Shifting Skies

From the Lane by Claire Thorson


Retreat indeed. The beautiful stone barn in its tucked away surroundings was a sanctuary. It was luxury to wake up to such thorough quietude.  The depth of green, the hidden movements of wildlife, the flow of time unimpeded by schedules and deadlines, were triggers to a deeper experience of place. I extended this connection with place by resuming a practice both familiar and forgotten–landscape painting.

With a portable easel and folding gardener’s chair, I walked the surrounding cornfields and woodlands, to apprehend views of hills, fields, and distant mountains. My spouse accompanied me, making use of the time to observe birds, plants, and other wild life. The weather was stormy and the sky was perpetually in flux. Clouds loomed and subsided, obscured and revealed the features of the land.  The greens were almost interminable.

From the Castle by Claire Thorson

To sit and observe the landscape is simple act, which invokes formal challenges of composition, color mixing, reduction to pattern and texture, manipulation of edge, and control of surface quality. I used gouache and painted on some panels purchased in Paris. I worked in small formats; sometimes I felt like I was painting in miniature! In the humid weather, the gouache was not unlike oils, re-workable, dense in color, rich in tone, with a capacity for surface variation.

Gouache has matte quality which some artists dislike but which I love. When I started painting seriously so many years ago now, I painted with gouache. I had a basic set of paint in pans, then moved on to tubes, using mat board scraps as my supports.  It was a portable and inexpensive medium.  So my work at Bordeneuve was an echo of origins. In striving to represent, I was presented with the questions that are always active in painting. What makes these elements and features important? What do I include or leave out? How does the painting as a whole transcend the ordinary?
On some days the rain did come and outdoor painting with water-base media wasn’t possible.  Noelle Thompson, inimitable host and director of Bordeneuve, kindly arranged to have a few of her friends come sit for me in the barn.

Genevieve by Claire Thorson

Saskia, age 12, was such an eager artist that I was obliged to trade off easel time with her.  We alternated sitting for each other for 20 minutes at a time.  Saskia was a good sitter, but her interest in making was clear; she was as ferocious going after an image as she was fearless in the mixed-media experiment. I felt wistful when she left–it was so easy to imagine a continued relationship.

On another day, other friends, Gerard and Genevieve, were willing to be models only. As artists, they both had a supportive understanding of creative focus and the uncertainty of resolving anything in a short time frame. They each sat for over an hour, a very generous offering. The painting of Gerard was done inside, with limited light, and has a decidedly muted, interior feeling.  By the time Genevieve posed, the sun was out again so we sat on the balcony. The strong directional light brought out warm and strident colors. Conversation with each of them enriched the time we spent together.  And lunch in the garden afterward (with hats!) was the perfect conclusion.


From the Field by Claire Thorson.

On that note, I must mention Noelle’s remarkable cooking. Her knowledge of food and wine, reliance on mostly local ingredients, and her exceptional hand with pastry, enriched and heightened the whole experience of the residency. Evening meals with Noelle and Karl, in the garden or under the protective awning of the barn’s balcony when it was raining, were a delight to the senses and intellect. We miss those meals and free-ranging conversations most of all.

The paintings I completed at Bordeneuve, strike me as quite humble, spare in conceptual trappings, especially when I compare them to the large oil on canvas abstracts that I’m currently working on in my studio.  So I hold them in reserve, with an introspective eye to how formal practice might influence ideas and generate pathways to abstraction.  My intentions were to work observationally while at the residency, to refresh the source from which image making is often derived–and circumstances conspired to hold me to the bargain.

Seeing the landscape again where I live in Elkhorn, California, I am freshly aware of its particulars: color, pattern, light and reflected light, the intersection of farmland and slough. I reconsider the small format for both landscape and figure painting– for its intimacy and the valuable urgency of completing a painting in one session. I feel the tug of “place”, both near and far, and know that my work will be permeable to it.

Claire painting in the field above the house

–Claire Thorson


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