The Shores, Seas and Skies of Anne Packard
Over the course of six decades, contemporary artist Anne Packard has honed her creative voice into an inspired convergence of image and imagination. Her distilled views of Cape Cod capture the essence of shore, sea and sky.
The artist has an almost innate ability to say so much with so little. She expertly captures the atmosphere of a scene in her seascapes without getting bogged down with details. Below, we take a closer look at Anne Packard’s origins, masterful contemporary landscapes and her creative process. Enjoy!
Less is More
Architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886–1969), director and teacher at the Bauhaus — the 20th century’s most influential school of modern art — taught, designed and lived by the adage, “Less is more.” This same phrase appears in Robert Browning’s poem “The Faultless Painter,” whereby the poet advocates an art that expresses both the material world and the immaterial nature of the soul.
When one experiences Provincetown, Massachusetts, in Anne Packard’s contemporary paintings, van der Rohe and Browning’s ideal springs to life. But why exactly did Packard choose to paint her otherworldly seascapes in this way? To truly understand how her process developed over the years, let’s take it back, way back to when the seeds of her artistry where first planted.
A Blue-Blooded Background
As a child, Packard spent summers wandering the beaches and sand dunes on the northern tip of Cape Cod, where her maternal grandmother, artist Zella Bohm, lived. When Bohm (1870–1957) was a young artist, she traveled to Paris and viewed the Salon of 1898, the year American-born artist Max Bohm (1868– 1923) was awarded the gold medal.
“She wanted to study with him,” recalls Packard. “They met, fell in love and the rest was history.” Like many of his generation, Bohm went to Europe to further his artistic education. In Paris, he attended the prestigious Académie Julian and lived at the Étaples art colony on the coast of Normandy.
Celebrated in Europe, but virtually unknown in America, the Bohms eventually returned to the states, settling in New York and summering in the art colony of Provincetown. Max Bohm’s artistic reputation soon spread. He was elected as a National Academician in 1920 and recognized as one of America’s foremost romantic visionary and impressionist painters.
Just three years later, his life was ended prematurely by a heart attack. “Although I never met my grandfather, he’s had an enormous influence on me,” says Packard. “I grew up surrounded by his paintings, and they’ve always been a great source of inspiration. That mysteriously deep ‘Bohm Blue’ in his The Blue Painting, which hangs in my home, enchants me even now.”
A Circuitous Route
Because she was interested in art, Packard’s parents enrolled her in a figure-painting class when she was 18 years old. Despite showing promise, the instructor met with her parents and advised them to dissuade their daughter from a life in art, citing the difficulties in making a living.
Packard would attend Bard College for a year, followed by secretarial school. Soon after, she met a writer, they married and had five children. Her life was devoted to caring for her family and the household.
After 17 years of marriage, her husband left, abandoning Packard and the children. “I was living in Princeton, New Jersey, and I had no money and no child support,” says Packard. “I found odd jobs and began painting ocean scenes on scraps of wood. I went to street fairs, church sales — anywhere I could — and sold them for $10 or $20 each.”
In 1974, Packard tragically lost her oldest son, Stephen. Devastated, she found solace through her art and her children. Three years after his death, she made the decision to move to Provincetown, and its landscape became the subject of her ethereal paintings.
Of Fences and Neighbors
Renting a seaside cottage, Packard began hanging her paintings on a board attached to her fence to attract the eyes of passersby. “I sold the paintings for a song, but it supported us,” recalls Packard. She also began studying with painter Philip Malicoat (1908–1981), who had been a student of Henry Hensche (1899–1992) and Edwin Dickinson (1891–1978).
“I learned a great deal from Phil, especially about the importance and use of value,” she says. “He encouraged and influenced me tremendously, but he didn’t like that I hung my paintings on a fence and sold them inexpensively.”
Packard adds, “Eventually, he gave me an ultimatum: ‘Stop abusing my muse,’ or he wouldn’t continue teaching me. I asked him how I could make a living, and he suggested that I could be a waitress, revealing that he worked as a fisherman in support of his art. I didn’t listen to him. We went our separate ways.”
Small Paintings, Large Reward
One day, a man stopped by and bought several of her smaller paintings. A short while later, he returned and bought some more. “I finally asked someone who this curious gentleman was, and was astonished to find out he was the abstract expressionist Robert Motherwell,” states Packard. “He lived just three doors down, and we became friends.”
Motherwell would visit Packard often. And, he frequently buy more of her paintings — over 20 in all — which, Packard noted, helped boost her confidence.
“He’d favorably compare my paintings with those by great landscape painters,” says Packard. “My daughter, Cynthia, who was in art school at the time, would listen from behind the door so afterward she could explain to me what and who he was talking about.”
She continues, “Once, he told me that he could take me to New York and make me ‘very big.’ Here I was, a woman in her mid-40s with all these kids, poor, selling paintings dirt cheap. Then he added that he didn’t think it would make me happy and that he wouldn’t do it, and that was that.”
Over the following decades, Packard’s innate talent and hard work at daily painting proved fruitful. “The more I painted, the more serious I got about painting,” the artist says. “It started as a craft, something fun to do for which I could earn money. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d accomplish what I have.”
The Mind’s Eye
Extremely prolific, Packard describes her overwhelming urge to create. “It’s about the search and having something to say, discovering your own individual voice,” she explains. “It comes from deep within. For me, it’s about the tranquility of solitude, not loneliness, but the contentment that comes from really being alone with yourself and your thoughts, memories and daydreams.”
The artist likes to go for walks in the mornings with her sketchbook. “Then I’ll return to work in the studio from the sketches, but mostly from my mind’s eye,” she adds. “I alter things constantly in my paintings. Like nature, they’re in a continual state of change and refinement. I’ll work on four or five paintings at a time, so I can let some rest as I contemplate what they need.”
Materials and Process
In her upstairs studio overlooking the bay, working by natural light, Packard creates her artwork using innumerable layers of paint. Old Holland oil paint is her brand of choice, because she loves its consistency and vibrancy of color.
She uses an array of primary colors, along with yellow ochre, orange, sap green and titanium white. An additional color Packard admittedly can’t live without is Winsor & Newton’s Payne’s gray.
Even when working large, whether on canvas, linen, Masonite or paper, she relies on a small 10- by 12-inch palette. She uses turpentine to thin the paint mixtures and occasionally pours turp over freshly painted areas, rotating and maneuvering the canvas to achieve gossamer effects. Because her paintings often evolve over extended periods, she applies retouch varnish toward the end to reinvigorate any colors that have dulled.
When it comes to brushes, her philosophy is to use the largest one possible to do the job at hand. In addition, Packard has found that her fingers and palms are invaluable implements for moving paint around and softening edges during the creative process.
Painting the Essence
Packard often begins a painting by applying an imprimatura of orange. “I love to paint against a warm color — as John Constable did,” she says. “It helps to give me that lovely atmosphere. Although you may not always see it, there’s always some memory of that orange.”
The large painting Serenity reveals the optical effects she achieves by using the imprimatura with semitransparent layers, each applied skillfully by hand and highly responsive brushwork. The painting achieves luminous qualities of atmosphere and a boundless sense of depth.
In White Dory, a low-lying fog obscures the horizon, generating a profound depth that plays against the proximity of the boat. Like opposing forces, they enact a dynamic push/pull effect across the entire canvas. It’s a piece that discloses Packard’s prowess as a painter of enigma.
At first glance, it’s a simple, lovely picture, firmly grounded in reality. But the more one looks, the more mirage-like that reality becomes. The signature of Packard’s imagery takes effect, inducing the viewer’s imagination, memories and dreams. Subject matter in a Packard painting shifts as surely as sand dunes.
Fleeting, atmospheric effects are captured in Evening Mist and Foggy Wharf. “I hold all of these moments and images in my mind’s eye,” explains Packard. “I can change things around at will. I don’t want to paint exactly what I see. I want to paint the essence of what’s there.”
A Strong Foundation
Good composition is a guiding principle in Packard’s process. In View From Bradford we enter the composition at bottom right. Packard then takes our attention left, weaving us through labyrinthine space before coming to rest on the red-roofed houses, above which the sea recedes as the sky advances forward.
“I started with the main red-roofed house and worked the composition out from there,” says Packard. “Composition becomes instinctual, but only when you have a lot of experience. I’ve painted this area many times.”
Packard’s painterly and visually concise Beach House demonstrates her Zen-like ability to express subject and idea quickly, without any hint of overworking. “I don’t like to use the word ‘finished’ to describe when a painting is done,” she says. “That sounds like I’m finishing furniture or fussing with details.
She thinks of a painting as being “complete” when it feels “right, true and whole.” The artist notes, “Beach House was completed quickly, though it’s purposely not ‘finished,’ not picked at. I said what I wanted to say, and I just didn’t want to touch it anymore.” Similarly, the painting Cape Beach expresses Packard’s characteristic freshness and immediacy.
Between Reality and the Imagined
To view Packard’s paintings is to experience natural elements as forces artfully teased and coerced into equilibrium. There’s an ever-delicate balance between reality and the imagined.
Intangible qualities such as time, memory and dreams float freely yet are tethered to a specific place and moment. Her stunning and mysterious Blue Evening is a befitting nod to her grandfather’s The Blue Painting. In this artwork, she uses a figure/ground relationship to advance her expressive illumination further.
“I like to paint things that are alone, solitary and peaceful,” explains Packard. “Boats are like people to me — friends who have their own personalities — and that blue isn’t just a wall of blue. I applied layer after layer of cobalt, cerulean and yellow ochre until I achieved that depth.”
The artist continues, “I always want the viewer to be able to go into my paint surface as though it’s the air itself, a patina of time that sparks memories or transports dreams. I’m always trying to express that breadth of space between breaths. I’m still on the search, and I want to do so much more with so much less.”
This article on Anne Packard first appeared in Artists Magazine and is written by Robert K. Carsten. When not teaching workshops nationally and internationally, Carsten spends his time painting the landscape near his home in Vermont. You can learn more about Carsten by visiting his website.
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