When to Paint the Sky

 

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The Golden Valley–Sir Alfred East

“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!

The Art of the Garden

In the late 19th and early 20th century the “Garden Movement” in America was greatly influenced by French Impressionist paintings. The move to the suburbs by the middle classes also encouraged this new interest in gardening, and the “American garden”, not as formal as the English or Italian gardens of the Gilded Age, became popular. The idea was to imitate Nature’s wild garden, but of course, garden design still played an important role. Gardens and gardening were featured heavily in mass circulation magazines and books and landscape design was part of the aesthetic discourse of the day. The Arts and Crafts movement had an influence as well, encouraging the design and planting of an ‘old fashioned’ garden to reflect a reconnection with Nature that had been lost in the industrial age.

Up until the end of the 19th century paintings of gardens were an infrequent motif of American artists. However, now they began to appear as a consistent theme in American impressionist works. American artists who had traveled to Giverny and studied painting there were well aware of the use of the garden as motif in French landscape painting. Artists sometimes set up their own home and garden–Thomas and Maria Oakey Dewing and John Henry Twachtman for example) or gravitated to artists colonies in places like Lyme, Connecticut where they could enjoy gardens and orchards of local homes and boarding houses. Even artists whose work was not impressionist in style (like Oakey Dewing for example) adopted the impressionist method of working outdoors in front of the motif.

Childe Hassam (1859-1935)

John Henry Twachtman (1853-1902)

Charles Adams Platt (1861-1933)

Hugh Henry Breckenridge (1870-1937)

John La Farge (1835-1910)

 

Maria Oakey Dewing (1845-1927) attended Cooper Union School of Design in 1866. She exhibited at the National Academy of Design and was one of the founders of the Art Students League of New York. She was married to the painter Thomas Dewing.

P.S.  Our Found Still Life/Flowers in the Landscape  online class starts May 24th! Learn how to depict the beauty of the intimate landscape, wildflowers and garden flowers. Join us! 

Seeing in Shapes

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!

 

Variety- Intervals and Shapes

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!

Happy Anniversary to The Landscape Atelier!

Happy Anniversary to The Landscape Atelier!  2019 marks the 10th year that we have offered online classes for landscape painters! Needless to say, we were one of the first to do so, and over the last ten years we have taught students from all over the world! We hope you will join us this year in class and see why we pride ourselves on giving the very best instruction available online for landscape painters!

We are excited about our lineup of online classes for 2019! As always, we offer a full schedule of classes to help improve your landscape painting skills from top to bottom!

Browse our class offerings now or even better, plan a course of study for 2019 that will take your landscape painting to a whole new level. 

Our Class Bundles make it easy and cost effective to register for multiple classes. 

Learn to Key Your Landscape

Landscape painters need to have a good understanding of the importance of value in successfully depicting the landscape on a two dimensional surface. In order to have our painting ‘read’, that is to show the planes of the landscape as well as its depth, atmosphere and scale, proper values are essential. As we’ve previously written, Carlson’s Theory of Angles is a great place to start as an overarching concept for understanding values in the landscape. But, it is only a starting point!

Another layer of complexity is added when we think about how to depict the varying atmospheric conditions, times of day and effects of light that we observe in Nature. Again, values are the key to success here. And, we often refer to this process as ‘keying’ the landscape.

For example, in order to key your landscape painting to depict a sunny day as opposed to an overcast day, you must learn to shift the value range up or down the value scale as well as understand the proper value steps between the light and shadowed parts of each plane in the landscape. It sounds complicated, but with careful observation and application of some basic concepts, this knowledge will allow you to paint what you see more accurately and also change the key of your landscape when painting from memory or imagination. This combination of observation + knowledge, gives you the ability to paint any light effect or time of day.

Here are a couple of examples. In this painting by Willard Metcalf (American, 1858-1925) we see a beautiful effect of bright sunlight.

Willard Metcalf Giverny

When we convert the painting to greyscale, we can see that there is a wide range of values from light to dark. Also, the lights and darks within each plane are several steps apart. Look at the grass for example and notice that there is a 2-3 step difference in value from light to shadow.

Willard Metcalf Giverny greyscale

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In this painting by  Claude Monet we are treated to a beautiful effect of low light and an overcast sky. The colors are more muted and the values closer together.

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The greyscale of this painting shows a close value range and a shift toward the darker end of the value scale. The shifts between light and dark in the foreground are less than than a step apart, and the white sails of the boat are a step or more darker than the lightest value on the scale.

Monet Windmill at Zaandm 1871 greyscale

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By understanding both the value range and the steps between light and shadow found in each light effect or time of day, we can learn to key our landscapes effectively.

P.S. Our first online class of the year Understanding Values in the Landscape starts January 5th! Master the use of values in landscape painting and learn how to key your landscapes successfully. Also, our 2018 schedule of online classes is now posted and open for registration. There are Class Bundles available to help you save. Join us!

 

 

The Studio Podcast

The Studio Podcast

Recently I was interviewed by Danny Grant of The Studio Podcast. We had a great conversation about many aspects of the life of a professional artist–studio practice, the pros and cons of solo shows and building an art career. We also talked in depth about how I teach my online classes and my philosophy of teaching.

Please click on over and have a listen!

Happy Painting!

Deborah

P.S. Our last online class of the year Composing the Landscape starts November 3rd. This is a challenging class that is sure to ramp up your design skills!  Also, our 2018 schedule of online classes is now posted and open for registration. There are Class Bundles available to help you save. Join us!

 

 

 

 

Savvy Painter Podcast

Hi Everyone! Recently I was interviewed by Antrese Wood for The Savvy Painter Podcast.  It was a fun conversation, so have a listen!

https://savvypainter.com/podcast/discover-passion-life-deborah-paris/?embed=true

Anatomy of an Indirect Painting II

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.

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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.

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Second glaze on the ground plane.

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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.

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Detail of the pine tree trunks on the left with opaque paint added and scumbles and sky in the distance.

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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 !