Why grisaille?

Your painting should be a carefully judged pas de deuxbetween reality and your own vision. That’s best worked out before you start adding a million different color variables.

There are days when I just want to think compositionally, without any reality or detail cluttering up my mind. Monochrome is the best way I know to do this.

I have a student who has started painting in monochrome as he learns to master color. It’s a great idea; I might insist on it, except it would result in revolution. People love ‘color’ but fail to see that value is color’s anchor. However one expresses darks, their pattern is what drives a painting. It’s best seen in monochrome, before you add in hues.

By removing the hue question, Mark is doing the equivalent of practicing one hand of his difficult piano sonata at a time. It’s a time-honored technique because it works.

Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery, 1565, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, courtesy the Courtauld Gallery

A grisaille (pronounced ‘griz-EYE’) is a painting done entirely in shades of grey or another neutral. It can take the form of an underpainting or can be a finished painting in itself. It’s not generally done in lieu of a pencil sketch or notan, but rather as a discrete step in the process of planning a painting.

It is possible to start a painting with just hash-marks on the canvas. Some excellent painters do this; however, for the beginner, that’s the circus trapeze without a net.

Historically, grisaille has been used for finished works of art. This was particularly true in decorative painting, where grisaille might serve as a sort of trompe l’oeilfor sculptural relief. Paint, even in the hands of a master, is cheaper than marble.

Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery, above, was a personal painting owned by Pieter Bruegel the Elder and his descendants. It’s tiny, roughly 9X12. Its character and intimacy are enhanced by being in monochrome. In that way, it has the feel of a fine drawing.

Odalisque in Grisaille, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and his workshop, 1823-24, courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art

Sometimes popular paintings were copied in monochrome to simplify life for engravers. Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’ copy of his La Grande Odalisque, above, is one such example. There lies a lesson for students: if engravers, who are skilled artisans in their own right, find it difficult to track value, how much harder is it for new painters?

Mostly, grisaille has been done as underpainting. Until the Impressionists, with a few exceptions, painting was done in what is called ‘indirect painting.’ Paint was applied in thin layers, or glazes. The underpainting was laid down in a thinned form, usually (but not always) in monochrome. This layer also served to tone the canvas. After it dried, subsequent thin washes of color were worked over the top. The underpainting was allowed to mingle with the glaze colors. It’s a powerful technique, but not as lyrical or free as alla prima painting.

A small underpainting grisaille example I made for my students.

Alla prima doesn’t really require any underpainting, but it’s an act of incredible courage to just start daubing on a blank canvas. Few artists are that brave—or foolhardy, depending on how you look at it. So, we tend to do exactly the same thing as our predecessors—a thin wash of paint, usually in grisaille, that tells us where stuff is supposed to go. Of course, we must learn to judge that first wash to a nicety. Too stiff, and the underpainting is too thick. Too goopy, and everything above it turns to soup.

If the composition reads well at this value-study phase, the painting is almost always going to work, providing you stick with your plan. If it doesn’t, you’re unlikely to salvage it.

All value judgments are subjective. There’s no reliable way to measure the value of a color. The camera is as subjective as the human eye. Your painting should be a carefully judged pas de deux between reality and your own vision. That’s best worked out before you start adding a million different variables in the form of hues.

Monday Morning Art School: Creativity loves constraints

Two things I learned teaching my workshop last week.

Kamillah Ramos at the Grand Canyon.

I start each class and workshop by handing my students protocols for painting in oils and watercolor. “If you follow these steps,” I tell them, “you will understand how to paint.” These instructions are not unique; they’re how most successful artists work through drawing, composition, and paint application.

Just try it for the length of the class, I tell them. If it doesn’t improve your painting, go back to what you were doing before. But I’m confident that following this traditional approach works. Anyways, most people take painting classes because they recognize that something in their system isn’t working. 

A set of step-by-steps is oddly liberating. Working out the problems in advance leads to looser and more lyrical brushwork.

Student Becca Wilson responded by telling me that there’s a phrase for this: “creativity loves constraints.” Bam.

The idea that limits can lead to extraordinary creative output seems counterintuitive. After all, the creative pursuits (and particularly the visual arts) are often thought to be about feelings and thus limit- and rule-free. In reality, they’re quite the opposite. Every creative pursuit has its own established practice, and painting is no exception.

Constraints set up processes within which problems can be solved. Separating painting into discrete steps—value study, color mixing and then, finally, brushwork—helps cut it down into manageable pieces. Only when you can do the steps automatically will you find your authentic, unique artistic voice.

Kamillah Ramos and I were painting on Mather Point at 5:30 AM yesterday morning. This is a busy time at the Grand Canyon. The weather is good and schools are on spring break. Hundreds of people came by in the 4.5 hours we were painting, and many of them stopped to ask us questions or comment on our work.

“There’s nothing like plein air painting for changing the vibe of a place,” Kamillah said. She’s so right.

Our workshop painted in six separate locations in Sedona, which was also jam-packed with tourists. People might have found our presence irritating, but instead they were interested and enthusiastic. In fact, in decades of painting outside, I’ve had universally-positive reactions from passers-by.

Artists are very much a cultural and economic asset, and that’s worth remembering.

(Sorry this is brief but I’m about to board a red-eye to Portland.)

How long did it take you to become a genius, anyway?

Mastery is a moving target. Occasional moments of greatness are a byproduct of that continuing struggle.

Autumn farm, evening blues, oil on archival canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas

“How @#$% long does it take great painters to learn to paint?” asked a student recently, with only the slightest hint of frustration in his voice. “I’m not looking for affirmations,” he added. “I really would like some perspective.”

In the age of apprenticeships and less-flexible standards of art, that was an easier question to answer. Titian started his apprenticeship somewhere around age 10-12, and finished it around ten years later. Diego Velázquez did a six-year apprenticeship starting at around age ten. Peter Paul Rubensdid a 7-year apprenticeship starting at age 14. The British portrait painter George Romneydid only four years, but he started at age 21, with watchmaking and drawing experience under his belt. Most women at this time studied with family members.

Vineyard, oil on canvas, 30X40, Carol L. Douglas

These budding artists made learning their craft a full-time occupation during their apprenticeships. They were also responsible for elements of painting we don’t bother with today, such as preparing panels and grinding pigments, along with the scut-work of any successful business. In addition, their master (or more probably, his wife) taught them the necessary skills for living.

By the end of the 18th century, the apprenticeship system was dead. Painters were more likely to come up through atelier training. Many artists of this period, including Édouard Manet and Vincent van Gogh, came from affluent families. They had the liberty to direct their own destinies and well-heeled friends to buy their first paintings.

Mary Cassatt is typical in that she had a good liberal education (including exposure to great art in Europe) before enrolling at the  Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts at the age of 15. She spent four years there. It was not coincidence that atelier training took about as long as a humanities degree; artists had transitioned from being craftsmen to intellectuals.

Midsummer, 24X36, oil on canvas (plein air), $3188 unframed, Carol L. Douglas

By the 20th century, the down-and-dirty craftsmen in the art world were illustrators. Norman Rockwell also spent four years studying art, but he didn’t have the advantage of a Grand Tour. He started art school at age 14 and was working for Boy’s Life at 18.

The 20th century was a confused time for art education in the western world. Grant Wood is representative of mid-century painters in that he moved around through various schools and collectives learning his craft. Andy Warhol, on the other hand, had a BFA from Carnegie-Mellon. Those who came up outside the formal art world, like Jasper Johns, still put in a lot of years perfecting their craft.

There have always been outliers. N.C Wyeth had a fairly typical art education for his time, with Howard Pyle and others. However, when it came to the next generations, Andrew Wyeth and grandson Jamie Wyethwere both tutored at home. This hearkens back to historic family painting dynasties like the Brueghelsor Gentileschis.

Termination Dust, oil on archival canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas

We love stories of instant success, but most, like Grandma Moses, were working hard at art for decades before their discovery. Moses spent a lifetime doing fine needlework until her arthritis forced her to take up a brush at age 78.

My student’s question presumes there’s a point at which the painter says, ‘whew, I’ve made it!” Every credible painter I know is simply striving to be good at what he or she does, but the goal keeps moving. Greatness is merely a by-product of that continuing struggle.

Historically, masterpiece had a specific meaning. It was a work produced to earn membership in one’s guild. Velazquez’ first Waterseller of Seville was such a painting, done to prove that he was good enough to hang out his own shingle. It was the start of his professional life, not its culmination.

I had just one job…

COVID kicks like a mule, which is why I failed at my goal, and why I’m just getting this information out about my next session of classes.

Oops.

I set out two weeks ago on an impromptu excursion with my son to West Yellowstone, Montana. We would look at geysers in the snow, and celebrate his Prius clicking over 300,000 miles, which we calculated would happen somewhere on the NYS Thruway as we returned to Albany, NY.

I was last in Yellowstone 26 years ago with a baby in a backpack saying “bub-ble”. On this trip, her younger brother was more erudite. He’s a newly-minted geologist. I now know more about the Yellowstone Supervolcano than I ever thought possible.

Coyote at Yellowstone, photo courtesy Dwight Perot.

On Monday of last week, my husband told me he had COVID. I was starting to develop cold symptoms myself, but according to the CDC we’d been apart too long for me to have been exposed with him. However, by Tuesday morning, it was apparent that my son and I also had COVID. We decided to beat feet back home.

If you’re not feeling well, a car provides a strange insulation. You stop at roadside rest stops, you eat fast food, you sleep, and then you do it all over again. It’s amazing how fast you can travel 2600 miles when you’re self-quarantined.

Yellowstone in the snow, photo courtesy Dwight Perot.

One problem became evident as we approached Ohio. We would be 55 miles short of our 300,000-mile goal. “No problem,” I said. “We’ll just take a fast run up the Northway when we get back to Albany.”

Except that we couldn’t. Even in its Omicron form, COVID has a wicked kick. I left the boy on his sickbed, drove home and slept all weekend.

Yellowstone River, photo courtesy Dwight Perot.

That’s why I’m just getting around to telling you about my openings for my next session of Zoom classes. There are three seats open in each class. (My current students always have first dibs on returning.)

These classes are open to intermediate painters in watercolor, acrylics, pastels and oils. What do I mean by that? You have a basic understanding of how to apply paint, but want to learn more about how to paint boldly, use fresh, clean color, build commanding compositions, and draw the eye through your paintings. (If you need a beginner class, contact me and I’ll put you in contact with some excellent teachers.)

The great thing about Zoom classes is that they’re one place you can’t spread a virus. And having just done COVID myself, I think that’s an awesome thing.

ZOOM Tuesday morning Session

We meet on Tuesdays from 10 AM to 1 PM EST, on the following dates:

February 22

March 1, 8, 15, 29 (off week of March 21 for Sedona workshop)

April 5 

ZOOM Monday evening Session

We meet on Mondays from 6 to 9 PM EST, on the following dates:

February 21, 28

March 7, 14, 28 (off week of March 21 for Sedona workshop)

April 4

For more information, see here.

Imagination without follow-through is mere fantasy

If not now, when? If not you, who?

The Late Bus, 6X8, oil on canvasboard, $435, available through Camden Public Library this month.

“Imagination without follow-through is mere fantasy,” pastor Quinton Self said on Sunday, making me almost drop my sketchbook in a shock of self-recognition. I have a good idea nearly every day. I’ve learned to ignore them and focus on my core mission (painting) but for decades I was bedeviled by ideas I couldn’t execute.

Until I was 40, that included painting itself. I was too tied to making a living to have time for my life’s work. How my husband (and cancer) helped me escape that is a story for another day. However, I do know the intense longing of staring through the shop window at the world of art and longing to be allowed in.

Owl’s Head early morning, 8X16, oil on linenboard, $722 unframed.

There are many reasons why we defer our creative dreams. Greatest among them is fear of failure. Somewhere in the business of learning a discipline, we face the fact that what we create will never match what we’ve dreamed. In our minds, we’re all brilliant artists; in reality, we’re all somewhat impeded. That’s a good thing, too, because the gap between what we see and what we execute is what the world calls ‘style’.

Nevertheless, the fear of mediocrity stops many people from starting at all. They defer their dreams to some future time. Their most common excuse is that they’re too busy right now. There’s a meme that reads, “being an adult is just saying ‘But after this week things will slow down a bit again’ to yourself until you die.” I’m not saying that our responsibilities are not real, but, to some degree, we all insulate ourselves in a cocoon of busy-work.

Lonely Cabin, 8X10, oil on canvasboard, available through Camden Public Library this month.

We’re all mediocre when we start—if we’re lucky. Some of us are truly terrible. You have to get through that phase in order to start being good, and you have to get through being merely good in order to be great. That’s the nature of every worthwhile venture.

We never know, when we start, where we’re going to end up on the continuum between awful and greatness. That’s played out over time. As a teacher, I can’t tell either. But I can tell where a person will end up if he never picks up a tool and starts working: he’ll remain a fantasist until his dying day.

Nocturne, 9X12, oil on canvasboard, $869 framed.

Painters hear the same comments over and over from people who stop to talk to us, so much that there is a small cottage industry of jokes about them. The one that strikes me as terribly poignant is, “I used to paint, but then…”

My father, in a sense, was one of those people. He had a scholarship to art school, but enlisted for World War II. He became a photographer and then a psychologist and painted on the side (and taught me). He intended to pursue painting in retirement, but by then the fire had been damped by tragedy.

I recently put a deposit down for a walking trip along Hadrian’s Wall in Britain. Yes, I know that travel restrictions are tightening; we live in uncertain times. But as I explained to my daughter, I don’t have any guarantees that in two years, or five, I’ll be strong enough to hike 75 miles. None of us are guaranteed a future.

I am reminded of two questions asked by a former pastor, Tony Martorana, that have resonated with me over the years:

“If not now, when?”
“If not you, who?”

Of course, pastors Tony and Quinton were talking about something far greater than mere art, but the point is universal. What are you going to do with the next year?

I can’t leave this subject without a plug for my workshops and classes; sorry about that.

What do when you hit the doldrums?

Failure is the one sure sign that you’re experimenting and growing as an artist.

Beth Carr’s painting of her mother camping, from a recent class on integrating figure into landscape.

I’ve got a student who’s been down in the dumps for a few weeks now. “Everything I paint is terrible,” she said. “I throw it in the fire.” What do when you hit the doldrums, she asked the class.

First, be merciful to yourself. This student had major surgery a few months ago. She recently took a workshop that was a sucker-punch to her self-confidence. We all want to believe we’re like Bozo-the-Clown bop bags, able to spring back upright right after we take a hit. That’s not how we’re made. The body and mind both need time to recover from injury.

Lauren Hammond’s contre-jour fruit.

“Painting is hard,” her classmates reminded her. Yes, it’s also fun and immensely rewarding, but each time we pick up a brush it’s a personal battle between our inner vision and our own limitations. That gets exhausting at times.

Experience is a great teacher. For children, every setback seems catastrophic. Toddlers cry uncontrollably when toys are snatched from them. The circumstances change, but the reaction remains. “I will never pass my driver’s test!” “He asked her to the dance, and not me!”

Lorraine Nichols turned her drapery study into seasonal fun.

As adults, we watch these tempests with a certain amount of detached amusement. We empathize, having once been young ourselves. We also know how things level out over time. In fact, it’s through surviving these periodic disappointments that children learn resilience and tenacity.

The painting student is emotionally and intellectually adult, of course. However, he or she hasn’t been painting long enough to have racked up a history of bad paintings. That makes him feel those failures very deeply.

Cassie Sano painted my favorite blueberry barrens during plein air class.

When you’ve been painting a long time, you have an entire studio full of bad art. In fact, failure is the one sure sign that you’re experimenting and growing as an artist.

Sometimes this can stretch into weeks or even months. I’ve learned that it’s paradoxically a good sign—it means I’m integrating a new idea into my painting. Periodic lousy painting is, more often than not, a sign of intellectual ferment.

Sue Colgan-Borror’s contre-jour fruit.

I take refuge in routine. I always go in the studio at the same time, and I find that carries me through these uninspired times.

The support of other artists is invaluable. I have just three friends I can be brutally honest with about my paintings. They won’t lie to me and say they’re good when they’re not. They understand my values and goals. How do you find friends like these? Join a painting group, take a class, and cultivate friendships within the painting community.

Mark Gale is tuning in to Zoom class from wherever he lands in his Airstream camper. This is a ski tech in Telluride.

But if a person makes you feel bad when you’re working with them, steer clear of them no matter how witty or pleasant they may seem. There are too many people in the art world who prop up their own egos by scoring off others. Some are very subtle.

I have three openings in my Monday evening class (6-9 PM, EST) and either two or four in the Tuesday morning class (10 AM-1 PM). The new session starts next week and runs until the week of December 14. You can learn more here.

A new system of training new painters

I’m confident this approach will prepare confident, competent painting students ready to tackle higher-level observational painting, composition, color theory and mark-making.

Breaking storm, 48X30, oil on canvas, Carol L. Douglas, available through Folly Cove Gallery, Rockport, MA

After this session of painting classes, which ends on November 2, I will no longer take beginning painters. I’m simply stretched too thin. Instead, I’m going to send brand-new painters to two excellent teachers. That’s a simple, six-week process in which they will learn the rudiments of paint application, brush-work and color mixing. When they’ve completed this preparatory work, I’ll welcome them back into my classes.

That doesn’t mean every new student must start this way. If you already know the fundamentals of applying paint, I’m happy to work with you, whether you are self-taught or you started in another class. And en plein air, I’m happy to welcome painters of all levels.

Michelle Reading, oil on linen, Carol L. Douglas available through Rye Arts Center.

I’ll be sending oil and acrylic painters to my old friend, Bobbi Heath. I’ve taught students prepared by her and they’ve come to me knowing the order of operations in solid-media painting. Bobbi painted on the side during a long and successful business career. That shows in the workmanlike way she trains new painters. You won’t get a lot of rhetoric from her, just a good step-by-step introduction in how alla prima painting is supposed to be done.

I’ll be sending new watercolor painters to one of my own students, Cassie Sano. Cassie has experience teaching, but she developed a syllabus specifically to train new painters for me. She too is a very logical thinker, and a person of great compassion and kindness. She’s a crackerjack watercolorist, and, more importantly, she can explain how each step works. She’ll demystify watercolor for the beginner.

Main Street, Owls Head, 16X20, Carol L. Douglas, oil on gessoboard, $1,623 unframed.

Where does this leave me? Relieved. My students have been galloping forward for the past few years, working on higher-level observational painting, composition, color theory, and mark-making. It’s unfair to the new painter to be thrown into this melee without the basics under his or her belt.

Alla prima painting comes under many names, including wet-on-wet, direct painting or au premier coup. That French version means ‘at the first strike’, and it’s a perfect description of what has to happen to get the freshness that alla prima painting promises.

Wreck of the SS Ethie, oil on canvas, Carol L. Douglas, 18X24, $2318 framed.

To hit it right on the first strike means a lot of things have to have become second nature—drawing, color mixing, and brushwork. The whole point is to keep do-overs to a minimum. That requires preparation and confidence. I’m confident that this new system of training will enhance both.

Afraid of the darks

It’s only when you’re no longer struggling to manage the technical problems that you can start telling a story with your brush.

Northern  New Mexico, 8X10, oil on Ray-Mar board, $522 unframed.

When teaching, I usually find myself sounding out little ditties with my brush rather than playing through the whole score. Nobody can absorb all the nuances of painting in one marathon demonstration; if that’s what they want, they’re better off buying a video and watching it repeatedly. I prefer to paint a passage that shows a solution to whatever problem is bedeviling my class at the moment. Rarely does that result in a fully-realized painting, but I feel that it’s the best way to teach.

Students setting up to paint in a quiet hamlet. What a paradise New Mexico is!

I was doing that yesterday, demonstrating how to hit a dense, rich color on the first strike. Watercolor students are often afraid of the darks, because they know there’s no going back from an incorrectly-placed deep passage. With few exceptions, watercolor doesn’t take correction well.

“That’s the bitch of watercolor,” I said, sadly.

“Ohhh, the Bitch of Watercolor!” someone riposted. “What a great title!”

My students. I love them.

“Enough of that stupid horse!” said Jimmy the Donkey. “Look at my beautiful Roamin’ Nose!” That was the end of that painting.

The diffident watercolorist tries to circumvent their fear of darks by substituting a series of glazes. Glazing has its place, but you can’t use it in lieu of courage. Excessive glazing makes for muddy color and indistinct edges. The end result is lifeless. Paradoxically, that struggle against the darks sucks all the light out of the painting.

Just as watercolorists have problems with darks, some oil painters have an equal and opposite problem with light. They understand intellectually that they work from darks to lights, but they’re somehow unable to make the jump. Sometimes that’s caused by working in bright sunlight, which lies about the true values in our paintings. Or the painter thinks they should lay down a bunch of dark color and then lighten things by adding white into them. That’s a misunderstanding of indirect painting.

White, incorrectly used, makes for chalky color.

New Mexico can sure put on a show with her skies.

The problem may also be that they have too much solvent in the bottom layers. If those layers are too wet, nothing above them stays separated and clean. A good rule of thumb is that solvent gets used in the bottom layer only (and sparingly), paint in the middle layer, and paint and medium in the top layer. The fat-over-lean rule is not only archivally sound, it’s easier to manage.

Confident color is integral to alla prima painting. There is only one way to achieve this:

  • Draw well enough that you have confidence in where you’re placing your color, and,
  • Mix and test your color so you’re sure of it before it hits your finished painting.
My dog buddies came out to visit me, as they do every year. It’s painful to see the grey in their muzzles and the hitch in their gitalong.

“Why this emphasis on process?” a student once asked me. “Shouldn’t art be about freedom of expression?” Well, yes and no. All expression rests on a firm foundation of technique. It’s only when you’re no longer struggling to manage the technical problems that you can start telling a story with your brush.

I’m teaching in Pecos, NM this week. Yee-hah!

Monday Morning Art School: how to get the most out of a workshop

The important thing you bring to class is not your prior painting experience, but your attitude.

I’m at Schoodic Institute in Acadia National Park this week, teaching my annual Sea & Sky workshop. The following is what I tell my students on the first day:
To teach painting effectively, one must not only know how to paint, but be able to break that down into discrete steps and effectively communicate those steps to students. That’s straightforward, right?
What isn’t so straightforward is how one prepares to be a good student. Learning is a partnership, and students always bring attitudes, personality and preconceptions to the mix. Unless a class is marketed as a masterclass, you don’t need to worry overmuch about your incoming skill level. However, some rudimentary drawing experience will make you a stronger painter.
Photo courtesy of Jennifer Johnson.
More important is intellectual openness. This means the ability to receive correction and instruction without being defensive. (I’ll freely admit I came late to this myself.) The greatest teacher in the world is useless if you’re not prepared to hear what he or she has to say.
Nobody ever paints well when they’re integrating new ideas; it’s far easier to stick with the same old processes even when they don’t work particularly well. They’re familiar. Students should come to class expecting to fail, and even to fail spectacularly. “When I take a class, I produce some of the worst crap in the world, but I will have experimented,” one artist told me. The people who produce pretty things in class are often playing it safe. They’re scared of pushing themselves past what’s comfortable.
Are you worried that you’ll lose your style if you do it the teacher’s way? Your inner self will always bounce back, but hopefully you’ll have learned something that enhances that.
What we teach is a process. The primary goal is to master that process, not to produce beautiful art in any style. If that happens, it’s a bonus, but the real takeaway ought to be a roadmap you can follow long after your teacher is gone.
Photo courtesy of Jennifer Johnson.

The student has some basic responsibilities to his fellow students. He should be on time and bring the proper equipment and supplies. Furthermore, he should be polite, friendly, and supportive to his fellow students. The importance of this latter cannot be overstressed. An overly-needy or unfriendly student can ruin a workshop for everyone, as there’s no getting away from him.

I’ve written before about the pernicious practice of negative feedback, but it’s pervasive in our teaching culture. It takes a while for students to get the hang of recognizing their successes. Before we talk about what needs fixing, we need to trust each other. One way we learn distrust is the idea that, in a critique, we are required to say something unfavorable. Only talk about what’s broken if, in fact, it’s actually broken.
Photo courtesy of Ellen Trayer.
It helps progress to be optimistic, excited and motivated. I’m blessed with an unusually great class this session, and one of the things that distinguishes them is that everyone really wants to excel in painting. They all have a strong work ethic.
Lastly, I think a good student brings a measure of self-advocacy to class. I’m listening hard, and I’m watching carefully, and I still sometimes miss things. I like it when people bring problems or concerns to my attention. It makes me a better teacher.

Monday Morning Art School: simplifying values

Thinking about the landscape as a series of planes will help you create depth in your painting. 
Ice Bound Locks, John F. Carlson, courtesy Vose Galleries

When Eric Jacobsen told us that he was teaching the theory of angles and consequent values in his recent workshop, I was baffled by the big words. “What’s that when it’s at home?” I asked him. Ken DeWaard was equally confused, responding in a torrent of emojis.

“C’mon, guys, it’s John F. Carlson 101!” Eric exclaimed. Björn Runquist immediately checked, and announced that there was nothing about any angles on page 101. (Actually, it’s in chapter 3; I checked.)

It’s no wonder that Eric’s no longer returning our calls.

Sylvan Labyrinth, John F. Carlson, courtesy of Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

All kidding aside, Carlson’s Guide to Landscape Painting is a classic. His theory, although it has a high-flown title, is actually quite intelligible to even the meanest intellects (and you know who you are, guys).

“Every good picture is fundamentally an arrangement of three or four large masses,” Carlson began. That’s as good an organizing principle as any in art. Value is what makes form visible, so we should see, translate, simplify and organize form into value masses.

Carlson wrote that any landscape would contain four groups of values bouncing off three major planes:

  • The horizontal ground plane;
  • The angle plane represented by mountain slopes or rooftops;
  • The upright plane, which is perpendicular to the ground plane, such as trees.

In the middle of the day—our most common circumstance for painting—the value structure would be as follows:

  • The sky is our light source. It should be the highest value in our painting.
  • The ground plane gets the most light bouncing off it, so it should be the next-lightest plane.
  • The angle planes such as rooftops or mountain slopes, are the next lightest planes.
  • The upright objects in our painting, such as trees, walls or people, should be the darkest value element.

Snow Lyric, John F. Carlson, courtesy of The Athenaeum

That doesn’t mean that the shapes are crudely simplified, as a glance at Carlson’s own paintings confirms. The shapes can be beautiful, elegant, complex, and lyrical without too much value overlap.

Thinking about the landscape as a series of planes will help you create depth in your painting. However, it can be tricky to see the landscape as a series of planes rather than objects. It can be helpful to keep each value group completely separate, with no overlap of values, but, in reality, there will always be overlap.

Your assignment is to find a photo among your own snapshots and reduce it to a series of four values. Then paint it.

As you try to integrate this idea into your painting, exaggerate the separation of planes.

Of course, there are many circumstances where this doesn’t hold true—where the sky is leaden and darker than a snow plane, or when the fading evening light is hitting the vertical plane rather than the ground. But understanding it will help you paint the exceptions in a more arresting way.