Recent Press

Following the Light
by Christine Parrish, Staff Writer, The Free Press, Rockland, ME
Reposted with permission
© Copyright Christine Parrish 2013

"The light keeps changing," says Shane Conant.

He steps back from the small canvas propped in an easel at the edge of the field, looks at the farmhouse, then back at the canvas.

The fog surges forward, swathing the dark spruces, muffling the foghorn blasts from nearby Goose Rocks lighthouse. The air is so thick you could lick the salt off it.

We are on North Haven at Wooster Farm, the summer home of the early 20th-century artist Frank Weston Benson, who was so adept at capturing that fabulous Maine light.

It was here that Benson caught his daughters in long white summer dresses lounging on Lookout Hill as they looked across the sunlit water towards Vinalhaven. It was here Benson painted his wife and children in the blue shadows and maritime light, the canvases offering an intimate view into his family life in the most fleeting of summer moments and suspending them in time.

I follow the light, where it comes from, where it goes, Benson explained to a fellow artist.

And it was here, at Wooster Farm, that Benson evolved into a master of American Impressionism and subsequently inspired a movement of plein air artists.

Which is why this group of artists, some of them well-established, have gathered here for a week in early September to stay in Benson's former summer home and learn the Benson approach to painting from a third-generation practitioner: Boston artist Thomas Dunlay.

Dunlay emerges from the fog as he makes his way towards Conant, stopping at the easel of one and then another artist spread out around the fields.

A big man who has devoted his life to becoming a master of contemporary classical painting, Dunlay takes the brush from Conant and starts remixing color on his palette, then lays on a thick line of brick red-brown paint to Conant's canvas of the farmhouse, painting right over the chimney.

"This will get you closer to what is there," says Dunlay, looking between the canvas and the view of the farmhouse, then pointing the brush towards the chimney to emphasize the point he is making. "You need to get that red note down."

Dunlay remixes again, adding blue, analyzing the effect on the canvas. The Benson approach is to make it look like nature. To make it look like, as Benson was fond of saying.

"It's not quite right," says Dunlay, laying on more paint.

Dunlay doesn't hesitate to paint over others' work, even scraping paint off with a palette knife and starting over, dabbing paint on with his fingers. He's brusque, but not unkind, talking all the while to explain the technique. His ability to get the colors absolutely true to nature - that odd gray-purple sky over Vinalhaven - is mesmerizing.

The scene has taken on life, strangely, as if there really is some magic, after all. The chimney has a dimension it lacked a moment earlier. The brick-red paint has pulled the colors on the canvas differently.

"It's better," says Dunlay to the canvas and to Conant. "It's closer to right."

"What I am teaching is non-magic teaching,"
says Dunlay as we walk over to the old cow barn that Benson converted into a studio.

"It's getting it right. For the past 80 to 90 years we've been in an art world that has been about what people want to express. This isn't about that. This is foundational stuff that will carry you through. It's the craftsmanship that's paramount; not the expression."

He analyzes what he did with Conant's canvas.

"It's pretty nuts and bolts. The questions I ask all the time are: Where's the darkest dark? Where is the lightest light? Then I mix the paint and I ask, is it red, blue or yellow? It always starts with one. That chimney? That's in the red family. How light or dark is the red? I get that red note down. I'm going to put some blue into the red.... It's closer to right."

This is the way Dunlay learned from years working full-time in a Boston studio alongside artist R. H. Ives Gammell, who was himself schooled in the master-apprentice tradition in the studio alongside Benson and painter William McGregor Paxton a generation earlier.

Gammell systematically taught the techniques of fine painting as it had been taught in the Paris atelier tradition until the early 20th century. He mentored his students directly, preparing them to paint professionally.

Dunlay gestured towards a clump of goldenrod.

"If I had said to my teacher, 'I want to express the vibrancy of the yellow flowers there and how they make me feel,' I'd get a boot in the rear end and I'd be gone," he says, of his six years studying with Gammell.

Gammell only took on two or three students at a time. A few, like Dunlay, studied with him for years, and many of those have become teachers of the Boston School tradition in their own right, carrying on the Benson approach into the 21st century.

In the summer of 1901, at the invitation of a friend, Benson and his family arrived on the island for a visit to escape from Benson's rigorous Boston schedule. By then, Benson was considered one of America's most prominent artists, with a fistful of national awards for his portraiture and waterfowl paintings and a handsome income from his art and his teaching at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. He had just gained recognition for his American interpretation of Impressionism. His friend thought the island's remoteness would appeal to Benson.

It more than appealed to him. On the way to his friend's house farther out on the narrow point, they passed Wooster Farm, with its 1795 four-square farmhouse, orchard and lazy meadows stretching to the sea.

Benson had found his summer muse. It remained so for the better part of four decades.

Wooster Farm is not open to the public. Fortunately for the sake of history, the two owners since Benson's day have shown little interest in making any changes, except for a master bedroom and bath, tucked into a new ell of the farmhouse that is barely noticeable from outside.

The massive chimney in the center of the farmhouse has four fireplaces leading into it from the rooms on the main floor and a bread oven in the yellow dining room that appears still to be in working order.

The house feels so unchanged that there is an eerie sense that the artist never really left, but has just gone for a short trip to the mainland and will soon return.

The mural of the Fox Island Thoroughfare that Benson painted across the walls of the front room is there still, faded and pockmarked. His homemade bows and arrows, propped up in the corner of an upstairs hallway, look as if they were absentmindedly left there after an outing hunting ducks with the locals, which Benson was fond of doing.

The five artists and Dunlay and his wife spend their evenings in the farmhouse dining room eating plain good New England suppers served up out of the farmhouse kitchen by a local cook. They spend their days out in the open air with portable easels, painting studies on small canvases, trying to capture just exactly what is in front of them.

Benson's approach to painting and the rigorous training for it in the studio alongside a master became known as the Boston School of painting - an academic approach to painting that has less to do with an actual brick-and-mortar institution than it has to do with a methodical discipline, almost scientific in its approach, to see things clearly and learn the techniques to portray them as they are.

"First, get the proportions exactly right," Dunlay says.

Second, see where the light falls, where the shadows fall.

Third, paint to make the color true to nature.

Get the large forms right by the simple light and simple shadows, Benson told his students. Don't fuzz it up and soften the edges.

And don't get caught up in the detail.

"Photographic realism is not what you're after. The goal is not to paint each clapboard of the farmhouse, each window pane," says Dunlay.

Don't look at one part too long or you will paint it too much in detail. Do the values and let it go, Benson advised.

"It's easy to get caught up in the details," says Dunlay. "But it can throw everything off. You need to look at it as a whole."

Look at the shapes of the lights and shadows, put them down flat, make them exactly the shapes they are, without detail, and leave them, Benson wrote. Don't muddle around with leaves and branches. Make the shadows right in relation to each other, near in value, and only when you have that done right, put in details. As much or as little as you like. That is not important.

The rigorous training of learning to paint exactly what is in front of you by spending years as an apprentice came to be seen as fusty during the mid-20th century heyday of the Expressionists.

"It was almost lost," says Thomas Pike, the president of the National Art Club, a private New York City club for artists and a repository of fine American art. Pike has come out to Wooster Farm for a couple of days to stay with the artists and to honor Benson and to see the scenes he captured on canvas.

Pike thinks Benson's historic contribution to American art has been grossly overlooked and is astonished that so few know that Benson made some of the most important and iconic art of his life at Wooster Farm, and that his studio and the rooms and views that he captured in his paintings are still so little changed.

"Look how much money they just spent renovating Winslow Homer's studio."

It cost the Portland Museum of Art, which owns the Homer studio in Prouts Neck, $2.8 million to renovate it. The studio reopened in 2012.

"This studio, this place, is equal to Homer in terms of significance to American painting," says Pike. "It is a pivotal spot and is a real landmark of American art history. And Maine was the catalyst for both of them."

Two of the five artists that Dunlay has brought to Benson's farm are already schooled in the Boston tradition. But trained or not, all came to Wooster Farm to be inspired by the same views Benson painted and to apply Benson's approach to painting for a week with no distractions, not even cell phone coverage.

"Everywhere you look here there is a painting waiting to be painted," says Dunlay, looking out across the meadow where the fog is just starting to break. Lookout Hill is emerging from the gray, and he decides to encourage the painters to try painting up there after lunch.

He slides open the big barn door and then we duck through a short side door into the large barn that Benson turned into his painting studio.

Massive windows, facing north for the light and towards the sea for the view, provide the right amount of illumination for the studio. Small new canvases with fresh paint line the floors - the students' work, all studies. None are finished paintings. Large family photographs of Benson hunting ducks, painting, and sitting with his family hang high on the barn walls.

Most arresting are the smears and blobs of different colors of paint at eye level on the beamy barn walls. It's where Benson cleaned his palette, scraping the paint off with the triangular-shaped palette knife and smacking it onto the walls.

"It's like coming into a cathedral," says Pike, who has come in behind us. "I don't want to talk too loud."

The artists are coming into the barn, chilled, chatty, shedding their damp coats and filling their plates with food.

"The Jackson Pollock effect," says Clem Robins, a bit less reverentially, seeing me looking at the paint smudges.

We pull up lumpy chairs around a battered coffee table to talk about art and the Benson legacy.

Robins is one of the students who has been studying under Carl Samson, another Ives Gammell-trained artist. Robins says the Boston School approach is teaching him to look at things in a completely new and vibrant way; he's found that how he used to paint was static, a copy of what was before him, essentially a cliche. It was not authentic. He feels like he's started over, learning to see what is before him, exactly as it is.

David Rodman Johnson, a Massachusetts painter who studied in New Hampshire under Paul Ingbretson, another Gammell-trained teacher, explains the Boston School approach, which starts in the studio with plaster casts of figures.

"Doing the work in the studio with the casts is similar to the practice a piano student must do," says Johnson.

"You are learning the scale, learning the scale. All of that is monotonous, but you have to go through the preliminaries. It is the same with ballet. All of the positions, all the ways to move the body, over and over. It is the laying down of the foundation that, if it's not done, then this grand expression has no discipline, no direction. There is no decision-making."

In the tradition of the Boston School, artist-apprentices start with drawing casts for a year or a year and a half, then move on to black-and-white still-life drawings and do the same thing, over and over, and after that, there are still-life arrangements in black-and-white, then a monochrome painting and finally a full-color still-life. The process takes years.

"You paint that color still-life, you are in nirvana, believe me. You made it," says Johnson. "But of course, you still haven't even made it out of the studio to do a landscape."

"And none of this guarantees that you are going to make art," said Dunlay. "That depends on the spark you are born with."

"That inner spark has to be there," Johnson agrees. "If not, you become a copyist."

A cliche, in Robins' terms. A mannerist; someone who paints in the manner of another painter. There are plenty around. Wyeth and Homer copycats. It doesn't take a sophisticate to see it: the work doesn't look fresh. Technically competent, but lacking that essential soul.

"That can't be taught," says Dunlay.

"There used to be a lot of criticism of people who got this kind of training - you're too academic, too concerned with making things tight and realistic. But the contrary is really true. The training gives you the power to be expressive and do want you want to do."

"When you sit down to a canvas and start to paint, your ability to express what you see is based on technique. The ability to put it down truthfully is not a restraint. It's not some ironclad thing that is going to force you to make boring, monotonous, realistic-looking things. It gives you the power to unleash your creative sensitivity."

"It's a path," says Dunlay. "It's a pathway. It's an option."

On the dock down by the boathouse where the Benson children used to fish in a dory, the sky is clearing, the fog wisping away. Tom Pike and I look back towards the white farmhouse and orchard, the barn studio and Benson's fully functional tennis courts where the family used to play.

"This feels like a spiritual thing," says Pike, who has seen more than the average amount of great art.

Maine can feel that way all on its own. The Maine coast more so. The islands even more. A coast with its share of contradictions, not the least of which is that Benson captured a time and place that indicated a leisurely life that so few knew then and so few know now. But he captured something authentic: this place, hidden and timeless and right out in the open air, both cultivated and raw in its beauty. And this holy light.

And that was one period of his painting life. Benson moved on in the 1920s to a period of working on still-lifes, followed by a return to birds as a favorite subject and a long period of watercolors.

For my part, I don't feel reverent so much as lucky. There are no velvet ropes, no "don't touch" signs, and artistic descendants of Benson are scattered about, painting madly, channelling Frank, while I go and get a cup of tea and set it down on Benson's steamer trunk a few feet from where the artist himself painted "Rainy Day," a 1906 oil of one of his daughters curled up in a rattan chair, just there, reading a book by the fireplace in the front parlor at Wooster Farm.

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