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Genesis 2010, oil, 29 x38. All artwork this article private collection unless otherwise indicated.


American Artisl



by Courtney Jordan

alifornia painter Matthew Cornell says that in another life, he would have been a meteorologist. But if his artwork is any indication, he would have turned out to be a storm chaser. Always attracted to weather condi-

tions, Cornell began painting landscapes several years ago to pass the time between commissioned portraits, but he found that rolling hills and sun-filled skies just didn't do it for him. "l wanted to paint the drama of nature, the drama of weather. I did paintings of storms, large

blurred pastels of tornadoes, and very minimal panoramic vistas," he says. The artist has since transitioned from painting storms to focusing on photorealistic depictions of waves, and he finds that the surging movement of the water imparts as much impact and power as a raging gale. "We are connected to the rhythm and movement of water," he says. "The crashing ofwaves on a beach is like a heartbeat. People have an intimate response to that-seeing a huge world of water

that seems to go off into infinity."

Depicting extreme natural phenomena or the churn and flow of waves has meant that Cornell isn't often able to paint his subject matter on-site. But as a painter who adheres to his creative impulse foremost, he is content to be a studio painter with the spirit of a plein air artist. "lnitially, I went out and painted right on-site," he says. "l was moving around constantly, and it was hard to get anything specific down. I was drawn to the idea of painting outside but wanted the work to be my vision. So I did my best to get information down in terms oflocal color or another aspect ofwhat I was seeing. From there, I moved to writing notes and simple color notations and taking pictures, all of which I use in the studio." Cornell's easel tells the rest of his working

method. Pinned up alongside his work surface are sketches, notes, photographs, and pictures that the artist has cut up and pieced together, interweaving all of this visual information into the foundation for a single work. And although all the decisions Cornell makes about a painting are deliberated over and worked out beforehand, he mixes his paints with clove oil to slow the drying July/August



time significantly and keep the painting wet. "The idea is completed before I start, but the medium keeps the surface wet for as long as ro to o days," the artist says. "l can make changes-make shapes larger, a coior bluerand I don't have to adjust something that is halfway dry or repaint it." A11 of Cornell's wave paintings tend to gravitate to the warm side of the color spectrum, especially near the horizon line. The artist starts with an underpainting that is slightly more warm than neutral. "When I was in co1lege, the first thing a professor showed me was how to work on a middle-value paper," he says. "I never forgot ihat, and I apply it to all my work to try to get a middle- or medium-value color." Starting at the horizon line, the artist sketches out the composition iightly on the surface, using paint and brush to make the marks. He typically paints the sky first, starting at the horizon and painting upward, then returning to the horizon and working his way down. The scale of Cornell's paintings varies greatly, from canvases that are six feet wide to small gesso-on-board works that measure iust 4" x 4'. So too does the level of


Moreno 2005, oil on wood, 7r/z x 53/c. LEFT

Montauk 2008, oil on wood, 10 x 11. OPPOSITE PAGE

Low Country 2009, oil on wood, 8r/t x 9.




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detail vary from painting to painting. When Cornell first started to depict views of waves, he treated them in a simplistic manner. The pieces were large, and, perhaps because oftheir size, the artist eliminated a iot of

detail. From there, he widened his

field of vision, painting landscapes and seascapes such as Moreno and Low

Country, which are small in size but reveal expansive, sweeping views. ..It was a way to force people to look closely," says Corneil. He then began

painting ocean waves with the detailed eye ofa portraitist. In works such as Montauk and Genesis No. z, there is no shoreline, landmass, or signs of humanity to orient the viewer-just a

high horizon and water

as far as the What does vary is the atmosphere that permeates each painting. The color and texture of the water in Oceana differs significantly from that of Genesis. Likewise, the direction and color of the light in The Last Wave is quite unique when compared to that of Montauk. eye can see.

July/August 201






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To achieve such a high level ofspecificity, Cornell makes great use of his camera. "To capture the

particular nature of water, taking photographs helps," he says. "Being out on-site, you can't get the specifics. You have to generalize it. I want to show the variety and how different the ocean can be, how it changes," he says. That means showing how sediment clouds the water, making it appear red and warm at times, or how sunlight gives the crest of a wave a golden glow But in the end, Cornell wants only one thing for viewers: to feei and see only water. "You can take that visual information and make so many changes to it-make it look anyway you want," he says. "Other artists interpret the ocean for themselves and paint it very differentiy. But I adhere to the way it looks when you are standing right there. I'm interested in portraying it as the real thing, even when I abstract the view. That's the original piein air painter inme-this has really been observed. It is the real thing. I don't want it to seem like I am making something up, even when I am. I want you to think that it is a real place."


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Oceana 2006, oil on wood,

Genesis No. 2

The Last Wave

2010, oil, 64 x 72. Courtesy Arcadia


12 x 18.

2007, oil on wood,

Fine Arts, New York, New York.

For the artist, there are certain compositional elements or shapes that appeal to him more than others-the

in this little

angle ofa creek bed extending back to the horizon or the cylindrical form ofa tornado tapering at the end. But in terms of actual waterways that inspire him, that's oftentimes more of a seized

cove created huge peaksit looked like a raging ocean. I spent an hour there and have done zo or z5 paintings based on that time. Those kinds ofdiscoveries you can't anticipate. You just have to be open-minded and ready to see something new." The arrist's latest endeavors still float

opportunity than

in a watery realm, but he attests that they


planned sighting.

"Most ofthe success is finding places accidentally," he says. "I'll just take back roads, crossing bridge after bridge, and discover waterways-rivers going offinto the distance." But one

providential moment did come when Cornell was crossing the Santee River, in South Carolina. "It was very windy," he recalls. "The river was brown and dirty, but the water level was so high, with huge waves. I had to get out of the car and take pictures, make notes. I

pulled into an apartment complex that they were building right on the shore, and there was a dock going out onto the water. The waves were incredible-the way the water was flowing against itself


are more like evolved landscape pieces that, to him, feel diflerent than his earlier wave paintings. But Cornell is hardpressed to imagine leaving water behind

Matthew Gornell received his B.F.A. from California State Universrty, Long Beach and has

exhibited in venues across the country. He is represented by Arcadia Fine Arts, in New York City; Quidley and Company, in Boston; and Evoke Contemporary, in Santa Fe. For more information, visit www. matthewcornell. com.

completely-there's still a lot to challenge him. "I was always drawn to the infinite sense ofthe ocean, the high horizon and all the waves," he says. "It is a beautifirl

thing-enormous and awe-inspiring, and it can always change and look

different. It will always be impossible to paint the scale of the ocean-impossible. But it just seems to be right there waiting for me." f Courtney is the online editor for

American Artist.


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Matthew Cornell, American Artist, August 2011  

American Artist Magazine featuring paintings by Matthew Cornell in their article "Water Ways"