John F. Carlson interview: Oil painting technique

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John F. Carlson (1875-1947) was born in Sweden. His work is admired by many; the list of prizes and museum acquisitions of his canvases would fills a long column in “Who’s Who in American Art. His clear and excellent teaching has helped many an artist interested in becoming a better landscape painter. If you want to become a better landscape painter, you’ll learn a lot by applying the lessons taught in his famous book, Carlson’s Guide to Landscape Painting, published by Dover Publishing, Inc.



I am fortunate to own a December 1942 copy of “American Artist” magazine in which Carlson was a featured artist. Parts of that article I wish to share with you over the next few weeks, because of the direct interaction with Carlson himself. In this fifth installment, he shares his oil painting technique.


 Oil Painting Technique

“In oil painting one almost invariably lays-in the darks first; just the opposite approach from watercolor in which it seems natural to begin with the lighter tones.

“While I paint my darks with pure colors I am careful not to load them with too much paint. I put the paint on thick then give it a swipe with the palette knife, reducing the gobs of pigment to a nice ‘fat’ enamel-like texture. I frankly enjoy paint as such. I believe an oil painting should look like an oil painting, a la Rubens, and not present a poor, stained-in, watercolor-in-oil effect full of accidents.”

carlson-palette knife


“As I paint in the masses I add drawing and accents. Details need no attention until the canvas is almost completed. Thus, if a tree is adequately treated as mass, volume, color and value, very little detail of branches and leaves are needed – the less of this the better. In this lies the difference between drawing and painting. The draftsman deals with the outline form, the painter with mass meeting mass, without any real outline. A painting should not be a colored drawing.

As to technique, Carlson was devoted to pure, unadulterated oil painting. He saw no virtue in tempera under-painting. “Never underlay an oil painting with substances foreign to good old oil paint,” he said. “Linseed oil and pure turpentine are known quantities. Oil of copal varnish added to this medium is a safe body-giver for the pigment. I use this trio as painting medium and as a final varnish. I never had a painting crack, fade, or bloom.”




Carlson attacked his canvas with vigor, scraping it with palette knife, punching it with stiff brushes, glazing, scumbling and smearing – and swearing; finally stroking it tenderly, cajoling it into a well-behaved technical harmony.

Carlson always had four or five canvases in process. He never worked more than a half day at a time on any one. When he tired of one he took up another. He said it helped keep his enthusiasm at white heat in that way. He sometimes spent a whole year on a given picture, painting other canvases the while. Canvases occasionally layed around his studio for three or four years, gradually developing, as from time to time they were brought out to the easel for painting. He never painted a picture in one “go.” He was sure his best pictures were evolutions rather than sight paintings.


I am very pleased to announce the release of my first instructional DVD, Limited Palette Landscapes, professionally produced by Liliedahl Art Videos. The video contains over 15 hours of instruction and follows my painting process from selection of the canvas to the final brush stoke. For a detailed description of the video contents, including a short video…and order instructions…please click HERE. Thank you in advance for adding this DVD to your video library. Upon viewing, if you would kindly share your comments with me, I would greatly appreciate it. THANK YOU.





John Pototschnik is an Art Renewal Center Associate Living Master
To view his art and bio, please click HERE


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