Spring is moving once again toward summer. The introspection and cuddled warmth of fall and winter give way to the exuberance of the brighter seasons. The sun is higher in the sky, the brilliance of the noonday is nearly blinding with light. The key of color and value is so near the brightest it can be that a painter is way up on the edges of the value scale. Yet the chroma of color still remains in natures shadows. It would be like a soprano hitting her highest notes while keeping a full timbre so as to not sound shrill or thin.
It’s easy then to understand perhaps, the often said idea that suggests all paintings are essentially abstractions. The directness of the sun is bouncing light around everywhere, casting and mixing color in an interplay of photometric activity. How would articulation of hyper-detail even have a chance to convey all that radiating jubilance? No, the rendering of each petal of every flower would only wreck the dance. Instead, the painter must be standing right on the balance of detail and fleeting shimmers. Monet once said that he constructs his paintings simply by placing the color as he sees it where he sees it, which is from his witness of nature.
This painting was done at the Mendocino Coast Botanical Garden, during the Mendocino Open Paint Out of 2018. The great lawn offered this lush and abundant view, the sun gently shining. One could truly feel how spring is moving once again toward summer. To add to the perfection, butterflies were fluttering around the flowers and leaves. I can’t help but imagine, in a scene like this, how the artist might respond according to his or her discipline, music, dance or writing for example. This response is an oil on canvas.
Some evening, I think on the second or third day, I went to the headlands on the west end of Mendoncino. It is a popular point, especially during a sunset. I drove down to have a look and found this view looking southward down the coastline. The thing I found fascinating was the sparseness of the cliffsides. My usual environs have many homes crammed side by side without much space to really even see a coastline for what it is. I often think, when I stand at a place where the land meets the sea, about it being the edge of the continent on which I live. There might be only ten or twenty feet left of the land for me to travel before I can walk no further. Yet, I could walk three thousand miles in the opposite direction and experience all the life and sights the United States has to offer. Conversely, the rest of the world is out over the horizon somewhere should I be able to fly or sail across the open water.
The sun was setting on my right side as I turned my attention to the land capturing the last of the days light. Only a few indications of human tracks were noticeable. A pathway leading to a cliffside look out, or a structure, barely visible on the distant shore across the bay. I was virtually alone, able to tune into the sound and strength of the ocean the wind past my face, I could even hear the sound of the bristles across the course surface of my canvas.
The cliffside basks in the last light of the setting sun, the shadows indicate the waning of the day, wrapping itself into the promise of a new day only after the nights journey. The scene was an encompassing experience of the environment. Looking at it was like listening to a beautiful piece of music, even the gestures in the act of painting was an attenuation of focus and meditation. It was the word that came with the thought of visual music; Sonata.
Just north of Mendocino, CA is a town called Fort Bragg. It reminds me of what Oceanside may have been like in the 1950’s. The light quality, when the sun is out, is washed in an introspective glow with shadows of blue and grey against the warm strike of light. Sounds don’t seem as loud, and the pace is easy going. There is an interesting sub-culture around harbor towns. I met one it’s characters while having lunch at Noyo Harbor.
Noyo Harbor is nestled in a small bay inside a narrow inlet from the open sea. A bridge crosses high overhead allowing the Pacific Coast Highway to continue straight into and out of town. Driving down into the harbor is like going into another micro-village with its own markets, restaurants, businesses, hotels and apartments, even it’s own version of a library! Noyo, it appeared to me, is not just a place but a way of life.
While enjoying a plate of fish n’ chips at a table with a view, this scene depicted above caught my attention. As soon as I was finished, I knew I was going down to the dock to paint it. A spry woman, in her nineties and wearing a red sweater, arrived at the table and announced that she noticed the attention to the boat and said that it belonged to her, “That’s my boat!”, she said. From there she regaled stories about her and her late husband, travelling the open ocean to as far Australia in that small fishing vessel! She said they even saved the lives of those on board a sinking yacht during a stormy night, even as they risked there own lives doing so. She was a wonderful, sea going salt with a fiery glint of a life lived beaming from her eyes.
Later, I set up my easel and began painting the scene of the storied boat at the dock. I began in the center, laying in the darks under the dock and around the hull, that would become the armature from which the rest of the painting would build from. As I was forming the hull in paint, I noticed some people arriving on the lonely dock, one of them wearing a red sweater. Oh no, I thought, they’re leaving! The elder woman and her crew readied the boat and in minutes they were off, motoring past as I quickly painted a few details while the boat was on the move.
I waved to the two crew members bringing in the ropes. and to the helmsman, the woman in her red sweater standing just behind him. She was looking straight ahead, chin up and out onto the sea.
As a young first year art student, I had a staggering revelation moment when I embraced the idea that modernity is not new. For the longest time, words like contemporary and modern were used almost interchangeably to describe what I had in my mind as old art and new art. In other words, abstract or “idea based” art made currently was modern and anything else prior to the last twenty-five years was categorized as not modern therefore antique or classic. Simply put, the idea of modernity has been around since the middle ages. The use of modern to mean the contemporary “right now” is relatively recent and was used in that context quite a bit during the mid-twentieth century onward. It helped sell products and a incorporate a sense of fashion or aesthetic that promoted the idea of progress and sophisticated thinking. Although the concept of modernity has been around for hundreds of years, mostly we may use the word modern to mean recent, as in the context of contemporary time, like today or yesterday. But, what if we use the term modern to describe an aesthetic style or movement? What if that aesthetic style is not popular now? In this case, the term modern may be used to describe a fixed period in history. Consider the popular expression “mid-century modern” used so often today. It is describing a fixed period of time when certain thoughts, ideas and aesthetic sensibility were based on influences of the middle part of the twentieth century, which were both contemporary and very modern.
The recent watercolors by MOPO co-founder John Hewitt, are in my opinion, paintings that utilize the vocabulary of modernism and realism without any detection of self-consciousness. His newer paintings done recently in Greece, seem to employ several things that announce their orchestration very subtly. They have a beautifully proportioned amount of purposefully naïve automatism, a genuine engagement in response to subjects, and a touch of classic “modernism” based on established design principles. They create a sublime abstraction of objects. What I mean by that is, there are two things happening almost always in his paintings; subject and idea. Think of it as the representation of things beautifully reduced into the realm abstraction. The paintings are usually titled as to what the image is depicting such as a thing or a location, yet, the image is made with bulbous and singular strokes like that of an ancient ink wash drawing, a but with color.
In preparation for this post, John wrote me about his own work, “I always refer to the basic principles of design as essential to my approach to give structure to my statement. I do chase sublime as a goal often as did the landscapists of late nineteenth century. My approach more expressive with raw emotion evident. I always choose a great shape over a detailed representation although I like both.”
For me, to look at Hewitt’s work is to allow the painting to play on that back and forth between facts and impression, intention and accident. I’d rather liken it to listening to a piece of music that happens to be on the wall. These are paintings that work best to sit back and simply enjoy the arrangements of the images made in this case with a brush, wielded in the manner of a conductor’s baton.
John Hewitt cites Millard Sheets and Vernon Nye as positive influencers on his work, methods and career. He lives and works in Fort Bragg, CA and is a co-founder of the Mendocino Open Paint Out, now going into its seventh year. He also leads several international workshops annually. See more of his work and workshop schedules at http://johnhewittart.com/
Perhaps one of the closest ways to feeling other worldly is to walk around a small quiet town at about three-thirty in the morning. This is what I did one night during my recent week at MOPO 2018 in Mendocino, CA. I was restless from an idea I had the other night while driving back from another painting location after a sunset. I came up this road and saw this scene with the single street lamp and one light in the window of the house, and kept on driving. But, that instant glance was like a polaroid. That night, I was awake and under the snug covers but I knew the light was still out there. What did it look like now, how it would look on canvas? I had to go see.
My first walk was to just go have a look. The air was warmer than I thought it would be. That made me happy because I was going to have to walk about a quarter mile to get there, now I could maybe wander around a little and see what everything looks like. The streets were so abandoned at that hour, I felt like I was an apparition peeking in on the physical world undetected. With no one around, I sensed the humor in observing our human habits, almost like being a character in a Wim Wender film. It’s was that hour of night where we are either sleeping, about to turn in or about to get up, depending on some individual habit, inclination or duty.
After a while, I went back and retrieved my easel and drove back to the spot. I looked up and was stunned and delighted at the sight of so many stars overhead. I put on my miners headlamp and set up my palette in the usual way and started painting as if it were the afternoon, except that, it wasn’t. I was impressed by the streetlight in it’s continually lonely service, lighting a road hardly used at that hour but is there anyway, in commune with the open meadow throughout the night. The light post, an apparatus of infrastructure, adding order to our environment, making it more useful for us to live, even as anyone hardly notices. A humble observation I made while painting in deeper blues and blacks. Absurd, that I was even out there at all quietly working for whatever reason. I looked up again and saw arched over my head and behind me the milky way, an arm of our home galaxy, as it reached around the sky and touched the sea.
This little painting was a favorite at the show that week.
In music, there are two terms called consonance and dissonance. Consonance could be considered the pleasing sounds, dissonance could be the dis-pleasing sounds. In a minimalist work of music, one might hear the tranquil and steady current of sound mingling agreeably in the soundscape. At certain intervals a sharper distinguished sound may swell and recede, as if fleeting across from one place to the next and then it’s gone.
Imagine the sounds of seagulls and ocean waves roaring to the cliffsides. The background noise is there and yet it is as if we don’t hear it, and we cherish the so called silence. Once in a while, a distant bell or a soft distant horn is heard and we are reminded of the silence, tuning in again to the steadiness of the background sounds of gulls and waves, until we don’t notice, and then, until we do again.
The Mendocino Coast in Northern California is a sanctuary for these type of meditative spaces and environments, one of them is the Pt. Cabrillo Lighthouse just south of Fort Bragg. As part of MOPO 2018 hosted by the Mendocino Art Center, a group of us artists went there to spend about half a day, capturing this historical structure. Walking across and through the tall weeds and grass, looking for the pleasing angle and distance to find the “right spot” to paint was very tactile and real. The smells and sounds of the ocean, the wind it generated across my face, the nearness of the crashing waves just a few feet from the unprotected cliffside was a moment in Earthly Heaven.
At about 39 degrees north latitude, the sun creates that “perfect light” that I love as the Fall season comes close. The light is stark but the shadows are soft. Again, another inherent dichotomy where one condition supports the other in a natural balance. It invites contemplation, and sets a philosophical mood. At first sight, I immediately had the picture in my mind before the painting began. The light house off to one side, far enough away to show the vast space around it. The neutrality of tone, the buttery walls, the light within the shadows. I wanted, somehow, to paint the sound and the air.
Note: Inquiries for purchasing this painting can be made to the Mendocino Art Center Gallery at (707)-937-1764 ext. 14
I write these weekly posts pretty much on the fly. They are inspired by recent work, a museum visit, or some idea or reading that might pertain some interest to the lay reader of art. Now, I am about to try something new. I going to try to stitch together a series based on a recent visit to the Northern California coast, specifically Mendocino for the annual Mendocino Open Paint Out (MOPO), based at the Mendocino Art Center.
As a preface, it may be good to be aware that not all artwork is made in the studio. Likewise not all artwork is made out of doors. However, when a painter does set up outdoors and paints directly from what the painter sees in the given light, it is referred to by the French term, en plein aire, or in the plain air.
There is a history of painting out of doors before the use of the term was attached to painters. The etymology of Plein Air as a way of describing an artist who works outdoors from nature is typically placed around the time of the Impressionists around the mid-eighteen hundreds. Before that though, many of the artists who would later become known as Impressionists were inspired by a few Romantic painters in the French Barbizon Forest, radically painting directly from nature outside the studio! Thus the so called “Barbizon School” that some may be familiar with. Before the Barbizon School, English painters like John Constable and friends would take extended trips into the English countryside and paint on whatever was handy, like cardboard or wood as well as paper or canvas. These “sketches” would be the studies used to make a final work back in the studio. Whereas, for the plein air Impressionist, the sketch would be the final work, inspired and finished on the spot where the painter stood.
Today, Plein Air seems to have new connotations and meanings beyond the original use of the term. Regardless, it has been understood for centuries, by early Masters, Romantics, Impressionists etc, that to learn Nature’s secrets one must observe and note them by direct observation. The following few weeks I’ll be posting my results from participating in my first Paint Out. The world we share is everywhere we look. From the majesty of the tall trees, the solemn beauty of a sea side cliff, or the banality of alleyways and harbors in patchwork color, the artist’s eye seeks to compose, so, what should hopefully become apparent is the variety and comradery that occurs each day during an event like a Paint Out.