Book Review —  July 2022 EDITION

The Landscape Painter’s Workbook

By Mitch Albala

This is  Albala’s second book on landscape painting; the first, Landscape Painting Essential concepts and techniques for plein air and studio practice was published in 2009. For his latest book The Landscape Painter’s Workbook: Essential studies in shape composition and color, the author has focused his efforts  on critical concepts to develop paintings using shape, color and composition.

Through 8 chapters the author guides us through concepts such as picture format, notan, animating compositions and a complete color strategy including palette choices, color grouping  and color paradox. I think of this book as presenting advanced fundamentals  with important insights about notan and how to use it, picture formats and how they affect design strategies and how to activate compositions. I was eager to get started on this workbook and discover new tools for my art process.

As always, when I read an art instruction book, I am totally distracted by the great artwork in the book. Usually, I look at the pictures and think how awesome they are, then put the book down because I’m intimidated! So, I have a new system. I know my first view of the book will be about the pictures so I just go ahead and drink in the visuals. And this book has some really great artwork as examples of the concepts, with a variety of artists and styles. Looking through it, I realized how vast our interpretations can be and there is room for all artists who strive to achieve their own style.

Then, I started reading with highlighter at hand. I’ve decided my art books will be like my sketchbooks, I will make my marks in both so they are useful to me.

The concepts presented in this book will not only guide the artist in their own work but will also help decipher the work of other artists, which is another opportunity to learn.

Divided into 8 chapters, the book discusses the concepts mentioned along with examples, review questions to think about before beginning a work and practical exercises to practice the concepts. Step by step pictures and captions along with tips are also provided to accelerate progress.

While working my way through this book, I realized the necessity of planning and some sort of method to achieve results. It is crucial to have a foundation to work from. Some would argue this may stifle creativity, but I disagree. The confidence gained from knowing how to construct a painting allows the artist to establish the basic framework of their thoughts and express that visually.

I found the text really easy to read and motivating as well. Complex principles are presented in easy to digest bites allowing quick progression.

From here the chapters proceed as if building a painting. 

For instance, in chapter one we are given three artists’ work and asked to do master studies of one or more of the works. My first  thought was, “ but I don’t paint like that.” However, the author assures us “Whether or not this is your preferred style, emulating it can be very instructive.”

The object of doing the copy is to understand shape simplification and edges. I will show my master copy here, but I haven’t posted the painting I copied because of possible copyright issues.

My master copy after Fields in Summer by Sue Charles

  • “When you know the language of art, every painting becomes instructional.”

This is a 6 x 6 panel done in oil paint. The original that I copied was done by Sue Charles entitled ” Fields of Summer”. I spent about 30 minutes on it. The values are a bit lighter in some areas than the original, but I did get a sense of how Charles used shape to simplify the scene. I tend to get too detailed even though I think I’m simplifying and this exercise helped me understand the extent of simplification that can be done and still get the essential information needed. For instance the simple brushstroke in the sky to represent a cloud, the cows are literally dashes of paint and the trees are formed with a minimal amount of brushstrokes making the direction and texture of those strokes all the more important. This thought provoking exercise helped me understand simplification and the valuable role of texture and brushwork to convey information, which I can use in planning my next painting. I want to search for more artwork to copy so that I can build on what I have learned.

The next chapters address specific art principles that have a profound effect on the outcome of a painting.

First the picture format must be considered.  I have to say I’m guilty of not giving the picture format much consideration. I typically just go with landscape format. But I learned about the possibilities of vertical and square formats and the considerable unseen forces that impact composition through picture format. It opens up options for design that I had never considered.

Chapter 3 addresses composition notably, activating the composition. Composition is an area I struggle with and I’m always looking for insight and here the author quickly breaks down the key concepts of composition. Albala calls variation the cardinal rule of composition and gives examples of how variation can be achieved followed by examples of paintings pointing out how variation was used in the composition. I soon began to see variation and differences in the composition of other works of art.

Another interesting concept is “activating” the negative space. I also have difficulty with foregrounds in my landscape paintings and backgrounds in portrait work. Albala explains how to “ activate” these negative areas in order to incorporate them into the whole of the painting and continue the theme of variation and difference, Hint: color variation isn’t the only way to perk up foregrounds and backgrounds.

Each chapter has a list of questions to ask yourself as you compose your work and a checklist to help you begin to integrate the ideas of the chapter.

Chapter four describes notan as a compositional tool not a value study. It is a tool to identify shapes and patterns, a way to integrate simplification and balance, which we learned about in chapter one and variation, intervals, angles and negative space from chapter three.

This chapter helped me to begin thinking about which elements I want to dominate and which to downplay. It also gives me the tools to begin to explore that choice. Using the information from chapter three on formatting, I can incorporate movement of the horizon line in order to establish dominant shapes and patterns. I want to investigate notan to learn more about designing my landscape compositions.

Subsequent chapters describe the importance of how direct observation leads to informed modification, color strategies that enable the artists to develop a hierarchy for color and its application and selecting color palettes.

This book goes beyond the usual art instruction book in that it combines instructional text with review questions and exercises to implement the instruction. It is visual and hands-on and tackles the concepts of notan, picture format and specific color concepts , to name a few, that take the mystery out of how to translate the landscape into a painting.

This is truly a workbook that you should approach with the idea of working through the exercises and actively incorporate the review questions into your art process, a partner to have at your side while you work up your next painting. You will undoubtedly learn something new or challenge your current thinking which will lead to breaking new ground as an artist. I highly recommend this book for your art library and I plan to continue working through the concepts presented in this book.

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Brittany Boats    Edgar Payne