Henry David Thoreau said, “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.” How right he still is. I’ve been painting landscapes for many years now, and I’m surprised every time by how much I missed seeing previously. It’s as if the same place and even the same photograph holds layers of information that one must learn, or earn, to see. Walking with Thoreau, based on a view from Hapgood Wright town conservation land in Concord, Massachusetts, is an example of going back to see again what I’ve looked at before. The gray, luminescent light of an overcast morning is starting to evolve into what will become a brighter day. Hints of blue are drifting into the sky. the landscape feels expectant, as if knowing the change will happen and looking forward to it. Details below. Enjoy!
Technical painting notes: My first forays into painting the scene were quite direct, but I’ve since come to regard this place as a haunt for ghosts and for what nature can do when we aren’t looking. My newer process for painting the spirit of the place relies on a more accidental start (monoprint techniques applied to a primed and sanded panel) and a more intuitive finish. I’ve come to rely on many layers of transparent, subtle color and just enough directly painted detail to identify the telling elements of place. I want the painting to offer its viewer as many surprises as I encountered while painting it, though of course the nature of those surprises may be different. First there is the mood of the place, then the identification of the whats – trees, pond, etc, then the sensual aspect of what the place might smell or feel like. Finally, with scrutiny, come the little surprises embedded in the actual painting process – so that’s how it was done!
All of my earlier, similar paintings struggled with how to paint the place where tree tops and branches meet the sky. Do you paint the sky then the branches (too forced and obvious). Do you paint the darkness of the trees and carve the sky in by painting the negative spaces where the tree isn’t (much better, but still too specific – lacking in mystery). In Walking with Thoreau I layered sky and suggestions of trees, letting the accidents of the original monoprint, like scrapings and drips, show through. This proved much better and more evocative of the moisture-laden air. You can see details from the tree tops below, along with a close-up looking into the woods. By the way, those vegetation textures in the woods were partly achieved through pressing crumpled plastic wrap into semi-transparent paint then selectively, and lightly, pressing the plastic to the panel.