Silhouette Magic

Above is a new painting I just finished up last night, Northern Pines, Morning,  oil on panel, 12 x 24", 2012. As I was painting on it I found myself thinking about the quote from Charles Burchfield that I wrote about on a blog last week (it's from the Burchfield Penny Art Center's website).

In April of 1956 Burchfield wrote, “I would see our western N.Y. landscape, not in terms of modern life...but rather in terms of eternal verities of the primeval earth..which can never be erased if only we look beneath the surface.”

Partly because I grew up near Charles Burchfield's home in Western New York State I've always had a liking for his work. His line about the"verities of the primeval earth" strikes a chord in me. Burchfield, through his painting and his writing helps me understand what it is I am doing with my own art.

The source for the painting was actually an experience one morning thirty years ago. My wife and I were on our honeymoon and driving toward Mt. Desert Island in Maine. It was May and still really cold. As we approached the bridge to the island, I spied a turn off road that led to a small pond. It was a still pool reflecting a long row of pines.

Nearby were the impressive peaks of the mountains, but this viewpoint provided something else- a nestled and amazingly calm corner of the world. It was a place that was untouched by time. I did a painting there over the course of several mornings. As I worked it seemed this remote little space might be untethered from the rest of the contemporary world. It could have been 30,000 years ago or maybe from sometime long into the future. Like the timelessness I sense when I see the best of Burchfield's work, I felt that here as well.

Why did this place provoke such a feeling of peacefulness and such fantasy in me? Well, that's what happens when you find an especially powerful source- I believe the overall composition and the relationships of the hues and shapes, textures and spaces conspire with our unconscious selves to stimulate an emotional response within us. Some places in nature just speak to us while with others we walk right on by. That's the way it should be. An artist's job is to notice which experiences are beyond the ordinary and to figure out how to translate them into the solid shape and color that can be shared with others.

My original painting long ago went off to a new home with some collectors. I missed it and thought I might do another version with some of the features re-arranged. That's what led to this new oil painting.

Over the years my thinking about what a painter is supposed to hold in mind as he or she works has changed. In the very beginning I was fascinated by the challenge of getting the sense of volume into my work and learning how to create convincing highlights and shadows. Both of those concerns focused my eye on the insides of my forms. My early drawing instructors used to hammer on the idea of moving to the inside of the form. And they had a point- children always begin their drawings with simple outlines of the shapes they're trying to draw

In later years modeling volume and convincing shading techniques had become second nature to me. As my understanding deepened I came to realize there could be an enormous expressiveness in that outermost contour of a shape. And studying the work of the best artists who'd gone before me (like Degas) I began to see I needed to return to the basics. To focus my attention back on the silhouettes of forms.

Here's the above painting with the background simplified to let you see the silhouettes of the line of pines more easily.

Like well rehearsed dancers on a stage, my pines show you something about themselves with their very largest shapes. All of them talk about rising up vertically, but some of them do it boldly and simply while others like the one tall pine closest to the center want to ascend while flashing you with a little extra filigree. In reality, all the pines displayed elaborate textures and layers of branches, but had I made that the first thing you notice, the drama of simple movement in the trees would have been lost in the confusion of detail.

One other thing about the movement in the pines. The pines' watery reflections move vertically as well but with more interruption from some strategically placed ripples. The silhouettes above the shoreline speak of a bold simple up and down movement. Below the water's edge, that motion has a halted, syncopated feeling to it. Sometimes life moves smoothly, other times it progresses in a series of lurching stops and starts. We all know those feelings. A painting like this reflects that. And to bring that home the painter has to sometimes pare down experience. Simplifying the trees down by focusing on their silhouettes lets you talk about things you can't touch grasping a small paintbrush.

There are things in life that can only be expressed with layers of intricacy and detail. But there are other stories that can only be told with the most broad movement of the boldest outlines.


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