Edward Hopper, Rooms by the Sea, oil on canvas, Yale University Art Gallery. I came across an image of this painting on Yale Art Gallery's Facebook page this morning.
When I was a kid growing up on Lake Ontario one of our favorite games when the Lake was really rough was to paddle out in canoes and try to "surf" the biggest waves. For a few exhilarating moments they would push us in a rush toward the shore. The feeling of being swept along by just the water's energy was intoxicating. That these trips usually ended with us capsizing and banging our knees on the rocky shore did little to dissuade us. We knew our fun.
Some think of paintings as static things, but anyone who spends more than a moment standing before a painting finds their eyes start moving around the piece. Even its relatively empty areas have a strange power to make your eyes want to sweep across its surface.
I've written before about this pivotal oil Rooms by the Sea by Hopper- how it was the first painting I ever paid attention to as a teenager, how Hopper totally rearranged where sunlight actually shone into his painting studio, and so on.
This painting uses of one of the most powerful yet simple tools painters have in their bag of tricks: gradation.
Looking into the large highlight on the central wall one is immediately struck by a certain moving and shimmering quality to the light. I don't think anyone ever painted bright sunlight better than Hopper. Just in the highlighted section of the wall, one sees Hopper first laid down a whole number of off-white coats of paint. Especially at the bottom of the wall. Then he goes back in and adds a series lighter and warmer whites in the upper and rightmost section of the highlight. When one looks at the whole highlight these subtle shifts in color act like high and low pressure areas on a weather map, pushing one's eyes across its surface.
Looking closely at the floor one sees there too the yellowish colors shift from left to right and from close to far. So too the surface of the water. One is hard pressed actually to find any surface where Hopper hasn't subtly gradated his color.
Gradations can be harsh and dramatic or as in this painting they are toned down, pushing the "canoe" of our eyes across the painting's surface gently as the little waves seen out Hopper's doorway might.
Hopper used gradations so much because he knew they worked to make a painting come to life. And because he was someone who took extraordinary delight in looking at the world. He found it pulsing with quiet energy and invented ways to paint for us what he experienced. "This is what the world looks like," he seems to say, and then adds "and this is how it feels."