LAMOINE — They’re watercolors, but in the right light they look a bit like stained glass: intentional, vivid colors with crisp, clear lines.
“If you don’t try to make it look real you just kind of get lost in the shapes of color,” said Diana Roper McDowell, who paints from her home overlooking Meadow Point in East Lamoine.
McDowell has been painting as long as she can remember.
“My mom was from Ireland, so she didn’t believe in coloring books. I’d get big sheets of paper, a pencil and an eraser, those little tin boxes they had that had eight colors in them and a paintbrush.”
After grade school in Vermont (“Tuesdays were my favorite day because it was ‘Oh, I’d better go to my studio,’” said McDowell), her family moved to Maine, where she graduated from Mount Desert Island High School. Then it was on to Florida, where McDowell enrolled in classes at the Norton Gallery and School of Art, where she worked mostly in oils.
“I was the youngest by 40 years,” McDowell laughed. She studied in Florida for three years before returning to Maine and falling into a job with the Acadia Corp., eventually settling into a career as a finance director. Still, she painted.
“It’s hard when you’re working to find the time. It’s a different mindset to get into painting,” said McDowell, who would work in her studio late at night, after dinner. Once she tried painting in the morning, but she found the transition to office work difficult. “That day I just cleaned my office and did some filing.”
Last year, McDowell retired as Friends of Acadia’s finance director and has much more time to focus on her artwork.
When McDowell was young she was diagnosed with dyslexia, which she’s coped with by doing extensive drawings before she paints.
“Being dyslexic you don’t want to make the curve in the worrying direction and call it a sailboat,” she said. “I do extensive drawing. A lot of my time is spent on the drawing, trying to get it to feel right.”
She often chronicles the process on Facebook, on her page @RoperArtMaine, letting fans watch as a painting of raspberry pink rose pogonias, set against a backdrop of shaded green and gray and brown rectangles, takes shape.
“Straight lines are relaxing,” said McDowell, who describes her work as “abstract realism.” The lines on the Friendship Sloop may be precise and meticulous (a sailor wouldn’t buy the painting otherwise, she notes), but the background is a suggestive wash of blue and green shapes.
“There are certain things that need to look real and the rest of it doesn’t really matter,” said McDowell, who paints just about anything that pleases her, from birds to boats. “The sails make such beautiful abstract patterns. I like spinnakers especially. In Maine, it’s a beautiful state, but it’s a lot of green and blue and that’s fine,” she continued, “But with sailboats you get red and you get yellow.”
McDowell began working in watercolors years ago, largely for practical reasons: “When we first moved into our house I didn’t have a place to set up oils and leave them for weeks at a time while they dried.” The quick drying time of watercolors has also meant she doesn’t lose focus on a painting, said McDowell. “I like to have one painting and follow through the thought, so to speak.”
But watercolors have their own challenges.
“If you make a mistake you can kind of fix it, sometimes, and sometimes you can’t. With oils you can just slather white paint over black and you’re good, if you have to. I make a mistake in almost every painting,” she laughed.
McDowell was surprised at first when several of her buyers told her they hung her work in their bedrooms, in part because they felt the paintings were relaxing.
“You look at a view and you think, why does that feel good to look at? You try to emphasize certain things and let other things fall away and bring forward those shapes. Certain paintings are relaxing, and I try to pull that into my paintings.”
McDowell’s work can be seen in an upcoming show at the Artemis Gallery in Northeast Harbor, as well as on her Facebook page, @RoperArtMaine, and on her website, roperart.com.