Friday, January 28th, 2011

Leaving it out, keeping it in

I’ve always loved Edward Hopper. Much of the beauty and mystery of his paintings comes from what he didn’t paint, as much as what he did. When I was younger, the process of drawing was fueled by a love of detail. I’d labor over weathered clapboards, the trickiness of windows, often consumed with individual blades of grass. Many artists do just fine with that level of detail. But for many, including me, there is a general feeling behind a scene that needs to be captured, not the literal scene itself. The trick, I have learned, is to be brave enough to leave stuff out, or to keep things in.

Yale University Art Gallery recently purchased a collection of Hopper drawings…studies he did for paintings we all now recognize. Studies are great for understanding process. In Hopper’s Western Motel (left, above) he made the wise decision to leave out the motel sign, to simplify the distant hills, and to get rid of the woman’s companion. What he saw that day was a mundane event (a couple sitting in a hotel lobby). What he painted is something more mysterious, and more universal.

When I’m on the Cape I always poke around Hopper’s old haunts (Truro, Wellfleet, Eastham), as the light and architecture that captured his attention captures mine. Near Wellfleet’s Mayo Beach, sits a stately white house you can’t miss, as it abruptly interrupts the view of the bay as you enter the beach parking lot.  A thin line of scraggly pines attempts to provide privacy between the beach lot and the house. I was immediately struck (as I often am) by the blast of late afternoon light on the white of the house. But in drawing the scene, I became equally interested in that line of trees and the role they played. Though I only did this one preparatory sketch for Treeline it involved decisions on what to leave out, and what to keep in. The decorative finials were beautiful, but distracting. The addition to the right of the house is unnecessary (an artist mentor once barked at me in critique, “just because some carpenter built a damn porch doesn’t mean you have to paint the damn porch!”) I even considered leaving out the trees, to put more emphasis on the house and the light. Instead, I left them in as they are  (I think) the real subject of the painting.

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