If It Isn’t Fine…

Two years ago I posed a question about art — what makes a work a piece of art? With over 100 “likes” and more than 100 comments, that post — Yes, But Is It Art? — has become the most popular post on this blog.

Carlson GuideThere is, of course, no singular answer to the question, but I have found one answer that I like. I came across it while studying Carlson’s Guide to Landscape Painting by John F. Carlson. I was fortunate enough to find a used copy of the book at a very reasonable price, and I am truly enjoying it.

Now, first things first. Who was John F. Carlson? You’ve probably already heard of him, but I wasn’t familiar with him or with his work.

Carlson is now considered one of the most important teachers of landscape painting during the early part of the 20th century. His belief was that while art could not be taught, it could be learned through practice.

Landscape PaintingCarlson was born in Sweden but came to the United States with his family in 1884, when he was about ten years old. As a young artist, he studied with the Art Students League in New York. His teachers included Lucius Wolcott Hitchcock, Frank DuMond and Birge Harrison.

Hitchbock and DuMond are new names for me, and I look forward to learning more about these men and their art. I am somewhat familiar with Harrison from the book, Landscape Painting which features the “landscape letters” of Asher Durand as well as a series of lectures from Harrison.

Harrison later left the Art Students League to join the staff at a newly-founded arts community in Woodstock, New York — known today as the Woodstock Byrdcliffe Guild, and several years later Carlson was awarded a scholarship to study with Harrison at Byrdcliffe.

Carlson became best-known, perhaps, for his winter scenes. Among my favorites are Forest Silence, and Winter Willows.

Forest Silence by Carlson
Forest Silence by John Carlson



Winter Willows
Winter Willows by John Carlson


With one look at these two spectacular oil paintings, it’s easy to see why any aspiring landscape artist would benefit from Carlson’s teachings. I’m reading his book with a pencil in hand, underlining important passages. One of the most meaningful to me comes in the opening chapter on “How To Approach Painting.”

Carlson first compares art to singing, explaining that no one can give a singer a glorious voice, but if an aspiring singer has such a voice and possesses the necessary emotional sensibility, a teacher can teach him to sing. “We take it for granted,” Carlson says, “that the man who is to give a concert at Carnegie Hall knows how to sing. If he does not, we do not wish to listen to him.”

He goes on to point out that in painting, we are apt to be very forgiving of poor technical performance. We’re often inclined to say “Why, see! See what the man intended here!” But, Carlson quickly tells us, intentions have no place in art. What matters are the results achieved.

And herein lies the answer — Carlson’s answer, at least — to that question I posed about art.

“In good art, the results do not have to be ‘explained’. As a matter of fact, there is but one kind of art and that is good art. There is no comfortable halfway station; it is either fine, or it is not art.”

That’s a rather strict attitude, I suppose, but I smiled a bit while reading it — and again as I shared it here. Certainly John Carlson’s paintings are fine by any standards. Mine are far from it, but with diligent practice I know I will improve. I like Carlson’s definite opinions, his matter-of-fact attitude, and his belief that the only way to learn art is to practice, practice, practice.

It’s much like the old joke about getting to Carnegie Hall, you know. Practice, practice, practice. I’m grateful to have Carlson showing me the way.

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