"Painting is but another word for feeling." John Constable
In this post, I take a closer look at a moody English landscape painting named The Hay Wain by John Constable.
Key Facts and Ideas
Here are some of the key facts and ideas about the painting:
- It was originally titled Landscape: Noon, but was later renamed to The Hay Wain.
- It depicts a scene along the River Stour in England, which runs between Suffolk and Essex. Three horses pull a wooden wain (cart) through the shallow water. On the left-hand side is Willy Lott's Cottage, named after the farmer who lived there for his whole life. It is thought that he only ever spent four nights away from the cottage. The neighboring property, Flatford Mill, was owned by Constable's father.
- It was the third painting in a series of "six-footers" depicting various scenes along the River Stour. The exact dimensions are 51.2 by 72.8 inches.
"I am most anxious to get into my London painting-room, for I do not consider myself at work unless I am before a six-foot canvas." Letter from Constable to Rev. John Fisher dated 23 October 1821
- The painting was first exhibited at the London Royal Academy in 1821, but failed to find a buyer. It had more success at the 1824 Paris Salon, where it was awarded a gold medal by Charles X of France. The painting also found a buyer at this exhibition.
- In 2005, it was voted as the second greatest painting in Britain in a poll conducted by BBC Radio 4 Today (in association with the National Gallery in London). It was runner up to The Fighting Temeraire by Joseph Turner, which I wrote about here.
- It currently hangs in The National Gallery in London.
"When I sit down to make a sketch from nature, the first thing I try to do is to forget that I have ever seen a picture." John Constable
Constable would often create full-scale studies (or sketches as he referred to them) in preparation for his larger works. Below is his study for The Hay Wain. It is rough and unrefined, but you get a feel for the overall composition and color harmony. It is also quite charming in its own right.
Color and Light
"The sky is the source of light in nature - and governs everything." John Constable
The overcast sky is the only light source in the painting. The light is scattered and mostly diffused by the clouds, with patches of direct sunlight hitting the grass in the distance.
Overall, the painting is fairly dark, especially compared to the high-key Impressionist works I often write about. Below is the painting in grayscale. You can almost break the painting into two distinct value groups representing the land and sky. Notice how the values within these two areas are tightly compressed—this is an effective way of simplifying the composition (more on composition in the next section).
Light hitting the side of the cottage suggests the sun is positioned high on the right-hand side of the painting. This is reiterated by the increased sense of clarity and lightness in the sky on that side.
Tip: If you are ever unsure about the position of the main light source in a scene, look for objects with sharp changes in plane (like architecture). The lightest plane will suggest the general direction of the light.
The colors are mostly restrained and muted, with the most saturated color being the small bursts of red used around the horses. This red is far from the vivid cadmium red you get from a tube, but it is saturated enough to draw your attention towards this area. Remember, if you want to draw attention towards a certain area, you only need to make it stand out compared to its surroundings.
The patches of direct sunlight hitting the land in the background are useful for creating a sense of depth in the painting. Your eyes are drawn through the dark foreground towards this light area.
The composition follows a general L-shape design, formed by the distinct land and sky (outlined below). The design is even more apparent in the grayscale shown earlier in this post.
Below is the painting with a three-by-three grid over the top. The horizon line is positioned just above the bottom third of the painting, allowing more room for the sky on the right-hand side. Also, notice how the patches of light hitting the land in the distance help reiterate the horizon line.
Tip: For landscape painting, it is usually a good idea to give preference to either the sky or the land depending on what your big idea is. Placing the horizon line directly in the middle can appear overly symmetrical, unless that is what you are going for (like I was in this painting).
The painting features an interesting contrast between organic shapes representing nature (outlined in white below) and rigid shapes representing the cottage and cart (outlined in orange).
The negative space (outlined below) plays an important role in creating a sense of depth in the landscape. These small but important areas help pull you through the painting towards the background. They also give form and context to the surrounding trees.
Tip: In painting, there are often two ways to achieve the same result, especially when you are dealing with positive and negative space. Say you are painting a tree in the landscape, much like the trees in this painting. One approach would be to paint the blue sky then paint the tree over the top (the default approach for most artists). The other approach would be to roughly paint the tree first, then use the sky (the negative space) to carve away and refine the tree.
Here is a close-up showing the negative space through the trees. The level of detail in this relatively small portion should give you an idea of just how large this painting is.
Brushwork and Technique
On first glance, the painting appears highly refined and realistic. But if you look closely, you will notice that Constable used rather rough and painterly brushwork. The large scale of the painting makes it appear more finely rendered than it actually is. When painting on such a large scale, you are able to fit in much more detail without having to paint intricately.
Constable used a diverse range of techniques and strokes, including blending, thick scumbled color, and intricate linework.
Below are some close-ups of the painting, starting with one showing the patches of light in the distance. Notice the small dabs of white to suggest farmers in the distance. You can also see the yellow highlights scumbled over the top of the green foundation.
For the trees and leaves, Constable appears to have painted a dark foundation, the scumbled relatively light green and yellow tones over the top. The end result is a dynamic surface of color and texture, mimicking what you would see in nature. The use of thin paint for the darks and thick paint for the lights is also a common theme throughout the whole painting.
The tree trunks and branches were painted with soft edges and what appears to be a smooth texture. This helps them recede amongst the dense leaves. Also, notice the linework used for the smaller tree branches.
Tip: Instead of trying to paint every leaf and branch on a tree, try to simplify all the detail down into basic shapes and lines. Narrow down on the few details which convey most of the information about the subject.
In relation to the sky, pay particular attention to Constable's edge work. Most of the edges are soft, apart from a few clever hard edges used for highlights. Again, thick paint is used for the highlights and thin paint is used for the darks.
Tip: A common problem in beginner paintings is the overuse of hard edges for the sky. Remember, clouds are fleeting and transient—your brushwork and edges need to reflect that.
Here is a close-up of the cart, along with the horses and men. Notice the white highlights scumbled over the top—a technique Constable used in many of his paintings to depict light glimmering across the landscape. Many critics at the time saw this as a clumsy and brash technique. Here is an extract from The Gentleman’s Magazine May 1831 edition in reference to another of Constable's paintings:
"The View of Salisbury Cathedral…appears to have been taken immediately after a snow storm…The numerous patches of dead white, intended for the lights of the picture, or perhaps for drops of rain after a shower, have all the chilling coldness of a winter’s morn." From the The Gentleman’s Magazine in May 1831 via Tate Gallery
Here are some of the key takeaways from this painting:
- If you want to make a statement with your art, consider painting on a larger scale. Constable's series of "six-footers" helped him stand out from the crowd of remarkable artists and paved the way for the rest of his career.
- I often suggest you do small studies in preparation for more serious works. But, if resources are not an issue, consider doing full-scale studies as Constable did.
- When painting on a large scale, you can fit in more detail without having to use intricate brushwork.
- It is usually a good idea to compress the number of values you paint with, rather than trying to paint every value you see. In this painting, the foreground is compressed around the dark value range and the sky is compressed around the middle value range.
- You could use thick texture for the lights and thin texture for the darks to create a sophisticated level of contrast, like Constable did in this painting.
I will wrap this up with one more insightful quote by Constable:
"The landscape painter must walk in the fields with a humble mind. No arrogant man was ever permitted to see Nature in all her beauty."
Sources and Additional Readings
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