Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Surprise Arch II

1.78 Surprise Arch II. As I mentioned in a previous post, I've been revisiting a lot of painting subjects lately. I'm doing this for a couple of reasons. First, these recent paintings are an interpretation of another painting rather than a fresh interpretation of a landscape. This has allowed me eliminate superfluous details and refine the scenes further than I could when I was struggling to pick out the important visual information during my first attempt. Having all of my paintings hanging around my house gives me years to casually look at them and subconsciously work out the problems that I had with them. The second reason that I'm recreating old paintings is to take stock of where I am currently. My output dropped off to almost nothing for the majority of the past year as I struggled through a period of crippling ennui at my day job that spread to my work at home.

I consider each painting to be a step in a journey towards what I imagine as my ideal style. After finally getting back to work, I needed to discover where I had left off. Looking back, I'll share what I discovered.
My first paintings focused on exaggerated color differences between sandstone layers. I imagined by exaggerating this striking feature of the desert landscape I could evoke the awe that one feels when they see this otherworldly landscape.

Because I was so interested in the stone formations, I began to read books on the geology of the area so that I could learn how they were created. I hoped that my knowledge of the genesis of these formations would inform my depiction of them. However, what I learned about the deposition of the sandstone members of the Moab area made my wildly varying colors look ridiculous to me. I had been shoehorning the extra color into my paintings.

I took some time off and when I came back, I began to focus on texture instead of color. The variations in color of the sandstone were limited to no more than three varieties in a painting and the formerly smooth blocks of color were scrubbed with brown and red paint to simulate the granular texture of the sandstone. With this change, I felt compelled to include more details so that the added texture wouldn't look out of place. Soon clouds began to appear in the skies and eventually trees and scrub in the canyons. The absolute contrast of the older paintings was replaced by blending and what I consider sleight of hand techniques, representing leaves on a tree as twisting thrusts of a ragged brush.

When I was in high school art class, I used to draw photo-realistic recreations of portraits from magazines. A friend of mine in the class one day quoted me a passage from an art book to the effect of "with the advent of photography there is no more value in realistically recreating a scene by other means." I was offended at the time, and while I still don't agree entirely (photographs are not an absolute record of a scene as the medium has its own unique and surreal qualities such as depth of field and dynamic range) I now see that detailed recreation of a subject is not always the truest way to represent the subject. Often, refining the depiction to just a few details can align better with one's experience of a person or place.

Interestingly, the majority of the paintings that I have sold are from this set; which is my least favorite. This style stuck with me up to the summer of 2011 after I had started work and begun to first feel the damaging effect of strictly scheduled days on my will to create. After not painting for months, I had two weeks off in the summer. I woke and slept when I wished and went out walking all day. One day I came home and started a large painting of a river winding through a canyon. It was an aerial view and as such did not provide a lot of opportunities for cues to the viewer about the three dimensional shape of the canyon. As I painted and re-painted and covered over layer after layer, I finally realized that my best tool for conveying shape to the viewer were the shadows that the canyon walls cast on the river and the opposite rim.

Slowly shadow became a stronger theme in my paintings and texture became less and less prominent. I did paintings with just three colors: sky, shadow and stone. I tried painting a canvas the color of sandstone and creating the feeling of depth entirely through the addition of shadow. I felt that the effect of the landscape should be produced by representing only what was actually there, often less, and never more.

The restriction of detail that came with such a limited palette made me less intimidated by large canvases that would have taken weeks to complete in my older style. With the use of large canvases came larger brushes and with the use of larger brushes came more flowing shapes. I began to see my paintings as an arrangement of shapes that didn't necessarily have to be viewed as a landscape. I wanted the colors and shapes to be pleasing in a way that was completely separate from recognition and understanding of the subject.

At the cresting of this wave of rapid output I created one of my favorite paintings: 1.70 Canyon de Chelly. Then, as if I had simply exhausted the last of my creative energy I could not create another painting that I was proud of.

During this slump I tried to simplify again by creating line drawings. I made them looser and looser until the subject was unrecognizable sometimes. When this failed to jump-start my painting again I gave up for many months and didn't paint at all.

I was recently asked by a local art magazine to submit a bio for a possible article in their upcoming issue. I decided to write something new and in doing so had to reconsider where my inspiration came from. Remembering those dark forms towering over me the first time that I went into Arches before the sunrise I realized that the shapes and the shadows where what stimulated my imagination years ago and I tried to paint again.

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