When painting a work of art, every artist makes a conscious choice about perspective. Even the abstract artist considers how they’ll present the imagery they paint. Perspective is one of the powerful tools artists use for creating artwork that helps an audience look at old things in new ways. Having our perspective on the world around us supercharged yields the exhilarating feeling of seeing through fresh eyes—a feeling that few things can easily offer, one of which is art.
Of the influences on my artwork, one of the most undeniable is my experience working as a commercial pilot and an air traffic controller. In both environments, my perspective on the world is forced out of the usual line of vision we have in our everyday lives. Particularly in flight, the stark difference between how we experience the world on the ground and in the air becomes clear. We so often get caught up in the smaller aspects of life—a bad day at work, a rude stranger on the road, the unpleasant news that seems to flow through our televisions 24/7—and while these things are just as real as any other, their significance can be distorted by the weight we give them in our lives—our perspective.
The moment I lift off the ground when flying and my field of vision expands to include the roads, bridges, and buildings of a city all at once is the moment that inspires the aerial landscapes I paint. Flying is like a hack for shifting your perspective and gaining a quick reminder of how small many of our concerns and annoyances are when compared to the vastness of our world.
It’s the understanding of how expansive yet interconnected our world is that strikes me every time I fly. Rather than being in our car and seeing the few cars around us, from the sky, we can see thousands of cars all steadily moving alongside each other. Rather than see the sidewalk right beyond us and the people immediately near us, we can see all the intersecting lines of roads and sidewalks that stretch in every direction, making up an entire city. While there’s a unique beauty to standing beside a flowing river or peaceful lake, it’s from above that we can appreciate how seamlessly the buildings and streets of a city merge with the natural features in its environment.
In some ways, my artwork acts as a beautified map of an area, showing the very lines and buildings in the way I’ve learned to visualize the word when working as an air traffic controller. A love for seeing from above runs in my family, with my maternal grandfather Richard Copley, having been an aerial navigator in WWII and my great uncle, Norman MacKenzie also being a navigator. Seeing the world from above can imbue us with the very same sense of awe and wonder that any waterfall or sunset does. The aerial landscapes in my work are a reminder that even when our problems seem to dwarf our ability to deal with them, there is always a larger world beyond us that we can connect to.
Challenges in Painting Aerial Landscapes
It’s no surprise that getting reference material for aerial landscapes can be a bit more challenging than painting a scene you might walk up to or stage on the ground. I try to fly over the areas I want to paint and create my own reference material as much as possible. Yet, airspace often has strict rules for both aircraft and drones, so gaining approval from air traffic control or a transport agency is crucial.
Though travel restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic have made sourcing my reference material challenging at times, these limitations have also led to an increase in the very connections I depict in my work. When I’m unable to get my own reference material, I reach out to photographers and videographers in other cities for help. Connecting with people across the world to depict the way cities are scenes of connection just adds another layer of meaning to the aerial scenes I paint.
An Unexpected Aspect of Aerial Landscapes
I create my paintings with a palette knife, a tool that helps lend a level of abstraction to my work through the kind of paint strokes it can create in addition to the viscosity of the paint. This abstract element to my work is most clear when a viewer stands close to the painting; it’s only upon moving farther away that the subject becomes more realistic. In this way, there are two perspectives in my work: the expansive view of an aerial landscape and the blend of abstraction to realism that mimics that way our own perspective can change depending upon where we stand. The beauty of an aerial landscape is in the reminder it offers us; we always retain the power to shift our perspective and look through fresh eyes.