Sunday, May 24, 2009

Edgar Payne, Compostiton of outdoor painting

I am continuing the theme of the last few days of writing short posts on a particular subject rather than a large theme. I will return to another series of related posts soon, after I recover from the massive "Every brushstroke" campaign.

The paintings on this page are by Edgar Payne, the author of a book I want to tell you about.

Some time ago I recommended John Carlsons Guide to landscape painting.Today I am recommending another book. Edgar Paynes composition of outdoor painting.
These two books are the best resources on landscape painting.The east coast artists seem to prefer Carlson and the west coast painters tend to prefer Payne. They are quite different. Carlson is a broad how-to book covering every aspect of landscape painting. The Payne book is largely concerned only with the design of landscape paintings.
He has been an enormous influence on plein air painters in the west and southwest. His work is broad and his color is unusual, You may have heard him referred to on this site in the comments. If you could only own two books on landscape painting these would be the two.

The heart of the Payne book is his explanation of design stems. These are stock compositional arrangements that artists use to assemble paintings,. As I write this is it sounds rather uncreative, but I don't believe you will find it so. They are sort of skeletal armatures that help you think about a paintings design, rather than a template you build a painting within.

Payne draws pages and pages of little thumbnails showing the major design stems that artists have repeatedly used in landscapes. After enumerating these stems, he shows how dozens of artists have used them to create paintings. He also shows a lot of little drawings explaining common design errors.

I have spoken before about what I think makes for a good book on painting. I think the best books are written by fine painters. I think no one can teach you anything about painting that they can't do themselves. Payne was a very good painter and knew why he did things the way he did them.

His prose is a little bit stilted and some passages have to be deciphered as much as read, but it is worth the trouble. You could read this book once a year and benefit by that greatly in your painting. I got my copy out to refer to to write this post and now I believe I will read it again myself.

Soon i will do some posts on design stems for landscape painting. Some of the ideas I will tell you about come from Payne and some from the Rockport school and some just from my own experience.

One of the reasons I am posting this today is that when I was on Amazon this afternoon and contemplating doing a post on the book, I noticed they had only a very few copies left. This book goes in and out of print. Sometimes you can get a copy, sometimes only used copies are available and they are expensive. So it might be a good idea to get one of these while you can. If you miss it though there will be more, hopefully soon.

I am going to do another critique soon. So email me images to crit. I will photoshop your signature off of the paintings and I will tell no one whose paintings I am critiquing. You can send the paintings to me at



Bob Carter said...

I guess it marks me as an east-coast painter that my Carlson is dog-eared but my Payne not so much. My copy of Payne is the 6th edition (2000), and I see that the edition to which you linked on Amazon is the 7th (2005). I remember buying mine directly from DeRu's Fine Arts, the publisher. If your readers cannot get it through Amazon, they might try that route. The URL is Unfortunately, the price is $48 from them.

Richard J. Luschek II said...

These are both great books.
I don't own the Payne book but the Library here used to have it, but it got taken out of circulation for some reason.
Another book that I have always loved as one of the great books on Landscape is the one by Birge Harrison- also now available on Amazon. The two you mentioned are work horses of information. I have always found Birge Harrison's book on Landscape Painting like reading poetry.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I actually got my copy from them too.
I believe it is the family that reprints the book regularly and keeps it in circulation. Years ago it was hard to find,and copies were something you borrowed from some elderly artist rather than owned.
I have read my Carlson far more, but I would not want to work with out the design lessons I received from Payne. I think this book is an essential. Its so much easier to just buy knowledge than have to claw it out of experience.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Its surprising that Harrison is back in print. It was legendary when I was a student, I knew it existed but never saw a copy. I knew about it because he was Carlsons teacher. I once was lent an old copy,and read it,but don't remember it very will. Maybe I will go to Amazon and buy a copy. There are other old classic texts reappearing. Some are on the web, but I don't like to read whole books on the computer screen. I have a hard time remembering and reviewing the information in that format. In a book I can shuffle back and forth through the chapters and understand the flow of ideas better. Some day when I have finished transferring everything I know onto the pages of this blog, I will add to it a few chapters of valuable secret knowledge unavailable in any other form and infinitely serviceable,that was handed down to me alone, by a secret society of sorcerero-limmners and and publish it as a book.

Richard J. Luschek II said...

I have a PDF of the Birge Harrison book.
I spent the time scanning the whole thing in and reformatting it. Big pain in the butt. Shortly after I found out that I saw on Amazon that they were reprinting it. I cried and cried over all that time wasted that could have been spent doing something productive, like fooling around on Facebook.
Anyway, I just emailed you a copy.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Thank you Richard:
I get all these people e mailing me to be their friend on face book. I haven't responded,now they probably all hate me. I can't do everything, The blog will have to be my only social networking function,its already a big commitment.

Jeremy Elder said...

I am reading Carlson right now. Thanks for the recommendation. It is great so far. I have one question though. He recommends using mainly bristle brushes. In my LIMITED experience I have found it easier to lay in thin initial color layers with bristle, and then switch to synthetic or sable to lay on thicker paint. What is his thinking behind using mostly bristles? He doesn't really elaborate.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Actually he used sables for small paintings outside himself. The reasoning is that bristle brushes give more robust handling than the sables, no synthetics in his day. He would have said the sables gave too slick a look to the painting. I think it is largely a matter of taste, but I prefer bristle brushes, I think they throw the paint far better than the synthetics which seem sort of flaccid. I have been trying for weeks to get that word into my blog.If you want to get thicker paint, bristles not synthetics are the way to go.I think you would probably be happier if you are painting bigger than a 12 x 16 using bristles......Stape

lotusgreen said...


i was wondering if you knew the date of this painting.