Underwood, Stinking Water Area, large and small oil on masonite, and a photograph, off the Stinking Water Acess Road.

I took my easel and canvas and brushes to the top of the bluff, and painted two views from the same spot…. From this enchanting spot there was nothing to arrest the eye from ranging over [the Missouri’s] waters for the distance of twenty or thirty miles.”

[Artist George Catlin, as quoted in William H. Truettner, The Natural Man Observed: A Study of Catlin’s Indian Gallery (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1979), p. 247, found on the of the Smithsonian website.

As Karl said (here) one has to become acquainted with the landscape before one can paint it. And as George Catlin remarked about a different landscape “there was nothing to arrest the eye…for the distance of twenty or thirty miles.

Aside from artistic masochism, why do we paint landscapes?

The Smithsonian has some historical answers:

In the colonial era, landscape views were found primarily in the backgrounds of portraits, usually to provide additional information about the sitter….

Landscape painting came to dominate American art in the 1820s, when artists began to equate the country’s unspoiled wilderness with the new nation’s seemingly limitless potential. Foremost among those increasingly interested in the expressive power of landscape was the young artist Thomas Cole.

Later 19th century artists felt that

…studying the land led to enlightenment and a connection with divine harmony. Every detail absorbed their attention, from moss-covered rocks in clear streams to snowcapped mountains. For other artists, exact documentation was less important than illustrating religious and moral sentiments. Allegorical landscapes are imaginary scenes with symbolic meaning, rather than representations of a particular place. Sometimes inspired by literature, these large-scale works illustrated high-minded themes that were usually reserved for history painting….

Some artists were commissioned by the burgeoning railroads to paint their passage across the continent.

Ambiguous in tone, the landscape can be read as a glorification of development or as a reminder of the price of progress….

In the mid-nineteenth century, the American public became increasingly interested in the far reaches of the continent. Adventurous artists made names for themselves by bringing images of the Rockies, the Sierra Nevadas, and South America back to East Coast audiences. George Catlin built his career on his record of the indigenous people of the Americas. Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran became known for their grandiose landscapes.

Gradually, these grand, monumental landscapes gave way to more intimate, interpretive views. For the new generation, landscape was less a stage for theatrical effects but rather a sounding board for the artist’s personal emotional response. At the turn of the century, Winslow Homer specialized in outdoor scenes that captured American rural life. American impressionists experimented with rendering the evocative effects of light and atmosphere in landscape. The new aesthetic was characterized by loose brushwork, subtle tonalities, and an interest in conveying mood.

…The regionalist painters, a group of artists working primarily in the Midwest during the 1930s, had a different tone but similar goals. They were interested in uniquely American activities and places, which for them meant glorifying the labor and lifestyle of rural regions.

A uniquely American abstraction, based on precedents of cubism and expressionism, … show that even in modern, industrialized society, the American landscape still has the power to elicit artistic expression.

[from the National Gallery of Art website.]


Underwood, Field near Diamond, Oregon, oil on masonite
One artist, L. Diane Johnson, says her paintings “capture the beauty and intimacy of the land, providing a respite from daily pressures.”
And then there’s Chinese landscape painting, evolving out of a whole other culture and set of perceptions.
According to Metropolitan Museum of art’s website, landscape painting in China is older than in western Europe, and perhaps more political and philosophical.

By the late Tang dynasty, landscape painting had evolved into an independent genre that embodied the universal longing of cultivated men to escape their quotidian world to commune with nature. Such images might also convey specific social, philosophical, or political convictions. As the Tang dynasty disintegrated, the concept of withdrawal into the natural world became a major thematic focus of poets and painters. Faced with the failure of the human order, learned men sought permanence within the natural world, retreating into the mountains to find a sanctuary from the chaos of dynastic collapse.


Underwood, Dawn at the Horseshoe Curve beyond Diamond, oil on masonite
During the early Song dynasty, visions of the natural hierarchy became metaphors for the well-regulated state….

Under the Mongol Yuan dynasty, when many educated Chinese were barred from government service, the model of the Song literati retreat evolved into a full-blown alternative culture as this disenfranchised elite transformed their estates into sites for literary gatherings and other cultural pursuits. These gatherings were frequently commemorated in paintings that, rather than presenting a realistic depiction of an actual place, conveyed the shared cultural ideals of a reclusive world through a symbolic shorthand in which a villa might be represented by a humble thatched hut. Because a man’s studio or garden could be viewed as an extension of himself, paintings of such places often served to express the values of their owner.


Underwood, Abandoned Stone Building, Diamond, Oregon. oil on masonite

The Yuan dynasty also witnessed the burgeoning of a second kind of cultivated landscape, the “mind landscape,” which embodied both learned references to the styles of earlier masters and, through calligraphic brushwork, the inner spirit of the artist. Going beyond representation, scholar-artists imbued their paintings with personal feelings…

from the Metropolitan Museum of Art


Underwood, View from Steen’s Mountain, oil on canvas

And web designer and theoretician Andy Rutledge says:

Painting A Better Landscape

It’s this simple: if you don’t understand the fundamentals of landscape painting, you don’t understand the fundamentals of web design. In fact, if you don’t grok landscapes you won’t possess the requisite understanding for working in photography, music composition, ballet, filmmaking, architecture or any other art or design endeavor….

Our community provides a virtual banquet of learning opportunities for Web development, but if you’re looking for actual design information you’ll need to tighten your belt. The fare is paltry. Ever wonder why that is? Don’t wonder, because the answer is rather simple: You can’t buy design off the shelf from Adobe and you can’t learn it by playing around with it for a couple of weeks.

So if you’re a Web designer, maybe it’s time to devote some effort toward actually learning the fundamentals of design. This is not something you can do in a weekend and it’s not something you can get from a magazine. You’ll need to learn this from a reputable institution and you won’t need your laptop. Pen, pencil, paintbrush, ink, charcoal, paper, canvas, textbooks – that’s all you’ll need. It’ll take time, so you’d better get cracking.

And if you’re looking for a good book to help with your design study, forget the Web design books. Forget the whole internet section of the store. Go and buy a landscape painting book. Go to the art shelves at your favorite bookstore and look for titles with the words, “landscape” and “composition” in them. That’s what you need. I’m serious.

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Underwood, Dawn in Diamond, oil on canvas, and photograph of Horseshoe curve at dawn.
Finally, poet Gary Snyder naturally has quotes about nature”

Wilderness is not just the ‘preservation’ of the world, it is the world. …. Nature is ultimately in no way endangered; wilderness is. The wild is indestructible, but we might not see the wild.

Bioregional awareness teaches us in specific ways. It is not enough to just ‘love nature’ or to want to ‘be in harmony with Gaia.’ Our relation to the natural world takes place in a place, and it must be grounded in information and experience.

“Information and experience” this is why, perhaps, Karl and I paint out of doors, dodging flies and sunstroke, wind and rattlesnakes.