In the August 2012 issue of Watercolor Artist, four of today’s preeminent watercolor painters bring a fresh perspective to the art of painting the American landscape. In the tradition of the Hudson River School, the Luminists, Thomas Hart Benton, Childe Hassam and Maurice Penergast, contemporary American landscape painters focus on a luminosity that intimates the spirit of a once new and ever-evolving land. Here’s a look at how three others have responded in their own unique ways to the American landscape.
Stephen Quiller | Southern Colorado
In what locations do you paint?
I have a home and studio by the headwaters of the Rio Grande in the mountains of southern Colorado; many of my paintings come from views right here, while others come from within a 10-mile radius. I do my best work in this area I know so deeply. Most years I also travel to a foreign country to paint. I find myself out of my comfort zone painting fishing boats, European villages and coastal scenes. My color palette shifts, and I use my brushes in ways that are very different for me. These moments add to my vocabulary as a painter and make me a better artist.
What inspired this painting?
Most late winter afternoons, after a day of painting, I cross-country ski. Because I live in a remote mountain area of Colorado I make my own trails. Some are longer and some shorter; some are steeper up and down hill while others have a flatter kick-and-glide rhythm. Although I always take a small backpack with a sketchbook, I don’t go out looking for a subject but have found it best to let the subject find me. On this occasion I was skiing down a south-facing slope on the Ridge Trail. There was a strong light and shadow pattern—a flickering impression—on this aspen-lined path that grabbed me. I stopped at the bottom, took out my sketchbook, made a few lines and wrote down some notes. That was enough to inspire this work.
How does your sense of spirituality play into your art?
While working en plein air especially, I commune with nature. I focus on the energy, vibration and interconnectedness of all nature’s forms. The more time I spend with a subject, the more it reveals itself. Color, patterns and rhythm appear that at first I was unaware of. I realize that my brush and water, paint and paper, my eyes, hand, arm and body, as well as the light, sounds and nature’s forces, all become part of the dance and act of painting. It’s an experience that I love. I don’t think of the finished work but just enjoy this time; the rest takes care of itself.
James Toogood | New York City
What inspired this painting?
I feel that good representational paintings are also good abstract paintings. The items in
the painting—the street, the play of light, the buildings—are all simply shapes first, abstract shapes that need to be arranged in a pleasing and cohesive manner. Then there is the mood. This is 20th and Broadway, New York City, looking south. Manhattan, usually one of the busiest places on earth, is on Sunday morning quiet and still. Shafts of light spill across the otherwise dark, empty street. A series of lines in the street, the sidewalk and the buildings all point toward Union Square in the distance.
How do you plan your compositions?
My compositions are based on studies I have done, often over the course of several days, as was the case here. Knowing that I would find the city empty on Sunday, I went to the general location and started sketching and photographing. I had some sense of what I wanted but I wasn’t completely sure. Once I decided on the rough composition, I started taking a number of photographs. I do my finished paintings in my studio, so photos are useful; even so, my paintings are not of photographs. Lots of things are added, and many taken out. Anyone who’s familiar with New York City knows that buildings are constantly being covered with scaffolding and netting when being worked on. This was the case with several of the buildings depicted in this painting—most notably the tall, dark building on the corner, in the right center of the painting, across the street from the building with the mansard roof. The bottom fl oors of both buildings were obscured by scaffolding, which meant I had to just make up large portions of those buildings, but designing buildings in midtown Manhattan can be a lot of fun. I intentionally left the bottom floor of the corner building with the mansard roof empty. It not only provides an interesting opportunity for that diagonal shaft of light and shadow but it also helps to create the quiet, still mood I was looking for.
Joyce Hicks | Virginia Farmland
What inspired this painting?
The geometric shape of the architecture and organic softness of the foreground was a pleasing combination and I particularly liked the way the rows of the field advanced me visually into the scene. It was a gray, overcast day so I simply imagined sunshine and shadow. Artistic license is wonderful!
How would you describe your painting style?
I think my work is a unique combination of styles. It is realistic because it is painted from a real place and time, and it’s also abstract because I distill it into simple shapes, but mostly it is impressionistic because it is how I wish it to be and not as it actually is.
What mediums do you use and what are your main painting techniques?
I use transparent watercolor on dry, unstretched, cold-pressed paper. My techniques are simple: I don’t use salt, liquid masking or other devices, but let the beautiful stroke of a round brush and interesting texture from a palette knife express for me what it is I wish to say.
What’s your best advice to students on painting landscapes?
If you wish to paint from within, then you must train your mind’s eye to see and imagine scenes as you wish them to be, not as they actually are. My paintings began winning awards when I stopped painting things and instead began painting relationships between, temperature, value, shape and color.
See more watercolor artists pay tribute to the American landscape in the August 2012 issue of Watercolor Artist. And for continued watercolor art instruction, inspiration and creative painting ideas, subscribe now!
Also, be sure to check out Art Journey America Landscapes, a beautiful coffee-table art book, from which this material was excerpted.
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