Part 4, project 3, exercise 1: Expressive landscape – creating mood and atmosphere

Updated on 22 March 2017 (Harvard referencing).

10 November 2016. This exercise comes at exactly the right time. Feeling exhausted and wobbly due to the strain experienced over so many years, I feel the strong need to create a landscape entirely from my mind in order to find a way of transporting this feeling of wanting to get away from all that madness.

When driving along a road near Berchtesgaden, seeing a sign for the “Almbachklamm” river gorge (if you ever happen to be near this magical place, go there!) I suddenly knew that this was what I wanted for this exercise. Since on top of a river gorge you always come out into an open space, I want to use a gorge metaphorically to represent this claustrophobic time of my life. I love walking in those special places, which have a climate and vegetation of their own, ancient, exciting and full of energy. I love the wooden stairs, walkways and bridges that take you along the most spectacular sights without the danger of falling off a cliff and into one of the gorgeous waterfalls and pools. Which is exactly what I am craving for at the moment: a secure, reliable and enjoyable walkway away from forces I am unable to control.

So I went to look for artists painting river gorges. The results I got were not what I expected (enter “river gorge painting” into your search engine and see for yourself). Gorges appear not to be very popular among painters, except those creating romanticist landscapes, so I guess that I will have to follow my own intuition.

I knew however that I would need some very energetic mark-making in order to express the menace felt and desire to escape. Doing some research into this I first came across the attractive brushmarks made by Louise Balaam (UK) (Balaam, n.d.), which she uses to create what looks like deceptively simple landscapes. Her way of catching the mood of the atmosphere, so to speak, by transforming the space created by nothing but air into a “vessel” filled with motion and emotion looks stunning to me. However, there are no pictures catching a claustrophobic environment. Her choice of subjects are the free and lofty. Very strong blocks of colour I found in the paintings of Columbia River by  Elizabeth See (US) (See, 2012) and especially some like those seen in the bottom image (4/4, yellow), I might be able to use in my own work. Regarding waterfalls I found the marks made in  “Skyfall” by Linda Wilder (Wilder, n.d.) very lively and probably closest to what I want to do.

15 November 2016. Yesterday and today I made a first sketch depicting an imaginary river gorge. I am happy about the composition, so I will try and stay with it for the final painting (Fig. 1):

Figure 1. Sketchbook – preliminary compositional pencil sketch

On top of this sketch I then painted, intuitively, some greyscale tonal variation, taking care to be aware of both linear and aerial perspective (Fig. 2):

Figure 2. Sketchbook – watercolour sketch

I really liked the square format, because it allows to both expand in the foreground and have a strong vertical aspect. The tonal sketch helped me identify the areas I need to paint with great care, especially towards the far back, where I want the sky to be felt as open space. In this sketch I found that the painting of sky and hill colours followed by a semi-transparent layer of white helped convey this impression. I need to think also whether I want the walkway as means of escape to be painted in a highly contrasting colour, maybe a warm, dark orange, which would require an evening sky as a consequence. Since I do not want this exercise to degenerate into a kitsch horror, I might resist the temptation though :o).

Once I had prepared the background for the final painting, however, I did not prefer the square format any longer. There was so much claustrophobic energy waiting to be spent that I had no time to cut the paper and so I started painting straight away with my palette knife on a background made of three semi-transparent layers of white, blue and bluegreen, indicating very roughly where the gorge would be. Since I wanted my red rocks, the claustrophobic ones, to be in the painting first, I think I made a mistake by starting from the foreground. This made adding the rocky layers at the back somewhat more complex. Still this beginning looked three-dimensional and the wild mix of colours was close to what I had in mind (Fig. 3):

Figure 3. Prepared background with first rock layer added using painting knife

After adding some more elements of the gorge the whole composition started looking a bit patchy and disconnected (layering …) (Fig. 4):

Figure 4. Adding gorge layout

… which I managed to solve more or less (Fig. 5):

Figure 5. Connecting the elements

This was when I got stuck. I really liked the blue negative space and did not want to spoil the effect, but then I would not be able to proceed as planned. So with introducing a first sketch of the walkway and something like water it got a bit more fiddly and I kept jumping erratically from one bit to the next, but I was pleased with how the rocks in the foreground came out (please ignore the gorge walls, walkway and water, they are only sketches at this stage) (Fig. 6):

Figure 6. Adding structural elements

The sketched-in walkways appeared very crude at that point. I have not found a technique and/or paintbrush yet, which would allow me to produce fine but not fussy lines in an otherwise rough painting. Also often my hand is not steady enough when working on an easel and so I had to work round the wide lines to narrow them down. At the same time I worked on the red of the rocks on the righthand side. These stood out far too much after having subdued the rocks to the left. By the way, the technique of starting with darker, bold brushstrokes, followed by letting the paint become completely dry and another set of semi-dry layers of lighter paint on top of that allows the creating of very life-like rock with lively surface textures (Fig. 7):

Figure 7. Working on the rock texture

17 November 2016. Today I finished this exercise with further narrowing down the walkways, working on the rocks at the back and painting over the greenish hue the water had assumed over night by getting darker while drying. There are several weak points in my intuitive composition, but an inner warning voice told me to stop working here. So this is the result (Fig. 8):

Figure 8. Finished painting

I am quite happy about the outcome, especially the potential of this rough technique. It was by far easier than expected to produce rock-like structures with just my palette knife and a small flat paintbrush. Regarding my initial plan of relieving a claustrophobic atmosphere by providing a pathway into the open I think that some of it can be felt, although by narrowing down the view more it should be possible to push the idea a lot further. This is a goal I would like to set myself for the assignment piece for this part of the course.


Balaam, L. (n.d.) Paintings [image collection] [online]. Louise Balaam, Kent. Available at: [Accessed 10 November 2016]

See, E. (2012) Plein Air Paintings Columbia River Gorge [blog] [online]. Elizabeth See, White Salmon. Available at: [Accessed 10 November 2016]

Wilder, L. (n.d.) Skyfall [online]. Linda Wilder. Available at: [Accessed 10 November 2016]