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The Topography of Light-

Updated: Jan 8

Contemplating the play of sun across the land- Brian Keeler

We painters love the way light describes our world. In fact, the description of light is at the core of many realist artists work, including my own. I have used the title of this essay, in various forms, as the title for several of my exhibits as it seems to encapsulate the idea of light in relation to the land that I find enjoyable. To extend the idea, a couple of my shows I've titled Urban Topographies, as this furthers the concept into a consideration of inner cities and towns also being topographies. In this case it is the forms of streets and buildings that make up the structures for light to play upon. I thought the idea could use a little further elaboration- hence, this essay.

Above- A landscape depicting a valley near Mehoopany, PA- titled, "Autumnal Topography, Last Light." It is a 38" x 44" oil on linen on panel. The last light of a September day strikes the tops of the mountains in this painting. There is a zigzag composition used as well, folowing the patterns of the newly-mown field (in the front right) back to the barn, then up diagonally to the right through the slanted fields and then going up through the diagonals in the slanted contours of the mountains and into the clouds. The clouds too have a group of diagonal slants to complete the "Z" armature or structure.

A video- of the final touches being applied to this work is availble at this link-

My most recent painting, a large landscape depicitng a beautiful view in Wyoming County, PA near Mehoopany (shown above) utilizes this idea of light on topography as the essential aspect. At least the flow of the land, the ribbons of newly mowed fields in the foreground and off into the distance were the engaging parts of this scene. There were other qualities that coalesced too, which all combined to support the endeavor. I've painted this area that is not far from Tunkannock, PA on many other occasions. Choosing different vantage points, times of day and differnt seasons, all serve to show that this motif has endless possibilites.

The appeal of the subject of this painting has to do with the unsullied agrarian motif. The farms and fields have not changed too much since the 19th century giving the view a timeless quality. Fortunately, there have been no intrusions of housing developments or other aspects of modernity- well, until fairly recently that is. Several years ago, I was painting there and a homeowner warned me that I should enjoy it while I could, as the sightline was about to be assaulted. And it was true, a row of huge wind generators now are planted across the crest of the mountians. I left them out of my new painting. Why, you may ask. Well, a romantic spirit in me likes the notion of untrammeled farmlands. Yet, I still like to include telephone poles and wires- within reason. On this painting, I did alter those lines so as not to be going right through the sky I was painting. But these modern windmills are really huge, and the inclusion would have altered the feel and concept of the work. Speaking of windmills, we know those of past eras from paintings and photos and occasionally we'll still see a remant of one or an actual new private one. But these show individual efforts at self-sufficiency not industrial scale behemoths.

Yes, wind-generated electricity is better than nuclear power, or fracking and other fossil fuels. The wind generators may even be less intrusive than acres and acres of solar panels. And yes, any of the greener energy sources would be better. Still, there should be some consideration for the history, inherent visual beauty and aesthetics of our heritage within our landscapes. The fact that these wind generators were built and owned by BP does not endear them to me either. A corporate land grab in other words, with little concern for the beauty of the land.

Above- The paintings of the American artist of the 20th century, Grant Wood also showed an appreciation for the patterns and topography of rural America. The above work was part of the show of Wood's work at the Whitney Muesuem of American Art.

As another example of an artist finding the same muse, (in the patterns of the land) the work of Grant Wood comes to mind. He did some amazing works that stylized plowed fields in the Midwest where he lived in Iowa. These works were viewed several years ago in a retrospective at the Whitney Museum of Art in NYC. He skillfully expressed the concave hills and recessed valleys after a farmer had just plowed. The farmer had unwttingly created captivating patterns, geometric flows and interconnecting rhythms. Grant Wood took advantage of the raw material and blended it into a group of highly sophisticaded orchestrations. I loved these works and many others in the show. His left-leaning sensibilites and subliminal social commentaries also had resonance and appeal.

Above- Brian Keeler sketching in the Mauritshuis Museum in the Hague in the Netherlands during January of 2023. This landscape painting of the 17th century Dutch painter, Jacob Van Ruisdael uses the same division of space (mostly sky) with a similar interest in the abstract design qualities of the foreground elements.

To view a video of this sketch being done in the museum- view this link:

Another artist, of another era and place, who also brought out the beauty of the land and sky, was Jacob Van Ruisdael, the 17th century Dutch painter. We had the pleasure of viewing his work in The Hague (Netherlands) this January at the Mauritshuis Museum. A small oil of his, a depiction of bolts of cloth layed out in fields as they bleached and dryed in the sun was one such work. I stopped to sketch it to better appreciate the rhythm and light. The lighting is remarkable as it is truly organized, with just small patches of sun come thorugh here and there to create a visual hierarchy and lead us viewers on journey.

Above- A small 18" x 18" plein air work of the same motif as above- but a different time of year is depicted.

Light as the motif, combined with the land is the entree to many of my works. I am not concerned with social commentaries but only endeavoring to work with the fundamentals of the art. Exploring the visual world in its humble sources but with the possibility of evoking the transcendent is at the crux of these works. Of course, light is not restricted to the land, as interior views, the portrait, the figure and still lifes too can be the motif as well.

Many of these works are done on location, en plein air, and I think this direct perception of the motif is important. Being there in the open air, with all the variables and influences adds to the experience and allows for the serrendiptious. Feeling the air, absorbing the light, entrhalling in the nuances of hue and tone as they change during a given session out doors- these are part of the process.

Above- A large oil of the valley being discussed here- This time it is a view in winter.

The light on this recent one and the winter scene of the same valley shown here feature late afternoon light. The recent work has the light restricted to just those areas on the distant mountains where the sun is catching. The sun therefore brings out the roundness and contours of those hills. We also know the day is fast disappearing. Therefore, the lansdcape has no direct light upon it and we rely on the fields or topography itself to do the describing in these areas. In the winter scene above, the light is also hitting the large band of snow in the foreground. The scuplural qualites carved by the wind are therefore brought out by the light.

Observers in my studio, on the Commons here in Ithaca, NY would occasioinaly view this new work as it was progressing. I invited them back to view it in progress. Invariably they would comment on the beauty of the sky and clouds. These cloud forms were inspired by what I saw but elaborated upon. I did take in some observations and adjusted the work. Thinking of Norman Rockwell, as he would to the same in his studio- get impressions from visitors. It is a way of getting a fresh take, like using a mirror to see the work anew.

Above- Another interpretation of the same valley near Mehoopany, PA. This one is a 26" x 30" oil on panel - done en plein air.

To view a video of the above painting being created en plein air- click this link-

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