My current series, “In Sunlight” (2010–2011) had its genesis in 2005. This article is the first in a series of “studio visits” about the development of that series. Learn more about the series in Part 2 – December Peak and Part 3 – Beyond Value with “Border Peak in Sunlight”.
In early 2005, a few weeks before my first show at Lisa Harris Gallery, I had a dream about my paintings. I was in the gallery. All the pieces were hung. The paintings in the dream were not the actual pieces I had produced for the show (dreams can be funny that way), but there was one painting on the dream wall that called to me: a single mountain in sunlight. Golden and glowing.
So vivid was this image — and so much in alignment with my vision for capturing sunlight — that I had to try painting it. This would be different for me. I almost never work from memory or try to invent my subjects. I usually begin with a visual experience or “vision,” witnessed directly in nature or captured in one of my photographs. The challenge of conveying an illusion of sunlight — one that feels authentic and convincing — was not new to me. I had been enamored with this idea since my college days and my studies of Impressionism. But now, inspired by this dream mountain, I wanted to push this illusion of bright sunlight further than I had before.
I promptly went out and purchased a tube of “gold” oil paint — admittedly, a less-than-poetic approach to color. Not surprisingly, it didn’t work at all. Although I was painting a dream, I had to start thinking like a painter who was awake. I decided to try a strategy of saturated color. I knew from my studies of Impressionism (and others like Sorolla and Turner) that saturated colors, when set to the right value (neither too dark nor too light), could be an effective substitute or “metaphor” for light. This metaphor could also be achieved with strong value contrasts, but this was never of much interest to me; I felt that it disrupted the sense of atmosphere that was so much a part of my vision. I was much more interested in how colors reacted within a narrow value range. To my eye, lighter values, even for the shadows, feel more like light. Several years later, I would write in my book, “What value can achieve through contrast, color can achieve through chromatic identity.”
Above, Mitchell Albala, I Dreamed of Sun, 2005, oil on panel, 11 x 11 inches.
The on-screen image depicted has been made much darker than it is in actuality; otherwise, it would not reproduce at all. The sky should appear as a yellow-green, leaning more toward yellow. The middle ground and foreground graduate to a slightly darker value: more of a cadmium yellow and cadmium yellow deep, or slightly orange.
Mitchell Albala, I Dreamed of Snow, 2005, oil on panel, 11 x 11 inches. After painting the mountain in bright warm colors, I wondered if I could convey the same idea with a different color strategy. In I Dreamed of Snow, I tried a cooler palette. These colors are closer to local colors; that is, colors that are more identified with our expectation of what color something is; i.e., blue sky, green trees, etc.). In contrast, the colors in I Dreamed of Sun are more representative of perceived colors — the color of something as it appears under the color of a particular light.
I Dreamed of Sun sits on the wall in my studio. When visitors come, I tell them it is one of my favorite paintings of all time. They are always a little surprised. They stare at it in silence. “What is it?” they ask. I urge them to keep looking. Usually, in less than a minute, they begin to see the mountain. For me, the painting was successful at expressing all my core interests in painting: atmosphere and unified light, abstraction — and a strong illusion of bright, glaring light.
Perhaps the dream offered a glimpse into the place I was wanting to go with my painting. The painting has continued to be an inspiration these past years, a guidepost that points the way.
Additional Resources from Landscape Painting: Essential Concepts and Techniques for Plein Air and Studio Practice
Local color vs. perceived color, page 107
How Value Effects Color Identity, pages 114–119