Mountain rules

Dear Artist, Trudging around in the Bugaboos, I’m thinking how rules are meant to be broken. Having said that, a few rules for acrylic and oil painters are well worth following. My only reason for backing up my helicopter and dumping them off on you is that these rules can save a lot of trouble and make work fresher. Up here in the scudding clouds and creaking glaciers I’m also realizing they’re not my rules but the rules of the truly great painters who have trudged in humbling spots like this before.

‘Time to pack it up, Kathleen, ride’s here.’

1. Start with a toned ground. It can be grey, brown, red or whatever, and it can be wet or dry. When you prime your canvas with a coloured ground, you won’t have to fight the tyranny of white. Leave the fighting of white to the watercolourists. This way, there will be a significant tone on all parts of your canvas — happy accidents or paucities will occur, and the ground becomes part of the overall effect. 2. Establish your foreground first. We painters tend to start by painting the part of the landscape that first knocks our socks off, and it’s not always the foreground. Actually, compelling foregrounds are often the most difficult part, even though they are vital to a strong composition. Foregrounds determine where farther-back focal elements may be placed. 3. Plan ahead to one, two, three, four, five. You don’t want to make the painting just a foreground and a background. Even though your painting may be two dimensional and flat, it needs to have at least five elements of interest as it recedes. At the expense of being too simplistic, an example would be foreground rocks, a lake, a mountain range, a distant mountain range and a sky. 4. Establish at least five large complex shapes. Dynamic, even abstract shapes add magic to the magic. Patches of snow, ominous spires, dark and light rocks are generously pressed into compositional service. Interlocking with one another, these shapes tease your viewer’s eyes into seeing your magical experience. 5. Take your brush here and there like a bee in an alpine meadow. In other words, don’t laboriously work on or try to finish off one particular part. Paint promiscuously. Watch the greater image materialize. You need that thing over there to tell you what to do about that thing over here. Like life itself, there’s more to this than meets the eye. You can make up a pile of additional basics and rules for yourself. These five are a good start. Ours is a game of rugged individualism. But even rugged individualists have a few rules that make their climb easier.

“Lake O’Hara” 1925
oil on hardboard
by J. E. H. MacDonald

Best regards, Robert PS: “Oh the difficulties of mountain art for too little genius.” (J. E. H. MacDonald) Esoterica: Plein air invites a Zen-like attitude and acceptance of the spiritual flow. Lost in a cloud of our own making, days pass far too quickly. The more I look at this life, the more it seems a combination of inhaling the gifts and letting your work tell you what it needs.   No white-fighting here by Dwight Williams, Meridian, ID, USA  

“East Elmore County, Idaho”
watercolour painting, 20 x 29 inches
by Dwight Williams

We watercolorists don’t fight the white of the paper, we leave it alone. The gorgeous white of pure rag is one of the best things we have going. Many watercolorists don’t leave enough. I couldn’t send you an example of leaving a lot of white on the blog so here’s an extreme example. And, when we do this, think of the paint expense we save. And speaking of “rules,” two things: I thought I’d break some, or at least bend them compositionally, in this painting; and second, I grew up in Missouri where we said, “In the world of mules there are no rules.” There are 3 comments for No white-fighting here by Dwight Williams
From: Sandy Tucker — Sep 03, 2013

Great painting, great example.

From: Maureen B — Sep 03, 2013

Wonderful painting, it is a great use of the paper’s luminous quality. As my boss in advertising used to say make good use of the white space, in other words, leave a lot of it to get noticed.

From: Pat Miller – Boise, Id — Sep 04, 2013

How lovely. I like your comments, too.

  Never Ending Preparation by Tim Kernen   I spend hours in never ending preparation, many of them looking at wonderful pictures of things and places and colors and shapes and how all of them could make a glorious painting. Then I tear it out and place it in the respective folder that I spent many more hours organizing. The next day it starts all over again but today I’m using technology, jumping from one web site to another while trying to find that YouTube demo that’s going to be sooooo good for me that I’ll jump right up and begin painting. Oh wait !!! What was the glimpse of wonderful color??? Not there… no not there, either. But I just know I can find it!! After another 1/2 hour (or 2 hrs) I have seen the most unbelievably beautiful sights that I just can’t wait to share with everyone in my paintings!! By now I’m very tired and everyone knows that people can’t be creative when they’re tired. We do need our rest so I’ll get started first thing in the morning. (RG note) Thanks, Tim. Never Ending Preparation (NEP) is a widely available addiction as dangerous as drugs and alcohol. A form of procrastination, it often takes on the guise of “research” and can have one or two of many root causes, including avoidance syndrome, fear of doing the work, or fear of not being prepared to do the work, Educosis, pathological collecting, psychological compulsion, or just plainly hanging on to bad habits. There is 1 comment for Never Ending Preparation by Tim Kernen
From: tikiwheats — Sep 03, 2013

OMG! I didn’t know it was catching…..

  Wandering boy wants to come home by Rob Zeer, BC, Canada  

“Freising Solitude”
acrylic painting
by Rob Zeer

I’m a Calgary boy living and painting in Munich. “Mountain Rules” made me a bit homesick. The Rockies are a humbling and spiritual experience and teacher. Your five essential rules learned painting the raw elemental aspect of the Rockies are applicable everywhere. I personally liked your rule, “Paint Promiscuously.” It would be nice to combine painting in the high range of the Rockies and a trip home to Alberta. If you have room for an artist next time, please let me know. (RG note) Thanks, Rob. For those interested in possibly joining us next year in the Bugaboos, our dates are August 20 to 24, 2014. You need to leave a small, refundable deposit with Audrey at 1 800 661 0252. You might think about inquiring now as there are only so many seats in the helicopter. There are 2 comments for Wandering boy wants to come home by Rob Zeer
From: andre satie — Sep 03, 2013

I love this painting!

From: Kathy Young BC Canada — Sep 03, 2013

Love your colours on the hills and sky…love it

  Slow drying acrylics on location by Hiro Sugino, Scarborough, ON, Canada   I am attending a Plein-Air workshop in September. (Ontario) I would like to try Golden Open paints first time. My Instructor suggested to bring a Wet Palette container for Acrylics. Would you recommend it for Golden Open or not necessary? I use Liquitex heavy body paints with a retarder and water on a butcher’s tray at my studio. I appreciate your opinion always. (RG note) Thanks, Hiro. You might try a Wet Palette container for Golden products. I don’t use one nor do many of my friends. Golden opens stay pretty wet for plenty of time on their own, especially in humid environments. I recommend you buy two of the small golden sets-“Modern” and “Traditional” at about 30 bucks per set and try them out. Limited palette, fun mixing, sophisticated results.   Zooming in by Elizabeth Coxe   Recently on some of my plein-air expeditions, I have been zooming in on some details because I like some shapes I’ve found. I’m not sure how to apply rule #3 to this kind of landscape painting. Am I turning a landscape painting opportunity into a still life with a whole different set of rules? My instructor suggests that if I am going to do zoom-in landscapes, I move closer to my subject. Yesterday I was painting boat hulls, and would have had to walk on water to get closer. Is the zoom-in landscape a bad idea? (RG note) Thanks, Elizabeth. The important thing to remember is that paintings are not necessarily “what is seen,” but “what is to be seen.” In other words, the composition often supersedes reality. If homing in with a viewfinder or a telephoto view can help you find your reality, then go for it.   Fundamental truths by Phil Chadwick, Southampton, ON, Canada  

“Cross-over Again”
original painting
by Phil Chadwick

Spending a lifetime as a scientist in a bureaucratic cartoon taught me to bend rules — even detest rules. I know and worked with Dilbert and even the evil, pointy haired boss. The first rule for me has always been that “there are no rules” — service and product is what really mattered most. This character flaw has manifested itself in my plein air art after being quasi retired for the last couple of years. I paint for myself and just strive to get better — I mean no harm and let the inspiration move my brush and pigments. But Robert’s Five Rules are more like fundamental truths. One must never bend the truth. Honesty and integrity in art is important and these fundamental truths are the road signs to help you get there. Artists on their individual journeys would be wise to heed the signs in getting where they want to go. There is 1 comment for Fundamental truths by Phil Chadwick
From: Susan Kellogg, Austin, TX — Sep 03, 2013

That was an important and nicely written distinction.

  How things change by Karen Ilari  

“Portland Morning”
acrylic painting, 9 x 12 inches
by Karen Ilari

I wanted to write to thank you for something you did for me 7 years ago. In 2006 I wrote a letter, my name at that point was Karen Ashmore. I was in despair over finding time to paint. You published the letter and asked readers to help me out. I received hundreds of encouraging responses and I can’t begin to tell you how encouraged I was! Thank you! With that encouragement, I continued to carve out time, flash forward to today. My kids are out of the house, I married a wonderful man who supports my art, I am able to work 3 days a week at my day job, which gives me 4 days to paint! I and am actually making a modest income selling my paintings, though I sell them mostly to make room for more! I’ve had a couple of solo shows, successful art festival booths and have had luck selling on Etsy. I’m just having a blast. And the old misery and depression of the past is just gone. I can’t imagine how I would have gone through the transition to “empty nest” without my passion for art. I still – 11 years into my journey – wake up every painting day excited to get to my easel. And I truly thank you and your wonderful readers for being there at that critical turning point in my life! I remember how it felt to have so little time, and money, to pursue my passion. I’ve even started a little free website where I’ve been posting videos in acrylic landscape painting instruction. I’m up to 91 members! They watch the videos, post paintings for critiques and comment on others work. It makes me feel great when they say I have inspired them to pick up the brush! So thank you, from the bottom of my heart.    

Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Mountain rules

From: Marvin Humphrey — Aug 30, 2013

The fundamental rules give us the dance floor upon which we can dance. Regarding Rule #1, I use a light tint of yellow ochre/raw sienna mixed with the primer. When that’s dry, I like to mix another light “imprimatura” with a little Liquin for translucency to use as a wet tone.

From: Hal Toews — Aug 30, 2013

Yes, rules are meant to be broken, but some rules are so basic that it seems a shame to ruin one’s life by constantly forgetting them. A toned ground, for example, is like putting your pants on before you go out.

From: Elaine Dube — Aug 30, 2013

Thank you, that is good information, I will follow it. I am a watercolor person but into acrylics, too.

From: Gary Barr — Aug 30, 2013
From: Valerie Norberry VanOrden — Aug 30, 2013

I like that comment about working like a bee in an Alpine meadow. I always thought it was ADHD that made me do that. But it does keep you from only finishing one part of the painting.

From: Elle Fagan — Aug 30, 2013

I like the rules – I do some acrylic art but a lot of watercolor too and the rules make sense. Right now, rule 5 is the one I am enjoying most. During my disability, fine motor skills were impaired and the effect of the extra work it took to do a thing was to turn a watercolor into sculpture on the paper sometimes :-D Fit and fine again, I discovered, to my horror, that the tendency to sculpt with my paintbrush had become a habit. So the work from me now is the result of hard work “lightening up” :-D

From: Desmond Senior — Aug 30, 2013
From: Larry — Aug 30, 2013

Great tips. I always tell my students that the first rule of art club is there are no rules, and the second rule is don’t use black. Now I’ll have to add these as well.

From: Bill Erlenbach — Aug 30, 2013

I have started too many paintings in the Rockies with the mid and back ground only to paint that luscious emerald green lake in the foreground and realize in horror that the shore line is a boring straight line from one side of the canvas to the other. So taken in by the beauty that the basic needs of composition were forgotten. Maybe I will start with the foreground next time and cheat away until it works.

From: Kristin Hosbein — Aug 30, 2013

Very timely, as I’m leaving Sunday for a week long workshop with Marc Hanson in Longmont CO..lots of mountains and streams..intimidating for a small town midwestern artist. Mishawaka, In, USA

From: Alexander Alarcon — Aug 30, 2013

What a life!–inhaling the gifts and waiting for our painting to speak to us! I simply love it!

From: Polonca Kocjančič — Aug 30, 2013

I really like this one! :) Well-written. Nothing else to add today, just a big hug! Slovenia

From: Ivan Soderbergh — Aug 30, 2013

After reading your rules I realized I needed to add a few of my own, and I kept going. That’s when I realized what you were up to. Thank you.

From: John Whitefish — Aug 31, 2013

I would say rule 1 + a concept + rule 5 and (in the studio or outside) ‘Bob’s your uncle” MT

From: Jill Brown — Aug 31, 2013

I think my many years in the moutains of Whistler allowed the feeling of the place to become embedded. Now I just paint from my memories of how it felt and try to utilize colour and value to convey the feelings I remember. I like the rules but do get into the rhythm of the painting and hope they work their way into my neurons. We really do have to paint our way to find our path.

From: Monty Bassington — Aug 31, 2013

Art is one of the few professions where you don’t need to follow any rules, as is evidenced by the wide range of incompetent work we constantly see around us.

From: Verna Korkie — Aug 31, 2013

Larry, the first workshop I took, the instructor invoked the rule: don’t use black. So I didn’t. Several years later at another workshop that rule was challenged by a different instructor. Have you ever tried Ivory black with Cad yellow? Delicious greens. But too bad about that ‘don’t use black’ rule. Buried in my psyche, it is like being a young adult in the earlier 1960s and living with the guilt of the established paradigm that “nice girls don’t”. Hard to alter thinking patterns and now I have to almost force myself to use black which can indeed be very beautiful under the right circumstances. So go ahead. Break the (black) rule(s)!

From: shawn a — Aug 31, 2013

Same thing happened to me with black. It was forbidden, then later offered as a good tool by another, and I still have trouble using it. The classical painters use(d) it with relish and their work is amazing.

From: Michael Cowan — Sep 01, 2013

The trouble is that art schools these days leave students with few skills and fewer rules. As a matter of fact unruliness is encouraged and applauded. There is not much room in the art universe for the truly unruly, but still lots of room for competence.

From: David Wrigley — Sep 01, 2013

Michael Cowan’s remarks (above) are nonsense. Clever, competent art (particularly painting) is a dead duck.

From: Angelo Lucca — Sep 01, 2013

The whole business of schools is now being studied and reassessed. Findings include the stifling of creativity and invention in the traditional system. In programs like 20/20 young inventors are paid not to go to university just to get their inventions knocked out of them. MOOCs are also changing the face of education and not all of the old guard can see it coming. It seems we get our best ideas when we’re climbing our own mountains.

From: Debbie — Sep 02, 2013

This is awesome — these rules answer the question — “Whats wrong with this?” Thank you Robert !

From: Russ Hogger — Sep 02, 2013

For me there are no rules, I paint with acrylics and because I like strong contrast, I love to use black. As someone has already mentioned it makes some beautiful dark greens mixed with cad yellow etc.

From: Cesar Osorio — Sep 03, 2013

Robert’s rules are like learning scales on a piano. Great concertos are built on this. Only fools and mad dogs would avoid these basics.

From: Aleta Pippin — Sep 03, 2013

I’ve been forty years discovering that the queen of all colors is black. – Henri Matisse I, too, love black…

From: David.R (UK) — Sep 04, 2013

I don’t paint like this so I’m looking forward to giving it a serious go. I have a feeling it’s going to solve a one or two (or more) things I seem to always struggle with. On the theme of black, I use Spinel Black (PBL26) which is a bit rare as far as shop tube paint goes but it’s readily available as a pigment. I prefer it because it’s pretty much neutral – the most neutral black I believe.

From: Howard Lobb — Sep 20, 2013

I just have to laugh,,, I haven’t been painting long enough to have any rules ,,, Ignorance is bliss,,, though I do know that if i intend to get some place i have never been, directions are good. The idea that if i want want the results,,, do what they did get what they got,,, like what has been said already big differance between trueths and rules,,, I didn’t know that black is bad or good ,,, i use it for my ground,,, it works ,,, Thomson used orange,,, it works,,, I supose the general idea is an open mind and you can’t do new things without doing new things

   Featured Workshop: Ilse Taylor Hable 090313_robert-genn2 Ilse Taylor Hable Workshops Held in Rose Blanche, Newfoundland, Canada   The Workshop Calendar provides up-to-date selected workshops and seminars arranged in chronological order.      woa

First Light on the Harbor

oil painting, 18 x 24 inches by John Cosby, Laguna Beach, CA, USA

  You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013. That includes Martin Rutte of Santa Fe, New Mexico who wrote, “Can I please have your permission to use ‘Paint promiscuously. Watch the greater image materialize.’ on my Facebook page? It’s called “Project Heaven on Earth.” (RG note) Thanks, Martin. If it’s okay with Facebook, it’s okay with me. Incidentally folks, “Project Heaven on Earth” looks to me like a winning concept.  

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