The Challenge of Landscape Painting
"Simply Stunning!" - Coastal Views at Abbotsbury
My eyes are rectangular. Please don't see this as a worrying medical affliction, or indeed an attempt to solicit your sympathy. It is simply the function of forty-eight years of outdoor observation. Vista-viewing. Landscape-looking.
Recently, I have been concerned with the subject of composition, one of the most fundamental and early-taught artistic disciplines: what is the optimal arrangement of components within a landscape painting that will provide the viewer with the most satisfying aesthetic experience? This consideration is important, but my concern resides more with why this is an issue, when you consider the extent to which this discipline is irrelevant once you are outdoors in the landscape, seeing the views for yourself. I don't think you stop the car at a roadside vantage point in Dorset, step out to admire the view and immediately fill your mind with thoughts of the Golden Ratio, Rule of Thirds, sight lines and focal points. You simply observe and enjoy the experience. Your head and eyes move: up and down, left to right, close focus, distant focus. You are not constrained by the imposition of boundaries to what can be seen. So why are thoughts of composition so important when creating paintings or photographs?
The answer is simple: outdoors, there is no limit to what we can see (subject to natural obstructions) but in the studio, or on the gallery wall, that freedom is repressed. We call it a frame. This artificial frontier, absent when we are in the landscape, represents the ultimate challenge to even the most seasoned landscape painter. Unable to present a viewer with a full, immersive experience of being in the landscape, the artist's craft is to identify and select combinations of elements and angles of view that communicate what inspired them to paint the scene. The skill of being able to provide this insight - creating expansion from contraction - is the fulcrum of successful landscape painting.
It is working with this limitation that has turned my eyes to rectangles; wandering through the landscape I must now remind myself to see the views, not just the pictures. The impediment of restricted viewing leads me, and indeed many other landscape painters, to search out subjects that have single points of interest or detail: country stiles, significant trees, boats, dry stone walls, flowers, animals, geological forms, church spires, country lanes, fence posts. They provide visual anchor points and help nullify the natural tendency for our eyes to roam across the landscape. For that reason and despite its obvious beauty, I tend to shy away from painting scenes like the view above at Abbotsbury, Dorset. It is a scene where there is no apparent subject or focal point, rather a cast of contenders: the village itself, the English Channel, Chesil Beach, The Fleet, Portland in the distance. With a view this striking, none of these elements carry enough significance to be the subject of the painting; the view IS the subject. Being unable to present such a vista in all its spectacular dimensions and working ultimately within a boundary, the voice suggesting that you will never do it justice is hard to ignore. The challenge, however, must be accepted.
This view takes the eye across foreground fields, through trees to the village. Beyond, rolling hills, fields, hedges and farms blend into an undulating carpet of soft shapes, muted colours and gentle tones. Portland, the wedge-shaped promontory in the distance, sits on the horizon. It would be a wonderful scene as it is, but its proximity to the coast and the inescapable presence of Chesil Beach, a tremendous shingle bank that stretches sixteen miles from Portland to West Bay, creates a landscape view that is truly spectacular, undeserving of framed limitations. To capture its scope and impact, attempting to present the sweeping view from the hillside, it seemed to me that an equal treatment of all the elements - land, sea, sky, trees, village - would be important. In the painting, despite the village being rendered in more detail, I have tried to ensure that all the elements have equal prominence and combine to define the subject - the view. It is difficult to achieve; often the inability to limit detail to a specific focal point leads to everything becoming over-complicated. This painting was a constant struggle against my proclivity for painting detail - ultimately it is for you to judge if that struggle has been successful. In the painting I have employed a number of compositional techniques that help to capture a sense of both time and place. Painting on a full sheet (76cm x 56cm) immediately enhances the sense of space - big view, big painting. The walkers provide a sense of scale to the foreground area and as they walk away from us, taking in the view, we are encouraged to do the same. The dark shadows across fields and trees on the right hand side, together with the heavy clouds, help us to move our eye through the scene and towards the light, moving along the strong diagonal line of Chesil Beach. The energetic sky provides a nice balance to the dynamic nature of the landscape beneath.
Enough. Composition may be an interesting subject, but it is a rather dry one for a beautiful scene such as this. In the spirit of striking a balance, may I turn to the words of author J. Meade Faulkner?
"......we never leave this our happy Moonfleet, being well content to see the dawn tipping the long cliff-line with gold, and the night walking in dew across the meadows; to watch the spring clothe the beech boughs with green, or the figs ripen on the southern wall: while behind all, is spread as a curtain the eternal sea, ever the same and ever changing. Yet I love to see it best when it is lashed to madness in the autumn gale, and to hear the grinding roar and churn of the pebbles like a great organ playing all the night."
It is one of the most beautiful descriptions of the coast I have read - a reminder of the sea's calm but capricious nature. You will find it in the final paragraph of his classic work, 'Moonfleet' - a 19th century novel charting the adventures of local lad John Trenchard, his friend Elzevir Block and their entanglement with smuggling in 18th Century Dorset. The story is set in fictitious Moonfleet, based on the village of Fleet, that lies near the coast in the middle distance of this painting. The Fleet is also the name of the brackish lagoon that lies behind Chesil Beach, an important nature reserve for birds and marine species.
Have a go at painting a spectacular view. Try and avoid the inclusion of a specific focal point - it isn't as easy as it seems. Alternatively, find a copy of Moonfleet, stick the kettle on and I'll do my best not to interrupt you......