Painting, Sydney Laurence

The Silent Pool by Sydney Laurence

Many times, I am not quite why I like a picture.  It seems that dropping back on the “rules” of good composition do not seem to give me justification for my likes or dislikes.  I tend to not like “trendy” landscapes, or at least the landscapes that have been trendy for the past few years.  Those big, bold and in-your-face pictures that are meant to stun the viewer.  Those flat perspective panoramas with super sharp lines, supersaturated colors below a dramatic sky tend to make me uncomfortable.  After a while, I am numb and without feeling.  Yea, ok, next.

For many years I was trying to emulate these images and could never quite get there.  Wherever I put my pictures up, someone was always bigger and bolder than me.  Usually it was because they had fancier equipment than I had; or spent more on processing.  With my resources, I could never make something big enough or bold enough to dominate a room.

I am not quite sure of when or how my thinking evolved.  Someone, somewhere was commenting on their admiration for an image that achieved the ultimate “flatness” in their mind.  Something in me clicked, and I started rethinking how I present my artwork.  Maybe I was going in the wrong direction.  Was I really trying to make my images flat?  Was this really the direction I wanted to go?  During my musings, I recalled a childhood memory.

Denali, Sydney Laurence

Painting of Mt McKinley by Sydney Laurence

Growing up in Alaska during the 1950’s and 60’s my mother had a friend we used to call on occasionally.  Her small townhouse/apartment looked out over Cook Inlet to the Northwest of Anchorage.  I remember her as an elderly and pleasant lady who had a house full of artwork.  She was Jeanne Laurence, a wildflower artist and the second wife and widow of Sydney Laurence, a painter of Alaskan renown.  Many modern art historians consider him one of the most accomplished American landscape artists during the first half of the 20th century.  Mostly known among Alaskans for his images of Denali (aka. Mt McKinley), Sydney Laurence, along with Camille Corot and fellow Barbizon School painters, is recognized for his “subdued tonalist style and plein-air naturalism”.  It has been said that he developed this style as a reaction to the theatrical, detailed and dramatic paintings of Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Hill, and others.  More about the value of Sydney Laurence paintings can be found here (

This idea brought to mind numerous paths of discovery I might try.  What could I do to make my artwork more three dimensional?  What could draw the viewer into the image rather than stand outside of it as a bystander?  How do you convey a mood?  a feeling?  How can a viewer feel a texture?

Eventually, experimenting with tones and filters, I was able to come up with techniques that at least start on a three dimensional illusion in my images.  With the careful use of tones and textures I am getting many more favorable comments about how people are drawn into my pictures.  Most comments start off with “Is this a painting?”  “From back there this looks like a photograph.”  “How do you get that three-dimensional look?”  Questions like these are the first steps into elevating the discussion about my work.  They are always welcome.

People need to feel something when they look at a picture.  While I am not directly trying to create images in the pictorialist nor the tonalist styles, it is certainly in my mind when creating a picture.  I like softening the lines and holding things down to just a few colors with just a hint of what is in the background.  Kind of like the tonalist/naturalist style of Sydney Laurence.

Photo Credits:
Painting of Mt McKinley by Sydney Laurence. Original uploaded by MrKuenning (Transfered by Dcoetzee) – Original uploaded on en.wikipedia, Public Domain, Link
The Silent Pool by Sydney Laurence. Original uploaded by MrKuenning (Transfered by Dcoetzee) – Original uploaded on en.wikipedia, Public Domain, Link

To read more about pictorialism, tonalism and tonal impressionalism:

More about Sydney Laurence and examples of his work: