Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Good advice from John Carlson

I have decided to thoroughly read John Carlson's Carlson's Guide to Landscape Painting. When I first got the modern reprint version a number of years ago, I think I only got through about half of it. I now have a 1950s edition and intend to go through it in depth and take notes as I have for Birge Harrison's and Edgar Payne's books.

But prior to starting that task, I happened upon some passages that really clicked with me and relate beautifully to an exercise I am currently having my landscape painting students do with composition. We are sketching about 4 differently arranged compositions from a single photo. I want to push my students a little to look beyond working verbatim from photos.

Now let's hear direct from Mr. Carlson himself:
(Excerpts from pages 48–49)

"Don’t paint “direct from nature” when all elements of organization and beauty or design are palpably absent.

The artist must look to nature for his inspiration, but must rearrange the elemental truths into an orderly sequence or progression of interests. By “sequence” is meant giving primary, secondary, or tertiary importance to such forms and color masses as are needed for an end and leaving all others out. In speaking of composition the use of the word “need” may sound enigmatic to the beginner. Let it be understood, then, that since nature is rarely perfect in design quality, the artist, in rearranging his “natural” elements upon the canvas, is creating a picture. This may involve moving objects to left or right, raising or lowering the horizon, slanting a mountain’s contour in a direction opposite to that of nature, enlarging or reducing various masses, strengthening or reducing certain lines, introducing minor elements such as stones, bushes, fences, flower-patches, etc., to give a desired line; “placing” clouds in a manner to emphasize their sweep and movement to coordinate with the other lines of his picture. He is really using nature and her forms, while he manipulates the natural truths to suit his artistic needs. Were this not so, the man who could slavishly imitate or copy nature as he saw her would be the greatest artist; but he never is.

No law or formula can be concocted by which good composition would always be assured. I can only suggest that the student experiment with charcoal and paper (with any given motif in mind) until he feels that one arrangement out of the several made embodies his idea better than all the others combined, and that he then try to decide why it is better."

Carlson shows this with some reproduced sketches in his book:

And I do this myself as preparation work for many of my paintings:

These were sketched from one photo and I played with format (landscape, vertical, square, etc.) and the arrangement of elements).  I personally like the look and quick results of working with white and dark pencils on toned paper.

Friday, August 2, 2019

Marc Hanson workshop

A few weeks ago I attended a 3-day plein air painting workshop led by Marc Hanson, a painter I have followed online for a few years now. I've wanted to do something like this for a while, but none of the ones I was interested in were held anywhere near me. Marc's was in Lowell, MI about a 3.75 hour drive away, just east of Grand Rapids.

We painted 2 of the 3 days in a park where a stream fed into the Flat River (which then flows south into the Grand River, which is the Grand Rapids river), and the last day in downtown Lowell. This was a great experience and I'd certainly do it again.

Marc doing his monochromatic study - big shapes & limited values

Marc's completed color painting

Day 1
Marc painted a demo - he did a monochromatic study of a scene, adjusting the composition and learning the value structure and then painted a full-color, large version
We did the same 2 type of paintings as Marc did. I did my 2 on one board, with a taped divider down the middle.

my take on this exercise
oil on 9" x 12" panel

Day 2
We did the compass rose exercise, wherein we each had a board divided into 4 equal sections. We then painted in each square for 15 minutes, turning 90 degrees for the next one, and so on. Our challenge was to find something interesting in each area.
We each painted from the same view, a tree on the bank by where the rivers met

oil on 8" x 10" panel

Day 3
We did a memory exercise where we looked at the scene we were painting for 3 minutes and then painted for 12. We did that 4 times. After that, we painted the same scene it for an hour in a normal fashion.
Marc did another demo painting in the afternoon.


Major points/lessons learned:

– Marc paints with essentially a split-primary palette and I did so for the 3 days. In recent years I have been "designing" limited palettes for each of my paintings. It was nice to get back to the arrangement I started painting with, and stick with that for 3 days. I think I will work more in that way going forward. Not switching it up all the time helps.

Marc talked about how paintings can tend to work better if they are weighted towards having more light or dark areas, and not an even split. He suggested about a 70%–30% balance, whether the larger figure is dark or light values. I have been reading Edgar Payne's book The Composition of Outdoor Painting lately and he makes a similar suggestion.

Marc stressed keeping shadows transparent and "mysterious." Save the opaque areas for things in the light. He generally addressed large shadow masses first and manipulated them to find interesting shapes and simplicity.

Marc usually paints on a warm-toned support. He began by drawing in the big shapes and wiping and re-drawing them until he had an arrangement he liked. He used a brush with thinned paint for this. Then he addressed shadow areas, and started working on the largest/most critical masses. He found warm colors wherever possible, and stressed them to counter the overwhelming dominance of greens before us. He also emphasized pulling the brushstrokes in the direction the light moves over forms.

One of the key lessons is that he designs his painting using the worthwhile elements that are before him. He is NOT painting an exact replication of every leaf and branch. The view before him contains raw material that can be used for a painting. It is not the painting itself.

Monday, May 13, 2019


In one of his excellent newsletters John MacDonald outlined an exercise that intrigued me very much.
(July/August 2018 issue: link)

He combined the color scheme of a painting with the values and subject information from a photo. This struck me as fascinating, and a very valid pathway to an interesting final image. I decided to try it and started working on this painting last fall.

This past Saturday in class I finally finished it. (It lay dormant for many months – I'm not that slow.)

My source photo was one I took in Oregon a number of years ago. I am fairly sure it was in the area of Salt Creek Falls. I liked the forms of the hills rolling away into the distance, but the sky was blown out (as often happens in photos) and offered no color or value information to draw from. What the photo is lacking made me think I'd have to look well beyond it to make something out of it.

source photo taken in Oregon

My source painting was LaSalle Street at Close of Day by Alfred Juergens:

I found it in a book of art relating to Illinois put out by the Illinois State Museum in Springfield. (The book is Chicago Painting, 1895 to 1945 by Wendy Greenhouse. The painting is actually on the cover.) I believe I chose it because it's a color scheme I've never painted with. I suppose I am not a huge fan of violet, and this is all violet, blue, and orange. Regardless of that, I do love the painting, so something there was attracting me.

I did a handful of quick sketches on toned paper to move things around and help me better imagine a painting:

I also decided on a limited palette of Hansa Yellow Light, Quinacridone Red, Cobalt Violet, and French Ultramarine Blue. My assessment of the Juergens painting led me to believe I could get the colors he did with this palette and it worked out fine.

Here's the final image:

oil on panel, 11" x 11"

I further decided (to get me out of my comfort zone) to apply color in a broken, impressionistic manner (except in the lower right shadow area).

I am fairly pleased with this final painting. I would not have normally chosen this palette. The violets and oranges seemed to push the scene to a late-in-the-day, golden light kind of thing, so I went with that. All in all, a great learning experience, and one that I have suggested to my students to get away from an overly straightforward reproduction of a photo in paint.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Birge Harrison, part 4

Birge Harrison, part 4

A Puff of Steam

Concluding my methodical re-reading (and note-taking) of Mr. Harrison's book Landscape Painting (1909). What follows are my notes from each chapter (I skipped some that didn't really resonate with me).

All this is me attempting to distill the most important points from this insightful collection of lectures he gave.

Chapter 5 "Values"

"... the most important thing to consider is the value-key of our picture."

This is pretty critical. As important as determining the color scheme of a picture, as value has ascendancy over color. I am going to attempt to take this to heart myself in future. (I do make value sketches at the very least before starting any significant painting.) I think Mr. Harrison's point is to ask yourself when making a picture: what part of the value scale best suits your intent? Use as little as is needed (see next quote).

"An outdoor picture motive is complicated indeed if it cannot be divided into four or five dominant values."

Chapter 6 "Drawing"

He somewhat surprisingly suggests NOT drawing from the landscape as much as from the human figure to gain precision:

"The articulation of a limb upon the trunk of an oak. for instance, might start a foot higher up or a foot lower down and still be in character, but the articulation of a knee joint, an elbow, or a shoulder of the human figure must be true to the inch."

He is correct that drawing the human figure is more exacting, but I would not forgo drawing from nature. Get a feel for the landscape and its components and character. Especially for when the time comes that you need to invent something in a landscape picture. That drawing experience and your familiarization with natural elements will pay off.

One of his final remarks suggests that "drawing by mass" translates to painting more directly than linear drawing. I can't disagree with that. One of the transitions I had to make from years of drawing to painting, was to think and work more in terms of masses of color and value, instead of linearly.

Chapter 7 "Composition"

"In my own opinion, about all of the rules of composition which are of any practical value to a painter, are negative rather than positive, and can best be expressed in a series of don'ts."

I find composition a tricker aspect of art to explain and teach than others, and it always seems to make more sense to show students what to avoid than what to specifically employ in their work. And there are often exceptions.

"Don't try to say two things on one canvas."
He names some other rules to follow this, but calls this the one rule that cannot be broken, while occasionally the others can be broken.

"... don't confuse your audience with irrelevancies."

I would personally say that a canvas CAN have more than one area of interest, but that one in particular HAS to predominate.

Chapter 8 "Quality"

He discusses surface quality of paintings in this chapter. His overriding point here is that surface quality, whether smooth or rough has to suit the painting and subject/mood as a whole, and not be inappropriate or distracting.

Madison Square

Chapter 10 "On Framing Pictures"

Birge was a fan of gold or metal leaf on frames.

He believed in the formula of:
Simple picture, intricate frame.
Intricate picture, simple frame.

Chapter 15 "The Importance of Fearlessness in Painting"

"Always dare to the limit of your knowledge and just a bit beyond. You must show conviction yourself, if you would convince others."

Chapter 16 "The Subconscious Servant"

"A picture painted direct from nature must necessarily be hasty, ill-considered, somewhat raw, and lacking in the synthetic and personal quality which is the distinguishing mark of all great art - unless the work is really done from memory while the painter is standing before nature - which might be the case if he had had time and opportunity to ripen his vision."

"... true synthetic beauty is not within the reach of the mere copyist."

This is a fascinating chapter and one that I am not completely sure I understand. He talks about the use of memory in painting. One must see through the mind and not just the eye. Painting from nature feeds the "subconscious servant" and stores up information that helps down the line with one's work. So that as an artist matures he or she is not just copying nature but taking in what is there and using and rearranging it to make an effective picture.

Chapter 19 "What is a Good Picture?"

"Art is natural beauty interpreted through human temperament."

"The highest form of sincerity is truth to the artist's own personal vision of beauty."

Chapter 20 "The True Impressionism"

"... technique is not the difficult thing in art ... but it requires many a long and weary year to learn to see."

"... students learn much more from each other than they do from their masters."

I have been in classes for which this was true, and many where it was not. I suppose it depends on the quality of instructor, and mix of students you wind up with.

Chapter 21 "The Future of American Art"

Birge wraps up with an optimistic outlook for American art going forward. As in, this is OUR time now! He also muses about the possibilities of modern structures like steel mills and skyscrapers as subject matter for paintings.

Summing up:
This is a fantastic book, especially if you love American Landscape painting and Tonalist painters like Inness, etc. Birge's words really resonate with me and this book has a permanent place in my recommended reading list. I now want to get a hardbound earlier printing for my library. I wish someone would reprint this with color reproductions, but I also with that about John Carlson's book...
I plan to re-read Carlson's landscape painting book as carefully as I did this. Also upcoming is Edgar Payne's Composition of Outdoor Painting.

Inn at Cos Cob

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

A Master Copy

A copy of Arthur Hoeber's Golden Twilight

A month or so ago, I wrapped up teaching a painting class titled Landscape Painting in the Studio at Lillstreet Art Center in Chicago. One of the final tasks I set before my students was to execute a master copy. I don't know if doing this sort of thing is somewhat out of date, but I have done a number over the years, and they have done me a lot of good. The effort of very carefully observing the original and then exercising your own technical abilities to render the same effects is a wonderful challenge with real rewards.

My copy after Arthur Hoeber's Golden Twilight

You get deep into aspects of painting such as:

Palette / Colors
You may go as far as researching what colors the artist used and replicating his or her palette, but I think assessing what colors you have that can mix the desired resultant hues is fine. You may find yourself getting only so far with 4 colors and realizing you need a 5th (as I did), but that's part of the learning. (I list my pallet below)

Overall value structure is key. You can mix the right color, but it's essential to put the right value and value relationships down. More important, even.

I think looking at good work and allowing yourself to be influenced by it can help an artist absorb good compositional structures. What then could be better than making a copy of a work with strong composition?

Brushwork / Edges
How do you think the artist applied paint? How do areas of differing color and/or value transition to each other? All that good stuff.

I planned to do a copy along with my students, and brought along one of my favorite and most personally inspiring art books: David Cleveland's A History of American Tonalism.

I thumbed through and somewhat randomly chose a painting by Arthur Hoeber (1854-1915) titled Golden Twilight. I just liked it, that's all. It's moody, with a kind of contre-jour effect of the light of the recently-set sun facing the viewer and giving the shadowy trees a warm halo. He wasn't an artist I was at all familiar with prior to choosing this image. I thought it best to work from the image in the book, as I figured it would be reasonably well color-corrected and it can be nice to get one's eyes off a lit screen. Also, a printed image in a book works in a reflective light model as does paint on a canvas (as opposed to transmissive light from a digital device's screen). It can help for comparisons to keep things within one realm.

My Palette
After looking the painting over, I figured I could mix the necessary colors with Yellow Ochre, Terra Rosa, Cobalt Blue, and Burnt Umber. (Later on, I added Indian Yellow.) Not sure what he used exactly, but I'll bet an umber would have been on his palette. I would say the one color I didn't quite nail was the green in the middle- and foreground.

What did I learn?
Most of his colors are quite neutralized. The blue in the sky - when I had gotten it mixed satisfactorily close to the original - looked just like a grey sitting on my pallete. The power of context when it's placed by the warm areas of the trees and the warmer clouds make all the difference, and heighten the apparent saturation of both.

The areas of greatest contrast are right along the horizon where the golden area of sky shines behind the dark tree trunks. Clearly, right where he wants you to look. Everywhere else is softer edges. The line of clouds in the sky and the water in the foreground all lead to the large tree left of center.

I think he may have done a warm, orange underpainting, or just had his canvas toned. I feel like it peeks through in some areas. I would of course, love to see the original. I think there's some thick impasto in the foreground grasses.

Here is an image of the original I found online. It differs from the one in the Cleveland book in a few ways. It has a less saturated green in the lower half and more extreme light values. I think the way it was lit for photographing exaggerates the surface texture. Possibly the photo online is before a cleaning and re-varnishing? (I tried to tweak this a little to better match the book version with some success.)

Golden Twilight
Arthur Hoeber c. 1895

In conclusion, master copies are good for you. Do one once in a while. That is all.

You can see some lovely Hoeber paintings here:

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Birge Harrison, part 3

The quotable Birge.

Grand Central And The Biltmore In Hazy Twilight

I have taken notes from some of the passages from Landscape Painting that reveal how Mr. Harrison went about his painting, and his thoughts on art-making in general.

I find the below to be some of the most revealing.
(These are all from chapters 3 & 4)

On technique in the service of individualism:

"... one of the chief delights of the art of painting lies in the fact that each artist does, and of necessity must, invent his own technique; for his personal technique is an inalienable part of the personal vision which makes his art his own."

I take this to mean in practice that one should learn and try many techniques from the masters of the past and your teachers of the present. Some technique, or combination of techniques, is the way forward for you on your path to an individual creative style. The only way to find out which is to work and experiment. A lot.

On vibration:

"The whole picture in all its exact values can and should be built up in this preliminary covering of the canvas, for the value of the overtone must in every case exactly match the value of the undertone."

"While we wish to secure broken color, we must avoid broken values, for they utterly destroy atmosphere."

" The undertone must be warmer than the overtone, and second it must never be brown;  and this for the excellent reason that out-of-door nature abhors brown, and never uses it."

So... broken color was Birge's thing.
There's more than one way to go about that. Birge's way was to lay down a warm underpainting of shapes and values, and then work on top of that with a cool color, not completely obscuring the undertone.
He was after vibration through contrast of hue, not value.

His whole negative reaction to brown may stem from an over-use of it in the generations preceding him. Earlier artists - and many, if not most of them did not paint outside much - tended to lay down a brown underpainting and/or have brown shadows in their landscape paintings. Shadows outside tend to be cooler, blue or blue-grey, often reflecting some of the blue of the sky. And tree trunks and branches are more often grey, or grey-green than the commonly thought of brown. I myself would never say that there is zero brown out in nature, but there is not as much as people often think.


On Refraction:

(I take Mr. Harrison to mean "edges" when he says "refraction.")

"no picture in its extreme corners should be painted with quite the same vigor of technique or strength of color or of value as in its natural focal centre."

A pretty obvious concept, but a good one to keep in mind when painting or drawing.
One can become obsessed with rendering detail and over-refining over the whole of an image, but end up doing so at the expense of clarity and focus.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Birge Harrison, part 2

Soaring Clouds

Back to Birge

Lovell Birge Harrison

(I notice many sites have his first name as Lowell. It is actually Lovell, but many have mistakenly assumed the more common Lowell.)

His elder brother Alexander was also a very accomplished painter.

The Wave
Alexander Harrison

They exhibited together at The Art Institute of Chicago in 1913.
The catalog from that show can be seen/downloaded here:
What a show that would have been to see...

Hidden Moon

At one point in Landscape Painting Birge outlines the 4 distinct ways (as he saw it in 1909) to make an oil painting.

They are:

1. The classical approach of making a monochromatic underpainting and then glazing color on top, as Renaissance painters did.

2. Laying unbroken color in "smooth flat masses" as a house painter does

3. Painting dabs of differing colors like an Impressionist. The "spot and dash method," as Birge calls it.

4. Doing what Birge himself advocates (and presumably other Tonalists did?) and painting cool colors on top of a still-wet warm underpainting. "Care being taken not to mix or blend the two coats and not to cover up completely the undertone, rather letting it show through brokenly all over the canvas...." The visual interaction of the cool and warm giving the painting "vibration."
I plan to try this method. It seems to me that it might be tricky to do as he says and not inadvertently mix or blend the warm and cool.

I think this detail are from Fifth Avenue at Twilight shows the kind of vibration he went after in his work. The turquoise and violet in the distant building contrast and vibrate with their differing hues, but their values are very similar:

Fifth Avenue at Twilight (detail)

More to come....