“Landscape Painting, An Economy of Detail” Q&A with Mitch Albala in Practique des Arts

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Practique des Arts magazineThe French arts magazine, Practique des Arts, ran a feature story about my work in their October-November 2016 issue, entitled Mitchell Albala: Landscape Painting with an Economy of Detail. Much of the content was based on answers to questions posed by writer and interviewer Arnaud Dimberton. For the benefit of my readers, I am presenting answers to some of those questions here (in English!).

Arnaud Dimberton: What are you trying to make us feel with your painting?

Mitchell Albala: Viewers often cite a serene or spiritual quality in my work. I do not make a conscious effort to instill “spirit” into the paintings. However, I do believe that atmospheric effects, simplified shapes, and unified color — together — can evoke an emotional response that some might call peaceful or serene.

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Mitchell Albala in Practique des Arts, in an article by Arnaud Dimberton.

AD: You seems to use a lot of blue and yellow. Where does this chromatic choice come from?

MA: Many people notice that I use a lot of yellow in my paintings. To my eye, yellow is the color of sunlight. Of course, there is often a lot of blue in the sky, but blue alone doesn’t capture the brilliance and glare of sunlight. Yellow is needed for that. Think of J.M.W. Turner’s more abstract paintings, which are often bathed in golden ochres and yellows. So in my work you’ll often see a combination of yellows and blues, mixed in a way that preserves the quality of each, yet doesn’t create an overt shift toward green. Of the paintings featured here, I believe Mountain in Sunlight comes closest to creating this impression of brilliant sunlight.

Landscape painting, Mountain in Sunlight, by Mitchell Albala

Mitchell Albala, Mountain in Sunlight, oil on panel, 12 x 12 inches. Collection of Michael Stasinos.

AD: What is the main difference between painting an urban city landscape and a natural or wild one?

MA: My most recent series, Azure & Asphalt, are all urban landscapes. They are based on views found in my own neighborhood here in Seattle, Washington. In many ways, I approach the urban scene in the same way I approach more natural subjects like waterfalls or mountains — with a focus on simplified shapes, abstraction, and atmosphere. However, the urban landscapes demand much greater simplification. I have to include enough visual cues to make it clear to the viewer that it is an urban landscape, but few enough that it doesn’t distract from my primary interest, which is the light and atmosphere. Striking this delicate balance between abstraction and representation is difficult. I call it “the art of implication.”

Landscape painting, Hight Road Summer, by Mitchell Albala

Mitchell Albala, Hight Road Summer, oil on paper, 14.5 x 14.5 inches.

I believe that a composition based on simple shapes is processed by a different part of the mind than a composition with great amounts of detail. That’s the part of the viewer’s mind I want to touch.

AD: When I look at your paintings I can see that you are always focusing on simplified shapes, even when there seems to be a lot going on, like in the urban landscapes. How do you organize your compositions?

MA: Composition is extraordinarily important to me. One of my visual instincts is to seek out simplified shapes. Landscape painters must do this: without the ability to synthesize the detail and complexity of nature into fewer and simpler shapes, it is nearly impossible to form organized and coherent compositions. However, I often take simplification to the extreme; it’s one of the ways I create abstraction. I believe that a composition based on simple shapes is processed by a different part of the mind than a composition with great amounts of detail. That’s the part of the viewer’s mind I want to touch. When detail is needed, as in the Azure & Asphalt series, it is always subordinate to the larger shapes. In my workshops,

I sometimes compare composition to a globe of the earth. The shapes that are of greatest interest to me (and to viewers, I believe) are the continents, not the individual nations or cities.

I am also a great proponent of notan design. The notan is a type of compositional study that reveals the underlying pattern and design of a composition by using just two or three values. Notan design is one of the practices that help me form simplified compositions. Upper Ridge at Dusk has a particularly strong notan design.

Landscape painting, Upper Ridge at Dusk, by Mitchell Albala

Mitchell Albala, Upper Ridge at Dusk, oil on panel, 18 x 18 inches.

AD: What is your vision of harmony in a painting, and what tools can a painter can use to reach this goal?

MA: Harmony in painting can be achieved in many ways. One can create an arrangement of colors that works well together, and we might call that a harmonious relationship. But harmony has a deeper meaning for landscape painters. Colored light and atmosphere cast a unifying veil over the various colored elements of the landscape. The Impressionists called this “the envelope of light.” In my work this unified color often appears to be achieved with analogous harmony (colors adjacent to each other on the color wheel). Yet, closer inspection reveals subtle temperature and hue shifts within the dominant color. These shifts add subtle variation to the color tapestry, as well as reinforce the suggestion of space. As a painter, I’m never happier than when I am playing with subtle mixtures and shifts of color that I find in the sky, the fog or in deep atmospheric perspective.

In my workshops I teach the principle of limited color groups. Color grouping doesn’t limit the number of individual colors in a painting, but suggests that those colors should conform to just two or three main color groups. There may be many “individual” colours within each group, of varying temperature and tone, but those colours all fit neatly into their respective groups. Just as fewer and more simplified shapes touch viewers in a deeper place than details can, so too can simplified color compositions make a stronger color statement and therefore have a greater impact on the viewer. All of my paintings work with limited color groups.

Landscape painting, Crossroads, by Mitchell Albala

Mitchell Albala, Crossroads, oil on panel, 16 x 16 inches.

AD: Why did you choose to become an instructor?

MA: When I reflect on 30 years as a teaching artist, it seems that teaching has been my path. It has always come naturally to me. I taught my first class when I was 18 and have never stopped. I don’t teach because I have to, but because I love to. I’m a very organized and rational thinker, which are important qualities for an instructor. I find great satisfaction in taking complex ideas and breaking them down into their component parts, which I have to do every time I plan a lesson. Teaching is also an intensely personal activity. You cannot be a good instructor unless you lead with kindness and generosity.

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About Author

Mitchell Albala is the author of Landscape Painting: Essential Concepts and Techniques for Plein Air and Studio Practice (Watson-Guptill, 2009). A best-seller with 37,000 copies in print, it has been called the "new classic of landscape." A respected teaching artist for more than 25 years, Mitchell currently teaches at Gage Academy of Art in Seattle, Pacific Northwest Art School, and Winslow Art Center. He has also lectured at the Seattle Art Museum and written for International Artist and Artists & Illustrators magazines.

9 Comments

  1. Mitch,
    Congratulations on your well deserved international exposure and fine article. I just saw the Sorolla show in Giverny. It is a magnificent show of his skill which invariably includes the impact of sunlight. In two cases a slice of light comes into otherwise rather dark rooms like a knife, with the light in one case coming across the floor and in another crossing a person in the foreground and striking a post in the background. The paintings read bright sunlight in both cases, but that image has been created with high chroma medium value yellow not high value! That experience causes me to look at your Mountain Sunlight to note that it also is high chroma but not high value and because of that you are able to put many nuances into the mountain’s shape. My take away is to shift my thinking of sunlight from relative brightness to relative warmth, well illustrated in your High Road Summer where the bright sunlight of the road seems “sunnier” than the foreground roof tops which are actually higher key!

  2. Excellent article exampling what you have discovered through your art practice and teaching. And I can’t agree further about leading with kindness and generosity which you do and we appreciate. These qualities taken to a painting as well can breakdown the difficulties in it and help us make personal bests. Thanks again for your continued instruction.

  3. Mitch, this is brilliant! Kudos! I always appreciate seeing the abstracted landscape as you describe, but am most enamored by the choice in similar values that really “lift” the light. Barb

  4. Mitchell Albala on

    Thanks, Barb. That’s exactly what I aim to do … to “lift the light”. I like that expression. And closely realted values is often the way I do it.

  5. Mitchell Albala on

    Thanks, Gerry, for your usual thoughtful response. I’m glad Mountain in Sunlight resonates with you. In fact, I consider it one of my most successful attempts to simulate the effect of brilliant light.

  6. Neil Hargreaves on

    Having recently taken one of Mitch’s courses I can only agree with the remarks from the previous commentators. What a joy, and what a relief, to find a teacher of such skill both in their teaching and their practice.

    In a sense, and slightly tongue-in-cheek, I think you could say that Mitch’s paintings contain vast amounts of detail — “Mountain in Sunlight”, for example, has an enormous amount of variation across the panel. But it’s the subtlety with which the detail is presented — the skill in choosing and placing value, hue and saturation — that unifies the image.

    I’m reminded of remarks from the designer-artist Edward Tufte, that in a skilled piece of cartography a map has simultaneously both a micro and a macro reading.

  7. Mitchell Albala on

    Thanks, Neil, for your keen observations. Your kind of tongue-in-cheek detail, I will take any time!