This week's blog was written by painter, John Stephenson. John shares his fascination with water as one of his subjects.
If I look back over my painting, drawing, and other work I find that I have developed a fascination with water as a subject or crucial element in my art. This appears in images of fish swimming deep in the ocean, scenes of water flowing through cities, forest waterfalls.There are many reasons for this interest. I have spent so many hours by the water, in the water, on the water that my experience has penetrated deep in my imagination. I have never lived far from the water and as a child was excited by the pounding of waves on Southern California coast, learning to swim in the ocean, awed by the vast expanse of the Pacific.
Water also has physical qualities that make it attractive to a painter or other visual artist. The constant flow and free movement of water, its shape-shifting qualities from mist to liquid to solid ice or the way water covers and penetrates everything. It changes the appearance of objects by making them shiny and reflective or by deepening their local color. Water interacts with light creating wild and interesting changes as light shines through vapor making rainbows, darkening as it penetrates deep water, distorting but transmitting an image of a rock on the bottom of a stream.
Water also has a long history of symbolic significance for ancient cultures and religions. It has been drawn on for this ability to signify and metaphorically stand for experiences and values that are hard to express directly in language. Traditionally water has stood for purity, healing, cleansing, and spiritual values. It is associated with life forming and life giving powers that are central to our sense of vitality and growth.
All these elements and aspects of water including my experiences as a child have entered my consciousness in ways I only partially understand. But they are there and get expressed when I paint. In part it is the physical act of painting: moving paint around, watching it flow, smear, moving around in the passive way that water does. Yet it creates a hard and fast image when it dries. Often I play with paint the way I might play with water.
My response to waterfalls or the ocean or rain is conditioned by all the underlying meanings that water has had in my life through religion, literature, and art…from the great floods of Bible stories to impressionist views of the sea shore…probably the greatest being the sense of freedom, movement, life force, that I feel when I watch ocean waves, feel and hear the rush of a mountain stream, coming on a tiny pool of water and patch of wildflowers after half a mile on a dusty trail. It works most forcefully when I translate some memory of these experiences to the imagination in the act of putting paint of varying hues and dilution on canvas. Watching my brush make marks and constantly change the effects of the medium actually creates the feeling and sound of water. It is an uncanny but exciting process which seems to free me up from the often fussy and picky mindset I can find myself in when I paint. It is a profound sense of freedom and painting is a way to express that sense of freedom.