Not Idle in Winter: Dawn Whitelaw

We can’t show one of the most interesting things Tennessee artist Dawn Whitelaw does in winter to make her plein air paintings better.

Dawn Whitelaw is on the faculty of Plein Air Live, coming up April 15-17, 2021 (with a beginner’s day on April 14). 

"Stand of Cedars," by Dawn Whitelaw, oil, 11 x 14 in.
“Stand of Cedars,” by Dawn Whitelaw, oil, 11 x 14 in.

Mostly, Whitelaw just continues painting outdoors — the winter weather in the Nashville area is fairly moderate. “It’s mild enough that I can paint outside throughout the winter, and the winter landscape is beautiful in my city,” she says. “I plan on going out tomorrow, in fact.” Winter is so gentle in her part of Tennessee that Whitelaw tends to visit Wisconsin or similarly snowy climes at least once per winter to paint the white stuff.

"On a Frosty Morn," by Dawn Whitelaw, oil, 8 x 10 in.
“On a Frosty Morn,” by Dawn Whitelaw, oil, 8 x 10 in.

Like many plein air painters, Whitelaw uses winter to paint larger studio pieces from plein air studies, but the plein air work is not simply a stage in her painting process. When she is painting outdoors, she is painting all out, trying to paint the best she can. Whitelaw never thinks about whether a piece will end up being “just” a study, or instead a piece that ships to a gallery.

“I have no sense of that,” she says. “If I am painting in a group, at the end people will often ask, ‘How did you do?’ I honestly have no idea at that point. I reacted to the scene, and I got some information. I do better if I am not focusing on product when I’m out there. It is simply a response to the scene. Plein air events throw you into a different mindset, and I think that is a good thing to do. But I think the other mindset is very beneficial to growth.”

"Night Watch," by Dawn Whitelaw, oil, 12 x 16 in.
“Night Watch,” by Dawn Whitelaw, oil, 12 x 16 in.

Still, some end up being useful exercises, exploring the nature of a light condition or a particular subject matter. Others succeed as strong images and are considered for bigger treatment. “I look for studies that have the feeling that I want,” Whitelaw says.

She says that when she does give a plein air piece the larger studio treatment, she works almost solely from the plein air painting. “I do better if I don’t work from both the photo and the plein air study,” she says. “I might pull out the photo for a building, figure, boat, or something else that I’m unsure about in terms of its structure.”

"Water's Edge," by Dawn Whitelaw, oil, 12 x 16 in.
“Water’s Edge,” by Dawn Whitelaw, oil, 12 x 16 in.

Collectors of Whitelaw’s work may be pleased to find that most of her plein air pieces are painted on the finest portrait-grade linen. That is because Whitelaw has a thriving portrait-painting business, and she glues down any small remnants from the preparation of her portrait canvases for plein air painting.

"Winter's Dance," by Dawn Whitelaw, oil, 12 x 16 in.
“Winter’s Dance,” by Dawn Whitelaw, oil, 12 x 16 in.

There’s another trait of some of her plein air works that may make them appealing, but isn’t apparent without careful scrutiny. When Whitelaw recycles plein air pieces that “don’t come to resolution,” she coats them with a product designed to prepare a surface for oil painting. Some texture from the first painting remains. Whitelaw is not a painter who utilizes a lot of impasto, so the texture isn’t that prominent.

We can’t easily show the effect here because of its subtlety. But it’s enough that it makes her brushstroke break in an irregular way, in a way that wouldn’t normally happen over the consistent weave of linen. “I regain a lot of panels that way,” says Whitelaw. “I really like that surface of painting over an old painting. I like the texture, and I like the way the Gamblin oil painting ground prepares the surface. That started out as an economy thing, but now I really like working on that kind of panel.”

"Nashville Twilight," by Dawn Whitelaw, oil, 9 x 14 in.
“Nashville Twilight,” by Dawn Whitelaw, oil, 9 x 14 in.

So in winter, Whitelaw sorts through her plein air pieces and sets aside the ones she “doesn’t have any reason to keep around,” and prepares them with the ground to make them ready for another painting. They might not have to wait long. Summer in Tennessee means lots of green, which Whitelaw finds kind of boring, while winter offers golden grasses, touches of lavender, and more color variety in general.

Dawn Whitelaw, "Winter Overlook Sketch," 7 x 11 in.
Dawn Whitelaw, “Winter Overlook Sketch,” 7 x 11 in.
Landscape painting outdoors
Winter Landscape by Dawn Whitelaw

“I feel very much like Pam Ruschman says she does; the wintertime look is very appealing to me,” says Whitelaw. “I’m part of a 200-member painting group here that is very willing to get out and paint in the winter. If you put out the call, a lot of people will turn out to paint with you.”

This article was originally written by Andrew Webster in 2015

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