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  • Writer's pictureDave LeRue

Colourful skies over northern Iceland, and approaches to painting

When I was in Iceland for a residency last June, I was confronted with a landscape unfamiliar to me—fields full of volcanic rock, 300 year old moss, more sheep than people, and perhaps most intriguing, 24 hour light. Most nights I sat with some peers by the ocean at midnight to watch the sunset. Each one was spectacular; the atmospheric haze covered everything in cotton candy ceruleans, crimsons, and colours I'm sure have never been categorized. We could see mountains across the ocean and low clouds rolling in, each with their own conflicting palette.

One night, as I lie awake at 2:00 AM in a state of perpetual sleep deprivation (I never took to the light), I looked outside and saw the most majestic sky I've ever encountered. I was treated to a palette of pinks, yellows, purples, golds, and blues, coming in all sorts of cloud shapes and patterns. Photography is bad at capturing light accurately, especially on the cellphone camera I had with me, so understand the photography below doesn't do justice to the eye's perception.

I walked for two hours, mesmerized. I was there for a month, and never saw a sky like this before or after. I walked up a hill and toward some farmland. The way the sky hit the fields, as the same tone, colour, and at times texture was enchanting—a perpetual state of twilight, where the temperature was neither warm nor cold, and the light held in tension and harmony opposing yet complimentary colours.

The struggle, as an artist, is how to respond to such a unique and bombastic landscape. How can I re-imagine that which is completely new? I'm a painter, so naturally I took a stab at it with oil painting, which was nearly impossible to get right. I still don't think I came close to capturing the illumination present in the actual sky. It was a challenge to incorporate each colour, and to approach the levels of atmosphere led to a pushing and pulling with the paint, with washes and thick paint having to exist side by side.

And how to capture a light at twilight, where the sky and ground are the same tone? How, when the atmospheric conditions spread light across vast swaths of land, blurring where earth and sky connect?

In the work below, I think I got closest by allowing the ground (the paint on the base of the canvas) to come through, using washes for the most part and building the paint into impasto (thick paint) overlaying it. But alas, when I tried to re-produce the same effect on new canvases, the painting fell completely apart. Like the atmospheric skies that delighted so that night in early June, the elusiveness of paints materiality can sometimes work brilliantly in fleeting moments.

One of the best unpackings of twilight is from one of my early and ongoing mentors, NSCAD Professor Sara Hartland-Rowe in this TED talk titled Twilight's Knowledge.

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