I’m not fond of painting a place I don’t know. It has become clear to me, over the years, that to create good work, I need to understand the place I’m painting. “Understanding” means taking in an array of visual, personal, cultural and historical stories. It’s breaking down the configurations of local identities, both human and of the natural world.
My favorite painting trip is a lengthy stay in a particular area, so I can appreciate its many beauties in a civilized, unhurried manner, under different moods and circumstances. The idea is to throw away the travel guide, choose your spot, pitch a tent or rent a room … and settle in. When I do this, my process relies less on “picture-making”—I’m not so focused on the graphic image itself—and more on shaping something from perception and intuition.
One of the first things I like to figure out is which way is north, so I always carry a compass with me. The compass enables me to anticipate where the light will come from and what it will be like. I’ll then spend a great deal of time watching and studying the light—at dawn, midday, sundown and late evening. Knowing the cardinal points helps me anticipate light on a particular place I’d like to sketch, so I can be there at the right time.
Mark Gottsegen is an associate professor of art at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and chair of the ASTM subcommittee on artist’s materials.