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Saturday, August 26, 2017

A Walk in the Woods: Texture Too Beautiful to Paint

Lately, I've been walking in the woods.  Does this sound strange for someone who lives on the "bold coast" of Maine?  This picturesque place, with its high cliffs towering over crashing waves and offering vistas of faraway islands and the occasional whale, is dear to tourists, who often travel long distances from uninspiring places.  But for me, my eye sometimes need a break from all the majesty.  A walk in the woods where the faraway is replaced by the nearby is just the thing.

For a painter, the beauty of the deep woods—so deep that a ray of sunlight is as rare as an off-season whale—can be puzzling.  How would one paint something like that?  In my experience, a successful painting hinges on two things:  contrast and simple, big shapes.  Neither of these are to be found in the deep woods.  Instead, its beauty relies on just the opposite:  subtle or no contrast, and complex, tiny shapes.   It's all about visual texture.

I've included some photos to show you the textures I saw on yesterday's walk.  Moss, lichen, tree bark, asters, toadstools and, if you step back a bit, the larger picture that seems just as complex and textural.  Even zoomed out, the subtle contrasts and complexity, now composed of trail and trunk, are still there, much as would be the case were you to zoom out on a fractal.

I don't know how to paint this overabundance of texture.  Not with my loose, somewhat Impressionistic brush work.  I would have to draw it instead, with pen and ink or pencil, and with more time that I'm willing to give.  So instead, a walk just to experience it, and perhaps a camera to capture a small bit of it, is enough for me.  My whole being hums and buzzes after a walk in the woods.  It's like a spiritual massage.

I'm also including an image of an oil painting by Asher Durand, the well-known Hudson River School painter.  In my mind, he was a master of painting this kind of texture.  The painting, titled (probably not by Durand) as "Oil Study of Wood Interior," is rather large for a study.  At 24x16 inches, it's more likely a studio painting based on smaller sketches and studies.  I love this piece because it so well describes some of the texture I see on my woodland walks.

"Study of a Wood Interior"  24x16 oil, canvas mounted on panel
Asher Durand, c. 1855
Collection:  Addison Gallery of Art, Phillips Academy, Andover, MA