Over the past while, Magdalena Demianowicz, a student in the Arts and Letters program at Vieux-Montreal in Quebec, has been sending me some valuable questions: “I read in your biography and saw by the paintings you do, that you mainly paint landscapes these days. I would like to know why.”
Thanks, Magdalena. I’ve noticed that some universities these days are still announcing that painting is dead and that landscape painting is particularly dead. It is, however, not something that I’ve noticed. Here’s my shot at why landscapes are likely to be with us for a while yet, and why I’ll probably continue working with them:
Our natural world is simply loaded with potentially creative elements. Land, rocks, trees, water, sky — all hold pretty well universal images. Think of all the combinations you can get from those five alone. Beside the variety we have before us, there’s the variety of ways these elements can be individually mixed, matched and reinterpreted. Like the family of man, the world of wildlife, abstraction, and all the other genres, the choices are pretty well infinite. Simply put, for those of us who choose it, the elements of landscape offer a kind of life-enhancing enrichment as well as challenging opportunities for the development of style.
If you also think of painting as an opportunity for joy, then perhaps the achievement of personal style is one of its more joyous outcomes. Landscape painting involves a varying degree of “getting it right,” as well as doing something with it, perhaps redesigning it. Except for those in some sort of solitary confinement, everybody looks out at a view. Landscape painters get joy by honouring and universalizing their personal views.
All genres in art are valid. All are authentic. Creators who take the student approach are gradually and endearingly turned on to the life. Robert Bateman noted, “I can’t conceive of anything being more varied and rich and handsome than the planet Earth. Its crowning beauty is the natural world. I want to soak it up, to understand it as well as I can, and to absorb it. And then I’d like to put it together and express it in my paintings. This is the way I want to dedicate my work.”
PS: “The Earth’s distances invite the eye. And as the eye reaches, so must the mind stretch to meet these new horizons. I challenge anyone to stand with autumn on a hilltop and fail to see a new expanse not only around him, but in him, too.” (Hal Borland)
Esoterica: The search for beauty is an innate human quest. It is one way that we try to make our world even richer than it is. We may be a race that is saddled with perfectionism. Perhaps it’s human to be always moving our hands to improve, to feature, to monumentalize. Artists cave into this weakness, surrender to it. This is why we artists have within us the potential to be such a highly evolved bunch. This is why we have become such valuable people. There will always be some of us who love the landscape and make it our home. “It is only a little planet, but how beautiful it is.” (Robinson Jeffers)
Escape from a turbulent world
by Evelyn Dayman, Ojai, CA, USA
When painting a landscape I must try to capture the real scene while also trying to do something with it by adding some of my own color accents. I live in California in an area of ever increasing land development and feel an urgency to visually document the still-existing open spaces and farms. I get great satisfaction in creating a visual oasis to gaze at for a moment of peaceful escape from the turbulent world.
Most alive in landscape
by Maggie Glossop, Ottawa, ON, Canada
I personally cannot imagine being anything else although I am frequently frustrated by the “only a landscape artist” attitude of some other more cerebral types. I find that I am most alive when out in the landscape — more in touch with the vital creative source energy. Back in my studio I do my best work when, in an almost meditative state, that energy starts to flow again. I compare my artistic process to doing Reiki or hands on healing — inviting creative energy to flow through me into my work and hopefully on to the viewer.
I am not a landscape painter but rather a landscape fibre artist. I use natural fibres (wool, silk, cashmere, mohair, alpaca, hemp and flax… etc) which I have dyed, to create hand made felt landscapes.
Plein air landscape
by Barbara Hearn, Charlotte, NC, USA
I would like to know how you plein air if you in fact paint outside of your studio. I am going on a third plein air experience in January and the first times were many many years ago and methods and materials have shifted. Could you share how you make your journey lightweight and pleasurable?
(RG note) It’s the yin and yang of in and out of the studio. Outdoor boxes haven’t changed much for a couple of hundred years. These days I’m enjoying a Soltek easel. It’s pretty state of the art, but I’ve noticed that by itself it doesn’t make the superior plein air sketches.
Ancient veldt heritage
by Luann Udell, Keene, NH, USA
This touches on a favorite theme of mine, our shared humanity. One facet of such a shared heritage is the love of landscape paintings. Even the most unsophisticated observer will appreciate a landscape painting. Some theories relate this to our ancient veldt heritage millions of years ago, when being aware of the lay of the land (to search for food, keep an eye out for predators) was important. It also explains why we crave windows in our homes and workspaces, and why no matter who we are and who we meet, we always enjoy talking about the weather (though we may deny it). Being attuned to our environment is simply part of who we are as human beings, and though landscape painting may go “out of style” periodically, the style will never entirely disappear from the art scene.
There are so many amazing landscape painters in Maine, and I never felt my “straight” landscapes could fit in that class. So my honoring of my “view,” which is spectacular, and my home Planet Earth, is more likely to be expressed in portraits of particular trees, and flowers, with whom I have a very personal relationship. I honor the rocks in my clay work, in my use of material. Rocks and minerals are finding a way into paintings too.
Neither painting nor landscape is dead, nor can it be killed. It is immortal! Thanks to your letter I will look at the landscapes my colleagues paint with new appreciation, and I’ll paint one too, this week!
Nancy Grimes wrote this about landscape painting in Art in America, October 1995: “Of all the genres of representational painting landscape seems the least affected by the fickleness of modern taste.” While narrative and figure painting have experienced spurts of heady success followed by long periods of neglect, and still life perennially struggles to overcome its minor-league status, landscape has managed to stay just within the margins of the mainstream. Its closeness to abstraction, particularly lyrical abstraction, may partly account for this popularity. For well over a century landscape painting has flirted with abstraction, subordinating drawing to light and color, while abstraction has repeatedly compromised pure form by alluding to the natural world.
Member sketching workshops
by Anthony Kampwerth, Knoxville, TN, USA
I’m the program director for our local Tennessee Artists Association. We meet monthly and have two annual shows, one juried and one a tent sale. Believe me, coming up with a new program each month is a challenge. I want them to be educational and inspirational. Probably the most popular programs were the “all member sketching workshops.” The first one was still life setups with 30 people participating. This past month, we did life drawing and the attendance grew to 36. I set up 6 tables with 6 artists at each. Each person drew a letter and a number out of a hat. The letter designated the table location. The number was the order of sitting as the model. We did 6 minute sketch sessions in charcoal or pencil of each volunteer model so everyone had a turn as model. They all gained an appreciation of the model’s task. You could hear a pin drop.
Having grown up in the middle of Nebraska, near the geographical center of the US, I grew up with the feel of land in my blood, animal husbandry was my mothers milk, and respect for mother earth in my home grown food. When we moved to Colorado as adults, I felt a new sort of ‘home’ stir in my very being. We’ve gone other places — after living all over the US, Canada and Alaska — but I always come back where my center is now. I found out years after we’d moved here, that my grandmother had been born in Twin Lakes, Colorado, which is high in the mountains. For me this is the home of my heart. But I find the land is always a pull. Sometimes, going back to visit in Kansas and Nebraska, I wonder how I ever lived so far from the mountains, and have vowed I never will again. So, for me, and a few other million artists, the land is where we spring from, it is in our very being.
This morning as I read your letter about painting the landscape, what immediately came to mind was a poignant line spoken by John Travolta’s character in the movie Michael in which he plays an angel. It was the last time he would be on earth. He looked around at the beautiful landscape surrounding him and said: “I’m gonna miss it all so much.” That about sums it up for me. The fact that we are here at all, amidst this unbelievable beauty is beyond words. Perhaps that’s why so many artists continue to be drawn to landscape painting, and why there will always be artists compelled to render it. It touches our spirit in a way that perhaps nothing else can. It sparks in us a desire to render on canvas the poetry that viewing it makes us feel, and in some deeper way, connects us to it like a silent prayer.
Opportunities for understanding
by Elizabeth Azzolina, Cherry Hill, NJ, USA
To learn the world around us and observe the “landscape” applies to all subject matters. The soft contours of green rolling valleys can take our visual minds to the soft contours of the human body. Nature’s compositions and contrasts of sunlight, color and form teach valuable lessons for those who observe. The structure of a tree reaching out with large and small branches shows us the effective use of variety in order to gain overall balance. A cloud as it passes over a hilltop creating a shadow form can remind us of the shadow forms that play on a face in the sunlight. The slick surface of a shimmering lake can reflect colors as wonderful as those reflected by the shine off the skin of an apple. Surfaces, contours, color, light and form are everywhere, whether appearing on the earth or human “landscape”. Nature’s “landscapes” are visible in all facets of life.
Part of creation
by Grace Sanchez, Aloha, OR, USA
This summer a baby crow fell out of my fir tree in my front yard. I was on the computer at the time, doing some research. He hopped, stumbled and cawed for hours as his parents cried over-head. We called our local Audubon society who advised us to leave him alone. Well after seeing him slowly become dehydrated and hungry, I decided to step in. After doing some research, I hand fed this baby crow for 9 days, during which time he demanded my constant attention. I handled him, watched him recognize me, watched him learn to fly from my arm, to find insects and fly from the ground, to the fence and then to the sky.
He flew from my yard on July 3rd. Every other day he comes to a birch tree early in the morning and caws. I know it is him because I have learned that crows, like all creatures, have individual characteristics. I learned his particular “voice.” He allowed me to partake in a small portion of his life and it totally transformed my thinking as well as my art.
I am working on a series of paintings of this crow. I find that I am working differently, the style and freedom I feel while painting him is joyous, and the paintings feel more “alive.”
When I work, it is with the joy of knowing the relationship I had with this creature from the “natural world.” It is also with the joy of realizing that I, too, am of the natural world and this relationship was a part of the natural order.
It is one thing to understand this conceptually, and quite another thing to experience it. I am forever changed. He showed me the joy of being a part of creation, and the discovery of this joy in every moment. We must live in the joy of discovery and shout out the beauty, as well as the pain, of this human/natural experience. Those who would say, we are merely “copying” what has been before, are mired in their own conceptual ideas of how things “should be” and are trapped in these ideas. The simple joy of being and learning, like this baby crow exhibited for me, is a profound prayer of praise to the natural order in which we can all draw from and find our own version of praise.
Wherever I go, I am
by Judy Lalingo, Jarrettsville, MD, USA
Having just moved from Ontario to Maryland (for love, not money), the first thing I’ve found myself doing is taking solitary walks, connecting to the land. It’s so elemental, so fundamental, so imperative for me to do this, to find myself, to reconnect with myself, that I wonder how others can live without this type of grounding support system. Nature is the reason why I paint. To find myself, to learn, to discover. It holds all the mystery, all the archetypes, all the metaphors to life. Patterns, cycles, rhythms… nature has the ability to humble, simplify and connect at a level that goes beyond the physical and into the spiritual realm. The wonderful part is that wherever I go, there I am.
Influence of George Inness
by Jim Gola, Woodland, WA, USA
I’m currently greatly enamored with landscape painting. My influences are mainly derived from French artists of the early to late 1800s. I also am an avid admirer of the late great American landscape artist George Inness (view paintings: Pompton Junction and Italian Lanscape with Adueduct) as I now find many other landscapers are. After thirty plus years away from the brushes and colors, occasionally one achieves close to what one sees in the mind’s eye.
Byproduct of the brief and precious life
by Eleanor Blair, Gainesville, FL, USA
I painted my first three landscapes a few years after graduating from an art school in New York City. I’d moved to Florida, and had been offered a job teaching landscape painting. I thought, “How hard could it be?” and took my paints out to the countryside to give it a try. Thirty years later, I’m still painting landscapes. My work connects me to the outside world in ways that are beyond explanation. The paintings themselves are just a byproduct of the process, really. I’m glad that landscapes are a marketable item; it’s been nice to not have to get a ‘real’ job. But as a landscape painter, I travel out into the world beyond the paved roads and the shopping malls and witness the curve of the earth and the changing light and I am reminded of how brief and precious life is, and how beautiful.
Landscapes automatically center you
by Cathy Rush, Bloomington, IN, USA
Landscapes have an automatic centering response. Especially when landscapes are hung in business areas where people are cooped up all day. Landscapes allow people to slow down and take time, absorb, and sit down for a while.
Authentic “guerrilla” painting
by Alan Craig, Boca Raton, FL, USA
I’m a plein air landscape artist here in hurricane-ravaged south Florida. After a lifetime of uncommon adventure, I returned to Florida to find it impossible to locate the beautiful, nostalgic scenes from my pleasant rural youth. They are gone, disappeared like so many of my memories of Old Florida, torn out by real estate developers who never knew my Florida and all of whom are now in a frenzy make it look like the urban ghettos they and their customers come from. Early on I decided to choose a genre few care to enter these days. My oils are always finished alla prima in the field. My linen 16x20s are decorated with suicidal bugs and my shirt is often soaked in sweat. This is authentic “guerrilla” painting, backpacking everything into remote locations, standing enraptured there for 3 or more hours, then back out again when the light fails me. All of Florida is metastasizing so fast I will never finish my authentic Old Florida portfolio.
There is the same problem here in Israel with the critics, curators and art schools (with a few happy exceptions). Legitimate art, as one prominent critic and curator put it here, is art that is critical. That means art which criticizes the society and/or aspects of it — fashion, politics, commerce, etc. And of course, landscape and other “beautiful” art is out. It seems to me that the critical art is legitimate, just as much as landscape or portraiture. The aim behind critical art is to improve life, by pointing out that which is in need of repair or renovation. By the same criteria, landscape and other “beautiful” art is legitimate, as it also comes to improve the world. It improves the world by elevating the spirits of those who behold it, increasing the positive element of their psychic vibrations. These positive vibrations will be passed on and the world may be improved.
Actually, “critical” art may possibly have the opposite effect than that intended as one may be put in a bad mood from such works that may be depressing. Instead of passing on some happiness, the person may actually pass on the depression that is felt. Yet others may be made aware of society’s deficiencies and will do something good about it… I don’t know.
Since there seem to be enough people doing “critical” art, and it doesn’t fit my temperament anyway, I’ll keep trying to concentrate on the beauty around me and pass on these happy vibes to others.
Special dispensation for RG
by Jamie Lavin, Gardner, KS, USA
I think the responses for the Thanksgiving letter are so cool! I’ve been pounding the brushes against the canvas night and day — going to the One of A Kind show in Chicago over this next week, and I’m really trying to get caught up after having eye surgery. I’m so exhausted right now, my spell-checker is on hyper-drive! Anyway, I know an artist who has come over a few times and asked my help with things, now and again. He’s an Afghanistan vet and a good guy, named Charles Doster. He really has a style that’s coming out — doing paintings of a military-service man and woman perspective. I’ve really enjoyed mentoring him; I now know something of what you enjoy doing for all of us. If you’ll send me the book, I’ll see that he gets it — autograph it for him saying something encouraging like you always do — he suffers from a bit of depression and I know hearing from you will just blow his mind! Now I’ve got to get on with my day — I need to write the Pope and let him know all of your good works! He just might squeeze you in between Mother Teresa and St. Jude!
Too Close for Comfort
acrylic painting on canvas
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2004.
That includes Candace Faber who wrote, “And the view is loaded with Light, Light, Light, ever changing and so wonderful in its myriad colors!”
And also Barbara Boothe Loyd who wrote, “An artist named Bill Herring who wrote a book called A Horse of a Different Color once stated that landscapes outsell all other genres of art. He did research to learn that fact. Landscapes are eternal and universal.”
And also Luke Charchuk who wrote, “All art is essentially landscape and especially that which exists in the mind. Academicians continue to label and dissect, define and deconstruct. That business is but a science while true art comes like Cupid’s arrow, from the heart.”
Landscapes, by Luke Charchuk
In your laundries and diaries,
you continue to search,
Crossing the great landscapes of Heaven and Earth,
when all that you seek is there in your heart. (Luke 12:1b-04)