ELKTON — For landscape artist Geraldine McKeown, the great outdoors is her studio.
“As a young person, I lived in the country and I would go out in the field sketching and painting,” she said. “I just found that it was a natural thing for a landscape artist to want to be out painting from your real subjects.”
McKeown organized a painting series last June with Patti Paulus, one of the co-owners of The Palette & The Page, in which artists could travel to different scenic locations around Cecil County and practice “en plein air” painting, a French term for painting outside.
“We just felt like it was a way to get artists out and discovering the beautiful things that are available to paint in Cecil County and it grew from that,” McKeown said.
The Palette & The Page will now showcase some of the products of that series with their First Friday show from 5 to 8 p.m. Friday, June 7, at the gallery on Elkton’s Main Street.
The show will include artworks by Mary Clark Confalone, Larry Cordeiro, Liz Griesser, Carol Mangano, Charlotte Mehosky, Lisa Prinzo, Susan Styer, Marie Wolfington-Jones and McKeown herself. The event will also feature local author Robert F. Lackey, who will be signing copies of the recently released sixth book in his Pulaski Family series, and musician Tom Christiansen.
The Cecil County Arts Council will also hold a First Friday opening reception for their Annual Members Show and a solo exhibition by Elkton Police Department Capt. Joseph Zurolo, titled “Spirit of Aloha.”
Music on Main, which was traditionally held on Thursdays, will now be held rom 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. every Friday evening from June 7 to Sept. 13, according to the Elkton Chamber & Alliance.
Cordeiro, who participated in the yearlong “en plein air” series, found an interest in outdoor painting three years ago when he started taking classes from McKeown. He said he decided to take part in the outdoor painting series to expand his horizons as an artist.
“I guess the real attraction was learning and trying to become a better painter,” he said. “It’s quite challenging to paint outside instead of in a studio. You have to have a mobile studio, basically pare everything down to what you can carry. Sometimes you’re hiking quite a distance.”
But Cordeiro began his artistic journey long before McKeown’s instruction.
While he was a student at the Brown Technical High School in Wilmington, Del., Cordeiro studied commercial art.
After he graduated high school in the 1960s, Cordeiro was drafted into the military and joined the U.S. Air Force where he continued to draw and paint.
His primary function was as a weapons mechanic, and he worked on aircraft during his first tour. Then in his second tour, Cordeiro was cross trained as an illustrator.
“The pilots had flight books that had patterns, so we prepared graphics for those,” he said. “I also prepared artwork for briefings. I did some paintings, but primarily it was work as a graphic artist.”
When he left the Air Force, Cordeiro returned to Delaware and earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts at the University of Delaware.
Though he wasn’t a watercolorist until he started painting with McKeown, Cordeiro discovered his passion for the medium under her instruction.
Working with watercolor presents some unique challenges as the medium tends to have a mind of its own, according to Cordeiro.
“Some people say that painting with oil and acrylic and some of the other mediums is like training your dog,” he said. “Painting with watercolor is like training your cat — they don’t always cooperate.”
Unlike other mediums that can be played with and changed throughout the process of crafting an artwork, Cordeiro said artists working with watercolor must map out what they want to create before they set brush to canvas.
“Watercolor paints itself,” he said. “You have one chance and one chance only. Once the paint is down, you can’t back up, you can’t cover it up. You can sometimes build up paint by using very light washes. But you have to pretty much have a plan of what you want that painting to look like in the end, understand your materials, and work quickly.”
Similarly to working with watercolor, Cordeiro said artists working outdoors must also carefully plan ahead to deal with weather and other nature-related challenges.
“Painting in watercolor, you’re really subject to the weather and conditions,” he said. “When it’s bright and sunny, sometimes your paint dries a lot faster than you anticipate. If it’s hot and humid, sometimes it dries too slow. If it’s freezing cold, then there’s another element there because I’m dealing with water and paint.”
Over the wintertime, Cordeiro tried to limit his time outdoors to two hours or less — a constraint which required him to either work quickly or work on the piece another time.
“Two hours, when it’s close to freezing, is a long time to be outside,” he said.
During the past year’s outdoor painting series, McKeown said the artists had to contend with several bad weather events, including a couple painting days that had to be postponed due to hurricanes, and one day with near freezing temperatures where only three artists showed up.
Even when the weather itself is nice, McKeown said artists still have to deal with changing lighting as the sun rises and falls.
“If you picture the sun moving across the sky, you can really only paint up to about two hours and the position of the sun has changed so much that the shadows and everything has changed.”
Despite the constraints of working outdoors, McKeown said she much prefers painting in the natural element rather than trying to recreate a landscape from a photograph.
“When you do work from life, you begin to realize that there’s a lot missing when you work from photographs only,” she said. “Colors are not necessarily true and details are lost and some areas become too dark [in photos]. You actually lose a lot of detail.”
McKeown said outdoor artists have to take notes of their environment to inform their work after they have left that location, and learn to adapt to changes.
For example, McKeown creates a pencil study to capture what the lighting looked like in a particular moment. Then, she can work off of that study even after the lighting around her has changed.
“I record the basic lights and darks pattern, and then you stay by that. As the light changes, you still have your little study and that helps you … Usually within two hours you either have to stop there, or you can start another painting somewhere else where the light is different, or you can return if you find another day when the lighting and weather close to identical.”
McKeown also takes notes on aspects such as the direction and force of the wind that was blowing the grass around her, the fragrance of honeysuckle that was in the air, or the sounds of birds chirping nearby. In doing so, she said working on a landscape painting while in the environment she is capturing helps her become more in tune with the world around her.
“It can be a very simple thing, but just the way you happen to see the light hitting a tree and the colors around it, you might see something that people don’t see,” she said. “For people who are non-artists, it’s just learning to see through the eyes of an artist.”
McKeown likened outdoor painting to a form of meditation.
“I think it’s the closest thing to being in a meditative state,” she said. “You’re only aware of what’s happening right around you. People could call out to you or speak to you and you wouldn’t necessarily even hear them, because you’re so into your own place and you’re just so aware of what you’re focusing on.”
Over the course of the “en plein air” series, McKeown said her favorite places to paint have been Fair Hill and Chesapeake City.
“I like going to Fair Hill,” she said. “There’s so much to choose from. It’s over 5,000 acres and there’s some places with buildings, you have streams, woods. There’s so much variety. That would be my favorite in a landscape. Chesapeake City is nice if you like buildings and being on the water.”
Like McKeown, Cordeiro also enjoyed painting at Fair Hill.
“It’s a lot quieter, I get fewer interruptions and I enjoy being outside,” he said.
Cordeiro said he prefers environments that provide him a little more solitude while he works.
“When you’re trying to think through a process, you really have to work quickly,” he said. “The light changes, clouds come over. Sometimes people, not intentionally, want to know the process and talk to you while you’re trying to create art. It’s difficult, so solitude is better for me.”
With nine artists in The Palette & The Page’s show, McKeown said attendees will be able to see a range of pieces.
“Every artist has their own style,” she said. “Even though we may paint similar subjects, each artist will have their own style, their own way of seeing and their own way of painting.”
Cordeiro is looking forward to interacting with people who attend the show and answering questions about his work.
“As the artist, I get the most out of it if someone is interested in the art and wants to understand the process or just talk about the piece in general,” he said.
For artists looking to start making art outdoors, Cordeiro has one piece of advice: don’t be too hard on yourself.
“Probably the No. 1 advice is don’t be so critical, especially if you’re already an artist and you’re afraid to go out and paint,” he said. “Don’t be critical of the change.”
To be successful, Cordeiro said artists have to accept that they’re going to fail along the way.
“You have to expect, at least for myself, you’re going to have failures,” he said. “But you learn from that, develop a technique and continue on. It’s a lot of fun, especially if there are other artists there and you have somebody to talk to. I think you have to be prepared to change everything you know about painting.”