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Thwarted by the Landscape

cannot paint trees or oceans

A little less than a year ago, I went to Greece to visit one of my dearest friends. We spent a few days on the island of Hydra, keeping to a rigorous schedule of essentially being as lazy as possible while occasionally climbing a mountain.

I took a lot of pictures. Like any good Pittsburgher, I'm used to living in a place that looks like Jurassic Park after the people abandoned the infrastructure. Rust, chainlink, gray concrete, in summer all overgrown by an aggressive, humid tangle of green. I'm used to it. I like it my skies leaden and oppressive. I expect roads to be buckled by bad winters and every surface to be lightly filmed with post-industrial grime.

So the blinding white walls and freshly painted blue doors of Hydra basically broke my mind. The steep stone roads, worn silvery smooth over countless years of foot traffic, the Aegean sea glowing like stained glass, shifting from cobalt to turquoise in the clear light, the cliffs a soft red ochre, the foliage that ranged from dusty sage to shocking chartreuse--! And of course, the half-tame cats that draped their bodies on seawalls and on the red roofs in groups of six or ten. I took a lot of pictures.

Not only did I want to have the pictures to remember my trip in the cold depths of the Pittsburgh winter to come, but I also had this thought that I would return to them as reference photos for a series of landscape paintings.

And that's where I've been really, really stuck. I've done about 5 or 6 small canvasses and I can't seem to get the color right, get the light right, get the quality of thinness in the air right. As carefully as I've worked to match the values and mix the colors, my paintings look flat and stark and...awkward.

One of the problems may be that I don't tend to do straight landscape painting. I wanted to try this time to paint with the colors I saw in the world, not the ones I saw in my mind. I wanted someone to look at my work and say, “I know what that is. That's a broken stone wall flanked by olive trees on a mountain.' So I tried to follow the process of simplifying my compositions from my reference photos, working my values sketch, underpainting . . . all the steps. And I ended up with stilted, schoolkid canvasses. With thin, patchy, paint and feeble brushwork. My efforts are to the subject matter what glitter glue is to a diamond.

As you can tell, I am really frustrated. Part of me wants to scrap the idea of ever working a recognizable, placeable landscape again, and another part of me believes that this is simply outside of my comfort zone and I need to keep pushing, keep troubleshooting, until I find the right way in to the subject. Until I find the 'thing' that makes it what it is for me.

I think, though, that the colors are the first thing, and the textures perhaps the second. So, the best thought I have right now is to let the forms go and focus on the colors. Instead of painting trees, rocks, and water, just work with the palette in abstract compositions until I can find a way to echo the relationships I saw between the colors in Hydra, and describe the textures. Maybe later I'll be able to apply those colors and textures to representational structures, or maybe I'll find it unnecessary. In any case, if I make any progress, I'll post it here.

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