It was an airplane that got M. Stephen Doherty interested in plein air.
The painter and art magazine editor was spending so much time commuting between his suburban home and his New York office, he hardly had time to get into his studio.
A friend who worked at the Brooklyn Museum heard the complaints and offered a solution.
“He suggested plein air painting,” said Doherty, who earned art degrees at Knox College in Illinois and at Cornell University in New York. “He said I could work fast and nearly anywhere. It was ideal for a busy magazine editor who felt the urge to paint but didn’t always have the time for it.”
Then the friend sealed the deal with a special offer. He had access to a corporate jet and offered Doherty a trip to upstate New York for a weekend of painting.
“I thought, ‘I could get used to this,’ ” Doherty said of that flight 31 years ago.
He never again got in that jet, but he never stopped painting plein air, or outdoors.
In the years since, he has become nationally recognized for his work, has judged dozens of competitions and regularly leads groups of artists on trips to paint on location.
A selection of his most recent work will be on display at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, where he’ll be the featured artist for May. A month after a botanical illustration show that included pieces that were years in the making, Doherty will take over the space with pieces on which the paint might not even be dry.
“I’m not quite sure what I’ll show,” he said about a month before he was due to set up.
He was planning day trips to paint at several sites in the state, including to Thomas Jefferson-designed buildings, but he didn’t have a set list. Which is part of the beauty of plein air painting, he said.
The style is well-suited to spur-of-the-moment inspiration and working quickly.
Through the years, Doherty’s passion for the style has grown into more of a lifestyle than a casual pursuit. About five years ago, he became editor of PleinAir Magazine, a bimonthly that’s the go-to source in the field.
About three years ago, he realized that a staff with scattered officers — the publisher in one city, the art director in another — meant he didn’t have to actually live in New York anymore.
“I could do this from anywhere,” he said. Waynesboro became the “anywhere” that he and his wife chose three years ago.
After years in Westchester County, just outside New York City, Doherty said he was looking for a place where he could paint whenever the mood struck.
Westchester, he said, was “not the kind of place where you can just set up and paint. The people there weren’t always open to someone just setting up out front and painting. There are a lot of tall hedges in Westchester.”
More often, he had to plan a day away from home, usually painting in state parks.
In Waynesboro, he said, the painting is easier. “The subject matter is readily available.”
Within minutes, he can be in the mountains or on the edge of a beautiful meadow.
On one day trip not long ago, he joined a group from the Beverley Street Studio School in Staunton for a plein air outing to Natural Bridge in Rockbridge County. For a few hours, he set up alongside fellow artists and captured an image of the bridge from the vantage point of the path that goes under it.
The piece he did that day hangs in his studio.
“I like going out with other painters,” he said. “But you always paint alone. Once you start working, you have to work so fast; there’s not a lot of time for talking.”
The talking, he does later.
He’s now part of the academic committee at Beverley Street, where he teaches on occasion and otherwise makes himself available to aspiring artists.
Rachel Salatin, director of the studio, called Doherty an “awesome artist” and said they were thrilled to work with him.
Doherty said he enjoyed offering advice, but he was getting away from teaching.
“I’m not sure I want to make that kind of time commitment anymore.” He said he’d rather be off somewhere by himself, a French-style easel set up, canvas in place, a long-handled brush in hand.
Most of the time, he can just set up and work, though he’ll seek permission if he’s within sight of someone working or an occupied home.
Rarely, he said, does anyone complain.
“If people stop, they’re usually more curious than anything,” he said. “I’ve had farmers come up and look and, usually, they’re happy to see it.”
Last month, when he was in his backyard doing a painting for a video presentation, he drew the attention of his neighbor.
“(She) says she wants to buy the painting, so I guess it is somewhat successful,” he wrote in an email the day after doing the work.
That backyard painting is the one definite for the show in Richmond. Everything else, Doherty said, will come together as it’s meant to, which is the appeal of plein air.
“I tend to work things to death in the studio,” he said. “I never know when to stop. But painting outside, you stop when the light is gone.”