Painting the Town

For the third year, 'plein air' artists are putting Annapolis in the best possible light.

September 25, 2004|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,SUN STAFF

Consider the scene of downtown Annapolis: a blue September sky, a smattering of sailboats and summer flowers, crisp bright flags, narrow streets winding back into Maryland history. Look closer, you'll also see 25 artists. Like hummingbirds collecting nectar, these professionals have scattered through the town to gather what they can of the light, the mood and the essence of this particular day.

The artists are part of Paint Annapolis 2004, a celebration of the "plein air," seize-the-light landscape painting that distinguished the Impressionists from preceding generations of artists who worked inside. Since Thursday, these painters have been creating marine and urban landscapes of their choice to be exhibited, and judged, tomorrow at the Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts.

They've also been providing free art lessons. While they chat with curious passers-by, the artists talk about the many ways they select their subjects as well as share a variety of work techniques.

Whenever Bill Schmidt starts to paint, for instance, he knows exactly where he's going.

Trained as a chemical engineer, the 72-year-old Rockville artist worked in nuclear power, ran his own company, then left his business 20 years ago for the romance of painting sky and land and water.

But he also brought along his desire for organization, his inclination to always look to the future and his need to have an alternative plan.

Since 1988, he has filled notebooks - 33 of them - with pencil sketches of landscapes he considers ripe for painting. Each is catalogued by location, date and, perhaps most important, the best time for the light.

Amiable, distinctive with his paint-flecked fisherman's hat, Schmidt has been holding court at the dock, where he is painting a marine scene, and in the shade of Market House, where he is creating an urban landscape. On the first day of Paint Annapolis, he arrived eager to depict a scene he sketched on April 21. When two food delivery trucks blocked his view, however, he merely returned to his notebook and proceeded to Plan B: A quaint street curving uphill past shops and rowhouses, a composition offering much in the way of mood and color.

Meanwhile, down at the dock, Sharon Littig was squinting into the sun. She wore a black shirt so that the light wouldn't reflect off her clothing onto the painting. As she talked - "Isn't it nifty how you can take a little piece of colored grease and make it something?" - she magically re-created a floating dinghy, painting on even while the wind was turning the boat.

But that, after all, is the challenge of this "plein air" genre of painting: The point is to capture the flavor of life on the move.

Littig, 37, graduated from the Maryland Institute College of Art and teaches art at South River High School in Edgewater. She considers her approach to painting fairly spontaneous.

"I just show up and go for it," she says. "I'm more of a spur-of-the-moment risk-taker."

While Schmidt uses a viewfinder, he carefully constructed and labeled with his return address, Littig works from the horizontal view she forms with her fingers.

While Schmidt will let a painting steep in his studio for a couple of weeks before completing it, Littig rarely touches a canvas after she has finished working on site.

Schmidt sketches out his subject in charcoal, then outlines the scene in paint thinned with mineral spirits. Littig does a rough drawing, then begins to apply the paint.

But both artists are chasing the same elusive spirit: The nature of the light.

"The actual subject matter isn't actually what one of these paintings is about," Littig says. "We're really kind of obsessed with the light and the object is the vehicle for painting the light.

"Most people identify with the object, but they'll feel the emotion of the light. Although they talk about the subject matter, it's really the light that draws them in."

"If you've got the right light, you can do anything with it," Schmidt says. "A couple of garbage cans in an alley way can look great in the right kind of light."

Sometimes the artist will sit on his collapsible stool for an hour or so, waiting until the light catches up with his painting, until it strikes the right note. He's particularly fond of the warm glow of late afternoon, a time that calls for more oranges and yellows than the paler light of morning.

He says he generally avoids painting between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. - "when the sun swings 90 degrees in the sky" - and may paint steadily from 3 p.m. to 5:30 p.m.

"By that time, quite frankly, your eye runs out of gas. At least mine does," he says.

There are often moments of rejuvenation along the way. As Schmidt worked on his Plan B street scene, he was unexpectedly delighted by a purple building with white letters that spelled "Pianos" running down the side.

Just as suddenly, Littig marveled at a duck that flew onto the dinghy she was painting: "Oh, that's perfect! This is a lucky thing, it's awesome!"

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