An artist harnesses the power of drawing in large landscapes that are both transcendent and surreal.
By John A. Parks
April Gornik’s charcoal landscape drawings render the world as a magical and transcendent realm. These landscape drawings display their subjects in an almost photographic manner, yet everything has been subtly changed, transformed in a way that suggests a kind of spiritual intimation about nature.
In meticulously presenting the surface of the world, Gornik suggests unknown forces that lie beneath. This sense is reinforced by the large scale of the landscape drawings, measuring up to 50 inches wide. They envelop the viewer, providing an almost cinematic experience that is rich, ravishing and filled with wonder.
Drawing on Nature
“My work started in an unexpected way,” Gornik says. “I began, by the end of college, as a kind of very bad conceptual artist—one with romantic tendencies, I would now say. Then I became obsessed with the notion of somehow depicting light. And an image popped into my head that seemed would do just that. I had been making sculptural forms, occasionally throwing some paint on them. But this image necessitated a two-dimensional surface, and I suddenly found myself painting a picture of something. When I stepped back I realized I’d made a landscape, to my surprise.”
Gornik continued to create landscape drawings and paintings in a highly individual way, generally inventing the entire scene. “I had many dreams at that time that I’d try to paint,” she says. “And, for a few years I thought that if I didn’t make my work up it would be cheating and unpoetic. Then I went to the desert in the American Southwest and realized no one could make that crazy landscape up. I began using photos, at first hesitantly but then with great enthusiasm as I realized I had a tendency to alter them and make them my own, anyway. No photograph I’ve used has been strictly ‘copied.’ I worried about this a lot at first. But I can’t follow a recipe start to finish either, so it must be a character flaw—or a plus.”
The Art of Black
Although she is primarily a painter, drawing and sketching play an important part in Gornik’s work. And the choice of charcoal as a medium for finished drawings came naturally. “When I was first in college at the Cleveland Institute of Art I took printmaking and loved the effect of the way a black line or aquatint would embed itself into an etching,” she recalls. “I sought some kind of drawing material that would give me some feeling of that. I first used charcoal and black pastel, later finding charcoals themselves that were black enough for my needs.”
Goring points out that charcoal is a very flexible medium. “I use all different kinds— harder, lighter, softer or blacker—to arrive at something complex and rich. I also deeply value the light the paper gives in relation to the marks made on it. It’s a great exchange between the paper and mark making.”
Gornik will often sketch from a computer screen using one or perhaps several images as reference. “There are a multitude of changes that take place, often some pretty extreme collaging,” she says. “Something from Africa might be combined with something from Long Island. I print out sketches from the computer to work from, but I don’t value those, as I know they’ll change with the drawing or painting process. The forest drawings I’ve been doing have come a lot from my backyard. However, I alter them quite a bit, erasing trees, collaging photos, bending space.”
Having prepared her composition through sketching, the artist moves to the final drawing, which she executes on an etching paper made by Lenox. Gornik pins a sheet of paper to the wall of her studio, using another sheet beneath to prevent any unevenness on the surface of the wall from interfering with the drawing.
She begins with a light pencil line. “I demarcate the principal points of the sketch I’m working from—the horizon line, the place where the lower edge of a mass of leaves meets a tree trunk, or whatever. I then sketch the rest of it loosely in freehand.” Gornik then changes to charcoal. “Usually I start with a drier, lighter charcoal and work up the image from right to left,” she says. “Then I go back in with a softer, blacker charcoal to finish it.”
Gornik generally keeps the charcoal fresh and direct, but at times she’ll do some blending. “My best blending tool is my little finger, which I use for smudging,” she says. “I only rarely use a kneaded eraser to lighten an area, but typically there’s very, very little correcting possible. I tend to press pretty hard, so it’s difficult to impossible to erase if I make a mistake.”
The results of her process are on display in Light Sweep (above) from 2009. We are presented with a view of a shadowy forest floor as we look through a wall of trees to a brightly illuminated open space beyond. The contrast is considerable. The trees and foreground are richly dark while the light flooding through the trees is almost uncomfortably bright. We have a sense of a powerful and active radiance operating just beyond our view, something unnatural taking place. If we look closely we can see that this sense of radiance is reinforced by a manipulation of the direction of the shadows. They radiate out from a central point, something that would not happen in nature— sunlight casts parallel shadows.
As with all of Gornik’s landscape drawings it is the subtlety of the transformation that is so important. “I’m interested in an attractive moment or condition,” the artist says. “The radiant light carries the idea of there being a certain kind of energizing force emerging through the image. A lot of what I do is distorted, but I’m not trying to make it too overtly weird. I like that in-between stage where things are just slightly surreal.”
Finding this middle ground between the real and the surreal involves fine judgment. And the artist stresses that securing this sense is highly intuitive. “When I’m working up a sketch, I’m not thinking, ‘OK, at what point will this become too this or that?’” she explains. “I have no formulaic way of approaching each image. It’s always something that I’m feeling my way through.”
One thing that Gornik does consistently is to combine highly dramatic light effects with quiet, slow-moving passages of tonal shifts. This allows the viewer’s eye to switch within the same work between almost theatrical excitement and much more reflective experiences. In After the Rain (below), for instance, the outlines of the trees against the sky are very stark and graphic. But the tonal changes within the trees and across the water are exquisitely subtle. Similarly in Breaking Waves (top of article) the dramatic shapes and movement of the waves are contrasted with the extremely quiet passages in the foreground, where a thin skein of water laps across a sandy beach. “The combination of fleeting and beautiful is a pretty essentially poignant aspect of life itself,” the artist observes.
The human figure is consistently absent from Gornik’s work. This can make scale hard to determine and perhaps contributes to the somewhat otherworldly quality of the imagery in her landscape drawings. “I eventually realized I didn’t want viewers to have a sense of how big they were in relation to the place they were experiencing in my work,” Gornik says. “It began as an intuitive impulse, but it’s proved to be very consistent. I think it’s also part of the ‘spirituality’ of the work, whatever that really means, that any given person will project onto and experience the work differently from someone else. It’s a very 20th-century notion
In broader terms Gornik’s work seems to share a great deal in spirit with such 19th-century Romantics as Turner and perhaps especially the German painter Caspar David Friedrich, whose landscapes also combine meticulous observation with a pervasive and spiritual sense of illumination. Her enterprise also shares some of the ambitions of the American Transcendentalists, who made paintings about the wonder and scope of nature and light.
Gornik adds to this tradition a sense of the surreal. She shares the Surrealists’ interest in dream imagery and the subconscious, although her work never ventures into the aggressive juxtapositions that the Surrealists embraced. And then the compositions, with their generally frontal arrange- ments, have a highly contemporary feel. “There’s a certain essential flatness to my work,” says the artist. “It’s more frontal than older landscape artists. There’s something more specifically part of our consciousness in the 20th and 21st centuries that makes the surface of the picture a more comfort- able space. Something has changed about the way we put things inside that space.”
As for the final effect of her work on the viewer, Gornik has no closely argued program. “People intersect with what I’ve put into a drawing and add their response,” she says. “I guess I would hope that they’d feel moved by it and feel it’s emotionally significant to them in some way.”
To see more of April Gornik’s amazing landscape drawings and paintings, check out her website. Feeling inspired to show off your own drawing skills? Enter our Strokes of Genius annual competition that celebrates the best of the best in drawing.