There’s an old painting adage: If you want to learn to draw, work from the human form; for color, go to the landscape. If a tree is a little wider or a mountain a little taller, no one notices. Misrepresent human form and everyone comments. For this reason, the ability to accurately draw is best studied with the human form.
Even if it is not your artistic passion, a certain amount of consistent study with a live model keeps your eye and hand well trained. On the other hand, the landscape provides unlimited opportunity for the study of the phenomenon of color. The vastness of its space and complexity of hue, all work with the intensity of natural light to provide constant wonderment. Whenever we think we have it figured out, a new situation arises to challenge us. There simply will never be enough pigment to appease natural light.
My early painting years were spent devoted to the portrait. I felt there was nothing nobler than the ability to capture a likeness. Not being interested in commission portraiture, I worked with the character study, especially weather beaten aged faces. The roadmap of their faces held their stories. This study provided a wealth of technical training; sighting, the ability to see widths and heights accurately, sensitivity to how edges are handled, and the strength of value relationships, all were practiced. The nuances of the positioning of the model and the psychology of color choices helped in strengthening the aesthetics of the finished painting.
These same concepts applied to the landscape, but it’s vastness and magnificent illumination required a different approach. Distances were now a matter of miles, instead of the inches involved in the face, requiring more manipulation of color and value to represent its luminosity and depth. The technique of under-painting, often discussed in this blog, evolved as a major part of my landscape approach. It helped to establish the big relationships and shared quality of color throughout the scene, setting up the surface for the application of pastel. These under-painting techniques are now part of the portrait work as well. The pastel portrait (above) of a Native American woman in Taos, N.M., incorporates my landscape technique of under-painting
Even though my passion has migrated over the years from the portrait to nature, the occasional venture back into portraiture reminds me to be sensitive to the minutia and to practice accuracy. Drawing skills get polished and the landscape is better for the diversion. I encourage the magnitude of landscape artists to give time to the portrait and similarly for figurative painters to venture out into nature. Do it for yourself. You’ll be a stronger painter for the study.