Composition, Notan, Value

Deconstructing Carlson

As we all know, John F. Carlson (1875-1947) is the author of the ‘bible’ of landscape painting, Carlson’s Guide to Landscape Painting. As might be expected, a study of Carlson’s work can be extremely enlightening!

This is one of my favorite Carlson paintings and a great example of his mature style and larger finished works. I used Photoshop to reduce the number of values for the purpose of this exercise.

In an initial glance at this work, we are struck by the massive solid forms of the trees, the subtle but beautiful color harmony. But how to simplify all this forest interior?

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John Carlson

Here is the Notan ( 2 values) version. As we can see, this painting hangs together beautifully as an abstract design, with the darks linked and interesting shapes and negative shapes.

carlson-notan

Notan

In this 4 value version we can see how the foreground trees are really part of a large shape which is cut into by the shape of the trees/hill behind and the sky and ground. If you flick your eyes back and forth from the notan version to this one you can see this better. So, while initially we see lots of individual trees, by simplifying, we can see that foreground trees are one shape and background trees/hill another. With the sky and ground shapes, we essentially have 4 shapes. We can also see how important the simplification of the values is to this ability to reduce the number of shapes and to the overall strength of the design.

carlson-4-values

4 Values

In this six value version, although the main shapes are further described with additional values (and accordingly the value scheme gets closer and has less contrast), the main shapes still hold together.

carlson-6-values

6 Values

Strikingly, in this final image which is a greyscale version of the painting, there isn’t all that much difference between it and the 6 value version. The differences mainly have to do with how the use of more values pulls the value range closer together, but the main shapes we identified previously still hold together very well.

carlson-greyscale

Greyscale

This is an important lesson and goes hand in hand with Carlson’s admonition not to copy ‘tone for tone’. Doing so will break up the large masses, and the painting will lose the strength of its underlying architecture of big shapes.

P.S. We have a great lineup of online classes for 2017, starting with Understanding Values in the Landscape. Learn how to use big shapes and value as building blocks for stronger paintings! Join us!

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