On painting landscapes > Charlie Hunter modestly describes his work as modified tonalism, as traditional alla prima painting that stops at the stage of monochromatic underpainting. But his moody pieces are more than just a good block-in. To cover these compositions with color would be something of a crime.

The Vermont painter has also been an instructor at the Plein Air Convention & Expo, where he reminds artists of the importance of drawing, composition, and edges when it comes to painting landscapes. “People don’t lose nearly enough edges,” says Hunter. But it is the intention of a painter rather than the technique that matters even more to him.

“Bellows Falls Tunnel,” by Charlie Hunter, oil, 48 x 48 in.
“Bellows Falls Tunnel,” by Charlie Hunter, oil, 48 x 48 in.

“As Westerners, we try to do two things with our art: to express what the experience feels like emotionally to us, and to depict the scene in front of us. What I am interested in is the first. I’m not as interested in a literal iteration of the object. For instance, you’ll see the beginner painter painting cars, and it looks like four rubber tires and a metal body on top. But squint and you do not see donut-shaped black objects at the four corners. You see a big dark shape at the undercarriage and maybe some light on the hubcaps. And that’s what you should paint. Doing this doesn’t say, ‘These are four tires,’ but it shows reality. People are reluctant to put that down on the canvas. When you get past explaining what you are showing the viewer, you start to get into what is truly reality. Don’t illustrate every bit of what we are depicting, and it will start looking more closely like reality.”

“Boxcar (White on White),” by Charlie Hunter, oil on muslin, 16 x 32 in.
“Boxcar (White on White),” by Charlie Hunter, oil on muslin, 16 x 32 in.

Hunter says he enjoyed painting at the Plein Air Convention & Expo in San Diego, for example, and painting in a place with the light conditions enjoyed and depicted by the early California impressionists. “It’s both inspiring and challenging,” he says. “It raises the bar on our own efforts.” And he loved the camaraderie he felt at past Plein Air Conventions.

“My favorite aspect of the whole thing is that everybody goes painting. We tend to exist in our little isolated places where we live and paint. To be surrounded by 800 people who share this mania for painting outdoors, and endure the hilarious slings and arrows that the outdoors is always delighted to throw at us, makes for great camaraderie. We’ve had the wind blowing and easels being thrown into rocks, and people persevering, painting into the teeth of the wind. It’s very inspiring.”

“Marble Workers, Danby, VT,” by Charlie Hunter, oil, 30 x 30 in.
“Marble Workers, Danby, VT,” by Charlie Hunter, oil, 30 x 30 in.

He was a bit skeptical about the whole concept at first. “Initially, I thought the idea of a Plein Air Convention was a little bit of a head-scratcher,” says Hunter. “After all, it’s called plein air, so spending a week in a convention center is kind of antithetical to the whole idea, but like so much in life, experiencing it shows that it makes a whole lot of sense. With 800 people, you need to have big screens for the demos, but I find the small-stage demos to be valuable too. I love attending the watercolor demos because it is not my native discipline, but it helps in working in my medium. Plus, it’s good to get out of your comfort zone.

Tonal oil landscape painting
“On Putney Mountain,” by Charlie Hunter, oil on linen, 12 x 24 in.

“The trade show aspect is also absolutely fascinating to me. Sadly, the neighborhood art supply store is a thing of the past. Big box employees have very little idea of the differences in products and what the right tool might be for your work. At the first Plein Air Convention I attended, I was amazed to be actually talking to the manufacturer who was making the lapis lazuli paint that you use. Or watching Rosemary make the brushes you might use. It’s an incredible opportunity to talk with people who really know what they are talking about.”

Tonal oil landscape painting
“Sand Hill Road,” by Charlie Hunter, oil on linen, 12 x 24 in.

Will any of the vendors be selling squeegees, one of Hunter’s most famous painting tools? Probably not, but it wouldn’t bother Hunter if they did. Hunter is not the least bit perturbed by the idea that others would attempt his distinctive technique.

“If someone does me better than me, well, good on them,” says the artist. “If someone takes on my technique, there’s no downside whatsoever. I think people should incorporate any objects to get the job done instead of just using the same old tools to make marks. Like Tom Waits uses new sounds to make music, so all of us should think about how we can make marks in an innovative way.”

Painting landscapes - Tonal oil landscape painting
“Railyard, March Afternoon,” by Charlie Hunter, oil on muslin, 12 x 24 in.

Editor’s Note: If you love painting landscapes and missed out on the last Plein Air Convention, don’t make the same mistake twice. Check out the website for PACE 2023, in Denver, Colorado. It’s filling up fast.

On Painting Landscapes:


Join rebel artist Charlie Hunter as he answers the one question he hears the most: “How do you do that?”

Charlie is going to show you how to take what could be an overwhelming task — painting a detailed natural landscape — and break it down into easily understood components. This is what will help you solve the problems inherent in capturing unfamiliar scenery in a way that is unforced — because hey, it’s nature, it’s not supposed to be forced!

This is where the beautiful magic happens, and you need to know this stuff!

You’ll be able to apply these techniques to your own paintings in order to tell your own stories in your own way … it’ll be the new rebel you!

And you’ll feel like you’re hanging out with Charlie and getting an idea of why he’s so cheerful all the time. And how he came to be a rebel and be totally OK with that. You might hear a few bad words, and we apologize in advance for anything off-color he says (but if you’re still reading this, we’re pretty sure you can handle it!).

Learn more about painting landscapes with Charlie Hunter here…

This article was originally published in 2015 in Plein Air Today

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