En Plein Air: Kevin Macpherson's Reflections on a Pond

In the upcoming May issue of American Artist, we feature Kevin Macpherson’s Reflections on a Pond project and describe how he approached this exploratory series on light and atmosphere. That article is posted here, and it can be seen in its full layout when the May issue hits newsstands on March 31 (order the issue 2009 American Artist Digital Collection). Kevin Macpherson will also be teaching at American Artist's Weekend With the Masters Workshop & Conference this fall, so be sure to visit www.aamastersweekend.com for more details.


by Allison Malafronte

8.4.00, 7:45 p.m.
by Kevin Macpherson, 2000, oil, 6 x 8. Collection the artist.

Sometimes the simplest and most understated subject can take on great significance in the hands of a skilled artist. Take, for instance, the many series Monet did of such ordinary scenes as the train station at Argenteuil or the haystacks piled in a field near the his home. The master Impressionist didn’t necessarily explore these subjects for their aesthetic value but rather for what they might teach him about painting their appearance under varying light and atmospheric conditions. By the time Monet moved on to the series of his beloved waterlily pond at Giverny, he was not only capturing his visual observations but also his sentiments on what a particular place meant to him. And so it was with the conception of Kevin Macpherson’s Reflections on a Pond series, a self-imposed assignment the artist began in 1996 to create 365 paintings, one for every day of the year, of the pond on his Taos, New Mexico, property. Like Monet, Macpherson’s goal wasn’t to capture physical appearance but rather to challenge his powers of perception, deepen his understanding of light and atmosphere, and create a visual journal of a place close to his heart and home.

Macpherson’s connection to this pond in the quiet Valle Escondido region 13 miles outside of Taos began long before he owned a view of it. The home he currently resides in was originally the property of his good artist-friends Ray and Leslie Vinella, and he spent many evenings gazing longingly at the peaceful simplicity of this small pond. “My wife Wanda and I and Ray and his wife Leslie shared many dinners in front of the bay window overlooking the pond, and I long coveted that view,” Macpherson says. “When they decided to move, we purchased the home mainly for the view of the pond, and I immediately set up my 6”-x-8” pochade box in front of the bay window and began painting the pond at all different times of day and from various vantage points.

“I was endlessly inspired by the sight of this little body of water surrounded with aspens, red willows, pines, and spruce in front of the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains,” the artist continues. “The Valle Escondido is a serene valley with few full-time residents. The winters are long and beautiful, and the seasonal changes that occur at this elevation (8,600 feet) create glorious autumn color, thunderous skies in summer, and crisp greens in spring. The more I painted the pond, the more I thought it might be interesting to do several paintings from one vantage point to represent each season. It wasn’t long before I found myself contemplating the possibility of doing one painting for each day of the year.”

The series actually took five years for Macpherson to complete and resulted in more than 500 panels, but the artist allowed himself the liberty of taking as much time as the project required. “With a full schedule of painting, teaching, traveling, and exhibiting, I couldn’t complete the series in one year,” he admits, “but I continued until I had a painting that best represented each day of the year. Because there was no deadline or gallery commitment with this project, there was a certain sense of freedom and enjoyment attached to it. Every time I came to the easel to paint the pond, it was a meditative pause from my busy life as an artist. It became a window of time, an hour or so that I gave myself to reflect on the scene and on what was going on in my life. I’m glad I didn’t rush to complete this in a year. The passage of time made me more aware of the preciousness of life and what a blessing art is, and I’m not sure that would have come through in the same way if I had been forced to complete the project sooner.”

Kevin Macpherson painting the pond from his bay-window kitchen view.
Photo: Rick Raymond

Macpherson organized his thoughts on the challenges and triumphs he faced with each new painting by keeping a journal with the date, time, and physical description of every moment he recorded. Those reflections are displayed under each painting in both the exhibition and the 260-page book that accompanies the Reflections on a Pond series. Such journal entries as, “I was at a plateau, searching for that next level, trying to figure out how to get better. I questioned myself so much and analyzed in the studio to the point that I was confused. There were so many elements to deal with—nature’s colors, pushing values stronger, keying them higher, handling temperature shifts more delicately. I needed to find that spot of equilibrium” (1.23.99, 2:45–3:45 p.m.) show Macpherson grappling with the common technical obstacles all artists face, while such ruminations as, “What is so special about this pond? The pond feeds my emotions and nurtures inspiration. My senses are awakened as I view it. Colors, textures, and rhythms are revealed, evoking feelings that open my soul to inner thoughts” (4.19.98, 7:20 p.m.) show the artist exploring why he began the pond series in the first place.

Part of that process for Macpherson involved developing an almost kindred-spirit connection with Monet as he gained new insight into the master’s decision making and motives for his series. “I can see why Monet attacked his Parliament Series a minute or so at a time,” Macpherson wrote after painting 4.4.97, 11 a.m. “So many light effects happen for a short instant, making it difficult to get the whole envelope of light. I painted a cloud shadow that crept over the foreground. It lasted about five minutes. A cloudbank hovered over the mountain, which was blasted with pink light midway in the painting. This is why Monet switched canvases. But this effect may never appear again. I must try to capture its totality at once, which is why such a small format is necessary.”

Macpherson did all of the Reflections on a Pond paintings in the same size—6” x 8”—and stuck to one main vantage point and composition for all the paintings, so he could concentrate on the variety in the light and atmosphere. He worked entirely from life for this project, either directly en plein air or from the same indoor bay-window view that first inspired his fascination with the subject. The artist used his usual limited palette—cadmium yellow light, alizarin crimson, and ultramarine blue, plus white—which allowed him to achieve more unified colors. “My palette is limited to the primaries, but it’s not limited in what you can achieve with it,” Macpherson told Susan Hallsten McGarry in the book Reflections on a Pond: A Visual Journal. “I use this limited palette for just about all my work, whether outdoors or in the studio. It allows for more harmonious paintings and is, for me, more liberating than limiting.”

3.28.97, 6-6:20 a.m.
by Kevin Macpherson, 1997, oil, 6 x 8. Collection the artist.

Over the span of five years, Macpherson would aim to do a painting a day for at least an hour, sometimes predetermining the time of day to paint based on a previous day’s work and other times responding in the moment to a particular effect that was catching his attention. “I often jumped up from dinner with guests to paint a particular scene,” the artist says. “Or I’d sometimes be working on another landscape in my studio, and I’d have to stop to go paint a particular variation of color or form I was noticing. Minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day, the appearance of this pond would alter. It’s so easy to take our life and surroundings for granted, but working on this project helped me gain a better understanding and appreciation for nature and this special place I call home. I think nature, just as God intended, can entertain just by its daily display of effects.”   

Of course there were those winter moments during the five years it took to complete this project when Macpherson was left cold and discouraged by a particular day’s painting, but he always kept the greater goal in mind. “Occasionally I questioned the sanity of painting the same scene over and over again, assuming that the nonartist would consider it obsessive-compulsive,” Macpherson wrote in his journal after completing painting 3.8.98, 5–5:45 p.m. “But my pursuit has been validated by fellow artists, who find my dedication an inspiration for seeing their own environments more acutely. Will my pond series inspire artists in the next generation? Will it inspire art appreciators to see the world around them as a living, changing organism? We’ll see.”

For more information on Kevin Macpherson, visit www.kevinmacpherson.com.

Reflections on a Pond Exhibition & Book

Kevin Macpherson’s Reflections on a Pond series will be on display at the Middletown Arts Center, in Ohio, from May 15 through June 15. The exhibition will be accompanied by several special events, including an opening reception, a lecture and demonstration by Macpherson, a chorale concert, and a children’s paint out. For more information, call (513) 424-2417, or visit www.middletownartscenter.com.

Reflections on a Pond: A Visual Journal by Kevin Macpherson (Studio Escondido Books, Taos, New Mexico) accompanies the Reflections on a Pond project and is available for purchase through Macpherson’s website (www.kevinmacpherson.com). The 260-page book has more than 400 color reproductions and contains essays by editor Susan Hallsten McGarry, Jean Stern—the director of the Irvine Museum, in California—and Roy Rose, the grandnephew of Guy Rose.

Weekend With the Masters Instructor
Kevin Macpherson will be teaching two master workshops and leading a group critique session at American Artist's Weekend With the Masters Workshop & Conference this September in Colorado Springs. For more information, visit www.aamastersweekend.com.


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Plein Air Painting Blog
Allison Malafronte

About Allison Malafronte

Allison Malafronte is the senior editor of American Artist magazines, and the project editor of  Plein Air Painting and Workshop With the Masters magazines. She is also the creative manager of the Weekend With the Masters Workshop & Conference (www.aamastersweekend.com) which was launched in 2009 and is now in its third year. She is author of the Art for Thought column in American Artist magazine (also on the Artist Daily site under The Artist's Life blog) and the 2008-2010 Plein Air blogs on Artist Daily. 

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