in like the sky will be like it is now,” Magner says, a kind of gray-blue.
Another marine artist, Hanson, of Bristol, says the unusually warm winter and lack of snowfall kept him, and the other plein-air painters, indoors for far too long. It’s not only the warm weather that draws them out.
“Last year, with all the snow and everything, we were out painting the snow,” Hanson says.
He has done illustrations for magazines and publishers Simon and Schuster, Signet, Dell, and E.P. Dutton and has done commissioned portraits including one of a Connecticut Supreme Court chief justice.
Award-winning illustrator and artist Noreika, of Rocky Hill, is a member of the Salmagundi Club, Connecticut Watercolor Society and Connecticut Plein Air Painters Society, among many others. “We’re all just one big happy family,” he says jovially of the group.
“It’s been such a mild winter. Terry and I have been coming here for many weeks,” Noreika says. “Now it’s not the most colorful time of year so right now I pick the people, traffic and signage” to paint.
“It’s not easy,” Norieka says, about plein-air painting. Often passersby, like this reporter, stop to chat with artists set up outside, so interruption is common. It takes a fair dollop of concentration to work out here on the street and stay focused, Oakes Bourret and Noreika agree.
But that’s also part of its appeal.