Tonawanda News

July 21, 2013

Chasing light, catching shadows

Plein air artists work on scenes from Tonawandas in first Canal Fest Paint-Out

By Jill Keppeler
The Tonawanda News

— — There are life lessons in plein air painting:

It's all about location. Life keeps moving. Travel light. Embrace imperfection. Roll with the punches (and the weather).

And sometimes, you just have to watch and hope it all doesn't go in the water.

Local artists braved the heat and easel-endangering gusty breezes Friday to take part in the first Canal Fest Paint Out, sponsored by the Carnegie Art Center in North Tonawanda. The Carnegie's building on Goundry Street served as a home base of sorts for artists, providing parking, a bathroom and a place to sit down while they scouted out painting locations throughout the area.

Plein air art is work created "in open air," and the location of the Carnegie Center gives artists many subject choices within walking distance, said Cindi O’Mara, Carnegie board member and chair of exhibitions.

"This neighborhood is so beautiful, and the Canal Fest gives us more options," she said. "We just thought it would be a good way to link ourselves more with Canal Fest and the city. Being close to the canal, I thought it would be perfect."

For her subject Friday, Jean MacDonald of Grand Island choose the DeGraff Mansion at Payne Avenue and Goundry Street, settling in on Payne Avenue to sketch a segment of the 1880s brick home with all its intricate detail.

MacDonald, a member of the Niagara Frontier Plein Air Painters, studied the house for several minutes before starting to sketch. A big part of plein air painting, she said, is just finding the right spot.

"In a couple of hours, all this is going to be in the shade," she said. "That's another thing plein air painters deal with. Everything is moving."

On Friday, MacDonald worked with pen and ink on a sheet of paper, planning to add in touches of watercolor later. Once working, she said, she starts to notice even more detail and angle and light.

"The intricacies are what attract you in the first place, but once you start to draw them, then you realize how much more there is than what you saw in the first place," she said. "Everything today is so instantaneous. When you sit there and draw something, you see so much more. And years later, when you look back at it, you remember so much more. Because you took the time to sit and study and paint it.

"You don't want a photographic reproduction. You want something that shows the character of what you're drawing. We always say, 'If you want it to be perfect, take a picture.' "

On the other side of the canal, right under the Tonawandas Gateway Harbor sign in the City of Tonawanda, Stephen Caruana of Snyder set up his oil paints and easel to capture a segment of the Canal Fest midway on canvas.

"I'm trying to get the sense of what Canal Fest is all about," he said. "This is one of my favorite times of the year."

Caruana, who has been painting for more than 30 years and also does wood-carving demonstrations at the Herschell Carrousel Factory Museum, worked in the bright colors and the shapes of the midway — concessions for chocolate-nut sundaes and pizza and other festival food, tents, the "Freak Out" ride (then quiescent) in the background and flags flapping in the wind.

He started by just getting the lights and darks down on the canvas, he said, painting in more as the painting progressed.

"Now, I'm going to detail," he said, as passers-by stopped to watch, "describing the mood of Canal Fest."

Caruana had to catch his supplies and easel several times as the wind whipped around his little corner of the festival. Over on the other side of the canal again, artist Kath Schifano was also fighting the elements, steadying her easel and the canvas — attached by bungee-cord — on which she was working.

Many plein air artists, she said, have seen a painting go flipping down the street after the elements snatch it away.

"You just watch it and hope it doesn't go in the water," she said. "Any plein air painting will often have bugs and pieces of grass in it."

Schifano, who has a studio and gallery at her home on Grand Island, is also a member of Niagara Frontier Plein Air Painters. Attracted by the red flowers in front of the building Friday, she set up her easel by the canal in North Tonawanda, where she worked on a painting of the Remington Tavern.

"I love this spot. I keep coming here," she said. "There's always something to paint. But today my priority was to be in the shade."

Echoing MacDonald, Schifano noted the importance of capturing the light and shadow in a painting of this sort, in which time is of the essence and artists must work quickly.

"When you paint en plein air, you have to catch the shadows," she said. "You have to take mental notes of where the shadows are and drop them in really fast — and then don't change them. Or you'll have morning and afternoon in the same painting."

While the paint-out itself is over for this year, the art produced Friday will be shown in a Canal Fest Wet Paint Display from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday at the Riviera Theatre, 67 Webster St., North Tonawanda.

Mary Simpson, director of the Carnegie Art Center, said the center's arts & crafts show information booth will also be at the Riviera this year for both days of the show.

"Before we were under a little white tent," she said. "Now we're under a really big marquee."