Exploring Charcoal

This is a guest post by Rob Wellings, artist and  teaching assistant with The Landscape Atelier. Rob and I will be teach a new online class – Drawing the Landscape in Charcoal -in June, and I want to introduce readers of Field Notes to his work.

Charcoal is a great medium for exploring artistic possibilities. I particularly like charcoal to work from imagination and memory.  In my work, I find that the potential in the different papers and kinds of charcoal gives my imagination a wide field to roam and see what happens. Charcoal can be applied with the long flat edge of a stick of vine or willow, the sharpened tip of a Nitram, a sock, or a brush.  It can be scraped into with a knitting needle or a bottle cap, lifted in naturalistic dabbs with a kneaded eraser, or carefully shaped with a Tombow.  The list goes on.  Many of these techniques will be introduced and explored in the upcoming online class Drawing the Landscape in Charcoal.  

In the drawings below, I used compressed charcoal to achieve a solid, rich black and abstract quality.

 

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For the next drawing, a depiction of a harbor at night, a sturdy 300lb watercolor paper allowed me to scrape the paper to create the glow of city lights:

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In the seascape below, waves were scraped in with a bottle cap that gave both a roughness and an unpredictability that felt right for the subject:

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In the next two drawings of scenes at dusk, I used a sock filled with charcoal powder to give me the loose gestural quality of an atmospheric sky and a kneaded eraser to lift out the lights:

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Finally, in the drawing below I used the fragment-like shape of torn paper to explore a mood both mysterious and foreboding:

 

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P.S. Drawing the Landscape in Charcoal is a four week online class designed to introduce students to the joys of this dark, mysterious medium. Join us!

Drawing the Landscape in Charcoal

This is a guest post by Rob Wellings. Rob graduated from The Landscape Atelier last year, and now serves as a teaching assistant. Rob shows his paintings and drawings in galleries and juried shows, and maintains a studio in Malvern, PA.

With its many moods and qualities, charcoal is a time-honored medium for artists across the genres.  As a medium for artists drawing the landscape, charcoal is particularly suited to the changing light and weather we encounter in Nature.  The wide range of values, edges, and textures possible with charcoal give the artist a naturally expressive tool that can also address the needs of fine draftsmanship.

Charcoal’s diversity is also seen in its many applications and uses.  Whether applying it to laid or textured paper or canvas or using it to produce larges masses, fine lines, or washes, today’s artists continue to explore its flexibility.  As we see in the examples below, artists are using charcoal to explore the aesthetics of the landscape in beautiful and interesting ways:  

 

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Emily Nelligan
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Michael Wann

 

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Sue Bryan

 

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In these four examples, we can see the multitude of grays, the painterly drawing, and the atmospheric textures that one can achieve with charcoal.  Its dry application naturally achieves an atmospheric look and can enhance Nature’s abstract qualities, as in the works of Emily Nelligan and Alexandre Hollan; or can be used as a wash and applied with a brush, as in the exciting surfaces of Michael Wann’s drawings.  Even the complex forms and refined details found in Sue Bryan’s work are laced with an existential mood.

In the drawing below,  Deborah Paris used the texture of the tinted paper and vine charcoal stick to depict the mass of foliage; whereas for the tree, she judiciously used a charcoal pencil and eraser to represent the contour and interior forms.

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Deborah Paris

In the drawing below, I used a combination of charcoal (both vine and compressed) and wash.  The fluidity of the charcoal is a wonderful medium to use when working from imagination, as I was in this drawing.

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Rob Wellings

In The Landscape Atelier, we use charcoal as a bridge between graphite and oil to move students from line and contour to mass drawing, as well as exploring its possibilities as a medium for finished work.

No doubt, working with charcoal presents many challenges.  Its sensitivity to touch and poor adhesion to surface call for gentle care and transport.  Despite these challenges, the qualities of charcoal for the depiction of landscape is well worth a thorough exploration.

 

P.S. We have two great drawing classes coming up this year! Drawing the Landscape – a six week class designed for all levels of artists who want to improve their drawing skills (March)  and Drawing the Landscape in Charcoal, a new class, which will be given in June.  Join us!

 

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!

Let’s Talk Edges

Let’s talk edges! Edges don’t neatly fit into the usual categories of painting instruction- drawing, value, composition, color, technique. They are about all those 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. 

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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.

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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).

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 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).

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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).

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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! 

Why Draw?

Ivan Shishkin
Ivan Shishkin

Why Draw?

Often  landscape painters don’t think drawing is important. I am always amazed in my workshops and classes at the number of students who do not regularly use a sketchbook or include drawing as part of their art making process.

 

Isaac Levitan
Isaac Levitan

I was fortunate that the first artist I seriously studied with- Ned Jacob- is a fine draughtsman of figures, animals and the landscape. He is passionate about the importance of drawing. One of the most important things he said to me over the many years I studied with him was: Drawing will set you free. He never really explained what that meant, but over time I figured it out. So, now I am telling you: Drawing will set you free.

OK, that may sound like hyperbole, but it’s true. And, it’s true for several different reasons. Here they are.
First, drawing encourages observation- not casual looking, but concentrated, analytical observation. It slows you down. Its economy of means and materials allow for this to occur at almost any time and when time is short and effects fleeting.

When drawing, we are more likely to zero in on the one thing that first caught our notice, and less likely to try to capture everything out there (which often happens when painting).

Drawing, particularly mass drawing, is a bridge to painting- forcing us to focus on shape and value, without having to tackle color.

Deborah Paris Stream Study
Deborah Paris
Stream Study

Drawing, specifically, thumbnail sketches, can be an enormous aid to not only learning to compose but to trying out different compositional solutions before investing lots of time and painting materials in a bad one.

Drawing encourages intimate understanding of the structure of objects in the landscape as well as their surface appearance.  This knowledge will inform your efforts and make your work more authentic.

 

Tree Study Deborah Paris
Tree Study
Deborah Paris

But, perhaps the most important reason is that you cannot ever become a good landscape painter without being able to edit the raw material nature provides. If you are dependent on either what’s in front of you or a photographic reference, your options are always limited.

Deborah Paris
Deborah Paris

Editing means not only leaving things out, but moving them around, redesigning how they are shaped, in what part of the picture plane they are found, moving the viewer’s location, adding elements that support your visual idea but are not actually in the scene before you, and painting from memory and imagination. Drawing can give you the skills to do those things- the freedom to take the raw material nature provides and design works of art.
And, a long the way, you find that drawing itself is a great pleasure.  Drawing sets you free.

 

P.S. Our six week online class Drawing the Landscape is designed to introduce students to methods, materials, concepts (like linear perspective and comparative measurement), and strategies for successfully completing drawings from Nature both for their own sake and as invaluable reference for painting, reducing dependency on photography. There will be some art history thrown in to demonstrate the long and glorious tradition of drawing from Nature and some video demos to supplement the thorough written materials, illustrations and examples. Join us!