Damn Complex Chaos to Visual Language

Newberry, Orb 3, oil on linen, 10x8"

Cutting to the chase a painting that is flat is more like a cereal box than like a Rembrandt. What makes painting interesting is transforming forms, depth, and light from the real world to a canvas. It is a very complex visual language that conceptualizes how we see, and it triggers suspension of disbelief, rewarding us with the perception of movement and light.  A painter cannot just cut and paste reality to the canvas, the transition deals with how we perceive, how light bounces off forms and textures, painting techniques, and oddly, even how well our studios are calibrated for light.

Some years ago I was having trouble painting. I would stand back and see a mistake and try to paint a correction, but when I got up close to the painting I just couldn’t capture the nuance I was hoping for. I was getting near 60 years old and I decided to totally re-educate myself about painting (even though I already had four decades of painting behind me). The project was to paint a  sandstone orb that has personal significance to me. My studio has the greatest daylight from 11 am to noon, and I like to paint into the night, so figuring out the artificial light was essential. I painted each orb under different artificial lighting conditions. I also used every painting technique I knew, from thin liquid applications to scumbling to super thick blobs of paint. This series of nine alla prima paintings, all in private collections, were the result of these explorations.

Eye Excitement: Why Ruins?

Rickety Courtyard Gate, Rhodes, pastel on dark paper, private collection
Rickety Courtyard Gate, Rhodes, pastel on dark paper, private collection
Rickety Courtyard Gate, Rhodes, pastel on dark paper, private collection

I have noticed lots of artists including myself are drawn into drawing abandoned places, scruffy landscapes, weathered shacks, and stone ruins. While a manicured lawn or polished mahogany conference table inspire a blau reaction. There is something visually exciting about the chaos of ruins but what is it that is triggering our vision? And why are paintings or drawings so boring when they are of pristine subjects? Vision scientists Jan Koenderink and Andrea van Doorn (a link to their abstract on pictorial space) talked with me over beers in Glasgow pub about how the eye goes blind if it cannot move about and compare and contrast tones and hues. Using my artist’s logic it makes sense that on the opposite end of the spectrum the eye becomes excited when each hue and tone is varied. My pastel of a rickety courtyard gate in Rhodes, Greece illustrates this.

Notice the gate is drawn with all kinds of unrepeated colors. The plastered gold side of the wall has countless hues ochre, and medieval stones are equally varied with its shifts between brown and gray. It seems like a lot to try to do in a 50-minute drawing, but I was helped along by all the setting’s details were all extremely varied. If you are an artist looking for something interesting to draw look for differences in everything. That will keep your eye busy and excited and the viewers’ too.

Michael Newberry