This article originally appeared in the June 2008 issue of Cape May Magazine.
The allure of Cape May County and its surroundings is undeniable. Visitors and residents are in agreement about the charms of the Victorian town, and have been practically since the resort was established.
Artists of all kinds have been attracted to the coastal town almost from the beginning. That hasn’t changed one bit today as legions of creative types, each in their own way, translate their visions of the town and adjacent environs into works of art.
The following artists have been inspired by Cape May so much that they’ve each produced many different works, and they share their views on why they keep returning.
When Stan Sperlak was studying art at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts the thrust of instruction there was with oil painting. Pastels, his area of choice, weren’t part of the academic setting; you had to pick them up on your own.
“I always played with pastels since probably I was a kid,” he says. “That’s why I went full-circle and came back to them.
“I think in the grand scheme of color theory, how you would work a painting from start to finish, pastels are much more related to oil painting than they are to watercolors. With oils and pastels you pretty much work from dark to light. You establish all your dark areas and then build yourself a painting that eventually brings in the bright colors. With watercolor you work exactly the opposite. You have to work from light to dark.
“I teach art … and I think the connection I’m always able to bring to the students as to why they’re drawn to pastel, or why I’m drawn to pastel, is because you actually just hold it in your hand. And it’s very primal, there’s a dexterity to it, and there’s a sculptural quality. When you’re putting it on the paper, you feel like you’re carving. You feel like you’re building. So, for me it was that type of primal urge,” says Sperlak, laughing.
“The Moon and Venus over the Shore” by Stan Sperlak
Sperlak incorporates those primal urges by working hand-made pastels he’s bought. In French, the word pastel means nothing more than “paste” with no reference to color. So he kneads the material until it’s a consistency close to caulk. He then foregoes all the traditional techniques of painting on paper or a smooth board by creating his paintings on sand paper. Far from the type you’ll find in a hardware store, it’s a 400- or 500-grit aluminum silica board that’s archival quality. It allows the pastels to spread and adhere better,
As for subject matter, Sperlak prefers to focus on the natural world around Cape May, often with low horizons and dramatic skies. “Somebody once said to me ‘Oh, you don’t paint the buildings in Cape May, You don’t like that stuff.’ It’s not that I don’t like it, I like other things better.
“There’s only so much time to paint. Often if you paint in a city like Cape May, you wind up talking to everybody. If I can go out to the beach or to a marsh I can spend several hours just painting and not really have to have a break. I love talking too, but if you’re painting, you can’t do both.”
“Surf” by Stan Sperlak
Sperlak has a deep appreciation for the natural gifts we have locally. “When I compare South Jersey regional art and artists to people working in Long Island, Michigan, the California coast, the Texas blue bonnet fields and all the different places in the country – well, we have things here that are every bit as interesting. We just have to kind of extrapolate them back and forth.
“We don’t have the Rocky Mountains, but we have some awesome thunderheads here. We don’t have these huge valleys and things like that, but we have the ocean waves. And I think that really helps people understand that Cape May County, South Jersey and the Mid Atlantic really are treasures for visuals.”
In 1995 Patricia Rainey decided she wanted to paint. So she bought a bunch of brushes and paints, sat down and started painting. She doesn’t really know why she got the urge, but she began by copying post cards. However, Rainey realized recreating other artists’ images wouldn’t get her too far, so she began doing original work.
Patricia worked with oils back then, but found that the galleries she was selling to were only interested in watercolors. So she switched over to watercolors and found it not such a big change. “The reason for that,” she says, “is that I do not wet my paper when I work in watercolors. I work more in like an oil technique, so it really doesn’t spread out and so forth.”
During those early days, Patricia did mostly renderings of Maine landscapes and seascapes. She lived in northern New Jersey at the time and visited New England during the summer, taking many photos, and then creating her paintings in the winter using the prints as guides.
She hasn’t abandoned oil painting for watercolors, though. “I enjoy both, actually, and probably equally, as well. I like the fast cleanup of the watercolors, but I like the feeling of working in oils. The whole Cape May series – of which now there are now 85 – are all in watercolors. Basically, the New England series is in oil.”
She does all her work flat on a table – a trait she picked up before discovering that artists don’t work that way. Still, she embraces the vagaries of watercolors. “Things happen with watercolors that don’t happen with oils. Sometimes things that you don’t quite intend to happen.”
While being drawn to the community of Cape May, Patricia is also enamored of the architecture, like a lot of other artists. When doing paintings of nature, Rainey takes some liberties, but when it comes to recreating structures she’s more precise. She’ll take general photos of a house, say, and then shoot close-ups of various details, to get everything just right for historical purposes. “People really want something as they know it – as it appears. I do a lot of house commissions, also, and they have to be accurate, because that’s what people want.” Although a Christmas picture she did of the Cape May lighthouse does have a wreath hanging on it that wasn’t there.
“The Abbey” by Patricia Rainey
She prefers to photograph buildings in the winter because there are no leaves blocking the view. (They can be added later.) Then her paintings are done in the studio, due to the nature of detail required.
She usually begins a painting by sketching in the building and then washes in the colors, such as the sky and grass. Then she goes back and puts in the finer details called for. Patricia also works on four or five paintings at a time, claiming she doesn’t have the attention span to stick to one piece at a time,
Her creative output is limited to the months of November through March, devoting the remainder of the year attending shows in the area. The bulk of her current work is dedicated to commissions.
Summing up her work, she says “a lot of artists have a message in their paintings, and I really don’t. My paintings are just very happy paintings. And I’ve heard that over and over from the public. They’re just places you’d like to be, rather than trying to figure out what they mean. There are no surprises.”
Phil Courtney finds a freedom in working with watercolors, although he has dabbled in oils. “Right now when I get a little free time I run out and paint,” he says. “It’s just a lot easier to deal with watercolors that way. With oils, it’s more of a big project. You need a big block of time to actually get into it.”
A billboard artist by trade, Courtney considers his fine art work more of a hobby or part time passion. A hobby he’s been devoted to most of his life,
He’s been doing paintings of Cape May for about eight years. His family used to vacation here, and when his work moved to the area they decided to become residents. “We just love the town. It’s a nice year-round beach town, more than a lot of other towns.”
“The Wooden Rabbit” by Phil Courtney
Courtney’s done some commissions and illustration work, but he hasn’t taken that too far, preferring to pursue subjects of his own choosing. He has done some landscapes, but his work centers on the architecture of the town. The process he employs for choosing a subject is simple. “I think for me, it’s the overall look of the place. I look at a house and think I would love to paint that, and I just do it.
“I do an initial painting and I take photographs. Sometimes I’ll take photographs at different times of the summer and get different flowers. I’ll get different aspects of the seasons and pick a season that looks the best with the house. I’ll work in the studio on it for a while, or maybe go back out. But to get the details, you really need to sit in a studio. It’s really hard to do out on location.”
For a real detailed painting it might take Courtney 30 hours to complete. “It’s all that gingerbread takes a long time to paint. Also, with watercolor you have to be so careful not to go too dark. A lot of times I paint it a little too light and then I paint the rest of the painting. And then I realize that that area’s too light, you’ve got to make it a little darker. Because if you go too dark with watercolor you can’t go back – you’re done.”
“Before the Storm” by Phil Courtney
He takes advantage of some of the looser aspects that watercolors can provide when doing landscapes. But when doing buildings, it’s more of a precise approach.
Lately, Courtney has been concentrating on landscapes, finding subject matter in the marshlands along Route 47 near the Delaware Bay and at Cape May Point. It’s become a nice change from doing buildings.
He’ll eventually return to structures, though. When he was young he contemplated following a career path as an architect. He’s also done home renovations, which has given him a keener knowledge of perspective and scale.
Courtney works on billboards from Cape May to Atlantic City, often along the boulevards leading into shore towns. A couple of times he’s looked out over the wetlands and noticed some particularly rich subject matter. So his next creation might come from those musings.
Marie Natale, from Egg Harbor Township, has been an artist since she was 12 when her teacher encouraged her to pursue her interest. Marie taught art in the public school system for ten years, garnering a Teacher of the Year award along the way. She now teaches privately in her home studio and at the Ocean City Arts Center. Her watercolors have won numerous awards.
She often drives down the parkway to capture Cape May. One reason, she says, is that “nowhere in South Jersey do you really find the colors of those buildings. First of all, it’s the architecture itself that is so beautiful and you don’t see that a lot. And the colors of buildings – purple buildings, pink buildings – you just don’t see that around. So that is what’s the real draw.”
Usually when Marie is doing a scene, she does her painting from life. She’ll arrive in the morning and stay all day. But she may only use part of that time in creative pursuit. “In watercolors you really need to paint light,” she says. “It’s very important that you’re able to capture the light. So, depending on where the building is, it might be morning sun, it might be afternoon sun, whatever. But I do try and get it where I have a strong difference between shadow and light.
“The Halcyon Days of Summer” by Marie Natale
“I also like getting the shadows on the porches. I like casting of tree shadows on streets and things like that, which I think also adds interest and gives a sense of dimension to the painting as well.”
She is attracted to watercolors because she feels they convey a freshness and transparency that other mediums don’t. Paintings in oil and other materials sometimes have a heaviness and opacity to them that she would rather not have in her work.
“The other exciting thing about watercolor,” she says, “is there’s no other medium that allows water and pigment and gravity to work together to capture these glowing, beautiful watercolors. Because [with] most paints you put it on the picture and it stays there. But with watercolors – because I stand with my watercolor paper straight up – all that gravity is also making the water run and flow, and that’s what creates an excitement about the direct painting technique.”
Natale paraphrases Picasso when she says, “you as an artist have to lie a little bit, stretch it a little bit, so the viewer gets to see the beauty you want them to see.
“Summertime Carriage Ride” by Marie Natale
“And that’s really kind of what I want to do. I’m not really interested in painting really emotional, deep heavy subjects. I want people to look at my paintings and say ‘Oh wow, I want to be there right now. Oh look at the light. Look at what a beautiful location that is. I want to be there.’ That’s more interesting to me than showing something emotionally gut-wrenching.
“I feel like I’m paying homage and giving respect to these buildings and these structures that have serviced people over the years, and honoring them in a way by showing them their beauty and letting people see what that is.
“That’s the other easy thing about Cape May – everywhere you turn around there’s another painting to paint. Everything is just so beautiful down there. Each building has its own unique architecture, and that’s exciting too.”