Each painting is an experience, a visit to a place where the artist's mind delves deep into the feelings of that special moment, curiously dissecting the multitude of features of the subject matter.
Consider "Rapid Transit," a 9x12 pastel depicting cascading rapids in North Cascades National Park. By closely observing the sights and sounds of these rapids, created by melting snow near the peaks of the Cascade Range, I was able to re-live the experience in my studio, and delve deeper into the nuances of the landscape through a reference photo, curiously inquiring about the various landscape features before me.
I have seen artists characterize their studio as "their happy place." The studio for me is an oasis. My art is created in the early morning before any glimmer of daylight. Between 5 and 5:30 am, that first cup of coffee teases inspiration from a restful night's sleep. My job that morning will be to sketch a new composition, select the pastels and ponder the underpainting, or embarking on another round of refining a painting-in-progress.
When I paint in the early morning, I am some other being. My persona transforms into a separate person directing an orchestra of composition, value and hue, curiously posing "what ifs" to entertain a creative variations of a reference photo.
"Rapid Transit, 9x12 pastel.
"In an aesthetic experience, in the creation or the contemplation of a work of art, the psychological conscience is able to attain some of its highest and most perfect fulfillments. Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time. The mind that responds to the intellectual and spiritual values that lie hidden in a poem, a painting, or a piece of music, discovers a spiritual vitality that lifts it above itself, takes it out of itself, and makes it present to itself on a level of being that it did not know it could ever achieve." - Thomas Merton.
So this is my early morning. Before I check email, scan the news headlines, or update by daily task list, I let that other side of my brain set the tone for the next two hours,
As an artist, I went missing in action for two months. Revving up the minivan at 6:00 am on June 26 launched our 5,300 round-trip drive to the Pacific Northwest.
Although I packed a sketchbook, graphite and pastel pencils, I never touched them. The only artist's implements I used were vision and contemplation. Was it worth it? I must agree that it was! I typically complete one painting per week. I enjoy this activity, even though the routine can be considered as a "job" at times. So taking
a break from painting provided the
Sunset, Mt. Rainier, view from downtown Tacoma, WA.
respite that any other break from routine can offer.
But taking a break taught me something that I did not expect. My break from interpreting the landscape through art allowed me to appreciate the landscape even more.
Art was no longer the distraction, the purpose of viewing the natural world, the end game By being free from my sketchbooks, Uart sanded paper and pastels, I found a new yearning to learn as much as I could about geology, flora and fauna, weather patterns, cloud structures, why sunrises and sunsets are different colors, how the landscape changes in
Snake River Overlook, Grand Teton N.P.
different light, why waterfalls fall the way they do, how
pebbles, rocks and boulders evolved from glacial moraines. I heard sounds I never
before knew existed. I felt like that inquisitive kindergartner at Emerson grade school in Yonkers, New York, once again.
Descending the Apgar Lookout Trail in Glacier National Park, a rustling noise in the shrubs revealed this little mule deer, In South Dakota, the striped layers of rock representing millions of years of
Dusk at Mormon Row, Jackson Hole, WY.
history piqued my interest in geology. "Roadside Geology of South Dakota," by John Paul Gries is, in my view, an exciting dissertation that most of us would consider absolutely boring.
Badlands National Park, Interior, SD.
Now, when I pass a large rock in a garden or a boulder by the side of the road, I can't help but wonder where it came from.
The landscape can be:
Interpreted with art
Appreciated with soul
Contemplated with one's mind
Understood with science
Viewed with awe
Experienced with the senses
On the Apgar Trail, Glacier N.P.
Yes, I would even taste a fresh leaf but would be inclined to leave the berries for the bears.
Sometimes a simple landscape offers a wealth of enjoyment. This mid-afternoon sky in Badlands National Park evokes the tall grass prairie landscape where thousands of bison would graze and escape from eager hunters of the Lakota Nation.
Studying the landscape without the tools of the trade can still allow the artist to visualize a simplicity of the vista and the masses of blocks of value that are so important to creating a varied, effective composition.
My 35mm SLR camera allowed me to frame views to arrive at reasonably-composed landscapes, despite the often crowded Badlands Prairie, near Wall, SD.
vegetation and distracting obstacles that cluttered the photograph. My reference photos allowed me to zoom in, crop, saturate, grayscale, and otherwise modify the scene to bring out features I had not seen earlier.
Not painting for two months taught me to appreciate painting even more, upon returning home to my studio. Today, I continue to enjoy this Western adventure and reminisce about my travels as I comb through the 1,000 reference photos. While many photos convey a composition worthy of painting,
every photo has a secret gem hidden in the landscape, waiting to be exposed and brought forth on the canvas. Adjusting my window of view in a particular scene can turn my 1,000 reference photos into 3,000 opportunities. I find that pretty exciting.
Despite not painting in my studio, I still felt, as Thomas Merton wrote, that "
spiritual vitality that lifts it above itself, takes it out of itself, and makes it present to itself on a level of "At Colter Bay," Grand Teton National Park.
being that it did not know it could ever achieve."
So each morning in my studio, art enables me to find myself and lose myself at the same time. Each reference photo from my travels teases me back into the fame of the digital landscape, reminding me of the sights, sounds and smells of that natural setting, and clearing my mind of its daily distractions so that I can enjoy that "higher level" of spirituality.