Sometime before the end of 2005 I chanced upon a passage in the writings of Pliny the Elder:
quattuor coloribus solis inmortalia illa opera fecere — ex albis Melino, e silaciis Attico, ex rubris Sinopide Pontica, ex nigris atramento — Apelles, Aetion, Melanthius, Nicomachus, clarissimi piccum cum tabulae eorum singulae oppidorum venirent opibus. nunc et purpuris in parietes migrantibus et India conferente fluminum suorum limum, draconum elephantorumque saniem nulla nobilis pictura est. omnia ergo meliora tunc fuere, cum minor copia. ita est, quoniam, ut supra diximus, rerum, non animi pretiis excubatur.
It was with four colours only, that Apelles, Echion, Melanthius, and Nicomachus, those most illustrious painters, executed their immortal works; melinum (a white clay) for the white, yellow ochre for the yellow, red ochre for the red, and lamp black for the black; and yet a single picture of theirs has sold before now for the treasures of whole cities. But at the present day, when purple is employed for colouring walls even, and when India sends to us the slime of her rivers, and the corrupt blood of her dragons and her elephants, there is no such thing as a picture of high quality produced. Everything, in fact, was superior at a time when the resources of art were so much fewer than they now are. Yes, so it is; and the reason is, as we have already stated, that it is the material, and not the efforts of genius, that is now the object of research.
Natural History, Book XXXV, Chapter xxxii
Feeling a desire to explore the possibilities of such a limited palette, I searched for a subject which would be personal but which also had a depth of history which might allow me to reach back through Pliny to the Greek painters of which he wrote. I stripped down my own palette to something like the colours Pliny describes, to concentrate on the “genius” of the painting rather than the materials. I searched through snapshots I had taken a quarter of a century ago while working as a graduate student on an archaeological dig in the mountains of Basilicata and found my subject. With only zinc white, lamp black and red and yellow ochre, I began work on a series of tiny (6 inches by 4 inches) views of the landscape of southern Italy. Most depict the area around the dig I worked on; a few are views of landscapes and ruins around the Bay of Naples where Pliny died during the eruption of Vesuvius almost twenty centuries ago.
The first Sketch, “Diana Herculania I” is an image that I had wanted to paint somehow for a quarter century, the product of a quick snapshot with a pocket Instamatic camera on a hot day in the ruins of Herculanium. This first experiment with the limited palette is timid: the sky is yellow ochre and the brush was far too coarse for the little canvas
A few years later, in Sketch 16, I revisited the image with a little more confidence (and a smaller brush):
In 2007 I contributed four of these tiny paintings from the incomplete series to the Art Gallery of Alberta’s “Free For All”, a salon exhibition in honour of the closing of the old Gallery and in celebration of the new Gallery to come. My four paintings, “Morning in Lucania”, “San Giovanni di Ruoti: View from Room 58”, “Poseidonia II”, and “San Giovanni di Ruoti II” (Apellean Sketches 3, 7, 9 and 10) seemed to me to be overwhelmed by the unexpected thousands of art works the Gallery received for the show.
Shortly after the exhibition opened, however, I had a phone call from Patrick Jacob, at that time the owner of two private galleries in the small town of Eastend, Saskatchewan. He invited me to visit the town and the surrounding area between the prairie and the Cypress Hills, suspecting that the landscapes would suit the style I had been working in. In the end I spent time in two summers in southwest Saskatchewan, producing quite a large collection of paintings, a number of which Mr. Jacob bought for his galleries. I found when painting summers in southern Saskatchewan that a limited palette was still ideal, although I found it very necessary to substitute Pthalo blue for the black of the Apellean Sketches.
A result of these explorations over two years and more are the twenty-four Apellean Sketches, most of which capture views from a single mountainside over the course of a few weeks of summer twenty-five years ago. By imposing on myself some of the limitations which confronted the Classical painters, by looking at the scenes over the shoulders of painted figures, by attempting to hold onto stormy Mediterranean skies using only black and white pigments, I offer in these tiny paintings a taste of the thousands of years of history that saturate this – or any – small patch of ground.
In Chapter xxxvi of Book XXXV of his Natural History Pliny also writes of Apelles “that he knew when to take his hand away from the canvas.”
I hope I’m learning that lesson as well.
The twenty-four Apellean Sketches were on public display together for the first time at the Visual Arts Alberta Association Gallery in Edmonton for the month of February, 2010.
All material copyright © John Richardson (like you didn’t know that.)