Art Non-fiction Review of new book

The visual language of painting – Landscape Painting by Mitchell Albala

Update, Jan. 7, 2017

Corrected spelling of “[en] plein air”, French pronunciation: [ɑ̃ plɛn ɛːʁ], which is from the French equivalent meaning “open (in full) air”. Thanks to auto-correct in Word, I had it as “plain air”. Blush.

Update, 29 May 2014

Mitchell Albala, the book’s author, commented on this post:

“Dear Marthe, Wow! I get emails from happy readers quite often, but they don’t write such complementary blog posts! Thank you very much for all the kind words. It’s nice to be appreciated on both the artistic and literary levels! What serendipity that you discovered my book in the bookstore, and didn’t hear about it elsewhere first. It’s such a fabulous review that I’m going to link to your review from both my regular portfolio website and my blog site.”

As always, it’s a thrill to hear from an author, but let me be the first to admit that it’s easy to write a positive review if a book is good. It is difficult to write a negative review of a book that is badly written, especially when you’re trying to be polite and at the same time trying to figure out why you didn’t like it. Hardest of all is lying in a review. Lying takes concerted effort and consistency.

Albala’s book, like his paintings, is really good. So writing this review was a pleasure – and simply the plain truth.

Landscape Painting, by Mitchell Albala
Landscape Painting, by Mitchell Albala

Landscape Painting – Essential concepts and techniques for Plein Air and Studio Practice, by Mitchell Albala

(Watson-Guptill Publications, New York, 2009)

I do not like self-help or how-to manuals. I’ve bought a few over the years, diet books, home decor, how to survive break-ups and get a flat stomach. But I read none of them and left all of them on a forgotten shelf in my bookcase. Why? Because they were not well written. The subject matter was more important than the writing style. And the fact that it was a printed book made the transfer of practical skills almost impossible. How do you adequately demonstrate – say – decoupage on a piece of furniture, with only 1 paragraph and a photo?  It’s like writing a cookbook without food photos. Mitchell Albala’s guide on landscape painting techniques broke my embargo on how-to books. It is different, it is useful, and I read every word.

I also read most of it out loud to other people, and I actually tried to do what he said, and it worked. He is able to effectively communicate the essential concepts and techniques, as the book title indicates, because he is not only a very good painter, but also a very good writer. He has mastered the art (pardon the pun), of writing about artistic expression through painting. In this book, painting and writing about painting have been combined perfectly.  This is important, because until you  can understand what a teacher means, you cannot try doing what they have said. There has to be a mental connection and comprehension, particularly since painting starts with understanding of the basic principles and techniques.

Expert use of the language of painting

Like authors have their genres, Albala’s genre is writing about plein air (open air) landscape painting. He has done this using a well-designed series of chapters, each consisting of a discussion of the subject, a tip, a text pull-out answering frequently asked questions, photos of steps demonstrating how to, paintings as examples by other artists as well as himself, and  – very importantly – analyses and critiques of those paintings.

When dealing with the application of abstract concepts, a poor writer can make them all sound like gobbledygook and fail to make the point. Albala makes the point thoroughly and analyzes it from different angles.

Take this painting, by Kathleen Dunphy, illustrating the principle of limited focus through selection.

Kathleen Dunphy, Winter Light, 2007, oil on linen, 24” X 24”, from Landscape Painting, p. 88
Kathleen Dunphy, Winter Light, 2007, oil on linen, 24” X 24”, from Landscape Painting, p. 88
 His analysis is: “A composition is determined in large part by how much or how little of the scene the painter chooses to include. In Winter Light, Dunphy uses a limited focus that both simplifies the composition and suggests an intimate view within the snowy woods. Consider the large amount of trees and snow that are not shown (outside the picture window); yes, there is still a strong suggestion of space. In painting, the suggestion of depth isn’t necessarily created with expansive subject matter but with the appropriate spatial cues. Although the space suggested in Winter Light is not very deep, it is divided into a distinct foreground, middle ground, and background. The vertical trees serve as a counterpoint to the gentle diagonals that lead us through the space: Our eye is led from the lower right to the left and then back to the right along the base of the background trees.” 

Years of experience that shows

Albala also illustrates his key points with quotations from famous artists and writers; such as Vincent van Gogh on the subject of site selection: “I devour nature ceaselessly. I exaggerate, sometimes I make changes in the subject; but still I don’t invent the whole picture. On the contrary, I find it already there. It’s a question of picking out what one wants from nature.” (p. 69)

I saw these quotes as an unexpected, but cheering, connection between the observations of masters of art and literature, and the thoughts and concerns of learner painters. Albala could only have done this because of his many years of experience in teaching people how to paint. He must have looked into the minds of countless numbers of students, to be able to put a finger so precisely on what they have problems with.

“At a recent workshop, several students pointed to a cottonwood tree that was gently swaying in the breeze. ‘How are we going to paint all those leaves?’ they asked. ‘Don’t paint the leaves,’ I answered. ‘Paint the large shapes of light and dark that leaves create.’” (p. 67) (In fact that is very similar to what the famous Canadian painter from The Group of Seven, Emily Carr, said about painting trees, in a passage from her 1934 journal: “What do these forests make you feel? Their weight and density, their crowded orderliness. There is scarcely room for another tree and yet there is space around each.”)

That answered a question that had been driving me insane for months. I had thought I’d never be able to paint a tree. So I tried it, and voilà!, Trees! That look like trees!

Mitchell Albala, Plunge, 2008, oil on canvas, 32” x 24”, from Landscape Paining, p. 169.
Mitchell Albala, Plunge, 2008, oil on canvas, 32” x 24”, from Landscape Painting, p. 169.

I have often not bought books on painting techniques because the examples, by the author/artist, were just so awful.  Albala’s own paintings in the book are inspirational (and of fiendishly difficult subjects – water and clouds) but they are also practical and helpful since they serve to illustrate particular points.

I found these sections particularly helpful; simplification and massing (that helped a lot); values, shape and mass (those darn trees!), perspective and dimension in the sky (that’s why my clouds have flopped); and particularly, composition and limited selection (now I know why some of my paintings just don’t seem to fit in their frames).

Sensible transference of ideas

However, the most important aspect of this book is that, through his carefully structured and expressed ideas, Albala made reading it an enjoyable experience while simultaneously laying to rest my nagging doubts about my own paintings. Albala says in the foreword that if he could inspire readers to take up painting, he would consider the book a success.

I had reached stalemate and did not want to paint any more because I did not understand what I was doing wrong, or what I was getting right by accident. Albala answered the questions by presenting – in an aesthetically-pleasing manner – genre-specific knowledge. “On the most basic level, every representational painting is, in part, about content and subject matter. On another level, the subject is a vehicle for exploring the visual language of painting: color, composition, value, form, movement, and the paint itself.” (p. 178) As a result, I felt encouraged to try painting again. Chalk up one of many successes for Mr. Albala.

The book is printed in large format on silky paper in gorgeous full colour so that you can actually see the subtle colour differences to which Albala refers. (Do not take the low-res scans of paintings of this webpage as an indicator of what’s in the book.) It has been attractively designed as well, by RD Design, each page looking like a little work of art itself, with well balanced layouts and typefaces that are easy on the eye.

It is often said, derogatorily, of teachers, that those who can’t do, teach. With this book Albala proves that he can do and teach – and that he can do both extremely well, in fact.

Mitchell Albala with Zoe. The cat’s eyes go nicely with his painting in the background,”Veil Falls” from the series Water Falling.
Mitchell Albala with Zoe. The cat’s eyes go nicely with his painting in the background, Veil Falls, from the series Water Falling.

About the author
Michell Albala is a recognized artist who has been teaching for more than 20 years, currently at the Gage Academy of Art in Seattle, Washington, USA. His website has useful information for learners as well as professionals. Landscape Painting is now in its 4th printing and has been well received by artist communities for being practical, not dumbed down, and also inspirational. His Facebook page has reviews of his exhibited works.



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