John Gordon's Eggs
John Gordon painted twelve eggs. Somewhere between egg nine and ten, he told me, “I’m going to do a dozen of them. And then I’m going to get them out of my life.” The eggs were laid by his own chickens. Each week I would buy a dozen from him, packaged in cartons with a sticker that showed an ink sketch of the chickens, and the caption “laid by chickens with names.”
He said the eggs were the most difficult subject he had attempted. He was committed to recording their subtle shifts in color, each one a unique value and hue. The canvases are large, but the composition is sparse—only two ovals and a negative space. They’re almost nothing but color.
When I saw the Eggs at an exhibit in 2017, another of my art teachers wondered why they should be so large, and perhaps a smaller, more life size framing would be more inviting and intimate. Thinking about this, I made a small egg painting myself a couple years later.
Painting small and large each have their own challenges. John himself encouraged me many times to make miniature paintings. A small canvas feels somewhat safer, and is often faster to paint. There’s a technical mastery benefit to completing many small paintings—you get more repetition in the complete painting process. However a small canvas also constrains the body. The eye zooms in to smallness, detail, and the muscles move in a more limited way at the scale of the knuckle and wrist rather than the elbow, shoulder, or hip. At the same time, there is less room to notate the detail we perceive at that scale. Everything gets a bit flattened.
There is courage and ambition in painting large. It feels somehow less safe, more risky, and more forward. The canvas takes up more room wherever it lives, it insists on being noticed, it can’t be hidden away. The large painting uses more materials, and pigment, surfaces, and turpentine can be expensive. The large painting is an investment. And with a larger scale, the scale of both the tools and muscles used scales up as well. Bigger brushes, bigger palette, bigger muscles. The whole body maps the painting surface, a muscular neurological cartography of color.
I haven’t asked John why he painted the Eggs so large. They are larger than life, almost out of proportion to the human scale. But after painting a small egg of my own, I think I understand. John is a painter obsessed with color. I think he wanted the Eggs to be a magnum opus of color—to show, freely and boldly, the depth of life present in every surface that we can notice if we only take the time to look. He wants to have generous space to record the color fully, to immerse the entire eye, body, and mind in color, unconstrained by limited inches. He wants to look as deeply as he can, into the wholeness rising up from the roots of the world.
Nature is more depth than surface, the colors are expressions on the surface of this depth; they rise up from the roots of the world.