When I think of landscape painting, one of the first artists who comes to mind is Edgar Payne. He was one of America’s most prominent landscape painters who had a remarkable eye for composition and color (he literally wrote what many consider to be the book on landscape composition). In this post, I will cover:
(Before diving into this post, make sure to pick up a copy of my free Landscape Painting Starter Kit.)
Here are some of the key facts about the life of Edgar Payne:
- He was born on 1 March 1883 in Missouri.
- He was largely a self-taught artist. He did enroll for a short period at the Art Institute of Chicago to study portrait painting but dropped out after just two weeks as he found it too structured.
- He got his first major commission in 1917 from Santa Fe Railroad as part of an advertising campaign to attract tourism. This required Payne to explore and paint areas in the Southwest, including the Grand Canyon, Canyon de Chelly and Northern New Mexico. The commission helped establish Payne’s reputation as an artist and paved the way for the rest of his prolific career.
- Some of his most famous works feature the Sierra mountains, which were a constant source of inspiration for him. He would often venture to the upper lakes of the Sierra Nevada on horseback to paint. He even produced a documentary named “Sierra Journey”, but this is more for tourists rather than artists.
- He became so prolific that a lake was named after him.
- After the Santa Fe Railroad commission finished, he received a commission from the Congress Hotel in Chicago for an 11,000-square-foot mural.
- In 1941 he wrote Composition of Outdoor Painting, a comprehensive guide to landscape composition. This book is still considered by many artists to be the book on landscape composition. It contains many composition theories and layouts which are fundamental in landscape painting today.
- He was married to Elsie Palmer Payne, who was a successful artist in her own right. It is safe to say her work was shadowed by the prolific career of Edgar. The couple separated in 1932, but she returned to him in his later years when he was battling cancer. He passed in 1947.
Style and Technique Breakdown
Payne painted with a distinct, impressionist style. He probably owes part of his distinct style to his decision to go the self-taught route rather than the rigid, academic route.
Many of his paintings feature a strong use of shape. He was extremely good at breaking complex subjects down into really basic color shapes. This is particularly evident in his paintings of mountains, like the one below. He used large brushes to paint distinct shapes of light and dark blue. This is very efficient brushwork. The end result is a very blocky style which seems to work well for the rigid mountains.
Payne’s adventurous use of color is another signature aspect of his work. He pushed his colors to create the illusion of light, often painting with rich oranges, blues, and purples, like in the painting below. It is difficult to paint with this much color as it can end up looking garish if you overdo it.
He often painted strong contrasts between light and dark, or saturated and dull. In the painting below, the dark foreground contrasts against the high-key colors in the background. Also, notice how he used light orange for the snow (not pure titanium white).
Sometimes, Payne painted with a more reserved color palette, like in the painting below which features mostly grays and other weak colors. I personally prefer his more vibrant paintings.
Payne did not only paint mountains and vast landscapes. The painting below features a close up of two beautiful yellow-leaved trees and a glimpse through to the light background. This is one of my favorite paintings by Payne and a perfect example of how to paint the illusion of light.
He also painted many sailboats in his signature style of solid color shapes.
The painting below demonstrates a beautiful depth as it transitions from rich and relatively dark colors in the foreground to weak and tinted colors in the background. Payne also seems to have used warmer colors in the foreground.
I always enjoy looking at sketches and studies done by master artists. It gives you a behind-the-scenes look at how they worked. Here are some sketches by Payne:
Edgar Payne Quotes
“Art comes into being in that abstract interval between a thought and reality, and no one – not even the artist who created it – can remeasure the influences that caused it.”
“The study of art is a lifetime matter. The best any artist can do is to accumulate all the knowledge possible of art and its principles, study nature often and then practice continually.”
“To be original one needs to learn the ideas of other painters in order to be different from them.”
“Learning the art of painting is not an easy task. It takes a great deal of intelligence, keen analysis, study and practice.”
“The average artist, if he chooses, could render an exact drawing of what he sees. Artistic work not only allows but demands some deviation from form and line. Just how far this may go depends on the viewpoint of each painter.”
Thanks for Reading!
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