Sunday, March 4, 2012
Edgar Payne Show
Edgar Payne wrote a book called 'Composition of Outdoor Painting' which is considered a classic. I have to confess that I've never been able to read the whole thing, as I find his writing style to be incredibly ponderous and dull. However, the redeeming strength of his book are the numerous thumbnail compositional studies and examples that describe his ideas, analysis, and advice in a very clear and succinct
fashion. To say that Payne practiced what he preached is an understatement. While he may be a less than ideal author for my tastes, his paintings are as strong and clear as his compositional thumbnails, and are full of vigorous brushwork and luminous color. One can learn plenty by studying his originals which are currently on display at the Crocker Museum in Sacramento.
The show features a good selection of his well known subjects, the mountains, the fishing boats, the Southwest, and seascapes, most of them sizable studio efforts. I could only find about 3 pieces that I felt were plein air studies... 2 small seascapes and an alpine scene. What struck me about his work overall is how consistently he adhered to a strong compositional division of tone into 2 major value patterns. If he wanted to further direct the eye, he would push saturation and value more in a specific area, while remaining within the key of that region. His brush scaling was straightforward: the bigger the canvas, the bigger the brush! No more image detail was to be had in the larger paintings, just big, thick strokes of paint. He also seemed to exemplify Charles Hawthorne's oft-repeated advice about ''...putting the right spot of color in the right place", letting edges 'take care of themselves', so to speak. This was especially evident in some of the fishing boat paintings with figures, where there was a lot of blank canvas between brush strokes, yet the image was resolved about a few feet back.
It was clear that the bulk of his imagery was devised in the studio, though based on plenty of firsthand observation from his numerous field trips. He landscaped many of his iconic mountain scenes with lakes conveniently and reliably placed at the bottom of the frame, whether they existed that way in nature or not.
Some of his seascapes contained foam 'serpents' that rivaled a Frank Frazetta painting, all in the service of strengthening the composition
Most of the Southwest paintings had a small grouping of figures on horseback strategically placed to provide contrast of scale to the cliffs and sky.
Payne, a scenic painter and muralist by trade for many years, created a body of work that established an iconic language of landscape in his consistent use of these devices. A critic might dismiss all this as mannerism or formula. Some might call it style. Regardless, he's an excellent painter from whom one can learn and be inspired by. His compositions are rock solid, he captured light and color of various locales and time of day beautifully. Just google image his name and you can read his imagery easily in thumbnail form. There's really nothing obscure or murky about his work. And they are luminous!