The Rising River

Following the Housatonic River Road this morning I found my opportunity to raise a river.  With my contrived, elevated river  I could build additional psychological distance into the painting.  The River is a mirror and mirrors reflect light.  My river-mirror gave me as it has so many other artists the chance to place a pool of light strategically within a darkened area.  Paintings as mirrors to nature were once the universal  metaphor for painters. That changed with Neo Impressionists like Van Gogh and Cezanne.  They wanted more. They wanted to penetrate the structure of nature, the feelings we have for nature, their biological vision of nature and their connection to the history of art. Now I can still use the mirror metaphor when painting but, I can also construct my mirror’s image according to those other categories as well.

I pulled over to walk along the river road. I crouched along the upper meadow above the Housatonic to include lots of angled meadow in my view (example 1). As I lowered my camera  the thinner the river became and, the higher the river went in my image and, more meadow appeared. If I turned 180 degrees I could find a reverse angle  for the meadow sloping down to the Housatonic. Again I found a pool of light, the reflection of the sky tucked between the darkened tree covered banks. The light reflecting from the water appeared brighter because of the darkened surrounding trees (example 2).

example 1. photo july14,14,Falls Village,River Road 6_edited-1

example 2. photo july14,14,Falls Village,River Road17jpg_edited-1

I wandered further along the road to discover a lagoon. It offered the same elevated vista. Here I noticed  the lagoon assumed the historic serpentine form.  If I lowered my camera I could include an arcing mowed path which led toward the reflecting serpentine lagoon. This arcing path could be moved left or right of the lagoon depending upon my camera’s position. You see how I am toying with compositional ideas here in examples 3 and 4. Examples 4 and 6 diagram the serpentine lagoon shape, the arcing path, and the soft “v” of the horizon.

example 3. photo july14,14,Falls Village,River Road18alt_edited-2

example 4. photo july14,14,Falls Village,River Road19alt_edited-2

example 5. diagramed #3 july14,14,Falls Village,River Road18_edited-1

example 6. diagramed #4 july14,14,Falls Village,River Road19_edited-1

The overcast day provided me with a softer set of contrasts. I could try a palette of  blue-green and deep purple as an initial lay-in using 3 and 4″ brushes example 7.  At this point I knew I could go more abstractly toward an atmospheric sensation or, I could turn the image toward more representational imagery by carving shapes and teasing out various textures with brushes, fingers and rags ( example 8).

example 7. step one july14,14,step one housatonic, oil

example 8. step two july14,14,step two, housatonic, oil on aluminum,18x18

Example 8 could be reversed to pursue a more abstract and unified field of textures. Other  examples of  the same form with the motif elevated to the upper area of the painting can be found in other landscapes as you see here with the marsh grasses elevated to reveal a broad expanse of surface extending before the beholder (example 9).

example 9. Pond with opposing diagonals.july14,14,randallspond,oil on aluminum,24x24

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Thrown On The Rocks

Art history has seen  waves, ships, maidens, sailors and  plastic water-bottles thrown, shattered and strewn against the rocks. These painted collisions have been harsh and theatrical or, soft and subtle, detailed and legible or, blurred and abstracted. Painting the tension between land and sea, between dynamic waves and unmoving rock has a history that crosses time and continents. My eye has been distracted by the collision of sunlight against  rocks.  If mystery lives in shadows then the longer the shadows the deeper the mystery. Late and early sunlight shows us elastic shapes with stretching shadows. The elongated shadows describe the surface of sea and land, cross it with attenuated patterns and serve up opportunities for  new compositions and vivid color harmonies.

If  I look  to the first half of the 20th century I find the shoreline experiments of artists like Rockwell Kent and Edward Hopper as they distilled and abstracted their experience of  sunlight on the rocks. Their ideas of complementary color harmony can be seen in Hopper’s rock sketch on the coast of Maine (example 1). He shows us how to use value, design and color to highlight and separate the planes of rocks.  Rockwell Kent’s painting presents a silent horizon and a quieting sea that earlier cast a ship onto rocks (example2).  He relies on the chromatic complements of ultramarine blue and yellow to give a morning’s glow to his work.  The rocks are choreographed into a stylized set of shapes, pillowy squares and triangles pinning the arc of the boat against the sea.

example 1. Hopper july14,7,hopper,edward, maine rocks,oil sketch, small

example 2. Kent. july14,7,rockwell kent, maine,shipwreck_edited-1

I found myself along Connecticut’s sunset shores.  Those lengthening shadows with red, orange and blue caught my attention. First, I looked to find a less clichéd pointed of view. I tried lowering my camera down to the surface of the rocks.  This telescoped the distance between proximate rocks and distant ones. They  dramatically overlapped one another to indicate who was in front and who was behind. I brought my photos to my computer where I stretched the shadows further, elongating the rocks as well. I pushed the contrast higher.  I brought my new computer-photo ideas to my easel.  Here, I exaggerate color, texture and shape still further.

I  blurred images and heightened color contrast at the computer. I continued this process at my easel.  Example 3 presents an earlier stage. Example 4 presents the same image after heightening color contrast, value contrast, blurring, and adding more geometric distortion and ambiguity.

example 3. step 1 july14,7,hamonassett blue shadows, oil on canvas,34x36

example 4. step 2.july14,7,shorelines,hamonassett evening atmosphere,oil on anodized aluminum,36x36_edited-1

At the computer I compressed a photo’s imagery to fit within a square format ( example 5). I then  reversed that image and overlaid  it with  another blurry stretched version of itself (example 6). The painting  evolved through stages of abstraction until I came to example 7.   I noticed  problems. The lower right needed to better advance to the viewer. The bottom edge had too much similarity in the size of its shapes. The division of space in the lower right quadrant was too regular. I had more work to do. The result of the modifications can be seen in example 8.

example 5. square compressed photo.july14,7,photo,hamonassett june 2_edited-2

example 6. overlaid with blur and reversed.july14,7,photo,hamonassett june 2_edited-3,jpg_edited-2

example 7. step one of the painting.july14,7,painting,shorelines,step 1

example 8. step two of the painting.july14,7,shorelines,Hamonassett blue shadows, revised,oil on canvas,34x36_edited-1

I again compressed a photo to fit within a square format (example 9). In example 10 I overlaid the previous photo with a blurred version of itself and, I pushed the color in new directions. At the easel I stretched the  rocks further. I introduced blue-violet vs. amber color harmonies as well as placed  patches of deep carmine in the shadows of dark green areas. The water’s surface  became light violet-pink against dark green shorelines. Here was  another use of simultaneous contrast relying on both value contrast and color contrast. I sharpened select edges to snap some shapes out of the blurring background.

example 9. photo squeezed into a square.july14,7,photo,2,hamonassett june6_edited-1

example 10.same photo layered with a blur and re-colored.july14,7,photo2a,hamonassett june6_edited-6

example.11.painting on canvas.july14,7,shorelines, Hamonassett Late Shadows, oil on canvas,36x36_edited-2



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Turn Up The Noise

You are in a popular and loud restaurant with an exuberant bar crowd and  Bose speakers situated on the ceiling above your table. You lean forward to pick out the gist of  a conversation. You employ all your senses, lip reading, anticipating words in the conversation, cupping your ears. The conversation becomes more valuable as you expend more effort.  Paintings can offer a similar experience.

With anticipation and focus you can glean a sense of the painting’s direction, content, and effect.  But with a painting, instead of leaning forward across the table you step back away from the subject.  To penetrate a picture’s interfering noise and discover its unified content we need to step back to see the entirety of a painting. Almost always we first encounter a painting from a distance across a room at  10 or 20 feet. We  don’t close our eyes and wait to open them until we are within a foot or two of a painting. We discover paintings at a distance and see them through interfering visual noise. Impressionists realized this.  Before Impressionists, visitors to galleries assessed a painting by examining it with a magnifying glass.  Impressionists asked the audience to step back and let the visual noise amalgamate into visual coherence.  Opposite colors in  patches created a visual hum when viewed from 10 or more 20 feet.  Small patches neutralized each other.

Here’s an example of this phenomena by Monet (example a.)june14,16,monet,spring blossoms 1878_edited-1

Impressionists were not the first to realize how a viewer amalgamates the brushwork into believable content. DaVinci understood the obscuring effects of s’fumato and Rembrandt tugged on the sleeves of studio visitors pulling them back to have a longer view of his work.  if visitors got too close he knew they would only see the brushstrokes and not the illusion.

I have added interfering noise to thicken the atmosphere and  have the viewer puzzle out the image through the rain of noise. I have not gone far enough with my application noise. But, I want you to see how I  proceeded with my experiments and demonstrate how much more engaging the texture and visual experience of the painting is when the noise is turned up. Turning up the interfering noise also obliges me to further simplify the image and  the design.  Contrary to your immediate reflex, adding confusion can enrich and clarify the effect.  An entertaining set of  guesses can more easily be made out of an ambiguous visual field than a one governed by sharp edged clarity.  More space, motion, and vitality  live beneath a veil of noise than with a set of clearly enumerated and outlined shapes. The ambiguity offered by a curtain of noise increases the range of possible interpretations. Noise increases participation just as leaning across the table in a boisterous restaurant.

In my first example observe that the image begins without the blanket of noise and in example 2 observe how adding noise creates a sensation of  a more layered and  textured space. The painting’s noise is not just created by adding more marks, it is also generated by blending and obscuring edges (by adding obscuring atmosphere or soft noise) to the territory at the back (top) of the image.

example 1. Early state without much noise(oil on brushed silver anodized aluminum)june14,16,water, randalls pond in luminance, step one,oil on anodized aluminum, 36x36_edited-3

example 2. Added noise (both articulated and blended)june14,16,water, randalls pond in luminance, oil on anodized aluminum, 36x36_edited-3

In the transition from example 3 to example 4  notice the additional noise created an illusion of greater distance by adding  light shapes to  the dark curtain at the top of the painting. The confusing blanket of marks added surface texture and dimension to the forward area (bottom) of the painting.

example 3, before adding noisejune14,16,water, randalls farm pond, step one,oil on anodized aluminum, 36x36_edited-4

example 4. after adding noisejune14,16,water, randalls farm pond, step two,oil on anodized aluminum, 36x36_edited-4

The noise can come in the form of added color or added color relationships. In example 5 the painting appears ambiguous but the color field has a monotonous and therefore quiet effect.  In example 6 not only are more marks added (while some are subtracted) to the surface but the color harmony has been complicated by the introduction of higher contrast and complementary colors.  These colors generate a more vibrant atmosphere and build a stronger sense of space because of their complementary push/pull effects.

example 5. before  adding color effectsjune14,16, water,reeds and reflections, step one

example 6. after amplified complementary color effects.june14,16, water,reeds and reflections, oil on anodized aluminum,36x36

My final examples show two different directions for useful pictorial noise.  Example 7 presents a case for varieties of texture imitating some aspects of  3d materials such as curving long and stringy shapes overlaying short flat rounded shapes. Example 8 presents another variety of textures that are more tool-constrained. The range of marks here are limited to those of a 6 inch squeegee. Orientation, pressure, and dimension determine the vocabulary of marks here.

example 7. varieties of texture from a fingernail, brushes and squeegeesjune14,16,water, Receding Sun Over Marsh, oil on anodized aluminum,24x24_edited-1

example 8. almost exclusively squeegees in oil on a surface of brushed gold anodized aluminum.june14,16, water, randalls farm pond in blue and gold, 24x24



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The 1000 Year Old Wedgie

The year is 1120. You are a poet, painter, and imperial court officer.  Imagine you are looking for a composition for your ink on silk landscape. You will be decorating a handheld fan. Philosophical principles oblige you to find a quietly balanced design gently receding into soft distance.  Ying and Yang, right and left, up and down, a balance will be found with patterns gradually echoing  like ripples from a stone on water. They slowly diminish as they travel.  You begin with a shape dominating the horizon on one side.  Your design resembles principles other artists will use across time and cultures (example 1,  Yen Ts U Yu, late 12th century). Observe this design has correspondence with the wedge-on-the-horizon design I discussed in last week’s blogpost.  Take a  look  at another example, this one is by the 19th century painter Alfred Bricher (example 2).

example 1. late 12th century Chinese,june,14,9,china,late1100s, Yen Ts u yu,fan,ink silk_edited-1

example 2. Alfred Bricher landscape june14,9,alfred thomson bricher,promontory

The Bricher example also gives us  nearby rocks echoing the shape of the wedge, promontory on the horizon.  If I take this principle of design with me to a state park on  the Long Island Sound I can rediscover  many evolving varieties.  Exploring with design means discovery through recombinations, alterations, mirror reversals, elevation shifts, perspective shifts, and lateral shifts of the design’s structure.  Here are examples of such explorations.

If I borrow Bricher’s composition and reverse it and also change the palette to  red/orange vs. blue/violet then, I get an image like the photo in example 3.

example 3. The Bricher design reversed.june14,9,triangle left and below half,rocks no diagram_edited-1

I stay with the design in example 3 but, I change it by raising the horizon and slowly fracturing the design. Here the wedge begins as a unified form and then progressively breaks  apart.  It implies more motion through this sequence of deconstruction from left to right  (see example 4.)  Example 5 illustrates the same photo with a superimposed diagram illustrating the pattern of gradual deconstruction.

example 4. deconstructing the wedge june14,9,disintegrating left triangle with rocks no diagram_edited-1

example 5. deconstructing the wedge with diagram june14,9,disintegrating left triangle with rocks with diagram

If  I raise the horizon on the Bricher example I need to have an extended triangle (another wedge) taking me back into space toward the horizon. Without this receding triangle the wedge on the horizon appears to just float in air and the painting has no context for believable space. I demonstrated this solution last week with Max Dunlop’s and Van Ruisdael’s paintings. Here I have morphed Bricher’s sailboats into rocks.  The rocks serve the same design purpose as the sailboats in the 17th, 18th and 19th century paintings (see example 6 and example 6a).

example 6. photo with elevated horizon and receding shape.june14,9,elevated horizon with receding triangle, no diagram_edited-1

example 6a. photo diagrammed june14,9,elevated horizon with receding triangle

In example 7  I  impose a role reversal on the land and water. First I reverse the location of the wedge of land above the horizon. Next I switched the location of the water for land and the land for water.  The shapes are still the same. I just changed their occupants.

example 7. land and water role reversal.june14,9,switching roles of land for water with diagram_edited-1

Example 8 returns the land to its original role of occupying the triangle on the lower right but, now I have extended the wedge on the horizon to reach entirely across the picture plane.

example 8. horizon wedge across the picture plane. june14,9,triangle receding with land mass wedge extending  no diagram_edited-1

example 9 illustrates the effect of reversing the lower land-formed triangle to lie opposite the wedge on the horizon. This creates a spiraling effect drawing the triangle on the lower left back toward the wedge on the upper right horizon. Example 10 illustrates the diminished sense of motion (the image is more static here) when I move the large illuminated rock toward the center.

example 9. reversing triangle with horizon edge on opposite side june14,9, reversing triangle with rock  off center, diagrammed

example 10. more static image with illuminated large rock moved to center.june14,9,reversing triangle with wedge on top,and centered rock,diagrammed

If I slide Bricher’s horizon wedge shape toward the center of the image then I can create a design which suggests the ancient idea of a mountain on the horizon. This design-form has also been used for thousands of years.  I will now use a series of soft triangles of varying angles presented in alternating bands of dark, light, dark. See example 11 for the example with diagram and example 11a for the example without the diagram.  Cezanne uses this same design program (example 12 and 12a) when he paints Mount Ste. Victoire. You see his triangular mountain sits left of center on the horizon while he employs a diagonal wedge/triangle of light which recedes toward the mountain side of the image. This is a 17th century design recipe. A formula Cezanne knew well.

example 11. the triangle wedge moved away from the side june14,9,triangle to center, echo triangles, soft mountains, no  diagram_edited-1

example 11a. triangles diagrammed june14,9,triangle to center, echo triangles, soft mountains, with diagram

example 12.Cezanne’s Mt St Victoire diagrammed june14,9,cezanne mt st victoire

example 12a un-diagrammed Cezanne june14,9,cezanne mt st victoire,no diagram_edited-1

In example 13 Contemporary photographer Sara Jones returns us to the low horizon design with a wedge sitting on the left.  She has substituted a bed for a seascape just as  T. S. Eliot once observed “the horizon spread out like a patient etherized upon a table”. Ms. Jones follows the tradition of the dark threshold at the bottom of the image and, she has simplified the image by stripping it of other triangles. This distillation and simplification is consistent with the tenets of both modernism and its later modification, minimalism.


example 12. Sara Jones photograph.june14,9,contemporary,jones, sarah, photography_edited-1




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Embracing Traditions, Changing Materials

Let’s travel through time to make a compare and contrast study. I will  compare technologies, surfaces and materials and see how contemporary artists have adopted traditional design models. Let’s begin by traveling back and forth between the 1600s and today.  Artist, Max Dunlop turned to 17th century images for re-interpretation in his new work ( Harbor, see example 1) just as Turner turned  to Claude for his models. Max painted on raw aluminum, 48×48 which gave him a faster surface than the linen and polished panels  available to 17th century artists.  Example 2 provides us with an image directly from the 17th century, a painting by Jacob Van Ruisdael. The design is the same. Again the water serves as  a distorted mirror of the landscape. While the size of the boat on the left has been reduced it still serves the same purposes, to direct the viewer into the picture and reinforce the surface plane of the water.

example 1. Max Dunlop, Harbor june14,2,max dunlop,harbor_32x48

example 2. J. Van Ruisdael,1600s june14,2,van ruisdael, windmill_edited-1

If we travel forward to the mid-1800s we find John Frederick Kensett using the same design (example 3) but, it’s dramatically simplified. He  dispensed with architecture and left us with a large reflecting mound on the right. The boats sail into the heart of the picture. His color palette uses orange-red/brown and blue/green complements to give us a feeling of iridescence. Wolf Kahn distills the same design structure  further as you see in example 4.  He uses the ambiguities of atmosphere to attract us as well as a recipe for iridescence  descended from the Impressionists.  Now look at contemporary artist Kathryn Poch’s painting (Blue Shimmer, example 5). She too paints on aluminum but, her work is on a white enamel anodized aluminum. She reveals the white of the enamel to invigorate her colors and help create a strong sense of iridescence. Kathryn uses large flat brushes and large squeegees while her design uses aspects of the traditional Kensett model with the addition of a languid serpentine shape to help the viewer travel back to her high horizon. The high horizon was an imported idea to Europe from Japan in the 19th century.

example 3. Kensett,mid 1800s june14,2,KENSETt 1

example 4. Wolf Kahn, contemporary june14,2,contemporarykahn, wolf, six decades show_edited-1

example 5. Kathryn Poch, contemporary june14,2,contemporary, Kathryn Poch,BlueShimmer,36x36,oilonaluminum

Contemporary artist Vic Muniz created his large photo collage (see example 6) using the same design model as Max Dunlop in example 1  and Van Ruisdael in example 2.  Muniz created a collage from torn and cut printed images then blew them up into a single printed image. His suggestion of a water surface is  richly thickened with the texture of assembled images.

example 6. Photo, Vic Muniz june14,2,contemporary,photo,vik muniz, full image_edited-1

The final examples demonstrate varieties of surfaces and textures. The first example is step one  (example 7) of three. I am working on canvas and like Kathryn Poch I use a high horizon. I also use light tinted color complements with close values to generate an iridescence not unlike the sensation generated with different colors by Wolf Kahn.  We are both indebted to the work of Pierre Bonnard here. Step two (example 8) presents the addition of blue at the base of the painting. With the introduction of blue I begin to use chromatic complements as defined by Helmholtz and Ogden Rood.  These two scientists greatly influenced the neo-impressionists Seurat and Signac. Example 9 represents the current state of this painting. This painting is on an acrylic titanium white canvas. I used brushes and a 6 inch squeegee. I removed paint for the brightest whites with the squeegee. The painting was made at one sitting and the watery subsurface effects  were created by blurring  forms.

example 7. step one june14,2, step one_edited-1

example 8. step two june14,2, step two

example 9. step three june14,2, step three forest,iridescent harmony, oil on canvas, 36x34_edited-1

In example 10 is a 48×48 oil on anodized aluminum. Again I begin with the high horizon.  Here the uncertain location of the land or water territories suggests the atmospherics of Wolf Kahn except, I am using vibrating textures of complementary color notes laid down with gentle cross hatching with the brush and squeegee. Flat water areas comingle with  vertical grass areas. The values are light and use complementary colors  with broken and uncertain edges to create a light iridescent sensation in this painting.

example 10. Light Iridescence.june14,2,water, intimate places,alt, oil on anodized aluminum, 48x48_edited-1

example 11 has eliminated the high horizon and the 17th century structure we began this discussion with. Now there is now horizon and a series of stacked, overlapped and concentric circles to sustain the design’s unity.  However, the iridescent color effect still follows the same recipe.

example 11. Circles without an horizon.june14,2,water circles, oil, 36x36

Example 12 presents an image I introduced in last week’s blog.  Here the surface is brushed silver anodized aluminum for greater reflectance and a greater sense of sparkle. The Sparkling concentric circles overlay the rocks below which are stitched together via a labyrinthine serpentine of dark purples. My squeegee helped me reveal the sparkle patterns as it sliced into the wet oil paint.

This Saturday, June 7, 2014 I am presenting a workshop on painting water which will explore the subjects of translucence, reflection, iridescence, sparkle and water in motion from  ocean waves to streams, lakes and wet city streets.  Please join me in New Canaan, Ct. at the Silvermine Art Center. Contact  or call 203 966 6668 ext. 2  to inquire or register.

example 12. oil on brushed silver anodized aluminum june14,2,water circles,reflections and shadows, oilon brushed silver anodized aluminum,48x48_edited-1




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The Conjurer’s Brush

Look at a painting from the 16th century by Albrecht Altdorfer, then one from the 17th century by Fragonard, and then one from the 19th century by Corot. You notice that the concern for salience (clear and informative edges)  has changed over 400 years.  Altdorfer was one of the first Europeans to paint a landscape without figures. They were small, palm sized (see example one with St. George). His energy went into amassing a thicket of edge information, leaves. By Fragonard’s time artists realized that the effect of clustered foliage was more persuasive when blended with less edge information. By Corot’s century we were able to see nature, experience nature in a painting with only smudges to suggesting areas of leaves.  Paintings were approaching the way we see. Artists were able to conjure an experience of representation through deft blurring with few clear edges. The schematic idea has endured; a small window through thick flora.

example 1. Altdorfer, St. George Pursue the Dragon.may14,24,Altdorfer, albrecht, 1510, St George and Dragon

example 2. Fragonard.may14,24,fragonard_edited-1

example 3. Corot.may14,24,corot, woman with roots_edited-1

Ernst Gombrich contributed the title to this blogpost. Before he wrote “Art and Illusion” he had been thinking about how artists learn traditions, vocabularies of design and marks as well as palettes. They also learn suitable subjects as  required by their respective markets.  Art changes as the purposes of art changes. Purposes change because cultural needs change. We see how the vision of the artist painting a forest changed from the 15th to the 19th century. It is still changing. Technology changes, markets change. Artists answer the call for change just like doctors have changed in their roles. But, we all come from tradition. Historical templates can help explain who we are and what we are trying to do.

Today not only can I use photographs as 19th century artists did. I can manipulate those photographs to resemble the way vision blurs or focuses. Furthermore, you and I have learned to experience the world through cameras, through the appearance of photographs. We believe their reality to be like our vision which it is not. Today many naively think think they complement an artist by saying that their painting looks like a photograph. But today’s photographs no longer look like past photographs. Their standard appearance also continues to mutate just as  the history of paintings has mutated.

In my first example I am responding to Altdorfer’s landscape by building one of my own but, I use a squeegee instead of a brush. The image appears more graphic, more like a staged cutout.  Example 4 presents my original photograph. Example 5 represents step one and, example 6 represents step two.

example 4. photograph.may14,24,meadow,stonebridgemay12_edited-1

example  5. first step.may14,24,meadow,step one,24x36

example  6. second step.may14,24,meadow,step two,24x36

In the next examples I take my photo (example 7) and then present you with two different responses. the first is an oil and mixed media on 140 lb. arches (example 8) and the next is a oil on brushed silver anodized aluminum ( example 9).  I use my fingers, brushes and squeegees on each. Notice how the two images  evolved in separate directions even though they began with the same initiating photo.

example 7. photo.may14,24,rocky water,devils den may11_edited-1

example 8 . oil on paper.may14,24,rocky water, oil on paper 13x13

example 9. oil on aluminum 48×48.may14,24,rockywater, oil on anodized burshed silver aluminum,48x48

In the 20th century we began to cut and rearrange the photo with collage. This tradition continues to be explored. With the aid of personal printers we can make large scale multiples and redefine collage as you see in my example 10.  I used a 13 x 19 printer. I printed multiples of the same image then, cut it into fan patterns and reassembled an extended image using  different versions of the same image.

example 10.may14,24, photocollage

We  don’t have to wait for centuries to elapse before witnessing the evolution of painting. We can do it ourselves.  Example 11 is a small oil on paper demonstration of a crowd in  New York’s Grand Central Terminal. Example 12 presents its evolution as  I enlarged the idea and changed it.

example 11.  Grand Central Terminal on paper.may14,24,gtc demonstration

example 12. Grand Central Terminal on anodized brushed silver aluminum.may14,24,gct,Electric Travell, oil on anodized aluminum,36x36_edited-1

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The Elastic Triangle Encounters a Common Fate

In Thalma Lobel’s new book, Sensation, The New Science of Physical Intelligence, she considers how our sense of touch  influences our  unconscious behavior.  Hold something warm and you will be more amenable to the suggestions of others. Historically heat has taken symbolic forms as well. As fire it is represented by color red, the 2 dimensional triangle and the 3 dimensional pyramid.  Heat is counterbalanced by cold.  Red is complimented by blue-green. From Da Vinci to Turner to artists today, they appreciated the unifying effect of a triangle with a hot/cold color contrasts.  My first example offers  a watercolor by Turner of the Armory in Venice. A strong “V” or inverted triangle  characterizes his design. He also applied the hot/cool color contrast.

example 1. Turner’s watercolor. may14,19,Venice,The Arsenal, Rio Di San Daniele, watercolor, 1840

The triangle may be foreshortened, elastically stretched and distorted but, it’s form remains discernible with or without the hot/cold color contrast. In example 2 I have replaced the orange-red walls of Turner’s armory with misty blue-green river banks. A congregation of small triangles direct the movement of the painting back toward the light. These meandering triangles demonstrate a design condition described by Gestalt psychologists as having a “common fate”.   Common Fate can be described as any group of  symbols or forms sharing in the same general direction or orientation. If you re-examine Turner’s watercolor you will find evidence of common fate design features even though Turner could not have known of the Gestalt psychologists who followed him by more than half a century.  Designers today use all of the Gestalt psychology design observations like, proximity, similarity, closure, and figure-ground.  In example 3 I return to Turner’s hot-cold palette and I use a design similar to his.

example 2.  misty blue, may14,19,water, blue fog, oil on aluminum,36x36

example 3. Hot and Cold in the City,May14,19,City,Times Square Cab Fare, oil on anodized aluminum,48x48_edited-2

The vertical orientation of the shapes in example 4  demonstrates the sense of unitary motion that the principle “Common Fate” can offer. Look at the collective shape of the figures and you may discern a vague triangle ascending toward the yellow distant light. Here is an elastic triangle roughly pieced together by vague figurative shapes. Example 4a. shows a photograph of  attenuated columns and figures using both the common fate principle and a red-to-blue triangle.

example 4. columns of light,may14,19,columns of light and us, oil on anodized aluminum,36x36

example 4a. photograph,may14,19,common fate,simlarity,grouping, simplicitymet museum2

As I explored old farm fields and ponds I discovered hints of triangles ripe for photo picking. Example 5 presents a shallow pool wending it’s distorted triangular way toward a distant meadow. Example 6 is the first step toward a loose painting. Example 7 is the second step. Example 8 represents the current status of the painting. Example 9 shows a more distilled and abstracted painting of the same subject. Here the brush strokes contribute to the design principle of  “common fate.”   In this last example the triangle is severely foreshortened as the watery foreground  which points the viewer into the scene.

example 5. photograph,may14,19,randalls farm may9b_edited-3

example 6. step one of first painting.may14,19, forest, randalls pond in may II,step1

example 7. step two of first painting.may14,19, forest, randalls pond in may II, step 2,24x24_edited-1

example 8. Current status of  first painting,may14,19, forest, randalls pond in may II, 24x24_edited-1

example 9. abstracted version with more obvious triangle and common fate design elements.may14,19, forest, randalls pond in may I, 24x24_edited-1


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Danger! Falls Ahead

I was in sixth grade when I felt the dangerous magnetism of  big falls. I was close to the rail  staring at the downward plummet of Niagara.  It pulled on me.  Always an inviting peril, the emotionally charged attraction of waterfalls compel  attention. Their movement, their promise of  journey,  and their sparkle are fundamental ingredients to catch our eye.

A thousand years ago during China’s Sung dynasty the artist, Fan Kuan painted the quintessential mountain landscape, an oil on silk. He framed a small waterfall at the bottom of the mountains. The falls bounce in steps to a stream below (example 1). He had seen other artists paint falls, he had a schematic in mind. Fast forward to Hokusai in Edo Japan in 1832. He still uses the same design structure to render his falls, a zig zag pattern with the top taller than the bottom (example2). Travel to England at that time and you discover J.M.W. Turner painting falls in watercolor across the English countryside (example 3).  His falls also follow the bouncing zig zag. For Asians the zig zag designs represents the dragon for Mediterranean artists it presents the serpent, the life giving serpent in Eden’s garden.

In 1827 Michallon was painting a favorite sight of landscape painters, the waterfall gorge at Tivoli just outside Rome. He did not depict the tallest falls  but chose an intimate close-up of shallower falls in  his plein air oil study (example 4). His falls  follow the zig zag.  Michallon  instructed Corot who would influence Courbet and then the later Impressionists.

example 1. detail of falls from Fan Kuan, see inside superimposed green lines.may14,5,FanKuan,TravelersAmong Mountains, ink on silk - Copy

example 2. Hokusai’s Falls.may14,5,hokusai,1832,horsewashing waterfall_edited-1

example 3.Turner’s Falls.May14,5,FinishWatercolor,Turner

example 4. Michallon’s Falls.may14,5,Michallon, torrent at tivoil, 1820

Recently we have experienced heavy spring rains in Connecticut. I explored nearby Nature Conservancy trails seeking  freshly invigorated falls (example 5). Back in my studio I reconsidered a series of the photographs and, what redesign possibilities they offered me.  Next, I selected a small rectangle of brushed silver anodized aluminum. Then, I began  as you see in step 1 (example 6). First, I applied a mixture of ultramarine blue with a light  touch of gamboge yellow.  In selected areas I added more carmine lake. Above this area I applied a mixture of  gamboge, carmine lake, less ultramarine and a little titanium white.

example 5. Photo of Falls (after Photoshop enhancements).may14,5,devils den falls2_edited-1

example 6. Step one.may14,5,step two devils den oil

In step 2 (example 7) you see the effects of the translucent colors on the brushed silver. They give a golden luminosity to areas.  I begin finding small tilts and slants with an opaque light tone using a flat two inch watercolor wash brush. I start at the top and work down from smaller to larger shapes regarding their cumulative impression and, their counterpoint interactions with adjacent shapes. I am working wet on wet, all at once ( alla prima). In step three (example 8). I sculpted contours of the cascading water using an oily white mixed with a note of vermillion. The white picks up some of the wet color beneath. I splay the ends of the brush to suggest rivulets. I invert the brush to suggest the kickback of water landing below a fall. The pattern follows the zig zag.

example 7. Step two.may14,5, step 3, devils den falls oil

example 8. Step three.may14,5, step 4, devils den falls,oil

After this discussion of waterfalls you and I are now mentally preconditioned to perceive even  ambiguous information like Gerhard Richter’s  abstract painting (example 9) as  suggestive of falling water. My previous examples (steps one and two) also do not need to overtly present the edges of falling water as seen in example 8 (step three) because, they already suggest a context for a waterfall. Our mental preset prejudices our looking to expect and project the possibility of a waterfall.

example 9. Richter’s abstraction, a waterfall….may14,5,richter, gerhard, squeegee ptg_edited-2

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Surprise! Dividing the Pie Unfairly

When confronted with the last piece of pie my mother’s solution was to have my brother and I divide it.  One of us would get to divide and then, the other would choose.  Our scrutiny was fierce. But, my brother invented a new system. He divided it unevenly into a large piece and a small piece.  As I went to make my choice  he spit on the large piece.  Oh the injustice!  And, he is a litigating attorney and judge now.  But, he was onto an arresting idea.  Instantly, the unevenly divided pie drew  more of my attention.  We tend to order our world evenly and regularly. It relieves us of having to pay too much attention to everything. Order suggests artifice, the evidence of human activity.  If you are planting a garden you don’t want to space your tulips to regularly; they will draw comic attention to themselves with their suspiciously conspicuous order. When John Ruskin (John Ruskin, Elements of Drawing) explained his principles of  consistency and continuity he stressed that painters should repeat through variation not through exact duplication. Da Vinci advised artists to use flawed symmetry not perfect symmetry.

For example, whenever we think of making trees we tend not to construct a single mass for a group of trees. Instead, we  think of trees  individually therefore, we paint them that way even though our retinal image is of a single variegated mass. We find ourselves helplessly making individual tree shapes which we assemble in a line. We do this with everything we find in groups. Avoid this tendency unless you want to arouse alienating suspicions on the part of the viewer.

Here are some solutions around the problems of redundancy. Remember the more ordered and redundant your imagery the less attention the viewer will pay to the painting. No one pays attention to redundancies (repetitious regularities) because, we don’t need to pay attention. One look at a small section and we extrapolate the whole program; the remainder falls  out of our attention. A pattern of bricks only gets our attention when it changes.

I will illustrate how to thwart our tendency toward redundancy, toward  regularity. First I will illustrate the problem with continuous shapes then, I will illustrate how color too can fall victim to too much predictable regularity and must be arranged in transitional sequences just like shapes.

Example 1 presents a stand of conifers behind a rocky edge. In the first example you see how the diagrammed  red line zigzags toward a summit, a principle singular up-reaching shape.  The zigzag progression ascends then descends with flawed symmetry.  If I had succumbed to thinking of this stand of conifers not as retinal singularity but rather as a linguistic thought as series of repeated conifers in a line then I would end up with the unvaried green zigzag line. I would have made a suspicious regularity.  Because the conifers principally ascend from left to right  I made the line of rocks descend in counterpoint from the left. Their edge has one dominant triangle while the others all go through a series of minor variations. Example 2 presents the image without the diagramming.

Example 1. Conifer stand with diagramming april14,28,forest, april conifer stand,analysis, oil and mixed media on arches140 lb,13x13_edited-2

Example 2. Conifer stand without diagrams april14,28,forest, april conifer stand, oil and mixed media on arches140 lb,13x13_edited-1

Example 3 presents an asymmetrical foreshortened serpentine design with superimposed diagrams. The red diagram illustrates  regularity and without foreshortening. The shape would  become suspiciously redundant, flat and unarresting like repetitive brickwork. Notice the green diagram line indicates the serpentine pattern I selected for the image vs. the regularized red serpentine. Example 4 presents the image without the diagrams.

Example 3. Stream with diagramming april14,28,forest, april meander,analysis, oil and mixed media on 140 lb arches,13x13_edited-2

Example 4. Stream without diagrams april14,28,forest, april meander, oil and mixed media on 140 lb arches,13x13_edited-1

Example 5. presents a forested image, the larger darker trees frame the outside edges of the image. They are flawed echoes of one another not twins.

Example 5. Flawed Symmetry with Forest.april14,28,forest, april sunset pine grove, oil and mixed media on 140 lb arches,13x13_edited-1

Example 7 presents the evolution of an image. I first presented this image (example 6) in an earlier incarnation in a previous blogpost. I decided the image needed both more organization and more sequence variation (example 7). The asymmetrical cruciform design demonstrates a new organizing structure for the painting.  The layers of sequential variations as seen in the floor, walls, and arrangement of abstracted figures have all been augmented with series of sequential variations.

Example 5. earlier stage of example 6. april14,7,GCT, Sideways , oil on anodized aluminum, 24x48

Example 6. New image with Cruciform design. april14,28,gcs,Kiosk Emanations, oil on anodized aluminum,24x48

Example 8 considers not only  shape sequencing but,  color progression as well. I also used color progressions in all of the above examples.  Here the color transitions present colors loosely adhering to shapes  contrasting with complementary colors vaguely inhabiting other adjacent shapes. The overall progression (from bottom to top) moves from more saturated colors to less saturated and lighter colors always in complementary arrangements.  Flawed elliptical shape patterns overlay and underlie the color progressions.

example 8. Color Progression. april14,28,water circles, Luminance Progression, oil on anodized aluminum24x24_edited-1

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Da Vinci’s Disappearing Horse

Da Vinci spoke of perspective in terms of a horse. As we move farther from the horse we lose our ability to read the legs, then the head and neck are lost and what is left is only a blurred oval. As we move even farther we see no trace of the horse at all. Sung Dynasty landscape painters had learned that subjects (trees, mountains, figures) loose articulation across distance, not only do objects grow  smaller across distance but also, they become less detailed, smoother and softer along their edges, and their value contrast diminishes as the recede. Eventually they blend with other areas and lose their separation from their surroundings. Manet had observed this as well. He noticed that when the subject was moving we would also lose discernment of the parts that were moving. He sketched racing horses and  draws just the torsos of the horse with a blur below where legs should be.

When I paint a scene suggesting a city street thick with pedestrians as I have in example 1, I imagine looking at the scene filled with motion  and viewed from a distance not unlike Manet capturing distant legless racing horses.  My pedestrians are blurred with more pronounced forms in their torso areas and  less  where their legs or arms might be. I follow Da Vinci’s advice because, it corresponds to my own observations which I further exaggerated for theatrical effect.  Example 2 shows the photograph (after my Photo shopping effects) that sparked example 1.

example 1. figures in Times Square,april14,21,city moves, oil and mixed media on arches, 13x13_edited-2

example 2. photo which prompted the painting in example 1.april14,21,times square study2_edited-1

example 3. figures in a Canted Crosswalk,april14,21,city, Luminous Dissolve, oil and mixed media on arches, 13x13_edited-2

example 4. photo which prompted the painting in example 3.april14,21,nyc streets6b_edited-2

Example 3 presents more motion by canting the picture plane as well as blurring much of the visual information.  Again, areas suggestive of distant figures  offer few particulars for appendages like legs and arms. And, there are color and value shifts occurring over distance. The dark foreground here is overlaid by discontinuous linear perspective lines.  The colors have reversed their respective roles with yellow now pushing the darker blue area forward, toward the viewer. Notice in example 4 ( the photo that prompted the painting in example 3) the foreground is completely blown out with light and therefore doesn’t signal as strong a feeling of space as example 3.

Da Vinci also wrote of the shifts in color over distance, how change and desaturate or get paler over distance. He considered that our eye caused us to see blue in the distance with yellows and greens fading away.  His notebooks omit the observation that complementary colors could propel one colored area forward while thrusting another area back.

The distance does not have to be on a horizontal plane on earth. We can also experience distance or space by looking into shallow areas such a pool of water. The surface has more articulated edges while the area beneath the surface is unified through blurring. Blurring  below-the-surface material  encourages a feeling of minor depth to the water.  This blurring also suggests movement as well as space. Example 5 presents a photo which has not yet  been Photo shopped. Example 6, presents the same image after Photo shopping effects as they begin to emphasize the blurry bottom. Example 7 presents the image with a subsurface area of blurry indistinctness which feels separate from the more articulated water circle patterns on the surface.

example 5. original untouched photo.april14,21 original water photo

example 6.   the same photo after special effects to stimulate more motion and space. Notice the design has been squashed into a square shape to make the water circles appear more elliptical.april14,21 original water photo after photo shop

example 7. oil painting,24×24. Notice that each successive manifestation became a very different image.april14,21, origin,water circles,Bright Rhythms, oil on anodized aluminum,24x24_edited-3

This winter I presented a painting in this blog which I have since altered ( example 8). I made these changes because, the image could offer a stronger feeling of space and animation. Example 8 presents a distant stripe of blue set above a stripe of pink. They are both about the same thickness and therefore thwart a strong reading of space. If the blue stripe could be made thinner and, if there could be two overlapping stripes in the distance and, if they could be more dissolved along their edges then  I could create a deeper feeling of  space.  I also realized that if I could offer more particulars in the front (the lower area of the painting) with more  intersecting shapes then I could push the background further away.  By building a texture of more variety in the foreground and more uniformity in the background I created more space (example 9). The principles were DaVinci’s.

example 8. See how the horizontal bands are all of a similar thickness preventing strong feeling of depth.april14,21,devils den winter marsh step1

example 9. the horizontal bands now go from thicker to thinner as we move from the lower part of the painting to the top. The thinnest blurriest bands are the most distant.april14,21,devils den winter marsh step2.


If you are interested in learning more about perspective effects then I invite you to contact the Cross Roads Art Center in Richmond, Va. where I hope to be offering a workshop on the forms of perspective in May. See my website’s list of workshops for details.



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