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Olana - an artist's pilgrimage into the past

“The health of the eye seems to demand a horizon. We are never tired, so long as we can see far enough.”

-- Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature

View of grounds and house at Olana State Park in New York.

Olana -- for me, not just a state park in upstate New York, but rather, a stop in a journey, a pilgrimage 0f sorts, to get a glimpse into the mind and vision of some of America’s great painters of the past.

Olana -- a house built and named by Frederic Church, a Hudson River School artist. Regarding his home on the banks of the Hudson River, Church wrote,

“Nature has been very lavish here in the gift of her beauty – I am sure you would enjoy the noble scenes which our windows command.”

Indeed, the views here are noble. Inspiring. And challenging.

Artist JJ Jiang working on plein air watercolor painting of Hudson River from the grounds of Olana State Park.

On my journey north recently, I stopped here in Catskill, New York. I stood next to Church’s home, stood on his territory, and took out my easel. As I pondered his view of the Hudson and put down a bit of watercolor, I considered these artists from a previous era. His teacher, Thomas Cole, whose residence is now a historic site in the village, had inspired Church and so many other artists of the 19th century. These painters were a special breed - adventurous explorers, on mission to depict places that very few had seen, and in a way so grand, yet sublime...even sacred. This movement found its roots as they hiked up into the Hudson Valley, through the Catskill Mountains, sketchbooks in hand. They often traveled in harsh conditions to far away and perhaps uninhabited lands to sketch and paint. No planes or vehicles; no cameras and handy equipment. No mosquito spray! And here I was, grabbing just a moment here in the 21st century to get a sense, take in the view, and pay my respects.

As much as I have admired their dogged effort, I’ve also been taught by their approach to landscape painting. Back in the day when architectural illustration was my mainstay, I studies and appreciated their approach to lighting and dramatic detail.

And now as I embark on more landscape artwork myself, with all the comforts of my studio around me, I consider these Hudson River School artists and the countless others who have inspired my work, my teaching and my life. Some of them are writers with whom my heart resonates, and naturalist John Burroughs being one of them. Coincidentally enough, he too is from the Catskills and wrote,

“The eye sees what it has the means of seeing, and its means of seeing are in proportion to the love and desire behind them.”

― John Burroughs, The Art of Seeing Things

View of Hudson River and JJ Jiang's watercolor painting on his easel.
The southern view of the Hudson from the grounds of Olana.

Morning on the Hudson River.
Morning hike down to the rocky banks of the Hudson River.

Artist JJ Jiang looking at the Hudson River in the morning.
Final view of the Hudson before heading further north into New England.

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