John Ruskin was a leading English art critic, social thinker and philanthropist of the Victorian era. He was also a watercolorist who lamented that most individuals do not take the time nor make the effort to see what is right before then.
In The Art of Travel, Alain de Botton notes that Ruskin believed that one way to “possess beauty properly was by understanding it, by making oneself conscious of the factors (psychological and visual) responsible for it . . . [T]he most effective means of pursuing this conscious understanding was by attempting to describe beautiful places through art, by writing about or drawing them, irrespective of whether one happened to have any talent for doing so.”
Ruskin was motivated by a desire to “direct people’s attention accurately to the beauty of God’s work in the material universe.” Ruskin not only sketched but also “word-painted” (writing so as to cement his impressions of beauty). He not only described what he saw but analyzed the effect on himself of what he saw in psychological language (“the grass seemed expansive, the earth timid.”)
In the Alps, he described pine trees and rocks in similarly psychological terms: ” I can never stay long under an Alpine cliff, looking up at its pines, as they stand on the inaccessible juts and perilous ledges of an enormous wall, in quiet multitudes, each like a shadow of the one beside it – upright, fixed, not knowing each other. . . All comfortless they stand, yet with such iron will that the rock itself looks bent and shattered beside them – fragile, weak, inconsistent, compared to their dark energy of delicate life and monotony of enchanted pride.”
Ruskin calls us to sketch and word paint, to search into the cause of beauty, to penetrate the minutest parts of loveliness. Rather than just walking down a lane, he calls us – on that walk – to look up and observe “how the showery and subdivided sunshine comes sprinkled down among the gleaming leaves overhead, till the air is filled with the emerald light. . . to see here and there a bough emerging from the veil of leaves. . . to see the variegated and fantastic lichens, white and blue, purple and red, all mellowed and mingled into a single garment of beauty.”
Should we choose not to see, not to sketch and not to word paint, we may just pass along a green lane, and when we come home again, have nothing to say or think about it but that we went down such and such a lane. Perhaps if we follow Ruskin’s lead, we may begin to find a walk down a green lane, or a moment in the company of a sanderling, or the contemplation of the rain on a windowpane, an adventure. We may begin to truly see, understand and be stirred to love.