Walk for maybe ten minutes from my aunt’s front door, across the academy yards, past the post office, past the Congregational Church (with a wave down the lane to the Unitarians), past the town hall and bandstand, and make a quick right turn into Me & Ollie’s for a coffee-to-go (resisting, if you possibly can, the small snack packages of crack-like addictive granola), cross Water Street, walk past the couple of dozen pretty little shops with flowers in their windows, cut down through an urban canyon of red brick, and find yourself, coffee in hand, at the Exeter River. Here you’ll find a little paved path, dotted with occasional park benches and lovely shade trees, coursing along the waterway.
It was from one of these inviting seats that I decided to create my first New England plein air oil painting. I wanted a seat in the shade, so as to minimize glare on my painting and palette (glare, as you might imagine, makes it much harder to see what I’m doing), and found one near the town-end of the river. My gaze took me across the river to the far bank, where, under a tall dark stand of pine trees sits all alone a little square brick one-story building, with an American flag out front.
I remember the first time I really noticed that little building. It was 1976 (I was 12) when my grandmother and I were driving along the Swasey Parkway and she pointed it out to me across the river. A group of women were teaming up that year to sew a Bicentennial quilt for the town of Exeter, with fabric squares of historic scenes from around town, and my grandmother’s square was to be of that little house. “That is the Powder House and was built in 1771 to store gunpowder, which is very explosive. It’s out there all by itself so that, if the gunpowder blew up, no one would be hurt.” Since that day I’ve always thought of the Powder House as belonging to my grandmother and me.
This early morning though, the Powder House was barely discernible against the shaded forest, though toward the end of my painting session, the flag was just catching the light. The hardest challenge of the morning was getting the shade of the distance trees right — not too dark and not too light. Also not too bright, as more distant colors tend to fade, though here the difference in contrast between the foliage of the mid-ground to that of the background was hardly contrasted at all. Also I needed to get used to these water-mixable oil paints, as they are slicker in texture than regular oil paints, and therefore handle a little differently.
The other big challenge was painting that flag pole. I had not brought a fine detail brush with me, and so attempted to capture that white line with the flat edge of one of my regular brushes — which is a bit like trying to do fine embroidery with a toothpick. Amazed to have pulled it off as well as I did! I find it’s this tiny detail that adds charm and interest to an otherwise rather boring painting.
Later that afternoon found me an hour north of the Exeter River and just a few yards from the shore of Lake Wentworth, in the shadow of my aunt’s summer house. I don’t know when the house was built, but she’s had it since the 1950s, and has kept it more or less the same these 60 some years. Yes, it has wifi, but blessedly no television (If you want to keep track of the Red Sox, you need to tune in to the radio). During my brief visits to The Lake, my primary occupations are, in no particular order of importance: swimming, reading, jigsaw puzzles, card games, conversation, naps, walks, knitting, kayaking, letter-writing, eating, sipping, and — most recently — painting.
And so my first painting at The Lake was of my aunt’s tool shed — mainly because, when I found a seat in the shade, the tool shed sat right in front of me. Though the day had been quite temperate, about the time I sat down to paint, the wind shifted and plunked down a stiffing mass of heat and humidity. Eventually it would shift again as I was painting, and bring with it a lovely cooling breeze and, eventually, a few rain drops.
What really drew me to this unusual view though was the light shining through the windows of the tool shed, and spilling onto the floor and work bench.
Of the seven paintings I created on my New Hampshire sojourn, THIS is the one my aunt (87!) chose to keep for herself (for I let her pick one — a small token of my deep appreciation for her letting me invade her lake sanctuary). In selecting it, she said, “I like this one, for I’m particularly proud of my tools!” As another woman who is also proud of her tools, I can relate!
Links to Dawn Chandler’s posts about her New Hampshire plein air painting trip below
Thank you for reading