Unifying the Autumn Landscape with a Super- Color

coming autumn

As fall begins in the Catskill mountains, I am reminded of Robert Henri’s insistence on being aware of the dominant color of the light which illuminates a landscape (or a studio for that matter). Autumn is a challenging season to paint as the foliage changes to brilliant colors. In a single composition, one can have various trees with a high chroma – red, red-orange, orange, orange-yellow, yellow, yellow-green seen against blue or violet hills. These colors can easily clash or appear to lack atmosphere in a composition. It is important to find the balance yet maintain the integrity of the visual experience.

This year, I painted an expansive farm field at the Peter’s Farm up the road from my house four times from slightly different angles. It is one of my favorite spots, locally, to paint. My goal was to achieve a unity of effect, harnessing the various colors under one dominant color. This dominant color is called by Henri, the super-color. It is dominant because it is the color of the light from the sun as it passes through the atmosphere. This color permeates all other colors. The American landscape painter, Edgar Payne use to locate this color and premix it on the palette. Then he would add this color to all of the local colors in the composition. This works very well. It creates neutrals where a complementary color is contained in the local color. Therefore, one achieves a simple unity that is held together by the super-color. My first study followed this method strictly.

Peter's View

Although my painting felt very successful, with certain dominant colors this method, at times, created too much neutrality and I lost some of the brilliance that I was after. So in my second study, I added the super-color as a premix to all receding objects, which appeared to be slowly engulfed in the atmosphere and left those that were closer more as I visually experienced them, still being conscious of that dominant color. But the foreground still called for more unity.

In order to tie the foreground to the background, I added a secondary dominant color that accounted for the reflected light emanating from the dome of the sky. This is usually predominantly bluish, but in the fall this changes and often times is the complement to the dominant color. This addition of reflected lights on the top planes and into the shadows  complemented the dominant color creating more variety in the unity of the space. Because at times, the complement could be used in the reflected lights, it visually created a greater dynamic feeling of color and the sensation of illumination. This is ultimately the goal.

My last painting (top image) brought all these investigations together combining the dominant super-color as the main light source with a secondary color describing the reflected lights. The dominant super-color was an orange-yellow with a violet red (visually a red-orange but slightly pinker) and for the reflected lights, I used a green-blue. And this really worked, the RO balanced by the GB. So the image contained a unity on two levels and therefore appears balanced.

On the Coast of Maine


High Surf

“High Surf”, 22″ X 30″, oil

During the month of August, I had the great pleasure of painting along the Maine coast in Acadia. Reflecting back on my last blog, Maine fulfilled all my yearnings for an experience of immensity. I quote Baudelaire again,

Why is the sight of the sea so infinitely and eternally attractive?

Because the sea simultaneously provides the idea of immensity and of movement… Twelve or fourteen leagues of moving liquid suffice to provide the noblest idea of beauty that is offered to man in his transitory habitation.

No one can look on the sea and not feel the vastness that lies there. Here exists all the elements- the surging water, the pounding and echoing of the surf against the rocks, the oratory force of the fury of sea, the uplifted spray in one’s face, the intense isolation of boat or gull suspended on that moving surface. This space is all-consuming and complete. One is intensely caught in reverie, yet fully engaged, losing oneself in all that immensity. There is also an aspect of terror that adds to this sublime feeling. The sea demands respect and adoration. Menace is also an attribute -don’t venture to low onto rocks that are daily covered under the sea, one may not get back.

I found myself, this year, drawn especially to the surging surf. I wanted to comprehend its anatomy, its reason for coming to shore in its specific form. I wanted to search  how the tides, whether they were coming in or out, effected this change. Color was also a big issue. Having come from the green hills of the Catskills, I was fascinated with the beautiful grays and the simultaneous presence of complements. The variety of temperature change was challenging. But more importantly, I wanted to experience the aspect of beauty that arrests. Baudelaire eloquently attests, “Hence it follows that irregularity- that is to say, the unexpected, surprise, astonishment- is an essential part, and, indeed, the characteristic, of beauty.”

The sea is all these things, and it is its ability to surprise and astonish that causes one to feel the sublime. As I was engaged in painting on rocks above an incoming tide, I was hit by a rogue wave that nearly took my easel out to sea. It was unexpectedly high and seemed to come from nowhere. There was a bit of terror in it, riveting my attention. The mobility of all that water, its labyrinth like quality, which one is constantly attempting to discern and unravel, is sublimity itself. And it is all this action that I was yearning for, to capture what is in, a way, impossible. It is flux itself, like life, like time. We only delude ourselves into thinking that nothing changes. The sea is the witness that speaks otherwise.

I found myself drawn to the movement of the sea between an immense dark black rock jutting up from the sea bed and coastal rocks receiving the buffets of the incoming high tide. I painted this same section many times in the afternoon, later and later each day as the peak of the tide changed.  It seemed to contain all that I wished to discover there. It exemplified that constant “irregularity” in that ever-shifting, vast fluid surface, where one could only receive a feeling of orientation through the position of the visible rocks.

Incoming Tide

“Incoming Tide, 22″ X 30”, Oil

“I have discovered the definition of beauty- of my beauty. It is something ardent and sad, something slightly vague, giving rein to conjecture.” (Baudelaire) It is something ill-defined, indefinite with a perplexing emotion carrying it. Yet one intuitively recognizes it as one’s own, as if one had suddenly remembered long ago, in vague and coherent flashes, feeling this way before. A lost memory found. This is the real goal of painting- tapping into that “store-house of images”, that returns us to a more profound place that resides within ourself. The spectator, when viewing a painting, completes the image himself. This is the main reason for not entirely completing an image, but to leave some parts more generally indicated. It leaves the door open for participation from the viewer.  Sir Joshua Reynolds states in his Discourses on Art that, “From a slight undetermined drawing, where the ideas of the composition and character are, as I may say, only just touched upon, the imagination supplies more than the painter himself, probably, could produce; and we accordingly often find that the finished work disappoints the expectation that was raised from the sketch…” (Eighth Discourse of December 10, 1778).

Water cannot readily be rendered and when it is, it rings false or photographic. Having the attribute of a sketch, the sea feels authentic and true, full of life. One inherently knows what the sea is and one can easily complete the  image with one’s imagination. The artist provides the tools for that meditation. With these ideas, which I have reflected upon behind the work, I share some paintings from Maine.


“Rocks at Mid-Tide”, 16″ X 22″, Oil

Immensity and the Largeness of Effect

fig10-2Rockwell Kent from Wilderness: A Journal of a Quiet Adventure in Alaska, 1920.

“Why is the sight of the sea so infinitely and eternally attractive?

Because the sea simultaneously provides the idea of immensity and movement.”

Charles Baudelaire

Baudelaire goes on to express that all great works of genius contain an element of ‘immensity’. Immensity has very little to do with the actual size of a work but with  that interior feeling of vastness combined with a sense of fragility. The image astonishes us and “…entails a nervous shock…” producing something like fear, that this sublime moment shall pass and I will fail to seize hold of its nature. It is a moment of recognition that this very immensity I experience in the image resides simultaneously within myself. There dwells a correspondence and a ‘sympathy’ which allows my being in its wholeness to complete the image. The image itself has been waiting for me.

Last week, I reread “Wilderness” by Rockwell Kent which combines images he produced in Alaska with his daily journal entries on Fox Island during the seven months he spent there with his 10-year-old son. In one entry he describes a woodblock he is carving. It contains vast mountains and a rough sea. He spent several nights carving it and deliberating over its form. He ends the entry by saying that it is only two inches square! Multum in parvo– Immensity held in a small space.

“There are moments of existence when time and expanse are more profound, and the sense of existence is hugely enhanced.”  Are not the images that we find truly moving descriptive of these moments? These images may not contain great or historic events or unbelievable places or profound personalities, but are most often an ordinary commonplace. “In certain almost supernatural states of soul, the profundity of life is entirely revealed in any scene, however ordinary, that presents itself before one. The scene becomes its Symbol.

When I reflect on the child portraits of Robert Henri, especially the late Irish portraits, I find immensity there. Though ordinary children, he expresses an ‘immensity of soul’ combined with the fragility of childhood, so time bound and fleeting. Henri expresses this immensity with all the potentiality of the child which time destroys as the child matures. This is something that we too have been a part of- our own childhood and the memories of that time and our own latent potential in youth. The immensity expressed in these children reaches out to us and we find our place there.

Are there some painting techniques or practices that can assist my images as I search for a feeling of immensity in my work? I look to Delacroix as my guide. A strong composition and the evocative use of color can lead you. The suppression of detail combined with a preservation of the masses as well as a quality of incompleteness adds to this feeling. It must also not be too objective, but needs to contain an element of the ‘self’ or personality of the artist as well as unconscious or ill-defined material. There is also an element of movement. When Baudelaire describes our fascination with the sea, it is movement that also captivates us. Delacroix achieved movement through brush stroke as well as the use of complements and colored edges. Henri achieved movement through the compositional use of color where there is a constant and subtle adjustment in color and tone to move the eye around the image. There are others as well. These are just some of the tools in the artists’ toolbox. But first and foremost one needs the eyes to see.

I love the obscure French book, Mt. Analogue in which the characters of the story find that there is a hidden world in our very midst and that it only takes their willingness to engage that world in order to enter upon the journey. The journey itself takes place under the guise of a commonplace, a sea voyage. But it is this initiation that will inevitably lead them to Mt Analogue. I believe having an open mind and heart will create the ability for one to see with a greater awareness the imaginative potential and vastness latent in the commonplace. Immensity of soul, of lived experience, will inevitably lead to a feeling of expansion within the image.

All Quotes from, Charles Baudelaire’s, Intimate Journals, trans. Norman Cameron, 1995.

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