Guaranteed to lift the spirits even in the sultriest days of summer, Julia Sutliff’s small oil paintings are joyous, fresh and playful. In Four Seasons, her fourth solo show at Adkins Arboretum, on view through Sept. 30, you’ll find bright flowers dancing among meadow grasses, water glinting under trees heavy with summer leaves, and cattails standing brave and brittle in thin winter sunshine. There will be a reception to meet the artist on Sat., Aug. 13 from 3 to 5 p.m.

Sutliff paints outdoors. She finds it doesn’t work for her to paint from photos or from memory, so she searches out pockets of nature surviving in the suburban sprawl near her home in Cockeysville, north of Baltimore.

“I try to catch nature in a free state, without interference from us,” she said. “So I haunt woods, ponds, streams and fields, looking for images that express the riotous celebration of life all around me.”

She often paints in places someone else might pass and never even notice, but Sutliff has honed her eye to see the magic of fleeting moments of light and color. She finds weather and the changing seasons constantly renewing the landscape and celebrates the shifting scenes they create, painting milkweed plants caught in the full sunlight just as their seedpods are swelling, then later as their color fades under cloudy autumn skies, and again in winter, stark and brittle against the snow.

Like many artists, she returns to similar themes to explore them in depth. Again and again, she paints cattails, branches leaning over water, and fields scattered with wildflowers. The changing seasons offer her infinite variety, and she delights in discovering something new and energizing in familiar scenes.

Two skills, developed over many years of painting, make Sutliff’s landscapes so lively—the lightness of her brushstrokes and the ability to use color to remarkable effect.

Late autumn flowers in luscious shades of orange sing out against the lime and grass green reeds around them and the soft shades of gray water behind in “Water’s Edge, Tangerine.” In “Patapsco, View of Ridge,” brushy strokes of color turn into a symphony of contrasting greens as light shines through the summer trees.

Sutliff’s color range is exceptionally broad. While many of her paintings burst with colors in mischievous combinations, others are achingly subtle. She has a particular mastery of the nuanced hues of winter. Her paintings of cattails capture an infinite range of lighting effects, from silvery reflections glinting off the ice, to the warmth of sunset’s glow, to the softness of overcast snowy skies.

These skills bring freshness to each painting. It’s as if you’re seeing something for the first time—catching a precious, intimate glimpse of nature as each new scene materializes from her quick, playful brushstrokes.

“I need to express grandeur, beauty, respect, awe,” Sutliff explained. “But I think playfulness trumps them all because it’s powerful enough to overcome the frustration of trying to get something ‘right,’ and to somehow let you participate in the beauty around you.”

In Julia Sutliff’s paintings, flowers dance, trees sway, and you can just about feel the sunlight or rain on your skin. Returning for her third show at Adkins Arboretum, Sutliff is exhibiting her newest oil paintings in the Visitor’s Center gallery through Sept. 28. There will be a reception to meet the artist on Sat., Aug. 18 from 3 to 5 p.m.

Most of Sutliff’s landscapes are painted outdoors near her home in Cockeysville, where she lives with her husband, Rob, and Adam, their 8-year-old son. Even though she paints very specific places, her paintings aren’t realistic. They don’t look like photographs and aren’t meant to. Instead of defining every stem, blossom and leaf, she relays the fleeting impression of being at that place at that very moment in time.

In “Fall Cascade,” there’s an instant sensation of tall trees soaring up beyond masses of green and orange foliage, but the details of the high branches aren’t shown. It’s as if they’re seen with peripheral vision.

“I’ve started to look at Monet a lot,” Sutliff explained. “He has an inattention to edges that I like. I think you can create a rhythm that seems to replicate sight somehow and the experience of being in a place.”

Although she earned master’s degrees in English and teaching and went on to teach English, when she took some art classes at Rhode Island School of Design and the Maryland Institute College of Art, she realized that what she really wanted to do was paint.

These new paintings have a particular intimacy and sense of discovery. Whether she is focusing close-up on wildflowers or painting hazy sunlight glowing through a grove of trees, Sutliff skillfully conveys the scene’s unique beauty and atmosphere.

“I’m constantly trying to balance everything,” she said. “The focus, dark and light, small marks and big marks, chaos and order.”

There’s a patch of brilliant yellow-green in the foreground of “Winter Hillside in the Rain.” It might be a grassy meadow or a patch of lawn, but the specifics don’t matter. The brightness is balanced by the misty gray hill rising behind, where quick strokes of gray-brown indicate the trunks of the bare trees. Muted colors around the trees and the softness of the brushstrokes tell of the kind of rainy day when color sings out against the shadows and you can smell the wetness in the air.

“Color is everything for me,” Sutliff explained. “If the colors aren’t good, I’m not finding anything to paint.”

Finding things to paint is one her biggest challenges. During the window of time while her son is at school, she searches out nearby bits of nature wherever she can, often painting in a park close to home.

She said, “I have to really, really look to find things I haven’t done before, so that’s kind of pushed my hand to be more innovative.”

Although she occasionally works from photographs, she finds her work is not as inspired unless she is painting directly from nature.

“I wish photos worked as well, but they don’t,” she said. “The more I can do something that feels authentic, the better it is for me. It has to come from within to be what you do best.”

Julia Sutliff loves to paint outdoors. This is plain to see in the freshness and energy of her small oil paintings of land and sea on view at the Adkins Arboretum Visitor's Center through November 21. The public is invited to a reception to meet the artist on Saturday, October 18 from 5 to 7 p.m.

Many of these scenes were painted outdoors in just a few hours at places Sutliff found near her Cockeysville home. Brushed with quick strokes of color, they capture fleeting moments of sun and shade. Sutliff explained that the paintings are "my experience of a certain moment."

Although the area north of Baltimore is largely developed, she seeks out the remaining pockets of nature. Often she will suddenly see an area of overlooked natural beauty. Then, she said, "I have to just stop by the side of the road or take photos from a parking lot."

Sutliff earned master's degrees in English and teaching and went on to teach English, but some art classes that she took at Rhode Island School of Design and the Maryland Institute College of Art made her realize that painting is her real love, particularly painting directly from nature.

There is an immediacy about Sutliff's work that instantly transports the viewer to sunny meadows glimpsed through trees and to windswept beaches. In this, her second show at the Arboretum, her trees are festive with autumn color. Standing as gracefully as dancers, their trunks and branches hold their leaves lightly, so that you can almost feel the moving air and shifting light.

These paintings often hold the promise of hidden places and vistas waiting to be discovered. In "Trees above Lake," a double-trunked tree stands at the edge of an abandoned quarry. It is a scene within a scene, as clouds and enigmatic dark trees reflect in the bright blue water.

Sutliff said, "I love looking through the leaves into the quarry, especially in the fall. The reflection of the leaves is so beautiful. There's that intense blue that you can only see from up above on the cliffs. There aren't that many wider scenes around here that aren't developed. You have to look through a small viewfinder."

While she loves the intimacy of these forgotten places, she is also interested in the challenge offered by painting more expansive scenes. In recent visits to Cape Henlopen and the Outer Banks with her husband and young son, she began to work on seascapes.

There is a very different feeling in these paintings than in her landscapes. The seascapes show wide views, with a strong sense of weather and change. Sutliff has a masterly way of painting water, keeping her brushstrokes simple, but capturing the feel of waves flattening under the wind or rising to make deep shadows under the foam of their curling edges.

Sand, sea, and sky take on many different moods in these scenes. Brilliant light bursts from behind huge clouds in "Before Sunrise," while a hint of a building at the edge of "Rainswept Beach" promises a refuge from the cold gray sea. In "Shoreline Patterns," the tide creeps up the beach where it has already half-erased footprints softened by the wind and tire tracks of a vehicle that crossed the sand when the water was low.

Considering these traces of the human presence, it doesn't take long to notice that while Sutliff's paintings celebrate nature, they are even more about our need to experience these natural places. The inviting intimacy of her wooded scenes, as well as the actual footprints and tire tracks in the seascapes, are evidence of this.

Also telling is the realization that, however strong the human presence is, nature is primary in shaping every scene. Tides and storms wear at the beaches; grasses and trees soften the edges of the quarry as they reclaim the abandoned land.

"It's trying to take it back," Sutliff said. "Now it actually serves the wildlife."

“Arboretum Exhibit Features Landscapes by Plein Air Painter,” The Bay Times, October 26, 2005

Adkins Arboretum is featuring “Plein Air Landscapes,” an exhibition of small oil paintings on masonite by Julia Sutliff. This Cockeysville artist prefers to go outdoors to paint, an increasingly rare way of working in these days when digital cameras make it easy to paint from photographs. The show is set up in the Arboretum’s Visitor’s Center.

Sutliff has a flair for simplifying form and color in order to capture the essence of a scene. While many artists choose to focus on the details of tree branches, grasses or clouds, she uses a minimum of quick brushstrokes and broad areas of color to convey the character of a particular place at a specific time.

She explains, “Both Monet and Winslow Homer have been inspiring to me in their attempts to work primarily outside and to capture a scene and experience it at a certain moment.”

In Sutliff’s work, you not only see the landscape itself, but also the time of year, the time of day, and the weather at the time she was painting. The glowing reddish translucence of dried bushes in “January Field” is only found in the thin, cold air of winter, while the brilliance of a hot patch of sunlight surrounded by deep shade in “Golden Field and Shadows” is characteristic of late July.

In addition to a title, each of Sutliff’s paintings is labeled on the back with the date she painted it. Working at sites not far from her home, she paints nearly every day, sitting inside her van if the weather is bad.

She says, “I usually work on location for two to three hours and then add finishing touches when I return home.”

Although her initial focus was on teaching literature, reading, writing, Sutliff also studied art at the Rhode Island School of Design. She then went on to take classes at Maryland Institute College of Art where one of her instructors encouraged students to work outdoors and complete their paintings quickly.

With an eye for the underlying beauty of landscapes that most of us would overlook, Sutliff tends to paint places that are unspectacular, often in areas where development encroaches on nature.

Still she finds meadows spreading below shadowy trees, water rushing down the muddy ruts of an unpaved lane, and a leaning apple tree, its fruit flashing red between its green leaves and the deep blue sky.

Seemingly effortlessly, she brings out the beauty of such scenes. The billowing forms of dark trees reflected in still water in “Winter River” are animated by branches formed by fluid brushstrokes that Sutliff slid through the wet paint of background shapes. Their sinuous lines are subtle enough that you don’t see them at first amid the bold shapes of thet rees and the river lined with golden grasses. Only when you’ve taken in the overall scene, do you discover their graceful, spreading arcs.

Speaking of her love of landscape and painting, Sutliff says, “ I try to bring to the viewer the joy and excitement that I feel as I work.”