Plein Air to Studio Tips from Tom Thomson (Part II)

Did you miss Part I of this post?  

Back in studio in the late fall of 1914, Tom Thomson contemplated one of his plein air sketches.  There had been an early snowfall, and he’d captured it beautifully.  We know he was pleased with it, because he decided to paint a second, much larger version.

The large canvas was finished only months later.  With the amount of time and effort he put into the design, he was clearly excited to work on it!

Today we’ll take a look at some of the changes he made between the two.

The Overall Concept

With the plein air sketch being a record of what the scene actually was, he could now consider what story he actually wanted the painting to tell.  Most likely what drew him to the scene in the first place.

Clearly it was drama.  Look how he made those clouds compete with the sun!

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But how to increase the drama in the final painting?




His first move was to change the horizon line.  Placing it on the top third eliminates the pastoral sky and focuses our attention on the shadow patterns in the foreground.  Just the act of moving the horizon off centre adds more excitement.

It also allowed him to create very distinct values in the foreground, mid ground, and background – simplifying the image and adding visual punch.

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The next thing he considered was a focal point.  The sketch is pretty and has numerous areas of interest, but lacks a distinct area for our eyes to rest.  Take a look and see if you feel your eyes bouncing randomly around the canvas.

Or worse, taking a glance and then moving on to the next artist’s painting in the gallery!

In the studio work he popped in a shrub with almost all lines leading radially to it.  We’re almost guaranteed to look there first.  Then we can hold our eyes there for a while before going to look at secondary areas of interest.

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Now let’s consider those secondary features.

Thomson wants you to look around and enjoy areas around the whole canvas.  But it’s also important to him that your eyes come back to the centre.  Again, he wants to hold your attention for a while!

To accomplish this he uses an Old Masters composition strategy: he places a “target” in the centre of the painting.

The sketch has a nice target happening – but our eyes go to the middle and stop there.

The trouble is that we “get” the picture very quickly, and therefore risk moving on just as fast.  Thomson would have wanted a target that holds you to the middle, but allows you to wander around the edges of the canvas as well – and back again.

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Emphasizing the tree in the right hand foreground, curving it around a spiral path, and adding more shadows on the bottom left hand side changed the visual pathway from a circle to a meandering spiral.

Then those radial lines take us right back to the centre.

See how we spend more time wandering through this image?



Looking at the sketch, we see beautiful harmonies of yellows and purples, reds and greens, and blues and oranges.  The colours work well together and are calming, but lack the drama Thomson was going for in the final work.

Notice how he simplified the colours into an almost entirely blue canvas with a slash of orange running through the centre:

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The blues have all been cooled, and also greyed, allowing the trees in the centre (now considerably more orange) to pop.  Note also the significant cooling of the snow.

And then there’s the shrub: the highest chroma, brightest orange in the picture.  He doesn’t want us to miss that shrub!

Again, it’s our moment of peace amidst a lot of turmoil and motion.  And e-motion.

Tom Thomson, In Algonquin Park, 1914-15
Tom Thomson, In Algonquin Park, 1914-15 ~ 25″ x 32″


Last post I asked which version you preferred, and almost everyone voted for the plein air sketch.  I do love it’s rawness and the feeling of peace that comes over me when I look at it.

But in the larger work he goes considerably deeper into himself as an artist, and he shows us something of the human condition.

Will it be the sun, or the clouds that win?




PS – It’s New Year’s Eve today!  Thanks to all of you for coming along on this blog journey with me this year; I’ve loved sharing my findings with you and hearing your thoughts!  You can expect many more posts in 2019 as I continue to follow down the art rabbit hole.

PPS – Along with these two stunning Thomson paintings, you can also see my painting Spirit of the Valley at the McMichael Gallery (Kleinburg) until January 6th, along with other winners of this years’ Plein Air painting contest.


Further Reading





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