A Montréal watercolorist makes her annual pilgrimage to Bearskin Neck.
Winter lasts almost forever in Montréal. Artist Shari Blaukopf knows that. She has lived there her entire life. She has an intimate relationship with the “La Métropole du Québec.”
“Montréal is a beautiful city to draw in all seasons,” she says. “And I’m happy my sketchbook has given me an opportunity to rediscover it.”
But when June comes to Montréal, Blaukopf heads south.
That’s when she and her husband pack up the easel, paints, and sketchbook, and head to Rockport’s Bearskin Neck. It’s summer in Rockport that fills her soul these days.
“I ended up painting on Cape Ann quite by chance,” says Blaukopf. “But I have developed a real connection with the place. There’s enough for me to paint here for years to come.”
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Blaukopf, by day a graphic design instructor, is a renowned watercolorist, best known for her urban scenes. She has given watercolor workshops with the Urban Sketchers Workshop Program in Montreal, Galway (Ireland), New York, Portland (Oregon), Barcelona, Singapore, and Manchester (UK).
“A friend of mine often signs his emails with a short ‘keep the brush wet!’ I try to keep that in mind when I paint,” says Blaukopf. “And I think it expresses what I love most about watercolor. When the brush is really wet, when the washes are flowing, when pigment is mixing on paper in ways that surprise me — that’s a happy day.
We caught up with Blaukopf on the eve of her annual visit to Rockport to talk about what continues to draw her to this place.
How did you get your start in art?
I was one of those kids who was always drawing, but I didn’t start painting in watercolor until I was 12 years old.
What was it about watercolor that attracted you?
When I was about 18, a family friend suggested that I join her that summer in Kennebunkport, Maine, where she was taking a workshop with Edgar Whitney. I had no idea who he was, but my parents encouraged me to go, and I spent two weeks (and another summer after that) painting in Maine with one of the most renowned watercolor teachers in the Eastern US.
I only realized later how fortunate I was to have done that. He changed the way I think about watercolor — incorporating a design approach to painting — and the things I I learned that summer I have never forgotten.
How did you first learn about Cape Ann?
I visited Rockport and Gloucester on family holidays when I was young, but my love of Cape Ann is very recent. We have family in Boston who we visit quite often.
A few years ago, we took a day trip to Rockport and I had my sketchbook with me. I sat down on the pier to do a sketch of a red building with buoys on it. While I was sketching, my cousin went into the Chamber of Commerce and came out with a brochure about the town. He asked me if I knew that I was sketching Motif #1, “the most painted building in America.”
Of course I didn’t, but situated the way it is in the harbour, surrounded by boats, with its unique shape and color, of course it would attract my attention.
What do you remember from the first time you ever saw Cape Ann?
I remember thinking that it was a great place to visit for the day, but it didn’t seem like a place that people would come for a longer holiday. Not too many hotels, just lots of day tourists. It was only later, when I started spending time there, that I realized how distinct Rockport and Gloucester were from each other.
Is there a motif that you return to in your Cape Ann paintings?
There is so much I love to paint on Cape Ann.
Every year when I visit, I discover new places. Of course the boats and the harbour around Rockport are always in my sketches because I stay in Rockport. But each time I go I try to find some new spots to paint. I love the serenity of Halibut Point and the old quarries. I also love sketching the rusty old boats that are sometimes in drydock on Gloucester. Eastern Point Light is another favorite, although it took me a while to find it.
I guess I could go on and on. One day I’d like a local to take me on a hike to see Dogtown. I have a map but I don’t really want to get lost in the woods!
Any thoughts on Motif #1?
The place I stay in Rockport faces the back of this famous building, so I see it at all times of day.
It’s beautiful at sunset when the boats are coming back into the harbour, and at sunrise as well. But there is so much other stuff to paint in Rockport. In fact, my painting The Town was painted from the parking lot at Back Beach. It was selected to be part of the 150th Annual American Watercolor Society exhibit in New York, and that is a tremendous honor for me.
If you had never seen a painting of Motif #1, and just stumbled upon it, do you think you would choose that red shack for a subject?
I would because that is exactly where my connection to Rockport began. After I posted my sketch of the Motif on my blog, the owner of Four Winds Pottery in Rockport found my sketch online. Now Mary Kay [Carbone] sells prints of all my Rockport sketches in her shop. That is really where my connection started. The power of Google!
Have you connected with the local artists culture?
Not really. I do visit the galleries along Bearskin Neck and Main Street every year, but mainly I am there to paint. The highlight at the end of every day is to buy some fish from Kenny [Porter] at Roy Moore Lobster Co. and enjoy a drink from my deck that overlooks Rockport harbor. I dream of that all year.
What is the Cape Ann of Canada?
Canada has two beautiful coasts and I have painted in both of them. I think that some places in Newfoundland are probably the closest I have ever seen to Cape Ann. There are quiet harbors, iconic towns, maritime history, and some beautiful galleries. A few summers ago I painted in Trinity and around the Bonavista Peninsula.
How does painting here compare with painting in other scenic areas?
Here is something I wrote on my blog about Rockport, and it explains perfectly why I like painting here (besides the fact that this is the only week of the year that I devote entirely to painting):
“I’ve been fortunate for the past few years to spend a week sketching in Rockport, Massachusetts. It’s not a place I thought I would ever spend time in. It’s more of a place you go for the day — to walk up and down crowded Bearskin Neck, eat a lobster roll, get an ice cream, buy some souvenirs and move on. In fact, it’s so packed on a hot summer day that I wouldn’t really think of sketching much there even though it’s really picturesque with the harbor in the middle of town. But now that I have spent a little time there, I’m feeling more like a resident and less like a visitor because the beauty of the place has been revealed to me. When the tourists get back in their cars — kids and dogs in tow — Rockport becomes mine to sketch.
“From a spot on Tuna Wharf I can watch the cleanup at Roy Moore Lobster Co. From noon until dusk, people fill the picnic tables at the back of the shop, but in the evening the guys who have been shucking the oysters and boiling the lobsters all day hose down the deck and I can hear their banter as they sweep away the lobster shells and sometimes enjoy a beer or two as the sun sets.”
The best time to draw the harbor is morning or evening when the traffic from the lobster boats slows down and the water is calm.
Early one morning, when I was drawing the tourist shops along Bearskin Neck, someone came up to me and said “It’s a good thing you’re not drawing the side of the street with all the wires.” I found that pretty funny, because I love drawing wires and utility poles. Of course I had to go back and draw another part of the street with the wires later that evening!”
Do you have paintings of Cape Ann on your wall at home?
I don’t, but that’s not because I don’t like them. They just seem to be really popular and I usually sell them all!
Shari Blaukopf is a signature member of the Canadian Society of Painters in Watercolour, a member of the Artistes du Lakeshore, and you can find her online courses Sketching Landscapes in Pen, Ink, and Watercolor and Sketching the City in Pen, Ink, and Watercolor on Craftsy. Follow her on Instagram @sharisketcher