It’s Not what, It’s How. The Sea

posted in: Painting | 7

Do you want to see the wheel spin? Then blur it. Do you want to see deep space and the motion of the waves then blur the edges . Blur the horizon, blur the waves.  The sea and sky are two of the most malleable subjects  for painters and therefore, two subjects which lend themselves to expressing motion and space.  Heinrich Wolfflin observed  that painters of the Renaissance wanted a truer experience of  life in their paintings.  For them, that meant evoking more space and motion, two  principle pursuits of painters since ancient Greece.  Artists slowly came to the conclusion after mastering  linear perspective techniques of  illusion that more illusion could be generated by diminishing the sharpness of edges. Sharp edges  made the painting’s forms static and flat. By the time we reach Cezanne who ponders how we see biologically and how we compose historically, we are at a paradigm turning point.  Cezanne observes it’s not what we are painting that counts . It’s how we paint. How we discover ideas, metaphors,  light and form with paint. It didn’t matter if he painted Mt. St.Victoire or an apple.  How he painted, how he saw was what mattered not, the subject except that it made it an a good reference because of its association with art history.  And so it is with the subject of  the sea. Turner ‘s seascapes  become more and more seemingly chaotic, less legible and  with less outlined subjects  and, with more emphasis on motion and light (example 1).  Matisse said of  Turner that he liberated artists from having to imitate nature.  We were finally free to observe nature then, directly  transmute our feelings  of that experience into paint.  No more imitation, no more transcriptions.  Courbet, another emotive and expressive painter of the mid 19th century  takes the idea of a wave and invests it with operatic scale, motion and passion.  He is not pursuing  academic representation; he is not pursuing legibility. Here are a couple of versions of his efforts (example 2 , first version.) Like Turner, He pursues the power of suggestion.  Consider how he borrows the iconic idea of a wave form. The pictograph for wave has been our visual reference since ancient Egypt.  Courbet takes that idea, the cursive “W” and simplifies it into a single inverted “V”. (example 3). Observe how Courbet finds smaller rhyming shapes (see diagram in example 4) and  how he unites the entire painting inside a vaguely define wedge  shape ( see diagram). He tries the form repeatedly.  He quests for more drama, more power.

example 1. Turner. feb13,25,turner, jmw, 1840-45,offf the nore

example 2. Courbet.feb13,25,courbet,curl_edited-2

example 3. another  version by Courbet.feb13,25,courbet, curl2_edited-1

example 4. Courbet with diagram.feb13,25,courbet, curl2,diagram_edited-2

Winslow Homer  also invests  his paintings with sense of dramatic motion  through a simple unified design.  In example 5, he uses also uses the arrow or wedge shape which is prevented from carrying the viewer’s attention out of the picture by the use of a countering  shape. Example 6 provides a diagram. Homer  also uses the zigzag form as a organizing principle and, repeats it again in the distance (example  7). In a quick class demonstration  with  oil on paper I use the “wedge ” design too( example 8).  My countering shapes are placed above the wedge design. They are evident in my diagram ( example 9).

example 5. Homer.feb13,25,homer,shorewaves_edited-1

example 6. Homer diagrammed.feb13,25,homer,shorewaves, diagram,edited-2

example 7. Homer’s Zigzag design.feb13,25, homer, drift wood_edited-1

example 8. My  use of the “Wedge”feb13,25, watch hilll  in blue and green w o diagram_edited-1

example 9. diagrammed.feb13,25, watch hilll  in blue and green

My next examples illustrate that what we paint is of little consequence. It’s how we paint.  I begin with a photo of  an inlet, “Shore Acres” near Coos Bay, Oregon.  A dramatic location which stirs my imagination.  My photo (example 10) takes me back in my memory to the experience.  I  then redesign the photo because, I owe it nothing. The information does not count. The psychological effect counts. Therefore, I build a new image out of this experience. I begin with a design ( example 11). The design uses and advancing  “v” form, a high horizon, a tilted  curling middle shape and , and a flattened and wriggling foreground .  Within this example I have an illustration of a wave icon. I then begin to explore the paint,  to discover shapes and forms  packed with sloshing motions and layered in space( example 12).   I want you to experience  more of the texture and  shifting planes  so, I offer you a detail from this painting in example 13.

example 10. the photo.feb13,25,coos bay,shore acres inlet_edited-2

example 11.  schematic redesign with wave icon.feb13,25, icon and plan for coos bay waves

example 12. The painting.feb13,25, coos bay waves, by david dunlop, oil 22x22 on linen

example 13. detail from the painting.feb13,25, detail in coos bay waves


7 Responses

  1. Connie Simmons

    Hi, David! Absolutely beautiful! Did you mention that we just filmed the creation of this painting in your studio for our soon to be released Painting the Sea DVD? It was sensational to watch! Thank you!

  2. William Child

    Excellent class in many ways! Love your quotes and insights personal and historic. Cezanne said it so right referring to Turner’s freeing the painter from the scene. It’s how we paint it! The sea and it’s interactions with the shore, rocks or sand, has such a deep connection to anyone who has ever spent man hours in that sometimes powerful and other times soothing gentle presence. I many times work from a photograph, usually one or a bunch I personally was there taking experiencing the scene and smells and wind and textures. Your painting truly shows you were there to connect to the nuances of motion and color and all that the sea shore enriches our senses with. I can feel the movements of the sea and hear its song just looking at your painterly natural image.

  3. hida berkelhamer

    Wonderful classes….there is no end to what one can learn from your demonstrations!!


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