On Thursday morning, plein air artist Denise McDaniel was scoping out just the right setting for her work at Hagley Museum and Library.
Location is key, said McDaniel, a Columbus, New Jersey, resident who was part of 50 artists with the American Impressionist Society visiting Hagley and Winterthur Museum, Gardens and Library this week as part of their 24th Annual National Juried Exhibition.
The national exhibition, on display at Somerville Manning Gallery just up the road from Hagley, rotates through states including Colorado, Utah and New York.
Plein air painters are dedicated to painting directly from life, usually landscapes and nature scenes.
“Finding the right place to paint is actually one of the biggest parts of my art,” McDaniel said. “One of the reasons I love plein air is I love to work inside my subject. I will frequently walk around for hours and look at things from all different angles. I also take photographs and try to pick out the best composition.”
McDaniel and the other painters are free to choose their locations, but Hagley did help by sending out a map of the site of the property with potential scenic locations marked.
Katie Dobson Cundiff of Sarasota, Florida, said she was looking for strong contrast with light, shapes and color.
“That’s how I design my work, by the light and shadow shapes,” she waid. “I just walk around and look … Today is kind of an overcast day so the light is more even and there’s less light, but you can still find contrasting color.”
Both women had formal art lessons, Cundiff from her illustrator father and McDaniel because her mother wanted her to have a more interesting life that the average worman who then was relegated working as a teacher, secretary or nurse.
Cundiff said she grew up watching her father work and got interested in drawing at a young age and interested enough as a teen that her father was teaching her how to paint by the time she was 15.
She received a scholarship to Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota, and moved there from Chicago, earning her bachelor’s degree in 1971.
McDaniel said she loved making art from the time she was a child, receiving her first set of oil paints when she was 9 years old.
Her mother encouraged her because her mom thought it was a glamorous career that would make her daughter’s life special.
McDaniel graduated from Moore College of Art for Women in Philadelphia in 1983 with a degree in fashion illustration. Her first job was as a drafting illustrator for government electronics, drawing the insides of computers. She worked for 10 years.
She had what she describes as a bit of a “forced” retirement because illustration was being taken over by computer-generated imaging instead of free-hand drawing. After leaving work, she had children and focused on them for a while.
Sticking with paint
Both women, however, stuck with their art.
Cundiff never thought creating a painting in one day was difficult, partly because she watched her dad do it as part of his job.
“Breaking it down and simplifying it will help you,” she said. That experience leads to confidence and confidence is what painters need to paint quickly, she said.
She advises others interested in plein air to start with a big brush and break a landscape down to no more than five shapes.
“So you’re simplifying,” she said.
There’s often water, wind and sunshine to consider.
“You want to think about all that, like where the sun is going to go,” Cundiff said. “You basically only have maybe three hours maximum before the sun might change.”
McDaniel returned to fine art once her children were in school, joining the Willingboro Art Alliance and meeting with friends once a week to paint about three hours.
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“I didn’t think my art was really going anywhere, but just keeping my hand in it really helped me develop my skills,” she said.
When her son was in preschool, she became a docent at the Pennsylvania University Art Museum and has worked there the last 12 years. McDaniel is n ow on the executive committee as the special exhibitions coordinator.
She’s been putting more time into her art lately and has been happy with the opportunities she’s had.
McDaniel said she watched other women return to painting and become prominent artists and thought, “If they can do, I can do it.”
Betsy Price is a Wilmington freelance writer who has 40 years of experience, including 15 at The News Journal in Delaware.
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