Below are two recent but vastly different paintings based on the jetty at Kingfisher Bay. Together, they remind me of chaos and harmony.
So much of art can be distilled down to a basic conflict between chaos and harmony.
Chaos is unexpected, unwanted, unknown. It’s that burst of activity amongst a quiet background. It’s your mistakes. It’s dropping the canvas on the floor. It’s the subject moving whilst you’re painting.
Harmony is connection, expectation, pattern, repetition, relationships. It’s when everything works together. It’s the blues, greens, and purples in Claude Monet’s water lilies series. It’s when you place the right color in the right place (credit to Richard Schmid for writing something along these lines).
Fraser Island, Drama (below) leans towards chaos, especially compared to its subtle counterpart. It captures the vibrant sunset from the end of the jetty. It’s a battle of light against gritty darkness, warm against cool.
Harmony is the relationship between warm and cool; the balance between sky and sea; the repetition and structure of the jetty; the patterns created by the sky and clouds.
Fraser Island, High Key leans towards harmony. It captures blue hour and it’s wonderful pastel colors.
But make no mistake, there’s chaos in this painting. Just as there’s harmony in Fraser Island, Drama. Notice the dark blue accents; the gloomy clouds in the distance; the irregular jetty posts and lights; the ambiguous figures.
It’s important to note that chaos and harmony need each other. Chaos without harmony is meaningless. Harmony without chaos is boring; it’s a blank canvas.
I like to think of them on a scale, rather than as absolutes. Does my painting lean towards chaos or harmony? This way of thinking invites the use of both chaos and harmony, not one or the other.
James Whistler suggests in the following quote that chaos is the baseline and it’s up to artists to bring forth glorious harmony. How much harmony is up to you.
“Nature contains the elements, in colour and form, of all pictures, as the keyboard contains the notes of all music. But the artist is born to pick and choose… that the result may be beautiful – as the musician gathers his notes, and forms his chords, until he brings forth from chaos glorious harmony…” James Abbott McNeill Whistler
Other Examples of Chaos and Harmony in Art
Let’s run through some other examples, starting with Joseph Turner’s Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway.
- The battle between the stygian black train and nature’s foggy atmosphere.
- The vague background.
- The energetic brushwork and scumbled color.
- The dull color palette.
- The sense of movement.
- The balance between large ambient space and small dark accents.
- The relationship between warm and cool colors.
Here’s another painting by Turner.
- Fighting and death.
- The damaged ships.
- The booming clouds.
- The ships’ beautiful engineering, repetition, and pattern.
- People working together (even if it is against other people).
- The flags representing a common cause or identity.
Lilla Cabot Perry’s Cliffs of Etretat.
- The crashing waves and whitewater.
- The battle between sea and land.
- The bright clouds that break up the blue sky.
- The blues, greens, and purples.
- The oranges and reds.
- The sense of movement in the sky and sea.
- The immovable force of the land.
Peder Krøyer’s From Burmeister and Wain’s Iron Foundry.
- The untamed power of fire and heat.
- The potential accidents and mistakes that might have dire consequences.
- The imperfect nature of humans.
- People working together.
- The scaffolding above.
- The science, engineering, and progress.
Pierre Auguste Renoir’s Pont Neuf.
- The ambiguous nature of the figures.
- The activity on the streets, with cars, horses, adults, and children all occupying the same area.
- The flag hanging on the right.
- The pleasant arrangement of clouds.
- The repetition and pattern of the architecture.
- The balance between sky and land.
- The energetic strokes.
- The troubled and creative mind of its creator.
- The unusual shapes and lines.
- The sense of repetition.
- The color groupings.
- The consistent style.
In my recent Tree, Dappled Light, chaos is:
- The streaky colors that represent the dappled light. There’s a wonderful element of uncertainty when I pick up two or three colors on a brush and make a stroke on the canvas.
- The branches shooting out at all directions.
- The wild brushwork.
- The light oranges and greens.
- Nature’s subtle patterns.
- The solidarity of the tree trunk.
- The sense of connection. The leaves, branches, trunks, plants, and grass all grow from the same soil.
- You need both chaos and harmony. They are meaningless without each other.
- Think of chaos and harmony on a scale, rather than absolutes. Does your painting lean towards chaos or harmony? This way of thinking invites you to use both, not one or the other.
- Context matters. My Fraser Island, High Key represents harmony when compared to Fraser Island, Drama. But by itself, it’s a story of both chaos and harmony.
- Principles of Art
- A Closer Look at Claude Monet’s Waterloo Bridge Series – Paintings that lean towards harmony.
- What You Can Learn from These 10 Dramatic Paintings – Paintings that lean towards chaos.
- Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos – Not related to painting but has some interesting takes on chaos and harmony in life.
- On the Easel: Fraser Island, High Key, September 2020
- Painting Academy – My fundamentals course.
(See the supplies page for details about what I use and recommend.)
Thanks for Reading!
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