Feb 8, 2010
Tutorial Corner © with Linda Lover
Painting the Horizon
Looking to where the sky ends and meets the earth introduces the horizon which often can begin to define the painting. In landscapes, we paint the geometric horizon which is an infinite ground plane rather than the true horizon which is the curve of the earth. It can be mountains, hills, deserts or plains; it can be the treetops of a forest or just a simple tree line. It can be a country field, a cityscape of buildings or any body of water. There is tremendous diversity influenced by what you see or what you imagine. The horizon can be something as familiar as what surrounds you or a memory of where you have been. And then there are endless possibilities of painting places where you would love to be, places that come alive through imagination.
As with all landscapes, you begin with an idea but it’s good to allow yourself the freedom to keep it flexible. Once your sky is painted, the next thing to consider is the horizon and how near or far away it will be. A sketch or a photograph can be helpful, and then there is always plein air. The first thing to consider is location; such as where are you standing when you process the view? Are you looking up, down, across or at an angle? This is followed by your choice of season, weather and time of day; take notice of where the shadows are falling. This will help to give you an idea of how to place things and where the light source will be coming from as well as choosing your paint colors. Looking across flat ground, the eye can capture a distance of about 3 miles. Standing on a hill about 300’ above, allows the eye to see approximately 22 miles, on a mountain, it can be as far as 65 miles on a clear day. Detail is also determined by the distance involved in relation to hills, valleys, mountains, or flat ground. If you were looking at a mountain from many miles away, you might only see a snow covered peak against the horizon leaving miles of detail in front to where you are. However, close up the mountain becomes not only more detailed in relation to the horizon but also may become the central part of the painting. Landscapes can actually omit a traditional horizon in favor of something like a canyon or forest backdrop. Sometimes a horizon line can be seen beneath the arch of a bridge or viewed through a window. I’ve found that often rules can be cast to the wind as the painting is the concept of the artist’s view.
Here’s a simple example of distance and positioning of a horizon. If I were standing on the sidewalk in front of my home, the horizon line would be what little I could see at the sides of my front yard. If I stand on the sidewalk across the street I can see my house prominently and the horizon becomes what I can see of the backyard and beyond. If I go one street farther away, my house can remain the main subject, but my house will become smaller and there will even be more detail in the background which will appear vague. And to completely go in yet another direction such as looking down the street, the horizon would be at the end of the street and my house would be located to one side of that street rather than being the main focus. The more distance, the more detail can be included, but also the farther away things are the more vague they appear in both color and detail. And depending from where the scene is viewed, the angle will also change how the main subject is presented.
As a rule, the horizon is best placed at 2/3’s or 1/3 of the canvas, but like everything in painting, it’s not carved in stone. Some designs will be large and close up in detail and often the horizon is nearer at 1/3 from the canvas bottom. A view that has great distance usually has a higher horizon line but, of course, that perspective is left up to the painter. While painting downward, details will become larger and have more contrast using bolder colors.
Keep in mind that contrast is important where the sky meets the earth or water. Even if colors are quite vague in the distance, there should be a defining line of color unless you are watching the end of “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” where Rex Harrison and Gene Tierney walk out the door into the clouds without missing a step.
Having grown up in Iowa and lived in Michigan most of my life, my landscapes tend to reflect that. I love to paint rolling hills whether farmland or filled with trees and shrubs. I’ve always have the feeling that old abandoned barns and houses have a history and story to tell. And lighthouses have become quite a favorite of mine living around the Great Lakes region. Our wonderful earth gives us endless possibilities, and when artistic preferences and individual styles are included in the mix, it becomes even more amazingly versatile. Monet’s work is magnificent and he painted the same water lilies over and over and each time he made them look new. Simply changing a season, time of day or perspective can present one idea with many variations.
Remember “Calvin and Hobbes”, the little boy who brought his stuffed tiger to life by imagination? We can do the same with paint and brush by letting our imagination create a scene that becomes a reality on canvas.
The four photos above show
different perspectives, looking up at at a castle against the sky,
looking from a side angle where the eye takes the viewer on a curve
through the garden to reach the horizon, looking down a mountain where
the traditional horizon is omitted and viewing the horizon through the
arch of a bridge.
In the painted illustrations, you can see how the horizon begins to
create the scene to follow. Like the mesas suggest a southwestern
landscape will follow. Painting a spacious sky and keeping the horizon
small creates enormous distance; and the main subject can become dramtic
with little detail. Contrast is important. For example the distant tree
line in the barn painting is lighter than the larger tree at the front.
If they were the same shades, the one in the front would disappear or
appear out of shape. At the base of the mountain scene, the evergreens
appear only as shadow, no shape or form, only color suggests they are
there. It keeps the design uniform and helps to promote the large tree