The Paddle and the Paintbrush

Jason Sawtelle of BlackBeak Studios on the art of painting in a canoe

All paintings courtesy Jason Sawtelle.

All paintings courtesy Jason Sawtelle.

Jason Sawtelle, 45, was raised on upstate New York's comely Battenkill River, famous for brown trout, brook trout, and covered bridges with red sides and green roofs. Downriver a score or more of miles is the brawny Hudson.

When he picked up a paintbrush for a profession of fine art and commissioned murals and portraits, he picked up his paddle too. Sawtelle has the paddler's eye to see current breaks and water ruffled by rocks. He also has the painter's eye to differentiate the liquid shades of shadow. To capture what he saw en plein air (a painting phrase meaning "in the open air"), he needed a portable, water-worthy studio. Thus, he joined his Royalex Dagger Reflection 15 and a Pochade Box, a painter's box with a lid that secures the canvas, to paint the Charles River between Norfolk and Natick, Massachusetts. The catch: a canoe is wont to move with current or wind just when a painter needs to focus on a particular detail.

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Sawtelle said, "The motion of the boat is both a challenge and a lot of fun. Between the motion of the boat, wrestling with weather, and the impossibility of being able to comfortably sit on the floor, I discovered that I need to paint much looser than I usually do. I strapped my Pochade Box to the seat of the canoe and I sat on the floor, but I shifted throughout the course of the day. I might sit on my life jacket, kneel or squat, trying to get comfortable."

Looser means he attends less to details than he prefers, folding the motion of the boat into the brushstrokes.

Jason Sawtelle.

Jason Sawtelle.

"Painting outdoors gives a more accurate representation of what's really happening in nature. A photo will always skew it. The colors will always be off. If you're sitting there, there's no filter. You'll see it as it is."

Sawtelle does his best to be still in his moving studio.

"I sometimes tie off on overhead branches. There are lots of fallen trees and I carry weights with straps that I use as anchors. Where I canoe, the Charles is only five feet deep. I do have to pick up a paddle and readjust here and there, depending upon how windy it is and how well the boat is secured. Sometimes, it is every ten minutes."

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Sawtelle has completed a series of nine paintings, all 16 by 12 inches, which he presents as a set, but will also sell them individually.

"I like to work on bigger (canvases) than that, but I’m limited by what's feasible."

He looks forward to painting again in his floating studio when the leaves go gold.

"I loved it and want to do it again this fall. The branches will stick out more when the colors change."

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Sawtelle contends with more than currents of wind and water. Being beneath the Sun means his paint dries at a different rate than he’s used to.

"The paint dried faster when I was in the heat, so it required different blending. I paint in oil paints, which behaved a little more like fast-drying acrylics because I couldn't get in the shade. I did about 75 percent of each painting on the river and added the remaining 25 percent of the missing details in my studio."

The end product was reminiscent of the Impressionists due to the required speed.

"Impressionism captures the mood of the moment and movement. You capture the light at a precise moment. Thus, the Impressionists painted fast."

Maybe Monet and his crew could have had fun with some canoes.

–See more at www.sawtelleart.com

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