A lobster boat at a trap-piled wharf, the bow of a schooner, a Portland streetscape, the rocky coastline: Cooper Dragonette’s paintings capture instantly recognizable images of Maine. And yet, despite the expertly rendered reflection in the ripples of the water or the fine detail in the eye of a seagull, the artist is not interested in exact reproduction. “I’m usually happier if it’s loose and has some rough edges to it,” says Dragonette. I’m not looking for any kind of perfection.”
Dragonette describes his style as “poetic realism—somewhere between realism and impressionism.” The shape and scale of the lobster boat is realistic, but its stern is free of dirty trap lines and other unsightly detritus of fishing. Farmhouses and city blocks are stripped to their architectural elements. “Artistic license is a pretty big tool in my toolbox,” he says. “I’d like it to look painterly, to give some sense of the place without being just a straight illustration of the place.”
Having previously focused on sculpture, Dragonette turned to oil painting after taking a class he needed to be certified as an art teacher in Maine. His teacher introduced him to working plein air, which connected his artistic leanings to his experience as an instructor at the Hurricane Island Outward Bound School on Penobscot Bay. “Maine, especially sailing on the coast, struck me as a magical place, and it was also maybe a bit spiritual. There is something about the scale—the islands, the coast, the ocean—that all finds its way into my work.”
Maine offers so much inspiration, however, that Dragonette had to “whittle it down to subjects I know will be successful and interesting and speak to me,” he says. Whether he is outdoors or in his Cape Elizabeth studio, his process starts with figuring out the composition. “A lot of it gets worked out in my head—I don’t know if I’m that conscious of it—but the thought process of designing the painting in a sketchbook eliminates a lot of headaches later on,” he says. When it’s time to paint, he tends to use a single small brush—five-eighths inches wide—even though most of his canvases are large. Limiting his brushes is another way he keeps his paintings from being too illustrative, Dragonette says. “I don’t want to get bogged down in the details of the landscape. I want other people to interpret what they’re seeing.”
Susan Sherrill Axelrod is a seasoned editor and writer whose work has covered a broad range of lifestyle subjects—food and drink, art and design, preservation, and sustainability. In 2020, she became editor-in-chief of Culture, a national media brand focused on the enjoyment and business of cheese. She lives in Maine's midcoast, and enjoys being on the water as much as possible, hiking with her dog, Lucy, and a well-made cocktail.