I have been puzzling over what makes a piece a standout within my body of work. It is not a question of “better”, nor of “favorite”. There is consensus around these pieces, and the five I have selected (more in future posts!) have also withstood the test of time—they date from 1993 to 2008.
A major attribute that makes these paintings stand out is that they all push a particular direction to the furthest point along my spectrum. There are a number of avenues of exploration that have held my interest over the course of years, allowing for many subtle permutations along the way. These five paintings epitomize the categories that they represent—signposts, in their way, whether they came early or later .
My plan for this piece was to do a scene of Castille, complete with red soil and olive trees. (I much later did the image with additional detail as a pastel, which I also consider a marker piece, as discussed below.) This was all before I started working on the dark ground that has long been part of my technique, so I created an underpainting with black oil to create the mass of the the large landform and used a light grey in the sky. I carefully scumbled the top line to embed the tree shapes and hill into the sky.
When I returned to my studio ready to work back into the now dry first layer, I was struck by how powerful the piece was in just black and white, and so decided to find a way to honor that simplicity. Brushing a little thin almost white into the sky created a soft vibration there, and setting the piece on the floor, I added a wash of deep green, leaving the edges of the piece black.
This piece went so far in the direction of a totally abstract, minimalist color field painting that once it was finished, I felt thoroughly satisfied and never again felt the need to take another piece quite so far in that direction. With “Dark Castille”, I managed to wed landscape imagery with the open feel of a Rothko.
“Red Fields”, hewing more closely to the original reference, pushes my palette in exactly the opposite direction as “Dark Castille”. It is not only one of my brightest pieces ever, but also has a larger range than most—quite bright blue in the sky. resounding reds, then into rusts and greens, both olive and sage. The matte surface of pastel on paper is ideal for creating a brighter and more inclusive palette that feels rich rather than jarring. Like the first version above, the treeline at the top of the hillside is the kind of focal point that I find absolutely delicious to paint. The detail and rich color in “Red Fields” makes me profoundly happy.
“Fireflies” is simply the blurriest painting I have done to date. The softness captures the resonant beauty of a rainy summer day in the Catskills, tonalist greens and blues deepened by the low light. Since I have been doing paintings incorporating approaching headlights, I have been astounded at how different the points of light can be, depending on atmospherics. Here, they are oh-so-soft, and yet they buzz around the picture plane with a great deal of energy.
This effect is achieved because this triptych is, rather than one image divided into three panels, actually three different paintings. As I was working on them separately, I repeatedly brought them together to check on how they were interacting, establishing variation in placement of headlights, horizon, roadway, and other elements. The eye is thus invited to travel around laterally between the panels, complimenting the implied movement of the headlights moving toward the viewer..
“Divided Fields” sparks two of my favorite discussions. One is about the summer palette of blue sky and green field or grass, and the other is about minimalism and color field painting.
This piece explores flatness and abstraction in a manner different from “Dark Castille” . The picture plane is divided up into long, horizontal wedges within the hillside, and the sky functions partly as one horizontal shape, and partly as clouds/blue sky. The upward direction of the clouds brings the eye back down to the horizon, while their diagonal directionality creates a rhythm that helps the eye sweep along the expanse of the entire piece, almost like reading—left to right. The flatness is far from absolute, with lots of soft scumbling and hue variation to create vibration within the planes of color.
All of my pieces create mood, though I do not aim to create narrow, specific emotions so much as broad, subtle and complex resonance. Moody, tonalistic paintings are second nature to me, loving as I do weather and dense atmospherics.After some years of that exploration, however, I wanted to be able to also capture the sheer joy of a sunny summer day. The open, abstract nature of “Divided Fields” pairs strong blues and greens with the assertive lines of the field divisions to walk exactly the line that I am after—a duality of delight in time/place/season along with the pure pleasure that planes of composed color can provide.
“Dark Cloud” also has a reductive, color field affect, but departs from the pieces discussed so far in the dynamic of the cloud. There are only three shapes in the whole piece, including the negative space of the sky, and the cloud is the most assertive of them.
Clouds can be, and be painted, in countless ways. In this painting I pushed the cloud into the most dominant position of any piece that I have done, partly by creating just a single cloud, and partly by its size and color. I worked the subtle variations within and at the edges the way I do with any cloud, so that they are embedded in the sky rather than seeming to float on top of it. Yet, this cloud is clearly read as a shape that dialogues aggressively with the wedge of hillside below. The landform holds its own, in turn, by being totally black and having a tree lifting into the sky in such a way that the cloud seems halted by it. With this strong play of elements, “Dark Cloud” contains an edge of tension resulting from both narrative and formal elements.
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!
Back on the Flats
Vacations, especially family ones, can be complex, and even when things go smoothly, it often takes a few days to relax.
On the tidal flats in Brewster on the Cape, it only takes me about three minutes into my first walk to melt into a blissed-out state, which is then repeated every time I set foot on the wet sand. From the beach entrance, it doesn’t look like much (where did all the water go?). Once you are striding across the sandflats, though, the effect is riveting. The shifting sky is vividly reflected in the tidal pools, so different from when the waves come in at high tide on the bay, and the constantly changing shapes of sandbars and tidal pools as I walk the mile or so out to the last bar are elegant and mesmerizing. The knowledge that I am walking on the bottom of the bay, that in a few hours the water on the sandbar that I tread will be over my head, intensifies the ephemeral wonder of the moment. My body in motion creates a stream of new shapes and colors, the movement of the tide alters the shapes of the tidal pools and sandbars, and the sky’s constant change is reflected in the pools. I move with purpose, as if I have a happy but important job to do.
Over the years, I become more and more fascinated with watching it in all its familiarity and constant transformation.
For a landscape painter, sense of place is always key. I often contend, though, that for the artist the painting needs to be more important than the place—that to even capture the place, any place, you need to keenly focus on the dynamics of color, composition, surface, and edges, while engaged in the process, and that mood will follow. The tidal flats experience transends this argument perfectly, though, providing the feel that I want to evoke both in my work and to experience while working—wide open, expansive, joy-infused serenity set in moments of crystalline focus—and this over a period of time, the body moving and engaged.
Moving from bliss to pictoral analysis, the shapes of the sandbars, tidal pools, and clouds over the flats lend themselves to the kind of color field painting that I love—essentially and yet barely a landscape. The interlocking shapes of the elements are sometimes subtle and others assertive; sometimes elegant and others odd, and like nothing else in the natural world.
Binary of mutually exclusive truths: the essence of sense of place and the purest abstraction.