A Closer Look at Arthur Wesley Dow’s Cosmic Cities

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Let’s take a closer look at Arthur Wesley Dow’s Cosmic Cities. (What a name, hey!) Dow was an American artist and teacher, though it seems he is more known for his teaching. One of his students was Jane Peterson, who I wrote about last month. He also taught Georgia O’Keeffe. But enough about his students. This is one of those paintings that immediately caught my attention. It’s an interesting take on the Grand Canyon in an interesting style. It reminds me of Edgar Payne’s and Erin Hanson’s work.

Arthur Wesley Dow, Cosmic Cities, 1912
Arthur Wesley Dow, Cosmic Cities, 1912

Title: Cosmic Cities

Date Created: 1912

Size: 60 x 78 inches (152.4 x 198.1 cm)

Medium: Oil on Canvas

Painting the Landscape (Free Workshop)

I’ll walk you through the entire process using one of my recent paintings. You’ll see how I go from idea all the way through to reflecting on the finished painting.

A Note on Photos

I haven’t had the privilege of seeing this painting in person. I must rely on photos. While doing my research, I came across several distinctly different photos of the painting. They varied dramatically in lightness, color saturation, and contrast. Some show the painting in a more favorable light than others. Look at the collage below to see what I mean.

This raises an issue. Which photo best represents the original? I typically judge a photo by the credibility and reliability of its source. Museums tend to be the most credible and reliable. Personal photos and small publications, not so much. I am also wary of photos that are at the extremes—too warm, cool, light, dark, colorful, or dull.

Wesley Dow Collage - 1

I’m noting this for three reasons:

  1. Take care when photographing your work. Make it as faithful to the original as possible. The photo is often all people have to go by, so it’s important to get it right.
  2. Be wary of what you see on the internet. Some sources are more reliable than others.
  3. Photos are no substitute for seeing these great paintings in person.

Dancing Elements

The painting features a beautiful dance between the different colors, shapes, and patterns. The Grand Canyon is really the perfect vehicle to showcase these elements, with its unique combination of terrain, contours, light, space, and atmosphere. The way light hits the Canyon creates these jagged light and dark shapes and patterns. The atmosphere baths everything in a cool light, which gets stronger in the distance. The terrain varies in color and texture. And then there’s the sheer scale of it all. All this makes for a fascinating subject with many faces and angles to convey. I often say that any subject can be interesting if you pay close enough attention. But I doubt you need to try that hard with the Canyon. Some subjects are just asking to be painted. (I haven’t been there myself, but my brother tells me it’s an unbelievable sight and that photos do not do the sheer scale of it justice.)

Color Temperature

There’s an interesting play between warm and cool colors. In the foreground, the shadows are quite warm. Those dark oranges that convey earth and rock are the warmest colors, even warmer than the colors in light.

But in the middle ground and background, there’s a clearer theme of warm lights against cool shadows. The lights take on a pale orange appearance, while blue dominates the shadows due to atmospheric perspective and the soft illumination of the blue sky. It’s such a beautiful combination—pale oranges against a sea of blues. They appear to shimmer. It would be quite a sight in person, especially given the size of this painting (60 x 78 inches). I remember experimenting with this color combination in one of my early impressionist paintings: Devil’s Kitchen. There may be no beautiful or ugly colors in isolation, but there certainly can be beautiful color combinations and relationships.

Dan Scott, Devil's Kitchen, c.2014
Dan Scott, Devil’s Kitchen, c.2014

An important observation about Dow’s painting is that there are really two light sources at play: direct sunlight and ambient light from the blue sky. Direct sunlight is what defines the major light and dark shapes. The ambient blue light plays more of a secondary role. It gives areas that are exposed to the sky but shielded from direct sunlight a soft, blue glow. These areas will appear as shadows, but only in relation to areas hit by direct sunlight. Most people assume there’s only one light source in landscape painting. But it’s often more complicated than that.

This is conveyed through the different planes of the Canyon. The more horizontal or flatter planes are cooler than the more vertical planes. That’s because the flatter planes are being hit with more of the soft blue light from the sky.

The cast shadows play an important role. Refer to the close-up below. The cast shadows are those dark and flat blue shapes. Notice how they span across different areas of the subject and link them together. This is a subtle but effective way to create cohesion throughout a painting.

Arthur Wesley Dow, Cosmic Cities, 1912, Warm, Cool
Arthur Wesley Dow, Cosmic Cities, 1912, Cast Shadows

Immersive Composition

Dow was inspired to visit the Canyon after seeing Thomas Moran’s interpretation of the Grand Canyon (shown below). Moran emphasized the depth and openness of the landscape, whereas Dow took a more immersive approach.

Thomas Moran, The Grand Canyon of Arizona at Sunset, 1909
Thomas Moran, The Grand Canyon of Arizona at Sunset, 1909

In Cosmic Cities, there’s no good footing and the sky is cropped out as we look slightly downwards into the mountainous landscape. There’s no dominant focal point. The painting as a whole is in focus, with a bit more attention given to the foreground and middle ground. The lack of sky limits the sense of depth and space, yet it still appears grand. The lack of footing and a focal point gives it a disorienting and dizzying feel. Patricia Junker at the Seattle Art Museum describes it well:

“He said the immersive experience of the Grand Canyon made him think differently about the structures of pictures—he loved that disorienting quality, the feeling that we have no footing, that we might tumble into the scene. He also said he saw nature’s innate architecture. In Cosmic Cities, this strange architecture looks like it could have come from some ancient builders, but it is the product of nature itself.”

Junker, P. (26 April 2017). Seeing Nature through The Eyes of Curators: The Grand Canyon. Seattle Art Museum.

A good lesson here is that your composition choices can dramatically influence how the subject is perceived. In both Moran’s and Dow’s paintings, the subject is the same, but the way it’s conveyed and the characteristics that are highlighted vary significantly.

Atmospheric Perspective

Despite the limited depth, there’s still a strong sense of atmospheric perspective. Notice how the colors gradually get cooler and weaker.

There are several areas where the colors jump (they get noticeably cooler and weaker). These jumps in color reflect jumps in space. The more significant the jump in color, the more significant the jump in space. This is most evident as you go from the foreground to the middle ground. This tells us there’s a whole lot of land below that we cannot see.

Arthur Wesley Dow, Cosmic Cities, 1912, Atmospheric Steps

Light and Shadow (Value)

Here’s a grayscale of the painting so we can clearly see all the different values:

Arthur Wesley Dow, Cosmic Cities, 1912 grayscale

This reveals a few things:

  • It’s a fairly dark painting, with most of the colors around the low to middle range of the value scale;
  • Dow simplified the painting in terms of value. I can spot four dominant values: dark gray, medium-dark gray, medium-light gray, and light gray.
  • The foreground has the most contrast, with the darkest darks and lightest lights. The middle ground and background have a more compressed value range. This reiterates the sense of atmospheric perspective.

The grayscale also shows just how much work color is doing. The painting is rather bland without it. The painting also has a fairly weak value structure. The light and dark shapes are scattered all over the place. You can see what I mean in the two-value notan I created below using Photoshop.

Arthur Wesley Dow, Cosmic Cities, 1912, Notan

Close-Ups

Here are some close-ups of the painting to give you a clearer look at the brushwork and detail. Notice the blocky strokes and distinct colors woven together in a patchwork. There’s hardly any blending.

Arthur Wesley Dow, Cosmic Cities, 1912 close up 4
Arthur Wesley Dow, Cosmic Cities, 1912 close up2
Arthur Wesley Dow, Cosmic Cities, 1912 close up3
Arthur Wesley Dow, Cosmic Cities, 1912 closeup

Similar Paintings

Arthur Wesley Dow, The Destroyer, c.1911
Arthur Wesley Dow, The Destroyer, c.1911
Arthur Wesley Dow, The Glory of Shiva, Shiva Temple, Grand Canyon, 1912
Arthur Wesley Dow, The Glory of Shiva, Shiva Temple, Grand Canyon, 1912

Key Takeaways

  • A painting’s name can be a key feature if you choose. Cosmic Cities—what a name!
  • Photos are no substitute for seeing great paintings in person.
  • There may be no beautiful or ugly colors in isolation, but there certainly can be beautiful color combinations and relationships, like orange against blue.
  • Most people assume there’s only one light source in landscape painting. But it’s often more complicated than that. In Dow’s painting, there’s direct sunlight and ambient light from the blue sky.
  • Your composition decisions can define how the subject is conveyed. In this case, the lack of sky and footing gives it an immersive and disorientating feel.
  • You don’t always need a dominant focal point. The painting as a whole could be in focus.
  • Jumps in color can be used to suggest jumps in space.
  • Don’t try to paint every change in value (lightness). Simplify!

Feel free to share your thoughts about the painting in the comment section below. If you want to learn more, you should check out my Painting Academy course. I’ll walk you through the time-tested fundamentals of painting. It’s perfect for absolute beginner to intermediate painters.

Happy painting!

Dan Scott

Signature Draw Paint Academy

Draw Paint Academy

Dan Scott is the founder of Draw Paint Academy. He's a self-taught artist from Australia with a particular interest in landscape painting. Draw Paint Academy is run by Dan and his wife, Chontele, with the aim of helping you get the most out of the art life. You can read more on the About page.


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19 comments on “A Closer Look at Arthur Wesley Dow’s Cosmic Cities”

  1. I really enjoyed your take on this painting. Seeing your analysis of the color changes and brushstrokes is very helpful as a way to improve my own paintings. Thank you!

    Reply
    • I agree. A very helpful analysis that will be helpful in a painting I’m working on now. Totally different subject of course!

      Reply
  2. Thank you, Dan. I love your detailed analysis of artworks and look forward to them. This one on the Grand Canyon was full of interesting insights. I really appreciate your close attention to the work and the mechanics of light, colour and line.

    Reply
  3. Please note that different computer screens will show different color values as well. Thanks for highlighting this artist. Magnificent work!

    Reply
  4. I live near the Grand Canyon, and love you insights to these reddish purplish desert rocks. The canyon is immense, and attempting to paint it makes it hard to pick a subject. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. It doesn’t always need a sky.

    Reply
  5. The first of the four images feels right to me. If there is enough warm light to make all those blue shadows, then the first ought to be correct. If the sun was far down enough for no sunlight to be obvious on the left side and top of the mountains (for lack of a better word at this moment), I think the artist would have seen the shadows as charcoal or black. It definitely isn’t at midday. I’ve photographed the Grand Canyon several times, including Shiva Temple (is that what it’s called?), which depicts it in the light of late afternoon or early evening. It matches almost identically to one of my photos. Thanks, Dan, for sharing this marvelous artist with all of us.

    Reply
  6. I was not familiar with this piece: what an amazing presence it must have in-person! Thank you for your analysis; it was great to see the details of how AWD achieved those fabulous color relationships. I completely agree that most paintings are way better in person than in photos or prints. Maxwell Parish’s landscapes are another case in point. Keep bringing us new artists to admire!

    Reply
  7. i have noticed how photos of my watercolors never look exactly right, exaggerated. well, iphones don’t just “take pictures”, they process the image and “improve” it. when i use my nikon camera i don’t have the issues of too much contrast and such. i’ve yet to figure out how to reverse this iphone editing, altho apparently apple raw format might work, but this vastly increases storage requirements.

    Reply
  8. Thank you for your generosity in sharing your analysis and insights to the paintings you feature. Pointing out the “jump on in space” was so clear after you said it! I am learning so much as your articulate so well!

    Reply
  9. Thank you for introducing this fabulous painting and artist. There is nothing to compare with seeing paintings in person, but this was the next best thing. I love to examine brushwork, and color relationships, composition, etc., all the good stuff you did in this article. And the way you used your computer to turn it to grayscale, and look at light and dark, is genius. Wonderful teaching, information and analysis!

    Reply
  10. Dan, you guide me to really look and observe the scene! Thanks for holding my hand and showing me the way. 🙂

    Reply
  11. Thank you, Dan, for your really helpful training methods. You have the knack of showing us HOW to look and WHAT to look for. My knowledge is expanding under your guidance and I itch for more!

    Reply
  12. Thank you, Dan, for sharing your knowledge. I agree with all the comments above and will add your reminder “don’t try to paint every change in value (lightness) – simplify” was one I needed to hear today!

    Reply
  13. Hello Dan,
    This post was incredibly detailed yet well explained. Well done! I visited the Grand Canyon and left a little piece of my heart there. It is a natural wonder. I hope you can get there. I have been working on a painting and have tried many times to capture what I felt. So far… not able to. I think your analysis will help me better accomplish my intentions. Thank you for your dedication as an artist and a teacher! Would you ever consider doing a critique of my painting and help me improve it?

    Reply

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