Monthly Archives: December 2010

The Winter Landscape and The Pervading Neutral

This week in the Catskill Mountains, it has snowed everyday. Beautiful clean, white snow. What I love about the winter is this wonderful neutral that pervades the landscape. All those subtle tones of gray, blue- gray, violet and russet reds, appear so much more intriguing. Set against this neutral of white, those more subtle tones take on an added vibrancy. With the surrounding neutral, one can see the grays more clearly and instead of mixing a color that is completely neutralized, one can break down that neutral into several tones.

There are russet grasses along the fields and riverbanks near where I live. I love this subtle red because red in the landscape is very rare unless one is talking about a man made structure. Sometimes these grasses appear as a strong accent and at other times they vary from a strong red to a more subtle orange or an ocher color. I find that a combination of viridian  and orange gives this gold tone. And into this I can add a more distinctive red tone without it taking over because the viridian acts as a neutralizer to this red and thus creates a russet color to the grasses without it becoming too pronounced. I prefer working with these three colors rather than strictly a red/green complement. Adding this type of variety to the grasses allows one to place the grass in the composition through color temperature- warmer tones approaching the foreground and cooler tones as it recedes into the background.

The far hills, during this time of year, appear as subtle gray-blue tones to blue-violets tones. In the middle of winter when the skies are overcast, there is a close relationship in color temperature between the sky and far hills. The looming clouds hang over the hills reflecting their violet tones into the hills and the color from the hills themselves also being reflected back into the sky. This violet tone tends to pervade everything including the snow. So it is important to add any kind of variance to these violet tones that one can find. If it is all too neutral, it becomes uninteresting and there appears to be no light emanating from the canvas.

I divide the tones I see in an overcast winter landscape into blue; blue-violet; and violet- red. Accentuating the blues at first in the initial block-in and then later over-laying in the pervading violet to violet-gray. And I tend to off-set all this violet with a subtle introduction of orange or orange-yellow. Since the sun is low in the sky in the winter, this warm color can be seen in the lower sky and subsequently, reflected in some of the snow. This adds a more compelling element visually, the warms and cools playing off of each other.

One cannot describe all that goes into every landscape, but I have indicated some of the things I find so interesting about this time of year. The blanket of the neutral white ties all of these beautiful tones together gathering them in and showing them off in a unique way. It was always George Bellows favorite time of year. He even titled one of his winterscapes of skaters in Central Park as,”Love of Winter”. If one has the endurance, in many ways it is the best time to paint out-of-doors.

Color Mixing (and an Opportunity for Reverie)

“You can make hundreds of experiments on the glass of your palette the memories of which will sink into you to come into service in cases of actual need when at the work of painting.” (Henri, The Art Spirit, p.59)

It has been part of my own practice to take this advice to heart. I have also found sheer enjoyment in color itself through this process. Most times, I retain these  color studies in order to use them as a tool in making comparisons to actual setups in the studio. One possible experiment – take a chord and mix the triad in such a way as to emphasize one color over another and therefore transform the appearance of the chord- taking into account the quality of the light for a particular subject. This is a practical reason to experiment.  But there are also times where I mix in order to discover something I have yet to visualize or have an immediate use for. It is these moments that one opens oneself up to being surprised.

Through the  process of mixing paint on the palette, observing colors in various combinations and juxtapositions, one is taken to a place where the imagination is given perfect freedom . At times these color studies prompt the imagination to discover new possibilities of color but also of images or compositions. I remember one day when I was looking through Henri’s archive, I found several pages of mock color studies. Most appeared as simple landscape compositions- sunset, beach and sea, hills and mountains, desert. I do not know if Henri had a subject in mind or whether he was planning an excursion. It was not obvious nor were there any notes accompanying these except color notes. And I felt this, in fact, was his reasoning- that they were experiments for the sake of sheer experimentation. In a sense, he allowed himself the freedom to dream in the very act of mixing on the palette, allowing images to come before his mind in the moment. And in many ways, I preferred his wonderful enjoyment of color for its own sake, having a child-like spirit as a part of his personal approach to painting. I have read that Carl Jung, in the last years of his life, spent his time engaged with moving rocks on the beach outside of his place of weekend refuge- playing like a child in the sand and allowing his soul perfect freedom to manifest through his mind’s eye those figures or images that sought to present themselves. These images he later incorporated into the architecture of his house creating a connection between his inner world and the reality of that particular place.

As part of my practice, I will take, for example, a new chord and create mock compositions, trying the colors in different juxtapositions as well as experimenting with the priority of the colors-testing the focal color against several possible background colors and finding what appears to be most effective or speaks to me on some level. Sometimes within these studies, I will see a figure emerging or a possibility for a still-life composition. It is a little like the psychology of the “ink spot”. But I feel it is important to allow one’s self the freedom to, in a sense, “not accomplish” something but allow the imagination to act as a guide.

This type of work, where some practical exercise leads one’s imagination into a reverie, has been described by Ibn Arabi as an isthmus- a bridge or path to the world of images. And it is in this space that one becomes connected to the deeper meaning of one’s work. The ego is let go and the more intuitive part of ourselves takes over and what we cannot “will” presents itself to us. This state of openness presents the artist with a vision of himself and his work. But it also creates within the artist a more intuitive connection to the larger forces that are active in the world.

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