Freezing to Death
Here I am two weeks ago working on a drawing on the summit of Cadillac Mountain in Maine's Acadia National Park. The wind was blowing like crazy and I was only able to set up the easel by finding a dense stand of little pines to shield me. It was COLD. We had just had a heat wave down in Maryland before we left and neither my wife nor I could bring ourselves to pack winter coats and gloves. Silly us.
Often when I'm out working like this passers by will stop to watch for a minute. Especially when the weather is, ahem, challenging, as it was, they're likely to ask "why don't you take a photograph and work from that instead of freezing?" They have a point, but I've come to understand it takes even the best painters time to discover what it is they need to say with each painting. Drawing and painting from direct observation by its nature proceeds very slowly. Ours is a language of near infinite subtlety. If you stand outside and take in the space and light with all your senses, including your goose-fleshed skin, you simply understand the landscape better.
So many of our decisions as artists come from our unconscious side. Frequently when I'm later examining one of my pieces that has been successful I'll notice something good I hadn't been aware I was doing- like an inventive linking of shapes on opposite sides of the composition. Lots of times it's the best thing in the painting. So as for the cold, the wind, rain, heat, bugs etc. I say, to quote a certain former President, "Bring it on..."
You know our ancestors lived outdoors all the time. Maybe one of the jobs of contemporary landscape painters is to help remind us we really are in our bones outdoor critters.
Much of the time while we were up there it rained. I was able to get out of the rental car and set up my French easel some of the times. Here's one of the results, Cadillac Mountain #4, vine charcoal, 9 x 12", 2012. I was lower down the mountain for this one, as the summit had by then turned into a wind tunnel. But that's fine as I loved this view. There's a sensation of looking up towards the top of a peak that stirs me up in a way I like. Often New England mountains are covered with groves of deciduous trees that early in the season cover the slopes with the most delicate light yellow greens. Here a few taller pines stick their dark heads up punctuating the scene's rhythm.
And here's another vine charcoal, Cadillac Mountain #5, 6 1/2 x 13", 2012, done even lower down the mountain and looking back toward the mainland. I wanted to reverse the tones one usually sees of the tall foreground pines being darker than the distant mountains (which they were). So I consciously lightened them up and pushed the distance darker.
What counts in carving out landscape space is to make the front feel different than the background. That can mean changing the dark and light tones of course. If I end up pursuing this design in oil paints, I'm sure to pick a set of colors for the distance that will be in opposition to the color of the front forms. When you think about it, that's all we painters have to work with- making differences that amount to something. It's not a big tool bag, but when you see what a Rembrandt or a Degas could do with it, you realize it's enough.
Most likely early next week I'm going to have to switch my website philipkoch.com over to its new web address:
Please come visit us in our new digital quarters.