OGUNQUIT — It happens to be a beautiful day.
Most of the people on the ocean side of Footbridge Beach think that’s a good thing. Mary Byrom thinks maybe not.
“With any luck,” she said, pausing at her tripod painting easel, “it will cloud up before the tide comes in.”
As she spoke, Byrom stood on the dune side of the beach, away from the sun seekers. They walked past her in T-shirts, sandals and shorts, lugging lawn chairs across the picturesque wooden bridge to the sun-splashed sand on the other side.
Many offered curious glances at the painter, who perched just south of the bridge standing in sloppy dune grass and muck, dressed in two layers of fleece and a nylon jacket splashed with oil paint. She wore heavy shoes and a large-brimmed hat tied tightly under her chin.
A long ponytail reached down her back.
“I was going to go to the beach for low tide, but the sand was bad,” she said. “The sand wasn’t holding the reflection. So I came here to the back side of the marsh and the dunes. I like how the trees in the distance are dark and backlit. The river is doing kind of a pattern here.”
The tidal river stretched out before her, dividing the marsh from the dunes. The near-midday sun reflected on the water rippled by the wind and tugged by the current of an incoming tide.
Byrom, who lives in North Berwick, is among a hardy group of artists who enjoy painting outdoors. She appreciates good weather as much as anyone, and clear, blue skies are sometimes great for painting and for her mood.
But the haze, fog and clouds make for much more dramatic paintings, she said.
In the painting world, Byrom is known as a plein air painter.
“En plein air” is a French term that means “in the open air.” Painting outdoors is an age-old tradition that dates back hundreds of years. It was made popular by the French painters of the 19th century who subscribed to the Barbizon school and Impressionist style of painting.
Artists such as Monet and Renoir advocated painting outdoors to capture the immediacy of the environment.
A 30-year painter, Byrom has painted outdoors for the better part of the past decade. She likes the challenge of painting on location.
“There’s a certain breed of people who paint en plein air. It’s very difficult,” she said. “Conditions change all the time. The weather is changing, the light is changing. If you’re on the ocean, the tide is changing. You’re painting a boat, and then someone drives it away. I was painting a tree one time, and someone came and cut it down.”
Byrom leads the Plein Air Painters of Southern Maine. The group has a few hundred members, and includes professionals and hobbyists.
Byrom is among the most dedicated. She paints outside year-round in all conditions, several days a week.
Generally, her circuit stretches from Cape Ann in Massachusetts to the Maine midcoast and inland into New Hampshire.
She spends a lot of time on the coast, because seascapes and marsh scenes seem to be what people are most interested in buying.
But she loves heading into the mountains and farms of western Maine, especially in the fall.
In the winter, she often paints alone, or with a very small group of friends. During those cold solo months, she knows she can count on one group to keep her company.
“The dog people are the people we see in any weather. Dogs and sometimes horses, and that’s about it.”
In the early days of spring, the artists go all over, because parking is plentiful and free. But once the warm weather kicks in and municipalities restrict parking, finding good places to paint is challenging. Byrom refuses to pay for parking, and goes to spots where she knows she can park for free.
She won’t reveal her parking secrets. She guards them the way a fisherman guards his favorite fishing spots.
‘PAINTING A ZONE’
Painting outdoors has made her a better painter. She has learned to be more observant, and has mastered techniques that allow her to paint quickly.
Among the things Byrom has learned is something the Impressionist painters learned more than a century ago. She is not painting an object, but capturing a mood, light and color.
“I am painting a zone,” she said. “An object may be in it, but I am not painting that object. People think I paint boats, but it’s not about boats.”
Byrom can finish off an oil painting in a matter of an hour, if necessary.
She tells a story about an excursion to Five Islands in Georgetown. She had just set up her easel and begun an island scene when a man approached and told her he would buy her painting if she had it done by the time he finished his meal at a nearby restaurant.
By the time he came back, the painting was gone. Not only had Byrom finished it before he finished his meal, someone else had beat him to it.
Byrom told the tardy diner not to worry: She’d paint another if he was willing to wait another hour.
It’s not unusual for her to sell paintings off the easel, with the paint still wet. That used to be difficult, because few people carried enough cash for a spontaneous purchase.
She recently bought a plug-in device that allows her to process credit cards from her iPhone.
ENDURANCE ABILITY EARNED
Among her favorite spots is Bauneg Beg Mountain at the northern tip of North Berwick. She painted there during a recent winter when it was so cold her oil paints almost froze. She had to thin them to use them.
Byrom paints in the rain, in snow squalls and in the lusty weather of summer. She’s not a meteorologist, but can read weather patterns as well as anyone. She checks a tide chart a week in advance to plan her excursions to the coast. Her Subaru hatchback is a portable studio; she keeps it stocked with supplies.
Curiously, Byrom attributes her desire to paint outdoors and her ability to withstand all weather conditions to an accident that happened in 1989 while she was crossing a street in Portsmouth, N.H.
She was struck by a car and hospitalized for three weeks in Boston while doctors stabilized her and prepared her for a series of surgeries on her left leg.
Her leg was crushed; her knee obliterated.
While weighing her options, a friend suggested the Chinese meditation practice of Falun Gong. She tried it, and felt better immediately.
Miraculously, she regained the ability to walk. “My doctor told me, ‘Whatever you’re doing, keep doing it.’ “
Byrom attributes her endurance and ability to withstand brutal weather conditions to the peace of mind that she has learned from meditation.
“I am on an even keel,” she said.
LEARNING TO FIND SOLUTIONS
Byrom experienced her painting breakthrough in 2007, when she took a 10-day workshop by Western painter Scott Christensen, who lives in Utah.
He taught her basic painting rules and techniques, and things clicked.
“She’s a good learner,” Christensen said. “She pays attention, and she applies everything you tell her. She thinks it out and is thorough about the thought process before painting. She’s a great student, and loves to keep exploring and getting better. She knows it will take a lifetime.”
What Byrom learned most from the workshop was how “to paint through it.” Rather than get frustrated, she learned to plow through the challenges and find solutions.
When Byrom arrived home from that workshop, her husband met her at the airport. “I’m going out,” she told him when they got into the car, asking him to take her to the York River.
She needed to paint — before she got home, before she unpacked. She had to get out in the environment and apply what she had learned, and did not want to wait until the next day.
Since then, Byrom’s career has soared. She makes hundreds of paintings a year, and leads workshops and classes to share her knowledge with other painters.
Among her fans is Mark Eves, the speaker of the Maine House of Representatives. He lives in North Berwick, and has filled his State House office with her work.
Eves has known Byrom and her husband for a few years as constituents. He stopped in to her home studio while visiting the couple at their house. He had just been sworn in as House speaker, and suggested to Byrom that her art would look good in his office.
“I said, ‘If you would ever want your paintings hung in Augusta, I’d be honored to hang them in the speaker’s office.’ We have a lot of meetings; it’s great exposure for her great work. They’re beautiful, and people are drawn to them,” Eves said. “They are iconic images of Maine, and it’s a great way to get people to talk about Maine through her work. They’re a great conversational piece.”
Byrom loves sharing her work and her knowledge. While she appreciates painting without interruption, she sees herself as something of an art ambassador. She almost always makes time to talk to people about what she is doing when she is on location.
“They think it’s astounding. They are like, ‘Wow, what are you doing?’ And they bring their children over to watch,” she said. “I talk to them. I think it’s a great educational opportunity.
“People are just another element. They are just one more thing I have to take into account when I am out here working.”
Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or: