Every day, Marc Dalessio begins his morning ritual by looking out the window, as the weather determines what he and his wife, Tina Orsolic Dalessio, will do next.
If the forecast calls for rain, they retreat to their studio in Estremoz, Portugal, a quaint town of 15,000 that happens to face north — the perfect locale for the two artists who depend on natural light. He works at one end of the space, and she at the other, meeting in the middle for lunch and dinner before retiring for the night.
When the clouds clear, Dalessio hops in his car and drives, scouting for views and locations for his canvas, oil paints and a tradition that dates back to the 1800s: en plein air,which is the act of painting outdoors.
Currently, the artist is regarded as “perhaps the finest plein air painter in the world today,” according to Eric Rhodes, publisher of Fine Art Connoisseur Magazine and Plain Air Magazine, and a selection of his work is currently on view as part of “Dalessio | Morfis” at Grenning Gallery in Sag Harbor.
“I had my mid-life crisis five or six years ago, and it manifested itself as an obsession with figuring out the technical side of painting outside,” Dalessio explained during a telephone interview from Portugal last week. “So I became obsessed with very, very lightweight, durable equipment, and I couldn’t find anyone who made it — so I taught myself how to make all of my easels out of carbon fiber.
“It took a long time to get right,” he continued. “At the beginning, I thought I would get somebody else to make it for me, but I thought the prices were ridiculous, and I ended up spending way more doing it myself. But I have a working setup now, and my wife does, as well.”
Earlier this year, the couple packed up their plein air rigs and traveled to the East End, painting locally in Sag Harbor, Shelter Island and East Hampton, though other trips have focused on Amagansett and Montauk, Dalessio said.
Like many artists who have visited before him, the plein air painter found himself struck by the light — a redder hue that created humidity-soaked, salmon-colored sunsets, as compared to the arid climate of the places he has always called home, such as California, Italy and now Portugal.
“I love seeing new light effects that I haven’t seen before,” he said. “Now I’ve been painting on the East End for 20 years, working with Laura Grenning. She had a house on Shelter Island with a guesthouse in the back, and I would stay there for summers. And it was funny, for about the first 10 years, I only knew Shelter Island and Sag Harbor. I didn’t realize there was even ocean beaches or anything.
“There was so much subject matter just around the bays, I had never even gone to an ocean beach for the first 10 years,” he continued. “It’s silly now. I was very slowly working my way across the island.”
At each location, Dalessio relies solely on his limited plein air color palette, comprised of three bright blues, three bright reds, two bright yellows and one dull yellow, plus white. And despite his prowess as a portrait painter — he trained at Charles Cecil Studios in Florence, Italy — he long ago shifted his focus outdoors, where he is known to regularly paint up to three scenes per day.
“Growing up in California, there is a great history of plein air landscape painting,” he said. “On the East End, you have it, as well, with William Merritt Chase, but if you were a painter in California, you had to go out and paint landscapes. It was what painters do.”
But first, during his earliest days of his undergraduate studies at the University of California at Santa Cruz, Dalessio was not focused on fine arts at all. He sought a degree in biology.
“My whole life I’ve drawn and painted, but I didn’t think it was a very serious profession. I thought I should get a real job,” he said. “After a couple years of biology, I saw that was a very difficult profession, as well. I had great art professors and that combined with seeing the beauty and the natural world around California made me really think about what I wanted to do.”
As a child, Dalessio said he always felt a deep admiration and respect for nature. And as an adult, he found that landscape painting, especially outdoors, was a more immediate way to express that sentiment.
“I always saw biologists sort of falling in love with the natural world and trying to express that wonder through studying it and understanding it,” he said. “I think a painter does the same thing. You go out and you see the beauty in the natural world, and you express that joy and reverence in painting.”
It is a joy he feels in the field and in his studio, working across from his wife, he said — even just looking out the window every morning, wondering where the day will take him.
“Dalessio | Morfis,” featuring work by Marc Dalessio and John Morfis, will remain on view through Sunday, July 7, at Grenning Gallery, located at 26 Main Street in Sag Harbor. For more information, call (631) 725-8469 or visit grenninggallery.com.