W HEN RENA POWELL, a plein air painter
and native of Wrightsville Beach, decided
that art-making was what she wanted to
do, she went at it “like it was a job.”
“I used to paint and draw as a child,”
she says, “but once I hit my teenage
years I stopped. I felt like I didn’t have
Captain Charlie’s Cottage, 8 x 10 inches, oil on canvas panel.
that innate talent you needed, so it didn’t seem like a good use of time. I
learned later that painting is as much about hard work and practice as it
is about inborn ability. So when I got back to it, I took it seriously. I would
get up every day and paint, whether I felt like it or not.”
Powell had a marine canvas business for 15 years before she moved to
Southport for a fresh start. She decided to revive her childhood interest.
She completed her first paintings after more than 20 years on leftover
pieces of marine canvas. She would prime the pieces of cotton and use
them for practice, wiping out the image when she was done and starting
again the next day.
“It wasn’t about the final product, it was about seeing a little bit of
progress every day,” she says.
Early in this transition, Powell took a weeklong workshop with Utah-based
plein air painter John Poon, who travels to teach classes in the area.
She remembers Poon telling the group they needed to do at least 1,000
paintings before they were any good, and she took that to heart.
“I actually sat down and calculated how many paintings a day that
would be,” she says with a laugh.
The workshop encouraged her interest in plein air painting. Poon
focused the instruction on visualizing and reproducing delicate color
variation and light, both of which remain fundamental components of
Her recent landscapes and paintings of local scenes and structures
demonstrate the lasting impact of this experience. In “Captain Charlie’s
Cottage,” depicting one of the three iconic structures on Bald Head Island,
she masterfully captures the bright highlights and pale shadows that are
visible on a sunny day. The profile view of the cottage and sky full of wispy
clouds both bear traces of the bright light source bathing the scene from
outside the canvas. The gestural brushstrokes and high contrast of the
color palette contribute to the serious but positive tone of the piece.
Her childhood home of Wrightsville Beach continues to inspire her and
appears frequently in her oeuvre.
“Banks Channel Sailboat” reproduces the effects of shifting light with
remarkable clarity. She depicts a rippling water surface and a small sail-boat
zipping along the top portion of the canvas. The tip of the sail is
cut off as the vessel sails out of the image frame. The sun sets beyond the
slender horizon line. The entire composition is enhanced by the careful removal of small sections of blue
paint that comprise the water and skylines, revealing the vibrant red-orange underpainting below. The
painting seems to glow as sunlight dances on the water’s surface and disperses throughout the scene.
Rena Powell paints near her parents’ home on Summer Rest Road.
Banks Channel Sailboat, 10 x 8 inches, oil on canvas panel.