There are SO many books about (oil) painting on the market that it’s really hard to choose which one to buy. This is an in-depth review for the book Landscape Painting: Essential Concepts and Techniques for Plein Air and Studio Practice by Mitchell Albala. I’ve done a chapter-by-chapter review, explaining what that specific chapter covers and whether I found it helpful.
Chapter 1: The Special Challenges of Landscape
Following the introduction, this chapter explains why the book has been written. Landscapes, can present some challenges, making landscape painting both difficult and rather rewarding. Just like when you paint figures or portraiture, you often learn human anatomy; with landscapes it helps to have a solid understanding of your subjects and various ways to portray them. This is done through simplification, composition and color.
Chapter 2: Materials
I found this chapter rather uneven; Albala would explain some topics in wonderful depth, whilst other topics such as palettes and easels were only briefly touched. The further you advance into the chapter, the less detail the author goes into – in fact by the end of the chapter, Albala is literally writing a list…
The chapter suggests colors for a beginner artist, explaining the reason for the suggestion. Albala includes some helpful information such as how to heighten the color, to speed-up drying time and to save money with certain alternatives. Concerned about exposure to toxic pigments like lead or cadmium? This is the go-to section as it includes alternative (and often lesser-known) colors. Very-limited and limited palettes are covered, as well as how to expand your colors once you are familiar with color mixing. Albala explains the ideal way to arrange the colors on the palette, including why the arrangement is important.
The section on brushes doesn’t go into as much detail as many other art books, however it has quality information condensed into a few paragraphs. There is a brief explanation of the type of brush, the shape and the size that a beginner artist should consider purchasing. I was rather disappointed that Albala didn’t mention “alternative” brushes such as the very popular palette knife at all.
This painting surfaces section covers the various types of surfaces that one can paint on; canvas, paper, boards or panels and gesso. Given the importance of priming and preparing your supports to make sure the painting will not rot, I’m very surprised that the author didn’t write more than a few paragraphs here.
The same issue could be said for the palettes and easels section. For a book that puts a heavy focus on plein air work, easels are potentially one of the most important tools, yet they are barely covered. Albala doesn’t explain the difference between types of easels, nor does he mention the benefits or detriments of each. He mostly just outlines that french easels and pochade boxes are commercially available, as well as the handy home-made wall “easel”.
The chapter ends with a list of supplies; a simple list of product name and short description. It even includes the “creature comforts”!
Chapter Three: Indoor and Outdoor Studios
This chapter is about both the typical plein air experience with tips on how to make it easier for a beginner artist, and the challenges of studio painting.
A helpful guide on what to pack and how to transport your art supplies, as well as a some tips about how lighting can affect your plein air work; this would be quite commonly never considered by a beginner artist!
Albala covers how indoor studio painting can differ drastically from plein air painting; painting techniques,the size of the canvas and even approaching the subject all vary based on the location.
Chapter Four: Value Relationships
Values are considered the building blocks of form and space. Without values you cannot define shapes of the landscape, or the light and shadows being cast. In this chapter Albala wonderfully explains how values can be used in landscape painting by simplifying complex scenes. He provides many examples of their use and demonstrates how to use them. Knowing of a topic and being able to apply it is a big difference; the demonstrations were quite helpful in this case.
Chapter Five: Simplification and Massing
Larger, simpler shapes convey the essence of a subject better than it’s details.
This chapter teaches how to bring visual order out of chaos. It’s important for an artist to be able to identify a shape through lots of detail – the entire forest as well as the individual trees. There are a number of exercises that can help you learn how to simplify scenes. The first three exercises are about simplifying the entire landscape scene through line and contours, and then creating forms with values. You can compare your exercises to the author’s, which is a great way to make sure you understood the instructions.
Finally the chapter ends with how to simplify and paint a complex subject such as a tree through a simple three-step process. Excellent photos of each step are included.
Chapter Six: Site Selection
Our eyes and mind naturally will create an understanding of space in a scene, but this is not the case on a 2D canvas; the artist must provide the cues to the viewer. Values, overlaps, scale, composition and perspective all contribute to establishing form and structure.
I found it interesting that the author mentions the times of day to paint at; not just “morning” or “evening”, but specific times such as 10am-11am during spring (of course mentioning that these times will vary depending upon season and latitude). He mentions a number of important suggestions such as making sure the subjects are side-lit, providing a photographic example as to why the direction of lighting in a scene is important.
This chapter also covers a number of examples of how a scene might look inspirational, but could be in fact problematic. Yes a painting could be made from it, but a beginner artist may struggle with the values or perspective.
Chapter Seven: Composition
This chapter explores how picture windows and picture planes can be used to create ideal compositions. While most artists will use a horizontal canvas for landscape works, Albala explores how alternative layouts can enhance the compositional space. Within the canvas itself comes the topic of where to place objects of interest; thus the exploration of how grids can be effectively used within landscape paintings. Once the subject’s placement is determined, Albala next discusses how to achieve harmony in the painting through the use of visual weight, variation and diagonals.
Chapter Eight: Light and Color
Color theory can be covered in an entire book, books even, so it’s fair to say that this isn’t a complete guide. It does however cover the basics of color theory; the color wheel, how color is perceived by the eye and in relation to its context, color temperature, color hue, the value and the intensity. This chapter also explores how colors can be specifically manipulated for the environments. Concepts such as atmospheric influence is considered with some wonderful photographic examples representing a variety of situations.
They’ll see you thousands of greens. Veronese green and emerald green and cadmium green and any store of green you like; but that particular green, never. ~ Pablo Picasso.
There was a number of tips on how to see numerous shades and hues of green, especially in relation to highlights and shadows, however I would have really liked to have seen more pictures included to further illustrate these points.
Chapter Nine: The Life Of a Painting: From Start To Finish
This chapter is broken up into three sections: the preparatory work, the underpainting and the development. The preparatory section is rather short, stressing the importance of planning your composition and doing value sketches. The underpainting section has lots of step-by-steps explaining how to create an underpainting. There are a lot of tips in this section about paint consistency leading to the final section, development, about applying your colors.
This chapter also includes three demonstrations on how Albala undertakes a plein air painting from initial underpainting sketch to full color.
Chapter Ten: Working With Photographs
Photographs have their uses; Albala provides some steps on how to work with Adobe Photoshop to adjust lighting, apply filters and reveal value zones.
Chapter Eleven: Abstracting Nature
Abstract art does not appear to be Albala’s painting style so this chapter is much shorter than chapters, though still helpful for those learning. He very briefly discusses a number of topics such as aesthetics, expressive brush strokes and simplification.
Chapter Twelve: Style, Inspiration, and Lifelong Learning
The final chapter explores a more personal approach to being an artist; how we develop over time and the challenges we face such as motivation, inspiration and frustrations. I found this chapter really insightful, as a lot of new artists often face many of the problems discussed and Albala provides a number of solutions and tips to help resolve them.
I have to say that I am very happy with the book Landscape Painting: Essential Concepts and Techniques for Plein Air and Studio Practice by Mitchell Albala. It scored a 4.7/5 on Amazon at the time of writing out of nearly 200 reviews, and clearly deserves the score. There were a few areas of the book that were slightly lacking content; however it more than made up for it in other chapters with the multitude of visual examples and demonstrations. The number of photographic examples and demonstrations make this book an excellent learning resource. This book isn’t written for absolute beginners who have never applied paint to paper, more so for someone who has probably experimented a little bit and wants a slightly more guided approach to landscapes.