A Preparedness Drill for Winter

Ah, the weather. Much nail biting in my studio last week over the impending Frankenstorm Sandy (we were already traumatized last summer by a violent local storm that left us without power for 4 1/2 days in 100 plus degree heat). This time we got lucky, but reports of terrible devastation from relatives up in the New York area remind us that nature is WAY bigger than we are. 

Here's a painter who knew that in his bones, Caspar David Friedrich (German, 1774-1840). While not technically a winter painting, his oil Rocky Reef on a Sea Shore sure looks chilly enough. Yesterday I stumbled over an image of this new-to-me painting and fell in love with it. 

It's a powerfully evocative example from one of the best painters of nature's sometimes frozen beauty. When one looks at it, the sharply pointed outcroppings of the ice-like reef command your eye. But Friedrich was a crafty devil of a painter. He knew that to hold your eye and your interest he had to offer more than just this one spectacular focal point.

Below is just the top half of the painting with the red browns of the foreground removed.

It's kind of amazing how much less expressive power the reef has without its companion, the dramatically different foreground. 

The shore is dark and reddish brown compared to the much lighter blue grays of the reef. Where the reef is all sharp points and parallel straight lines, the foreground is built out of more rounded forms. An inlet fills the bottom half of the painting with a shape that's totally different in personality from what's been hinted at above.

A great painting has to deliver surprises to your eye. Friedrich in his way is  profoundly generous in giving your eye a foreground you don't expect that fits the background perfectly.

Another painter who loved winter images and who loved the earlier work of Friedrich was Charles Burchfield (American 1893-1967). Here's a modest but lovely watercolor of Burchfield's that is also new to me.

While a more landlocked bit of visual poetry than the Friedrich, it uses some of the same ideas to intrigue the viewer's eye. Like his earlier German friend, Burchfield leave the most involved shapes for the middle distance, in this case a crazy pattern of half melted snow at the rise at the edge of a field. Here's a close up-

It should come as no surprise that Burchfield had worked in his earlier years as a designer of wallpaper- the decorative repetitions and interlocking shapes have that elegant stylized energy to them. But for maximum effect, the artist then plays them off against their opposite, a wide open and purposely toned down series of little flat fields in the foreground. Burchfield knew that to continue that amped up high contrast in shapes and white snow patches v.s. dark rocks could be too much for us. The foreground is like a glass of cool water after bite of hot spicy pizza.

I'm always amazed when I hear some of my (non-artist) friends talk about why they love summer so much. "Oh, I love the color of summer. Winter...it's just so gray" Well, maybe a good preparedness drill for such friends would be to spend some time with good old Friedrich and Burchfield. I know they helped me learn how to open my eyes to the strangely beautiful other world of winter.

P.S. Many readers know how badly the New York area was hit by our monster storms Sandy this week.  The Chelsea art district on the lower west side of Manhattan was badly flooded and many of the galleries will be closed to repair the damage. I'm scheduled to have my second solo exhibit at George Billis Gallery open on December 11. The good news is I heard on Friday from George Billis that his Gallery on W. 26th street just missed the deep water and will be fine. So we dodged a bullet. I'm really excited about the soon to open show!

P.P.S. I am gradually working through the new photos my wife Alice and I took from our latest residency in the Edward Hopper studio in S. Truro, MA last month. Every few days I add a few more  with commentary to  the special Hopper page on my website. It is probably the largest collection of original photos of Hopper's studio to be found online. And it keeps growing (all the Hopper maniacs out there keep cheering me on).


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