By Stephen Gjertson


Sunlight and Shadow — Minnehaha Creek, 1984. Oil on canvas, 24 x 48. Private collection.


It was a sultry summer afternoon in central Minnesota. I was painting about three yards from Minnehaha Creek, made famous by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in his poem The Song of Hiawatha. I had been working in this spot on a painting of the creek for almost a month. The grass for about eight feet behind my easel was flattened from my continual pacing back and forth to compare the painting with its natural counterpart. Sweat trickled down my nose from beneath the baseball hat that I wore to keep the sun out of my eyes. The summer had been unusually wet, and the rain kept the creek filled with water. An occasional canoe glided silently by, gently swirling the water in its wake ― reminiscent, perhaps, of the time of Hiawatha. I had been painting for almost an hour, relatively oblivious to anything other than the task of translating my subject to canvas. It was a fine day, and I was surprised by the lack of visitors. Few people had passed by this afternoon, and even fewer had stopped to stare. Perhaps the humidity and temperature were too high.

Suddenly, I heard a soft thump on the bank of the creek to my right. I turned and saw a twenty-something young man sitting in the back of a small, aluminum canoe. He had evidently seen me and, curious, stopped to watch. I nodded and went back to work. The man behind me remained silent. After several minutes I heard him get out of the canoe, clamber up the creek bank and walk slowly toward me. Again, I turned and nodded. He acknowledged my greeting, but said nothing. I resumed my work, for I had only half an hour before the light changed so drastically that I could no longer paint. It was the man who broke the silence.

“How long have you been working on this painting?” he asked in a low monotone.

“Almost a month,” I replied, not wanting to get into a discussion that would interrupt my work.

The man laughed, and shook his head. “Oh oh,” I thought, “Here comes another dissertation on the folly of my approach to painting.” I’d had these discussions before, the only real disadvantage to working at a well-traveled location. But I was wrong. This dissertation would be short.

“You’re wasting your time,” he said, lifting the camera that hung by a strap around his neck. “I can do exactly what you’re doing in one second.” He snapped a picture, then turned and walked quickly back to his canoe. Within a few seconds he was once more paddling downstream.

I shook my head. The man had completely misunderstood what I was doing. For that matter, what any real artist is doing when painting a landscape outdoors. I continued to work until the effect was over, then packed up and headed home, mulling over the man’s comment as I drove. Many people who stop to watch me paint outside ask questions, mostly if I do this for a living, or how much I get paid for my work. A few offer their opinion or advice, although they seldom mean it in the derogatory sense implied by the gentleman with the camera. In fact, the compliment that I receive most often is that my work “looks just like a photograph.” What people are usually trying to say is that the work looks natural and that they like it.

While I appreciate the compliments and have learned to live with the insults, it is nevertheless disheartening that they both reflect the same basic ignorance of the nature of art as practiced by someone who uses the visible world as the basis for their art. This misconception often begins with the assumption that the representational artist’s primary goal is to reproduce an exact representation of what they see, either in nature or in photographs. For those of us who love both nature and the great masters this is not the case. Our motivation is more often an emotional response to what we see. It may be the immediate excitement we feel when observing objects or effects of great beauty, or it may be the memory of feelings brought back by the sight of a certain place or thing. In the case of storytelling or imaginative works, it is the emotional response to the story or to the idea that it represents. It is the expression of these emotional responses through the language of painting that is the artist’s primary concern. The visible world is both the stimulus of these emotions and the vehicle by which they are tangibly and coherently expressed to others. If the work is to be significant and effective ― something out of the ordinary ― the artist must also make this vehicle conform to the principles which govern works of art.

Let me use the painting seen by the man with the camera as an example. It is a landscape of Minnehaha Creek with a view of the parkway that borders it. I grew up nearby and played there as a young boy. I chose the location carefully and loved it, for therein were coalesced the fond memories of many sunny summer afternoons. The man who stopped to watch me knew none of my feelings and perhaps had none of his own. For him, a photograph would have been a sufficient reminder of the place, had he desired one at all.

Like many people who look at works of art, this man saw my painting superficially, noticing only its similarity to the scene before him. What he failed to see were the elements that differentiate a work of art from a merely literal, or photographic, transcription of nature: cropping, design, selection, invention, focus, drawing, color, values, paint handling, and breadth of vision — elements that separate a well-observed work from a simple agglomeration of minutely rendered detail. These matters come under the broad heading of artistic style. The style of each fine artist arises naturally from the way in which they view the world, the circumstances of their life, their motivation, their visual acuity and their training.

For this painting, I wanted a dignified and stately feeling: cathedral-like, quiet and serene. When choosing the location, I looked for the basic elements through which this feeling could be expressed. The values were predominantly within the middle-to-dark range ― cathedral-like ― interspersed with windows of light which could be formed into pleasing patterns. The main lines of the trees rose like columns into the dark mystery of a leafy ceiling. Like large aisles, the pathway and creek swept the viewer’s eye into the middle ground. The spot contained most of the raw material from which I could create an expressive painting.

Unfettered by the limitations of the camera, I was free to invent, shift, change, move, or modify the elements before me as I felt necessary. I spent a good deal of time designing the work in a cartoon drawn in pencil before I began the painting, going to the location every sunny afternoon. I carefully arranged the trees and the spaces between them, not merely as I saw them, but only similar to the way they were, giving them what I thought were more varied and pleasing intervals. The trees in the left foreground were not visible unless I turned to the left. I moved them over, using them to keep the viewer’s eye from getting trapped in the background too near the edge of the painting. For the sake of variety, I slanted the outside tree toward the left, thus opposing rather than repeating the angles of the trees to the right. I shifted many other lines to create a unified and rhythmic flow throughout the work. I added the thin tree to the far right to keep the viewer’s eye from escaping up the dark, angled trunk behind it by leading it around to the left and back into the painting. For the sake of clarity and simplicity, and to retain the effect I was after, I left out many distracting, jumbled masses of trees, including several that had fallen to the ground.

I also had to modify the patterns of values. Nature, what the camera would “see,” was constantly flickering ― broken up into a multitude of small, unrelated and confusing spots of light and dark. I needed to squint and simplify them before I could begin to analyze, select, and organize them coherently. I wanted the trees in the light to the left of the center in the middle distance to be the center of interest. Unfortunately, as they appeared in nature, they had no discernible pattern, just a few scruffy and wilted leaves. They were elm trees which had contracted Dutch Elm Disease and were marked with bright orange rings for removal by the city. I had to invent their patterns of leaves using other trees as a guide. By the time the man with the camera arrived, those trees had been cut down and hauled away. He failed to see that they were missing. The leaves on the trees in the upper portion of the painting also lacked a definite pattern. I needed to invent them or my “cathedral” would have remained roofless, my conception compromised, and the viewer’s eye would again have been allowed to escape from the painting too quickly.

Many old stone bridges crossed the creek. I wanted one in my painting, but the closest one was either behind me or several blocks in front of me. Neither were visible from my particular vantage point. To put one in had necessitated a trip to another locale. The man had not noticed.

There was also the difficult job of placing the myriad patches of ever-shifting sunlight. The trees continually emerged from the shadows into the sunlight and then plunged back again. The light and shadow on them and streaming across the ground and water constantly moved as well. I had plotted their placement as the afternoon passed, using them to make decorative patterns of light and dark. At no one time could they be observed as they appear in the painting.

Finally we come to the color, the most elusive and difficult of the elements with which the landscape painter struggles. Photographs distort many things, including the drawing and values. But what they most distort is the color, especially as it is observed by the artist. The artist uses many methods to suggest the truth and variety of outdoor color. The photograph is dead by comparison, but only perhaps, to a person who has looked at color outside and struggled day after day, year after year to capture its evanescent brilliance with paint on canvas. I wanted the color in this painting to be rather somber and simple. Too much color, the dancing complimentaries and gorgeous purples, would distract from the cathedral-like atmosphere I wanted to create. For the sake of this painting I simplified and toned down the color I actually saw, the color which I tried to capture in other works.

The man with the camera thought that he was viewing an artist reproducing on canvas a “picture” of the creek. What he really saw was an artist painting an amalgamation of variously observed phenomena seen over a prolonged period of time and selected or invented for their particular pictorial and expressive qualities according to his own personal and artistic sensibilities. I relate this to clarify the fact that, for the artist who paints from the visible world, creating a work of art consists of much more than simply setting up an easel and mechanically recording what happens to be in front of them at a given moment.

The camera has many uses, even for the artist, but it cannot do in one second what it takes an artist many weeks or months of careful consideration, judgment, selection, and skill to achieve. In the final analysis, the artistic elements that transform everyday things into the realm of expressive and enduring works of art are found in the heart, mind and eye of the skillful artist. The man with the camera did not give me the time, and probably was not interested, but I wish that I could have explained that to him.

This article is adapted from one with the same title that appeared in the Classical Realism Quarterly, September 1989.