Before you take up your brush

Gustave Courbet, 'Calm Sea,' 1866, National Gallery of Art, Washington

Gustave Courbet, ‘Calm Sea,’ 1866, National Gallery of Art, Washington

I live in a town by the shore – a few minutes drive away from the Atlantic. As you might expect, this provides a constant source of inspiration for local artists. As a result, there are no end of pleasant seascape paintings to choose from. Notice I wrote “pleasant,” not “good.” Most are okay, a few are very nice, but the majority are somewhat lacking. Lacking what? One thing stands out:

Joseph Mallord William Turner, Waves Breaking on a Shore circa 1835, Tate Gallery, London

Joseph Mallord William Turner, Waves Breaking on a Shore circa 1835, Tate Gallery, London

My girlfriend and I were walking along the shore yesterday. The tide was high, and starting to go out. I watched the colors of the waves: blue, grey, green, and a hint of purple in the sand where a wave had just spread and was returning to the ocean. It was gorgeous. The sky and the water paled toward the sun, and grew hard and deep in hue away from it.

But what do you see in amateurish seascapes? Flat, single-hue expanses of color. The sea is ultramarine from horizon to shore, the sky cerulean. None of the richness of variation is to be found. I’m excluding intentionally “primitive” works – there are still Grandma Moses imitators around. Some artists make the cardinal error of not looking, or not looking deeply enough.

Paul Signac - The Papal Palace, Avignon, 1900, Musee d'Orsay, Paris

Paul Signac – The Papal Palace, Avignon, 1900, Musee d’Orsay, Paris

Is this a universal law? No. You can find plenty of seascapes by well-known, even famous artists who treat the sea or sky in a uniform manner. But I don’t recommend that approach to painters who want their works to come alive. It is possible to over-work a painting, but unless you’re Turner or Albert Pinkham Ryder I would recommend restraint. (Why do you think I chose such a quiet, understated Courbet to illustrate this post?)

Writing notes to yourself can help; plein air studies also. Don’t be afraid to amp up the color when it’s for your own use. You might even find your own work growing brighter for it. Have you ever seen Andrew Wyeth’s watercolor studies? They often have a looseness and boldness of color unseen in his tempera and oil work.

That walk along the beach was only the second observation that brought this post about. The first was seeing a small, local gallery show of photographs and paintings. The photos captured scenes along the shore and on nearby islands with care and attention to detail. The paintings lost all nuance in fields of solid color. One set of works was vigorously alive, the other lifeless. Going to the beach on Saturday only reminded me further of this lesson.

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