Jan Schmuckal is a painter from Illinois who works mostly in landscape scenes. She cites the Tonalist Movement as her stylistic influence (say what?), and her paintings evolve from the simple, direct observation of nature.
“Many of my paintings are done Alla Prima, also known as direct painting, which means; A style of painting where…the painting is done in one session on a toned canvas while the paint is still wet. From the Italian word which literally means at once. I feel that this style of painting helps my intention to be succinct within each painting.” -Jan Schmuckal
All in all, Schmuckal’s brushstrokes are very Cezanne-esque! Each stroke represents an area in space; each touch to the surface is bold, but it cannot stand alone. And this makes for a more cohesive painting.
Schmuckal is painterly painter, to be sure!
– (of a painting or its style) characterized by qualities of color, stroke, and texture rather than of line. [a google definition]
– “a style that embraces, shows, and celebrates the medium it’s created in (be it oil paint, acrylics, pastels, watercolor, etc.), rather than tries to hide the act of creation.” –About.com
She uses perceptible brushstrokes (for th most part), applying thick paint and/or wide strokes to build the scene. Yet, there is still variety in the shape of the stroke and in the volume of paint, and this variety contributes quite a lot to her representation (and the meaning) of the landscape. For example, take a look at Figure 1. The trees closer in space have thick strokes of paint; they are direct, solid, unflappable. However, the trunk strokes appear thin and wavering in the background, and this technique pushes those trees back in space.
Yes, color and size are extremely important factors as well when it comes to portraying space and distance, but artists often overlook that the character of a stroke can carry its own visual weight.
This kind of technique is particularly useful in scenes such as this when light is in the background and darkness is in the foreground. She does not need to lean so heavily on tones, so the vibrant colors do not sabotage the effect of distance/space.
Every single painting is beautiful drama of tone, a balance of grays of vivid color. (What do I mean by “grays”? See Figure 2. There is quite a wide variety, you see.)
Many of her landscape scenes feature green trees, blue sky, and green/brown earth. Yet Schmuckal’s mix of grays include such a range of hues and tones that every painting is nothing short of colorful.
“The changing light of day and the moods it evokes are the foundation of all my oil paintings. Each piece usually starts with a powerful, simple composition, which then evolves into a theme where strong light and shadow and deep color are within the primary subject.” – Jan Schmuckal
Schmuckal plays with light and shadow masterfully, building dramatic contrasts that still maintain the object’s place in space. Darkness is not condemned as negative space, acting as a void in the landscape, for even in dark shadows she rarely resorts to dead black pigment (in fact, she writes on her website that she does not uses black paint). Those those puffy white clouds never show a stroke of pure white, and so the purity never quite whips us out of the image. Subtly is a difficult feat to manage when constructing high contrasts, but Schmuckal does it well!
Let’s talk trees. Now, I’ve seen many many drawing and paintings of trees in my life. I have attempted many of them myself. Of all the little bits that make up a landscape, I find it most the difficult to portray trees. How detailed can you be without stealing the scene? How vague can you be without dissolving the background vegetation to blobs of who-knows-what?
Schmuckal’s paintings are wonderful examples of how to paint trees. Consider:
1. Notice how the leaves on foreground trees are blots of varied tones on top of a darker tones. That contrast make the tree “bushier” by bringing the color forward in space and therefore pushing the darker layers backwards (see Figure 4). Schmuckal paints swaths of color that represent layers in space, more or less.
2. She does not overdo the detail. Notice there are no individual leaves! Some branches stick out, silhouetted in the sky. However, she does not include every single little stick and twig. The detail is balanced with the amount of detail you might find in other parts of the painting AND with the amount of detail you see in nature (see Figure 5). Too much detail will single that tree out, pushing it out of the reality of its painted landscape, and too little detail will rob the tree of its character. It’s a fine line, my friends. A fine line.
3. Schmuckal does not fixate on the tree alone; she constructs it with the landscape. Look at the interplay of branches and sky (see Figure 6). Brushstrokes of sky are often quite physically on top of the strokes for the branches and trunks; the sky appears to be molding or enveloping the tree. All in all, such a technique does not distort your perspective of the scene as a whole, and it successfully engages the sky. These brushstrokes tie the tree to its surroundings and attempts to make that big space in the background a bit more present in our awareness.
The last thing I’d like to mention about these trees are how very VERTICAL they are. Many of the long trunks are accentuated with bright or lightened color, and they act like distinct lines drawing our eyes to an edge. These trees are upright citizens of the landscape! In some instances, the trees almost act as curtains or stakes or figures lining the path forward. They are pillars who are engaged with and hold up the sky.
Speaking of the sky… Schmuckal creates an interesting interplay of cloud and sky, of distinct and blended brushstrokes. Sometimes the clouds appear quite distinct from the flattened sky (see Figure 7). The clouds, in such cases, pop out, appearing more like objects in the landscape. However, the color of the flattened sky plays its part, too: a big blank block of color? That stands out, too.
The result? NOT a throw-away sky. It is an engaging space.
Sometimes Schmuckal builds clouds and/or the sky as she does other areas of the landscape, using similar strokes and layering (see Figure 8). These areas are most successful when slightly separate from the more detailed elements of the landscape, however. The sky and clouds tend to flatten out (have less varied tonal brushstrokes) when meeting trees, for example.
The result? The sky is formally linked to the rest of the painting, but it appears behind the other landscape objects.
Many of Schmuckal’s paintings feature a similar compositional element: a way forward. There is a path or a stream in quite a few, suggesting movement, a sense of traveling. Indeed, there are usually objects (trees, most of the time) that stand in the foreground or middle ground, but she always leaves space to circumvent those obstacles. Schmuckal paints the foreground earth and then reaches out into the distance, revealing mountains or trees on the horizon.
But it isn’t just that. Schmuckal paints those distant features in a way that draws the eye without compensating its distance in space. She uses color, contrast, and “line” to direct your eyes to those distant points (see Figure 3), and thus, those areas become distinct in our consciousness, an integral part of the painting despite their small size.
And your eyes keep returning to that point. It reminds me of when I first started driving, and I had to learn to look beyond the hood of the car and not to fixate on the oncoming traffic. The car will follow your eyes, so you always place your vision on where you want to go. And in Schmuckal’s painting, I find myself looking to the distance, following the ready path forward.
I shall leave you with a quote I found on Jan Schmuckal’s website:
“The Tonalist catches the laughter of shimmering light, and transmutes it into pictorial joy; he speaks admirably the old mother-tongue of cloud, tree, pool, and stone; he interprets the spring; he is summer’s scribe, page to the majesty of autumn, and priest to the whole round year. With a simple palette, and as if by magic, he expresses breadth, teasing transparency, mysterious distances, the illusion of luminosity—in a word, the drama of air, light, and colour.” -Henry Ward Ranger, 1914
*Note: all of the artist’s quotes were taken from her website!