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Capturing a Sense of Place--What Does It Mean To You?

19 Oct 2011

When discussing landscape painting, we often hear the phrase "capturing a sense of place." What does that mean to you? To me, it means so much more than just recording the physical attributes of the location. It goes way beyond suggesting the time of day or weather conditions. If a plein air painting is going to give me a "sense" of the place, it has to tell me what the artist felt in being there. It has to give me emotion. It has to show me the head stuff and the heart stuff, too.

I can think of two very different artists who both captured a sense of place in their work. And they used different means of achieving it, which is fantastic for us. From them, we learn that there is probably a whole range of options we can employ to infuse our landscapes with this elusive quality.

A City Park by William Merritt Chase, 1867, oil painting. The Lake for Miniature Yachts by William Merritt Chase, c. 1888, oil painting.
A City Park by William Merritt Chase,
1867, oil painting.
The Lake for Miniature Yachts by William Merritt Chase,
c. 1888, oil painting.

The first artist, William Merritt Chase (1849-1916), is the big daddy of American Impressionism. He spent his formative years in St. Louis, Munich, and New York City, and he was truly a big-city sophisticate of the late 1800s. Imagine what it would be like to be an artist spending all of your days cooped up in congested, cosmopolitan environments. Now imagine what it was like for Chase to escape from it all by going to, say, Central Park or Prospect Park or even as far as the seaside on Long Island, which happened to be his three favorite plein-air painting locations. Finally, a place to breathe! And this feeling--this expansive, wide-open feeling--is the sense of these places that he was able to capture on canvas.

Idle Hours by William Merritt Chase, 1894, oil painting.
Idle Hours by William Merritt Chase, 1894, oil painting.

How? Look at his compositions. Almost every one of Chase's landscapes has one big, massive, simplified shape--either a big sky or a big foreground. Through design, he communicated his own joy in space and freedom. But notice the difference in his color palettes. His city park paintings still have a constrained quality to them, while his Shinnecock paintings are nothing but bold sunshine and bracing fresh air.

A Desert Valley: Panamint, California by Maynard Dixon, 1922, oil painting. Inyo Mountains by Maynard Dixon, 1922, oil painting
A Desert Valley: Panamint, California
by Maynard Dixon, 1922, oil painting.
Inyo Mountains
by Maynard Dixon, 1922, oil painting.

A generation later, Maynard Dixon (1875-1946) achieved the same quality in his paintings, albeit in a very different place and using other means. Dixon was born in California and lived in the Southwest in the days when much of that desert region was undeveloped, mainly because it was harsh terrain, unfriendly to human habitation. And you feel all that in his work. His vivid color palette and high value contrast convey the unrelenting heat and glaring light of the desert, while his spare style and massive shapes show you the fierce majesty of his locations, all working together to present a powerful reminder of the helplessness of one man alone in nature.

These two artists truly inspire me to take my paintings to a higher level by imagining what tools--color, design, shape, value, something else?--I can use to capture a deeper sense of the places I paint. How about you?

-Jennifer


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