Let Nothing Stop You

On day two of the Plein Air Easton painting competition, I woke up feeling ill. The ear infection that had gotten me down had not responded to the antibiotics and I felt worse. Getting out of bed seemed a great accomplishment. This was bad. Picking up the phone, I called my doctor on the West coast, in Carmel, California. I left a message, begging him to call in a refill to the antibiotics at a local pharmacy. I left the number for it.
After a cup of tea and a bowl of oatmeal, I was nearly human again. At least, I passed for human. No one would ever know I was really the walking dead.
Headed out for my first painting. Seemed like I was finished with Oxford for now, though in my mind a composition was forming that might work as a sunset painting. This morning, however, it would be St. Michael’s, a quaint cluster of late Victorian and early 1910s cottages that line a crooked street. The harbor and marina are small but adjacent to it is the museum, a museum of all things Chesapeake Bay. That includes waterfowling, skipjacks, bug-eyes, fishing boats of every variety preserved in all their saltiness.
Looming over the entire scene is a Chesapeake lighthouse, a very peculiar six-sided structure on stilts that is both odd and beautiful.
The day was dark, no sun on the horizon, only gray clouds in every shade of gray known to an artist. To say that I broke my first rule, never paint when it is overcast, would be an understatement. This is a competition and plein air painters are more trustworthy than a postman. Nothing will stop us, not ear infections, dog and bug bites, bee stings, broken easels, aches and pains, cloudy days…or stupid rules! So, add to my list of Lewis’ Laws of plein air painting: Let nothing stop you.
So it was time to make lemonade with the lemons given me. But I complain too much, because right in front of me, as I peered over the shoulders of at least two other painters who were also trying to make lemonade, was my prize, the lighthouse. Now normally I might not have painted a lighthouse being that painting a lighthouse is dangerously close to breaking that other Lewis Law, Beware of pretty. This was not, however, pretty. This was dark, foreboding but with a saving grace in that there were two porch lights still on, one on either side of the lighthouse. Plus the lighthouse was actually a working lighthouse and its brilliant light flicked a ray of happiness into the glooming sky. Together, the three lights looked like Christmas to me, a bright spot in a long dark winter.
By the time I had finished this moody painting, the sky had cleared to a great extent and sun was beginning to flood the scene. I rested, called the pharmacy to see if the doctor had called in the prescription yet. No. So I called his office on the West coast again, explained the situation and noted to them that it was only a phone call I was asking.
Nearby, one of the painters was giving up on his rendition of a skipjack, a beautiful old beauty of a boat, once used for oystering. Personally, his painting took my breath away but he was very unhappy with it. I thought it was a winner and so I tried to convince him to scrap it. (Just kidding, of course.) But he didn’t fall for my trick.
He did give up the perfect spot, just the right angle to paint the boat. It’s funny how an artist can find the exact right place to paint from. No other angle of this boat would do and so I was happy that he had given me the spot.
With his laments still ringing in my tortured ears, I went at this painting differently. Painting fast and loose and taking great liberties with color, I finished a rather successful take on a skipjack. Or, so I thought. I was standing there congratulating myself on having finally painted a famed skipjack, legendary boat of the Chesapeake Bay. I swear, no sooner had I thought this thought when an old man stepped up beside me, and in a voice that was all salty and straw sticking out of the mouth he says “Yep. That’s a bugeye, alright.”
A bugeye! Not a skipjack? Nope. That’s a bugeye. Skipjack’s only got one mast. That’n’s got two. I was very disappointed but, more than that, mystified. Tell me, how did he know that I was thinking, at that very moment, that I had just painted a skipjack? Someday I will paint a skipjack, but not this time.
Meanwhile, in the back of my mind, I was thinking about two things: the prescription, and the sunset painting that was forming in my head. Just then the cell rings and it is my doctor. He’s just called in the prescription and best of luck, see you when you get back. I left St. Michael’s for Easton, a 15 minute drive, to pick up the RX.
Timing is so important in life, and so it is in plein air painting, particularly when you are competing. After picking up the prescription and taking the medicine and feeling a sense of optimism, the timing was perfect to leave for Campbell’s boat yard in Oxford where, the day before I had painted and seen the potential sunset. The timing was perfect for blocking in the painting and waiting for the sun to lower into place right where I hoped it would, tucked neatly between two dry-docked sailing boats. At the boat yard, the owner of one of the about to be immortalized boats was working on his hole in the water where you throw money. I could see that he knew the place well. I had no doubt that he could answer my question “Where, exactly, will the sun set tonight?” He pointed to the roof of a boat house on the other side of the harbor. Right there.
Now, I was also proud of myself because, though the sun was still quite high, I had estimated that exact spot too. Even better, in the morning, when it was wet and gray gloomy, I had told one of the depressed artists that by the end of the day it would be clear and there will be a good sunset. It did seem doubtful at the time. This morning, when I saw the same artist, he said “What, are you some kind of psychic artist, or something?!” Or something.
The sun dropped into place as I and the boat owner had known it would. Not long after that, I was home in a deep, hard sleep. Nothing could stop me.

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