On the Straight and Narrow

The winter landscape gives us a wonderful opportunity to see things in a new way. We can see how trees are constructed when they’re bare, and snow provides dramatic contrasts while softening all forms, playing hide-and-seek with everything that’s underneath.

Howard Kolsin says his painting Church in the Woods is based on photographs and on-location sketches done in New England. To create a sense of unity, he started with a yellow underpainting and let the perspective of the fence lead the viewer’s eye into the woods. The church was a last-minute idea, he says, and it’s perfectly placed, off-center both horizontally (just slightly) and vertically. He also admits to having problems with creating the texture of the tree. In true artistic form, he states: “After trying to be too literal, I just let myself go.”

Kolsin created a linear dominance with the fence posts and vertical tree trunks. The diagonal and slightly curved edge of the woods and the tree shadows in the middle distance are, therefore, a welcome relief from these somewhat monotonous vertical lines. Another diagonal, formed by the fence lines diminishing into the picture plane, forms a nice counterforce against the edge of the distant woods.

Art Principles At Work
Achieving unity through color. One of the first things you should ask yourself before starting a painting is, What do I want the viewer to feel while looking at this scene? That will dictate the mood or color dominance. In this case, a warm color was used in the upper half of the painting, but perhaps a cool color choice would have imparted more of a wintry feeling. Regardless, whatever color dominance you choose, this color should be repeated—even if it’s just a hint—in other parts of the painting. For instance, the foreground tree shadow could have reflected some of that warm sky color.

In my watercolor sketch on page 70, I’ve tried to address some of the issues I talk about in this critique, including the question of color balance. Notice that I followed the artist’s example and placed a warm wash in the sky, but then introduced a hint of cerulean blue here and there to repeat the blue used in the lower half of the painting. Also, while painting the tree shadow, I introduced hints of the warm sky.

Creating a dominance of line. Dominant vertical objects require accents of horizontals or, as in a landscape like this one, diagonals. In addition, dominant straight lines require the accent of curves. A cityscape, for example, can be softened by placing trees along the sidewalk or in a park.

Looking at Church in the Woods, the advice of 18th-century artist William Hogarth comes to mind when comparing the fence posts and trees. Hogarth taught that anything alive is best expressed with “s” curves, while straight lines should be reserved for “dead” material. In this case, the trees and fence posts are both made of wood, but the former is alive and the latter dead. Kolsin includes some curves via the branches, which helps, but curving the trunks a bit more would create better contrast with the straight fence posts.

Supporting your focal point. The title of this painting, along with the directional lines of the fence, suggest that the viewer is supposed to look at the church. Yet the strongest statement here, with the most textural detail, is the foreground tree. Its strong, dark value and large shape force us to focus our attention on it. Kolsin admits that the church was an afterthought, and with the fence forcing the viewer’s eye to that area, I can see why he felt something was needed at the end of that visual arrow. Here’s an example of where more advance planning would have helped.

In my sketch, to put the focus back on the church, I added more value contrast around it to make its white walls (most New England churches are white) stand out. I surrounded the building with more cadmium orange and burnt sienna and, while that area was still wet, I introduced the distant mountain shape with a mixture of ultramarine blue and a bit of alizarin crimson. This shape forms a strong dark ribbon to hold the painting together.

To tone down the foreground tree’s impact, I tried to reduce its girth (with little luck). I did build up the snowdrift at its base and kept its trunk values warm and light. Adding textural details was tempting, but I forced myself to concentrate only on light and shade. Now, while the tree is still formidable, it balances well against the mountain, which forms a strong background for the church.

Lessons Learned
Establishing dominance without compromising unity and balance is a tricky proposition, but it’s an important goal when composing a painting. You can still make a clear statement while incorporating curves and lines, warm and cool colors and a strong focal point supported by solid guideposts and strategic secondary elements.

“When I’m in the field I look to nature for inspiration. When I’m in the studio, I find inspiration in listening to classical music,” says Carol Lopatin who is a signature member of several watercolor societies.

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