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

munsell_value_scale copy

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.

Screen Shot 2017-12-25 at 1.29.12 PM

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

munsell_value_scale copy

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!

 

 

Break Temperature Not Value

Nature is, as John F. Carlson said, an overloaded property room, and often as landscape painters we find it challenging to create a painting that has a sense of unity, as opposed to being a composite of parts.

There are many “picture-making” strategies for simplifying and unifying nature into a work of art, such as looking for “big shapes” and creating a coherent range of values.

Carlson admonishes us not to copy Nature “tone for tone” i.e., value for value,  and to keep the simplicity of the large masses. But it is Birge Harrison, the author of  Landscape Painting (1909) and Carlson’s teacher, who shows us the way to do that: break temperature not value.  By using temperature shifts of the same value, rather than value changes, we can add variety and interest to the large shapes. By doing this, those big shapes are not broken up and the large masses and the painting retain a sense of unity.

The technique can be done in a number of ways. Harrison describes one way in which the artist creates a warm underpainting, essentially a full value study and the paints over it, matching tone for tone but using cooler colors in the overprinted layer. Allowing some of the underpainting to show through creates vibration.

Another method  would be to paint opaquely and juxtapose warm and cool touches in the same mass.

Here is an example by William Langson Lathrop (1859-1938), a well known painter, etcher and draftsman and one of the founders of the New Hope School of Painting. In the foreground of this painting there are relatively few value changes in the ground plane yet there is a great deal of variety accomplished by the use of warm and cool colors of the same or very close value.

Screen Shot 2017-10-22 at 3.07.13 PM

 

Here is an example by Peder Mork Monsted (  Danish, 1859-1941). If you squint you can see the light and shadow parts of the snow hold together, but when you really look into them you can see numerous temperature changes which he uses to add variety AND  to suggest information. The warm and cool notes on the snow bank to the right of the road is a great example of that.

Screen Shot 2017-10-23 at 8.09.50 AM

 

In this second example, we see contemporary landscape painter Clyde Aspevig doing the same thing in the shadow area of the snow and in the sky.

Screen Shot 2017-10-23 at 8.10.01 AM

 

Here is another example by contemporary landscape painter Marc Dalessio. The street is depicted with both warm and cool colors of the same value creating lively vibration and interest without breaking up the mass.

Screen Shot 2017-10-22 at 3.11.28 PM

In all of these examples there are just a few values shifts, but lots of temperature changes.

So, to create variety AND unity: break temperature not value!

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!

 

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?

screen-shot-2016-11-06-at-8-52-48-am
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.

carlson-notan
Notan

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.

carlson-4-values
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.

carlson-6-values
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.

carlson-greyscale
Greyscale

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!

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.

 

 

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.

Screen Shot 2015-08-27 at 6.00.29 PM

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.

Screen Shot 2015-08-27 at 6.39.43 PM

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!

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!

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. 

Screen Shot 2015-03-19 at 9.55.51 AM

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.

Screen Shot 2015-03-19 at 9.57.15 AM

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).

Screen Shot 2015-03-19 at 9.58.10 AM

 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).

Screen Shot 2015-03-19 at 9.58.58 AM

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).

Screen Shot 2015-03-19 at 9.59.48 AM

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! 

It’s Warm In There! – Lessons on Color Temperature

One sunny, breezy day over twenty years ago, I was painting boats at a picturesque harbor on the Maine coast with my teacher and mentor Ned Jacob. There is some sort of special hell reserved for artists painting boats, especially boats that are moving. bobbing up and down and generally not staying still! But, on this day, it wasn’t drawing that had me totally flummoxed. I was painting a white fishing boat moored nearby and felt I had a pretty good drawing of the structure. But, as I tried to paint the interior of the cabin, which was in shadow, I could not make it look right. It looked like a flat piece of paint rather than an area receding away from the outside of the boat. I had a nice pile of grey paint that looked like the right value for the shadow. Ned looked over my shoulder and said “It’s warm in there.” Then he picked up a speck of cad orange with his brush, dropped it in my grey and applied it to the canvas in one deft stroke. It went back, it had “air”, it was warm in there! It was my first lesson in color temperature and I never forgot it.

Color temperature seems like it ought to be a really easy concept, but in my experience it is both hard to understand and, for the inexperienced, even harder to see and therefore to paint. One thing I learned from Ned was where to look for it- where and how to identify places that might hold a color temperature change. Once I knew where to look, then I saw it everywhere!

It was several years later when I read that well known adage “break temperature not value” in Birge Harrison’s book Landscape Painting. It took a while to understand how color temperature and value can be used together to create not only solidity of forms with an economy of values, but will also be the most effective combination to produce the illusion of light and atmosphere in the landscape. Although you can depict it with well organized values only (convert master paintings to greyscale if you doubt that!), the combination of an economical value structure with strategic color temperature shifts will positively make a painting sing!

Here is a painting by American artist Clark Hulings (1922-2011) that illustrates this point. Notice the color of the wall in shadow. The cooler color above is influenced by the sky while the warmer color in the lower part of the wall partakes of the reflected light from the ground. The shaft of light hitting the wall is of course influenced by the warm sun.

Screen Shot 2015-02-16 at 9.23.45 AM

Screen Shot 2015-02-16 at 9.23.54 AM

In the next post, we’ll explore other examples of where to look for color temperature changes. Stay tuned!

 

P.S. Our online class Practical Color Mixing for Landscape Painters starts February 27. Learn how to unlock the secrets of hue, value, chroma and color temperature. Join us!

Chroma Trumps Value

This month in the Values I class we have concerned ourselves with being able to recognize values in the landscape accurately as well as to understand concepts like Carlson’s Theory of Angles and atmospheric perspective. We often perceive value in Nature inaccurately. For example, warm colors are often judged to be lighter than they actually are. Cool colors, on the other hand, will often be perceived as darker. So, we learn to recognize those tendencies and challenge our visual assumptions.

Another good example of our perception vs. reality occurs with the color attribute of chroma or intensity of a color. One piece of information can help us overcome our preconceived ideas about high chroma colors: generally speaking, the highest level of chroma occurs in the middle value range (as opposed to at the light or dark end of the scale). There are always exceptions to that, with some colors having high chroma in a slightly lighter range and some really dark colors having high chroma (think Prussian Blue). But, if you start out with the idea that if you are seeing high chroma you are probably seeing at least a mid value then you will more times than not be in the right neighborhood value-wise.

Here are some examples of paintings containing high chroma. The greyscale version is presented too, so you can see how chroma trumps value!

A beautiful Isaac Levitan painting with lots of high chroma greens, but all that high chroma color is deceiving. Those foreground greens are at least 5 on the value scale! Bet you thought they were about a 7, right?

Screen Shot 2015-02-01 at 7.30.20 PM

Screen Shot 2015-02-01 at 7.30.51 PM

Here is a vibrant Willard Metcalf which demonstrates our point ! All that warm chromatic color reads light, but is actually keyed much darker than you might have imagined. Much of this painting is in the middle key.

Metcalf

Metcalf greyscale

So, when you see or want to paint high chroma- think middle key!

P.S. Our Practical Color Mixing for Landscape Painters online class starts February 27. Learn to unlock the secrets of color mixing by understanding the concepts of hue, value, temperature and chroma. Discover how to create beautiful color harmonies using limited palettes and to edit the local color provided by Nature into a harmonious color scheme. Join us!