IT SEEMS TO ME, who have never held a brush in my life except to dip it in a bucket of house paint, that a good reason to become a painter, aside from the enduring mystery of beauty, is to learn how to see. And painters do indeed spend an inordinate amount of time in sustained gazing. In that regard, they are like rigid blue herons on bluffs above the shore, fastened on some movement in the grass.
This capacity for prayer-like, fixed attention has become rare. But it is an ability that some of us, painters or not, have begun to recover via meditative prayer and practices of solitude and silence. Philosopher and mystic Simone Weil speaks of this discipline in the language of kenosis, the voluntary self-emptying undergone by Christ. Attention, she says, “consists of suspending our thought, leaving it detached, empty, and ready to be penetrated by the object.”
Though she is talking here about the need to let go of our usual anxious ruminations regarding the to-do list, the appointments, the email inbox, and breaking news, that is not all she is talking about. True attention, in Weil’s view, is mystical, in the sense that it transcends self-concern of any kind. It does not grasp. It does not seek to own. It simply gazes, in wonder and in love, upon the real.
This view of things—that the capacity to see and comprehend reality follows the conquering of blind self-regard and an increase in one’s ability to love—is central to early Christian spirituality, particularly as it was practiced in the deserts of Egypt, Palestine, and Syria during the third, fourth, and fifth centuries AD. Clarity of vision was the result of decades of disciplined ascesis: celibacy, fasting, solitude, silence, poverty, and the keeping of sleepless vigils.
Thankfully for those of us who do not live in desert caves, contemporary teachers of Christian meditation such as Laurence Freeman and Thomas Keating tell us that even the simplest of attempts to attend—say, twenty minutes of silent prayer every morning and evening—seems to have a cumulative effect on who we are, pushing us incrementally along a path of self-purification.
Why should this be so? Weil has one explanation: “Something in our soul has a far more violent repugnance for true attention than the flesh has for bodily fatigue. This something is much more closely connected with evil than the flesh. This is why every time we really concentrate our attention, we destroy the evil in ourselves.” Clearly, Weil takes it for granted that the object of our focus is neither degrading nor horrifying but good and beautiful and true: that it has the capacity to draw us higher. But in addition to what it is we look at, the quiet, steady, detached act of looking itself has power to change us.
Painters—especially those who devote a life to the craft, thus constitute a fascinating case study in spiritual dynamics. What is the effect on their souls of years of disciplined gazing?
I once spent a day driving through the Negev, that rainless wasteland which constitutes over half the land mass of Israel. I could not imagine stopping the car and standing outside for more than a few minutes. It was just after noon, and the baking sand and hot sky had become one dull glare in which nothing—no gnarled desert shrub or interesting rock—was distinguishable.
Directly west, beyond the Gulf of Suez and the Nile, lay the Egyptian version of the Negev, the wilderness once inhabited by the fourth-century ascetics of an eremitical community called Cells. Perhaps at dawn or during a winter midnight when the perfect blackness of the sky made stars burn incandescently, it was beautiful. But most of the time, it was sun and wind and silence beyond imagining.
Around the year 385, a brilliant young man who became known to history as Evagrius of Ponticus came to this place in order to learn how to see. He’d prepared for his ordeal by first putting in a stint at the austere colony of Nitria. During the fourteen years he lived in Cells, he survived on raw vegetables, dry bread, a pint of oil measured out to last him three months at a time.
His spiritual methodology was the usual one for his times: strict asceticism combined with continual prayer. The practical disciplines were meant to purify the soul of lust, gluttony, avarice, anger, sadness, acedia (the spirit of futility), vainglory, and pride; prayer was in service of replacing what had been driven out. The hoped-for result was apatheia, a permanent state of tranquility regardless of circumstance. To love as Christ loved required this difficult death to self-regard.
But Evagrius soon learned that “the effects of keeping the commandments do not suffice to heal the powers of the soul completely. They must be complemented by a contemplative activity appropriate to these faculties and this faculty must penetrate the spirit.” Long before Simone Weil and contemporary teachers of Christian meditation, he understood that the focused and detached gaze, in and of itself, has a powerful purifying effect on both psyche and spirit.
At what do we gaze? The first level of contemplation is to see creation as it really is: nature as a sacramental sign of divine but invisible realities. The stark blue sky, the burnt, folded hills, the sea of restless sand as somehow, like us, participating in the life of God through Christ who anchors us in eternity. We gaze upon physical matter, according to Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann, as “the material of one all-embracing Eucharist.” And we approach this “cosmic sacrament” with the care and reverence of priests.
Yet even after we have seen and comprehended the divine significance of the natural world, and “even if the spirit should rise above the contemplation of corporeal nature,” warns Evagrius, we might still fail to achieve the second stage, which is to gaze upon “the perfect place of God.” We might, for example, still “be engaged in the contemplation of intelligible things and partake of their multiplicity.” In other words, we might get sidetracked. Our gaze could become more curious than contemplative. What is the chemical composition of that blowing sand? Questions leading us not to God but to the laboratory.
Or we could be seduced. We could stand before a flaming sunset and, lofted into the ether by beauty-induced euphoria, find ourselves craving more and ever more. The Jesuit paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin, who also spent time in the desert, who had nature-induced mystical experiences, worried a lot about this. Falling into pantheistic bliss. Or becoming one of Kierkegaard’s aesthetes, stuck in the honey of pleasurable sensation.
Finally, and perhaps worst of all, we might be lured into the Minotaur’s labyrinth of private inner vision and never find our way out again. The violet storm clouds massing over the purple mountains evoke profound thoughts within. We are pretty sure that no one has ever thought these thoughts before, proof that we are unique among men, destined to be misunderstood. In other words, we become romantics, more interested in expressing our originality than in discovering the real. Or, as Evagrius puts it, we mistake “the smoke for the light.”
If, however, we stay on the contemplative path—if we somehow skirt these man-traps laid by demons—he assures us that “then the angels will walk with [us] and enlighten [us] concerning the meaning of created things.” Miraculously, “the light of our spirit” will begin to operate “without deception.” And then we will be given knowledge of the Trinity and we will “rise above every other joy.”
This is by all accounts what happened to Evagrius himself, who died in 399 at the age of fifty-five on the Feast of Epiphany, also known as the Feast of Light.
Landscape painters at work do not, after all, look much like blue herons. They remind us more of symphony conductors: one arm rhythmically rising and falling, the wrist making calligraphic twists and turns, the brush hovering like a baton. Some of them prefer to stand; they lean from side to side as they work, the other arm acting like plumb line to keep them in balance. Or they sit, backs straight, in portable aluminum beach chairs. Or perhaps they brace themselves against a tree, their legs stretched flat in front of them, slowly going numb.
Their eyes are never still; their field of vision is split. Back and forth their focus goes from scene to palette to paper. They look at nature and see what the rest of us don’t notice—a jigsaw puzzle of interrelated parts: streaks of color, evocative shapes, shadows and glints of light.
The most dedicated of them rise at dawn in order to catch first light. They are willing to hike, if that’s what it takes. The hardier ones trudge out to paint when snow is on the ground, or during a shimmering heat wave. They know almost everything there is to know about air. When wind comes up, they anchor their easels with buckets of rocks or backpacks dangling from the center of their tripods. Caps shield their eyes (sunglasses distort color) and breezes lift their hair. The backs of their hands are bronzed. Some of them, as though in labor, clench a brush between their teeth
They conduct their silent symphonies alone. All of this is part of a painter’s ascesis.
Painter David Dewey has always been drawn to the mysterious properties of light. As he says in his popular Watercolor Book, light “is the wellspring of color, and thus of our visual perception of the landscape’s topographical structures. It is the most important influence on anyone choosing to paint the colored tapestries of landscape.”
But painting outdoors presents particular challenges. For one thing, it is extremely difficult to render light. Even the premier landscape artist of the nineteenth century, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, had trouble doing it: “This sun gives off a light that makes me despair. It makes me feel the utter powerlessness of my palette.”
To make things even trickier, outdoor light is ever changing. One cannot linger over the scene. “Watercolor has long shared in the tradition of landscape painting,” Dewey explains, primarily because light is so ephemeral. “The medium’s portability and fast-drying quality [are] two characteristics that readily suit it to capturing, quickly and spontaneously, nature’s constant state of flux and fleeting atmospheric conditions.” There is another reason this particular genre is so suited to capturing light: “In watercolor, it is the light generated by the whiteness of the paper that breathes life into the colors painted over its surface, providing this medium with a radiance known to no other.”
Dewey, who is known for luminescent coastal landscapes like Pink Cloud, has always been a close observer of nature and a lover of the outdoors [see Plate 8]. As a young boy in rural Belvidere, New Jersey, he began painting and drawing imaginary scenes that appealed to his eye and inner sensibility, probably out of “emotional need,” he admits, though underneath the pleasure painting gave him, “I always knew from childhood that I would be an artist.”
Early on, he found a mentor, a next-door neighbor who taught art at the local high school. “He treated me like an artist,” says Dewey, critiquing those youthful efforts and encouraging Dewey to take his talent seriously. In 1965, now attending the Philadelphia College of Art, Dewey met his second mentor, Joseph Fiore, an accomplished landscape painter who steered him in a new direction. It was Fiore who introduced him to plein-air painting, helping him to lay the foundation for his own mature work. The two of them spent hours painting outdoors, allowing Dewey to gain experience in composing pictures directly from nature. After Fiore’s death in 2008, Dewey became curator of his old friend’s painting estate, now part of the Falcon Charitable Foundation.
Dewey always had a special affinity for watercolor, studying the works of masters like Alfred Sisley, Winslow Homer, Edward Hopper, and Charles Sheeler and discovering along the way that the genre seemed particularly suited to his own personality and skills. Then, in the early eighties, thanks primarily to technical advances in the making of watercolor papers and to the opening of new art markets in America, the medium—always a popular hobby for amateurs but too often overlooked by serious art aficionados—began to come into its own. The time seemed right to make it his primary medium.
At first, however, he focused more on manmade structures than on the atmospheric scenes for which he is now best known. He tended to paint buildings in a natural setting or the facades of buildings in partial shadow. “That was because of my need for geometry and order: they were metaphors for order. All along, however, I was really interested in the ordering of natural light on natural and manmade forms. In my more recent works [from the late nineties to the present], the interest in light and geometry is still there, but hidden beneath the painting; it’s more in the foundation than the surface; I understand it more.”
In Winter Thaw for example, the underlying geometric shapes are readily apparent [see Plate 9]. His subject is a small rectangular house built of narrow planks, or, in geometric terms, equidistant parallel lines. His brushstrokes are fine and precise; at the near edge of every plank is a tiny triangular shadow. Each element (part of a second house situated to the left of the subject, a triangular shrub to the right, and a slice of building with a curved propane tank to the far right) is placed in close enough proximity that we can see both positive and negative shapes, an effect that encourages a sense of tranquility in the viewer. As finite human beings, we can never capture our experiences completely, either in words or through visual art, so the shapes at the edges of the frame are cropped for an “open” composition that reflects our inability to fully know reality, at least during this earthly life.
Bathed in purple shadow, the little house is partially mirrored in snow melt. Wherever the sunlight falls—on a doorjamb, eaves, a narrow swatch of snowbank in front of the house—the whites pop. Perhaps the most magnetic element in the painting is the perfectly rendered wash of the clear sky with its subtle golden glow near the horizon, the source of all light. The overall effect is Shaker-like: a celebration of the simple but unusual beauty of the mundane.
Nowadays, Dewey is known for what Michael Gormley, in a recent Watercolor essay, calls the “soft atmospheric glow, reflective waters, and deep calm” of his paintings, effects sought after by painters of the mid-nineteenth-century Luminist school. Luminism was a close cousin of Impressionism—both sought to capture evanescent atmospheric light—but unlike Impressionism, it was characterized by its hidden brushstrokes and faithful rendering of detail. As he has moved beyond his early focus on geometric shapes, however, Dewey has taken the original Luminist vision and made it distinctly his own. His work is often very spare. His most recent compositions are simple and nearly detail-free. What strikes the eye is the ethereal interplay of light and color.
In Full Moon Tide we are invited to see through Dewey’s particular window on the world [see Plate 10]. The main element in the picture is a graduated wash that moves through bands of at least six colors, including orange and violet. The focal point is the small peach-colored orb of the moon, placed almost exactly in the middle of the composition. The long extended horizontal brushstrokes speak of equanimity, stability, silence. Four small calligraphic brushstrokes, not meant to be representational but instead like Chinese characters or the lines of a Japanese haiku, transform the moon’s reflection on the water into spiritual metaphor.
High Morning Sun is a study in shades of bronze and verdigris, the green patina that forms on old bronze statues and drowned amphorae [see Plate 11]. Very subtly, the palette shifts our worldview; we are now in the midst of an ancient sacramental universe. The focus is on the glowing, diffuse light of the sun, which is hung like a great lamp in exactly the top center of the painting. In this open composition, only half the subject is revealed, as though to remind us that we cannot look directly at the sun—either Plato’s or God’s—or we will be blinded, but only at its reflection on the water.
Recently, Dewey’s interests have changed yet again. “Color now has a stronger presence through the extensive amount of color layering I do in my atmospheric works,” he says. He often employs multiple washes with a hand atomizer over a built-up, collage-like foundation. “The works are more minimal, with limited subject information, with the intent of a more profound message. The newer work is more internalized.” Yet he has never stopped painting from direct observation of nature. Even his large studio works grow most often out of smaller works done in plein air.
Good examples are the 9¼-by-11¾-inch Moon Tide II, painted in 2009, and the much larger 32¼-by-43¾-inch Beached, Full Moon, completed a year later [see Plates 12 and 13]. In both, the subject is the same small sailboat, dragged ashore and propped on a wooden wedge. The boat tips slightly toward the small rising moon. A single mast rises like one line of an isosceles triangle toward the sky. In the first painting, in which Dewey employs a wet-on-wet technique to produce vivid blooms of sky color, we get the sense of a study done on site. The air in the painting feels cool; we can smell the salt and hear the water; we can see the artist dabbing quickly before he loses his light. The larger, more sophisticated Beached, Full Moon comes across as a major studio project. Both are deeply contemplative pieces, but the second points toward mystical prayer, during which the edges of the world—in this case, the boat—are barely discernible and the glowing light of the moon becomes the point of concentrated focus.
During his decades of development as an artist, Dewey has come to believe that seeing is everything. “Painting from nature,” he says, “requires especially keen visual observation.” But beyond the ability to take note of natural detail, landscape painting requires a particular kind of gaze, one that has been educated by a serious study of great paintings and also by simply being outdoors during the act of painting. “It’s not what you see but how you see it,” he explains. “You have to learn to let go of the subject, to give in to the needs of your painting, and interpret with color, not describe…. You must begin by observing your subject and take from it the information that pertains to painting, not to the details of the subject itself.”
In Golden Tide, Dewey uncovers the underlying raw elements of a particular landscape by using broad brushstrokes and bold juxtapositions of bright color [see Plate 14]. Most surprising here are the odd dabs of paint in unlikely places, like the splotch of baby blue at the top of a green copse of trees. In this work, we are invited inside the mental process an artist undergoes as he searches for his painting. As Dewey explains, “To represent a subject in watercolor, you must peel away its descriptive surface to see its abstract structure. This can be done by identifying the patterns of light and dark on the surfaces of objects and letting those patterns form a compositional scheme in your mind’s eye. Once you have a clear vision of this structure, you can then translate your subject’s patterns into paint. The ability to see abstractly is critical to how you begin a painting.”
The medium—transparent watercolor pigment, specially pressed and brilliant white paper, natural hair brushes—is what limits and gives form to what the eye sees and the mind’s eye interprets. Skill is obviously important, “but skill has to draw you beneath the surface, otherwise it’s just craft. Watercolor is a popular medium, and unfortunately skill and technique often get in the way.” Dewey, who after years of teaching at institutions like the Parsons School for Design, the National Academy of Design School, and the Lyme Academy of Fine Arts, these days offers annual summer master classes in Maine, New England, New York, and Europe. Along the way, he has learned how to help developing painters overcome the tendency to depend too heavily on technique. As he explains, “I teach students to learn to paint watercolor from inside of the paper, or metaphorically, from the ground up, like a building. It’s a foundation that is in all great watercolor.”
In the end, Dewey says, “it’s a continuum,” a synergistic relationship between seeing, craft, medium, and the unique personhood of the artist. And after years of faithfulness to the painter’s peculiar ascesis, comes vision. “I have found in my own journey with watercolor that as my vision gained conviction, my ideas stimulated a constant appreciation for the interpretive force that skill in handling the medium brought to my work. As my ideas grew in ambition, my painting skills were in turn stimulated by their energy and grew also.”
What, finally, has he come to see? “God’s invisible qualities and divine nature. I think this is what has always come through my work, in particular my work over the past ten to twelve years. I was raised by parents with a deep faith in God, and they raised me to honor him with my life and my work, but it was never a religious decision to paint this way. Instead, it was the realization that I really am God’s creation living and working in his creation; nature for me has become the fundamental evidence of his handiwork.”
Though I have never painted, my ideas about art were strongly shaped by painters. My grandmother, who was born in a sod house on the Minnesota prairie in 1897, was a first-generation Norwegian immigrant, a farm girl, a mother of six during the depths of the Great Depression. At fifty-six, now living in bougainvillea-draped Santa Barbara, she signed up for adult education courses in drawing and oil-painting.
Before arthritis in her hands permanently shut her down, she produced over sixty large canvases, most of them still lifes, in the spirit of Paul Gauguin. The white walls of the small apartment in which she spent her final years were covered with ripe pomegranates, bronze teapots, blue glass pitchers, yellow crockery, and sprays of prairie flowers. Four of her descendants became painters.
One of them was my mother. Like my grandmother, she began taking art classes in her middle fifties, after her large family was finally grown and gone. Though I knew she’d always been interested in the craft, I had no idea how seriously she’d taken it up until we moved her out of the house she lived in for forty years. The basement was filled with canvases and heavy baroque wood-and-gilt frames, a bedroom closet with sketchbooks and squirrel-hair brushes and costly tubes of paint, the garage with portfolios of plein-air watercolors.
What inspired all these painters in the family tree? According to the immigrant diaries that have come down to us, it’s doubtful our ancestors were encouraged to become artists. Their labor might keep the world turning, but they were the little people, less valuable to the society in which they lived than a herd of good cows. Yet by the flickering light of hearth fires, they must have become woodcarvers and painters of rosemaling too. Perhaps this would show the world who they were: something more than the bushels of corn they grew, the stacks of hay they cut, the pigs they butchered in the fall.
My grandmother, whose face retained a lovely, youthful sweetness even into her late eighties, who piled her abundant dark hair atop her head like a Gibson Girl, took to wearing, once she had officially become a painter, a long red Frieda Kahlo-style Chinese wrapper over her purple turtleneck sweaters. My mother, more conventional, never took on the faintly Bohemian persona of my grandmother, though it was clear she thought painting completed her in a way that childrearing and housework had simply not been able to do.
Until I began to read people like Evagrius, I assumed that the purpose of making art was to do what they had done: to find my true self in order to shrug off the version of myself imposed on me by society.
Christians may be starting to recover the contemplative gaze, but we have a long way to go. Not only have we nearly forgotten about this innate capacity, except perhaps when we watch painters at work, but the object of our gaze has shifted dramatically inward. Though the ancients also engaged in self-scrutiny, today’s version of the inner journey has lost its original moral and spiritual purpose. No longer bent on purifying our hearts in order to find God, we instead search for an identity. As the philosopher Charles Taylor explains, “the assumption behind modern self-exploration is that we don’t already know who we are.”
We’ve also ceased thinking of nature as a window on the divine. Max Weber refers to this paradigm shift as the “disenchantment of the universe.” Those of us who continue to revel in nature’s beauty do so mostly because it provides a welcome break from stress-filled urban lives: we go there for vacations. Our modern focus on the self has helped destroy our sense of the transcendent as it can sometimes be glimpsed in the realm of matter.
How has all of this impacted painters? By the end of the Renaissance, the shriveling demand for sacred art led to the need for patronage by private buyers. The art academies that grew up in place of the old apprentice system realized that if they were going to find customers for their students’ work, they needed to hold public exhibitions. The painters who gave people what pleased them were generally successful. And those whose experiments seemed too radical, whose work made people squirm, often failed.
Yet given the new emphasis on individuality, failure could be reframed as a mark of virtue, evidence that one might be willing to starve rather than cave in to the demands of a conventional audience. And so, eventually, the anti-bourgeois hero of nineteenth-century Romanticism arrived on the scene, a compelling exemplar we are still living with today: the artist as fiercely and uncompromisingly original, as eager to disturb or even shock middle-class sensibilities. My Midwestern grandma in her Frieda Kahlo wrapper provides a mild example.
A remnant of this Romantic rebellion has come down to us in the term “edgy.” Edgy, we think, is good; edgy, we can trust. The artist clearly doesn’t care what we think; ipso facto, he has integrity. Under this view, beauty, which is inherently pleasing, becomes suspect. Is the painter of beautiful landscapes simply trying to please the crowd and make his money? This is often an unspoken tenant of contemporary art criticism.
Under this view, even works of art on the level of those painted by David Dewey could get lost amidst the rapidly shifting tides of fashion. Not only aren’t they edgy enough, their subject matter, which is the sacramental beauty of the universe, is nowadays incomprehensible to most of us—we, whose sensibilities have been shaped by our many-centuries-old rejection of the ontic logos.
Yet we hunger for the real. Or as Taylor puts it, we long for a way “to bring the air back again into the half-collapsed lungs of the spirit.” But how?
It seems to me that taking the aesthetic seriously might help us get started, despite the tendency of beauty to trap us in euphoria. At least, when we gaze upon a beautiful creation, either our own or God’s, we gaze at what transcends us. At least we feel awe. George Steiner says that “it is the enterprise and privilege of the aesthetic to quicken into lit presence the continuum between temporality and eternity.” And also, “the aesthetic is the making formal of epiphany. There is a ‘shining through.’”
Evagrius, who passed from this earthly realm on the Feast of the Epiphany, spent most of his life watching the sand stirring on the desert floor, the wheeling constellations in the midnight sky, waiting for that “shining through.” Convinced that if he gazed long enough he would finally see it.
Though the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer believed that music is the purest form of art, the one most suited to aesthetic contemplation, I think it may be painting, for painting is the only art form that demands the focused gaze. And if Simone Weil was really onto something with her intuition about attention—that it has the power to destroy evil in us—then a great painting might be for us a form of cure.
Three months ago I lost my painter mother to cancer. And though she never had the time or true inclination to become accomplished at the craft, and though I doubt she painted in order to find God, there is one of her pieces at which I now gaze, a simple study of dead trees above a stream, that in some way caught the mystery of the universe.
Two nights ago, I sat beside my father-in-law, aged ninety-one, as he struggled through the valley of the shadow. It was a long night, in some ways even a grueling night, but I had my computer with me. Luminously filling the screen were four masterworks by David Dewey. They were for me, during that holy time, the light of the Shekinah.
Many of the quotations in this essay were taken from David Dewey’s The Watercolor Book: Materials and Techniques for Today’s Artist, published in 1995 by Watson-Guptill.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.