Please Forgive Me If This Sounds a Little Harsh…

But I think it's time for some straight talk. I've participated in many, many plein air painting critiques over the years, and I can't begin to tell you how often I've been faced with landscape paintings that are a little off. Perhaps it's an ugly red stop sign that distracts from the pastoral mood, or a stand of trees all the same height that deadens the rhythm, or a color palette that's just too dull to hold my interest. And time after time, when I or someone else says, "Um, hey, gee, that part there isn't really working for me," the artist invariably answers with dismay, "But that's how it looked in real life."

Salisbury Cathedral from Bishop's Ground by John Constable, oil painting, 1823. The Hay Wain by John Constable, oil painting, 1821.
Salisbury Cathedral from Bishop's Ground
by John Constable, oil painting, 1823.
The Hay Wain by John Constable,
oil painting, 1821.

Painting real life can be tricky. As much as we may want to be faithful to the initial inspiration and to the outdoor painting subject in front of us, my friends, we never have to paint exactly what's there. I think we plein-air artists are particularly guilty of this. In our rush to get something down on canvas, we don't always take the time to analyze the subject and "edit" real life. Believe me, I speak from my own experience!

So perhaps we can break this bad habit by looking to a long-ago landscape master–John Constable (1776 – 1837), the creator of some of the most beautiful landscapes in history. In his day, neither paint tubes nor the camera had been invented, so Constable's method was to sketch (drawing and painting) on location, and then use that information for composing and creating his paintings back in the studio. He took his time in crafting his designs before he committed to one for a final work.

Brighton Beach with Colliers by John Constable, oil painting, 1824.
Brighton Beach with Colliers by John Constable, oil painting, 1824.

Now look at what he painted and how. Trees gracefully frame a distant cathedral, wagons and people stop at the perfect spot to balance buildings, and light clouds or dark appear at just the right moment to create compositional rhythm. Just in case you're thinking that England really looked this perfect back then, think again. Constable took what was "there in real life" and modified it to perfection.

Mill at Gillingham, Dorset by John Constable, oil painting, 1826. A Cottage in a Cornfield by John Constable, oil painting, c. 1816-17
Mill at Gillingham, Dorset by John Constable,
oil painting, 1826.
A Cottage in a Cornfield by John Constable,
oil painting, c. 1816-17.

Like Constable, we always have the opportunity to change certain aspects of our subjects to improve upon the composition, especially when we're in the studio and even when we're working quickly en plein air. If there's a distracting element in your subject, leave it out. If there's a really boring section of your subject, find something nearby that would add interest there and put it in. Make the contours of your shapes more varied, adjust the values to add more drama, and push the colors in a direction that supports the mood or idea behind your painting. Be creative in finding ways to make your subject better.

In my opinion, art should not duplicate real life as it is. In the hands of a master like Constable–or even mere mortals like us–art can and should reveal the artist's vision of life as it could be. Do you agree?

-Jennifer

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Jennifer King

About Jennifer King

Immersed in the art world is just where Jennifer King wants to be. Thanks to her long career in the art-instruction business--she was the editor of several leading artists' magazines--she has had incredible opportunities to meet and interview many of the finest living artists of our times, including Will Barnett, Clyde Aspevig, Scott Christensen, Sam Adoquei, Richard Schmid, Everett Raymond Kinstler, Ken Auster, Carla O’Connor, C.W. Mundy, Dan Gerhartz, Birgit O’Connor, Daniel Greene, and countless other generous artists who’ve shared their knowledge and insights. She is also honored to have edited several art-instruction books with such noted artists as Tom Lynch, Dan McCaw, Ramon Kelley, Wende Caporale, Carlton Plummer, and more.

Inspired by their passion for art, Jennifer returned to her own love of painting about 15 years ago, studying with figurative painter Tina Tammaro. Through this experience, she discovered her love of landscape painting, which for her, acts as a visual metaphor for human emotion. Constable, Corot, Pissarro, Inness, and Diebenkorn are among her artistic heroes. Other creative pursuits include photography and jewelry-making, and she’s also continuously studying art history and theory.

Jennifer paints primarily outdoors, but also in her home studio in Cincinnati, Ohio. She also continues to serve as a lecturer and competition juror for various art organizations across the country, and she is a member of the Women’s Art Club of Cincinnati. Jennifer is currently represented by the Greenwich House Gallery in O’Bryonville, a suburb of Cincinnati. As a confirmed landscape artist, her future goal is to use her experience in the art world to raise awareness for the need to protect our environment.

7 thoughts on “Please Forgive Me If This Sounds a Little Harsh…

  1. Hmm… This is a tricky subject. I’m going to be longwinded on this one. I’ve heard many people complain that artists tend to idealize scenes and that a plein air painter is somehow supposed to simply reflect what she/he sees. I don’t know how that sort of responsibility first came to being, but I’ve heard it- as though we have a duty to the public trust to be more of a camera than an artist- but anyway, it’s out there. This view has always bothered me for several reasons, not the least of which is the term “idealized”. I always ask myself, idealized for whom? Some people find beauty in a pastoral scene, and the person who criticizes it as idealized may find beauty in a scene of rats running in a vacant lot. Both scenes may be filled with lies, but both may be qualified by different viewers as idealized. I’m more in agreement with what I think is your view- that we’re artists, that our job is to interpret what we see. Therefore, we get to choose what we paint, even within what is presented to us. I think it is our job to create a gift for the world. It should be as judgmental and lopsided and individual as we choose to make it. It is up to the world to accept or reject it, to decide whether or not it has any merit- its strengths and weaknesses, its value.

  2. Not harsh. Painting is necessarily a representation, and your work says something about you, no matter how unconcscious you may be in expressing it. It’s my favorite thing about art: I get to make explicit the way I see the world!

  3. I LOVE David’s comment that art “should be as judgmental and lopsided and individual as we choose to make it.” I think I’m going to write that on a sign in my studio. Beautiful! And thanks for reassuring me that I wasn’t too harsh.
    Jennifer

  4. Thank you for the topic. It brought back memories of the first Plein Air workshop I attended with Charles Movali. I was brand new to plein air painting, and I was painting a harbor scene. When Movali stopped by to see how I was progressing he had make a few changes to my composition. There was not enough variation in my background, and he had me place a tree that was off to the side into the scene. I was amazed and he just laughed and said that nature is always wrong.
    James

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