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.

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Night Herder– Frederic Remington
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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!

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.

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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!

 

 

Learn to Key Your Landscape

Landscape painters need to have a good understanding of the importance of value in successfully depicting the landscape on a two dimensional surface. In order to have our painting ‘read’, that is to show the planes of the landscape as well as its depth, atmosphere and scale, proper values are essential. As we’ve previously written, Carlson’s Theory of Angles is a great place to start as an overarching concept for understanding values in the landscape. But, it is only a starting point!

Another layer of complexity is added when we think about how to depict the varying atmospheric conditions, times of day and effects of light that we observe in Nature. Again, values are the key to success here. And, we often refer to this process as ‘keying’ the landscape.

For example, in order to key your landscape painting to depict a sunny day as opposed to an overcast day, you must learn to shift the value range up or down the value scale as well as understand the proper value steps between the light and shadowed parts of each plane in the landscape. It sounds complicated, but with careful observation and application of some basic concepts, this knowledge will allow you to paint what you see more accurately and also change the key of your landscape when painting from memory or imagination. This combination of observation + knowledge, gives you the ability to paint any light effect or time of day.

Here are a couple of examples. In this painting by Willard Metcalf (American, 1858-1925) we see a beautiful effect of bright sunlight.

Willard Metcalf Giverny

When we convert the painting to greyscale, we can see that there is a wide range of values from light to dark. Also, the lights and darks within each plane are several steps apart. Look at the grass for example and notice that there is a 2-3 step difference in value from light to shadow.

Willard Metcalf Giverny greyscale

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In this painting by  Claude Monet we are treated to a beautiful effect of low light and an overcast sky. The colors are more muted and the values closer together.

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The greyscale of this painting shows a close value range and a shift toward the darker end of the value scale. The shifts between light and dark in the foreground are less than than a step apart, and the white sails of the boat are a step or more darker than the lightest value on the scale.

Monet Windmill at Zaandm 1871 greyscale

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By understanding both the value range and the steps between light and shadow found in each light effect or time of day, we can learn to key our landscapes effectively.

P.S. Our first online class of the year Understanding Values in the Landscape starts January 5th! Master the use of values in landscape painting and learn how to key your landscapes successfully. Also, our 2018 schedule of online classes is now posted and open for registration. There are Class Bundles available to help you save. Join us!

 

 

Gradation

Painting students are often encouraged to think of Nature in terms of shapes of color and value. That is a useful idea because it helps to build a solid foundation of design, value structure and drawing into our paintings. But, what to do after our flat color shapes are in place and we wish to impart some of the variety and life we see in Nature? A most useful idea to think about is the concept of gradation.

Gradation is an idea that applies to all of Nature. As John Ruskin, the great 19th century teacher and art critic, wrote in Modern Painters, every part of Nature is in a constant state of variation and gradation.

“Whereas natural gradation is forever escaping observation to that degree that the greater part of artists in working from nature see it not…or, receiving the necessity of gradation as a principle instead of a fact, use it in violently exaggerated measure …. So that we find the majority of painters divided between the two evil extremes of insufficiency and affectation, and only a few of the greatest men capable of making a gradation constant and yet extended over enormous spaces and within degrees of narrow difference.”

John Ruskin, Modern Painters, 1843

” the two evil extremes of insufficiency and affectation ”  <sigh>  Ruskin – you gotta love him!

The same idea is set forth by Andrew Loomis:

“Nature is seldom one flat bright pure color anywhere. In  Nature, colors are made up of variety all through,  which means warm and cool variations, or colors  broken or blended together. The sky is not one  blue, the ground not one green or brown or grey.  The foliage in the distance is quite different in  color than that close by. The charm of color lies  in warm and cool variation* in the greyed or  muted color along with the pure and brilliant. If  you can put three reds together they are more  beautiful than one red, and this is possible by let-  ting the red lean to the warm and cool within the  same area. It is the same with every color in the  universe.”

Andrew Loomis, Creative Illustration (1947)

And John Carlson….. “there is no such thing as a perfectly flat mass in all of Nature!” Carlson’s Guide to Landscape Painting (1929)

In fact, all of Chapter 6 in Carlson could be described as an ode to gradation- so if you want to understand gradation, start there. Read it!

The truth of this, as with all things in Nature, is to go to the source. Step outside and look at the ground beneath your feet and then as it spreads out ahead of you in the distance. Look at the distant trees. Or the sky. Every object in Nature (except manmade ones) will partake of the idea of gradation- changes in value, chroma and temperature within each mass. Sometimes these changes are caused by that mass being partly in light or shadow, or by its recession into distance, or by its distance from the light source. But often, those gradations simply occur as part of the local color of the objects themselves. This quality of variety delights the eye,

Our challenge as artists is to show this beautiful quality of Nature.  So, this is why the idea of creating variety in color through understanding shifts in temperature, chroma and value is so important! It goes to the heart of being able to depict Nature effectively! There are several ways to do this.

Impressionist painters chose to use broken color- exaggerating the gradations in order to emphasize the visual impact they create. Monet is a good example of this approach.  Ruskin might have considered this “an evil extreme of affectation”.

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 As opposed to this painting by Isaac Levitan which takes a more tonal approach and where the gradations are more subtle and naturalistic.

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The idea of broken color in landscape depiction reached a zenith of sorts with the Pointillists. Here is a work by Georges Seurat (late 19th c. French). 

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Here is  George Inness (late 19th c. American Tonalist) whose work shows an attention to subtle gradations throughout. 

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 Nature..thy name is….gradation!

 

P.S. Our new six week online painting class The Strong Start begins on April 15. As its name implies, this class is designed to help students start out with a solid structure for their work, and give them proven strategies for successful work outdoors and in the studio. A Strong Start is the first step to a strong finish! Join us!

Drawing and Painting Foliage- Value Maps and Squinting

John Constable, one of England’s and the world’s most revered landscape painters, spent his career making drawings and painted studies from which he then worked up his famous “six footers”. Constable’s work was enormously influential in France with the Barbizon school of landscape painters, and eventually the Impressionists.

Here is a typical drawing of his and it is instructive for us when learning to see and paint masses of foliage.  As you will note, Constable has carefully delineated the values within the foliage masses and used lights, midtones and darks to create form. These areas are not randomly created- they are based on the architecture of the tree. But, you will often have to “mass” these areas of value to create a solid look to your tree. In most cases, there will be many more value changes than you will want to describe. To do so will break up the volume of the form too much.

constable drawing trees-Working Methods of 19th Century European Landscape Painters-FSLP

 Here is another drawing by William Trost Richards (American, 1833-1905 ) showing the same technique.
Wm. Trost Richards
Wm. Trost Richards
If you click on this for a larger view, you will note the beautifully organized areas of value which help create the illusion of volume in the foliage masses.

So, squint down and look for the large value areas. To help you accomplish this, do a little sketch to map out those areas before you start your drawing or painting. This will help you see them as well as design them in a pleasing way. Here is an example of a value map. This kind of sketch can really help organize your values before you start.

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Here is another slightly more finished “value map”. As you can see, I have massed the lights and darks and also used mid tones to describe the planes of the foliage. When you look at foliage try to see those planes- where the light strikes the mass, where it turns away from the light, and where it is in shadow. If you squint you can see this clearly. Then the challenge is to “mass” those areas.

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Go outside and do a lot of observing of foliage until you begin to see the patterns. Do some simple value maps to gain experience with the idea of massing. Notice the direction of the light and how that affects the values you see. Here are two more simple “value map” drawings, the first showing top lighting and the second depicting lighting from the left top side of the tree. In both simplified drawings, I have identified the lights, mid tones and shadow areas by squinting down and also by simplifying those areas. In Nature, those values will not always be clearly organized. If you try to copy them as you see them, the result will look spotty and break up the solidity of your form. So learning to squint and simplify is the key to success.

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 P.S. Our most popular online class, Drawing & Painting Trees, starts September 11th. For landscape painters, trees are arguably the most important raw material of our craft and art. Join us!

The Poet of the Forest

Ivan Shishkin (1832-1898) was a late nineteenth century Russian landscape painter. He is revered in Russia and has steadily become better known in the West. Shishkin received a classical painting education in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and also was the recipient of Imperial scholarships for study abroad. He was a contemporary of Isaac Levitan (my other favorite Russian) and they exhibited together as part of a group called the Itinerants.

Shishkin is best known and loved for his forest scenes and was often referred to as “the poet of the forest”.

Portrait of Shishkin Ivan Kramsol
Portrait of Shishkin
Ivan Kramsol

Shishkin 2- Oaks_ Evening-Examples of Tree perspective-Trees

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 shishkin Mast trees 1898The Mast Tree Grove

This massive painting, approximately 65 x 99, was painted in the last year of the artist’s life!

Enjoy!

P.S. Our most popular online class, Drawing & Painting Trees, starts September 11th. For landscape artists, trees are arguably the most important raw material of our craft and art. Join us!

Seago Skies

Edward Seago (1910-1974) was a British landscape painter. He is one of the best known and widely collected British artists of the 20th century. He enjoyed enormous popularity during his lifetime including royal patronage by several members of the Royal Family, including the the Queen Mother, the Duke of Edinborough and Prince Charles.  Seago painted all sorts of subjects, but is perhaps best known for his paintings of boats, skies and the countryside around his home in Norwich. He painted in watercolor and oil.

Edward Seago
Edward Seago

 

Although Seago was given some direction by Sir Alfred Munnings he was essentially a self taught artist. He studied the works of Constable particularly as well as other masters.

Here are some beautiful Seago skies. Notice how Seago carefully orchestrated his skies, playing the lights and darks against each other. Enjoy!

 

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P.S. Our upcoming online class The Painted Sky starts August 7th! Take a look at our previous posts on painting big, atmospheric skies and join us!

Registration is here.