Friday, January 10, 2014

Horizons: Inspiration/Aspiration

Iron Ore Landscape, 1981, (c) estate of Fred Williams
The Australian master landscape painter Fred Williams - one of my all-time favorite artists - worked primarily in oils, and most often in a style far more abstract than how I usually paint. But there is something about how he experiences and records a setting that somehow captures more of it than a typical landscape painting. For me, he seems able to record the experience of actually being there, not just what a place looks like. No doubt some of the attraction comes from the flora and geology that he depicts. I lived in Australia as a child, and that landscape, in all its variety and in all its forms forever holds a spot dear to my heart.

Over the last few years as I've gotten back into painting, and especially in the winter when my on-site opportunities are diminished a bit by light and weather (and laziness), I have studied his work closely and used the magic of the internet to explore the places he depicted.

Mount Nameless, afternoon, 1979 (c) estate of Fred Williams
Last winter I spent a good long while wandering the remote roads of the Pilbara region of northwest Australia in my mind's eye through Google Maps. It's entirely possible to find your way to Mt. Nameless from his painting of it by using Google Maps to look for 209 Nameless Valley Drive near Tom Price, Western Australia. The experience of "standing" in the road and "looking around" this tremendous landscape thanks to Google's little yellow Peg Man and Street View is highly illuminating, and makes me want to go explore this red land.

Over a two decade period of field paintings, Williams often worked in gouache - a fast-drying medium that behaves like something between watercolor and acrylic. It's very practical when you are working rapidly outdoors. And gouache can provide a thick and opaque application too, as he liked to use in oils, and that is quite unlike the watercolors that I use. Nearly all the gouaches he did - at least the ones that have seen the light of day- are tremendous paintings in their own right, but he also used them as notes and sketches for his studio work.

Charles Alexandre Lesueur's engraving of the coast of Tasmania 1804

In order to capture the experience of being in the places he visited, Williams adapted a kind of multi-faceted Cubist sensibility that also had roots in colonial-era naturalist paintings. Starting with large, thick paper he would divide his paper into three or four horizontal panoramic panels by running tape across the paper to create discrete segments. Then he would sit down to paint four scenes of the same place, experimenting with color, with composition, with focus and differing emphasis between ground and sky, foreground and horizon. Though these look like separate paintings done in series - and I thought they were before I studied them closely - they were painted as sets on one piece of paper, often over the course of just an hour or two.

Hardy River, Pilbara series, 1979 (c) estate of Fred Williams

Welpa IV, 1977 (c) estate of Fred Williams

Beachscape with Bathers, Queenscliff IV, 1971(c) estate of Fred Williams

Lightning Storm, Waratah Bay, 1971-72 (c) estate of Fred Williams
Murray Pass, Erith Island, 1974 (c) estate of Fred Williams

This approach appeals to me very much since whenever I'm in an extraordinary place my eyes and mind dart all over, absorbing as much as I can as rapidly as I can. For me, looking at and seeing an exciting place fully has a kind of three-dimensional aspect. Since I'm often rushed I try to memorize it all, but I also take many photos if I can. I make mental notes of the colors, shapes, textures and vistas all around. Sometimes that's as far as it goes on that day.The next step if I'm on a painting expedition is to contemplate, focus, concentrate, edit and start making choices about how to proceed in paint. Williams's paintings capture something of that experience of place, but he always retains a formal hold over color and composition, using the transformational powers of an artist painting at the height of his powers to full effect. He shows you things up close and far away all at once, arranging them in a manner that pleases him and you both, and never loses his grip on the effect of the whole.

So... I've embarked on a few experiments using this general scheme. After the holidays I'm a little rusty, and in working from photographs I'm always a little more "fiddly", and perhaps a little more bogged down in detail than usual. I'm often less bold and loose too. It's all a trade-off, a series of compromises - that's the truest definition of painting.

For the first painting I've done like this, Joshua Triptych 1 (12" x 16") I used some reference photos I took in Joshua Tree National Park last spring to try and capture some essence of my experience of that place. It's a highly varied, almost other-worldly and overwhelming landscape for someone who is essentially an easterner these days.

Joshua Triptych 1, 2014 (c) Clayton Harper

The second attempt is a smaller sketch that explores three views of the southern end of Plum Island and the view across to Crane Beach, also from photos I had on hand.

Crane From Plum, 2014 (c) Clayton Harper

Just two examples so far, but I'm fairly pleased with the results - though I can see that they'd benefit from closer attention to the composition of the whole and perhaps a broader palette of color. It's enough to convince me that the approach may be very promising for me. I have a larger sheet of paper all stretched for the next one, and may go all the way to a Full Sheet again soon.