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PAINTING IN NEW HAMPSHIRE

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.

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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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