• Kenneth Cook

Smoke on the Water

Smoke has blanketed much of northern California this week.

Smoke from several large fires has blanketed much of the northern California this week. After all the loses from the Tubbs fire last year, we are sad to hear a repeat of the devastation, with the loss of so many lives and homes.

The Camp fire has destroyed the town of Paradise. On other side of the Sacramento Valley, the Ranch fire has burned a record number of acres. The President, Governor and Governor-elect toured the Paradise site. It sounds like they are all motivated to work on management for state and federal lands. Management will help, but 50% of the lands burned in the Tubbs fire were in private ownership, and there are no easy fixes for record dryness and drought.

Here in Vallejo, the air quality index has reach as high as 269. Nearby it has been over 300. No one is going outside. Schools were closed.

As an artist, these fires stir a lot of emotions that want to be voiced in a painting. Last year, I had three friends lose homes to fires. I expressed that sadness, strangely and immediately, with paintings of the flames. This year, the smoke is a visual guide to what happens when we obscure parts of our work. The town and hills of Crockett, across the strait, have been hidden in smoke all week.

Instead of shining on the hills, the sunlight fills the entire volume of the channel as it reflects off each suspended particle. For centuries, artists have sought to capture what happens when a three-dimensional space glows from within. Clouds have this effect to some degree, but smoke is especially challenging to paint.

In pursuit of those goals, one effect I enjoy is to let the glow of the paper, or white gesso surface, shine through transparent layers of color. The light actually beams through the outer layer and bounces off the white surface beneath. In other situations, a variegated blending of near colors seems to move the light. Classically, it is an approach for clouds and other situations. In abstracts there is a freedom to use it with non-traditional color choices and unexpected situations, like the peach and lemon blendings in Beach Nap from the River Works collection.

The emotions of Paradise have not yet found their way into my current work. The surface irony of Paradise in flames is a tempting distraction, but in the end only a distraction, from facing fears. For now, I am just imitating the smoke, masking figures with whites and creams.

Details of a masking with whites, creams and nickel azo gold, from a work in progress

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