Friday, January 3, 2014

The Color of Snow

Watercolor study of the Huron
River in winter, Ann Arbor,
As an art teacher, I try to teach my students to see the world, to become careful observers. So many people travel through life unaware of this incredible world we share, and if we are to raise our children to be thoughtful stewards of the earth and all its inhabitants, first they have to appreciate and be grateful for it. For me, gratitude for this life begins with appreciation of beauty and nature, and that appreciation begins with seeing and experiencing.

Snowy woods in Ann Arbor,
Michigan (watercolor).
This winter storm blasting friends and family across the northeastern United States and Western Europe brought to mind one of my favorite paintings by one of my favorite painters, Claude Monet. His painting, La Pie (The Magpie), painted around 1868, is in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris and several years ago traveled to the DeYoung Museum in San Francisco. Even though I’d seen it in Paris, I traveled to San Francisco to see it again; and later when I was in Paris, I went to see it again. I am a bit of a Monet junkie, I suppose, but there is no comparison to seeing his paintings in person. 
The painting depicts a black bird in a snow-covered landscape near Etretat and was painted on location. It was rejected by the jury of the famed Salon in 1869, according to the Musée d’Orsay, because Monet was more interested in perception than description, as was the custom of the respected painters of the day. What I love about the painting is that Monet captured that perception – you can feel the air, the cold, still tranquility of the winter’s day that Monet experienced. It’s all there, almost 150 years later.  

La Pie, Claude Monet, 1868, courtesy of the Musee d'Orsay.
As for my students, this painting is a way to get them to observe subtlety in the world. When I ask my students “What color is snow?” they unanimously answer “White!” (in spite of the fact that we are in Southern California, we occasionally get snow on the  mountains behind our town and most of my students have travelled to places where snow actually happens).

Yet when we take piece of bright white paper and place it over Monet’s snow-covered landscape, we find all kinds of colors – blues, pinks, purples, yellows. My students love this discovery – such a surprise! Snow is purple! When we really look at a snow-covered landscape we will discover the same thing, but only if we look carefully. The best feedback an art teacher can receive is from a parent who says “My kid showed me that snow can be purple – who knew?”
We also have wonderful discussions about the color of water, but I’ll save that for a rainy day (not forecast anytime soon around here, sadly).

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