On landscape painting and more: Maine artist Stuart Ross suggests that we all paint an inner vision of life, not the reality of what we actually see. Does that idea free us to paint what we want to see?
By Stuart Ross
It may seem obvious to say the places recorded in landscape paintings don’t actually exist as they have been depicted, but by truly accepting that notion, artists can free themselves from the constraints of painting only what they observe. If they remind themselves that paintings present imaginary subjects originating in the minds of the artists, all options are open to the plein air painter.
Through the process of selecting, editing, transforming, combining, and rearranging the elements in nature, artists create a new reality, not an imitation of life. In other words, painters should be faithful to the physical demands of paint itself and the dictates of composition and color, and not necessarily to a precise image of nature. Turning life into art requires artifice.
A landscape by the great English artist John Constable (1776-1837) is not a reproduction of what he saw. The effectiveness of his compositions and the style of brush application make it clear he consciously chose a vantage point that controlled where he placed the viewer, determined by the relative scale of humans in that landscape, placed along the horizon line just where he wanted it, and concluded by the addition of a sky Constable saw the week before. This is what his paintings are about — the formal elements of a painting that come from a combination of observation, imagination, and design.
Similarly, no one can look closely at one of Claude Monet’s (1840-1926) magnificent water lily murals and think the artist was just recording nature. All one needs to do is get close to the thick paint on the surface of the rough canvas to see the abstract interpretation Monet created, and then back up so all those isolated swirls of paint coalesce to establish a new, believable reality to such an extent that observers almost need to hold on to something in order not to fall into the watery space.
Nature is messy, and there’s too much of it, so it is up to the artist to make art out of the raw materials available and to use a knowledge of composition, color, and paint handling to sort out that messy reality. In the case of Monet, one could say that he kept a certain amount of that messiness but ordered it according to an image that already existed in his mind. He created the pond, planted the water lilies, and built the foot bridges with the clear intention of giving himself a reference point with which to realize that mental image.
My own approach to landscape painting is a combination of working on location and in the studio. There is nothing else like painting outdoors, and if I do it enough I sharpen my observational skills, learn how to generalize from the particular, and determine how to select from the overwhelming amount of visual material. Moreover, I learn to work fast because the light is changing by the minute. There is no other way to learn to paint landscape but to get out into it and paint it.
The realities of weather and time, however, mean that it is often necessary to rely on sketches and photographs to complete a painting in the studio, and that is true of my larger landscapes. I find that I have trouble seeing a painting clearly until I get it back to the studio, away from the “distraction” of nature. I get a clearer view of it as to color and value, and I can take the time necessary to work on it without having to rush. I have the most success when I work outside on small canvases and make quick studies that can stand on their own but can also become part of the process of creating larger, more finished paintings.
Whether you find your landscape subjects in a back alley or in backcountry wilderness, what matters is what you do with the raw material given to you. There is no subject about which one can say, “No, that can’t be made into art.” For the artist painting landscapes is uniquely satisfying to be more and more fluent in the visual language that allows us to restructure and interpret what we see.
BIO: Stuart Ross has painted and exhibited in midcoast Maine for 40 years, finding unending visual interest in the watery local landscape. He has taught painting in various colleges including Colby College in Waterville, and at Midcoast Senior College in Bath, where he lives.