Crystal Moll painted a 50”-x-10” painting chock full of architectural lines, and won a top prize for it. It was a challenge, but probably not for the reasons most artists would think.
“I do so much architecture that the drawing wasn’t really that hard for me,” Moll says, swatting away issues of perspective, scale, and general mahl stick madness. “The hard part was getting my easel to take that shape.” Moll uses a Beauport easel, and while it is up to the task of handling a big painting, it is not ideal for paintings that are very vertical and only 10 inches wide. “It really doesn’t allow a tall, skinny piece, so I had to rig something between the bottom pegs to hold it.”
Moll is a devout plein air painter — she’s been doing it for more than 25 years, longer than the phrase “plein air” has been kicked around so commonly. But she is not an alla prima painter. Moll likes to return to a location multiple times to finish a piece. “I am a slow plein air painter,” she says. “Early on, I got into Plein Air Easton, and it was a baptism by fire. I find it hard and stressful to work fast and capture a moment in time. I love spending day after day on a painting. I’ll work on several paintings at a time, and move around as the sun does.”
“Look Down, Look Up,” by Crystal Moll, 2016, 50 x 10 in. First Place in MAPAPA’s Cityscape exhibition
Moll doesn’t entirely know why that severely vertical piece, “Look Down, Look Up,” won First Place at the Cityscape exhibition hosted by the Mid-Atlantic Plein Air Painters Association at the Peale Museum in Baltimore. The judge, Louis Escobedo, simply said, “Crystal’s painting was the best due to her composition, design, and use of light.” Moll speculates that her unusual format may have helped her piece stand out from the crowd, but she also has noted that her approach to plein air painting differentiates her work as well. “My paintings may not have that ‘plein air look’ that makes for a winning piece in plein air events,” says Moll. “There is a looseness and painterly quality in a piece done in two or three hours. But my pieces therefore tend to stand out in plein air events; it’s a piece that has been worked on a lot more.”
Moll says she’s had painters tell her she doesn’t need to include so many details in her paintings of buildings. She’ll reply, “But that’s what I love!”
“South Baltimore,” by Crystal Moll, 2016, oil, 12 x 12 in.
Back to her painting adventure with “Look Down, Look Up.” The easel problem was solved. But there was another one on the way. “I had planned to get up on a roof and do a horizontal piece,” Moll says. “I had that long canvas leaning up against the wall in a vertical position, and when I looked at it, I thought it would be very interesting to paint it that way. I went into a parking garage and looked for a view, and that’s what I found.”
Moll’s process requires her to revisit the location several times to complete the painting. The first couple of painting sessions went smoothly. But when she went back to her spot, which was the seventh level of a parking garage looking up St. Paul Street, she ran into an obstacle. “When I went back to start laying color in at the top of the painting, security said I couldn’t be up there painting,” she reports. “Liability issue. I talked with two women with security, and they said they had to talk to their boss, and then here comes the main security guy and two police officers, and they asked me to leave. They said I couldn’t be up there working. After two days of messing with insurance companies, I convinced the building owner that I was covered by insurance through my gallery, and they allowed me up there for five more days. After that, everything was fine. Security even came and watched me paint. And they asked me to do a show in the lobby of their building!”
The Peale Museum in Baltimore, where the Cityscape exhibition was hung
Did Moll have a feeling that this painting was special, that it was an award winner? “Well, the structure of that piece, even in the underpainting, seemed kind of cool,” she says. “The bones of it seemed very strong. I laid it in with burnt sienna, and I had a hard time going back and painting color over it. Some pieces flow a lot, and this is one that really flowed, even over the several days that I went back.”