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Aims in Painting Landscapes

Landscapes have grown in popularity over the centuries, and now display a greater variety and perhaps originality than any other genre. Landscapes afford the painter the refreshment (sometimes the bracing challenge) of working out of doors, and the viewer with the opportunity of renewing contacts with natural surroundings.

ConstableThat brings us immediately to the shortcomings of so much amateur landscape painting. Over-conscientious, uninspired, derivative — these are not the main problems. It is the revitalizing, underlying vision that is lacking.

Originality can certainly be overdone, but what galleries and museums look for generally is a freshness and depth of vision that renders the world in meaningful and significant terms that hadn't been apparent before. Bold liberties with color and perspective? Perhaps, but more important is a thoughtful and probing honesty, developing a pictorial reality that is explored with and through the means of depiction. Cezanne's phrase was 'realizing my sensations before nature', and that is the first requirement: a sensitivity, an openness to how the world really appears when approached with certain preoccupations.

There are always certain preoccupations. Even the most photographic rendering of a landscape cannot avoid changing it in some degree. The vantage point has to be selected, the time of day and season chosen, the width of view adjusted. And what appears on a two-dimensional photographic plate is only a representation, not the breathing, three-dimensional reality from which the eye is always selecting, emphasizing and rearranging according to needs. A painting has an aesthetic dimension, moreover, and this involves tonal harmony, balance, points of interest, rhythmic vitality, color arrangement, etc. — the list is almost endless. Any choice among one of these will affect what is possibly with all the others, and that limitation adds another preoccupation to the painter's personal interest in a scene.

The point of this theoretical digression? To emphasize that you have a choice. However you paint a landscape, you will approach it with certain aesthetic and personal concerns. You'll be influenced by other landscapes, other painter's selections of what was worth bringing out and by what means. You cannot start with a blank mind, and nor would you want to. Earlier painters who have been any good will have something to teach you. It's really a question of where you start.

Amateur Approaches


If you adopt a direct painting approach for landscapes, and this is by far the most popular today, almost to the exclusion of other oil painting techniques, then you'll have to balance a host of matters. And since this is phenomenally difficult at first, you'd probably be best advised to start with one of the many popular 'how to paint landscapes in oils' books. Or attend a course where this approach is taught. Gradually, as your skills expand, and you tackle subjects not covered by the demonstrations, you'll move away and develop a personality that commercial galleries look for. This is the path most amateurs take.

Professional Approaches

Spencer Gore

Painters with an art college education will probably approach landscape painting differently. They will feel that the popular manuals teach a vocabulary of representation that inhibits individual expression and neglects the larger concerns of art. Originality has been dinned into them for years, and they have also been trained to appreciate the more painterly concerns of tonal balance, color harmony, emotive expression, etc. Their best course is probably to tour galleries (physically, if possible, or through books and the Internet) to find contemporary landscape paintings that speak powerfully to them. With such works in their mind, supported by notes and explanatory sketches, they will go out to forge their own acceptably contemporary style.


Direct Painting Approaches

Paul NashConsiderable thought and planning is needed to paint directly with any likelihood of success. The first step is generally sketches to work out composition, points of interest, a balance of interesting shapes, both positive and negative. Then comes a tonal sketch, where the painting is commonly represented into three tones: light, intermediate and dark (sometimes four with the sky or water). This tonal sketch will be completely covered by later painting, but serves as a guide to the tonal value of that paint. The next requirement is color harmony, and here it's usual either to undertake a brief color sketch, or to lay out the main colors on the palette before applying them. Once the colors are established, the paint is applied as freely and vigorously as possible.

Much painting ends at this point, but more finished works, with a higher degree of detail, will either need to rework this last layer of paint before wet, or (more usually) allow the paint to dry before painting again in more finely judged color and detail.

Old & New Approaches

R.B. KitajWe tend of think of landscape painting as developing through the naively charming Florentine and German Schools, through Dutch seventeenth painting to the English and Barbizon Schools and finally to the Impressionists. But in fact landscape painters are more widely distributed, and even Rubens and Poussin produced very beautiful work. Landscape painting techniques are therefore diverse, even among painters of the nineteenth century. The 'painting from nature' claims of the Impressionists indeed overlooks the large number of their works that were conceived and finished in the studio. That being the case, it is study of individual landscape paintings that is called for. Paintings with old master techniques will often require a phased approach — sketches to establish composition, a working up from layers establishing the disposition of tones through applications of color layers to modifying glazes — but there is no reason why these techniques should not be deployed in contemporary styles.

The details show how differently landscape painters have approaches their subjects. The first comes from a Constable sketch ('Dedham Vale with the House Called Dedham Valley'. The Tate Gallery. London). It is painted very thinly and freely with a small number of pigments. The second is from a famous work by Isaac Levitan ('Evening Bells'. 1892. The State Gallery Tretyakov. Moscow), and though based on innumerable sketching trips, was carefully crafted in the studio. The third shows the beginning of Post-Impressionism abroad: Spencer Gore's 'The Cinder Path' (1912. The Tate Gallery. London). The rich colors and the blocky trees evoke a mood common in the English scene. In the fourth we move to 20th century Romanticism: Paul Nash's 'The Cornfield'. (1918. The Tate Gallery. London) Again, anyone who knows southern England will recognize how aptly the scenery has been captured in these simplified shapes and sunny colors. The fifth is very different: R.B. Kitaj's 'If Not, Not' (1975. Scottish Gallery of Modern Art. Edinburgh). The surrealistic juxtaposition of exotic shapes with personal imagery (clearer in the whole picture) creates something powerful but also unexpectedly personal.

Further Reading

You'll find these provide a good starting point:

1. 'Painting Better Landscapes by Margaret Kessler'. Watson Guptill. 1992. There are many "how-to paint' guides. This is one of the better, covering many aspects of the landscape painter's art and illustrated with her own work.. The book advocates a natural and highly detailed style, using photographs for reference.

2. 'Russian Art' by D.V. Sarabianov. Thames and Hudson. 1990. Only a quarter of the 354 illustrations (81 in color) deal with landscapes, but the book will introduce some very fine artists insufficiently known in the west.

3. 'Essential History of British Art' by Isabella Steer. Parragon. 2001. A cheap hardback that admirably illustrates the British achievement in painting, including some excellent landscape work, from Turner onwards.

4. 'How to Paint a Landscape'. Howcast. First approaches.

5. 'How to Paint a Landscape in Oils'. Wikihow. Over 40 lessons.

6. 'Oil painting for landscape'. YouTube. Demonstration with palette knife and brush.


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