Painting the South
The south is a world of light. Luminescent brightness is the first, clearest and most lasting impression it makes when you arrive, and its absence is what hits you when you go back north. For a painter, the challenge is somehow to evoke this world using colours and canvas. It’s a challenge which forces the benighted northerner to seek out entirely new methods of painting, looking and seeing.
Impressionism – or anything like impressionism – is no technique for the south. There’s no subtlety here, no gradation of light and shade, just as there’s no gradation of the summer heat. There are hot places and there are cool places: there are light places and there are places immersed in dark, stark-edged shadow. Colours are intense, radiating blocks or shimmering, light-flecked pools. Solid shapes of blue, green and the tones of hot earth confront you unflinchingly.
Look at a photo of the local landscape and you’ll see this – blue sky, dark green trees (enlivened, perhaps, by light olive, sunflowers or lavender), and yellow-red-white soil. It can make a great photo, but it won’t shine if you paint it as it is. What, then, can the artist do? How can you draw the light in through the solid tones?
Well, you can start by looking at the masters. Cézanne picks out and exaggerates the stark shapes (like Mont Sainte-Victoire), lightening the greens and heightening the yellows and reds. Often he just paints sparingly, letting the white canvas carry the brightness through.
Van Gogh, on the other hand, runs with the intensity of colour, bringing out the shimmering light in vibrant swirls and patterns. So do the Fauves – Matisse and Derain – though they go for the colours between the colours, so a green olive becomes its complementary red, or a blue sky violent orange. They also let the canvas shine through (think of Matisse’s later open windows and odalisques) and, in the case of Matisse, ultimately let the light itself paint itself. Visit his chapel in Vence and see how the beams of the coloured windows play across the bleached interior.
I haven’t mentioned Picasso: Picasso doesn’t paint the landscape. But he, if anyone, paints the feeling of the south – and the feeling is born of the landscape, the heat and the light. This is a world of shapes as arresting as Mont Saint-Victoire, of bulls, bright colours and white heat.
So there we are, and here I am, in the south with my paintbrush in hand, the sun in my eyes, and the paint drying far too quickly on my palette. So many lessons – so many visions – so many possibilities. Time to get on with it, then – there’s a world of light out there!