Looking like Alice in Wonderland in denim shorts and a white apron covered with brush strokes from her latest watercolor, Barbara Thomas meandered down the twisting path of loose stones into Sagaponack’s Madoo Conservancy.
“I came out to the road, otherwise you’d never be able to find me,” she called back to two guests who were following her back into the gardens of Robert Dash on a recent sultry afternoon.
She will be leading her own group of art students on a similar adventure through the gardens as part of a plein air landscapes art class she is teaching this month.
Ms. Thomas led her guests past sculpted hedges, giant holly leaves and a lavender colored gazebo where a pitcher rested on a table inside, awaiting phantom patrons. She veered off the path and into a clearing, walking to her easel, where a wet canvas was dotted with purple irises in front of and around the image of a small shingled cottage with blue trim that stood just feet away.
“You wander around until you see something that has good light and something to focus on,” Ms. Thomas, a resident of Springs, said of her painting spot.
The art class, sponsored by the Parrish Art Museum in Southampton, will meet on five consecutive Tuesday mornings from July 13 through August 10 for three hours per session and will teach both accomplished painters and amateurs the ins and outs of watercolor painting. The class will use gouache, a solid watercolor that can be used like an oil paint because it is easier to work with than traditional watercolors, Ms. Thomas said.
The Parrish traditionally offers some kind of “en plein air” class annually, and this year Ms. Thomas approached the museum around the same time that representatives of Madoo expressed an interest.
“The opportunity to do it at Madoo, which is such a wonderful place and is so well known, well, we thought it would be a wonderful opportunity,” said Mark Segal, director of adult programs at the Parrish.
“The biggest step to learn how to paint is picking up the brush,” Ms. Thomas said.
The Madoo Conservancy is a two-acre private garden that has been owned by artist and writer Robert Dash for the last 40 years. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the space is a living encyclopedia of Tudor, high renaissance, early Greek and oriental garden influences, highlighted with whimsical sculptures and fountains along with a variety of oddities.
“It’s a magical garden with so many landscape shapes, hidden glades and pathways,” Ms. Thomas said. “They all make for great, interesting compositions. It’s great to paint a painting that tells a story in a way.”
Born in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, Ms. Thomas grew up on a farm where her parents were both artists. Her father, Fritz Siebel, illustrated children’s book including the Amelia Bedelia series. Her mother, aunts and several siblings are also artists. “In my family, if you weren’t a painter, they might think something was wrong with you,” she suggested with a smile.
The artist studied under naturalist painter Edwin Dickinson at the Art Students League in New York City and then continued at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.
She also worked on the commercial side of the art world as an advertising art director in New York City, coming up with designs for Mr. Kool Aid, among others. Currently a Springs resident, she has traveled the country painting studies of golf courses, decorative murals in private homes and portraits.
“It’s very challenging even with lifetime experience,” Ms. Thomas said. “You just never know what you’re going to get. But that’s also the fun.”
Ms. Thomas hopes to bring that experience with her to the class, teaching her students some “tricks of the trade.”
Out in the garden last week, clutching an old marmalade can now filled with soupy water and three dripping brushes, she offered up some painting secrets. “Don’t get too hung up with details ... be dramatic with lights and darks.”
In her own painting of the shingled cottage, Ms. Thomas added a hunter green blob to the left side of the painting, spreading it out to bridge together the lighter colored foliage. “I don’t even know what that is,” Ms. Thomas said. “Sometime you’ll put something in and it doesn’t really matter what it is.”
She leaned back and studied the half-finished work. “That’s about all I can do,” she said. Details on the flowers would have to be brushed on later because the canvas was too saturated with wet paint to go any further.
As she walked under dense brush to exit the garden, her pink flip-flops slapped across a path consisting of old tree trunks, like stepping stones grouted together by moss.
“Gardens are really fantasylands,” said the artist.
Gouache Painting at Madoo Conservancy will be held five consecutive Tuesdays from July 13 through August 10 from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. The program costs $350 for members and $400 for nonmembers. Advanced registration and payment is required. For more information and to register, call 283-2118 ext. 21.
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