Anyone traveling Door County’s roadways or visiting its picturesque beaches and parks this week has likely noticed an interesting addition to the landscape: droves of individuals donning wide-brimmed hats and sun ray-deflecting clothing, standing before canvases propped on easels and holding a palette dotted with oil paints.
These artists have taken to the peninsula’s gardens, waterfront parks and back roads to participate in the Door County Plein Air Festival, celebrating the tradition of painting “en plein air,” French for “open (in full) air.” The festival is hosted by the Peninsula School of Art and is considered the largest of its kind in the Midwest.
Though the opportunity to participate in this year’s festival has passed, there are many opportunities for people to try their hand at this exciting and challenging approach to painting. One such opportunity exists Aug. 4-6 on Washington Island when award-winning plein air and studio painter Doug Clarke hosts a workshop in conjunction with his Northern Exposure exhibit at the island’s Art and Nature Center.
Clarke is a Virginia Beach artist who successfully transitioned from a career in commercial art to fine art a decade ago. I recently caught up with Clarke ahead of his Washington Island show to talk about his local connection, becoming a plein air painter, and how he organizes his workshops. For more on Clarke, visit liquidmethod.com.
Alyssa Skiba (AS): What was it about plein air painting that captured your interest?
Doug Clarke (DC): I really enjoyed being outside. I liked the immediacy of it. I liked the challenge of trying to capture the moment before it’s gone and as light changes, as weather changes, even still being there your mind is still taking all these notes even if the clouds come or the rain comes, you have all these mental notes. You’re there, you can look at a tree or a road and go, OK, I remember how the shadows were falling or I remember the highlights off that mailbox. You’re still in that area, you’re still remembering that moment so I find it very, very fun.
AS: If you had to be painting in one condition – ice cold or blazing hot – which would you choose?
DC: I prefer heat to cold, growing up here in southeastern Virginia, we are known for oppressing humidity so I have to say, I can do well in heat. It’s the cold that really gets you because your fingers will start to freeze, if you don’t have good shoes then your toes start to freeze and you get the shakes, and that’s tough. You’re at a fine line, you’re not moving around and you have to take constant breaks and run in circles to warm up or do jumping jacks on the spot.
AS: Given these challenges, what motivates you to get outside and paint?
DC: Because there are some things that a camera can’t capture. You can throw a filter on it, there’s all kinds of apps that take your pictures and do things to it, but they’re done by a computer. It’s fun to put your mark on something and if I’m down on the oceanfront, I can draw a beach scene and an artist can come stand next to me and have something completely different. It’s the interpretation of what you see to try and capture a moment to show the viewer what you see or what you feel into that painting.
AS: You speak highly of the internet’s influence on art today.
DC: That’s really helped artists connect with collectors directly and people who love art or love painting, for that matter. It’s amazing just to go online and see artists that you’ve only seen in magazines and be able to follow them and see their work and their progress, or discover new artists from other countries like Ukraine or Russia or China or Vietnam. To see more than just your backyard, I think it’s certainly credible. I think we’re in a great time to see so much art. Within outdoor painting there’s just so many different approaches to it. It’s quite amazing, it’s quite interesting and everybody has their own take on it.
AS: Why do you enjoy painting on Washington Island?
DC: It has a lot of character. It reminds me of Northern Exposure, the TV show, about this town in Alaska and it started with a doctor, part of his residency to pay off his college was to go where you’re needed as a doctor so he was sent there to this remote town in Alaska and everybody’s got their own little quirks. It’s kind of how Washington Island is. It’s got its own character to it, a can-do spirit but it’s a very independent spirit as well. Everybody’s proud of being able to live there.
AS: What kind of painter did you design your workshop for?
DC: It’s really geared toward a beginner level. We’re going to start with small paintings, a limited palette so people don’t get in over their heads with too many colors and too big of a canvas to try to finish.
Doug Clarke’s plein air workshops will be held 8am to 3pm, Aug. 4-6, with a demo from 8 – 10am each morning. An opening reception for Clarke’s show will be held Aug. 7, 4:30 – 6pm. To register, call Laura at The Art and Nature Center (920.847.2025) between 10:30 am and 4:30 pm, or email [email protected].