Evolution of Rocks and Waves

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Early in the 19th Century English artists like Turner, Bonington and Constable focused on the shore, its vicissitudes of weather, its reflective sunlight, its human drama.  By the late 19th century Americans like Winslow Homer had simplified their designs to emphasize brush strokes, exaggerated dramatic forms, motion and contrast. The new emphasis on simplification of design and expressive forms became a cornerstone for early 20th century modernists like Marsden Hartley, John Marin and Walt Kuhn (example 1).

Their legacy of expressive simplicity influenced landscape/seascape painters throughout the approaching 20th century. Walt Kuhn’s example still shows residual effects of earlier Impressionism in 1912.  Impressionist jottings would succumb to the bravura gestures of the modern expressionists. By mid century artists like Fairfield Porter and Rockwell Kent not only simplified their compositions but, stylized them as well (example 2).

Example 1. Walt Kuhn, 1912, at Ogunquit, Maine, oil.

Example 2. Fairfield Porter, 1962, also Maine shore, acrylic.

Other mid century artists like Charles Burchfield merged stylization or mannered patterns with a personal vocabulary of marks. His personal vocabulary was adopted and modified as an intimate painting strategy by later shoreline artists like Brita Holmquist (example 3).

Example 3. Brita Holmquist, also Maine coast, 1989, oil.

I found a different shoreline motif on a walk along Connecticut’s shore on a quiet gray day. A photo of that experience is here in example 4.  Two years later I returned to a set of these colorless photos and decided to reinvest them with vivid color contrast. I used the chromatic contrast of Ultramarine blue vs. bright yellows and oranges. I also horizontally compressed the image into a square in Photoshop.  My first effort borrows the expressive and simplified gesturing of early 20th century modernists.  I used a palette knife to convey a visceral feeling of gesture (example 5). This work was a small experiment, 12×12”. I then stepped up the scale to 24×24 (example 6) to 36×36 (example 7). In scaling up the image I tried recomposing and reversing the image as you see in the examples. I stopped work on the 36×36 to write this blogpost.

Example 4. Original photo.

Example 5. Preliminary palette knife study,12×12.

Example 6.  Later image without a palette knife but, with brushes, fingers, and squeegees.24×24.

Example 7.  the 36×36 image, a reversed composition in its present state.

Using a quieter shoreline theme I found an evening beach with long blue shadows looking out onto a quiet North Atlantic. The angular rocks are gone and replaced with soft contours and languid tidal streams. The vista is looks out to the upper right while the design converges to the upper left (example 8).

Example 8, Soft and quiet shore, oil.

My last example 10, uses an older Claudian composition with a dark wall of rock framing the left side.  Claude and later Turner placed classical architectural forms there overlooking a harbor with a view to a luminous horizon (example 9). Example 10 represents the blocking-in of the image. Example 11 presents the image in its present state. I again rely upon simultaneous color contrasts as well as dramatic scale shifts to gather the viewer’s attention.

Example 9. Turner watercolor of Venice with classical framing wall on the left.

Example 10. Step one, the blocking-in.

Example 11. Step two, Present state of the painting.


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