The Poet

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During many years of teaching, I have emphasized to my students that CONCEPT is the first consideration when beginning a painting…What do you want to communicate to the viewer, and how best can that be communicated? When the concept is clear, it gives direction for the work to follow.

John MacDonald, in one of his recent newsletters, asks the question, “What kind of painter are you?” He says it’s important to be able to address that question because it will help answer two other important questions: “What is the intention for your painting, and what is your painting about?”

He breaks those intentions down into five categories: Poet, Reporter, Storyteller, Designer, and Virtuoso. He stresses that “these are generalizations but each category has a different intention and focus. It’s helpful to determine which category fits us because deepening our understanding of why we paint in general can help us determine the message of individual paintings and also help identify skills needed for each.”

There may be some overlap of categories, in other words, a painting may include both reporter and storyteller categories; what MacDonald emphasizes is that only one message should dominate, the other should remain secondary. Applying this to my work, I realize many of my paintings usually include two categories…only one dominating fortunately…but it’s been an interesting revelation. I tend to believe that our natural disposition will cause us to gravitate to one or two of the categories. Yes, with effort, we could create paintings that fit all categories, but our natural tendency will be to favor one or two over the others. In this post, Camille Corot demonstrates this truth. Basically, Corot is a “Reporter”, but every now and then he jumps into the “Poet” role. I think it interesting that historians always comment on the poetic qualities of Corot’s work.

This week, I’ll share with you MacDonald’s definition of the Poet. (Click images to enlarge)



John MacDonald – “Iced Over” – 12″ x 24″ – Oil


“The Poet’s intent is to convey the feelings that arise in reaction to the landscape.” These paintings are moody. Conveying a specific location is of little importance. Emphasis is placed on large shapes, soft atmosphere and edges, muted color, and minimal detail. Suggestion overrides specifics, as many poetic works can be pure inventions of the artist’s imagination. Poetic paintings are understated suggestions. They leave out detail, limit information and the passage of time, all in an effort to create a mood that is harmonious, delicate, elegant, majestic, or melancholy.

George Inness (1825-1894) – “The Gloaming” – 18″ x 36″ – Oil

Charles Warren Eaton ( 1857-1937) – “The Shawangunk Valley” – 30″ x 36″ – Oil

Dennis Sheehan – “Fading Season” – 12″ x 12″ – Oil


Elizabeth Mowry, in one of her newsletters, does a good job describing poetic painting:

“What many painters and poets have in common is an excruciating sensitivity to their surroundings. Nature takes a deep hold on them and the intensity of that relationship has much to do with the vision that ultimately inspires the painted images and the poems.”

Bruce Crane ( 1857-1937) – “December Uplands” – 30″ x 40″ – Oil

John Francis Murphy (1853-1921) – “Indian Summer” – 16″ x 22″ – Oil


“Poetic landscape has to do with mood, ideas, and spatial nuances, all ethereal as opposed to realistic. It gets beyond the craft into the tenuous space where intellect and spirit direct the technique. The poetic landscape becomes a gentle reminder of the importance of tranquility by declaring the beauty or tragedy of a singular idea. It always falls just short of closure thereby creating space for the memories or yearnings of the viewer. So while the artist visually describes the scene, it is the viewer who completes the script with what is personally meaningful. Much of poetic landscape is introspective. Its strength emerges from what is left unexpressed, making space for the silenced past of the viewer to find a voice. Poetry has been described as the expression of universal truth. Nature, too, is universal because it can be experienced by everyone. “Poetic” landscape embraces the most common natural elements familiar to all people.”

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796-1875) – “The Bent Tree” – 17.44″ x 23″ – Oil (1855-60)


I prefer MacDonald’s limitations regarding the Poet Category, but art historians have a more expansive view of what comprises a “Poetic Landscape” and I think their view sort of blurs what MacDonald defines as poetic. For example, landscape painting of the past that presents the geography and architecture of landscape from a subjective point of view, using elements of myth, fantasy or the picturesque was considered poetic. In its purest form, the poetic landscape presents the viewer with an imaginary place. The genre goes back a ways and is based on Aristotle’s theory that the “particular” or actual is imperfect; the “general” or idealized, because it embodies harmonious proportions and can be used to express elevated moral ideas, is the proper subject of art.

John Henry Twachtman (1853-1902) – “Snow” – 42″ x 43″ – Oil


In closing, MacDonald lists required skills to be mastered if one is to create paintings identified by category. For the Poet, a mastery of value and edges is necessary. “The majority of paintings we consider poetic or moody often employ a soft atmosphere with subtle light, lost edges, and hazy forms. Because it is value that creates the illusion of light, space, and form, color is nearly always secondary to values in a mood painting. A good understanding of and an ability to portray light and deep space is necessary. And because a soft atmosphere blurs shapes as they recede, having the skills to use soft edges and subtle edge contrasts is paramount.”

Thank you John MacDonald for your art filled insights. Next week we’ll talk about the Reporter.

To view John MacDonald’s website, click HERE.

To view more of Dennis Sheehan’s work, click HERE.


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