Burning Off the Fog, egg tempera painting by Daniel Ambrose
Am I dreaming again? I slip out of bed, pad through the living room and quietly pass through the glass doors and across the porch, easing the screen door shut. Now on the deck, down the steps, I’m on the old brick path to the river.
The night air is cool and moist and the sky is clear; an indigo canvas lacquered with stars. Slipping my canoe in the water, I glide gently into the river, dip my oar in the ebony face of the estuary, and scatter the stars.
I am home. Andromeda and Cassiopeia, carry me on! Along the shore, cedars and oaks take no heed. It’s just a man on the water, a middle man, a Paleolithic soul speaking to infinity. Inhale the cool air deep into grateful lungs. It must be about three in the morning. Take the middle of the river, a hint of wood smoke, of autumn, before the middle of the tenth month, in the middle of the night, I was born. I have work to do when daylight comes. I will not sleep until I run the river’s course.
Look ahead now. On that river is the silhouette of a younger man, a form I no longer fathom.
There he is sitting by the open window in his study, listening to the April rain softly falling in the twilight. Remembering how lightly it tapped on the hibiscus outside his window, tap . . . tap . . . tap, while his dog dozed at his feet.
Now is a sleepless man in the middle of the night. The river finds its way without him. He dove in with the stone of faith around his neck, trusting God would take him. Is he so clever now?
Look ahead then. Time moves through our minds like a tidal river dream, it ebbs and flows, but you may only travel one way. Dream of this, then, in days to come, of long ago kingdoms, dogs and kin.
Nocturnal riddles replace the soothing spring rain. The tide is rising around his door. Navigating the current of his thoughts, he no longer reaps the rivers peace. She said come, come this way.
Morning Coffee, oil on panel by Daniel Ambrose
Painting has never come easy to me.
My mind tends to wander.
Lately, I’ve been thinking I need to go back to the beginning.
Back to the time my voice was strong — when I was strong. When I built a house then filled it with paintings. Paintings of the places I loved growing up in Florida. Places now dead, buried under pavement.
Then I moved to the river, a wild jungle-like river. So my children would know the wild places too. My voice came from the Tomoka River. It came during silent moments in the middle of the night, floating under a starry turning sky, and in the spring calls of the red-winged blackbirds, when the osprey pair returned to their nest. It came from the river until the river became crowded, my world crumbled, and my vision got cloudy. I left the river and floundered around for a new home. A place that inspired me. First up high, close to the clouds, and now, by the sea. I have been seeking external inspiration, listening to external voices far from the river. Voices I desperately hoped would bring me success.
I thought the river led me to her. I thought I painted nature because she inspired sublime feelings in me. I had it all wrong. I painted nature as a way to express my own often conflicting, emotions; using the external reality of nature to express an inner world of abstract feelings. Natural landscapes did not drive me to paint. My emotional terrain drove me to paint natural landscapes.
Emotion, imagination and intellect are the keys I am turning now. Its taken me 30 years of painting to get here, and I feel like I am just beginning to unlock the door that leads to understanding, leads me back home. I move slow. I hope I have my grandmother or my grandfather’s genes.
All of this wondering adds to my unease of painting. Yet, hope and wonder about the world keeps me going, and I have a radiant heart beside me.
Painting the heart is a confounding process.
Sometimes, I just want to sit on the porch, in the morning sun, and drink my coffee.
Night River by Ambrose
During a summer of turmoil I lived in a prehistoric forest between two rivers. One night I wandered down the path to the alligator dwelling one to see the moonrise. I needed the light, needed to hold on to something larger than myself.
For 30 years I’d been on a charted course down the river of life, traveling along always trying to do the right thing. Then, I hit a submerged log — jarred my teeth from their sockets.
Every mooring line lashed to my identity unraveled in the discord. By grace, the fragile fleeting voices of a few loved ones remained, and painting — the pounding voice of painting remained.
In the summer moonlight on a marshy shore, my thoughts mingled with the liquid light shimmering in the swirling darkness. Swim in the moonlight or drown in the darkness.
Perhaps it’s why I paint nature. Her ever-changing moods personify our primal emotions. The ancient songs of life interconnecting us that are in danger of drowning amidst the unfiltered din of modern media.
And I’m part of the media pack, an old dog howling, linking two disparate mediums to share a moment inspired by that night on the river. One, an egg tempera painting, Night River, ancient subtle and slow. The other, burgeoning social media, distracting and just as seductive as painting.
Advancements in the real world are forcing us all to adapt, even us who dream by southern moonlit rivers. It happened at the turn of the last century; unsaddle the beloved horse and climb in the noisy car. To maintain the pace, all the young social media whippersnappers say I have to yap about my work online. They assure me that if I bare my soul and string enough of the right keywords together eventually you will stumble across my little studio here by the sea. So I’m splashing around in here trying to find a way to reach you.
In a river of many billions swimming in this attention-clogged digital stream, I reckon I’m too small for even a minnow to see among the mighty entertaining mullet leaping out of the torrent.
I’m the quiet one, better at one on one than being the showboat in the room. So, I’ve taken a small leap here, writing about something personal, a night on a river in my life’s journey. It’s an experiment for my own amusement, just testing the waters.
Because writing begets paintings and vice versa. Blogging has become part of my creative process, like my sketchbooks — thumbnail word sketches — following idea streams. Some will cruise, many will drown. Its part of the creative stew. You can watch it stir if you want. I don’t mind.
It’s authentic, all of it. What’s the point of being an artist if you are not true to yourself? Painting, drawing and writing are all forms of creative exploration, asking questions — what is real? What is beauty?
At this point in my life, it’s about living the questions.
I’m finally moving beyond that night river. I may dip into it for inspiration from time to time, but I don’t want to dwell there. My life’s work is about the light. I’ll try to stay out of the darkness, but I won’t make promises. It’s the shadows that show us the light.
Most likely I’ll be swimming against the current. The impractical painter who gently reminds you of the beautiful aspects of nature and humanity.
I’m traveling on faith, walking the high wire of the painters life without a safety net, the only resources I have left are my paintings and words. If you are looking for inspiration, beauty and subtle respite from the noise, you will find it here.
Night or day, the river of life is simply magnificent.
If you made it this far, thanks for floating along with me.
Tropical storm Debby was hanging off the west coast of Florida as I drove home from my gallery show in North Carolina. Pulling off the interstate north of Daytona, I drove along A1A to check out the waves.
I saw this flag gallantly flying in a strong north wind and decided to come back the next morning and paint it.
Back at the site the next morning, I made some drawings in my sketchbook and painted a color study of the flag. Pondering my drawing I felt like it needed a foreground element. I looked around for an object and saw this fire hydrant.
I’ve wrote before about my previous life on the river; how she fed my imagination and provided years of inspiration. Knowledge of the people who lived and passed through her added layers of meaning to my paintings. Timacuan Indians, Spanish explorers, British soldiers and plantation owners. I thought about them all while painting and exploring the old plantation roads and ruins for twenty-five years.
Eventually, encroaching development diminished her allure and mystery. South, in the narrow, primal part of the river, where giant cypress trees and twelve foot gators dwelled, docks and boat houses crowd the passage way.
Once lush, exotic jungle banks, film settings of the early Tarzan movies, were bulldozed for manicured lawns and McMansions. Upon reflection, my own home, built in the 1970’s, contributed to the destruction of natural lands. Incidentally, I know early Tarzan movies were filmed there as Johnny Weissmuller personally told me when I was a child.
In the past six years since I left the river, I’ve been seeking a way forward. Most of the things that compelled me to paint in the beginning, in my hometown, are gone.
I am not the kind of painter that paints merely to make a simple visual recording of a scene. For me, there has to be some meat on the bones. Associations, experience and memories are integral to my process.
So I’ve been wandering between seashore and mountains, seeking a spark, something I can grab a hold of. I’m remaining open, free of biases and questions of doubt — who would ever want a painting of that?
I’ve seen other artists change their style or subject matter and lose their collector base. Conversely, art history proves many examples of successful painters of broad subject matter. I believe if the work is exceptional, supremely beautiful and connects in some way, it and the right person will find each other.
And that is what art is about, discovering common ground, communicating and sharing what it feels like to be a human.
So what does all of this I’ve said have to do with an egg tempera painting of a flag and a yellow fire hydrant?
I don’t know, but the image does contain the three necessary components that compel me to try and paint a beautiful expression of unresolved questions.
Perhaps, as Dylan said, “the answer is blowing in the wind.”
And for now, that’s all I need to know.
Each Friday, I feature a painting in my online store, Daniel Ambrose Gallery.
Today’s featured painting is Tomoka Palms, an original plein air oil painting from the Tomoka River series.
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