Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Landscape painting - Being enchanted.

George Innes , who painted the wonderfully atmospheric landscape scene above, "Pool in the Woods" in 1892, said:

"I don't illustrate travel guide books, madame, I paint paintings"

Lovely, isn't it.  Learning to paint good landscapes is so much more than running around with a camera, snapping picture postcard shots, and then, subsequently trying to reproduce that image as a painting.  WHAT FOR?  You have the photo.  Do you also need to paint from it?   If so, why?  Do you have something more to say about the scene that the camera was not able to capture?  I hope so.

Having something personal to say about the scene, is, in my opinion, what makes the difference between a landscape painting which grabs your attention, and a landscape painting which could be used to illustrate a travel guide book.

It is the reason why I often recommend to students that they BEGIN WITH A TITLE.   Giving "voice" to your thoughts helps you to find out what it is about the scene that caught your attention.  After all, the world is full of gorgeous views and wonderful corners - you can sit and drink in a fabulous scene without too much thinking about it, just feeling admiration.  It isn't enough, if you want to create a painting with more meaning to it than a photo.    You might as well get out your camera and just use that.  As a painter, you can do, and say,  more than a camera ever can.

Look at these images.    Loriann Signori's atmospheric images lean towards abstraction but are recognisably landscapes. She confesses a fascination for fields - for this picture, she said "the fields in Washington always enchant me".  She was ENCHANTED.  And so the painting is enchanting.


Sarah Bee - "Totness Storm Approaching" - this is not just a topographical landscape painting - there is a very strong feeling of storm, from the specific quality of light, to the interesting and unusual treatment of the foreground which speaks to me not just of a tree line, but also a dark, brooding presence, much like heavy storm clouds.  The concept for the painting is very clear indeed.
I could show you many more images all of which have a strong message...but I think I have made the point well enough for a blog post.  If you find yourself sitting with a group of painters one day on a landscape course,  wondering what on earth to choose from all the glory around you, or at home, picking up a photo to work from, and seeing it as a shopping list.....3 trees, 1 valley, 6 bushes, 4 cows....PLEASE think again. Think how you felt when you spotted that scene.  What was IMPORTANT about it, or perhaps, if not important, then at least fascinating, interesting, eye-catching.    Decide on the TITLE for your painting.  Write it down.  If you cannot think of a title, then just write a whole paragraph about the scene, putting down everything you can think of, all the memories.     Then a title will come to you.  The title should have some meaning beyond just the name of the beach, or valley, or part of the world in question.   Consider the weather.........the temperature...........the atmosphere...........the unique whatever-it-was that you found enchanting.
I do not consider myself a strong landscape painter.  I do not enjoy solitary excursions into unpopulated landscape - far too nervous -   so people inevitably creep into most of my images, and take over from the landscape.  But I really enjoyed painting in Venice;  I particularly loved the special light of early morning, and the way that the canals always reflected the skies and the light in the scene - water in a landscape always fascinates me.  So this could have been called "Venice Grand Canal View"....but actually, it's name is "Light and Reflections, Venice".
I was enchanted by this scene.  Be enchanted, and then perhaps your paintings will enchant others.


  1. The water in your Venice painting is wonderful! and as always, I'm reading your words and saying YESSSS! as I read. One of my students asked me how she could tell the difference between ad design painting and fine art painting. I thought for a bit and then said, if you can imagine a banner with a product name on it unfurled across the painting, it's not fine art! and I still think that's not a bad way of looking at it. One of my friends, a very literal minded lady with good skills and little imagination, paints many works directly from photographs she takes on her travels. Well, at least they're her own pix, so it's her own composition. But you could so easily see a banner for vodka or tour buses or something across most of her work! Very dull stuff.

  2. So beautifully stated. This is a hard concept to teach students who are so literal. How to capture a feeling of a place successfully is very hard indeed, but really the ultimate of fine art expression. Love this post....as I do most of your posts. Thank you!

  3. I really should do this, but sometimes that's wordless for me. Sometimes a good title is the seed of the idea and sometimes it's just a wordless need to paint something. I reached a point a while back where I had to beat the camera, had to show it truer than the camera would. I also write fiction, so that's why the method didn't occur to me.

    I start a story with a general idea for an opening scene full of tension and find out where I'm going on the way. I start a painting the same way, seeing "oh wow that is such a green lane, that is the kind of green lane I always wanted to paint, like it's leading off into Middle Earth or something." And when I painted it, it came out right and titled itself Enchanted Forest. But sometimes I start out thinking it's about the lake when it's really about the clouds because it will change along the way. I'm used to starting concepts turning into something else because of that story process. So titling often comes at the end and just as with stories, may take some time and multiple tries to come up with a good one.

    1. Robert, one thing I did not say ..... and perhaps should have done but felt it might weaken the message slightly...is that sometimes one can begin with one idea.....and then feel, as the painting develops, that another concept has taken over and you switch to reinforce that alternative concept. This is OK. I was once told by another painter, than sometimes, when a painting wasn't working for her, she would do thumbnails FROM THE ORIGINAL PAINTING, changing her direction slightly with each one, until suddenly, she did one which felt right...and then she could continue with the painting. My suggestion is aimed really at those who pick up a photo, like it, and just sit down to copy it without thinking too much. I want to get people THINKING a little more, to try to find out about their deeper feelings. So thanks for this heads-up.

  4. Heh after thought - sometimes I carry a good title around for years looking for the right scene or photo to paint it though. I'll have an idea and go looking for it in reality.


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