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!
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!
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
This week in the Composition class, we have been working on thumbnail sketches, which employ simplified shapes and values to help us explore design possibilities. Thumbs can and should become the main tool we use to both learn to compose and to explore motifs for paintings. The class worked on applying certain design principles to the task of creating thumbnail sketches. In the coming week, we will explore using four and two value studies to further sharpen our design skills.
Notan is a Japanese word for light-dark, and consists of a two value arrangement of shapes. It can be used to define and simplify shape and value patterns. Notan (two values) and four value designs are not based on how we actually see the world; they are constructs that we can use to see and strengthen value patterns. Both Notan as well as the four value studies require us to make decisions about whether mid-tones will be grouped with dark or light. This allows for a more flexible approach to thinking about design.
It’s hard to overstate the “aha!” moment that arrives when students first begin to grasp the power of using a limited set of values to compose. Here are a few examples of master works.
Here is George Inness’ Sunset in Georgia, a work which immediately catches your eye with its rich color. But the real strength of this work lies in its value pattern.
Here I have reduced it to four values. You can see how Inness has connected all his darks to create a tunnel design. This did not happen because he saw it that way in Nature , but rather because he designed it that way. Remember, composition is something you impose on Nature.
Here is a painting by the 19th c. Russian landscape painter Ivan Shishkin.
In this example I have converted the design to four values. Again, note how the darks are all linked. This is a key factor in creating strong value structures for your paintings. Although there is lots of information in this painting and very close values, with small incremental value shifts, its overall structure and design can be reduced to just a few values.
In this example I have reduced the values to two- Notan. Again the darks are linked. Note that the sky forms a shape as well as the other elements of the scene.
Here is an even more simple Notan.
We can use these same ideas to help refine our own work. The first thumb is about 2 x 3″.
Here I have reduced it to four values and added a lighter value in the distance, Although I liked the right hand side, the darks on the left were not connected sufficiently.
Pushing the values to the darker end of the scale.
A Notan to explore how to more effectively link the darks.
Working with simplified shapes and reduced values can help to refine out motifs. No amount of color, bravura brushstrokes or detail will rescue a weak design. Working with thumbnail sketches and reduced values teaches us to create a solid structure for our work.
P.S. We have a great lineup of online classes coming up including our very popular class on Understanding Values in the Landscape, and a new painting class called The Strong Start. Join us! For those interested in a comprehensive program of training for landscape we are accepting students into the Atelier programs for the January trimester.
Let’s talk edges! Edges don’t neatly fit into the usual categories of painting instruction- drawing, value, composition, color, technique. They are about allthose things and much more! As a result, the topic of edges is often given short shrift , or when it is discussed, it isn’t fully integrated into the “big picture”.
First, what’s an edge? Quite simply, an edge is where two shapes meet. This might be two objects in a still life set up, objects in the foreground of a landscape set off against the distance, or a tree top against the sky. All of these present opportunities to paint edges, and the way we paint them will affect a great many things in our picture.
All are all edges alike or equal? No, most definitely not! Think of the range of edges in the same way you would a value scale. Here is an illustration of a range of edges from 1 to 7, hard to lost. A 1 on the scale would be a hard edge, a 2- 3 would be firm , 4-6 would be soft, and 6-7 would be lost. ￼
You will often hear that your sharpest edges should be found at the center of interest. Although this is a generally helpful thing to remember, it doesn’t mean you will use a “1”. Just like with value, you use a range of edges. If, like me, you tend to use softer and lost edges, then your “hardest” edge might be a 4 or 5.
So how do edges affect all aspects of the painting process? In drawing, the kind of edge we use will provide variety as well as place emphasis on particular parts of our drawing. It works the same way in painting. Edges can also help you move the eye of the viewer through the painting. So they are a consideration in composing. Hard edges create contrast and that draws attention. Manipulating the value or color along an edge can make one form dissolve into another, create a sharp contrast, or introduce a color gradation or vibration. A crisp strong brushstroke can create an edge all by itself, while a glaze or scumble can obscure one. Edges are the place that all you know about drawing, value, color, composition and technique come together!
Here are some examples. Obviously this isn’t a landscape, but when I saw this painting a few years ago, one of the first things that struck me about it (aside from its size and the dark, brooding face of St. John,) was how masterfully Caravaggio used edges to bring the viewer in and around the painting. Of course, some of the sharpest edges can be found in the shoulder which brings it forward and gives the figure great volume and power and the left edge of the face (drawing). On the other hand, the top of the head becomes lost in the mass of foliage behind, and the shadowed side of the face melts into the neck and shoulder while the firmer edges in the arm and knee create a powerful diagonal leading to the face(composition). Caravaggio orchestrated a masterful repertoire of edges to create this powerful sculptural image. Look further and see where you can identify firmer, softer and lost edges.
￼In this moody Tonalist landscape by American master George Inness (1825-1894) the artist has used mostly soft edges. This adds to the atmospheric quality of the work. But, he uses some slightly firmer edges around the tree trunks to accent those negative shapes of light sky behind (drawing) and draw the eye through (composition). He has used layers of glaze and scumbles to achieve a luminous glow and to soften most of the edges in the painting (technique).
￼ Here is a beautiful Sanford Gifford. Gifford ( 19th century American- Hudson River School/Luminist) is known for his luminous atmospheric works. You can see how he has created lost edges in the clouds and edges of the mountain with a firmer edge along the demarcation of light and shadow defining the shape of Mt Ranier (drawing, value, color). The little boat and figure in the water have much crisper edges and act as a design counterpoint to the mountain top (composition).
This painting is by Maynard Dixon (20th century American). Dixon’s paintings of the Southwest depict its arid landscape which produces harder edges which clearly define the sculptural shapes of the landscape (drawing). He manages to work within a range of hard to firm edges with a few softer edges reserved for the sky and clouds (value, color).
P.S. What’s the one thing most beginning and intermediate landscape painters could do to immediately to improve their work? Improve their drawing skills! Our six week online class Drawing the Landscape is designed to do just that. It starts March 27. Join us!
“Speed of the line” is a concept that plays an important part in landscape design. Often we see strong diagonals at work in Nature- a mountain, a line of trees, or even a roofline of a building. The more steep and uninterrupted that line is, the “faster” it moves the eye- and often it will move the eye right out of the canvas! Here is a little thumbnail showing how that might work.
The eye sails right out the right side of the composition. ￼ The speed of the line can be slowed by creating variety in the line, interruptions so to speak, which slow the movement of the eye and break up the extreme diagonal look of the line. As you can see, the movement along the top line is much different in this example. The slight upward tick in the line creates a little eye “stopper” .
In this thumbnail a stronger stopper in the form of a tree has been added. ￼
Here a “redirection” stopper has been employed. Although it does not actually break the line it operates to redirect the eye upward into the sky. ￼
These are all fairly simple examples and solutions. Let’s see how this has been employed by a variety of artists. These first two are by American ex-pat plein air painter Marc Dalessio. I love how he has used the vertical poles here to both break the horizon line and its “speed” to the right side of the canvas. In the second one, he has used trees to break the line of the roof. On the right side the trees actually obscure it and on the left that small tree behind the building disrupts the speed of the line there.
Here is Maynard Dixon, iconic painter of western landscapes. That distant mountain on the left side is a stopper and the upward movement of the clouds also works as a redirection.
Hudson River School painter Thomas Cole used those trees on the right of the falls to slow down the descent of the mountains behind.
In a more intimate scene, Hudson River School painter Jervis McEntee used that tree on the left to stop the eye and to redirect into the sky.
So learn to recognize “speed of the line” problems and use some creative variety in the line and “stoppers” to solve the problem!
PS Our online class Composing the Landscape starts October 31. Learning to compose effectively give us the tools to express our unique vision of the landscape. Nature gives us raw material. It is up to us to make a painting. Join us!
As landscape painters, one of our main tasks in composing is to get our viewers into the painting and gracefully out of it. The creation of entrances and exits requires that the viewer move easily and at the appropriate speed through the painting as well. No easy task!
Here the great French painter Camille Corot has used that little hill on the right bottom of the picture plane on which to perch his viewer. The shadowed foreground gets us into the painting and the lit up area surrounding the horse and rider form a natural focal point. The road pulls us up into the trees, and then the trees move our eye over to the distant trees and hills and sky. Look at the painting and squint and you will see how carefully and masterfully Corot has designed the light and dark areas. This is the use of value as abstract pattern which serves the design well.
PS Our upcoming online class Composing the Landscape (starts October 31). This class covers the fundamentals of landscape composition and gives tried and true strategies for both learning about and creating compositions that work. All the great color in the world won’t save a bad design! 🙂 Join us!
Skies are just like other elements of the landscape- as artists we need to impose our own idea of design on the raw materials Nature provides. In this post we’ll focus on how weight, balance, asymmetry, movement, and edges can help us design our skies (and anything else for that matter).
This painting is by Wilson Hurley ( 1924-2008 ), an iconic painter of big western skies. I picked this image because it not only has a big cloud right in the middle but, it is also almost square, which tends to force the eye to the middle. So Hurley set himself a pretty interesting task when he chose this cloud to paint in this format.
Hurley has used the idea of counterchange-that is, playing darker and lighter values against each other- to effectively design this piece. The light ground plane contrasts with the darker sky, which is then used as a foil for the lighter cloud. But, let’s look a bit deeper to see how he makes that big cloud in the center thing work so well.
In the next image we can see that although the cloud is pretty much in the center of the canvas, he has weighted the image to the left by using that bank of clouds as an anchor (which also helps to give dimension to the cloud by pushing the lit up portion forward). The bank on the bottom right has much softer edges and recedes more into the sky so its not as prominent, which of course makes the areas to the left more so. Also, the lit up portion, which comes forward and has more visual weight, is also on the left. The lightest light and the crispest edges are all in this area as well. While we are on the topic of edges, look at the variety of them in this piece!
Here we can see that even though we have a very centered composition with stable horizontal lines throughout, a diagonal has been established which helps create movement. The design of the ground plane is part of this movement and helps to hold the earth and sky together visually.
All of these are compositional devices which can be used in designing skies of all types, and landscapes in general.