Thursday, June 18, 2009

Some John Carlson paintings

I have been provided with a massive collection of digital images by an artist friend. There are a lot of fun and obscure things on it and I am going to be able to use them in the blog. One of the artists whose images I now have to share with you is John Carlson. Its very difficult to find images of his work so I am going to throw some at you tonight. John Carlsons name has passed through this blog many times. his book John Carlsons guide to landscape painting is the one book I recommend the most. John Carlson 1874-1945, was a Swedish immigrant and well known teacher who lived in Woodstock, New York. He was a student of Birge Harrison.

Carlson invented wonderful patterns of unique and individual shapes. One of the skills that fine designers have is knowing how to restate what they see in a way that each shape within the painting is different from every other shape in the painting. This gives an enormous amount of visual interest.

Look in this example how every one of these trees is a different width and each is broken up either by the play of light and cast shadow or by patches of snow. Here's another.

The same thing goes on here too. Look at the way that Carlson displays the fine tracery of the twigs and small branches fanning out transparently between us and the light of the sky. Carlson has painted in the sky note and then softly laid the branches in a tracery over that. Then he has gone back in with the sky note and cut the brilliantly designed holes through to the sky again. Stop and look at the shapes he gets in that veil of fine branches.

Look up at the top of the painting and notice how he cuts the sky down into the spaces between the larger branches. The negative shapes he designs there give the junctions and divergences of the limbs a lively look. This also sets up a system of their perspecting up away from the viewer at differing angles, as the rise into the sky above our heads.

If you look at the top 1/8 of the painting there are a lot of branches, but no two have the same weight or thrust. But the rightmost branch exactly counters the leftmost branch. The branches up there are softened with notes of gray and the sky color and have all sorts of little value shifts operating within them. They almost look like the are treated with military camouflage. That is of course the point, just like camouflage the idea is to break up the regularity of the forms and edges and keep them from being too visible. A passage like this is very difficult to paint because of the insistent and overly assertive contrast between the dark branches and the bright sky. It wants to look like a jailhouse window.

Here is a snowscape using what is called a steelyard or a balance beam type of composition. The left hand tree and the foreground are in the shadow and the right hand side and the other group of trees are in the light. The painting balances not only from left to right but from the back group of trees forward to the left hand shadowed tree. The same effects I spoke about above are going on here too, the delicate tracery of unique shapes of the branches against the sky. and also the careful patterning of the shapes in the foreground snow. Look at the bottom 1/3 of the painting. All of those wedge shaped snow elements are broken up with little bits of grass or spots of dark that make every single shape in that foreground unique.

Here's another Carlson of a similar subject but with a different mood. Notice how all of the weeds and trees and other vertically thrusting elements are counter balanced by the horizontal lines of the snow across the middle. Another sort of balance is in the color. The russet color of the dry leaves still clinging to the branches is a compliment to the cool green gray, blue tones that make up much of the rest of the picture. These pictures are all very carefully arranged and designed. Because of that they lose a little bit of that random naturalistic appearance that some very carefully observed paintings have, but they gain sophisticated rhythmic almost oriental print quality that I think makes them beautiful and compelling.

If absolute naturalism was the most beautiful thing, those large photomurals of forests they used to put up in the dentists office would have been more satisfying. These are perhaps less "real"but they are far more evocative and interesting.
More Carlson pictures tomorrow.


Ramon said...

wow those are absolutely beautiful! very inspiring.

Stapleton Kearns said...


I have a whole lot more.Images of Carlson's art are hard to find.
I am really thrilled to be able to present them. When the disk of them arrived as a present to me,I was blown away.

Ramon said...

awesome! I look forward to seeing them. This is kind of off topic, but just out of curiosity, are you a fan of Isaak Levitan's work? I think his paintings, much like Carlson's, are alive with poetry.

willek said...

The only problem I had with Carlson's book was the lack of color pictures. The only color was on the cover. So I have been printing images off the web and keeping them in the book. Any summer pictures in there? what does he do with all the damn green? WillEK

Mary Bullock said...

Willek, great idea about printing off color pics of Carlson's paintings and putting them in the book! I, too, did not like the fact of there being no color pics in the book.

Unknown said...

wow, those are just so fabulous. I love Carlson's work, and, like others here, wish his book was color.
These are inspiring. Carlson has a moodiness and emotive quality that is a far cry from the happy happy
sunny landscapes I see mostly these days. His works make you FEEL something. Thanks for sharing, and hope we see more.
"mothnes" what happens when you paint at night near a street lamp.

Unknown said...

Wow wow wow! It is great to see some of his images in color. I appreciated the black and whites in his book for value study, but I was wondering about his color quality, and know I see what a master he was.

By the way, I know Hibbard is supposed to be the master painter of snow, but Carlson isn't too shabby himself.

Unknown said...

I am going to display my ignorance here with this question. I want to practice some drawing - thought I'd work on some of the images from Vanderpoel's book. What kind of paper, pencils (or graphite? or charcoal? or conte?) would you all recommend, and what kind of paper?
I tried finding toned paper at our local art supply store, but the only toned paper was for pastel, and it seemed to me to have too rough a finish for drawing.
And lastly, how large would you work?
Yes, I am such a newbie for this.
But we gotta start somewhere.

"bleckin": bad choice for shadow color.

deepbluehue said...

Those Carlson paintings are wonderful. Thank you for using them to discuss composition. I didn't realize how much of painting was designing. His handling of color is very sensitive and the painting is cool without being blue.

Stapleton Kearns said...

But wait there's more!

Stapleton Kearns said...


You have read my post on building binders on individual artists. That works too.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I like Levitan but I don'y own a good book on him. I know there is one. I intend to do more "an artist you should know" blogs and perhaps I should do one on him.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Lovely to see you return, Mary is the first person who ever read this blog, I believe.

Stapleton Kearns said...


I would recommend that you copy in a medium that is similar ti what the originality was made in. Youy might use charcoal for these as it is so erasable. Use a real Charcoal paper. I like the Canson Ingres but Strathmore is fine. I have a post back months ago on charcoal drawing that describes materials.

I like to copy some things in pencil> A small assortment of artist pencils a 2 a hb and whatever else you have is good. I have to confess I am perfectly happy with an ordinary #2 with an eraser like you used in school.

I like the Aquabee deluxe drawing pads but everybody has their own favorites and I use those simply because I always have, and I bought a pile of them years ago. The have a red cover.

Mothnes; resembling a member of the Lepodoptera family.

ie. she had too much mothnes for me to feel comfortable with her around my good sports coat

Stapleton Kearns said...


No one comes close to Hibbard for painting snow I think. But Carlson is a great designer. They would have hung out together on occasion up in Jefforsonville.I guess you got the Hibbard book and I hope you are enjoying it.

Stapleton Kearns said...

The more I paint the more it is about design.Landscape painting is particularly about design. I write a lot about design on this blog.

Rae O'Shea said...

These are great. Thanks for posting them. Please do Waugh too. I remember seeing your collection. It is so hard to find his paintings. I found one at the Met in NY just as they were moving it to the basement. I offered to take it home until they wanted it back. There is a large Carlson at Jim's in Lambertville, NJ and I go in periodically and stare at it. Beautiful!

rdahl said...

I just got the book and read a few pages... this is the real stuff.

It reminds me of when I discovered Harold Speed's books on drawing and painting. These guys know what they are talking about and their books can be reread for years to come and still you can discover new things everytime... talk about value for money!

Thank you for sharing your knowledge, advices and tips, it is most generous of you and I appreciate it immenssely!

I am preparing my panels ...