Have Easel, Will Travel
Plein-air painting has gained popularity in the Brandywine Valley.
Two painters live across the way from Granogue, the grand country estate built in 1927 by Irenee du Pont and now the home of his son, Irénée Brip du Pont Jr. and wife Barbara. In several paintings by Jamie Wyeth, the main house—which has a rear patio overlooking formal gardens and copses of woods shading the Brandywine River—is captured in all its sprawling, multi-terraced glory.
Yet it’s the appearance of a black Cadillac—prominent in one painting and not so evident in another—that offers a glimpse of the inevitable personal story behind the art works. “There really are no rules in painting, but maybe to paint whatever appeals to you or what’s important to you,” Wyeth said in a phone interview before disclosing that the car once belonged to his close friend, the late George A. “Frolic” Weymouth.
Wyeth’s neighbor, Robert Stack, tends to paint simpler views of Granogue, but they too capture the otherworldly spirit of the estate.
For artists on a quest for the perfect vista, Granogue has a range of offerings, from a massive greenhouse resembling a display from a turn-of-the-century World’s Fair and a barn full of equipment and cats, to picturesque outbuildings, tenant houses, country roads, stone bridges and even a towering stone water tower.
In the late 1920s, the American painter and illustrator Maxfield Parrish completed a mural at Granogue. But the duPonts’ patronage did not stop there. On two occasions, including last fall, Granogue was one of several private estates open to participants in Plein Air Brandywine Valley, an annual fundraiser for Children’s Beach House in Delaware.
The number of plein-air events—perhaps the only competitive outdoor event one can do as an artist—has grown in recent years. These on-site painting competitions now attract thousands of participants to events across the country. Most typically last several days. Their popularity supports print and online magazines, as well as an annual conference.
Plein Air Brandywine Valley is one of the few competitions also open to photographers. Otherwise, the rules are fairly standard: Participants must finish a work within the allotted time frame and deliver it framed to a specific place, where volunteers look for a dated stamp indicating that it was the same work the artist began with. The amount of physical and mental stamina one needs to compete in a week-long event is likely to take the uninitiated by surprise.
The challenges of painting outdoors is perhaps best seen in the brand names of easels like “Guerrilla” and “French Resistance,” as well as a new type of artist who lives with a backpack at the ready, waiting for a free moment between jobs and family obligations to go out and paint.
Locally, nonprofit groups like the Chester County Art Association and the Chadds Ford Historical Society have built followings with their plein-air events. (The latter event is held every winter, so bring your fingerless gloves and cardboard to stand on.) Organizations like the Brandywine River Museum of Art and Mt. Cuba Center have hosted “paint outs,” a day when a juried event such as the Wayne Art Center’s highly competitive Plein Air Festival is open to amateur or noncompeting artists. These competitions have given many artists their start in painting. Heather Davis went to art school but spent years working as a contractor. She now paints structures instead of helping to build them. At Granogue, Davis chose to paint a hidden side door of the mansion, forgoing the grandeur in favor of capturing “someone’s home and private space.”
Other artists that day strived for the rust-and-decay appeal, easily found amid Granogue’s working farm buildings. Partly because of this, Granogue is a case study for carrying out the unwritten rule of plein air—that the beautiful or scenic doesn’t necessarily translate well into a painting.
“You can go to a beautiful spot and still wind up with a dead painting,” says Monique Sarkessian, who executed what she described as a “wild” view of Granogue’s barn, with Tootsie-roll-shaped hay bales. “You have to discover what you love, even if you are in a place you don’t know.”
Plein-air painters are natural problem solvers. They learn to work quickly with changing light patterns and adapt to overcast conditions. The lack of a strong light source means you look for stronger darks, says plein-air veteran Robert Bohne. “I don’t want it to be a visual cocktail,” he says of one work. “I’d rather have something subtle.”
For artists who tend to procrastinate, plein-air painting is a problem solved. “It forces you to paint. Whether you’re in the mood or not, you know that, once you’re outside, this is the day to work,” says Denise Vitolo of her time spent working on a pastel of a blazing-red maple tree at the gates of Oberod, another Plein Air Brandywine site.
There are factors that are difficult to control—glaring sun, drenching rain, bitter cold, biting insects, and moving subjects like animals. Curious humans also tend to interrup, but most plein-air painters don’t mind. “I’d rather have them look,” says Ray Hassard, a participant in Wayne’s Plein Air Festival. “I hate it when people just walk by and don’t even glance at my painting.”
If it rains during the competition, participants generally retreat to a shelter to complete their works. It may be a shop awning or a barn overhang, but most likely it’s a vehicle. It all still counts as plein air—in keeping with the French term “open (in full) air.”
Brandywine Valley painter Randall Graham, has grown so accustomed to rainy-day plein-air competitions that he’s developed a stylized genre that could be described as “rain drop” paintings—blurry scenes that appear to be captured behind the glass of a car window.
Selecting a painting area in unfamiliar territory—usually a given for out-of-town participants—is another task that needs to be done fairly quickly. Al Barker, an established plein-air and wildlife painter from New Jersey, brought more than 20 masonite panels to Wayne’s Plein Air Festival. “If a painting doesn’t work out …” he says, pausing to mimic the act of breaking a panel in two.
Back at Granogue on a picture-perfect day, there seemed to be not a hint of anxiety. Artists could be seen standing together in groups or stalking the estate grounds, much like equestrians walking a jumping course. Graham stationed himself at the end of a farm lane, foregoing a nearby springhouse to focus on Granogue’s classic bank barn. But by mid-day, the shadows were already creeping like fingers over the scene. “Today, I know I have to stay loose, and I can’t be that detailed or accurate,” Graham says.
On another part of the estate, Elise N. Phillips chose to paint the same barn from a distant, hilltop perspective, while Annette Alessi hitched a ride on one of the estate’s jeeps and walked a mile down through the underbrush to the Brandywine. Alessi wound up capturing the rustic image of cattle grazing in a field surrounded by a sagging wire fence.
Phillips was joined by three other artists who stood in a row, seemingly undistracted by comparisons in one another’s progress. Later that week, at the closing gala night, Phillips won the $2,000 first prize in the painting and drawing division and was congratulated by those same artists.
Perhaps it was the luck of the draw that created a vast number of great subjects at Granogue that day. Then again, the interpretive nature of painting, as Wyeth calls it, demands that an artist stay relaxed and not feel compelled to adhere to a make-it-or-break-it painting session.
Wyeth conceded that people tend to be fascinated with his gonzo tactics—he’s known for painting outdoors in a three-sided wooden bait box. But, in the end, it’s the unexpected that thrills him. “Half my career is built on accidents happening, ”Wyeth says, chuckling. “To me, plein air is plain accidents. I love it when they occur.”
Painting on the spot also serves Wyeth’s need to document—like the time he depicted the freight-car accident that occurred along a deep curve on the rail line running through his property. It amused him to no end that they contained DuPont chemicals, as he married into the du Pont family.
Another work, “New Year’s Calling,” brings to life a du Pont family tradition that dates to the early 1800s. It was Wyeth’s rendering of the aforementioned black Cadillac and a string of black cars making their way up a steep snowy drive that proved to be the source of unexpected confusion. Wyeth recalls that a Russian newspaper ran a front-page photo of the painting: “The caption said, ‘Painting by Jamie Wyeth of a prominent gangster family.'”