Friday, March 7, 2008
The paradox of light and shadow
Pastel on Canson Paper
10 x 10.5"
Here's two pieces I painted for the Sonoma Plein Air show last September. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I often go looking for long, atmospheric views with a few elements in the mid, or foreground, but I periodically find something far more intimate along the way that stops me in my tracks. Rocks, for their patterns and local colors, as well as how they receive light, can do that, as well as looking into shadows, or painting from within a shadow. The human eye and mind grasps a wide range of color within a wide range of value... far better than a camera can without some manipulation. Part of the pleasure in painting lies in exploring that range. There's something profound and unusual about how we perceive objects in light and shadow. For one, an object that is seen under both conditions tells you more about its form and local color than if it was only subject to one condition. In addition, there is a paradox, that has to do with how we recognize that an object, or image, is 'one' thing when a shadow can effectively divide it into 'two' things. The act of painting makes this division evident. The perceived continuity of form and color transiting light and shadow is a cognitive miracle that many take for granted, whether we are looking at something real, or a painting. A persistent challenge in painting is to propagate that illusion, when the physical process of the medium implies the opposite! And lastly, seeing into shadows has a way of enhancing depth in an image. The eye is not stopped by a shadow, unless it is black. Instead, the eye crosses a threshold of sorts to look inside that dimmer volume, illuminated by ambient sources and colors. The same gain in depth applies when looking from a shadowed space into light, an effect that has been used for centuries. The behavior of color, subjected to light and shadow, is really an extraordinary event, I promise you!
Pastel on Canson Paper
10 x 14"
Blue Friday depicts simple atmospheric relationships that interest me. Part of my fascination goes back to the notion of local color undergoing change due to a condition. In this case, the condition is atmosphere. Why do we think the leaves of a tree are green, when, in our world, they often turn blue when they are far away? The local color of any object functions like a filter to the dynamic conditions around it. As its appearance is not static, its 'absolute' hue and value is a mystery of sorts, as it is always subject to the conditions of varying illumination and distance from our eyes. If it is not the same from one moment to the next, how do you paint the dang thing? Luckily, when painting, the intellectual vapors are not so heavy as they are in this post. The simple answer for me is merely to relate and compare the colors and values of elements in the scene with each other. Those are evident, even if they are changing (and they are). Instead of pondering the elusive and ever-changing dynamic that is nature, I just look at shapes and make judgement calls like "lighter than... darker than.... warmer than... cooler than." The bottom line is you can skip all the intellectual mumbo jumbo and just paint! Just don't go assuming that leaves are green...
I had been intently studying mailboxes, and eucalyptus trunks lining one side of the road I was on, when the clouds drifting across the sky behind me started calling, along with the blue mountains, and a nice arrangement of trees and houses to sort out. On the film 'Cars', I was very inspired by Maynard Dixon's work, and freely adapted his playful cloud shapes he used so effectively. That afternoon's sky was a natural expression of those same qualities that Dixon drew from. I spent most of my time fussing with the tree and building proportions, as well as getting their edges to pop against the distant mountains. By the time I got to the clouds, they had exited stage right. Fortunately, I had done a thumbnail, sticking them where they seemed to do the most good.