Artists are known to sometimes riff on the work of their predecessors. This isn’t intended as mimicry, but as a way of paying homage. I imagine most artists have their heroes. An artist I happen to admire is Frederick Edwin Church. His skill as a painter humbles me. Here is one of his most famous works.
I’ve seen a few contemporary artists reference this painting in their work. (Sandow Birk and Alexis Rockman are two that come to mind.) I wished to reference this image in one of my paintings, but I wanted to put my own spin on it. If I squinted at Church’s painting, I could imagine the lower half of the image as a cross section of the earth. I recalled how, as a child, I used to draw pictures showing caves and tunnels beneath the landscape, sort of like an ant farm. I felt inclined to return to this whimsical way of portraying this scene. I began by creating this rough color sketch.
It wasn’t yet clear to me how I was going to portray the lower half of my composition, but this sketch helped act as a guidepost from which to begin. My initial underpainting was extremely loose. I allowed the brushwork to determine how the image would resolve itself.
I completed the surface landscape quickly. I used a much more saturated palette than Church, as I wanted this to be the most vibrant part of the painting. The challenge was to figure out a way to define the transition between above ground and below. I wanted the lake to be shown as a cross section as well.
My concept for the painting was to portray a world, long after human beings had become extinct. The only evidence that we ever existed would be the remains of cities contained in the geological strata of bedrock. The earth would be born anew, cleaning the slate, while we would become a fossilized memory in the ground.
I began adding a series of subterranean chambers filled with crumbling buildings. At this point I needed to figure out how I was going to define the caves. How could I make the cities be legible? Initially my idea was to fill the caves with a golden glow, but this proved problematic. I felt they could be misconstrued as bonfires, or possibly, pools of lava. Although I liked the intensity of the gold color, it felt too overpowering. The area below ground needed to be quiet and subdued. I wanted the painting to reveal itself in stages. The viewer should first see the vibrant landscape above ground. Then they would become aware of something taking place underground.
After taking a break from the painting, I returned and decided to blot out the caves and start anew. I had to resolve how the system of caverns would integrate visually with the buried cities and surrounding bedrock. Ultimately I settled upon making the caverns black so they would recede, and I brightened the bedrock so that it would feel flush to the picture plane.
This is the final result. I suppose I am finished, although when I now look back at my initial study, I see that I haven’t captured the same feeling. The study has a rawness about it which I find intriguing. My finished painting seems rather funky and cartoonish. I’m OK with that. I just wonder if, at some point, I may decide to make another attempt at this idea, and create a painting that is more consistent with my study.