Big Lessons from Lawren Harris' Small Paintings

As I wrote in the previous blog, I was up in Canada last week and saw a knockout collection of Lawren Harris paintings at the Art Gallery of Ontario. It prompted me to do some cruising of other Harris paintings and I came across these two little studies. Both small scale oils. I think they're delightful.

Harris left us some time ago, but people still feel drawn to his work. It has an emotional "rightness" to it and a wonderful energy. Now there are a lot of reasons for this but one of them, I believe, was he took small paintings seriously. So often, most often, new ideas come to us not with cymbals crashing and  bands playing. They like to steal in from the sidelines into an artist's awareness, usually on tip toe. If you're not listening closely you can miss them altogether. Even the best ideas start small. There's a place for such modest beginnings.

In his oil study above look at how he spotlights the ochre yellow leaves up front. In comparison everything else is relegated to its role as a supporting cast. How much darker and less intense he makes the sky and the water's surface.  And how all the varying greens in the background have their intensities scaled back as well.

Partly Harris is so good because he insists on building his paintings on a tonal structure-  the pattern of darks and lights would hold up very well in a black and white photograph version of the composition.

Below is a painting I've just completed, Frenchman's Bay, oil on panel, 6  1/2 x 13", 2012. Like Harris, I'm purposely knocking down the lightness of the sky and the water in the left foreground. Your eye is pulled into the deep space and to the high contrast areas between  the distant islands.

Here below is another Harris oil study. I'd imagine in real life the foreground was peppered with higher contrasts of highlight to shadow. Harris wisely turns the volume down on all that, focusing instead on the marvelous "broken comb" like line of his pines against the far distance. You can't tell every story in a painting, particularly in a small one like this.

Here's another new oil of mine, Coastline, oil on panel, 7 1/2 x 10", 2012. It's done from life up in Acadia National Park in Maine in the Otter Cove area. In truth there were far more incidents going on in the foreground bushes and in the water's reflections as well. But I wanted to talk instead about the vertical "bookends" of my pines that framed so nicely the long horizontal peninsula in the distance.


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