Composition, 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, 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.



Art History, The Landscape Atelier, Trees, Value

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.

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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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 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!
chroma, Color, Color Temperature, The Landscape Atelier, Trees, Value

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!

Art History, Composition, Drawing, Edges, The Landscape Atelier, Value

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. 

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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.

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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).

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 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).

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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).

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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! 

Color, Color Temperature, The Landscape Atelier, Value

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.

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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!

Art History, Color, Value

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?

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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 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!

Art History, Painting Technique, The Landscape Atelier, Value

Let it Snow!

Many of us are facing bitter winter weather just now. So, it seemed an appropriate time to talk about…painting snow!

Two of the main concepts to keep in mind when painting snow are value and color temperature. When painting a light, highly reflective surface like snow we are hampered by the value limitations of our materials. Our white paint is the lightest light we can muster. In order to effectively represent snow and its surroundings, we must darken its value just a little, as well as the other planes in the landscape likes trees, hills and sky.

Because of its reflective surface, the color of snow is affected by the colors around it, most particularly the sky. That is why on a bright sunny day when the ground is covered with snow, you will see those intense blue shadows. That’s the zenith of the sky reflecting into the shadows. Recognizing the source of that color and maximizing it helps to describe the snow. In this painting you can see contemporary American landscape painter Stapleton Kearns doing just that. He has used a warm white for the sunlit portion of the snow and cooler whites to depict the planes turning from the light and the shadows. This is a great example of how one might model the snow on a sunny day.  Notice too how the value of the sky has been lowered just a bit and the rest of the scene brought into that range as well. The warn notes in the foreground logs provide a temperature counterpoint to the overall cool cast of the painting. Finding opportunities to include a warm note in a snow painting adds variety and richness to the snow filled world.

Stapleton Kearns

Stapleton Kearns

But, often when we paint snow, it’s not a sunny day. Here is a lovely tonal homage to snow by American painter John Carlson American ,1875-1947), author of Carlson’s Guide to Landscape Painting. The color of the snow reflects the muted sky color, and the close values of grey, brown and violet in the near and distant trees evoke a quiet winter day in the woods. Subtle warm notes in the trees and plants sticking out of the snow provide the needed variety in temperature.

Carlson snow

John Carlson

Here’s one of my favorite snow paintings by Frederick Mulhaupt (American, 1871-1938 ). Mulhaupt has used value masterfully here. The counterchange between the light tree trunks and darker confers behind is echoed by the small triangle of dark water on the left. The violet sky is darker than the snow which helps to set it off and appear luminous. Subtle temperature and value changes within the snow describe the ground plane underneath, and the dark bits of earth peaking through lead the eye to the central arrangement of trees. The remaining foliage on the trees provides a warm counterpoint against the violet sky. Quite an orchestration!

Mulhapt snow

Frederick Mulhaupt

In this painting, I wanted to evoke the memory of a day in snow filled woods. The quiet muffled quality of sound, the intimacy of the deep woods, and my part in it were all on my mind. I used subtle value and temperature changes to depict the foreground snow and describe how it began to pile up on top of grasses, plants and tree trunks. Warm notes in the foreground provided a counterpoint to the violets, greys and browns.

Winter Woods Deborah Paris

Winter Woods
Deborah Paris

Finally, here is a painting by Marc Dalessio (American, contemporary) which he posted recently on his blog. He helpfully included a photo of the scene he was painting. This provides a great example of how he has manipulated value and temperature to create an effective design. Note how the snow value has been lowered and its temperature cast shifted to a very light blue green. Notice also the warm note of pink on the edge of the shadow underneath the main tree on the right and a similar note on the other side of the road. He has also darkened the value of the trees in the distance just slightly and the main tree as well, providing needed darker notes (along with the tire tracks).

Dalessio snow photo

Dalessio snow photo

Marc Dalessio

Marc Dalessio

Orchestration of value and color temperature is the key to success in snow paintings. So, go out and paint some snow!

P.S. Our Values II online class and Color Mixing  online classes are a great place to learn how to “key” the landscape and to understand the concept of color temperature. Join us!

Art History, Value

The Dark Side

One of the most challenging effects to paint are depictions of the night. Nocturnes have particularly fascinated artists since the latter part of the 19th century. Painting the night presents special challenges in “keying” the landscape- that is, selecting a range of values which best depicts the light effect desired. Of course, in the case of nocturnes, the value range moves toward the darker end of the scale. The majority of values are compressed into a very narrow range.
Here are four nocturnes by Isaac Levitan (Russian, 1860-1900) which show both the beauty and variety he brought to nocturne color harmonies. But, when we convert these to greyscale, we can see that narrow range of darker values provide the structure for these paintings.  In each of these Levitan has compressed the value scale to the “dark side” . He has used “lights” sparingly for drama and often the lights are actually a middle key. Yet, each nocturne is keyed slightly differently, but still reading as night. Study these closely and try to identify the values used in each portion of each painting. Much to be learned here!
cabin nocturne     road nocturne   bonfire.jpg!Large river nocturne   cabin nocturne desat munsell_value_scale road nocturne desat munsell_value_scale bonfire.jpg!Large desat munsell_value_scale   river nocturne desat   munsell_value_scale P.S. Our online classes Understanding Values in the Landscape I and II are scheduled for January and February and filling fast! Learn about Carlson’s Theory of Angles, atmospheric perspective, keying the landscape and lots more. Join us!