Shadowplay at Ghost Ranch

For the duration of the past few months, I have traveled to Ghost Ranch for several days each week as Judy Smith, the Museum’s registrar, and I have made progress in the cataloging of all of Georgia O’Keeffe’s tangible personal property from her home at the location.  I have had the privilege of being able to view the landscape of the area, which appears in many of her paintings, from the perspective from which she observed it and drew inspiration for many of her most famous works.

While not many people get to see the breathtaking landforms surrounding Ghost Ranch from Miss O’Keeffe’s exact vantage point, even fewer get to observe the area in the manner that Judy and I have.   That is, as the angle of the sunlight that illuminates the landscape has changed with the seasons, we have observed the drastically different effects it causes on the appearance of the area around Ghost Ranch.  These light effects that change throughout the year certainly would not have been lost on Miss O’Keeffe as she painted, as light and shadow contrast is a device she frequently employs in her work.

Take, for example, Miss O’Keeffe’s 1938 oil painting The Cliff Chimneys, which I examined more closely in an entry a number of weeks ago.  The artist places an emphasis on the vibrant colors that characterize the different layers of the cliff, such as the reddish-orange near the base of the formation, the yellow and tan that distinguish the portion closer to the top, and finally the gray at the uppermost segment of the cliff.

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Georgia O’Keeffe, The Cliff Chimneys, 1938,

Oil on canvas

Miss O’Keeffe records the brilliance of these colors as she saw them situated in direct sunlight, most likely in midday when the sun is highest and shining most directly on the cliff.  As winter approaches, the sun sits lower on the horizon, and I believe the more lateral and direct angle of the sun allows for a more illuminated view of the cliffs.  This effect causes the colors of the landform to appear more vivid and therefore ideal for Miss O’Keeffe’s painting, which focuses closely on the colors of the landscape.

The cliff appears in this highlighted manner in an image that I captured yesterday (admittedly not from the same angle as Miss O’Keeffe’s painting), when the sun’s rays were hitting it directly.  The opposite effect is present in the following image, which I took earlier in the day, when the sun was at a much different angle in the sky.  The latter image displays far more spatial contrast than the former, as the more recessive portions of the cliff are darkened by the shadows of the rocky formations that project farter outward from the cliff’s wall.  These portions are contrarily highlighted by the sunlight that still manages to reach them.

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Chimney Rocks at Ghost Ranch, 2:30 pm

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Chimney Rocks at Ghost Ranch, 9:30 am 

Returning to Miss O’Keeffe’s Cliff Chimneys, she avoids the use of strikingly dark shadows as they appear in my second image, instead choosing to express projection and recession in the cliff forms through the use of darkening and lightening of colors.  This is most apparent in the orange portions near the middle of the cliff, as the rocky projections that are apparent in the photos are outlined with a darkened shade of orange that distinguishes them from the more recessive cliff face.  Through these darkened color effects, Miss O’Keeffe achieves a sense of three-dimensionality in the painting, and she establishes a notion of somewhat tangible substance for the landform she is studying.

Miss O’Keeffe would have chosen to paint at a specific time when the correct light conditions were present to achieve the effects she desired.  As I have worked at Ghost Ranch these past few months, I have observed how drastically different angles of sunlight affect the appearance of the area at different times of the year and even different times of the day.  If the effect of the sun’s light on the visual elements of the Ghost Ranch landscape is so apparent to a casual observer such as myself, Georgia O’Keeffe surely would have given it great consideration, given the precise manner in which she prepared and created her art.

Patrick Gora. Curatorial Intern

The Cliff Chimneys Image Copyright Milwaukee Art Museum