As I drove from the Savannah airport up to Beaufort, South Carolina, my first impression of the Low Country was that though it's coastal, it is the opposite of Midcoast Maine. The tidal marshes spread out beyond the horizon. Live oaks, cabbage palm, and slash pine are native to the semi-tropical landscape, whereas here in Lincolnville, we approach the boreal regions of the near north, and are more familiar with red oak, white pine and ash. The history of farming and its place in each landscape also differs dramatically. So while I was painting and drawing, I thought a lot about sustainability and creativity.
In his essay "The Thought of Limits in a Prodigal Age," Wendell Berry writes. "The good care of land and people, on the contrary, depends primarily upon arts, ways of making and doing. One cannot be, above all, a good neighbor without such ways. And the arts, all of them, are limited. Apart from limits they cannot exist. The making of any good work of art depends, first, upon limits of purpose and attention, and then upon limits specific to the kind of art and its means."
That hits home. The idea that a good painting depends on limits is something of a challenge to me, because I recognize that a good landscape painting evokes worlds. But as an artist, I'm better served by focusing on the one thing about a place or painting that I need to understand. In Beaufort, I eventually narrowed the impossible range of possible subject matter to the one tree that offered me the greatest opportunity for exploration.
While the moon was full, I got up early to watch the tide reach peak levels. The marsh grasses nearly disappeared. Conversely, at low tide, with the muddy bottom revealed, I listened to the pops and bubbles of shrimp conversations. I much prefer to work outside where all these events are present to the senses, but even from inside on rainy days, the views were stunning.
My materials are minimal - sketchbook, watercolor paper, pencils, paintbox and brushes. Limiting the materials encourages me to limit the subject matter. In the end, once I felt I'd understood the rise and fall of the tides, and the light on the water, I turned my attention to the complexities of live oak branches. Live oak branches grow alternately, and in all directions, often dipping toward the ground before heading up and out.
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