Building Mystery Through Glazes

posted in: Blog, Classes, Painting | 15

You and I create the picture of our world more from within than from without, that is we are less reliant on our eyes or more precisely, the photons that touch our neural tissues than on our cortex. Our cortex tells us where to look from varieties of cues most of which are connected to memory; others are auditory or tactile or olfactory or sudden dramatic changes in any instant. This process helps us create persuasive illusions out of pigment arranged on a canvas.

The messy electro-chemical data that is sent to our cortex  requires organization.  The more uncertain the data to the cortex then the more latitude the cortex has to hypothesize what is present.  Lots of uncertainty (lots of ambiguity) means we can make lots of different hypotheses.  Uncertainty allows us to fill in what we think is happening and allows us to change what we think is happening  over time whether in a poem or a painting.

How do we differentiate uncertainty from certainty? The answer usually begins with edges. Hard edges or strong outlines are where we gather experience which we convert into nouns or icons. If edges are more degraded or blurred our cortex starts making more guesses about the information. If they are very blurry we start thinking of them as moving or located in foggy space.  With the increase in blurred experience we simultaneously increase our feeling of uncertainty which is a direct route to mystery. Mystery alludes to that which cannot be directly known.

Many artists across time and cultures exploit our appetite for mystery, for guessing into visually uncertain territories. As we age as artists we can get more confident with this ability to generate mystery as a trigger to engage our imagination. Younger Titian, Rembrandt, Turner and Inness all were more edge conscious painters. As they aged they were drawn to experiment with less edge legibility and more uncertainty.

Here are some examples, Rembrandt’s famous Mill painting (example 1) in which he provides strong edge information along the horizon and riverbanks but gives more uncertainty to the imagery within those areas.  For example, the sky is without hard edges and therefore generates a feeling of more movement and space.  The hillside has pronounced edges but the walls and surfaces are more uncertain, we guess what their fuzzy textures and patterns must be.

Example 1. Rembrandt van Rijn, 1845, the Mill.

In example two I have two George Inness paintings. The first (example 2) is from is from 1859, a younger George Inness. The edges of the components of the landscape and sky are clearer. The second Inness (example 3) is from 1893, 34 years later. Now his painting is dissolving into atmosphere. There is little linear information except for tree trunks and an angled roof edge. We guess the painting into existence.

Example 2. George Inness, Hackensack Meadows, 1859.

Example 3. George Inness, a another meadows painting but, from 1893.

In observing my own process of making pictures I observed I begin with lots of mystery, uncertain edges and big areas.  Next, I try to clarify, reduce uncertainty. Finally, I return to generating uncertainty. The path appears circuitous but gives me confidence to experiment with an image over time. For example, here is process I followed in creating “Terminal Light” presented step by step in the examples 4, 5, and 6. I even enjoyed the ambiguity is the title “Terminal Light”. Is it the last light or is it light within a terminal?

Example 4.  Step one of Terminal light, this painting had begun more abstractly but here is an early stage of figurative development.

Example 5.  Step two of Terminal light. Figures are presented with increasing autonomy and clarity.

Example 6.  Step three and current state of Terminal Light after applying obfuscating deep blue translucent glazes, an oil on white enameled aluminum. composite, 36×36 inches.

I want to give you one more example of my process of diving first into uncertainty then, creating more legibility and finally regenerating more uncertainty, or mystery. The following three examples Opal Creek Falls seen step by step will illustrate my process.

Example 6. Step one, a blurred or mysterious beginning of Opal Creek Falls, oil on white enameled aluminum composite, a.k.a. Dibond.

Example 7. Step two, a clarifying intermediate stage of Opal Creek Falls.

Example 8. Step three, the current state of Opal Creek Falls after applying mystifying  semi-opaque glazes.

To engage and expand the menu of the mind’s eye of the viewer (which includes me) I often migrate to mystification through obfuscating glazes.

I hope you will be able to join me in my on line workshops at I also hope you can join me for some of my upcoming in person workshops (now that I am vaccinated) in June at the Lyme Artists Association and in August at the Artists Association of Nantucket. Details will become available at


15 Responses

  1. John Cothran

    Thanks for planting the idea of using clarity to help focus attention. I must experiment. Thanks again.

  2. Ken Wright

    Before and after glazes are all remarkable gifts from the artist. Thank you .

  3. Carol Mueller

    I appreciate your wonderful explanation and seeing your examples of the process. Your genius is evident in each state of your process! Thanks for sharing!

  4. Sylvia Keller

    David, I am always amazed reading your precise technical explanation on how the process works. Looking forward to tomorrow’s lecture. Sylvia

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