If you've just stumbled onto this blog, please forgive the appearance; it's still under construction. If I've used one of your photos (found on Google) in a lecture and you don't approve, please write a comment and I'll remove it.

The purpose of this blog is to explain the basics of art and culture to English language learners in secondary school in Slovakia. This is not for profit. If you look to your right, you'll see a long list of topics that I plan to cover. This is a large project that will most likely take years to complete, covering some topics I know little about (like dance), so I will be borrowing heavily from other experts, with their permission, giving credit wherever possible. Please be patient, and, of course, all advice is greatly appreciated.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Common Beginner Mistakes in Landscape Composition

This will be a long lesson, with many concepts taken from Stapleton Kearns who put together an "Encyclopedia of Dumb Design Ideas" based on the many mistakes of his beginning students.

All artworks are born from the same creative process. First, you make something, and then you have to correct it. Mistakes are inevitable. Finding and fixing them is not. Let's learn to recognize some common mistakes in landscapes. Many of these problems are common to all picture making.

As a side note, don't think of the following as rules, so much as bullies who want to ruin your artwork. It's your job to fight back and make them work for you. You need to be dictator and supreme ruler of your artwork.


Take a look at this painting.

Kari paa Sunde, by Nicolai Astrup

There's a vague indication of sunlight in the yellow mountain, and the green tree on the right. So, where's the light in the foreground? If the foreground is in shadow, let's say covered by clouds, then where's the transition between light and shadow in the fields? Now, I'm not saying this painter is a beginner, or that he even cared about light/shadow in this piece, but I am saying it doesn't work, and for that reason. Ignore light and shadow at your peril! Let's see what happens when I add some real light and shadow in the picture:

Any better? Is it a little less flat? Easier to read? Is the girl in the foreground a little more important, now that she's in the light?

Here's another example. Notice how grey everything feels here?

Pod Krivanom, by Rudolf Dollinger
This painting's okay, but it's value neutral - there are no darks or lights. Probably it's just a bad photo of the painting, but still, there needs to be light and dark. Just increasing the value contrast makes a vast improvement:

Now it looks more believable.


Another beginner mistake has to do with painting subjects that appear to be falling over. Mr. Kearns refers to this as a "down trip". Some students assume trees are always perpendicular to the ground, even on hills:

example by Mr. Kearns

The result looks a bit like the melting permafrost up in Canada, that causes trees to fall over:

There's no method or technique that will make this look pretty.

A forest with one or two fallen trees is beautiful, so long as it looks natural. But, unless you want to frighten your viewer with trees that are about to fall on him, you might want to have them stand up straight - no matter how steep the hill:

The Valley of Lauterbrunnen, by Alexander Calame


I talk more about tangents under my lesson "Principles of Composition - Shapes". Tangents can flatten your picture, and ruin your sense of perspective, but there's also another danger. When you draw a line, like a road for example, that curves toward the frame, and then bounces back, the effect is to draw viewers' eyes out of the picture all together. It's like a magnet, pulling your eyes away from the center:

example by Mr. Kearns

Flooding of the Seine, by Maurice de Vlaminck


It's important to remember how easily people see and understand abstract symbols.

We see this as a person drinking water, and that's amazing.

Even when you flip it over, you still see a person, although his body kind of looks like a hand now:

How astronauts drink water in space

It's more confusing, but you still see a person, possibly being attacked by a vacuum cleaner, or small car.

Now, he's drinking from a urinal!

Humans are great at reading symbols. We see them everywhere, and we're especially good at seeing faces:
All you need is two dots and something below and you have a face:
So imagine how you'd feel, how I felt, when I painted this winter scene...
only to find one of the trees was yelling at me:
Pareidolia is one of those things where, once you see it, you can't un-see it. So, be careful, as you find lines and shapes and shadows in your trees and landscapes, that they don't start shouting at you.
Also remember that pareidolia can work for you, if you do it purposefully. Salvador Dali incorporated it into many of his paintings:
L'Amour de Peirrot, by Salvador Dali
So, potatoes are great, when cooked right. Everyone loves potatoes. But, how do they look? I mean, when's the last time you heard someone say, "Wow, look at this beautiful potato!" I'm not saying it isn't possible:
Potato Study, by Michael Vladimir Nicolayeff
But it's not common, right? Well, unfortunately, a lot of beginners paint potatoes in their landscapes. Again, Mr. Kearns has provided some examples
A gathering of "potato" rocks along a stream

"potato" clouds.
There are two problems happening here. First, these shapes are inaccurate, stemming from a kind of visual blindness/laziness that passes with practice. It's the kind of thing beginners do when painting from imagination. More importantly, even when you do see clouds like this, remember, they're not elegant shapes. Here's how a real artist sees and draws rocks in a river:
Bachbett im Böhmerwald, by Edmund Kanoldt
Here's a problem that comes from poor planning. You go outside and find a great subject to paint. You get started, and then you realize... Oh, I still have blank areas on my canvas, and now I have to fill it in. Stapleton Kearns refers to this as "foreground follies", where people spend equal amounts of time painting the random crap at their feet as the main subject of their painting:
this example was made by Stapleton Kearns to illustrate the problem...

...and how to fix it.
So, think about your canvas shape and everything that will go into it before you start.
Just to be clear, the problem here isn't always about painting the foreground. It's about painting what you and others want to see. No one wants to see the trash in the picture above. But, when your foreground is filled with a beautiful field of flowers, then by all means paint it:
In Poppyland, by John Otis Adams
Many artists will warn you not to create a line that cuts an artwork in half. The danger is it will distract viewers, because it'll feel like there are two different pictures on one canvas. Now, every realistic image naturally divides at a horizon line, whether you draw it or not. So the real danger has more to do with vertical lines bisecting your picture:
Acantilado, by Juan Martinez-Abades
What's the subject of this picture? Are we supposed to look at the cliff on the right, or is it actually blocking our view of the water behind it? Also notice the lighthouse at the top touches the frame - a tangent. Stapleton Kearns gave a good name for this problem - "one for each eye":
example by Mr. Kearns
Notice, each tree is exactly the same size, distance, and contains the same compositional weight. When neither is more important, your eyes jump back and forth endlessly, never really resting anywhere. You might look at this and think, "Hey, it's balanced!" Unfortunately, it's too well balanced.
A profile is a side view - of anything. Profiles in portraiture can be exquisite:
Giovanna Tornabuoni, by Domenico Ghirlandaio
But, do you notice how it flattens the subject? She looks a bit like a queen on a playing card, and not just because of her outfit. A 3/4 view makes a person pop out of the picture:
Erin, by Sean Cheetham
This painting also shows a young woman placed against a flat wall, yet it contains a great illusion of space and depth. It does so for a variety of reasons, and one of them is that she turned her head. Also, note how Erin feels a lot more relaxed than Giovanna. When someone stands or sits in profile, it's not so comfortable. It's something we do in formal situations, where we need to be polite, but all we really want to do is stretch.
Landscapes work in just the same way. Take a look at these paintings:
Banks of the Missouri, by Clyde Aspevig

Yerres, Part of the South Façade of Casin, by Gustave Caillebotte

Via Sacra in Rome, by Christoffer Eckersberg

Interior with a Seated Girl, by Carl Holsoe

Moonlight Bay, by Marc Hanson
 Some of these I really like. I think Holsoe used the profile perspective well to emphasize the discomfort you might feel being alone in a dark room, full of nice furniture. His paintings are about stillness and quiet, which you mustn't disturb. You want to tiptoe through them.
But, the other artists, who I greatly admire, really should've picked a better view, and Marc Hanson, an excellent artist, apparently just wanted to paint that sky, and everything in the foreground was an afterthought.
That last painting by Hanson brings me to another dilemma. It's a sad fact that, while clear blue skies are wonderful in real life, they can be rather dull to look at:
I found this on a blog, titled boring landscape
Some places in the world are flat and featureless, like the photo above, showing a highway in Idaho. Some of the best artists in history have lived in relatively flat and boring places, like southern England and the Netherlands. This didn't keep them from making great art:
Haarlem and Bleaching Fields, by Jacob Isaaksz van Ruisdael
Mending Nets by the Shore, by Hermanus Koekkoek
Low Lighthouse & Beacon Hill, Harwich, by John Constable
Going to the Hayfield, by David Cox
On the Snake River, Oregan, by Childe Hassam
As you can see, when you're an artist clouds are your friends, especially at sunset:
Memories, by Marc Hanson
This is a situation where you have to wait for the weather to provide the right subject. You can't just go out in bad i.e. boring weather, and paint an empty landscape, devoid of any real subject, contrast, or interest. As Mr. Kearns says, if your painting:
(Again, Mr. Kearns's example)

would look better with a burning phone booth:

then it's a bad painting.
So, if you've studied your principles of shapes, you know that it's common to place your subject just outside the center of your picture, to free the eyes so they can wander around a bit. Fine, but then you have to have other areas of interest! If there's nothing else to see but your contrived 'L' then there's no reason to let your eye wander, and you instead have a bad painting.
Example by Mr. Kearns
Many artists have painted L's. Some are successful and some aren't, and it depends in part whether there are secondary and tertiary focal points. But, more importantly, does it feel honest? Or does it seem like you just threw it together because you thought it would make a safe composition? Let's take a look at some L's that I feel are more successful:
The Ruins of Tuscany, by James Brevoort
A Walk by the Lake, by Alfred Bricher
The Saco River from Conway, by Alfred Bricher
...and some less successful L's:
Blodget Peak, by William Bancroft

Tropical Sunset, by Elizabeth Jerome

The Catskills from the South Side of Mount Merino, by Henry Ary

Palms at Sundown, by Franklin Briscoe
Do you agree that these last paintings feel artificial? Does the placement of these trees feel thoughtless? So, if an art teacher ever tells you it's good to paint L's, remember, they can be good, but it's no guarantee.
Finally, these last two mistakes arise when painting water - rivers, lakes, any water with a far shore. The first is painting "three stripes".
example by Mr. Kearns
Imagine for a second if the above painting were finished, with beautiful blues and greens. Could it be a good painting? Well, first of all, what we're seeing is a profile view, with all the same problems listed above. Secondly, it's just three boring lines. And thirdly, our view is too narrow to know what we're viewing. Is it a pond? a lake? a river? a harbour? There's not enough information to tell. This is another case where you need to get up, walk around, and find a better view that's more descriptive. This is also a time where adding diagonal lines will help tremendously:
Twilight Flight, by Del-Bourree Bach
This is also a case where adding some subjects, like boats, and a dramatic sky make all the difference:
Sunset at Gloucester, by Winslow Homer
A beak is what happens with you paint a bit of land over water, ending on one side. Like potatoes, it's not a very elegant shape:
example by Mr. Kearns
Squint your eyes. Do you see a profile of a bird's head? There are ways to avoid this. Mr. Kearns illustrates how to depower this shape through light and shadow:
Another way is to look for a more elegant island or peninsula:
Marina Grande, Capri, by Charles Dix
Low Tide, Southhead, Grand Manan Island, by Alfred Bricher
These are all the common mistakes I know. If you can learn to avoid them in your art, then congratulations, you're on your way to becoming great.