Armed with an easel, three tubes of oil paint and a handmade birch wood canvas, Marty Coulter spent a warm June morning painting from under the gazebo at Lions Lake.
The technique of painting outdoors is known as “plein air,” and now, the Washington resident and lifetime artist is getting noticed for his work in plein air art.
Most recently, Coulter earned a “triple crown” — three top awards for one painting — at the Augusta Plein Air Art Show. He also took first place in the oil category with the same painting.
Coulter’s painting depicted “Morning on the Farm,” a scenic view of a farm, won best of show, artist’s choice and people’s choice. He was the contest’s first winner of all three prizes.
Originally from St. Ann, Coulter, 68, was one of two sons born to Thomas and Wilma Coulter.
He graduated from high school in Warrenton. Though Coulter said he didn’t get serious about art until high school, he has always been an artist.
“In kindergarten I remember getting my first little award — I had a sailboat in the sun, some blue water and a blue sky,” he said.
In high school, there weren’t many art classes offered, so Coulter studied art on his own. As a high school senior, he decided to pursue his passion. He submitted a portfolio to the Art Center School in Los Angeles, Calif., where he was accepted on the strength of his portfolio.
Professional artists taught classes one day each week.
Coulter studied car design, but after his second trimester (of three each year), in 1967, he ran out of money and returned to St. Louis Community College-Florissant Valley to attend classes.
At the time, the campus wasn’t complete and three new buildings were planned on campus.
“They had taken an aerial photograph of the campus, but they needed somebody to fill in those buildings,” he said.
They gave him a large, black and white aerial photo, and a heavy roll of architectural drawings.
“I had never seen anything like it in my life, and I didn’t know what I was going to do with it,” he recalled.
But a month later, he completed the project, for which he got paid $50.
It was his first architectural illustration, but it later led to his architectural drawing career.
While looking for summer work, Coulter brought the building drawing to the man who would become his business partner, Bob Whitesitt, to try and get a job, which he did. Three years later, the two created a business partnership, Whitesitt Coulter Inc., which operated in Brentwood. The two were partners for nearly 20 years.
Through the company, the two would illustrate designs from architects using gouache, an opaque watercolor paint.
“We would construct a perspective and create a full-color painting,” he said. Their work was used for everything from billboards to advertisements, and in many other places.
As a child, Coulter’s grandmother once asked where he got the idea for a painting, to which he replied that he just made it up.
“She thought that was significant, and it was interesting later in life to realize that when you do architectural work, a lot of times you did have to make things up,” he said.
In 1988, Coulter and his business partner parted ways and Coulter began work as a consultant for an architectural firm.
It was there that he met his wife Becky. It was only months before the two hit it off and decided to get married.
Coulter and his wife have three children, Lucas, Peter and Claire.
Lucas and Peter are in a band together, Dead Epimony, which recently won an online contest with more than 400 entries worldwide. His daughter is a professional photographer and currently lives in Chicago.
The family moved from St. Louis County to Labadie in 2000, and moved to Washington in about 2004.
Coulter first started doing plein air paintings about seven years ago
“I don’t know if it’s a passion, or an obsession, or just survival,” he said jokingly.
Coulter took a workshop with Billyo, (Billy O’Donnell), but creates his own palate of colors using only the primary colors and white.
“I like the liveliness it creates,” he said. “It’s interesting how (much you can create with) a limited palate.”
As an artist and having spent many years in a corporate setting, Coulter is inspired by being outdoors. “There is a painting everywhere you look if you really work on it,” he said.
Coulter said the process is “so much more complicated than what I used to do.” Now, rather than working from a set of blueprints for commission, “you’re doing things that please you and hoping that somebody else will be pleased enough to buy it.”
Coulter looks for representation in galleries and online. So far, he admits, he has had pretty good luck appealing to customers.
“It takes perseverance to do this and be serious about it, but the complexity is amazing. There are so many facets to trying to make a living doing this,” he said.
Coulter looks up to local artists Bryan Haynes, Billyo and Shawn Cornell.
“I have studied with all of them,” he said, adding that he has taken a few classes with Billyo.
Over the years, Coulter has worked to develop his own style.
“I tended to paint things a little too timidly before. My confidence is getting a little better in my application of paint,” he said.
“The funny thing is, and it took me awhile too. . . you have free rein to put in or take out whatever you want. You have to use your artist’s license, your creativity, and add and delete whatever you need to make a good picture.”
Coulter has been a member of the Mid-Missouri Fine Arts Society for several years. That group shows work at the Train Station Depot in Downtown Washington.
He has made a lot of friends through the art community, he said, adding that plein-air painting is keeping him busy.
He has seven events to attend throughout Missouri this summer.
He enjoys selling art “at the easel,” which can be customized to a client’s taste.
Coulter has won many awards for his paintings over the years.
Coulter currently has a show at Longview Farm House, 13525 Clayton Road, Town and Country, that runs through July 31.
To view his work, visit marty-coulter.artistwebsites.com.