Art and Science

Illustration is still the best method by which realistic reconstructions of past ages may be attempted. Paintings of past landscapes and wildlife can be thought of as interpretations of raw data, enhanced by specific observations and general laws of ecological and cultural processes. They are possibilities, subject to change with new information.

Learning from the long line of artists who sought to study the land and encode its colors, shapes, and moods in paint, I chose the classical techniques of graphite, charcoal, and ink studies, pastel and the occasional watercolor, and most especially oil sketching and painting to bring alive the richness of early California. The technique of oil sketching on paper, board, and canvas was perfected by 18th, 19th, and early 20th century artists on their explorations of wild lands and country lanes. French painters traveled out of the city early on: Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes left the first text on the serious study of open-air painting in 1820. He wrote that the essentials of landscape painting included “invention,” the ability to imagine a subject; “composition,” the grace, harmony, and “timing-rhythm” of a painting that he said depends on learning; and “execution,” how to employ the colors, which depends on practice (Valenciennes 1820). Valenciennes was a member of two scientific societies, and he stressed the importance of studying Nature to his students, of understanding geology, the weather , how rivers and trees move and grow. To him the oil study was a kind of scientific specimen collected, a record of a phenomenon (Conisbee 1996).

In the early 1800s the Barbizon School formed and droves of painters took to the wild woods outside Paris to study the shapes of trees, the dappled play of sunlight through branches, and the secrets of pigment mixes to obtain the truest greens. The English artist John Constable as early as 1802 endeavored to capture the mysterious effects of light and shadow with his palette. Meanwhile Germany, too, was producing very fine landscapists who in their own direction developed ways to represent color and texture of tree and rock with small strokes of the brush.

Out of all these methods came American painters who took their paint boxes into what they described as the “wilderness” of North America: Frederic Church, Albert Bierstadt, Worthington Whittredge, Thomas Moran, and many others now known as the Hudson River School. Sometimes accompanying survey parties or scientific expeditions, at other times mounting their own trips to paint out-of-doors during the summer months, these artists recorded scenes that are highly developed in beauty and accuracy of observation for elements of the natural world.

I modeled my researches on their examples: I carried a paint box and traveled through California as an artist-naturalist. Like them, I endeavored to spend hours sketching in the wild. These field studies were by far the most crucial part of this project. I have made specific expeditions to locate, observe, and sketch declining species such as the Sea otter and Least Bell’s vireo. If a species is best studied outside of California, such as the Grizzly and certain White-tailed deer races, I made an effort to travel to those last areas where these animals still roam wild. I have also spent much time studying relict habitats and populations of particular plants, such as native grasses and vernal pool endemics.

Back in the studio, I could then collected my sketches, color studies, and photographs and reconstructed larger, more refined scenes of old California. For the scientific documentation of these works I used the methods of historical ecology which we will explore in coming chapters.

One of my plein air oil painting boxes on a tripod, out in the Great Basin. Color studies of landscapes and light are crucial for understanding colors back in the studio when painting.

Studies of sky colors at sunset. Graphite and colored pencil on paper.

Studies of cloud types, graphite on paper.