Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Changing Seasons



A high of 100F this afternoon! I guess summer is finally here?

This is a small painting that I started as a demo for my Landscape Concepts class. I later put a few more hours into it.

Here in the inland Northern California, we don't get big thunderheads during summer. But I spent my formative years in a more humid climate, so I always associate thunderheads with summertime. Seasonal "cues" are a big part of what makes landscape painting so compelling, and I find it almost an imperative to include some sort of visual element that lets the viewer know the time of the year.

I know where it comes from. It comes from growing up in Japan where traditional literature always includes seasonal cues. Take haiku for example. You've got only seventeen syllables to make your statement, and it must always include a "ki-go", which literally means "seasonal word".  If it doesn't include a ki-go, it's not a haiku. It's a different format called senryu. (Still the same 5-7-5 syllables)

I see landscape painting similarly, but the problem with painting in California is that the seasonal cues which point to a specific time of the year elsewhere, don't necessarily apply here. In Japan, hydrangea means June. Morning glory is July, sunflower is August, cosmos is september. Here, all these flowers can bloom from spring to fall, so they don't really serve the purpose of ki-go with the same specificity.

Not that I'm really looking to be that specific and literal, but I do respond to moods and memories of  a specific time more than place.  So I do like the idea of weaving in seasonal cues in my paintings, if only as a peripheral player.

I'm not talking about hit-your-viewer-over-the-head type of seasonal depiction, like a snowstorm. Often the quality of light itself is enough to point to a certain season. Or the colors of the foliage (green grass in California means Winter!)  If I look at a painting and think that it could be any time of the year, it doesn't really resonate with me. It doesn't stir anything in my memory.

On the other hand, if a landscape painting does grab my attention and holds me there, it usually has a strong sense of seasonal mood to it.


If you're interested in the influence of Japanese literature, especially pertaining to sensitivity to seasons, check out My Neighbor Totoro, a masterpiece animated film by Hayao Miyazaki. And pay close attention to the background paintings. In practically every scene, there are very specific and accurate seasonal visual cues. Sometimes they're plants, other times they're certain kinds of insects. They might be obvious or subtle, but they are used extremely thoughtfully and effectively to provide a timeline for the story.

And big thunderheads? August.

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