The bold drama of wind-filled sails on a Nantucket Sound day. Children’s sun-splashed faces on a Chatham Beach. The catch-your-breath beauty of a fresh snowfall on Boston Common. Painter Debbie Hearle’s muses are many, yet when you ask her to choose what she loves to paint most, she struggles to come up with an answer.
Perhaps that is because she is accomplished at capturing so much around her. Whether she is in Chatham, where she runs a very successful gallery with her husband, Ron, or working in her winter studio on Boston’s Beacon Hill, Hearle’s mind is a sensory sponge. Painting en plein air on a Chatham beach or making sketches of Boston Common after a snowstorm, she soaks up color, shape, and visual cues. Her impressions inspire works of such luminous immediacy and skillful interpretation that many sell for five figures to a well-established clientele.
When you meet her, this elegant woman seems to have stepped out of one of the dozens of her deftly executed seascapes, landscapes, still lifes, and portraits that glow on the walls of the Hearle Gallery on Chatham’s Main Street. She pulls you in with her bright blue eyes, blazing above a bold orange tunic. Like her paintings, which have brought her considerable financial success and membership in prestigious organizations like the Copley Society, the American Society of Marine Artists, and the International Society of Marine Painters, there is nothing abstract or obscure about Debbie Hearle. She is a colorful, confident, very real lover of life.
“When Ron and I came to Chatham for the first time, we walked up and down Main Street,” says Hearle. “We were just married, and we said to each other, ‘If we could ever have a gallery here—that would be such a dream!’ We were lucky enough to move to Chatham full-time 24 years ago and open our gallery. We raised our sons here, and have just had a marvelous time.”
Hearle has been painting for over 30 years, first inspired to pick up a paint brush when the youngest of her two children entered preschool. Her life has always revolved around family. As a young girl growing up on City Island, New York, some of her most cherished memories are of her family’s sailing trips around Long Island Sound. Her lifelong passion for sailing is reflected in her understanding of wind, sail, and water in such works as Northern Light, a 37” x 47” oil ($19,500) of racing sailboats full of action and drama. Hearle says her love of marine painting—which has been refined by studying with well-known Cape Cod master painters like Edgar Whitney, Joseph McGurl, Donald Demers, and William Davis—has grown deeper over the years. “These artists taught me about composition, about seeing big shapes in a painting, and watching the light, keeping things simple,” says Hearle, who will be teaching a workshop at the Cultural Center of Cape Cod in South Yarmouth this fall.
With her husband, Hearle often takes inspirational sails on the family’s much-loved sailboat, Kui Ipo, which she calls her “floating atelier.” The couple also frequently cruise over to the Vineyard or Nantucket, skippered by their helpful son Michael, to watch classic New England sailing events, like Nantucket’s Opera House Cup, the Edgartown Yacht Club races, and the Figawi race from Hyannis to Nantucket.
“I love being out there,” says Hearle. “I do photos and study sketches out on the water. I just get inspired.” Most winters, the Hearles vacation in the British Virgin Islands. “Being near the water just rejuvenates me,” says Hearle. “I guess I have salt water in my veins—I love the colors of the ocean.”
Ron notes that when Debbie returns from their Caribbean vacations, her paintings sometimes bloom with vivid tropical color, as was the case with All That Jazz, a painting she entered into a local competition held to showcase the Cape Cod Jazz Festival. Twelve artists were asked to submit paintings to the first festival several years ago. Hearle’s 22” x 28” oil, alive with color, movement, and pizzazz, won the show. “I was just thinking about summertime, heat, music, and fun,” says Hearle.
Hearle’s marine paintings and her smaller, most luminous landscapes of quintessential New England scenes, such as Ridgevale Vista (8” x 10”, $1,850), reflect the painter’s careful preparation and meticulous field study work. With both photographs and small watercolor thumbnail sketches, those impressions are transformed through hours of focused studio work—a gift from a very supportive husband who provides the critical, behind-the-scenes framework that helps the artist flourish.
“I could not have owned and run this gallery—and painted all these works —without Ron,” says Hearle, noting that the gallery also represents nearly 20 high caliber painters, including the well-known artists William Davis, Peter Layne Argiumbau, Ron Tinney, and Neil McAuliffe. Ron Hearle, who worked for many years as a detective sergeant in the New York City Police Department, retired in 1985. The couple immediately scoured several towns for just the right place to live and work. Having spent many childhood vacations in Chatham, Hearle says she knew they had made the right choice when the couple opened the gallery’s doors in 1985.
Over the years, Hearle has had dozens of shows at the gallery. She has received countless commissions for portraits, especially of children. On a wall of the gallery, in an obvious place of honor, is a large oil called Surfin’, of four young children standing hands linked on a beach, entranced by the beauty of the ocean. “Those are four of my six grandchildren,” Hearle says proudly. She laughs when Ron quickly turns on a laptop to share photos of one artistic grandchild. “I love to take all the children to the beach with me when I am going to paint en plein air,” she says. “The children just think it is the best thing to paint on location.” This love of children is reflected in Hearle’s considerable success at portrait painting—she says she has painted hundreds of portraits over the years, including one large family portrait commissioned for $65,000.
“The portraits are all commissioned works,” Hearle explains. “I meet with the families, and we go to the beach where I photograph and get to know the children.” The oil portraits range in price from smaller works (16” x 20”) for $5,000, up to $30,000 for larger pieces (30” x 40”).
Hearle says she has painted over 4,000 paintings during her 35-year career. With typical enthusiasm for new challenges, she talks about her latest joy: painting old-world cityscapes of Boston. The paintings, of Boston Garden, Beacon Hill, and many landmarks, glimmer with a kind of warm romanticism. “My studio window looks right down on Charles Street,” says Hearle. “I love painting the cityscapes—it is a whole new world. The winter is almost not long enough for me now.”
When she is asked about her longterm goals as an artist, Hearle is reflective for a few minutes. “I will always be trying to do better—that’s a given,” she says. “What matters to me most is that I keep creating new work that has passion in it. ”
Susan Dewey is managing editor at Cape Cod Life Publications.