As a digital artist it's easy to feel tied to your computer. Having recently driven across the entire US, I've remembered how amazing the outdoors can be - and why artists ought to venture out of their computer caves now and again. It's a bit of an exaggeration to say I'd forgotten that nature is beautiful, but it's astonishing just how big this landscape truly is. Driving from east to west, Iowa was my first 'wow' moment; the rest of the trip continued to up the ante.
It's really, really big.
So what does this have to do with art? Scale. My usual experience is photography - all of the reference material I use comes from the internet or my digital camera, and so my sense of the natural world is often restricted to pixels. Though this is incredibly convenient, it doesn't tell the entire story. Being in Wyoming, for instance, one can't help but marvel at how big the landscape seems. Instead of looking at a glowing rectangle on my desktop, I was a spec in the middle of the huge expanse of buttes and rolling hills. On an interstate highway carved out of pristine countryside, the lack of scale objects made my surroundings alien and impossibly large. In short, I was blown away. As a concept artist one of my roles is to impart that sense of awe and amazement through scale in an illustration. Painting what you know is much easier than painting unfamiliar subjects, so experiencing Wyoming will certainly help my future paintings. I'd argue that experiencing Wyoming was significantly more impressive than looking at photos of the same area, and will have more impact on my future artwork.
One great outcome of experiencing the natural world is seeing strange details. Details that you can file away in your brain for future paintings. Farm fields, I learned on my trip, look a bit different than I remembered. Picture an expansive field of brown soil broken up by rows of short green plants. Seen from eye level, I had assumed that these rows would appear as stripes stretching off into the distance - brown, green, brown, green. In actuality, I was only able to see three or four rows of dirt directly in front of me, but everything in my peripheral vision quickly turned into a mass of solid green. If I were going to paint this scene from my imagination, before the trip I certainly would have misrepresented the rows of crops. Now that I've been there, I won't ever forget the particular way that the rows merge into a large mass. Does this one detail make a huge difference? Probably not. But there's clearly something to be said for experiencing a scene instead of simply looking at photos.
There's an activity called plein air in which you take your paints and canvas outdoors, and paint what you see. Unlike working from photos, you're experiencing color and light in it's fullest form - and doing your best to quickly record it on a canvas. Since digital is my primary medium, I've never done this - but some of my favorite artists frequently do. Photographs have a way of flattening color and depth, while direct observation leaves a much more vivid, weighty, impression. Even though this practice, plen air painting, is largely done with traditional media - some digital artists have taken up the practice. The Digital Plein Air Society is a group of Southern Californian artists who regularly cart their laptops, chairs, umbrellas (and a variety of other gear) into the wilderness for outdoor painting. Using wooden box to cut down on glare, these artists are creating beautiful landscape paintings directly from the source.
What Can You Do?
If digital plein air is a bit elaborate for your taste, consider taking a sketchbook to the nearest nature you can find. Sit in the middle of a park or field and soak in the experience. Even if you're only sketching with a pencil, make sure to take notes on what you're seeing. The old masters, after all, would often do their paintings in a studio hidden away from their actual subject. Beforehand they would venture out into nature to do studies and take notes - carefully observing the effects of natural light and color. So even if you're a digital artist, you're always able to learn from the outdoors - even if you do your painting indoors. I'd love to hear how / if you guys paint and draw of the house - so let's talk about it in the comments!