To Know the Dark

Here is a watercolour I started over the weekend and finished tonight:

Watercolor still life, June 2016 (size approx A4)
Watercolor still life, June 2016 (size approx A4)

This was a hard painting for me, and I struggled to get the crisp edges I wanted on certain details with this rather rough paper. I am also a bit out of practice with watercolour – I hope to do a few more soon and get my skill level up. I may try an oil version of this if I still like it in a few days.

I was thinking of a place where time stood still and objects stood still while the light and shadows change amidst objects of daily life. Just some shelf in some house some day. Perhaps the day when Wendell Berry wrote this beautiful poem:

To Know the Dark

To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
and is travelled by dark feet and dark wings.

The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry

It is a time for me to dial back productivity and sense into deeper questions. Daily life keeps inviting us to go beyond our limitations.

True reality is encountered while staying in the midst of every day and returning ever more deeply into its depth and inner recesses. Even the great problem of life-and-death is clarified thereby…Daily life is the basic problem and the last key to all problems.

Keiji Nishitani, quoted in Zen Encounters with Loneliness by Terrance Keenan

30 thoughts on “To Know the Dark

  1. I quite like the way the rough paper has created a sense of age and slight disrepair. a feeling of Character emerges from the wall, and the other objects. Its such an interesting subject, The Shelf. I find my mind wondering what other things lie upon The Shelf. GREAT Subject!!! cheers, Debi

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    1. Many thanks Debi – I like the rough paper also but I think if I find more time to do watercolor I will buy a few Hot Pressed papers. Most people dislike them but they allow a really fine control over edges. Thanks for your encouragement!

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      1. Hi Debi. Not sure how to reply to your second comment (which button to click, I mean) – but yes, I liked both Saunders Waterford and Arches cotton papers. I found the cold press too rough – but that is only because I do not have enough guts to paint as large and bold as you do! But I may get there one day!

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  2. I agree with Debi. I see this shelf in an old house, most likely one that’s been abandoned. I think of people moving out, moving on, and just leaving bits and pieces of themselves behind. The painting has a very reflective mood about it.

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    1. Many thanks Judith, that is exactly the type of feeling I have when I paint this. Going back to the comment of Murch when he said – what the mind returns to the most while painting will come out in the painting – or something like that.

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      1. I want to remember that. So often we talk of approaching painting as a form of meditation. For me, that sometimes means “losing” all thoughts. Maybe it’s important, though, to be more focused and to think more about what I’m wanting to say. Of course, I don’t yet have much of a voice as an artist, but I think I’m starting to make a few “noises”. I am going to pay closer attention to my thoughts and feelings when painting. Oh, my Aubrey Phillips book arrived yesterday. I’m enjoying it. You’ve offered me so much inspiration. It’s truly appreciated. I’ve learned a lot from you.

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      2. Thanks so much for your kind words Judith. Indeed you are starting to make a few noises! What a beautiful noise it is! I hope you enjoy your book. I hope to find some time this weekend to look at a few of your recent posts and leave some comments. All the best to you!

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      3. Thanks for “listening” to my voice. Your encouragement is greatly appreciated. I’m definitely enjoying the Aubrey Phillips book, although he talks about “monestial” blue — I’d never heard of it — and I’m thinking it’s probably close to a cerulean blue. I did a Google search and although it’s listed as a paint color from Daler-Rowney, it doesn’t appear in their list of currently available watercolors. I guess if I make any attempts to do paintings inspired by Phillips, I’ll have to substitute cerulean. I do like his style. I hope you’re taking care of yourself and not over-doing.

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  3. Love the simplicity of this painting and the clear shadows. I don’t think the edges of the painting are a problem. Who says we always need clean edges? This painting doesn’t need them.

    I am having serious problems with light and shadows right now. I think I have a mental block! You however are not! Good job.

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    1. Well said DawnMarie! I always admire artists who are able to use watercolor so spontaneously, not trying to get each edge just right. When they pull it off, it is a very different feeling and only watercolor can do that. Many thanks for your comment and encouragement.
      All the best with your light and shadows! Try something extreme, like painting something without using any white on your palette – it will be a great lesson in transparent colors and may help you just break the mental block. All the best – remember those blocks serve a purpose, they allow us to take time away and come back renewed and with a new perspective. They are helpers, if you want to see it that way!

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  4. I was thinking about your comment — your very kind remarks — at my watercolor post. I painted the koi from a photo because I have to — fish swimming around — there’s a version one could do from life but it wouldn’t look anything like the images I paint because the fish don’t pose! But a subject like the one above is something you could readily do from life, and I’d recommend it. A photograph alters the scene so much and there’s so much more visual information available to your eye than to a camera at a certain f-stop.

    Since your post is about fruitful dark, I’d even suggest that you select some dark motifs — could be a real challenge and an interesting journey for emotion and symbolism. One idea is to assemble a still life made up exclusively of dark objects. When “everything” is dark, some objects will still be lighter than others relative to the others. It could be very Rembrandtesque. I think it’s a good way to learn about color (also about tonality) to set up situations that focus on whatever thing you’re trying to learn.

    Some ideas — the aforementioned dark still life, a pair of dark men’s shoes against a dark background (like Van Gogh’s famous painting of shoes), a box or a paper bag that sits in a dark setting where your focus is on portraying the color/tonality of it with particular attention to the space from one rim of the open bag (or box) to the other side — with the idea of portraying the space, the empty air, between edges.

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    1. Many thanks Aletha! Yes indeed fish do not pose for painters! Thanks for your kind suggestions for still life. I am a bit in a different space right now (have been for some time), and it may be interesting to know how I see things:

      When I was even more green at painting than I am now, I used to set up still life paintings and paint from that – all sorts of things. I still remember one painting of my son’s baby shoes. Then of course flowers and things like that. I did these setups early morning when the children were sleeping and the house was quiet. Always in the dark, by artificial light. After a while, it really just felt like an imposed discipline to me – yet another “must” I imposed on myself.

      Also, a funny thing happens to me – it seems like my creative juice either goes into setting up the still life, or painting it. If I set up a still life that I really like – that carries the emotion or nuance I am after, well, once the set up is perfect – why bother painting it? It sounds silly but that is what I feel. If it is a really pretty set up, then there is not much that can be added to it, etc.

      I just felt really bored painting something that is already laid out nicely, looking pretty or mysterious etc. For me, painting from life was just a way to improve technically, and I understand that that can be immensely useful and rewarding.

      But now, I am an unknown distance into my second half of life, I will never be able to paint from life like Richard Schmidt or David Leffel – I have run out of time. I think I feel with the time I have I want to go straight to the emotion, the heart of what I want to say with my paintings about the world. Perhaps I should just cut loose with representational painting and go abstract! But maybe there is a middle way?

      So all my recent still life paintings are invented – they originate in my mind. I basically start with vaguely something like “I am dreaming of an old abandoned house. On the porch in a corner stands…?”. Then I draw some thumbnail sketches of the concept and once I find something I like I draw and paint it. The mood is everything for me – if I can get the mood I am after I don’t care about the technical aspects or how true to life it is.

      This is why you will find all sorts of faults in some of my still lifes – like the shadow in the above painting. It will take a looong peg to cast a shadow that long! But I don’t really care that much – it is mainly serving a compositional purpose for me – creating another triangle (the painting contains many), and also pointing to the white and blue “whatever”. In any event, the star of the show is the background!

      Many thanks for your continued encouragement!

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      1. I’m so glad I commented. Your reply is like another blog post in itself. Your account of the way you approach the painting is fascinating. I am so wedded to painting from life that it’s difficult for me to understand how anyone wouldn’t thrive doing it. That I’ll admit! But then one of my artist heroes Pierre Bonnard almost never painted from life, certainly not in the greatest paintings for which he’s known. I am trying to figure out how to paint from imagination and memory now — and I take baby steps in that direction. Anyway, it’s so interesting hearing your description of the thought process. Perhaps it will take you into pure abstraction or into something in between abstraction and representation.

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      2. Thanks Aleta, yes, I have thought about posting about the process of working from invention, but it could spark some divisive comments, so I rather steer away from it. I guess it is like music taste, there is something for everyone.
        I know how much one can get from working from life – it is a very deep well, so it is no wonder you have kept at it so long.
        I hope you gain something from another approach – one of the painters I admire a lot is Mondriaan – he was an amazing draftsman, you have probably seen his drawings of flowers. And yet he is known for his abstract art. But then – I think I read somewhere at the end of his life he returned to flower drawings from life (not sure). Strange, strange life this is.

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  5. If you’re interested I made a post on an orphan blog I’ve got. It has some pictures (including my owl!). https://fantabulouskoi.wordpress.com/2016/06/07/dark-still-life/

    Also, I’m still wondering about the Carder remark about white. I cannot for the life of me make any sense of it. One good thing about simply experimenting on your own is that learning is utterly direct that way. So for instance, mix any color with any other, and just see what you get. The art world is filled with misinformation. (Or, charitably, maybe misunderstanding …) But the things you learn through practice are like scientific experiment. Their usefulness is demonstrated at last by whether they work or not. And more significantly whether they produce the results that YOU want. Different strokes for different folks, and all that.

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    1. Those are amazing photos Aletha! Thanks for sharing that.

      Yes, the thing with Carder about white…I think I need to go back and look at the video again. I am not sure that he was against white per se, but rather just making us aware that if white get’s into a mix of color, it really influences it more than anything else. Maybe that is what you are pointing to in another way – white is one powerful color!!

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      1. But that’s my point, white isn’t an especially powerful color. It takes a lot of white to significantly lighten a color, which is why paint manufacturers package white in larger tubes. It gets used up so fast.

        The broadest context for treating color is the visible spectrum. In that context the colors that are opposites are ones that can most radically alter each other. White/black; red/green; blue/orange; yellow/violet. This is color theory — so I’m referring here to primary and secondary colors. And we’re imagining them in pure forms.

        As a practical matter artist’s palettes aren’t stocked with primaries and secondaries, but with colors that approach them. So you need at least two of everything to simulate the spectrum. One that’s warm, one that’s cool. One that’s (relatively) light, one that’s dark. Example: cerulean blue is light and warm relative to ultramarine blue which is darker and cooler.

        Opposites are not mixtures to avoid, they are just mixtures that introduce the strongest contrast. To mix any of the color opposites together tends toward grey.

        To put these colors adjacent to each other in their pure forms maximizes contrast (because they’re opposites). So putting bright red and bright green beside each other without mixing them produces a vibrating effect, colors that really “pop.”

        White isn’t any more radical than any other color. But white is the presence of all the colors, It’s the most reflective (at least theoretically, not always practically). Black is the absence of the colors (i.e. is the most light absorbent), absent of color because instead of coming toward you (producing color) the light is absorbed into the black surface.

        That’s why you want a white car in summer, a black car in winter.

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    1. Many thanks for your kind comment – glad you noticed that nail, I think it is quite important in this composition. I really feel honoured to be nominated by you for the Liebster Award! Thanks so much. I have not had time to look at your site recently, but will go and have a look at what you have been up to as soon as I get time. Keep burning that umber!

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    1. Thanks so much Laura, great to hear you found something of value here. Judith is so generous, always leaves interesting and insightful comments, which are great encouragements. When I find time I will check out what you are up to also.

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      1. I’m so pleased to hear this, thank you. I’m into abstract acrylics lately and am most drawn to those although I’m interested in realistic watercolor as well, which I’m seeing here, and still practicing drawing too. Judith is very generous with her time and insight; I agree wholeheartedly. Thanks again for your reply, and looking forward to more interactions.

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      2. Good luck with those acrylics Laura, I think there is a some commonality in acrylics and watercolor and you should see benefit from working in both. Abstract acrylics I found takes a lot of self-belief and can be very therapeutic. All the best to you, I will go and have a look at your blog.

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