Art History, Color, Painting Technique

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!

Art History, The Landscape Atelier, Trees, Value

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!
Art History, Trees

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

Scan 60

Scan 59

forest-autumn

shiskin pine-forest-1885-Ivan Shishkin-Trees

winte-1890

 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!

Art History, Skies, The Landscape Atelier

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.

Art History, Painting Technique, Skies, The Landscape Atelier

Sir Alfred East- Advice on Painting Skies

Sir Alfred Edward East (1844- 1913), was a British landscape painter whose work was influenced by the French Barbizon painters as well as the rich tradition of British landscape painting in the 19th century transmitted by the twin giants of the genre, Constable and Turner. Sir Alfred had a successful career, exhibiting at the Royal Academy and was given a knighthood by King Edward VII. Today, he is perhaps best remembered for his book The Art of Landscape Painting in Oil Colour which was published in 1906.

Sir Alfred East

Sir Alfred East

Sir Alfred East

Sir Alfred East

The book contains much of the conventional wisdom on landscape painting of the time, but is noteworthy in its emphasis on drawing, how to approach Nature, sketching and painting from Nature, and composition. The chapter on painting skies is particularly interesting, offering the beginning landscape painter sage advice delivered in a mixture of pithy directives and more lengthy (occasionally turgid) prose of the late 19th century.  It is well worth reading. Here are a few of the best bits!

Sir Alfred East

Sir Alfred East

In his chapter on skies, East advises that “if you make a practice of painting a sky every morning with the regularity that you take your bath, you will find at the end of six months that you know something of its variations.” He suggests that thirty minutes is a sufficient amount of time, and that it should be done immediately before breakfast so that it doesn’t interfere with your “ordinary work”.

“But of all things avoid a flat sky. There is nothing so miserable in landscape painting as a mere piece of flat blue.”

“Don’t be afraid of rubbing the foliage into the sky, and the the sky into the foliage at you first painting. You will have ample opportunity of getting the character of the edge… at a later stage.”

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

A Kindle version of the book is available through Amazon.

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.

Art History, Indirect Painting, Painting Technique

What is Indirect Painting? Part II

In Part I on this topic we explored the history of indirect painting. In this post, we’ll look at why indirect painting is different from direct painting – why it creates a different “look” and how it can be used to create an extraordinary range of optical effects.

First, let’s talk about transparent paint. During my training as a landscape painter, I was not really given any information about transparent paints and what, if anything, they might be used for. In fact, I tended to think of them as a nuisance and to avoid them, because generally their tinting strength is lower. Like most direct painters, I vaguely understood that it was a good thing to keep the darks thin and the lights thicker.

Eventually, as I began to explore indirect painting techniques, understanding the properties of transparent paint and how they can be used opened up a a whole new way of looking at the surface of a painting.

Here is a diagram showing what happens when light strikes the surface of a directly painted work.  The light strikes the surface of the painting and then bounces off. This mimics how light reaches our eyes on lit up form and is why opaque paint works so well to depict bright sunlight for example.

Direct Painting Illustration

Direct Painting Illustration

 

 

Indirectly painted works, on the other hand, are composed of distinct layers of paint, some passages applied transparently as glazes, others applied translucently as scumbles or velaturas and others in opaque paint. All of these layers may be visible when one looks at the surface of the painting. So what happens when light strikes an indirectly painted work? Here’s a diagram.

 

Indirect Painting Illustration

Indirect Painting Illustration

Essentially what happens is that light passes through the surface of the painting (rather than reflecting back as it does off an opaque paint surface) , strikes the ground or other opaque layer, and bounces back out, creating that “glow from within” look.  So, when you combine different surfaces – all transparent, transparent glaze over an opaque layer, scumble over transparent, etc- you get all sorts of different effects because the light is entering and reflecting and refracting back in different ways on different parts of the painting surface.

This creates an optically complex look that just cannot be gotten any other way. Because the light travels back through the layers, it enters the eye in a more diffused state and creates both a glow and luminosity that enhances the atmospheric look of the work. Shadows look deep, transparent and mysterious, scumbles create air and atmosphere, softly covering forms,  and opaque passages look even more brilliant.  In a way, looking at an indirectly painted work is a bit like an archaeological excavation – the viewer peers through layers of paint and time. The surface invites a long, lingering look.

Autumn Sunrise, Lennox Woods Deborah Paris

Autumn Sunrise, Lennox Woods
Deborah Paris

 

Farm Pond Morning Deborah Paris

Farm Pond Morning
Deborah Paris

 

Winter Morning Deborah Paris

Winter Morning
Deborah Paris

P.S. Our annual online class Painting the Luminous Landscape- Introduction to Indirect Painting for Landscape Painters- starts July 10th. Come see what all the fuss is about! Join us!

Art History, Indirect Painting, Painting Technique

What is Indirect Painting? Part I

Most of you are direct painters. This is the primary way that oil painting has been taught for the last century or so, although indirect painting held sway prior to that. I was trained to work in a direct, alla prima way as many of you have been. When I decided to explore indirect painting techniques, there wasn’t a lot of information out there, especially for landscape painters. So, it took years of research- study of past masters, as well as art history, and texts on methods and materials- to figure out a bit about this way of working. Even today, there are just a handful of landscape painters who are using these methods.

Indirect painting simply means that the surface of the painting is built up in layers rather than all in one go. There are many different ways to do this. All of them rely on creating distinct layers of paint which will create a different optical effect, a different “look” than a work painted directly in opaque paint. This is achieved by using transparent, translucent and opaque passages and building up the painting in layers.

 

Before we explore the technical side of indirect painting, let’s look at a little art history.  Prior to the late 14th century, the medium of egg tempera was used for painting. The earliest oil painting technique was developed in Flanders in the late 14th and early 15th centuries. As a result this method is referred to as the Flemish technique. Using a wood panel, artists transferred a highly refined drawing onto the panel. The drawing was then restated in ink or thin paint and sealed with varnish. Once that was dry, the artist would commence painting transparent glazes into the shadows and applying layers of thin translucent or opaque paint into other areas. Each layer of paint was allowed to dry before continuing work and the painting was finished by adding subsequent glazes and building up the lights with opaque paint. Highlights were finally added with thicker opaque paint. This produced a highly realistic, more linear image, usually with fairly hard edges.

Here is a painting by Jan van Eyck  (Flemish, 139-1441) executed in the Flemish technique.

 

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The new innovations of oil painting spread like wildfire throughout Europe. Italian artists in particular adopted the new medium although resistance by some (including Michelangelo) remained.  By the late 15th and early 16th centuries Venetian artists, particularly Titian (1488-1576) and Giorgione (c.1477-1510) began to invent further innovations to the Flemish technique. The limitations of working on wood panels and the difficulty of making alterations to a work in progress sparked a shift to the use of a canvas support and a more painterly process for execution which is called the Venetian technique.

The innovations of the Venetian technique involved the use of canvas, stiff brushes and an underpainting rather than a drawing. As a result, the edges in paintings produced this way tend to be softer and the resulting work more atmospheric and painterly. Generally the underpainting was executed either partially or completely in opaque paint and was called a grisaille when executed in neutral greys. After the grisaille dried, glazes would be applied to the shadows and the light areas built up with thin opaque paints. Titian is generally credited with “inventing” the scumble (light opaque paint applied as a translucent layer) and the velatura or semi-glaze which can be transparent or translucent.

Man in a Red Cap Titian

Man in a Red Cap
Titian

Christ Carrying the Cross Titian

Christ Carrying the Cross
Titian

Eventually use of the Venetian method and its many variations became widespread all over Europe and was used for centuries by masters such as Rubens, Vermeer, Rembrandt, Poussin, and Ingres.

Self Portrait Rembrandt

Self Portrait
Rembrandt

Indirect painting, using the Venetian method or its many manifestations, offers the artist the widest range of options for both application of paint and optical effects which can be achieved.  In Part II we’ll find how how and why!

 

P.S. Our annual online class Painting the Luminous Landscape- Introduction to Indirect Painting for Landscape Painters- starts July 10th. Come see what all the fuss is about! Join us! 

 

Art History, Water

Introducing Frits Thaulow

At The Landscape Atelier we put a lot of emphasis on art history, both as a teaching tool (always a good idea to study the Masters!) and so that as artists we can more completely understand and appreciate the rich tradition of landscape painting we have inherited. In that spirit,  I think it’s time to introduce you to Frits Thaulow (1847-1906)! Thaulow was a 19 th c. Norwegian landscape painter and has been one of my favorites for many years. Although he traveled widely and was friends with many leading artists of the day, including many of the Impressionists, he was more influenced by the French Naturalist painters like Jules Bastien-Lepage. I particularly enjoy his restrained palette, attention to drawing, and his luscious water. The man could paint water!

Here is our new friend Frits.

Thaulow portrait

 

And here are examples of his work.

You can also see more of his work online here. http://www.wikipaintings.org/en/frits-thaulow

Enjoy!

the-dordogne

alkejegeren

autumn

 

Thaulow 4

 

on-a-french-river

Thaulow 3

Thaulow

 

Thaulow 2

P.S. For centuries the depiction of water has challenged artists. Its unique properties- transparent, reflective, moving, still- create wonderful visual opportunities. In our annual Painting Water online class we learn how reflections are created and how to depict them, how the depth of water affects its color and value, how to depict still and moving water,  techniques and color palettes for water and using water features in your compositions. This class starts June 12th. Join us!

Art History, Drawing, The Landscape Atelier

Go First To Nature

Spring is here and the plein air season stretches out before us with tantalizing visions of days spent in the field painting Nature. Unfortunately for many, the reality never quite matches up to our hopes and expectations. We come home tired, frustrated and disappointed in the day’s efforts. Why? Because painting outdoors is one of the hardest things you will ever try to do as an artist! So for the inexperienced or even intermediate painter, it is a real struggle. It’s like your first day in medical school and your professor says “Alrighty then, let’s start with brain surgery!”

This is not to say that working before Nature should wait. On the contrary, we must go often to Nature from the very outset of our training. But, how we approach Nature and how we learn to paint sur le motif involves much more than buying a pochade box.

Rembrandt

Rembrandt

Below is my favorite quote about drawing and about how we should approach Nature as artists. Asher B. Durand was among the first generation of Hudson River School artists, the first truly American group of landscape painters. Although they were, of course, influenced by European art and traditions, they understood that they had to forge a new relationship with Nature in the New World. I like to think of all landscape painters that way – we must all find our way, our own way, to Nature and how we want to depict her. Drawing is the first step. Drawing sets you free.

“Go first to Nature to learn to paint landscape…take pencil and paper, not the palette and brushes, and draw with scrupulous fidelity…I know you will regard this at first thought as an unnecessary restriction, and become impatient to use the brush, under the persuasion that you can with it make out your forms, and at the same time produce colour, and light and shade. In this you deceive yourself, as many others have done, till the evil has become irremediable; for slovenly and imperfect drawing finds but a miserable compensation in the evident efforts to disguise or atone for it, by the blandishments of color and effect.

Asher B. Durand, Letters on Landscape,1855.

Asher B. Durand

Asher B. Durand

Ah, you have to love that language!…”till the evil has become irremediable”!

Van Gogh

Van Gogh

Durand’s advice was based on literally centuries of working methods developed by landscape painters in Europe and later America. Drawing was and should be a critical part of not only the training of landscape painters but our first efforts to work directly from Nature. As Durand notes elsewhere in Letters On Landscape , two things result from this method: we learn about our subject in a deeper more intimate way and we enhance the technical skills we need to make a success of our outdoor efforts. Working first with line and tone (value) and then moving on to color allows us to build a skill set incrementally rather than feeling overwhelmed by the complexity of Nature and how to depict it.

Ivan Shishkin

Ivan Shishkin

Isaac Levitan

Isaac Levitan

The greatest landscape painters throughout art history have always known this. It’s only in the last century or so that we begin to think it was unnecessary to actually learn how to draw instead of just pushing a button on a camera!

John Constable

John Constable

Rousseau

Rousseau

As importantly, eventually this work will serve as reference material for our finished work in the studio. Drawings and color studies provide a storehouse of information upon which we can much more reliably depend than a bad photograph (or even a good one!). Observation becomes one of our most valued methods and provides new insights for our work each time we venture out in Nature. Instead of the pressure to “get a painting”, we can slow down, observe and experience. Remember, drawing sets you free.

P.S. We have two upcoming online classes designed to help you make the most of the plein air season! First up starting May 8, by request, is a repeat performance of our popular Understanding Values in the Landscape class. If you want to have a better understanding of value- how to see it and how to paint it, start here! Our annual class on Field Sketching starts May 15. A perfect companion to the Values class, this class is designed to get you outdoors and give you the confidence and skills to work en plein air with success. Join us!