Friday, May 28, 2010

Spring time painting

You have to be truly hard-hearted to be indifferent to spring. Even the crustiest, most offensive grouch has to be moved at least a little by the “unlocking” season. Water runs where ice was frozen in dirty lumps; crooked trees take shame, so to speak, and cloth themselves in foliage; growing things sprout where snow was cast aside to languish.

It is not necessarily my favorite season for painting. Among paintings of my own that I call favorites, there isn’t much to represent spring. That is partly because in some years it is a very brief season. If cold weather persists through March and into April our spring in the upper Midwest can be condensed into two or three weeks in May. Early spring, when you have grass turning green and a colorful haze of buds on the trees, is more interesting in color but is also usually brief. The latter parts of spring, which are so joyful to experience in their warmth and fertility, are difficult for the painter because they are awash in chartreuse and gray violet hues.

Early in April we made two excursions to Rattlesnake Bluff, on the south shore of Lake Pepin near its west end, between Red Wing and Frontenac, Minnesota. This was before much green began to show. Buds were beginning to come on the trees. Some were greenish but many were warm colored, with tints leaning toward orange, or reddish. Some of the maples have buds that are scarlet. It is reminiscent of autumn, but more subtle. I did two paintings there. Both featured the west facing cliffs with some of the bluff side below, all in shadow, and some trees in the foregrounds of each painting lit by the morning sun. The most difficult passages in both paintings were the colors in the rocks of the cliff face. These were very subtle hues of grayed-down blue and yellow, better described as warm (yellow) and cool (blue) tints of gray, which I didn’t get at all in the first painting and only got closer to in the second painting. The latter painting is composed horizontally on the diagonal of the bluff side with the cliffs rising from that in complement, and sunlit hardwoods on the lower slopes. Those were colored pale red, (white, an oxide pigment and tints of cadmium red) with subtle tints veering alternately toward yellow and violet. That one might be good enough to show. The first painting is composed vertically with the cliff face dominant and the lower slope complementary, with a mass of sunlit hardwoods and a narrow strip of mowed field in the foreground. The buds on those hardwoods were an ochre hue tinted slightly in a narrow range from orange to green. I might be able to salvage this painting if I go back next spring at the same time of season and do further work on the cliffs. Or, I could turn it into an autumn painting this fall.

In mid-April, I stopped at a site near LaCrosse, a city on the Mississippi River in west central Wisconsin. The valley is wide there and the bluffs on the east side of the valley have tall limestone cliffs and rise up to 600 feet above the river. There was a view looking across Ebner Coulee and a saddle between two wooded bluffs to the far side of the valley, receding southwards miles and miles away. I first noted this view on a trip to the area a year ago. At that time, the leafing out had not yet begun. That day was partly sunny and not as bright as this day, so the contrast between near and far was greater and made a more dramatic composition. Still, even given less value contrast, the juxtaposition of near and far was intriguing.

I set up at the end of a point by the edge of a cliff. There were gusty winds, and I was obliged to keep one hand on the easel throughout the time I was there. The wind affects me while I am painting by making me anxious. I was downwind of the cliff, so I wasn’t anxious about blowing off of it. I was anxious about placing, or spotting, shapes with my brush. You can’t try to spot any specific shapes while gusts are shaking the panel because if the wind moves the panel as your brush hovers near the surface, the two will collide and the mark of the brush will be made for you, where you do not want it. You have to try to remain patient.

The trees were advanced in their budding and many were leafing out. On the wooded bluffs there were very bright sprays of new green making the shapes of some trees distinct, with duller greens, colors influenced by the orange-ish and brownish color of buds, making up the larger percentage of color, and making less distinct tree shapes. There were the colors of light and shadow on the leaf fall of the forest floor – reddish browns and blue browns and blacks – the occasional dark spot of cedar or evergreen, and the pale blue grays of the far side of the valley. Along the spine of the saddle the sun lit some of the new greens to the same value as the pale blues in the distance. Those same blues became darker and more tinted with yellow as they approached the middle ground of the picture beyond the saddle shape.

I spent two hours there on a panel of 8 x 16 inches. I got the overall values down well, and the colors to a passing grade. However, the minor values within the larger masses of value had exaggerated relationships to each other. In painter’s parlance, it was spotty. This was caused by the difficulty I experienced in handling and rendering the character of the scene. Each brushstroke made to represent the variegated hillsides had to render a shape and value and also create the illusion of space and form on the hillside. Budding trees in sunlight have a unique quality of revealing space within the tree crown when raked with light edging over a steep hillside –an “airy’ look - so instead of seeing relatively simple masses of light and shadow on masses of full foliage, I could also see more of the underlying tree structure as well as some of the structure of the hillside beneath, colored by the sunlight on the cover of rusty brown leaf fall and the dark or mottled cast shadows of the trees themselves. You try to suggest all of that by getting the spots of color and value correct. As you work, you must try to get just the right amount of paint of the correct value and hue applied with each stroke as you go over the initial thinly washed lay-in of the painting to achieve the affect. Too much or too little paint, and values that are a little too dark or light, make it spotty. I’ll define spotty as visually hard to read; both leading the eye and confusing it at the same time, like prose with too many adverbs.

One of these paintings is suitable for showing, and the other two could be fairly easily amended, because the compositions are sound. In my next post, I will talk about paintings with design problems that aren’t so easily fixed.

Photo of Rattlesnake Bluff by Nora Koch

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it. Mark Twain said that, I think, or Will Rogers, or maybe H. L. Mencken; one of those cranks. Perhaps it was Spiro Agnew – remember him? – in one his diatribes against weather forecasters. “Snow, sch-mo,” he said. That was during the days of the Vietnam War, Watergate, runaway inflation, and nuclear proliferation. It was a more innocent time.

(Note: don’t Google any of this. Please see the Disclaimer at the end of the post.)

It has been a beautiful spring here in the upper Midwest. The weather began to warm as if on cue around the first of March. It was like a door opened and winter left, while spring came in and set up shop and proceeded with its work in steady increments. Temperatures were, on the whole, above average. We have received regular rainfalls, all followed by an almost literally perceptible swelling of green growing things. Budding trees and flowering plants were all a few weeks ahead of schedule. Temperatures cooled to more normal levels at the end of April, slowing the budding and flowering and thus allowing us to enjoy them a little longer.

However, during the last few days of this first week of May, we have endured a stretch of cooler weather. Our forecast held true in all its details yesterday. It rained in the early morning and the late morning, at lunchtime and after lunch, at mid afternoon and in the late afternoon. It rained all day, just as the forecasters said it would. The high of 45 was not much different than the low of 43 of the night before, just like they predicted. We were left to hope that the next part of the forecast, the one to two inches of snow to come in the very early hours of Saturday, would not come to pass. I could not help but reluctantly recall times in the past when it has snowed in May. I remember well the ten inches we got in Minneapolis on May 9th or 10th, 1984. See, I even marked the date (more or less) in my mind, 26 years ago, so I could repeat it to unbelieving ears in my senility. It piled up in wet slushy heaps, and some of it was still around a couple of days later. No, wait - it didn’t melt until Memorial Day. I mean Father’s Day.

The prospect of snow in May is very discouraging, even though you know it won’t last long, even when March and April have been as kind to us as they were this year. You realize that, living in this area, you are subject to the possibility of snow about 8-1/2 to 9 months of the year, and you kind of feel like all those years when it didn’t snow in May, or September or October or April – this year, it didn’t even snow in March - were just a sort of sucker’s delusion intended to soften you so that when the blow came, the reality of snow in May, the real world borne in like sharp splinters of ice driven into your heart by rockets, it would hurt all the more.

The relieved anticlimax is that we received no snow last night. Oh, I heard that some rooftops out in the countryside were dusted with it, but even that did not survive the dawn. So, don’t go counting your disappointments or disasters before they occur. I always say.

Late breaking news: Nora has just come in and informed me that we’ll have to haul all those plants in again tonight, because they are predicting clear skies and frost. Hey, I remember in ’91 or ’92, when it froze on the 20th of June. Really. Cornstalks fell over in the fields as if gunned down, and baby birds dropped like feathered ice cubes from their nests…

[Disclaimer: I don’t really think Will Rogers was a crank, or even Mark Twain, although Mencken could qualify. Spiro Agnew didn’t really say “Snow, sch-mo,” at least not on the record. It did freeze hard in this area around the 20th of June in one of the years mentioned, or thereabouts, and some corn was damaged, although it didn’t fall over – it’s not very tall yet in June - and I don’t recall hearing anything about baby birds, but I certainly hope none were harmed.

Above all, the early seventies were not really a more innocent time.]