Notes on Landscape Painting

[These are notes that Curtis Fields wrote in preparation for a lecture given at the Gualala Art Center in California. They were dated 10/29/1993 and have been slightly edited.]

"France - Canal with Willows" by Curtis FieldsThere are many ways to approach landscape painting. This is my way.

In the past I did a lot of plain air landscape paintings. I still do occasionally, but now tend to work more in the studio in larger scale from earlier sketches, small paintings or photos. I try to give more attention to the design, the color and value relationships, sometimes at the risk of loss of spontaneity.

I’m not interested in replicating what my eye sees. Rather, my impression, or the effect it has on me is my interest: trying to express the feelings I have about the scene, while still making the subject recognizable.

I was an abstract painter for almost 10 years, which was a good experience for me. As a result I try to have a strong design component in what I do, call it the architecture of painting. I think the best art combines intuition and intellect, freedom and control.

I find it almost impossible to analyze just what it is that makes a creation a great work of art, be it visual, musical or verbal. As George Braque once said, “The most important thing in a work of art is that which cannot be described.”

Here are some thoughts about technique–my technique; other artists work in other ways.

"Vineyard Through Grass III" by Curtis FieldsI tend to work pretty much the same in acrylics or oil. I haven’t done pure water-color in recent years, partly because I like to feel free to change things, move elements around in order to refine a design.

Typically I’ll cover the whole painting surface with a wash of a key color, often using a rag. Already this begins to set a mood. It also tends to hold the composition together, as fragments of the back ground color peep out here and there, helping to unify the painting. This broken color effect, the interweaving of colors, has been used by many painters, and is one of the reasons Oriental rugs are so brilliant.

As the background wash dries, I’ll work on design and color possibilities, in miniature, in my sketchbook, typically using Prismacolor color pencils.

Then on the painting surface I’ll pencil in the major space divisions, the major objective, in soft pencil or charcoal.

With a large brush or rag I’ll lay in the large color shapes. It’s wasteful to develop an area in detail too early, locking yourself into an element that you wish you could move later. Keep loose, even tentative. Details come last. You can’t put the trim on a house before the foundation is established and the framing is up.

Spring in the Vineyard II by Curtis Fields

Be aware of the pattern of values – the interplay of lights and darks. Consider how your painting would reproduce in black and white. It should read well. Richard Diebenkorn is very good at that, as seen in catalogues of his work. Even without color the elements have clarity and interesting contrast. I liken this to the poster effect. In a dim light colors tend to become obscure and you see things in shades of light and dark. Try squinting your eyes as you look at a scene – or your painting. What do you see? Does it “read”?

Limit your colors. Try to get the most from the least. Too many different colors gives aesthetic indigestion. Try working with just three – one dominant, two subordinate. Be aware of the color wheel and the simultaneous contrast of complementary colors. For example, play a large area of blue against a touch of yellow ochre, or vice verse. Avoid equal amounts of each, as they tend to cancel out the effect. Color theory is extremely complex. Best to keep it simple at first by just using a few.

About subject matter: You can make a work of art based on any subject. It doesn’t have to be “picturesque”. Van Gogh could paint a masterful work no matter what view he saw from his asylum window. It’s not what you paint, it’s how. It’s what you see, how you choose to interpret it, what intuition, intelligence and originality you bring to it, and how skillfully you express your perception, your idea.