On the Shores of Cape Cod

Judith Reeve, “Dune Cliff, Truro”, 8 x 12, Oil, 2020

Every summer I try to get away for an extended period of time in order to paint. It is a retreat for me and a time to recharge my batteries. I was concerned that this year I would not be able to travel because of the pandemic. Fortunately, I found an isolated cottage on the Cape- a converted fishing shanty on the Pamet tidal river. I could paint right from the attached pier if I chose or take a short drive to some of the more remote beaches where I love to paint.

The older I get the more I am in search of the untouched space. Nature is a renewing force and even when man damages an environment, nature returns vigorously to restore itself. My worries about the environment also make me appreciate the fragility of this world. I wonder, if I return next year, will something already be different or missing.

Judith Reeve, “Dunes, Evening”, 8 x 12, Oil, 2020

This year, I had the experience of returning to a beach and seeing a dramatic change for the better. This beach, Head of the Meadow, was in poor shape several years ago. In front of the beach a sandbar had developed that cut you off from the sea. The dunes were worn from pedestrians. This year, the bar was gone and the beach was filled with a new growth of dune grass- very much like a meadow, hence its name. I had never seen it this way, its true state. Within and along this meadow grass were nesting terns and plovers. It was again, wild and peaceful.

I long for wildness, a nature which I cannot put my foot through, woods where the wood thrush forever sings…where I might have a fertile unknown for a soil around me.

Judith Reeve, “Dune Cliffs, Truro”, 6 x 16, Oil, 2020

It is the wildness that renews us, invigorates us and sets us on the path to recognizing ourselves again. As Dante expressed, at the beginning of the Inferno, that he came to himself only after he entered a dark wood, having lost his way. This wildness authenticates our experience and plants us in the here and now, ready and open to this new moment. Artists have always sought a retreat. We all develop a certain blindness, a dulling of our vision, by remaining constantly in the same environment. Travel provides a way to awaken the senses allowing one to see things a new. It sharpens my attentiveness giving me the very reason I need to paint. In this way, my painting finds validation in the experience of this heightened sensitivity in seeing. I feel as though I have received a new clarity in my vision and my eyes are open once again.

As twilight deepens and the moonlight is more and more bright, I begin to distinguish myself, who I am and where; as my walls contract I become more collected and composed and sensible of my own existence…

Judith Reeve, “Dune Prominence”, 6 x 16, Oil, 2020

Time to read and contemplate renews my craft and allows me to recollect my thoughts about my work. I revisited John Carlson’s, Guide to Landscape Painting, and Edgar Payne’s, Composition of Outdoor Painting. Although, I have read these books many times, it was good to examine them once again. In many ways, it is the little comments or asides that both these artists express, that give one a renewed insight into one’s own work. Here Payne expresses his ideas on the Mass Principle:

The mass idea is conducive to holding the attention on the picture as a whole. It creates an abstract interval between the realistic detail of nature and the broad impression on the canvas. The interval represents the artist’s ability to see nature in a big way, to conceive large mass ideas, and paint broadly with large brushes. A broad impression with little detail is an abstract of nature.

Payne, Composition, p. 63

This helped reinforce my own desire to get a more monumental quality in my landscape painting. I found this easy to achieve painting along the Maine coast, but much more difficult in the Catskill mountains and on the Cape. The topography of the Cape is subtle. The dunes are extremely high and monumental where I paint, but it is a challenge to give a proper feeling of scale. In my compositions, I placed the dunes near the upper edge of my panels (8″ x 12″ or 6″ x 16″) to assist with this feeling. I also, when possible, created a tension with the direction of the clouds. Cast shadows also helped shape these large sand forms and indicate the direction of the light adding to this quality of immensity.

Judith Reeve, “Dune, Daybreak”, 6 x 16, Oil, 2020

The charm of broadly painted pictures lies in the fact that the viewer must use his imagination; he then feels the abstract impression as intended by the artist.

Payne, p. 64

This idea is so important. Both Delacroix and Henri advocated this approach and this concept was central to 19th century painting. But it is something we have forgotten. With so many landscapes produced from photographs, detail overrides the broad impression that is key to evoking a heightened feeling of emotion that a painting should have. The more broad the impression, the more compelling the image. Detail should be suppressed to a certain degree so that the viewer “feels” the sweep of the land and sky and is moved by it.

Judith Reeve, Painting the evening sea in Truro.

From Carlson, I meditated on creating the unity of the light emanating on that particular day. This is key to establishing an over-all harmony between the parts in an image as well as, achieving spatial dimension in a painting.

Once the big color relations have been established, I try to bind these together in the ‘unity of the light’ which pervades them. This requires a good deal of going back and forth, slightly changing the tones that are out of harmony. I do not repaint such tones but I jab other colors into them until I have swayed them into harmony. This procedure ensures color vibration within the masses and engenders luminosity.

Carlson, American Artist Magazine, Dec. 1942 [special thanks to John Potashnick for posting this online].
Judith Reeve, Mixing the lighteners on the right of palette and adding them to the dune color and values on the left.

Every time I set up to paint on this trip, I first established the color of the light enveloping the scene. I then, mixed this color on my palette in two values: a very light value (with much white added) to lighten my higher tones; and a middle value to lighten my darks (this color also indicates the color of the reflected light from the sky onto the ground forms). I found this particularly invaluable when painting such a large and open space as the dunes and sea where the atmosphere dominates. My images were painted in July on some very hot days, so my lighteners ranged from blue to blue-violet to violet depending on the time of day and the cloud cover. I found these experiments very satisfactory. I hope you enjoy my images.

Judith Reeve, Painting the dune cliffs in Truro.

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Successes and Failures

Eugene Delacroix, Journal page, Musee National Eugene-Delacroix

One gets the impression from reading artist’s bio’s online that they are immensely successful, amazingly talented and constantly at the height of their careers. There seems to be not much humble pie available. Robert Henri believed that the only vital life is the one authentically lived.

All outward success, when it has value, is but the inevitable result of an inward success of full living, full play and enjoyment of one’s faculties.

Robert Henri, Art Spirit, p.93

Authenticity requires an acknowledgement of one’s failures, character flaws and personal disappointments with one’s self and one’s work. The hardest thing to do is to accept our limitations. They may be physical or mental, maybe a lack of talent or skill. Or one may lack an acute rational capacity or emotional empathy (although this last one seems a necessary attribute for any artist). These types of limitations cannot be easily overcome or necessarily, need to be. Baudelaire believed that the artist needn’t worry about being “original”. A man could not help but be original by the fact that there is no one like himself in existence- he is unequivocally unique. This includes all of one’s flaws!

Delacroix embraces sincere engagement with the world. It is a matter of conscience that the artist create authentically:

To sum up: be strong, simple and true; here is an aim for every moment of the day, and it is always useful… You only respect yourself when you are open and sincere.

Delacroix, Journal, p. 47

There is always the pressure to present yourself in the best light as we are all apt to do. But there is something indescribably moving to hear someone express their weaknesses. We are all deeply connected in a universal way to weakness. It is woven into the fabric of our being. We all have them and the acknowledgement of them allows others not only to recognize the other person’s flaws but to feel their own humanity by recognizing their share of such weaknesses.

Delacroix takes this sign of weakness present within ourselves and gives it a place in the artist’s work. The image mirrors the artist intimately. He referred to this ‘unfinished’, ‘unpolished’ weakness in the work of art as calculated lapses. In the creation of a work of art, one has to let some things go and it is in the letting go of these certain passages that the true value of what remains can be fully realized, and not only realized but amplified. This amplification is greater because what is significant in the work is compelled to rise up out of an unfinished framework. Baudelaire called this the lacuna or gap. By leaving unfinished or incomplete passages juxtaposed against a beautiful refinement, it allows the imagination full play- partaking of the beautiful passages while simultaneously completing the unfinished passages within one’s imagination- thereby increasing the emotional elan and spiritual fulfillment the work of art can give.

If one reads the journals of artists, especially the great ones, they are full of humble pie. Most express a constant battle with themselves and their inherent weaknesses. Their laziness, lack of talent, and lack of moral strength or rational faculties is evident everywhere. There is no doubt, that the artistic life when lived with honesty, is a complete struggle. Feeding the voracious appetite of one’s creativity and imagination joined with the constant struggle to materialize an image as well as the economics of paying for it and paying for the food on one’s table. Delacroix for many years kept an account of how much he spent at the market and cafe, attempting to survive with his limited means. The road is steep and the burdens great, so one must fling off any added weight of self-inflation. The authentic life is the engaged life and thereby, a joyful existence.

These results, however crude, become dear to the artist who made them because they are records of states of being which he has enjoyed and which he would regain. They are likewise interesting to others because to some extent readable and reveal the possibilities of greater existence… That is the value of a “work of art”. The traces are inevitable. The living is the thing.

Robert Henri, Art Spirit, p. 159-160

It is more likely, that our failures will lead to new insights rather than our strengths. When we find we have to abandon the comfortable ways we have been working and are compelled to embrace an uncertain, untried and unfamiliar method, we find we are inevitably at a crossroad. It is at these crossroads that one can find surprising moments of perception and unexpected wisdom. Weakness and self-doubt provide our creative faculties with the ballast they need to find an equilibrium between our flaws and our just successes.

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