Friday, March 7, 2008

The paradox of light and shadow

Silo Boulder
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!

Blue Friday
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.


Mike Sekowski said...

I am so thrilled that I happened to stumble upon your blog! You pastel work is mesmerizing, and I have definitely been inspired to try some this summer myself. Reading your thoughts and ideas on the subject at hand is also very informative, so keep them coming. Thanks.

Marco Bucci said...

Beautiful images as usual, but you also have quite a way with words. Even Sargent complained about trying to describe the act of painting in abstract words. Some people just can't do it; you can. So thanks for taking the time to!

dicet said...

all these are stunning Bil..
Man, can't believe how much control you have with pastels...

Bill Cone said...

Mike- Thanks for the comments and dropping by.

Marco- I've stood in front of a classroom a few times and tried
to describe some of these ideas, but it generally comes out "There's something funny going on with shadows..."
These thoughts have been floating around in my head for years, and writing them down is an attempt to clarify. Still kind of muddy. I'm certain all these perceptions have been observed and written about many times, by many artists.

Dice- Pastels have more control than gouache!
;-) Actually, what they have in common is the opacity... the ability to put light over dark.

Benjamin Plouffe said...

the values and the blends in these are soo subtle!!! i love it! don't stop posting.

Unknown said...

Another beauty! I too have been enjoying your commentaries; they're great stories as well as inspiring and instructive. I started reading “Carlson’s Guide to Landscape Painting” after seeing your praise for it and am really enjoying it. I had an excellent teacher who must have read this great book as well because some of his lectures were hauntingly similar. Thanks for posting all the amazing art and advice.

df said...

I just found your blog and have to say that these are the first plein air paintings that I have ever liked! In fact, I love them. Beautiful!