As landscape painters, one of our main tasks in composing is to get our viewers into the painting and gracefully out of it. The creation of entrances and exits requires that the viewer move easily and at the appropriate speed through the painting as well. No easy task!
Here the great French painter Camille Corot has used that little hill on the right bottom of the picture plane on which to perch his viewer. The shadowed foreground gets us into the painting and the lit up area surrounding the horse and rider form a natural focal point. The road pulls us up into the trees, and then the trees move our eye over to the distant trees and hills and sky. Look at the painting and squint and you will see how carefully and masterfully Corot has designed the light and dark areas. This is the use of value as abstract pattern which serves the design well.
PS Our upcoming online class Composing the Landscape (starts October 31). This class covers the fundamentals of landscape composition and gives tried and true strategies for both learning about and creating compositions that work. All the great color in the world won’t save a bad design! 🙂 Join us!
It may be hard to imagine right now, but soon it will be 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.
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….. (Click all images for larger view)
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.
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!
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.
Temperature is perhaps the least understood 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.
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 September 6, 2019. Sign up and you will never look at a tree the same way again. Promise! Information and registration is here.
It was over 20 years ago when I first got my hands on a copy of Carlson. I had wandered into the bookstore at the Scottsdale Artist’s School trying to escape the overwhelming odor of maroger and of course went straight to the landscape section, which was what I was really interested in. I picked up a copy of Carlson’s Guide to Landscape Painting, planning to read it on the plane on the way home to Florida. The next day, somewhere over Texas, I had an epiphany. I had reached Chapter 3, and all of a sudden everything made sense. Carlson’s book is considered the bible of landscape painting by most contemporary landscape painters and his Theory of Angles is perhaps the cornerstone of that well deserved reputation.
Now, let’s go to our friend the all-knowing Mr. Carlson. Chapter 3 – the Theory of Angles- is the place to go to understand values in landscape painting (and drawing). The Theory of Angles is the best way to sort through and organize values in the landscape and your thinking about them. Although there are exceptions to it (as there are to all rules), generally speaking it is the best guide you can use. So, if you have not read it, read it now. Right now! If you have read it, go back and read it again!
First, here’s the Munsell value scale-your new best friend (after Carlson of course). Click for larger view.
Carlson’s Theory of Angles is based on the organization of the landscape into planes- the sky, the ground plane, slanted planes and upright planes.
Carlson tells us that the sky, as the source of the light in the landscape, will generally be the lightest value – so values 91/2 to 7 on the scale above (on a sunny day). In our previous posts on skies, we saw how those values would grade from light to dark from the horizon to the zenith, and from light to dark nearer the sun and moving away from it. The next lightest is the ground plane, which because it is a flat plane receives the most light from the sky. On a sunny day those values would be in the 8-7 1/2 range in the light and a 6 in the shadows. Slanted planes like mountains and hills come next- values 5 and 4, and upright planes like trees are the darkest 4-2. A dark accent would be a 2-1. These values would be present on a typical sunny day, when there is the broadest range of values present in the landscape. It is that broad range of values which creates the illusion of a sunlit day.
Think of each one of these value groupings as a value “family”- a discreet separate group of values. Each plane of the landscape has its own value group. So, for example, the darkest value in the ground plane (a shadow on the ground) is lighter than the lightest value in the trees !
When you first begin to think about the landscape in planes and to try to assign those values to the landscape, it can be helpful to keep each “value family” completely separate, with no overlap of values. In my experience, most students really struggle to keep those planes separated, which is the key to making the painting “read”. In reality you will see some overlap in those value ranges between the planes, and in some lighting effects, those ranges can be very close. But, for now, just keep the idea of the separation of the planes in the forefront of your mind. And read Carlson!
P.S. In our online classes Understanding Values in the Landscape I and II offered in January and February we study Carlson’s Theory of Angles and atmospheric perspective (the other great over arching concept which affects values in the landscape) as well as how to “key” a landscape by using the appropriate value range and relationships to create the illusion of different lighting conditions and weather- from foggy, misty days, to hazy sunshine, sunlit days, to “Magic Hours” of evening, dusk and night.
One of the most important ingredients for painting big atmospheric skies is getting the values right. We know that generally speaking the sky will have the lightest values in the landscape because it is the source of light (think Carlson’s Theory of Angles- if you don’t know about that you should!). The value of a typical sunlit sky will grade from light to dark from the horizon to its zenith. But it is helpful to assign an actual value to these gradations so we can place them in proper context within the entire landscape . If you key your sky too dark, it will look leaden and lower the value of your entire painting. First, here is the Munsell value scale, running from 10 to 0, light to dark. All images can be clicked for a larger view.
So, remembering that the sky is a vault (right?) here is what that might look like, assigning values to the sky. You will note that there is just a slightly darker value that occurs right at the horizon. Often this is not visible because objects (buildings, mountains etc) are in the way. But, when it is visible, making this value adjustment is crucial.
The values in the sky also grade light to darker from the source of the light to the opposite side of the sky. So, near the sun, values will be lighter and get progressively darker farther away. Here is what that might look like.
So, go outside and look up! Observe these gradations and how they look in different parts of the sky. The values might be somewhat different from what is shown here depending on weather conditions. For example, on an overcast day, the values will actually be lighter than they are on a sunlit day!
Often we may be painting a smaller part of the sky or a lower part of the sky than would include the whole range of gradations. But here is where some artistic license can be taken. Showing both vertical and horizontal gradations, even if not the entire range, will help make your skies look big and atmospheric.
Skies are just like other elements of the landscape- as artists we need to impose our own idea of design on the raw materials Nature provides. In this post we’ll focus on how weight, balance, asymmetry, movement, and edges can help us design our skies (and anything else for that matter).
This painting is by Wilson Hurley ( 1924-2008 ), an iconic painter of big western skies. I picked this image because it not only has a big cloud right in the middle but, it is also almost square, which tends to force the eye to the middle. So Hurley set himself a pretty interesting task when he chose this cloud to paint in this format.
Hurley has used the idea of counterchange-that is, playing darker and lighter values against each other- to effectively design this piece. The light ground plane contrasts with the darker sky, which is then used as a foil for the lighter cloud. But, let’s look a bit deeper to see how he makes that big cloud in the center thing work so well.
In the next image we can see that although the cloud is pretty much in the center of the canvas, he has weighted the image to the left by using that bank of clouds as an anchor (which also helps to give dimension to the cloud by pushing the lit up portion forward). The bank on the bottom right has much softer edges and recedes more into the sky so its not as prominent, which of course makes the areas to the left more so. Also, the lit up portion, which comes forward and has more visual weight, is also on the left. The lightest light and the crispest edges are all in this area as well. While we are on the topic of edges, look at the variety of them in this piece!
Here we can see that even though we have a very centered composition with stable horizontal lines throughout, a diagonal has been established which helps create movement. The design of the ground plane is part of this movement and helps to hold the earth and sky together visually.
All of these are compositional devices which can be used in designing skies of all types, and landscapes in general.
What shape is the sky? As landscape painters we must remember that the sky is not a flat plane in the distance, but a vault which arches up toward and over the viewer’s head.
The fact that we are depicting a vault rather than a flat plane affects the perspective we see in the clouds, the colors and values in various parts of the sky and the amount and quality of light.
But, it should also affect the way we depict it in paint. Specifically, the direction of our brushstrokes! When we want to depict other shapes or forms we often think in terms of the direction of brushstrokes. For example, we might use a horizontal stroke to help define the volume and girth of a tree trunk, or a short curved stroke to suggest the shape of leaves and foliage. So, when we paint the sky, we should use vertical strokes to help show that it is a vault, arching up and over the head of the viewer. Using vertical strokes will instantaneously add a sense of “bigness” to your skies. Even a cloud filled sky can benefit from some well placed vertical stokes. So, give those vertical strokes a try!
“I have done a good deal of skying, for I am determined to conquer all difficulties, and that among the rest.”
John Constable, October 1821
August is for skying at The Landscape Atelier! Our annual Skies class is well underway and this August we have lots of big summer skies to keep us occupied. As we launch this blog our next few posts will touch on just a few of the things we are learning about drawing and painting skies.
As many of my students know, John Constable, the great 19th century English landscape painter, is a major source of inspiration to me. Constable was an innovator in the art of landscape in a number of ways, including his study of skies. He was one of the first artists to make plein air sketching part of his regular working process. During the summer months, he would leave his studio in London and roam the Suffolk countryside. He had a particular interest in skies and today his on the spot sketches (annotated on the back with date, time and weather conditions) are among his most compelling works. He used these sketches to make further studies in the studio and in the development of his larger studio works, including the famous “six footers”.
For those of you who might want to know more about Constable and his skying, I highly recommend the book Constable’s Clouds-Paintings and Cloud Studies by John Constable, published by the National Galleries of Scotland. For those who would like to know more about Constable’s use of these studies and general process in creating the six footers, Constable: The Great Landscapes, published by Tate Galleries, is a great resource.