This past week the Vermont landscape painter Wolf Kahn died at the age of 92. The New York Times called him the the Winslow Homer of Vermont.
Mr. Kahn’s paintings didn’t often include figures. In his interview with The Richmond Times-Dispatch, he talked about his affinity for painting trees rather than people.
“Trees have a terrific attribute in a landscape,” he explained. “You can add a branch or another tree, and nobody is the wiser. If you paint a figure and add a third leg, everybody wonders what the artist is doing.”
In an interview with the gallerist Jerald Melberg in 2011, he described working on a painting in Italy in 1963, trying to create a modern-day version of van Gogh walking through an Italian landscape.
“I kept moving the figure,” Mr. Kahn said. “First it was here. Then it was there. And then finally I put it over here. Then finally I painted it out altogether.”
“As soon as I painted the figure out, I was happy,” he added. “Because I felt free.”
I on the other hand prefer drawing and painting people and buildings.
Landscapes don’t engage me.
One summer I spent a week at Oxbow, a residency I earned by supervising an art education major doing his student teaching in my art room.
It was a landscape painting course.
Every day we would paint for eight hours. The time flew by.
In the evening guest artists would come to show slides of their work and talk about them.
It was a memorable week. A painting a day for five days.
We worked oils, wet on wet. Oil paints are not an easy medium to master.
The truth is, I was not very good at it. There was too much green. Too many kinds of green. I couldn’t get my trees to seem like they were rooted in the ground. They appeared to be floating almost surrealistically.
On the second day I added the corner of a cabin to the painting. I was desperate to include a straight line.
And to include something that wasn’t green.
So the third day I added the entire cabin.
Day five’s painting consisted of nearly the entire lodge’s screened porch. I was totally in to trying to capture the light and ghostly images of the old porch furniture coming through the screen. The only part of a landscape remaining was a pine branch that I added to the upper right corner.
I felt free!
On the final afternoon each of us chose one painting for our final critique.
I chose the screen porch.
When it came to my porch painting the instructors and the students praised it.
I was thrilled.
But then came the final words.
“That branch is really awful. You should get rid of it.”
Landscapes and critiques can be brutal.