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Thursday, October 30, 2014

Architectural Landscapes

Picture Gallery with Views of Ancient Rome, 1758, Giovanni Paulo Panini--                      
Architecture with paintings of architecture                   
The Church at Auvers-sur-Oise, 1890,
Vincent, van Gogh
One of the quickest, easiest means of separating the work of an amateur painter from that of a professional is the simple observation as to whether the artist struggles to handle linear perspective. This skill is so basic, so logical, so critical to even the most elementary landscape containing any man made structure, the mastery of it, or the lack of such, instantly says a great deal about the artist. Otherwise very good artists are often so "right-brained" that sometime, during their self-taught years, they have simply thrown up their hands in resignation, saying, in effect, I can't be bothered. A clumsy handling of perspective is, in fact, often the hallmark of a self-taught artist. Yet, just about any art supply store will have for sale a "how to" book dealing with linear perspective written specifically for those artists learning on their own...if they are so inclined. One of my pet peeves as an art instructor teaching adults to paint were those who insisted upon learning to paint before they even came close to attaining the necessary drawing skills...including perspective.
Three views of the Rouen Cathedral, 1892-94
Architectural Ruins in a Rocky Landscape,
Robert Hubert
Vincent van Gogh was one of those. Some of his early works indicate a great deal of trouble along this line. Although he did show improvement over time, his Church at Auvers-sur-Oise (above, right) as late as 1890 still shows signs of his being less than comfortable in painting architecture. By the same token, Monet's many views of the Rouen Cathedral (above) painted at various times of day, indicates such a complete understanding of the architecture and the means of rendering it, he was able to completely subjugate it to his study of light and color. Artists from the past such as Canaletto, Robert Hubert (right),Giovanni Panini (top and below, left), Alexey Belsky (below), Francesco Guardi, and Edward Hopper have often demonstrated such a mastery of the perspective skills as to suggest they invented them.
Architectural Landscape, 1789, Alexey Belsky 

The Pantheon, 1747, Giovanni Panini.
Interiors can often be more difficult
than exterior architecture. 
Although I'm dealing with landscapes featuring architectural elements here today, there are very few areas of painting that don't, at times, require a working knowledge of perspective. I suppose an artist could spend a lifetime painting only abstracts, still-lifes, and flowers thereby avoiding horizons, vanishing points, and orthogonals, but virtually every other area of content (even portraits) demands at least an instinctive understanding of the skill. Though perspective usually isn't taught using architectural landscape paintings from the past, it seems to me it might be a far more interesting means of doing so. The so-called "left-brained" (highly logical) artists eat this stuff up. But the "right-brained" (visually dominant) artist chafes under the strict rules of linear perspective. Seeing how painters from the past used perspective might well cross over this dichotomy of hemispheric preference.

Architect's Dream, 1840, Thomas Cole.
Village Landscape, Debra Hurd
Before anyone gets the wrong impression, architectural landscape painting is more than just drawing and painting buildings and houses around the corner and down the street. Contemporary artist, Debra Hurd uses it as both inspiration and aspiration in paintings such as her abstract Village Landscape (right). Her efforts are but a recent example of the use of the architectural landscape as a content medium of creative expression. For centuries painters such as Thomas Cole have used imaginary architecture to convey their outlook as to human social development. Cole's five-part "Course of Empire" series utilizes extremely complex architectural renderings in the final three phases, Consummation, Destruction, and Desolation. All three are imaginary. His Architect's Dream (above) from 1840, is likewise a tour de force in perspective rendering of a classical setting that never existed (hence the dream element). Artists today such as Jessica Dinh with her Tuscan Countryside (below) demonstrate that even with computer drawing, painting, and rendering, perspective and architecture remain an important element in creative expression. How else could we know what cities of the future will look like without it?
Tuscan Countryside, Jessica Dinh, 3-D digital rendering.

The Red Stripe, 2012, Terry Leness
And it's not just about fantasies of the past or the future. The architectural landscape as seen by artists living today paints an invaluable insight as to our present cultural existence as well. Terry Leness paints the commonplace, opening our eyes, not so much to the beauty all around us but to the boring conformity that so much of our architectural landscape has become. His 2013 Log Jam II (below) takes a hard look at a sort of free-floating homelessness as seen in the shape of the aluminum "tin cans" seen littering our national parks and campgrounds, and the ugly, leftover flotsam when these temporary, portable abodes have served their purpose (below, right). Moreover, Leness does not limit himself to temporary housing, but paints permanent housing which, perhaps, should have been temporary with the same stark simplicity. His The Red Line (left) from 2012 suggesting that not all the architecture of the past can be exalted for its great grace and beauty.
Log Jam II, 2013, Terry Leness
American Dream, 2011, Terry Leness
We like to think of American architecture today as being bright, shiny, clean, and pristine. All too often we should also add to these adjectives abandoned, underwater, deteriorating, and tiresome. Paul Davis pursues this realm of present-day architectural landscape not far removed from the architectural ruins seen in the capriccio paintings of Hubert and Panini. Their capriccios were seen as romantic. Davis's Empty Pool, Modern House, Palms (below), is simply sad. We might consider it David Hockney's A Bigger Splash without the splash.

Empty Pool, Modern House, Palms, Paul Davis
My own exploration of the architectural landscape over the years has been varied, and largely oriented toward the past. However, the perspective skills came in handy as I was designing our home back in the late 1970s (useful in persuading my wife to let me try novel ideas in decorating). Otherwise, most of my painted structures have been historic as seen in my version of Philadelphia's famous Elfreth's Alley (below), said to be this country's oldest continuously inhabited street; and claimed by some to have once been the home address of Benjamin Franklin, who, in any case, designed the streetlamps (now electrified) still in use there today.

Copyright, Jim Lane
Elfreth's Alley, 1979, Jim Lane


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