This is article is the third in a series of “studio visits” about the paintings in my upcoming show, “In Sunlight” (2010 – 2011). The series will be on exhibit at Lisa Harris Gallery, April 7–May 1, 2011.
In Part 1 – Genesis of a Series I told the story of how the idea for the series came to me in a dream and the painting that was inspired by the dream. In Part 2 I discussed the first painting in the series, December Peak. In this third and final installment I will discuss one of the later paintings, Border Peak in Sunlight, and how the approach I used for depicting sunlight is so very different from December Peak.
Every painting in the series features snow and views of peaks and mountaintops. Snow has a magical way of turning ordinary landscape color and value on their head, which helps foster the abstract qualities I am always interested in. More important, each painting explores how light behaves in these circumstances — hence, the title of the series, “In Sunlight.”
Right, Snow Rivers in Half Light, 2010, oil on panel, 18 x 15 inches
Left, December Peak, 2010, oil on paper, 10 x 10 inches
Some paintings in the series, like December Peak and Snow Rivers in Half Light, use a fairly traditional approach to depicting light — contrast of values (light and dark). Few things can instill more drama than value contrast, and strong contrasts also boost the painting’s ability to project powerful shapes.
With many of the later paintings in the series, however, I wanted to convey the illusion of bright light with a very different strategy. In spirit I have always leaned more toward an Impressionist sensibility in depicting light: the reduction of value contrasts in favor of color contrasts. Even in December Peak and Snow Rivers in Half Light, the value contrasts, although decisive, are not nearly as dark as they could be within a landscape painting. The shadows never get so dark as to prevent the eye from perceiving color within them. This allows me to infuse the shadows with more color and in turn, more light — one of the most delicious effects a painter can produce.
But what happens when this idea of reducing value contrast is taken to the extreme? That was my strategy in the most experimental paintings of the series, in which I wanted not only to capture bright light, but actually suggest the glare of brilliant sunlight. In Border Peak in Sunlight (right), value contrasts are almost entirely abandoned in favor of bright, saturated colors, modulated primarily with subtle hue and temperature differences. I write in my book, “What value can achieve through contrast, color may achieve through chromatic identity.” My hope is that what is evoked by the bright, saturated color will serve as a metaphor or stand-in for the illusion of bright light.
Illusion, of course, is the operative word. The painter can never truly capture the effect of light with paint and canvas. It is simply not possible. And that is the paradox that representational painters are continually confronted with. Like the alchemist, who seeks to turn lead into gold, so too does the painter strive to make paint and canvas impart to the viewer something that is equal in spirit to the reality — knowing full well that such alchemy is the stuff of dreams.
Addtional Resources from Landscape Painting: Essential Concepts and Techniques for Plein Air and Studio Practice:
Real Light vs. Painter’s Light and the Limitations of Paint, page 104
How Value Affects Color Identity, pages 114–119