Thursday, May 14, 2009

Keying a landscape painting

Here is a little stream where Willard Metcalf painted. It is in Cornish Flats, New Hampshire. Cornish covers a lot of area and he painted all over it, but he painted many times in this valley.

I have done a number of posts about Willard Metcalf. He is an artist of whom I am fond and I have spent some time studying his work. You can look back through this blog and find a weeks worth of dissections where I carve up some Metcalf paintings. He worked a lot in New Hampshire where I live and the last few days I have been traveling to and painting on this location with my friend T.M. Nicholas.That is also the reason I am posting so late today as I got home very late last night, I wrote part of this post and then at about 2 o'clock in the morning I collapsed without proofreading and publishing it. I left it till today. But here is my belated post. Thank you for your patience.

This is my friend T.M. Nicholas at work there yesterday.

And here I am.The painting looks very dark because it is in the shadow and the landscape is in the light. It is actually much lighter than it looks.

And here is the painting I made. It is a 24 x 30.

My practice is to go on painting trips and start paintings. I then hole up in the studio, usually during the gray and rainy days to finish them. So this picture will see a lot more finishing in the studio before it goes out the door.There are so many paintings going through here and in so many different stages of completion that I often show you them in various states of finish. I will try to remember to show it to you again when I finish it. I photographed this every hour or so as I painted, if I do the same thing in the studio as I finish it I can make a tutorial from that..

Several people asked in the last comments, about how I key a painting. So I will speak to that today.

Keying a painting is setting the range of light to dark, and where the different elements will be placed on that value scale. Generally this is done by establishing the values of the sky and ground, and hopefully, something like a tree or a hill where the landscape meets the sky. The difference between these is how the key is first established. With the introduction of a few dark accents and a higher note in the landscape, you have layed out the gamut of values that will be used in the painting. Note I am talking about key as it relates to values and not as the set of colors used to make the painting. I could key a painting in black and white.

Imagine a set of ten shelves with each shelf representing a value in our scale of one to ten. If the elements of the landscape are the toys scattered about on my playroom floor, key is how I pick them up and order them on those shelves. I might for instance, put all of my toys on only the middle four shelves. Or I might put one on the top shelf and all the rest on lower shelves, but none on the bottom shelf. I can put those toys in any arrangement on those shelves I want, using all of the shelves or only a few. But I decide. The toys don't tell me where I have to put each of them.Toys are not good decision makers.

I paint in a relatively low key. That means there is more colored pigment in my lights . If I were a high key painter there would be a lot of white in my notes in the light. Most outdoor painters work in a pretty high key so this gives my work a little bit of an unusual look. By lowering my key it enables me to keep more color in my lights, because I am not using so much white there. Much more on this later, but I mention it because I am a bit out of the usual in the aspect. It is important to find how YOU like to key your paintings. I point this out because I want to teach you in the broadest manner I can, that is, how to do things, rather than HOW I do things. Much of the time what I do is pretty universal, but in key I am a little out of the ordinary, so there's a heads up.

There are several large themes running through this blog and one of them is the idea of observing, thinking and deciding. Here is today's version of that.


So keep in mind that the sky is the giver of light and the landscape merely the receiver of light. You are the designer of the painting, not nature. Arrange your lights and darks to make an effective composition, rather than having the same biggest contrast at the horizon installed automatically in every picture you make. The eye is drawn to contrast, if your biggest contrast in a painting is always in the same place, all of your pictures will arrest the viewers eye in the same place.



willek said...

Hey, Stape. We were worried about you this a.m. My day has been all awry. But now I am feeling better with my lesson under my belt. Great Posting as it tell on your thought process on establishing key. I thought the Metcalf picture was interesting in that the value of the tree tops was not much different that the sky. I am sure he did that on purpose. His key in that picture is about medium high? Your lower key things remind me of some of those Homers where he has the boys laying in the field in the sun. Very dark picture but the sun struck areas are saturated. Is sun position a factor in establishing key? WillEK

Unknown said...

Do you typically use set patterns of value scales? I hear of some people who, say, will decide to key a painting 1, 4, 7, 10. Etc, etc. Or do you observe nature, simplify, and impose a pattern from that simplification/observation? I guess systems would be a way to group value patterns right?

jeff said...

You guys both put in a good days work.

I have never worked that large in the field and I will have to give it a go.

They both look great as well.

One master of keying or pitching was Winslow Homer.

jeff said...

This is kind of interesting Metcalf, Louis Aston Knight, Frank Vincent Du Mond, Childe Hassam, Edmund Charles Tarbell, Kenyon Cox, and Frank Weston Benson all studied with Jules Joseph

Stapleton Kearns said...


Yes I guess that's about right. He made a choice there, no doubt.I don't know how much I have in common with W. Homer as he was a studio guy. Great painter.
I an an outdoor painter mostly, that's a very different discipline. I work in a lowered key for a bunch of reasons but one of them is I like the subdued tones of older paintings.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I don't do that.I like to keep passages "big" by value control, but I do not limit my whole painting to 4 or so values. Its fine to do that, but it is not how I operate.
The most important point is that you choose your key, not nature. It is a response to observation and not unthinking transcription.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Thanks' I think both of us would rather work large than small. I am happiest at about 24 by 30m or so.
Tat way I don't have to miniaturize so much and I can use a large sized brush and get a bold looking stroke.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Lefebrve must have been a great teacher. Although it was many years after leaving him that Metcalf hit his stride. The little apple tree I showed you a week or so ago was in Kenyon Cox's back yard in Essex Massachusetts.. I knocked on his door but he didn't answer.

Gregory Becker said...

Good Post. I am at the discovery stage of everything that you spoke of. Can you speak also about how keying your painting can reveal degrees of seperation in value like grass in full sunlight and grass in the shade.
I recently checked a book out from the library on Sargent. The thing I noticed was that early in his career he seperated values such as the grass light and shade by 4 values but as his career progressed he seperated them by 5 values. I noticed the same thing with Monet.
It leads me to think that they both were either later convinced that their work would have a greater impact by seperating lights and darks by 5 values or it was something of artistic license.
I cant tell which.
The thing that I keep noticing outdoors is that on a cloudy day when the sun is going in and out, is that it seems like the lights get lighter and the darks get darker with equality. It's like they are taking equal paces awy from each other in the full sunlight but when a cloud passes over the light and dark pace toward each other and meet at an average.
So, here's my point...
If I chose a light and a dark, are they balanced by the grey between them?
Let's say I have a ten value scale.
1 being my lightest value and 10 being my darkest value. If I choose 2 as my lightest value and 8 as my darkest value, it stands to reason that the value at 5 will balance the light and dark. If this is true then there could be an entire system of theory about value balances and compliments and strings and whatever else that can be imagined.
I did a post with drawings on my site to illustrate but I could be wrong about it all.
Could I get you to look at the post on my blog and give me your thoughts, or just speak about it on your blog. It's under key light.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I reads your blog entry and I guess I will have to read it again. I am not sure what you mean about the balancing.I analyze things in a different way. Have you read the Loomis book on illustration? He talks about separation of values and draws a scale to show what he means.He shows how the separated of valus remain the same distance apart as light is reduced or increased. I think that is what you are getting at. I actually wing it ,more or less. I know what I think looks good and I am very careful to keep my lights and my shadows separate.The book is out of print but you can read it on line for free, Andrew Loomis, Illustration.

Gregory Becker said...

Thank you for steering me toward that online book. It confirmed what I was unable to articulate. I understand the principle much more clearly now.