Painting the Night

Birge Harrison nocturne
Birge Harrison

Painting the moonlit landscape has challenged artists for centuries.  Depictions of night time motifs tend to be as much about the ideas we have about the night as they are about what we actually see. As Thoreau said, “the night is a different country” and the shifts in perception that occur in a dimly lit landscape are inevitably influenced by the cultural ideas that surround the concept of night.

The motif of the moonlit landscape has been a popular one since the late 18th century. This was the  Age of Enlightenment and  moonlit landscapes were generally restorative and calm. The moonlight was often augmented by another light source by a reflection of the moon on water. This moon and water combination has become a common nocturne device and is still used in the 21st century. This example by Claude Joesph Vernet, Night a Port in Moonlight (1772) is typical of 18th century moonlit landscapes using both the moon, reflection and another light source (the fire) to illuminate the scene.

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But it was in the late 18th and early 19th century that the nocturne motif came into real popularity. The Romantic impulse in the art, literature and music of that time employed the nocturne as an emblem of the cultural shift from the 18th century Age of Enlightenment to the Romantic Age. The nocturne motifs were used to convey mystery, drama and even a touch of the Sublime. The restorative, calm works of the 18th century were replaced by paintings depicting mystery and the transformative quality of the moonlight to illuminate the metaphysical attributes of the landscapes, and to set up a correspondence between the moonlit landscape and the human mind. This Romantic impulse is still very much a part of the ethos of the contemporary nocturne.

The term nocturne was first used to describe a series of musical compositions by Frederick Chopin in the 1820s. Within the next few decades literary circles in Paris embraced the nocturne, especially the Symbolist poets Rimbaud, Verlaine and Gautier. By the 1860s the motif of the nocturne as a lyrical form of expression that conjured altered states of perception was widely embraced across all the arts. Perhaps one of its best known proponents was James Abbott McNeil Whistler (1834-1903), an expatriate American artist living in London. Whistler, more than any other nineteenth century artist, reinvigorated the depiction of moonlit nights into a modern idiom. He appropriated the musical term “nocturne’ to describe his spare, murky depictions of nighttime along the Thames and in Venice. Whistler employed memory as a major component of his artistic practice, often observing a nighttime motif repeatedly before retreating to his studio to paint it.

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American artists in the 19th century were not immune to the charms of the nocturne motif. Several Hudson River School artists of the mid 19th century employed this romantic trope in service of the first truly American school of landscape painting. Hudson River School nocturnes tend to have more in common with the 18th century ‘moonlights’ than the Parisien ‘nocturne’.

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Twilight in the Tropics–Frederic Church
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Cloud Study, Moonlight  Albert Bierstadt

In the last decades of the nineteenth century, the industrialization and electrical illumination of the urban landscape made contemplative moonlight scenes a rarity in real life and perhaps more sought after in art because of that.  Tonalist artists such as George Inness, William Dwight Tryon, Ralph Albert Blakelock, Albert Pinkham Ryder and Charles Warren Eaton were influenced by Whistler and explored the nocturnal realm extensively in their work. The veils of transparent and translucent color and softened forms of the Tonalist style were perfectly suited to a depiction of a moonlit landscape. But the attraction went far beyond technical compatibility. The expression of the mystery and altered states produced by the human experience of night and moonlight were central to the Tonalist aesthetic and to an artistic practice based upon memory.

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George Inness
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Charles Warren Eaton
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Birge Harrison

 Perhaps one of the best known examples of nocturnes at the turn of the 20th century  in America was a remarkable series of paintings produced by Frederic Remington. Remington, a well known illustrator, wanted to reinvent himself and seized on the nocturne motif as a way to demonstrate his chops as a fine artist. Remington’s nocturnes are powerful evocations of night painted with a robust facture and implied narrative that leaves no doubt that the night is dangerous territory.

Remington Night Herder
Night Herder– Frederic Remington
Remington nocturne Scouts
The Scout–Frederic Remington

Today the nocturne is alive and well in contemporary landscape painting. Depictions of the night include the urban landscapes lit by artificial lightening as well as the moonlit terrain of nature.

Moonlit Pines– Deborah Paris

 

P.S.  Learn how to paint the mystery and beauty of the moonlit landscape. Our online class Painting the Night starts soon! Join us!

When to Paint the Sky

 

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The Golden Valley–Sir Alfred East

“It is much easier to paint a sky to suit a landscape than a landscape to suit a sky.”

Sir Alfred East, The Art of Landscape Painting in Oil Colour (1915).

When should you paint the sky? Should it be the first thing you paint when you begin a landscape painting? The last? All at once? Incrementally?

Some of you may have heard the oft repeated advice to paint the sky first. The argument for this approach goes: The sky sets the key for the landscape , the value range for the landscape, the mood of your  picture, and the light condition you wish to depict. And, painting back to front, helps with edges too. All  of these things are true. But, there are also good reasons not to!

Here is why. Most beginners and many intermediate painters will start out by keying their sky too dark.  The sky is generally the lightest plane in the landscape and on a typical sunny day its value might range from 9 to 7.5 or 8. Very often, without any other value to compare it to on the canvas, students will mix a value range which is one or even two to three value steps darker than what it should be!  As a result, every other value in the landscape gets pushed toward the darker side of the value scale. The result is usually a dark painting, or one where the values are all in the middle of the range as the student struggles to keep things from getting too dark.

It is much easier to judge the value of your sky once you have something to compare it to. Ideally, you will use a value scale to mix your color and make sure it is in the correct range. But, you also want to compare it to other values. So, laying in a range of values, including your lightest light and your darks will help you judge the correct value for your sky.

Secondly, As Sir Alfred East notes, one of the challenges in landscape painting is to make the sky and the landscape work together harmoniously. There are many more “moving parts” – value changes, temperature shifts, drawing issues, color harmony to solve in the landscape and they need to be worked out to some degree before you can effectively “marry” the sky and the landscape.

However, painting back to front does have real advantages and being aware of and careful about your sky values can solve some of the problems I have outlined above.

This is why that I recommend students lay in an initial thin layer of opaque pigment at a value of about 9, after completing the initial underpainting or lay in of their composition. Think of this as a “placeholder” value and color which will help you keep your painting in the correct key. Then, as you develop your painting, and have established the darkest and lightest tones of the value range you intend to use, you can go back and finish your sky.

You can read more about Sir Alfred East and his book in this post.

P. S. Our annual online class The Painted Sky starts Friday, August 2nd! Learn to paint big atmospheric skies and clouds that float!  Registration and information is here. Join us!

What is Tonalism? Part I

In the decade following the Civil War, America came to terms with its great loss–both of a generation of young men, and the feeling of high spirited nationalistic pride and belief in itself as the chosen land and the chosen people of God’s creation. The societal underpinnings of religious faith were likewise shaken. The operatic creations of Hudson River School artists like Church, Cole, Bierstadt and Moran seemed completely out of touch with a more subdued and melancholy national zeitgeist. A quiet more reflective art was more appropriate to the public mood.

As a result, by the 1880’s nothing short of a revolution had occurred in American landscape painting. The large panoramic views and detailed foregrounds of the Hudson River School were replaced by the suggestive, atmospheric and intimate landscapes of the Tonalist artists. The first generation of Tonalist artists like George Inness had begun painting in the prevalent Hudson River School style at the beginning of their careers, but pioneered a new poetic, spiritual, and personal style of landscape painting. These evocative landscapes struck an elegiac chord, often depicting transitional times of day and autumnal seasons.

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Georgia Sunset- George Inness
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Autumn Montclair George Inness

The first generation of Tonalist artists, born between 1840 and 1865, were shaped by American experience and culture. In the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, Americans found a different way of responding to nature and a more mystical spirituality. No two authors were more widely read and had a greater influence on late 19th century American thought and culture–an influence that lasts to this day.

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Sunset Pines-Charles Warren Eaton

 

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Autumn Twilight- Charles Warren Eaton
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Poplars-Charles Warren Eaton

Emerson (1803-1882) first set forth his philosophy of Transcendentalism in the 1836 essay Nature. Emerson espoused that nature was an emblem or symbol, and its relevance lay in the insights it provided into the human mind and spirit. As a mentor and friend to Thoreau, Emerson asked the young Thoreau “do you keep a journal?”, an inquiry which spurred the perhaps most prolific journal writer in American literature.

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J. Francis Murphy

Thoreau (1817-1862) although a fellow Transcendentalist, was cut from a very different cloth. Emerson was full of Romantic subjectivity, using brilliantly insightful generalizations and intuitive leaps about the realm of the spirit. Thoreau was a wanderer, a nature writer, and a keen almost obsessive observer of the natural world. As a result, his more empirical approach was the platform from which he drew insights into the human soul. For Thoreau, nature was reality, important for its own sake as well as for symbolic purposes. But for both Emerson and Thoreau, the meeting of the material and the spiritual world in a transcendent experience was the goal and a possibility for every human being.

Birge Harrison nocturne
Birge Harrison

Nature was no longer simply the Hudson River School’s symbol or evidence of God’s presence in the world, but instead was itself the conduit through which this transcendent state might occur. For Thoreau particularly, the act of perception of Nature was the first step toward a “mystical unity of the observer and the observed”.

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Birge Harrison

Emerson lectured widely in his later years and his ideas began to catch the public imagination especially after the Civil War. Although Thoreau died in 1862, his work was not widely read in America until the 1880s. His combination of transcendental philosophy, non-sectarian spiritualism, and dedication to the idea of correspondence between man and nature, made him a perfect prophet for the Tonalist revolution. His nature descriptions were praised by the subsequent Tonalist generation of artists. Dwight Tryon called Thoreau “the best landscape word painter”.

Today, the Tonalist style of landscape painting has reemerged as a contemporary movement. The philosophical and spiritual underpinnings of the original Tonalist movement, and its emphasis on a personal relationship with nature, makes this style particularly appealing to the contemporary landscape painter and an apt reflection of our times. The landmark publication of David Cleveland’s History of American Tonalism in 2010 introduced a whole new generation of artists and collectors to the Tonalist aesthetic. The growing interest in this style of painting is reflected in the recent formation of the American Tonalist Society and its inaugural exhibition at the historic Salmagundi Club in New York, an institution with deep ties to the original Tonalist movement.

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Pineywoods Evening-Deborah Paris

In Part II of this post, we’ll take a look at the contemporary landscape painters who have adopted the Tonalist aesthetic and how their works both reflect the historic roots of Tonalism and represent a leading edge of contemporary landscape painting.

P.S. Our six week online class Painting the Luminous Landscape is an introduction to the Tonalist style and to indirect painting techniques. It starts June 21st. Join us!

 

The Art of the Garden

In the late 19th and early 20th century the “Garden Movement” in America was greatly influenced by French Impressionist paintings. The move to the suburbs by the middle classes also encouraged this new interest in gardening, and the “American garden”, not as formal as the English or Italian gardens of the Gilded Age, became popular. The idea was to imitate Nature’s wild garden, but of course, garden design still played an important role. Gardens and gardening were featured heavily in mass circulation magazines and books and landscape design was part of the aesthetic discourse of the day. The Arts and Crafts movement had an influence as well, encouraging the design and planting of an ‘old fashioned’ garden to reflect a reconnection with Nature that had been lost in the industrial age.

Up until the end of the 19th century paintings of gardens were an infrequent motif of American artists. However, now they began to appear as a consistent theme in American impressionist works. American artists who had traveled to Giverny and studied painting there were well aware of the use of the garden as motif in French landscape painting. Artists sometimes set up their own home and garden–Thomas and Maria Oakey Dewing and John Henry Twachtman for example) or gravitated to artists colonies in places like Lyme, Connecticut where they could enjoy gardens and orchards of local homes and boarding houses. Even artists whose work was not impressionist in style (like Oakey Dewing for example) adopted the impressionist method of working outdoors in front of the motif.

Childe Hassam (1859-1935)

John Henry Twachtman (1853-1902)

Charles Adams Platt (1861-1933)

Hugh Henry Breckenridge (1870-1937)

John La Farge (1835-1910)

 

Maria Oakey Dewing (1845-1927) attended Cooper Union School of Design in 1866. She exhibited at the National Academy of Design and was one of the founders of the Art Students League of New York. She was married to the painter Thomas Dewing.

P.S.  Our Found Still Life/Flowers in the Landscape  online class starts May 24th! Learn how to depict the beauty of the intimate landscape, wildflowers and garden flowers. Join us! 

Why Should Landscape Painters Study Art History?

It’s surprising how many landscape painters don’t have a working knowledge of the art history of landscape painting. With the prevalence of social media today it’s easy to ‘follow’ contemporary artists whose work you admire, and many of us do. But, a far smaller number make the effort to connect with their artistic heritage as landscape painters.

Perhaps you remember that course in college—the dark room with an endless stream of images of gothic cathedrals or renaissance paintings flashing on a screen over the low hum of the slide projector, the droning voice of the professor, while you tried not to fall asleep? Maybe you vowed never to do that again! There is no doubt that art history. can seem like a very dense subject.

Most traditional art historians employ a formal analysis which derives from Heinrich Wolfflin’s Principles of Art History, published in 1915, which was an attempt to create a methodology of examination and analysis of stylistic changes that could be used to classify the art of any given period in art history. By applying the overarching principles the idea was that an art historian could not only utilize language that would have specific meaning to all scholars but which would cover the vast array of stylistic differences that might be encountered.


Entire college courses are devoted to Wolfflin (I’ve been there and done that) but suffice it to say that while these concepts can be very useful, they also can have led to thinking about art history as an episodic story with winners and losers, depending on the prevailing tastes of the time. Whole art movements can be relegated to the ash heap if they are deemed out of step with the “march of development” (Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Neo-Classical, Rococo, Realism, Impressionism, post-Impressionism, Modern, Post-Modern, Conceptual…..) as decreed by the official version of Western art history. In fact, almost all of 19th century American landscape painting was in exactly that position until just a few short decades ago!

So, we have to keep in mind that the official version of art history does not necessarily tell the whole story, and the desire to find influences and affinities in the art of earlier times or art that is concurrent with the period under study is sometimes strained beyond the point of usefulness.

Onness Georgia Sunset
George Inness

Secondly, as artists, we approach this work from a different perspective. What we seek to know and understand is something beyond the recitation of facts, a cataloging of influences or affinities or even biographical facts (although those are all things we should know). We want to know what made this artist make this art at this time, and what if anything we can learn that will help our work. We want, most of all, to look at the work with an understanding of the person who made it and his or her time, and to see it with fresh eyes. We want not to only look on art with the cool eye of formal analysis, but to be riveted by it, to fall in love with it, and to acquire some of its power.

Willard Metcalf Giverny
Willard Metcalf

Art historians believe that paintings come from paintings. Here is Barbara Novak making that point in Nature and Culture (an excellent book on 19th century landscape paintingand admitting the possibility that it isn’t always so:

“To be instructed by pictures on how to look at nature is a rarely considered art historical question. Though it is a simple and plausible idea, the concept that some American work resulted from a direct recourse to nature challenges some basic art historical theories. Most of us, as we prowl the corridors of artistic genealogies, subscribe to Gombrich’s notion of art coming from art, Yet there is a basic danger for the art historian who overlooks the potential power of the natural experience per se. No matter how much we may wish to speak of artistic histories, it is important to remember that quite apart from “art” nature offers its own rich resources to the artist’s eye and mind.”

As a landscape painter, I could hardly keep from laughing out loud when I read that. How could it be any other way? How as landscape painters could our work not be formed by the “power of the natural experience”? The fact that Novak felt compelled to concede that it just might be the case, tells us about the different perspective that we bring to the study of art history.

And yet, art does also come from art, and if you don’t know about that lineage, you are missing out on a big part of what it means to be an artist. It’s like deciding to take up classical piano without ever hearing the music of Beethoven or Mozart!

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William Langson Lathrop

So while we may bring a different perspective to our study of the art history of landscape painting, it is still important to understand and appreciate our artistic heritage. As my friend and mentor Hollis Williford advised, “educate yourself by studying and discovering all of the giants on whose shoulders you wish to stand.”

Our online class 19th Century American Landscape Painting starts Friday, April 26. Join us and we’ll try not to put you to sleep!

 

 

Seeing in Shapes

Learning to see the large shapes in Nature as opposed to all the little details is an essential skill in painting and particularly in landscape painting where Nature presents us with, as John Carlson calls it, “an overloaded property room”. Unless we are able to reduce the visual clutter we see to big simple shapes, we cannot be successful in translating nature into a work of art. As Carlson says, we cannot “copy tone for tone.” And we wouldn’t want to! Part of the unique vision of each landscape painter is how they make that translation.

We want to give the viewer enough information to make the painting “read” but we don’t have to include a lot of detail to do that. And in fact, when we are learning to paint, its much more important to learn to “see in shapes”.

Seeing these shapes also goes hand and hand with value, that is seeing big shapes of value or tone. So Carlson’s Theory of Angles is an excellent place to begin to see the planes in the landscape- sky, ground plane, slanted and uprights – as shapes of value.  But, often, shapes will encompass parts of several planes.

Here are several paintings by the 19th c. Russian landscape painter Isaac Levitan.  The main shapes are outlined in white. This isn’t an exact science, and you may see the shapes as being somewhat different. But, these examples demonstrate how shapes including areas of different planes might be grouped together by similar value or by other compositional imperatives, like movement or proximity. The main point though is that these large shapes, absent any of the detail within them, carry the structure of the painting.

And here are these three paintings reduced to grey scale and 6 values, which reveals the utter simplicity of design and the coherence of the big shapes of value.

So, learn to see in shapes to make stronger landscape paintings!

P.S. Our annual six week online “boot camp” The Strong Start begins April 12th! This class is designed to get you outside and painting the landscape with confidence. Learning to see in shapes is just one of the many techniques and strategies you will learn to significantly improve your landscape paintings. Join us!

 

Variety- Intervals and Shapes

Nature has infinite variety. Yet the more you observe it and learn about it, you see there are “rules” which govern the seemingly chaotic look of things. For example, trees in general grow in a certain way, which will vary from species to species. But, the idea of “taper”  (that is, the gradual diminution in size from trunk to limb to branch to twig) will form an overarching way of viewing tree growth and how trees are constructed. The more you look and study, the more you see these things and the more you will include them in your drawings and paintings.

But, for some reason, we humans want to reorder nature when we start to draw or paint it. We make all our trees alike, or put them all in a row and make then the same size. Our rocks all have the same shapes and sizes, our mountains the same outlines. Why? I don’t know. But, I do know it is a tendency we all seem to have and which we have to overcome in order to compose effectively.

If we are to get, as Carlson says, “the big look of nature”, we must reproduce her forms in all their variety and uniqueness. During a critique years ago a teacher once said to me (pointing to a tree on my canvas) “make it that tree”. “What tree?” I said, not getting the point. Eventually I understood that she didn’t mean I should “copy” a real tree. She meant that my tree should have the specificity and uniqueness (and rightness) that a real tree has. It should be convincing. You can make a simple outline or silhouette convincing. Convincing doesn’t necessarily mean detail or fussiness. It means you create a tree which looks like it is growing there, like it could grow and thrive where you have planted it. And, a tree that serves a purpose in your design idea for your painting.

And of course there is only one path to doing that- observation, study and…wait for it…drawing. So, when you start to compose you have a little storehouse of knowledge about ways you can put some variety in your trees and still make them look right and true.

One of the most obvious things beginning landscape painters do is create equal intervals (spacing) between forms and make those forms all the same shape and size. Like this.

When we are thinking variety then we might do this:

Nature is all variety. Look for it and use it in your landscape paintings!
P.S. Our annual six week online ‘boot camp’ —The Strong Start-– is designed to get you outside and painting the landscape with confidence. This class is chock full of techniques and strategies–from simplification, editing and selection of motifs, palette organization and color harmony to how to start with a strong value structure, brushwork, and much more! This class starts April 12th. Join us!

Happy Anniversary to The Landscape Atelier!

Happy Anniversary to The Landscape Atelier!  2019 marks the 10th year that we have offered online classes for landscape painters! Needless to say, we were one of the first to do so, and over the last ten years we have taught students from all over the world! We hope you will join us this year in class and see why we pride ourselves on giving the very best instruction available online for landscape painters!

We are excited about our lineup of online classes for 2019! As always, we offer a full schedule of classes to help improve your landscape painting skills from top to bottom!

Browse our class offerings now or even better, plan a course of study for 2019 that will take your landscape painting to a whole new level. 

Our Class Bundles make it easy and cost effective to register for multiple classes. 

Premix Your Palette

One of the many concepts, techniques and strategies I teach is premixing your palette, whether working in the studio or in the field. I often encounter resistance to this idea, but more often than not, once students try it, they understand and appreciate the advantage it gives them. Why is premixing helpful?

Premixing requires the artist to think about and analyze the colors she plans to use in advance, rather than on the fly. The first way in which this is useful is in establishing a color harmony. Color, like all other aesthetic choices we make in our work, requires a considered approach. Just as we cannot rely on Nature to compose for us, we also cannot rely on it to establish a compelling color harmony. This requires thought and usually editing. Even if your desire is to create a naturalistic landscape, you will need to edit the local color you see into a more harmonious, focused statement. Premixing gives the artist an opportunity to think about what local color is wanted and what can be discarded, what colors will be ‘the star of the show’ and what colors will play a supporting role.

The second way in which premixing can assist the artist is in establishing an organized plan of execution for the painting. Mixing color with purpose and with a plan is the key. When we do this, we analyze what value, temperature and chroma we need for each hue, and we have a better chance of mixing accurately and cleanly.

The organizing principle I recommend is Carlson’s Theory of Angles. Using Carlson’s Theory we identify groups of hues within the four planes in the landscapesky, ground, slanted planes, and uprights. The advantage of this method is that the artist begins by thinking about where these colors occur in the landscape. And of course, that affects what value, temperature and chroma they are! So organizing your mixes this way encourages exactly the kind of analysis we need to determine the correct variations of each color within our color harmony.

Also, once you have premixed, your palette will have these four distinct groups of colors organized right before you as you begin to paint.

The objection I hear most often to premixing is that taking the time to premix colors in advance will take away from painting time, or if done in the field, will take up time while conditions may be changing. Of course, neither of these objections makes much sense because in order to paint we must mix color. The question is not if we will mix, the question is when we will mix.

Although I certainly can understand the impatience to start painting, particularly when working outdoors, I know from many years of experience that the results will be better the more planning and thinking I do before putting the first stroke on my canvas. Premixing allows you to approach execution of your work in an analytical way. Once that is done, the actual painting usually proceeds more smoothly and quickly, free from trial and error and on the fly decision making. Of course, you will need to make modifications to your premixed palette as you go, but the majority of the work will be done and you will have a much clearer plan for its execution.

Happy Painting!

Deborah

P.S. Our six week online class The Strong Start starts April 13th! In this class you will learn  the concepts, techniques and strategies that can give you the strongest possible start to your work, both in the studio and outdoors. Strong starts make for strong finishes! Join us!