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Beach Painting

beach plein air sunset beach cape may point

I had a few hours between jobs and wanted to paint but it was 80 degrees and sunny.

My wacky schedule has me juggling paint and down time. I’ve been dipping my toes into plein air situations, despite being fussy about painting scenarios. These recent open air paintings on paper have very little to do with what I’m doing – aside from opening potential to strike up conversations about purchasing work or raffle tickets.

To me, this plein air thing is more of a skill-building exercise than anything else. I don’t typically do these types of beachscapes, nor do I prefer to work quickly, or in public. I don’t like talking while painting. Heck, I don’t even like listening to music with lyrics at my easel. 

The pandemic has rearranged the economy at a strange time in my career. I’m reliving my college years by cobbling together two and three side jobs. It’s okay, it’s not like I can go dancing anyway.

I finished my second job while the sun was up one evening so I packed some pastels, mat board centers and a beach chair, and drove over to Cape May Point. I plopped my old blue chair in the rocky water and was planning to do some studies for the giant painting in progress taped to my wall. That didn’t quite go as planned. Adapting, I just worked around the tides and enjoyed the act of putting pastels on a surface in the sun. It was nice.

The next time I went back, I wore a bathing suit. This time I brought paints, an easel, and dinner. I didn’t love the resulting paintings but I did love the experience.

Without time to drive to a quiet beach between jobs, I went a step further and walked my butt down to the sandy part of my street yesterday. I brought water soluble oil paints that I haven’t used since my early college years, back when I lived at home. The smell of turpentine bothered my mom. These water soluble oil paints were much nicer to work with 18 years ago when they were new. Call me paranoid but lugging flammable liquids in a black bag to a hot beach for hours in the sun just felt unsafe in 2020.

The flies started biting while I was still mixing the half-dried, decades old water soluble oil paints. No beach chair, no wine in a mason jar, no salad dressing to spill, I laid out a towel and pulled out two bottles of water. Tabletop easels aren’t made for soft sand and my 20 year old plastic palette kit isn’t made for oils, but I threw in a piece of glass and made it work. Kind of.  Paint water labeled on the right, drinking water on the left, gessoed watercolor paper taped to my hardcover sketchbook, I propped up my easel, stretched out on my beach towel, and started sketching.

I was roughing in umbrellas when a lifeguard truck circled me. Up pulled an old friend I hadn’t seen in some time. I got to congratulate him on his big rowing win and he got to see me making a bad painting in public while being bitten by flies, covered in sand from the west wind.

Between visits by passersby, I worked the painting into something I could see maybe going somewhere. It was windy though. After a few hours, so much sand had blown onto my palette and painting that it was too hard to work out without thinner.

I packed up and thought about coming back down for a swim before work. I didn’t so much as stand up when the painting fell from the easel wet-side down into the sand.

Painting on the beach in Cape May was challenging. Painting on the Crest beach was more convenient but took the challenge factor up a few extra notches. 

I didn’t make it back down before work, where I showed up with sunburn and blue paint on the back of my thigh.


Oil on paper, dropped in beach sand while wet. 2020.

It’s still drying. Once it’s dry, I’ll get as much of the sand off the surface as possible. If that doesn’t go as I’m hoping, there is a major gimmick angle I’m not above taking. A light-hearted statement on gimmicks is kind of something I’ve been meaning to say for some time anyway, so if fates unfolds affirmatively, it’s as good a time, place, and piece as any. I’ll leave it sandy and it will take on that salty life.

There you have it. I should probably add these words to my statement. I use fate as a medium in my process, as a meaningful possibility.

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