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.

Author: Judith Reeve

For nearly 30 years I've developed my painting practice in the studio, building on what I leaned from my student days at the Lyme Academy of Fine Art. Along with my daily journey creating images which I write about here on this blog, I am also currently writing a book on the color practice of Robert Henri.

One thought on “On the Shores of Cape Cod”

  1. wonderful post. You make it so clear why it’s important for an artist to travel. The paintings are beautiful! Your work has such a fine tuned sense of the it’s own particular light.

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