John F. Carlson interview: Plein air painting

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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 fill 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. Click image below to order.

landscape book


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 second installment, he advises concerning outdoor painting.


Painting en plein air

“When starting out for a day of painting in the open, first get rid of that mild frenzy that is apt to take possession of the inexperienced. Pretend you are a disinterested party. Relax, gradually slither yourself into the environment you feel to be harmonious with your in’ards. Don’t begin by boring into facts like a scientist. Loaf around, smoke your pipe, ruminate all by yourself. Give nature a chance to begin singing to you. Gradually a plan or idea will emerge. Analyze the idea, not nature. Then paint the idea. After this you are ready to check up on such constructive facts as you may need. But don’t let facts disturb your idea; make them conform to it.”

Before starting to paint, Carlson customarily made a pencil composition, a transitional step between his mentally conceived picture and its consummation on the canvas.

Before starting to paint, Carlson customarily made a pencil composition, a transitional step between his mentally conceived picture and its consummation on the canvas.


“Take a long time composing your canvas because the composition will either make or break the picture. As you work along, don’t be afraid to make drastic changes as they suggest themselves. They will be suggested; compositional needs spring up because of the things you have already set down on your canvas. When you feel a composition needs to be changed, change it at once before the composition changes you.”



“When a picture is ‘coming along’, many factors enter into its progress which cause you continually to modify your original conception. While the motivating idea ought to be preserved, accidents develop which should be made use of. (Blessed is the man who knows how to take advantage of a good accident!) You will be forced to change your mind about many things, that is all right so long as you retain your dominant motive. A musician may rewrite many bars of a largo but he will never let his composition become a scherzo.”



Again, “After you have decided upon the motive you wish to paint and have become thoroughly acquainted with it, turn your back to it and compose your picture in its entirety before permitting yourself another look. In that way you will be likely to conceive the picture as you feel it. The accidents of the scene will not interfere with that conception. Afterwards consult nature as much as you chose for facts of structure, color, textures, etc. This check-up will encourage you to fill every part of your canvas with interesting material.” All of this gives pause to the thoughtless beginner who is inclined to rush about looking for, as Carlson says, “a picturesque subject,” only then to confidently sit down to paint without even feeling the need of an introduction to the bit of nature that he hopes will, when transferred to his canvas, convey something of nature’s charms he himself has not taken the pains to experience.


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


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