“It is much easier to paint a sky to suit a landscape than a landscape to suit a sky.”
Sir Alfred East, The Art of Landscape Painting in Oil Colour (1915).
When should you paint the sky? Should it be the first thing you paint when you begin a landscape painting? The last? All at once? Incrementally?
Some of you may have heard the oft repeated advice to paint the sky first. The argument for this approach goes: The sky sets the key for the landscape , the value range for the landscape, the mood of your picture, and the light condition you wish to depict. And, painting back to front, helps with edges too. All of these things are true. But, there are also good reasons not to!
Here is why. Most beginners and many intermediate painters will start out by keying their sky too dark. The sky is generally the lightest plane in the landscape and on a typical sunny day its value might range from 9 to 7.5 or 8. Very often, without any other value to compare it to on the canvas, students will mix a value range which is one or even two to three value steps darker than what it should be! As a result, every other value in the landscape gets pushed toward the darker side of the value scale. The result is usually a dark painting, or one where the values are all in the middle of the range as the student struggles to keep things from getting too dark.
It is much easier to judge the value of your sky once you have something to compare it to. Ideally, you will use a value scale to mix your color and make sure it is in the correct range. But, you also want to compare it to other values. So, laying in a range of values, including your lightest light and your darks will help you judge the correct value for your sky.
Secondly, As Sir Alfred East notes, one of the challenges in landscape painting is to make the sky and the landscape work together harmoniously. There are many more “moving parts” – value changes, temperature shifts, drawing issues, color harmony to solve in the landscape and they need to be worked out to some degree before you can effectively “marry” the sky and the landscape.
However, painting back to front does have real advantages and being aware of and careful about your sky values can solve some of the problems I have outlined above.
This is why that I recommend students lay in an initial thin layer of opaque pigment at a value of about 9, after completing the initial underpainting or lay in of their composition. Think of this as a “placeholder” value and color which will help you keep your painting in the correct key. Then, as you develop your painting, and have established the darkest and lightest tones of the value range you intend to use, you can go back and finish your sky.
You can read more about Sir Alfred East and his book in this post.
P. S. Our annual online class The Painted Sky starts Friday, August 2nd! Learn to paint big atmospheric skies and clouds that float! Registration and information is here. Join us!
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!
One of the many concepts, techniques and strategies I teach is premixing your palette, whether working in the studio or in the field. I often encounter resistance to this idea, but more often than not, once students try it, they understand and appreciate the advantage it gives them. Why is premixing helpful?
Premixing requires the artist to think about and analyze the colors she plans to use in advance, rather than on the fly. The first way in which this is useful is in establishing a color harmony. Color, like all other aesthetic choices we make in our work, requires a considered approach. Just as we cannot rely on Nature to compose for us, we also cannot rely on it to establish a compelling color harmony. This requires thought and usually editing. Even if your desire is to create a naturalistic landscape, you will need to edit the local color you see into a more harmonious, focused statement. Premixing gives the artist an opportunity to think about what local color is wanted and what can be discarded, what colors will be ‘the star of the show’ and what colors will play a supporting role.
The second way in which premixing can assist the artist is in establishing an organized plan of execution for the painting. Mixing color with purpose and with a plan is the key. When we do this, we analyze what value, temperature and chroma we need for each hue, and we have a better chance of mixing accurately and cleanly.
The organizing principle I recommend is Carlson’s Theory of Angles. Using Carlson’s Theory we identify groups of hues within the four planes in the landscape—sky, ground, slanted planes, and uprights. The advantage of this method is that the artist begins by thinking about where these colors occur in the landscape. And of course, that affects what value, temperature and chroma they are! So organizing your mixes this way encourages exactly the kind of analysis we need to determine the correct variations of each color within our color harmony.
Also, once you have premixed, your palette will have these four distinct groups of colors organized right before you as you begin to paint.
The objection I hear most often to premixing is that taking the time to premix colors in advance will take away from painting time, or if done in the field, will take up time while conditions may be changing. Of course, neither of these objections makes much sense because in order to paint we must mix color. The question is not if we will mix, the question is when we will mix.
Although I certainly can understand the impatience to start painting, particularly when working outdoors, I know from many years of experience that the results will be better the more planning and thinking I do before putting the first stroke on my canvas. Premixing allows you to approach execution of your work in an analytical way. Once that is done, the actual painting usually proceeds more smoothly and quickly, free from trial and error and on the fly decision making. Of course, you will need to make modifications to your premixed palette as you go, but the majority of the work will be done and you will have a much clearer plan for its execution.
P.S. Our six week online class The Strong Start starts April 13th! In this class you will learn the concepts, techniques and strategies that can give you the strongest possible start to your work, both in the studio and outdoors. Strong starts make for strong finishes! Join us!
In a previous post, I discussed how an indirect painting was built up in layers of glazes and scumbles. In this post I will do the same, but concentrate on the earliest steps- underpainting and first layers of glazes and scumbles.
One of the things I really love about indirect painting as a landscape painter is the opportunity it affords to mimic the atmospheric effects we see in Nature. But, its appeal goes much deeper than that. On one level, it just all about the paint. Although we often think of thick paint when we think of the sensuous qualities of paint, the visual quality of layers of paint- some thin and transparent and others thicker and juicer- delight the eye with variety and a riot of optical experience. We can retain the illusionistic qualities of traditional painting but combine them with a modern celebration of the surface of the canvas.
On another level, the act of creating that surface and the act of looking at it, can bind the artist and the viewer together in an exploration of both time and space. The artist builds the surface over time. The viewer experiences it by visually peeling back the layers, excavating the process and intent of the artist.
Here are the images showing how I start a painting and the first few layers as I begin to build up the surface. These are cell phone shots I took in the studio, so apologies for the variations in lighting, etc.
The first image is the completed underpainting. I use Vasari Shale and Gamblin Transparent Yellow Earth. These photos were taken during the first four or five working sessions on the painting. Because this is a larger painting, (36 x 48) the underpainting took two sessions to complete. In the distant trees I used a very thin mixture of Shale and Liquin. It was applied with a rag rather than a brush . The brushwork in the foreground establishes the initial forms of grasses, deadfall and earth. Because some of this area will remain transparent in the final painting, it is important to establish that information at this stage.
Here I have put a thin coat of opaque paint in the sky, added sky holes in the distant trees and put a first glaze on the foreground.
Second glaze on the ground plane.
Third glaze on the groundplane and scumbles over the distant trees with another layer of Shale but this time with just a little white in it. First glaze on ground plane was Natural Pigments Antica Green Earth. Subsequent glazes were in mixtures of the Antica and Nicosia Green Earth to cool and heighten the chroma a little. Darks are restated where needed to build up the forms.
Detail of the pine tree trunks on the left with opaque paint added and scumbles and sky in the distance.
At this point the painting was perhaps at most 40 % complete. Many more layers and adjustments to come.
P.S. Our online class Painting the Luminous Landscape- Introduction to Indirect Painting Methods for Landscape Painters starts on July 8. Join us !
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”.
￼ As opposed to this painting by Isaac Levitan which takes a more tonal approach and where the gradations are more subtle and naturalistic.
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). ￼
Here is George Inness (late 19th c. American Tonalist) whose work shows an attention to subtle gradations throughout. ￼
￼ 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!
In previous posts, I described the history of indirect painting and also some of the techniques. In this post, I plan to show you how an indirectly painted landscape can mimic the light effects in nature and create both an interesting and varied surface quality and multiple optical effects. Indirect painting using the Venetian tradition gives the landscape painter a wonderful assortment of techniques to use. There isn’t any one way or a set series of steps which one follows in every instance. Planning, knowledge of subject, and intuition play a role.
The final “look” of the surface requires numerous layers of varying kinds. So, thinking ahead to the next step is crucial. What I see most often is that students want to rush the process, “going for the finish” too soon by either pulling out the opaque paint or leaving the surface looking unfinished with just a few glazes. The way a painting looks when it is truly finished depends as much on what the top layer looks like as it does on all the layers underneath. The beauty and special quality of an indirectly painted work depends upon the variety of optical experiences it offers the viewer.
So, a big part of my thinking when I start to paint (actually when I start to think about an idea) is how and where I will leave things transparent, use translucent paint over transparent, use opaque paint, finish with a glaze on top, etc. My best paintings are ones where I have done all those things or at least several of them. At least I think so. That variety of surface is what will keep the viewer looking at your work long after that initial glance.
How to decide? Well, some things are obvious. Shadows need to look transparent so using transparent paint there works well. But, generally I use several layers of glaze, maybe up to four or five, before I start in with other techniques. Why? Because those transparent areas give the finished painting a richness and depth, even when large parts of it are covered with translucent or opaque paint. I try to keep as much of it uncovered as I can.
Scumbles are a great tool for creating atmosphere and “air”, softening edges and generally building up layers of sympathetic color. I also like to think about building something from the ground up, or, put another way, like Nature would make it. So, the dark warm earth (transparent ) goes on before the grass or leaves on top and the warmer, darker tree interior goes on before the lighter cooler outer layers of light and mid tone.
But, every painting starts with a transparent underpainting which is about two value steps lighter than it will be in the finished painting. Subsequent glazing will darken the value, so one must compensate by starting out a bit lighter. It is just the first of many decisions that have to be made while thinking ahead. You have to have your next moves in mind before you pick up the brush. There is no straight line between the start and finish, but rather lots of zig zags. Here is what a typical underpainting might look like. Although the values overall are lighter, the value relationships should be correct.
This next painting is called Farm Pond Morning (16 x 20). Here are a few images which unfortunately have some glare but I think still serve to address some of this. I kept the images large so more detail could be seen. In these I have fast forwarded to the finished painting.
First, is a detail of that lit up area between the trees. I think you can see the transparent edge right next to the opaque light paint which represents the sun. putting those two things together mimics Nature- light bounces off the opaque paint back into the eyes of the viewer (like the sun) while the light passes through the transparent edge giving it a glow and lighting it up in the same way we perceive it in real life. But, also look at the surrounding areas of foliage. If you click on the image, you will be able to see the layers underneath the translucent paint on top. So in this one area there are three different optical experiences.
This next closeup is the far left edge at the juncture of the grass and water. The tree reflections are transparent with opaque paint on top for the pond scum and opaque reflections for the sky. The grasses are painted very thinly (as compared to the more robust little bits of opaque paint on the pond), barely a whisper of opaque paint dragged over the underpainting. To the right, an area that is just getting a little light has been lightly glazed with a warmer color on top of that. Just above that is an area where the trees meet the grass which was under painted, glazed, then translucent paint put on top, then a glaze on just that underneath lower area to create warmth and vibration with the greens above.
Here’s a detail of the area just above the previous one where you can see the grasses and trees a bit better.
Here’s another detail of the water, this one including the reflection of the sun. Again, from the bottom up, it is transparent underpainting, numerous glazes – first darker (just like I would do if I were painting the tree itself), then the lighter warmer colors on top of that, juxtaposed with the opaque reflections which are also glazed over, and finally the cooler opaque bits floating on top of the water.
Using indirect techniques offers the landscape painter endless combinations of techniques to create a varied and beautiful visual experience for the viewer.
P.S. Our annual Magic Hours online class, an exploration of indirect painting techniques and painting transitional times of day, starts October 9. Join us! For those interested in a more comprehensive program of study, we are accepting students for the January trimester of the Atelier programs. Click here for more information.
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.
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!
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!
“In every object there is inexhaustible meaning; the eye sees in it what the eye brings means of seeing.”
“Paint what you see.” Has anyone ever told you that? The other day I was reading something online and ran across a discussion where several artists were offering advice to another artist about how to tackle a particular subject. “Paint what you see.” was the recurring theme of the conversation. I have heard that before, of course. You have too, right? Instructors often give this advice to students in workshops and classes. But before you can paint what you see, you have to learn to see. The vast majority of landscape painting problems are a result of a failure of seeing.
First, we cannot see what we are not prepared to see. We literally don’t know what we don’t know! For example, unless someone has explained the concept of value and its importance, perhaps relating that to how values can be organized by the planes in the landscape, the beginner won’t see that. He or she won’t know what or how to even look for it. Unless someone explains the concept of color temperature, the intermediate painter won’t see it or even know that he or she isn’t seeing it! Once we understand fundamental concepts like value and color temperature, then we see it because we know what to look for and why it is important. We are then prepared to see it, and we do! Learning to draw and paint is first a matter of learning to see.
Second, once we can see, it is no longer our job to simply “report” on what we see, but rather to “translate” what we see into a work of art. Once we have the technical skills and understanding to truthfully represent nature, it is time to create a work of art. Nature rarely arranges herself into a perfect pattern or design. We take the raw material provided by Nature and make a painting of it. The painting becomes its own thing, separate and apart from the Nature which inspired it. It must stand on its own.