Landscape painting is not the oldest kind of painting. Cave paintings show animals and humans, not the terrain. There's not really anything that indicates whether the animals and humans were in marshes, open savannah, mountains, valleys, forest or even just in tall grass.
Even the Greeks didn't really 'do' landscapes, instead showing collections of individual plants such as reeds. Religious narrative paintings, always showing people at a notable point in their story, dominated much formal painting for centuries. Yes, landscapes featured, but only ever as a 'background'. Paintings simply weren't 'about' the scenery during the early history of painting. Even the word 'landscape' meaning 'a painting of a landscape' didn't get invented in modern English until as late as the 17th century (*according to the great Wikipedia).
Painting scenery is hard to do
As complicated as people and animals are to show in art, they tend to be a bit more logical than landscape. There is a recognisable structure to human bodies which once a way of painting them is mastered, it can be repeated to tell endless stories. (I used to do this as a child, drawing stick figures adventuring through newsprint.) Everyone will recognise a stick figure as being 'human'. Landscapes on the otherhand are an entirely different prospect. This is my own (daft?) theory as to one reason why the countryside didn't get painted early on – it was harder! All those thousands of leaves on each tree is a bit daunting for a painter, best to stick with simpler 'knee bone connected to the thigh bone' paintings.
Of course, all frivolity aside, the truth is that it's difficult to make a really good painting of anything without practice. Yes, each landscape can be vastly different to every other landscape, where human beings and animals tend to all have heads, rib-cages and spines, limbs and feet so there's a great deal of similarlity which once you're familiar with it can be mapped-in quickly. The challenge, I find, with what's called 'life drawing' is capturing the subtleties that make each human unique. With landscape it's about structure.
What's important in a landscape
Landscapes do not have a skeleton. An artist has to make up a structure with a landscape painting. That 'structure' is called 'composition' and composition is the key to good landscape painting in my humble opinion, followed close behind by light. Both compositon and light apply to pretty much all art, including still life paintings, portraits and pet paintings, but in my view it's the difference between a good landscape painting and a fail. Impose a great composition onto complex scenery and the rest will fall into place. Get it wrong and no matter how beautifully oil paint is laid on the canvas, the painting will be confused and lack something.
Composition is the art worlds fancy word for the design of a picture. Landscape needs simplifying, it needs a sense of hierarchy imposing – so that it becomes clear what the painting is excited about (the focal point). This is why landscape painting can be quite a battle, as the artist tries to stop all the parts competing for attention. A fabulous tree or set of trees might not be what made the artist stop in their tracks, yet their richness and complexity can soon dominate the canvas. The painter has to decide how to paint the trees in such a way that they're believable trees, but they play nice as supporting characters rather than overshadowing the star of the picture.
Emotion in a landscape
Once the composition is mapped onto the canvas, often as simple blocks of tone and perhaps colour depending on the artists approach, painting can begin in earnest. This is when light comes to the fore. With paintings of animals or people, it's easy to create a happy painting – just add a smile to their face! We're all used to reading body language so know istantly if an animal is sitting in a sad way. A landscape painting is different. Creating a happy painting of a landscape needs lots of light, which means understanding shadows and how things catch the light. Everything after the first blocking-in in painting landscape is about the light. Achieving texture, atmosphere, and a sense of a moment in time, is all to do with using paint to record the lighting. I'm hoping to study this closely, using books on the subject, looking at other artists artwork, and by observing the real thing - outdoors, en plein air... as outdoor painting is called. It's one of my missions for 2019 – that is: become an expert in painting light! This way, I hope to improve as a landscape oil painter.
Keeping it real while being creative-with-the-truth in landscape art
Updated: Mar 2018
We're not cameras, we don't experience landscape like a lens, from a fixed position.
How I make my landscape art
I'm not a landscape artist (painter, printmaker) who strives to reproduce exactly what is in front of me, applying hardly any, or no, ‘artist's licence’ to the art I make.
I must clarify: I'm talking here, about how I work when I'm painting in my studio.
So with my studio oils, I don't set out to prompt a:
wow, I thought for a minute this painting was a photograph!. It's not that photorealist art can't be good art, it simply isn't the kind of artist I want to be.
I'm not trying to paint an imaginary landscape, either. I try to create something that's inbetween ‘real’ and ‘imaginary’.
Essentially, we're not cameras. We don't stand in one place and stare unwaveringly in one direction excluding all else, before shutting off and moving on to the next position with eyes closed. So standing where a photographer would stand and painting the view in front, does not really capture what it's like to be in a place – not to me anyway.
This is why I wear-out my ‘artist's licence’* by moving trees, buildings, hills(!) and whatnot, to where I want them to be for example. I'll even include things in pictures sometimes that would need a special wide-angle camera lens, able to see round corners in reality. When studying the scene itself, I stand in several places making sketches, rather than just one. What I'm doing is ‘designing’ the art to look the way I want it to, rather than to be an exact copy of what's there. This is artist's license (not to be confused with the 'happy accident' which is something entirely different). The fancy word for how things in a painting or linocut are arranged – designed – is ‘composition’† and I enjoy being creative with composition. I get a buzz from it and often spend a lot of time on this stage of my art.
Instantly familiar landscapes
Though I might remodel a landscape – bend things, move things, enlarge and shrink things – I don't want it to look really strange. In fact I want my paintings, but also my linocuts, to be instantly recognisable. I know this sounds contrary, but I want my art to look like the place, despite all my meddling. I hope people who see my landscapes will say: “oh I know exactly where that is and it is that lovely there”. There's a fine line I'm trying to tread between ‘keeping it real’ and being ‘creative with the truth’.
A subtle fine art
Moving things around sounds anything but subtle. Yet to get it right, it is a ‘fine art’. I don't really want what I've done, by way of meddling, to be the noticable thing in the painting. I prefer the landscape itself gets the attention it deserves.
Equally important, is evoking a distinctive light, time of day or type of weather and this is something I'm currently studying a great deal and experimenting with. Mastering this delicately complex and understated part of making art, called ‘atmosphere’ is another current preoccupation. It is another aspect of a painting or print where artist's licence can make a big difference to the result. One of my latest linoprints, ‘Flying South’, is an example of how I've used a subtle almost monochromatic colour scheme to create an atmospheric original print.
Unique oil paintings and original prints
Or – why my art is different
A mix of equal parts realism and creativity-with-the-truth is why my paintings and linocuts are so unique to me. Most artists stick with one or the other.
Artists either keep their artwork what they call 'true' to the scene in front of them, applying minimal or no artist's license. Otherwise they go abstract or highly stylised. I'm including what's called niave art under stylised, where a painter simplifies everything so much it becomes almost a diagram in paint. The deliberate childlike quality to these works is why they're called niave. These abstract, niave and stylised artists are using the landscape as a starting point only and making 80-90% of it up. It's not that these are bad artists producing weak art – not at all. I'm simply explaining how my art is different.
There aren't a lot of artists attempting a more or less equal mix of realism and creativity-with-the-truth in their art. It's two opposite things if you think about it ‐ creating something true to a specific place, yet imaginatively altered(!). It's a dangerous place where things can quickly become strange looking. Perhaps other artists are the sensible ones, because sticking with either painting only what's there, or with making it all up instead, is much easier. I'm speaking from experience when I say that. The challenge though of working in the way I do now, is exactly why I'm fascinated by trying to do it. As I said at the beginning: we're not cameras.
When all said and done, I'm just trying to reflect how beautiful the UK landscape, coastline and sea around it is – what a delight it is – and I hope the results delight you too.