Monday, May 21, 2012

Seeing the Light

“I catch hold of one thing and another; later things will arrange themselves and settle into shape of their own accord. But here I will not begin with a prearranged plan; on the contrary, I want my plan to result from my studies. As yet I do not know the real character of the country; now I draw everything that presents itself, but later on, after some experience, I shall try to reproduce it in its real character…” –Excerpt from a letter from Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh -- Drenthe, 12 October 1883

In art school, aside from absorbing technique, perspective and anatomy, color theory, composition and getting in some sweet studio time, you burn a lot of calories studying the usual suspects of art history – analyzing the “How” and “Why” they created what they created, and when. As a result, I have many art heroes: Michelangelo for his passion and devotion, Leonardo for his keen scientific approach, Mucha for his sensitivity, Dali and Picasso for their genius and innovation. And like many fellow art school geeks, I also spent a good amount of time studying the impressionists. This is my favorite period of art. The impressionists were all about seeing beyond convention. They seemed to exist in a place where intellect and inspiration mingled with the bittersweet, candid passing of the everyday moment. Perhaps, this new take on life was brought on by the invention of the camera, calling to mind the type of old family snapshots you might happen upon while rummaging around in your grandmother’s attic.

Never the less, the notion of studying the light and expressing its reactions within the context of the impressionist’s eye has much to do with understanding the color spectrum and how time of day, emotion and even season change can affect the impact it has on a wide range of subject matter. Waves of tall grass tickling the sky on a windy day, dancers preparing for a show, a couple surrendering their sorrows to the hallucinogenic properties of absinthe, even a bright and starry night, swirling high above a sleeping metropolis can become something more than just a mundane moment if cast in the right light. And for many of the impressionists, Van Gough for instance, the right light could only really be found off the Mediterranean coast, in the “Cote D’Azur.”


So when Gwen and I were offered the chance to spend a couple of months honeymooning along the French Riviera as guests in Cogolin: the sleepy, French-provincial village that time forgot – I freaked out like a 1960’s teen-aged girl at a Beatles concert.


It’s one thing to read about color theory and have a working knowledge of light and atmospheric perspective, it’s quite another to see it in action. Of course, I’ve been applying these theories to my urban life… cities remain for me a bottomless pit of inspiration, forever flooding me with unexpected and willing subject matter. Add to this, compounding years of unquenchable wanderlust and you begin to get a sense of why I refer to myself as the “Artist at Large.” I’ve traveled to, through and spent some time exploring every continental state in the U.S.. I’ve taken stock of the multitude of historic landmarks, roadside attractions and strange, out-of-the-way corners that this land of ours has to offer, along the way capturing and analyzing the things that pique my artistic curiosity. We live in a multifaceted, beautiful and diverse country. Sadly, not enough of us see that as a good thing… however, not to be diverted… my point here is that I have seen the light through more filters than I can count. The bald bulb glare of the Utah Salt Flats, the Texan sky, so vast and clear, you can actually see where the horizon begins to curve down. Then, there’s the blurry, smeared orange light of Mississippi in the summer, the surreal, life altering glow of Arizona’s Painted Desert, just as the top edge of the sun dips out of view… endless, endless filters.

I discovered my favorite American light source on my way home from a long month on the road in June, 2007. Close to the California border, just out of Nevada, there’s a small, winding road off the main highway. I took it on recommendation of my fellow traveler and navigator, with the hope of getting us home a day sooner. Sadly, the name escapes me but regardless... I followed a river up the side of a mountain and back down into a valley where light was reborn amongst the redwoods and sequoias, becoming prismed, the way it would through the rose window of a cathedral. It danced on leaves and floated down in rays, twinkling like glitter and refracting within the calm waters of the neighboring river like diamonds. It was so beautiful; I had to keep reminding myself to breathe. “This,” I thought, “is why they called this land ‘California.’”

One legend claims that "California" means “heaven on earth.”

That said, I’ve never seen light like the way it is here in the Gulf of St. Tropez.

If you’ve ever flown anywhere and pressed your nose against your window as the plane makes its decent, you might notice a band of burnt orange nestled in between where the sky and the ground meet. That’s pollution and it acts like a lens filter changing the light, which in turn affects the color of everything it touches. Here on the ground, we’ve become so accustomed to the ambient light, that we’re not likely to even notice. Of course, depending on where you’re landing, this tell-tale band may be anything from a faint, subtle change in tint to a dense, almost opaque haze like you see when you fly into L.A.. The thing is, I’ve never NOT seen it – until recently, when Gwen and I flew into Europe. I want to say that this is the reason the light is so different, but I can’t really be certain.


Being here, experiencing the light in similar settings to some of the most innovative minds in art history has been more valuable to me than any formalized schooling. And like a small child, I’ve been actively seeing –experiencing everything around me as though for the first time. The trees, vested in vines, are a sonnet of every hue in the Green gamut, Black and Grey. Depending on the time of day, shadows spread out in wide abstract pools of Blue-Violet, Violet or sometimes even a deep Red-Violet, as though someone knocked over a bucket of paint. And against all this lush, intensely saturated plant life are bright Red daubs of Poppies and spatters of wildflowers exploding like fireworks in Oranges and Yellows. Everywhere you look, along the sides of roads, against the dusky hillsides – is a painter’s wet dream.

I attribute this arrogant display of tints and hues to the truly unique light I have found here. Its balance of both temperature and clarity turns the sky into a specific shade of cerulean that causes the world beneath it to vibrate with a static charge that you can almost feel. Colors pop and hum with an intensity that leads one to believe that if you were to reach out and touch it, your hand would come away wet with paint. The scenery alone is staggeringly succulent but when you add in the neighboring architecture and loose, pastel linen attire of the locals reflecting a summer sunset and cut that against the deep sapphire hue of the Mediterranean, it’s no wonder why so many travelers become lost here.

Imagine being Van Gough, alone in a field fighting against time and the elements to capture not just the colors he saw but the way they felt. The way they moved in playful union with the wind, flickering and sparkling… every vista more gorgeous than the last… a deeply religious man experiencing rapture first hand for so long that he had no choice but surrender to it.

I’m an artist that prides himself on being a master of technique. True enough, my work is constantly mistaken for the less-than-romantic digital methods that I openly shun and actively avoid. To me, painting – brush in hand, the feel of raw pigment claiming a virgin board versus the disconnected, formulaic approach afforded me by contemporary design software, is like comparing the slick feel of unhinged passionate lovemaking to pathetically masturbating into an old gym sock. No thank you. But for all my skill at presenting the perfect beauty of imperfection, my desire to create the reddest Red or the bluest Blue – I worry that I may not be able to accurately capture the subtle impressionistic overload of this one-of-a-kind paradise… it’s a long overdue challenge that I willfully embrace: can I finally, utterly and completely submit to my senses?

Only time will tell.