New York State painter George Van Hook says tackling an unfamiliar landscape with a drastically different look can be easier if the artist adopts a certain frame of mind. 

Van Hook, who will demonstrate on the main stage at the Plein Air Convention & Expo (PACE) in April in Monterey, California, has lived in both California and New York, and he moves easily from coast to coast, painting adeptly in both places. We asked him if he had advice for people intimidated by the unfamiliar landscape they encounter on a painting trip. His first piece of advice was to not add colors to your palette.

“Horse Barn at Cold Brook Farm,” by George Van Hook, oil on linen, 12 x 16 in. Courtesy of J.M. Stringer Gallery, Bernardsville, New Jersey.

Many artists are tempted to add additional blues when encountering a vibrant, varied ocean, or different reds or earth tones for warm canyons and deserts. Van Hook thinks that is a mistake, as one’s palette is fundamental to one’s process. “I travel a lot and I use exactly the same colors and approach wherever I am,” he says. “I have learned and engrained the fundamentals and adapted them to my own quirks and the last thing I would do is change those very fundamental skills. Those fundamentals allow me to change the approach and the outcome to fit the situation.”

Van Hook says his approach boils down to this: “I stand in front of a motif and paint what I see.” His question is, if you find it difficult to match the crazy blue-green of the Monterey surf, how will it be easier when you drop the equivalent of a chroma bomb on your palette with a color like phthalo blue?

“Cornstalks,” by George Van Hook, oil on linen, 20 x 24 in. 

It may be that Van Hook is not discouraged by the different landscapes he encounters while traveling because at home in upstate New York, the landscape changes completely four times a year. “We have the epitome of all four seasons here in the Northeast,” says the artist. “I don’t change my approach as I go through the seasons. But I am painting radically different images. Out in the snow, I am extremely focused on all the reflected light in a snow scene, that light the snow is throwing up into the trees. It’s because I know my palette and can pull out the right colors that I can confidently do that.” The artist does say that an artist who is traveling may have to change key (shift all values) to accommodate a sun-drenched climate or a darker, more closed-in place.

Van Hook will offer a demonstration at PACE, which will be held April 13-17, 2015, and he will also be painting in the field. In a way, his advice will be simple, a nugget of wisdom that ignores the changes in motifs and the changes in landscape colors. “Observe the shape, value, and temperature of a scene, and put it down,” says Van Hook.


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