When I was a kid, my father Hugh Paterson would take me to the Member's Room at the Art Institute of Chicago. This was a unique place where, for the price of a museum membership you could gain access to original artworks by major artists in a one-on-one venue.
We would go in and fill out a request card specifying what artist's work we would like to see. A few minutes later a staff member clad in white cloth gloves would arrive at our table with an easel and a stack of original artworks on paper. Miraculous!
I can remember holding court with a half-dozen or so original Winslow Homer watercolors one day. Insanely azure caribbean scenes with upturned boat hulls and figures rendered with impeccable draftsmanship and painterly ease. Gorgeous landscapes and heroic yet human figures. But one set of paintings interested me in particular that day.
It was a group of fishing scenes along the rapids of the Saguenay River in Québec, Canada. The rapids were enormous, dwarfing the fisherman and their guides. The images of them running the rapids in canoes were especially compelling as my father had recently taken me whitewater canoeing on northern Wisconsin's Wolf River where we had fished, ran rapids and capsized our canoe on more than one occasion.
Fishing the Rapids, Sanguenay
The most striking thing about the paintings was Homer's handling of the river itself. The rivers of the Canadian Shield are stained by their drainage through tamarack swamps that leach large amounts of tannic acid into their waters. The resulting water is clear but stained the color of iced tea. The surface reflects the greys and blues of the northern skies while the depths are a deep, clear blackish- burnt sienna hue. The foam piles of the waves are a reddish-caramel whip. Since those days, the color in the rivers has defined the North Woods experience for me. It holds a specific and internally meaningful memory for me of adrenaline, fear and wonder in nature.
As a painter, I think about what getting a color "right" really means. Does it matter or not? In the end what is important is the painting, not its veracity to the scene that inspired it, right? Well maybe, or maybe not.
I used to look at the figures and landscapes of Thomas Hart Benton (Jackson Pollock's teacher) and think that they were just exaggerated manneristic creations based on his feelings toward his subjects. But that was before I actually traveled through the Ozarks and saw how ancient, torn and tattered those mountains really looked. And how the people who lived among them absorbed that hardscrabble line in their own forms. Was it just Benton's regionalist vision? Or a slightly enhanced representation of what he really saw. I think the latter.
And I can't help but wonder if Benton's tenaciously specific ( and accurate) interpretations of the land he saw didn't somehow trickle down into Pollock's consciousness. His ability to recognize as authentic the cosmic vibrations held in the skeins of his drip paintings.
It's all opinion and thought in the world of art, that's one of its beauties. As long as it provokes thought on any level, it's successful for me. But when I paint I do leave myself open to the color and line of the visible world. It may not inform all art, but it can inform some things in ways very meaningful to oneself and others, but only if you trust it to.