landscape painting

Landscape Painting by Jeannine Cook

Back in March of this year, in The Spectator, Angela Summerfield discussed Peter Frie:Last Summer, an exhibition of landscapes by a Berlin-based Swedish artist, Peter Frie. In view of the fact that tomorrow, I am planning to work plein air on landscape drawings, this statement in Summerfield's article came back to me.

I quote, "Landscape painting has not fared well within the dictates of modernist and post-modernist art definitions. It is as if an urban-centric, text-driven and often anti-aesthetic dogma has stifled both alternative discourse and individual human expression. Yet our experience of landscape, and by association Nature, is fundamental to the development of our senses, perceptual vocabulary and cognitive awareness.

Eliopainting No. 3    Peter Frie, oil on canvas, (image courtesy of Eskilstuna Konstmuseum.)

Eliopainting No. 3   Peter Frie, oil on canvas, (image courtesy of Eskilstuna Konstmuseum.)

This statement resonates for me in a number of ways. Since I live in non-urban environments, I find most of my daily delights and inspiration in Nature, in one way or another. I am also very aware that my tastes are therefore different from those of countless millions of people who live in big cities, where the dragooned green trees along streets and in artificially-constructed parks are the major remnants and reminders of the natural world, apart from weather conditions.

The world in which we all live is indeed mostly text-driven, a fact which again contributes, according to this thought-provoking book that I am reading, Moonwalking with Einstein, by Joshua Foer, to our collective loss of the capacity for memory. Because we can all rely on books, Google, digital files or whatever to recuperate facts, our memories have virtually abdicated, as compared to the memory of Greeks, Romans and medieval notables.

In those early times, people could remember vast amounts of knowledge, from all the names of soldiers in an army to long, involved speeches or treatises. After Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1436, our memories took a hit. In the same way, only well-trained artists retained the capacity to remember innumerable details of landscape or human form. Familiarity with landscapes and Nature's ways became the domain of the few in the art world.

Today, that is indeed true. Yet unless we artists somehow learn how Nature "works", an enormous chunk of our personal vocabulary is stunted. It is as if we try to learn French, but never hear how the words are correctly pronounced. We thus never understand the nuances, the cadences and accentuations, let alone the words themselves, that convey a world of meaning.

Ultimately, I fear that Angela Summerfield's rather pessimistic outlook about landscape painting will continue to pertain. I don't see art collectors returning en masse to support landscape painting (and drawing). Nonetheless, for those of us who believe landscapes and Nature in general have much to offer, there is the comfort that personally, we are enriched, and that there are indeed some people with whom landscape painting resonates. Hurray for "alternative discourse and individual human expression"!

Peter Frie's version of a  "Blue Morning"  (image courtesy of artfinders.co.uk.)

Peter Frie's version of a "Blue Morning" (image courtesy of artfinders.co.uk.)

Just look at  Frie's Blue Morning.  He should give us all encouragement and hope to follow our own paths vis-a-vis Nature.

Artists' Ways of Seeing Things by Jeannine Cook

I am reading a book entitled "Moonwalking with Einstein. The Art and Science of Remembering Everything" by Joshua Foer. The title is self-explanatory, the style is highly readable as Foer is a seasoned writer for such publications as the New York Times, National Geographic, Slate, etc. The content is totally fascinating - about how science is slowly understanding better how the human brain works, especially in terms of memory.

I still have many pages to go, but one page started me thinking about the parallels between artists and the master chess players that Foer was discussing. In the 1940s, Adriaan de Groot, a Dutch psychologist and chess player, decided to investigate what separated a good chess player from a master chess player - what was going on in their heads? Were the top players able to think further ahead in their moves, did they have better mental tools or a more honed intuition for the game? From past high level games,De Groot selected a series of board positions where there was one correct move to make which was not all that obvious. He then asked a group of top flight chess players to ponder these boards and to think aloud as they selected the proper move.

To De Groot's astonishment, the players mostly did not think many moves ahead, nor did they consider more possible moves. What they did was to see the right move, and almost immediately. After analysing the players' commentaries, De Groot realised that the chess experts were reacting, rather than thinking, and they could do this because their long experience of playing had taught them to think about "configurations of pieces like 'pawn structures' and immediately noticed things that were out of sorts, like exposed rooks". They had learned to see the whole chess board and thirty-two chess pieces as systems and groups. Later studies of top players' eye movements confirm that they literally see a different chess board, for they see more edges of the squares, which means they are encompassing whole areas at once. They also move their eyes across greater distances, without lingering for long at any one spot. Those places on which they do focus tend to be the key areas linked to making the right move.

This description of how master chess players function made me think of artists who have honed their skills day after day, year after year. Their eye-hand coordination has been perfected, their senses of composition/design, colour and content are developed. When they draw a nude, for instance, or work on a landscape painting plein air, for instance, they are not looking at just one spot. Rather, they are encompassing the whole so that almost intuitively, they can adjust their composition, their values and colour in the work for the best results. Their powers of observation and concentration are almost unthinking, because they are trained and disciplined.

The Red Canoe,  1889, watercolour, Winslow Home (Image courtesy of the Peabody Art Collection, Baltimore, Maryland)

The Red Canoe, 1889, watercolour, Winslow Home (Image courtesy of the Peabody Art Collection, Baltimore, Maryland)

To me, Winslow Homer is an example of a highly skilled painter, producing amazingly fresh landscapes, frequently plein air, and often in watercolour. One such example is "The Red Canoe" (image courtesy of the Peabody Collection, the Athenaeum).

Foer goes on to comment on the master chess players' amazing memories. I suspect that the great artists, past and present, also intrinsically rely on their memories quickly to understand a subject after a brief moment of studying it, Like the chess players, they can also call upon past experiences to bolster and inform their present work. The saying, "Been there, done that" applies, in a very positive sense, to an artist as well as chess players. Perhaps one should just add, "umpteen times"!

Is creating art a process of discovery? by Jeannine Cook

It is often said that curiosity lies at the heart of all good art. Frequently, one has an idea about a subject to paint or draw, and the next thought is: why not try it in such and such a way technically, what if one includes x or y subject matter, or what if one approaches the subject altogether differently? In other words, how best to convey the inspiration? Since most artists are innately curious and observant, each drawing or painting turns into a voyage of discovery. Every piece of art has its own "voice" as well. So the artwork will, in essence, tell the artist how to draw or paint it. It is a question of being open, intuitive and attuned to what is happening on the canvas or paper.

Whatever the art being created, the artist will learn from the process of painting or drawing. I find that when I am doing a silverpoint drawing, I observe closely the subject I am depicting, partly because I want to understand it better but also because I am mindful that silverpoint is a severe taskmaster. You cannot erase the lines you make with the silver stylus on the prepared paper, so you live with what you put down. It is a good discipline because you try to understand the subject matter in order then to draw spontaneously. That spontaneity leads in turn to a stronger evocation of the subject.  Just as in other media, the silverpoint drawing technique should be the "silent partner" in the art making duo, playing the important but supporting role to the artist's curiosity and passion which engendered the art in the first place.

Think of Vincent Van Gogh's passionate curiosity. He embarked on extraordinary voyages of discovery every time he started a new painting, whether it was landscapes and scenes in and around Paris, Sunflowers, Dr. Gachet, the Yellow House or Cypresses. Each painting taught him something new and led him on to the next one in his headlong fevered creativity. 

The Yellow House, 1888, oil, Vincent van Gogh, (Image courtesy of the Van Gogh Museum, Amerstdam)

The Yellow House, 1888, oil, Vincent van Gogh, (Image courtesy of the Van Gogh Museum, Amerstdam)

Each of us, as artists, aspires to retain that freshness and energy needed to exercise curiosity, to go on voyages of discovery. Those voyages can lead to the creation of good art.

“Nature, however beautiful, is not art.” by Jeannine Cook

The Coming of Night at Keckliko, Alice Ravenel Huger Smith, 1920s


In Martha R. Severens’ book on Alice Ravenel Huger Smith, An Artist, a Place and a Time, (http://www.gibbesmuseum.org/) she quotes Birge Harrison saying that “Nature, however beautiful, is not art. Art is natural beauty interpreted through human temperament”. This was a tenet Alice Ravenel Huger Smith kept very much in mind when she was painting her luminous watercolors of the Low Country around Charleston.

It is an observation that constantly resonates with me as I try to interpret the landscapes of coastal Georgia or places I visit in Europe. What to select first, when one is choosing a scene? How to portray the subject one has chosen? What medium is best? Why is one attracted to that scene chosen – what makes it so special that one wants to spend time and energy depicting it?

Working plein air is a wonderful exercise in humility. The light changes, the insects bite, one loses the initial spark of excitement, the wind blows – so many challenges! But if one keeps on going and tries to remember why that scene called out to be drawn or painted, somehow one struggles on through to some form of conclusion. Later, the studio is the place for consideration and evaluation of what one has tried to accomplish. Watercolor and silverpoint drawings are both unforgiving so it is hard to make many changes. Nonetheless, sometimes, the natural beauty does get interpreted in successful fashion and the landscape painting or drawing works out. That leaves me with a good feeling and makes me all the more eager to go out looking for the next installment of “beautiful nature”.