Monday, January 28, 2008

Winter in Maine–an Artist’s View
It was a long time before I realized what potential the bleak, gray winters of Maine had for an artist who lives here. It’s way to cold to go out and paint sketches on site and though I do get out for at least a walk daily in winter, I didn’t often see much that inspired me artistically.
Well, I was wrong. The more I studied painting and the more I exchanged thoughts and ideas with other artists, the more I woke up to the treasure trove of goodies laying on the snow, in the low, slanting light, in the expressive bare limbs of the trees. Now the problem was to develop a method of capturing all of this on canvas.
I have an artist friend who paints out of doors all year long in Maine. He has a 60s vintage VW bus that he has set up with a heater inside. He’ll go to a site, set up his easel and paint until he gets cold. He then repairs to the bus, turns on the heat and warms up. Sometimes it’s every few minutes. Now that’s devotion! I don’t have a VW bus or anything like it, but as I said, I do get out and have since learned to spot paintable things and scenes. When I do, I take several photos and try to totally absorb what I see–even making a few notes. I find that I have a pretty good memory for images which helps. When I get back to the studio, I put the images in my computer, do a bit of PhotoShop and then do some quick sketches on a canvas, including color notes of what I remember.
I should point out that I use the photos only for reference and positioning of items in the piece. How to use photos in painting is another piece altogether, but I quickly put the photos away. I pretend that I am doing an on-site sketch and start painting as if I had the same time pressure as I would plein air. This helps me deal with color masses and values quickly, saving details until later. I also find that imagination quickly kicks in and I’m able to take my image memories into a more "artistic" realm. When I finish the painting a few days later, I compare it with the photo. The human eye coupled with the brain is infinitely more powerful than the camera! (Not to demean the art of photography, which in its way is just as challenging as painting).
Here are a couple of paintings I did in recent weeks. The lighthouse is Portland Headlight which stands on a point in Cape Elizabeth, Maine. It’s a couple of miles from where I live. It has been painted and photographed thousands of times by thousands of people. I’ve painted it a few times myself, but I try to find an uncommon view, so it’s not just another "lighthouse painting." This day had new fallen snow followed by brilliant sunshine. I saw a spot on a little bluff that had birches in front of it. In one of those "aha" moments, I trudged up and saw this scene. A couple of photos and a few moments of study later, I had it. The sun was blinding on the snow, so the camera didn’t "see" much, but I did, adding colors in the snow providing an atmospheric perspective. I also intensified some colors to pump up the image of the lighthouse which should be the focus of the piece. I also pumped up the white in the birches, inspiring the name, "White on White."
The second picture is a mile down the road from the first, a marsh that most people don’t even see because on the other side of the road is the ocean, often spectacular with roiling waves and distant ships. It was late in the afternoon with long shadows and that brilliant gold white light we have in winter when the sun is receding. I used the same technique as before, but I changed the composition substantially, isolating that crooked tree and simplifying the background. I call it "Pond Cove Marsh in Winter" to distinguish it from another painting I did of the marsh in fall. You can see it and some other pieces on the site


Frank Gardner said...

I like these winter scenes Jack. You used a real simplified palette. It is interesting how the lighthouse is so small, yet such an important element. You're right, it is not just another lighthouse painting.
Those recipes look tasty too!

Jack Riddle said...

Thanks, Frank. I will be posting other winter scenes, too. Since I opened my eyes to winter's possibilities, I find subjects all over the place.
Those recipes are among my favorites. I recall that your wife made a dynamite mango salsa. We had it during one of your workshops. It wouldn't hurt to post it!