Capturing a Moment of Light on the Hills

WHEN Susan Shatter goes out to paint, she looks for sites that reveal geological forces and structures. Always interested in architecture, she eventually translated that interest into architectonic ideas about nature. So, she gravitates toward canyons and old volcanoes and eroded hills. And also toward coastlines where rock and water meet, where opposites attract and conflict.

She points out that volcanoes can blow up, rocks can fall off of canyon walls, and the ocean can wear away the shore. Timeless, yet fragile, the landscapes she chooses to paint are full of contradictions and therefore tensions. In these tensions she locates drama.

"For me it has to do with a sense of being connected to something bigger than myself," says Ms. Shatter, "and a way to deal with life on the planet." While nature is indifferent to human beings, she says she sees her connection to it. Painting nature is her way of trying to understand what that connection is. So she looks for things that are awesome, things that are beautiful, and things that are "scary." You can't take something awesome for granted. You have to acknowledge it, come to terms with it.

And you can't take Shatter's paintings for granted either. Up close, they nearly disappear in impressionistic abstraction, but walk back a little distance and they click into intensely realistic images, precisely referential to the geological formations of the land mass she has chosen.

Light seems to have a formative power on Shatter's landscapes as definite as the geological forces. Light changes every instant and changes one's perception of landscape. Shatter captures a single moment of that light in each painting. In those shadows on the hills, those deep gullies eroded by the efforts of nature, light emphatically defines form and color for the eye and for the painting before us.

"Light gives [the painting] the emotional quality and the drama," Shatter says. "Light reveals the forms in different ways. The color carries emotional resonance. I don't use white paint or black paint. I'm not thinking of making grays, but of working off of colors that feel cool or colors that feel warm in relation to each other."

She really is able to capture in watercolors the very character of the light in the Southwest, that clear coloration which is sometimes subtle, yet always powerful in desert places. Her compositions have a raw, just-seen quality, which is rich in feeling, dynamic and vigorous, and which belies her excellent technique.

In order to infuse her work with such life, she returns to a particular location over and over again to watch how the light changes it and when the light is most interesting. She makes small watercolors on location, and considers them to be finished paintings. She then takes snapshots - many of which are done serially as panoramas. At last she takes her vision from the watercolors and the prints and creates her larger paintings.

"The interesting thing about the way I work," she says, "is it brings together the two worlds of working on site, which is very spontaneous, and then working in the studio, which has a slower time sense. When I work large, I'm trying to get a powerful visual statement. These [studio] paintings have a clarity which is different than the small paintings, which are really more abstract.

"I'm trying to say something about nature - its rawness, expansiveness, and luminosity, and the beauty I feel from it. I want to pass that along to other people."

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