Artists, poets and musicians chased the feeling of the sublime from the 18th century deep into the 19th century. Edmund Burke spelled it out. It was the evocation of the awesome wonder of nature. From Goethe to Turner artists and authors tried to rev up the sense of awe in the face of dynamic and threatening nature. Turner’s experiments in paint pushed him toward more gesture, more ambiguity, and greater contrasts of color, texture and scale. He wandered from England to Italy looking for subjects that could inspire his experiments. The Northern Coast of France, Rome, The Alps and Venice were all mined for their scenic drama. In Venice Turner discovered the city , water and sky were a stage set capable of electrifying light shows. He played down the narrative and descriptive aspects of Venice and instead, played with the expressive nature of his materials as in his watercolor sketches and then later in his oils. His designs became increasingly about high contrasts in value, high contrasts in complementary color, and simple dramatic designs with an emphasis on movement. His influence spread quickly to artists like Thomas Moran as you can see in examples 1 and 2. The difference between them can be seen in way Moran’s shapes and strokes are more studied, more contrived, and tidier. Here Turner used a favorite contrast of red/yellow versus dark blue, of light versus dark. Thomas Moran imitated the palette. Turner allows the movement of the paint to make suggestions. His work feels freer. As a result it is more dynamic. In experimenting with watercolor in Venice (and elsewhere) we see Turner’s increasing reliance upon unfolding events in the paint to help build his final image. He uses evermore contrast and evermore design simplicity. Take a look at his watercolors of the Venice’s Grand Canal in examples 3 and 4 or, look at this oil late oil painting of Venice (Approach To Venice,1844, example 5) which evokes a mood through contrasts of yellow and violet and a reliance on the indistinctness of subjects in the shadows and light.
In examples 3 and 4 Turner reversed the contrast positions of light and dark. Each painting uses a simple horizontal wedge design. In example 3 he has a wall in light framing the left side and in example 4 he has a dark wall framing that side. Example 3 is the same essential design he used in the “Slaveship” painting. Like Moran , when borrowing a Turner design I simply reverse it as you see in my example 6. Turner thought in contrasts of light and dark as much as he thought in contrasting colors. He built his working color circle which he called a weighted color circle because, the light color yellow was placed on top and the dark on the bottom. This color circle contains three color triangles ( the top yellow triangle is quite faint) as another guide for color/value contrast. Delacroix and Goethe both recommended the use of the color triangle versus the color circle (see example 7).
By the end of his Career Turner further simplified design, further amplified contrasts and further explored the effects of paint and gesture with their abilities to suggest subjective content. I thought I might push my experiments with the effects of the traces of gesture and wet paint and allow them to offer ambiguous content possibilities. In examples 8, 9, 10 and 11 I follow Turner’s lead of letting the paint guide the imagination. I let experiments in the paint reveal the picture’s content rather than superimpose a purely descriptive agenda. I also borrow his “Flying Horizontal Wedge” design, his use of exaggerated color and value contrasts, his broad vocabulary of strokes ( the loose footprints of a variety of strokes), his regard for design with sense of motion, his predilection for deep illusory space, and his affection for exaggerated theatrical effects inspired by the sublime experience of nature. As with his late Venetian painting I paint sea and sky but, I introduce a landscape which performs the role of Turner’s turbulent sea.