Who exactly are the Palettes? One might guess an an capella group, a softball team, or a book club.
In fact, they are a female foursome of plein air painters based in Manhattan who leave their husbands behind and convene on the East End to partake of its scenic and cultural riches. Since 2001, the group has gathered in late July at a member’s home for five days of painting.
Mornings at 8:30 they emerge from the Sagaponack house wearing painting smocks or shirts and straw hats and armed with French easels and paints, in search of an appropriate outdoor venue. You might spot them at Maidstone Park or by Wainscott Pond, down on the beach or overlooking Mecox Bay or Sagg Pond. They usually paint for three or more hours, when the morning light and shadows are good, occasionally sharing a few words but mostly in deep concentration and silence, intent on catching the light and the moment.
Their mutual productivity and compatibility have expanded their horizons to include an annual winter trip to Vero Beach, Florida, and a fall journey to a Mexican tree house. Wherever they are, they pursue their passion for plein air painting.
According to the “Shorter Oxford Dictionary,” the term plein air designates “a style or school of impressionist painting that originated in France in the late 1860s, which sought to represent the transient effects of atmosphere and light by direct observation from nature.”
Each of the Palettes has definite ideas and individual feelings about her affinity to this discipline of art and the virtues of painting on the East End of Long Island.
Linda Arnold has studied at the National Academy in New York with Wolf Kahn and Serge Hollerbach and at the Art Students League and received significant art awards. She is a highly successful artist who has sold her work at numerous galleries in the Hamptons and throughout the U.S.
“There is a unique quality of light at the eastern end of Long Island,” Ms. Arnold says, “whether in misty fog or on a clear crisp day, which illuminates the natural beauty of the land and sea in a harmonious and special way. Being outside on location is challenging and inspirational. The cloud shapes change four or five times. The reflections on the water change. I am always trying to catch the light, to stay totally focused and in the mood.”
Gale Simmons, who gave the group its name, is a multidiscipline artist, having studied painting at the National Academy as well as sculpture, acrylics, and conventional photography. She is currently involved in creating and selling digital color photography.
Speaking of her involvement with the group, Ms. Simmons says, “Plein-air painting is a reason to be outdoors, which I love. I enjoy the quiet, hearing the birds. Since we rarely talk to each other, the atmosphere is very meditative. You see things in a new way. The water changes as you look.
“I spent so much of my childhood outdoors, and painting en plein air brings back happy memories for me.”
Each of the outdoor sites the group visits has its own appeal. Ms. Simmons speaks of the beauties of Fresh Pond, where they have painted each year. “It is a magical place, the lighting, the grasses, the lily pads in the pond, the beach white and hot, and the contrasting cool pond. It is so peaceful.”
Jeanne Ostrow, who did a 15-year stint at the National Academy and studied at the Art Barge in Amagansett for 20 years, says “Water, weather and the atmospheric play of light as it shifts through the air and moisture are what move me most. One needs to focus, to learn how to see, to look, to appreciate nature. I can paint the Wainscott Pond over and over.
“I love the pink and purple wildflowers which look a little like heather. Every time I view the scene, it is different. The pond and the distant dunes change every day and even while I am painting.”
Suzanne Pemberton also studied at the National Academy and the Art Barge. For the past six summers, she has exhibited and sold her work at the Clothesline Art Show at Guild Hall in East Hampton. Describing a favorite spot—the lotus pond at LongHouse Reserve—she says, “I love the weeping willows, the Monet colors, the glass cobalt blue rods which echo the natural blue cattails growing in the pond. I find being outside with my paints and easel very emotional. The sense of oneness. The interpreting and recording of the beauty of a place. Painting brings me joy.”
Ms. Arnold admires the vista at Louse Point in Springs. “I like the horizontal aspect of the spot,” she says. “You get a long view of water, marshland, trees and the beach.
“People don’t realize it, but you have to be ‘hard-core’ to be a plein air painter. There is a lot of hard work involved. You have to carry all your stuff and contend with flies, mosquitoes, wind, sun, and worry about the ticks in the long grass. All the elements.”
Over the years of painting together, the Palettes have developed a unique camaraderie. They implicitly respect each other’s work and need for concentration. A mutual friend who painted with them one morning commented that they rarely exchanged a word, but a palpable sense of unity and support was in the air.
After the long, quiet morning of painting and a chatty informal lunch, the Palettes split up for various afternoon activities. A twosome heads to Southampton and the latest exhibition at the Parrish Art Museum. Another shops. One naps. Another day, the women visit the local galleries and art exhibits as they stroll around Sag Harbor. A celebration of Ms. Pemberton’s birthday is held at a favorite East Hampton haunt over a leisurely lunch, and ends at an exhibit at Guild Hall. Late one afternoon the group heads to the beach to paint the moon on the water.
In the evenings, the Palettes have drinks or dinner with friends in the area or visit their favorite restaurants. Dinner conversation is wide-ranging and eclectic, not usually centered on painting. The four women have shared many memorable experiences, including a 2004 trip to Asia, and clearly enjoy each other’s company.
At week’s end, the artists reflect on the group’s experience. Ms. Arnold notes that “in spite of obvious changes to the East End, it remains one of the most wonderful places to paint en plein air. The variety of landscape, the ocean, the light, provide us endless challenges and inspiration.”
Ms. Ostrow mentions that many of the five days were rainy, or misty. “I am drawn to ocean and sky scenes,” she says, “so painting so much green on a very rainy day was difficult for me. It came down to concentrating on values and realizing how important it is to challenge oneself and experiment.”
Ms. Pemberton sums up the week: “The rainy weather definitely presented us with a challenge and limited our choice of painting spots. But we persevered and painted every day. Inspiring to be around each other and able to focus on our art.”
Ms. Simmons chimes in: “The week was a wonderful time to be with our group in a sustained fashion and simultaneously be out admiring the beauty of the Hamptons. I feel so fortunate to have connected with Linda, Suzanne and Jeanne. I think having a group spurs us on to make that commitment to ‘get out there.’”
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