Anyone who’s driven down into the town of Watch Hill, Rhode Island, and along the stretch of harborfront knows the scene. Beyond a portion of grass, the bulkhead gives way to Watch Hill harbor and its fleet, one of New England’s most picturesque boating scenes.
That’s where Leif Nilsson set up his easel and went to work, creating Watch Hill Harbor from the Lawn, a 24-by-36-inch oil painting.
“I commuted to Watch Hill in the summer of 2012 and passed this view every day,” he says. “The experience led to a series of paintings from the lawn.”
Nilsson is a plein air artist, working outdoors, directly from life. When he comes upon a scene that inspires, he sets up his easel and puts the paint to the canvas, right from the tube. Nilsson’s studio might be on a waterfront such as this one, or at a quiet anchorage or even in his open runabout, moored on the Connecticut River.
“I am responding to the energy of what I see, not copying it,” the Chester, Connecticut, artist says.
Nilsson’s paintings are dramatically textured, the layers representing the scintillating effects of light in nature, he says. Sometimes, he’ll paint the same scene a few times, picking up the subtle differences in light and color in each rendering.
“The strokes sometimes leave wakes, so to speak, that dry up as waves on the canvas,” Nilsson says. “They can build up over many days and create texture that vibrates with color.”
Nilsson studied at the Lyme Academy College of Fine Arts in Old Lyme, Connecticut, before taking trips to Scandinavia, Asia Minor and Europe for inspiration.
“I studied the French 19th and early 20th century painters: Bonnard and Monet for color; Pissarro and Vuillard for composition, and Van Gogh for energy,” he says. “The great artists that I admire from the past studied from life and painted from their experience … and never stopped experimenting with composition and application.”
This article originally appeared in the July 2018 issue.