Landscapes to a Tee: The Art of Golf Course Landscapes
Joshua C. F. Smith is in the rarefied field of golf landscape artists. As part of National Golf Month in August, we caught up with him for a behind-the-scenes look at how he captures the natural beauty of a golf course landscape in his paintings.
GD: How did you get started painting golf courses?
JS: I always loved to draw when I was growing up. But it wasn’t until I was 25 years old that I took up oil painting. I saw an oil painting in the Phoenix airport with really rich colors and texture, and I thought it would be fun to start painting as a hobby. So I bought a starter set while I was there in Sedona.
And golf I have loved all my life. After I got my business degree in college and played on the golf team, I knew I didn’t want to sit in a cubicle. So I tried to design golf courses, but there was too much travel and it’s tough to be successful in that. So after talking to friends and respected colleagues, they suggested it would be better to take out my passion for golf in oil painting. Currently, I work as a golf course greenskeeper, and I paint in the evenings and on weekends.
JS: I love to paint really natural-looking golf courses, the kind with heirloom grass. They’re not too clean around the edges. They fit in with their surroundings and look more timeless. The 1920’s were considered the golden era of golf design, before the use of bull dozers and heavy equipment. We’re seeing a resurgence of this, of more natural, Mother Nature inspired golf courses.
GD: What are the characteristics of a Mother Nature inspired golf course?
JS: People usually look at a golf course as vibrant green, clean cut, that doesn’t blend well with the natural landscape. That’s how a lot of golf courses have been created in the last few decades. But golf was started in Scotland and courses there were “found” more than “created”. The course was laid out on what Mother Nature already had in existence. The golf course fits better when it blends with the flora and fauna of the natural landscape.
JS: I’m sure there are different ideas in gardening of what looks formal or informal or balanced. What I look for in my golf course paintings is a scene that is more organic with imperfections. I like to see plant material that is tied to the region it’s in. I’d build a garden the way I’d build a golf course—not too formal, with beauty in what appears to be random. For instance, I love when people use decomposed granite as a paving surface. It’s much more organic versus pavers or concrete. There are no perfectly edged pathways.
GD: How do you choose the best perspective for your paintings?
JS: I look for different levels in the landscape, upright planes and tiers. I want things in the distance that fade away, and some things in the foreground that are clearer. I look for a setting that will look 3-D. I want certain areas for the brush strokes to be strong, and other areas that will be blended and faded. Your eye is drawn to focal points with bolder strokes.
JS: The best golf courses are laid out and found on great land. In golf terminology, we call it “links land” which is land considered not good for farming or agriculture. It’s usually near the ocean and very sandy. Sand is really good ground for golf because the ball bounces and water drains well. It’s much better than golf on clay soil. In the dark ages of golf design, they built “cut and fill” courses, bringing in and moving a lot of dirt, which just doesn’t work well. The vast majority of the best courses are within a couple miles of the ocean on sandy soil.
GD: Do you plein air paint or do you paint from photographs?
JS: Most of my work has been done from photographs, but I’ve recently been doing more plein air painting, where I can do small paintings in a short time right on site. With plein air, you’re basing reality on light and colors that you’re actually looking at. In photographs, the colors aren’t as real. The dark areas are usually too dark. You can really develop a painting better when you’re painting it from real life. It’s a bonus to be outdoors at all hours because you can see how one scene will look so different as the light changes during the day. With plein air painting, you could paint the same view at different times of day and it would look very different.
JS: I was approached by Tom Lehman, a British Open champion golfer, who was designing a golf course in the Sand Hills region of Nebraska (now The Prairie Club in Valentine, Neb.). He had seen my art and asked me to come to the site. He wanted me to paint how the golf course would look so he could visualize his idea for building it. So I took a lot of photos, and as I painted we went back and forth and he would suggest where to place the course. So I painted the golf course in to fit naturally with the landscape.
For more information:
Smith lives in the San Francisco Bay area and is available for new original commissioned work. He also offers reprints of his oil paintings. For more information, visit his website.