Choreographed Canadian Landscape Paintings


(posted on 15 May 2022)

Is it a portrait or is it a landscape? Is it an abstracted reality or a non-objective abstract? These are two basic questions we can ask ourselves as we pull a painting together.


A portrait is  usually about a particular person. The figure is prominent and using a good amount of the available surface. Details may or may not be evident.

Think of Mona and Marilyn. Even though the actual painting is quite small at 15 inches, the figure of Mona Lisa takes most of the space. This week, Andy Warhol’s silk screen of Marilyn Monroe sold for a record 195 million US dollars. (The record is for a US artist’s work). This iconic work, ”Shot Sage Blue Marilyn” is a headshot. We can not mistake what these paintings are about. They are portraits.

(photo from Monet by Karin Sagner)

Now think of Monet’s Woman with a Parasol. The woman is Monet’s wife. She is accompanied by her son. They are in a landscape but still they are very dominant in the painting. It really is a portrait of Monet’s wife.

As artists, our goal is to control the visual experience of our viewer. We can move your eyes around the work in 6 ways:

-using value contrast (where the lightest light meets the darkest dark)

-using colour intensity contrast (putting an intense colour next to a dull colour)

-using psychological weight (people, faces, things, buildings)

-using psychoactivity (the use of red-red-orange which we notice whether we want to or not. Why STOP signs are red.)

-using complementary colour contrast (red/green, blue/orange, violet/yellow etc)

-using dissonance (something that doesn’t belong - think geometric shape in an organic composition)

(can you tell I love lists?)


The strongest of these tools by far is value contrast but psychological weight comes in pretty high up the list.


Humans are compelled to look at faces. It is programmed into us. The power that a face has over us falls into the category of psychological weight when we are discussing art. Often the artist will turn the face away from the viewer. This somewhat decreases the psychological weight of the figure. In religious art, the gaze of the face is aimed directly at the viewer. It is difficult to get away from the face to see the rest of the painting. This is intentional.


Now let’s talk about landscapes.

(photo from Monet by Karin Sagner)

Let's consider Monet’s The Poppy Field near Argenteuil. There are four figures. Two in the bottom right and two at the top of the hill, left. We don't see them at first glance but once we see them, we can’t miss seeing them. They have some psychological weight. However, we can get away from them to look at the other parts of the painting because they are much reduced in size relative to the rest of the painting and are not detailed. The faces are also darkened to match the value(light/dark) of the surrounding paint to make them less prominent.  The hats provide a small value contrast to direct us to the figures, but have not nearly the weight of a clear face. These figures are only elements in the composition which is a landscape with a narrative.


What about Let Me Show You, my new painting?


The two little figures are approaching quite a large size for a painting that is not a portrait but a landscape. Their backs are turned to us which eliminates the power of a full-on gaze. The value of the colours of their garments are matched to the value of the shapes behind the garments. The little girls’ heads are both positioned so that their darker hair is on the darker area. The big sister is positioned so that the dark shape of her head and dress join up with the dark shape beyond them. All this reduces the power of the figures in a landscape— sort of blending in. The red trees also carry the substantial weight of psychoactivity (the red) as well as high contrast of the dark swirly lines spilling on the sky.

The painting works as a landscape with a narrative bonus.

Hope your day is happy!


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