What Makes a "Heart-Led" Landscape Painting?
Why do artists choose to paint landscape paintings?
Is a landscape painting just a picture of a place? Or is it something more?
I loved telling a group of grade 7 art students that once upon a time, art was a necessary skill, for almost everyone. Before cameras, if you wanted to show someone what something looked like, you had to draw or paint a picture of it. Explorers and scientists devoted many hours to representing their research using imagery, by hand.
Over the last hundred years or so, everything has changed. If we want to show what a location looks like, we can take a photo. Photos are so much more accurate than anything most of us could do by hand. So why are we still painting landscapes?
In landscape painting, our desire is to do something more than a photo can achieve. If you’re a landscape lover, you have a deeper goal than just showing the appearance of a scene:
We love the process of painting - it’s just fun to paint!
We want to express ourselves. In painting a landscape, we show OUR point of view, our experience -our feelings about a place, the memories attached to it.
My husband loves taking his ATV into the mountains, and for several years he organized camping trips to Christina Falls, far up north. When he’d return home, he’d show photos, and tell about his adventures, but he’s not a big talker, so his “it’s beautiful up there,” didn’t really affect me.
When I joined him and we visited Christina Falls together, I experienced all the gaps the photos didn’t show; the way the terrain on the trail went through 4 or 5 micro-climates, from rock-strewn hills to swampy muskeg, from towering pines to burned out forest. I felt the cool mountain air and napped on a mossy mound at the lookout point (Wade told me, “That was where we saw the grizzly bear last year.”).
And then I came home and told my mom about it. I looked for the right words to paint a visual picture of what we had experienced, as I showed my photographs, and she said, “Well, your dad didn’t tell me it was like THAT!” There was a gap between storyteller and audience; until I found a way to bridge the gap and tell about the place in a way that brought the scene to life, my mom didn’t understand.
How does this affect HOW we paint a landscape?
There is more to telling a story than just showing pictures. The experience of a place matters, and while a skilled photographer can bring that into a photograph, as artists, we have chosen a medium that gives us the ability to share our experience through our paintings. We have a bigger role than documenting visuals.
I’ve realized that in painting a landscape I am expressing my feelings about a place. This means that my reference photo is only a tool to help me understand object placement, value and color, while my memories and intent guide how I use that tool. I am willing to edit out the unnecessary, and emphasize the important, the parts that stand out and demand to be shared.
Commitment to Authenticity
My story is not your story. When Wade and I visited Christina Falls together, we came home and told different stories. His perspective (mostly trying to keep me alive and my ATV out of the mud holes on the trail) is different than my perspective.
In painting, how I paint a scene is going to look different than how you will paint a scene. Every landscape can be individual, showing a unique perspective. As I paint, I look for what rings true in the painting for me, and commit to seeking it out.
I look for the thing that “feels right” to come through in the painting. I have committed to painting a scene as many times as it takes to find that resonance in my work, and I recognize that usually, my first version of a scene is NOT going to be much more than a copy of what I see. Getting to what I feel takes commitment and trust. The little chimes of resonance in each version can be collected and applied to each successive version until the ring of truth is unmistakable.
Telling a Story
Like a good story, you need to edit. Your story has less impact if you feel the need to excessively share peripheral detail. Just like telling a good story, we can refine and pare down and improve HOW we say it as we pursue the best way to tell the story, i.e. paint the scene.
This also means that perhaps one painting won’t tell the whole story. If I’m sharing an anecdote, I will tailor it to my audience. My trip to Christina Falls might emphasize the beauty of the scenery if I’m talking to a group of artists, but if I’m speaking to teens, I might talk about the fun of quadding off road and all the times I got stuck in the mud!
We can show different aspects of the scene, different elements - we don’t have to cram it all into one painting. This is why artists work in a series - there is more to say than can be expressed in one painting. Note that those series of paintings provide more for the audience - different paintings in the series will speak to viewers in different ways.
Ask yourself, “Who am I and how am I showing myself in my work?”
This is key - are you showing who you are in your paintings? This is the TRUTH in art that invites a viewer in, reveals vulnerability, and makes your art most honest and authentic.
IF you believe you don’t have anything inside of you to share, that your art needs to be about the technical skill of showing what you can do and competently depict what you see, your art is missing HEART. Your inner artist will struggle to feel permission to emerge and will only be revealed in the barest glimpses. TRUST that you have amazing things inside that will make your art better and more real and true.
You become your own favorite artist and create art that is deeply and profoundly satisfying when you create your most authentic (heart-led) work.
Watch me paint a summer evening sky in watercolor in my new video lesson: