Painting the Southwestern Landscape
INTERPRETATION OF THE WEST THROUGH THE EYES OF FOUR ARTISTS
Thomas Moran, the great western landscape painter, once said, “Art is nature viewed through a temperament.” A good landscape painting does not just re-create a scene, it selects and interprets the world around us in ways that convey the artist’s feelings and ideas about the landscape.
In great art, the artist always is present.
Of course, it takes a great deal of skill to make a painting that convinces us that what we are seeing is “real.”
More important, however, is the artist’s ability to choose a single compelling image out of the seamless confusion of nature, and then combine subject, color, composition, and technique in ways that convey the artist’s intentions to the viewer. This requires more than skill; it requires vision.
By examining the work of four notable, contemporary landscape painters, we can get a better look at this mysterious interplay of artistic vision and skill.
Jeff Aeling is a painter of cloudscapes who wants us to share his sense of awe at the scale and power of the prairie sky. In most of Aeling’s paintings the land is reduced to a narrow strip of flat horizon, emphasizing light and form in the world above us.
Lacking human figures, or any evidence of human presence, his compositions not only focus on the sky, but also give his paintings a profound sense of solitude.
Whether depicting a fading sunset, a welling storm, or the still, blue sky, this quiet focus conveys an unexpected intimacy with nature that stirs deep emotions. The viewer feels at once dwarfed by the sky and enthralled with its power: in touch with the spirituality of the landscape.
Despite the monumentality of Aeling’s imagery, the paintings are all about fleeting moments. Light intensifies and fades, clouds form and dissipate, shadows move and disappear. Much of the power and emotion of the work lies in knowing that the moment cannot last. Each moment will dissolve inexorably into the next one.
“I want to capture transitory light,” says the artist. To accomplish his goal, he uses a literal and realistic color palette. But because the actual range of colors in clouds and sky is limited, the paintings have a softness and subtlety that enhances the ephemeral nature of their subjects.
Aeling’s unusual brushwork technique also is a perfect metaphor for his aesthetic intention. From a distance, his paintings look almost photographic, but as the viewer moves closer, the loose, gestural nature of his brushwork becomes more apparent. The image that seemed so definite and real now begins to dissolve in the passing moment.
GARY ERNEST SMITH
The passage of time in the landscape is also a fascination for the Utah-based painter Gary Ernest Smith. However, Smith examines larger time scales, from the change of seasons across the year, to changes in the land over the past century.
A self-described “aesthetic chronicler of rural America,” his vision of the landscape focuses on the relationship between the land and those work on it; how man has altered the land and made it productive. “Even if you don’t see the human being, you see some results of a human being,” Smith says about his landscapes.
Many of Smith’s paintings are like snapshots of dimly remembered moments from everyday life. Plowing fields, gathering crops, feeding livestock: they evoke the values of strength, practicality, frugality, and hard work.
Though arguably nostalgic, Smith’s images are not at all sentimental. Rather than pining for times gone by, he simply looks for the beauty and dignity of ordinary places, both past and present. The way weeds rise on the edge of a path, the pattern of wheat stubble in the field after harvest, the skewed geometry of an old barn. In such fragments of landscape, he allows us to feel the fundamentals of rural life.
Indeed, Smith’s paintings often have an iconic look; they distill human landscapes to their underlying meanings. He accomplishes this task by removing all unnecessary elements from his paintings, simplifying forms, emphasizing pattern, obscuring details. They are simple, direct statements: factual, but loaded with emotional content.
To fully bring out the emotional intensity of his work, Smith pushes his colors “almost to an expressionistic state.” Saturated colors and unusual color combinations are typical of his painting. They are not literal renderings of the colors of the landscape, yet they effectively re-create the emotional experience of the rural West.
Most landscape painters are fascinated by what makes a particular place different from all others. They use their work to bring out the special qualities of a place and help us understand our experience of it. Gregory Hull is a landscape artist that travels all around the West collecting these impressions of place.
For Hull, this is best accomplished by identifying forms and patterns that seem to be characteristic of a given location.
The arrow-like tips of high mountain fir trees, the parallel striations of a canyon wall, the repeating billows of cottonwoods along a river.
Hull captures the essence of a place through strong compositions that create a beautiful pattern on the two dimensional canvas, and then draw us into the third dimension as we enter the landscape.
He makes this trick work through his masterful handling of light and color. “Light is what gives the form dimension and what makes it appear to turn in space.
The painter is limited to a two-dimensional canvas and an array of colors on the palette. To achieve an illusion of form and space on this canvas is the art.”
Hull paints in a classic Impressionist style. There are few distinct edges and little detail in his canvasses, but form and pattern are literally highlighted to make them come alive and communicate the qualities he sees.
Unlike Gary Ernest Smith, Greg Hull is not especially concerned with human history in the landscape. Rather his use of impressionism brings us instant, unencumbered pleasure in the beauty of natural places.
Santa Fe painter, Grant Macdonald, seeks to combine enjoyment of beautiful landscapes with their ability to evoke feelings and memories of our interaction with them.
“What I seek to portray in my art is not so much what people see but what they remember about a place. I am a realist, but I’m not attempting simply to document nature; I try to identify the essential qualities that elicit an emotional response and communicate that response through my work.”
A desert sunset, snow on adobe walls, a winding village road. Macdonald captures places and moments that we all can connect with, even if we’ve never been there.
The sense of universal experience in Macdonald’s work results from a traditional style of landscape painting that is directly descended from pre-Impressionist landscape masters of the 19th Century. A realistic palette, sharp detail, and quiet compositions allow the viewer a comfortable entrance into his landscapes.
The frequent inclusion of human figures and humble buildings further gives human scale and accessibility. People are a natural and inevitable part of the landscape in Macdonald’s work, and the landscape is essential to the experience of living.
The portrayal of the West will continue to delight collectors as each artist captures the ever-changing landscape with their intensely personal and unique style.