Each year I eagerly await the arrival of fall and the turning of the leaves. The visual stimulation is always inspiring and becomes an annual obsession. While the northeastern area of the United States may be the most famous for their spectacular color show, all the other regions of the country have something to offer, too, even if it is more subtle. In southern Oregon, where I live, we’re fortunate to have a diversity of trees, some deciduous and others evergreen. This produces wonderful variety and contrasts. The valley oaks turn to shades of orange and rust and the aspens in the high altitudes become a blaze of yellow. These are offset against the evergreen firs and pines to create a wonderful counterbalance.
As the color show unfolds, I always find myself attempting to paint these images. With a few exceptions, the paintings usually come up short. This year, after spending a couple of days totally immersed in spectacular fall possibilities, I began to think that this may be one of those nearly unpaintable situations. Unless painted on a grand scale, like the romantic Hudson River School of painting employed, it may be that these images are better left to the photographer. I’m not saying they can’t be done (see, for example, a good tip for dealing with fall color in my November 17, 2008 blog post), but often, the scens are so spectacular that no matter what we do, they end up looking fake.
This is sometimes referred to as the “sunset effect.” As beautiful as it is and as drawn to it as we are, the sunset usually doesn’t make for a good artistic painting. The inherent beauty is too much, allowing no room for personal expression, and is nearly impossible to put down on surface. These spectacular subjects, unless finessed properly, become a postcard. To make them work, we need to step back from the high drama of the moment and allow the viewer a little more to anticipate, engaging their imagination in how beautiful the subject matter might become. There is no hard and fast rule as to what works and what doesn’t. Many artists have painted highly successful renditions. However, museums and galleries are rarely full of spectacular sunsets and over-saturated fall scenes. When they work, they work well, but when they don’t, we walk right past them as overly sweet, decorative wall art.
I will continue to be drawn to the beauty of what the autumn season has to offer and the breathtaking drama of a sunset, and, inevitably, will continue to attempt to communicate that beauty with pastel, but I do realize that some things might be better left to the photographer. This is not meant to diminish what some artists have accomplished by painting these subjects. I just realize that because it is beautiful, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it will make for a worthwhile painting.
Are there any other subjects you might place in this subjective “unpaintable” category? If so, please post a comment.