Saturday, August 30, 2014

Landscape Studies

I mentioned a while back that I've started to study landscapes.  There are several reasons.  One, I ran into a creative wall while trying to do my "Survivor" series.  I was stuck and couldn't find a way forward.  Doing something different for a while is usually a good way to work around a creative block.  A second reason is that I wasn't able to spend multiple days in a row in the studio, which is what is necessary for my creative juices to really get rolling.  (Are those two reasons related?  Ya think??)  A third reason is that I'm pretty bad at landscapes.  I rarely do them, so I'm not very good, and since I'm not very good, I rarely do them.  Maybe it's time to break the cycle.

So I tried a couple of landscapes on my own and, as you might guess, the results were pretty awful.  No, you may not see them.  So I started studying how other painters created landscapes.  Eventually, I found a really good guide on the subject.  Landscape Painting by Mitchell Albala is very thorough.  It is intended for artists who are already have a bit of experience.  It discusses plein air and studio work, equipment, color and values, site selection, light, and much more.  My copy is now marked-up, highlighted, and complete with paint smears from testing out what he discusses.  I've had other landscape books before, but none of them come close to Albala's book.  Rather than say "here's how to paint a landscape", Albala discusses the things you should think about and different approaches you can use.  In other words, he gives you the tools to develop good landscapes in your own style.

To put these lessons into practice, I set my French easel up outside and copied a number of works that were in the book or in a recent issue of Plein Air magazine.  Copying other artists' work is a time-honored tradition.  You learn a lot when you have to focus on something for an extended period of time, including how the picture was composed, an appreciation for the colors used, how the artist might have achieved success, where the weak points are, and so on.  All of these paintings are about 7 1/2" x 12" on gessoed and toned watercolor paper.  Why not panels or canvases?  Because I'm being a student again, and a lot of my work will be crap, and it's easier to tear up a piece of paper than a panel.

Each of these was done in two steps.  First, I copied the painting in one session, outside.   A day or two later, I critiqued it in the studio and then went over it again.  In every case, the first try was maybe an okay start, but totally unsatisfactory as a finished painting.  It was maybe a 50% solution.  And in every case, the end result is not something I'd exhibit, either.  Not only is it a copy of somebody else's painting (unethical to call it mine, which is why all these are unsigned), but none of these are completed to the level I would want.  They're maybe 80-90% solutions.  But that's fine, because I learned what I needed in each exercise.

This is a copy of Elk Creek by Jay Moore, from Albala's book.  Albala says that he's always asking his students "What is your painting about?"  Too many times, novice painters are just painting whatever is in front of them with no idea what the focus of the painting is.  I'm guilty of this, too, which is a big reason most of my landscapes have been junk.  But every painting should be about something, the central idea that everything is arranged around.  In this case, the central idea is the beautiful golden glow on the field.  Moore framed the gold with muted greens on the top and bottom.  The creek on the lower right has small areas of strong blue that are complementary to the golden-orange of the field and therefore enhance the gold.  There's great depth to the work, achieved through the overlapping hills that recede in the distance (and with atmospheric perspective, they get lighter and bluer as they do).  One thing I noticed when I pulled this off the easel was that I need to ensure the painting surface (paper, panel, whatever) is level when I block it in.  This one was crooked both times I worked on it!

This is a copy of Oak Creek Passage by David Santillanes.  In contrast to the painting above, which is bathed in late afternoon light, this one is in a deep forest with subdued lighting.  Most of the edges are very soft and colors are muted (actually, the colors in the original are more muted than my poor copy).  This image required a very different approach than my usual, very literal, one.  I basically scrubbed in large areas of muted warm tones in the top third (where the trees are) and down the course of the creek, then scrubbed in muted greens for the ground cover to the left and right.  Then I gradually developed the forms: the vertical trees, the round rocks, and humps of green grass.  My first go-round resulted in very little variation in the greens of the trees and ground cover (both in the range of greens and in their values).  Pretty blah.  So in the second round, I punched up the value differences (darker darks and lighter lights) and the color differences (warm and cool greens, strong and muted colors, shots of burnt sienna, and a very few touches of blue).  The end result is nowhere near as good as Dave's, of course, but it was a good learning experience.

This one's a copy of Where the Rabbits Are by Marc Bohne.  It's a little more successful in person than in this image.  My first cut at it had little depth, the bushes weren't dark enough, there wasn't enough color variation, the road was too light, and the tops of the bushes on the right, which were caught in sunlight, had no glow to them.  I worked on all that the second time.  The shadowed parts of the bushes are now much darker (more mysterious, more of a coherent shape), the road now appears to be out of direct sunlight (it's a little darker, with both cool and warm that give it the "beachy" feel), and the ground has more color variation.  The parts of the bush that are hit by the late afternoon sunlight are still unsuccessful.  Marc nailed it in the original; my copy failed.  But still, I got a lot out of this exercise.

This is a copy of Skagit River Dike, North by Mitchell Albala.  This was a plein-air demonstration project in his book.  My first attempt at this came up with the same green, just light and dark versions, over much of the painting.  I thought I was giving it some variety, but two days later, after it had dried some, it was clear that it was almost the same green.  Not only that, but the whole thing lacked value differences.  One reason was that I had used toned surface that was too dark.  It was a mid-value warm gray.  I tend to paint thinly, so my paint didn't have enough body to sufficiently cover the tone.  Lesson learned (at least for me): use a much lighter initial tone on my painting surfaces.  In the second round at this, I punched up the lights and darks and played more with the greens.  For all these greens, I used four colors: ultramarine blue, cobalt blue, cadmium yellow light, and yellow ochre.  Occasionally I used a touch of terra rosa to mute the greens, but just a touch.  The bottom line is that you don't need a lot of tube colors to get a wide variety of greens.

This one is a copy of Tower Shadows by Russell Case.  This was fun because Russell really played up the blue in the shadows.  I'm very literal, so I would not have used such strong blues (various combinations of ultramarine blue and cobalt blue, muted with burnt umber or burnt sienna).  But now that I know it works, I'll do it more often.  My first effort was actually too blue: the warmer, sunlit areas were just cool grays.  In the second round, I warmed up the sunlit rocks and put some warm colors into the shadowed rocks.  In Russell's original painting, the edges of the shadows were strong blue; the warm strokes were buried in the middle of the shadows.

This is a copy of Willeo Misty by Marsha Savage.  It was an interesting exercise because the original is done in pastel.  Pastel allows the artist to get very strong colors at all value levels: strong dark blues, strong light greens, and so on.  Oil paint doesn't allow that, especially when you're working with a limited palette.  As with a previously-discussed exercise, my first cut at this didn't have the value range it should have, the greens had too little variation, and I totally messed up the water.  In round two, I lightened the hill in the background, made the shadowed areas of the trees bluer and darker, with the lighted areas yellower and much lighter.  Marsha was able to use strokes of strong color everywhere with her pastels.  I forced myself to put in a lot of strokes of my primaries - in other words, in the shadowed areas of the trees, not only did I use a mix of ultramarine and cad yellow, but I also put in strokes of ultramarine alone.  And I played up some of the blues in the reflections in the water.  Again, this is something I would not normally have done, but copying her work forced me out of my comfort zone.  I had fun with it and learned some new stuff.

So what's next?  I think it's time to head out into the countryside and start making my own landscapes.  Maybe I'll post some here.  And if they're junk, maybe not.

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