Second Sight – Joseph McGurl’s “Light, Sea, Earth, and Sky”
Joseph McGurl – Light, Sea, Earth, and Sky (detail)
The painting won first place in the landscape category in the 2018 Art Renewal Center International Fine Art Salon.
Light, Sea, Earth, and Sky was loosely based on a small field study painted at Cuttyhunk Island, a sparsely inhabited island off the Massachusetts coast where I have painted often. Cuttyhunk and the adjacent islands form the Elizabeth Islands chain and look much like they did 100 years ago with open fields, stone walls, and panoramic vistas of Buzzards Bay and Vineyard Sound. The islands are not as dramatic as Yosemite or the Grand Canyon, but I think they are just as spectacular. There are a sublime, quiet beauty and a wonderful sense of stillness that allow for deep thought and contemplation.
There are three ways in which I approach my studio landscapes: remaining faithful to what I have seen and painted in the field, painting from my imagination, or a combination of the two. Here I used the latter approach. The sketch was painted on a sunny day with the sun at my back. I used the topography from the sketch for this painting but increased the height of the vantage point imagining a view from an indefinable space above the island. The lighting, clouds, and atmosphere are all imaginary but based on scenarios I’ve seen over the years while painting the landscape. That is one of the great advantages of painting from nature; the artist builds a storehouse of knowledge and images in his mind that can be used to develop paintings that are completely or partially imaginary. It frees the artist from requiring reference material to work from.
For this painting, I envisioned the lighting first and then chose this sketch as a foil to interpret the light and atmosphere and help form the composition. I have been exploring the phenomenon of sunlight’s glare reflecting on water for some time and am always searching for new ways to interpret it. I find this challenging because an artist has no color brighter than white paint—identical to ceiling paint. The challenge is to create the illusion of glowing sunlight which makes the viewer squint to look at. To accomplish this, the adjacent colors and values must be adjusted. They are exaggerated or minimized in ways that mimic what you actually see. This subject matter is appealing to me as it is a continual challenge, and each lighting scenario is unique. A reflection is also an elusive, magical phenomenon. It doesn’t exist as a tangible object. If you move to the side, it disappears. You can see it, but you can’t touch it. You are drawn to it, but it hurts your eyes to look at.
This phenomenon is also intellectually intriguing. Light and atmosphere are composed of gas, dust, and photons, three elusive substances. Photons, the particles that give us light, are significant particles that physicists study to understand the workings of the universe. I have an amateur’s interest in physics because I am painting physics—what our world is made of which is then interpreted by my eye and mind and translated onto canvas. Coincidentally, as well as being significant scientifically, light is also of primary importance in many cultures as a symbol of spirituality. The Transcendentalist philosophers including Emerson and Thoreau and the 19th-century Luminist painters such as Heade and Lane believed that light and nature are portals to the divine. I also believe that there is a spiritual component to our existence that can be found in nature, and for this reason, I consider myself a Contemporary Luminist. My paintings don’t resemble the 19th-century Luminists because Luminism is a philosophy, not a style. The connection is that we share a philosophy that joins nature with spirituality. The Transcendentalists believed in the spiritual significance of light, and perhaps modern physic will prove to us through the study of the photon that there is indeed a spiritual reality to our existence.
There are many reasons I have evolved into a landscape painter. It was a conscious decision driven by subconscious forces. I once painted the still life, figure, and portrait, but they were not intriguing to me. I realized life is too short to spend time on something that I am not totally enthralled with, so I began to focus on landscape painting. I have an innate appreciation of nature which I think was formed during my youth growing up on the shore of the Massachusetts coast where I spent much time on the water and exploring the islands. I truly appreciate being outside hiking, trail running, skiing, sailing, and painting; I am painting what I know and love.
I think painting the landscape is the most difficult subject for an artist to confront and I enjoy the challenge. In the field, the artist faces challenges a studio painter doesn’t: working with non-static subject and lighting, editing the innumerable pieces of information, interpreting a variety of texture in a short amount of time, reconciling the difference between the light on your canvas and on your subject, having a more limited value range than that found in nature, finding a ready-made subject and composition, and facing the physical challenges—heat, cold, bugs, wind, etc. –that come with painting the landscape in the field.
As I mentioned previously, painting the landscape helps me contemplate the nature of reality. If I were just painting beautiful scenes, I would have lost interest in painting decades ago. The title of Gaugin’s painting, “What Are We, Where Do We Come From, Where Are We Going” asks a question that for me, can be found in nature. I don’t usually paint crashing waves, rushing rivers, or busy city streets. For me, landscape painting is about stillness, meditation, and quietness. It allows me to think about my subject matter in relation to those big questions, and even though I will never find the answer, I feel close to the answer while painting in the field contemplating and interpreting nature.