For me, painting from nature is akin to playing music. The notes are there. One tries to get them down in the proper proportion to bring out the proper impression. Realizing your palette is limited; it cannot begin to have the richness, the depth from light to dark that nature encompasses or the subtlety of it. Nature seems to strain for its effects, and yet it has so much power. One always wants to feel confident that one is painting what one see, but nature is not always what it seems. One seeks to disarm the objects as objects to seek for an agreement of tone that encompasses differences of color that can cross the barriers of object. It is these agreements, these similarities that float in and out, that coordinate the work and allow the subject matter to have its eloquence. It amazes me how the same material can be seen in so many different ways, all in an honest attempt to see it justly.
Though one is drawn to see more subtly, subtlety often develops as the enemy of the large effect of the motif. The major changes in value are constantly eaten away by the awareness that the darks are being qualified by the pervasive light that is a component of the scene. This is a phenomenon noticed by comparing the motif at a distance of perhaps eight to ten feet. Contrasts are easily seen and darks seem strong but at closer distances it is apparent that light is seeping into them. My effort is to do justice to this problem, to achieve a balance between these opposite effects between these opposite effects. Chardin, it is said, went over his painting at the end finding unities, but I think he also reasserted the strengths in his darks. All things are understood by means of comparison. For in comparison, there lies the power that states that which is more, that which is less and that which is equivalent. It is in the equivalences that allow the painting to move between and over the objects that constitute the still life.
Early on, one tries to establish a key for the painting, a key around which one can fashion the scale with which to reach a reasonable facsimile of the tones that exist in the subject. I find this key, especially in a painting that is not done quickly, can change, or better will not find its proper place. I think this has to do with the white ground [which], as it sinks further below the surface transparency resulting from the ground, becomes less of a factor, and the light emanating from the ground has to be replaced with more solid tones. It is at this point in my experience [that] the real key of the picture establishes itself. The white ground, however, has served a purpose. It has kept the key of the painting up, something I am at pains to maintain.
Painting from nature is not only copying it but playing on it, going over it, trying it this way or that, suppressing the unnecessary when one realizes the unnecessary. Every still life, no matter how informal or intimate it is, finally is a construct. Still, one tries to put things on the table in a somehow surprising or fresh way. If I am interested in painting what I see, I must resist the temptation to tell the motif what it looks like. I must ask the proper questions that make clear what is in front of me. This is a simple matter at the outset, but one which grows more difficult as the painting progresses. Do I need to make a distinction here or should it remain a similarity? If for some reason a painting is not working out, I have a choice: either abandon the work or change the setup.
The idea of the setup is tied to both the objects and how the objects are going to come up on my canvas. Putting together a still life along with deciding when a painting is finished are the most difficult parts of the process. I am often well into a painting when I realize that it is not going to work. This is a situation that Chardin found over and over, even though a typical Chardin setup is located on a stone ledge seen at nearly eye level in front of a dark void. A beautiful convention! Even though Chardin’s technique can be bold, even rough, it is so at the service of the motif — the visible facts of the natural look that results are taken for granted.
Chardin does not conceal his methods, but the mystery remains. That is because we do not question the motif the way Chardin does. He questions. Then he retains the answers in paint. He goes over and over the question until he is satisfied that he can do no better.
I think his chief attraction for me is the discipline he brings to his stroke. It is primarily a building stroke, not a descriptive stroke. Also the lightness of his key in contrast to earlier still life paintings. And the importance he places on structure. He is not unlike other great painters in that he has a signature quality, a relationship of tones that is fresh, tones that retain light and are unique to him.