“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.
Today, the forecast warned of heavy rain and strong winds in the afternoon. By 8:30 am I was driving around the hill, looking for something to pain. Thick sheets of water kept blurring the landscape, washing away all the colors, mixing sky and ground. The luminous quality of the big empty parking lot behind the Department of Agriculture caught my attention. While I was sitting in the car, someone walked by and entered the building. The dark figure reflected in the mirror of the pavement became my subject. The overall impression was dominated by loneliness. After two thumbnail sketches in pencil, the composition clarified. I transferred it to the canvas, and started to paint the background in lights tones of grey. And, just in time, my daughter Ilinca walked in the parking lot, in a bright blue rain jacket, happy as she can be, soaked from the heavy rain. That splash of color transformed the tonal painting into a vibrant memorable experience.