Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Mental Sketch to Studio: Fog

Foggy Morning
6x24 oil by Michael Chesley Johnson

Recently, we had a spell of thick fog.  Dawn arrived with streetlamps shrouded in mist, moisture dripping from every leaf, and dew-hung cobwebs quilting the mown fields.  If the fog retreated offshore during the day, it crept back in toward evening.  Night always seems to come extra-early on foggy days.

As seductive as fog can be in the way it wraps the landscape in mystery and softness, it's a detriment to painting outdoors.  On foggy days, unless I'm teaching a workshop and want to demonstrate to my students how to treat it, I am more likely to take a hike than to pick up the brush.  This time, I took a walk at Herring Cove.

From the observation deck, which overlooks a mile of beach, I couldn't see much.  Seaweed-clad rocks nearby; a line of surf, arcing off into the fog; a rich, green glow, the only sign that a patch of beach grass lay out there, somewhere.  The fog made the breadth of the view seem curiously vaster than on a clear day.  The surf whispering against the sand seemed louder.

The moment held a quality that immediately spoke to me as a lover of landscape.  I decided to make a painting of it, but not having pencil or brush, I spent several  minutes observing.   First, I decided that the proportions of the scene before me were more important to recreating the feeling of its scope; so, using my hand, I measured distances and angles, committing these to memory.  Then I observed the relative warmth and coolness of different parts; the beach and water were warmer than the emptiness of fog, which was cooler.  Finally, I looked at value and chroma, noting that the darkest and richest parts of the scene were those closest at hand.

When I got back to the studio, I drew a design and made notes before the memory evaporated.

I didn't get back to this project until after I'd done most of my packing for our annual trip out west.  I made just this small piece, which is 6"x24".  I think a larger version, say 2 by 8 feet, would make an awesome over-the-couch piece.  I'll save that for another season.

By the way, as I was painting the foggy portions, I couldn't help but think of Agnes Martin, who is famous for her subtle, high-key abstractions.  If she'd continued to be a landscape painter, as she was in her early years, she might have become a master of fog.

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