There are many bad ways to embark upon painting a landscape, and perhaps the worst is to arrive in a district determined by hook or by crook to produce a picture in the shortest possible time. Enthusiasm alone will not produce a masterpiece.
It takes some time to get to know the character of a countryside. I suppose most of us have gone out with our gear on our backs looking for the ideal motif, and have memories of that weary trudge. If only I could get beyond that point! I am sure that there … and when one gets there, it isn’t quite right, and on one goes again. Perhaps it is the time of day, or the kind of day that is wrong, apart from the formal qualities of the landscape itself.
The painter must develop a highly practical approach to the subject. First he should go out armed with a sketchbook spying on the land. He should not miss a point. When he has decided upon a subject, he may find it useful to cut several small rectangular holes of different proportions in a sheet of paper, and to hold them up as peepholes to the landscape. He can then juggle with these, varying the proportion of sky to distance to foreground, until the right solution has been reached, but the final choice of this must always depend upon his own instinct. Then he should carefully note the rectangle in which the landscape seems to sit most happily, for in this proportion he must choose his canvas. He may like to translate the landscape into a drawing as a preliminary step. If so, it should be a drawing which is concerned with tones and shapes rather than with the minute detail and outline.
The painter can now return home, and may, if he wishes, by accurate squaring up and enlarging, use his drawing as a basis for his design on the canvas. Or he may prefer to let the design grow under his hand, and draw direct on to the canvas from the landscape itself.
The painter who has difficulty in drawing can construct a simple wooden frame with a wire grid, have a canvas squared to the same proportion, and by carefully holding the grid in an identical position and viewing the landscape through it, can easily copy the objects square by square on to the canvas. I need hardly emphasise the importance of the frame and the canvas being in exactly the same proportion.
The actual choice of subject is a matter of considerable difficulty to the inexperienced painter. He should, of course, be guided by his own personal feeling, but there are many pitfalls. Often he is too ambitious. He sees a vast panorama or a glorious sunset, and fails miserably before them because these things are too difficult to tackle. The obviously picturesque is perhaps the greatest danger for the beginner. I know that great masterpieces of these subjects have been produced by Claude, Turner or Cozens, but it is wiser to look for more humble material, and here one could wish for no better guides than Constable, Corot, Sisley or Pissarro. These great artists could create masterpieces out of a clump of trees, a duck pond, a few farm outhouses, a footbridge across a ditch. An object ugly in itself may become a thing of great beauty in its full context as a unit in a landscape, and a thing individually beautiful may not achieve beauty when considered in relation to the landscape around it. Constable said: ‘I never saw an ugly thing in my life: for let the form of an object be what it may – light, shade and perspective will always make it beautiful’.
Then one has to remember that many things are beyond the scope of painting; for instance, the brilliance of the sun or the fierce glare of an electric light at night. One is often seduced into attempting a momentary effect, which does not recur: the sudden bursting through of a shaft of sunlight on a stormy day, a rainbow, a flash of lightning. I need hardly emphasise that these things are so difficult to manage that on the whole they are best left alone.
Do not try to do too much. In this country the conditions for landscape painting are frightfully difficult. The light rarely remains constant for more than a few minutes. The sun goes in and out all the time, and all the time it is moving on its course, so that one must limit one’s painting to about three hours at the most. Perhaps if one were painting on a dull day one could work for a little longer. Then again each day is so different that, unless one is extremely lucky, there is little chance of continuing on the morrow. Everything seems to point to rapid sketching. This was Constable’s solution. He went out, did innumerable small sketches and drawings and came back to his studio to paint his larger and more ambitious works with the material he had collected. This is the method that I used for The Thames, Chiswick (below).
The Thames, Chiswick, oil 28 x 36in
With more experience one can sometimes to advantage spend longer on a work, with good fortune in one’s favour. I myself had two sittings on the rather large painting reproduced here in colour.
Summer Morning, Richmond, oil, (18 x 24in)
There is a saying that ‘all the greatest landscapes have been painted in the studio’. This is nearly true, but of course Cézanne and the Impressionist masters are exceptions. One has to remember that conditions in the South of France are very different from those in Suffolk. Cézanne could take his canvas out each day and know that he would find conditions almost exactly similar to those of yesterday. To see a cloud float overhead would be quite an event. I used this fact in Italy, when painting The Bridge, Verona, on which I worked for four or five days.
A Bridge, Verona, oil, (24 x 30in)
In spite of its difficulties, England is a wonderful country for the landscape painter. Its very transient qualities make it an intriguing problem, and once the painter has found out how to cope with them, he welcomes the infinite variety of mood.
It is obviously highly necessary to have a very definite idea of how the picture must develop from its first stage, so that all these distractions do not send one off into blind alleys.
Every artist must find for himself the most convenient size to work to. For practical reasons, however, it is as well not to take out too large a canvas. Constable’s sketches are extremely small, the largest are not much bigger than 18 x 14in. Few painters can tackle a canvas much larger than this in a single painting of two or three hours.
In order to paint rapidly a tinted ground is of great value, and it also helps to get rid of the glaring white of the canvas. Constable always painted his sketches on a brownish-red ground. It is much better to stain a white canvas lightly with a thin wash of colour than to prepare the canvas with a priming of some dense tone, for the luminosity is bound to be affected. The whiteness of the ground plays a very valuable part in a painting, for light is reflected back from it, and therefore sometimes when one is straining every effort to preserve light, it is better to dispense with a tinted ground.
Though it is more rapid, there are, of course, difficulties also in painting on a ground. Constable chose his particular brown-red because it is a magnificent opposite colour to the greens which he so loved painting. But it is conceivable that any one colour used as a ground throughout a picture will not equally suit every colour painted on it. For this reason my own method is to go out with a canvas, and when my composition has been settled and a few lines have been drawn, I divide my canvas up into its main masses and stain with turpentine and a little colour each area in an appropriate ground tint. The thinness of the turpentine wash dries at once, and one can paint on to it straight away. But this method of building up one’s painting by means of underpainting needs some experience, and perhaps the student would be happier trying to paint directly, just putting down the tones and colours he sees. This is often the best beginning for a young landscape painter.
There is, I feel sure, no need to emphasise that a painter must always think of the total effect of his picture. The passage upon which he is at present engaged must be in place with all the other units in his picture. When he paints the foreground, he must not for a moment lose sight of the brightness of the sky. He has to be like a juggler throwing up innumerable plates and never letting a single one fall. He has also to be very careful in choosing the sequence of each part of the picture to be dealt with. This may be determined by the shape of a certain shadow at a certain moment, the light on a building, or something completely unexpected. Although one can plan one’s picture with enormous care, something always happens to prevent it from being carried out in precisely that manner. That is why it is so important to have a definite purpose in every landscape one paints, and to be extremely resourceful. It is really this uncertainty which makes painting out of doors so fascinating. One remembers the saying of the aged Corot, that when he was young he prayed that the clouds might stop still, but when he became old he thanked God that they would not.