Learn the Principles of Great Art to Improve Your Paintings From Johannes Vloothuis
If you are happy with your landscape paintings, you can skip this article. But maybe you have admired
the work of other artists and sighed, wondering why your paintings were not as intriguing as theirs. You
hunt for beautiful reference photos and when you find the perfect one, you say, “This is it! My next
painting!” But the reality of what you paint is not what you imagined. “What am I doing wrong?” you ask
yourself. “I mixed the colors correctly and I copied the photo exactly … so what is missing?”
I know the feeling very well. Plainly, merely copying photos did not give me the results I was after. I
didn’t get enough information when I took personal workshops. My sense of aesthetics kept telling
something was wrong.
My next step towards pulling off good paintings was to reverse engineer the work of artists I admired,
including Clyde Aspevig, Jim Wilcox, and Richard Schmid. I studied them to flush out their hidden gems.
I identified about 200 pointers, common denominators, that they each did, in the landscape paintings
that inspired me. As I implemented them, I noticed huge improvements in my artwork. Finally, I had the
keys for translating visual information from reference photos to a painting without copying.
If painting were as easy as mimicking impressive reference photos, you would need only to learn how to mix color and voila! It’s not that straight forward. Your challenge is to achieve a well-designed painting with as much emotional impact as nature’s real scenery. Equally demanding is that you must transform the sensation of a 3-dimensional vista onto a 2-dimensional surface of limited size. As artists, we accomplish that magic with artificial techniques.
Many artists try to solve these problems by themselves but find it tedious and time consuming. There is
a shortcut for you. In live, online workshops, Johannes (“Jo”) Vloothuis shares his knowledge with you.
Jo does three demonstration paintings each month, one in oils (acrylic artists will benefit as well), one in
pastels, and one in watercolor as he answers student questions on the spot. It doesn’t matter what
media he is using for a particular class, students always learn techniques and pointers they can apply to
their own work. That’s how Jo guides you to a successful path as an artist.
Lines, the Visual Melody of Paintings
We humans are hard wired to read a painting by following its lines, much the way we read text. This is how your visual story, is read. It is subconscious and inevitable. The moment you create any shape in a painting, a new contour, a line, is born. As artists, we need to make these lines pleasing. If a contour line is well designed, the resulting shape within the boundaries of that line will also be appealing and you will have a visual melody. When the strings of a guitar are not tuned, you have music that hurts your ears; likewise, if the lines in your art are not designed well, the visual information unsettles your viewers.
Step one is to free yourself from the notion that the reference photo is your dictator. For example, one
handy tool to help you is to slow down fast-paced lines that are in reference photos. These include
visually-implied straight, curved, and shallow wavy lines with insufficient indentations and protruding
peaks. Zig-zag lines often appear in photos, such as a line of evergreen tree tips, but they are
monotonous to viewers.
Below, Jo shows ways to adjust lines in paintings from those you see in the
reference photo. Start with these steps to add visual melody to your paintings.
The mountain ridge has a monotonous straight line that moves the eye too fast. For a successful painting, don’t copy the photo, as I show in the painting below of this scene.
The overhanging cloud, the indentation and the small evergreen peaks slow down the eye movement. The distant water line is broken up by some evergreen patches slightly protruding towards the lake. The contour of the rocks in the foreground follows a pleasing line. I coined the term, “Melodic Line,” to describe how to make the line pleasing to viewers of your painting.
The river and grass in the reference photo form a long, visually- implied straight line. It’s boring and too rushed, but you can change that as in the painting below.
I broke up the straight line by adding bushes and rocks to the scene. This has now become a melodic line with the sense of movement like that of an irregular staircase.
The contour of the tree tops form a shallow, wavy line. The bushes on the right also forms am implied straight line. The composition needs more of a roller-coaster movement.
In this oil painting, you can sense how pleasing the up and down movement is, the pronounced dips and the ride up to the protrusions along the tree tops. I refer to this visual roller coaster ride as a “graceful” line. By adding some dirt under the bushes, we offset the implied straight line.
The sides of the evergreens trees have unpleasant, monotonous zig-zag lines. The large rock has a pronounced diagonal line.
In this segment of an oil painting, the zig-zag lines at the side edges of the evergreens have been changed into melodic lines. The rock has been redesigned.
The line of the path in the reference photo moved too quickly. In this watercolor, the line of the path in the reference photo moved too quickly. To slow the eye down, I added the cast shadows.
In this pastel, I slowed down the reference photo’s straight lines on the tree trunks by adding broken-off branches and knot holes. A melodic line is formed by the snow and protruding rocks.
Want more detailed landscape tips and techniques from Johannes Vloothuis?
Join Johannes, along with hundreds of other artists every month in his LIVE Paint Alongs. Follow along as he starts and finishes landscape paintings in real time — all while sharing his expert painting techniques.
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