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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Eye and HandDistant Prospect

Practical Art for Paddlers — 
A Perspective on Landscape

By Tamia Nelson

August 3, 2010

We've come a long way since the first article in this series appeared, back in early March. We've assembled our tool kit, practiced the art of the quick sketch, learned to use light and shadow to good effect, and worked on capturing the fluid essence of water in all its moods. Now we're ready to step back and take in the big picture. In other words, we're ready to turn our attention to landscapes.

This can be daunting. How can you possibly reproduce everything you see in the world around you? Flowers and trees, rock and river, lake and shore, clouds and hills… It seems like mission impossible, doesn't it? But it's not — and you don't have to be a da Vinci to do it. It's surprisingly easy to construct a landscape on a sheet of paper. You just need to identify…

The Building BlocksFramed!

But before you can break a landscape down into its fundamental forms, you have to decide on a plan of attack. What are you hoping to capture in your sketch? Focus on these things as you compose the drawing. Form a picture in your mind's eye of the image as it will appear on paper. If you have trouble framing a scene in your head, use your hands, instead. Hold them out at arm's length, then shift your improvised frame from place to place until you've isolated the scene that you envisioned in your mind.

Once you've set the boundaries on your composition, you're ready to attack the primary masses. Sketch the outlines of these shapes, then fill in the details. You can keep things simple or embellish endlessly, as you prefer. Simple is often best, though, especially when time presses. Consider this quick sketch of a misty morning on a quiet lake nestled among low, wooded hills:

Misty Morn

Here I've reduced landscape to its bare essentials: form and shadow, with a few wavy lines to suggest the tendrils of mist rising from the water. The sketch took only a few minutes to execute, but it wasn't as easy as it looks. Learning what to leave out is as important as knowing what to include, and that knack comes only with practice. Landscape drawing leans heavily on the art of suggestion. Less really is more here. Much is omitted, leaving only line and shadow to evoke what can't be shown.

Often, however, you'll want to do more than this. So let's move on to another scene. Here's a photo which I scanned from an old print. It's faded over the years, losing much of its original color and clarity, but the setting is still impressive. (Click on the photo to open a larger image in a new window.) You're standing on a cobble beach, looking out over a glacial lake in the Adirondack High Peaks, not long after ice‑out. The leaves on the birches and aspens are only just beginning to emerge, while a warm breeze blows up the mountain valley, raising riffles on the water:

Lake View

The long sweep down the lake provides a good illustration of linear perspective: the more distant an object, the smaller it appears to be. Look at the evergreens on the left‑hand shore, for example. As they march off toward the horizon, they seem to shrink in size, until they can hardly be seen at all. I've annotated the photo to show this:

Annotated Lake View

Perspective is one of the artist's most useful tools. But while a systematic study of the subject is a mainstay of formal instruction, the sketchbook scribbler can get by with a more intuitive approach. It helps if you divide every landscape into four planes: foreground, middle ground, background, and sky. I've labeled the photo above accordingly. Of course, with the exception of the sky, these divisions are necessarily somewhat arbitrary, but they're no less handy for all that. Speaking of formal instruction… If you suffered through art class in school, you're probably wondering when I'm going to get around to talking about the "vanishing point." After all, the steep sides of the valley do appear to converge on a single point. But there's more to vanishing points than meets the eye, and I'm going to defer that discussion to a later date. For the present, it's enough to understand that objects look smaller the further away they are.

OK. Let's sketch the scene in the photo. By now, the drill should be familiar. Begin by outlining the main elements (I used a 0.7mm mechanical pencil), paying close attention to shape and proportion. Include the hills, the shoreline, the offshore rocks, a representative selection of conifers, and a few of the branches from the shrub in the foreground.


Next, begin to fill in the empty spaces on your page, using a soft lead pencil. I sketched in some of the cobbles on the beach, softened the skyline in the middle ground, and — using short, light strokes — suggested the bare trees clinging to the slopes. Then I began to work on the more distant peaks, sharpening their silhouettes. Why "sharpening"? Two reasons. The cliff faces are naked rock, and naked rock is hard‑edged. Moreover, even the tree‑clad slopes in the background are so far distant that all detail is lost to sight. Now it's time to revisit the foreground, adding ripples, outlining the tangle of branches poking out of the water, and giving a bit of form and definition to the nearshore rocks.

Filling in the Banks

We're almost done. Only the clouds and the emerging leaves on the nearest branches remain to be added:


Finished! It's a much more detailed sketch than my first example, but it's still a study in omission. We've had to suggest what we couldn't record. There's nothing wrong with that, though. In fact, it's inevitable.


With these preliminary exercises behind us, we're ready to try a more complex scene. Do you think you can handle it without getting…

Bogged Down?

Sure you can! It's the logical next step. After all, the paddlers' world is diverse and richly textured, with an endless variety of landscapes. Extensive wetlands with hundreds of acres of rushes and cattails. Bouldery streams running between densely wooded hills. Alpine peaks framing meandering lowland rivers. White‑sand beaches stretching toward the far horizon. And then there's the ever‑changing light. One moment, there's a drizzly overcast, and everything is flat and gray. The next, brilliant sunshine reigns supreme, with deep black shadows and blinding highlights. So we'll try our hand at both, beginning with a gray day:

Mountain and Bog

Click on the picture to open a new window with a larger photo if you're planning to sketch along with me. (And I hope you are.) It's early spring in the northern Adirondacks, and a boggy stream meanders across the foreground, with St. Regis Mountain in the distance. A storm is brewing, but the sun is still struggling to peek through lowering clouds. The stream flows through a landscape dominated by cattails, rushes, and low tussocks, with a large boulder offering the only real relief in the middle ground. Further back, alders, cranberries, and tamaracks have taken root in the peaty soil. The tamaracks are just coming into leaf, and they're joined by red spruce and balsam on the lower slopes, only to give way before a mixed deciduous wood higher up in the hills. In the far distance, the mountain stands proud, a brooding sentinel, its mottled flanks dotted with isolated conifers. Squint hard and you can just make out the fire tower at the summit.

We begin as before, picking out the salient details and then sketching in the outlines of the principal elements: stream, rock, hills, and mountain peak.

Second Outline

Now it's time to fill in the blanks, always remembering to suggest whatever cannot be shown. I began by adding some details of the foreground vegetation, then I blocked in the empty form of the boulder. From there, I went on to highlight the more prominent snags in the middle ground, before sketching in the dark stand of balsam and spruce to the left, the spiky fringe of tamaracks, and the climbing carpet of deciduous woods. Light horizontal lines served to delineate the slow‑moving stream. Then it was time to darken the flanks of the broad mountain and attend to the scudding clouds. The last touch? I exercised artistic license and made the fire tower more prominent.

Final Touches

I did not try to capture each and every hummock, tree, or cloud, and I used undulating lines to evoke the soft, boggy ground. Yet the picture is essentially complete. Nothing of importance has been omitted.


So much for the days of gathering storm, with their flat, gray light and solemn hills. Broad, sunlit uplands await. Let's go!

The Falls in Fall

Here, too, you can click on the photo to open an enlarged view in a new window. You'll see a river plunging down through clefts in a high ledge before continuing between rocky walls topped by well‑wooded slopes. Autumn has just begun to paint the leaves with bright colors. A strong midday sun beats down, submerging details of water and woodland in dark pools of shadow. It's a complex landscape, but don't let it overwhelm you. We're making a sketch, not executing a studio work. Begin by identifying the extremes of dark and light, then use your arsenal of line densities and thicknesses, along with the shading techniques you've practiced, to pick out the principal building blocks of the scene and capture the range of intermediate tones. Here's my attempt:

Fall Lines

I used broad, dark strokes with a soft lead to shade the darkest shadows, while the leaves of the nearby birches were evoked with swirls and curlicues. Broad lines also outline the rocks and the river's banks, while softer lines suggest the sunlit trees in the distance. I'm happy with the result, but if I were going to do it again, I'd have handled the foreground birches differently, using a lighter touch and far fewer lines. That said, the sketch does its job. The scene is forever graven in the emulsion of my memory.


What's next? Easy. Just…

Practice, Practice, Practice

Make drawings from your trip photos, or search online galleries and sketch whatever landscapes catch your eye (but remember that the photographer retains all derivative rights). Or use my photos as models. Choose from among those in this article, or give one of these a try: a little river flowing quietly among low hills, a trio of wind‑ravaged sentries, or a field of whispering rushes.

Experiment, too, with different techniques. And study the work of other artists. Drawings such as William Trost Richards' "Lake Squam from Red Hill I" and "Eagle's Nest, Franconia Notch" show how a pencil sketch can capture a landscape in extraordinary detail. But don't let such masterworks daunt you. Let them inspire you, instead. Field sketches serve their purpose if they sharpen your eye and jog your memory. The art can come later, or never. Painstaking studio work belongs in…you guessed it…a studio.

Then again, a paddler's studio is the woods and waters. So you could say we have the best of both worlds. 'Nuff said?

The whole of a landscape is more than the sum of its parts, but those parts are still the building blocks. Learn to break a landscape down into its primary masses, then define foreground, middle ground, background, and sky. Once you've done this, you're ready to capture the whole sweep of whatever vista draws your eye. You don't need to reproduce every detail. Just use lines and shading to hint at what can't be shown. And be patient. The knack won't come at once. But it will come. Practice at home first, then take your newfound skills on the trail. Your perspective on the landscape will never be the same again.

So far, so good. We've mastered the art of drawing landscapes. What's next? It's time to populate our scenes — to sketch the birds and animals who call the woods and waters home. After all, what's a lake without a loon? But be forewarned. Rocks and trees hold still. Squirrels and jays don't. So quickness counts here. Think of this as the whitewater of art. And just as in paddling whitewater, practice makes perfect. So keep sketching. And if you have any drawings you'd like to share, photograph them and send the photos along to me. I'd love to see what you've been doing.

Copyright © 2010 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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