I look to paint the transient beauty of changing light, the passing hours and seasons, the fragile balance between the wealth of material world and the simplicity of formless. Transient, understated, imperfect things shine for a moment full of life, and encourage the painter and the viewer to connect and share in their personal interpretation.
Art is a thread that binds humanity and opens us to appreciate the fragility and uniqueness of our environment with its signs of the past marching away to inevitable passing and the marks of the future yet to take shape. In a world marked by the unraveling of environmental balance and social fabric, art becomes again relevant to heighten our sensitivity and bring us back together to focus again on what is important for us as human beings.
“The search for a meaningful painting subject is a search for ourselves.” Robert Reynolds
“What to paint?” is a question always on the artist’s mind. Sometimes the answer comes after long searches. Most painters have stories about driving for hours in search of an inspiring setting. Sometimes the answer means simply to select for a plenitude of possibilities, because if you are a painter everything looks like a possible painting. Many of the great painters covered a variety of subjects before (and often even after) they found their signature motive. What would Monet be without the waterlilies, Van Gogh without the sunflowers, Sargent without the society portraits, or Vermeer without the domestic scenes?
Painting day after day on Horsebarn Hill allows leisurely time to explore some subjects: the curvature of the hill from different angles, the dance of shadows at various times during the days, the shift in colors with the seasons, the ever-changing show of light. The Horsebarn Hill series has started as atmospheric paintings with the light as the main subject and the setting as a circumstantial element. Gradually, the location became more important, and the paintings transformed into portraits of a place.
When I packed my paintbox today, I had in mind a specific subject. But driving to Horsebarn Hill, my attention was captured by the fantastic show of soft clouds bathed in the sunset colors. Overhead, the rounded undersides of the clouds were turning from soft orange to pink and coral, while in the distance, long, flattened strings of clouds were colored from smoky blue to purple greys.
Painting outside every day for a year taught me that the texture and the color of the clouds changes dramatically with the seasons. In spring, the clouds are diaphanous, with no clear edges, soft pink masses of fog floating in the air. Summer clouds resembles merengue, with billowing round tops sharply drawn on the blue background of the sky, and more ragged, diffused, and flattened bases. Fall clouds become grayer as we approach winter, with a limited range of values and less contrast between lit and dark areas. In winter, clouds often come in big grey blankets with minimal texture, and their horizontal movement gives the landscape a quiet and restful atmosphere.
Passing clouds are like passing thoughts across the open face of the landscape.
The Canadian painter Robert Genn notes that artworks can be image-driven or idea-driven. I would argue that even the image-driven paintings are underlined by strong artistic ideas. As I drive around the Horsebarn Hill of a cold rainy day in April, I am looking for signs of spring – and impermanence. A project such as A-Year-of-Plein-Air-Painting-on Horsebarn-Hill benefits from representing the passing signs of the seasons.
Two magnolia trees overflowing with pink and white flowers are spilling over the parking lot by the Department of Agriculture. Taking advantage of the university lockdown due to the COVID-19, I park across the handicapped spaces, next to the building, facing the trees, and take a photo for reference. Then I do a quick thumbnail painting, about 3 x 3 in. The strong perspective of the road takes the viewer in the landscape, but it competes with the subject of the magnolia trees. A tiny notan sketch shows the potential to crop the sketch, and bring the focus back on the blooms.
Once all these problems are solved, the painting should come effortlessly, isn’t it? I tone the surface with a light orange-pink mixture. I mark the main shapes with thin paint, and follow with thicker paint. As I forgot my knives home, I use the end of the brushes to get some abstract lines in the branches and bushes. Painting the flowers is pure poetry – and they reveal the problem of the empty space in the lower right side. I take a break and ponder what to do: Should I add a figure? A car? A bird? No, they would distract from the subject. I end up allowing some blossoms to fall on the pavement – the painting comes to a solution.
Horsebarn Hill: Wordless Butterflies, oil on canvas, 10 x 10 in.