Over the years I have tried to understand this idea of painting the light. On the surface it appears straightforward. We see because our eyes interpret the various wave lengths of light as color. There are rules to further guide us: atmospheric perspective, cool light and warm shadows, turning the form, capturing a fleeting moment of light in Plein Air. Taken collectively, the act of representing something as being in or out of the light ought to be a matter of proper drawing and shading and value.
And yet it seems such an elusive thing, to convincingly depict the sense of light.
In many ways it is an act of seeing, sensitively and without judgment. And in other ways, it can be a matter of understanding the philosophical foundation of the style in which you are painting. We seldom stop to think about this. The Barbizon Painters had a completely different painting approach to depicting the light than the Impressionists, even though the Barbizon School evolved into the Impressionists. Classical Realists are at the opposite end of the Light spectrum from the school of Chiaroscuro. Throughout art history we see many different ways to paint the beautiful effects of light: we could even say that Hans Hofmann and Mark Rothko were concerned with depicting the effect of light through color and abstract forms.
This idea – of appreciating the underlying conceptual approach – was demonstrated in a real way for me by Rose Frantzen and Sherrie McGraw. As I studied with each artist, I began to appreciate how the concept determined the method. Each artist could manipulate the paint in a seemingly effortless way, to create magical results. But each way was also different.
In the first few days of learning, I did not appreciate this fact. I was a student again, not realizing I was combining approaches in a way that left me visually confused. I struggled, feeling inept and uninspired, wondering what I was not understanding. And then a subtle awareness began to seep into my painting. In order to create a specific end result I needed to approach it from a specific starting point, intellectually.
I believe that we need to know what our end result will look like, and that can also mean that we need to know if we are working in a particular style or artistic tradition. I think it’s quite possible to believe you are painting in a specific style without realizing you are combining it with ideas drawn from a different genre, just as it is possible for a very skilled artist to create a traditional motif in an extremely abstracted style without the end result looking staged. But underneath that skilled approach, I am sure that artist understands exactly what conceptual foundation is informing him in his depiction of light.
All of my instructors repeated one mantra: it is about what the light is doing.
I almost feel foolish saying this: after all I have been painting for quite a long time. But sometimes we forget that painting is about learning, and learning is about seeing, and seeing is about understanding how to manipulate the paint.
And manipulating the paint is all about the artistic tradition that is informing you.