Familiar Terrain

Maine—Up the Hill by F. Dennis Clarke is certainly well-done: Its crisp, sure marks show off the advantages of transparent watercolor best, while a few well-shaped glimpses of white paper—the watercolorist’s trump card—make the work even more crisp.

Clarke has successfully kept any opaque “mud” passages at bay. The value pattern is easy to spot; it’s a small, light piece in a larger dark shape, with a few smaller light repeats elsewhere within the darks. The largest piece of white creates the greatest contrast of light vs. dark and directs the eye to the center of interest—the overlapping cluster of white buildings in the upper left. “My goal, and likewise the problem, was to get movement between the two white shapes in the painting,” Clarke says. “I wanted to have a strong diagonal that would lead from one to the other and to balance the main focal area—the house on the left—with the upper right shape.”

Art Principles At Work
What could Clarke do to make this painting even better? There are a few areas that could stand improvement.

Using one center of interest. You can’t look at the center of interest in the upper left corner without glancing over to the other white building flush up against the upper right margin. There’s just as much value contrast there (dark vs. light) and the building is almost as large as the one on the left. This painting thus has two centers of interest; it would be stronger if there were one. I’d suggest knocking down the size of the building on the right, reducing the value contrast there, or both. The viewer’s eye would still go there, but it wouldn’t be quite as important.

Adding variety. While the top of the dark shape (the stand of trees running across the painting) is interesting enough, the bottom of it is less so. The shape and color at the bottom edge are too uniform, and so is the texture, which is soft along the whole run. A little contrasting hard or rough texture here and there along this edge would work wonders, as would a piece of the dark shape extending out over the field to change the monotonous edge. This could be in the form of a dark tree or two, slightly closer to the viewer, extending below the bottom edge of the group of trees. Even the small houses between the two focal areas could vary more in distance and size.

Introducing gradation. The hill in the foreground is too near the same color and value throughout. Even though the field is darker at the bottom edge, there’s an abrupt change to the lighter color across the larger hill. Likewise, if you squint at the painting, you’ll see that the value of the hill is exactly the same as that of the sky.

The solution is gradation, a principle of design that provides a gradual change from one area to another within a shape or area. It could be a gradual change of size, color or value, among others. In this case we’re concerned with value, and I would paint the hill darker in the foreground, then gradually lighter as it approaches the trees in the distance. At the same time, the hill should be an overall darker value than the sky to provide contrast. A few tall weeds in the foreground, which get smaller and smaller as they move up the hill, would add gradation in size.

Contrasting temperatures. The red-orange color dominance of this painting does a nice job creating unity, but it may be more than what’s necessary. In fact, it’s enough for the painting to be dominantly warm or cool—it needn’t rely on one color chord. Here there’s warm color everywhere, with very little contrasting cool.

There are any number of ways to vary the color, but I’d do it by leaving the sky as is, then making the background stand of trees greener, with some cooler blue-greens and even a little blue. I’d make the hill a warm green, with a small area or two of yellow and red-orange to repeat the sky color, aiding unity.

Lessons Learned
I’ve done a similar painting (above) that demonstrates all the changes I’ve discussed. To strengthen the center of interest, I eliminated the white building on the right and brought the focal area off the left edge and farther into the painting. I made the two buildings in the distance different sizes, and changed one of them to a barn to add variety.

If you take some liberties with your scene and add variety where necessary, your watercolor landscapes can gain new punch and vigor without sacrificing the medium’s inherent benefits.

About the Artist
F. Dennis Clarke is a signature member of the Baltimore Watercolor Society and the West Virginia Watercolor Society. He’s won numerous awards for his watercolors and teaches watercolor classes in Naples and Bonita Springs, Florida, and Martinsburg, West Virginia.

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