I recently had the honor of judging the entries for the “Banks of the Hudson” exhibition for the Woodstock School of Art and noticed two common problems among the drawings and paintings I rejected. I should first say there were many outstanding drawings, paintings, and photographs of the Hudson River entered in the competition, and I had to choose between some masterful pictures when designating the awards. However, I was surprised that so many artists who proudly submitted their work didn’t seem to understand how to manage their choices of colors, values, and contrasts to create the sense of space within their paintings.
In making my decisions, I was reminded of what I learned from writing articles on several teachers associated with the Ridgewood Art Institute, in New Jersey. They explained that colors generally follow a prismatic progression from foreground to background. That is, the colors of shapes in the foreground are often in the red-orange-yellow range, and those in the distance tend toward the blue-indigo-violet end of the spectrum. For example, bushes and grasses in the immediate foreground of a landscape can be painted with mixtures of color that include green, yellow, red, or ochre, whereas the distant mountains will best be described with colors dominated by blue or purple.
The other common occurrence in nature is that objects in the foreground are larger and have contrast, texture, and clarity; those in the distance are smaller and have less contrast between the values and softer edges that allow one shape to blend into another. That’s referred to as atmospheric perspective—the change that occurs because of the amount of moisture and dust in the air between one’s eyes and the objects one is observing and because of the fact that some colors can’t be seen from great distances. Most artists understand this, but they often tint their color mixtures by adding lots of titanium white to make them lighter in value, and they don’t realize they should also be adding a cool blue or violet—cobalt or cerulean blue with a touch of a cool red—to give substance to those distant shapes.
Two days after judging the Banks of the Hudson show, I decided to remind myself of the lessons I’ve been offered by a number of artists, including John Phillip Osborne and Joel Popadics, both of whom teach at the Ridgewood Art Institute, and Eric Angeloch, who teaches at the Woodstock School of Art. I set up my half French easel along the Hudson River near Peekskill, New York, and painted a favorite view of the Bear Mountain Bridge. I think I did a fairly decent job of suggesting deep space by following the prismatic progression of colors. However, halfway through the painting process I recognized that I should have done a better job of establishing an asymmetrical arrangement of shapes, so I adjusted the form of an overhanging cloud to make it less symmetrical. (See the painting's progression below).
As a student of painting, I am always interested in learning from other artists. I would appreciate it if you would post a comment about the ways you approach landscape painting and/or how you teach others to deal with the issues of composition, color, value, contrast, and edges.
M. Stephen Doherty