AN INCH OF POWDERY SNOW fell Friday night, making Saturday morning’s walk one of the most beautiful of the winter. The slate sky with lilac on the horizon resolved into a pure icy blue backdrop to a thick grove of tree trunks and thinning branches rising from the distant edge of the stark, white field, every limb of every tree accented with snow. This cold, beautiful landscape evoked strains of some of my favorite sad, melancholy, uplifting music, Fratres by Arvo Pärt, and Symphony of Sorrowful Songs (Symphony No. 3), by Henryk Górecki.
I started out before 7:30, and had not gotten far before I regretted not having brought along my camera. I wanted to capture the rare beauty of this moment — the sky, after all, would lighten up in a few precious minutes, and the snow would be gone by noon.
I have always considered the camera good for my painting, focusing my powers of observation, though my landscape photographs often disappoint (my subjects swallowed up in the sheer scale of these abundant, agricultural spaces, failing to capture their full grace and majesty).
Taking my camera contrasts with my general approach to walking, which is simply being in the moment. This uncritical approach gradually produces in me a deep, subtle imprint of my landscape, gained through repetition rather than purposeful observation, like a meditation or daily prayer. The camera focuses my attention on things like composition and vantage point as I consciously gather images and ideas that can translate to painting.
Unlike painting, though, the camera chooses colors for me. My best photographs capture something essential about the physical world around me, but not my inner landscape.
SATURDAY MORNING, THE SNOW-STUDDED TREES against the icy blue backdrop were riveting, even without the imperative of the viewfinder. It was then I realized I had experienced a subtle shift, and was now looking at my surroundings as a painter, not a photographer. I found myself taking mental notes of the dark greens of the distant grove of hemlocks that briefly interrupt the long line of deciduous trees running parallel to the Connecticut River, thinking about volume, perspective, and depth, and how to approximate the rare hue of the skyline.
Observing my landscape as a photographer can only help me so far as a painter. One does not automatically translate to the other; digital frame and canvas have different, sometimes conflicting aims.
I still prefer to simply be in my landscape rather than observe it. But when I do decide to study my surroundings, in the future it will be through the eyes of a painter, and it will not rely on a camera.