Sarah Baptist, painting en plein air
Sarah Baptist paints on the side of the road in Floyd, Virginia.

In pursuit of a blend of drawing and painting, this Delaware artist depicts the abstract strength in back alleys, side streets, and intersections.

From where she lives in Delaware, Sarah Baptist can be in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania — the home and inspiration for the Wyeth family of artists — within 25 minutes. In another direction, she needs only drive 45 minutes to be in rich farmland. But she can also point her car in a third direction and within 30 minutes visit Philadelphia, a museum-rich city with a multitude of striking urban subjects. Given these choices, she tends to go urban.

“It’s pretty built up around here, but I do live near the land of cows, horses, fields, and barns,” says Baptist. “Like most people, though, I used to drive into the city for work, and I like the idea of painting things that we see every day. I like to alert people to the fact that there is a design, a gracefulness, and maybe even a quote-unquote beauty that we can honor and appreciate in the city. People seem to understand that. I also really like the grittiness — the realness — of the city. That’s the world we live in. I’m in a suburban area and always hear that hubbub of highways going by; there are railroads and a busy river near my house, as well. I paint what I know.”

Sarah Baptist, "RR Crossing," 2018, oil, 12 x 12 in. Collection the artist Plein air
Sarah Baptist, “RR Crossing,” 2018, oil, 12 x 12 in., Collection the artist, Plein air


Baptist devoted herself to painting full time a mere five years ago, although painting and drawing have always been a part of her life. For the first two years, she concentrated on getting out there — painting, networking, and competing in plein air events. She enjoyed success with her urban scenes, especially those that prominently featured power lines and other wires.

“People say they love the wires in my work and that they notice them now when they’re out and think they’re great. It’s a reminder to look up, to look around you. There’s stuff to appreciate right there.”

Baptist was thrilled with how the incised lines of the wires broke the sky, the buildings, and most everything else into interesting shapes in her work. The wires created an abstract composition of their own. But this venture ran its course. “I came to a dead end with that,” she says. “It felt like paint by numbers. It became, ‘Here’s a shape and I’m going to put a color in there.’ It felt flat to me. I didn’t want to go further down that path; it didn’t excite me.”

Sarah Baptist, "Lanier Avenue," 2018, oil, 10 x 10 in., Private collection, Plein air
Sarah Baptist, “Lanier Avenue,” 2018, oil, 10 x 10 in., Private collection, Plein air

The wires and power lines, inscribed in the paint using an HB pencil (“a No. 2 leaves graphite marks that smudge the paint”) or the pointed end of her paintbrush, also allow Baptist to explore surface depth, somewhat similar to the way Bay Area painter Richard Diebenkorn built up layers of shapes, ideas, and colors, leaving little windows to see what came about earlier in the painting process.

“I still love Diebenkorn. He is still definitely my number one,” says Baptist. “In regard to Diebenkorn and the layers of work, my takeaway is just the application of the paint, and the process. I love to draw into the painting, and that’s my way of doing Diebenkorn. In plein air, you really don’t have that time. I draw into the painting to give it layers. It doesn’t work all the time and it isn’t in all my paintings, but when I do it, it adds a scratchy quality, another texture, a bit of abstraction. That’s something I want to delve into more as an artist. In my studio work I am trying to do more layering and scraping and being a little more spontaneous.”

Diebenkorn is arguably most famous for his city scenes, especially those showing the hilly streets of San Francisco. Baptist seems similarly oriented. She participated in many events that exposed her to rural areas, but the artist often found her preferred human-made motifs, regardless.

“I met a lot of artists and found things that excited me — and things that didn’t. I followed the paths where they took me. And I found intersections to paint and wires to use. I was not hostile toward rural scenes, but it’s the rhythm of urban scenes that I love. I used to say I liked the geometry of the city, but that made no sense to people. And it’s more than that. It is the rhythm, not just of structures, but of the empty spaces.”

Baptist continues, “I went to school for set design. In that role, I was concerned with what was above and around the whole stage space, not just what was behind the actors. I like the space in between, the negative spaces. To me, that is abstract art, that rhythm, pace, vibration. It is almost music to me. The wires go across and they sort of pull you. The shapes may go ‘boom, boom, boom,’ in a row. I see that music in my head all at once and I go, ‘Whoa, that’s it.’ I really love the urban landscape. I have backed away from rural events and focus more on what I love to do: cityscapes, back alleys, and the abstracting of simple forms, simple shapes.”

Sarah Baptist, "Trolley Square," 2017, oil, 10 x 10 in., Private collection, Plein air
Sarah Baptist, “Trolley Square,” 2017, oil, 10 x 10 in., Private collection, Plein air


There will undoubtedly be wires in future paintings by Baptist, but she is on to new things, including painting in a larger format. “I’m going big right now, using photos from past plein air sessions,” she says. “I’m working on panels that are 2 x 2 or 3 x 3 feet. It’s fine; I used to work really big as a scenic artist. I just need more big brushes!”

More is more right now for Baptist. “I’m also trying to put on more paint,” she says. “I start with a red-toned panel, generally followed with a loose drawing. Then I block in color and try to get thicker and thicker with the paint. I make my panels myself, and I make them pretty absorbent. I don’t use oil primer, so my surface sucks up that paint even more. Once it is 75 percent along, I can start applying yet more layers of paint and get what I want. This is, of course, important in the sky areas of a painting, due to that red ground. With thick paint, I can control how much peeks through, covering up a lot of that pinkness of the undertone.”

She adds, “And I like that quality of impasto. To some degree that’s a way to control people’s interest and indicate where the focus of the painting is. That is something I want to address more and more going forward.”

Sarah Baptist, "Luken Steel," 2018, oil, 11 x 14 in., Private collection, Plein air
Sarah Baptist, “Luken Steel,” 2018, oil, 11 x 14 in., Private collection, Plein air

The studio may become increasingly important to Baptist’s process, in part because she dislikes some of the conditions of plein air painting. “I am the wimpiest plein air painter in the world. If it gets below 60 degrees, I’m iffy. Windy and 50? Forget it. Winter months are studio months. It’s also my time to recalibrate for the year, a chance to think about which events I may wish to participate in, and determine what’s my focus.”

Along the way, Baptist continues to pursue increasing amounts of abstraction. “The tendency is to see a garage and want to paint each cinder block,” says the artist. “I try to focus on the big shapes and tones and not worry so much about, say, the tiny shadow under the eave. I’m trying to get scrubby and sketchy, and I’m doing a lot more drawing with a painting stick on some pieces, so it’s a much looser approach, which I’m enjoying.”

Baptist says, “I need to get ahold of a lot more of these paint sticks. I like to use chalk and some charcoal, too — there’s a skippiness to that quality of line that you can’t get with a paintbrush. But I don’t want it to be all paint stick — that could look like a crayon painting, so I do need more tones. Does the art store have a sale going on?” she laughs. “I love to draw and I have this idea of combining drawing and painting. My pencil work in wet paintings now adds spontaneity, a quality to the work that I really like and can’t get with just painting. Drawing is the same way. It needs paint.

“I’m not ever going to retire from this,” she concludes. “This is not just a career, it’s my life; it’s what I do. It’s not that I have to be at a particular place a year from now. But I would never have believed five years ago that I would get the shows and sales and friendships that I have today. As long as I keep climbing the mountain and not sliding back down the hill, I’m good. I’ll just keep moving forward.”

Sarah Baptist, "Out Dad’s Studio Window," 2018, oil, 14 x 11 in., Private collection, Plein air
Sarah Baptist, “Out Dad’s Studio Window,” 2018, oil, 14 x 11 in., Private collection, Plein air

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