About Lydia Cassatt



Moore College of Art, Philadelphia, PA
BFA Painting, 1977

Haystack Mountain Craft School, Deer Isle, Maine
Painting workshop with Abbie Shawn, 1998
Drawing workshop with Michael Moore, 1997


Fellowship at Vermont Studio Center, September/October, 2000
1996, 1997, 2010 Art Week participant, Great Spruce Head Island, Maine


The Artist’s Magazine: cover and article, July/August 2006

Recent Shows:

  • 2010 Turtle Gallery, Deer Isle, Maine
  • 2010 Lord Hall Gallery, University of Maine, Orono: Vistas/Landscapes by Maine Artists
  • 2009 Courthouse Gallery, Island Artists: Fairfield Porter and The Great Spruce Head Island Artists
  • 2008 Turtle Gallery, Deer Isle, Maine
  • 2006 Turtle Gallery, Deer Isle, Maine
  • 2005 Elan Fine Arts, Rockland, Maine
  • 2004 Turtle Gallery, Deer Isle, Maine
  • 2004 Elan Fine Arts, Rockland, Maine
  • 2004 Shaw Gallery, Northeast Harbor, Maine: Two From Blue Hill
  • 2004 Carnegie Hall, University of Maine at Orono: Meditations Show
  • 2003 Turtle Gallery, Deer Isle, Maine
  • 2003 Elan Fine Arts, Rockland, Maine: Fall Show
  • 2003 Elan Fine Arts, Rockland, Maine: Winter into Spring, Inuagural Show
  • 2002 Turtle Gallery, Deer Isle, Maine
  • 2001 Clark University Gallery, Worcester, Massachusetts: Matrix, seeing beneath the surface, Group Exhibition
  • 2001 Turtle Gallery, Deer Isle: Maine Islands in Winter/Summer
  • 2001 Leighton Gallery, Blue Hill, Maine
  • 2000 Leighton Gallery, Blue Hill, Maine
  • 2000 Clark House Gallery, Bangor Maine: Group Abstract Show
  • 2000 Art Gallery, University of New England: On the Horizon, Group Exhibition
  • 2000 Blum Gallery, College of the Atlantic, Bar Harbor, Maine:On the Horizon, Group Exhibition
  • 1999 Art at 2nd & School Street, Bar Harbor, Maine: December Show
  • 1999 Clark House Gallery, Bangor, Maine: October Solo Show
  • 1999 Clark House Gallery, Bangor, Maine: Group Pastel Show
  • 1999 Leighton Gallery, Blue Hill, Maine
  • 1998 Leighton Gallery, Blue Hill, Maine
  • 1998 Turtle Gallery, Deer Isle Maine: Great Spruce Head Artists
  • 1997 Union of Maine Visual Artists: Downeast Looks at Downeast

Bringing Forth the Light


Applying color then wiping it away, pastelist Lydia Cassatt meditates on the luminosity of land, sea and sky.

By Michael Chesley Johnson

Maine artist Lydia Cassatt recalls a friend, an older woman in Blue Hill “who saw my painting Vast Space (at left), which has lots of pink in the sky. She told me, ‘I’m thinking about dying.’ She was, of course, thinking about her own death. ‘I don’t know where I’m going,’ she said, ‘but that’s where I want to be—in that painting.’ That’s what art is about,” says Cassatt, “bringing that feeling to people like het” Cassatt’s restful scenes, often depicting vast continents of clouds over a sliver of land or water, seem pregnant with the spiritual. A good deal of this restfulness comes from her practice of Buddhism. “It’s the ground of my life,” she says. “It’s what holds me in place. Everything comes from that.”

When we spoke, the artist had just returned from a pilgrimage to Tibet in order to assume cooking duties at Dzogchen Osel Ling, a Buddhist retreat 45 minutes west of Austin, Texas. "My husband is at a 100-day retreat, and I offered to cook at Dzogchen Osel Ling." What brings Tibet and Texas together? Lama Surya Das, who runs the center, teaches in a Tibetan tradition. “It’s a very open, spacious practice, which is perfect for doing [my] work that’s about sky, water and light—the ephemeral nature of things.”

In concert with nature

The process Cassatt uses for her work is allied to the processes of the natural world. Rather than starting with a compositional sketch, she works straight from memories of places she’s seen, light effects she’s witnessed. Rather than working with line, she masses in pure color and value. Rather than laying down a perfect stroke each time, she lays in color intuitively, wipes it away, adds another color and then repeats the sequence. The result is a delicate evocation that seems to glow from within.


Perhaps you’d think that Cassatt, immersing herself in nature, would paint outdoors, but she paints only in the studio. “While I was in art school (Moore College of Art & Design in Philadelphia), I used to go on my bicycle and paint in oil outdoors. I started working in pastel only later, after discovering how easy it was to start pieces outside and then bring them inside to finish. I also started making pieces indoors that were based on what I had done outside. I discovered that I loved not dealing with mosquitoes and black flies, and I especially loved not dealing with the changes in light, which can be distracting.”

A studio and its lighting

Her 20x40-foot studio, built above her garage, is aligned on a northeast/southwest axis. Although halogen track lighting allows her to work at night, she prefers to work in daylight, and sets of 6x6-foot, northeast-facing windows, along with three west-facing skylights, shed a generous light. A large rolling easel from Daniel Smith permits her to work standing up. The easel is fitted with a 4-inch side tray to catch pastel dust; the tray itself has a lip where the artist can lay frequently used pastels as she works. A 3x5-foot table with a Formica top serves as her taboret, where she keeps pastels handy in Dakota studio pastel trays that have wire-mesh bottoms. She keeps the pastels along the front edge of the table so she can swivel and reach them with her right hand. Besides these basic components, the studio also sports metal shelves filled with art books, a sound system for music—”I love classical music because it centers and grounds me,” the artist says—and flat files to store finished pieces, paper and mat board. When she and her husband built the house six years ago, the builders helped move the flat file into place. “It’s enormous—6x4 feet with twelve drawers. I hope never to move it again.” The studio also has a large framing table built from a solid-core door. A sink and a Mac desktop computer complete her workspace.


Matters of craft

Cassatt uses Wallis sanded paper (usually white or Belgian mist) exclusively. “I used Arches Cover for years, but Wallis catches the luminosity” she says. She uses the medium, rather than the professional, grade because Cassatt’s husband, Philip Osgood, who does all her framing, says “the medium grade doesn’t bend as much.” In response to requests from her framer-husband, the artist has standardized her sizes: 7x9, 8x10, 12x12, 12x18, 14x14, and 19x27. “I enjoy working in the square format; it’s a different way of looking at landscapes, she says. “I enjoy working small as well, because there’s a certain intimacy, but 19x27 is a nice, stately size, a beautiful size for a landscape.”

After selecting her paper, she tapes it to a ¼-inch laminated wood board so that only 14-inch of the paper is covered. “That margin gives my husband a little border to frame with,” she notes. For larger pieces, she tapes the paper to a sheet of Masonite. Rather than describe a landscape, her paintings evoke sensation; it’s therefore not surprising to learn she works entirely from memory. “I tried working from photographs, but the piece always became something else.” She feels lucky to live on the water in Maine, where the light is so beautiful. “As I walk or drive, I’m always looking. I’ll wonder how I can transform that moment into a studio piece.”

“The best work occurs when you’e almost not thinking. There’s this flow that comes out of you that connects you to a deeper place.” —Lydia cassatt

Working intuitively

Cassatt may think of a place she saw late in the day at twilight or remember a certain body of water. Using her Tibetan meditation practices, she visualizes the scene. “The best work occurs when you’re almost not thinking,” she says. “There’s this flow that comes out of you that connects you to a deeper place. The piece can come very quickly when that’s happening. Sometimes it comes easily; sometimes it’s just a mess, but that’s part of the intuitive knowing, which is a more natural approach. I’m so amazed that everything in our lives is connected this way, and the art just flows out of it.”

She may start with charcoal, either vine or compressed, or a Conté crayon. While her landscapes become explorations of luminous color, she loves to work in black and white, especially at the start. “You don’t always need color to evoke an emotional response,” she says. When she uses color, she prefers Unison pastels. “They’re exquisitely beautiful,” he says. “I like the way they feel—not too soft, not too hard, and they don’t crumble. They’re exactly the right consistency.” Cassatt also uses Mount Vision pastels, which have a similar feel. “I buy them by color and collect them like candy.” In addition, she uses Rembrandt and NuPastels, which she notes are good for detail.

Cassatt’s process is simple. Working with gloves to avoid abrading her fingertips on the sanded paper, she quickly layers in the sky color and then the color of the land or water. She rubs the pastel in with her fingers and then wipes the pigment away with a paper towel. Standing back to examine her progress, she adds more color before rubbing and wiping again so that what is left is just a trace of color. “So much of my work is trying to bring the light out, which is why wiping away color, in addition to the texture and color of the paper, is so important.”

To bring forth the light, Cassatt looks at “how colors work with and against each other.” While she uses some colors over and over—certain blues, certain greens, certain grays—she notes that “when you see the light on the water in Maine, it’s almost a yellowy-white light. Unison makes a very pale yellow that I often use to lay in that light.” If the color combination doesn’t resonate with her, she wipes it way and tries again. “I don’t believe there are any rules in making art. Plus, pastels are very forgiving.” Once she achieves that glow, she stops. “I just know when a piece is done,” she says simply. “At a certain point I know that if I put one more mark on it, it’s not going to be good.”


Framing made easier

When she’s satisfied with a painting, she sprays it with fixative. “I couldn’t get my husband to frame it for me if I didn’t,” she laughs, “and gallery directors have a meltdown if the pastel gets on the mats.” She has found that if she uses Sennelier or Lascaux fixative, the color doesn’t change much. Standing a foot away from the painting, she sprays lightly and then tests the surface with her fingers to see if she’s used enough to hold the pastel in place.

Just as she has standardized her sizes, she has standardized her framing. “I like to see the presentation stay the same.” It’s also easier to buy framing materials by the case. She buys ash frames from Florida Frames, which treats its frames with a clear coat of varnish. She uses True-Vue AR (anti-reflective) glass and antique white mats (with a 3- to 4-inch border) from Crescent.

From representation to abstraction

Although Cassatt attended Moore College of Art in the 70s, when Abstract Expressionism still had a toehold in art departments, Moore College had a more traditional curriculum. “We did lots of drawing,” Cassatt remembers, “and we had several artists who were doing highly representational work, such as Thomas Chimes and Jack Henderson. As a consequence, my foundation is in representational work.” She considers herself lucky to have received such a good grounding in traditional art. “I believe that learning to draw well is essential. Once you know how to draw, you can go on; you can be free to move into total abstraction.” The discipline of drawing and the impulse to be free are part of Cassatt’s heritage. Her great-great-great aunt was Mary Cassatt. Lydia was named after Mary’s sister, who was one of Mary Cassatt’s favorite models.

For Lydia, a different sort of tradition is her practice of Buddhism. Called “Natural Great Perfection,” it involves visualization. “One of the things I do is visualize love and compassion and light coming through me that I send out to friends and strangers,” she says. “That practice has opened me, made me kinder and, not incidentally, helped my artwork.” Practicing meditation and painting are solitary occupations, but Cassatt’s path to Buddhism and commitment to an art that comes from a deeper place follow from her work in the hospice movement. Since 1989 I’ve worked with dying people and, because many Buddhist groups also work with the dying, my hospice work led me to Buddhism. Everything I do informs my art. My art is about making something as beautiful as I can. There’s enough that’s ugly going on in the world; bringing beauty into the world is a good thing to do.”

MICHAEL CHESLEY JOHNSON - is an artist who’s also a writer and instructor. Click here to view his workshop schedule and his Friar’s Bay Studio Gallery

About the Artist


Pennsylvania native LYDIA CASSATT received a bachelor of I fine arts degree in painting from the Moore College of Art & Design in Philadelphia in 1977. She continued her education at the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts on Deer Isle, Maine, and at the Vermont Studio Center in Johnson, Vermont. Turtle Gallery on Deer Isle, in Maine, represents her work.