Participating in his first Whidbey Island Working Artists Summer Open Studio Tour this year is Brian Mahieu, Whidbey Island Arts Council board member, and a professional plein air landscape painter of thirty years. We asked him to describe his process and provide some insights into his working methods. Below is his response:
I have wanted to live in the Pacific Northwest since I was a fourteen year old kid trapped in rural Missouri. My best friend’s mother told me about the Olympic Peninsula, the rain forest, the wild oceans, moss, ferns, and cool rainy weather and I fixated. It took me thirty eight years to get here. My husband (Tom Harris, photographer) and I came to stay on Whidbey Island when we came out to get married in 2013. Visiting Ebey’s Landing was the highlight of our stay on Whidbey, the natural beauty transported us and I exclaimed: “Everywhere I look is a painting!”
We moved here in July of 2016 and then bought a home in January of this year. It took some time to get settled and to assimilate and to integrate this new land, sky and sea-scape into my consciousness. The light and palette of color here is entirely different than the Midwest. The first thirty years of my career as an artist were spent painting, mostly, twilight paintings of the Missouri River Valley. Due to the sweltering heat and humidity there, twilight offered a respite and richer colors than the bleached and flattened colors of midday. Painting dusk has been my specialty for three decades. My first nocturne completed in 1985 was a gouache painting of a moonrise, now in the collection of The State Historical Society of Missouri. It was signed with date and time of completion, a practice I still employ today. I paint outside, year round often until a half hour after sunset. Snow scenes have always been my favorite motif, though I will have to travel to the mountains to paint those now.
I am deeply attracted to the opalescent quality of the winter skies, and do not perceive them as “gray” but as iridescent shades of myriad colors, like the opalescence of an oystershell. In the ‘90s my work was very high chroma with vivid and saturated colors. For the last ten years or so it has been much more in line with the tenets of American Tonalism where one color dominates the palette of a composition and the color is subdued and imbued with a quiet harmony. Even if the palette is more saturated there is still a dominant hue and overall sense of the color of the day.
The practice of painting in series has been a hallmark of my work from the beginning. I like to return to the same spot day after day, season after season and year after year to truly delve into its essence and understand how it changes with the seasons, times of day and even by the minute. I am a rabid purist with respect to painting directly from nature rather than from photographs—that is nature-once-removed. My work is created on- site in the tradition of painting en plein air as the Impressionists did. Though many of them reworked their paintings in the studio I refuse to do that. My late college professor Sid Larson (a friend and assistant to Thomas Hart Benton) used to tell me “If you go back into one of those paintings your butt isn’t going to fall off!” But I wouldn’t do it then and I don’t do it now. My work is anti-photographic in the sense that first and foremost it is an aesthetic record of a time and place, and an emotional record of what my five senses were experiencing at that time—it is not merely a picture of something. My studio is a place to prepare to go out painting and to clean up afterwards, with a display wall to serve as a gallery. I love to show visitors my palettes, paints and brushes, the insects and bits of grass stuck in my paintings and to explain my process. For me, the studio is a place to discover what I did in the field when I was immersed in nature and the elusive creative trance. Usually it is too dark for me to see the paintings in the field, as they are finished at or after sunset.
Ebey’s Landing was the natural choice for my first series on the island. The unspoiled natural landscape, lack of human structures, deep vistas, and gentle collision of land and sea and sky offer endless motifs for painting the ever changing light and weather conditions. It is a thrill to paint the iridescent sunsets as otters trundle across the beach and eagles hunt on the warm updrafts, the calls of seagulls in my ears and the scent of firs and spruce and kelp on the wind. Those are things that I can’t get in the sterile, environment of a studio. Although I might be able to make a painting more “correct” in a visual sense by working from a photograph, I can not make it more true to the day and to my experiences in the landscape by working divorced from my motif. The human eye can see so much more in the highlights and the shadows than a mechanical lens and I do not want to miss out on those subtleties. The greatest discipline of my work is stopping, leaving the imperfections, walking away when the light has changed. My left brain is always telling me I need to “fix” my paintings but I know that would drain them of life. They are honest. To me, art is a non- verbal form of communication and my work is designed to impact viewers viscerally. It is a great thrill when a viewer slows down, takes a deep breath and looks at one of my paintings until they really see it— a flicker of recognition crosses their face, a feeling in the pit of their stomach and they say to themselves “I know how that feels.”
Brian’s husband Tom Harris is a photographer who also goes on painting expeditions to chronicle the landscape and the painting process. Some day, they dream of having a joint exhibit. Of his work Tom says:
"My adoration of good photography goes back to my childhood, flipping through quality coffee table books and National Geographic magazines with scenes of nature. . . places that were far flung and inspired the imagination.
It wasn’t until about ten years ago when I picked up my first ‘point and shoot’ and was amazed at the photos I took in our garden. Then, after we adopted two greyhounds we acquired a Nikon D-90 that I used to capture our dogs playing and running around a dog park.
When we decided to foster greyhounds we used the camera to capture their stunning images and used those in marketing the dogs. We placed fourteen greyhounds in quality homes in two years.
During this time I spent hours and hours fine tuning my ‘eye’ for composition and part of that came in chronicling Brian's painting trips. While he painted in the hot, steamy Missouri river bottoms I would sit behind him, chatting with the occasional passerby, snapping pictures of his work in progress as well as the river and sprawling farm land. It was his work in progress that became an obsession. I’m telling a story many people don’t know: how a plein air oil painting comes to life.
I have spent many hours chronicling the painting process and find the pictures that resonate the most with people are multi faceted. For example, the artist with a brush in hand or the canvas against a backdrop of the subject matter. Sometimes, as with all photography the happy accidents produce the most inspiring photos. —Tom Harris”
All photos: Tom Harris