This week's blog post is written by local painter John Stephenson.
As a painter I have had a long and fruitful involvement with landscape painting. It represents the various stages of my life. For years I have been hiking, backpacking, skiing, or doing some mountain climbing. I have generally looked for excuses to get out into the forest, along some seashore, or up above timberline. Many of my most memorable moments have been with family or friends on trails in the Cascades or coastal mountains in the Northwest. Being on top of Mt. Hood or in the midst of an old growth forest of Sitka Spruce on the coast is always a source of wonder and excitement. Open spaces that seem infinite, trees that reach to the sky, or the restless play and energy of water all enter into a fascination and awe that I try to translate into images on two-dimensional surfaces of paper, canvas, or panels of wood. There is a spiritual quality and feeling that develops and comes from the larger than life sense of the vastness of the universe and the small but precious niche that human beings occupy in this scheme. I also lose some of my self-centeredness as it emerges from daily activities into a larger reality. I imagine early explorers felt this and certainly Native Americans who created a nature-based religion from it.
Landscape imagery has a long history in many cultures. I think of Asian art works and more recently western art forms. Impressionists and many early American painters developed visual languages that centered on the sense of vast open spaces in which humans and their creations appear small and not as the central theme. In the 20th century this fascination and focus was marginalized as visual arts became more inwardly oriented and the romantic idea of nature as a source of meaning and inspiration declined. Nevertheless landscape art continued to be important and landscapes continued to inspire.
Landscape work usually involves picking out the central theme you find most important when looking “out there”. That could be looking at anything in nature from mountain peaks, waterfalls, and forest paths to enjoying the beauty of man-made bridges or cityscapes. For me choosing from this sometimes chaotic scenery can be difficult. If you are working from photos at least you can easily take point and shoot pictures to get samples of what you see. You can take it back to the studio and work at your leisure.
If you are sketching with charcoal or paint and trying to capture what you see in plein air, it is often difficult to select. It involves a commitment of time to set up an easel and paints just to start the process. Then what parts of the world which is presented 360 degrees around do you hone in on? What are the most critical masses you must get down on the canvas? There is the question of capturing the always changing light and shadow. It is amazing how fast the light changes and shadows move. No time to dilly dally. Wind can also be a detriment. However, it is excellent training in learning how to work quickly and in focusing on the essentials of painting, especially in abstract painting which I particularly enjoy. When I think about the difficulties that Cezanne or Van Gogh experienced to capture their vision, it helps to be patient and and humble in the process. Landscapes, whether representational or more abstract, will always be a central part of my work.
Stop by Artistic Portland to see and purchase John's work in person.