Striving for Atmosphere Detail in Landscapes

Striving for Atmosphere Detail in Landscapes

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Californian Dennis Doheny creates stunning oil landscapes by emphasizing atmospheric conditions, dramatizing the pattern of light and shadow, and “playing” with color as he sharpens detail.

Doheny put a Fome-Cor mat around his plein air study for Lakeside Reflections to isolate his view.

by M. Stephen Doherty

Dennis Doheny knows within a day or two of starting a new painting whether it will succeed or will need to be discarded. Although there may only be thin veils of color on the oil-primed linen canvas, the artist knows if he has an effective composition of shapes and atmosphere so crucial to his landscapes. “If the potential isn’t there, I put the painting aside and go on to another,” he explains. “Later, I may go back to the picture if a solution occurs to me, but a lot of times I just rip the canvas off the stretcher bars. I’ve learned the hard way that it’s pointless to struggle with a doomed painting.”

The source material Doheny uses to develop those spacious landscapes includes plein air studies, photographs, and his memory. Although he values working directly from nature, he doesn’t think he is good at plein air work, probably because he has always valued the kind of detailing that is difficult to accomplish in three or four hours on location, and because the demand for his studio paintings is so great that he seldom has time to venture far from his home in Santa Barbara. “I’ll go out into the field and do a very loose oil sketch or a graphite drawing, usually when I go on camping trips,” he explains. “I don’t work under an umbrella, so I wind up squinting and that makes it harder to focus on the details. It also tends to distort the color temperature, and I wind up with paintings that seem too cool when I bring them into the studio. I warm up the colors when developing larger studio paintings from those studies. For all those reasons, I don’t usually sell the plein air paintings.

“As you can see in the photograph, I find it helpful to put a Fome-Cor mat around the panel after I’ve worked on it for a few hours because that helps me isolate my view from everything else in my field of vision,” Doheny adds. “I’ve got Fome-Cor mats in sizes ranging from 9 x 12 up to 50 x 50 that I use both on location and in the studio. When they are placed around the canvases or panels I study the composition and make mental notes about the changes that will help bring the picture to a better degree of resolution. Sometimes I punch up the contrast in values or I lessen the degree of contrast, depending on what I think will improve the picture.”

Approaching Snow Line
2006, oil, 24 x 24. All artwork this article courtesy William A. Karges Fine Art, Beverly Hills and Carmel, California, unless otherwise indicated.

Photographs also serve as useful source material in the studio, although Doheny emphasizes that he only uses them for resolving details—not overall compositions. “Actually the most useful image is the one I conjure in my mind after thinking about a place I’ve noticed and remember, or that I’ve sketched or photographed,” he explains. “I just start painting thin, warm toned washes on the surface as I think about how the site impressed me, and I adjust the shapes until I start to get a composition that will work well. I’m guided by intuition and experience rather than specific rules of composition, but I’m nevertheless conscious of leading viewers into the paintings, using a contrast of values to establish a center of interest and controlling hard and soft edges.

“Gradually, I start to build up the paint and introduce a wider range of colors,” Doheny continues. “I play with the warm and cool colors until they look right, and I move to smaller, softer-hair brushes as I focus on smaller shapes and details. If one were to get close to the canvas it would become obvious that I manipulate a lot of different colors to get the details across, but I want all those to blend together the farther one gets from the painting. I’m not an impressionist who leaves obvious, bold strokes of colors, but I do keep modifying and adjusting the colors as I work. For example, the large rock formation in Approaching Snow Line looks like one large area of a bluish-gray color in the reproduction, but it is actually a conglomeration of a lot of closely related colors, some of which have more red, yellow, or blue than those nearby. “I recently saw an exhibition in Santa Fe of early 20th-century paintings by Taos painters, and I was struck by the fact that they had a similar technique of using a wide range of pigments to enrich their paintings.”

Silent Sierra
2008, oil, 24 x 24.

Doheny quotes Kevin Macpherson when he describes the gradual evolution of his oil paintings. “Kevin talks about starting a painting and then correcting what doesn’t look right, and I often find myself doing just that,” he explains. “For me it’s a process of elimination in that I keep focusing on the elements that aren’t working well, correct them, and then re-evaluate the picture after I’ve made those changes. I stop once I have finally pleased myself. That’s all a painter can do because there is just no way to paint with the goal of meeting the demands of a collector, dealer, or another artist.”

Occasionally Doheny experiments with new subjects, techniques, or materials. “Most of my landscapes present vast, open spaces, but sometimes I create a picture such as Silent Sierra, in which I try to capture a foggy, shallow landscape using essentially the same palette and painting techniques. I’ve never been interested in painting small, intimate spaces because the amount of detail I add to a picture would turn that kind of subject into an unrealistic image. That is, I need to balance the extreme detail with areas of soft, generalized forms in order to present a convincing view of nature.”

About the Artist
Dennis Doheny is a third-generation Californian who grew up with a love of art, graduated from Pacific Palisades High School, and worked for 10 years as an illustrator before establishing himself as a professional fine artist. He won first place in the 1998 Carmel Art Festival Plein Air Competition; the Frederick Remington Award at the Prix de West in both 2006 and 2008; the Grandville Redmond Memorial Purchase Prize during the first spring salon at what is now the California Art Academy and Museum, in Pasadena, California; and the Purchase Award at the Eiteljorg Museum’s inaugural Quest for the West Show in 2006. He is a signature member of the California Art Club and is represented by William A. Karges Fine Art, in Beverly Hills and Carmel, California. For more information on Doheny, visit www.dennisdoheny.com.

California Color
2008, oil, 20 x 24.
Guardian of the Lake
2006, oil, 34 x 34. Collection the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art, Indianapolis, Indiana.
Mountain Light
2008, oil, 24 x 30.

Watch the video: #3 How To Paint Trees In The Distance. Oil Painting Tutorial (June 2022).


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