‘Sparkle’ and ‘Glow’
By Miriam Kashiwa, Curator
Adirondacks National Exhibition of American Watercolors
It is a special moment when one may observe a painting that seems to glow like a stained glass window; to witness a surface radiate as though physically backlit. This experience creates questions. How can this occur? Has the artist discovered a mystical alchemy that allows paint to ignite? Does this happen in all media? Is it a property of the medium or artistic technique? Is it formula or is it choice?
And many more questions enter the list: what is luminosity or ‘glow’ itself? Is it seen only in the chiaroscuro of classical art -- the dramatic contrast of light and dark? Is this common in contemporary art? Does this occur in watercolor?
To begin, there is a condition in the faces in ‘The Nativity’ by Italian Renaissance artist Antonio Correggio’ described as chiaroscuro, here, termed ‘glow.’ The painting is oil based and comprised of subtle tonal components. Color is evident but not primary. One hardly sees the transition from edge to edge creating the forms. And then one notices the facial warmth as though the cheeks are breathing and the lips are about to speak. One can feel the presence of something alive. The phenomenon of ‘luminance’ by means of modeling lights and shadow has created the appearance of a glowing third dimension.
There is a distinction between ‘lighted’ and luminous. When something is ‘lighted’ a beam or ray is shined upon the object. When an object is ‘luminous’ the glow is emitted from the inner regions of itself as a pearl or a day-glow wand.
In other cases of classical art, from illuminated biblical pages to the magnificent frescos of Da Vinci’s fame, artists of all genres seemed to have sought luminosity particularly in oil based portraiture as Rembrandt’s, Tintoretto’s and other figural painters of centuries past.
The Impressionists used oil or tempera paint as their media of choice. Are there examples of luminosity in their light-filled canvases? Or were they seeking the brightness of the out-of-doors and the sparkle of contrast?
Monet’s gardens and lily ponds sought engagement with light and out-door fresh sparkle whereas Gaugin’s work was more exotic and sultry. He used warm opaque color and in so doing evoked some of the classical notion of luminosity. His oils appeared almost pastel-like in solution. Are palette and medium part of the condition and is individual choice a prerequisite artistic device?
Toulouse-Lautrec, in painting his posters of bawdy life in musical theater used shades of yellow to connote excitement and enhance contrast in his figural outlines. This art was straight-forward contrast without suggestion of glow. He produced quick, flat sketches with spare color to sell casual Parisian nightlife as ‘glowing.’
In mid and late 1800’s, Sargent’s created watercolor sketches that pale in comparison with today’s aqueous wonders of vivid, over scale topics that range across the board. At the century’s turn, Winslow Homer’s soft edged plein air watercolors of the Adirondacks used accents in brilliant darks as though to push forms through the picture plane. In the following fifty years, Charles Burchfield’s barns, fantasies and cityscapes used darks for back-lighted form. White paper and dark ‘accents’ provided illumination for most watercolor artists at that time but without the element of ‘glow’ we are seeing now.
Leading advocates for using the paper’s white for sparkle in our own acquaintance today are watercolorists Don Getz, Bus Romeling (dec), Frank Webb and countless others.
There is alchemy at work here: Artistic Alchemy …the artist-inspired solution to design mixed with powers of graphic skill:
‘Glow’ requires dramatically lit forms against dominating areas of opaque, dark ground: dark to light.
|"Northern Road" by David Douglass DeArmond, NWS|
‘Sparkle’ depends on major whites of paper contrasted with strategically placed vibrant, dark accents: light to dark.
|"Last Row" by Catherine O'Neill, NWS, AWS, TWSA|
‘Glow’ in current art is becoming more common in major abstracts and portraiture, particularly where opaque and textured media are used: pastel, egg tempera and oil impasto. Watercolorists will be challenged to find texture and opacity in their fluid and transparent medium although the ‘alchemist’ can work exception.
In short, then, we may observe that Sparkle or Glow depend on the juxtaposition of light and dark. Only the artist-alchemist can modulate the design and aura to create illusion.
--Posted by Leslie Bailey, View staff
The catalog for the Adirondacks National Exhibition of American Watercolors contains the above essay, as well as remarks by Pat San Soucie, juror of selection, and Paul Jackson, juror of awards, and photographs of the 30 award-winning paintings (including the two above). It can be purchased at View or online at www.viewarts.org.