Carlson's Theory of Angles, Night Mist Painting by Everglade Artist JoAnn Sanborn

Night Mist
I learned about the planes of the landscape by observing the outdoor elements here in the Everglades over and over again. I didn't intellectually understand what I as seeing until it was simply explained in Carlson's Guide to Landscape Painting. John Carlson is a noted artist and teacher of the last century, who followed the Hudson River School style of painting.

His explanation of light hitting the landscape is easy to understand and makes sense. In the landscape the source of light is always from the sky. This light falls strongest on the flattest, horizontal plane of the landscape, the ground. That plane will always receive the most light and so be lightest in value. The light falls with medium strength on the slanted planes, like mountains and hills, so these will be medium value. The verticals, like the trees, being the upright plane receive the least light and so they will be darkest value.

As the painting progresses these value lessons can be applied to each element of the painting. A tree, for example, will be lightest at the top where the leaves form a flat plane for the light to fall upon, middle value in the middle as the light can't fall so directly, and darkest value on the trunk and under it, where little light falls. Carlson, however, cautions us not to break up the dominant value of the mass too much!

This is a broad, general rule of course, and there are times when it will be turned upside down. In the Everglades, the light sometimes comes from between the clouds highlighting one clump of trees making them very light and the ground much darker. Trees, even though they make be struck by extraordinary light will still retain their dark interior mass. This theory wouldn't work in snow, of course, when the snow mass would be lighter than the sky, and clouds in the sky require careful consideration of their relationship to the other elements in the painting.

My own work is often about the horizontals and verticals in the landscape. Here in South Florida we have no mountains and few hills, so must search for the middle values in our paintings. Our upright planes, for example the tall grasses, are upright up close but flatten out with distance, becoming flat planes with more light. With the open leave structure of many palms, light dances through the leaves and into the very heart of the tree form with the slightest breeze. In the Everglades we're often subjected to a changing light show that defies any rules!

In any case, learning about Carlson's Theory of Angles can help to define the large landscape elements easily into masses of values. If we interpret the relationship of these masses correctly it their exact color won't matter but the painting will make sense to the eye.