M. Stephen Doherty

M. Stephen Doherty
The editor of Plein Air magazine at work

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Fall Landscape: Composition & Neutral Colors

Here's a attempt to use neutral colors to emphasize strong sunlight on a fall afternoon, and an effort to compose a landscape painting as my friend Jack Beal would recommend. The location is the lake at Teatown Reservation near my home in Westchester County, New York.
Jack always talks about dynamic compositions -- arrangements that move the viewer's eye around and through a picture, and ones that provide areas of energy and rest. He points out that artists used shapes, patterns, and colors to create that kind of dynamism for most of the history of art, but especially in the 16th century when the great Venetian artists Tiepolo and Tintoretto were creating dramatic paintings of biblical and mythological subjects. In this painting I made a deliberate attempt to bend the pathway from the foreground into the middle ground, and then to use the shoreline in the distance as a continuation of that motion. The tree trunks were likewise painted to emphasize that circular motion around the rectangular panel. The row boat mimics the dominant shapes and provides a place of rest for the viewer's eyes (while also suggesting the beginning of a dormant season).
You can see that in the early stages of the painting I neutralized the colors in the background so that the curving shape of the pathway (painted with bright red iron oxide) immediately became the focal area of the composition, and the space where I would paint the brightly colored leaves would first be a contrasting dull background. I added Galkyd medium to the paint so it would quickly dry and I would have no trouble applying the clean bright colors over those neutral gray shapes.
I finished the plein air sketch in about 2 - 1/2 hours, stopping occasionally to talk to the children walking along the path with their parents. As always happens, passersby assumed I was something of an information service and asked me questions about the course of the pathways, whether friends had recently passed by, and if I knew who owned the canoe. They also told me my painting was "charming," "pretty," "almost as good as what Bob Ross would have painted," "just like the actual scene," "similar to Aunt Minnie's watercolors," and "cool."


  1. Hi Steve - nice to see that you've started your own blog now that you won't be writing the other one...

    Looks like a beautiful spot and a gorgeous painting!

  2. Thanks Stacey. I understand you sold a painting to the son of a good friend, Drew Bingham. Small world.