Nature as muse:
A study in open-air painting

If you’ve ever wondered how a landscape painting comes to life or if you find the idyllic Italian countryside aesthetically appealing, then you will enjoy the upcoming exhibition “Homage to Open-Air Painting – Italian Studies” at the National Gallery of the Cayman Islands, featuring the works of local artist Teresa Grimes.   

The collection, which will be on display at the Community Gallery, includes 52 paintings based on Grimes’s pilgrimages to Italy, which began in 2008. From Umbria to Terni to the old routes in Monte Amiata and Monte Soracte (or Monte Soratte in Italian) to her most recent trip to the Sibillini Mountains, where she spent three weeks visiting last August, Grimes has been following in the footsteps – quite literally – of many great artists. 

For centuries the Italian countryside has proved to be the muse for landscape artists from all over the world. Most people know of the famous Impressionist painters Monet, Pissarro and Renoir, who created many masterpieces of the French countryside, but two generations before them, between the late-1700s and the mid-1800s, renowned painters such as Edward Burne-Jones, Michallon, Vernet, Corot, Valenciennes and Lord Leighton were quietly establishing the “open-air” tradition in Italy – or as the French would say, painting “en plein-air.” It is a tradition that has inspired many painters since then, such as American Impressionists and the Canadian Group of Seven. For Grimes’s most recent collection, it has been her main inspiration. 

This style of painting was originally used as a learning tool in the late 1600s, according to Grimes. 

“The small outdoor paintings were used to further the painters’ understanding of the large landscapes that were popular and painted in those days. They were then carried back to their studios and worked into other pieces, and also passed around from painter to painter as instructional tools for students,” she says.  

“It wasn’t until the mid-1800s that some of these small open-air works became entities in themselves and were recognized by the various painters as complete fresh works capturing the light and motifs in front of them – something that was rarely realized in their ‘salon’ pieces. Up to this point, landscape paintings were very formal and large, with big chunks of historical or classical backdrops that were taken and used from these various plein-air sites.”  

The aim then is the same as now: to approach the scene with a directness of vision that emphasizes the effects of natural light and atmosphere.  

“There is a freshness when painting outdoors,” says Grimes. “You’re trying to capture the constantly changing colors and movements. Nothing is still when painting directly outdoors, which enables you to capture great energy and movement. Painting from photographs has its place, getting a fast grasp of the layout for example, but a photograph freezes the image into one bite of information.  

“When painting outdoors, you get four or five different bites of color for each area, giving an open-air painting a unique sparkle and charm.” 

The exhibition will include paint “studies,” which she created during her open-air sittings, as well as several pieces that she finalized based on these studies that were completed in her West Bay studio upon her return from her two- to three-week jaunts to Italy. Twelve paintings will also be for sale at the exhibition.  

When in Italy, Grimes can complete her open-air pieces in two hours, working with the existing light before it changes too much.  

“It’s a race as so much is changing even within this two-hour time frame. When I am on one of my paint sessions,” she says, “I attempt to do one or two just after sunrise, and again one or two before sunset, because to me, this is the most dramatic light and what I enjoy trying to capture – I call it paint boot camp, but I love it!” At the end of her trips she usually has created between 24 and 28 open-air pieces, and from that point, she will create six to eight larger studio pieces. 

“Sometimes, I attempt to work on the studies later on, for something larger, perhaps, like using them as a starting block or just as a stimulus for the next piece,” she says. Her open-air pieces range in size from 8×10 inches to 15×20 inches, and her larger paintings for sale are either framed or gallery wrapped and run from 13×11 inches to 24×36 inches.  

Although she has painted primarily in oils in the past, and still does on occasion, her current medium of choice is acrylics because it allows her to “finish her thoughts on canvas.”  

Acrylics, she says, work well for her “for both ‘open-air’ and studio painting, but I do use watercolors for warm-ups and experiments to keep me loose.”  

She is currently finding inspiration here in Cayman at Barkers, as the abundance of mangroves and sea grapes have captured her attention lately. The thatch palms in East End are also calling out to her. 

 Background  

A resident and practicing artist in the Cayman Islands since 1986, Grimes is originally from Baltimore, Maryland, and received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Maryland in classical archaeology and classical art. She began painting after studying art restoration and life drawing in Ravenna, Italy, in 1975, which inspired her to take courses, workshops and numerous open-air retreats over the past 30 years.  

Grimes’s works have been purchased by the Visual Art Society of the Cayman Islands, the Cayman National Cultural Foundation, the Cayman Islands National Museum, as well as the National Gallery, where her work “East Palmetto Point” is part of the gallery’s permanent collection.  

The exhibition at the National Gallery runs until April 30. Gallery hours are Monday to Friday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., closed Sundays and public holidays, including Good Friday (April 18) and Easter Monday (April 20). For more information, call (345) 945-8111 or visit www.nationalgallery.org.ky 

First-Evening-Monte-Soracte-by-Teresa-Grimes-S

‘First Evening Monte Soracte’ by Teresa Grimes is on exhbit at the National Gallery.

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