Relocating the Sky

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In the mid 19th century artists like Monet and Manet took a new interest in Japanese pictures particularly the Ukiyoe woodblock prints. They offered new design, color and subject opportunities. Horizons could be elevated or completely removed from the composition. The esoteric qualities of rocks, trees, flowers and water could be explored with a new perspective.  Water especially was presented with  different vocabulary iconic signs.  Unlike the Mediterranean history of representing waves as a cursive “W” the Asian artists used spirals and “S” shapes.

Buddhist minimalist aesthetics as presented by artists like Kamasika Seka with his “pine Islands” (Example 1).  Note his flowing lyrical horizontal thread-lines weaving around are island forms.  Seka’s imagery followed an existing Japanese tradition.  In 1820 Sakai Hoitsu (example 2) presented oil on ink and silk demonstrating vertically what Seka would later recompose horizontally.

Example 1. Kamasika Seka, “Pine Islands” 1903,

Example 2. Sakai Hoitsu, river, oil on ink and silk, 1820,


These new ideas found their way into Monet’s water lily series (example 3). The horizon disappeared.  The imagery flowed horizontally in and out of the picture plane.

Example 3. Claude Monet Water lilies, 1920’s,

By 1917 Charles Burchfield had seen these Asian representations of watery movements and incorporated them into his own work (example 4).  The idea of Buddhist reduction and distillation of forms would transform American Modernism through artists like Arthur Dove and Milton Avery (example 5).  Like Monet, Avery found the shapes and palette of the sky reappearing in the water to be a tasty painter’s treat. The colors and forms of the sky were reconfigured and relocated to the surface of the water.

Example 4. Charles Burchfield, watercolor, 1917, Little Beaver River,

Example 5. Milton Avery, oil on canvas, 1858, Sunset Sky.

Later in the 20th century artists like Neil Anderson borrowed a Chinese idea with a more intimate and directly vertical view over a rectangle of water with autumn leaves mingling on the surface.  They emerge and submerge in the sparkling light hovering like fish in his watercolor, example 6.

Example 6. Neil Anderson, watercolor, 1983.

I too use a plump and more foreshortened “S” composition as referred to in Seka, Hoitsu and Burchfield’s compositions. Like Monet and Milton Avery I relocated the color tapestry of the sky onto the surface of the water.  My blurry quilted pattern of colored shapes (example 7)  is interrupted by more precise elements  floating on the surface. This device was used by Claude Monet with his lilies and lily pads.

Example 7. Sky patterns in a Farm Pond, oil on brushed silver enameled laminated aluminum, 48×48,

The light of the sky can appear as a colored atmosphere not only in the water but also, in the flora. Here in example 8 notice how the sunlight bathes and absorbs the edge information of the flora. The light has dissolved the edges of the landscape and the flora with dispersing and diffusing effects.

Example  8. Step one of “Lakeside Thistle in Sunlight”

Example 9. Step two of “Lakeside Thistle in Sunlight”,


11 Responses

  1. Michael McBride

    Excellent teaching. Thanks to you for your PBS teachings, I’ve been attempting to incorporate this theory, relocating the sky, in several of my latest paintings. I find it quite refreshing to break with the age old traditions of horizons placed at odd fractions on the canvas. (1/3, 1/5, 1/7 etc.). If there is a rule of composition, I like to push it to the brink without going over.

    Thank you for this lesson David.

  2. Janine Robertson

    I especially love Sky Patterns in a Farm Pond. Great example of diffused reflective light on the surface of the water. The sunlight is fractured on the water surface making it interesting and complex.
    Always a great lesson.
    Many thanks,

  3. Ken Requard

    Another interesting post. Do you prefer square formats? If so, is that because it avoids a design bias for the horizontal or vertical?

  4. Janet Visser

    Your information is wonderful, and of course your Art Work. I enjoy your teaching and perspectives. So often as a Artists we have that mental block of where to go next in our body of work. This has help me to move forward.

  5. Fredric Neuwirth

    Serpentine patternand reflections and refractions are wonderful. Lovely painting

  6. John Love

    Very thought provoking …and unusual and
    New concepts to me …will take a bit of thinking through …but great info and insight…very helpful.

  7. Scott sherrin

    David, just wanted to tell you again how much I loved being in your class this spring. To say I’ve learned so much would be an understement. Can’t wait for fall semester.



  9. Marty Bossler Lee

    It is fascinating to follow the thread of ideas from historical beginnings to your contemporary work. Fresh, unique interpretations of classical ideas! I can’t get enough of your teaching. I find this kind of dialogue to be very helpful and inspirational in my own work.

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