Is it Color or Design? Dan Schultz Knows the Answer!

Updated: Jan 14


Gaze at one of Dan Schultz’s paintings, and you will immediately notice the colors he employs to describe his landscape. The subtle contrast between the purple shadows and sage mountainsides only serves to accentuate the clamorous yellow-green of the treetops. With a brief sweep of your eyes, you will sense the strength of the sun. It isn’t until we spend time with Dan’s art that we realize, perhaps for the first time, that at mid-day the mountain peaks really are lavender. Living in California affects the way Dan interprets his landscapes. Because California has a light and open atmosphere, he uses lighter, brighter colors to express it, a technique is commonly referred to as high-key. But we have to ask: why are Dan’s paintings, with their muted hues, stealing our attention? Wouldn’t a painting in, what could commonly be called pastel, be construed as dull?

When Dan sits down to a Plein Air landscape, he first identifies what it was about that moment that grabbed his attention. Was it the shapes of the trees, mountains, and foliage, the contrast of the lavender mountain against the illuminated leaves of the peach trees, the way the light pours between the tree trunks and disfigures their form, or maybe the loneliness of one tree standing at the edge of a field and dissolving into the mist? Because painting Plein Air is a spontaneous endeavor, it can be difficult to organize your composition as you would in the studio. This is why it is so important to remind yourself of the focal point of the scene, let it drive your composition, and convey it without distraction to the viewer. This is why we can’t stop looking at Dan’s high-key paintings. It’s about the contrast. Or the shapes. The texture or the atmosphere. If it's about the color, then Dan effectively uses muted colors to play against the saturated colors and makes the hot sun peeking through the trees even more surprising and vivid. His use of arbitrary colors in his cool shadows and horizons only serves to make these contrasts and textures more beautiful.

In Dan’s Sentient Academy course, Landscape Painting Fundaments, he teaches students how to approach their landscape design through thumbnail sketches. With a notebook before him and a short clutch pencil in hand, he walks students through the massive amount of information presented in a Plein Air subject. He introduces us to a View Catcher, a small tool that he uses on-site to simplify his landscape subject. He then begins to work from a small photo which he declares to be “sort of boring”, and demonstrates how to make the design more interesting. He raises the horizon line to avoid cutting the finished piece evenly in half. He then discusses the form of the tree, which he explains is the center of interest. He reminds us to ask ourselves why are we drawn to this image? Is it the atmospheric effect surrounding the tree? How can we place the tree and arrange the other shapes around it so that is apparent to the viewer? Dan reminds us that it can be easy to forge ahead quickly with a painting, being too impatient to stop and design our subject with a thumbnail. However, all too often we look at our finished work at the end with regret, wishing we had thought to move that horizon line up by an inch, or the point of the mountain to the left of the tree. As Dan sketches the tree lightly on the paper, he invites us to sketch as many thumbnails of the subject as we want, seeing how each thumbnail only takes 3 minutes to compose.

In his first thumbnail, he copies how the reference photo is laid out. He focuses on matching the shape of the original tree, and where the other, smaller shapes intersect one another. It isn’t until he has completed this first thumbnail that he decides how he feels about it. “I don’t really like the fact that all of the objects are on the right,” he says as he points to the tree with the mountain above it. Without shading his first thumbnail, he immediately begins a second. He Leaves the tree on the right, but moves the peak of the mountain over to the left, and reorganizes the very parallel edges of the fields so that they have more variety. At the end of this 33-minute lesson on thumbnail design, Dan urges us to ensure that we are always simplifying our subject. And, though it is easy enough in our thumbnail, continue to simplify as we move on to our larger piece so that the most important thing isn’t obscured by the details.


Dan teaches us this and more in his Landscape Fundamentals course. Click HERE to learn more from Dan Schultz.

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