A Closer Look At The Hay Wain by John Constable

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"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.

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

John Constable, The Hay Wain, 1821
John Constable, The Hay Wain, 1821

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.

Full-Scale Study

"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.

John Constable, Study for The Hay Wain c.1820
John Constable, Study for The Hay Wain c.1820

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).

John Constable, The Hay Wain, 1821 (Grayscale)

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.

Composition

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.

John Constable, The Hay Wain, 1821 (L-Shape)

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).

John Constable, The Hay Wain, 1821 (Grid)

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).

John Constable, The Hay Wain, 1821 (Line Variance)

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.

John Constable, The Hay Wain, 1821 (Negative Space)

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.

John Constable, The Hay Wain, 1821 Close-Up 3

(You might be interested in my Painting Academy course. I go into more detail on compositions and how to use to effectively in painting.)

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.

John Constable, The Hay Wain, 1821 Close-Up 2

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.

John Constable, The Hay Wain, 1821 Close-Up 4

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.

John Constable, The Hay Wain, 1821 Close-Up 5

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

John Constable, The Hay Wain, 1821 Close-Up 6

Key Takeaways

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."

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

Sources and Additional Readings

Thanks for Reading!

Thanks for taking the time to read this post. I appreciate it! Feel free to share with friends. If you want more painting tips, check out my Painting Academy course.

Happy painting!

Signature Draw Paint Academy

Dan Scott

Draw Paint Academy

42 comments on “A Closer Look At The Hay Wain by John Constable”

  1. As always a lot of learning. The painting i started yesterday was exciting but daunting. With this blog, I simply ran lines and got 9 squares to begin with, then for overall correct look on another image drew the ‘shapes’. Now am more confident of the possible outcome. Also the links at the end was so generous of you to share! Enjoyed them too.

    Reply
  2. Delightful insight into one of Constable’s favourite paintings.
    You help students to learn from the masters.
    Thank you

    Reply
  3. Dan,
    What an excellent article! I love that many references were used in explanation, especially those of your own work. I know I will need to come back to this article many times to absorb all that you have included.Thank you.

    Reply
  4. I really enjoyed this email. I read it completely and learned some very valuable things. Being a beginner watercolor painter it was really nice to see how pros apply paint and their own “self” to there work. Thank you.

    Reply
  5. Everything in the painting is accurate, proportion, shadow etc. Great work!
    But it is dull, not vibrant like Van Gogh and some others

    Reply
  6. Thank you for featuring this particular painting and artist! Both have been favorites for years! I had the joy of taking a tour through Hampstead where he lived and painted for many years. A local museum had a showing of his small works and sketches. I learned that he always made detailed notes of atmospheric conditions to help him when back in studio. Hence the original title does not surprise!
    So appreciate how you draw attention to details and explain techniques!
    Best Regards, Kelly

    Reply
  7. Thank you for featuring this particular painting and artist! Both have been favorites for years! I had the joy of taking a tour through Hampstead where he lived and painted for many years. A local museum had a showing of his small works and sketches. I learned that he always made detailed notes of atmospheric conditions to help him when back in studio. Hence the original title does not surprise!
    So appreciate how you draw attention to details and explain techniques!
    Best Regards, Kelly

    Reply
  8. Thank you so much for this very insightful breakdown of this beautiful landscape painting. Understanding how and why an artist uses the techniques helps in my quest to become a better painter.

    Reply
  9. Thankyou for analyzing this beautiful painting. Makes me understand and appreciate the art . Great points to remember to create a good painting. Very helpful.

    Reply
  10. Thank you so much for analyzing this painting which I have always loved. Your insights are always valuable to me. And inspiring me to not only be a better painter but a better observer of other works.

    Reply
  11. Your analysis was very insightful and also useful to me as I teach a U3A Art Appreciation class and we try to bring out these aspects of technique and composition in our discussions . Many Thanks.

    Marlene Griffin NSW Australia

    Reply
  12. Also another THANK YOU DAN from a beginner. I am saving all your emails in hopes that I can get my printer working again so that I can read them at me bedside. Jan (77 years, PPS challenged ) 🙂

    Reply
  13. Dan,
    Thanks for the post about Constable’s The Hay Wain. As one who has worked in the hayfields, I can tell you this painting captures the steady heat of a late summer harvest day and the feeling of relief while standing in shady cool water after forking hay for hours, sweat rolling down your itching back while the unrelenting sun slow burned the back of your neck. I can hear the flies buzzing! I loved learning about his techniques…not all of this applies to watercolor but I still always take away so much that is helpful.

    Reply
  14. Thank you for not only this lesson but all the others you have sent out. You have given me several tips that have helped with my painting

    Reply
  15. I so greatly appreciate seeing how a piece of art is critiqued. This method will help me to define what is good or bad in my own work

    Reply
  16. One of my favourite paintings. This article is a keeper to help me with my work. Your analysis of this painting helped me understand the thought and preparation that goes into making a masterwork. One can only dream of painting at this level. Alas!!!

    Reply
  17. Thank you for this analysis. So many excellent points in one article. It also has given me insight as to how I can review my own work rather than just “standing back”.

    Reply
  18. I so enjoyed your critique of this famous piece of art, you covered so well. Thank you, I would not have picked up on the details you brought up. Keep up the good work.

    Reply
  19. Hi Dan, I am a total beginner to painting and to oil. Your article and analysis just comes at the right time. I breathed in every word in your ‚breakdown’ of every aspect of Constables awesome painting.
    I sprint away now and try to apply what I have learned from your marvellous article. Many thanks!

    Reply
  20. Thank you for letting me know how to do a much better job with my painting. I am now 99 years old and am lucky to still have good eyesight. I painted all my Christmas cards this year, every one with a different picture. You gave me inspiration. With thanks and good wishes to you,
    Susanne

    Reply
  21. So glad I found this site – the information on Constable here is exactly the kind of analysis I’ve been looking for to help me improve my painting. Thank you!!!

    Reply
  22. The Painting by respectable painter Mr Constable looked very much real, crafted from scene at “River Stour in London” then the analytical part of soft and hard edges of painting,
    a live lesson teaching this all made out of short video can give an insight to all of us new painters.

    I am just three months with this, at 17-18 I was painting on canvas, now at 65 age I am triggered to draw & Paint Landscapes, Animals, Rocky Sea shores giving my 6-8 hrs into this just 11 nos of canvas paintings done max size 24″*18″, with an insatiable hunger and die hard passion to paint, don’t like to waste any moment without Painting on such a day I pick up lessons from great painters and learn.

    Also I am interested to sell my Artwork which I target to do monthly 7-8 nos of Painting, about 100 nos possibly by year end targeted that’s for sure.

    Reply

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