In an Outdoor Class, Oils and Water Do Mix

The area around Haverhill, N.H., has plenty of scenery to draw the attention of painters. Here, a barn overlooking the Connecticut River.
The area around Haverhill, N.H., has plenty of scenery to draw the attention of painters. Here, a barn overlooking the Connecticut River. (By Christina Talcott -- The Washington Post)
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By Christina Talcott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 24, 2008

At its best, travel lets you see the world in a new way. After a three-day painting workshop in New Hampshire, I learned to literally see the world in a different way: the range of color in a stand of evergreens, the degrees of light and dark on a mountain range, the textures in a freshly mowed hayfield or rock wall. Although many visitors go to New England to admire the scenery, going there to paint the scenery seemed like an even better idea.

Arts and crafts have always been part of my life, usually in a self-taught, hand-therapy way: drawing and painting as a kid, then sewing, pottery, knitting and stenciling. I'd long been intimidated but intrigued by oil painting, with its expensive paints and flammable paint thinner, so a three-day crash course seemed just the ticket.

Hit the Internet and you discover there are lots of painting possibilities. The workshop with painter Sean Dye at a bed-and-breakfast in Haverhill, N.H., seemed a nice way to add a vacation touch to an educational stint. A Vermont native, Dye writes books, teaches at the University of Vermont in Burlington and holds workshops around the world. I told him I had no experience using oils, but he assured me he would show me the basics.

Dye sent me a list of materials to bring, and gathering them at a downtown art-supply store reminded me of packing for summer camp: paintbrushes, brush washer, charcoal and paints, including such hues as Crimson Lake and Indian Yellow. At home, I rustled up baggy jeans, old T-shirts and an apron.

As I drove the two hours from the Manchester airport to Haverhill, I was nervous: Would I be in over my head? Would the other workshop participant resent me for all the help I would need from Dye?

Two minutes with Dottie Laughlin suggested I had nothing to worry about. My fellow student, she was sketching on a bright orange canvas in the back yard of the Gibson House gallery and bed-and-breakfast when I arrived.

Bubbly and gregarious, Laughlin described herself as "the typical art student": a 56-year-old mother of three adult sons who picked up painting when her kids were young. She takes classes at home in Boston and fits in a workshop every summer: last year in Italy, this year closer to home. The fact that there were only two of us was a delightful surprise for her: "It's like getting private lessons!" she exclaimed.

Just then, Dye bounded out from a shrub-shrouded patio, a 40-something man in cargo shorts, a Boston Red Sox cap and a paint-spattered shirt. It's his third year holding workshops at the Gibson House; his second workshop of the season is in September. He ran to fetch me a board, which he and Laughlin had already primed with orange paint ("I hate painting on a plain white surface," he explained) and plunked me down in a corner of the patio.

So, within minutes of arriving, I was seated at a makeshift easel. And within a few more minutes, I was hosing myself down with insect repellent. New England's unusually rainy summer had produced a voracious mosquito population. It also made Dye and Laughlin practically giddy to be sketching in the sun on this bright day.

Dye's instructions to me were to find a subject, sketch it on the board with charcoal, paint over the sketch with India ink, then start with the oils. He handed me a pad of shiny paper to use as a palette and poured a little India ink into a plastic cup and some foul-smelling paint thinner into my metal brush cleaner.

Then I started to sketch . . . and immediately erased it all. I called Dye over for help.

"Um, I'm having a little trouble with my composition," I started.

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