“April 5, 2006, Reflected Embers: Cerulean, Cadmium Red, Yellow and Orange.” One of the sunsets Jack Rootman captured in oil over the space of a year.
For three decades, Jack Rootman combined two of his passions: medicine and art. Last year, after 43 years of practice as an eye surgeon, he retired and finally could dedicate himself completely to his art.
“This is the first opportunity I had in my life to paint whenever I wanted,” he said in an interview with the Jewish Independent. “I like painting in series. It allows me to explore my chosen theme from different viewpoints, but it was not easy when I could only paint a few hours a week. Now I can.”
His latest series – of sunsets – comprises his new show at the Zack Gallery. Called Contemplating Sunset: English Bay, the show opened on Jan 19.
“I began the series just before I retired,” said Rootman. “My studio is in English Bay, and I watched sunsets there almost every day for years. Every night of the year, people come to the beach to watch the sunset. It’s become almost a ritual. Of course, more people come during the summer months than in winter but, in any weather, a sunset inspires people to enter a spiritual mood. Couples embrace. Everybody often stays silent, no small talk. Sometimes, people sing or salute the setting sun with their raised hands.”
Several years ago, Rootman started taking photographs of the sunsets he witnessed. “I also took colour notes for every photo. A camera doesn’t always reproduce the exact colours of sea and sky, so I noted the oil paint names.” Examples of his notes, which mix in with the images’ titles, are: “January 31, 2010, Serene Mist: Cobalt Violet, Ivory Black, Ultramarine Blue” or “June 12, 2015, Final Moment: Lavender and Lilac.”
“As the months go by, the position of the setting sun moves across the azimuth, from the far left in January to the far right in July,” observed Rootman, whose series covers a full year. “After the summer solstice, the sunset position starts to move back, gradually month by month. Sunsets also take longer as the days grow longer.”
Rootman started the series at the beginning of last year, after he had accumulated a great number of photographs. He wanted to depict the best sunset for each month.
“No sunset is the same,” he said. “Even on the same day, when I took photos every few minutes, the view is different. The sky, the sea, the clouds, the colours change almost every moment.”
That’s why he never tried to paint on site, because the sunset is constantly in flux. The best artistic approach, he explained, was to paint inside his studio, to capture the moments using his hundreds of photos as inspiration.
“I wanted to characterize the nature of light of both sky and sea, to paint a series of portraits of individual sunsets, as if they were persons,” he said. “Sunset always has an emotional impact on its human watchers, and I painted them, too.”
Indeed, some of the paintings at the Zack Gallery are populated by people who are sharing the sunset with the artist; most of them have their backs to him.
One of the most interesting features of a sunset over water is that, exactly as Rootman depicts in this series, at a certain point, the sea becomes a mirror, reflecting the sky above.
“You might notice that the sea is always a different colour than the sky,” he said. “It is because the sea reflects what is up, directly over it, but the artist looks at the sky and paints the sideway view. We don’t see what is above that distant sea on the horizon. We only see what is in front of our eyes. The entire sunset is like a sequence of visual effects in a movie.”
Rootman considers sunsets an intimidating subject, “a colossal challenge,” perhaps because of their fluid, “visual-effect” nature. Many artists over the ages have tried painting sunsets, but not many have succeeded. One of his friends, an Israeli artist Yasha Cyrinski, wrote in an email exchange with Rootman: “The subject matter you chose is quite challenging to say the least. A subject devoid of irony.”
But Rootman is never afraid to tackle a challenge.
“I have done landscapes and portraits on commission, and portraits are much harder,” he said. “When I paint a portrait, I want to capture the essence of a person, his emotional subtext. When I painted sunsets, I wanted to catch the ephemeral moment of what a sunset is.”
The exhibit Contemplating Sunset: English Bay continues until Feb. 19.
Olga Livshin is a Vancouver freelance writer. She can be reached at [email protected].