At Home in Nature

How a Painting Starts

I don’t find a painting, it finds me. I go out hiking or canoeing, trying to find places that give me the feeling of being seen for the first time—unspoiled. I like the wilderness, places where there are sounds, but no noise: just land, just nature, just presences. When I go to Chicago, I do city things. Friends say, “Let me take you to this park you’ll love,” and I tell them that I’d rather see steel and glass, what I can’t see at home. I live in two paradises (a farmhouse in a secluded valley near Spring Green, Wisconsin and a cabin on a lake in the national forest of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan).When I’m in the city, for instance when I’m working a stint as a carpenter, I like to walk around and look at buildings and people; go to art galleries, opera and theatre; have dinner parties, etc.–things that I can’t do where I live, but I know that nothing in a city is greater than what I have at home. I wander around the landscape of the upper Midwest with a camera to shoot reference photos. Often I don’t see the painting; I feel its presence. Anytime I get a feeling, I snap a picture. I recently went through photos I’d shot a few years ago. Enough time had elapsed that the painting in the photo revealed itself. Thomas Cole, a great painter of the Hudson River School, said that he would do a sketch and then put it away until all that was unimportant would fall away. I shoot photographs rather than sketch, but that’s what works for me, too.

I suppose it’s a natural question to wonder why such a nature lover wouldn’t want to paint en plein air. I have—on hikes with my sister who’s also a painter. But I have to let an image/idea gestate before I paint it. Sometimes I wish I could sit within a landscape and meditate awhile, then make one stroke that would reveal the essence of the scene. But that’s not who I am. I take the photo and finally—it can be the next week or the next year—I pull it out, look at it and know/trust that if I base a painting on this scene/photo the presence will be revealed.

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