Stephanie Birdsall | Chasing the Light

By Mark Mussari

“Everywhere I look is a painting,” declares Stephanie Birdsall. Taking in the spectacular views surrounding her home in Tucson, one can easily understand her artistic vision. Set in the dramatic Sonoran Desert, the home lies beneath the towering Santa Catalina Mountains, their shadows and textures shifting in the constantly changing light. Every window frames another breathtaking scene. For Birsdall, an inveterate plein-air painter, each view offers a new landscape—and another reason to be outdoors.

“To me, to be outside painting is an extension of my being,” she observes. That artistic sense of self had its start in Atlanta, GA, where Birdsall grew up in a house filled with culture. Her mother painted and her father was an accomplished jazz and classical violinist. “I grew up playing classical piano and guitar,” she recalls. “I just knew I wanted to be in the arts.” Although Birdsall drew as a child, it was an art teacher in high school who first prompted her to consider the visual arts as a career. “He singled me out,” she explains, “which gave me some confidence.”

During her junior year she took an oil painting class outside of school and decided she would major in art in college. She began her studies at the University of Georgia, switched to Rhodes College in Memphis, TN, and finally landed at City & Guilds of London Art School in England, where she stayed for five years. While there she acquired a “strong sense of history,” she says, and the realization that “a painting can evoke that same sense of history or timelessness.” Jaunts to France and Italy exposed her to more art and to the beauty of the European landscape. Unknowingly, she was inching toward a career as a plein-air painter.

After returning from England, Birdsall studied with a number of notable painters, including pastel masters Doug Dawson, Albert Handell, and Ramon Kelley and landscape artist Frank Federico. “I came into my adult painting life when workshops were just becoming popular,” she comments. “It gave me the opportunity to work with these artists privately and to really get to know them.” To this day, for example, she frequently returns to Vermont to paint with the Putney Painters. “I recently became a full member,” she says.

In the 1980s, Birdsall moved to California and fell in love with the outdoors. She cites “the sheer beauty of the work of California painters” as the catalyst to her desire to join them in their plein-air endeavors. “I’m at my happiest when I’m outside painting,” she confirms. “The painting process becomes very natural—there’s a sense of oneness with my subject.” She describes the exhilaration of painting en plein air as “intense and focused.”

Although she now resides mostly in Tucson, Birdsall finds inspiring landscapes in various locales across the country and abroad. She lived in Durango, CO, for five years and still lauds the “clarity of light” in that area. Frequent trips to Vermont reconnect her to the New England landscape. “I love moody paintings,” she says of the misty scenes she often paints in Vermont. “For me, atmosphere is huge.” In Arizona, she is drawn to the soft colors and the “mellow sunset light.” She still thrills at the rush she felt capturing a hazy pink monsoon rain on the Santa Catalina Mountains during a summer sunset. “You have to work fast,” she insists. “It’s like a double dose of caffeine!” And she is especially enamored of painting waterfalls: “I’d go around the world for a waterfall.”

Today, Birdsall works in both oils and pastels. Her initial exposure to pastels came through her father, who gave her a box while she was in college. “There’s a romance to pastels,” she muses. “They can be very delicate.” She soon became technically proficient at the medium, eventually winning an award from the prestigious Degas Pastel Society for a painting of a rose and two pears—objects she stumbled upon in a grocery market.

“I probably paint more with oils now,” she observes, “but I love both mediums.” Her pastels offer a muted, subtle counterpoint to the more vibrant hues of her oils. “Though in general my paintings tend to be soft because that’s the way I see nature,” she confirms. In addition to her love for painting en plein air, Birdsall is also an accomplished still-life painter. While the loose brush strokes and softer colors of her landscapes convey a painterly emphasis on light and movement, her still-life paintings reveal stronger and more defined forms and an almost classical sense of composition.

Still, Birdsall seems most at home outdoors, even with the many challenges involved. “There’s something wonderful about painting outside in nature,” she notes. “You have to make a statement quickly—get your initial idea and stick to it.” She describes it as “going on automatic,” a process where the scene and the lighting dictate the painting. “Outdoors I’m always chasing the light,” she says. “In the studio, I paint slowly and I’m more methodological. It’s more of a conscious effort.”

The artist recently had a studio built next to her home in Tucson. “I had been painting in my living room,” she says, “but there were too many distractions.” She refers to her new studio as a sanctuary; its northern windows provide sweeping mountain views, and its outer walls are already covered in flowery vines. Birdsall says she tries to paint every day: “Even when I’m traveling, I take sketchbooks with me—you have to have self-discipline as an artist.”

Birdsall often begins her canvases with a sketch or two “to help with the composition.” She then applies a starting color—often a mid-tone—from which she works back and forth between lights and darks. “I use what is most expedient for my subject,” she says.

WENTWORTH WASH, a pastel painting of a full arroyo, reveals the muted sensibility and enlightened chromaticism that characterize many of her landscapes. The wash—a study in pale blues, mossy greens, and ochre—wends its way into the painting, drawing the viewer’s eye. Planes of color define a mountain rising in the distance, but the overall atmospheric sense imparts a melancholic feel. “It was a certain type of soft morning light,” affirms Birdsall. “I love those earth tones mixed in with the blues.”

In WIGGINS PASS, a textural piece with feathery brush strokes, Birdsall conveys a sense of morning mist along the Florida coast. “It was a moody morning, with the fog still hanging over the water,” she says of the understated scene. She rendered the sea in pale blue-greens, tonally connecting the hazy blue sky to the green foliage.

A penchant for flowers, with vibrant bursts of color, becomes apparent in many of her canvases. “Whether it’s brilliant or subtle, color amazes me,” says the artist. Splashes of color define her piece OVER THE WALL, an impressionist floral that she says involved “thousands of brush strokes.” Even in her subtler landscapes, flowers often fill part of the picture plane, as in the lovely AFTER THE RAIN, depicting lavender wildflowers amidst pale dunes in Florida.

irdsall cites the art of John Singer Sargent and Joaquín Sorolla is inspirational. “Although my own work tends to be soft, I like strong painters,” she notes. She also holds a fondness for the still-life paintings of Danish-American impressionist Emil Carlsen, who was renowned for his muted landscapes and ethereal seascapes along with his more classically driven still lifes. The compositional sense and common domestic subjects of Birdsall’s still-life paintings can be traced back to Carlsen and also back to his main influence, 18th-century French painter Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin.

Birdsall belongs to a number of professional organizations, including the Pastel Society of America, the National Association of Women Artists, the Rocky Mountain Plein Air Painters, and the Tucson Plein Air Painters Society. In 2004 her work was selected for inclusion in the Arts for the Parks National Exhibition. She is also a member of the prestigious Salmagundi Club in New York City. “Founded in 1871, it’s one of the oldest art clubs in the country,” she notes.

Recently, Birdsall has begun teaching, and she says she has been amazed to discover that she is good at it. But that should come as no surprise when one hears her describe her affection for her art and her love of nature. “To me, painting is a window. I want people to feel they can walk into my paintings and be somewhere else,” she says. With their strong sense of place and atmospheric tones, her alluring landscapes invite viewers to do just that.


Susan Powell Fine Arts, Madison, CT; Pitzer’s Fine Arts, Wimberley, TX;

C.M. Russell Art Auction, Great Falls, MT, March 17-20.

Featured in January 2010