Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Art of Seeing in Ogunquit, Maine

Tidal Rocks, Ogunquit
Nine students joined me for a fabulous day of painting, history, and self-exploration at my April 19 plein-air workshop last week in Maine.

We met at a coffee shop in Perkins Cove to set the tone for the day - we would use 20th century Maine seascape painter Charles Woodbury's theories on the "Art of Seeing" as a way of opening our work to greater feeling. If you wish, you can download a copy of our handout of Woodbury quotes from my website's workshops page.

Flyer for Woodbury's
Art of Seeing classes
Charles Herbert Woodbury (1864-1940) made our workshop location a famous plein-air painting spot during the first half of the 20th century. From his cliff-face studio, which has been carefully preserved and restored, Woodbury taught literally thousands of painters what was then a radical idea: don't paint it the way it looks, paint it the way it "seems." He was perhaps the first teacher to formalize a practical method of emphasizing feeling over academic skills in plain-air painting. 

As Woodbury had his students do, I demonstrated a method for painting very quickly out-of-doors: take stock of the visual field as whole, and don't just look at but feel the value-relationships you see, especially at the edges of the big things - land, sea, and sky. 

Then quickly fill your canvas with four or five flat color-values, fitting them together like a puzzle. The key was not trying to imitate this or that actual color in nature, but to relate color-values to each other on the canvas according to to our initial, spontaneous reactions to nature. 

Accomplishing that, the rest is technique - one may make the painting as detailed as one might wish, but the general rule is to only add as much detail as is necessary before it begins to detract from the big simple "great things" seen and noted at the outset.

After lunch (lobster rolls for some of us, simpler, less tentacled fare for others), everyone scouted out their own motifs and once more applied the "Woodbury method." As one of the students remarked, every single one of those paintings had it - that elusive thing without which even the most technically accomplished paintings stand or fall: real seeing and feeling.

Discussions with the Beth Ellis Gallery in Perkins Cove are continuing, with plans for a week-long "Art of Seeing" workshop in partnership with the gallery in September. Stay tuned for dates and shoot me an email if you'd like to reserve a space.


  1. Christopher, congratulations to you and the group of those with you for such a meaning center of focus. Just one quick question, the painting at the top of this post, "Tidal Rocks, Ogunquit," I'm assuming this is by Woodbury, is this correct?

  2. Or, Christopher, is the above painting one of yours' ?! Thanks.

  3. Thanks folks- I painted those rocks after we disbanded that day about an hour and a half later, with dusk coming on.

  4. This is one of the more "poetic & true" paintings that I have seen in a long time. The harmony of values and your "touch" are a delight to the eye. Congratulations on the development of your talent. You have taken Woodbury beyond "Woodbury" . . .

  5. Gorgeous painting, and looks like a wonderful workshop.

  6. Your two workshops were so much fun, Chris! I have a newfound interest in Charles Woodbury and painting outdoors again! Looking forward to taking more of your workshops this year!