Across the bay (top photo)

Some of the most interesting unexpected treats I’ve found, while getting back into photography, are the insights I keeps stumbling into about art in general. When we’re studying painters we like, we can easily get hung up on details about their life, their philosophy and technical struggles – all of which are very interesting to us as human beings, mostly because of our empathy.

But when we see a photo, and recognize an appealing effect that we’ve also seen achieved by painterly means, we can sometimes get a cleaner and more useful clue.

This first photo hit me right away as being very Canadian-looking (which, in painting terms, almost always sends us scurrying toward the group of seven).

I will say I think their output somewhat uneven, and the group as a whole, a bit overrated – but only because there are many others also worth looking-at – and I hate to see undue concentrations of bandwidth (see: Elvis). Having got that skeptical bit out of the way, let me go on to say I have absolutely adored Lawren Harris from within that group, ever since I was a small child, and I have only come to love his work more, as I’ve learned more about art, and seen more of his incredible original pieces.

What rings Harris in a good way about this one to me? The minty beaten opacity to the water, right off the bat – especially the way it picks up blue highlights from the sky to make the mint look greener, and also lighter highlights from the bluffs, which make the shadows relatively blue. FUN.

The other factor that struck me as Harris-like here, was the weird regularity to some of the forms – if this were painted, we’d wonder if the rocks at left were naturally flat, hewn, or regularized and simplified by the artist.

“Truth is stranger than fiction” is a cliche which retains value – because when we’re writing, we almost always resist adding something that ‘feels’ implausible – even if it’s perfect for our story-purpose, unless we personally know of a real example, which can help give us a way to make our audience believe in it (telling-details, or at very least, an odd general context).

Lacking this anchor, we usually lack the courage to write the unfolding of events in a story, quite as weirdly as our lives so often actually are.

Some artists (like Harris) are especially fearless about showing us what they see anyhow, even if their choice of subject makes us wonder about how much of the presentation is style, and how much raw truth. I like this quality of artistic courage a lot. (One might even lump writers as diverse as Faulkner, Pynchon and Kerouac together, on this same principle) ;o)

No lifeguard on duty

Dead-simple composition – almost too regular (an illustration student rendering this, might be mildly criticized for putting one rung of the tower directly on the horizon-line, when the over-under perspective-split was another design-option freely available).

But there is something about the brisk deserted beach, no one else expected, which always has it’s own particular contemplative appeal. The obvious wind we see in the waves and the stark clear sky tell us this is an unhurried day for remembering the scale of nature, and wondering again, about possibility.

I’ve noticed a few modern painters using large abstract negative spaces, artfully weighted against areas of concentrated texture, realism and activity. Very cool effect (Christina Sealy is especially good at this), giving meta-compositional elements a strong place, and inviting seeking and discovery within, to make the invested narrative all the richer – rewarding the participant. Now if I can only teach my pen how to do this…

Rocks with Grain

They don’t call water the universal solvent for nothing. It may take it awhile, but if it can’t get you fast with steam and ice, it will sure as heck get you with repeated movement and glancingly-light friction, in the end.

I really loved the extraordinary directionality to the wear on these rocks – so etched and grainy, they look like big chunks of wood!

My geology is deplorably weak, but the softness of these particular rocks is readily apparent. What fascinates me visually here, is the question of how, if one was painting or drawing this, would one establish it’s scale?

We could very easily put a small hut atop one of those rocks, add a cute and rusty old car, or perhaps a shiny rescue helicopter nearby, and turn it into a remote seaside mountain – or, we could put a big boot in the foreground, and make it all into a pile of gravel.

In the photo, we do read the scale well, as being somewhere between these – and water-form scaling is itself a very big part of that (ask any special-effects person or miniaturist – water is a serious pain to simulate at reduced-scale).

But in art, we’re presented with an almost fractal problem – natural forms that present again and again, at different scale. (Colville did wonderful things, using his wife’s reclining body to derive landscape contours).

Is it a rained-out mucky boot-print gone dry in the hot-sun weeks since?
Or is it a canyon or vast chasm, teeming with history and ecosystems?

Escher asked these questions mathematically, and indeed proved the similarities of forms with transformations, long before we uncovered the idea of fractals, to play-with the idea in a more mathematically abstract (and yet also more nature-anchored) way.

But I’m still asking, philosophically and practically, how do we invoke the scale-reading sense in our audience – how do we make these decisions, and then employ deliberate symbolic indications, to fix visual scale? Especially in a composition like this, with no horizon!

(Always assuming that, like me, the technical problems of painting water-forms that complex, strain your brain rather painfully – in their scale alone!) ;o)

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