Let’s face it, the landscape is no simple subject to be easily understood, let alone painted, without much study. Its intricacies need to be learned on many different levels in order to break its code and come away with a credible painting that captures the essence of a scene.
Try as they might, the uninitiated will be at a loss to understand the best approach in handling the daunting task of capturing the landscape. Some scenes are fairly straightforward, as in the case of a simple foreground, with foliated trees in the middle distance, contrasted against a distant blue-gray mountain in the background. On the other hand, a river subject that has numerous rocks and a sand bar, bounded on both sides by large and small trees in a wooded area, is a challenge that all but the most experienced would find difficult to paint.
Students of the landscape will have a much better chance of success in tackling this subject by using a methodical approach that helps them capture the essence of the scene, while respecting the principles of light that are so important in gaining understanding. We talk a lot about being able to break down the landscape into its component parts while in the field. Sometimes it is helpful to spend time in the studio to better understand what to do with these parts once we’ve identified them.
Spending time in the studio drawing and painting simple forms is the backbone of any artistic discipline. Simple forms are waiting to be mined for deeper understanding, helping us understand how light affects all objects — essential to unlocking the mystery of the landscape.
The simplest form, and the one that has been used for learning purposes for centuries, is the sphere. The reason for this is clear. Assuming that we are working with one light source,
1. A sphere is easy to read and understand how light behaves on its surface.
2. The sphere curves gently, making the task of reading shadows readily understandable.
3. Because it rests on a solid surface, the light that falls upon the sphere also will fall onto that surface; which in turn will bounce back onto the form shadow of the sphere, thus creating what is known as reflected light.
4. The edge of the shadow also will have a small portion that is not affected by the reflected light, and will appear darker than the reflected light; this is called core shadow.
5. Because of the gradual turn of the sphere, there also will be a portion of its surface that is neither totally in the direct light, nor is it in the shadow; this area is known as half tone.
6. The sphere will have a highlight where the light hits most directly in alignment with the eye of the viewer.
7. The background behind the sphere must be understood in terms of value and edge quality.
8. Lastly, the form shadow and the cast shadow created by the light hitting the sphere are distinctly different in nature — typically the cast shadow will be darker than the form shadow and have a sharper edge.
In short, everything that happens on a sphere is exactly what happens on most natural forms such as the topography of a face, the many shapes of human anatomy, or forms in the landscape, with their many gradual turns and undulations. For this reason, the sphere is the most logical place to start a serious study of drawing and painting, and is also a good touchstone for a seasoned artist to review from time to time.
The only lighting situation that the sphere is inadequate to explain is where the light makes an abrupt halt, due to the form turning sharply at a hard edge. This is where other geometric shapes are helpful, such as the cube.
The most important aspect of these forms is what they have to teach the artist about a lighting event. It goes something like this: The light event starts at the beginning of a form closest to the light source, then ends at the tip of a form shadow, or cast shadow that results from the light hitting the object.Where that shadow ends, a new light event begins, on the surface upon which it rests.
On more complex forms, such as the rolling topography of the human anatomy, or the shifting form of a boulder, a new light event can start and stop multiple times on that same form. Each of these starts and stops will have characteristic edges, such as hard or soft, depending on the unique quality of the surface they are on and how quickly it turns away from the light source. These edges and the shadows that surround them will all be related to what we learn when drawing or painting the cube and the sphere.
It is this understanding and application to more varied forms found in subjects like the landscape, which help to make a competent artist.
The lessons to be learned from the simple geometric forms are deceptively simple, and yet so simple that they are so often overlooked by many who see past these jewels of knowledge that sit waiting to be mined for the artistic understanding that they hold. So, next time you think about going in the field to tackle the complicated subject of nature, ask yourself if you’ve spent enough time in the studio understanding basic forms like the cube and sphere.
An award-winning artist and teacher who has been painting the landscape both in and out of the studio since 1983, John Hughes maintains a studio in Taylorsville and teaches students in private workshops and in a course at Salt Lake Community College.