Waves and the Immensity of the Sea

Considering the distinct differences between painting the surf from life versus using a photograph.

October Surf
October Surf

This year was my first visit to Cape Cod in October. I usually visit in May before the crowds arrive. But what struck me as quite different was the light and the color of the light in October.  I found the low level of the sun, closer to the horizon as we approach winter, very beautiful. The atmosphere was clear. And because of the low level of the sun, the light appeared a warm rose color. It was very reminiscent of Hopper’s images.

The surf was very dynamic as well and with the warm pinkish light there were many beautiful greys and violets in the waves. I spent most of my time painting the surf with curious seals watching me as spectators at a sport. Last year, I had read the biography and writings of Frederick Waugh, a British painter of seascapes who also painted in Provincetown on Cape Cod. Studying his work gave me a greater understanding of the anatomy of waves and the logic of wave formations. This year, I was reading Modern Chromatics by Nicholas Ogden Rood which is a scientific book on color and the light spectrum. I found this anecdote regarding the effect of the sun on waves:

If we study ocean waves under direct sunlight, we shall find that much of their character depends on elongated streaks of light, which serve to interpret not only the forms of the larger masses of water, but also the shapes of the minor wavelets with which these are sculptured. If now we examine these bright streaks, so well- known to artists, with a slowly revolving disk having one open sector, we shall find that in point of fact there are no streaks at all present, but simply find round images of the sun, which, owing to their motion, become thus elongated. Instantaneous photographs give the same true result, and hence, appear false. An analogous action takes place even in cloudy weather, and streaks of light are produced which give the waves a different appearance from what they would have if suddenly made solid, while yet retaining all their glassy appearance. Again, for the same reason, waves breaking on a beach appear to us different from their instantaneous photographs: when viewing the real waves, we obtain an impression which is made up of the different views rapidly presented during several minute intervals of time, whereas the photograph gives us only what takes place during one of these small intervals. All this applies also more or less to the case of falling water, as fountains or waterfalls, and explains the transparency of rapidly revolving wheels. Owing to the same cause, the limbs of animals in swift motion are only visible in a periodic way, or at those moments when their motion is being reversed; during the rest of the time they are practically invisible. These moments of comparative rest are seized by artists for delineation, while the less discriminating photograph is as apt to reproduce intermediate positions, and thus produce an effect, which even while faithful, appears absurd. (Rood, Modern Chromatics, p.207-208)

One can always tell when observing a modern seascape when the artist relies not on his own experience, present at the moment observing the sea, but on a photograph. As observers we recognize the difference between actual experience and a facsimile. Rood clarifies this in the above quote. One’s experience encapsulates the many intervals that combine in the moment to produce the effect of the waves- that give us the feeling of joy and immensity as one stands on the beach. One holds all these minute observations at once, suspended in the moment as well as in the memory. And it is these suspended moments bound together in the image that creates the artwork itself. It allows for the feeling to be held, which does not come from photographic accuracy. Although, I would argue that human experience has greater accuracy because it considers the whole person which is true to life beyond a technical reproduction.

Morning Sea
Morning Sea

There is real poetry in human experience told through the vision of the artist. The artist makes his being receptive to the experience of natural phenomena laid over the emotional content of the experience. This receptivity manifests insight.

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.

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