When I was very young, I heard somewhere that the blue of the sky is the hardest color to mix with paints. It made sense to me that there must be something humans are always chasing, and if that were the case, it would necessarily have to be the heavens. Years later, in a painting class, mixing oily cobalt blue straight from the tube with a little titanium white, I wondered what all the fuss was about. I’d made sky blue: I held it up to the window to compare, and yes, it was sky. I could add buttery strokes of titanium white, for clouds, and dapple on a warmer white, if I wanted to light them, and then there was a whole spectrum of pinks and peaches and oranges for sunset or sunrise. It was that easy. There is even a commercially produced shade, I discovered, called cerulean. Its name derives from the Latin word for the heavens.
Years later, when I realized I wasn’t very good at painting, I considered that perhaps what I had heard about blue didn’t have more to do with expression than it had to do with replication; if what was difficult is trying to capture the size and depth of the sky: the distance that stretches between us and the rest of the universe. By that point, I’d studied painting long enough to know that there were many ways to make a surface look like something of the world—there were ways to paint oranges or glass bottles or slices of cake like Thiebaud—but that was only half the problem of art making. You could paint all sorts of things but it was harder to convey the feelings you had about them. When I tried to paint landscapes, I couldn’t capture that vast distance that was the sky, the blue that Rebecca Solnit, in A Field Guide to Getting Lost, describes as “the light that got lost”:
The world is blue at its edges and in its depths. This blue is the light that got lost. Light at the blue end of the spectrum does not travel the whole distance from the sun to us … This light that does not touch us, does not travel the whole distance, the light that gets lost, gives us the beauty of the world, so much of which is in the color blue.
Painting a canvas blue wasn’t enough. It was like dropping a curtain. All along I knew the world went on and on beyond the surface of the thing. Read More