Luck comes to the quick of brush

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‘You can’t chase the light or you end up with mish-mash’

Melissa Shaw-Smith

Janet Howard-Fatta stands at her easel overlooking rows of onions curing in Pine Island’s black dirt. The early morning August air is full of the sound of birds and grasshoppers, a slight haze over the landscape. At least once a week when the weather’s fine, Howard Fatta packs up her canvas, brushes, easel and oils and goes plein air, or open air, painting.

“I usually don’t start until I feel really connected to the earth,” she explains. “I write a poem, or make a couple of little notes.” Howard-Fatta has been capturing the seasonal changes in the landscape around Warwick since she moved here 16 years ago with her husband Lou, and their young family.

“I considered myself a figurative painter before I moved to Warwick. Then I was inspired by this place. My husband really had a lot of faith in me. He’s like, you can be a landscape painter!”

The painting Howard-Fatta is working on is part of a series of landscapes of Pine Island for an upcoming show. “My husband was working in Middletown and he was driving here every day and he would send me photos and say, ‘You have to come paint this! Paint those fields, paint that light.’”

She works fast, trying not to spend more than two hours capturing the scene. “It’s the light that makes everything interesting for me,” she said. “You can’t chase the light, or you end up with mish-mash. Compared to other artists, I do what’s pretty. But you know what, I’ve always celebrated beauty. I just paint what I love.”

Howard-Fatta’s ability to capture fleeting moments, a skill honed outdoors and in the life-drawing group she runs, has served her well. For decades she’s painted family mealtimes. “I would paint my Christmas Eve dinner, Thanksgiving dinner... my family dinner when my kids were little.” In 2014 she painted a friend’s backyard maple sap boiling party. “And I was really looking for a business at the time, so I say, what’s the ultimate dinner party? A wedding!”

Howard-Fatta researched wedding painters and found an artist in New York City who was happy to share advice. She also set out to train. “I went to drawing group and said, I have two hours, I’m going to paint this whole scene. I painted everybody drawing, I painted the model, the light coming in. I did that two or three times and I was like, I can do this! And then I offered to do my neighbor’s daughter’s wedding.”

The stakes are high, but Howard-Fatta finds that she thrives on the air of celebration that surrounds event painting. “I go for ambience and energy. People energize me to do the work.” Each wedding party has different requests that she tries to meet. “It’s very challenging to do. And I love the challenge. I get there early and I have to look and breathe, just like I do outside. I always do a thumbnail sketch. I paint the space it’s in, so I create the composition. Then I figure out what part of the room would work in the painting and where the bride and groom are going to be.”

It’s late fall, and Howard-Fatta is back in her studio with four wedding paintings arrayed on easels awaiting final touch-ups. She’s painted 21 weddings so far this season and has another six lined up before the end of November. Her business plan has taken off in a big way. Now she’s all the more grateful for her peaceful morning plein air sessions.

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