Six top artists combined observation, investigation, and invention to respond to the encompassing reality of the landscape. They will be exhibiting their sketches and studio paintings together for the first time this summer.
by M. Stephen Doherty
The difference between looking at a photograph and a great painting is similar to the difference between seeing a plate of food and eating it. One tells us what we are looking at while the other provides a fulfilling experience. Among landscape painters, there are many who accurately describe the appearance of nature, and some who go beyond that to provide a complete response. The six contemporary artists exhibiting together in August at Tree’s Place Gallery, in Orleans, Massachusetts, all have that extraordinary ability.
Three of the exhibiting artists, Jacob Collins, Travis Schlaht, and Nicholas Hiltner, have extensive academic training in drawing and painting the figure, and they apply those skills to the challenge of understanding and interpreting the landscape. The other artists, Joseph McGurl, Donald Demers, and William R. Davis, grew up sailing in the waters of New England and learned to draw and paint what they were obliged to understand about the forces of nature. Despite the differences in their backgrounds, all six artists approach landscape painting as a process of combining knowledge and observation to form a complete interpretation of the emotional, factual, and personal experience.
Collins, Schlaht, and Hiltner have painted together for a number of years and spent several summers creating pleir air landscapes. However, it wasn’t until the summer of 2007 that they began working together to establish a new direction in landscape painting when they led a group of 30 artists (along with artist Edward Minoff) in the Catskill Mountains district of New York State. During the three-week workshop, the participants applied the same level of understanding and investigation to landscape painting that they were already using to create their figure paintings. The program began with an emphasis on scientific research and careful drawing of the elements of the landscape—clouds, plants, rocks, and land formations—and continued with plein air color studies based on observation. The students and teachers then returned to their home studios to use this collective knowledge and resource material to create imaginative, accurate, and comprehensive views of nature.
The goal of this Hudson River School for Landscape (www.hudsonriverlandscape.com) was to establish “a new movement of American art, modeling itself after the artistic, social, and spiritual values of the Hudson River School painters,” says Collins in reference to the 19th-century artists who established the first indigenous art movement in America. “The Hudson River School painters saw the beauty of nature as a deeply important part of our world, and they believed their job was to faithfully represent that beauty. In their tradition, the beauty of the land was a revelation. This deep reverence for the land and idealism is sometimes missing in the contemporary art world. Those painters also laid the groundwork for what became the American Conservation Movement. My hope is that reuniting the kind of idealism that these artists brought to their art with the reverence for the land that they helped introduce to American culture will make a small contribution to solving current problems.”
|View Toward Stonehorse Ledge From the Saco River
by William R. Davis, 2007, oil,
8 x 12. Collection the artist.
|Washington Valley Creek
by William R. Davis, 2007, oil on paper, 8 x 10. Courtesy Tree’s Place, Orleans, Massachusetts.
In a question-and-answer exchange Collins provided for the Plein Air section of the American Artist website, he mentioned being influenced by the writings and artwork of 19th-century American artists. “Last year I read Asher B. Durand’s Letters on Landscape Painting, and I was struck by the advice he gave to aspiring landscape artists to draw the individual pieces of the landscape for as long as it takes to understand them before putting it all together,” Collins wrote. “He recommended perhaps even years of drawing branches of trees and rocks, outcroppings, and clusters of trees with a sharp pencil, seeing them as the alphabet of the landscape. I was impressed with his analogy that trying to paint a landscape without learning this alphabet was like trying to write a novel without learning the letters and words of language.”
Schlaht and Hiltner also mention being influenced by Hudson River School painters, such as Frederic Edwin Church, Thomas Cole, and Asher B. Durand, as well as other important landscape artists whose work has been presented in recent museum exhibitions. “We’re fortunate to have ready access to galleries and museums in the Northeast,” Schlaht says. “For example, the Brooklyn Museum recently mounted two shows simultaneously that offered an interesting comparison between American and European artists. There was a major exhibition of Durand’s work on one floor and a display of French Barbizon and Impressionist painters on a lower floor. It was fascinating to compare the connections between on-site observational work and studio pictures. I’m not a huge fan of the Impressionists, but I learned a great deal from seeing the way they responded directly to nature; and then I walked upstairs to study how Durand composed studio paintings from his sketches and color studies.”
| Detail Study of a Rock
by Travis Schlaht, 2007,
oil on linen, 5 x 5. Courtesy Tree’s Place, Orleans, Massachusetts.
|Drawing of Trees
by Travis Schlaht, 2007, graphite, 9 x 7. Courtesy
Tree’s Place, Orleans, Massachusetts.
Hiltner mentions that he also followed the example of Hudson River School painters by making annotated drawings in a notebook while participating in the summer workshop. “There happened to be several exhibitions of drawings in area museums, and I was impressed with the fact that 19th-century artists filled their sketchbooks with drawings and written commentary,” he explains. “They would draw trees, rocks, valleys, and streams and then write notes about the weather patterns, color relationships, and tree identifications, and that would inform their studio paintings. I followed their example and made a lot of small sketches during the workshop, and now I’m reading some books on woodland plants, species of trees, and cloud formation. All of that is helping me formulate plans for studio paintings that are filled with scientific details and, at the same time, are formulated out of the total sensory experience of being in the landscape. The hope is that the studio paintings will say more about what I felt, saw, and studied.”
Collins recently exhibited a 50"-x-120" panoramic landscape painting and over fifty preparatory drawings, plein air sketches, color studies, and paintings for that picture in a solo exhibition, entitled "Rediscovering the American Landscape: The Eastholm Project," at Hirschl & Adler Modern in New York City. In writing about the experience of using outdoor studies to create a large studio painting, he indicated that he loved “the connection between painting outside—scrupulously observing the details and nuances of nature—and painting in the studio, remembering, inventing, and conceptualizing the landscape. Each time I paint outside, I’m desperately trying to record all that I can, to organize the infinite complexity of nature, but sometimes it is hard to know what to look for and pay attention to. Once I’m back in the studio, I find myself asking a million questions—such as whether the horizon could conceivably be pink at this time of day or the surface of the water could ever be lighter than the sky in a certain context—and wishing that I had noticed more when I was outside. At these moments, I vow that I will pay more attention when I’m outdoors, and when I go outside, I end up working with a renewed intensity because I have so many questions in my mind.”
by Nicholas Hiltner, 2007, oil on linen, 8 x 10. Collection the artist.
|Rock in Stream
by Nicholas Hiltner, 2007, graphite and gouache on paper, 6 x 9. Collection the artist.
The Tree’s Place exhibition will include many new drawings, oil sketches, and studio paintings that Collins, Schlaht, and Hiltner created since the 2007 workshop. “Although I’ve done a lot of landscape paintings in the past, these will be some of the first completed paintings created since I began pursuing this broadly informed approach to the landscape,” Schlaht mentions. All three of the artists (who will once again be joined by Edward Minoff) will be conducting a second workshop this summer through the Hudson River School for Landscape from July 17 through August 22, 2008, and they are developing a series of workshops that will be offered in the future.
Having grown up with a passionate interest in the sea and all forms of boating, McGurl, Demers, and Davis have had a personal connection to nature that goes back to their childhood experiences. “When I was an art student, my work consisted of landscapes, figures, and still lifes,” McGurl recalls. “Unconsciously, my work moved toward landscape as I delved deeper into what gave the most emotional feedback. My struggle then became one of getting beyond the rendering so the paintings were more real in every sense. At this stage, I can pretty much paint what I want and it comes out looking realistic, but I want it to actually be real. I want to paint a tree that exists in three dimensions and also will die in the winter and bloom again in the spring. I want my water to have depth and transparency and movement. I want the sun to be warm and so bright you have to squint, and the sky to extend through the universe. I want the viewer to become part of the painting so that he or she feels totally immersed in the realm I am trying to convey.”
McGurl goes on to say he understood from an early age that in order to paint an encompassing landscape he had to understand it as well as he did the information that helped him navigate a sailboat. He had to understand the forces that impact the shape and movement of the clouds, waves, branches, and grasses, as well as the physics of light that allows people to understand the texture, shape, density, transparency, and distance of what they see. “Without thoroughly knowing what I am painting, I can’t reach that higher level,” he explains. “Sketching from nature gives me a better familiarity with the elements of nature, not just the plants and animals but all the other parts that make up the world. That allows me to use them in the studio, not so much in a botanical, meteorological, or topographical sense but in terms of how these elements react to light, space, and color. Observation also gives me organic patterns on which to base the forms.
“I lean toward painting what I see, but I still want to understand why the world looks the way it does,” McGurl adds. “Why does the pine grove grow on a particular side of a mountain? Why is one cloud darker than the others? What’s causing the light to take on an amber glow? By understanding this, I can give more truth to my art and better master the scene developing on the canvas.”
Demers also makes sketches that inform his studio paintings. “I make graphite, watercolor, and oil sketches outdoors, often leaving them unfinished so I am not tempted to repeat myself in the studio,” he explains. “Once I have identified a subject worth developing into a larger painting, I close my eyes and think about what the observed scene really meant to me. That understanding becomes my guiding principle as I try to clarify the image on canvas.”
|Into the Sun
by Joseph McGurl, 2008, oil, 30 x 40. Courtesy Hammer Galleries, New York, New York.
by Joseph McGurl, 2007, graphite, 8 x 10. Courtesy Tree’s Place, Orleans, Massachusetts.
Both Demers and Davis are closely associated with the field of marine art, or paintings that present accurate representations of both historic and contemporary sailing vessels. These artists, like most realist painters, are often negatively criticized for placing an emphasis on the literal content of their pictures. “Every painter balances the physical and emotional aspects of making pictures,” Demers points out. “Whether someone is painting a figure, a bowl of fruit, or a yacht, he or she is connecting to the viewer’s understanding and appreciation of the subject while trying to also express a personal response to it. The challenge is to have the subject be very specific while also offering a personal interpretation or expression. A masterful painting can be a portrait of a specific person, flower, or plot of land that still conveys strong emotions and an informed understanding. The point of this exhibition is to clarify that landscape paintings based on observation, study, and imagination can be both specific and profound.”
About the Artists
Jacob Collins earned a B.A. degree from Columbia College, in New York City, and studied art at the New York Academy of Art, in New York City; Ecole Albert Defois, in Lex Cerqueux, France; and the Art Students League of New York, in Manhattan. He is the founder of The Water Street Atelier, and he a founder and the director of The Grand Central Academy of Art, both in New York City. Collins has had over twenty solo shows and numerous group exhibitions at prominent galleries in North America and Europe. His work is included in several American institutions, including Harvard's Fogg Museum and Amherst's Mead Art Museum as well as a multitude of important private collections. Collins is currently represented by Hirschl & Adler Modern, in New York City; the John Pence Gallery, in San Francisco; and Meredith Long & Co., in Houston. For more information, visit his website at www.jacobcollinspaintings.com.
William R. Davis grew up in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, and in 1987 he was the first artist to mount a solo exhibition at the Maritime Gallery at Mystic Seaport, in Mystic, Connecticut. Since then his landscape and marine paintings have been included in exhibitions organized by the J. Russell Jinishian Gallery, in Fairfield, Connecticut; the Cape Cod Museum of Art, in Dennis, Massachusetts; The Copley Society of Art, in Boston; the American Society of Marine Artists; The Guild of Boston Artists; John Pence Gallery, in San Francisco; Hammer Galleries, in New York City; Tree’s Place, in Orleans, Massachusetts, and others. For more information, visit his website at www.williamrdavis.net.
Donald Demers studied at the School of the Worchester Art Museum and Massachusetts College of Art and Design, in Boston, before launching a career as an illustrator and fine artist. He is a fellow of the American Society of Marine Artists and a signature member of the Plein-Air Painters of America, and his paintings have been included in exhibitions organized by the Haggin Museum, in Stockton, California; the Maritime Gallery at Mystic Seaport, in Mystic, Connecticut; John Pence Gallery, in San Francisco; and Tree’s Place, in Orleans, Massachusetts, among others. For more information, visit his website at www.donalddemers.com.
Nicholas Hiltner studied at The Cleveland Institute of Art and later with Jacob Collins at The Water Street Atelier. He has exhibited his artwork at John Pence Gallery, in San Francisco, and Meredith Long & Company, in Houston, and teaches at The Grand Central Academy of Art, in New York City. For more information on Hiltner, visit his website at www.nhiltner.com.
Joseph McGurl grew up working with his father, James McGurl, who was a muralist and scenic designer, and he studied with Ralph Rosenthal at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and privately with Robert Cormier. He subsequently graduated from Massachusetts College of Art, in Boston, and worked for a few years as a yacht captain. He is represented by Hammer Galleries, in New York City; Robert Wilson Galleries, on Nantucket, Massachusetts; John Pence Gallery, in San Francisco; and Tree’s Place, in Orleans, Massachusetts. For more information, visit his website at www.josephmcgurl.com.
Travis Schlaht earned a B.A. degree from the University of the Pacific, in Stockton, California, and later joined The Water Street Atelier, where he studied with Jacob Collins. He has exhibited his artwork in New York, San Francisco, Washington, DC, and Houston, and he currently teaches at The Water Street Atelier and The Grand Central Academy of Art, both in New York City. For more information on Schlaht, visit his website at www.classicist.org/grandcentralacademy/schlaht.html.
M. Stephen Doherty is the editor-in-chief and publisher of American Artist.