Landscape Painting Tips

During nearly 30 years of interviewing landscape artists for American Artist, M. Stephen Doherty has watched hundreds of painters use a variety of materials and techniques. Here, he takes the best of that gleaned knowledge and distills it into seven helpful tips for plein air painters.

by M. Stephen Doherty

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Misty Morning, Trinchera
by M. Stephen Doherty, 2006, oil, 11 x 14. Collection the artist.

I often ask subscribers what articles they remember reading and enjoying because their responses help me commission features that will prompt the same positive reaction. The first time I asked that question, in 1979, at least a dozen people recalled an article in the July 1972 issue by Susan E. Meyer, the editor of the magazine, in which she described how the 11 members of the Fairfield Watercolor Group painted their individual views of a Connecticut farm on an October day. The clear memories of that informative article prompted me to take an interest in plein air painters and to organize groups of artists who would find their own ways of responding to a common landscape subject.

Over the next 29 years, I followed artists up mountain trails, along rocky coastlines, onto roofs, next to historic buildings, inside lush gardens, and along snow-covered paths with my camera and notepad. I tried to find out what attracted them to the locations, how they selected and prepared their painting materials, why they developed their pictures in a certain way, and what advice they would offer others interested in the same pursuit. Some featured artists painted in watercolor, others in acrylic, a few in casein and pastel, many in oil, and quite a few shot photographs while they sketched and painted. I learned something valuable from every one of those artists, and my intention is to share what I’ve learned while assuring readers that the process of becoming a competent painter is as difficult and slow as it is enjoyable and rewarding. Even after nearly 30 years of studying with the best artists, I still have much to learn about the process of creating works of art from what my eyes observe, my mind interprets, and my hands execute. Although the recommendations I offer here may seem well considered and slightly profound, they represent my constant struggle to improve the quality of my paintings.

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Sunset Across the Hudson Valley
by Frederic Edwin Church, 1870, graphite and oil on thin, cream-colored paperboard, 11 1/8 x 15¼. Collection  National Museum of Design, New York, New York.

The artists who probably had the greatest influence on my approach to oil painting are the contemporary artists Thomas S. Buechner, Clyde Aspevig, Joseph McGurl, and Jack Beal; as well as the great 19th-century painters Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796–1875) and Frederic Edwin Church (1826–1900). Buechner showed me how to fit plein air painting into a busy work schedule, Aspevig helped me identify worthwhile subjects in unexpected places, McGurl demonstrated how to manage paint to create the illusion of detail, and Beal opened my eyes to dynamic compositions. And when I’ve had the opportunity to be nose-to-canvas with a Corot or a Church painting, I’ve been humbled by the artist’s ability to create the sense that I am standing with him in a landscape, sharing the experiences created by the light and atmosphere.

I’ve always been reluctant to reproduce my own artwork in American Artist because I didn’t want to confuse the mission of the magazine with my personal agenda. Although I may shape the content of the publication, I try to keep my focus on the readers’ best interests. However, people have urged me to discuss my artwork as a way of personalizing the magazine and letting readers know I share their passion. I’ve come around to agreeing with that point of view.

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Autumn at the Kent Baptist Church
by M. Stephen Doherty, 2006, oil, 11 x 14. Collection the artist.

I should also confess that, like many of you, I hope my artwork will live beyond me as a record of one person who saw things creatively and, perhaps, poignantly at a moment in time. For example, there are all sorts of reasons I painted Autumn at Kent Baptist Church, some having to do with the beauty of the fall scene and some concerning the church building, graveyard, and falling leaves as symbols of life, death, and renewal. What you can’t know from looking at the painting is that I was in a minor automobile accident at this site in 2006. I went back seven months later to stand in the exact spot where my car hit a patch of ice and flew into the woods alongside the church’s driveway. I walked away unharmed but aware of how much life can change in a split second.

Why do I burden you with these details? Because I want to emphasize that while I write about the best procedures for painting pictures, I join you in a search for a visual language that will help express insights more clearly. I’ve been fortunate to spend time with artists who are brilliant at doing just that, and I hope I can share some of what they have generously given me.

Here are some of the specific pieces of advice I’ve received that help me while painting:

IMAGINE WHERE, WHEN, AND HOW YOU WILL PAINT

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Aspen Road
by William Hook, 2004, acrylic, 24 x 36.

William Hook painted this landscape during a class featured in the premiere issue of Workshop.

John Singer Sargent may have been able to start painting in any location or during any hour of the day, but the rest of us need to select a painting location based on the time of day, season of the year, and conditions that prevail. One spot might be inspiring in the morning and boring in the afternoon, or the location may require more time to paint than is available. It is therefore important to take into account what the painting conditions are likely to be at the various locations you are considering. Most professionals take note of the locations they pass and try to remember the best vantage point and the optimal time for returning.

Thomas S. Buechner, who is one of the most quotable artists I’ve met, said, “The older I get, the more attractive the subject matter that is closest to the bathroom becomes.” He was joking, of course, but he does try to avoid spending too much time searching for the “perfect” painting location because there are always a variety of choices available, some more convenient than others. Matthew Daub and William Hook had much the same advice when they cautioned against the expectation that the landscape would be greener or more picturesque on the other side of the hill. Clyde Aspevig, a man of intense personal motivation, picks locations where he can create several good paintings without having to pack up and move his equipment.

CONSIDER THE DIRECTION OF THE LIGHT AT YOUR CHOSEN LOCATION

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Forest of Fontainebleau
by Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot, 1834, oil. Collection National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.
 

Most plein air paintings take several hours to finish, so it helps to consider what will happen to the angle and intensity of the light while you are painting at a particular site. Will the sunlight cross the painting surface and create unwanted glare? Will the clouds clear away and create a sharp contrast in the pattern of sunlight and shadow? Will the distinction between warm and cool colors become more pronounced as the sun begins to set?

Of course, artists needn’t be slaves to weather conditions. Once a good painting is underway, experiences can guide them to its successful completion. “Lie, cheat, and steal,” Jack Beal says with a laugh. By that he means that artists are not obliged to paint exactly what they observe. In fact, composition is all about abstracting the three-dimensional world onto a two-dimensional surface. “If Corot and Albert Bierstadt can help you, then by all means let them,” Beal advises.

VERBALIZE WHAT YOU WANT VIEWERS TO KNOW

Many experienced teachers ask students to write down what they want to convey to viewers and tape that piece of paper to their easels. The point is to remain focused on the most important aspect of your picture. Whenever you take a break, read the message again and evaluate whether you are achieving your central objective. “I usually recommend students write those messages on a 3"-x-5" card so it’s short, simple, and specific,” says Sondra Freckelton. “When I stop by to review students’ progress, I ask if they are developing their paintings in a way that will convey the message on the card. If they aren’t, we talk about elements of the artwork that may be confusing the message. I prefer to talk about materials and techniques in the context of that focused objective.”

PLAN THE COMPOSITION, VALUES, LINES, SHAPES, AND COLORS

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Paramount View of Mt. Blanca
by M. Stephen Doherty, 2006, oil, 11 x 14. Collection the artist.

There are many important aspects of painting, but the ones that are most often discussed in magazine articles, art classes, and painting workshops are those that affect the compositional arrangements of abstract elements. Instructors talk about relative value and color temperature because those separate one tree from another, the foreground from the background, and the sunlight from the shadow areas. They also ask students to consider how the directions implied by roads, fences, rivers, and paths direct viewers’ attention into and around a picture; and they point out how the repetition of colors and patterns can establish a sense of unity and harmony in a picture.

Jack Beal talks about composition whenever he has the opportunity to address students, and I wish his ideas were more broadly disseminated and understood because they can help artists create more exciting and engaging paintings. He goes beyond the obvious advice of keeping the focal point of a painting away from the center and diagramming the directional flow of shapes and lines. He shows students how to use positive and negative space more effectively, how to balance shapes that move viewers into a picture and bring them out again, and he encourages artists to bend, twist, and lean shapes so the composition is more effective. For example, he points to Renaissance and Baroque artists who established underlying triangular, circular, or trapezoidal shapes and arranged the figures, objects, and natural forms in their paintings to loosely fit inside those geometric shapes. For example, I was thinking about Beal’s advice when I composed my painting Autumn at Kent Baptist Church and used a series of triangular shapes to direct viewers and leave them with a sense of unease about an otherwise pleasant scene.

SCULPT WITH PAINT

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The Pietra Santa Vineyard
by Randall Sexton, 2006, oil, 11 x 14. Collection the artist.

Above is a demonstration that Sexton completed in a workshop featured in the fall 2006 issue of Workshop.

Randall Sexton taught me to pay more attention to the amount of paint I apply to a painting, and Matt Smith showed me the benefits of “sculpting” the directional movement of oil paint with a brush. Both artists were offering the same advice given by most instructors: work from thin to thick applications of paint, leave the shadows thin and the highlights thick, and move the brush as if it were following the topography of the landscape.

The point of all this advice is to recognize that the density, texture, and translucency of oil affect the perception of the objects or places we are depicting in our paintings. This point was never made clearer to me than when I saw an exhibition of Jacob Collins’ stunning figure paintings at Hirschl & Adler Galleries, in New York City, in October of 2006. The warm, reddish-brown shadows on the bodies of the reclining nudes were so thin I could see the graphite lines the artist had drawn to identify the edges of those shapes, and the dark background colors behind the figures became thinner and warmer as they came up to the edge of the thick highlights on the flesh. Those subtle manipulations of the volume and temperature of the oil colors created a glowing light in the pictures.

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Garden Squeteague Harbor
by Joseph McGurl, oil, 9 x 12. Private collection.

Joseph McGurl only conducts two landscape workshops a year, and one of those classes was featured in the spring 2007 issue of Workshop.

The same day I viewed the Collins exhibition, I stopped by a show of Joseph McGurl’s landscapes at Hammer Galleries, also in New York City, and I was fascinated to see how he built up the texture of the paint describing the foregrounds of his New England scenes. In some cases he used a coarsely woven canvas that could either be made smooth with thick applications of oil color or left in a rough state. In other situations he textured the underlying acrylic gesso on the panels so that even a thin application of oil color would read as a brushy texture. And some of the paint used to establish the foregrounds was either slapped on with a palette knife, mixed with sand or pumice, or scrapped just before it was completely dry so the brushstrokes were less obvious.

GO THE EXTRA MILE

Someone once told me that it’s better to work smart than hard, meaning that using one’s brain is usually more efficient and effective than using one’s muscles. But I’ve often noticed that what makes one painting exceptional and another quite average is the amount of time and effort the artist has devoted to the picture. That is, paintings can become dramatically better when the students are willing to start over if their underlying drawing proves to be inaccurate; to spend extra time mixing the right value rather than picking up what happens to be on their palette; or to add a greater amount of detail to a picture, especially near the focal point. Sometimes efficiency is not an admirable quality, and impatience is a stumbling block. I know because I have a habit of being very impatient, but I remind myself there is no point in stacking one more mediocre painting on the pile sitting in my basement. If I’m not willing to take the time necessary to make an exceptional picture, then there’s no point in starting a new one.

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Tractors & Trucks, Trinchera
by M. Stephen Doherty, 2006, oil, 11 x 14. Collection the artist.

ENJOY THE EXPERIENCE

Painting is hard work, and making improvements in one’s artwork is a lifelong pursuit, but most people are involved in the process because they love being out in nature, sharing a pleasant day with friends, challenging themselves to learn from great artists of the past and present, and documenting a time and place in their lives. Some of the artists I’ve met make their living creating and selling these kinds of pictures, and some maintain salaried jobs and family obligations while they nourish their passion for painting. Every one of them has felt blessed to have either a few hours or a limitless number of days to participate in an activity that has engaged artists for hundreds of years.

 

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2 thoughts on “Landscape Painting Tips

  1. American Artist first caught my attention when Susan E. Meyer reviewed Eric Slone. M. Stephen Doherty continues this ability to share at the canvas level. Thank you Stephen. Please do more on-line demo video’s of your work….

  2. Wow!!! Bravo!!! I love this article. Steve, hearing a compilation of what you’ve learned from the very best is priceless to us artists. The paragraph on “going the extra mile” is especially meaningful, since I thoroughly identify with how the impatience factor tends to result in messy painting.
    Keep up this kind of sharing, won’t you?

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