Recently I’ve been looking again at works by my favorite landscape artists — Thomas Cole, Asher Durand, Frederic Church and others of the Hudson River School. I love looking at the beautiful images they created. Each time I look at their paintings, I am awestruck anew.
I wish I could learn to improve my own paintings simply by looking at the works of these masters. I need more, however. I need their guidance and direction, so I study not only their art but their words. I read what they’ve written about nature, and I feel their spiritual connection to the earth, the skies, the rivers, the trees.
What it all comes down to is the simple truth that in order to become a proficient landscape painter, I have to spend time in nature, learning her shapes and colors, exploring her textures, and understanding what she is saying to me.
I’ve wrestled with Durand and “nature drawing” before. I came away defeated and unsure, doubting that I could ever develop the patience and persistence — among other qualities — required of a true artist of nature.
Recently I decided it was time to once again pick up my sketchbook and attempt to improve my drawing abilities, in hopes of improving my landscape paintings. It hasn’t been easy, though. In fact, I found it a real struggle.
My first attempt at sketching nature en plein air could be counted as a waste of time, I think. My husband and I walked to a nearby lake, spent a bit of time fishing — we caught nothing — and finally packed it in. At my husband’s urging, I had taken my sketchbook, so as he closed up the tackle box, I dutifully grabbed my art supplies and hastily scribbled the outlines of the scene before me.
Excuse the poor quality of my photos, please. These sketches are on very low-grade paper, and the pictures were taken in poor lighting with my inexpensive cell phone.
As you can see, I really made no attempt to draw the scene. Focus on essential shapes, I kept telling myself, and although that’s always a good starting point, I was using it more as an excuse. When confronted with the beauty of nature, I feel inadequate at my art. Where do I begin? How can I possibly capture the glory before me? Especially with nothing more than a blank sheet of paper and a 2B pencil?
“It’s just a quick sketch,” I mumbled in the direction of my husband. “Not really even a sketch. I just need to put down the basic outlines.” Later, I explained, I could transfer my ideas to a canvas.
For what it’s worth, here’s the scene at the lake:
The following day my husband suggested we go to the city park so that I could do more sketching. Somewhere in my mumbled apologies for my half-hearted sketch, he must have heard me mention that getting out into nature and drawing every day is something I really should be doing.
Again, I packed up my pencils and sketchbook, and off we went. I spent a little more time with my drawing, but in the end I was far from happy with the result. It bears some resemblance to the scene, but it’s still a childish imitation of Mother Nature.
At least I had something to show for my time, and that felt good. I made sure to sign and date the drawing, and in the lower right corner I made a quick note: Harrisonville City Park.
The third day came, and I very nearly talked myself out of doing my nature drawing. Oh, I could come up with so many good reasons why I didn’t have time to go out and do any sketching. The simple truth was I didn’t want to face another day of disappointment. I’d gone into quite a funk over my first two attempts — along with a lingering unhappiness with a painting sitting on my easel. I’d begun the painting with such high hopes. As usual, those hopes were dashed once I began working.
I did have to get out to pick up bread and milk, though, so I told myself I’d make a stop at the park first. I grabbed my sketchbook. I put my pencils in the car. Was I really going to try this again? Was I really going to put myself through another failed attempt to draw nature?
Somehow I missed the turn to the park. Oh, well. Maybe I could just sketch something in the yard later that afternoon. Yeah, right. Like I would really do that. Angry at myself for trying to wheedle my way out of it, I took the next right turn and headed for the park.
Moments later I found myself alone at one of the shelter houses, sitting quietly with my sketchbook, and wondering what to do. I just wasn’t up to another complete failure. Maybe I should just fail on something small, I decided.
Looking straight ahead, I espied a strong, proud, tree standing triumphantly before me. There were quite a few trees, but this one was directly in my line of sight. So, why not draw it? Or at least, draw the portion of the trunk I could see from where I sat.
So I began. I quickly thought of shapes and looked at the base of the tree, trying to get the basic form of its roots. I added two lines reaching upward — then stopped. I was on the verge of drawing another childish-looking tree. This lovely tree, however, deserved better.
With sketchbook and pencil in hand, I walked to the tree to get up close and personal. Oh, my goodness! It was as if my brain were about to explode. I nearly burst into tears as I saw the magnificent textures and designs of the bark. I ran back to the shelter, shaking my head and saying, “I can’t do it. I can’t do it!”
Next, I closed the sketchbook saying, “There’s no reason to do it, anyway.” After all, when I paint a tree, I’m not going to add such minute detail. Why should I sit there and spend time even attempting to draw it?
Why? Because I want to become a better artist. Because I want to learn to express the beauty of nature through my painting. Because, when all is said and done, we can’t paint nature unless we know nature.
Certain of failing again, I re-opened my sketchbook and began making a few marks. I also started questioning what I saw. What made that tree different from others? What had caused that almost–indented place toward the bottom? As I looked more closely, I realized the tree’s edge wasn’t really a straight line. I went back and made my line a little more ragged.
Slowly I began sketching in lines and shadows. “This is going to take forever,” I lamented. I didn’t have forever. I had to get bread and milk. I needed to get home to make dinner. I decided to just do what I could. I could always work on it more another day.
I kept making marks. Places actually began to look a bit like tree bark. From time to time I would get up and look closer, studying how the bark seemed to turn in different ways, then as I sketched I wondered about the tree and its growth. I could almost begin to feel that growth. I was becoming one with the tree.
What a startling realization! I had put myself into that zen-like state of awareness where time no longer mattered. I laughed as a little bug crawled over my drawing. I liked where I was and what I was doing.
But real life was still waiting. I checked the time and was astonished to see that over thirty minutes had passed. I set an alarm to sound after another 15 minutes and resumed sketching, now fully enjoying my oneness with this tall, proud tree, and feeling happy to be in communion with nature.
Fifteen minutes later, I reluctantly closed my sketchbook and put my pencil away. I said good-bye to the tree, and left with a sense of satisfaction. I liked what I had done.
Is this sketch a perfect rendering of the tree? No, far from it. But it’s my tree, my drawing from nature, my expression of a moment in time I will always remember. I loved adding each little line, letting my drawing take me deep into a meditation of art.
Now I look forward each day to going out to visit with nature, to draw rocks and hillsides, trees, sticks — whatever catches my eye. Will it help me improve my landscape painting? Goodness, I hope so, but if it doesn’t, that’s all right, too.