Have you ever realized that we are insanely drawn to light? Like raccoons that will pursue anything sparkly, humans incline towards light. Our souls aspire to warmth and sun. We were meant for summer. This doesn’t mean that darkness doesn’t have a place, but only so much as it emphasizes light. Night is worthwhile for the stars, and shadows frame perfect pools of light.
As someone who loves painting and photography, I am always looking for good light. I think when it comes down to it, it is the most important element in both. No amount of color or perfection of line can save a picture devoid of good light. It tells us what is important and where we should focus. Every period of painters have dealt with light differently. With photos, you seek it out or you manufacture it with a flash, but with painting it is different. You have the ability to illuminate and obscure with more precision, more purpose.
When talking about light and painting, we inevitably arrive at the Impressionists, those painters of light. Inspired to forsake their studios for plein air (open air) studies, they became fascinated with the impressions left by different lights falling on an object. Monet, perhaps the most famous of the impressionists devoted countless studies to the same simple objects in a desperate attempt to understand how the light present changed the entire image. But of course, what we instantly think of when we hear the name Monet are those endless fields of sun soaked red poppies and tranquil pools dappled with light and water lilies. Monet’s gardens are located in Giverny, a little town about an hour from Paris, and last Saturday, Jenny, my friend Emma and I headed north to see the gardens that inspired and surrounded this artist.
It was one of those impossible sunny days that makes you think summer supplanted spring, and the tulips were out in full bloom, filling the gardens with perfect bright bowls of color. We wandered slowly through aisles of flowers and wound our way slowly through his house, equally full of bright colors. Looking out at those gardens, who could not have become an artist? Who could have resisted attempting to immortalize the brilliant blossoms and play of light among the leaves? After spending several tranquil hours in Monet’s sun drenched world, we ambled slowly through the sleepy village before settling in the warm grass with buckwheat crêpes. From my research as a curatorial assistant at an art museum last summer, I know that Monet was kind of a whiney human being and a rather terrible husband to his first wife. He ignored all responsibility in his (initially very un-lucrative) pursuit of capturing light. I am inclined to think ill of him. But then I see his gardens, look at his paintings. I see how he captured not just how something looked, but the impression that the light across a subject rendered. And I can’t help but think that maybe it was worth it.
My painting professor at Hillsdale College was an avid fan of the 20th century American painter Andrew Wyeth. During his own college years he made several unsuccessful attempts to meet Mr. Wyeth, yet he finally was able to speak with him over the phone. Wyeth’s final word of advice to the young artist who would later help form my own artistic opinions was the very profound: “Light and shadows, pain like hell!” On one occasion at least, I know this was chanted in our art studio, and it is something I think of every time I raise a paintbrush. Light and shadows. Doesn’t all of life come down to that?