Monday Morning Art School: Analyzing Colin Page

Studying a contemporary master painter’s method and technique is a great way to learn.

Columns, Colin Page, courtesy of the artist

Last Thursday I stopped by The Page Gallery in Camden to see Colin Page’s current work. You can visit if you’re careful to mask and observe social distancing. Colin’s work is always worth the effort.

I was drawn to two plein air studies of the pinky schooner Prophet. The brushwork on these paintings is lyrical and loose. Colin told me he has been studying John Singer Sargent watercolors of schooners. A great painter never stops striving to be a better painter.

Italian Sailing Vessels at Anchor, c. 1904-07, John Singer Sargent, courtesy the Ashmolean Museum.

Colin has a massive half-finished commission on the wall. He was taking swipes at it between visitors. It is a rare opportunity to look at his process. Above the painting is a study, perhaps 24” long, in which he mapped out the composition. At his feet are two smaller studies of related materials. His palette is neatly organized by color.

Colin Page at work.

In these lower layers, he keeps the paint very thin, except for the dappled sunlight passages. That means he doesn’t have to deal with pentimento when he changes his mind. Despite his preparation, he didn’t have all the answers before he started. Paintings actually benefit from the struggle being, to some degree, manifest in the surface.

Somewhere mid-stream, he decided to add rolling fog, which is a difficult technical problem. That meant changing the point at which the sunlight enters the work. When I left, he was outlining a new cloud shape. Great painting is based on great drawing.

Above It All, Colin Page, courtesy of the artist.

Before the 19th century, artists used value (the relative lightness or darkness of a color) to model volume. The Impressionists—particularly Claude Monet—introduced the idea of modeling with color temperature. Artists have been experimenting with it ever since. In Above It All (above), Colin demonstrates his mastery of color temperature. Blue stands in for the dark shadows; the light is creamy and warm. Yes, the blues are still darker than the light passages, but they’re not as dark as a traditional painter would have made them.

That doesn’t mean he never uses darks. When he does, they are limpid pools of gemlike color, rather than flat gloom. His anchor huesare reiterated throughout the canvas. In the end, his paintings always have a coherent hue structure that’s as important as the value structure.

Sunday Morning, Colin Page, courtesy of the artist.

Colin paints still lives of great complexity. These are, fundamentally, abstractions that use line and repetition to drive the viewer’s eye. In Sunday Morning, above, there are two triangles of circular objects that anchor the composition. The first is made by the two cups and the muffin. Being dark, it draws our eyes first. The second triangle is created by the sugar bowl, empty plate, and blueberries. These two triangles are mirror images of each other. A third, vertical, triangle is created by the diagonal folds of the fabric and crossword puzzle. 

There is a dazzle of repetitive motifs and myriad other objects thrown in, but the structure of the painting lies in that overlay of triangles. Underneath any great painting, you’ll find a carefully-considered structure.

A visitor stopped to look at the progress on that big canvas. “Only about half of these end up working,” he told her. That’s a comfort for anyone who, like me, is surrounded by failed painting ideas.

Watercolor study for Columns, Colin Page.

On another wall are taped color studies in watercolor. These are beautiful little paintings that most watercolorists would be happy to call finished. Watercolor is a great, fast way to see if a Big Idea works. The more you understand about all kinds of painting, the more you’ll be successful at your primary medium.

Your assignment for this week is to subject one painting you love to the following analysis: how is the artist modeling volume? Through color temperature or value? How is he or she using line and repetition to drive you through the painting? The painting can be by an Old Master, but I think you’ll learn more if you choose one from a contemporary artist.

The Page Gallery is at 23 Bayview Street, Camden, Maine. Contact Kirsten Surbey for an appointment or more information.