Yesterday we wrapped up a five day landscape painting workshop that I taught for the Grand Central Academy at Inwood Hill Park. We had perfect weather and the surprisingly wild nature of Inwood provided a serene retreat from city life. The park is 196 acres of varied terrain including Manhattan Island’s last untouched forest. Inwood’s northern border is the shoreline of Spuyten Duyvil Creek and on the west a steep forested ridge blocks noise from the west side highway. On top of the ridge, one can enjoy spectacular views up and down the Hudson River and of the Palisades on the opposite shore. In the forest, cliffs and large boulders form caves once inhabited by Native Americans. In this beautiful spot we were able to find a wide variety of subject matter. Please click on the photo below to see the a photo album, or if you’re on facebook, you can find a lot of pics there too.
I wanted to give students a taste of what we do at the Hudson River Fellowship, so I planned the majority of our time focused on drawing and foreground studies. The inspiration for this approach comes from Asher B. Durand’s 1855 letters on landscape painting, where he advises the novice to focus on drawing first:
“Form is the first subject to engage your attention. Take pencil and paper, not the palette and brushes, and draw with scrupulous fidelity the outline or contour of such objects as you shall select…”
When we set ourselves up to paint a landscape, most of us are tempted to choose a wide scene that includes a huge variety of challenges. We are forced to abbreviate everything if we want to finish the painting in a day’s work. While this approach is also important to my process and I use it often, I believe the importance of drawing is overlooked. The practice of slowing down and choosing smaller, less complex subjects is an eye-opening experience that will reveal the infinite complexity of nature at every level. With this more careful approach to landscape painting, I am seeking an intimate relationship with my subject. The practice of spending long hours observing a single object is a quest to understand it’s structure, life force, and place in the world. For me, it inspires feelings of wonder, childlike fascination, and awe. This is the mental/emotional space that I want to be creating art from, and when I can immerse myself in the joy of discovery like this, the hours fly by unnoticed. When I read Asher Durand’s letters from over 150 years ago, I sense the same excitement in his words:
“…you will be most successful in the more simple and solid materials, such as rocks and tree trunks, and after these, earth banks and the courser kinds of grass, with mingling roots and plants, the larger leaves of which can be expressed with even botanical truthfulness and they should be so rendered, but when you attempt masses of foliage or running water, anything like an equal degree of imitation becomes impracticable.
It should be your endeavor to attain as minute portraiture as possible of these objects, for although it may be impossible to produce an absolute imitation of them, the determined effort to do so will lead you to a knowledge of their subtlest truths and characteristics, and thus knowing thoroughly that which you paint, you are able the more readily to give all the facts essential to their representation. So this excessively minute painting is valuable, not so much for itself as for the knowledge and facility it leads to.”
If you’re finding this stuff inspirational, I suggest tracking down the unedited version of these letters, which were first published in The Crayon in 1855. You can now find them in this book. And here is one more quote from him that I couldn’t resist sharing:
“the study of foreground objects is worth while years of labor. The process will improve your judgement and develop your skill – and your thought perception and ingenuity will be in constant exercise. Thus you will not merely have observed in the rock lines angles and textures, or in the tree trunk the scoring of the surface which respectively characterize them. You will have acquired the knowledge and skill applicable alike to every proportion of the picture.” -Asher B. Durand 1855 Letters on Landscape Painting
Stay tuned for more workshops like this offered next year … probably some time in October before it gets too cold. Sign up for my monthly newsletter on www.emilielee.com to receive updates about future workshops, exhibitions, and events. Thanks! – Emilie