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Plein Air on the World’s Most Beautiful Beach

Dr. Steven Leatherman, also known as Dr. Beach, rates the best beaches in the world every year, using 50 criteria. Grayton Beach, Florida, has been Number One at least once and in the top ten several times. That would be no surprise to anyone who has seen this beach. The reflective white quartz sand consists of small grains with a texture as smooth as sugar, so fine that it crunches and squeaks underfoot like very cold snow. Under the blue sea of the Gulf of Mexico, the white sand bottom reflects turquoise, punctuated by an emerald streak where the sand bar offshore rises to within 10′ of the surface. On days like last Wednesday, you would never know that those same waters could house the fury of a hurricane, like the one last month that destroyed most of Panama City, Mexico Beach, and Port St. Joe, the destruction starting a mere 20 miles east of Grayton Beach.

The State of Florida has named its various coasts, and ours is named the Emerald Coast, for that beautiful green streak over the sand bar. On Wednesday of this week, our local plein air group, the Emerald Coast Plein Air Painters, painted at Grayton Beach State Park. The temperature was chilly, but the biting wind was from the north, so we were somewhat sheltered on the water-side of the dunes. Our paintings are all posted on our Facebook Page.

Oil painting studying the colors of the Gulf of Mexico on the Emerald Coast, Grayton Beach, FL
Impossible Blue

I purchased an iPhone app called Art Rooms, which places art on the walls of the room you choose out of their stock, appropriate to the size of the painting relative to the size of the furniture. I like this app. I did have to use Photoshop to place my painting behind the lamp in the second example.

Art Rooms app showing “Impossible Blue” over a desk

Art Rooms app showing “Impossible Blue” over a bedside table

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The Setting Sun – Working From Photo References

Oil painting of the Gulf of Mexico at Sunset, with oranges reflected on the emerald green sea
Oil painting of the Gulf of Mexico shoreline, with people silhouetted against the purple and peach-colored sunset
Oil painting of sea oats silhouetted against burnt-orange clouds over the Gulf of Mexico at sunset

Painting a sunset, during a sunset, would be very difficult because the light changes so fast.  But the subject begs to be captured on canvas.  Since the weather was chilly this weekend, and it was warm and cozy inside my studio, I decided to take a few stabs at it using photographs I have on my camera phone.  Photo references are not ideal for making a painting, because the camera does not catch everything the eye can see, and the camera certainly does not capture the sound of the waves, the warmth of the evening sun, the changing patterns of the waves, and the shifting latticework of shadows and light.  So I rely mostly on my sensory memories of the experience, some going right to the core of my own being, reflecting whatever might have been challenging me that day, whether work-issues, relationships, or even the existential questions of existence itself.

I have painted many a sky using watercolor, where the happy accidents often end up being exactly the right shape, color, and mood.  Oil painting is so much more deliberate, that I found myself questioning whatever made me think I could be a painter.  Plein air painting has allowed me to develop a much looser, impressionistic style, so I expected more immediate success with my sunset skies.  It took more time than I thought it would.  I can see that I need to practice more, if the sky is to be the subject and the focus of the painting.

The most elementary and powerful form of defining shapes is through silhouette, which sunsets encourage.  My first attempt does not have any foreground shapes other than the beach itself, and I think the next two are much more interesting because of the silhouettes of the figures in the middle ground of the second one and the sea oats in the last one.