Water View

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Turning the pages of art history back to the 1860’s brings us to the time of  professional travel painting.  Artists traveled to unfamiliar locations and captured a sense of place for a curious public. Often the paintings were commissioned by publishers for development as prints in guide and travel books.  J.M.W. Turner provided pictures for these publishers. Edward Lear, the poet famous for “The Owl and The Pussycat” also made a living through travel art commissions (example 1, ink and watercolor).

Turner and Lear found water subjects appealing to their audience describing harbors, lakes, islands, and waterfalls. Rendering a dramatic sensation of luminous, reflecting water was essential. Example 1 of Edward Lear’s image of a cove on the Island of Corfu suggests shimmering, translucent, reflective water in watercolor.  Thin watercolor washes suffice to suggest bright shimmering water.  Lear had previously experienced Turner’s distilled evocations of luminous waterscapes.

Example 1. Edward Lear Watercolor of Corfu, 1860s,

Soon James Abbott McNeil Whistler would spend his energies evoking watery subjects in the night, twilight, and fog.  His subtle,  low-toned surfaces would influence  later tonalists from photographers to painters.

In 1896 the patron of American modern art, Alfred Stieglitz turned his attention and camera to wet reflective surfaces (example 2). His romantic wet New York streets glistened with abstract patterns and proved influential to painters as well as photographers.

In 1908 Birge Harrison would blend these influences of Whistler and Stieglitz in his works of NYC and  with Charleston Harbor in a twilight fog (example 3).

Example 2. Stieglitz 1896 photograph of wet New York Nighttime Streets.

Example 3. Birge Harrison, 1908, Charleston Harbor.

Mid-twentieth century San Francisco area artists like Wayne Thiebaud and Richard Diebenkorn found themselves conveniently close to the water. Diebenkorn abstracted his ocean views in his Ocean Park Series.  Example 4 demonstrates Diebenkorn’s process of abstraction by working out geometric plans on paper prior to his large oil-on-canvas works. In this study  the squared blue shape suggests an architectural plan of a pool.

Example 4. Richard Diebenkorn,  study, a work on paper,

His contemporary, Wayne Thiebaud, toyed with combining varieties of perspectives within his landscapes, an idea introduced in early cubism. Thiebaud’s curving forms usually indicate a bodies of water, shorelines, or lakes as you see here in example 5. The bright,  blending, complementary colors suggest a smooth reflective lake’s surface.

Example 5. Wayne Thiebaud recent landscape,

Approaching the 21st century gives us artists like Gerhard Richter who deliberately disturbs the water by disturbing the paint surface as though we are look at the landscape through a sheet of glass covered with expressive gestures (example 7).  Examples 6 and 7 present both the undisturbed view and the disturbed view.

Example 6. Gerhard Richter Venice 1,

Example 7. Gerhard Richter Venice 2,

Wading into the 21st century contemporary artist Tomory Dodge returns to an older landscape subject, one familiar to earlier Hudson River painters, Icebergs.  Here floating bars of white appear suspended above the Iceberg’s reflection.  The themes, colors, expressionist distillation of form and exaggerated gestures carry art into the present.

Example 8. Tomory Dodge 2005 Iceberg.

Turning to my own recent distillations of water subjects, I come to examples 9 and 10.  Example 9 presents an earlier step in the process. There is a tangle of marsh grass which complicates the effect of a broad, flat, receding, reflective band of color. Example 10 presents my remedy.

Example 9, Step one, Salt Marsh, 48×48, oil on brushed silver, laminated aluminum,

Example 10. Step two of the Salt Marsh.

Reduction and distillation can be approached through other means.  Example 11 presents an image in an early stage.  It is seen first  in an equiluminous condition.  I reached for more emotional depth, a deeper feeling of space and a simpler evocation of luminosity. The light exhausts itself as it approaches darkness in step 2. In both of my sets of examples I simultaneously develop more translucent effects in the water.

Example 11. Step one, the Equiluminant state,

Example 12. Step two, with more and simpler contrasts,




8 Responses

  1. Cyndi

    Very beautiful. I love how you tie the styles of different eras together.

  2. Rick McGill

    David, enjoyed your series. Have watched the first series 6 times.
    Have shown it to 20 students in my art club.
    Was well received.
    I teach classes on plein air and oil.
    These videos have helped me immensely.
    Thankyou very much, I’ve learned more than I did in college.

  3. Jennifer Alexander

    Thank you David for sharing your talents and insights from historical as well as contemporary examples, very inspirational!

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