I was at The Fruitlands Museum in Harvard, MA not long ago and they have a room full of paintings there from the Hudson River School of Art. Fabulous, luminous paintings mostly of upstate New York — memorable paintings of Niagara Falls. It made me think of Thomas Cole’s remarkable painting of Niagara Falls — I don’t remember when I saw it, I just remember how awed I was.
Niagara Falls was a popular summer time vacation destination when I was a kid. While in college in Erie, Pennsylvania, my friends and I took jaunts up there and later I had a romantic rendezvous in an old hotel overlooking the Falls. So, when I saw the first Hudson River paintings of it I fell in love with them and, ultimately, with much of that entire genre. Later, when I moved to Gloucester and saw my first Fitz Hugh (Henry?) Lane paintings I noticed again the quality of light, the luminosity, that infuses these paintings and makes them glow.
In a painting class in college I had a teacher who loved luminosity and used a technique called “glazing” to build up layers of paint with a semi-transparent quality that allowed the light to travel down through the layers and reflect back causing that sense of glow. He taught us to mix a glaze of equal parts turpentine, stand oil and damar varnish to mix with the paint. I never mastered the style but I loved the technique. Now when I look at the few paintings I have left from those days I can still see that faint glow. I know enough about painting now to know that it is not my greatest strength. So I write but the techniques learned in painting translate well into writing — at least I hope that they do.
In painting classes with Betty Lou, I heard her say again and again that you put your darkest dark next to your lightest light to make your painting glow. The luminists knew that. In the Cole painting of Niagara Falls, the deep, mysterious, dark vegetation of a wild new world surrounds the bright, shimmering luminosity of the Falls. But there is more, the light penetrates the layers of paint and reflects back off the canvas creating that shimmer.
I guess what I’m getting at is that the thing that distinguishes a luminist painting from any other landscape or seascape is that added depth and the contrast in values. BL says that values are the basic structure, the form or skeleton, if you will, that supports a painting, much as they are the basic structure of a life. And a book. And so, when I write, I want to tell a story that is not particularly unusual or extraordinary but to tell it in such a way that the light shines through it, that the ordinariness of relating to another person shimmers with layers of complexity that make the ordinary thing extraordinary.
In My Last Romance and other passions it is the passion that is the glazing medium. The relationship between the characters isn’t particularly different than most relationships — some are good, some are not so good. Some make foolish choices and some look at the person they have married and committed their life to and suddenly see something new. It is all because they are people with deeply passionate natures and that passion brings luminosity and the shift in values that BL extolls. Art is instructive to life on so many levels. Today it is instructive to writing, at least for me.
Thanks for reading.