I give a lot of credit to professional and semi-professional artists who seek out ongoing training or the advice of peers, even after their initial successes. I firmly believe that working in a vacuum can be hazardous to one’s creative health. In my spring 2011 class at Gage Academy, Landscape: Essential Theory and Process, I was fortunate enough to work with such a painter—Lisa Snow Lady.
Lisa works in acrylics and has recently been focusing on urban landscape paintings. She is what I call a natural shape painter—one whose innate love of shapes can’t help but express itself within the painting. The shapes themselves become the purpose of the painting; the subject is secondary. This is a good thing. If a painting is to be really good, it will be so in large part because of the integrity and variety of its shapes.
Prior to the class Lisa’s paintings were filled with “spontaneity and playfulness,” as she described it. “But as a result of the class my work has undergone a welcomed change,” she explains. “The new work holds together better with simpler, bolder shapes and better value relationships.” This is readily apparent when we compare an older piece, Padilla Bay, to a painting she completed in class, The Caretaker’s House. The latter is clearly more grounded. The playful or “storybook” quality is gone, and the shapes are more diversified and interesting. Some shapes are geometric (as in the house), others are organic (as in the ground), while others are shard-like (as in the trees). Furthermore, the shapes not only have different character, they are also different sizes. All this diversity of shape maintains visual interest and potency.
|Padilla Bay, acrylic on paper, 14 x 14.||The Caretaker’s House, acrylic on board, 11 x11.|
The newer work still possesses a great deal of spontaneity. It is a misconception that for something to be spontaneous it must have been done quickly. A slapdash appearance is actually not consistent with spontaneity. The Impressionists are commonly regarded as masters of spontaneity, yet their works are among the most considered and thoughtful of 19th century art. There is such a thing as controlled spontaneity, which is what Lisa is working with.
|Crossroads, acrylic on board, 18.5 x 14.5.|
Lisa’s newer work also has greater focus. In a piece like Crossroads, there are many similar sized shapes marching across the panorama. There is certainly movement from right to left, yet it is not as unified as Urban Sunset. The panoramic format can be problematic. The elongated horizontal can disrupt the integration of the forms and shapes, which is beginning to happen in Crossroads. City Park, however, provides a different visual experience. When our gaze sets upon it, it is like hitting a target. It is also a panoramic composition, but the shapes hold together better. The focus is tighter. A few simple shapes are easier for the eye to apprehend—and ultimately more satisfying to look at.
|City Park, acrylic on board, 8.5 x 14.5.|
There is another curious phenomenon that occurs within Lisa’s paintings. As urban landscapes, they readily offer many indicators of space—vertical cues like telephone poles, the geometry of architecture and, most notably, the strong perspective in the streets and walkways. Yet, if you soften your gaze and observe more slowly, you’ll notice that these seemingly dimensional paintings are also flat. The drawn shapes report information that part of our mind recognizes as “things,” which in turn suggest “space.” But the flatness of the shapes themselves (supported by the outlines that surround many of them) run counter to the illusion of space and suggest flatness.
In Urban Sunset, the reddish brown color along many of the edges is actually the underpainting peeking through the subsequent layers of color. (The underpainting is the first stage of the painting, an atonal rendering that establishes value, placement and composition.) Lisa says, “Letting the underpainting show through as the painting develops is intentional. It’s part of what I like about the painting and something I don’t want to lose.”
That the shapes in Lisa’s paintings happen to describe urban landscapes is of secondary importance, in my opinion. A shape painter, first and foremost, celebrates shapes. As representational paintings, the streets, avenues and houses that populate them will naturally attach themselves to the part of our mind that names things, but it is the integrity and variety of shapes that will allow the painting to resonate at a deeper level and form a lasting visual impression.
Lisa Snow Lady lives and paints in Seattle, Washington. You can find out more about her and see her work at her website.
Mitchell Albala is the author of Landscape Painting: Essential Concepts and Techniques for Plein Air and Studio Practice (Watson-Guptill, 2009). He also hosts an educational blog about landscape painting. Find him on Facebook and YouTube.
›› Flat and Ambiguous Space, p 170
›› Tim Horn, p 59