Looking at landscapes: an ‘aha’ moment
Buying an a original work of art can be a minefield unless you can rely on your own authority. You don’t have to be a fine arts grad to choose a quality work. Your most trustworthy resource is much simpler and closer to hand than that. It is your own perception.
We hadn’t quite re-entered social circles since our trip to Greece but pulled ourselves together for an informal Q&A with artist Ed Yaghdjian at the Arts & Letters Club in Toronto. His solo exhibit In
Search of Beauty was up in the Great Hall and while his passion is to paint resplendent nudes, he was chatting intently about landscapes when we slipped quietly in the door, wine glass in hand, to find our
place at the long table.
We paused at several slides depicting the tossing sea on the shores of Monterey, autumn red leaves sprouting from craggy rocks, a hushed and golden painting of a wooded valley.
Ed Yaghdjian - Rouge Valley in the Fall, oil on MDF
One of our group commented that Ed’s landscapes were more impressionistic and less detailed than his figurative paintings. “Yes and no”, was Ed’s response and he began to expand on that simple statement.
As Ed spoke, my companion nudged my arm and whispered “That’s what always bothered me about so and so’s paintings!” It’s an explanation so simple that you are tempted to slap your forehead and mutter “D’huh!”. It is the reason a landscape painting often ends up looking “not quite right” without anyone seeming to quite know why.
The eye gathers information about our world which the brain interprets according to stored experience. Nuances are interpreted in simple primal language. For example, a hunter loping across the savannah after prey or a young executive dashing down the urban thoroughfare to an appointment will perceive their surroundings in the same way. The pride of lions or the sight of the convening board members is judged by distance and the time to arrive there.
We judge distance by proportion. What is there is ‘smaller’ than what is here. But is it really smaller? Of course not. The lions will be a big surprise when they are found to be larger than kittens to the imperceptive hunter. It is the painter’s job to adjust the ‘reality’ on his canvas so that the message of distance is delivered convincingly.
Why do some landscape drawings or paintings confuse or bother us in spite of the fact that converging lines and vanishing point of perspective may read appropriately? We ask ourselves, what was it that made ‘so and so’s’ landscapes a problem when the elements of trees, lake, canoe, and dock were all fairly well painted and in place, and trees in the foreground were larger than trees in the distance? What was missing?
We may not understand the reasons for our dislike or growing discomfort, but we will be troubled by incongruity. Actually, it was not what was missing but what was excessive. Size is not the only determinant of distance. Our brain does a great job of filtering and interpreting so that extraneous visual information is subdued or eliminated depending on the situation.
It’s in the details
Driving on a busy highway, we are most acutely aware of elements in our immediate environment, such as the cars or people around us that may impact our safe travel. Second to that we take in what is beyond, such as red lights ahead or people dashing out unexpectedly.
Beyond that, in less detail, are the surroundings as far as our eye can see. From those distant surroundings, vehicles, people, buildings, birds, animals, clouds are all filtered out of our consciousness to enable us to get to our destination without being overwhelmed by extraneous information. Simply put, objects on which we focus our eyes are sharply defined while surrounding objects are less clearly defined and objects further away from our area of focus are blurred.
What you see
The third aspect of landscape painting that was truly our ‘aha’ was Ed’s explanation of atmospheric or optical perspective. Unless we have a foggy or smoggy day, the air between you and me as we meet on the street is invisible and, as human beings, we tend to think that what we cannot see has no real substance: like the air in our atmosphere, for instance.
But, as we know, air does have density and as distance and the layers of atmosphere between ourselves and objects increase, the atmosphere acts as a filter between viewer and object. Of the yellow, red, and blue triad, the first to be filtered out are the yellows, followed by the reds, until we are left with only the blues.
That is why trees, mountains, or other objects appear purplish or blue in the far distance. Beyond that, when the blues are also filtered out, all things still visible are reduced to a nondescript pale grey. Similarly, on a clear, sunny day, the sky at the far distant horizon appears a pale grey because of the thicker atmospheric layer that separates us from that distant horizon. On the other hand, looking straight above our head, through a lesser atmospheric layer, we see the sky as a dark ultramarine blue.
Blue Sky Horizon, Image by Ryan Grobin
In a landscape painting, an artist takes us on a journey into a canvas and it is his/her level of skill that will encourage us to linger and roam around awhile before we move on. It is the artist’s job to edit all the extraneous detail from a landscape so that we really can see the tree in the forest. The composition will provide this map into and around the canvas.
While Ed’s figure paintings may well seem to be more exquisitely detailed, it is because the composition is in a fairly shallow plane (from foreground to background). We are up close and easily taking in the detail of skin, hair, fabric, furniture as it is presented. Light and shadow, colour temperature, treatment of edges will be our subtle guides to depth, form, and substance.
In a landscape, a solitary tree against the backdrop of a forest may show some detail such as branches, or clusters of leaves, whereas the forest in the background will be seen only as masses of varying colour or light and shade with the occasional tree trunk or particularly large branch being seen. Excessive detail would clutter the work and confuse our perception. For the painter to include it, would be to provide more information than our eyes would normally perceive, and our mind would intuitively reject it.
Excessive detail would tell us the tree was in front of our nose, while the other signs relating to perspective would be in contradiction. “Which is it – here or there?” would be our mind’s argument. The farther we look into the distance, the more contrasts diminish, outlines appear softer, details disappear, and colours become greyed. A novice painter will be identified more often by evident lack of perception of these fundamentals than by lack of skill in his/her work. Technique alone will not save a painting.
Buying a painting is like entering into a relationship: often a lifelong process. Just as individuals of integrity and genuine values provide the foundation for solid long term relationships, well structured paintings are sincere and will hold your interest and provide you with real viewing pleasure, indefinitely.
Choose your paintings like your friends. What might be amusing or stimulating over a latte will lose its allure on deeper exploration if there is no substance or intuited reality to it. Choosing wisely is a blend of knowledge, intuition, and experience. Trust your own perception – your eye and heart will not fail you.