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Gurney Journey

This daily weblog by Dinotopia creator James Gurney is for illustrators, plein-air painters, sketchers, comic artists, animators, art students, and writers. You'll find practical studio tips, insights into the making of the Dinotopia books, and first-hand reports from art schools and museums.

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Trost Richards Plein Air Watercolors

The Brooklyn Museum has a good collection of sketchbooks and watercolors by William Trost Richards which give insight into his practice of painting studies on location.

Trost Richards Plein Air Watercolors
 William Trost Richards (1833-1905) "Landscape with Tree"
This partly finished study is 10 x 14 inches. (25.4 x 35.6 cm) on smooth beige paper. It's mostly and transparent watercolor with some opaque touches in gouache. He used gouache for the thin twigs on the far left, but he carefully painted around the illuminated leaves in the center of the picture. 

In this case, his initial steps don't include a very detailed pencil drawing. The unfinished area of the fence shows a few light washes and some locator lines painted with a brush in watercolor.
Trost Richards Plein Air Watercolors
William Trost Richards, American, 1833-1905, Rhode Island Coast: Conanicut Island ca. 1880
This study is the same size, carried through to finish. It uses a similar method: painting large shapes rather loosely (but accurately) with larger brushes, and then subdividing those masses into smaller textures and details.

Although this method requires large reserves of patience and concentration, I don't think it would necessarily take too long; I believe a painting like this could be done in an afternoon or perhaps two consecutive sessions.

A Painter's Sampler


Nowadays we might show a prospective client a folder of images on an iPhone. But in 1860, William Trost Richards (1833-1905) created this "Painter’s Sampler," to show what he could do.

A Painter's Sampler
Thirteen miniature canvases are mounted up together. They show a range of conventional landscape compositions. I can just image him saying... "I can paint you a Hudson River sunset, or a summer meadow, a nautical, or a cabin in the woods, or a forest interior...."
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This comes from a private collection and was exhibited at a Hudson River School exhibition called "American Scenery" at the Dorsky Museum of Art

Bierstadt's Malkasten

Bierstadt's Malkasten
No, Santa didn't leave this lump of coal in my stocking. It once belonged to the American landscape painter Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902), and it came from the site of his ruined mansion Malkasten.

Bierstadt's Malkasten
Malkasten, which means "paint box," was Bierstadt's grandiose home and studio in Tarrytown (originally Irvington), New York.  

Bierstadt's Malkasten
The homesite had a magnificent view of the Hudson River, painted here by Bierstadt looking northwest. The view doesn't look like this anymore. It's on a vacant plot of land between two 20th century buildings, and the foundations are overgrown with trees and choked with vines.

A friend brought me there to check it out. You can still see the front steps, a gatepost, and a couple of wall foundations, but that's all.

Bierstadt's Malkasten
In Bierstadt's day, the studio was lined with his large panoramic paintings, and the many plein air studies he painted on his travels to the American west. You can see the studies lining the mezzanine and the wall at left.

Bierstadt's Malkasten
The home had fine furniture purchased during Bierstadt's years of great success, though by the time he built Malkasten and inhabited it, his career was beginning to decline.

Bierstadt's Malkasten
The three-story tall studio was spacious and filled with light, with high ceilings and sliding glass windows 20 feet high. The studio, library, and music room had big doors and curtains that could open to create a single space 70 feet long, so that he could step way back and view his huge paintings.

But as the years progressed, Bierstadt's work became less popular, his wife was in ill health, and he spent less time in the house. The New York Times noted that the taxes and upkeep expenses were astronomical.

Bierstadt's Malkasten
In 1882, a fire consumed Malkasten and all its contents. Bierstadt was not there at the time, the studio was locked up, and the place had been rented. Two major paintings and countless studies and engravings were lost forever in the fire, along with the mansion itself.

Fortunately, the studios of some of Bierstadt's contemporaries, such as Frederic Church, Jasper Cropsey, and Thomas Cole, are still intact, and open to visitors.

Read more about the original mansion or how the site looks today, courtesy of Rob Yasinsac, author of Hudson Valley Ruins: Forgotten Landmarks of an American Landscape.
Thanks, Chris.

Frederic Church's fleeting light

Frederic Church's fleeting light
 We cherish light at its most fleeting moments, especially during sunrise and sunset. No one captured these effects more compellingly than Frederic Church (American 1826-1900).

Frederic Church's fleeting light
This one shows the view from his home Olana, as the last winter light shines through a break of clouds over the Catskill mountains.

Frederic Church's fleeting light
This view of Hudson, New York at sunset shows the clouds underlit, an effect so fleeting that to paint it requires both anticipation and memory. You have to set up the painting in anticipation that that kind of effect is coming, and then finish it later from recollection. This was before color photography, so only artists could capture it.

Frederic Church's fleeting light
Church famously hired a vessel for an expedition to Arctic waters to sketch icebergs. Despite seasickness and other setbacks, he managed to produce a series of memorable studies.

In addition to the exhibition opening in June that I mentioned recently, there's another museum show currently up in London that features Church's landscape oil sketches. The show has about 30 small works, together with the large finished canvas Niagara from the American Side are part of Frederic Church and the Landscape Oil Sketch, at the National Gallery in London. The exhibit will continue through April 28 and then travel to Scotland.
Book: Frederic Church and the Landscape Oil Sketch
Wikipedia visual list of Church's works.

Part 5: Durand's Color


(Continuing the series on American landscape painter Asher B. Durand)

In Durand’s paintings, the colors are understated and the technique is restrained, never showy. “Waste not your time on broad sketches in color,” he advised.

Part 5: Durand's Color
"One must not “fix the attention of the observer on the nice mixture of pigments rather than the sentiment of his work....all the best artists have shown that the greatest achievement in the production of fine color is the concealment of pigments, and not the parade of them; and we may say the same of execution. The less apparent the means and manner of the artist, the more directly will his work appeal to the understanding and the feelings.” When the technique becomes so conspicuous that it asserts itself as the principal feature of the picture, “it is presumptive evidence...of deficiency in some higher qualities.”

These “higher qualities” took on an almost religious aspect in Durand’s writings about art. He believed that the artist is privileged to see “through the sensuous veil, and [embody] the spiritual beauty with which nature is animate.” By cultivating “childlike affection and religious reverence,” the act of painting from nature becomes more than a mechanical process: in Durand’s view, it is a form of spiritual devotion. 

Part 5: Durand's Color
“The external appearance of this our dwelling place,” he wrote, “apart from its wondrous structure and functions that minister to our well-being, is fraught with lessons of high and holy meaning, only surpassed by the light of Revelation.”

Durand reflected on the appeal of enduring masterpieces after taking a voyage to visit the picture galleries in Europe in 1840. He described the measure of greatness as “sober, quiet tone, depth and mellowness, transparency and glow.” A well-painted picture “draws you into it—you traverse it—breathe its atmosphere—feel its sunshine, and you repose in its shade without thinking of its design or execution, effect or color.”
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Part 4: Durand’s Subjects

Part 4: Durand’s Subjects
(continuing the series on Asher B. Durand)

Asher B. Durand (1796-1886) would often select a small group of forms from within a complex scene and study it to the exclusion of its background detail. His son recalls that “finding trees in groups, he selected one that seemed to him, in age, color, or form, to be the most characteristic of its species, or in other words, the most beautiful."

"In painting its surroundings, he eliminated all shrubs and other trees which interfered with the impression made by this one. Every outdoor study...was regarded as a sort of dramatic scene in which a particular tree or aspect of nature may be called the principal figure.”

Durand’s form of realism was not a slavish or “servile imitation,” but rather a refined sensibility, guided by feeling, that sought to identify the characteristic form of specific varieties of trees, rocks and clouds while still attending to the minutiae of the individual subject. 

Part 4: Durand’s Subjects He drew a distinction between imitation, which satisfies only the eye, and representation, which satisfies the mind’s conception of ideal form. He conceded that a perfect copy of natural forms like flowing water or intricate foliage was impossible, but that the attempt to achieve it helped the artist develop methods that could be brought into service in recreating those forms back in the studio. 

Close examination of Durand’s original studies reveals that he did not necessary follow the practice of completing an entire scene la prima in one sitting. He typically painted foliage passages over a dry sky background that had been previously applied, and often worked for at least two consecutive sittings to accomplish his more detailed studies, probably executing the tree and the landscape at two different locations. 


Part 3: Durand’s Letters

Part 3: Durand’s Letters (Part 3 of a series)
Durand articulated the principles of his art in a series of influential articles called “Letters on Landscape Painting,” published in The Crayon magazine in 1855.

Taken together, these writings are the most complete expression of the philosophies of the Hudson River School, and provide valuable insights for today’s painter or collector. Art historian James Flexner describes “Letters” as “one of those rare documents that summarizes the spirit of a group and a generation.”

Durand wrote that direct study from nature was the ideal way for the artist to transcend the limitations of tired compositional formulas, providing “the only safeguard against the inroads of heretical conventionalism.”

He defined conventionalism as “the substitution of an easily expressed falsehood for a difficult truth.” He advised students to begin with a thorough familiarity with the pencil before graduating to paint, and even then, to develop a mastery of foreground objects in strong light and shade before attempting atmospheric distances.

Part 3: Durand’s Letters The goal in plein-air work, according to Durand, was to render nature as faithfully as possible, and to “scrupulously accept whatever she presents him, until he shall, in a degree, have become intimate with her infinity, and then he may approach her on more familiar terms, even venturing to choose and reject some portions of her unbounded wealth.”

He addressed the limits of artistic license by saying that the artist “may displace a tree, or render it a more perfect one of its kind if retained,” but the placement of elements in the middle ground and the “characteristic outline, undulating or angular, of all the great divisions, may not be changed in the least perceptible degree, most especially the mountain and hill forms. On these God has set his signet.”

Tomorrow: Part 4--Durand's Subjects 
The book The American Landscapes of Asher B. Durand (1796-1886) is one of the few places where you can get the full text of Durand's Letters on Landscape Painting.

Part 1: Durand on Location

(This is part one of a series on the American landscape pioneer Asher B. Durand (1796-1886)   based on an article I wrote for Plein Air magazine in April, 2005.) 

In June of 1837, Asher B. Durand and his friend Thomas Cole departed on a sketching trip to Schroon Lake in the Adirondacks of New York State. They had carefully planned for the excursion, packing camp stools, umbrellas, and easels, and assembling a list of oil colors that included Antwerp Blue, Mummy Brown, and Asphaltum.

Part 1: Durand on LocationCollapsible tin paint tubes had not yet been invented, so they had to decide whether to grind pigments on location or to transport prepared paint in small pigskin bladders, which were prone to breaking open or drying out.1 They brought along provisions of sour bread, salt pork, and ham, supplemented with fresh trout caught along the way.

The Schroon Lake expedition was a turning point for Durand, for it shaped his resolution to leave successful careers in engraving and portrait painting and to concentrate exclusively on landscape painting. Cole was already established as America’s premier landscape artist and had made some early experiments with plein-air work. But it was Durand who became the most enthusiastic early champion of painting from nature in oil.

According to fellow artist Daniel Huntington, Durand “was a pioneer in painting carefully finished studies directly from nature out-of-doors.”2 Other early landscape artists of his day—including Cole— “made only pencil drawings, or, at most, slight watercolor memoranda of the scenes they intended to paint, aiding the memory by writing on the drawing hints of color and effect.” Cole believed that “time [should] draw a veil of memory” over the common details of a scene in order to achieve a poetic sensibility in a painting.

Part 1: Durand on Location
Durand, following the earlier example of Constable and Corot, became deeply engaged by the challenge of working in oil outdoors in what he called “The School of Nature.” He went “directly to the fountain-head, and began the practice of faithful transcripts of ‘bits’ for use in his studio.” His custom was to spend two or three months each summer traveling with artist friends in the Catskills, Adirondacks, or White Mountains, gathering studies in both oil and pencil that would be used as aids to the memory when developing finished compositions during the winters in his New Jersey studio.
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1. Eleanor Harvey, The Painted Sketch: American Impressions from Nature, 1830-1880, (New York: Harry N. Abrades, 1998), 33.
2. Daniel Huntington, Asher B. Durand, a Memorial Address by Daniel Huntington. New York: The Century Association, 1887.

Tomorrow: Part 2: Durand's America

Catskill Painting Workshop

Friday was show-and-tell day at the Hudson River landscape painting group in Hunter, New York yesterday.

Catskill Painting Workshop

People came out of the drizzly weather into a modernized red barn, set down their paint boxes, and covered the tables with their first week’s crop of pencil drawings, tone paper studies, and oil sketches of waterfalls, forest interiors and sunsets.

Catskill Painting Workshop
Above by Brendan Johnston. The goal of these studies, as originally envisioned by founder Jacob Collins of the Grand Central Academy, was to study natural form closely, in the manner of the pre-impressionist American landscape painters such as Asher B. Durand, Frederic Church, and William Trost Richards.

A line formed in the kitchen for hot dogs, veggie burgers, and salad. There were about 25 people from as far away as Canada, and Manchester, UK. They included participants in the month-long Hudson River Fellowship, along with students enrolled in a 10-day workshop taught by master landscapist Tom Kegler of Buffalo, New York. I was there as a guest lecturer to give a presentation on light and color in the landscape.

Catskill Painting Workshop
Peter Sakievich, a painting teacher from Utah, produced two sets of sunset studies in oil. He painted four consecutive studies of each of two sunsets from a nearby west-facing promontory. “I had to key the colors down,” he said, “because the risk is to get everything too light.” By the time he got to the last studies of the night, it was hard to see the colors on his palette.

Participants in this group are discouraged from using cameras to record details in the field. Many of them plan to use their studies for composing imaginative landscapes in the winter months.

LINKIFICATION
Previously on GJ: HR Fellowship
Hudson River Fellowship
Grand Central Academy Blog
Peter Sakievich website
Peter Sakievich’s blog describes his materials in more detail
Book on Frederic Church
Book on Asher B. Durand
Trost Richards Plein Air WatercolorsA Painter's SamplerBierstadt's MalkastenFrederic Church's fleeting lightPart 5: Durand's ColorPart 4: Durand’s Subjects Part 3: Durand’s Letters Part 1: Durand on LocationCatskill Painting WorkshopThomas Moran Advertisment

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