Whispering Columns of Light

posted in: Blog, Classes, Painting | 6

The ancient Roman architect, Vitruvius explained there were four orders of architecture, four types of columns in his opus De Architectura. His ideas still circulate in architecture today. But, his notion of capitals on columns is a reductionist idea. If we consider the trunk of a tree and its floral cap we arrive at a column with a Corinthian capital.

We render trees by following visual percepts created from the same reductive principle; that is, we make trees from simple verticals with a rounded caps.  With conifers we just replace the rounded cap with a triangle.  With palms we invert and splay the triangle. When painting landscapes our vision is occluded by this unavoidable reductionist percept. We really can’t see the trees because of our visual schematic of them as a column with a cap, a stick with a circle on top. This is the mental filter through which we identify, construct and imagine trees while applying varying degrees of modification. Through slow scrupulous observation we construct more varied modifications from our template.

But, we can make and see trees from a different point of view, from the point of view of describing the space between the trees. Think how our vision will expand if we build a colonnade by painting the spaces between the columns.  We will discover a process which gives much more accurate rendering. One which gives more freedom to invent. Furthermore, we also discover we can see columns and trees as easily by painting the space around them as by painting them directly. We can’t help it. We manufacture nature from our distilled constructs.

If you give this “paint-the-space-not-the- thing” principle a try you will find yourself making more persuasive forests, parks and allees. Better illusions  will result from  this visual inversion.

Let’s consider a couple of examples this process. First, here are two paintings of a forest by Gustav Klimt from 1903. We find the space between the tree trunks as decoratively textured and colored as the vertical shapes we identify as trees (examples 1 and 2).

Example 1. Beech Forest by Gustav Klimt 1903.

Example 2. Beech Forest II by Gustav Klimt, 1903.

When describing the process of painting Monet observed that all one had to do was paint shapes and colors and then, remarkably a farm, a garden, or forest shows up.  He painted the sensation of the arrangement of spaces not the things. When looking at his painting of poplar trees along the river Epte we discover that the colors of the trunks mutate to be in complementary contrast with whatever is the adjacent background color.  As the background changes color the tree column takes on the opposite color.  Monet paints the colors and textures of varying vertical spaces. See examples 3 and 4.

Example 3. Claude Monet’s poplars along the river Epte.

Example 4. A detail from the same painting.

In my painting, “Above and Beyond” I began with a colorful pattern which had been a previous landscape (example 5).  Notice the orientation of the brushstrokes is mostly horizontal.  Next, I painted over this work but, made vertical deletions with a brush and squeegee revealing horizontal strips of color contained in vertical columns (example 6).

Example 5. Step one, the underpainting for “Above and Beyond”,

Example 6. Step two, the current state of “Above and Beyond” oil on 3mm Dibond, and 24×36. Notice the variegated patterns within the tree trunks.

I again invite you to join me for demonstrations and critiques in my February on line classes. You can register at daviddunlop.com

6 Responses

  1. Carol Harris

    Fascinating article. Can’t wait to experiment with this. I am forever grateful to you for share your knowledge so freely.

  2. Gregory Matthews

    As always, such insightful messages. Thanks so much for your generous sharing.

    I particularly grasped “ If you give this “paint-the-space-not-the- thing” principle a try you will find yourself making more persuasive forests, parks and allees. “

  3. John Cothran

    Thank you for the history and insight of your paintings. I can only enjoy but you have inspired me to experiment.

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