Last weekend was our summer guest landscape course taught by Ben Fenske. The last courses that Ben had taught through my studio were centered on structural concepts in figure and portrait drawing (click here to read about his last class). Like his approach to the human form, Fenske’s method of teaching Landscape Painting is based on structure, theory, and preconceived tonal hierarchies to have in mind. Through rigorous study and thorough understanding one can achieve free, fluid painting.
Like always, our landscape class was at the whim of the weather, and the forecast was somewhat grim. We completely lucked out, though from one day to the next we had somewhat drastic changes in light- the first day was overcast, quite cold and humid like a fall morning, and by the second day we were in the high 90’s, a total scorcher. Luckily, our hosts have a beautiful farm with plenty of shade and all sorts of animals to keep us entertained.
Laying in the scene as a linear drawing
Ben Fenske did a series of demonstrations throughout the class- on the first day, he talked through first setting up your scene as a linear drawing- designing each shape, carefully measuring the proportions to make sure to have not only accuracy, but a pleasing sense of scale on the canvas, and then checking each of your objects in linear perspective. Ben explained that the more confident one is in their drawing’s accuracy, the more free and interpretive they can be with their painting. He also took some time to do a simple 6-value representation of the scene, to set up the tonal hierarchy that he would use to paint that light effect.
Unfortunately I don’t have an image of his large demo after the first day. •edit 8/23/16 thanks to student Mike Rohner for sending me the below image-demo at the end of Ben’s first session.
Surprising no one (this is New England after all), by the second day the weather had entirely shifted, and we had a sunny, hot morning. Rather than starting over, Ben decided to talk everyone through how he would go about changing his grey day picture to a sunny effect, scrambling to change the color/tonal structure of the painting. One of the students mentioned that this was particularly helpful, to watch how quickly the decision making process had to happen, and that he clearly had a mental image of what he wanted it to look like before he put the changes to the canvas. Fenske also talked at length about how to keep your painting ‘open’, to not lose freshness and how to delicately balance in the painterly space between unity and variety, and in his words ‘to keep a lively surface’.
Below is Fenske’s demo after the second day, having rapidly changed his painting from an overcast effect, to a backlit sunny day.
finished demo, sunlit effect ~24×28″ 60x70cm
Ben then spent the rest of each day critiquing the students working on their individual paintings, here are some images:
On the last day of the class Fenske gave a different demonstration, during which he did not paint from a scene in front of him, but painted instead a series of small scenes from imagination. During the first demo (top right on the below canvas) he first went through describing the division of structural planes in the landscape, whether a building, tree, cloud or road. Then, after setting up the painting he was able to demonstrate how color and tonal modulations, however slight, can give the effect of depth in your canvas. I have seen Ben give versions of this demo over the years, and I would rank the talk he gave on the last day as one of his best.
Ben Fenske explaining two separate techniques for controlling and modulating greens
Ben’s initial demo, top right was about color value divisions in the landscape. Same scene, top left moonlit effect and bottom right “golden hour” effect, with a dark post storm sky
Our visiting artist continued to paint for much of the morning. After doing a small talk on application techniques, Ben spoke about at length about controlling your painting’s surface and a variety of different techniques to achieve color vibration. I agreed with Ben when he said that color vibration is a huge part of painting that is now rarely talked about. Not only did Ben give effective examples for keeping color vibration, he showed how one would lose color vibration as well, showing us how one might kill an area, create a dead spot in the painting.
Ben continued paint different effects of the same view, showing how the same 6-color approach could represent any number of different atmospheric light effects, times of day and moods. In my opinion, this was a particularly instructive part of the class for the students, I got the feeling they would have been content to have Ben continue to paint out of his head for the rest of the day…. and Ben nearly did.
Clockwise from top right: Front-Lit Sunlit effect, Backlit ‘Silouhette’ effect, overcast ‘Grey Day’ effect (with added reds to liven up the view) and Sunset effect (which he started adding a body of water to)
Fenske’s initial 6-color black and white representation of the grey day effect, from the first day
And here’s a few of our friends from the class:
Ben’s suggested Reading List for this Class:
John Carlson’s Guide to Landscape Painting, amazon link to the most inexpensive and complete text on landscape painting
The Art of Landscape Painting in Oil Color by Sir Alfred East, the book that Edward Seago would reference that Ben and I mentioned
Birge Harrison, Landscape Painting (this edition includes Asher Durand’s text on the landscape which admittedly I have not read-leo)
a few artist’s monographs:
Arthur Streeton 1867-1943 by Geoffrey Smith (other monographs on Streeton are great too, but this happens to be the one I have in the studio)
Isaac Levitan: Lyrical Landscape
Hidden Treasures: Russian and Soviet Impressionism 1930-1970s
Edward Seago (price has been rising on this monograph, but still reasonable)
Soviet Impressionist Painting by Vern Swanson
Masters of Russian impressionism: Sergei Petrovich Tkachev & Aleksei Petrovich Tkachev