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Simplify Landscape Painting Using Straight Lines

by Lori Woodward on 9/28/2011 7:33:17 AM

Today's post is by Lori Woodward, regular contributing writer for FineArtViews.  She has been a member of the Putney Painters since 2004, a small invitational group of painters who are mentored by Richard Schmid and Nancy Guzik.  You should submit an article and share your views as a guest author by clicking here.

This is part two on using straight lines to block in subjects in the drawing stage of a painting.

Below - a Sketch By Edgar Payne. Notice how Payne draws in the shapes of the tree masses using straight angular lines. This method works very well to give the tree volume and character.



What advantages does using straight lines afford the artist while painting landscapes?

One, designating shapes in straight, angled lines enhances the character of the object. Two - we are less inclined to repeat similar shapes in hilltops, tree limbs, and rocks. Repetitive shapes with similar sizes are boring, and although in nature, each tree, rock and mountain crag has its own personality, for some reason, we humans have a hard time seeing and drawing the variety that is there. Drawing with straight lines has helped me make those shapes, masses and layers interesting.

Perhaps it's because nature is "just one little bit" this side of chaos... Humans build homes with straight walls - up and down, no diagonals - so that the house stands straight without leaning, so if we're not careful while drawing, we'll make all our trees perfectly vertical, symetrical and rounded like balloons. In reality, trees lean this way and that, and all their limbs have different sizes that point in a variety of directions. Even in a stand of tree groupings, each one has its own color and character.

Below: Photographs, plein air sketches, and re-designed studies of Somes Sound, a scene at Acadia National Park in Maine.


Below: A photograph taken at the apex of Somes Sound.


Below: A plein air sketch I did of Somes Sound (detail). I often record a view in pencil or charcoal from life. I changed the shape and character of the smaller tree on the left because the original shape is too rounded - like a cotton ball.


Below: A pencil study where I redesigned the mountain and tree shapes in preparation for a larger painting. While I like the detail in the plein air sketch (which I needed in order to remember what the actual scene looked and felt like) drawing the scene with straight, angular lines produces a more powerful compositional statement. I particularly wanted to emphasize the unusual shape of the background mountain.


Below: A detailed drawing that I did several years ago based on the plein air study. This drawing is fairly true to the scene and the original sketch, yet I "angularized" the shape of the mountains, trees and shorelines.


 Somes Sound, charcoal over acrylic wash 5"x10". Private collection. 


Keep in mind that photographs look flat, but dividing each part into receding layers with lines creates depth. If I then put a veil of atmosphere in each receding layer, the final painting will show distance and not feel flat, as it does in a photo.


Below: Photograph of the Beehive at Acadia National Park. Below Right: divided with straight lines. Notice how the lines determine which mass of trees is closer to the viewer, and which is slightly farther away. When I paint these layers, I'll make each slightly different in value and color temperature from its neighboring layer  - to show depth and visual interest. Our job as artists is to make photographs boring by camparison to our paintings even if we are representational painters.



Below: another example of defining shapes with straight lines. Notice how dividing up the trees on the left gives them individual character while avoiding repetitive dagger like shapes.


Below: A preliminary, re-designed composition.



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Related Posts:

Simplify Drawing Using Straight Lines on Rounded Objects

Topics: creativity | FineArtViews | inspiration | Instruction | Lori Woodward | painting 

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jack white

You do an amazing job with these type articles. They are extremely helpful to those "learning" to become professional.

Let me explain professional. As you know I think everyone who paints is an artist. I don't believe in labels. So when I say professional I not talking about those selling a lot of art, but those who can step to the easel and each time make a high quality painting.

I like to say a high school baseball players makes the hard play 7 out of 10 times. The college player 9 our of 10 and the professional 10 for 10. A professional painter nails it 10 for 10.

You are an excellent teacher. You should start a school. Not just a class once a week but a school where people come to learn how to become professional level.


Diane Overmyer
Another great article Lori! Reading this and looking at the drawings put me in mind of the days I spent studying printmaking. Printmaking taught me to think about the actual shapes of the marks that I was using to communicate. This has often translated to my paintings as well, especially my plein air work. I often use a bright, (flat, square tipped bristles) brush and lay the paint down in a series of random or controlled strokes.

Thanks for this Lori. As always you get directly to the heart of the matter. Very helpful. And of course I love when you use pix from Mount Desert!

George De Chiara
Nice examples Lori! It's funny but when I'm painting a still life or figure, I always use the straight line method, but for some reason when I do landscapes like these examples I tend to shy away from it. Not sure why, but after reading this hopefully I'll remember to not do that anymore. Thanks!

Jake Gaedtke
Lori, A great article with great and acurate advice. I might add, if you don't mind, that nature is random and there is no equaliztion in nature. We have to be very careful about how we space trees and rocks and other elelments in our landscapes. Because we are so inindated with equaliztion in our environment with eqaul spacing it becomes subconcious when we put it down in drawing. Everything from the tiles in our homes to our entertainment centers, windows, telephone poles. You name it, we see equaliztion everywhere, and so we subconciously put that in our landscapes without even realizing it. Always check to make sure your landscapes are natural looking and there is no equaliztion or repetative shape sizes. Thanks Lori. My two cents worth.

Lori Woodward
Thanks everyone! These take me much longer to write than the marketing and human interest articles, but I am on a mission.

Jack, I'm so flattered! I'm not in a position to begin an art school this year, but I will indeed keep it in mind. I'm currently working on instructional ebooks - thorough, and not edited by "gatekeepers", who usually take out all the "meat" and dumb instruction down for hobbyists.

There's nothing wrong with painting as a hobby, and there is a huge market for it, but my audience is artists who want some academic instruction without having to spend a fortune to get it. The internet has enabled me to share info easily.

However, I do intend to make income with ebooks as a first step. That's my goal for the coming months. I used to write articles like these for magazines, but now I can write them for myself. I've been turning down writing for magazines(with pay) so that I don't create a conflict of interest, and can share as much as I want.

With that, I'm off to the studio working on the next post, and Jack - when I get some money together, I may do a school... finding a building and insurance coverage is very expensive. It would be easy for me to teach at Village Arts of Putney since they're friends of mine, and already teach the same principles I do.

OK... I'm outa here!

Lori Woodward
Hey Jake, how you doing?

So true, Jake.. nope don't mind your sharing. Even Richard (Schmid) says he has to consciously make elements unequal... I love to read what Edgar Payne's book says about these things, and I do indeed struggle with making shapes and sizes unequal constantly. If I'm left to my own devices, I'll make everything the size and shape, and I must admit that the division of the trees on the left of the Bubble's photograph are too equal. I would need to further modify that area while painting.

That's the exciting thing about drawing and painting - the great ones NEVER ARRIVE and constantly strive to get to the next level. I'm not saying I'm great yet, but I'm working at moving forward.

When I teach, I often show my older paintings - some were totally muddy and just plain awful, but I hung in there, got the best education I could, and then put what I learned into practice - lots and lots of practice. Some failures - even now! But the secret to success is learning from great artists that you admire, books, and moving through the struggle of doing it wrong until you do it right. Making unequal shapes, masses and lines takes a lot of practice, but one it's attained... WOW!
Thanks for your 2 cents, Jake. Hey, I'm supposed to be painting ;-)

Lori Woodward
Sorry for all the typos in my previous comment.

Marian Fortunati
Always useful information, Lori... Thanks for the clear examples and good reminders.
My friend, Sharon Weaver, just wrote a similar post using figurative work as her example.

Marsha Hamby Savage
Lori, these lessons you are giving are so important. Thank you for all the great examples ... since most of us are visual! Creating similar shapes seems to be one of the hardest to overcome for most artists. I walk away, come back, and darn if some "little gremlin" didn't move things into a similar position while I was gone! Luckily, I usually catch it. Great advice in this article about the straight lines -- and not using curves.

Sharon Weaver
Using straight line drawing is so important. It allows the eye to distinguish shapes much more accurately. Your examples are wonderful too. I am not sure why everyone doesn't learn this in their very first art class.

Donald Fox
Your posted demos always get to the point clearly and effectively. Emphasizing layers (what I like to call planes) helps a novice move away from the idea of objects (concentrating on outlines) towards dealing with shapes that actually occupy space. Thus, you get the depth that can be so easily overlooked in a photo. A good job as always.

Donna Robillard
Thank you for sharing this valuable and useful information.

Jo Allebach
I have been practicing the straight line approach for the still lifes and not I can see the big time advantages for the landscapes. I sometimes think I am making nature, too realistic without enough repetition but I hate lollipop trees so this line method is great. And the different layers of lines is very helpful. Thank you.

Carol Schmauder
What wonderful advice, Lori. Thank you for sharing this process.

Jake Gaedtke
I'm doing very well, Lori. Thank you. Keeping very busy.
All the things you comment on and express are so true. Jack is right, you are a great teacher and explain and illustrate truths so well. I learn a great deal from your blogs. Thank you so much for sharing. Take care and hope to see you again some day.

Virginia Giordano
I paint non-representational and lately focus on landscape and sky, abstract. I recently took a workshop which pushed my work just a little less abstract. We used sketches which I found very helpful. This blog adds the next step and dimension for me. Photos and sketches excellent teaching/learning tools. Thank you!

Evergreen Turf
great blog, i enjoy reading your posts. keep it up!

landscape paintings
When painting a landscape, it is essential that you are able to illustrate a visual "sense" of depth, through your brushstrokes, colors, and composition.Use cooler colors to push elements farther into the background.


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