Lisa Milroy


A few years ago I started to spend my summers in the French countryside. My first summer there, I set out to organise my studio in the building my husband and I had just finished constructing. But no matter how gorgeous this new studio was, I couldn’t bear to be indoors – the irresistible pull of the surrounding fields and river at the height of summer was too powerful. So in celebration of the countryside and to satisfy my desire to paint, I set up an easel in the middle of a field with the aim of painting what I saw – the first time in years that I had painted from observation. Addressing my canvas on the easel, it seemed as if the large white walls of my studio had shrunk and morphed into this small white rectangle. It looked so abstract, this flat geometric shape of pure white, floating in myriad greens and blues, like a white equivalent of a black hole. Maybe where someone had neglected to complete the colouring; or had peeled a rectangular tab from the surface of a picture to reveal the white ground. Or had painted a white rectangle on top of what lay before me.

I chose the most pleasing view and started to work. I painted a fine line in turp-y burnt umber across the canvas, just below the centre – I always begin a landscape painting with the horizon. The figurative landscape format lodged within my mind and body surfaced immediately and for the next few minutes I found myself fighting to keep hold on what I really saw before me, the habitual way of formulating a picture continually intervening. To still the confusion in my mind, I flicked my eyes from the thoroughly defined edges of the canvas to the seemingly boundless view before me. I swiveled my eyes from corner to corner to span the field, far left to right, and in so doing grew aware of the view’s horizontality. I moved my eyes up and down to key its verticality. I turned about in a circle and lost the sense of a front and back – the view became a circular panorama without beginning or end. I looked down and saw my feet among other objects: tufts of grass, weeds, rocks, clods of earth, wildflowers. Tilting my head up, I lost sight of the horizon, the sky an untethered expanse of blue, and in each case, looking up, looking down, the view disappeared. Then I faced the canvas and its single painted horizon line, the smears of paint, the immutable rectangular edges. The slightly curved lines of those four straight sides became weirdly strange, exciting and troubling.

I heard the church bells ring in the village on the hill. A bee whizzed by my ear. I caught the sound of farm animals in the distance, and birdsong, and wind rustling the trees. The sun was wonderfully hot. All this was happening at the same time as I cast my gaze over the field, looking at different views. The paintings I made that afternoon were all very boring.

Hiking: the view, the scene and the setting.

Sometimes an infuriating thing happens when I’m up in the mountains hiking: I can’t stop seeing the world around me as views, which then get composed in my head as pictures, when what I want is simply to look at the mountains and sky. It’s hard to get the natural elements to simply ‘be’ – in my mind’s eye, the land quickly becomes cultured, personalised, and shifts to the artistic mode of landscape. Only when I’m actually walking do I lose this sense of picturing: the surroundings absorb me – I don’t ‘see’ so much as ‘sense’ my environment. While moving on a mountain trail, all my senses are stimulated and I feel exhilarated by a heightened awareness of ’now’. This in turn makes me feel very alive.  But the moment I stand still, suddenly I’m no longer held within the environment , I’m outside it, picturing it. My status changes from participant to observer as my eyes take the lead.

This is how the view happens: as I stop on the trail to look around, a strange kind of distance opens up in front of me as the physical world recedes. All elements in the near and far distance slide, in my mind’s eye, into a composition underpinned by the horizon, and the view is born. Once I see the land as a view, I feel a stillness settle within me. Channeled by my gaze, this stillness seems to flow into the view and transforms it into a picture – and one that often seems familiar, though it may be the first time that I hike that particular trail. No matter which actual mountain view-cum-picture, it is already a classic – or a cliche. My perception has been shaped by innumerable images of mountain views and pictures, by my memories of these, and by my own landscape paintings; and as my mind floods with the associations of all these images, in an instant they somehow meld with the view in front of me. Because I can’t reach out and confirm it by touch, the actuality of the view is entirely visual and, mingling with the stuff of other mountain images in my mind’s eye, it starts to look fake, made up. Absorbing this artificiality, the picture really takes weight – it’s the final stage in the progression of land becoming pictorial. The more dramatic the scenery, the more swiftly this happens. Ordinary or understated beauty allows for the picturing mode and a sensing of the real land to hover together on a knife edge – and I love this ambiguity. It feels more unknown. The readymade images of ordinary beauty are not so canonised.

When I’m hiking, what I’m after is an experience of the actual mountain, and of the here and now. I don’t want a mountain-picture, taking me away from ‘now’. And I don’t want a the familiarity of a mountain-picture to intervene when the mountain itself is new to me. But as soon as I stop on the trail, the view takes over. One way to stop the picture taking shape is by quickly moving on. However, no matter how familiar and how cliched the picture, once it gels, it never fails to move me. Its beauty can stir up a potent sense of longing, of loss, or a missing of something or someone, filling me with a kind of lovely sadness. But the moment I start hiking again, these feelings disappear along with the view and picture. What makes the picture feel fresh and never-before-encountered, despite its known-ness, is the kindling in me of these feelings in that particular speck of time – in my constantly changing, aging self, a part of me that has never been before meets the person that I always am and the encounter triggers a profound sense of being alive. Not ‘feeling alive’, as when I’m on the move, hiking, but the feeling of ‘being alive’, which is more contemplative. It makes the present moment seem extended. The ‘present moment’ has a different value from ‘now’. ‘Now’ seems to escape definitions of time altogether. ‘Now’ is not cultured. ‘Now’ does not include a sense of the horizon. ‘Now’ is to do with physical energy, hiking. And as soon as I start moving again, thoughts and feelings disappear. With relief, I just get on with the business of climbing.

For me, a view is predicated on an experience of space. It involves distance, the horizon and a structural play of composition. The view does not include me physically, but ropes me in mentally and emotionally, or shuts me out. A scene on the other hand starts spreading out from my feet and is therefore quite different from a view – it is immediate and material. Scenes include objects that you can touch with the hand and negotiate with the body, whereas the view is made by the eye and mind.

The sky on its own never feels like a scenic component the way that earth does.  A better word is ‘setting’. A scene can be controlled and handled – I can actively arrange a scene – whereas a setting has its own independent dynamic, a context effected by forces outside my own design that I can only watch and imagine. A setting often involves movement, like waves ruffling the ocean’s surface, or clouds across the sky. Scenes are characterised more by fixity, though they can also include elements that move (ie. wildflowers, sheep, cars). The difference between scenes and settings in landscape is paralleled in the theatre: objects arranged on a stage create the scene; but when the scene fills with actors acting, it takes on the quality of a setting. Settings involve the ephemeral. Scenes are more solid.

I usually engage with a view first through its scenic component. Scanning a landscape horizontally, my first look is to the left, which then moves through to the right, perhaps influenced by the approach to text.  Scanning vertically, I usually start from the ground and raise my gaze upwards, instinctively oriented by the weight of the earth rather than the intangibility of the sky – the pull of gravity helps me feel emotionally grounded no matter where my visual and mental flights take me.

Either way, a view emerges to dominate a scene or a setting. Settings and scenes are similar in their acceptance of the fragmentary. Views, even partial, always feel whole, an entirety. Views happen when a person stops moving. Views seen out a car window may be in motion and multiple, but are nonetheless experienced by the stationary person. ‘Still’ pictures and ‘cinematic’ pictures, each with their different time register, come into play depending on whether the view stems from a scene (fixed) or a setting (movement). The horizon is always there in a view. It’s like the base line in a musical score, like a steady beat but without percussive interruption, even when the horizon is unseen or muffled.

Despite their differences, views, scenes and settings are part of life and susceptible to  change. They can all get turned into pictures, which are outside life and rarely change; and then pictures can re-inform views, scenes and settings. Views can generate emotional energy, which, through an imaginative process, can get downloaded into a picture as atmosphere or mood. I think ‘feeling’ in a view-turned-into-picture is catalysed by the horizon – mysteriously there, but not there. A horizon by its nature suggests the unknown. That is why it is key in conceptualising space.

On the Edge

I’m back in the middle of a field in the French countryside. In distinguishing between views, scenes and settings through painting, I find myself once again considering the question of edges: where does the scene (my eyes travelling up, ground to sky) or the setting (travelling down, sky to ground) stop and the view begin? What is it in me that determines the borders of a view to the left and right, up and down, depth-wise? In my mind’s eye, does my focus charge the view with an ‘aura’? In terms of perimeter, if ‘edge’ relates to the canvas and ‘border’ to territory, is the more accurate word for a view ‘threshold’? What about the affect of blurring in a view, and crystal detail – what value do they have? Will the view before me always appear and feel the same – does it shift with each sighting to include more or less terrain? What will happen to my sense of the view when the land that spawns it gets altered? Does a view end?

Lisa Milroy 2013