En Plein Air: Pearls From Painters Past

Ask any plein air painter to name some of the most resourceful books in his or her collection and, unfailingly, John F. Carlson’s Carlson’s Guide to Landscape Painting and Edgar Payne’s Composition of Outdoor Painting are at the top of the list. That’s because these books were authored by two great landscape painters who had not only mastered the technical aspects of painting outdoors but also cultivated a deep understanding of the elements of nature. Put that knowledge and insight together with the ability to convey information in a clear, concise way, and you have the explanation for why these books, decades after their initial publication, are still referenced and relied on by landscape artists today.

Plein air painters deal with many challenges in the outdoors, but the first hurdle they usually come across is choosing something to zero in on amid miles and miles of potential subject matter. Here’s what these two great landscape instructors have to say about composition and design, including the topics of selection, perspective, and saying more with less.

Across the Meadows
by John F. Carlson, ca. 1935, oil, 18 x 24.
Private collection.

by John F. Carlson
(Dover Publications, Mineola, New York)

Excerpt from Chapter 11: Composition—The Expressive Properties of Line and Mass

The everyday elements in an out-of-door motif which arrest the cursory glance do so by containing something that interests us. We ought to analyze those interests and hold them firmly. Nature, by virtue of possessing light, space, sound, and movement, presents to us out of this huge storehouse an abundance of interesting and compelling images. Were we to attempt to translate more than an aesthetic impression of these wonders with our limited means (paint and canvas), we would be lost indeed. …

A picture may possess every attribute of good composition, decoratively speaking, and still not be significantly composed. It may be well arranged in color sequences, it may be well balanced in proportion and relation as to weights and values, it may contain an interesting variety of lines and shapes and mass, and be well modulated to its climax; it may be beautiful—it may be all these things, and yet it may not be expressive. …

Too much reality in a picture is always a disappointment to the imaginative soul. We love suggestion and not hard facts. A picture should be music in form and color, with the subject matter the vehicle. We must not imitate the externals of nature with so much fidelity that the picture fails to evoke that wonderful teasing recurrence of emotion that marks the contemplation of a work of art. …

The difficulty of landscape painting lies in the fact that much study is required before the student can acquire enough accumulated experience or necessary knowledge to create. The fleeting effects of light bewilder him, and he has difficulty getting anything on his canvas. With accrued knowledge will come a sense of instinct as to just how much liberty can be taken with nature.


Laguna Coast
by Edgar Payne, ca. 1918, oil, 12 x 16.
Image courtesy Edenhurst Gallery,
Palm Desert, California. 

by Edgar Payne
(DeRu’s Fine Arts, Bellflower, California)

Excerpt from Chapter 2: Selection and Composition

Good composition is always determined by good selection. Fine painting is a matter of proper taste and judgment in choosing the motive, accepting some parts, discarding others, and making changes or alterations throughout the procedure. …

When approaching nature for depiction, the primary consideration is the station point which will give the best translation of the motive. To get a proper view and idea of any subject, one should study it from several angles. The idea is to locate the easel at a point which will reveal desirable variations, not only of the size of masses but quality in line, values and color. …

In landscape, two or three large trees are all one needs to construct a powerful composition. A large mountain, a foreground with a few objects such as trees or rocks, a bit of sky, is material for the largest picture. Naturally, these are only a few examples; thousands of other suggestions are to be seen everywhere. …

All painters of note realize the importance of simplicity in composition; the subordination of detail, consideration for artistic principles and requirements as well as a respect for outdoor form. …

Learning to select and compose is largely a matter of self-discipline. Therefore, if the student is apt to be over-influenced by realism and is given entirely to seeking natural composition, he should force himself to practice rearrangement; while if he is inclined toward the other extreme of disregarding nature, he should make it a practice to seek natural compositions and study them closely. …

Ruskin says, in as many words, that the great aim of composition is to create unity and that one feature should be the main interest and dominate all other interests or masses. Practically all other writers on art agree that this is the main principle in creating unified designs.


Related Posts:


Plein Air Painting Blog
Allison Malafronte

About Allison Malafronte

Allison Malafronte is the senior editor of American Artist magazines, and the project editor of  Plein Air Painting and Workshop With the Masters magazines. She is also the creative manager of the Weekend With the Masters Workshop & Conference (www.aamastersweekend.com) which was launched in 2009 and is now in its third year. She is author of the Art for Thought column in American Artist magazine (also on the Artist Daily site under The Artist's Life blog) and the 2008-2010 Plein Air blogs on Artist Daily. 

3 thoughts on “En Plein Air: Pearls From Painters Past

  1. Allison, thank you for this article.

    These are two of my very favorite books. I read them again and again, and each time, I discover new information – Even though I had read the text many times before.

    Perhaps we learn in stages and cannot fully comprehend what the author is saying until we reach the stage in our development where we’re ready to apply it.

  2. Good point, Lori–you can read the same great advice or information repeatedly but sometimes it doesn’t register until you’re ready to receive it!

    I also like that quote, Katherine. Paintings that leave something to the imagination seem to be more emotive.

    Thanks for commenting!