As far back as he can remember, Michael Shaw loved looking at realistic landscape paintings, so engrossed by their beauty.
“Exactly when and how I went from strictly being an observer to thinking about being a creator of art I can’t say,” Shaw says.
Maybe it was in his late 20s, when he bought some materials and jumped in. “The early results were one level above horrific,” he admits. “I remember dropping one of my first painting’s wet surface down in sand and pine needles. My wife told me it was a vast improvement.”
Shaw lives in Lancaster, PA, and since he was a child he has summered with his family at their place in Wellfleet, which had been built by his grandfather. “I can’t begin to describe the deep and enduring love I have for the Outer Cape, born out of a lifetime of memories of this magnificent place. The love I have for Wellfleet and Truro motivated me to continue to learn to paint,” Shaw says. “I have to have a deep connection to a place emotionally to create a painting from start to finish, so all of my compositions are from places I consider ‘home’ and know intimately.”
Shaw’s expansive oil paintings capture landscapes filled with water, boats and architecture, glowing with that special clarity of light for which the Cape is known. “I most enjoy the scenery during the two or so hours after sunrise and the two hours before sunset, with its dramatic contrast of light and shadow,” he says. “It’s enhanced by typically low humidity, clean air and all of the beautifully reflective bodies of water that are everywhere.” He adds, “Composition is most important for me, so when I’m out photographing and sketching there are many decisions to make before I even touch a canvas.”
Shaw takes his observations back to his studio in Lancaster, where he still feels connected to the Cape while painting. “The next step is vital,” he explains. “I do a ‘wash’ of the scene in burnt umber thinned so I can create a monochromatic image with varying degrees of light and dark areas. This reveals the essence of the finished piece, and I can decide if the composition is a go or no-go. Then I paint the beginning of the sky and block the painting in, the ‘underpainting,’ with the main background colors over which the rest of the details will exist.”
Shaw credits many local Cape artists, including Jim Holland, Steve Kennedy and Tom Watson, for inspiring him. His greatest influence has been the work of the 19th century Hudson River School of Art, with whom he shares his own “deep sense that a landscape painting can capture the essence of the beauty and majesty of something God has created.” Recently retired from years in the corporate world, Shaw has more time to paint and wants to expand his work on the Cape and in Lancaster because, as he says, “Knowing that someone can likely be stopped in his or her tracks by a beautiful land or seascape, the way I have been, is a wonderful thing.”