Saturday, May 19, 2012

Landscape painting is a lie, well told!

© The Estate of Edward Seago, courtesy of Portland Gallery

 I received this comment on the last post:

 This is interesting and a bit confusing to me...if you 'key' your painting, don't you risk losing that lovely, oh so lovely atmospheric sense, the 'lightness' of nature that is almost like 'dew' to behold? I understand it all depends on what the light effect is of the particular scene you are viewing, but still, the phrase 'key your painting' troubles me and makes me think that it is similar to making NATURE conform to something she is not....of course, I am talking from a stand point of almost zero experience....and how does this translate to indoor/ still life painting? Personally, I love the Boston Painters, whose work, while it definitely utilizes dark darks and flat shadows, always feels 'light' and that the light effect 'was just that'.

Exactly! I want to make nature conform to something it is not. I wish to make art. Nature is one thing. Art is another. Arts a lie! The root of the word is artifice. Here's the definition of that. "Clever or cunning devices or expedients, esp. as used to trick or deceive others: "artifice and outright fakery. You cannot "observe design, color or emotion into a landscape painting. All of these things are installed by the artist. Look at the wonderful Seago above, would you mistake it for a window? Is it truthful?

It is possible to set up a still life in the studio and carefully transfer its appearance onto a canvas, at least if you have controlled lighting. But landscape is a different game. For a number of reasons.
  •  Outside, nature is always changing. Every time you look up it is slightly different. There is no "thing" to copy exactly. You cannot set up outside and copy your way to a great landscape painting.

© The Estate of Edward Seago, courtesy of Portland Gallery

  • The landscape is a warehouse of more props and details than you could ever want. It is essential to select the important, and reject the unnecessary clutter. It is impossible to paint every leaf in a forest and still get every blade of grass at your feet and maintain any semblance of unity or grace.
  • You can paint exactly what is before you as carefully as you can, but I will eat  your lunch, EVERY TIME. Paintings carefully copied from nature before you are usually ordinary. Usually fine landscapes bring a treatment or a "take" on  the landscape that is individual to the artist. Their paintings look as if they could only have been made by that artist. Their paintings are personal, expressive and individual. Edgar Payne doesn't look like Corot or Constable, nature may be constant, but each of these different artists have made paintings that are distilled from the experience of nature rather than a precision reproduction of the actual scene in front of them.
© The Estate of Edward Seago, courtesy of Portland Gallery
  • The range of values outside exceeds our pigments range. The value of a painted sky is often too dark even if you use pure white. It is necessary sometimes to approximate the look of nature. A blue sky might be higher key than you can paint and still have any blue pigment in your note for instance. But most importantly, the 'look' of nature is secondary to the "look" of the painting. If the painting doesn't move the viewer, you can't assure them that it looks just like nature. Art is one thing, nature is another.
  • There is a historic "language" of landscape painting, and it is inventive. The greats have rearranged and riffed on nature to make their paintings. Landscape painting allows for lots of re arrangement and artifice. it is that quality that for me is what makes landscape so appealing. If you play it straight you will usually end up with matter of fact paintings. It is not what it is a picture of, but "how" it is a picture of, that is important in the landscape.
  • No one would mistake a Corot or an Inness for a window. They are created illusions based on nature but arranged and presented in a manner unique to their particular creator. Landscape painting is best when it approaches poetry and weakest when it is an accountant's laundry list of the objects that happened to be in front of the artist.
    © The Estate of Edward Seago, courtesy of Portland Gallery
  • Imagine an historical account of the battle of Gettysburg. A 100,000 page description including how every single soldier put on their shoes and explaining their genealogy and sartorial preferences with a complete accounting of their high school grades, and body mass index thrown in for good measure, would not be more informative than a description that seizes on the salient points of the battle and tells the story of a few men's experiences that typify the experiences of a great number of the participants. Selection and simplification are the bifurcated roots of design.
  • There is a big difference between a believable or a beautiful landscape, and a truthful one. A great landscape painting is more than truthful. A map is truthful, a painting is a construct, an artificial creation that recalls nature rather than records it faithfully. Art is a lie! well told, that says more than the truth.
  • I love the Boston school too, my roots are there. But, the Boston school painters were largely studio painters. They painted figures and interiors and still lives. Except for Bunker, ( oh yeah, and Enneking!) I can think of few who really concentrated on the landscape. This is true of the current generation as well. Landscape painting is a peculiar and different discipline than studio figure painting. The New York and Old Lyme painters, like Hassam, Metcalf and others were more serious about the landscape. For most of the Boston school landscape was a sideline or the background for figures. Aldro Hibbard was a student of Tarbell and the other Boston School painters of the previous generation to his own, he was a landscape painter, was he still Boston school? Maybe, maybe not.....Kaula, a lesser known Boston painter did a lot of landscapes, Benson did a few, but he would be forgotten today if his pure landscape was all that he had produced. There is (in my opinion) not a particularly strong landscape tradition within the Boston school and most of it's great practitioners were figure painters and not landscapists. I bet I made a lot of enemies tonight.


Dale Cook said...

Thanks for this post, Stapleton. This has to be the most difficult lesson for amateur artists - understanding that the landscape is simply a reference.

bvpainter said...

A really well thought out and educational posting. Lots of good advice.

Robert J. Simone said...

Nice "treatise" on the essence of landscape painting. Makes good sense. And inspirational, too.

I like to think of landscape painting as a "translation". That is "translating" nature into fine art. As such it requires a visual language. But, as you say, knowing the language is not enough. Prose is different than court reporting.

Sonya Johnson said...

I love this post. Thank you for writing it.

Cynthia Hillis McBride said...

I used to pray for an instructor who could not only paint, but was able to verbalize his/her reasoning and process. Your ability to translate the ultimate truth to both the canvas and to us in writing is amazing. I don't think I've ever read a better description of what a landscape should be. Well, any painting for that matter. Thank you.

bruce evans newman said...

Albert Handell once asked me whether I was selling the scene or selling the painting and that has always resonated with me. To me, he is saying the same thing you are, Stapleton. Thanks for this post!

Marsha Hamby Savage said...

I loved this article. I shared the link on my Facebook page and my personal page. There were a few sentences I even quoted. Thank you for expressing them... I hope many will take note of those sentences, besides coming to your blog and reading a wealth of information.

Helder FC Vieira said...

René Magritte painted below the pipe "Ceci n'est pas une pipe" ("This is not a pipe"), which seems a contradiction, but is actually true. So, if you sell this pipe painting, are you selling the pipe or selling the painting?
If I say that i'm selling the pipe, then I'm a liar, but if I say I'm selling a painting then I'm selling a lie.
Is that so?
It is a dilemmatic situation.
So, to me, a painting is not a lie nor the painter is a liar.
It is an idiosyncrasy of the artist.
Some beautiful. Some not. It depends on the artist :)

gail said...

Thanks for the post. Much to absorb. I see that you are coming to Cranford, NJ for the JCAS Plein Air event. I am looking forward to your urban landscaping demonstration on Friday nite too. Best to you in your travels down. Looking forward to your paintings. G

Jose Luis De Juan said...

Loved this posting. I agree on every point. I feel a painting is its own ecosystem beyond what it was triggered by. But I always caution people against taking refuge in excusing random arbitrary decision as "painterly lies". It happens. For a lie to be "well told" it has to be rooted in a recognition of its motives. A plein air study faithful to nature sometimes leads to a painting much enhanced by the unflinching observation of the real. I am not taking about painting every blade but taking the time to observe and reproduce the shape and size of trees and value ranges in a given day for example. Only then, I propose, real design and intention can work with these raw materials. There's the temptation ,on occasion, to brand as a lie (or an experiment) what was just an incoherent phrase.

Jaymacaz said...

I am new to your blog as well as to plein air painting, and am working my way through your past entries to catch up a bit! You have stated more clearly than anyone what fascinates me about plein air. I have drawn and painted from still life, the figure and references for decades, and believe that plein air is cognitively different in an enormously fruitful way. The subject is under your control in other types of art. The open world is not. You must impose your own identity on it or there is no hope of walking away with a painting. Thank you so much for your generosity in sharing your insights on this blog!