Landscape painting vs. landscape walking

Pinnacles National Park

Rocks at Bear Gulch Resevoir, Pinnacles National Park

7.5″ x 9.5″
© 2013 by Margaret Sloan

I am still reading—and recommend—The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot by Robert MacFarlane. MacFarlane is a walker; he experiences the landscape through his feet, even walking barefoot through several pages. He travels at shanks-mare pace, slow enough to notice things as he walks over mountain, bog, or desert, passing landmarks, pathways, and people. Fair enough. Good writing has to keep moving to get anywhere.

I’m enjoying this book, as I’ve always loved walking, and fantasize regularly about a walkabout of my own. But since I’ve started landscape painting, my relationship with the landscape has changed.

As a landscape painter, I don’t so much move through a landscape as move into it. I build a temporary studio with tripod, pochade box, and backpack full of supplies and sandwiches (this army travels on her stomach). And there I stand at the easel, brush in hand, watching the landscape move around me.

Pinnacles National Park
Small watercolor sketch at Pinnacles National Park

Wind crackles through grass, and cloud shadows ripple and dimple the surface of the hills. Tides ebb and flow, birds fly by, eyeing my sack of sandwiches, and people stop, chat, then continue their own walk. When you stand still on the earth, the landscape moves like a flood around you, driven by the solar-storm of the sun as it rockets overhead.

Pinnacles National Park
Small watercolor sketch at Pinnacles National Park

And that is the landscape painter’s challenge, isn’t it? To try to capture a scene, to freeze a feeling, a smell or a taste of a moment that is constantly zooming past, on towards the next moment. The land is never, ever going to hold a pose long enough for me to capture a perfect likeness. In the field, all I can hope for are impressions: an idea of color, a gesture of form. In the studio, I can rely only on memory (and perhaps photographs).

Although I’m not walking across the land when I paint, I am making a slow sort of progress in tracking the world. I’m learning to notice things I don’t see when walking. Sometimes standing still is the best way to move.

“You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait, be quiet, still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.” —Franz Kafka

Here’s a lecture by MacFarlane. It’s long, so get a cup of tea, pull out your sketchbook, and draw while you listen.