DRAWING LIFE by fred hatt


Chaotic Landscape

Filed under: Drawing: Experimenting — Tags: , , , , , , , — fred @ 21:36


Mixed Grass, 2011, by Fred Hatt

Drawing landscapes and plants is not my strong suit.  I love wildernesses and gardens, but I feel overwhelmed trying to capture their forms in drawing or painting.  They present a bewildering chaos of detail, a vast, borderless scale, and a range of color and tone that makes my palette look paltry.  My urge to draw operates comfortably at the scale of the human body, a form and an expressive range I know intimately from inside and out.  But the body is a product of Earth, an efflorescence of organic forms that reflect evolutionary history and evoke the forms of the land and its creatures.  A hip is a hill, an ear a shell, an elbow a crooked branch.  Even if the body is my primary subject, I need to understand it as a microcosm by looking to the macrocosm.  And purely from the standpoint of practice, I can only benefit by straying outside my comfort zone, trying to draw what I am incompetent to draw.  In this post I’ll present some of my awkward stabs at landscape.  I’ll immediately make them look worse by setting them in the context of some real masters!

The sketch of my own I’ve chosen to head this post was made while looking at a field of mixed short grasses and weeds in a rural field.  I was struck by the variety of different leaf shapes all jumbled together.  What seems at first glance a tranquil and plush tapestry of green becomes on close inspection a dense jungle, and that is surely how it would appear if you could shrink to the size of an ant to make your way through it.

Below is Albrecht Dürer’s astonishingly realistic watercolor portrayal of a similar patch of sod, known as the “Great Piece of Turf”  (Go to this link to see it in a much larger size).  Botanists can clearly identify at least nine species of herbs in this drawing.  The production of this painting was an act of profound and sustained meditation on the reality of nature, made at a time when nature in art was usually idealized and symbolic, a mere setting for human and spiritual subjects.  The artist’s intensity of attention, directed at something that most would see as utterly inconsequential, has preserved a bit of nature over the centuries like a specimen in amber.  Dürer has captured the chaotic quality of wild plant life, but has somehow given it a kind of clarity that even photography couldn’t provide.  This painting sets a standard that every great naturalist illustrator can only hope to approach.

The Great Piece of Turf, 1503, by Albrecht Dürer

Even if the detail of photography rarely achieves the clarity of Dürer’s vision, by the late nineteenth century many painters had ceded this kind of hard physical detail to the new light-capturing technology and tried instead to depict the wild energy of the natural world with brushy, gestural strokes of color that give a sense of leaves fluttering in a breeze and rays of light dancing over and through shimmery water and misty air.  Claude Monet painted the same scenes over and over again, at different seasons and times of day, striving to capture the mercurial subtleties of luminosity and atmosphere.

Rainy Morning on the Seine, 1890’s (?), by Claude Monet

Charles Burchfield is a magical realist, seeing the natural world as a physical manifestation of different qualities of spiritual energy.  The forms of land and sky and plants are abstracted slightly to more closely resemble the Platonic archetypes of these forces.  The chaos is there, but it is unified within a greater spirit of pure Nature.

Dawn of Spring, 1960’s (?), by Charles E. Burchfield

I have usually avoided drawing and painting the landscape, but I’ve frequently tried to capture it with photography.  I’ve always felt especially drawn to the raw and ragged forms of uncultivated plant life.  Thick thatches of foliage are challenging subjects even for photography, as the transition from three dimensions to two reduces the bursting and branching shapes to a flat patchwork like a camouflage pattern.  Stereo photography can better portray the complexity.  If you look at the picture below (previously posted here) with red/cyan 3D glasses you’ll see what I mean.  If you look at it without glasses, it’s pure abstract field.

Sprouting Hedge, 2010, stereo photo by Fred Hatt

But now let’s take a look at some of my recent fumbling attempts to draw complex, chaotic plant forms.  Just today I took a sketchbook and a camera to my neighborhood park.  Here’s a snapshot of a particularly plush evergreen tree, and below it, my scribbly marker sketch, drawn from direct observation of the tree without any reference to the photo.

Evergreen, 2011, photo by Fred Hatt

Evergreen, 2011, sketch by Fred Hatt

The drawing doesn’t get much of the texture or spatial form of the tree, but it has, perhaps, something of its energy.  Another day I made a sketch of the plants growing in a window box, with these ornate curly leaves in front of a stand of long spear-like leaves.  This is a smaller subject, a closer focus, and a more careful hand with the drawing.

Leaves, 2011, by Fred Hatt

Here’s a sketch of a flowering plant with trumpet-shaped flowers (some kind of orchid?) drooping thickly around a central stalk.  (If anyone recognizes any of the species depicted in these drawings, let me know – my botanical taxonomical knowledge is practically nonexistent.)

Flowers, 2011, by Fred Hatt

Last month I spent a week teaching workshops and attending the festival at the Brushwood Folklore Center in Western New York State.  I spent some of my spare time making crayon sketches.  Here you see the fire-builders’ woodpile in the foreground, the Roundhouse (a sort of ritual structure for drum circles) and bonfire stack in the middle ground, and the trees of the forest in the background.

Roundhouse and Bonfire Stack, 2011, by Fred Hatt

The sky was clear, deep and luminous, with the great zaftig white bodies of cumulus clouds lazing across the heavens like manatees in a warm current.

Clouds, 2011, by Fred Hatt

Near my campsite was this traditional Plains Indian tepee.

Tepee, 2011, by Fred Hatt

This last Brushwood landscape was drawn a couple of years ago.  This is a clump of plants in the hollow under a big tree where the henna artists and body painters decorate people.

Under the Henna Tree, 2009, by Fred Hatt

I still always feel completely unequal to the task when I try to make a drawing from a landscape, but I try to open myself to the chaos and let some attenuated remnant of that vast current flow through me and into my sketch.  I may feel like a mouse trying to sing opera, but sometimes it is better to squeak than to be silent.

Drawings on black paper are 9″ x 12″, medium is aquarelle crayon.  Drawings on white paper are 11″ x 14″ or smaller, medium is brush-tip marker.  The images of pieces by other artists were found on the web; clicking on a picture links to source.

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