Go First To Nature

Spring is here and the plein air season stretches out before us with tantalizing visions of days spent in the field painting Nature. Unfortunately for many, the reality never quite matches up to our hopes and expectations. We come home tired, frustrated and disappointed in the day’s efforts. Why? Because painting outdoors is one of the hardest things you will ever try to do as an artist! So for the inexperienced or even intermediate painter, it is a real struggle. It’s like your first day in medical school and your professor says “Alrighty then, let’s start with brain surgery!”

This is not to say that working before Nature should wait. On the contrary, we must go often to Nature from the very outset of our training. But, how we approach Nature and how we learn to paint sur le motif involves much more than buying a pochade box.

Rembrandt
Rembrandt

Below is my favorite quote about drawing and about how we should approach Nature as artists. Asher B. Durand was among the first generation of Hudson River School artists, the first truly American group of landscape painters. Although they were, of course, influenced by European art and traditions, they understood that they had to forge a new relationship with Nature in the New World. I like to think of all landscape painters that way – we must all find our way, our own way, to Nature and how we want to depict her. Drawing is the first step. Drawing sets you free.

“Go first to Nature to learn to paint landscape…take pencil and paper, not the palette and brushes, and draw with scrupulous fidelity…I know you will regard this at first thought as an unnecessary restriction, and become impatient to use the brush, under the persuasion that you can with it make out your forms, and at the same time produce colour, and light and shade. In this you deceive yourself, as many others have done, till the evil has become irremediable; for slovenly and imperfect drawing finds but a miserable compensation in the evident efforts to disguise or atone for it, by the blandishments of color and effect.

Asher B. Durand, Letters on Landscape,1855.

Asher B. Durand
Asher B. Durand

Ah, you have to love that language!…”till the evil has become irremediable”!

Van Gogh
Van Gogh

Durand’s advice was based on literally centuries of working methods developed by landscape painters in Europe and later America. Drawing was and should be a critical part of not only the training of landscape painters but our first efforts to work directly from Nature. As Durand notes elsewhere in Letters On Landscape , two things result from this method: we learn about our subject in a deeper more intimate way and we enhance the technical skills we need to make a success of our outdoor efforts. Working first with line and tone (value) and then moving on to color allows us to build a skill set incrementally rather than feeling overwhelmed by the complexity of Nature and how to depict it.

Ivan Shishkin
Ivan Shishkin
Isaac Levitan
Isaac Levitan

The greatest landscape painters throughout art history have always known this. It’s only in the last century or so that we begin to think it was unnecessary to actually learn how to draw instead of just pushing a button on a camera!

John Constable
John Constable
Rousseau
Rousseau

As importantly, eventually this work will serve as reference material for our finished work in the studio. Drawings and color studies provide a storehouse of information upon which we can much more reliably depend than a bad photograph (or even a good one!). Observation becomes one of our most valued methods and provides new insights for our work each time we venture out in Nature. Instead of the pressure to “get a painting”, we can slow down, observe and experience. Remember, drawing sets you free.

P.S. We have two upcoming online classes designed to help you make the most of the plein air season! First up starting May 8, by request, is a repeat performance of our popular Understanding Values in the Landscape class. If you want to have a better understanding of value- how to see it and how to paint it, start here! Our annual class on Field Sketching starts May 15. A perfect companion to the Values class, this class is designed to get you outdoors and give you the confidence and skills to work en plein air with success. Join us!

2 thoughts on “Go First To Nature”

  1. I recently read an edited selection of Van Gogh’s letters to his brother, Theo. Van Gogh drew for a year before he ever used paint in the field. Always a hard worker, he literally drew every single day! Lauren H.

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