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?

More about Alviso http://www.metroactive.com/papers/metro/08.20.98/cover/alviso-9833.html

Landscape painting from the front porch

Death Valley at Stovepipe Wells
Death Valley at Stovepipe Wells

The bad thing about staying in Death Valley National Park is that there are limited options of where to stay. You have three: an expensive hotel; a less expensive hotel; and camping.

The good thing about staying in the park is that there are only two hotels and limited camping. There are no neon-lit chain hotels, no glossy fast food signs. There is not even a food truck glowing in the parking lot. That means the views, even from from the less expensive Stovepipe Wells, are unobstructed million-dollar vistas.

So I set up my pochade box on the front porch of the hotel, and painted what what was in front of me: the broad valley and mountains beyond.  A friend stayed with me, and she knitted while I painted.

It was a simple equation:

Being outside + Cookies and tea on the table + companionable silence broken by occasional conversation + paint on my canvas (and in my hair) =  Heaven. (Bonus: bathroom nearby—a plein air painter’s dream.)