A Closer Look At - Draw Paint Academy

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a Closer Look atTHE HAY WAINby John ConstableDAN SCOTT

The Hay Wain“Painting is but another word for feeling.”John ConstableIn this ebook, I take a closer look at a moody English landscape painting named TheHay Wain by John Constable.John Constable, The Hay Wain, 18212

Key Facts and IdeasHere are some of the key facts about The Hay Wain It was originally titled Landscape: Noon, but was later renamed to The Hay Wain. It depicts a scene along the River Stour in England, which runs between Suffolkand Essex. Three horses pull a wooden wain (cart) through the shallow water. Onthe left-hand side is Willy Lott’s Cottage, named after the farmer who lived therefor his whole life. It is thought that he only ever spent four nights away from thecottage. The neighboring property, Flatford Mill, was owned by Constable’s father. It was the third painting in a series of “six-footers” depicting various scenes alongthe River Stour. The exact dimensions are 51.2 by 72.8 inches.“I am most anxious to get into my London painting-room,for I do not consider myself at work unless I am before a six-foot canvas.”Letter from Constable to Rev. John Fisher dated 23 October 1821 The painting was first exhibited at the London Royal Academy in 1821, but failedto find a buyer. It had more success at the 1824 Paris Salon, where it was awardeda gold medal by Charles X of France. The painting also found a buyer at this exhibition. In 2005, it was voted as the second greatest painting in Britain in a poll conductedby BBC Radio 4 Today (in association with the National Gallery in London). It wasrunner up to The Fighting Temeraire by Joseph Turner, which I wrote about here. It currently hangs in The National Gallery in London.3

Full-Scale Study“When I sit down to make a sketch from nature, the first thingI try to do is to forget that I have ever seen a picture.”John ConstableConstable would often create full-scale studies (or sketches as he referred to them) inpreparation for his larger works. Below is his study for The Hay Wain. It is rough andunrefined, but you get a feel for the overall composition and color harmony. It is alsoquite charming in its own right.John Constable, Study for The Hay Wain c.18204

Color and Light“The sky is the source of light in nature - and governs everything.”John ConstableThe overcast sky is the only light source in the painting. The light is scattered andmostly diffused by the clouds, with patches of direct sunlight hitting the grass in thedistance.Overall, the painting is fairly dark, especially compared to the high-key Impressionistworks I often write about. Below is the painting in grayscale. You can almost breakthe painting into two distinct value groups representing the land and sky. Notice howthe values within these two areas are tightly compressed—this is an effective way ofsimplifying the composition (more on composition in the next section).5

Light hitting the side of the cottage suggests the sun is positioned high on the righthand side of the painting. This is reiterated by the increased sense of clarity and lightness in the sky on that side.TIP: If you are ever unsure about the position of the main light source in ascene, look for objects with sharp changes in plane (like architecture). Thelightest plane will suggest the general direction of the light.The colors are mostly restrained and muted, with the most saturated color being thesmall bursts of red used around the horses. This red is far from the vivid cadmium redyou get from a tube, but it is saturated enough to draw your attention towards thisarea. Remember, if you want to draw attention towards a certain area, you only needto make it stand out compared to its surroundings.The patches of direct sunlight hitting the land in the background are useful for creating a sense of depth in the painting. Your eyes are drawn through the dark foregroundtowards this light area.6

CompositionThe composition follows a general L-shape design, formed by the distinct land and sky(outlined below). The design is even more apparent in the grayscale shown earlier inthis post.Below is the painting with a three-by-three grid over the top. The horizon line is positioned just above the bottom third of the painting, allowing more room for the skyon the right-hand side. Also, notice how the patches of light hitting the land in thedistance help reiterate the horizon line.TIP: For landscape painting, it is usually a good idea to give preference toeither the sky or the land depending on what your big idea is. Placing thehorizon line directly in the middle can appear overly symmetrical, unless that iswhat you are going for (like I was in this painting).7

The painting features an interesting contrast between organic shapes representingnature (outlined in white below) and rigid shapes representing the cottage and cart(outlined in orange).8

The negative space (outlined below) plays an important role in creating a sense ofdepth in the landscape. These small but important areas help pull you through thepainting towards the background. They also give form and context to the surroundingtrees.TIP: In painting, there are often two ways to achieve the same result, especiallywhen you are dealing with positive and negative space. Say you are painting atree in the landscape, much like the trees in this painting. One approach wouldbe to paint the blue sky then paint the tree over the top (the default approachfor most artists). The other approach would be to roughly paint the tree first,then use the sky (the negative space) to carve away and refine the tree.Here is a close-up showingthe negative space throughthe trees. The level of detailin this relatively small portionshould give you an idea of justhow large this painting is.9

Brushwork and TechniqueOn first glance, the painting appears highly refined and realistic. But if you look closely, you will notice that Constable used rather rough and painterly brushwork. Thelarge scale of the painting makes it appear more finely rendered than it actually is.When painting on such a large scale, you are able to fit in much more detail withouthaving to paint intricately.Constable used a diverse range of techniques and strokes, including blending, thickscumbled color, and intricate linework.Below are some close-ups of the painting, starting with one showing the patches oflight in the distance. Notice the small dabs of white to suggest farmers in the distance.You can also see the yellow highlights scumbled over the top of the green foundation.For the trees and leaves, Constable appears to have painted a dark foundation, thescumbled relatively light green and yellow tones over the top. The end result is a dynamic surface of color and texture, mimicking what you would see in nature. Theuse of thin paint for the darks and thick paint for the lights is also a common themethroughout the whole painting.The tree trunks and branches were painted with soft edges and what appears to be asmooth texture. This helps them recede amongst the dense leaves. Also, notice thelinework used for the smaller tree branches.10

TIP: Instead of trying to paint every leaf and branch on a tree, try to simplifyall the detail down into basic shapes and lines. Narrow down on the few detailswhich convey most of the information about the subject.In relation to the sky, pay particular attention to Constable’s edge work. Most of theedges are soft, apart from a few clever hard edges used for highlights. Again, thickpaint is used for the highlights and thin paint is used for the darks.TIP: A common problem in beginner paintings is the overuse of hard edges forthe sky. Remember, clouds are fleeting and transient—your brushworkand edges need to reflect that.11

Here is a close-up of the cart, along with the horses and men. Notice the white highlights scumbled over the top—a technique Constable used in many of his paintings todepict light glimmering across the landscape. Many critics at the time saw this as aclumsy and brash technique. Here is an extract from The Gentleman’s Magazine May1831 edition in reference to another of Constable’s paintings:“The View of Salisbury Cathedral appears to have been taken immediately after a snow storm The numerous patches of dead white, intended for the lightsof the picture, or perhaps for drops of rain after a shower, have all the chillingcoldness of a winter’s morn.”From the The Gentleman’s Magazine in May 1831 via Tate Gallery12

Key TakeawaysHere are some of the key takeaways from The Hay Wainwhich you could incorporate into your own paintings: If you want to make a statement with your art, consider painting on a largerscale. Constable’s series of “six-footers” helped him stand out from the crowdof remarkable artists and paved the way for the rest of his career. I often suggest you do small studies in preparation for more serious works.But, if resources are not an issue, consider doing full-scale studies as Constable did. When painting on a large scale, you can fit in more detail without having touse intricate brushwork. It is usually a good idea to compress the number of values you paint with,rather than trying to paint every value you see. In this painting, the foreground is compressed around the dark value range and the sky is compressedaround the middle value range. You could use thick texture for the lights and thin texture for the darks to create a sophisticated level of contrast, like Constable did in this painting.I will wrap this up with one more insightful quote by Constable:“The landscape painter must walk in the fields with a humble mind.No arrogant man was ever permitted to see Nature in all her beauty.”13

Thanks for Reading!Thanks for taking the time to read this ebook. I appreciate it! Feel free to share withany friends.Happy painting!Dan ScottDrawpaintacademy.com14