Artists Are Adventurers at Heart

10 Sep 2013

A few of my artistic heroes get worse than no respect. They get anonymity. Jacques le Moyne de Morgues, Philip Gidley King, James Cook, Joseph Frederick Wallet Des Barres, John James Audubon—all were artistic adventurers and some of the earliest and most daring plein air painters, and most of them are virtually unknown.

Daily She Comes by Toni Lance, 2009, watercolor, 28 x 20.
Daily She Comes
by Toni Lance, 2009, watercolor, 28 x 20.
Le Moyne was a 16th-century botanical artist and illustrator and a member of Jean Ribault’s expedition to the New World. King was a midshipman and novice draftsman of the crew that brought Charles Darwin to the Galápagos Islands. Cook and Des Barres were surveyors and mapmakers who explored Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, respectively. Des Barres published his maps in an atlas that was used by British seamen for decades. Audubon painted almost 500 bird species found in North America, and along the way he traveled with Shawnee and Osage tribe hunting parties, withstood earthquakes, and even rode out a tornado on horseback.
Those are the details I think of when I see maps, botanical studies, and drawings and paintings of flora and fauna. Of course the pieces are the result of stillness, study, and a naturalist’s appreciation for observation. But they are also the fruits of adventure and intense field explorations during times when such travels often meant taking life-threatening risks.
Sunset, Galapagos by Susan Gerstein, oil on canvas, 30 x 36.
Sunset, Galapagos by Susan Gerstein, oil on canvas, 30 x 36.

What such artists brought back was invaluable—images of extraordinary landscapes, animals, plants, and people; maps of waterways and coasts that allowed further exploration; and visual proof that the world was a wild, exotic, and surprising place. Knowing their history can inform the way we look at and evaluate pieces of art that might, at first glance, seem obvious or simple in subject matter. A painting of a pineapple or drawing of a rhinoceros may seem commonplace now, but there’s quite a story there if it is the first pineapple or rhinoceros ever drawn or painted.
I find a similar sense of adventure in many of the plein air painters I meet. During their time in the great outdoors, these landscape artists are essentially embarking on artistic voyages similar to those who were part of famous explorations of the past. If you are as thrilled as I am by this kind of artwork, consider getting started with the Artists' Field Box Set. Even if you are painting from your backyard or a nearby park, that sense of excitement and engagement with the world around you is sure to result in meaningful artwork and a satisfying sense of accomplishment for you the artist. Enjoy!

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PixieG wrote
on 30 Mar 2010 7:30 AM

I trudged through the jungles of New Guinea and climbed root strewn muddy cliffs in Vanuatu in search of Adventure and Art.  Malaria, mosquitoes, snakes and leaches were constant companions.   The end result was a beautiful series of indigenous people whose way of life is threatened.  I do appreciate what these early explorers must have gone through.  At least, for me, I didn't have to worry about head-hunting--maybe getting caught in an inter-tribal war, but not head-hunting--Thankfully.

on 14 Sep 2013 9:29 AM

Keen observation is a skill of artists.  Research and the joy of learning also enhance art.  "Daily She Comes" shows a beautiful Kestrel in a tree.  Because of the color patterns on the bird it should be titled "Daily He Comes" because it is a male Kestrel.  Use art to study your subject - it opens up so much knowledge.  

S.kernodle wrote
on 1 Mar 2015 10:58 AM

I have read that Audubon considered himself more of a scientist, and used art for  purposes like bird identification. His life is fascinating!