OLD ORCHARD BEACH — Rachael Eastman lurches forward to meet the surf as it breaks under The Pier at Old Orchard Beach. A wave rises above her knees and knocks her backward. She clenches her toes in the sand and reaches out with a hand to brace against a piling. The water retreats, and she follows it forward, graceful like a ballerina, lifting each leg out of the swallowing sand before planting again for the next surge.

Camera phone in hand, Eastman bends low at the waist, her body barely out of the rising surf, and clicks off a series of photos before jumping back up and out of the way of a crashing wave.

Eastman, a painter, is here on this morning, as she is every morning, moments before sunrise, when dawn fills the horizon and lights a new day. This day is overcast, with no sun to speak of, but there is still much to see. The water is silver beneath a leaden sky, rolling with an incoming tide. A half moon shines above, masked by haze. The radiant pink of another morning is forgotten in the thickness of what will become a humid day.

“As a painter, it’s never not worth coming for,” she said. “It’s always beautiful.”

"Sea Wall" Oil on box panel

“Sea Wall” Oil on box panel Photos by Jay York/Courtesy of the artist Photo by Jay York/Courtesy of the artist

Eastman begins each day like Icarus, in a race for the sun. She is in the midst of what will be, by season’s end, 160 consecutive mornings on the beach, a quest that she began in May and will continue into September. This is her third summer of what she calls her “dawnathon,” an obsessive exercise that connects her to her subject, nourishes her soul and informs her paintings.

“I can’t help it,” she said. “I’m possessed.”

Obsession has long been part of the practice of artists. Monet obsessed over waterlilies and haystacks. Eastman obsesses over dawn.

She trusts that her single-minded dedication shows itself in deeper paintings that express not what she sees each morning but how she feels. She wants to transfer the energy of the sun and the movement of the water to the surface of her paintings.

Her photos are a personal diary of her mornings. She doesn’t use them to paint, but looks at them for inspiration. She paints, she said, from “faulty memory.” It is not science she is after, but romance.

MANY HAPPY RETURNS

A few minutes before sunrise, Eastman wades barefoot into the surf wearing black yoga pants and top, facing east as her name compels so she will be prone to the light when it cracks the horizon. The time before and the time after sunrise hold their own beauty and pleasure, but Eastman is insistent on being present for the sun and in the water at the very moment it shows on the horizon. “It’s like watching a flare,” she said. “You lose yourself.”

She dares anyone to try. Two weeks of dawns will change a person, she said. It will set your spine and take away the superfluous, laying vanity bare.

"Turbulence 1" Ink, charcoal and chalk on paper

“Turbulence 1” Ink, charcoal and chalk on paper Photo by Jay York/Courtesy of the artist

Eastman is mindful of the weather and keeps a kit in her car that includes foul-weather gear, fingerless gloves, hats and towels. These last three years, she has extended her mornings on the beach into the winter, averaging 235 total mornings a year. A wetsuit is in her future, she said. She goes barefoot “as much as humanely possible, as much as it’s safe.”

She’s lost three phones to the surf.

She likes to arrive before anyone else is on the beach, but that doesn’t always happen. When others are here – tourists with cameras, anglers with fishing rods, men and women with their dogs – she avoids them so they do not come between her and the sun. She dashes around the beach, in and out of the water in search of different reflections and wave movements.

One magical morning, as the sun popped out from the east, the moon hovered over her shoulder to the west. The light of the moon on the water mingling with the rising sun sustained a year’s worth of exhibitions.

"Turbulence 2" ink, charcoal and chalk

“Turbulence 2” ink, charcoal and chalk Photo by Jay York/Courtesy of the artist

At their best, her paintings convey the mystery and moody presence of the sky and sea. As with some of her earlier work, these oil paintings exist somewhere between representational and abstract. We know what we’re seeing, and we also understand there is much more at play below the thick, gooey surface of the paint.

Eastman is a Maine College of Art graduate and a student of longtime Maine painter Lois Dodd. She spent much of her early artistic life painting the human figure and face. The subject consumed her for 20 years, as she experimented with color, tone and painting style. She spent years living in the mountains and looking at heavenly vistas “but couldn’t force anything but a face out of myself.”

LOVE, DEATH AND WONDER

Her shift away from the human face and figure began with a dog. For years, when Eastman lived in Old Orchard within a mile of the beach, she came each morning with Matisse, a Papillon with a hint of chihuahua. Matisse was a rescue dog, and Eastman’s longtime companion until his recent death.

He brought her to the beach, where their walks became so much more than physical exercise. “Something had taken over me,” Eastman says. “I would come down to the water and look up and see this astounding beauty in the sky. The colors and the way light moved across the water, and the angle of the sun as it rises – it all just made me feel so small.”

A studio visit with Brunswick painter Kathy Bradford helped her shake loose of the face and figure to concentrate on the sea. Eastman sought Bradford’s advice as a mentor, and Bradford told her, “You’re in love with this ocean.”

Eastman has been painting water, sky and where the two meet for seven years since.

She cites Mark Rothko and J.M.W. Turner, a 19th century England landscape painter, as influences. Rothko is easy to see. Eastman’s paintings explore the tensions between the soft blues, grays and pinks, where the sea and sky come together. A recent series of drawings convey the turbulence of the stormy seas.

"Ocean Gesture 3" Ink and charcoal on paper

“Ocean Gesture 3” Ink and charcoal on paper

Eastman is following a great artistic tradition in returning to her subject over and over. Many artists have obsessed over a single motif for years. The sculptor Rodin is an example from tradition. He returned to the figure in an incessant search for ways to express anguish, joy and intellect.

In Maine, painter Tom Curry obsessed over a small island off Eggemoggin Reach, making dozens of paintings of the island in all seasons. The island became a constant presence in his life, a living thing, and Curry’s paintings evolved from landscapes to portraits.

Eastman is in the midst of something similar at Old Orchard Beach. These days, with sunrise approaching 5:30, she is up by 4. She sleeps four, five hours most nights. She has an alarm, but doesn’t need it. She makes coffee and is in the car 30 minutes before sunrise.

She is in place, under The Pier, as the light pushes over the horizon.