I’m working on a painting that, in spite of early promise, just won’t seem to “come ‘round.” It does everything but invite me in. So I look at it as a stranger, a visitor to my studio who I keep thinking that I should know, but whose visage I can’t quite penetrate. We keep at arms length in a somewhat uncomfortable alliance. Now I’ve hung the painting near the kitchen table so I can keep an eye on it. I confront it directly in the morning when I make my breakfast; I give it a sideward glance throughout the day. I’m determined to find my way in.
What I’m working on here is a compositional problem, the most obvious task for a landscape painter. To compose a picture is to design the sequence of visual elements through which it will be seen. One of the finest compliments a student can give her painting teacher is, “Thank you for teaching me to see.” What I think is meant by “teaching me to see” is that the student has learned to find her way into what she otherwise perceived as an undifferentiated optical expanse, a kind of visual noise. Being taught to see means that she can now discriminate variety in this hitherto homogeneous expanse. Now she can discern its different parts and can discover an interesting visual path into the expanse.
Just as we learn to see a pathway into the expanding world around us, a landscape painter is obligated to organize the composition of a painting so that it also offers a visual way in. We’re not only required to identify an intriguing landscape feature, we also have to show the viewer how to get there. And that is the problem with the painting I’m working on now. I have painted a prospect that lurks off in the distance but I haven’t designed a visual pathway to reach that prospect. The painting lacks a sort of visual breadcrumb trail, a trail of consistent visual markers that draws the eye through the foreground into the middle ground and far distance – into the heart of the matter. So, I keep working.
Written by Joel Sheesley, Artist-In-Residence, Fox River Initiative