Few things are harder than juggling the changing light and overwhelming stimulus of plein air painting — except maybe catching the unparalleled familiarity yet endlessly deep nuance of a figure painting. Put them together and you have … the Tableau Vivant at Tillbury Camp.
Dianne Gardner organizes the painters for the event. She can’t remember just how many years it’s been going on, but she says with some certainty, “Several.” The Tillbury Camp arranges for models and costumes — and lunch. Some years as many as 40 artists sign up; other years, there are about a dozen roaming the five acres of property owned and operated by Nancy and Gordon Frye.
In past years there has been everything from men in armor to fortunetellers.
“A few years ago I realized that I had been hiring models to pose in my studio and sharing the expense with artist friends, so I wondered about having several models pose for us,” says Gardner. “I read about the concept of tableau vivant, where theatrical players dressed in costumes for artists and photographers. Since we had friends who did historical reenactments and participated in festivals, it seemed like we had the ingredients in hand. The Fryes had horses, tack, and saddles, so we gathered a bunch of artists together one day in the spring, and we’ve been doing it every year since.”
“Picnic,” by Dianne Gardner, 2012, oil, 8 x 10 in. Private collection.
It’s only one day, and if it rains, the activities must move into the barn or under one of the camp’s tents. But the chance to paint the figure in the landscape is worth the risk. “In the springtime we usually don’t have too many problems with weather,” says Gardner. “The models can get uncomfortable if there’s a lot of sun, and they may squint. But I think painting outdoors, whether you are depicting the landscape or models, is important for any artist to do. You learn to draw and paint quickly, you learn to capture shapes and shadows, and how the sun hits things. It creates an atmosphere, a mood, and an emotion. Any plein air painter realizes the difference between working outside and working in a studio.”
Artists can move around to paint several models in different costumes on the five-acre property.
In past years, the themes have ranged from a renaissance market to 16th-century armory. There have been gypsies and fortunetellers. This year, the theme is “The Farm,” complete with horses, chickens, cats, dogs, and a variety of models in costume posing with the animals and an assortment of vegetables, pots, baskets, flowers, and the like.
Various eras and regions have been showcased in past years.
The date is May 9. The cost is $60 in advance, $65 the day of the event. Tillbury Camp is located near Kingston, Washington. Contact Dianne Gardner to sign up or to get more information.