Artists and Nature

I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.                        --John Muir

Nature draws us out to explore, then gently sends us inward to reflect. Most often, we wind up feeling better as we gaze upon the moment-to-moment changes in the ocean, sky, mountain, desert, forest, meadow, or garden. We might be awed by the tiniest flower, bird, or insect, cheered by a profusion of color, intrigued by creatures looking for food or a mate, lulled by the incoming and outgoing tides, the rippling circles in a lake, or a babbling brook.

Sunset at the Pacific Ocean

Sunset at the Pacific Ocean

As artists, how do we capture that experience? How do we translate it visually, acoustically, or tactilely? Do we try to render it as realistically as possible?

When I approached the following artwork at The Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts, initially I thought it was a photograph. But that didn't make sense, for I was in a gallery devoted to 19th-century European art. When I got close enough to take a careful look, I realized it's actually an oil painting. Before photography took over as king of realism, the fine details of representation rendered by Swiss artist Alexandre Calame (1810-1864) convey a palpable sense of the landscape.

"Riverbed at Rosenlaui sur Meyringen" (c.1862), by Alexandre Calame. The Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA.

"Riverbed at Rosenlaui sur Meyringen" (c.1862), by Alexandre Calame. The Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA.

"Riverbed at Rosenlaui sur Meyringen" (c.1862), by Alexandre Calame. The Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA.

"Riverbed at Rosenlaui sur Meyringen" (c.1862), by Alexandre Calame. The Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA.

If we don't choose the exactness of realism, do we abstract the scene so that, while it's not recognizable, it still conveys the essence of a landscape or seascape? Through different kinds of strokes, the Impressionists blurred the details and, instead, offered an "impression," as in this painting by French artist Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919)

"Low Tide, Yport" (1883), by Pierre-Auguste Renoir. The Clark Institute, Williamstown, MA.

"Low Tide, Yport" (1883), by Pierre-Auguste Renoir. The Clark Institute, Williamstown, MA.

Detail of "Low Tide, Yport" (1883), by Pierre-Auguste Renoir. The Clark Institute, Williamstown, MA.

Detail of "Low Tide, Yport" (1883), by Pierre-Auguste Renoir. The Clark Institute, Williamstown, MA.

The tendency toward abstraction continued even more strongly in the 20th century. Working with scenes in upstate New York, American artist Arthur Garfield Dove (1880-1946) explored how to depict motion. As the title card at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston describes, "Blues, greens, and yellow resonate and harmonize in overlapping arcs, filling a canvas punctuated by tree trunks that seem to leap above the horizon." Without the title and description, would we know this?

"Dancing Willows" (c.1944), by Arthur Garfield Dove. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

"Dancing Willows" (c.1944), by Arthur Garfield Dove. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

American painter Joan Brown (1938-1990) presents a thick, clotted mass of paint strokes at the center of her Abstract Expressionist painting "Brambles." There isn't even the slightest hint of representation, yet the feeling is one of an almost impenetrable mass, the way we encounter actual brambles.

"Brambles" (1957), by Joan Brown. Oakland Museum of California.

"Brambles" (1957), by Joan Brown. Oakland Museum of California.

Around the world, nature is depicted with paint, wood, clay, fibers, metal, and more. The results might be stylized, traditionally indigenous, classical, avant-garde, particular to a place or era.

"Autumn View," by Fiona Robertson. Machine and hand embroidery. Source: http://www.fionarobertsonartworks.co.uk/

"Autumn View," by Fiona Robertson. Machine and hand embroidery. Source: http://www.fionarobertsonartworks.co.uk/

There's even a Japanese stone art known as suiseki, influenced by Chinese scholar's rocks many centuries ago. Unlike sculpture, they are not deliberately carved to reflect landscapes, but are found intact in rivers, oceans, and karst. They are selected because of their expressiveness through shape, color, and texture. Considered objects of beauty to be gazed upon and enjoyed the way one might interact with a painting, suiseki remain unaltered in their natural form, but placed in a wooden base.

Like the simplicity of suiseki, some forms of East Asian nature painting leave out more than they include; the viewer imagines the rest. It's a different kind of abstraction.

"Goose and Reeds, Willow and Moon." Pair of six-panel folding screens; ink, color and gold on paper, by Maruyama Ōkyo (Japanese, 1733–1795). Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY.

"Goose and Reeds, Willow and Moon." Pair of six-panel folding screens; ink, color and gold on paper, by Maruyama Ōkyo (Japanese, 1733–1795). Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY.

"Celebrated Waterfall" (1820–1830), by Yanagawa Shigenobu (Japanese, 1787–1832). Polychrome woodblock print. Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY.

"Celebrated Waterfall" (1820–1830), by Yanagawa Shigenobu (Japanese, 1787–1832). Polychrome woodblock print. Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY.

"Sun and Plum Branches," Shibata Zeshin (Japanese, 1807–1891). Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY.

"Sun and Plum Branches," Shibata Zeshin (Japanese, 1807–1891). Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY.

Not everyone tries to illustrate, whether realistically or abstractly, what they see in nature. For some artists, actually working directly with its raw materials is what results in a different kind of art. British sculptor, photographer, and environmentalist Andy Goldsworthy immediately comes to mind.

"Wood Line" (2011), by Andy Goldsworthy. Made from eucalyptus branches laid out in a sloping, sinuous curve through a eucalyptus grove in San Francisco's Presidio. Source: http://www.for-site.org/project/goldsworthy-in-the-presidio-wood-line/

"Wood Line" (2011), by Andy Goldsworthy. Made from eucalyptus branches laid out in a sloping, sinuous curve through a eucalyptus grove in San Francisco's Presidio.
Source: http://www.for-site.org/project/goldsworthy-in-the-presidio-wood-line/

Known for his land art, especially through the 2001 documentary film Rivers and Tides, Goldsworthy creates site-specific ephemeral sculptures with rocks, leaves, flowers, pine cones, snow, stone, twigs, thorns, and icicles. His intention is to understand nature by participating directly in it as intimately as possible. He explains:

Movement, change, light, growth and decay are the lifeblood of nature, the energies that I try to tap through my work. I need the shock of touch, the resistance of place, materials and weather, the earth as my source. Nature is in a state of change and that change is the key to understanding. I want my art to be sensitive and alert to changes in material, season and weather. Each work grows, stays, decays. Process and decay are implicit. Transience in my work reflects what I find in nature....I couldn’t possibly try to improve on Nature. I’m only trying to understand it by an involvement in some of its processes.

"Touching North" (1989), by Andy Goldworthy. Source: http://visualmelt.com/Andy-Goldsworthy

"Touching North" (1989), by Andy Goldworthy. Source: http://visualmelt.com/Andy-Goldsworthy

"Green to Yellow Leaves" (1980), by Andy Goldsworthy. Source: http://visualmelt.com/Andy-Goldsworthy

"Green to Yellow Leaves" (1980), by Andy Goldsworthy. Source: http://visualmelt.com/Andy-Goldsworthy

Ephemeral installation by Andy Goldworthy. Source: http://visualmelt.com/Andy-Goldsworthy

Ephemeral installation by Andy Goldworthy. Source: http://visualmelt.com/Andy-Goldsworthy

Recently, I came across other artists who utilize nature as their palette and canvas. For example, Ian Ross and Andrés Amador manipulate sand. Ross works with a rake to make giant designs on beaches in California. By "carving" into the smooth surface where the tide has receded, his own type of ephemeral and impermanent art form emerges. 

Source: http://ianrossart.com/project/installation/

Source: http://ianrossart.com/project/installation/

Source: http://ianrossart.com/project/installation/

Source: http://ianrossart.com/project/installation/

In the San Francisco area, Andrés Amador also employs a rake to create works of art that can be bigger than 100,000 sq. ft. After he spends hours developing contrast through wet and dry sand, the tide washes it all away. Only a photograph and a memory remain.

Source: http://www.viralnova.com/beach-art/

Source: http://www.viralnova.com/beach-art/

Source: http://www.viralnova.com/beach-art/

Source: http://www.viralnova.com/beach-art/

Given that everything is impermanent anyway, including ourselves--after all, we, too, are nature--does it matter whether our artistic creations live on or disappear?

Questions & Comments:
How does being in a natural environment affect your artistic sensibility?
Do you bring the experience back to your studio and let it inform you subconsciously? Do you try to recapture the scene?
Do you work outdoors? Paint au plein air? Work from sketches and/or photographs?
Do you prefer representational art of natural scenes or are you more inclined toward the abstract?
What artists come to mind for their relationship to Nature?

Sunset at the Pacific Ocean.

Sunset at the Pacific Ocean.