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Want to take better travel photos? Think like a landscape painter.

National Geographic logo National Geographic 6/30/2021 Katy Kelleher
a group of people on a rocky beach: - © Photograph by Greta Rybus -

The land doesn’t demand your attention the way billboards do, or traffic lights, or people with their bright clothes and private thoughts. Landscapes aren’t static, but they’re not as fast-moving as the rest of our world. Even urban landscapes, with their ever-present teardowns and build-ups, backdrop most of the art we consume, from films to photographs. But if you stop and focus, as landscape painters do, there’s depth in the world around us and stories unfolding in the foliage, the soil, even in the garbage.

a large waterfall over a rocky cliff: - © None -

Landscape painters see the world differently than most travelers do. Their eyes have been trained to seek the horizon, read the light, and understand subtle variations in weather. 

It’s part of the job, explains painter Timothy Wilson. For the past two years, he’s been working on a series of images inspired by the landscapes of Maine Coast Heritage Trust. He’s visited over a dozen of the trust’s nature preserves on the Maine coast, painting on cliffs, islands, in marshes and bogs—even from the seat of his kayak. 

He experiences the parks the way any traveler might, eyes open to the wonder of the rugged landscape. But instead of snapping a photo for Instagram, Wilson stops and sets up an easel. “It stops me from looking at my phone,” he says. “Instead of checking again and again, I look at the landscape. I become enmeshed. It feels wonderful.”

a dirty old room: - © None -

You don’t have to be an artist to appreciate the natural world. Anyone can stop and marvel at a sunset. But thinking like a landscape artist can help travelers become better at seeing what’s around them. Next time you hit the road, make sure you have a sketchbook—or even just a cellphone—on hand to capture and compose. Any trip can be an artists’ retreat if you let it.

Find your footing

To absorb a landscape, be it a desert or a marsh, the first step is to find a vantage spot. “When I’m working, I’m carrying my own heft and the heft of my gear,” Wilson points out. “While I like the fluidity of the earth, I don’t enjoy walking through smarmy sandy areas to get to where I’m painting. I like having solid ground under my feet.” 

Instead of worrying about sinking into the mud, or slipping on seaweed, Wilson sets his easel on a well-trodden hill, a dry flat rock, or a place where the seaweed has matted down thickly. “In order to be a good observer of nature, you have to have a good place to stand.”

(See why Maine has inspired artists for two centuries.)

This is equally true for casual photographers. It takes time to compose a good image, even just snapping one for Instagram. It’s worth finding a place off the main trail to stop and ponder the world beyond.

Wilson often paints the sea, which gives his works a strong horizon line. While her process is different, New York City-based landscape painter April Gornik also focuses on creating strong, moody images that feel timeless (and occasionally a little haunting). She tends to look first at the world around her, then paints a landscape back in her studio. “When you travel,” she says, “you deliberately dislocate yourself. So you have to relocate yourself. It’s a healthy thing for people.”


Gallery: 13 unusual tiny homes that will make you look twice (Love Exploring)

While Wilson finds his footing in a very literal manner, Gornik encourages travelers to reach a place of ease, a sense of comfort within discomfort. “The landscape is the other, the ultimate other,” she says. “Art is about taking the leap, becoming familiar, finding yourself.”

Embrace the weather 

Most travelers hope for bright, sunny days, but there’s an upside to stormy weather. Overcast skies create a different quality of light, one that both landscape artists and portrait photographers adore. Landscapes that veered a little moody and dark show up in works by the Florida Highwaymen, a group of Black painters active in the mid-20th century. 

They practiced “fast painting” and sold their works from the trunks of their cars along major highways, often capturing stormy skies, palms beset by wind, waves crashing on the shore, and slightly ominous backcountry rivers. The Highwaymen weren’t necessarily storm chasers, but their works depicted Florida as an atmospheric, turbulent environment, full of heat and water and life.

It’s highly effective, points out Wilson, to glance upward and observe the clouds. “Painting is a science,” he says. “The air changes what you see. Things that are closer look warmer because of how the light particles bounce. When storms come, it throws everything into flux.”

(Learn how landscape painting helped to save Yellowstone.)

Kim Do, a landscape painter who lives in the Hudson Valley of New York (but has worked around the globe), also says he “loves to paint the weather.” He adds, “We humans are living at the bottom of an ocean of air. We’re the lobsters of our planet. We look up, and we see the weather.” Do says that painting the sky makes him feel connected to the landscape artists who came before him, like famed British painter John Constable, known for his moody way with clouds.

Seek color, find beauty 

Noa Charuvi splits her time between Jerusalem and New York City, two urban environments rich in history and poor in green space. Yet her landscape paintings manage to capture both the energy of her hometowns and the vast beauty of their buildings. Her daily walks around Brooklyn frequently take her past construction sites, where she will stop and snap a picture. “I’m often drawn to a scene because I find a surprising potential for beauty,” she says. “In the construction sites, I’m drawn to certain colors.”

Charuvi emphasizes that even a half-erected skyscraper or demolition zone can provide a rainbow of inspiration: the bright yellow of caution tape, orange buckets for mixing cement, red bricks, and unfinished golden-hued wood. “The packaging materials for windows and insulation, often that’s pastel, pink or blue,” she says. “It all starts with color.”

Finding palettes means Charuvi can pull joy from any scene, no matter how banal. There’s also something she likes about seeing history in the making. Cities are constantly changing. Buildings are being torn down, new ones are being built up. Landscape painting, she says, allows her to “make sense of the endlessness” that surrounds us. “It connects us,” she says. 

It’s something we all can keep in mind when we’re exploring the world. There’s beauty in the everyday, in the decay, in the busy streets and in the signs of human life. You don’t have to create a perfect image of the Eiffel Tower every time you travel to Paris—sometimes, it’s more interesting to capture the commuters on the Métro or the pigeons on the mansard roofs.

Linger longer

Perhaps the biggest lesson travelers can learn from painters is this: absorbing and capturing your surroundings takes time. In order to create art or deeply appreciate a place, you have to slow down to observe, dwell, and imagine. Even a good photo doesn’t happen just because you’re looking at beautiful scenery. You have to take a moment to figure out, as Wilson puts it, “the feng shui of a landscape.”

“Lingering and contemplating is something we have to train ourselves to do,” explains Do. “I was painting in Barbados once, and a tourist bus would come by every hour or so. People would come and pour out of the bus, take one picture, and then move on.”

He spent an entire day in that one spot, watching people come and go. Maybe some of them got a nice snapshot, but their trip wasn’t arranged for the immersive work artists crave. Each of these painters emphasizes the significance of letting the world in. You have to absorb it, to hold it, and be held.

“There’s a certain awareness of your surroundings you get from making paintings,” Do says. “We’re immersed in our environments. It cradles us. It’s around us. When you feel that, it’s almost like we’re in the womb of our planet.” His paintings are highly detailed and evocative, and when you’re looking at one of Do’s Oculus landscapes, you feel immersed. That, he says, is the entire point. It’s why we travel, it’s why we make art. It’s that sense of deep, intense connection.

It can happen suddenly, but it doesn’t happen quickly.

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