Works in Progress: Painter Barbara Ernst Prey Finds Wonder in Commonplace

Reported By: Patty B. Wight

Artist Barbara Ernst Prey is known for the bold hues in her watercolor paintings, which can be found in collections at the Smithsonian, the White House and the Kennedy Space Center. Many of her themes are devoted to Maine’s working waterfronts and rural landscapes. Patty Wight paid the prolific painter a visit to find out how she translates real-life scenes to canvas, in the latest installment of our Works in Progress series.

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There are some things that are a part of you, that you have no choice but to embrace. For Barbara Ernst Prey, that’s painting. “It wasn’t that I always wanted to be a painter, it was always inside of me,” she says. “So I eventually came around to finding it.”And Prey has found inspiration in Maine. Her work varies from rural scenes – like quilts billowing from a clotheslines near a clapboard house, to a close-up of fishermen mending a net – always using colors to evoke a certain time of day. Her paintings are collected by celebrities and presidents, she’s on the board of National Council of Arts, and Prey has received commissions from NASA and the White House.When she comes to Maine every summer, she works out of what used to be the Village Inn at Port Clyde, just a stone’s throw from the harbor. The first two floors are gallery space, which include photos of some of her famous collectors, like Tom Hanks. But the cozy third floor attic is Prey’s studio. It’s sparsely furnished, simple and bright, with light beaming in from glass doors that open to a deck.

Prey sits in this pool of light, her chair facing a wooden easel, a small table of neatly organized paints and brushes at her side. Though Prey often does large watercolor paintings, on this day she’s working on a small square oil painting of two lobster buoys resting on coils of rope and a few traps.

“This is one of my first oil paintings I’ve done of Maine in a long time, and it’s from just right down the edge of the wharf from where I often go to look for painting ideas,” she says, swishing her brush in a wash. “For me, it was an exercise in the colors – these wonderful, colorful buoys, incredible blue sky, and then you’ve got the orange and greens of the ropes.”

When Prey first saw the buoys, she says, the image just clicked. This is how most of Prey’s paintings are born. She’s always looking, thinking, and distilling the images she sees, whether she’s driving to the grocery store, or standing on her deck.

She slides open the door to step outside, and almost immediately something catches her eyes in the view to the waterfront workshops along the wharf.

“I’ve done a lot of interiors of the workshops, but I haven’t painted those per se,” she says. “Or even here, these buildings, I have painted some of the old structures. I’ve done kind of a twilight scene, and then early morning scene. But I come here a lot and I’ll just spend time outside, actually at 5:30 in the morning, and just watch the light on the buildings.”

Prey says often she’ll observe a scene for years before it becomes a painting. Maybe the light is hitting it just right, or boats are lined up a certain way. Prey says creating each painting is a lifelong experience.

“It’s your eye – as I said, it’s your lens,” she says. “You bring so much of what’s your history and who you are and what you’ve seen and your experiences. And then you look at it, and it resonates in such a different way than someone else.”

Prey’s history with painting goes back to when she was a young girl. She and her mother – who was the head of design at the Pratt Institute in New York – would draw and paint together. Prey used oils and pastels, and when she was 15, picked up watercolors, for which she is now best known.

“My mom was such a great oil painter that I didn’t want to compete with her when I was little, so that’s why I did watercolors,” she says. “And, you know, watercolors is such a wonderful medium.”

But she’s working in oil again, in addition to her watercolors. And though Prey’s buoy painting looks like it’s complete, she says there’s still work to do. She wants to make the yellow in the buoys brighter against the blue background. She says her job on the canvas is to highlight details you might normally miss in everyday life.

“I’m pointing out the familiar that you often overlook, and you find these wonderful things in the commonplace,” she says.