Unlike photographers, geographers or geologists, landscape artists see their world as collections of lines, contours, shapes, colours, light and shadows. Identifying features is secondary.
A geographer tries to make sense of the landscape, looking at relationships between features to explain where things are, how they came to be, how they evolve and change over time, and how they interact with us. A geologist examines the makeup of landscape to understand how it formed over millennia and how it may change in future. They want to understand how the landscape works. A photographer captures the visual character of a landscape under different lighting and weather conditions at a particular point in time on photosensitive material.
The “en plein air artist” paints on location, mostly outdoors. Each artist pulls out their materials and tools and begins to work quickly. It’s like speed dating with light and shadow. The artist will look for one or two focal points. They will look at distant, mid-ground and foreground features to figure out what to highlight and what to suppress. Often they will add to or remove elements from the scene for aesthetic/design reasons. Their view of the landscape is an interpretation perhaps in oils, watercolours, acrylics, pastels, pen and ink, or graphite. The plein air artist also seeks to elicit an emotional response to the art of their immediate environment. I consider the geography of the plein air artist as the geography of perception.
The Annapolis Valley Plein Air Art group, to which I belong, paints landscapes throughout our area — towns, farmlands, and coastal waterways. Each week we assemble at a different “paint-out” site. At the one site, some will paint details of rocks in a stream bed. Some will paint tourists enjoying the sunshine on benches along a path. Some will paint distant hills framed by woodlots. The landscape becomes a collection of deeply personal, visual expressions and no two paintings or sketches are the same.
What can we learn from interpreting the landscape through artists’ eyes? One of my mentors, Vlad Yeliseyev, is often heard to “rant” to plein air artists, “Don’t paint a photograph. Paint a story.” Local Digby artist, Poppy Balser states in her profile “Watercolour is the perfect medium for me to capture the atmosphere and light of my local environment.” In his book “Interpreting the Landscape in Watercolor”, Don Andrews illustrates the magic of linking light, shadow and colour”. For me one artist may see a tree as blue, nestled in the cold shadows. Another may see the same tree as olive green, absorbing scant rays of sunshine peaking through breaks in the clouds.
Unlike the photographer, geographer, or geologist, the artist is the landscape’s chorister; composing a visual libretto.