Dutch Light, Chinese Light
Dutch Light, Chinese Light
Some notes by Chantal Spit
These notes are inspired by my stay in Xiamen and its environments and by a documentary film, Dutch Light, by Pieter-Rim de Kroon (2003). To my regret I never saw it, I have only read about it. Still, the views of its maker are clear to me.
Is there such a thing as Dutch light? If so, is there also such a thing as Chinese light? I don't know the answer, yet I did notice that the light in Xiamen is different from that in Amsterdam.
Holland is a country of water and air. There are always those wonderful gray and white clouds in the sky. The character of Dutch light is created by a sky that is always changing because of the wind, the clouds and the surface water, which are constantly in motion. The differences, the changes in the appearance of things that are the result of this phenomenon are very important in that they intensify the awareness of the eye.
Not paint, but light is a painter's most important ingredient. The unusual light of Holland has inspired many masters of painting. Rembrandt, Cuijp, Vermeer and many others were aware of the impact of light on their way of painting.
The horizon is also important - I mean the open, visible horizon. The more buildings there are to block this horizon, the less you will find Dutch light. But there are still areas in Holland that offer a clear view of the horizon (for example in de "polders", these being areas that are lower than the surrounding water; in them the water level is artificially regulated.)
"To see" is at the same time to look at nuances. You cannot see the light itself but you can see what the light touches. That is what you can paint.. I am often surprised at the differences in brightness and the nuances in colour that the light can create. I'm quite sensitive to them and - so I think - unconsciously looking for them. In this my example are the paintings of the old Dutch masters that had one thing in common: brightness.
I live in Amsterdam, a city where the height of the skyline blocks the view. For a classic Dutch horizon you have to leave the city. Outside Amsterdam you will find the areas that offer you a view of an endless horizon and a wide sky. So in Amsterdam I'm not always aware of that specific Dutch light, but here in Xiamen I was.
Working in my studio here I was struck by some amazing skies. The Xiamen sky has many blue and gray shades. When the sun sets the sky changes colours almost every minute. And they are strange colours - I would like to call them "in-between colours". Blue is not really blue, it's blue-like. Pink is not really pink, it's pink-like. Here, I saw the strangest pink sky I ever saw in my life. If I would have painted that sky as I saw it, people would have had a hard time believing that the colours I used were real. Sometimes nature is incredibly surreal.
Despite the beautiful skies, the light in Xiamen is not ideal for painters. In any case not for me. It must have had something to do with the white haze that I experienced in front of my eyes when looking around. When looking out of the window one notices it in the background and around things and forms in the distance. They are mostly shrouded in a white veil. There seems to be a permanent thin fog that prevents us to distinguish things clearly. Maybe it's the humidity of the air or the smog. I'm no expert in these matters. Whatever it is, it is also responsible for the strange colours of the sky.
Because I use photographs as a model for my subjects, I don't depend on a bright view of my subject. In that sense the white haze of Xiamen didn't bother me. But I did have some trouble judging my work. The haze was not only outside in the street, I also saw it between me and my work. Somehow it made me want to rub my eyes to clear my retina. Once, someone called me a "chalk painter", because I usually mix my colours with a little bit of white paint. Here in this Xiamenese "chalk environment" I felt like blending in. It was as if I was wearing camouflage clothes in a forest; you can't see any more where your leg ends and a tree begins. To some people that may sound strange or even exaggerated, but this was my experience. Like everyone in any other profession I try to develop my senses and skills in order to get better at what I do. Being aware of that is a real comfort, as its is to realize that my profession made me look at the world more carefully.
Being in Xiamen was a wonderful and instructive experience. I think that it is absolutely necessary for everyone - not only for artists - to change his focus now and then en go abroad. I had to work under different circumstances here, with different materials, in different surroundings and in a different light. Because of that I had to change many old habits and patterns. I sometimes had to find new solutions to enable me to paint as I wanted. As I found out, trying other ways of working stimulates creativity and gives an insight into who you are and what you want. Besides, I shall also come home with a load of inspiration and material (photographs) that will keep me busy the next few months.
I do want to mention here that I met some wonderful people in Xiamen who made this trip more than inspiring. In the end it's not only art that makes a heart beat.
Back to Dutch light. I cannot wait to take my work back to Holland, to see the works in my studio in that particular light that I'm used to, where I can judge my works according to my usual standards, that gradually seemed to have slipped into my system. Looking at my paintings in those circumstances will hopefully be as surprising to me as Xiamen was.
I wonder, would a Chinese painter see Dutch light in the same way as I do?
Chantal Spit, artist in residence at the Chinese European Art Center, Xiamen, China (01 August- 01 December 2008).