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Learn to Draw > Taking in a landscape

Misty winter's morning, paste and watercolorColor perspective in a landscape is much more reliable. What we have said so far applies principally to the graphic reproduction of landscape. Colors can give it a sense of breadth or of being closed in, without either figures to give a scale or vanishing points. Usually, however, both linear and color perspective are used in a colored rendering of a landscape, as in all other types of painting.

To make the formation of the land in the picture really convincing it helps to imagine it first without foreshortening, spread out as in an aerial view. Children drawing an imaginary landscape do this, making the whole picture appear as though it were on a steep slope facing the artist across a steep valley, but this is not what we mean!

The artist should embrace the whole hill or tree in his mind just as he holds a vase or jug on the table, sensing its three-dimensional shape. Then when he draws his landscape with a normal position for the horizon he can better understand the implications. There must be a sense of space between the near- and far objects.

This is helped, for instance, by breaking the outline that joins something near and something far together on the skyline or nearer, either simply by broken lines in the drawing or by a color contrast. This may seem like a trick, and admittedly it is one. It is a trick used most often by the greatest of all landscape painters, the Chinese.

There is all the difference between a trick used as a formula, and one which expresses a thought, or rather which is occasioned by a feeling-here the feeling of space. Space is the foundation of the landscape's being, just as a flat surface is that of a picture's, and once the artist has really felt the space in his landscape he can use well-tried conventions like those suggested without becoming mechanical; they will be something very different in his hands from an imitated trick.

Study in pencil and watercolors, a landscape in the Giant Mountains

The most intense way to experience a landscape is to walk alone and quietly, stopping whenever the eye is caught by something and noting it without any particular picture in mind, perhaps just memorizing it, like the classical Chinese and Japanese painters. Most of the great landscape painters of the pre-Impressionist era, such as Turner or the great German Romantic, Caspar David Friedrich, painted their landscapes in the studio from quick notes made on the spot.

These notes, made in pencil, chalk, or wash, did not attempt to render color or atmosphere; for this the artist relied on his memory. Though their landscapes are usually given exact topographical titles, none of the places is rendered literally; yet, as portraits of the landscape one feels that they are closer in "likeness" and atmosphere than if they had been copied exactly.

I spent most of my life in the Riesengebirge in Sudeten land where Caspar David Friedrich worked, and although hardly a line tallies exactly, I can vouch for the atmosphere of the district in the pictures being unmistakable, and the impact of the pictures as strong as the landscape itself. For landscape in its highest artistic form expresses in the most absolute way a psychological condition, a mood, closely comparable to the feelings experienced in hearing music.

It hardly needs saying that this experience need not be "romantic" in character, a much abused word which has thus come into some disrepute. When Kokoschka painted Hamburg, or Monet painted the Houses of Parliament at Westminster the result is no less "romantic" an interpretation than that produced by painters who work more from their imagination, or in a romantic style (such as Friedrich in his Die Sieben Grunde of the Bohemian Riesengebirge).

The author used to live near a wild parkland which was a famous beauty spot. From early spring to late in the autumn painters could be met there. They set out on the day after their arrival looking for "subjects," stopping every few yards to find pleasing or striking views. They churned out whole series of pictures, often very able impressions of the subject, then hurried back to town and handed the paintings over with the paint hardly dry on them to the greedily waiting dealers, who, as the painters boasted without shame, sold them "like hot cakes."

Aerial view, chalk and red crayon

The pictures filled up empty spaces on the walls of the "best" houses, whose owners could then boast of having a "Nowak" or a "Vollmer," or whatever the name of the painter in vogue at the time might be. (In the same way they "went to the opera," never to Tosca or the Magic Flute.) This ham stuff was hardly more than enlarged picture postcards, copied views, with nothing in them of a creative vision, of impressions drawn from a real feeling into the landscape.

What a difference from Breughel's Winter Scene or Van Gogh's Cornfield! It is strange, in this period of experiment and exploration of new subjects which lie beyond the boundaries of pictorial representation, that so few artists have attempted aerial views of landscape.

Many people see it much more frequently today from the air than they do from walking in it. Nothing can be seen from a motor car, since the road ahead has to be stared at, and from a train it is rarely possible to achieve the quiet enjoyment that an airplane provides. From a height, the most broken landscape is flattened into a carpet; the picture plane is there already. Surely the airplane provides a great source of unexplored subjects, all strange and dreamlike.

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