In representational art, the formal aspects of a painting can contribute to a narrative or mood just as readily as the descriptive. This is a theme that I discuss often in workshops, talks, and here on my blog. I recently finished two paintings of the same locale and time of year—same day, in fact—using a very similar palette that illustrate this point well.
In fact, the difference between them really boils down to the mood that the shapes create.
In “Lingering”, below, the overall feel of the piece is warm and welcoming, despite the weather depicted being overcast. Putting ourselves in the scene, the misty/drizzly day creates a sheen and depth to colors in the marshes and a sense of intimacy—privacy, almost— within the landscape. On these sorts of days there are fewer people about; the air is thick and embracing; vistas tend to be limited. There is a boundary of trees at the horizon, enclosing the space.
On the formal side, the eye is led into the piece by the wide open shape of the tidal pool at the bottom left, and then is invited to move around by the directionality of soft edges and dispersed accumulations of detail. Variations of color within the areas of orange marsh grasses encourage the eye to linger. Sky and water are a mauve, relating to the coolest of the reds in the marsh.
I would describe “Lingering” as warm; friendly; intimate. And descriptive, for sure.
In the second piece, the color is the same but the feel is much bolder. Now we have a highly structured piece with assertive directionality. The eye is swept into the image by the strong zig-zag created by the edges of the marsh and moves back to a open area with minimal detail along the horizon. The detail that does exist is necessary to balance the composition, keeping the eye moving within the painting rather than being swept off to the right by the strong edges of the tidal creek.
The description of “Edge of Discovery” could include abstract; expansive; dynamic. Movement within structure.
As I was working on these pieces–about a month apart—I decided independently with each that the image needed some interest in the marsh as it went back in space. To create this, I added the back tidal pools in both cases, and then the evolving paintings clicked into place.
Even here, with a similar solution to a common problem, the feel of these pools is quite different. In “Lingering” there is quite a bit of detail to the two glimpses of white, while in “Edge of Discovery” the bit of water is minimal, austere (and right in the middle!), jibing with the overall reductive composition.
So, when we talk about mood in a landscape painting, we are discussing two things. One is the mood of the moment captured—how would it feel like to be there? The other is the feeling that the lines, shapes, and surface of the painting create for the viewer.
Color relates to both. It reflects the seasons; light; locale; and time of day of the views that we see around us. It also is inherently linked to mood and personal preference.
Kandinsky in his 1910 “Concerning the Spiritual in Art” posits that abstract elements have emotive power in their own right. In comparing these two paintings, it becomes clear how the shapes with their edges and directionality and the overall composition that they create impact the mood projected.
Unlike with color, many people are not consciously aware that these particular formal aspects are actively contributing to their experience of a representational painting. It is up to the artist to be adept at exploring the endless possibilities of these pictoral tools as the painting is being shaped, narrowing the gap between a good painting and an excellent one and finding variation in feel from piece to piece.
I recently taught a workshop at the Woodstock School of Art emphasizing mood in landscape painting. Since then I have continued to ponder the subject.
The course description.
All painting is about mood, and the landscape as subject matter sublimely so. In this workshop, we will break down what elements of a painting create strong currents of serenity, nostalgia, joy, melancholy, and subtle combinations of these. Color, content, and composition all contribute to the mood of a painting, so we will do exercises in color-mixing and composition, as well as discussing how these elements coalesce into the feel of a landscape in front of reproductions of some of my favorite landscape painters. In the studio, using photographic reference, we will be free to explore the mood of any palette, season, or time of day, aiming not to manipulate but to be sensitive to the mood we are creating.
Some of my ponderings.
I dislike art (in amy medium, including writing) that is sentimental. So the comment above about not manipulating the mood is key, since that might be a good working definition of artistic sentimentality–art that overtly tugs on the heartstrings. Also, art that sets out to evoke one emotional response, instead of a complex response.
Further, when the artist dials in very specifically on one emotional narrative, the viewer is not given room to project their own feelings, as too many doors have been closed. In my workshop, I observed that in bringing mood into our decision making, we are not setting about, for example, to do a painting that evokes bittersweet-nostalgia-at-the-end-of-a-long-day, but instead something much more open. Since we are working in a visual medium, we can work viscerally in part, and then use our skills in composition and color to enhance the feel that we are developing in a painting.
An analysis of the mood of eight paintings (as I see it).
The new painting below is clearly a mood piece. Dusk tends to do that, and the headlights imagery is realtively specific within my vocabulary. It is a poigniant time of day to be driving by oneself, and that is what the imagery evokes, so in this case we have a strong narrative, made dramatic by the highly contrasted darks and lights, warmed by the reds. The composition also affirms the story, since all of the shapes and lines either point to or frame the headlights.
“Counterlit Blues” is a mood piece of a different type, dreamier and less specific. Still, no sentimentality! The shapes all glow, and have horizontal/diagonal lines that are inherently elegant and lead the eye gently around the canvas.
A sunny summer day, green/blue palette in the Northeast, does not have the softening effects of mist, nor the mood of dusk or a thunderstorm. The challenge is to capture the sense of joy that such a day can provide, something that can be difficult—and if you fall short, it becomes just a pretty painting.
“Summer Sky over Sesuit” has a certain dreamy quality, but the pointy cloud shapes counterbalance the mood with their incisiveness. Also, anchoring the soft greens with the blacks of the marsh shapes gives the piece power. The joy of this summer day has a great deal with sense of place, as well as the towering sky.
Alternatively, “Divided Fields” is more a color field painting, capturing the universal, than a moment in time. The movement created by the diagonal lines of the field divisions and the upward movement of the clouds contribute to the feeling that the image extends indefinitely up and out the sides. The sense of activity contributes to the energetic mood.
One of my all-time favorite pieces, the older “Dark Cloud” goes beyond moody, flirting with ominous. The feel of stormy dread is counterbalanced by the oddly friendly way that the cloud converses with the silhouetted tree poking up above the hillside.
The following two pieces were done within a few weeks of each other, are the same size. and of similar subject matter.
“October Saltmarsh” has a a much more intense feel, however, and “Hazy/Lazy Saltmarsh” a dreamier sensibility, largely due to color. The first creates intrigue by simultaneously providing serenity and incisive moodiness, while the second allows you to relax entirely into the hazy greens and tidal creek shape zigzagging gently toward you.
Both of these pieces have already been much admired…but always with a strong preference for one over the other.
What is the difference between the sublime and the melodramatic in a landscape painting?
I would go back to the specificity of the story, and perhaps to the number of seductive elements in the piece. So, sun through the clouds is entirely enough, and more does not make for bigger impact. Not too many colors, no need for a boat or sun flare, and darks running to black or almost black lend contrast and weight to the sublime sun.
Mixed metaphor in art is usually much more interesting than the overt message. Furthermore, all good art should allow for the viewer to project some of their own thoughts and feelings into the mix, as art is about questions as much as answers.
So, feel free to disagree with any of my interpretations!