Thursday, July 2, 2009

Analysis of a Maine painting

Here's another of my paintings, I did this a few years ago on Vinalhaven, an island on the coast of Maine. Its a 24 x 30, that's a common size for me. I painted almost all of it on location, over a period of several evenings.

This painting was done from a granite ledge in the last hours of a summer day.The coast of Maine in the summer is a great place to paint. Inland, can be way too green, but if you go up into Maine you can turn to face the water, and the greens that are up there, the big white pines, look warm and brown, or violet more than green a lot of the time. I push the reds and golds in them to alleviate the greens. Green is the curse of summer landscape painting. Dealing with it is an important skill to learn.

Because it is late in the day, all of the shadows are long. That really helps to give a feeling of light, Long shadows pass behind other objects, drape over objects, and allow me to tie darks together to help give a painting unity. I don't just record the shadows I arrange them and use them to tell my story. That is one of the reasons why, although I paint both morning and evening paintings, I prefer the evening. In the morning when you set up there are shadows and a strong light effect, but as the time passes the shadows become shorter and the effect fades as the landscape becomes toplit. In the late afternoon the shadows grow longer and the effect of the light strengthens as your time on location passes. The best light happens later in your seesion when you are far enough along to capitalize on it.

I like to hold off and paint those long shadows late in the day. I also keep my sky unpainted sometimes, and then use the evening color in the sky. Because the sky itself is so bright, the white canvas is not a wrong value compared to it, in the same way as leaving the earth or a tree unpainted. Any sky I do on location is a hail Mary pass anyway. I always try to get a good sky from what is there, but I often end up inventing a better sky in the studio.

If you squint at the painting you can see that the sky is brighter than anything in the landscape except for the fronts of the most brightly lit buildings. All of it, even the darkest parts of the clouds, although darker than their surroundings are lighter than the entire landscape.

I have made the lights warm, and although it is hard to see in this photo, the shadows are cool. I have thrown lots of reflected lights into the shadowed sides of the buildings. I have been careful to show the light hitting all of the surfaces that turn towards it. I like to keep my lights real saturated so I don't use any more white than I have to in the lights. But I did paint that house in the mid ground very high key, almost white, as I wanted to get your attention there.

I have worked at getting lots of points of contrast in this painting. It helps give it a livelier more major key look. For instance I painted the water dark enough for the boats to tell against it. Almost every light in this painting is set against a dark, and almost every dark in this painting is set against a light. That may or may not happen in nature, but sometimes I install it. You have to be very careful about lying about values in your painting, It can be hard to be convincing. But they are subject to design, like color, or anything else in my painting.

I have downplayed the value shifts in the trees on the right, if you squint at those trees they are a single big shape. That simplifies things a little in that corner. I used rim lighting to enliven that group of trees, and separate them more clearly from the things behind them. As I described above, the bush there is light against the trees and the trees are dark against the water.

I have some other design games going on in there also. The houses are pointed and angular and the trees are rounded, the design is an arrangement made of the two elements.. The right hand downward slope of the roofs are countered by the opposite thrust of the lines in the foreground that form the granite ledges and that little road.

I have thrown little accent darks into the shadows, that makes them more transparent. I use lots of little accents and flecks of paint to make the viewer believe they are seeing more detail than I actually paint. That also breaks up areas that seem flat, with a little vibration. Since I work with a visible brushstroke it is easy for me to drop them in.

Here is another bawdy 17th century Dutch painting to close this post. Sort of a parting joke.

Jan Steen, Wine image from

6 comments: said...

Thank you Stapleton for the previous post on white.I found it very helpful. I happen to be a pallet knife painter and so I need the stiffness of the heavy pigmented Old Holland ( especially on the warm days). If i did more brush work, I would certainly use the French style paints. I love that buttery slide.

I also really appreciate the technique analysis here in this post. It shows how an artist can insert themselves into an observational painting and by doing so give it a personality, making it more than a just "picture" of what there is in the observational world.

Renate said...

I´ve been reading and observing your blog for some time now with great interest.
I´m german and my english is poor, but fortunately you write in a very plesant and easy-to-understand way so I can learn a lot.
In Germany it is difficult to find good books with profound knowledge about painting, so I sponge up every knowledge and advice you give.
I just want to thank you for passing it to us readers (and to let you know, that vou have a reader in Germany :)...)
Hope, I didn´t write too much "gibberish"
Greetings from Germany

Gregory Becker said...

The Hail Mary Comment is hysterical.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I am fond of the French paint. I only occasionally use a knife so I can't advise you on trowelability.
I bought some old Holland titanium once and I had a problem with its being too heavily pigmented. Good thing I can't afford it.
For now I use LeFranc for white, and RGH for everything else,

Stapleton Kearns said...

Glad to know you are out there. I now have people from all over the world reading this blog. It is SO much work, it is important to me that people are reading it.Did you notice Heinrich Kley in one of the illustrations a few weeks ago?
Your English gets your ideas across, its a good thing I don't have to write this in German.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Thanks. That's a football expression evidently.