This has been a week of retrenchment, the backroom work that has to happen so that one can go back to the rough-and-tumble brush duel. Among other things, I met with a gallery owner. We talked about the differences between my New York and Maine paintings. Earlier this week I said it was the light, but it’s also the land.
I have been thinking about the spodosols that underlie the boggy boreal forest here. These are found in Maine, eastern Canada, Scotland, and Scandinavia, and they’re partly why these North Atlantic regions tend to have a similar feel. They provide romance and color for artists and an uphill battle for farmers.
Spodosols are also found in the Adirondacks, which may explain why Winslow Homer had such an affinity for both places. I watched a friend garden in the lower Adirondacks for a few years. While he was able to amend the shallow soil, the short growing season ultimately did him in.
My working life has been mostly spent in upstate, central and western New York. There, the soil is very deep and well drained, often running to clay. It is also essentially basic, meaning there are no broadleaf evergreens in the forest understory. If untended, it quickly reverts to forest, which tends strongly to maples, ashes, tulip trees and other hardwoods.
It can be extremely stony from glaciation, but it is never rocky in the way of Maine. The exception is where rivers cut gorges through its bedrock limestone and shale. Western New York is oddly flat compared to the rest of the Northeast. The hills are low, worn, humpy things, remnants of glacial formations that are much flashier in other parts of the continent. That is why people think of it as Midwestern, rather than Mid-Atlantic.
Medina sandstone, which underlies the Lake Plains, is reddish in color. That gives its dirt a cool red undertone. The color is echoed in the Victorian Gothic architecture of its cities and towns. A great percentage of the land is under production, since this is very fine farming soil, both for truck farming and for grapes.
A landscape painter is in some ways a journalist. We notice and communicate facts about our world. We frequently tell people that painting is in the seeing, not the paint application. Nowhere does that play out more than in plein air work. The more observant we are, the more we tell the story of the place.