Friday, January 29, 2010

Transparent branches against the sky

One of the readers asked me if I would write about painting branches against the sky. That is one of the things that landscape painters often do. It is one of those effects that really can look good in paint. I am going to show you examples of that by several artists. Some of these I had to enlarge so much they are a little blurry, but I am hoping you will still see what I mean.

This is the English master John Constable. The whole thing is painted transparently and with enormous delicacy. While these are not bare branches against the sky, I think they work the same way. The important thing to notice is how low the contrast is between the leaves and the sky. They are only about 10% different from one another. The tendency of people learning to do this is to make them about 40% different, and they look too heavy.

Here is John Carlson doing the same thing in opaque paint. Incidentally the dark branches are what make this effect work. If you don't put in both the transparent twigs and a dark branch the effect will generally not work. The twigs look airy by comparison to the sky, AND the dark branches. That sounds obvious, but it took me a long time to figure it out.

This is one of mine. I have painted the twigs with an enormous brush. The bigger a brush you use to do this the better (like most passages). It also generally needs to be done over a wet background and in one go. If you fuss with it very much it will fail. Then you need to scrape it off with your palette knife and try it again. Notice to the left the sky holes opening to show the forking branches I discussed last night.

Here is an Aldro Hibbard, There are several trees against the sky here. And each one is different. Notice the nice dragged paint over on the middle right hand edge. He pulls that loaded brush over the paint below in such a way as to leave paint on the ridges of the layer below, but not pushing the stroke down onto the surface.

Above is a slightly blurry Jervis McEntee. I included it because it shows another nice trick. He has indicated the little leaves that haven't yet been blown from the branches. I like to throw a few of them in too. Since they are opaque they heighten the look of transparency in the branches.

Here is a Jervis McEntee from the I have made it clickable to a pretty large image so you can look at the nice handling in those branches.Go look at it, it is pretty cool. This is one of my favorite paintings in the world. I had it as my desktop for a long time.

Here is another passage by McEntee. Again he has thrown those little leaves in there. He hasn't used the dragged paint method, that really became popular a generation later, but he does have very thin transparent branches puled over the shy that do about the same thing
Painting branches like this is a practice thing, if you work at it you will be able to do it. But it is a convention to some extent. Seldom will you be able to copy a photo to get it. You will have to install it or paint it from nature. It is an ephemeral thing.


Teresa Lynn said...

Thank you for sharing this information and giving such wonderful examples. The are a tremendous help to study.

Gregory Becker said...

I cant tell you how much you have helped my ability to see. I am getting so much better when it comes to knowing what to look for. I'm grateful to you Stape.
I am seeing something fairly common now and that is that the junctions between branch and limb and trunk recieve some beautifully dark accents and they seem to enhance the details that they are surounded by. I never used to notice it but now it jumps out at me.
Did you already talk about this and I missed it? It's all over the paintings you posted tonight.

Jan Blencowe said...

This was a TERRIFIC post! I have never seen such a clear explanation of something that's so nuanced. I've looked long and hard at many landscapes in museums to unravel the secret of delicate branches and leaves against the sky. In my brain I had already figured out some of it but I'm pretty sure I could never have explained it with words like your did in this post. This is a post I'll have to print & keep.

billspaintingmn said...

Transparent branches against the sky.
Sounds like a verse from a song!
Musically speaking, those leaves
that haven't quit blowen off,mixed
with trans. branches against the sky are visually musical, like a 12
string guitar.
This post is so helpful.

willek said...

Another great "meat and potatoes" post. I just don't know how I am supposed to remember all this.

barbara b. land of boz said...

Stapleton, "I knight thee Tree Master." I have said it before, Carlson would approve of your teaching
methods.In fact he might have thought,
Why didn't I explain it that way.
I have been out of pocket again, and
had to play catch-up.. I'm glad I did.
We are sort of snowed in again. So I am looking at the trees in all their glory. I knew there were male and female red cedars. And the heavy fresh snow on their different branching habits are really showing up today.
Your time and efforts are not being
wasted. Thank You!
barbara b.

R Yvonne Colclasure said...

This reminds me of the song, "I think that I shall never see, a poem lovely as a tree...." Living in Nevada, I don't see a whole lot of trees, so I find this VERY helpful Stape. Thanks for sharing your knowledge and experience.


Perfect timing on this post for me. I am painting some winter scenes and my trees needed something. Now I know what to do. The illustrations you used really reinforced your words very well. thanks so much.
I love winter too !

Stapleton Kearns said...


Stapleton Kearns said...

Thanks, I am not sure what the effect you are talking about is, but I will watch for it and get back to you.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Thank you very much. I had no idea I was explaining it well but I am glad I did.Hopefully I can keep that up.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I am going to bring Margaret Whiting in for the next post.

Stapleton Kearns said...

There will be a test!

Stapleton Kearns said...

Barbara land of etc.
John Carlson would spin in his grave like a rotisserie chicken at the Star Market if he knew what I was up to.

Stapleton Kearns said...

You must have cactus or something though. That poet died at Belau Woods. He was with Wild Bill Donovan when it happened.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Thanks. I too love winter, but its 9 below here right now.

Philip Koch said...

Nine degrees! Ouch.