Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Seeing Big in Perkins Cove

Charles H. Woodbury used to tell the students in his Ogunquit, Maine Art of Seeing class to "paint big and fast outside" not because drawing doesn't matter (it does) but to help them capture their initial felt impressions of nature first. 

I love the runaway red in this painting, one of Woodbury's more Modernist-influenced works.

At 17, while an engineering undergrad at MIT, Woodbury became the youngest artist ever elected to the prestigious Boston Art Club. Critics recognized in his first solo show (which sold out - he was 18) the hallmarks of his life's work: a sensuous love of paint, a sharp observational eye, a sense of air and light, and, above all, a feeling for the world of "things" as the interaction of forces and resistance in motion. 

Cliffs at Ogunquit

Even though he'd decided he wasn't going to become an engineer (he was already supporting himself by teaching and selling his art), Woodbury was determined to finish MIT for the sheer challenge of doing so. He fell in love with one of his art students, a southern Mainer by the name of Susan (Marcia) Oakes. He stumbled on Ogunquit while visiting "Miss Oakes," and after they married he built a studio and a house for them and set up shop. In 1898 he established his summer art school, which he operated for the next 40 years under the banner of "The Art of Seeing." 

He was one of the earliest painters to teach what has become a core tenet of contemporary plain-air painting: active seeing, or "seeing like an artist," as it's often phrased.

Woodbury's view from his studio, a painting he titled "Phlox." Though thoroughly Impressionistic in influence, it illustrates Woodbury's sense of things as forces in motion. "Paint in verbs not in nouns," he told students.

Woodbury constructed a painting very quickly out of four or five flatly painted "color values" that corresponded to his spontaneous reaction to nature. "Be deliberate," he advised. "Size up the whole day and conditions.... Then paint as though you had been sent for. You cannot afford to lose a second anywhere – not a second." After that, his procedure was to take the painting to completion with only as much detail as he felt he could add before it began to take away from the "great things" that were there at the start.

Woodbury was more practical than visionary; he chose traditional representation at a time when abstract art was breaking the new ground. He didn't ignore Modernism completely, he just took bits and pieces of it here and there as it suited his purpose. 

There's a good bit of Modernist abstraction in the muscular contortions of these Ogunquit cliffs.

Much of his work combines "Impressionism, oriental compositional motifs, and the sensuous lines and jewel-like colors of the Art Nouveau," as art historian Erica E. Hirschler correctly nailed it.

But his greatest influence came through his teaching. Before Woodbury's death in 1940, some 4,000 painters passed through his "Art of Seeing" summer program. The "colony"that sprang up around the school also drew important artists, including Edward Hopper, Robert Henri, Hamilton Easter Field, Robert Laurent, Marsden Hartley, George Bellows, and Walt Kuhn.

The "sensuous lines and jewel-like colors of the Art Nouveau."

“A picture is a thought or feeling expressed in terms of Nature," he wrote. "The method is a matter of the moment….Clear sight, clear thought, clear expression; the thought should depend on the sight, and the expression on the thought....Realism is not based on the way things are, but upon things as you see and feel them. Realism is after all only what you think the thing may be.”

What I like about Woodbury is his rejection of painting as simple imitation in favor of an expressive perceptual approach. He's rooted as much in love for the medium as in the desire to see clearly with the heightened perception of the fully present eye and mind. 

Often eliminating foreground cues, Woodbury originated a convention in marine painting in which the viewer is suspended in mid air above the waves.

Woodbury's "Thunderstorm." Before 1940, landscape painting didn't get much more direct and gestural than this.

For my students and other folks nearby: Through a series of presentations and painting workshops, I hope to help share Woodbury's work and his approach to getting "the big things" in nature with a new audience. I want to see if, by "seeing big," we can capture spontaneity and originality in paintings that work. 

I'll be giving a free presentation on Woodbury and his teaching philosophy at the Beth Ellis Cove Gallery in Perkins Cove (within sight of Woodbury's original 1898 studio) this Sunday, April 14, at 2 p.m. You can download a preview of the presentation from my website: http://christophervolpe.com/exhibitions-galleries/

The presentation came about because of a one-day workshop I'm conducting in Ogunquit on the 19th in which we'll take inspiration from Woodbury's approach to seeing and painting. There's still space for a few more - let me know if you're interested in joining us.

In the planning is a week-long course in Woodury's "Art of Seeing" that I'll offer jointly with painter Todd Bonita through the Beth Ellis Cove gallery in September.

Ogunquit headlands.


  1. His paintings of waves are really striking! Thanks for this.

  2. Philip, Woodbury did many paintings of waves- during his lifetime many considered him the country's foremost marine painter after Winslow Homer! His 1894 "Mid-Ocean" was hailed as a masterwork, and it is. I can't find a picture of it on the Web so I'll put on up here in a follow-up post soon.

  3. Incredible - so dynamic. I love those dark cliffs. Beautiful work.

    1. Me too Katherine. He seems to have channeled some "darker forces" in those cliffs