I saw Monet’s violet in the Giverny sky. It was on a crisp mid-morning in late October and I had my fingers wrapped around a steaming cup and my head tilted upward, transfixed by the color that I’d seen mixed into the green of the grass, in the strokes of light or the trees or on the surface of the water and lilies in the artist’s paintings. No sky had I seen quite like this one; a vibrant bluish-purple glowing with a hint of fog against the golden leaves of autumn. It engulfed the space between our big old cottage and the sculpture studio where we, just a bunch of lucky art students, would attend a four-day workshop with Greg Wyatt.

Inside the studio, our sculptor-in-residence sat at the head of the long table where we’d be molding, bending, playing with plaster and applying wax. Today, day one, we would create some basic three-dimensional forms with clay: sphere, cube, column, pyramid, egg. From there, we would practice conceiving of line, form and color in three dimensions with an emphasis on the study of nature, Monet’s garden in particular, as a source of inspiration for our final sculptures. If it hadn’t been clear to us yet, we would discover in the next few days how Monet’s vision has everything to do with sculpture, with space, it becoming more evident with each lesson and drawing why one need not look at the sky to see the violet. Perhaps the Giverny air, blowing through willow trees and across the little vine-covered cottages in town, wasn’t so different from the clay we were molding in our hands.

It was a few days later when our 13-member Marchutz School family; eight students, one fellow, two professors, one mother and a precocious 6-year-old named James- went to visit to the garden, just down the road and through a brick alleyway. We entered in the company of a few tourists into the quiet where stalks of bamboo, water plants and flower bushes leaned into the ovular pond at the center. Arching over the reflective surface was the Japanese bridge and we followed it to the other side where the path split into patches of trees and across creeks. Here, we were given our task: to draw from four different perspectives from around the pond. With our sketchbooks in hand we set to work observing.

I walked a few yards and began my first drawing by the water. Inspired by Monet’s own paintings of the lilies I looked down and began to make strokes of the circular water plants across the reflective plane, where one could see the sky and willows in the ripples of color, of shadow and light. It was unlike anything I’d drawn before, the surface of water, as it demanded that that I not separate it from the sky above or the tree at the far end of the pond that was reflected in it. I could only draw the different values that I saw refracted in its ripples, with each stroke building into an image of the pond in its living, breathing environment.

Our professors had told us back when we were working out in Tholonet, one must “start with the sky” when painting landscapes, and as I looked at the little clouds overhead in the face of the water in the water I supposed the same could be said for drawing outdoors. To start with the sky meant to respond to one’s sensations of those color relationships that determine the appearance of the land, the trees, the haystacks, the lilies, the water. For Monet, it meant working rapidly in keeping with the changing light, sometimes for only seven or eight minutes at a time. He did more than 250 impressionist paintings of his water lilies alone in the last 30 years of his life.

A look at paintings of his lilies- much like his haystacks or series paintings in Venice- reveal a vision of how the color of the light of the day could envelop nature like a clear vapor, blowing through his garden and reacting with warm greens, the yellows, the oranges, the blues. Monet saw how the hues could change from minute to minute, enabling him to capture a vision of eternal truths in the most vibrant, most fleeting color harmonies in nature’s own temperament.

To find the eternal in the ephemeral, the fleeting- a notion held by both the Impressionists and Japanese in the Zen tradition, was something that had a special significance here in the garden where the presence of Monet’s vision lingered on. Here it wasn’t as if I was beholding a monument or relic to A Great Artist, or at least not entirely. In the process of drawing  I could relate to him, in a way. I certainly had often felt in this journey the desire to capture a moment to keep, forever, even as it passed again and again into the next.

It was something I couldn’t help but think of as I watched the morning’s violet transform ever so slightly into the cool blue of midday. I flipped the page of my sketchpad. At the other end of the garden I found another view of the lilies under the arch of the bridge. I began another drawing.

 


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