Carlson’s Guide to Landscape Painting, a book review

Carlson’s Guide to Landscape Painting, by John F. Carlson

The best instructional book for landscape painting is John Carlson’s book, at least in my opinion.  It was originally written in 1929, with a revision in 1934 and later several reprints.  I point this out because most landscape artists know the book is a “must have” if you want good technical instruction on painting landscapes.   Mr. Carlson is an exceptional artist as well; his work can be seen through an internet search.

There are plenty of good books written on how to paint landscapes.  This book stands out as the best because of the depth of information on each subject and how John Carlson dissects it for the reader.  Some might think it’s too much, but me (with no formal art training) the book is a perfect balance of instruction and examples which I continue to use.  Here are some areas I found particularly useful – in his words:

  1. Value and Light:  “Every good picture is fundamentally an arrangement of three or four large masses – a design of differing masses or large blocks of color – light, dark and half-dark or half-light . . . Our landscapes’ prime elements – trees, ground, mountains, etc. – receive from the sky differing degrees of light according to their plane, and it is chiefly this difference of plane that establishes them as darks, half-tones, and semi-lights, as related to one another.  These “steps” from dark to light are called values.”  Mr. Carlson’s entire discussion of value centered around these basics of color and light; I finally understood the important subtleties of why and how to establish correct values within a painting.
  2. Perspective – Aerial and Linear:  “the expression of space by changes and gradations of color distinctness and hue . . . there is one rule governing color gradations, and that is:  all colors become cooler as they recede from the eye, except white.”  John Carlson’s explanation of perspective took away the mystery of how artists take a flat surface and paint a three-dimensional long-distance scene.  This was a very cool discovery for me.
  3. Trees:  “How do you paint a tree?  The beginner always imagines that by some trick of the wrist . . . a tree can be painted.   When the answer comes, “By understanding trees,” it may seem more or less enigmatic.  Yet this is the answer.  As in any art, so in painting, the necessary knowledge takes almost a lifetime to acquire and cannot be handed on a silver platter to one who has made no effort to gain it.”  Wow, did I find out how right he was;  the most difficult subject in landscaping for me is painting trees.  The more I paint them, the more I discover tree technique – color – structure – texture – type – sky holes.  I agree with Mr. Carlson, I have a lifetime of learning ahead of me.

I once read a negative review of this book; the person commenting complained that the picture examples were in black and white.  Wow, really?  The point was missed entirely!  First the book was written in 1929.  Second, because it’s in black and white, the reader has to examine the picture illustrations to understand Mr. Carlson’s technical explanations.  Through this close observation the reader gains a clearer understanding of the most basic, but also most important landscape painting concepts.

Last thoughts, while John Carlson painted with oils the techniques he discussed can be applied using any medium.  His book gave me the necessary foundation needed to paint landscapes, my goal today is to continue my journey of discovering landscapes through oil pastels.

If I could have but one book as a “go-to,” there is no question it would be Carlson’s Guide to Landscape Painting.




About Mary

Oil Pastelist
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1 Response to Carlson’s Guide to Landscape Painting, a book review

  1. Great advice! Thanks for sharing! 😀

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