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.