On my morning walk with my dogs, strolling down to the bank of a small tributary of the Eastern Branch of the Lynnhaven River, I saw it. There, on a sandbar created by low tide, where wild birds congregate for morning meditation, was a fresh patch of stark white frost that stretched out to meet the black, lapping water. This was the first time in the season I had witnessed this gleaming, frozen phenomenon. It made me remember that winter is the season of white.
There is something about the cold white of winter that is different from any other kind of pale. It is a solid white, a hard white that can make the sky seem like a ceiling. Its unforgiving monochrome challenges the black places and forces them into focus with brute contrast. Winslow Homer shows us this in Fox Hunt, with the solid form of white that holds the fox in its pose and gives the shadowy crow his menacing presence. I have always loved this painting for its declaration of the power of white - the kind of power that only comes from the white of winter.
Fox Hunt, Winslow Homer, 1893, oil on canvas, 38" x 68.5" (Image attribution: Winslow Homer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)
One of the first things people are taught when they take a painting class is that white is complicated. It is not as simple as squeezing your tube of "titanium" onto the canvas. They are shown how white is rather an elusive idea, and the white you think you see is really created from an array of other colors. They may be given examples like Whistler's Symphonies in White, where colorful conglomerations of pastel create a delicate illusion of white for the eye's first impression.
Symphony in White, No. 3, James McNeill Whistler, 1865-67, oil on canvas, 20.2" x 30.3" (Image attribution: James Abbott McNeill Whistler [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)
But this is not the reality of the white of winter. Winter white does not offer the eye a fantasy of hushed hues and blushing shades. It confronts with bare honesty and razor sharp purity. To experience this in painting, you go to Malevich's and Rauchenburg's white paintings. You go to the end of painting… Or is it the beginning? The blank canvas? The poetic thing about this cold, sterile white is that it is both the end and the beginning. It has a presence of it's own and yet it is a void. It is solid form, and yet it is empty. It is ultimate possibility.
Suprematist Composition: White on White by Kazimir Malevich, 1918, oil on canvas, 31.25" x 31.25" (Image attribtuion: Kasimir Malevich, Public Domain via Wikipedia Commons)
White Painting, [Three Panel], Robert Rauschenberg, 1951, latex paint on canvas, 72" x 108" (Image attribution: SFMOMA)