Change & artistic style, Part 4.

tonalist landscape
Top: Alexei Savrasov “View of the Kremlin from the Krimsky Bridge in Inclement Weather” – 1851; center: Alexei Savrasov “Rye” – 1881; bottom: William Langson Lathrop “The Bonfire” – 1921

My most recent landscape painting “Landscape Composition with Clouds No. 5” oil on panel, 24.75 x 36 inches unframed.

I have always found listening to music to be a very calming and satisfying experience. Music is always playing when I am painting. Tastes in music are extremely generational. Like most of us, my musical tastes emerged and were shaped by my teenage years and early twenties – mid 1960s through the 1970’s.

This was an extraordinarily rich, varied and prolific musical decade producing, in my opinion, nothing short of a musical renaissance, comparable in terms of the aggregate variety and quality of talent seen in the European Renaissance of the mid to late 16th Century. It seems that our entire culture was bewitched with a “zeitgeist” reflected in art, movies, literature, clothing, politics, and most of all, rock music. Coinciding roughly with the emergence of the English bands The Beatles and The Rolling Stones in the United States in the 1964 and culminating (some might say ending) with the Sex Pistols 1978, the world was bombarded with what would be considered some of the best & most enduring music ever heard or witnessed live. I cannot objectively prove any of this, you can only prove it to yourself by listening to the music from that era, and comparing it to the rock, or any music which followed and seeing if you think it was better or not.

The creation of music and art are connected, the former using the arrangement and rearrangement of notes on a scale to achieve sonic harmony and the latter using line, color, value and the arrangement of shapes on paper or canvas to achieve visual harmony. Over the part several years I’ve come to really appreciate the work of tonalist painters very much, only having dared to actually consider embracing and creating tonalist art in the past 14 months. Part of my desire to “change things up” included a drastic reduction in the amount of colors on my palette and some research into of the work of the tonalist painters seemed to be a good place to start.

Working within a carefully chosen and restricted palette of closely related colors, the Tonalists aspired to emulate musicality and inspire contemplation in their work. They believed that, unlike the Impressionists and Luminists, by arranging color and forms and rearranging elements of the observed world, that landscapes could evoke emotion through visual harmony and suggest deep, cosmic harmonies, bypassing narrative as a means of communicating spirituality.

I have always been interested in learning about the materials and techniques other artists use to produce their work. And not just the old master painters, who’s work I’ve studied in-depth for more than 50 years, but many 19th century landscape painters also. These include Americans Arthur Streeton, John Henry Twachtman, George Inness, and William Langson Lathrop to the Russian tonalists Ivan Shishkin and Alexei Savrasov, and landscape painter Isaac Levitan, to the English Barbizon School landscape painters to contemporary painters Russell Chatham and Wolf Kahn.

Many contemporary tonalist landscape artists provide well-produced and informative video demonstrations of their work via their Youtube channels. A couple of years ago I came across website of English painter Stuart Davies, a former graphic artist like myself, and began to follow his quirky video demonstrations. I was blown away by his delivery, uncaring attitude to convention and self-assured reliance on minimal technical competence. Most of all, I was impressed with his consummate sense of design and use of mood and mystery to convey dramatic imagined landscapes. The more I watched and learned the more I convinced myself “I can do that!” I was hooked. One day I just put a panel up on the easel and got down to it. Took less than 4 hours to complete a large work loosely based on my observations and memory of a nearby field, using a very limited palette of colors and large brushes. It wasn’t very good, of course, but it was a start and I actually enjoyed painting it, couldn’t wait to start another.

I continued to create these “invented” landscapes for many months, completely removing freshly painted work and repriming the panel, only to rinse and repeat, many times over. I was determined to figure it out. It felt great to engage my whole upper body in the painting process when before I was clenching small brushes for hours on end to create a detailed simulacrum of an edited photograph. Prior to the landscapes the only time I would use my fingers and a rag was to wipe away lighter appearing areas in a Raw Umber floral underpainting, which would always get painted over during overpainting sessions. Now, use of fingers, rags and paper towels have become part of how I was actually creating much of the composition, along with ridiculously oversized brushes. And, painting clouds is great fun – how can you go wrong painting a cloud? Trees, tree lines, hills, copses, fields and skies, everything all around me I observe every day – the design and composition possibilities are endless, limited to my own willingness to take chances.

Eventually I painted 16 or so “experimental’ works of which I kept just 10 before I finally got a handle on it. This is almost exactly how things played out many years ago when I first decided to take up watercolor painting. It took about 14 months or so before I finally had a “keeper” and it was all uphill after that. I’ve learned that, as with anything in life, the more you work at something, the better you get at it and the more confident you become in doing it. Trial and error is the only path to success. I can now pretty much complete a large landscape in one half-day session.

Part of the journey of change includes risks and setbacks. Abandoning the familiar paths is the most difficult part, not so much in learning new ways and methods, but being liberated from the old ones, which once seemed so obviously correct. In other words, the difficulty is not in learning something new, but in “unlearning” what I had been so used to over the years. Some of what I knew about oil painting I left behind in order to move forward and discover new methods of working – a delicate balance of what to leave behind and what to keep.

For the first time since my Café Watercolor series, I am confident of the choices I have made and very much enjoy creating these new works, the most recent being my best landscape paintings to date. They can only improve as I become more comfortable with my new color palette and technique, and explore new composition ideas. I suppose its conceiveable to complete one new work a day, but not right now, as I do not quite have the financial capital and energy to purchase, cut and prime that many panels. Nor do I have the room to maintain such a large inventory. My biggest challenge will be how to attract collectors and homes for the new works. Even in the best of times with gallery representation, sales were unpredictable. With no gallery representation, it’s nearly impossible, at least for me, to sell any work. Fortunately, my Photo Restoration work continues to keep me busy and provide a reliable source of income. I plan on making some new demonstration videos to post on my Youtube channel sometime this year (2024) as I do have a small dedicated following there.

I may even start posting again on social media of which I have mixed feelings about, particularly Facebook, and have avoided posting there for more than a year. As difficult as it is to secure gallery representation, successfully getting your work seen and sold online is equally challenging and has always been elusive at best, for me. It’s the only part of the puzzle I haven’t been able to figure out yet.

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