Edgar Payne – Master of Landscape Composition and Color

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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).

(If you want to learn more about landscape painting, make sure to grab my free Landscape Painting Starter Kit). 

Key Facts About Edgar Payne

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 in 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.
Edgar Alwin Payne, Canyon de Chelly
Edgar Alwin Payne, Canyon de Chelly
  • 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 horse-back to paint. He even produced a documentary named "Sierra Journey", but this is more for tourists rather than artists.
Edgar Alwin Payne, Pack Train in the High Sierra, 1930s
Edgar Alwin Payne, Pack Train in the High Sierra, 1930s
  • He became so prolific that a lake was named after him.
Payne Lake, named after Edgar Payne
Edgar Payne, Payne Lake
Edgar Payne, Payne Lake
  • 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.
Edgar Payne and Elsie Payne
Edgar and Elsie Payne

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.

Edgar Alwin Payne, Blue Shadows
Edgar Alwin Payne, Blue Shadows

Below is another example of his use of shape to paint mountains. He often broke the mountains down into distinct light and dark shapes. Also, notice how his brush seems to follow the contour of the mountains. This helps reiterate the form.

Edgar Alwin Payne, Hills of Altadena, 1917–1919
Edgar Alwin Payne, Hills of Altadena, 1917–1919

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.

Edgar Alwin Payne, Sunset, Canyon De Chelly, 1916
Edgar Alwin Payne, Sunset, Canyon De Chelly, 1916

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).

Edgar Alwin Payne, The Shadow on the Slope
Edgar Alwin Payne, The Shadow on the Slope

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.

Edgar Alwin Payne, The Rugged Slopes and Larch
Edgar Alwin Payne, The Rugged Slopes and Larch

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.

Edgar Alwin Payne, Sycamore in Autumn, Orange County Park, c.1917
Edgar Alwin Payne, Sycamore in Autumn, Orange County Park, c.1917

He also painted many sailboats, in his signature style of solid color shapes.

Edgar Alwin Payne, Calm Sea
Edgar Alwin Payne, Calm Sea
Edgar Alwin Payne, Boat Sardines
Edgar Alwin Payne, Boat Sardines

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.

Edgar Alwin Payne, Eucalyptus
Edgar Alwin Payne, Eucalyptus

Edgar Payne Sketches

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 Sketch (1)
Edgar Payne Sketch

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.”

Learn More

You might also be interested in my Painting Academy course. It goes into much more detail on the fundamentals of art.

Thanks for Reading!

Feel free to share with friends. If you want more painting tips, check out my fundamentals course.

Happy painting!

Dan Scott

Draw Paint Academy

Read more of my articles. 

42 comments on “Edgar Payne – Master of Landscape Composition and Color”

  1. Loved this! Never heard of Payne before, but I love his style!
    That’s what I want to achieve!
    Thank you
    Sybille

    Reply
  2. Hi ,I loved reading this,Thank you so much .I am a lady of 76 years and love to try to paint ,I find it so relaxing. You have given me encouragement to keep going ,so thank you .By the way I live in Dorset in the UK, but often visit the mountains of Yosemite as my son and family are lucky enough to live nearby. Thanks again ,Sue Tresidder x

    Reply
  3. I enjoyed this whole article on Payne and your analysis of his particular works. I am looking forward to your future articles. Thank you for this Blog.

    Reply
  4. That was very exciting Dan, I do enjoy these articles on landscape painting.Would I be able to find a book on this artist. Thank you. Pat Findlay

    Reply
    • Happy to hear Pat! There is a book on composition by Payne mentioned in this post. It is called “Composition of Outdoor Painting”.

      Reply
  5. Hello.I am 61 and like to read about art all i can and take notes, and keep them so i can go back for reference. I love this man’s paintings, . I’ll do my best to study more about this man and try to copy and learn.
    Thank you for the study

    Reply
  6. I like your article about this artist, which work was very impressive for me. I like his style and will find more information about him and his work. Thanks so much to introduce him to all of us.

    Reply
  7. Never heard of this chap Payne, however your notes and illustrations are most instructive, altho 87 years young I still ‘ have a go’ now and then. Amazing one is always picking up tips and information, thank you for broadening my knowledge on art and artists in such an easy manner.

    Reply
  8. Dan, thanks a lot. I love theinformation you give us. It is so helpful for self taught people as many of us.
    I was also very happy to discover Edgar Payne. Very nice work. Thank you for all your wonderful help.

    Reply
      • Thank you for bringing edgar to my awareness… i am inspired by his being self taught and use of brilliant color…i learned some valuable points by reading your article and carefully observing the photos
        Thank you so much for what you offer
        Your articles are helping me grow as a budding artist at 70

        Reply
  9. Thank you Dan. I agree with you on his colorful paintings vs his more reserved colors. I want to stop painting just from photographs and do some outdoor live painting. I enjoy all your articles very interesting and very helpful

    Reply
  10. Thanks for covering briefly the work of a self taught painter. although we know we are all borrowers of technique, that is one way we learn as He aptly pointed out in his quotes. Very well done Dan, it inspired me to get out there and paint more, and to use larger brushes.

    Reply
  11. Dan, until now I’d never heard of Edgar Payne however, thanks to you, he’s now been added to my growing list of favourite artists. I love his impressionist style to which I aspire on my journey albeit late in life. Thank you!

    Reply
  12. Hi Dan,
    Just stumbled on this post whilst on Pinterest looking at Paynes paintings.
    Glad I did, this is a good post, thanks for sharing.
    Dave M (AUSTRALIA)😎😎

    Reply
  13. Thank you for this great article–I love Edgar Payne. Do you know what colors he used in his palette? I have tried to copy one of his sailboat paintings but I cannot mix the vibrant turquoise. Do you know what he used?

    Reply
  14. Thanks- enjoyed the comparisons of his work. Love any painting of the west but I agree the yellow Sycamore tree is my favorite . amazing light

    Reply
  15. I love Edgar Payne’s painting! His style , colors and the use of the large brush work ! Truly the style I want to lean towards. Thank You Dan for all the informative Art works!

    Reply

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