I have always been drawn to the natural world as a subject of my work. Distilling the space, light, and atmosphere of a place is constantly challenging. Painting a location forces you to truly embrace all of the individual elements in an attempt to translate its personality to the viewer. Once I have painted a landscape, I feel I know it intimately and have internalized a small fraction of its uniqueness.


My fascination with natural forms emerged early in my artistic life, when I was taken with rendering the sky as a landscape. I was influenced by a painting professor who one day declared that we would go outside and paint watercolors of clouds. Great clouds were rare in Southern California and it made me appreciate their constant evolution—at times both solid and transparent, able to absorb and reflect light and the energy of the sky.


After years painting traditional landscapes, I started to focus my attention on isolated elements as a way to express the experience of the whole. I began painting rocks and boulders removed from their surroundings and painted on linen or paper without providing any clues as to scale or environment. The solitary stone became a landscape unto itself, easily abstracted by the viewer’s own perspective. Zooming in on these “contained” landscapes gave me a new appreciation for the infinite patterns and beauty hidden in the microcosms around us.


Another key turning point for me occurred several years ago, after traveling to Tobago. I was overwhelmed by trying to represent the complexities of the densely layered vegetation I encountered there and, so, began working on a series of botanical patterns in silhouette. With the riotous backgrounds muted, I could concentrate on the most interesting forms without distraction. And more recently I revisited clouds, taking lessons learned from the boulder and silhouette series by painting them individually with dense graphite backgrounds. Their ambiguous forms became islands, icebergs, and true Rorschach tests for the viewer.


My latest body of work focuses on tree trunks, both standing and fallen. While hiking I find myself instinctively scanning the landscape for interesting trunks, only realizing what I have been doing when I discover a potential subject. As in some of my earlier work I find that the removal of all other information about the scene lets one more deeply appreciate the texture, detail and individuality of each object. Just as a crowd makes it impossible to measure one person’s face, so does the forest make it difficult to see an individual tree. Often trees are the oldest living members of the environment, and some are the oldest life forms on Earth. It is my hope that my work expresses some measure of their presence, quiet wisdom and beauty.


Sean Cavanaugh
August 2016