Light

More on "Artists' Eyes on the Skies" by Jeannine Cook

I heard a fascinating addendum to my blog entry of June 7th about artwork helping to unravel meteorologist mysteries of the past on NPR today. With the title, "Scientists pinpoint Monet's Balcony", host Guy Raz interviewed John Thornes, Professor of Applied Meteorology at Birmingham University.

Like other scientists looking at artists' work to learn of past weather conditions and other situations, John Thornes has been studying Claude Monet's paintings which he did in London in the winters of 1899-1901. These famous paintings of Waterloo and Charing Cross Bridges and along the Thames to the Houses of Parliament - 95 images in total - were painted from the balcony of his rooms at the Savoy Hotel. As Monet did so often, he worked on different canvases as the light moved. He apparently used the morning light to depict Waterloo Bridge, the midday hours to paint the Charing Cross Bridge and ended his busy days capturing the sunsets along the river towards the Houses of Parliament.

Impression, Sunrise  ,  1872, oil on canvas, Claude Monet, (Image courtesy of the Musee Marmottan)

Impression, Sunrise,  1872, oil on canvas, Claude Monet, (Image courtesy of the Musee Marmottan)

Professor Thornes and his team used solar geometry and historical weather data to determine exactly which balconies of the Savoy had become Monet's painting sites, based on the sunlight that Monet painted in each canvas. Monet, like many other artists, was amazingly accurate in his representation of the prevailing weather, so the visual coloured record of wintertime London is also one of the famous "pea souper" conditions that prevailed for so long in the smoky, foggy city. Monet, in fact, damaged his health by exposure to all that pollution, even though he apparently considered all the smog as an "envelope" between him and the scenery.

Clearly scientists have a rich resource to mine in artists' observations of the skies and world around them. For John Thornes, for example, the next of Monet's paintings to be examined for meteorological information is his Impression, Sunrise, the canvas painted at Le Havre that purportedly gave rise to the name of Impressionism. It must be a thrill to combine one's passions for art and science in these sleuthing ventures.

Artists' Eyes on the Skies by Jeannine Cook

I am sitting on a hotel terrace in the Thousand Islands area of the St. Lawrence Seaway, Ontario. A rainy day has yielded to golden light and jewel-like sparkles in the water in the early evening, with hours of light still remaining - in these northern climes. The River is sprinkled with small islands, mostly crowned with a cluster of trees, which are ebulliently vivid in their variety of greens above the ochres and greys of the granite rock shorelines. Limpid reflections shimmer on smooth waters. Above, osprey hover and dive, while great blue heron wing purposefully west above the pine tree crowns on the distant shore.

I have been watching this wonderful parade of light and magic because I have my artist's eye turned on. I keep analysing the scene in terms of how to depict what I see. I don't mean literally, in terms of representation, necessarily, because I am always "pruning" and editing the scene I am looking at, trying to select the most relevant details. Nevertheless, at the back of my head, I am aware that the veracity of a painting of drawing is underlined by the references, direct or indirect, to the climate, the light, the prevalent weather ... In the days that I have spent here, the light has been amazingly varied but always wonderful and very northern and cool, compared to the light of coastal Georgia or the Mediterranean.

Artistic fidelity to weather and atmospheric phenomena has proven useful on occasions. I have read that meteorologists have consulted paintings done in previous centuries to confirm weather events, volcanic eruptions, meteor showers and more. We were all recently reminded about the amazing sunsets caused by volcanic ash. I heard Simon Winchester talking on PBS about the insights into wind patterns circling the globe that were obtained from paintings done around the world by artists enthralled by the sunsets drama caused by the eruption of Krakatoa in 1883.

Constable's drawings and paintings of clouds and related weather in 18th/19th century England have also yielded good science, thanks to their accuracy. He spent many an hour studying clouds and drawing them in their fugitive glory. I felt considerable empathy with him when I was Artist in Residence in Brittany in autumn, 2008, because there, too, the weather is never the same for more than half an hour!

Seascape Study, Boat and Stormy Sky, 1824, John  Constable  (Image courtesy of the Royal Academy)

Seascape Study, Boat and Stormy Sky, 1824, John  Constable  (Image courtesy of the Royal Academy)


Another benefit of artistic fidelity to weather conditions was written about by Dan Falk, an environmental journalist writing on June 6th, 2010, in the Toronto Star. A Canadian artist, Gustav Hahn (1866-1962), depicted a west Toronto neighbourhood in the winter of 1913. Above, the night sky shows the constellation, Orion, and also a bright series of objects streaking across the sky. Hahn, also an amateur astronomer, was recording the famous Canadian Fireball Procession of 1913, a very rare event when meteors graze the earth's atmosphere at a very low angle and break up into glowing fragments. This painting yielded all sorts of insights for Donald Olson, a physicist at Texas State University, who is known as the world's leading "forensic astronomer". He mines classic works of literature and art for references to our universe - the moon, the stars and the sun - and calculates where and when each piece of art was created. For example, Olson has calculated the exact spot and time when Van Gogh painted Moonrise: 9.08 p.m. on July 13th, 1889. Another piece of art that became important in Olson's studies was a painting by Hudson River School artist, Frederic Church, entitled The Meteor of 1860, showing a peaceful late evening river scene, with a brilliant array of meteors streaking across the sky on an almost horizontal trajectory. Olson later deduced that Walt Whitman, in New York, had witnessed and then written of the same event in one of his poems. Both conclusions were buttressed by his having seen a copy of Hahn's painting of a meteor procession. Olson's analysis is appearing in the July issue of Sky and Telescope magazine.

Painting of The Meteor of 1860 by Hudson River School artist Frederic Church. (Credit: Frederic Church courtesy of Judith Filenbaum Hernstadt).

Painting of The Meteor of 1860 by Hudson River School artist Frederic Church. (Credit: Frederic Church courtesy of Judith Filenbaum Hernstadt).


Without the keen watch that artists keep on the skies above, we would all lose a lot of fascinating information.

That Raking Light by Jeannine Cook

I live on the site of an old oyster cannery, which allows an immediacy with the salt water creeks and wide-flung marshes that is unusual. Living with the rhythm of the tides and hours, you become very aware of the play of light across the spartina grasses that make up the marshes. Since the house faces almost due east, we can watch the sun rising further and further north, from behind a long barrier island opposite us, as mid-summer arrives, and then the slow retreat again to winter.

The Sweep of Marsh, watercolour, Jeannine Cook artist

The Sweep of Marsh, watercolour, Jeannine Cook artist

All this play of light has made me tremendously aware of the amazing power of raking light for art. Sunrises, for me as I face east, are dramatic but it is the late afternoon sunshine that creates the marvellous scenes. Slowly, the marshes become more and more luminous, and even without the clouds which are often so majestic, the sense of space is heart-lifting.

Because the coast is so flat, the low horizon almost becomes an integral part of any painting. Inevitably, any landscape painting of the marshes becomes about light and space, whose drama causes one to pause. The scale of man to landscape becomes very much tipped to nature, a balance that is good to remember.

Summer Storms, watercolour.Jeannine Cook artist

Summer Storms, watercolour.Jeannine Cook artist

The key ingredient in so many of the scenes I witness, on a daily basis, is this raking light across the marshes. Its drama is urgent, powerful, but quietly insistent. It makes me return, again and again, to try and capture coastal landscapes of enormous beauty and mystery.

Sunlight and Shadows by Jeannine Cook

Today is a day of heavy flat light, laden with humidity and heat, here on the Georgia coast. All contours are softened, distances are blurred and somehow the scene is flat and almost featureless. It is a day that makes me long for the bright sharp sunlight of the Mediterranean. It also makes me realise how much landscape artists are influenced by the ambient light.

Think, for instance, of Japanese artists. Down the ages, in their nature-based art, the Japanese have been very aware of the play of light on rocks, trees, architecture. Shadows, the corollary of sunlight, are a natural function of their architecture, for example, with the broad eaves on buildings casting wonderful angled shadows. The ultimate interpretation of the beauty of light can be seen in their black lacquer ware, flecked with gold or silver. Viewed by lantern or candlelight, this lacquer ware evokes their northern, sea-influenced light in haunting fashion.

At the other extreme are Western artists who work in the brilliance of Mediterranean light. Take, for example, two of Spain's artists, Joaquin Sorolla from Valencia and Joaquin Mir from Barcelona. Sorolla was multi-faceted in his art, ranging from wonderful luminous portraits to vast historical paintings and, my favourites, landscapes flooded with light. In fact, a quote by Edmund Peel from James Gibbons Huneker, in the book, The Painter, Joaquin Sorolla, says it all: "Sorolla – the painter of vibrating sunshine without equal". It is interesting to study Sorolla's paintings: many of his landscapes which include figures have dramatically bold, abstract shadows (such as his paintings of Valencian fisher women). Yet landscapes done in Javea, Valencia or Malaga, in mainland Spain's Mediterranean coast, are often painted in a very narrow range of values, without dramatic shadows. Even more deliriously high key are some of his depictions of the almost incandescent cliffs and headlands in Mallorca, especially the sun-drenched scenes of Cala San Vicente in the north-east of the island.

"El mar en Mallorca" , Joaquin Sorolla

"El mar en Mallorca" , Joaquin Sorolla

Interestingly, Mallorca, with its amazing light, was also the springboard for Joaquin Mir's greatest successes. A contemporary of Sorolla (who lived from 1863-1923), Mir was born in Barcelona in 1873 and lived until 1940. Colour and light were the keys to his art : "All I want is for my works to lighten the heart and flood the eyes and the soul with light", he said in 1928. He forged his own path to celebrating the Mediterranean sunlight and shadows, sometimes veering to realism, other times towards abstraction, but always seeking to interpret the beauty he saw in a delirium of colour and light. He borrowed the Impressionists' palette of colours, eschewing black, but he used the colours in his own highly original fashion. When you see Mir's works done in Mallorca, you can feel the wonderfully clear light pulsating over everything - the Es Baluard Museum has a number of these canvases (http://www.esbaluard.org).

Joaquim Mir i Trinxet (or Joaquin Mir, 1873-1940): Canyelles

Joaquim Mir i Trinxet (or Joaquin Mir, 1873-1940): Canyelles

Perhaps evoking the clarity of Mediterranean light will help banish the Georgian grey skies of humid heat – I can but hope!

Perfumes, sound and light by Jeannine Cook

I have just spent time in my other home in Palma de Mallorca, Spain. There, it is a green and beautiful spring after bountiful rains this year, and the island is celebrating with exuberant growth on mountain slopes and down stony valleys.

I had some time to paint and draw, and once again, my sense of place was expanded and extended. I know that wherever one is working outdoors as an artist, you become conscious of all your surroundings. It seemed to be especially the case this spring in Spain: the perfume of orange blossom, lemon blossom, jasmine and roses floated everywhere on the air.

Citrus sinensis   Osbeck painting by  Mary E. Eaton  from a 1917 issue of   National Geographic

Citrus sinensis Osbeck painting by Mary E. Eaton from a 1917 issue of National Geographic

As the sun warmed, each morning, and the sky became brilliant, the perfumes intensified and became intoxicating. The light grew more brilliant - oh, that Mediterranean light! And as I sat quietly, totally enraptured with all this light and drunk on these exquisite perfumes, I was serenaded by blackbirds singing their wondrous melodies, or tiny serins buzzing excitedly high in the trees above.

I was soothed and inspired. As the light changed and the flowers I was depicting opened, moved and faded, I was enveloped in this world in which I was sitting. I felt a bond and a sense of kinship with all the wonderful artists who have worked in the Mediterranean region down the ages - Italian masters like Botticelli or Guercino, Corot, Monet, Renoir, Matisse, Cezanne or Raoul Dufy in France, even Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida, just to name one Spanish artist who celebrated so superbly the brilliant light of Spain (go to this site if you speak Spanish or this one for English). They all responded to the same light, perfumes and sounds. From the flowers painted on the walls of ancient Egyptian tombs to the frescoes on walls of opulent homes in Pompeii, artists have always gloried in the beauties of flowers growing in the Mediterranean world. I felt it was a great privilege to be immersed in this world of brilliant light, intoxicating perfume and liquid bird song, as I celebrated Mallorca's spring flowers in silverpoint and watercolour.