Composition, Notan, Value

Deconstructing Carlson

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?


John Carlson

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.


4 Values

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.


6 Values

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!

Composition, Notan, The Landscape Atelier, Value

Four Value Studies and Notan

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.

Onness Georgia Sunset

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.

Inness Georgia Sunset 4 values

Here is a painting by the 19th c. Russian landscape painter Ivan Shishkin.

Shishkin forest dusk


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.

Shishkin forest dusk 4 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.

Shishkin forest dusk notan 1

Here is an even more simple Notan.

Shishkin forest dusk notan 2

We can use these same ideas to help refine our own work. The first thumb is about 2 x 3″.

DMP thumb 2

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.

DMP thumb 2 4 values

Pushing the values to the darker end of the scale.

DMP thumb 2 4 values 2

A Notan to explore how to more effectively link the darks.

DMP thumb 2 notan


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.