Getting the Right Angle

Understanding Angles and Their Consequent Values in the Landscape

Understanding angles and the values they create is a must for landscape painters, as well as painters of any subject.

To understand angles we have to first discuss “planes,” which in painting generally means a somewhat imaginary flat surface based on reality that simplifies the undulations of forms in the subject. Planes determine the angle at which those forms receive light. Planes have a dual meaning in landscape, (referring also to foreground, middle ground and distance), but for our purposes we will discuss the “angled plane.”

Some planes are perpendicular to a light source and therefore receive light directly, which tends to make those planes light in value. Other planes receive light at an angle to the light source. These planes receive light only indirectly and thus are darker than the plane that receives light straight on. How light or dark these planes are will vary depending on the steepness of the angle to the source of light. With this in mind, when an artist thinks about how light or dark to paint a particular feature in nature, it is important for him or her to understand the direction of light in relation to its plane.

The concept of the angled plane is discussed in a very detailed manner in the third chapter of John Carlson’s famous book, Carlson’s Guide to Landscape Painting. Carlson’s chapter “Angles and their Consequent Values” illustrates the concept of planes and angles as they relate to the landscape, but the underlying knowledge has universal application. With regard to the landscape itself, Carlson describes four basic planes: 1) The flat lying plane of the ground 2) The upright plane of the trees 3) The slanting plane of the mountains and 4) The sky, which is the source of light. In landscape, we know this to be either the sun or the sky or both.

Using this information a painter now has a context, or working rubric with which to approach his or her understanding of general values to use in the painting. “Angles and their Consequent Values” basically says this: 1) the flat lying plane of the ground receives the most light so it is the lightest plane aside from 4) – the light source itself (which Carlson describes as a separate plane). 2) The upright plane of the trees receive the least amount of light and therefore is the darkest of the ground elements followed by the 3) slanting plane of the hills or mountains which receives more light than the trees and less light than the flat plane.

Carlson’s angles and their consequent values can be reduced to one simple principle – “The more perpendicular a plane is to the source of light, the lighter the plane will appear in relation to other planes whose angles vary in relation to that same light.”

Certainly local color and value will play a part in the form’s lightness or darkness (as in the case of a yellow tree in autumn), as well as how high or low the sun is in the sky on a particular day. Please note that all rules have exceptions, but as Carlson points out even with the exceptions the principles involved in chapter three will hold up as long as the artist has assimilated the underlying truths.

For a full understanding, I suggest that anyone wanting to know more, pick up a copy of Carlson’s Guide to Landscape Painting at your local art store. You will be glad you did.

Leave a Reply