A flat even dawn light met me through the partial opening in the curtains this morning. I could sense the stillness outside. There was no sound of wind, or anything else, aside from the occasional robin’s call. Instead of filling the space with noise (radio, email…) I allowed the quiet into the space for a little while longer as I got up.
That settled, still tone lingered throughout the day. I was happy to be engulfed by a strong sense of peace that matched the outdoor mood. When I stepped into the early afternoon to take a breather from my oil painting, the faint mist was hanging low and the sun was starting to push its way through the cloud, creating a diffused shaft of light stretching out over the landscape and setting off the other side of the bay in gold-lit greens, ochres and coppers. Occasionally the starling’s chatter on the wire or sudden flutter of wings would break the reverie of stillness.
There is a special quality of light in the far north of Scotland in late autumn; A low, dim or faded light which is not as high and bright as in the summer months.
In the evenings, the sky can take on dramatic tones, giving the feeling that everything is being touched by fire.
This second week of November is not quite as one would expect in the far north, and I’m enjoying the warmer days while they last. The skies have been stunning, as they often are at this time of year.
The painter, Constable, said ‘The Sky is the source of light in nature and it governs everything.’
This painting sketch by Constable really struck me, and makes me think of the north of Scotland and it’s dramatic and shifting skies, especially at this time of year. I love the dark contrasting the light.
As I think about light and painting, the sky and sea, a handful of other places and artists come to mind, all with their own special quality of light. There are ways in which the artists imbue their paintings with light that are unique to their artistic vision.
It’s been a few years now since I’ve been, but when I went to the south of France a few times, I came to better understand this special quality that so many artists talk about. I think of painters like Cezanne or Renoir, Monet, Bonnard, and Matisse, to mention a few.
I didn’t really come to appreciate Matisse until much later, but his work is so lyrical and colourful, the compositions so striking. I love this piece, called ‘The Open Window’....
This painting depicts the view out the window of Matisse’s apartment in the south of France. There are sailboats on the water, and light is expressed through bright saturated colour and contrast of complementary colours to create a vibrancy - orange masts on blue boats, a bright red door frame against a green wall, green reflected in the window of the door on the other side. The small specks of unpainted canvas also creates a sense of airiness and a shimmering light quality.
Matisse said, “A picture must possess a real power to generate light and for a long time now I've been conscious of expressing myself through light or rather in light. ”
If we travel further down to Italy, one of the greatest modern Italian painters and masters of the still life genre is Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964). His subjects were everyday bottles, pitchers, and boxes which he would paint in a flat matte neutral colour.
’His compositions are much like the clusters of medieval buildings in the town of Bologna where he spent all of his life, and the light is much like the pervasive Italian light that washes over the town. Since Morandi worked and painted slowly and methodically, the light in his paintings is diffuse, as though time passes slowly and gently. Looking at a Morandi painting is like sitting on the porch on a hazy summer afternoon as dusk is settling in, enjoying the sound of crickets.’ (Lisa Marder, 2017)
In 1955, John Berger said there is a "contemplation that lies behind (Morandi’s paintings): a contemplation so exclusive and silent that one is convinced that nothing else except Morandi’s cherished light could possibly fall on the table or shelf—not even another speck of dust.”
(The Editors of Art News, The Metaphysician of Bologna: John Berger on Giorgio Morandi, in 1955.)
I would say that Morandi's paintings best match the mood and stillness I am experiencing today.
Aside from Constable, England can boast the work of another great painter of light: J M William Turner.
At the start of every year in Edinburgh, the Scottish National Gallery takes out their collection of Turner’s work and puts it on display in a room on the main floor. The exhibition goes on for the full month of January. Whenever I am in Edinburgh at that time, I try to go and have a look at least once.
Turner had a passion for light which was turbulent, churning, always in motion. He painted it with intensity in relation to floods, storms, fog, steam, snow, and to what critics have described as “cataclysmic, or elemental events.” This is Turner’s 'Fighting Temeraire', the greatest painting “without a parallel in art,” said Ruskin.
His ability to capture light and atmosphere is certainly stunning.
There are so many painters I could mention, but I wanted to go to the ‘homeland’ and mention one more: the Canadian painter, Emily Carr. She was one of the first artists I learned about in school. She opened my mind up to painting and became a powerful inspiration to me.
Carr is most known for her British Columbian landscape and forest scenery. I’m drawn to the energy and movement in her paintings, along with the light that is classically so high in the sky in Canada - as high, if not higher, than the tallest, grandest pines that she paints.
I remember my father talking about the feeling of higher skies in Canada compared to his native Netherlands — another country that has highly distinguished painters of light (Rembrandt and Vermeer, for example). Summer or winter, the light in Canada is noticeable, open and crisp.
‘Carr’s landscapes of the high skies, wild bays and deep forests of the Pacific west coast of Canada – whispering with sound, radiant with inner movement and mysterious light – are as exhilarating as the places they represent.’ Laura Cumming, Guardian 2014
It’s 3:30 pm. Suddenly there is that bit of drama in the sky as the sun makes it’s move closer towards the horizon.
I get up from writing and rush outside to take a photo....
You don’t miss a thing until it is gone, or there is less of it. I’m keenly aware of the change in light just now, the limited amount we have of it each day. Daylight being something painters deeply rely on makes it a treasured thing. But now that our hours of daylight are getting noticeably shorter, the clocks have changed, and the air is cooler, perhaps it is a chance to create cozily lit places indoors - something the Danes are very good at.
‘Now is the time to damper down, to bundle into home and cook hearty foods to sustain – and yet it is no time to slow your approach to making sure your work sees the shortening light of day. Seek out opportunities no matter the season, reach out into the darkness and light up the world with your creations.’ (Brainard Carey)
Maybe we can offset the darker days with bits of light in our indoor lives whether in the studio, on canvas, in the kitchen, office or living room corner, whilst also getting that occasional blast of air while the daylight hours are there.
Gabriella Christina Rossetti
‘A cup for hope!’ she said,
In springtime ere the bloom was old:
The crimson wine was poor and cold
By her mouth’s richer red.
‘A cup for love!’ how low,
How soft the words; and all the while
Her blush was rippling with a smile
Like summer after snow.
‘A cup for memory!’
Cold cup that one must drain alone:
While autumn winds are up and moan
Across the barren sea.
Hope, memory, love:
Hope for fair morn, and love for day,
And memory for the evening grey
And solitary dove.