Speaking of Plein Air Painting vs. Studio Painting ~ My Cousin Brian and Me!

In my last blog I wrote about the fiasco of my first and last experience painting plein air (on location).  Afterwards, I sold my French easel and bought a new pair of golf shoes with the money!  I eventually bought another French easel that resides in my studio for shifting wet paintings around and for using in my studio.  I still have that longing to try it again but because I’m trying to be as productive as possible and make a living painting, I see the romance of it all as more self indulgent.  I know the best use of my time is in the studio and I’ve been a studio painter for over 22 years.  Plus it would have been extremely hard to have painted plein air when I was painting ships at sea or seaside towns from the water. :-)  If I had been painting Maine landscapes or say Vermont landscapes then I might have been more open minded to giving plein air another try. 

The subject of Plein Air vs. Studio painting has sent me down memory lane.  I’ve had sleepless hours thinking about parallel lives, intermittently coming together affecting me more than I knew.  Here is what’s been on my mind: 

…There were no artists in our family that I knew of growing up.  I doodled with pencil because I liked the challenge of trying to reproduce something that I saw and the challenge of making it look real.  At one family reunion at my grandparents’ farmhouse in Iowa, I’m guessing I was 12, I remember standing out on the front porch with Grandpa Beebe, my Dad and my older cousin Brian (Sweetland).  Brian pulled out a sheet of paper and showed Grandpa a pencil portrait drawing that he had done of him.  I was taken back by the likeness.  It was masterful. The reaction to the drawing was one of amazement by everyone.  I didn’t know Brian drew too!  That portrait of Grandpa Beebe helped motivate me to improve my drawing skills and to try and be as good as my cousin Brian. 

Fast-forward and I’m in college having just taken my very first painting class which happened to be Portrait Painting.  I didn’t know what Brian was up to as our families only got together here and there.  One day I was over at his mother’s house and Brian pulled out a portrait in oil that he had done of his sister Mary Beth.  It was glazed to perfection and it looked like the Mona Lisa!   Seeing someone I knew well create something that I wanted to be able to do too, became another bright moment for me, opening my mind and helping to plant a seed.  For someone who is goal oriented and loves a challenge, like myself, little moments like that can be powerful.  In this case, it helped reaffirm my desire to change my major to Studio/Fine Art.

In 1977, right around the time I became an art student, I believe Brian was either working at the Corcoran Art Museum in Washington, DC or he was sketching there.  Anyway, he crossed paths with a master painter named Dean Fausett.  Dean took Brian under his wing after seeing Brian’s exceptional work; Brian moved to Vermont; learned traditional oil painting techniques from a master and has been painting in Vermont ever since.


In 1980 as a young married couple we went to Brian’s opening at a gallery in Middleburg, VA and bought our very first original oil painting. It was one of Brian’s snow covered mountain Vermont scenes.  We didn’t have much money but we knew we had to have it.  It’s been hanging in our dining room ever since.  We visited Brian and Mr. Fausett in Dorsett, VT soon thereafter.  Mr. Fausett had a huge painting he had painted of his beautiful, yellow clapboard historic wooden home on a big easel for us to see.  It had been featured in Yankee magazine.  A magnificent piece it was.  Was all of what I was taking in possible for me?  Could I become a full-time artist too? 

It took me until 1989 to decide I wanted to take a chance and become a full-time artist.  Knowing Brian was making a living painting in Vermont gave me some confidence that it could be a viable lifestyle choice.

For 22 years now I’ve been a studio painter, living 12 of those years in Maine and the last 10 years in Williamsburg, VA.  For the last 32 years Brian has been making his own paints from scratch, painting impressionist rural Vermont landscapes year round PLEIN AIR!  I’ve heard that he will paint on the coldest winter days on the hillsides of Vermont until his fingers can’t move.  Years ago, I heard he had a VW bus that he would seek warmth in and paint in after he was about frozen!  His impressionistic landscapes are sought after by collectors.  He believes that art should be for everyone and therefore keeps his prices intentionally low, sacrificing lifestyle and living a purist existence. 

He is the ultimate plein air painter in my mind.  My cousin Brian Sweetland, who I sadly haven’t seen in many years, is painting away plein air full-time while I enjoy painting away in my studio.  I admire his work ethic, his masterful brush work and I’m glad that he didn’t let the cold weather, bugs, wind, rain and hassles of plein air painting get to him and sell his French easel for a pair of golf shoes!