The first time I can remember being struck by an artwork it was an illustration of a Monet painting. Whether it was the haystacks, the waterlilies, or another of his famous works, I am not sure. What I am sure of is that it was the light that caught my attention. This was almost twenty years ago, before I would see Monets in real life. As a teenager, looking at the groundbreaking Impressionistic artwork, I felt a joyful shock: a combination of something new (excitement) and something already known (recognition). In this post, I reflect on how light in painting inspires me and influences my practice. I connect this to a wonderful, recently published book I just finished reading entitled, A Life in Light: Meditations on Impermanence by Mary Pipher, Ph.D.
While there are many components that go into making a painting—subject and composition for example—light is chief among them. That is, if you are working somewhat ‘realistically’. Light is how we treat a subject we are painting – any subject. Whether it is a still life, a portrait or a landscape, a painting is built by its values (from light to dark and every value in between). Before beginning a painting, it is important to ask ourselves: what is the source of light and where is it coming from? The values of the painted subject will be determined by its relation to the light source (a lamp or the sun, for example). Here’s a value-exercise of mine from years ago:
While black and white or grayscale can be beautiful, I have always been attracted to artworks with a rich variety of tones and colours like Monets, van Goghs, and the more recent landscape painting of David Hockney. While colour is very important for these artists, light (especially for Monet) is what creates the intense moods of the artworks. I’ve written about the inspiration I found in the book Landscape Painting Now, edited by Todd Bradway and Barry Schwabsky and published by Thames & Hudson in 2019 here.
If I think back to my most vivid memories, what stands out is the feeling of place – the atmosphere of my memories are always bathed in specific light. It might be the intense sun at high noon on a summer’s day. The bright green grass contrasting with purple shadows made by nearby trees. I remember reading magazines in the garden of my family home as a teenager, feeling enveloped in the sun’s warm hug and blinded by the brightness. All I could absorb were the blades of grass between my fingers and the glossy print of my teen-magazine. Whether it is soft morning, high noon or dusk light, I love the light that we see in shadows across the ground, liquid gold across water, or in the shimmering light of trees. My paintings Sunny Birches (2021) and De Haan Large Forest (2020) are examples of this dancing light between leaves.
Shimmering light between the leaves of trees is the earliest memory that psychologist and author Mary Pipher shares in her recent memoir, My Life in Light: Meditations on Impermanence (2022). Of watching this light as a very young child, Pipher explains: “I didn’t have language, but I knew what I was watching was beautiful” (1).
What I love about this memoir is that Pipher explores light as the tangible and powerful aspect of the world that it is and also as metaphor, that is, light as resilience in the face of life’s inevitable struggles. The author manages to explore resilience without falling into a trap of toxic positivity through writing openly about her own challenges as a young adult and more recently dealing with the loneliness of the pandemic. I appreciated how eloquently she held both the difficulties and joys of life together. Of this tension between dark and light, Pipher writes, “our hearts shatter into pieces, yet we hear the song of the cardinal and watch the exploding electricity of a thunderstorm” (6).
I also love the way in which Pipher writes about her life as necessarily embedded in her familial web. Pipher’s relationships with parents, grandparents, and her own children and grandchildren play a central role in her self-understanding and personal relationship with light/resilience. A line that stopped me in my tracks—again a feeling of excitement and recognition—is from the chapter “Shelling Peas” in which Pipher describes her close and special relationship with her maternal grandmother. The closing sentence reads: “Grandmother was one of the first people who did the hard work of loving me into existence” (79). Light, as a metaphor for resilience, is also one for love.
Watching my own parents reading to my nephew, I see the hard work of loving someone into existence. This is the work of parents, grandparents, teachers, friends, and sometimes even strangers. As Pipher outlines throughout the book, we also learn about life through our encounters with the visual arts, music and literature. The beauty we experience in our relationships with others and in the creation and appreciation of artwork is, in Pipher’s understanding of the term, light. It was definitely light, both tangible and metaphorical, that I appreciated in Monet’s paintings years ago and to this day. I was happy to read that, for Pipher too, “much of the time the world looks like a Monet painting” (301).
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