Sunday, March 20, 2011

My Problem With Landscapes

I recently painted this cityscape:

Jade Street, oil on canvas, 30"x24"

This took a long time to paint, by my standards - days and days. By the end, I was so close to it that I had trouble stepping back to evaluate whether it was any good. It was very difficult to paint, and I had lots of time to think about why it should be so difficult. It wasn't an issue of detail alone - give me a good hand or nose, and I don't mind an obstreperous amount of detail. But forcing myself to sit down for a day of painting light on fire escapes was like pulling teeth (good teeth, not rotten loose ones).

I developed a theory, which I'll share with you, but in advance, I should warn you that I also developed a simpler second theory, which will make you laugh. I'll get to that at the end.

So my first theory, the complicated one, was as follows. Let's start with some observations that our friends Mr. Turner and Mr. Dickens inspire in our friend Mr. Ruskin:

In his American Notes, I remember Dickens notices the same truth, describing himself as lying drowsily on the barge deck, looking not at, but through the sky. And if you look intensely at the pure blue of a serene sky, you will see that there is a variety and fulness in its very repose. It is not a flat dead colour, but a deep, quivering, transparent body of penetrable air, in which you trace or imagine short falling spots of deceiving light, and dim shades, faint veiled vestiges of dark vapour; and it is this trembling transparency which our great modern master [Turner] has especially aimed at and given. His blue is never laid on in smooth coats, but in breaking, mingling, melting hues, a quarter of an inch of which, cut off from all the rest of the picture, is still spacious, still infinite and immeasurable in depth.
- John Ruskin, Of Modern Painters, I (1843)

J. M. W. Turner, Norham Castle, Sunrise, 1845

What is particularly important here - absolutely key, in fact - is that distinction that Ruskin uses Dickens to make, between looking at and looking through. In order to paint space properly, one must paint through depths upon depths. The eye cannot be allowed to stop upon a thing, without considering the thing as part of a continuum of space before it and beyond it. That continuous space must be allowed to override the thing suspended in it. The thing is less important, the space more important. The thing serves only to modulate and evoke the space.

In practice, some of what this means is a willingness to paint not a representation of objects, but a transcription of retinal impressions. This premise - to paint a pattern of colors striking the back of the eyeball - was heightened to explicit exaggeration among the impressionists, of course:

Claude Monet, Waterloo Bridge, London, circa 1903

But even without the radical steps the impressionists took, the successful landscape has always been a matter of subsuming objects in an overall concept of space. Before the innovation of the retinal method, painters used a different trick: heightened coordination of the elements of design to produce an impression of volume. Consider this:

Jan Vermeer, View of Delft, circa 1660-1661
p.s. i've been there, and it looks like that

Here, Vermeer has coordinated dazzling contrasts of value and saturation in order to describe a cool bright afternoon. Without that shadowed cloud at the top of the composition, the composition fails:

It becomes flat, overbright. But with that dark cloud, the composition is suffused with sunlight - only the brightness of the sun can produce that shadowed cloud, and by reference to the shadow, we understand the brightness. The image does not read as being so bright as the trimmed version - but in our minds, we understand a greater brightness. This is a function of the artful manipulation of the elements of design.

Returning to the impression of volume - that dark cloud moves the composition from in front of the viewer, to in front of and over - the clouds extend into a foreground not limited by the picture frame. The composition reaches up into height and forward into the viewing space.

As in the cases of Ruskin and Turner, and of the impressionists, the importance of any particular object is subordinate to the importance of the contribution of the object to the creation of the space. This, to me, is what makes a landscape work.

It is, unfortunately, exactly the opposite of how I see.

By nature, I look at, not into. I am object-oriented and, for me, the visual field begins and nearly ends with objects. This cognitive trait was much more obvious in my early paintings, before I figured out how to get it under control:

Sitting, oil on canvas, 36"x24", 2005

That's near the beginning of my painting adventure. Consider me one year later, with much better control over the paint, but still only dimly aware of the exclusive object-orientation of my natural mode of seeing:

Crouching Nude, oil on canvas, 48"x24", 2006

Now let's jump to 2010:

The Rest, oil on canvas, 48"x36", 2010

That's me huffing and puffing as hard as I can to put my figure into a plausible space, and it's one of the most successful instances of it to date. But for all the softening of the forms, you can still see that each object is specific and discrete - they are objects related plausibly in a geometrical space, not objects subsumed into the gestalt of a unified space.

In my drawings, I still usually indulge my object-orientation completely, isolating my figures from any occupied space at all:

Maya, pencil on paper, 15"x11", 2010

Well, that's me, and I can live with that - I'm still working on it, and I'm fortunate enough that my inspiration doesn't run in the direction of expressing itself through space. I have other loci of expression that interest me more.

But I would like to paint a nice landscape now and then, and this is where I run into trouble. Let's go back to the cityscape:

Now you can see that, even if your first glance gave you an impression of a coherent scene, from my perspective, it is an agglomeration of details. I have flat affect of the detail sensibility - the details are arranged in depth, but they are treated without a hierarchy of relative importance. They are a heap of details, organized in such a way as to produce an impression of space. The details retain primacy, not the space.

I am not arguing that my painting is a bad painting. It is possible to make successful landscapes within this paradigm. Consider Georgia O'Keeffe:

Georgia O'Keeffe, Radiator Building, Night, New York, 1927

O'Keeffe is a totally object-oriented painter, and this orientation doesn't cease when she turns her attention from objects to spaces.

Consider also Edward Hopper:

Edward Hopper, Early Sunday Morning, 1930

Hopper comes close to space-orientation over object-orientation, but he remains, for me, on the object end of the representational range. When people consider the silence and stasis of his paintings, they often discuss his vivid colors, his isolated figures, and the lack of moving objects in his scenes. I would argue that his distinctive silence and stasis, so full of menace and loneliness, owe just as much to a kind of airless isolation of his scenes into objects, with all the unnatural clarity that comes from the technique. He shares this property with some of the Ashcan school:

George Bellows, Men of the Docks, 1912

By means of this we see that from the early to middle part of the 20th century, the most memorable American landscape painting operated within the conceptualization of the object, as opposed to that of the space. I think this results from at least two major factors:

1. The impact of modern architecture and industry on the understanding of space. Whereas nature, ancient cities, and classical architecture tend toward such a high density of detail that they produce continuous variation of the visual field, the modern skyscraper and tenement, and the implements of modern industry, tend toward the straight line and the discrete visual unit. This produces an overall bias toward the object and the geometrical space over the unified space.

2. A kind of willful pictorial naivete animates these works for me: a self-conscious expression of the outsider quality of art from colonies struggling to maintain a painting culture after their separation from the motherland tradition. This tendency was unselfconscious in the older, and truly godawful, American colonial painting, but as America worked to define itself apart from Europe in the twentieth century, pre-abstract artists turned toward whatever tools were handy, and this outsider quality was one of them.

For my part, I would not mind painting in this idiom (and I'm not suggesting that I've matched O'Keeffe, Hopper, and Bellows - far from it), only I am constrained to do so by my current shortcomings. It is not a choice, but a limit. I don't mind making art bounded by my limits, but I do mind not broadening my limits once I recognize them.

Let me offer you a little more from Mr. Ruskin:

Now what I particularly wish to insist upon, is the state of vision in which all the details of an object are seen, and yet seen in such confusion and disorder that we cannot in the least tell what they are, or what they mean. It is not mist between us and the object, still less is it shade, still less is it want of character; it is a confusion, a mystery, an interfering of undecided lines with each other, not a diminution of their number; window and door, architrave and frieze, all are there: it is no cold and vacant mass, it is full and rich and abundant, and yet you cannot see a single form so as to know what it is.
- John Ruskin, Of Modern Painters, I (1843)

It is this indistinct pregnancy which I cannot quite let go enough to produce. When I have talked about painting the ambiguities of things in other posts, I have meant seeing things clearly enough to find that they were ambiguous in and of themselves, and learning to paint that ambiguity. I never advocated for the defeat, the inevitable defeat, of the attempt at sight - ambiguity from a flaw in the perception, not a quality in the perceived. Ruskin says:

You always see something, but you never see all.

And it is this which, despite its transparent truthfulness, I cannot cease to war with. I want absolute sight.

You know where you go if you completely indulge the will to absolute sight? Terrible, terrible trompe l'oeil painting: painting with a degree of detail far beyond anything that mimics a natural mode of visual cognition. I would rather be a good artist than give free rein to any of my quirks. So I have trained myself to let go, to some extent, in my figures, but I have not yet broadened the scope, as it needs broadening, to handle landscapes.

I finished this painting a few days ago. We've been following its progress for a while on this blog:

The Black and White War, 60"x72" on two canvases

As you can see, the figures are geometrically emplaced in a scene. However, knowing my oddity of spatial representation, I accounted for my kind of looney disconnect of objects from one another in the total design of the painting. It's supposed to be weird. On the other hand, I got a very pleasant bonus in the course of painting that endless background:


Those are the farther arches seen under the arm of the figure on the right.They are satisfyingly blurred, to me. They have the blur of objects seen clearly, and yet from far away; objects approaching Ruskin's disorder.

So there's hope.

Now, that was my first theory of what my problem is with landscapes.

Let me tell you my second theory, which occurred to me the other day while I was planning out this post.

My second theory is that I'm not very good at landscapes because I don't look at landscapes or make pictures of them very much.

This second theory could also explain all the evidence - all that complicated stuff I was just talking about could be true, and yet it could all be just a function of the fact that I haven't practiced learning to see landscapes as I have practiced learning to see people and things.

As usual, I expect it's a bit of both.

A little endnote here: The image of The Black and White War was originally inspired by a very broad reading of the phrase "the Eight-by-Eight War," in China Mieville's novel Un Lun Dun. This is a war which is known to have happened, but nobody remembers who won it. The only survivors are a white bishop and a red-black bishop, who are also still waiting on word of the outcome. Mieville is a sort of fantastical modern Dickens, a master of the depiction of cities. He is dark and industrial in sensibility, and his stories are set in densely detailed alternatives to our ordinary world. I highly recommend giving him a read.

UPDATE 3-22-11

Something that was so obvious I completely forgot to mention it - the painting Jade Street is based on a photograph taken by my friend Jade, who is a really talented photographer. I almost never see a photograph that I feel so intensely about that I have a need to paint it - but as soon as I saw those looming, threatening clouds in Jade's photograph, I felt an overpowering urge to paint them, and the rest of the scene they were a part of. So I asked if she'd send me a high-resolution version and give me her permission to paint it, and she very generously did both. I ought to warn you that if any of you buys this painting, a percentage of the proceeds are going to go straight to the Save the Jade Foundation.


  1. One can't "take apart" your landscape and how you see and paint them any better than this post! It was enjoyable to read. I am the opposite of yourself, a landscapist who does the occasional figure. I have some background in the figure, but as I take it up presently I am aware of all that I don't know.

    The differences in genres of painting, such as still life, landscape, etc. are critical to know. Do you remember how van Gogh painted landscapes as portraits? I use that idea often, especially when approaching a single building. It works very well for Italian buildings, in my humble opinion.

    Before I read the post, I saw some aspects of your cityscape that I'll share with you (for what they are worth). Few painters will provide us with an established place to stand when using a high point of view, as you do with the strong fire escape landing. I am not enamored with having a place to stand, but it works great here and I try to ask myself whether I want to provide this in a given picture. Bravo for doing that here.

    You have such a good formal skill that the details don't interfere. I would relax about that. Space versus objects? Always a good question to ask, and I think these days that the spacial tools the Renaissance artists gave us are one thing, but the over all picture plane of the Moderns cannot be left alone. Having both can be the trick.

  2. I like your "Jade Street" painting very much. To me, it doesn't seem particularly object-focused, because there is no one object that is the center of attention. What I notice first is the effects of light, and this makes it, to my eye, more about space than about objects, because light defines space. That's true on multiple levels, from Einstein's relativity to Hopper's forlorn places. So it may be right that you find landscapes challenging because of your object-oriented perceptual style, but I think you have managed to transcend that in that painting.

  3. hmmm. interesting post. first, I'll say that (to my eyes) you did the painting in kinda a comic book style, which, as I said before is very cool. but a bit of a disclaimer I think. like you're already saying "ok, this is a departure for me."

    I think you are right on in your self analysis. that quote by Ruskin "it is a confusion, a mystery, an interfering of undecided lines with each other, not a diminution of their number" etc -- beautiful and exactly right.

    I would look at that scene and think, hey, this is giving me a feeling of new york proper, dirty but also clean, beautiful and ugly, light, but so dark. maybe I'm drinking, my friends are smoking -- so there is a feeling there, not necessarily a scene of objects and spaces.

    I think you (and people who love to paint figures) may prefer to filter emotions. In the sense that you may love to paint a person who is feeling something and how that might look. how that might be expressed by the person who is experiencing that emotion or those emotions. what unconscious gesture would perfectly tell the story. you'd have been more comfortable painting one of the smoking friends. and honestly, I wish I'd thought of that! painting human emotion is both easier and infinitely harder. infinitely harder.

    in other words, maybe a landscape painting invites you to look outward at the world and feel something; a figure painting looks back at your gaze and asks you to go inside and get an emotion inside yourself.

    that's what I think.

  4. PS, "airless" is EXACTLY how I feel when I look at Hopper. it sometimes actually makes me stop breathing. true fact.

  5. I know that our skin doesn't just reflect light on the surface but within as well since some light is absorbed. I guess then when we see other people we are forced to see through them (as objects) to some extent. This perhaps gives them a sense of realness. I suspect this because a computer programmer taking graduate courses in animation once told me that it takes an insane amount of math to get skin to look right on the screen.

  6. Casey - thanks for this thoughtful comment. I like your colors and the way you're decomposing scenery into soft shapes in the few landscapes of yours that I've seen. I'm glad you enjoyed my dissection of the topic, and especially glad that you think the painting works despite my concerns. I didn't know that about Van Gogh, but it makes a lot of sense.

    Fred - thank you very much! I spent a lot of time revising the light in this painting, by lightening the bright regions and more particularly by dumping black on the darker areas. That was after I finished the "first draft" of it and found it too flat. If it holds together - transcending the problem - I suppose it might be like using shorter and shorter line segments to approximate a circle - eventually you go past the threshold of perception, and it looks like it's a circle. Let me tell you, painting all of those line segments was a bitch.

    And sangre de dios, y'all! I forgot something very important - so important that I'm going to add it as an update to this post when I get done writing this comment. Maybe you noticed the painting is called "Jade Street"? The important thing is this: it's based on a photograph taken by Jade here. She's an awesome photographer. When I saw the picture this painting derives from, it blew me away and I was like, "I need to make a painting of this." You know how often that happens? Never. So I asked if she'd send me a high-rez version for a painting, and she said sure. Casey, the clever point of view is Jade's idea, not mine.

    So anyway, Jade's comment. Jade - I know it looks comic bookish, but I didn't plan it that way. So there. I win, although I'm not sure what I win. I'm glad you liked the Ruskin. He's very good, and yet I have not read very much of him. You know who read more of him than the French like to admit? Marcel Goddamned Proust. What's interesting is that you're the third person who has, describing the painting, located it narratively in terms of people socializing over cigarettes in New York (where was this taken, anyway?). I never thought of that element of it, at all, when I was painting it - I was thinking about the strange confluence of light at the end of the block, and of those looming, bright clouds. Artists are idiots, they don't know what they're doing.

    I have actually given a lot of thought to directly evoking emotions, versus representing the impact of emotions on other people experiencing them. My friend RC Speck and I went over this comparing Kubrick and Tarkovsky - that Tarkovsky shows you the psychological impact of the Revelation on his characters, but Kubrick wants to show you the Revelation itself. Both of them will wind up showing it to you - the first through empathy, the second through perception. But it's an interesting issue. Long story short: take a few pix of your friends next time.

    Glad you like the word "airless" there. Some of his paintings feel like the surface of the moon.

    Chris - uh, you do know about this, right?

  7. the north side of franklyn, at church st.

  8. Fred: "What I notice first is the effects of light, and this makes it, to my eye, more about space than about objects, because light defines space..."

    What he said.

    Seriously, I won't bother to try to reword it to make the thought seem my own, that's exactly how I feel about the painting. And I really enjoyed your introspective look at your painting, I always do.

  9. Jade - oh! Mystery solved! I will have to go there sometime and take a look. Thanks - people are always asking me where that painting is set, and I'm always like, "Fuck if I know, ask Jade."*

    Ed - I'm glad you enjoyed Fred's thoughts! I did too. You do know Fred is quite an accomplished artist and blogger, right?

    I'm glad you enjoyed my thoughts too. Plus the painting. Glad you enjoyed that bit as well.

    *That's the exact kind of clever quip you won't catch me making at the family-friendly Artist Daily blog.