Harnessing the Power of the Land

The painting Lost in the Canyon by Danice Sweet is a realist narrative of a secret canyon in the Southwest. She uses atmospheric perspective to imply distance and, at the farthest bend, the atmosphere is illuminated with warm rather than cool hues—very perceptive on her part. The foreground space, however, requires just as much attention and care. In her own words, Sweet says, “The highlights on the foreground rocks continue to draw my attention.” I agree, but I think they do so in a way that’s overpowering and distracting.

Art Principles At Work
Choosing your foreground carefully. The large rocks up front are too close to the viewer in perspective, making them roadblocks to the eye. While the flumes of whitewater allow a visual escape route into the mid-ground, the boulders are still too massive and confrontational and throw the painting off-balance.

What I’d do in this situation is find a spot 40 yards or so back from the current viewpoint. One guideline in determining the right point of view in landscapes is that you shouldn’t paint water that’s too close to where you’re standing. That’s because its surface will no longer reflect—it refracts instead, and you see the bottom of the body of water. This has the unfortunate effect of drawing the viewer’s attention to the bottom of the composition and holding it there.

John F. Carlson, Edgar Payne and a host of other great teachers expound this tenet repeatedly: The bottom edge of your composition—the fore-foreground, that is—should be no closer than 30 yards away. I think all of us have tussled with otherwise good paintings because we fixated too much on something up close. An added bonus of this approach: It would provide a better chance at depicting the water.

Painting water convincingly is technically very challenging. Painting moving water is more so, and rushing water is really challenging. It requires study and repeated practice from life.

Balancing colors for harmony. In backing away from the boulders and whitewater, they become diminished in size and lowered more comfortably in the composition. Maybe now we can see the bend in the river that I perceive to be just beyond the whitewater. Among the advantages here: The mid-ground will be tilted into perspective to link the fore- and backgrounds, and the green hue of the water will complement and neutralize the preponderance of red elsewhere. Red is a wonderful element in landscape painting. It advances well visually and complements the abundant greens and blues that are nearly always present. But an overabundance of one hue, any hue, can be visually dull. Harmony is what we seek, a balance, and hues are balanced with complements.

Establishing distance. I mentioned Sweet’s good instincts in using atmospheric perspective to help the distant forms move back in the picture. But the powerful vertical outlines of the background cliffs need to be softened a bit more to help them recede. While the atmosphere is convincing, the distant values are still too dark. Painting the farthest cliffs a value or two lighter would make them look their proper distance, distinguish them more readily from the mid-ground and make them appear loftier and more dignified.

Using horizontal and vertical lines strategically. Landscape painting is about capturing the big picture, with land stretching away to meet the sky. The most universal element in landscapes is the horizon—as in horizontal, reposed, at rest. Horizontal line is relaxing to the human psyche. Vertical line is not. Period. What do you do when you’re tired or hurting or seeking comfort? You lie down.

All this is to say that I believe this painting would work much better in a horizontal format. On a trip to Europe once, I felt unsettled after weeks in Venice where I’d been painting views along canals and campi (public squares) lined with ancient edifices. It came to me one sleepless night what was missing, and after that I’d walk daily to view the Adriatic or the North Estuary for an hour to let the distant horizon restore my right brain. I’m still fascinated that the loss of distant horizon caused insomnia.

Whereas horizontal line is soothing, vertical line has the power to destabilize and is to be respected. Vertical line is useful in foregrounds to interrupt powerful horizontals and redirect the eye. In the background it will almost always be problematic, but here are some ways to control its impact:

  • Lighten the value of the cliff mass to more closely approach that of the sky.
  • Lose the edge of the mass here and there by blurring it with your fingertip.
  • Interrupt the edge of the mass with branches or clouds.

    Lessons Learned
    Giving some thought to the principles discussed here will provide an advantage in the future before you even touch brush to canvas. Developing talent, which Sweet most certainly has, requires that we keep on learning. Thus our abilities will grow, our painting will improve, and so will our love and understanding of this beautiful land.

    About the Artist
    Danice Sweet is an elementary art teacher in Arkansas City, Kansas, who works with oil, watercolor and charcoal. She’s won awards in regional competitions and, as a singer and songwriter as well, believes that “it’s essential to keep looking and listening, to be open to the possibilities for creative adventures.”

    Wende Caporale teaches pastel at the Northern Westchester Center for the Arts in Mount Kisco, New York. She’s done demonstrations for the Portrait Society of America and the Pastel Society of America, and is the author of Painting Children’s Portraits in Pastel (International Artist Books).

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