Hudson River School for Landscape: Reviving an American Tradition

9 Feb 2008

This past summer, 30 outstanding young artists were invited to spend three weeks studying the landscape in upstate New York, where they applied their figure-drawing skills to rendering nature. The intention of the four instructors was to revive the approach taken by 19th-century artists who established America’s first indigenous school of art.

by M. Stephen Doherty

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Root Study
by Jacob Collins.

Many of the artists associated with art schools and ateliers that emphasize an academic approach to education will readily admit that their preparation for drawing and painting the landscape is not commensurate with their highly developed skills in rendering the human form.

Although the instructors at those schools require students to spend hundreds of hours studying anatomy, drawing plaster casts, copying Bargue plates, and painting live models, they follow an unstructured approach to landscape.

This deficiency became the main topic of conversation among a group of artists who often spend the month of August painting together. They concluded it was time to develop a program in which artists would gain an understanding of the science of nature, make careful drawings of the elements of a scene, create plein air studies of the impact of atmosphere and light, and use that collective knowledge to create studio paintings. In short, they wanted to learn how to approach nature with the same degree of understanding that is evident in the work of such Hudson River School painters as Asher B. Durand, Frederic Edwin Church, Thomas Cole, William Trost Richards, and William Stanley Haseltine.

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Oil Sketch
by Ryan S. Brown.
Graphite
Branch Study

by Camie Davis.

In August of 2007, four of those artists—Jacob Collins, Nicholas Hiltner, Edward Minoff, and Travis Schlaht—led a three-week workshop for the Hudson River School for Landscape, which was sponsored by private donors and the Catskill Mountain Foundation as part of its Sugar Maples Center for Arts and Education. Thirty students were selected from more than 100 applicants and were given free room and board in the town of Hunter, New York, in the Catskill Mountains district of New York State. During that time, the students listened to lectures, visited the studios and painting sites of 19th-century artists, created drawings and paintings, and reviewed one another’s work. By the end of the workshop, all of the participants left with a determination to continue their studies and to begin making larger studio paintings based on their increased knowledge.

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A View of the
Mountain Pass
Called the
Notch in the
White
Mountains

by Thomas Cole.

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Instructors Jacob
Collins (left)
and Travis Schlaht.
A guide (center)
took students
around North
Lake, where
19th-century
artists painted.

Jacob Collins states that the mission of the program is to build “a new movement of American art, modeling itself after the artistic, social, and spiritual values of the Hudson River School painters. It will bring together the reawakening enthusiasm for the old American painters, the vigorous but unfocused scene of contemporary landscape paintings, and the urgent need for a renewed reverence for the land. By bringing back the skills and spirit of the Pre-Impressionist landscape painters, the program will give much needed direction to a new generation of painters. As they learn to carefully study and reflect on the trees and clouds and blades of grass and cliffs, their paintings will become beautiful. Ideally, these artists and their beautiful representations of nature will help to lead the culture back to a stronger connection to the landscape. The school seeks to make a contribution both to the art world and the conservation movement.”

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Joshua Fishbein used a
portable easel to
support the drawing
surface he worked on.

“The student will learn to research compositions through studied pencil drawings,” the workshop organizers wrote in the brochure advertising the program. “As these linear drawings develop, they will define each of the specific details and elements that will constitute the final studio painting. Additional pencil studies will begin to explore value with white chalk on toned paper.”

Surely the workshop participants—highly skilled artists themselves—would gain little from basic exercises. Schlaht disagrees. “We knew that drawing would have to be reinforced, so during the first week of the workshop the participants just drew elements of the landscape,” he explains. “The focus was on individual details and aspects of the landscape rather than the big picture. That is, the participants were asked to make drawings of the structural elements of rocks, trees, water, and fields while seeing in a three-dimensional manner, not just the light revealing the visual elements.

“We talked about the specialization of each stage, of breaking the landscape painting process down into the thumbnail sketches to work out ideas,” Schlaht adds. “Then students created more developed line drawings in which they worked out their ideas more completely. Finally, they made more developed, detailed graphite or tonal drawings that could be used as a reference when creating the finished painting in the studio.”
In addition to spending a considerable amount of time drawing, the workshop participants made tonal studies to evaluate the value structure of a scene, as well as plein air oil studies of the light, color, and atmosphere in the Catskill Mountains. “The aim was to find the pattern of values and colors,” Edward Minoff explains. “Those studies would then become additional sources of information to take into the studio to compose larger, better informed paintings.

“I really understand the usefulness of this kind of research because I’ve been focused on painting seascapes over the past few years, and I’ve been using drawings and plein air sketches as the basis of my studio work,” Minoff adds. “I’ve studied the physics of waves, clouds, and trees, and I wrote notes all over my graphite drawings about how waves crest, crash, and create piles of foam. I’m especially interested in gaining a better understanding of water because the paintings I admire most have a sense of movement that photographs don’t necessarily record. Artists need to have a really thorough understanding of the subject they’re painting in order to make the image convincing.

Hudson River School 2008 Workshop

The organizers of the Hudson River
School for Landscape are planning a
six-week session at the same location
in the summer of 2008. Dates and
application procedures will be
announced on the organization’s website at
www.hudsonriverlandscape.com.
Inquiries can also be e-mailed to
school@hudsonriverlandscape.com.
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Mass of Trees,
Schoharie Creek

by Mikel Olazábal,
graphite and white
chalk.

“The students in the workshop were incredibly skilled, well informed, and dedicated,” Minoff continues. “Amazing work was done during the three weeks. There were detailed drawings, color studies, and plein air paintings. It was daunting to critique paintings that were so beautifully executed by the participants.”

Nicholas Hiltner shared his efforts to create pen-and-ink landscape drawings with the workshop participants. “I spent time studying Rembrandt’s drawings and taught myself to work with a quill pen-and-ink,” he explains. “I demonstrated some techniques to the students, and they took the medium further in their own projects. We got together at night to review one another’s work, and the rate of figuring things out and getting new ideas grew exponentially because there were so many committed people working in a close environment.

“Before the workshop, I went to see an exhibition of Asher B. Durand’s graphite drawings at the New York Historical Society and I fell in love with them,” Hiltner explains. “The museum staff brought out portfolios of his sketchbooks and drawings, and I could actually see how he worked out his ideas and collected information for his studio paintings.”

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Creek
by Arantzazu Martinez,
graphite.

At the end of the three-week workshop, students were reminded of Jacob Collins’ words as they appeared in the brochure that attracted them in the first place: “The goal of the field studies and the theoretical investigations is the construction of a larger studio landscape. The landscape painters of the 17th century up through the Hudson River period made their paintings in this manner. The students will learn to synthesize their drawings and plein air paintings with ideas about light and air and perspective and knowledge of the landscape. The combination of the empirical with the rational is fundamental to all classical art. Artistic principles of subject matter, composition, and perspective will unify these works. It is through extensive and real engagement that the artist learns to capture the spirit of the landscape. The many hundreds of hours spent out in the sun and wind, scrupulously studying nature, transform the artist. It was by this experience that the old masters of the landscape realized their art. And it is how we hope to realize ours.”

Arturo Garcia, one of the participating artists, summed up his experience by saying, “This event was an unforgettable experience because of all the talented individuals who participated and the great setting that was painted. I feel personally energized to continue my work as an artist.”

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Fallen Leaf
by Jacob Collins, 2006,
oil, 5 x 7.
Private collection.

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; École Albert Defois, in Les Cerqueux, France; and the Art Students League of New York, in Manhattan. He also created copies of master works at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York City; the Louvre, in Paris; the Prado, in Madrid; and the Galleria degli Uffizi, in Florence. He is the founder of The Water Street Atelier, and he is a founder and the director of The Grand Central Academy of Art, both in New York City. His drawings and paintings have been exhibited in museums, art centers, and galleries around the world. Collins’ 2008 solo exhibition schedule includes a landscape show in March at Hirschl & Adler Modern, in New York City, and an exhibition of figurative works in June at the Galerie Eric Coatalem, in Paris. For more information on Collins, visit his website at www.jacobcollinspaintings.com.

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Rock Study, Kaaterskill Falls
by Nicholas Hiltner,
2007, oil, 8 x 10.
Collection the artist.

Nicholas Hiltner studied at the Cleveland Institute of Art and later studied with Jacob Collins at The Water Street Atelier. He has exhibited his artwork at John Pence Gallery, in San Francisco, 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.

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Tonal Study
by Edward Minoff.

Edward Minoff studied at the Art Students League of New York and the National Academy of Art and graduated from the Tisch School of Arts at New York University, all in Manhattan. After founding a commercial animation house, AMPnyc, he studied with Jacob Collins at The Water Street Atelier. He later journeyed to Italy to study at the Florence Academy of Art. Minoff has exhibited his artwork in New York, San Francisco, Houston, Santa Fe, Seattle, and Sag Harbor. For more information on Minoff, visit his website at www.edwardminoff.com.

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Stream at Kaaterskill Falls
by Travis Schlaht, 2007,
oil, 9 x 12.
Courtesy John
Pence Gallery,
San Francisco,
California.

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/grandcentraacademy/schlaht.html.

M. Stephen Doherty is the editor-in-chief and publisher of Workshop.



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