Drawing and Painting Foliage- Value Maps and Squinting

John Constable, one of England’s and the world’s most revered landscape painters, spent his career making drawings and painted studies from which he then worked up his famous “six footers”. Constable’s work was enormously influential in France with the Barbizon school of landscape painters, and eventually the Impressionists.

Here is a typical drawing of his and it is instructive for us when learning to see and paint masses of foliage.  As you will note, Constable has carefully delineated the values within the foliage masses and used lights, midtones and darks to create form. These areas are not randomly created- they are based on the architecture of the tree. But, you will often have to “mass” these areas of value to create a solid look to your tree. In most cases, there will be many more value changes than you will want to describe. To do so will break up the volume of the form too much.

constable drawing trees-Working Methods of 19th Century European Landscape Painters-FSLP

 Here is another drawing by William Trost Richards (American, 1833-1905 ) showing the same technique.
Wm. Trost Richards
Wm. Trost Richards
If you click on this for a larger view, you will note the beautifully organized areas of value which help create the illusion of volume in the foliage masses.

So, squint down and look for the large value areas. To help you accomplish this, do a little sketch to map out those areas before you start your drawing or painting. This will help you see them as well as design them in a pleasing way. Here is an example of a value map. This kind of sketch can really help organize your values before you start.

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Here is another slightly more finished “value map”. As you can see, I have massed the lights and darks and also used mid tones to describe the planes of the foliage. When you look at foliage try to see those planes- where the light strikes the mass, where it turns away from the light, and where it is in shadow. If you squint you can see this clearly. Then the challenge is to “mass” those areas.

Screen Shot 2015-08-27 at 6.00.51 PM

Go outside and do a lot of observing of foliage until you begin to see the patterns. Do some simple value maps to gain experience with the idea of massing. Notice the direction of the light and how that affects the values you see. Here are two more simple “value map” drawings, the first showing top lighting and the second depicting lighting from the left top side of the tree. In both simplified drawings, I have identified the lights, mid tones and shadow areas by squinting down and also by simplifying those areas. In Nature, those values will not always be clearly organized. If you try to copy them as you see them, the result will look spotty and break up the solidity of your form. So learning to squint and simplify is the key to success.

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Screen Shot 2015-08-27 at 6.39.33 PM

 P.S. Our most popular online class, Drawing & Painting Trees, starts September 11th. For landscape painters, trees are arguably the most important raw material of our craft and art. Join us!

The Poet of the Forest

Ivan Shishkin (1832-1898) was a late nineteenth century Russian landscape painter. He is revered in Russia and has steadily become better known in the West. Shishkin received a classical painting education in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and also was the recipient of Imperial scholarships for study abroad. He was a contemporary of Isaac Levitan (my other favorite Russian) and they exhibited together as part of a group called the Itinerants.

Shishkin is best known and loved for his forest scenes and was often referred to as “the poet of the forest”.

Portrait of Shishkin Ivan Kramsol
Portrait of Shishkin
Ivan Kramsol

Shishkin 2- Oaks_ Evening-Examples of Tree perspective-Trees

Scan 60

Scan 59

forest-autumn

shiskin pine-forest-1885-Ivan Shishkin-Trees

winte-1890

 shishkin Mast trees 1898The Mast Tree Grove

This massive painting, approximately 65 x 99, was painted in the last year of the artist’s life!

Enjoy!

P.S. Our most popular online class, Drawing & Painting Trees, starts September 11th. For landscape artists, trees are arguably the most important raw material of our craft and art. Join us!

Lessons From a Walk

Last summer, while out for my usual early morning walk, I noticed this big foliage mass of a tree which hangs over our road. The thing that struck me about it was that it perfectly demonstrated a couple of points that come up when painting trees, and really anything in Nature. I took a picture of it hoping that the values and colors wouldn’t get too distorted and that I might be able to use it as an example. Luckily in this case, the photo shows the points I want to make pretty well.  Click to enlarge.

lesson from a walk photo

First, as we talked about in this post, often the mid tones will be the most chromatic, that is have the most intense color. This is because the color is not as washed out by light as the lights are, and isn’t dulled as much as the shadow areas are. I think if you click on this photo you can see pretty clearly how the mid tones have a more intense green color than either the lights or the shadows.

Secondly, you can also see that the top planes of the foliage in the back right side are cooled by the light from the sky.

Third, the light struck parts of the tree facing to the left are not all the same. Those closest to the light- that is, the area on the top left  are the lightest and warmest, while those more in the middle of the tree and farther away (on the right) while still struck by the light are not as light or warm.  This is something that is often noted in figure drawing, but seldom discussed in landscape painting. In fairness, it is a lot more obvious on the figure because the light source is closer to the model and both are closer to the viewer, but the idea is the same.

Fourth, I think you can see that the interior shadows are warmer than the shadowed areas on the outside of the foliage mass, which we discussed in this post.

lesson from a walk photo desat

And finally, this greyscale version of the photo demonstrates how the values of the upright planes on a bright sunny day might well be darker than you think. The lights come in at about value 5. That warm green color fools our eye into thinking those lights are much lighter. But, if we paint them too light, of course, they are “out of value” and stick out like a sore thumb!

P.S. Looking forward to a great season of plein air painting? 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. Next to drawing, values are the weakest area for most beginner and intermediate landscape painters. If you want to finally “get” 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!

Painting Fall Foliage

It is that time of year- when we are all tempted by the bright colors of fall foliage to throw every high chroma color we can lay our hands on onto a canvas! In many ways, painting this season can be even more daunting than painting the overwhelming green of summer. So put down that cad orange and take a few moments to read these suggestions! Painting autumn colors successfully comes down to paying attention to basics- in this case, value, chroma and temperature.

Value

One of the most difficult notions to overcome is our perception of warm high chroma colors as lighter in value than they actually are. I am not sure why this is, but it does seem to be universally true. When I ask students to identify the values in a painting like this for example…..

Autumn Montclair George Inness
Autumn Montclair
George Inness

 

they will almost always guess that the lightest foliage areas are a 7 – 8 on the Munsell value scale, rather than  a 5-4. Of course we know from our new best friend Carlson that trees are upright planes and therefore the darkest values in the landscape, right? So, intellectually we ought to know that they would carry a darker value. But, nonetheless, when faced with an electric orange or yellow, the guess is always to the lighter side of the scale. One look at the greyscale version of the painting confirms the folly.

Inness autumn Montclair greyscale_edited-1

One other factor should help us understand, intellectually if not visually, that these colors are indeed in the mid to darker value range, and that is their intensity. As a color is tinted, i.e., made lighter, it also loses chroma. Adding lots of white to a color will inevitably lead to that color being not only lighter, but cooler and less chromatic (duller) than it was before!

 

red chroma 2

Chroma

Chroma refers to how intense or dull a color appears. Colors in nature rarely hit the chroma jackpot in the way manmade colors do. Nature is much greyer and lower in chroma than we often realize. So, careful observation is required to convince our eyes we really are not seeing a color that comes straight off the pop tarts package. This is why in fall, when there actually is some chroma in the landscape, we tend to go overboard and paint it more chromatically and too much of it. Use restraint. That beautiful maple tree will look more fetching against a screen of more neutral trees.

 

 

Autumn Homer Dodge Martin
Autumn
Homer Dodge Martin

 

Temperature

Temperature is one of the least understood and most badly used of color attributes. It takes some time to see and understand temperature changes in the landscape and to know where to look for them. But, we can all agree that a fall landscape will have an overwhelmingly warm cast. Overwhelming. So, for that reason, looking for opportunities to introduce some cooler notes into your painting is very important.

 

Autumn Sunrise, Lennox Woods Deborah Paris
Autumn Sunrise, Lennox Woods
Deborah Paris

 

So, get out there and paint the fall foliage! If you get the values right, use restraint with chroma, and add some cooler notes for variety, you will have a much better chance of success in the field.

 

PS Our most popular online class, Drawing & Painting Trees, starts October 3. Sign up and you will never look at a tree the same way again. Promise. Information and registration is here.