Thursday, April 12, 2012

Landscape Painting As Exploration

Yesterday I told my weekly Wednesday night students to turn their easels toward the window and paint the view from the studio, which happened to offer stray clouds drifting across a silvery evening sky above the industrial skyline of Lowell Mass: slate-gray rooftops, yellow-gray warehouses, re-sided duplexes and apartment houses. 

View of Haarlem, Van Ruisdael, 1670s. NOT the view from my studio. 

My students rose admirably to the challenge of responding directly in paint to what they saw. It seemed to me that everybody got some very good painting out of it, and of course the experience of painting from life like that, as the light changes and the colors shift, is invaluable for an understanding of what painting is. It's the moment when you have to fall back on your own intuitions to select your subject from the vast choices you're given.

Houses on a Hill, Cezanne, c. 1880.
I told them later that painting "from the hip" like that offers an opportunity to test one's innate interests and strengths - what worked? Was it something to do with a particular color or color combination? An evocative mood? Paint handling - hints of expressive technique? It's a chance to suspend judgment and find out where the act of painting wants to lead you. 

The Seine at Pecq, Maurice de Vlaminick, 1905.
I think it's most important to recognize one's interests and one's strengths and to figure out how to "play to" them in your work, which can also mean downplaying other aspects of the craft to foreground one's intent. Technique is important, so is valuing one's perception of the world (and one's beliefs about art) and developing a personal language of image, line, mass, color, composition, paint handling, everything. This is what YOUR art is all about. And ultimately, THAT is what's going to matter to you over time as well as what people will respond to in your paintings. 

Does that make sense?

At the beginning, I think, the way to fall in love with painting is to get away from critical judgment about what you might be doing "right" or "wrong" (by what and whose standards, for heaven's sake, right?!). In the end, after all the training, all the absorption of technique and tradition, all the talk and critical thinking, when there's a brush in your hand, maybe "you just go on your nerve," like poet Frank O'Hara said; act first, from intuition and emotion, and then, after the dust clears, ask: What choices did you find yourself making - and why? 

Landscape by Stuart Shils, c. 2005.

For my part, right now I find I'm interested in expressing a moment of aesthetic experience encompassing broad gestures of color and paint and the "right" details for that painting

I think it's a worthy goal to assimilate and adapt as much technique and art history as one can learn. Guided by experience, it is the well from which one draws to discover what one's own work is "about," an important consideration, as friend and fellow landscape painter Donald Jurney is wont to insist. 


And of course, work can be "about" so many things - color, texture, humanity, redemption, damnation, pure emotion, tension, peace, light and shade, the curve of a shoreline, the age of an oak, the tentative character of saplings in spring, beauty, terror - indeed all "the joy and fear of existence." 

9 comments:

  1. What kind of class do you teach in Lowell? Where can I find out more about it? Judy

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  2. Christopher- very wise advice indeed!

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  3. Wise words. I appreciate that you included examples from such a wide variety of masters.

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  4. I find myself lately reminding to ask myself, "why did I want to paint this scene in the first place?". If I have a picture that I took of the place in front of me, after sketching in the basic outlines, I put it away, and then go for it. It works for me. Kevin MacPherson talks about this in his wonderful landscape book.

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  5. nice posting.. thanks for sharing.

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