357: Look Until You See

“CAN’T you see the red in that shadow?” I was taking a painting workshop at the Grand Canyon from one of America’s preeminent landscape painters. My instructor was pointing to a shadowy cliff. I peered into the depths but couldn’t see a single ray of color. It was all black to me.

River Shadows, 18″ x 18″, oil on canvas

Our instructor wanted us to paint a nocturn on our fourth day of painting. I was intrigued; I had never painted a nocturn before. It sounded impossibly hard at my stage of development, but I was willing to try. My only problem after I set up my easel at the edge of the canyon was I could see very little color. The shadows looked totally black.

Initially, I felt my instructor might be feigning to see color in that abyss. But then I realized he had no incentive to exaggerate. I accepted the possibility he could see something I could not.

Fast forward fifteen years; I’m beside a river and peering into the shadows of a distant tree. It’s midmorning, and I see reds and purples in those shadows. It occurs to me that a decade ago, a similar shadow would appear to be a shade of neutral gray, with practically no trace of color. What changed? I now see subtle shifts of hue in the darkest recesses. I mix the colors I see and apply the paint with a palette knife.

Back in the studio, I’m pleased to note that the painting is one of the best plein air paintings I have painted recently. It has all the hallmarks I love; spontaneous, half-mixed color, with lots of complementary color in nearly every stroke. But most importantly, the shadows have a glow I rarely achieve. The shadows have color.

Although I still have trouble seeing color in shadows at midday, I am looking for them and expect them to appear soon. I now know my instructor was not feigning to see a hue that wasn’t there. He saw more color because he had developed a heightened sensitivity. His ability to see color had magnified due to the innumerable hours he spent peering into those inky depths.

I can’t explain it. It doesn’t seem plausible to me, and I haven’t read anything on the subject to cast more illumination on such a possibility. I have experienced not seeing color in shadow, and years later was able to see subtle color gradations in similar shadows. It was a beautiful moment.

All I can say is keep looking until you see.

Brad Teare –August 2019

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Updated: 19th June 2024
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