Lanny McDowell took a break from painting in 2007 to focus on his bird photography, which appears in a variety of publications and videos. One can often find his work accompanying the bird column or other articles in the Gazette. His photographs also stand alone and are in private collections around the country.

Before 2007, Mr. McDowell had developed a very particular painting style, capturing the detail, power and elegance of waves. His paintings from the period between 2004 and 2007 are both realistic and simplified, with some wave patterns resembling calligraphic lines, and other shapes being more refined.

When he started painting again in 2011, Mr. McDowell wanted to go in a new direction.

In Asteroid Mystery, scallop shell takes front and center. — Lanny McDowell

His recent work, on display at the West Tisbury Free Public Library throughout October, highlights his versatility and sense of adventure as an artist. Most of the paintings are on large, square canvasses, and represent his exploration of grid patterns and the relationship between nature and geometry.

Asteroid Mystery, for example, features a range of oranges and reds, which are evident in both a grid pattern that is the foundation of the work, and a large scallop shell hovering in the center. Alternating squares of black that fade to an orange-gray at the bottom of the painting each contain a small white dot in the center, suggesting both the night sky and a kind of universal symmetry.

Other selections include warm, fluorescent landscapes and seascapes, and symmetrical grid patterns whose colors suggest landscapes or moods. One small painting, Sun Moon Barn Owl, is like a pixellated image of a shore at dusk. In the foreground, a white owl flies into focus.

“A lot of the fun of painting, especially something that’s close to abstract, is just sitting down and starting with an impulse and letting it take you wherever it’s going,” Mr. McDowell said.

Spring at a fever pitch. — Lanny McDowell

Mr. McDowell seems to follow a kind of spontaneous punctuality in his work. Once he starts a painting, he usually stays with it until it is finished (although some may take longer than others). His painting style has shifted direction over the years as he continues to explore new ideas.

The grid paintings have a distinct southwestern feel, reflecting the Native American art of the region, although that was not necessarily the intention. “I think it’s seeped into my soul a little bit, but I don’t think of myself that way,” he said. He sees the grids more as color studies and as a new area to explore.

“The grid thing was self-imposed, but you could go on for the rest of your life doing that and having fun,” he said. “But I like to poke around.”

In starting new paintings, he is often mindful, if they incorporate a grid pattern, to use other stylistic elements to keep things going in a new direction.

He often finds opportunities to incorporate abstract elements into his photography, by creating out-of-focus backgrounds that imply moods or patterns. That usually only works if the print is large enough for both the bird and the background. Many of his photographs are a synthesis of illustration, landscape and more free-form expression.

Lanny McDowell: "I want to do something that people haven't seen before, that gets their attention so that they become a participant." — Lanny McDowell

In the painting process, photography can help navigate moments of indecision, he said. If he’s faced with many possibilities, Mr. McDowell will sometimes photograph the work in progress and experiment with different color schemes using Photoshop. It jump-starts the process, he said, and allows him to start fresh “with a new vision of how it’s going to be. And of course it’s still going to morph.”

It took a while for Mr. McDowell to settle on the large square canvasses he has been using most recently. Part of what draws him to the square format is that it marks a divergence from landscape painting. Although he still considers Twilight Cedars, one of the more traditional landscapes in the show, to be among his most successful works.

“As inspired as I am by a field with a stream running through it, I want to do something that people haven’t seen before, that gets their attention so that they become a participant,” he said. “Hopefully, it puts a smile on their face or inspires them somehow.”

Paintings by Lanny McDowell will be at the West Tisbury Free Public Library through October, with a public reception Saturday, Oct. 11, from 4 to 5 p.m. Visit