Veteran California oil painter Meredith Brooks Abbott explains how she has maintained a devotion to the routine of painting every day, with continually improving results.
by Molly Siple
2006, oil on linen, 11 x 11. All artwork this article private collection.
Meredith Brooks Abbott has been painting for 50 years, but she feels that doesn’t exempt her from going to life-drawing sessions once a week at the local community college. She also spends two to three hours a day painting. Perhaps not surprisingly, when asked what she finds her greatest current challenge, Abbott immediately answers, “seeing with fresh eyes what you’ve been painting for so long.” And she continues, “I understand why some artists shift toward abstraction later in their careers—because it seems new to them. I tend to do the same thing, thinking of my paintings in terms of abstract composition. I’ll turn a canvas upside down so that I can judge it simply as a design.” She will also sit in a chair at a distance from her easel, to take a long look at a nearly finished painting. “I hate the premise of paint-outs with an exhibition the last day,” says Abbott. “I need to digest a painting and live with it for a while before I can declare it ready to be shown.”
Over the years, Abbott has developed a special knack for imagery that includes many details yet reads easily: tangles of slender eucalyptus leaves, a vast tracery of branches, or a slew of wildflowers in a vase. Abbott modestly explains that she manages to successfully paint a pile of autumn leaves by keeping major areas of light and dark values separate and making sure items are clearly established in space. She grew up close to the land and, not surprisingly, paints it well—but she also paints masterful portraits and still lifes that often feature bouquets drawn from her rambling garden planted with roses, Mexican sage, lavender, desert succulents, and poppies.
2006, oil on linen, 40 x 30.
Even at an early age, picture-making was routine for Abbott. A favorite game she played with her siblings involved her oldest sister finding a picture of something and describing what she was looking at. The challenge to her younger siblings was to draw this ‘something.’ The one who drew it best won and earned the right to decide what to draw next. Years later, Abbott played this same game with her own daughter, Whitney Brooks Abbott, who is now also an established painter. Based on her experience, Abbott is sure that budding young artists do best when their training goes beyond formal schooling. As she says, “Encouragement from home can make a big difference.”
Abbott attended class as an art major at Scripps College, in Claremont, California, but left after less than a year to help care for her ailing father, a decision that also allowed her to focus more on painting. She began taking classes in Santa Barbara from Douglass Parshall, a painter known for both his watercolors and oils. She was acquainted with Richard S. Meryman, a friend of the Brooks family and a noted American Impressionist who wintered in Santa Barbara. Meryman had studied under Edmund Tarbell and Frank Benson, leading exponents of Impressionism at the Boston Museum School, as well as with the realist painter Abbott Thayer. Meryman adopted their realistic imagery and impressionistic technique—hallmarks of the Boston Museum School—and passed this mixture of influences along to his new California protégée. Meryman would paint with Clarence Hinkle in Hinkle’s studio, and Abbott had the good fortune to paint there too, side by side with these two fine artists. It was there that Abbott began to develop her own style. However, she prefers not to be labeled an Impressionist painter. Rather, she simply states that she paints anything with light falling on it.
|Bees and Sunflowers
2006, oil on linen, 30 x 24.
More formally, Abbott received the equivalent of four years’ training at the Art Center College of Design, in Pasadena, California, and then moved to New York City in 1962, where she spent her days working as an advertising illustrator while attending evening classes at the Art Students League of New York. Trips to Dublin, New Hampshire, to paint with Meryman at his home were welcome breaks from mundane assignments such as designing the layouts for the Green Stamp catalogue. At the time, Meryman was painting portraits; Abbott recalls several governors and professors who came from miles around to pose. Upon Meryman’s death in 1963, Abbott inherited three of these portraits from the artist. Abbott continues to revere her mentor. “In 2001 the Thorne-Sagendorph Art Museum, in Keene, New Hampshire, assembled a retrospective of Meryman’s work and my already huge admiration of this man soared,” she says. “The portraits are as beautiful as any I have seen.”
In 1970, Abbott moved to San Francisco and began exhibiting her paintings in galleries and continued to work as an illustrator. On weekends she would head for Marin County to paint outdoors. During this period the artist met and married a childhood friend, Duncan Abbott, also from Carpinteria, and in 1974 the couple moved south to run his family’s ranch. The challenge for Abbott was balancing painting with the demands of being a wife and the mother of a daughter and twin boys. Fortunately, her husband designed and built a studio for her at the end of a garden path—just far enough away from the house for privacy.
|Nasturtiums in a Blue Jar
2006, oil on linen, 12 x 16.
Modeled after Hinkle’s studio, it is an ample structure, complete with a clerestory window along its length for north light. When the children were young, Abbott would carve out hours for painting, hiring a babysitter from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. each morning. “I also remember getting up around 5 a.m. in the summers and painting until about 9 a.m., then coming back to the house and making breakfast as though I hadn’t already had a few hours of painting under my belt!” Abbott feels it was a benefit to her entire family that she made time for her art. “My painting hours gave my children the chance to invent their own pastimes,” she says. “They also had the chance to see that it was possible for me to have a career too. And studio time gave me a more balanced life.”
Today Abbott’s career is flourishing, with sold-out shows at Maureen Murphy Fine Arts, in nearby Montecito. Abbott has become one of the premier documenters of the California landscape, painting what is quickly vanishing. For example, the trees in the paintings on the front and back covers of the catalogue for her 2006 exhibition are already fallen or dramatically altered due to weather and a highway improvement project. Development has also taken its toll. “It’s becoming harder and harder to get off the freeway and go where you want to paint,” says Abbott. “There are so many fences, and people these days are uncomfortable with strangers showing up on private property.”
2006, oil on linen, 6 x 12.
One wilderness area that is accessible is the nearby Los Padres National Forest, which encompasses the first range of mountains behind Carpinteria. Here Abbott has a small cabin she uses as a base camp for painting in these hills. One night the artist started dinner early to be ready for a 7:30 p.m. moonrise. “I knew I’d have only about 45 minutes to catch the view, and I was starting with a 30"-x-40" canvas,” she recalls. “But this rushed schedule was far from a drawback; painting desperately is the very spirit and pleasure of plein air painting.”
Abbott became a founding member of the Oak Group when several dozen Santa Barbara-area painters banded together to form it in 1986. The organization plans paint-outs on beautiful acreage normally not accessible to the public and hosts exhibitions of the resulting paintings, with half of the proceeds from sales going to such land preserves as The Nature Conservancy. The stated purpose of the Oak Group is to inspire patrons to appreciate the actual places portrayed in the artwork—a form of grassroots activism by which an informed public just might slow development. “By our very nature,” Abbott explains, “we are political. And even if we can’t save land from developers, at least we can preserve the landscape on canvas. A lot of history is told through art.”
About the Artist
Meredith Brooks Abbott lives and works in Carpinteria, California, a city just south of Santa Barbara, in an 1873 farmhouse that she and her husband restored. Abbott attended the Art Center College of Design, in Pasadena, California, and later attended classes at the Art Students League of New York, in Manhattan. She is represented by Maureen Murphy Fine Arts, in Montecito, California. For more information on Abbott, visit www.mmfa.com/abbott/index.html.
Molly Siple frequently writes about art from her hometown of Los Angeles and is an artist-member of the California Art Club.
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