Chasing the Light: Local Artist Paints P’Town Streetscapes

Andrea Sawyer says “everything depends on the light in the sky” when painting Provincetown streetscapes.

By Debra Lawless | Above photo by Joanne Bartone

Andrea Sawyer traces her painting career back to her first exposure to Provincetown’s intense light and colors during a 1995 vacation.
As she roamed Provincetown’s narrow streets, she took hundreds of photos. When Sawyer returned home to Southern Maine where she sold real estate, she painted watercolors of Provincetown’s houses from her photographs.

“It was the light and how it transformed everything into something magical,” says Sawyer.

“Tangled Up in Blue,” 8 in. by 10 in, oil on linen

Unlike many a dabbler, Sawyer, who was in her late 40s at the time, got serious about her art quickly. Her husband signed her up for a class at Maine College of Art. Later, she went on an artistic retreat to Swan’s Island in Casco Bay where she painted en plein air. She switched to oils and eventually settled into a style called “realistic expressionism.” And she returned to Provincetown again and again.

Since 1899, when Charles Webster Hawthorne established the Cape Cod School of Art, artists have flocked to Provincetown. Sawyer, 69, moved to Provincetown in 2012. Once set up in what she called a tiny “garret” overlooking Provincetown Harbor, Sawyer began “painting, painting, painting.” Last June, she moved a few yards in from the water to an 1880 house on a quiet side street in the East End.

Her subjects? Provincetown’s streetscapes and interiors. She might venture outside at midnight and photograph a building or a street. A favorite time to photograph the streets is after a rain when the air is full of moisture. If she photographs a street in the daytime, she takes four or five shots of the same scene because 60 people might be standing in the road and she will edit out the people on her canvas.

She also paints interiors, where she finds inspiration in a shelf of crockery in her kitchen or a stainless steel coffee pot. She has painted the red velvet chair in her living room.

Sawyer’s kitchen doubles as her studio. An easel stands in the space between the table and the sink. She clips a utility light somewhere handy and sets out her photographs. She turns on some music—anything from Leonard Cohen to Luciano Pavarotti to disco—and makes a few lines on her canvas prepared with a wash. She’ll paint in the horizon and some angles. For an outdoor painting, she will paint in the sky.

Carpe Diem, 18 in. by 24 in., oil on canvas

“Everything depends on the light in the sky,” she says. “I remember almost always what it was like when I was taking the photo. I try to get that sense of time and place accurate.”

She is ever conscious of Provincetown’s colors. She remembers gazing up at the skylight at Fanizzi’s Restaurant on Commercial Street and saying, “Oh my God, look at that color.” She describes it as a pure, deep indigo. “Some days here, the shadows are so blue it’s crazy. They can’t possibly be so blue.”

Sawyer’s favorite color is cadmium red, which is on her palette for every painting. She sometimes paints a cadmium red stop sign into a streetscape to keep the eye from roaming off the painting. As for her architectural subjects, “a little rickety is fine, peeling paint is wonderful. Leaning is great,” she says. Under Sawyer’s brush, Provincetown’s old houses take on distinct personalities.

Sawyer’s work has been compared to that of Edward Hopper and John Singer Sargent. But the way Sawyer manipulates light is also reminiscent of the paintings of Nancy Whorf (1930-2009), a Provincetown native who captured the many moods of Provincetown’s ever-changing light.

“We’re surrounded by water—everything bounces,” says Sawyer.

Andrea Sawyer is represented by the Charles-Baltivik Gallery,
432 Commercial St., Provincetown, 508-487-3611

“Candy Corner,” 8 in. by 10 in., oil on linen.

“This Old House,” 18 in. by 24 in., oil on canvas

“Commercial Free,” 10 in. by 10 in, oil on linen

 

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