Seeing the Natural World Through Plein Air

Artist Roisin Bateman works with student Titi Saralegui in the Madoo gardens. Lori Hawkins photos

A sunbeam breaks through the clouds, drawing the artist’s eye to a blossoming tree as she dips her paintbrush in a watercolor palette. A soft breeze swirls around her. It shakes a few flowers loose, coaxing a flurry of petals to the grass below.

In an instant, the clouds shift and the golden light disappears. But the moment lingers.

Within a living garden, change is guaranteed. And for a plein air painter, it is constant — the greatest challenge and simultaneous thrill of the practice, exercised on a weekly basis at Roisin Bateman’s three-hour watercolor class at The Madoo Conservancy in Sagaponack, once the horticultural and artistic oasis of the late painter Robert Dash.

“It’s a real painter’s garden — created by an artist, with an artist’s eye. His creativity is everywhere,” Bateman said from her home in Sag Harbor. “The feeling I come away with there, more than anything, is this feeling of peace and being reconnected to nature. I know it sounds a little cliché, but taking that time to really sit, it’s almost like you’re listening and the garden is speaking. It’s really speaking.”

Through the front gate, Madoo unfolds into a series of garden rooms — some obvious, others enigmatic — dotted with optical illusions, mirrors and ancient architecture across less than 2 acres, though the swath feels much more expansive.

While the returning painters settle into their selected spots, Bateman encourages new arrivals to walk through the gardens and find a space that resonates both personally and creatively.

It will be their home for the remaining classes, she explains.

Ellen Johnson, from Amagansett, painting in the Madoo gardens.

“You feel so connected to a place after you’ve spent three hours sitting and really absorbing it,” she said. “Usually, we’re passively taking in the landscape when we’re driving through it, but when you really sit and listen and take it in and actively look at it, it’s a really profound experience. Plein air has really changed the way I see.

“There’s something very grounding about it. It’s like this long, satisfying conversation with a friend, as opposed to a series of texts,” she continued. “Everything really slows down and you see more and more and more.”

In choosing a composition, the art of seeing is crucial, especially when a plein air landscape is typically vast, artist Melissa Hyatt explained from her studio in Mattituck. The sheer amount of choice makes the process of elimination that much tougher, she said.

“It’s really a challenge because you do have this whole scene in front of you,” she said. “When you take a picture with a camera, you’re almost creating that composition as you take the photo. But having all this to choose from, I think that’s one of the hardest parts.

“With experience, you become better at it,” she said. “You can search out that composition and find that spot you want to paint.”

Surrounded by beauty on the North Fork, Hyatt began her plein air practice just five years ago, as compared to her near 35-year professional art career, and she hasn’t looked back since.

“Because I live so close to the water, I was always intrigued with the idea of painting outside,” she said. “For me, it’s meditative and a great escape. I love it.”

As a member of The Wednesday Group — a collective of working plein air artists — Gene Samuelson routinely finds himself in bountiful gardens, though the most remarkable is at home in Amagansett, he said.

“My wife is a committed gardener and I, myself, love painting gardens,” he said. “We have a world-famous rhododendron park on the property — it’s been published in books — and I, of course, paint the rhododendrons.”

He is attracted to color, shape, form, size, density and mass — flowers, plants, trees and bushes that seem to go on forever. He has found camaraderie within The Wednesday Group and enjoys being with like-minded artists, whether they are sharing their work or taking in “all the wonders” around them, in an ever-changing landscape, he said.

“En plein air, you are working rather fast, against the moving sun, which changes shadows every minute, changes the look very quickly,” Samuelson said. “Nature does what it wants. You can always come back tomorrow, but it’s a different day. In the studio, you can stop and come back to the work when you want to. You control it. In truth, as an artist, you control whatever you make, wherever you make it.”

Jacqueline Penney is not afraid of taking a few artistic liberties, but for the 89-year-old landscape and seascape plein air painter, it takes a very special garden for her to sit down and paint it.

Jackie Hilly, from Sag Harbor, paints in the Madoo gardens.

“There needs to be great composition. And if there’s something that’s not there that I think should be there, that’s where I use my creative card and just put it in there,” she said with a laugh from her Cutchogue studio. “For me, the things I love the most are the things that have meaning for me: looking out at the Wednesday night race in Peconic Bay, or Robins Island, places I’ve been out here and observed and painted for years, those have a lot of meaning for me.”

Rather quickly, Madoo has become one of those places for Bateman, who has taught an art class at the John Jermain Memorial Library in Sag Harbor for the past six years. She calls her plein air summer class a “whole different experience.”

“Growing up, being outside is where I associated with play and freedom and exploring,” Bateman said. “There’s something very childlike, in a good way, and it’s associated with innocence and childhood, so many memories of being in the garden as a child.”

Juxtaposed against East End expanses of sky, ocean and bay, the Sagaponack garden is green, fertile and shady, overflowing with color and texture, accented by trees, boxwoods and ponds — where a social frog has made several appearances. The birds sing, the breeze whistles and the light ebbs and flows.

“I see why people go from working outside a lot to then working in the studio, because you sort of absorb it,” Ms. Bateman said. “You can paint from that feeling of it. The feeling of it is inside you.”