Some scenes are just as well represented by a photograph as by any other medium. These are the picturesque. When the point of the image is to present something interesting or unusual, I feel I might as well snap a photo as paint it.
Other views inspire me to represent them through my eyes, my head, my heart and my hands. The image that appears on the canvas will be abstracted from what I observe—a photograph will not do. My purpose as the go-between between scene and painting is to allow the image to pass through me and be influenced by its passage, from a starting point that might well be unremarkable. These sorts of paintings are the rare ones that satisfy me most, whether done by me or others.
But then there are vistas that are just outright stunning. It was such a panorama by which I was moved that morning at my campsite, and that morning I went one step further in my thought about the tripartite classification of images.
We artists believe, and we like to tell others, that we see ever so much more of a view when we render it in paint. But is that necessarily true? I looked hard at the colors in the trees across the water, noting the change in hue and value between the leaves above and the dark forest interior below. There now, wasn’t I seeing just as much as I would if I were painting? Of course I was. The only varying factor was my level of attention. Usually in the presence of beauty I just look and enjoy. I don’t resolve to see as intently as I would if I were painting—but I could. I can.
Then I realized that I desire of my viewers that they see deeply into my work, that they spend effort to see what I have put together. But wait! Didn’t we all at one time agree that the most thorough seeing came only with painting? So should the viewer paint a copy of our paintings? Some instructors do require of students that they spend time in museums making copies, but is it reasonable to expect all viewers to do that? (I was shocked and dismayed to see how little NYC museum attendees regard great works of art, flitting from one painting to the next clicking snapshots with their phones and moving on.)
No, I wish for my viewers to look with attention, and believe they can do so without painting or making any other heroic effort. As can I. I acknowledge that some views are best appreciated right now, with deep attention.
The rest of the way through Mississippi on the Natchez Trace Parkway I practiced seeing actively, without immediately thinking of painting or photographing. I arrived home with an enhanced sense of beauty, which I intend to nourish. My work in the studio this week is not necessarily improved, but I have certainly enjoyed it in a new way.