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Field Note – Spring 2024

By Will Close

The sun is setting, bathing the scrubby hillside of muted grays and blues in a warm orange glow. The warmth envelopes me and the young paper birch, striped maple, and spruce. The breeze stirs their branches, cold but soft against my skin. A raven cries out some distance away. The crisp March air carries him briskly overhead, his silhouette lifting high above the pines and out of sight. To my left there’s a rustling of leaves. A chipmunk darts from his perch with a burst of chirps. Five hours I have been nestled in this grove of trees, drawing a single maple bud. My pulse is slow. My presence assumes that of the stump I sit on – still – witness to the ebb and flow of life passing through the landscape. With a flicker and flash, a group of chickadees land in the branches above me, here to investigate me and my drawing. A particularly curious little guy comes within feet of my head – peering right over my shoulder as if checking in on my progress. And then just as they arrive, they are gone, leaving me to savor the tender moment – at peace and in reverence of my surroundings.

I’ve had many animal encounters while drawing. My mind and body become very still when I draw. It’s meditative – my pen is an extension of my physiology. I feel myself in the “flow” – my consciousness enters the river of energy which ripples across the landscape. The river which holds the birds, the trees, and the sun. 

After a full week of solo camping and observational drawing, I can become so connected to a place, it’s hard to collect firewood for every tree, branch, and twig holds some significance. Whether the home of a pileated or safe haven for wintering insects, my heart feels their heartbeats as a result of hours simply observing and drawing. Matching my heartbeat with that of the land is truly what it is all about, and I use art as a tool to get me there. You can too.

Will Close, Mount Watatic painted study, North Central Massachusetts, 2021.

To start, a bit of context which I have acquired through personal research and time studying at art school. Approaches to illustrative nature observation are not new, in fact, some of the oldest forms of artwork are rooted in naturalistic observation. At its core, nature illustration is the human means of grasping the sublime intricacies of our universe. From the dimly lit cave paintings of Lascaux to the brightly illustrated field guides of Roger Tory Peterson, all are linked by this innately human, exquisitely subtle means of distilling the complexity of our world into a simple two dimensional orchestration of lines and forms, which to the eye reads as the whole. 

Lascaux Cave, Montignac, France, about 15,000 BCE.

There most certainly is a thread which ties humans’ rise of consciousness with the observation of nature and an urge to illustrate it. From the western canon of Europe we can track a story woven over hundreds of years. From German Renaissance painter Albrecht Dürer’s ‘Rhinoceros’ to the majestic American landscape paintings of the mid-19th century Hudson River School, we can get a snapshot of this story.

Frederic Edwin Church, of the Hudson River School, Magdalena River, New Granada, Ecuador, 1853.

Much of such artwork and illustrations were produced in times of great discovery both in terms of the field of art and science, but also in the discovery of new lands and species. It is important to revisit the works of past naturalists and landscape painters as they were indeed masters of their craft. But when it comes to the particular intentions and perceptions of these early European masters of nature study, we find a complicated relationship with nature. Take for example Albrecht Dürer’s rhino illustration. While Dürer was transforming the artistic and cultural landscape of the time with his interest in animals as subject matter, which up until that point was considered not worthy of fine art, his rhino was never drawn from real life. He in fact rendered the Indian Rhino from notes and a sketch received by an unknown artist. Despite several inaccuracies, the illustration was widely spread throughout Europe up until the 18th century. The twisting and turning of fact and fiction continued throughout the western canon of art. On one hand, we have extreme care and dedication to crafting an image and on the other, there was a dash of exoticism and at times, outright make-believe.

Albrecht Dürer, preparatory study for his rhinoceros print, Germany, 1515.

The 19th century Hudson River School, produced some of the greatest American landscape painters and paintings the world had yet to see, and furthered the acceptance of landscape as a subject worthy of fine art.

I still remember the first time I saw Hudson River School’s Albert Bierstadt’s Among the Sierra Nevada Mountains at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. I was only eight years old at the time, but I was struck by the overwhelming magnitude of detail and wonder imbued all within the confines of a two dimensional surface. It was not till later in life that I learned the image was in fact not a true representation of any one place, but a collage of multiple sketches and notes taken throughout Bierstadt’s expedition West. He chose the best tree, the best mountain, crystal clear water, a heavenly sky and added plenty of wild game. It was then no surprise to learn such an image was used as a sort of “advertisement” for European immigrants beckoning them to the Western United States. Many of these landscape paintings were wrapped up in Manifest Destiny and likely led to much of that land being permanently altered at the hands of European settlers. 

Albert Bierstadt, Among the Sierra Nevada Mountains, American West,1868.

What new perspectives can we take? Traditionally, Western perspective is defined by a fixed vanishing point. Think: standing still, looking down 5th Avenue in New York City, the buildings progressively reducing in size until your eye hits the horizon fading into the atmospheric haze- aka the vanishing point. Now take a traditional Eastern perspective – the scroll. Eastern perspective can be viewed as the unrolling of a scroll, where the viewer actually controls the viewpoint- unfurling more or less of the image or story. In this way a multitude of otherwise conflicting images and perspectives are created. Time arrives as an element of this artmaking with the viewer being able to move backwards and forwards. We now have two ways of recording and thus seeing our world – as noun (fixed) and as verb (in transition). 

Changzhou Scroll, Qing Dynasty, China, 1691 AD.

When it comes to the illustration of Nature, seeing through the lens of transition vs fixed is a radical shift. We no longer are beholden to what we see directly in front of us. We can tell many stories with just one image. Ironically, Bierstadt shared multiple perspectives in his collaged composition but his intention and philosophy were beholden to a fixed Western perspective – negating the power of any sort of Eastern perspective.

What does this mean for us, now, today? Well, there is more than one way of seeing and there is more than one way of recording what we see. We can take what is in front of us at face value and illustrate that which we observe to the best of our abilities, but we can also break out of this tendency. We can use words, numbers, diagrams, we can use fine art ideas. We can “abstract” what we see. What can we see, feel, smell, and even taste? How much can we collect? Often memories are tied to smell or sound. Can we somehow articulate these experiences into our illustrations? I use these as suggested questions to stimulate my observation. Not everything can be recorded in pen and ink, but we most certainly can take in as much about our surroundings as possible through our nervous system.

Will Close, Ecuadorian Amazon journal entry, 0°41’15.0″S 76°25’44.1″W, Ecuador, 2022.

So how to start? Just do it and when you get overwhelmed and perfectionism engulfs your brain to the point of paralysis, start again.

How to start again? Exercise. Do small chunks over an extended period of time.

Drawing is as daunting a task as lifting weights or keeping a running routine. Drawing, like exercise, is physical, it involves muscles, building new neural networks and your brain getting flooded with dopamine. Seeing in this way we can treat field observation much as you would any new habit. Start small- little sketches at a time without placing any undue importance on creating the perfect image. Set the timer. Set yourself up for quick drawing sessions no longer than 30 minutes (who knows you may go longer). Find a willing partner in arts to continually push one another. 

Draw really “badly” – there is no such thing – if you are drawing, that is a win, but draw messy. Loosen up- and don’t let the perfect picture stop you! Nature illustration and nature study is meant to be a cumulative process. The more you draw the more you will train your muscles both in hand, eyes, and brain.

Will Close, Ecuadorian Amazon journal entry, Rio Tiputini, Ecuador, 2022.

I can assure you, when I surrendered myself to the process and drew really messy, really fast sketches for a week straight, my draftsmanship improved exponentially. When we move slowly fixating on every detail we often lose the whole image (the essence). We can get stuck in the details and end up with a disproportionate image lacking accuracy. While there is a time and place and value for moving slowly and capturing every detail, do not let your brain trick you into thinking this is the most efficient method. Pushing ourselves into a place of non-judgmental exploration vs perfectionism and absolutism will undoubtedly lead to a better trained hand and mind. We want to arrive at a place of growth mindset. A space where lines and scribbles cutting through your drawing are the marks of feverish investigation not punctuations of a frustrated artist.

Will Close, Ecuadorian Amazon journal entries composite, Amazon Basin, Ecuador, 2022.

In time, with the right practice, one can accumulate a rich understanding of any place they wish to study as well as a finely tuned hand for capturing every subtly.

Happy trails and may a few of those trails be drawn in pen and ink.

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