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.

What does the landscape know of the painter?

Painting of hills
Oil sketch of bay and hills. 8″ x 10″

In The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot , Robert MacFarlane says:

“For some time now it has seemed to me that the two questions we should ask of any strong landscape are these: Firstly, what do I know when I am in this place that I can know nowhere else. And then, vainly, what does this place know of me that I cannot know of myself?”

As a landscape painter, I felt particularly pierced by this quote. I rolled it around in my head as I painted in Alviso Marina County Park this weekend. I recounted to myself what I knew of this landscape: it used to be rural and isolated from the hustle of Silicon Valley. It was, quite literally, the site of a dump, but now, with the invasion of tech dollars, it’s got that beginning shine of gentrification-creep.

But it hasn’t all been siliconized yet. The town and park are on the wild southern edge of the Bay, and across the water you can see the Diablo range. The tide was in, and the bay glowed sky blue in the slanting afternoon light. The color of the hills reddened as the sun burned through the late autumn haze and I scrambled to adjust my colors and capture the sweetness of the evening.

Every landscape I paint makes me know of myself that I do not paint enough; that I desire more than I can accomplish in the time allotted to me; and that I love being outside more than just about anything (except for playing music and painting). And when I paint in urban-edge areas, I learn, over and over again, that the earth, even while brutalized by humans, remains steadfast.

But does that landscape know anything of me? What does it even mean that the place might know of me something I cannot know of myself? Does it mean what I should know from the humans who come over to “meet a painter?” Or does it mean some sort of Gaia-like sentience on the part of the landscape, the dried mud that powders around my feet, the weeds that jump into my socks as I wade through them, the hills and water that stand silently in my view?

I don’t know. But I think for a while it will become my painting mantra, an addition to the usual litany of: is this the right color, right value, right chroma, and right stroke?

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