Claude Monet and Me

Here is one of my new paintings, White Mountains: Cool Sky,  oil on panel, 7 1/2 x 10". It is based on the drawing below, White Mountains, vine charcoal, 9 x 12", 2014, that I made on location last month up in northern New Hampshire. 

For about 30 years most of my painting was done camped out in the field with my portable easel and my oil pigments. It was an unbeatable experience in deepening how I see and extending the range of color chords I can employ. I am very proud of the paintings I made this way.

Eventually though I confronted the fact that working in oil right in front of my sources often made me too conservative. After all, much of the time nature's colors can be restrained and understated. Nature has a way of pulling you in and I often erred on the side of being too faithful to everything I was seeing. I wanted more slack in the reins to explore additional color options than just what I was seeing directly in front of my easel.  

So I hit on the idea of working in oil on paintings I would make back in my studio based on finished drawings I would do on location. One advantage of this way of proceeding is it allows me to experiment more with alternative worlds of color. 

Above is another new painting based on that same vine charcoal drawing. This one is White Mountains: Warm Sky, oil on panel, 7 1/2 x 10", 2014.

As I have matured as a painter I've come to see more and more that art for me is more about how I paint an idea rather than just what that idea is. The three versions above are from the same scene. Yet in each the personality of the composition's main actors, the sky, the dark mountain, and foreground trees, seem to read their lines with a different inflection. And an overall feeling results that's distinctly different in each landscape. 

One of the reasons I tried this way of working in the first place was the example of Claude Monet, the French Impressionist. He was fascinated at how the same forms would totally transform as he viewed them at different times of day and under varying weather conditions. Below are two of his haystack series painted from precisely the same spot but giving us profoundly different interpretations.

Monet was said to have sometimes hauled a wheelbarrow loaded with canvases out into the field so he could work for a few minutes on one canvas, switch to another as the light changed, and then switch again. I hope the story is true as it's such a good image I carry in my head of what he must have looked like.

Much as I love Monet, my methods are different than what he was up to. But his example serves as a reminder to all of us. Our job as artists is to be a little relentless- search out the best tools and ways of working that allow you to hone in on just the best of what you want to say to your viewer. For me this has meant taking the act of drawing more seriously as a source for my painting. Ironically, spending extra time working in a black and white medium like vine charcoal gives me more freedom to try more adventurous things with color.


  1. Hi Philip
    I believe that what you're trying to get across is that art, landscape painting is all about personal interpretation. No doubt you're familiar with Canada's iconic Group of Seven painters and their sketches and paintings. Their work was all about exploration and personal interpretation. Recently, there was a book published titled, In The Footsteps of the Group of Seven by Jim and Sue Waddington who spent years seeking out their painting places and comparing it with their sketches and paintings. Perhaps, you could Google the Waddingtons where they reveal that it is all about personal interpretation.
    Ernest Somers

  2. Time Spent- thanks so much for telling me about the Waddington's book- this is right up my alley. Just placed an order for the book.


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