It never ceases to amaze me how unique each painter’s vision can be — in everything from the subjects they choose to the color choices they make or the type of painterly handwriting they use. There is perhaps no better way to see this in action than when two painters work side by side, painting the same subject.
Michael Stasinos and I had an opportunity to do this in mid August. We set out to paint the view of my neighborhood in Ballard, Seattle. From our elevated position, we could see the setting sun light up the streets, turning the gray asphalt into orange and yellow stripes that made colorful patterns of light and dark. How would we each tackle this difficult visual problem?
Michael is an extraordinarily talented landscape (and figurative) painter. In many ways, our approach to landscape couldn’t be more different. We are both representational, but he tries to get to the soul of a subject through highly focused detail; I try to reach the soul through abstract shapes and a diffuse light that renders forms with considerably less detail.
We both selected the exact same view, even choosing a vertical format. This gave us more sky to play with — an important decision since the sky is the light source and integral to the drama of the subject. He began with a warm cadmium orange undertone, which he said was unusual for him. He usually starts with an undertone of Paynes gray. I began with a blue undertone with the intention of placing my warms — the light-struck streets and rooftops — over the blue underpainting.
For a moment, I imagined us like Monet and Renoir painting “La Grenouillère” together in 1869. (Well, maybe that’s overstating it.) But I did wonder what they might have talked about. Did they paint in silence or did Monet lean over to Renoir from time to time and say, “Pierre, are you really going to use that yellow?” Did Renoir mumble under his breath, “I really suck at this this. Monet … he really knows what he’s doing.” Michael and I exchanged friendly advice from time to time and thought out loud about our own patterns and habits. Were we approaching the problem the way we always did or trying something different?
After an hour-and-a-half, it was obvious that we were both interested in the patterns made by the streets. However, there was a clear difference in the way we went about capturing the effects of the light and glare. Michael (right) used considerably stronger value contrasts than I did. He used many small touches of saturated color, but there were also many dark, neutral color areas. The values in my piece (left) are much lighter overall and have a narrower range. My colors and shapes are also grouped into tighter color groups, which is one way I try to emphasize a unified light and atmosphere.
It is also worth noting that neither of us are trying to record the precise colors we see. That’s really not possible. Instead, we manipulate color and value in different ways to create a metaphor for the actual light. What is remarkable is that our divergent conclusions both express an effective impression of the visual experience. If we’ve done our homework well, our color solutions will capture something the photograph (see above) never could.
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