Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Part 5: Foliage / Mønsted

It's easy to fall into the tendency to paint foliage in a relatively cursory or generalized way, compared to the way we would paint a figure. If we were to give the same loving artistic attention to a tree or a bunch of leaves that we give to a face or a nude figure, then our foliage painting would take a huge leap forward.

One artist who took such care was Peder Mork Mønsted (Danish 1859-1941). In his long career he painted landscapes of all sorts, and managed to blend painterly handling with conscientious rendering. 

In this foreground detail of the painting above, he observes the character and the color of each leaf, and records how the colors change as the leaves move in and out of shadow.

But a forest is more than the sum of its leaves, or even of its trees. Mønsted improvises a different toolset for the far masses of foliage, generalizing and softening where he needs to. 

Improvisation and resourcefulness is vital to painting foliage. The tools and methods that we learn from painting casts or figures in the academy don't really serve us outdoors as we face the changefulness and immateriality of nature.

As we've seen in this series, complete imitation of every leaf in a lush landscape is probably not possible or even desirable, nor perhaps is the other extreme of ultra-softness and generalization. One can be faithful to the character of the plant without copying or imitating every detail. Instead, nature must be re-created or "represented" in paint on the canvas.

Asher B. Durand, in his influential 1855 essays "Letters on Landscape Painting" draws this very distinction between imitation and representation. When painting a tree, he says, “direct imitation is impossible." Instead the artist should strive to “represent this foliage in every essential characteristic, without defining the forms of individual leaves. To do this, some analysis of its structure is necessary.”

There's more to say about structure, but I'll save that for future posts.
More on Mønsted on Lines and Colors
Full text of Letters on Landscape Painting in The American Landscapes of Asher B. Durand

The Artistic Anatomy of Trees (Dover Art Instruction)
More on leaves and foliage in my book Color and Light, which you can get signed here.

Foliage Series
Part 1: Painting Tools


Keith Parker said...

James, This is a lot of information on painting the great outdoors. Have you considered doing a book on this topic?

Kelden Cowan said...

Painting flora has always terrified me mostly do to the expert drawing required. I look forward to the solutions you present.

Ezra said...

I have found that making pencil sketches of trees with small notes about structure has been helpful to me in improving my understanding of a tree's essential characteristics without trying to recreate every leaf.

Kimberly M Zamlich said...

Thank you for sharing your observations on painters such as these. You have a naturalistic curiosity and bring many artists to attention that we would otherwise not know about.

kat said...

A book on this topic by James would be absolutely the bees knees!

Frederick Church did massive landscape paintings wherein the vegetation was so accurate that botanists could distinguish the plants to the genus level.

Any chance James might cover this topic in watercolor as well? It's a bear, I know!

kat said...

Oh, and Monsted is a Monster! His work is utterly magnificent.

David Teter said...

James this has been a great series of posts.
I like these multi-post, multi-artists examples subjects.

You are the 'Ted Koppel from the old nightline format' of the art blogs, covering a topic with well-rounded knowledge and references.

p.s.- your first link, the link is split in half, the first half of his name, "Peder Mork M" does not work. Only "onsted" works.

Janet Oliver said...

I'll continue to come back and revisit this series of tutorials. Thanks for the links to the previous posts.

James Gurney said...

Thanks, everybody for your kind comments. Glad you like these multi-posts. I tend to get obsessed on such things days at a time, so this lets me focus on something and benefit from your ideas, too.

David, Ted Koppel! Wow, thanks. I only saw him on TV a few times, but he seemed like a reliable source. And thanks, I fixed the link.

Janet, glad you enjoyed the earlier links. Foliage is an amazingly huge subject -- I didn't get into the botanical details, but maybe I could do that in the future.

Kat and Kimberly, yes, it's too bad there aren't books in English or exhibitions in North America on Monsted. Is there much to be found on him in Denmark? At least Shishkin is celebrated in Russia, as he should be.

Keith, the last books grew out of blog posts, so who knows what all this will lead to in the future?

jill polsby said...

Thank you for this fabulous tutorial. I am so appreciative of your generosity in offering up knowledge to the rest of us! Thank you.

Christoffer Gertz Bech said...

Sadly, there is very little to be found about Mønsted here in Denmark. He actually seems to be more appreciated on your side of the Pond than here. My great-grandmother is said to have owned one of his paintings, but she sold it. I have never even seen an original by him, although there is supposed to be a few here and there in some of the major collections (but not necessarily on display).

John said...

Really enjoyed this series of posts! Inspiring!

Kiri Østergaard Leonard said...

Another great post. I follow your blog daily and it's always an enjoyable read! Thank you so much for all the time you put into this.

Allenmorrisart said...

I found this series this morning while looking up foliage, as I'm an avid follower of your blog and am starting several paintings on the subject. This is an invaluable resource to me. I wish that there were some tags on the blog for painting specific things- reflection on water waves, foliage, bark, fur. It sounds like a lot of work, though. I might just start from the very first post and read forward like a book.
Thanks again, James

James Gurney said...

Thanks, Allen, Yes, the blog could probably use some organizing and freshening in the search tags. I'm sure you've tried putting search terms into the search box at the upper left of the blog. That's what I do when I want to find posts about a specific topic or artist.