A Blog About Oil Painting

The First Eight Lives of a Landscape Painting

/ / Landscape

Landscape with straw bales, wheat fields, grass textures, distant treeline with some abstraction.

Mountain Road. 12x16, oil on linen panel. 2015-2017

In the studio I generate more than my fair share of failed paintings—things that failed to live up to my original vision. Up to 30% of what I create ends up in a scrap pile.

I occasionally go through this discarded work to see what can be salvaged. In most cases I end up reusing the canvases and starting over, but sometimes it feels like a painting can be worth fixing. This is one of those.

The field that originally inspired the painting lies across the road from a winery in Virginia. It's hidden from view as you drive past and only visible if you pull to the side of the road by an old cattle grid. Even the you have to stand in the long grass to really appreciate it. That feeling of discovery was one of the main reasons I wanted to paint this scene.

What seemed like an easy thing to paint became a two year odyssey of missteps and blind alleys as it exposed, one by one, weaknesses in the composition, my technique and my design vision.

By now the painting has gone through so many revisions that it actually looks more like another field, one that's just up the road from the original. It has changed at least 8 times and has been transformed into a different place. The most recent prior version is here.

Some of the changes included:

  • The treeline, a dominant feature of many Virginia landscapes, was problematic. I had to make it smaller, further away, and add more color, height, and value variation before it seemed to fit. It took several versions to make the transition.
  • I removed the large tree.
  • The horizontal plane of the land became the most dominant element.
  • I simplified the value scale and palette
  • The building shrank and changed shape
  • The painting became more abstract

But the single biggest change in going from the first to the final version was that I stopped thinking of the painting as being of a field. Instead I started to regard it as a space filled with distance, air and light. Once I did that, many of the design decisions became easier to make—they were no longer driven by a manipulation of elements to create a tableau, instead they became motivated by the need to evoke the feeling of the space.

This one painting, more than any other, made me change the way I think about landscapes.