Living in Rockport, Holly L. Smith doesn’t have to travel far to find inspiration for her Maine coastal landscapes. There’s the picturesque harbor itself, where she recently painted outdoors with other artists on an unusually warm late fall afternoon, and the Penobscot Bay islands, which are easily accessible by ferry from nearby Rockland. “I love going out to the islands,” she says. “When I paint plein air out on Eagle Island or Vinalhaven, I’m always scanning to see if there’s something that catches my eye, something that’s different or the light is just right at the moment, and I end up saying, ‘There’s a painting.’ Smith calls these plein air-painting sessions her “gathering.” Most of the resulting work becomes a reference for larger paintings she creates in her studio. “The thing about plein air: You see the colors for what they really are—versus a photograph—and your brush strokes are more deliberate and sometimes ring truer than when you’re in the studio,” she says.
Photography does come into play as Smith—who taught art and photography in the local schools for 31 years—works on composition. “I do some sketching in my sketchbook and plan out to a point, and from there I use my computer to edit images that I take from plein air painting,” she says. “I will play with the images to figure out what part I want to focus on.” Photographs also help her “figure out placement of shape and form,” she continues. “I block in the larger areas first, figuring out how the eye is going to flow through the piece, color value, and how far I want to go with detail, and then off I go.”
She often works on as many as five canvases at a time, and while she doesn’t stick to a strict schedule, she spends time in her studio almost every day. “I’ll feel like I’m inspired by one particular painting and I’ll work on it with a fury, and I’ll get to a certain point, then the energy just drops, so I’ll realize I just have to let it rest, and I’ll start working on another canvas,” Smith says. “Some people will say to me, ‘My goodness you paint fast,’ because they all finish at about the same time, when really it’s a process of a couple of months.”
Smith still teaches an adult education watercolor painting class, which she loves, and is herself a perpetual student, always up for a challenge. She prefers to paint in oil, but has explored acrylics and studied gouache painting with celebrated Charleston, South Carolina artist and author Larry Moore. During the pandemic, she attended workshops in abstraction, and while she doesn’t expect to move fully in that direction, she found the practice enlightening. “What I’ve learned is that abstraction is everywhere in nature,” Smith says. “So when I get going with my sparkly water or a close up of rocks, I’m trying to be bolder with brushstrokes and simplify a little bit, and the abstraction piece is helping me. I think that’s part of learning, you push yourself into that zone where it’s unfamiliar, and something comes out of it that you want to pursue. So I’m going to continue with that and see where it goes.”
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