Greens and Greys: Inspiration from the Russian Masters


Recently I’ve been looking at a lot of Russian artists, specifically the old Russian master paintings from mid-1850s to about 1900. There are two paintings that inspired me to create work that is featured at the bottom of this article.


Isaac Levitan (1860 – 1900) was a Russian painter whose work I’ve always admired. His painting The Birch Grove (at right) is for me one of the most masterful uses of green and dappled light I’ve ever seen. I can almost feel the temperature and the warmth of the light on my skin.

The second work that has been swirling around in my head is by Konstantin Iakovlev Kryzhitskii (1858 – 1911) His painting Marshland (c. 1885 below) is, for me, jaw-dropping beautiful and emotive. Again, sensations such as the cool air from the incoming storm and

the slight scent of ozone are palpable.

For both of these artists, there is an almost preternatural quality to their colors, use of light, and texture. The drama and message is subtle, understated, but extremely powerful.

I had been going through some reference photos, and fortunately (or not depending on your temperament) we’ve had an incredible amount of rain for the past week and grey skies that never seemed to leave. Everything is now very, very green, and the dampness (that also seems to refuse to leave) has deepened the richness of the greens on the farm where I live and work. A reference photo I had from Cape Cod “clicked” with what I was seeing outside my studio and the two paintings I’ve mentioned above, it all came together and the feeling I wanted to convey about this particular landscape.


Grey and green have always been one of my favorite color combinations and with my reference photos from New England, notes, and sketches, I was able to work on this piece without difficulty. The color scheme outside my windows was almost exactly like it was up on New England on the marshes. The light is different up there; slight, but important, and I needed to take that into consideration when looking at the reference photos.

I wanted to capture more than the look of an overcast day on the marsh; I wanted to convey the wild feeling of the wind blowing, the grasses tossing about, and the subtle sparkle and ripples of the water that are direct reflections of the sky. I wanted to smell the sharp salty air of the marsh and feel the slight chill in the air as I remember it on that August day.

Normally, one might describe my technique as somewhat tight or controlled. But to capture these sensations of the marsh on that particular day, my normal approach had to be abandoned in favor of very loose brushwork in the first layer and then only after I was satisfied with the energy, emotion, and feeling of the piece, could I go in and (carefully!) add detail, with a very restrained hand. Too much detail, or worse, a stiff hand, would have ruined this painting.


Right now I’m missing New England very much. It’s where I go to get centered and reconnected to life. I went to Martha’s Vineyard after my brother died 15 years ago and I still vividly remember burrowing into the warm sand, breathing in the sea air, listening to the gently repetitive sound of low waves on the beach, and feeling the mid-September sun on my back--reconnecting and releasing at the same time; healing, replenishing, and thanking nature for this haven.

#Russianmasters

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