No specialized painting tool can replace a need to develop artistic skill and judgement when painting the landscape, but there are some tools which can aid us in gaining that skill and judgemen – and once they have – are better off left back in the studio. An example of such a tool would be the Claude Glass.
Claude Lorraine has been credited with bringing a small blackened mirror – what was commonly referred to as a “smoked glass” in his time – out into the field, and using it as a way to consolidate the color and value relationships he saw in the landscape. During the 17th and 18th century these mirrors became so prevalent that the painter who was spotted using one was often mocked. You can see why from the drawing attributed to Gainsborough found below. To use a Claude Glass you had to position yourself by facing in the opposite direction of your subject. (The Claude Glass you see here is being held in the artist’s left hand, with the pen and paper being held in his lap under his right hand. Note how the tree branch is being used to support the mirror. This implies the glass used at the time had some serious heft. Certainly this one did. If it is at all accurate in its depiction then it was an unusually large Claude Glass for its time.)
But despite the potential for absurdity, a Claude Glass can serve a fundamental and practical purpose. By consolidating the color and value relationships in the scene, the mirror reveals the scene’s underlying shapes and patterns – all of which may then be exploited by the artist to create a strong design. A Claude Glass also helps to edit out the superfluous and sometimes overwhelming detail the artist must learn to ignore anyway.
Recognizing and establishing such basic value relationships from the git-go, and maintaining them as you work, makes everything else flow much more smoothly. Ultimately you end up with a more successful and effortless looking painting. Successful from the standpoint of creating a sense of deep space that recedes into the picture plane. Effortless in the way the painting appears to have simply flowed out of your brush.
Also, take some time to look at the black and white graphic. It portrays two masses of light and dark. As if all other values in between had to commit to one way or another. This is know as “Massing your values”. In this case, the black and white shapes have not produced a particularly interesting pattern because there isn’t much intertwining or wrapping taking place, and they share about the same emphasis and equal area. The most interesting bits are just below the tractor, where there are assorted shapes and sizes to be found. But with a little judicious license taken by the painter wielding the brush, something more interesting can result. Look at the white arrow in the middle image. It indicates a slight modulation in value along those furrowed rows. There is a light to dark(er) gradation running from left to right. It is subtle, but there. A gradation most people might miss unless it was pointed out. My artistic approach would be to accentuate that shift on the right and thus link the top and bottom masses together. Accentuate the gradation by how much, you ask? Couldn’t say without actually getting the paint box out and going to work. But I think you get the idea. Those minor tweaks you or I invest into the work make all the difference in the world.
With regards to making or using a Claude Glass, my general advice is don’t bother. We can accomplish much of the same thing by simply squinting our eyes and one less thing to carry out into the field is a good thing.
The real question should be, what does it mean to organize our lights and darks into two respective masses? As previously mentioned, it means dividing the values of a scene into two groups. Sounds easy but it isn’t. However, this is one of the fundamental tricks to painting the landscape and the practice of it spans the entire history of European art. Pick any period, pick any masterwork, and you will see what I mean. (From the Renaissance on, please.)There may be exceptions to this rule, but they are few.
Sometimes, it helps to look at your painting upside down so what you see becomes abstract. But in time that stops being necessary because you become so adept at spotting two masses and reinforcing them in paint. And eventually, you start seeing that the most interesting compositions have those light and dark masses interlocked in exciting and varied ways: stacked, spiraling, or twisting. The possibilities are endless.